Tuesday, July 2, 2013

DVD release: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

Hey, Daddy-O. The latest TV time capsule from Shout! Factory has arrived: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series. The 20-DVD box set contains all 147 episodes from the 1959-’63 series, plus some bonus goodies.
Dobie seems more ‘50s than ‘60s. If it was on my radar at all as a kid it was probably me wondering why Gilligan (Bob Denver) was doing with a beard.
Denver played Maynard J. Krebs, slacker pal to the hero, Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman). He wears the same stained, ripped sweatshirt throughout the series and is seriously work-averse.
He also makes with the beatnik hep talk. The character became kind of the face of beatnik’s on TV although he’s more nerd and goofball than beat poet.
If you’re curious about America in those dark days between when Elvis went into the army and The Beatles changed everything, this series is for you. Among the extras on this box set is a clip of Denver, as Krebs, and Ed Byrnes, who played “Kookie” on 77 Sunset Strip, giving white bread pop star Pat Boone a lesson in “Hip talk.”
The clip is lame-O, Daddy-O, even 53 years later.
More fun is the series itself. Dobie Gillis is so simple it’s really a radio play. Dobie, a 17-year-old high school student, starts every episode in a garden under a statue of Rodan’s The Thinker. Dobie thinks, too, but only about girls. Any size, any style, any eyes, any smile, any Jean, any Jane, any Joan! He describes his ideal girl as “creamy,” which must have meant something else back in the ‘50s.
Among his obsessions is Thalia Menninger, played by the delectable Tuesday Weld. She seems to have soft spot for Dobie, but won’t get too involved because he never has any money. There goes that ‘50s math again: women = gold diggers, men = horn dogs. Future Batgirl Yvonne Craig is also among the fresh-faced beauties Dobie drools over. A crazy young Sally Kellerman pops up in a later episode, as does always welcome Sherry Jackson.
The only girl who really wants Dobie is tomboy-ish Zelda (Sheila James), she with the scrunched up face. Naturally Dobie wants nothing to do with Zelda.
Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus must have had the right number of F’s in their names to be cast as his parents. These folks seem more from the ‘40s. They run a grocery store which delivers! Mom loves Dobie, but dad just wants to “murder” him because he sees his son as a lazy slacker who will never amount to anything. Harsh!
The series was created and written by Max Shulman and adapted from his popular short stories. Shout! Is marketing Dobie as one of the first TV shows to break the fourth wall and have characters talk directly to viewers. Dobie does this at the start of every episode, next to his pal The Thinker.
As Hickman, who went on to become a CBS programming executive, admits in an interview included among the extras, he was really borrowing much of his shtick from Bob Cummings—the star of Hickman’s previous sitcom—and Jack Benny. Watching Hickman back then it’s almost scary how liberally he steals from these two Hollywood veterans, in both voice and mannerisms.
No harm in stealing from the best. What is more distracting, however, is Hickman’s crazy dye job. The poor lad had his brown locks dyed platinum blond because some TV exec wanted him to look different from how he looked on Love That Bob! And The Bob Cummings Show.
It just looks creepy. He looks more Martian than teenager, like he’s wearing a white bathing cap. Worse, his hair gets darker as the series goes on, until, four years later, it is practically black. Hickman says he demanded the changes after his hair started falling out.
Back to those simple stories. Shulman had to crank these suckers out. The first season there was 39 episodes, almost twice what a network would order today. (The Simpsons, for example, do 20 episodes per season.) There was little time for rewrites or complicated plots and, besides, audiences didn’t demand that back then. Every episode is basically boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets Maynard J. Krebs.
Character did not grow or evolve back then, they stayed exactly the same. Still, some episodes stand out. “The Chicken from Outer Space” holds up today thanks to some simple but impressive special effects. There’s an amusing fourth season episode where Krebs undergoes a Nutty Professor-like transformation, mis-titled, “Doctor Jekyll And Mister Gillis.” (Look for Howard McNear, who played Floyd the barber on The Andy Griffith Show, in that one.)
Like a lot of these Shout! Factory releases, it’s also fun spotting future stars such as Warren Beatty, Ron Howard, Jo Anne Worley, Bill Bixby, John Banner, Michele Lee along with Craig and Kellerman. Future Dick Van Dyke Show regulars Rose Marie and Richard Deacon also make an appearance.
Another curiosity is the opening titles, animated in the style of the stark UPA cartoons of the time. They too, however, lock this series in a ‘50s time capsule, as does the theme song, which is very Bye Bye Birdie.
You’ll find more truth in another Shout! Box set, Leave It to Beaver. Made around the same time, it, too, was a simple comedy, but the gentle life lessons from childhood still resonate. Shulman’s show is more of a ‘50s caricature of teenage life, what Pat Boone or Ed Sullivan—or millions of Americans—thought a Beatnik or even a teenager was like.
Still, if you’re a boomer who grew up with Dobie, you’ll be pleased with the crisp, re-mastered transfers. These black and white episodes never looked so good.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series has a SRP of $139.99 and can be ordered on Amazon.com.
UPDATE: Read more about this series in this feature I wrote this week for The Canadian Press, which looks at how much TV had changed from Dobie to Donovan.
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