There was a long period, lasting nearly a quarter of a century, when the classic television shows of the 1950s (especially) and early 1960s were almost impossible to see. Sure, during the eighties and nineties programs like I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and Twilight Zone were never very far away, but for those of us weaned on reruns of Sgt. Bilko and You Bet Your Life, and more everyday fare like Topper, Love That Bob, and Colonel Flack (my long-lost favorite), basic cable and that bane of classic movie and TV lovers, the infomercial, completely killed the market for the local television stations that used to air them.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Dobie Gillis for short, was another such program. Though never a Top 20 sitcom, it was pleasant and funny, enjoyed a reasonably healthy four-season run on CBS from 1959-63, and was popular in reruns. Then it all but vanished until Shout! Factory's new DVD release of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis - The Complete Series, a 21-disc, 60-plus-hours set containing all 147 episodes and a handful of bonus features.
Adapted from humorist Max Shulman's collection of wonderful short stories, the series was a co-production between 20th Century Fox and Martin Manulis's prestigious production company. Shulman was involved as well, writing the lyrics to its memorable theme song and penning many of its episodes.
The series was rather like a teenager version of Leave It to Beaver, though without that show's sentiment and a bit broader in its humor. But, like Beaver and Wally Cleaver, Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman) was thoroughly average and his hometown and its citizenry could be Anywhere, U.S.A.
The series primarily revolved around Dobie's efforts to win the hearts of various beautiful girls at his high school and, in seasons three and four, S. Peter Pryor Junior College. (Hickman was pushing thirty when the series ended.) Many nostalgic reviewers remember only Dobie's first love, Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), but she was gone by the end of season one. Nevertheless, Weld made quite an impression: she epitomized the series' greatest strength, gently satirizing the fifties mindset. While Thalia liked Dobie on a personal level, he was a grocer's son with few prospects for making the oodles of money that, just dreaming about it, would send Thalia into an orgasmic swoon.
Weld, of course, went on to a major film career, as did another Dobie graduate, Warren Beatty, as snobby rich kid and rival Milton Armitage. But, like Weld, Beatty left for greener pastures early on (in Beatty's case, after just five episodes), his character replaced by the less dashing but much funnier Steve Franken as Milton's cousin, Chatsworth Osborne, Jr.
But Dobie Gillis's most memorable characters were Dobie's best friend, spacey beatnik Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver), and Zelda Gilroy (Shelia James), the indefatigable, brilliant, and practical plain Jane determined to snag Dobie for her husband.
Denver, of course, would go on to pop culture immortality on Gilligan's Island, but his hyped-up Stan Laurel-like characterization on that show (opposite Alan Hale's Oliver Hardy) can't compete with his loveably non sequitur, work-allergic bum, reportedly television's first beatnik. Naturally, Maynard is homogenized; he never talks about literature, art, religion or politics, never smokes a joint, and the character probably helped cement the negative stereotype for the Middle America television audience. But Denver makes Maynard not only palatable and funny but also even sweetly amusing.
James, meanwhile, was adorable as tiny (4'10") Zelda, who just knew that someday she'd marry Dobie and make a success out of him. That and Zelda's personification of the hard-working high school nerd, the underdog, was oddly inspiring for those of us lacking Thalia's or Milton's good looks. So popular was Zelda that actress James was signed to do a spin-off, of which supposedly four episodes were filmed before being abruptly cancelled when James was outed to network executives as a lesbian, a fact viewers watching the show today could pick up.
Oddly and certainly unintentionally, and despite Zelda's plainly declared love for Dobie, in retrospect it's hard not to look upon Zelda as TV's first lesbian, and unlike Maynard's beatnik, one can read into it an extremely positive, if closeted, portrayal. (Hanna-Barbera's later Saturday morning kids show, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, adapted the Dobie Gillis kids just as they had with The Honeymooners for The Flintstones. Many identify that series' Zelda character, Velma, also as a coded lesbian.)
The program had a terrific regular cast, including Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus as Dobie's parents with, among others, William Schallert as their most regular professor, oddly in both high school and college. Guest stars through the years included Ron Howard, Rose Marie, Sally Kellerman, Sherry Jackson, Bill Bixby, Michelle Lee, Yvonne Craig, and Richard Deacon.
Like all good straight men, Hickman knew how to react to the whirlwind of comedy around him and is so genially appealing as an actor one wonders why, not long after Dobie ended, he pretty much gave up acting to do other kinds of work. Because he had been a regular on Love That Bob the decision was made to dye Hickman's hair blonde, but as the first season progressed it turned almost white through repeated dying and his hair began to fall out. It went back to its natural dark brown for the rest of the series' run.
Video & Audio
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was a two-camera series shot in 35mm. As such, the potential exists for the series to look as good as The Dick Van Dyke Show and Twilight Zone do on Blu-ray. But, being a marginal series in today's home video market, Shout! makes do with what appear to be existing masters. Still, the episodes I sampled were complete, running upwards of 25 minutes, some with their original sponsor's advertising over the end credits. There is a separate DVD case for each season, no doubt similar to the single-season sets already announced. The five single-sided DVDs (six counting the bonus disc in Season Four) are easy to navigate, and inside the DVD cases episode titles are helpfully listed. The mono audio, English only with no subtitle options (though closed-captioning is offered) is fine.
Lots of material here, all on a bonus disc at the end of Season Four. They include a 13-minute interview with star Dwayne Hickman, who though nearly 80 still looks great. The interview doesn't dig very deeply, but Hickman acknowledges the generosity of Bob Cummings, and whose mannerisms (along with Jack Benny's) he freely admits to imitating as Dobie Gillis.
Also included is the longer, slightly different original version of the series pilot; three episodes of Love That Bob featuring Hickman; an episode of The Stu Erwin Show (here called The Stu Erwins) also featuring Hickman; an unidentified, similarly undated sketch with Hickman spoofing Dobie Gillis, featuring Dinah Shore and George Burns. It was shot on tape, it's in color, and possibly excerpts The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. Finally, a PDF file includes "Scripts and Notes from the Max Shulman Vault" and is worth checking out.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis suffers from the same problem as most sitcoms from its era. Once it finds its voice all growth stops and the show falls back on same catch phrases (there are many here: "I gotta kill that boy!" "WORK?!" "You rang?" etc.) and familiar situations. But it's pleasant and funny and still holds up on many levels.* Highly Recommended.
* Dobie fan Sergei Hasenecz writes, "This was a show that fascinated me as a kid. Maynard was funny, of course, but what really drew me to the series was the low-key way it went about showing Dobie's world, as well as being funny. Especially fascinating was Dobie's breaking of the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, usually with the statue of Rodin's The Thinker nearby. It was an excellent way of drawing you into Dobie's mind. There was a sincerity to Dobie's talks which I think is still unmatched by any other television series. I know The Burns and Allen Show did it, but that didn't work in the same way. George Burns did it for laughs. Dobie Gillis did it as a way of thinking out loud and explaining. At times it was almost confessional (if amusing). I'm surprised you didn't mention this."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.