It’s The Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television by Christine Becker
Chapter 4: The Star and the Sitcom
Reesav: In our previous discussions, we delved into celebrity-helmed talk shows and anthology series, but now we’re transitioning into a format that’s more familiar to contemporary audiences: the sitcom.
After three chapters discussing stars or shows I’ve had little or no exposure to, it’s comforting to be on more familiar ground.
I Love Lucy was a show I watched during my younger years on Nick At Nite, and it’s nice to place it within the context we’ve been developing in these three chapters.
Sidant: Indeed, the focus isn’t solely on well-known legends like Lucy and The Honeymooners.
Some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking aspects of this chapter revolve around the high-profile failures of the era.
Naveen: I found the failures to be more intriguing this time, don’t you think?
Reesav: Absolutely. Considering that many of these sitcoms were built around specific stars, we can see how, in some cases, it was the public perception of those stars that led to the downfall of early shows.
Betty Hutton’s volatile nature made it challenging for her to lead a sitcom, while Ray Milland’s dignified image clashed with a goofball role.
Naveen: Moreover, the sitcom format exposed the limitations of performers who struggled in certain settings.
Sidant: This was a format that was still finding its footing, and it had to adapt from its sketch comedy and theater origins, which presented some growing pains.
Reesav: It’s an intriguing paradox. Many of those sketch comedy and theater techniques seemed like they’d be advantageous in the early days of television because they were accustomed to performing for a broad audience.
However, when you’re not in front of that live audience, much of the appeal is lost in translation.
Naveen: That’s right, as I mentioned, there’s just no way to hide. In a sense, there’s less room for pretense.
If your public persona or star image doesn’t align with television, particularly the sitcom format, it can be quite challenging.
It seems like some of these shows were genuinely difficult to watch.
Reesav: Absolutely. I’m relieved that some of this material has faded into obscurity. I had no desire to hunt down footage of Meet Mr. McNutley.
Sidant: Unless it’s revealed to be about Myles’s long-lost ancestor.
Reesav: That would be quite a discovery. We could easily spot it: if he used the word “liminal” in even one episode, that would give it away.
What struck me as most intriguing in this chapter, and in Chris’s examples, was the multi-faceted nature of many of these early female sitcom stars.
Ann Sothern, Lucille Ball, Ida Lupino—they all seemed to have multiple public personas, and they had to find the right one to ensure the success of their shows.
Naveen: I’ve definitely noticed that. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but do you guys think it was more challenging for women to mold their star images for television?
The book frequently discusses women needing to avoid being “too beautiful” or striving for relatability.
Considering that many women were among television’s early viewers, it certainly seems like there were unique challenges at play.
Sidant: I believe much of this complexity stemmed from the extent to which women could lead a show.
Stars and writers had to navigate ways to soften, counter, or even downplay the central role of female leads to accommodate the audience’s perception of femininity.
These challenges were not as pronounced for male stars, of course.
Naveen: To be fair, these challenges likely persist today, unfortunately.
Reesav: Unfortunately, that’s the sad truth. One only needs to glance at the comments section on a Girls’ review to see evidence of this.
(Though you really shouldn’t, because Girls commenters are notoriously difficult.)
Sidant: Indeed. But today, performers and writers can challenge these norms more directly.
In Lucy’s time, she had to push back quietly, seemingly conforming to certain standards for years.
The pressure she faced must have been suffocating, even though it’s incredibly impressive how she ultimately outsmarted the entire industry.
Reesav: Indeed, it’s ironic that today I Love Lucy faces criticism for its sexist aspects when you consider the level of creative control Lucille Ball wielded over the show, making it an early feminist success story.
It circles back to my earlier point about the impressive ability of these early stars to understand which persona they needed to adopt and how they could leverage various aspects of their personalities.
One of my favorite anecdotes from this chapter involves Ida Lupino playing herself in an episode of Mr. Adams and Eve, which is likely one of the earliest instances of a meta sitcom.
Naveen: Mr. Adams and Eve would be a hit on the internet today.
Sidant: I had never heard of that show before, and it sounds quite intriguing.
Some of the examples Christine provides suggest it could be seen as a precursor to high-concept sitcoms.
Reesav: I could easily envision this show airing on NBC today: critically acclaimed, subversive, but watched by very few.
Regarding current-day parallels, I want to revisit the beginning of the chapter and something I found interesting.
It’s the concept of the continuing character series. Many of these film stars turned to television because they had been typecast in movies, but on TV, they were not only expected but encouraged to maintain the same persona week after week.
It’s fascinating to witness the development of this format and how much of it still applies today.
Naveen: This is in contrast to what we read about in anthologies and telefilms, where performers saw TV as an opportunity to explore new roles regularly.
Sidant: As we delve further into the next chapter, we’ll see how more of these performers began to embrace television as the medium gained greater recognition and respect throughout the 1950s.
Tune in next week for our final installment of It’s The Pictures That Got Small, featuring guest stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and more.