October 12, 2022

Over the Transom: Roman Carnival


by Stephen Taylor

Watched a pretty good Ironside tonight; it was also very funny. How, you might ask, could Ironside be funny? It’s funny when Nurse Skinner (Ruth Roman) is running a blackmail/murder scheme out of a nursing home. 

The episode is called "Gentle Oaks." Ironside receives a tip that strange things are taking place at Gentle Oaks, and goes undercover to find out more. Good supporting work from John Carradine and Lynn Hamilton, along with character actor Jon Lormer. (Only a Star Trek fan would know his name, but everyone else knows his face; even my wife spotted him as "that guy on the planet with Susan Oliver.") 

But this episode belongs to Ruth Roman. We open with Nurse Skinner dancing in front of a mirror, modeling furs and wondering "where did all the pretty years go?" before declaiming that she’ll be returning to Hollywood real soon now, and opening another can of beer. She’s got other problems, however. Why, just yesterday she had to have the suspicious young doctor murdered, and Gentle Oaks is for sale, and if she’s going to make another score by killing someone’s elderly parent, she’ll need to act fast. The one remaining doctor (Harry Townes) is a drunk, but when sober he’s started having regrets. She needs another victim, and fast. How about the cripple in the wheelchair?

Roman explodes across the screen; I suspect the screenwriter had Joan Crawford in mind as the nurse, but Ruth Roman took the part and made it hers. She’s calculating and cold at the same time, but also way over the top. it’s as if someone told the rest of the cast to dial back the acting, but for her to take it to 11. After pushing over Ironside’s wheelchair, she opens up. "Listen, buster. You’re nothing but a crippled old man that no one cares about; your children are waiting for you to die. Your time here will be what you make of it. So get with the program..." One cheesy howler follows another. When the children of a potential patient plead poverty, "Dad’s stocks aren’t doing so well," she suggests that "perhaps your father needs a better stockbroker." Upon meeting a student priest, "Don’t take any wooden crosses." She talks to herself; "...How do I sleep? With all those faces and voices?" She slings whiskey glasses with abandon. She lights a cigarette during a monologue, then exhales smoke like a dragon while facing the camera. Ruth Roman was one of those actresses who had more than one speed, and she has it turned way up tonight; her tachometer is in the red zone. The part is written as evil, but she adds some camp to it and makes it work. She’s quite good.

I’ve watched about eight episodes of Season Five so far, and here are some thoughts. First, Elizabeth Baur continues to underwhelm. She has no gravitas. Her voice is high and tentative; she doesn’t project the same refinement as Barbara Anderson, and, frankly, she’s just not as pretty. Yes, I know. You male chauvinist pig. Yada yada yada. But television and the movies have always looked for sex appeal in casting choices, and they still do today. Ironside was no exception. Barbara Anderson was a clotheshorse, had a pretty face and a great figure. Elizabeth Baur not so much. Tonight they had her in boots, and boots always look great on a nice set of legs, but her legs are like matchsticks. She can’t act, and got off on the wrong foot with the audience by having a crying screaming fit in front of Ironside and the rest of the gang. Barbara Anderson never had crying screaming fits on this show; she saved her histrionics for Lenore Karidian. An interview with Baur included with this set makes the claim that Raymond Burr had a hand in her casting. I doubt it.

Second, Barbara Anderson wasn’t even mentioned during the transition. No "hope officer Whitfield does well in her new assignment in bunco" or "We’ll miss Eve now that she’s returned home to take care of her sick father" or "Only fragments were left of Eve after her car hit the side of that building." Nothing was said; it was as though she never existed. That was irritating. Ironside could have taken a lesson from M*A*S*H, which wrote the book on transitioning characters.

Third, Gene Lyons as Commissioner Dennis Randall is in almost every episode. Most times it’s only one short scene, but he had a 13 in 26 contract in the first four seasons, and now we’re seeing more of him. (This was an illusion.) He’s an interesting character; he and "Bob" go way back, and it would’ve been neat if we’d have had an episode giving us his backstory. But Gene Lyons had a problem with his elbow; he died in 1974 of a liver ailment "related to chronic alcoholism." Could be they’re filming all his bits at the same time; perhaps he’d become unreliable by this point. It was sad to watch his physical appearance deteriorate over the course of the series. Lyons really only knew how to play one character, that of an officious authority figure with a good heart, so he really nailed Commissioner Randall. (He ended up in 10 episodes of Season Five. He did 66 episodes across eight seasons, for an average of eight episodes a season, so the 13/26 thing may not have been the case. Perhaps a commenter can
offer greater clarity.)

Like every other season of Ironside, Season Five has hits and misses, with more misses than not. But there are very few TV series that cast a pearl every time the camera was turned on, and Ironside was no exception. TV  

2 comments:

  1. That sounds good! I always enjoy seeing Harry Townes. Gene Lyons always had those big bags under his eyes.

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  2. I don't concur with your dismissal of Elizabeth Baur.
    Seems to me that we're looking at Tara King Syndrome: the replacement can never be as good as the original.
    For the record, Elizabeth Baur is a legacy: her father was a casting director at 20th-Fox, who signed off on her presence on Lancer, among other things.
    Early Perry Mason episodes were filmed at Fox, so it stands to reason that Raymond Burr probably knew Jack Baur from that period - and that likely trumps your "doubts".

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!