Thursday, April 1, 2010
On Wednesday, I went to the Paley Center for Media so that I could check out a few TV projects by the late Robert Culp which had piqued my curiousity. Well, that, and to also renew my membership which ended that day.
The three TV projects were two historical programs keyed to the Bicentennial - "Give Me Liberty" with Richard Kiley and "Land Of The Free" with Burgess Meredith, both from 1974. The other one was a 1970 ITV movie written by John Mortimer - "Married Alive" with the loverly Diana Rigg.
I'll have more on my experience with those later, but I really wanted to tell you about the big bonanza - and I ain't talking Cartwrights here. I'm talking about an hour and an half of Frank Morgan goodness, truly a lost treasure!
You know Frank Morgan - he played Professor Marvel as well as the title character in 'The Wizard Of Oz'. As a kid, I always liked him in the role, but I favored Bolger's Scarecrow and Lahr's Lion more. Only now that I'm older have I come to realize that Frank Morgan is the actor to watch in the movie. He's absolutely brilliant!
I always was sorry that there was nothing to represent him in Toobworld, as he died in 1949, when television was in its infancy. But then a few weeks ago I was in Midtown, at my favorite source for bootleg DVDs of old TV shows; I was there looking for more 'You Are There' compilations so that I won't run out of characters for the "As Seen On TV" showcase here in Inner Toob. And just by luck, I was able to meet the guy who supplies all of those DVDs for my source. (Like I'd tell the authorities where it is!)
Anyhoo, we got to talking, which he was happy to do so long as I kept grabbing his 20 buck cases, and he told me that one of his "holy grails" was 'The Frank Morgan Show'. He knew the Paley Center had the only 3 episodes that were made and if he could find an inside source, this would be his goal: to dupe only this show out of everything in their collection. Apparently, the 'Wizard Of Oz' collectibles market is very lucrative and they'd pay top dollar for copies of this show.
Frank Morgan was contracted to do a TV series in those early days, one of the earliest of sitcoms, to be shown on the NBC network. He was able to complete the pilot and the next two episodes before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
According to the book "The Chimes At Midtown" (about the history of NBC, which I have in the Toobworld Central library) the premise of 'The Frank Morgan Show' was this: Morgan played an old con artist, grifter, and master of disguise named Frank Martin (no imagination wasted in coming up with that name!), who had abandoned his family many years before when his son was just a child. Eventually he was declared dead and his wife remarried, with her new husband adopting the son and legally changing his name.
Years later, young Francis Millbrook is grown up, a veteran of WWII, and has established himself in the District Attorney's office. Because of some big case he won, Millbrook finds himself running for Congress. But then a few days before the election, suddenly Frank Martin reappears in everybody's life. Now it's a mad scramble to keep him out of the way, and more importantly out of the papers, until after the election - which the polls showed as being very close. (Joseph Kearns was the guest star in the pilot, playing "The Distinguished Gentleman" who's running for re-election against Milbrook. Yep - that's how he was listed in the credits, no name.)
Quickly assaying the situation, Frank Martin presents himself as Franklin Pynge Salter, which is a play on his old con man nickname of "Frankie Pinch O' Salt" (because you had to take a grain of salt with everything he'd tell you). And without his son's knowledge until it's too late, he inserts himself into the campaign as an advisor. And the hokum he spins for the reporters, worthy of Bilko with a dash of Professor Irwin Corey, gives his son the edge in the election. (And it turns out that people listening to him on the radio thought they would be voting for him the next day.) And that's basically what happens in the first episode, "Prodigal Dad".
The only real downside was how they worked the commercials for Duz detergent (the show's sponsor) right into the storyline with each episode, even if it didn't really fit. Even at the Capitol building, they had to have a kitchen scene! It reminded me of how 'Martin Kane' made a point to involve their cigarette sponsor in each episode.
The other players in that pilot episode survived to the actual series - Robert Lowery as Francis Milbrook and Carole Matthews as daughter-in-law Claire Milbrook. Both were dull as dishwater in this, which is somewhat appropriate since the sponsor was Duz. But then I guess the point was they'd make Frank Morgan shine even more.
And as their son Jib, Georgie Noakes played the role. (I should bring my sister down to see this just for him! She's a fanatic for "It's A Wonderful Life", and I'm sure she'd recognize Georgie Noakes as young Harry Bailey.)
