Saturday, July 16, 2016

Stubs – Our Miss Brooks

Our Miss Brooks (1956) Starring Eve Arden, Gale Gordon, Don Porter, Robert Rockwell, Jane Morgan, Richard Crenna, Leonard Smith, Gloria MacMillan and Nick Adams. Directed by Al Lewis. Screenplay by Al Lewis and Joseph Quinlan. Based on the CBS Television Program Series: Our Miss Brooks. Produced by David Weisbrat. Black and White. USA. Comedy.

While Eve Arden is wonderful in Mildred Pierce (1945) as Ida Corwin, Mildred’s boss turned assistant, the role she will always be associated with is Connie Brooks, sarcastic and single English teacher at fictional Madison High School. This is a part she originated on radio back in 1948. Our Miss Brooks, the radio series, was a great success and ran for 190 episodes until 1957, outlasting the television show of the same name.

Still on radio, the show was also produced for television, by Desilu Productions, with mostly the same cast. The television show, which had a run of 130 episodes, was broadcast on CBS from 1952 to 1956. TV Our Miss Brooks utilized many of the scripts and ideas already done on the radio.

The same year as the television show was cancelled; Warner Brothers released Our Miss Brooks, the film. Warner Brothers had earlier released a film version of Jack Webb’s radio-television series, Dragnet (1954), and was willing to take a chance on Our Miss Brooks.

The film version is sort of like the origin story of Our Miss Brooks and you have to wonder if they were originally anticipating making more than just one of these films. There is no need to have heard the radio show or to have seen the television version to understand the story, since it starts at the very beginning of Miss Constance Brooks (Eve Arden) arriving in a fictional Midwest town as the new English teacher at Madison High School.

Constance Brooks (Eve Arden) arrives in town. (Thanks gettyimages.)

From the train station she walks to the address in an ad she’s circled, placed by Mrs. Margaret Davis (Jane Morgan), looking for a boarder. When Connie gets to the house she rings the bell, but instead of answering the door, Margaret picks up the phone. Connie hears her through the front door and the two have a conversation with Connie on the porch and Margaret on the phone in her foyer. When Connie tells her she wants to see the room, Margaret invites her over.

This time, Connie knocks on the door and Margaret answers, impressed by her promptness. She shows Connie the room after passing the test of getting along with Minerva, Mrs. Davis’ pet cat. As an afterthought, Mrs. Davis shows Connie the view, which is a “cottage” across the street. This starts Eve to imagining herself married and living there. The only problem is who will she marry?

Miss Brooks passes Margaret Davis' (Jane Morgan) test when her cat Minerva likes her.

The answer presents himself the next day at Madison High School. On her first day, Connie is being shown around by Fabian “Stretch” Snodgrass (Leonard Smith), a long-time student at Madison, when she sees a shirtless man exercising on the lawn. Excusing herself from Stretch’s tour, Connie introduces herself to Mr. Phil Boynton (Robert Rockwell). Phil is also new to Madison and a biology teacher. When she sees him, Connie fantasizes that he’s the man with the cottage.

"Stretch" (Leonard Smith) shows Miss Brooks around the campus.

Her flights of fancy are interrupted by the arrival of Principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon). He reminds his two new teachers that he’s a stickler for the rule, which includes no on campus fraternization between teachers. A former military man, Conklin demands punctuality.

Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon) is the principal at Madison High School.

It isn’t long before Connie and Phil are dating. She tells us that they regularly meet at the zoo. After eight months of that, Phil is finally willing to take her for a walk in public. When Connie makes a point of showing him a bride’s gown in a store display window, it isn’t long before they’re back to feeding the elephants. Phil even comments on how big one of them has grown since they started coming.

At school Connie is having trouble reaching one of her students, Gary Nolan (Nick Adams), who is failing her English class. She is summoned by Gary’s widowed father, Lawrence (Don Porter), who is the publisher of the city’s newspaper and a real stuffed shirt, to his house to explain why she’s failing his son. While the two get off to a rocky-start, Lawrence comes to understand that not all the blame is Connie’s fault. She agrees to tutor Gary, turning down money for the love of teaching.

Connie seems to reach all of her students, save one.

Meanwhile, Phil confesses his feelings for Connie to Mrs. Davis. He tells her that if can save some money and provide Connie with financial security, he will ask her to marry him. And Mrs. Davis promises to keep this a secret, which she does until Connie comes home. Using playing cards to read Connie’s future, she tells her everything Phil had told her.

