Myrna Loy on Family Affair (1967)

This post is part of the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon hosted by Aurora of the How Sweet It Was blog. Be sure to check out the many posts from other bloggers.  I can’t wait to read them all, myself!

family affairFor those of you who may not be familiar with it, Family Affair was a sitcom that aired on CBS from 1966 to 1971.  It’s the story of the three orphaned Davis children — teenager Cissy (Kathy Garver) and young twins Buffy (Anissa Jones) and Jody (Johnny Whitaker) who come to live with their bachelor uncle, civil engineer Bill Davis (Brian Keith) and Bill’s proper English gentleman’s gentleman Giles French (Sebastian Cabot).

Family Affair is far from the best sitcom of the 1960s.  The storylines were never too original.  The younger children, while adorable, could be a bit hammy at times.  Production values weren’t always the greatest — the fake New York City skyline outside the Davises’ apartment patio, for example, and the astroturf grass and plastic flowers in Central Park, where the children often played under Mr. French’s watchful eye.

None of that matters to me, though.  The show has a charm and sweetness that I really like.  Of all the many TV shows featuring children who lost one or both parents, like Bachelor Father, The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, and even The Andy Griffith Show, none dealt as directly and as movingly with the kids’ ongoing feelings of loss and grief the way Family Affair did throughout its five season run.  For all its silly storylines and frequent corniness, Family Affair family affair pichad a huge heart and a loving gentleness I can’t help admiring.

Plus, those kids really were cute, and Brian Keith’s interactions with all three of them were always wonderful, even in the later seasons when it felt like he’d mentally checked out of the show in other respects.  And Sebastian Cabot was never less than perfect and amusing as the stuffy Mr. French.  Watching him go from barely tolerating the children to loving them like a parent is one of the best things about the series.

Unfortunately, however, Sebastian Cabot wasn’t in today’s episode, season one’s “A Helping Hand.”  For a period during the first season Cabot was ill and the wonderful John Williams (Sabrina, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief) filled in as Giles French’s brother Nigel, who takes charge of the Davis household when Giles is summoned back into temporary service by Queen Elizabeth II.  Yep, he’s just that good a butler!  And yet he works for Bill Davis and the three children, a much less prestigious assignment I’m sure you’d agree.  That’s love!

As the episode begins, Buffy and Jody are working on a school project — building a model of McKenzie Dam.  Realistically, I don’t think kindergartners would be assigned a project like that, but it works for the storyline, so let’s just go with it.  Things aren’t going well — the dam won’t stay together and the children are discouraged.

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They tell Uncle Bill about it when he gets home from work and he volunteers to help them out.  Not that night, though — he’s throwing a dinner party, and Cissy is going to be his hostess.

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I love Cissy’s quilted bathrobe. Seems like every girl had one of those in the ’60s!

Mr. French has hired a maid from an agency to help him with the party.   (Giles French could’ve handled it alone, with one hand tied behind his back, but maybe that’s my preference for the “real” Mr. French coming through!)  The maid, Adele Prentiss, arrives at the servants’ entrance, and who should she be but the one and only Myrna Loy!

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The first time I saw this episode I did a double take.  I just couldn’t believe someone I considered one of the greatest movie stars of all time would be guest starring on lowly little Family Affair.  A 61-year-old actress has to pay the bills, however.  And actually quite a few greats from the good old days guest starred on the show, among them Dana Andrews, Ann Sothern, Martha Hyer, and Joan Blondell.

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Adele is running late and comes in full of excuses — she forgot to wind her watch so she didn’t know what time it was, plus the bus driver failed to announce her stop and she missed it.  Mr. French is less than impressed, but he puts her to work.  It does not go well.  She melts the chilled shrimp by putting the platter next to a steaming teakettle and makes a mess while trying to whip cream.

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image018Mr. French is not amused.  “Sabotage!” he exclaims, then proceeds to tell the hapless Adele that her services are no longer required.  In fact he can’t understand why the agency sent her in the first place, as incompetent as she is.

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Adele admits that she lied to the agency just to get the job.  She’s been out of work and this was her last hope of finding employment.  She’s so pitiful and sad that Mr. French relents and allows her to stay and finish the assignment.  Things go well enough that soon Bill’s neighbor offers her a job as their cook/housekeeper.

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See what I mean about the city skyline? It’s so delightfully fake.

Adele accepts the position.  Who cares if she doesn’t know what she’s doing?  She has Mr. French right there in the building to help out, after all.  She runs to him for help when the dishwasher goes haywire, covering her and her kitchen with suds…

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and while he’s downstairs helping her, his scones burn and the kitchen fills with smoke.

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Later Adele skips her cooking lesson with Mr. French, claiming she was too exhausted after the dishwasher incident and just had to take a rest.  She helps herself to one of the two dishes of curried chicken he’s prepared, planning to serve it to her new employers for dinner.

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Corningware’s “Blue Cornflower” design. Nothing says ’60s quite like that!

