Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 23: Oscar-Winning Actresses Step Out

Channel 21's reruns of Carol's show has included several of the episodes starring Dame Maggie Smith. Now best known as the dragon-like Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey and the stern magical schoolmistress of the Harry Potter films, Smith began her career in musical comedy, at least in NY. Her Broadway debut was in the revue New Faces of 1956. After several triumphs in London and an Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she returned 20 years later to star in Noel Coward's Private Lives in 1974-5.

Maggie Smith (long before Downton Abbey)
with Carol in a musical finale from Season 9
When Private Lives was in LA before opening on Broadway, she also guest-starred on Carol's show. I hadn't realized Dame Maggie had appeared with Carol a total of three times and seemed to be enjoying a vacation from Shakespeare and the classics to be clowning around, singing and dancing. She won her second Oscar for a comic role in California Suite (1979). Other Oscar-winning actresses making Carol guest shots during this period included Joanne Woodward (The Three Faces of Eve, 1957), Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment, 1984), Rita Moreno (West Side Story, 1961), and Cher (Moonstruck, 1987). Woodward rarely made TV variety appearances while MacLaine did her own specials but did not appear as a guest on variety series. Moreno was a fixture on TV, especially on the children's series The Electric Company. Cher, of course was headlining her own series at this point and had appeared together with Sonny Bono on Carol's show during the first season. In honor of the recent Oscars, here's a look at award-winning ladies on Carol's show:

Season Eight
Nov. 23, 1974: Tim Conway, Maggie Smith
Maggie Smith with Carol (Dig Carol's
Bride of Frankenstein hair-do)
Maggie's first appearance on Carol's show starts with a delightful duet between the two stars "You're So London" with each praising the other's nationality and style, dressed in chocolate pantsuits with spangles. Carol sang this number with another Englishwoman, Julie Andrews, on their Carnegie Hall Special in 1961 which cemented Carol's star status while she was on the Garry Moore Show. The song was co-written by Mike Nichols and Ken Welch who later wrote special musical material for Carol's show with his wife Mitzi. The lyrics were updated to include references to Gloria Steinem and Margaret Mead (to rhyme with English tweed). Maggie then appears in a sketch as a famous actress visiting old college chum Carol and her husband Harvey, both of whom assume that because Maggie is a movie star, she must be a drug-addicted sex fiend ("We read Valley of the Dolls! Twice!"). There are actual allusions to smoking marijuana. Of course, Maggie has no such problems, but she acts as if she does to shut the pair up. (Maggie: "I won't burden you with the whole sordid story" Carol: "Burden us! Burden us!")

This is also one of Tim's many appearances before signing on as a regular. He plays the grown-up lion in a parody of Born Free and a soldier going stir crazy with Harvey. Vicki, Harvey and Dick Patterson have a funny bit about police detectives grilling a suspect who uses the Goldilocks and the 3 Bears story as an alibi. The finale is Carol's charwoman in a fantasy sequence as the star of a Ziegfeld-like revue.

Season Nine:
Sept. 17, 1975: Cher
Cher was headlining her own variety series at this point after breaking up professionally and personally with Sonny Bono and starting her new marriage to Greg Allman. After a solo number, Carol joins Cher and asks if she has experienced anything more exciting and wonderful than headlining her own variety series. "You haven't been reading the newspapers, have you?" Cher quips back. Carol calls her a silly goose and they continue with a specialty duet on the joys of being the only women then hosting a variety series. Cher then shows her comedy chops in a love-triangle sketch as a glamorous wronged woman and Carol is her dowdy rival for Harvey's love. The switch is Harvey is rejecting knockout Cher (beautifully gowned by Bob Mackie) for frump Carol. 

A series of funny commercial parodies follow and then As the Stomach Turns with a satire of Shampoo featuring Carol as Marion, Tim as Warren Pretty, Harvey as Mother Marcus, Vicki as Beverly Hillsdale, and Cher as Pocahontas Perrelli (referencing Cher's Italian and Native American heritage). The finale is a big rock number with the entire cast boogeying down.

Oct. 4, 1975: Shirley MacLaine
Shirley MacLaine
MacLaine was a major film star, but musicals were not as big a box-office draw in the 1970s, so she did several TV specials, and stage appearances including Broadway and Las Vegas. (I saw her in Vegas in the 1990s.) But this seems to be her only guest shot on a regular variety series. She displays her singing and dancing skills in a duet with Carol about crazy fan mail and in the finale where the two ladies play mirror images of each other, warbling "Gorgeous" from The Apple Tree. There is a pretty lame sketch with Carol and Harvey as adults taking their kids' Little League Baseball games too seriously. Shirley is a new mother in town, who takes the unpopular attitude that it's only a game and the boys should focus on having fun. The real highlight is a sketch with Eunice, Ed and Mama featuring a flashback to the night Ed and Eunice had sex and she later got pregnant, revealing the basis of their dysfunctional marriage. 