Frank's ex-wife Eleanor and her cantankerous sourpuss of a second husband Oliver Milbrook didn't show up until the third episode but they were mentioned a lot in the pilot. (They were played by Lee Patrick and Will Wright. Ms. Patrick was just getting warmed up for her later 'Topper' role.) Best of all, character actor Clinton Sundberg proved to be a great foil as Winston Tattersall, the campaign manager who was going to be Francis Milbrook's chief of staff down in Washington. (We never do learn what district Milbrook is supposedly representing.)
Winston sees Frank Morgan's character as a potential rival and is always trying to dig up some dirt on him.
There are two running routines throughout all three episodes: one is that Frank always calls Winston Tattersall "Winnie" which causes no end of frustration for Clinton Sundberg. The other is that no matter when a picture is taken in which "Franklin Pynge Salter" should show up, somehow he's never caught off-guard and always finds a way to hide his identity from the camera. (The funny thing was that it reminded me of last week's episode of 'How I Met Your Mother' in which no matter what situation, there was no way to take a bad picture of Barney Stimson. It also reminded me of how 'Bret Maverick' did everything he could to avoid getting his picture taken, at least in the sequel.) Oh, there was another special guest star in that pilot episode; at least, I think so - he certainly didn't get any credit! I think it was the Lassie then "acting" in the movies who appeared as Jib's collie Silky.
The second episode is "Running For Office Space" and is all about the family's move to Washington DC. And thanks to Frank Martin's con man skills, he's able to snare the best office of all in the Capitol for his son, even though he's a freshman Congressman.
Leo G. Carroll is the episode's guest star as a slightly befuddled old lion of Congress who can't quite ever fathom what this "Franklin Pynge Salter" is all about. But thanks to the intervention of old Frankie Pinch O' Salt, Francis Milbrook becomes a co-sponsor on a bill that Congressman Weatherby had been pushing for years. Not only that, he sees it get passed with a majority.
Oh, and Zasu Pitts has a cameo as a slightly flustered protestor outside the Capitol who doesn't know what to do with herself once the bill, which she also championed, finally gets passed.
The third episode is "A Little Something On The Side". A nosy reporter played by Arnold Stang gets the idea that there must be something to the fact that both "Franklin Salter" and Francis Milbrook both have similar first names. But by the time the episode ends, it's stuffy stepfather Oliver who's suspected of being Frank Jr.'s actual father and that Eleanor was having an affair with him before her husband's death. The situation gets so escalated that eventually Arnold Stang's reporter is accusing Oliver of killing Frank Morgan's character back in the day. And it's only Frankie Pinch O' Salt's crafty shenanigans that gets them all out of hot water without revealing who he really is. (Frankly I'm surprised that for those times the topic was even attempted in the sitcom.)
Sadly, on the night before they were to start filming the fourth episode of 'The Frank Morgan Show', the actor unexpectedly suffered a major heart attack in Beverly Hills. This was on September 18, 1949, and the show was supposed to premiere the following week on NBC. I'm not sure if these three episodes aired or not - 'The Frank Morgan Show' was supposed to air on Wednesday nights at 8 pm before 'The Clock', and the replacement show, 'The Crisis', didn't premiere until October. So it is pozz'ble.....
All that remains of that last episode is a publicity picture of Morgan and the actors who played his son and daughter-in-law, with a menacing George Macready. (If I'm not mistaken, he was to play a determined FBI agent egged on by Clinton Sundberg's character of "Winnie" Tattersall to find the dirt on Frank Martin.
The production quality on the surviving recordings is not all that could be hoped for, but at least they were able to bring Frank Morgan into Toobworld. And on the pilot Nat Hiken was given credit for the story - considering his work years later with 'Sgt. Bilko', I'm not surprised, because that monologue which "Franklin Pynge Salter" delivers to rally the troops had bits of Phil Silvers all over it.
Normally, I would be surprised by the lack of any information on this series in the IMDb, but we all know how reliable THAT is! In fact, that Robert Culp program I went to see, "Land Of The Free" with Burgess Meredith isn't listed either......
So that was my day, a day like any other, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. And today will always be one I cherish.....