By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, and Andy Daglas
Note: Noel had some computer issues and couldn’t join us this week. We missed him.
It’s The Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television by Christine Becker
Chapter 4: The Star and the Sitcom
Les: We’ve talked about the celebrity-helmed talk show and the anthology series in our earlier installments, but now we’re moving into a format that’s much more familiar to a contemporary audience: the sitcom. I have to say, after three chapters on stars or shows that I’ve never seen or only vaguely heard of, it’s nice to be on more comfortable ground. Even though several of these shows were also unfamiliar to me, I Love Lucy was a staple of my younger Nick At Nite days. It’s nice to have a more familiar show and plug it into this context we’ve spent three chapters developing.
Andy: But it doesn’t focus entirely on familiar legends like Lucy and The Honeymooners. Some of the most amusing and thoughtful parts of the chapter are about the high-profile failures of the era.
Les: I’d definitely agree with that. Given the fact that so many of these sitcoms were built around particular stars, we got to see how in some cases it was the perception of those stars that killed early shows. Betty Hutton was too volatile to headline a sitcom, Ray Milland was too distinguished to be in a goofball role.
Cory: And, the sitcom was a format that those performers who struggled in certain settings couldn’t hide.
Andy: Especially since this was a format that was figuring itself out as much as the actors were. The half-hour TV sitcom had some growing pains adapting from their sketch comedy and theater roots.
Les: Which makes an interesting paradox. A lot of those sketch comedy and theater tropes seemed like they’d be an asset to early TV because they were used to playing for a broad audience. But if you’re not in front of that audience, it loses a lot in translation.
Cory: Yeah, like I said, you just can’t hide. In some ways, there’s less of an artifice there. So if your persona or star image doesn’t fit with television, or especially the sitcom form, it’s not good. And it appears some of these shows were pretty painful.
Les: Indeed. This is a case where I’m glad some of this stuff has been lost to the ages. I felt no desire to seek out footage of Meet Mr. McNutley.
Andy: Not unless it turns out to be about Myles’s long-lost ancestor.
Les: We could probably figure that out: if he used the word “liminal” in even one episode, that’s a dead giveaway. What I found most fascinating about this chapter, and the examples Chris discussed, were the multiple layers it seemed were associated with so many of these early female sitcom stars. Ann Sothern, Lucille Ball, Ida Lupino—it seems like all of them had four or five different public personalities, and they had to find the right one to make their shows successful.
Cory: Most definitely. Maybe this is just me, but have you guys gotten the impression that it was tougher for women to make their star images fit on television? There’s been a lot of discussion in the book about women not being “too beautiful,” or being relatable. Plus, we know that lots of women were watching television in its inception—gender roles and all—so there was definitely something going on there. I think.
Andy: I think a lot of that had to do with the extent to which a woman could lead a show. The star and the writers had to find ways to soften, counter, or even negate her centrality in order to accommodate audiences’ views of what femininity could entail. Those hurdles didn’t exist for male stars, obviously.
Cory: To be fair, those hurdles probably still exist today. Unfortunately.
Les: One need only look at any comments section on a Girls review for that sad truth. (Though you shouldn’t, because Girls commenters are the worst.)
Andy: True. But today, at least, performers and writers are able to push back more overtly. Lucy had to do it under the radar, seeming to play by certain rules, for years. The pressure of that must’ve been stifling, even though it’s ridiculously cool how she was able to outfox basically the whole industry.
Les: Indeed, it’s amusing that today I Love Lucy is pilloried for its sexist attitudes, when the amount of creative control Ball had over the show makes it an early feminist success story. Which goes to what I was saying earlier, just how impressive it was that these early stars knew exactly what persona they had to adopt and how they could use their other ones. I think my favorite anecedote from this chapter is the one where Ida Lupino played herself in an episode of Mr. Adams and Eve, in what is likely the first example of the meta sitcom.
Cory: The internet would love Mr. Adams and Eve guys.
Andy: I’d never heard of that show before, and it sounds fascinating. From some of the examples Christine gives, it sounds like the proto-high concept sitcom.
Les: I could see this show on NBC today very easily. Critically beloved, subversive, watched by no one. Sticking with those current-day parallels, I want to go back to the start of the chapter and something interesting I noticed: the idea of the continuing character series. A lot of these stars went to TV because they had been one-note in films, but in TV they were not only expected, but encouraged to adopt the same persona week to week. I just think it’s fascinating to see these examples of how the format developed, and (as we said) how much of that still applies today.
Cory: This is in contrast to what we read about the anthologies and telefilms, where performers came to TV because they could try new things on a regular basis.
Andy: More and more of those performers were willing to dip their toes in TV’s waters as the medium grew in notoriety and respect throughout the 1950s, though, as we’ll see in the next chapter. Tune in next week for our final installment of It’s The Pictures That Got Small, featuring guest stars like Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and more.
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