July 21, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 17, 1965

It seems as if we've spent a lot of time lately looking back at the shows of our youth and wondering if they’ve held up. I wasn’t sure with Andy Griffith, and I’m not sure with McHale’s Navy.  But whereas Mayberry, NC seems to epitomize something timeless, an iconic image of America's past, it's harder to tell what Lt. Commander Quinton McHale's* band of merry pranksters represents.

*McHale's seldom-used first name, Quinton, is one of television's great trivia answers, right up there with the names of Gilligan's Island's Professor (Roy Hinkley) and Skipper (Jonas Grumby).  I don't know why, but as a kid these little pieces of knowledge always fascinated me.

I've had some time to consider this, back to Ernest Borgnine's death a couple of weeks ago.  Just as Sheriff Andy Taylor was the stable point around which the rest of Mayberry's colorful characters pivoted, Borgnine's McHale was a relative oasis of sanity surrounded by slapstick.  And just as Andy Griffith's dramatic performances were overshadowed by the success of his series, most people still associate Borgnine with McHale (or, depending on your age, his late-career success as the voice of Mermaid Man in SpongeBob) rather than his 1955 Oscar-winning performance in Marty.  And that's too bad, because Borgnine could be a hell of an actor, often in some pretty nasty roles: From Here to Eternity, The Wild Bunch, Emperor of the North. 

But it's television we were talking about, wasn't it?  Specifically McHale's Navy, so let's stick with that.  It's interesting, reading about the show in this 1965 profile.  The program's preparing for its fourth and final season, with the entire crew about to be shipped from the Pacific to Italy.  That never made sense to me, even when I was a kid watching reruns of the show after school.  One minute they're fighting the Japanese, pulling various con games, forever dodging the range of "Lead Bottom" Binghamton, all while hiding a Japanese POW as part of the crew; the next they're pulling the same schtick in a completely different theater, now fighting Germans, conning Italians, all with the same exaxperated commander and even the same Japanese POW.  How does that work?

When I was eight or nine I thought McHale's Navy was hilarious, probably because of the broad characterizations and slapstick humor.  And the cast, in this profile, acknowledge as much: it's a kids' show, they admit, "Servicemen and kids," said Carl Ballantine, who played Gruber.  "Wives tolerate it."  Borgnine himself referred to it as "light and fluffy," though he doesn't appear to be using that in the critical sense.  Having caught a few minutes of an episode last week during MeTV's McHale marathon tribute to Borgnine, I think I can vouch for the show's kid quotient.  It just didn't work for me as a non-veteran adult, lacking the sophisticated zaniness of Hogan's Heroes and the unabashed larceny of Phil Silvers' Bilko.  I won't exactly go as far as to say that I'd be embarrassed to admit having enjoyed the show back then, not in the same way that I'd be embarrassed to admit having watched, say, My Mother the Car.  But it definitely is a childhood memory best left in childhood.

Considering McHale's froth, it is therefore a little surprising to read that there had been complaints about the show back then, a limited number to be sure, feeling that there was something inappropriate about a sitcom set in a combat zone.  I wonder about that; World War II was, after all, less than 20 years in the past, and I suppose there were a good many people who didn't think of the war as a laughing matter.  Bilko, which predated McHale, was set in the contemporary peacetime Army, and McHale in turn predated war comedies such as The Wackiest Ship in the Army and Mr. RobertsThere were similar complaints about Hogan, understandable (though unfounded) given the premise of a sitcom set in a POW camp; by the time M*A*S*H appears, the culture has, needless to say, changed a bit.  Still, the very proximity of the end of the war to this series gives me pause; for perspective, think back to 1992 - it was that recent.  Or better yet, can you think of anything funny about a sitcom set in Baghdad or Afghanistan? 

Summertime TV Guides don't have a lot to offer in terms of surprises; most of the network programs are reruns, and in the pre-ESPN era weekends have yet to be saturated with sports.  Most of the new shows were replacements for the big network variety shows, which were ldom rerun during the summer.  Al Hirt, for example, filled in for Jackie Gleason on Saturday nights, while CBS' Summer Playhouse featured failed pilots - and one could often see why they'd failed.  What's My Line? was a notable exception, never having shown a rerun throughout its 17½ year run.  One of the few notable first-run shows was Patrick McGoohan's British import Secret Agent, the progenitor to The Prisoner.

The big story in the Twin Cities was the start of the Minneapolis Aquatennial, featuring the Grande Day Parade on Saturday with stars from various network shows (Petticoat Junction, Peyton Place, Gidget), bands, floats, and other celebrities.  The CBS and NBC affiliates devoted over two hours to the parade.  Today the Aquatennial still exists, in a much-diminished form; the Grande Day Parade long ago ceased to be, and the nighttime Torchlight Parade, if seen at all, is probably on some community cable network.  The Twins, headed for the American League pennant, appear in a pair of games against the Red Sox and Orioles. The Yankees, headed for a decade-long decline, take on the Washington Senators on Saturday's Game of the Week.

There's an article about Walt Disney - the man, not the company.  Or I suppose it was one and the same thing back then - it's easy today to think of Disney as a brand name, and for anyone 40 years or younger, that's all it is; but in 1965 Walt Disney was very real, and very visible, and very, very successful.  "This has been a good year," Walt tells Edith Efron, "Mary Poppins is a hit."  But even then, Walt isn't satisfied.  "I'm on the spot.  I have to keep trying to keep up to that same level."  They way to do it, he says, is to get involved in another project - something that looks like fun.  And with that he turns to the storyboards for his next animated feature, which turned out to be The Jungle Book, although Disney wouldn't live to see it come to fruition.

Finally, Cleveland Amory reviews - not a regular series, but the new ABC evening news program Peter Jennings with the News.  "Young Mr. Jennings," who was only 29 when he became ABC's answer to Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, impressed Amory, who wrote that Jennings "could succeed very nicely, thank you, without any build-up on anybody else's part."  More than other anchors, he notes, Jennings spends time in the field, reporting from the South during the segregation crisis, or from a rowboat during recent floods - impressive considering that the network news, at that time, was only 15 minutes.

I always preferred Jennings myself, when he returned to anchor World News Tonight in the 80s, over Cronkite/Rather and Brokaw, but whether you saw him then or not, you'd have to like him for this story, with which Amory ends his review: "The Beatles," Jennings reports in a recent broadcast, "believe it or not, are being given a royal honor.  Today they joined the somewhat astonished other members of the Order of the British Empire.  God save the Queen." TV  

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