Adele returns soon afterwards, crying.  The dogs ate the curried chicken and she has nothing to serve!  Mr. French wouldn’t mind if she took the dish he made for the Davises’ dinner, would he?  After all, Mr. Davis is a kind man, he wouldn’t want her to lose her job.  Once again, French caves in at the sight of Adele’s tears.

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Meanwhile, Buffy and Jody rush to meet Uncle Bill when he comes home from work.  They have some new cardboard and glue and are ready to work with him on building their model dam.  Bill tells them not to worry about it.  He has it covered and they can just help him with the finishing touches.  The kids are puzzled, but they go along.

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The next day Bill runs into his neighbor, who tells him what an absolute treasure Adele is.  She makes the best curried chicken!  She wishes he could’ve tasted it himself.  Bill, who missed out on his favorite dish the night before and was stuck eating omelettes and frozen dinners instead, wishes he could’ve tasted it, too.

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Bill brings home the model dam he and his fellow engineers made down at the office.  The kids can hardly believe their eyes!  They seem dubious about turning in something they didn’t work on at all, but clueless new parent Bill thinks he’s done them a big favor.

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Soon both Mr. French and Bill find out that no good deed goes unpunished.  First Adele storms in and returns some cookbooks to Mr. French.  When he failed to help her with her bosses’ dinner party the night before, the whole thing was a disaster.  She ended up serving hamburgers and spaghetti, setting the kitchen on fire, and getting fired.  She’s livid that Mr. French convinced her to take the job.  You just can’t rely on men!

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Next, Uncle Bill gets a note from Buffy and Jody’s teacher, telling him in no uncertain terms that while it’s fine to encourage and guide your children, the work needs to be their own, not contracted out to the civil engineering firm of Davis and Associates.

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Bill and Mr. French decide they’ve had enough of getting involved with other people’s problems.  From now on everyone is on their own.  Just then Cissy runs back into the room and tells her uncle that the kids understand why he built the model for them.  It’s because he loves them and cares enough to get involved.  She says she admires Mr. French for trying to help Adele, too.  Too many people these days just look away from others, but not them, making a home for her and the children and really caring.

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So much for their new life philosophy.  Bill cancels his plans to go out for dinner, and instead says he’ll be staying home to oversee Buffy and Jody while they do the model dam project themselves.  Mr. French volunteers to help.  It’s a very sweet moment.  That’s the thing about Family Affair – it’s a show with a lot of heart.  Unfortunately, this particular episode wasn’t one with a lot of laughs to go with all that heart.  It was mildly amusing at best.

As for Myrna Loy, hers seemed like a fairly thankless role, playing a somewhat unlikeable character who used Mr. French and then blamed him when things went wrong.  Still, it was fun to see her at all, since her movie career was more or less over by this time and she wasn’t doing much TV either.  One of the best things about watching television from the ’60s through ’80s is catching glimpses of classic movie stars on the small screen, after all, as the other Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon participants will no doubt agree!

Montgomery Clift Linkfest

A few Monty-themed links from around the Internet…

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Self-Styled Siren writes insightfully On the Manliness of Montgomery Clift.  I love this essay and agree with every word.

It’s often observed that the post-war Method actors redefined masculinity. It is more precise to say that Montgomery Clift (who was not entirely a Method actor anyway) expanded the definition. Forever afterward, a man on screen would seem half-formed if the actor could not suggest some sort of inner life, no matter how much derring-do was shown. And exposing that inner life takes nerve, nerve that Clift had in abundance. Rosalind Russell said “acting is standing up naked and turning around slowly.” Showing yourself naked doesn’t sound so bad–but the Siren wouldn’t do it. You probably wouldn’t. John Wayne wouldn’t have either. Montgomery Clift did, in every role he ever played.

And if that isn’t manly, the Siren would like to know what is.

The ever-marvelous Sheila O’Malley’s birthday tribute, an epic post full of quotes about and from Montgomery Clift.

From The Hairpin’s Anne Helen Peterson, Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Long Suicide of Montgomery Clift. Peterson’s series can be a little sensationalistic, as the “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” title would suggest, but the pieces are invariably interesting, as this one is.  She knows how to pierce my Monty-loving heart, that’s for sure!

Clift once told someone that the closer we come to death, the more we blossom. He took himself to that precipice, but he fell straight in. And so he remains, frozen in the popular imagination, circa From Here to Eternity – those high cheekbones, that set jaw, the firm stare: a magnificent, proud, tragically broken thing to behold.

From Vanity Fair, “a long-forgotten trove of the actor’s personal photos has recently surfaced in the archives of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Bequeathed to the library soon after Clift’s untimely death in 1966, at the age of 45, the scrapbooks and portraits of fellow stars reveal Clift’s gift with a lens. The N.Y.P.L.’s treasure chest also houses previously unpublished photos taken of Clift throughout his life and career.”

