Judge Chris Claro dives into the mother-in-law of all sitcoms.
Mother Buell meets Mother Hubbard.
Television comedy in 1967 was a hodgepodge of cute witches, flying nuns, and family affairs—synthetic, fantastic, entertainment that quelled the national agita brought on by war, race relations, and violence. The bracing shot that was All in the Family was still four years away, and the only people doing trenchant comedy about the world's ills, the Smothers Brothers, quickly sapped the patience of CBS executives, who cancelled the brothers' Comedy Hour for their infractions.
Within the comforting family of sitcommery in 1967, Lucille Ball was still the queen and was transitioning from The Lucy Show to Here's Lucy—essentially the same show, though the latter featured both of her children and put her in a setting that allowed her to interact with some of Hollywood's finest, including Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
As successful as Lucy was following I Love Lucy, everyone involved with that show pointed to Desi Arnaz as the true creative force behind it. Arnaz shot I Love Lucy on a stage with three cameras filming simultaneously, essentially establishing the production template that is still in use 60 years later. In addition to his creative acumen, he was a shrewd businessman, founding Desilu Studios and going on to produce hundreds of hours of television, including The Untouchables.
56 half-hours of television that Arnaz produced—and sometimes directed and guest-starred in—were the clearly Lucy-inspired The Mothers-in-Law. Fitting snugly between Disney's forays into early color TV and Ben Cartwright and the boys at the Ponderosa, the broad, raucous Mothers-in-Law was unchallenging comedy for a challenging time.
Facts of the Case
Eve Hubbard (Eve Arden, Grease) and Kaye Buell (Kaye Ballard, Baby Geniuses) are neighbors and, true to sitcom tradition, opposites. Kaye is vocal, demonstrative, and Italian—big of both mouth and gesture. Eve is more proper and patrician, a sly, sarcastic foil who wields a withering putdown. When Eve's daughter, Suzie (Deborah Walley, Gidget Goes Hawaiian), marries Kaye's son, Jerry (Jerry Fogel, Tora! Tora! Tora!, what do you think happens? If your guess includes such hoary sitcom staples as wacky misunderstandings, labored physical shtick, and over-the-top performances, give yourself a star and settle in for 28 hours of The Mothers-in-Law: The Complete Series.
The presence of Arnaz and show creators Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis, who were credited with almost 200 I Love Lucy scripts, makes The Mothers-in-Law: The Complete Series Lucy and Ethel redux: two zany ladies who promote better living through slapstick and the occasional musical production number. Meddlesome but meaning well, Eve and Kaye continually find themselves in situations of their own making yet out of their control.
Ballard's Kaye clearly owes a debt to "The Big Mouth," Martha Raye. Aside from the physical resemblance, Ballard is fearlessly hammy emphasizing her Italian emotionality almost to the point of stereotype. As Ballard expresses in an interview on the extras disc, she was thrilled with the paycheck and the chance to work with Arnaz, but her work on The Mothers-in-Law got her typecast for much of her career afterward.
Where Ballard was all bluster, the snarky Arden, an Oscar nominee for Mildred Pierce was a master of the slow burn and the perfectly timed riposte. With her lanky bearing and caustic delivery, Arden represents the comic tradition that is carried on today by comediennes like Jane Lynch.
The predicaments that our heroines found themselves in week after week really put the "sit" in "sitcom": the girls mistakenly think their husbands are surprising them with a Hawaiian cruise; the kids invite the mothers-in-law's mothers-in-law to keep their mothers busy; bedridden Eve and Kaye think there's a strangler in the living room. And on and on. And on.
Naturally, The Mothers-in-Law had fathers-in-law as well. Television mainstay Herbert Rudley (Rhapsody in Blue) played Eve's long-suffering lifemate with a combination of affection and impatience. The story behind Roger Buell, Kaye's intolerant and self-absorbed husband, is more complicated. As Ballard reveals in her interview, Roger was originally portrayed by none other than Harry Mudd himself, Roger C. Carmel. While NBC picked up The Mothers-in-Law for a second season, original sponsor Procter & Gamble dropped out and with them went the 250-dollar weekly raises for the actors. Carmel took a hard line with Arnaz, refusing to work without the bump. Arnaz took a harder line, firing Carmel and replacing him with the one and only Mel Cooley, Richard Deacon. It's a shame Carmel didn't make it to season two because, despite the outlandish plots and preposterous contrivances, the original quartet of The Mothers-in-Law had Swiss-watch timing that is missing in the second season.
For such a seemingly obscure, short-lived series, MPI has assembled a stunning collection of extras. As one of only two surviving cast members—the other is Jerry Fogel, who left show business in the early 80s—Kaye Ballard is the repository for all the mothers-in-lore and she shares much of it in a meaty 15-minute interview segment that leads off the disc of bonus material. In addition, there are original network commercials, promos, and introductions from Desi Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr., 16-mm footage of table reads and rehearsals, and an interview segment featuring Lucille Ball and Eve Arden.
But the real curios among the extras are two unsold pilots produced and directed by Arnaz. The first, "Land's End," is an adventure that stars Rory Calhoun (Motel Hell) as the owner of a Mexican hotel. The second busted pilot, "The Carol Channing Show," is clearly an attempt by Arnaz to replicate the Lucy magic, with Channing playing a single girl trying to make it in New York and finding herself the center of a series of slapstick set-pieces. Though everybody was clearly working very hard on this well-produced pilot, Channing was no Lucy and it showed.
The audio and video on the episodes are superb. The garish reds and yellows of early color TV are evident throughout The Mothers-in-Law, not least on the frocks and lounging pajamas in which the stars are often clad. The 2.0 mono soundtrack is fine and the bouncy theme, complete with 60s-style twanging electric guitar, is instantly hummable and has a Simpsons-esque sound that's really memorable.
Thanks to the pristine presentation, colorful packaging, and flotilla of extras, The Mothers-in-Law, the Complete Series is a delightful compendium of comedy and pop culture memorabilia. The laughs may be hokey, but the time capsule element of this set is invaluable.
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