December 3, 2016

This week in TV Guide: November 30, 1968

According to the cover, this is "A Week of Big Specials," but as far as posterity is concerned, there's only one special this week, and it's spelled E-L-V-I-S.

The " '68 Comeback Special," as it's since come to be known, airs Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. PT on NBC, and as one of the full-page ads proclaims, it's "his first TV special. . . his first personal performance on TV in nearly 10 years!" It's not that The King had been idle all those years, of course; he made a lot of movies during that time, and then there was that stint in the Army. But the idea of Elvis the performer, rather than Elvis the actor or Elvis the personality, has been in remission; and with the music scene having changed so dramatically over those ten years - with the once-radical Presley now being seen as somewhat square - you can imagine the pressure that's riding on the outcome of this special. In anticipation, RCA has already released an album of music from the show (proclaimed in yet another full-page ad), so you get the point: this better be good.

In his feature article on the program, Dwight Whitney goes behind the scenes, writing of the promotional efforts made by Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker: holding a mass press conference involving 50 TV editors from around the country, asking Presley the same old questions (at one point, he's overheard muttering "Not that one again," under his breath in response to a query about whether small towns were still the backbone of his popularity); pressuring Whitney for "a signed statement guaranteeing Elvis the cover" (it was not, Whitney notes, forthcoming); working frantically to ensure that the audience for the "live" segment of the concert didn't include "too many oldish people," and all the time playing the role of the carnival huckster to perfection. And no wonder - this would be Presley's first live performance since 1961 - would he be up to it?

Was there ever a doubt? If so, Presley smashes it with a performance that shows that The King, indeed, is back. It's while Elvis, just feet away from where Whitney sits, is singing a song whose lyrics include I"m king of the jungle,/they call me Tiger Man./You cross my path/You take your own life in your ha-aaa-nds!!/You better believe it! that, he writes, "suddenly it dawns on me."

This is the real Elvis story. This is the language - the only language- he speaks, and he speaks it loud and clear. Old hat? Upstaged by the Beatles? Movie grosses slipping? Well, sure, but this man is a performer, one of half a dozen in America today who can step out on a stage and make it his. Nothing eclectic about him. He transcends any era. And he instinctively knows what's right for him.

And that, ultimately, is what it's all about, this '68 Comeback Special. Take away all the baubles and fancy suits and expensive cars, even take away Tom Parker, and what you're left with is - Elvis, "an American original." As one of his concert movies is entitled, "That's the way it is."

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Tentatively scheduled: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass; comedians Jack Carter and Scoey Mitchell; and dancer Peter Gennaro.

Palace: Host Milton Berle presents comics Martha Raye, Joey Forman and Joe Besser; singer-dancer Barrie Chase; former gridiron star Roosevelt Grier; and the Third Wave, a teen-age quintet from the Phillippines.

That Sullivan lineup just doesn't sound complete, does it? And in fact, there is more to it than that. A quick internet search reveals that in addition to the listed guests, Ed also had Engelbert Humperdinck, Tiny Tim (singing "Great Balls of Fire" and "I'm Glad I'm a Boy"!), Gloria Loring, and actor David Hemmings, reciting Dylan Thomas poems. We have to give points to Herb and the gang doing seasonal music - "The Christmas Song" and "My Favorite Things." On the other hand, the Palace strikes me as exceedingly tired; Berle had bombed in his comeback effort last year, and aside from Barrie Chase and, probably, Third Wave (who are, after all, teens), there just isn't much energy here. Sullivan may not have his best lineup, but this week it's good enough.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

Every once in a while, one runs across a series of which there simply is no memory. This week, Cleveland Amory reviews one of those series: The Outcasts, what we would probably refer to today as a revisionist Western. It stars Don Murray and Otis Young as, respectively, a former slaveowner and a former slave, each of whom in the post-Civil War finds himself as an outcast. Thrown together by chance, the two wind up forming a team as bounty hunters. As I say, no memory of this whatsoever, and this is from someone who remembers It's About Time.

Obscure and short-lived (26 episodes) doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of quality though, and Amory was mightily impressed with the pilot, of which he said "There was good writing, both Young and Murray proved themselves star-quality series actors and there was  not only a fine performance by Slim Pickens but also a host of lovely little touches" that helped provide both grit and realism. He notes that future episodes have not lived up to that pilot, but "a couple have been almost as good." Even when the plots seem to stretch credulity, the show continually delivers those quality scripts and fine performances, and that's not nothing.

The series, notes the always-reliable Wikipedia, was not only the first Western to feature a black co-star*, it was cancelled after complaints of excessive violence - which we probably wouldn't think anything of today. At an easily-packaged 26 episodes, I'm a bit surprised this never made it to DVD.

*Perhaps a forerunner of Brisco County, Jr.?

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I mentioned earlier that the Tijuana Brass had a couple of holiday songs on the Sulivan show, but are there any other Christmas goodies for us as November turns to December?

