08 April 2009

What’s My Line?

Prior to the sudden death of my hard drive, I frittered away several hours last week watching clips from the old game show What’s My Line? on YouTube, and while I cannot recommend that you follow my example, I do feel compelled to share a few observations, and to attempt to explain the curious fascination of these televisual relics. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s an adaptation of the parlor game Twenty Questions, in which a panel poses yes-and-no questions to deduce the occupation of a guest, then dons masks to deduce the identity of a celebrity “mystery guest.” The mystery occupations are refreshingly odd, yet for my first marathon I tended to the celebrities, a Who’s Who of popular culture in New York City between 1950 and 1967: Bette Davis, Paul Newman, Salvador Dali, Alfred Hitchcock, Olivia de Havilland, Sally Rand, Edward R. Murrow, and on and on goes the list. One begins to watch from interest in the celebrity, but one continues to watch from interest in the process itself.

The original panel and host: Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf (fore),
Fred Allen, Dorothy Kilgallen, John Charles Daly (aft)

It’s very much as if one is peeking in on a chic Manhattan party. The guests are famous, the panel and host elegant yet approachable. The women (Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen) wear gorgeous dresses, the men (host John Charles Daly, Bennett Cerf, and a long line of ringers following the death of Fred Allen) wear tuxedoes, and everybody speaks with classy accents – but they all work for a living, just like you and me. The ladies are journalists, Cerf a book editor, Daly a newsman at both CBS and ABC. They’re sophisticated, but in ways that you or I might be, given the time and money: they see all the shows, watch all the games, read all the papers. It becomes apparent after only a few clips that the formidable Ms. Francis (who is usually first, and lightning-quick, to guess the identity of the guest) reads the papers while paying particular attention to what movies are opening, and thus to what stars may be in town on a promotional tour. Yet the panel are also celebrities, and privy to a world that’s barred to the rest of us: “Didn’t you and I dance a rumba in Monte Carlo?” Ms. Kilgallen is prone to inquire; “Didn’t you once buy me a drink on the Lido?” (Happily, the answer is never “yes.”)

At first one is overwhelmed by the confluence of great stars who come, disguising their voices (or not, in the case of Hitchcock, who can’t be bothered) and trying to fool the panel. What an age of giants this must have been! Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Judy Holliday, Noel Coward, Errol Flynn! Sometimes even the panelists are titans: Ernie Kovacs and Groucho Marx take their turns behind the masks. Yet as one watches, one grows conscious, too, of a cultural hegemony. Manhattan was the center of the universe in those days, headquarters to the television networks, the publishing houses, and the biggest movie theaters. Manhattan was home to supper clubs and to Broadway, which was still relevant and progressive, still producing the most important theatrical work in the world: Life Magazine and the Ed Sullivan Show could be counted on to keep the latest productions and brightest stars on the average American’s radar screen.

Really, the culture was circumscribed, with no overspill, no independent film or rock bands, no Off-Broadway or regional theater to speak of, and only three television networks. “Opera” meant The Metropolitan, not Seattle or San Diego or Fort Worth, and when Lily Pons or Helen Traubel shows up on What’s My Line?, naturally everybody has heard of her. Perhaps needless to say, all of the show’s regulars and the vast majority of guests are white, though the rare visitor of color is welcomed cordially, and Jesse Owens and Marian Anderson are treated rightly as heroes. You won’t see any blacklisted entertainers here, and everyone, even Tab Hunter and Sal Mineo, is straight.

Obviously, we’re better off with culture that isn’t pre-approved by the Establishment or closed off to significant populations, yet I do feel a bit of nostalgia for the manageability of it all. It must have been easy to keep up with the latest trends in the arts, when there were so few, and easy to achieve perfect mastery of a subject. Yet this is the perspective of a guy who frets constantly over the books he hasn't read, the songs he hasn’t heard, who is ashamed to admit how many great movies he’s never seen. This is also the perspective of a middle-aged white male – not quite Establishment, but darned close.

A note, almost an aside, about Daly, who broadcast the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. As World War II went on, our expectations of broadcast journalism changed, but Daly was of the older school, less reporter than reader. His posh accent turns out to be unaffected (he was born in South Africa), yet listening to his plummy pronouncements, I’m reminded that, before World War II, CBS News announcers like Daly were required to wear a tuxedo on the radio, where of course no one could see them. A certain standard of formality, conveyed by the wardrobe, might translate into an audible authority – much as the safari jacket is presumed to lend credibility to television news reporters today. Plus ça change.


Anonymous said...

"This is also the perspective of a middle-aged white male – not quite Establishment, but darned close."

Not quite sure what that means. Do dirt-poor Polish immigrant workers in the back streets of Chicago think of themselves as "the establishment" or anything close to it? Is "white male" a very useful term?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

I was referring to myself.

normadesmond said...

Found your blog while reading about Larry Kert. (I was surprised to find NO listing of him at findagrave.com.) Once I found your blog, of course I got nosy & started looking around & found this piece. Very nice. I'm a huge WML fan, probably have very episode on videotape. I'm sure I never saw the show as a kid (it would've been on too late for me to have seen) but I certainly recall the syndicated 70s version that would play during the 7-8:00 pre-primetime slot. That version's fun to rewatch, but it's the original version that's so marvelous to see. Everyone was so witty & urbane....it may have been a world closed off to most of us, but that's okay by me. Didn't Groucho Marx say something about not wanting to be a member of a club if they would have him? Anyway, though I'm sure you know about this book, let me tell you that I became enamored with WML back in the 80s when I read the bio, "Killgallen" by Lee Israel. A great read...and Dorothy's a fabulous subject. Do you know that there are live performances of WML in Los Angeles every now & then(maybe NYC as well)? Hope the Madeline Kahn book happens....I like to think that I brushed by her in Newton someplace, sometime, 10,000 years ago.

William V. Madison said...

Many thanks for your kind words, Norma! I haven't read the Kilgallen biography, though my desire to do so has been whetted by my rediscovery of WML. As a panelist, she's hardly my favorite -- but what a life!

And good on you for admiring Larry Kert. I loved that guy. I wasn't part of his inner circle, though, and wasn't around for the last days: no idea where he's buried. He lives in the hearts of those who heard him, that much is certain.