Back at school, Mr. Stone (Joseph Kearns), the school superintendent, criticizes Conklin for his tight grip on the school. He tells Conklin that if he could, he would dismiss him, but apparently Conklin has his supporters on the school board. But he promises, if he’s elected to a new position, the coordinator of education, he will be sure to get Conklin ousted.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Conklin decides to run for the new position himself and asks/tells Connie that she will be his campaign manager. She tries to tell him that she’s too busy, since she’s tutoring the Nolan boy. When Conklin realizes the father is the newspaper publisher, he turns up the pressure on Connie, Conklin strongly hinting that if he gets elected he’ll be sure to make Phil the new principal at Madison. And further, the pay raise might make Phil feel like settling down. Explained that way, Connie agrees.

Connie manages to get the students to support Conklin by telling them they would be rid of him as a result. She unveils for them her campaign slogan, "Get Mr. Conklin into public office and out of Madison."

The tutoring is going better, as Gary starts to come around. Connie assigns him to write stories for the school paper and Lawrence encourages his son by reprinting some of the articles in his paper. Lawrence also starts to feel romantically about Connie. Lawrence decides to take Gary out on their yacht and invites Connie to go along. She declines, citing her plans with Phil as an excuse.

Pleased with her tutoring of his son, Gary (Nick Adams), and finding her attractive,
 Lawrence Nolan (Don Porter) asks Connie out on his yacht.

But Phil is feeling neglected and breaks off their date out of spite. With her schedule freed up, Connie takes up the Nolans on their offer. Mrs. Davis hurries to tell Phil that he might lose Connie if he doesn’t try to stop them. Borrowing Walter Denton’s (Richard Crenna) jalopy, Phil takes off. Despite a flat tire, Phil makes it to the shore. While he tries to take a motorboat, he ends up rowing out to the yacht.

Phil Boynton (Robert Rockwell) breaks his date with Connie out of spite.

Out on the boat, Gary swims while Lawrence makes his play for Connie. When Gary goes down below to take a nap, Lawrence makes his intentions known, but Connie does not commit. Phil shows up in the nick of time, rowing up alongside the boat. While trying to board the yacht, Phil falls into the water. Lawrence pulls him out of the water. Phil realizes that there is nothing going on, since Gary is also on board, and feels ridiculous for over-reacting. Lawrence sends him down below to change into dry clothes.

No sooner has Phil gone below deck, than Osgood rows up and also falls into the water. Osgood makes a play for Nolan’s help, promising that helping him would allow Lawrence to work with Connie. Lawrence eagerly agrees to help Osgood.

After driving Connie home, Phil admits to Connie that he has nothing to offer her in comparison with the wealthy Nolan. Phil is about to walk away, when Connie suggests, "the best defense is a good offense." It takes Phil a second to realize what’s she’s talking about and then he kisses her passionately.

Later, Mrs. Davis invites Phil to dinner, but he is called out of town. His mother is ailing, but there is nothing physically wrong with her. The doctor informs Phil that his mother, Mrs. Boynton, suffers from loneliness and he encourages Phil to try and make room for her.

Phil confesses to Mrs. Davis his true feelings for Connie.

Back in Madison, Phil sees the cottage near Mrs. Davis’ and calls to make an offer on it. At that moment, Connie is in the realtor’s office making a payment for Mrs. Davis. She overhears the conversation and overhears the realtor mention "Mrs. Boynton," and jumps to the conclusion that a marriage proposal is forthcoming.

Gary is actually working at the newspaper when Connie shows up to tell his father that she’s going to marry Phil. Lawrence takes the news very well and wishes her all the best. Out in the office, the new, young and pretty Miss Lonelyhearts (June Blair) is getting a lot of attention from the male writers on the paper.

Still thinking she will be moving into the cottage, Connie shows up with wallpaper swatches. In every room of the house, she fantasizes about her future life there with Phil. Her daydreaming is shattered when Phil actually shows up and informs her that he is buying the house so he can live with his mother. Heartbroken, Connie leaves in tears.

Mrs. Davis senses Connie’s pain and goes to visit Mrs. Boynton, whom she’d met before.

At school, Connie informs Conklin that she wants to resign. He wants her to think about it before doing something rash. While she’s in the office, Stone come in. With the help of the newspaper and some publicity stunts, Conklin is leading in the ratings. But he resigns from the race when Stone, who has a successful insurance business, informs him that the new position only pays $500 a year.