Well, there's a big one: Friday at 7:30 p.m., NBC trots out the perennial favorite Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. It seems that by 1968, Rudy has taken his place as the unofficial television kickoff to Christmas, so I'd expect more programs in store next week. Of course, it's anybody's guess as to whether or not we'l still be in 1968 next week.*

*I lie, of course. Actually, I've already written next week's piece, and I can authoritatively tell you that it may or may not be from December 7, 1968.

But, you sputter, what about the "Week of Big Specials"? The thing is (and there's always a thing), while the week between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often marked by blockbusters, they don't have to be holiday-themed to be of the time. Take Perry Como, for example. On Sunday night (10:00 p.m., NBC), Mr. C. makes his "only TV outing of the season," and there's nary a Yuletide tune to be found between Perry, Don Adams, Carol Burnett, and the Young Americans. There's also a note that the show would not be seen if the technicians' strike continued, so it's anyone's guess.

There are other things on which similarly lack the Christmas spirit, but which we've come to see as a staple of the season. On Saturday, ABC presents a college football doubleheader - two games that scream "end of the season." First up is the traditional Army-Navy game from Philadelphia, a game that by this time exists so far outside the regular college football scope that it isn't even listed in TV Guide as "College Football," but as "Army-Navy Game," as if it were somehow apart from regular football, or regular sports for that matter. That's followed by a game that's never been mistaken for anything other than big-time, Notre Dame vs. USC from Los Angeles.

Moving from the secular to the sacred, if not directly related to Christmas, at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday night, ABC presents an hour-long documentary on Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, "one of the world's towering art treasures," narrated by Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell. Great tagline in the ad for the show - "Michelangelo put his heart into the Sistine ceiling. Will you spend an hour looking at it?" Imagine how spectacular this would have been if they'd already restored the ceiling, as they have since. I think this fits the season pretty well.

What makes this a really special weekend, in addition to Elvis, are a couple of variety specials with rookies as hosts. On Sunday at 9:00 p.m., it's the vivacious Ann-Margaret, one of Elvis' old flames, with guest star Bob Hope and special appearances by Jack Benny and Danny Thomas. It's hard to believe this is her first special, but so it is. At the time, and for some time afterward, she was one of the most exciting performers anywhere, and if the cover is any indication, the show packs a wallop. I don't know why, but for some vague reason I feel as if I might have watched this. At eight years old, the obvious reasons would hardly have applied to me.

Nor would they have applied to Brigitte Bardot, the most unlikely host of a "French-produced, bilingual hour of song and travel" appearing on NBC immediately following Elvis. Miss Bardot's guests are singer-actor Sacha Distel, actor Serge Gainsbourg, and flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata. Frankly, I've never thought of BB as a musical variety star - and I doubt those who saw that picture on the right thought so either. (The European censors had no problem with that shot appearing in the show; not so for NBC.) Her line in the promotions - "How would you like to spend an evening with me?" is undoubtedly considered a leading question.

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I ought to note one more of the specials mentioned on the cover - an edition of CBS Playhouse entitled "Saturday Adoption," airing Wednesday night at 9:00. I'm not so concerned with the story itself as with the folderol enwrapping it. It's yet another example of a network striving for the "youth" movement.

They trumpet, for example, that the story "puts the accent on youth, the leading players [Rick Gates and Eric Laneuville] are young unknowns, and the playwright, 23-year-old Ron Cowen, is the youngest writer to be commissioned by CBS." The plot itself revolves around race relations, what would be called white privileged today, and the hopelessness of the ghetto. I don't know whether or not the play's any good; Cowen's had what looks to be a fairly successful career, Rick Gates has had a serviceable career, and Eric Laneuville has done a lot of directing for television. The show was directed by Delbert Mann, who won an Oscar for Marty, so there's every possibility that it was good, but the publicity doesn't tell me it's good - it just uses the key words young, young young!

But for all the claims that "TV is waiting breathlessly for new, young, talented writers!" George Bamber isn't so sure. Looking back on his career, he remembers when he was relatively young (35), and relatively talented, even if he does say so himself, but he was caught in the eternal conundrum. You can't get writing credits without work, you can't get work if you don't have a recognized agent, and you can't get a recognized agent . . .unless you have credits!

The thing is (and there's that thing again), Bamber doesn't even blame them. "Today television is firmly entrenched, and doesn't want untried people. It is, after all, a business, and as such must justify its profits and losses." They are in the business of making a profit, and "[o]ne way of doing this is to deal with established writers." "Recently," Bamber writes, "a network announced that it would start an hour-long dramatic anthology that would feature the works of new writers. Later, they announced the names of the writers: Reginald Rose, Tad Mosel . . .I think Rod Serling was unavailable." Combine that with a note in the Teletype that "CBS is talking to Tad Mosel about a 'major dramatic production' to follow his CBS Playhouse entry" from last spring, and I think we know which network program Bamber is talking about.

So maybe CBS felt it had to trumpet a young playwrights' script about young people. Maybe it had to convince everyone that they really were interested in new and promising young talent. Maybe they even had to convince themselves.

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Finally, a look at this week's letters, which often provide pretty good insight into the minds of America's viewers.

