Television

'The Jimmy Stewart Show' Emerges from TV's Never-Never Land

This is a traditional family sitcom, which means it's not funny.


The Jimmy Stewart Show

Distributor: Warner Archive
Cast: James Stewart, Julie Adams
Network: NBC
US release date: 2014-01-23
Amazon

Cinema icon James Stewart starred in two one-season TV shows in the '70s. The second was the mystery series Hawkins. The first, now available on demand through Warner Archive, is The Jimmy Stewart Show, which aired to no particular acclaim on NBC during the 1971-72 season.

This is a traditional family sitcom, which means it's not funny. The comic content of such shows aims for mild amusement at best, with some precocious remarks from children over here, some suffering asides from the paterfamilias over there. This gentle species of sitcom wants to generate a warm, affirmative feeling. Their dominant tone is one of order and harmony no matter what minor bumps the plot might throw up temporarily. The funny sitcoms emphasize chaos and disorder, and only a few subversive examples use the family format for that, e.g., All in the Family, Malcolm in the Middle and The Simpsons.

That said, The Jimmy Stewart Show is unusual in a couple of ways. As with Malcolm in the middle, or the father in the brilliant My World and Welcome to It, Stewart addresses the viewer. He opens each episode by giving us the title and telling us he's Jim Stewart, milking the folksy confusion of his late-model persona, and he closes by hoping we'll come back next week and, moderating his pauses and dropping to a warmer octave, wishes us peace and love and laughter. In a few episodes, he talks to the camera throughout, and the other characters notice but think he's talking to himself.

Most odd is the fact that this series is shot on backlots and sets, rather than being videotaped before an audience, and yet there's not a trace of any burbling laughtrack to cue our chuckles. This is so unusual for the period, I thought it was illegal. To make up for the lack of laugh tracks, Jeff Alexander's music jumps in with punchline whimsies.

Stewart plays Prof. James K. Howard, who teaches at Josiah Kessel College in Easy Valley, California. His subject is anthropology, although this show knows better than to waste much valuable time in the classroom just because of what its hero does for a living. Professor Howard manages to get through all 24 episodes without uttering more than half a dozen anthropological sentences. Similarly, the Nobel-winning chemistry prof, Dr. Luther Quince (John McIver), never says anything chemical. He just shows up to strike patrician poses and utter acerbic remarks in his role as the best friend. In other words, he gets the best lines.

Howard's middle initial is for Kessel, since Josiah Kessel was his grandfather. As Howard tells the audience in the first episode, Kessel made money running whiskey and grub-staking for Gold Rushers, and he founded the college for vanity. Stewart plays Kessel in the flashback, and as a nice in-joke, his wife Gloria Stewart appears as Mrs. Kessel. When she hears how many millions he has to fritter on a college, she asks "Then why am I darning your underwear?" He replies, "Because, woman, they's holes in 'em!" A few more Kessel flashbacks show up over the course of the series.

As for Howard's own family, we have a typically beautiful, level-headed, bland-ish TV wife in Martha Howard, played by Julie Adams. We're told they've been married 30 years. I know this is TV, but Stewart was in his 60s and Adams about 45, which implies she got hitched at 15. Of course we assume she's playing a few years older, but she sure doesn't look it. Martha's supposedly active in this or that and she's continually painting Quince's portrait, which we finally see in a late episode.

James and Martha have two sons, and here's where it gets complicated. The 29-year-old is Peter or P.J. Howard, Sr. (Jonathan Daly, shouting his lines to the cheap seats), who owns Easy Valley Construction Company, where his pretty and perky wife, Wendy (Ellen Geer), assists him. They have an eight-year-old son, P.J. Jr., who's usually just called Jake (Kirby Furlong).

In a curious bit of synchronicity, James and Martha have a second son, also age eight, called Theodore or Teddy (Dennis Larson). He's the same age as his nephew, and the two bicker about what they should call each other and who deserves the most respect. It's "cute" in a tiresome way. Teddy tends to pierce his lines while Jake mopes them.

In the first episode, James inadvertently burns down his son's house (offscreen) when he falls asleep with a cigar (which he doesn't normally smoke) while babysitting Jake and grading tests. This contrives the necessity of all three generations having to share James and Martha's roof until a new house is built or bought. This is the "sit" of this sitcom.

After some prickly relations between father and son for a few episodes, everyone settles in without making a move to leave, and thus the show explains what, for a period in postwar America, was the unusual situation of three generations of a middle-class family living under one roof. This is assumed to be an unusual middle-class fantasy, or at least TV thought so. The very poor and very rich always lived under one roof, but the middle class was expected to "leave the nest" and get a mortgage. When things happen to the middle class (such as the next generation not leaving the house), it becomes a trend worthy of comment in the news, since this class has never grasped its status as a recent historical anomaly. To the show's credit, there's one episode where the anthropological Howard points out that it used to be normal for generations to occupy the same house while Quince reminds him that this is the 20th century.

The show is created and produced and frequently scripted by Hal Kanter, an illustrious figure in TV comedy. His writing credits for Ed Wynn, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, George Gobel, and Danny Kaye go back to the '50s, and he wrote Stewart's feature Dear Brigitte. He created and produced Julia, a gentle sitcom that offered a progressive image of an African-American middle-class single mom (Diahann Carroll) in a largely white middle-class context.

