Sunday, May 13, 2018

Robert Montgomery Presents: “Harvest” (NBC-TV, Neptune Productions, November 23, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Devious Nanny I screened Charles the next item in sequence from the boxed set of most of James Dean’s surviving TV appearances: Harvest, in a series called Robert Montgomery Presents that was sponsored in alternate weeks by Johnson’s Wax (who did this episode) and Lucky Strike cigarettes. (Cigarette advertising has been banned from TV for so long it’s startling to see shows from when it was still permitted!) Harvest is a rather downbeat story about a farm family from Minnesota who as the show starts are about to harvest the year’s wheat crop. The family consists of the grandfather (Vaughn Taylor) who originally homesteaded the farm decades earlier and now is waiting for his 100th birthday; his son Karl Zalinka (Ed Begley) and daughter-in-law Ellen (Dorothy Gish, Lillian’s sister and a major stage star who was the main selling point for this show); and their three sons, Joe (John Dennis), Chuck (John Connell) and Paul (James Dean, who according to was put in at the last minute after the originally cast Dick Van Patten was drafted — though Van Patten was later classified 4-F; for anyone like me whose main memory of Dick Van Patten is as the father on Eight Is Enough, in which he was so large and doughy he looked like he’d been baked out of Wonder Bread, the idea that he was ever up for a role eventually played by James Dean is pretty bizarre). 

At the time the story opens Joe and Chuck have long since left the farm, and Paul is on his way out too; he’s determined to take off as soon as the crop is harvested and has an affair going with a city girl named Arlene (Rebecca Welles — no relation). Only the harvest doesn’t come in because the night before they’re supposed to cut the wheat and start bringing in the year’s crop, a freak hailstorm (powerfully suggested, Val Lewton-style, with sound effects and just a few white spots falling in front of the cameras) ruins it and leaves the Zalinkas broke and with nothing to show for a whole year’s work. Paul takes off for the city to visit Arlene and her family, only there he runs into her other boyfriend Kip (Tommy Taylor), who since he’s from her economic and social background has the inside track for her affections. Paul slinks off and walks by a recruiting poster for the U.S. Navy, which he immediately decides to join (ironically he’d played a sailor in one of his tiny film roles to that point, the 1952 Martin and Lewis service vehicle Sailor Beware). Grandpa predictably dies just two weeks shy of his 100th birthday (by coincidence I had just read Jonathan Kellerman’s Heartbreak Hotel, also about a person — a woman in Kellerman’s book — who dies just shy of her 100th birthday) and Karl demands that the rest of his family join them for Thanksgiving dinner to give Grandpa a proper send-off. 

Joe is working in a store and has to ask his boss for time off; Paul, as a servicemember, has to ask his commanding officer for leave; Chuck is “between jobs” and ultimately decides to stay behind and take over the farm after Karl croaks, so both he and we are relieved that the homestead will continue in the Zelinka family. Harvest is a simple and oddly moving drama by writer Sandra Mitchell that’s hampered by an overwrought production, including Robert Montgomery himself narrating the story and offering superfluous explanations of what’s going on, as well as a God-awful Abbey Rents chorus intoning “America, the Beautiful,” “Bless This House,” the Albert Hay Mallotte setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” (those last two selections led me to joke, “Where’s Mahalia Jackson when we need her?”) and other supposedly “inspirational” selections. Though Harvest would have been considerably stronger if the producers and director James Sheldon had trusted Mitchell’s story structure and dialogue to tell her story without the excrescences, it’s still a surprisingly good program and one of the few times in his career that James Dean fitted himself into an ensemble cast instead of standing out like an alienated sore thumb. Not only did the story provide Dean with a role close to his own past — he’d grown up on the Indiana farm of his uncle and aunt, Marcus and Ortense Winslow — Harvest is an almost uncanny anticipation of Dean’s first starring film, East of Eden, which also cast him as the son of a farmer who’s ruined financially by bad luck. According to Marcus Winslow, Jr., Dean’s cousin, who was chosen to introduce the shows in this box, director Sheldon got along with Dean considerably better than most of his TV directors; Sheldon remembered Dean as outgoing and fully cooperative, not the introverted troublemaker most Dean directors described. Perhaps the similarities of the story to his own life made him more at ease and more understanding of the character, the story and the overall work situation.