Oct. 18, 1975: Maggie Smith
Maggie returns for her second appearance with Carol in an episode that is difficult to find in its entirety. I
Carol and Maggie Smith
in the Lerner and Loewe finale
which I can't find anywhere
on the Internet.

do remember watching it when it first aired (I was 16.) But the whole thing is not on YouTube or rerunning on Public TV. Tim was a regular by now and participated in a funny sketch about launching a ship with Carol as Queen Elizabeth, Harvey as Prince Philip, Tim as a honored soldier and Maggie as his Cockney girlfriend (love her accent). Later Vicki, Tim and Harvey do a parody of Jaws with Harvey strapped into a toilet while fishing for the shark in a bathtub. Those are the only two sketches in the chopped-up MeTV/Amazon/ShoutFactory version. According to imdb.com, there is also a sketch with Carol and Harvey as ham actors Funt and Mundane. They are about to go onstage when Carol discovers Harvey is having an affair with rival actress Maggie. I don't remember that sketch, but I recall the finale was a mini-musical saluting the scores of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. It's set in the Old South and Carol is the widowed mother of two single daughters, drunkard Maggie as Bonnie Jean (so the boys in the chorus can sing "I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean" from Brigadoon) and Vicki as the more innocent one. I seem to remember Carol saying during a ballroom scene, "Oh, Bonnie Jean, he's a young man you haven't had yet....I mean met yet."

Nov. 15, 1975: Maggie Smith
Maggie must have been in LA for quite a while since she returned for her third appearance with Carol less than a month later. After Harvey and Carol start things off with a physical-comedy bit about the head of the Consumer Protection Agency and his wife falling victim to a collapsing house due to shoddy workmanship, Carol and Maggie perform another charming duet originally done by Carol and Julie Andrews. "The Cockney Lesson" was first performed by Carol and Julie
Maggie Smith as Miss Collins
lays down the law to Mama, Eunice and Ed.
on the Garry Moore Show in 1962, along with Roy Castle, a British comic and musician who later appeared with Peter Cushing in Doctor Who and the Daleks. Tim then does his old man bit, cracking up Harvey as a demented doctor. Maggie then makes an unusual appearance as the teacher of Bubba, Ed and Eunice's bratty kid. The ever-bickering couple, along with Vicki as Mama, visit for parent-teacher conference and reveal their deep dysfunction as the source of Bubba's bullying behavior. It's hard to imagine a commanding woman with an upper-crust British accent as a grade-school teacher in a one-horse burg like Raytown, but Maggie commits to the premise. Carol revealed in an interview once, they decided to do the sketch straight during rehearsal--without exaggerated comic shtick or accents--and the result was a devastating drama. I would have liked to have seen that. The hour concludes with a "There's No Biz Like Show Biz" finale with the entire cast in overalls and workshirts as backstage crew people putting on their own show after the stars have left.

Jan. 3, 1976: Rita Moreno
The versatile Rita Moreno was everywhere at this time--Broadway, films, TV with The Electric Company.
Rita Moreno

(I used to love her characters on that show.) She was an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner long before cast members on Grammy winning original cast album were included in the prizes. Now EGOTs are a dime a dozen it seems. When Moreno went EGOT I think the only performer who had that distinction was Helen Hayes. Mel Brooks and Mike Nichols would soon follow because of their comedy album wins. In addition to a sexy solo turn with the chorus boys, Rita is featured in a so-so sketch as accident-prone Carol's nurse and in the finale combining "Much More" from The Fantasticks and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" from Sweet Charity, which was also done with Pat Carroll in an earlier show. Rita would later appear with Carol in Alan Alda's film The Four Seasons. Other sketches include a return to the Queen and the Hollowed-Out Soldier, Tim and Harvey just being silly as usual, and the four regulars in a bank robbery sketch. Rita could have been in more scenes.

Feb. 14, 1976: Joanne Woodward 

Carol and Joanne Woodward as Eunice and Midge
share a brew and bitterness

Woodward won an Oscar as a Southern housewife with three personalities and she shows her versatility here in one of the most devastating Family sketches of the entire series. Eunice and her high school friend Midge Gibson (Woodward) have spent the afternoon drinking and confront Ed and Mama over the emptiness of all their lives. We learn that the Topsy-Turvy is the most notorious bar in Raytown. Along with Carol, Joanne plays a wallflower at a dance and Vicki joins them in Peter Allen's "Everything Old Is New Again." The rest of the show is taken up with Tudball and Wiggins and a sketch with Carol and Tim as a maid and butler acting out the argument of their employers Harvey and Vicki.

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