A few years after producing this equally gentle series for Stewart, Kanter would produce the more raucous and topical Chico and the Man (in which cool young Freddie Prinze and grouchy old Jack Albertson argue a lot) and even briefly become an executive producer of All in the Family, diametrically opposed in concept to the warm, feel-good sitcoms like this one.

The series is anodyne and occasionally soothing in its friendly, reassuring drivel. The most tiresome episodes involve some unbelievable crisis that leads to unbelievable arguments. One embarrassing example is the episode where a mini-skirted student makes a pass at Professor Howard (she must really be failing her class) and causes a kerfluffle.

The mildly topical asides are wince-worthy, with Stewart making a few put-upon remarks about such hot issues as student protests and women's lib. That last is almost a rocky undercurrent; aside from Howard's perfect wife, the show's women are middle-aged busybodies or lovely young students. The pushy women really set Howard off. The show reveals its alliance with a presumed older conservative audience that's supposedly interested in watching Stewart, not that they proved it by tuning in.

A revealing note of the times: Howard's skepticism of the modern world includes resisting local industrial development, which would eat up the landscape and cause pollution. This is another highly topical element and a literally conservative (or conservationist) one rooted in rural and small-town nostalgia. Today it's called tree-hugging, and conservative politics has no truck with it. There's even a whole episode on that new-fangled trend called recycling. Howard also comes out in favor of treating children with respect instead of using humiliation as discipline.

A notable episode is "The Identity Crisis", in which Beulah Bondi plays Mother Howard, who lives elegantly in San Francisco. Film buffs and Stewart fans knew she'd played his mother in several films, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Nor is that the only "guest relative" episode. Will Geer of The Waltons (father of series regular Ellen Geer) shows up as Professor Howard's intrusive and yarn-spinning Uncle Everett ("A Bunk for Unc"), and Ruth Hussey (who appeared with Stewart in The Philadelphia Story ) is Martha's aunt Lydia Harper ("Aunts in My Plans"), who briefly captures Luther Quince's heart in a grand passion he'll never mention again.

As the series drifts gently on, some characters recur a few times as window dressing. There's Mrs. Jo Bullard (veteran character actress Mary Wickes), pushy president of the Women's Action Group, or W.A.G.; Agatha Dwiggins (Jeff Donnell), a more scatterbrained busybody of the same group; an overweight student and football hero named Dimitri Karpopolis (Richard Annis); students Janice Morton (Kate Jackson, later one of Charlie's Angels ), Norman Lansworth (Lou Manor) and Ida Levin (Melissa Newman); local businessman Fred Shimmel (Rickie Layne); and Woodrow Yamada (Jack Soo), the chatty milkman. We defy anyone to name the early '70s town where they still had milkmen, but it's original casting.

Cesar Romero was a special guest as a visiting businessman for "A Hunch in Time", and they liked him so much that he came back for a different role in the final episode as the obtuse and egotistical founder of a fast-food chain whose development is held up by the discovery of historic bones. As per his persona, Prof. Howard is on the side of preserving the past while his son favors the exigencies of capitalism.

In "Price Is Right", Vincent Price shows up as himself to judge the local art show, where we finally see Martha's painting of Luther Quince. Other notable guests on the series include Alan Oppenheimer, M. Emmet Walsh, Pat Buttram, Nita Talbot, Hal Williams, Jackie Coogan, Doodles Weaver, Jack Dodson, Gloria DeHaven, William Windom, Arthur O'Connell, Regis Philbin, Rolfe Sedan, and Lurene Tuttle.

When I first looked up this series on IMDB, many of the guest listings were incomplete. I took the liberty of adding some as I watched and filling out character names. Somebody had added Frank Baker as the uncredited, non-speaking role of the white-bearded professor who appears as coloring in a few episodes; I wonder if it was a relative of Mr. Baker. When I checked back later, the incomplete listings had been completed as per the credits (some other helpful person watching this DVD set, no doubt), but Baker's credits were removed. They also don't clarify that some regulars don't always appear in every episode. Such is the transient nature of knowledge, especially on parts of the internet.

Kanter wrote most of the episodes, with contributions from Fred S. Fox, Seaman Jacobs, John Lee Mahin, Max Wilk, and others. Christian Nyby and Ezra Stone divided the directing chores, with two episodes directed by Kanter and one each from Richard Lang and Bernard Wiesen.

Kanter worked with something of regular company. Co-producer Bernard Wiesen had been on Julia. Composer Jeff Alexander and photographer Harold E. Stine not only worked on that show but even went back to an earlier Kanter series, Valentine's Day (1964-65) with Anthony Franciosa as a swinging bachelor and Jack Soo (the one who shows up here as the milkman) as his conniving valet/buddy. Where the heck is that show?

Since both Julia and Valentine's Day were produced by 20th Century Fox, they won't be forthcoming from Warner Archive's on-demand service and I guess we'll have to whistle for them. Yes, there are many more interesting forgotten sitcoms still rotting in vaults, but at least this show got out for fans of Stewart and the soothing nostalgia of TV's never-never lands.

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