Thursday, 17 March 2016

The United States Steel Hour 03x06: A Wind from the South

This is some really hoity-toity TV.

I feel like a Damon Runyon character giving a Smithsonian tour.

For St. Patrick’s Day, we’re watching Julie Harris in a 1955 live play for The United States Steel Hour called “A Wind from the South.”

So let’s start with a little about Julie Harris, an actress who can reasonably be called the first television star. Not the first star on television, in the early days many personalities were making the great migration from radio, and movie stars like Dick Powell and Barbara Stanwyck were already noting the boost the new medium could give to their stalled careers. Julie Harris, though, was the first personality forged in the public consciousness by her appearances on TV.

As her career grew, she became one of the great figures of American live theater, but for a white hot decade she was television and to the average member of the public who couldn’t get to Broadway to see a play, television was how she was best known.

She played Joan of Arc in The Lark, Nora in A Doll’s House, Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina, Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, and basically a ton of powerful yet fragile women trapped in cages of circumstance and society. She was effectively predicting the pending feminist revolution with most of her early television performances, including the one we’re looking at today.

In the early 50’s, television drama was live and broadcast from New York, and it was super fancy. Caviar and champagne and dinner parties with people who wrote columns-for-actual-newspapers fancy. There was an intellectualism that was kind of unwanted in Hollywood, and they were only getting away with it on television because, frankly, not a lot of people owned TV’s. Once you could make money off the medium, it became a whole new ballgame.

So if you’re eating a sandwich while you read this, get out the expensive mustard. And if you’re in your PJ’s, make sure that the drawstring is in an actual knotted bow. This is a high class operation!

Tonight’s play opens with a lilting song sung by Merv Griffin as we look at a wild garden in a soft rain during the opening credits. Back then, he wasn’t really Merv Griffin yet, but he had done an album called Songs from John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Meanwhile, a song called “A Soft Day” had caught the ear of writer James Costigan; he used it to guide the mood of this script and took the title from one of the lyrics: “A soft day thank god / a wind from the south with a honeyed mouth.”

Costigan needed somebody to sing “A Soft Day” for him, and he found the general Irishness of Songs from John Ford’s The Quiet Man to be appropriate, so he asked Merv Griffin to do it.

And that is the story of Merv Griffin getting his first job in television. It would not be his last.

We linger on the sign for The Willows, the kind of inn that seems to weave in and out of pockets of time. Never old, never modern. It’s somewhere in the Irish countryside, and it’s run by Liam and his sister Siobhan – or rather Shevawn. The producers didn’t think that the audience would be able to connect the pronunciation with the spelling in the credits. In the original script the girl is called Siobhan, because James Costigan wrote the character for Siobhan McKenna, but was told that Americans wouldn’t recognize her.

It’s funny to think that there was never a time in television history when you could just do stuff.

Anyway, the end result is Julie Harris as Shevawn, which is compromises all around. But it works out great... mostly great… if the spelling drives you insane, I’m sorry. Blame United States Steel.

Liam is calling for Shevawn rather impatiently, and is annoyed when she hurries up to the front door in bare feet with her pockets full of stuff she found on the beach. They have guests who’ll be wanting breakfast, and Liam’s pretty sure they won’t like his terrible eggs. Apparently, he can’t cook eggs without “squashing the yellows” which is just odd. What does he do to regularly achieve this? Maybe if he removes the step where he flattens them with the spatula…

The two siblings are already noticeably different. Liam is staunchly old-fashioned, practical and a touch demanding. Shevawn is dreamy and wild and terrible at being on time for work. Like in most fiction, the Bert is frowned upon but the Ernie is celebrated. (The notable exception actually being Bert and Ernie where both types are equally valued, if unequally annoyed by that day’s adventure.)

Shevawn pulls some white feathers from her pocket, and sits down at one of the dining room tables to wonder at them. What kind of feathers are they? Swan? Loon? And are they symbolic feathers? The answer to the last one is yes.

Liam tells her to quit daydreaming and do her job.

She waxes poetic about the mist and the lake, a faraway and beauty-hungry look in her eyes as she mentions that the southern wind was blowing that morning. Something about the wind sets Liam off a little, and he’s just about to tell her about why when the first of their guests comes down the stairs.

It’s Jean – an American woman travelling the world with her husband, dripping with breezy bottle blonde confidence and a hint of disdain. She’s noticeably hung over as she puts out a cigarette in the heirloom china and snarls derisively at Liam about the weather. Never to be out-snarled, Liam tells her that he’ll get right on stopping the rain and stomps into the kitchen.

His sister is already in there, buttering rolls at top speed now that the guests are heading down. They argue more about this “wind from the south” business, and as it happens a wind from any other direction doesn’t so much but tousle Shevawn’s hair. But a wind from the south? On that comes the scent Parisian perfumes, fine chocolates, adventure, and the wide world. It makes her stir-crazy all day, so Liam warns her that if she shirks her responsibilities, he won’t be pleased.

