Thursday, 4 February 2016

My Living Doll

Have you ever let Amazon talk you into buying something? Like it keeps coming up in your recommendations, probably because you bought My Favourite Martian and Bewitched? And it seems so weird and also kind of like it might be terrible, but terrible in a way you want to discover? This is going to come as a surprise, but I’m asking these questions because of a recent personal experience where I bought a weird old show. It was all because of recommendation list trickery and the fact that Julie Newmar is in it, and who doesn’t like Julie Newmar?

It’s called My Living Doll and it’s really… not good.

And I now own every available episode on DVD! And I will tell you all about it so that you never have to watch it!

In 1964, CBS was very big on half-hour comedies, and they were looking for a new project for Jack Chertok, who had produced My Favourite Martian. Desilu, Lucille Ball’s company (she was always big on genre shows), got involved, and they wound up with the idea of a feminine robot learning how to be human. Julie Newmar, fresh off a Broadway success and impossibly good looking, would be the fembot. (This was the same season Bewitched debuted, and a year ahead of I Dream of Jeannie. They called the genre “novelty sitcoms” because science fiction and fantasy were for nerds. Same problem as today.) The show would be called The Living Doll, and it would have lots of zany mix-ups and Atomic Age humour. So far, we’re doing okay. This could be a lot worse, right?

Well, the fembot needed a supporting cast. There were a lot of names being kicked around, but they settled on Bob Cummings. Cummings had been the star of his own show (called The Bob Cummings Show – this is foreshadowing for a problem) back in the 1950’s. When that was over, he got a second show (called The New Bob Cummings Show) that flopped. Hard. And it flopped because it was just The Bob Cummings Show all over again and everyone had already seen that.

But, on his second show, he’d had a zany flying car, and he was hugely into aeronautics in his real life, and CBS liked him, and they thought he’d be a good fit and not oppose the sci-fi elements.
Problem Number One: The show was called THE Living Doll, like it wasn’t about Bob Cummings, and it had to be about Bob Cummings if Bob Cummings was in it. So, shouldn’t it be HIS Living Doll, or BOB’S Living Doll, so that people would know who the main character really was?

Hence the small but not-so-small change to My Living Doll.

Next up, all the press was about Julie Newmar having a TV show and not about Bob Cummings – noted and tested TV star – returning to America’s living rooms. Besides which, he really needs more screen time, don’t you think? I mean, who is this show really about? Who’s going to bring the audience, you know?

The story becomes about a Space Center psychiatrist who gets saddled with a secretly built android when the android's creator is unexpectedly transferred to Pakistan. Because the robot is patterned after a woman, the psychiatrist takes it upon himself to make certain that her emerging personality is docile, obedient and servile. Thankfully, the android doesn't really care about gender politics, and does whatever she wants, even though the 60's anti-feminism undertones remain disturbingly present throughout. (According to Julie Newmar, the Galatea and Pygmalion themes were much more obvious in the original concept. You can't build a perfect woman, because there's no real definition of perfection in human beings.)

Once the reviews started coming in, they all said that Bob and Julie had zero chemistry, and that he seemed too old for her, and his character was creepy, and the show should be more about the robot lady because everyone likes her. So Bob Cummings decided to write his own episode. Back on The Bob Cummings Show, the audience had always reacted really well to the episodes where he played his own grandfather – in the script he wrote, his ninety-three year old grandfather from Missouri, who was a veterinarian back home, would fly himself in with his 37 horsepower Taylor Cub. The robot would be at the beginning of the episode to meet “Grandpa,” and at the end of the episode to wave goodbye to him. The rest of the story would be, basically, Bob Cummings playing two characters talking to each other.

Jack Chertok said that this wasn’t going to happen. (Rightly so, because that idea was terrible.)

Bob Cummings quit and announced his intentions to sue CBS.

It was a step in the right direction for the show, but by then timeslot issues had struggled to find it viewers – at first it was on at the same time as Bonanza, and you can’t fight season five of Bonanza, that was like the best season. Then they moved it to Wednesdays to lead in to The Beverly Hillbillies, but it followed Mr. Ed, so the lineup went: talking horse with weirdly amazing chemistry with its co-stars, lady robot show being wrecked by male lead, surprisingly beloved redneck ensemble. See where the flow is breaking?

It wasn’t renewed for a second season.

The 35mm negatives of the series were destroyed in a 1994 earthquake, and the DVD collection available has only eleven episodes recovered from 16mm copies recovered from private collectors. (Always keep old tapes of weird things, history might call on you one day.) The Chertok Estate is searching for any other available episodes, so if by some freak chance you know of any, give them a call!

Oh! And Star Trek: Voyager fans might be interested in knowing that Julie Newmar’s character begins the series without a name, only a number. And that number is 709.

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