First, Mrs. R.G. Moore of Jackson, Tennessee, writes about the recent presidential election in which Richard Nixon won a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. Says Mrs. Moore, "Was it my imagination or did seven out of 10 network commentators have a Democratic Party bias during the election coverage?" At least I think she was writing about Nixon and Humphrey, and not Trump and Clinton.

Howard Wachter of Brooklyn decries those who don't vote on Election Day. "If the American citizen can so degrade the sacred right to vote by letting others decide for him, this country is truly in trouble." Not at all like this year's election, as we haven't heard any stories of people not voting. Right?

John Caswell of Burlington, Vermont, speaks for voters everywhere at all times when he says, "Thank goodness the elections are over. Now the regularly scheduled comics can return to television."

And Edmond H. Davis Jr., writing from Piedmont, Alabama, says that on "Sunday, Oct. 27, I watched the Smothers Brothers for the last time. I enjoy comedy, but when a mockery is made of the Bible and religion such as on this program, then I will watch it no more." An editorial note below the letter says, "Many wrote us in this vein." So many people want to think of the Smothers Brothers as cuddly comedians who simply wanted to shake things up - this is a reminder that a lot of people thought of them as a pretty malignant cultural force as well.

8 comments:

  1. First off, I've never been a fan of Elvis.
    Even when I was the right age for it.
    Having said that, I acknowledge his career and its (comparative) longevity.
    What I found fascinating was how Dwight Whitney's article was mainly about Col. Tom Parker, who was an unabashed con artist all his life.
    Literally, all his life.
    Whitney just buys into the official Parker biography, much of which was revealed in later years to be pure fabrication.
    In fact, Col. Tom Parker was Andreas van Kuijk - America's richest and most famous Illegal Alien.
    Famous story:
    When the truth about Parker's Netherlands origins came out, one of the Memphis Mafia asked him, "Colonel, how come you never told us you was a Dutchman?"
    Parker replied, "You never asked me."
    Reportedly, the US government tried to deport him, but the government of the Netherlands told them not to bother. Anyway, the Colonel was so rich from his Elvis money that the case would have been tied up in court indefinitely.

    - Looking at the listing for CBS Playhouse, I couldn't help noticing the ABC TV-movie that was airing opposite it that Wednesday night.
    I wonder if you noticed it too.
    And if it rang a bell for you.
    And if it didn't, maybe you might like to look in your archives for January of 2013 ...
    Take your time, I'm not going anywhere.
    I mean, it's not like it's the next big thing or something ...

    - Mr. Wachter's letter was not about people not voting.
    It was about the emerging propensity of the networks for calling races before the polls closed in many states; this was felt by many to have a chilling effect on voter turnout in Western states, where someone might decide that "my vote won't count anyway" or some such.
    That might have been a factor in '64 (the LBJ landslide), but in '68 the race was as tight as any had ever been; I still remember David Brinkley saying to Chet Huntley, around midnight Tuesday:
    "You know, Chet? I don't think we're going to get a President tonight; I think this is going into the House!"
    The last two states to be called - on Wednesday morning - were Ohio and Illinois, both swing states at that time (don't you really prefer that term to the one they use nowadays?).
    Had those two states gone to Humphrey rather than Nixon, nobody would have gotten the requisite number of Electoral votes, thanks to Wallace.
    The newly-elected House was mainly Democratic, but a lot of them were in Southern states that Wallace carried; if those states had stayed with Wallace, there would have been no President.
    The Vice-President would be chosen by a straight head count of the newly-elected Senate, most of them Democrats; Muskie was a long-term Senator, well-liked on both sides of the aisle, while Agnew, as Governor of Maryland, was at that time almost totally unknown in all respects.
    Also, remember that none of this is affected by the popular vote; Nixon would likely still have his slim lead therein.
    Something historical to ponder ...

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  2. Fun stuff, Mitchell, and so well-written, as usual. Why was it that Elvis had not appeared on TV during that long stretch of time? Any simple answers you know of?

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    1. Steve:

      The answer to your question is in my comment above.

      Col. Tom Parker, who held absolute control over Elvis's career, kept him off TV because he (Parker) was making more money from the record and movie deals than TV was willing to pay.

      When the record sales began to recede, and the movies weren't so successful, and NBC upped the ante for a live performance, the Colonel became receptive to TV, where he would get his customary half of the gate.

      Simple answer ...

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  3. Too bad Ann-Margaret bumped Elvis off the cover the same way she bumped him off the cover of People when he died in August, 1977!!!

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  4. ........."no memory of this whatsoever, and this is from someone who remembers It's About Time." is one of your best remarks ever!

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    1. "It's about time / It's about space / About two men in the strangest place..." I disgust myself sometimes.

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  5. Given that Elvis and Bardot were back-to-back on the same network on the same night, it is the irony of ironies that the King's "comeback special" has reached iconic status, released and re-re-re-released a hundred times in about as many formats and configurations - whereas Bardot's special is largely forgotten today, you could get it only on Region 2 (or whatever) DVD and see a few clips therefrom on YouTube. Yet both helped NBC win that Tuesday night in early December 1968 - and, I.I.N.M., that whole week.

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    Replies
    1. In the words of Chrissie Hynde--"Oh, it's good good good...like Brigitte Bardot!"

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