Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Miss Brooks 101

One of the better situation comedies coming out of the days of network radio was ‘Our Miss Brooks.’ Eve Arden helped it overcome all the things that can chafe the ears—Gale Gordon’s standard-issue pompous, condescending jerk and Dick Crenna’s grating falsetto. The characters managed to play off each other really well—it helped Gordon’s Mr. Conklin wasn’t always a jerk—though it’s a little much to hear the formal “Miss” and “Mr” manner in which teachers address each other in casual conversation. Arden plays a catty-when-necessary character but toned down for a family audience from the version that the names “Bette Davis” and “Tallulah Bankhead” bring to mind (her natural television successor in that respect was, perhaps, Bea Arthur).

The show started as a summer replacement series in 1948, found a sponsor, was kept on in the fall and made an easy transition into television with its cast pretty well intact, though Crenna felt he was too old (he was 25) to convincing play a teenager on screen.

Situation comedies on radio were, in many cases, anything but comedies. The situations and characters were unbelievable, predictable and trite, even in the most popular ones on the air. But there were others that were somehow a cut above. ‘Brooks’ was one of them. Connie Brooks came across as a real, more-than-one-dimensional person, much to the delight of teachers across North America (being the heroine of the series helped).

New York Herald-Tribune columnist John Crosby expounded on how he liked the show. He gave it a bit of a panning earlier, so I sought out the first column (he reviewed ‘Brooks’ and ‘Cabin 13). Let’s start with that one, from July 23, 1948.

Radio in Review
New Radio Farce ‘Just Misses Fire’

In “Our Miss Brooks,” a new CBS show (not broadcast in the West), Eve Arden, a capable though frayed comedienne, is cast as an English teacher in love with the biology instructor, whose biological interests are limited to the breeding of mice. Since Miss Arden’s concern with biology is somewhat more extensive, this leads to one situation after another, few of them comic.
Miss Arden is also beset by a pixilated landlady who cooks improbable and indigestible foods, a high school principal who roars at her and a fatuous high school student who gets her into jams. Through it all, misunderstanding flickers like summer lightning and Miss Arden wisecracks indefatigably and courageously; still the program just isn’t very funny.
I don’t know why it isn’t. This show, which seems fashioned rather too persistently after
“My Friend Irma,” has a number of tried and true ingredients. A lot of quaint characters have been amassed in one room; Miss Arden’s personality has been given the elements of all of George S. Kaufman’s comic ladies—tough, sentimental, fast on the draw. The plots, heaven help us, are contrived with almost too much ingenuity. Yet, it just doesn’t come off.
It’s a blasphemous though but I’d like timidly to advance the idea that misunderstanding isn’t perhaps as funny as it was in the days of “Charlie’s Aunt.” There was one scene—the one where the high school student hid behind the curtains—where misunderstanding was taken to its outermost limits. Miss Arden’s intentions were thoroughly misunderstood by everyone in the room, including, as I recollect, the biology instructor’s mouse. If that didn’t lay ‘em in the aisles—and it didn’t—then the whole theory of comedy may have to be revised, which wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Well, perhaps it will get better as it goes along. As it was, the only time a smile forced its way through my reluctant lips was when the aged landlady quavered to the young high school student: “My, how you’ve shot up since I saw you last.” And the high school student shot back: “You saw me yesterday.” Come to think of it, this joke was phrased better when I first heard it many years ago in “The Bandwagon.”
In that late, lamented show, Frank Morgan, playing the part of a white-thatched Kentucky Colonel, quavered—no other word for it: “Seems like only yesterday man li’l Miranda was fifteen.:
And his wife, played by Helen Broderick, snapped: “It was yesterday.”

This is Crosby’s renewed assessment, published March 14, 1949.

Radio in Review
‘Miss Brooks’ Evolves Into Good Comic
Last July I remarked rather petulantly that “Our Miss Brooks,” a house-built comedy of the Columbia Broadcasting System was a little too ingenious to be very funny. They had everything in there—a good idea to start with, a lot of picturesque characters, more situations than I could cope with, and, of course, wisecracks. There was just one too many of something, though, and the whole thing left me tired and cross.
I’m afraid I’ll have to revise these churlish remarks to some extent. “Our Miss Brooks” is approaching its first birthday; it’s got over some of the more convulsive aspects of infancy; people don’t hide under the bed any more—or anyway only one person hides there at a time; and the characters have been smoothed down to some semblance of humanity. It’s a very amusing program and, more importantly, a winning one.
Eve Arden, the pretty, reddish-blonde, acid comedienne, plays our Miss Brooks, a high school teacher unlike any of the high school teachers of my acquaintance. Come to think of it, Madison High, where she teaches, doesn’t parallel anything in my early experience very closely, either. The principal is a blustering, rather wistful character who blows his horn whenever he’s driving in the vicinity of his home to give his wife and child a feeling of security.
Naturally, the school contains a surfeit of squealing and demonic adolescents who are typified or at least represented by a boy named Walter Denton. He’s the great American boy, this Denton—high-pitched, nasal voice and drives Stanley Steamer or something like
that—but his relations with Miss Brooks are curious. He drives her around in that Pierce-Arrow or whatever it is, acts as confidant to her, and worships her for her beauty and at the same time acts as if she’s 102 years old.
Miss Arden, to get down to brass tacks, is represented as a toothsome young lady, bright as a whip and tough as nails. I never had an English teacher up ro these specifications, but I suppose they exist. At any rate, Miss Arden has become the idol of thousands of teachers throughout the country who are sick and tired of being portrayed as ageing schoolmarms with spectacles.
Miss Arden’s interest in teaching is dim; her primary purpose at Madison High seems to be to land the biology instructor, man named Boynton, whose own biological urges are fully satisfied by peering through microscopes. Don’t know what she sees in this dimwit, but he must have something because Miss Arden—or Brooks—has a rival, Miss Enright, who is also chasing him. Most of the time the two instructors are clawing each other to ribbons in a bright, feminine, ruthless way.
“Miss Enright,” murmurs Miss Brooks, “if you ever become a mother—I would love to have one of the kittens.”
Most of the dialogue is second-hand George S. Kaufman, which makes it first-rate radio. Since Ilka Chase retired from the field, there isn’t anyone in the business who can handle feline dialogue as well as Miss Arden—at least no one I know. The situations she gets into on this show are funny, reasonably plausible and untarnished by too much usage.
But I don’t see how they get any studying done at that school. Too much romance.

One can only imagine what Crosby would think of today’s sitcoms, where romance was replaced long ago with sexual innuendo and double-entendres. Ah, it was a simpler time!

The TV version of ‘Brooks’ was shot at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu studio. When ‘Brooks’ became a daytime rerun hit soon after leaving first-run in 1956, Gale Gordon went on to play Lucy’s pompous, condescending jerk foil in several sitcoms. And Arnaz produced Arden’s 1960’s sitcom ‘The Mothers-in-Law,’ a show with potential if it had been fleshed out a bit more and pointed in some kind of direction. Not everything Arden touched turned to comedy gold, but at least one well-remembered show did.

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