I especially like this picture Monty took of his Lonelyhearts co-star and dear friend, Myrna Loy.

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Myrna Loy, photograph by Montgomery Clift

These Life magazine photos of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on the Paramount lot during the filming of 1950’s A Place in the Sun are quite simply stunning.  They were two stars at the height of their beauty and the beginning of their lifelong friendship.  The playfulness and intimacy between Monty and the girl he called Bessie Mae are very apparent in these shots.

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Monty and his Bessie Mae

Clift Notes – a Tumblr featuring lots and lots of photos and GIFs of Montgomery Clift.  Because sometimes you just want to enjoy the pretty!

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Hellooooo Monty!

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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At the end of my long and movie-filled holiday break, I finally got around to seeing director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie that had been on my “to watch” list for many years.  Talk about ending my vacation on a high note!  The film is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the story of three WWII veterans who return to their midwestern hometown after the war, and their difficulties readjusting to life with their families, friends and jobs after years away.

Myrna-Loy-and-Fredrich-March-in-The-Best-Years-of-Our-Lives-1946Fredric March plays a middle-aged banker who served as an infantry sergeant in the Pacific and returns to his lovely, understanding wife (Myrna Loy) and two children (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall) who’ve grown up in his absence. In spite of all he has, he struggles to acclimate to the life and career he knew before.  He feels he no longer knows his children, chafes against the rules and regulations of the bank at which he works, and copes with his post-war trauma and uncertainty by drinking a great deal more than he should.

Dana Andrews gives a charismatic and nuanced performance as a guy who was a soda jerk from the wrong side of the tracks prior to the war, but who in the service became a captain and a decorated bombardier. All he wants is to return dana andrews & virginia mayo - the best years of our lives 1946to his wife (Virgina Mayo), find a good job, and move to the suburbs. Unfortunately the shallow woman he married after a brief wartime romance is unimpressed with him now that he’s not a glamorous army flier, and jobs for men with the skills he gained in the service are hard to come by now that planes are being decommissioned and nobody’s dropping bombs.  That Dana Andrews wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award for this role is an absolute travesty.  To me his was the most fascinating character in the film – a man whose wartime opportunities allowed him to escape a poverty-stricken upbringing and become a success, however briefly.  Seeing him come crashing back to earth when post-war realities set in is heartbreaking.

harold russell & hoagy carmichael - the best years of our lives 1946Harold Russell, a disabled WWII veteran who’d never acted prior to this movie and turns in a memorable and touching performance, plays a sailor who lost both hands in an explosion and fire.  Although he’s learned how to cope with the physical side of his injuries quite well, lighting matches, dressing, and even shooting targets using his new prosthetic hooks, the emotional repercussions of his loss are harder to shake off.  He can’t stand to be pitied by those he loves, and pushes his family away in an effort not to be a burden.

Every performance and storyline in the movie is pitch-perfect and honest. It’s not melodramatic or emotionally manipulative, and it doesn’t particularly try to be a tearjerker. The emotion comes from seeing these decent if imperfect men deal with displacement, awkwardness, and post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the war, and from seeing their loved ones also come to grips with their return and the fact that the men they’re welcoming home aren’t quite the ones they sent away years before.

There are many memorable scenes in the movie: the three vets flying home in the nose of an army plane, looking down at the country they fought for; Fredric March reuniting with Myrna Loy; Teresa Wright gently and matter-of-factteresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946ly calming Dana Andrews after a nightmare; Harold Russell letting his sweet, girl-next-door fiancee (Cathy O’Donnell) see just how helpless his disability has made him; Dana Andrews walking through a graveyard of decommissioned planes, climbing into one as he tries get the past out of his system. The movie is full of moments that are honest, warm, heartrending and hopeful, and the characters are such real people that you grow to love them.

In spite of The Best Years of Our Lives being on lists of the greatest movies ever made, a winner of multiple Oscars and starring actors I like, I’d put off watching it for years. For one thing, I knew it would make me cry, and for another it’s almost three hours long and these days my attention span isn’t what it used to be. I shouldn’t have avoided it for so long, though! The tears I shed were worth it, and the movie was so engrossing that three hours sped by in a flash. In fact, I watched it a second time later that week and felt I got even more out of it with a repeat viewing.  I can’t say enough good things about this film.

The Best Years of Our Lives is available on DVD and airs on TCM February 26th and March 19th.  I highly recommend checking out this very special movie if you haven’t seen it before.  Don’t wait years and years like I did!

Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Amelia Earhart, 1934

This is so cool!  No doubt it’s a publicity photo for the Grant/Loy aviation drama Wings in the Dark, which I watched recently and talk about here.

I don’t know why, but this picture blows my mind a little.  Amelia Earhart, my girlhood idol, with Cary Grant, my idol of all time.  I get really geekily excited when I come across things like this.  No wonder Myrna Loy was so believable playing a daring aviatrix in Wings in the Dark – she’d met the real thing!

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