Monday, December 06, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Special! #24: Dear Phoebe

Sponsored by Campbells! Because you’re in the soup now, bucko!

Just Enough Information: Dear Phoebe was a one-season wonder which ran on NBC during the 1954-55 season. Future Rat Pack member and at-the-time John F. Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford starred as Bill Hastings, a former college professor who got burned out on academia and decided to become a newspaper man. Instead, he was offered a job writing an advice-to-the-lovelorn column under the pen name “Phoebe Goodheart”. Marcia Henderson costarred as Mickey Riley, the sports writer Hastings was trying to hook up with.

If this show had happened during his Rat Pack days, Frank would’ve socked him in the jaw.

The show was produced by Alex Gottlieb, who was also behind the late-period Abbott and Costello films, but this isn’t exactly that kind of animal. Obviously he believed in this premise a bit more than the network and the sponsors, since after cancellation this forgotten sitcom was adapted into a forgotten three-act comedy for the stage, which is still available for amateur and professional productions if you can cough up the dough. There was also talk of making it into a movie, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

One more thing worth noting: Gottlieb and Lawford fought against the use of a laugh track, which by then had become an industry standard, and several later episodes (but definitely not this one) were allowed to play without mechanical goosing. Small blessings like that didn’t lead to the big blessing of a second season, of course…

The Christmas Episode: “The Christmas Show”. Wait, you’re really going with that? Your funeral, punk. Original Broadcast: December 24, 1954.

It’s Christmastime in Los Angeles, and even Santa Claus has gone native! (Ha. Ha.)

Not shown: his mug shot after a booze-and-blow bender led to a horrific sleigh crash on Sunset. Charlie Sheen was also spotted fleeing the area.

Bill introduces us to Joey Kragen, a mean little kid who, through Bill’s intervention, has managed to channel his destructive impulses and hostility into military school. “And when a kid like that reforms, he stays reformed!” Bill adds, with no obvious justification.

Quick question: Which is worse, the before or the after? Trick question…they’re both equally bad, but not the way the show wants you to think. Keep reading…

When Hastings arrives home, he finds Joey huddled in the bookcase. Joey’s gone AWOL and is hiding out just long enough until he can join the Foreign Legion. When Mrs. Kragen catches up with him, she tells Bill that it has something to do with an invitation to a father-son banquet she received, and Joey’s dad walked out several years ago after Joey glued his derby to his head. See seems to think that the no-dad situation is what’s sent Joey into a tailspin. Complicating matters, she doesn’t know where he is at the moment and scratched his face off of all of the family pictures after he left. And that's the punchline.

Nice healthy emotional state she’s got going on. Cue the laugh track.

After a bit of back-and-forth, Bill realizes that Mr. Kragen is the same guy who tried (and failed) to repair his TV set the other week. He seems to think that the father-child reunion will be as easy as calling for Kragen again, but he doesn’t count on the guy’s infinite capacity to get fired at a crucial moment.

Will he find the boy’s father, talk the man into seeing the boy, and restore Joey’s faith in adults and Christmas? Spoilers: Yes, yes, and your guess is as good as mine. Read on for that explanation.

We finish with a full-cast carol led by Mickey…

…and the boy looking like this is the last place he wants to be right now. (KEEP READING, I TELL YOU!)

I just don’t know, friends, the story swings wildly from broad comedy to broad sentimentality, and if it was a little steadier in either department we might have something here. The adult leads are as good as they can be under the circumstances, and Lawford is charming enough that you can see why he became TV’s Nick Charles in The Thin Man after the end of Dear Phoebe. What pulls it apart for me—I think I’ve dropped enough hints about this in those stupid little captions—is the robotic performance from the boy who plays Joey.

Behold the stony piercing gaze of childhood Christmas joy! NONE OF YOU ARE SAFE!

To put it bluntly, the kid can't act. He should really be the emotional center of this story but instead rattles off all of his lines in a almost-monotone stacatto with an almost-unchanging expression of dull surprise. Kid, if you're going to take up breaking men's watches as a hobby, as Joey does, make me believe you derive a wicked joy from it, instead of giving me the impression that you're doing it because that's what the director told you to do. Which leads directly into…

Our Holiday Lesson For Today: This is why you didn’t get a second season, you jerks. You should’ve fired your casting director.

Spot ‘Em: Joey’s runaway dad is played by the always marvelous character actor Jesse White, answering one of my longstanding questions: Yes, he did always look like that.

Runner-up for Today's Holiday Lesson: There’s nothing sadder than a half-dressed Santa with the blues.

No video (ugh, again), so instead…

Extracurricular Reading: After it was cancelled, Dear Phoebe picked up an unlikely second life as part of Comedy Time, the first network attempt to run daytime repeats of nighttime sitcoms as a schedule-plugger in the same way the locals had started doing. Unfortunately, NBC was running a deficit when it came to successful sitcoms, so they had to stitch together a “series” with whatever scraps they could grab. TV Party, always a whiz at interesting obscure stuff like this, has more details.

Next: Telephone Time! We're right on the halfway mark! No sense in stopping now!

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