Friday, December 03, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Special! #21: Gruen Guild Theater

"I am Joe's Santa Claus..."

Just Enough Information: The Gruen Guild Theater was one of several low-budget filmed anthologies the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) threw together in its young-and-hungry phase. ABC went into television at a disadvantage, with few dedicated stations and advertisers, and the struggle in those days was simply to stay on the air. In desperation, the network cobbled together a package of 30 minute dramatic films and proceeded to salt and pepper their schedule with multiple anthology series made up of those films. The Gruen Guild Theater was apparently the first of these, and during the 1952-53 season the schedule would be salted and peppered with recycled and repackaged repeats of these films and others. According to Tim Brooks and Earl Marsh, these films ran at least a half a dozen times each, which probably gave early viewers a creeping feeling of déjà vu.

It would take a purchase by United Paramount Theaters—and Walt Disney’s decision to launch his own ABC weekly series—to tip ABC’s struggle from extinction in fourth place to perennial third. Moving out of that predicament would have to wait a few more decades, but that’s not why we’re here.

The Christmas Episode: “Joe Santa Claus”. Original Broadcast: December 20, 1951. The print doesn’t say “Gruen” anywhere on it, but we’re going to take IMDB’s word for it.

Oh great, we’re in another department store…you’d think that’s where people went during Christmas! Anyway, welcome to Morley’s, and the story wastes no time in introducing us to hardware department drone Joe Peters. It also wastes no time in telling us that Peters has been reassigned from hardware to toys…to serve as this year’s Santa Claus. When he hears the news, Bill looks like he was just asked to eat a turd.

He’s also informed that, as a hardware worker, he’s more “expendable” at Christmas than…saaay…the old fart janitor who really wants the Santa gig. Oh sure, a guy can learn every picky detail about the hardware department in a snap, but working a mop and a floor buffer? That’s very specialized work right there. It’s that type of logic that put Circuit City out of business.

Janitor: Irreplaceable

With Joe resigned to his fate, the janitor—“Uncle Willie” (ugh)—helps load the younger man into the Santa suit, and Joe tells his whole sorry story while the older man has his hands down Joe’s pants positioning the pillows.

No really, “hands down Joe’s pants”. Dignity in the workplace? It's retail, you chump!

Joe met Maria, the woman destined to be his future ex-wife, in postwar Germany—and yes, that means we get a painfully long scene where he teaches her English. He brings her home to America and sets out to make a home for the both of them…except he doesn’t hang on to a job very well. Maria obviously has the heart of a saint, because Joe suddenly has the growl of an underfed pit-bull. The one and only bone of contention in their ridiculous marriage is that Joe can’t hold on to a job, and Maria wants to get work outside of the house to help pay for things.

Meet the crappy couple!

It get’s Joe’s idiot pride bent out of shape, especially when Maria plays the “in Germany a man and wife both work all the time” card. “This isn’t Germany!” How dare you compare America to the heathen Godless lands of western Europe! He comes this close to bolting when she mentions that she’s having a baby, which lights him up instantly. When you have a contentious marriage with a single wage-earner who can’t hold a job, bringing a baby into it fixes everything! Adding pressure to an already-brittle psyche? Go back to bed, Doctor Freud!

And it does work…for the first few years. But he still has a hard time staying on the employment train, and Maria just won’t shut up about going to work. The way she yammers on about it, you’d think she was people! And then one dark, ominous night, Joe comes home to an empty house (with no dinner in the oven!!!!!) and a note that says Maria is babysitting for the neighbors! Dun-dun-DUHNNNNN! Joe wads up the note and sits staring it for God knows how long.

When he finally unclenches his fist a few hours later, Maria comes home with (gasp!) FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS! “You’ve made a fool out of me, Maria…but for the last time!” Joe blusters, and while I’m trying to remember if we were ever shown a first time, he walks out of his wife’s life and abandons his family. Over babysitting. Is it too late to rename this story “Joe Moron”?

And that’s the crux of the whole thing. Will being Santa Claus bring him closer to the true spirit of Christmas? And furthermore, (minor spoiler) will a chance in-costume encounter with his little girl be enough to totally heal his marriage without forcing Joe to change even a single one of the gaping personality flaws that tore the family apart in the first place? Well, what the hell do you think?

I have no idea how well this story played in 1951, but to my modern eyes Joe comes off as a flawed and petty person rather than what the story seems to think he is, a regular guy who made one stupid mistake that he lives to regret. What’s more, the stupid mistake the story thinks Joe made (losing his temper and walking out) probably isn’t as fatal as the stupid mistake that’s more obvious to us now (how dare you shame me as a man by trying to make this a two income family!). I don’t think anybody back in the day thought this yarn all the way through, since the ending implies the only thing Joe learned from his experience that he misses his wife and daughter. The issues that drove them apart in the first place get steamrolled flat by (God give me strength) “love conquers all”, making a meaningful understanding of each other's hopes and fears a tragic victim of the necessity of having to end these shows on time. It’s not terribly reassuring if you think about it for more than a minute.

If you can put every last bit of the above hogwash aside, it’s downright heartwarming! Just try not to let the story get in the way.

Our Holiday Lesson For Today: Nothing much more than what I’ve already said. Just that after all that stuff I actually liked, I’m just glad to have something to sharpen my fangs on again.

But Don’t Take My Word For It: Archive.org gives us what we think we need. And hey! (What I originally thought was going to be a) Smaller window this time!

If you just can’t watch this without some type of filter, it’s also available (on a pay-for-play basis)from Rifftrax with MST3k-style running commentary.

Next: Racket Squad!

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