At the newspaper, Gary takes the story from Conklin and informs his father of his withdrawl from the race. Just then, Miss Lonelyhearts brings in her copy. Lawrence, with Gary’s encouragement, leaves to ask her out.

When Connie comes home from school, she learns that Mrs. Boynton is moving in with Mrs. Davis, who had used playing cards to show her how much her son was in love with Connie and Connie in love with Phil. Since Phil is shy, she knew little about their romance until Mrs. Davis told her.

Suddenly touched by Phil's kindness to his mother, Connie seeks him out at the zoo. This time it’s Phil’s turn to fantasize and he sees Connie standing in front of the cottage. They walk off arm in arm with marriage in the offing.

The proposed marriage at the end was a bit of a departure from the radio and television series, but serves to wrap up Miss Brook’s story with the happy ending the character had been wanting and waiting for. In today’s terminology, this is an alternative story in an Our Miss Brooks Multiverse.

Overall, Our Miss Brooks, the movie, has more meat on its bones than the usual radio or television show. (I’ve seen Our Miss Brooks in reruns and have heard the radio show before thanks to Radio Classics on Sirius radio.) Not only is the storytelling unencumbered by the normal two act sitcom with commercials writing style of the times, but they are get a little more in depth on what were most likely already familiar characters to the audience that went to see the film when it first ran. The filmic treatment works well, no doubt aided by a cast and creative staff that was already very familiar with the produce.

While it would be easy for everyone in the cast to go through the motions, having already played these characters 100s of times, no one seems to. Their performances seem fresh and enthusiastic.

Eve Arden first garnered attention thanks to her role in Stage Door (1937) as the fast-talking Eve, opposite the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball. That role would be a template for many of her subsequent roles, including her part in Mildred Pierce. Along the way, Arden would also appear in the Marx Bros. film At the Circus (1939). It was her ability with comedy that got her onto the radio, appearing as a regular on Danny Kaye’s short-lived radio series in 1946. That role got her the part she would be forever associated with, Constance Brooks. Her career would continue on after Our Miss Brooks ended with a memorable role as James Stewart’s sarcastic secretary in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and the role as the school Principal in Grease (1978) and Grease 2 (1982). While Arden never played Miss Brooks again, she is quoted as saying she considered that role as Constance finally moving up in School Administration.

Gale Gordon is probably best known for his work with Lucille Ball on radio and television. He played her husband on My Favorite Husband, a Lucy radio show that would be a precursor to her megahit television show, I Love Lucy. Even though her real life husband, Desi Arnaz, would play her husband on TV, Gordon was the first choice to play Fred Mertz. But Gordon was already committed to Our Miss Brooks, so William Frawley landed the role. Gordon would appear in all three of Lucy’s post I Love Lucy TV sitcoms: The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy and the short-lived 80’s sit com, Life with Lucy. Here he’s a strict disciplinarian played for laughs.

It seems to me that Richard Crenna’s role as Walter Denton is really reduced here. He, too, is a little old for the part. Crenna was about 30 when the film was made, playing a high school student. (No wonder teenagers in older movies seem to look so mature.) After Our Miss Brooks, he would star in The Real McCoys, a sitcom that ran from 1957 to 1963 on ABC and CBS. He would do a lot of TV work and would win an Emmy for his performance in The Rape of Richard Beck (1985). A whole new generation would know him as John Rambo’s commanding officer, Colonel Sam Trautman, in the first three Rambo films.

Walter Denton (Richard Crenna), a staple of the radio and TV series casts, 
has a reduced presence in the film version.

Nick Adams is probably best known for what he might have been. A struggling actor for most of his life, he worked with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and met Elvis Presley while the singer was filming Love Me Tender, striking up friendships with both men. His career never really took off. There were rumors about his sexuality that seemed to dog him. He would appear on other TV shows, including two years as Johnny Yuma on The Rebel (1959-1961) and make a few low budget films like Die, Monster Die! (1965). He would die at the age of 36 from a drug overdose.

The film is sort of like a theatrical version of a TV Movie. The fact that it retells the story of Connie Brooks’ arrival in town and her first day on the job shows that they were trying to ensure that it would be relevant to someone unfamiliar with the program. On its own, this is a nice programmer from the mid-1950s displaying an idealized version of America at that time. The humor is like that from the show, mild, but funny. Arden is arguably too old for the lead role. At 48, she doesn’t look like a chaste school teacher just starting out. But the viewer for the most part can overlook that, after all, no one else could be Our Miss Brooks.

Available on MOD through Warner Archive.

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