There’s nothing violent about Liam, but he’s very shouty.

Shevawn says that he’s growing fat on the tourists’ money, and growing mean-spirited by taking them in when he dislikes them so much. He counters that they amplify her weaknesses as well, as she dotes on them and asks them for stories of their grand travels.

It all comes out to mean that both of them are pretty unhappy, but while Liam is more accepting of his fate, Shevawn intends to challenge her unhappiness. Even if it’s just by daydreaming.

More American guests make their way into the dining room. This time it’s a jolly middle-aged couple who are keen on all the guided tours and historical locales. The husband makes a big show of sticking his head into the kitchen and wishing Shevawn “Top o’ the morning!”

The wife gives him a friendly laugh and tells him with his terrible fake accent, nobody would ever guess all his family was born in Ireland. She chats with Jean about how they’re going on a tour of the bay today and then heading home tomorrow morning. Jean says that she and her husband are leaving tomorrow as well.

Shevawn brings out a pot of coffee and the jolly couple tease her about smuggling her back to Detroit with them. Not because they’ve got any notion of her dreams of escape, but because she makes good breakfasts and they like her. You get the sense that they like her the same way they might like a souvenir of a porcelain leprechaun, though. It’s a fondness for the way she caters to the tourist’s notion of Irishness.

Apart from having partied a little hard the night before, Jean is having some difficulties with her husband that morning. Turns out he’s not still in bed sleeping off some authentic Irish whiskey, according to Jean he woke up well before her and has been out all morning.

“I thought you were coming on this tour with us,” the jolly husband at the next table frowns.

“So did I,” Jean answers dryly, scanning the local paper.

Robert, Jean’s husband, then enters through the front doors of the inn, mud on his shoes and his raincoat over one arm. He’s being played by Donald Woods – a Canadian, jsyk – who imbues him with a tired distractedness. When the jolly couple wish him good morning as they head out towards the tour bus, he seems put off by their boisterousness.

He heads over to his wife’s table and lights her cigarette, as more of an automatic gesture than a courtesy. He tells her he’s sorry about last night, but she doesn’t want to talk about it, she brushes off his explanation and stands up, and asks if he’s coming on the tour. He says no.

She’s clearly not thrilled as she puts on her coat and says she’ll see him at dinner.

“Jean,” he sighs, “I really am sorry.”

“I know you are,” she replies, “that’s the most pathetic part. All your great useless remorse.”

This looks like a healthy marriage!

Robert is alone in the dining room now, except for Liam who’s tidying up here and there. Robert asks if Liam knows a song that goes: “King Kamehameha the conqueror of the islands / became a famous hero one day.”

Liam, having lived his whole life in Ireland, unsurprisingly does not know the song, but Robert keeps singing it anyway. (BTW, it’s a 1930’s Hawaiian novelty song by Sol Ho’opi’i called – and Robert could’ve never guessed this – “King Kamehameha.” You’d probably recognize the tune if not the lyrics. Every time I watch this, it gets stuck in my head for weeks.)

He’s still singing it to himself after Liam leaves and Shevawn comes in with a pot of fresh coffee for him. Robert’s face lights up when he sees her, and she softly asks if he’s not going with the others. Turns out, Robert is right on the cusp of his mid-life crisis, and he muses about group mentalities and the pressure to fit in. There’s a kind of wistful contempt about him, and an obvious soft-spot for Shevawn.

He asks her to sit with him and she does.

Turns out, after whatever fight he had with Jean the night before, he went out and Liam accidentally locked him out of the inn. Instead of knocking or ringing the bell, he hit up a bar in town until closing and then spent the rest of the night walking. He walked around the lakeshore and around castle ruins, and he saw Shevawn when she was picking up her feathers this morning.

He quotes the second lines of William Allingham’s The Fairies at her.

“Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together; green jacket, red jacket, and white owl’s feather!”

She’s surprised he knows it.

The rest of the poem, I should mention, is about the fairies stealing away a child to live among them, and though she thinks only one night has passed, it’s been much longer. She returns home to find it changed and dies “of sorrow.” The fairies don’t realize this, and think she’s asleep. They take her back with them and make her a bed at the bottom of a lake, and wait for her to wake up. Robert doesn’t recite this part.

He reminds her that he’s “an Irishman once-removed” and confesses to believing in the little people. He asks if she does, and she says she doesn’t of course, but they’re there all the same. He laughs. She goes on to wonder if there are strange forces in the world, pointing out the shape of what will come. (In your case, Shevawn, they’re called screenwriters.)

“What good is a sign if you don’t know what it means?” She sighs, twirling one of the white feathers between her fingers.

“Maybe it’s the beginning of your luck.”

He suggests analyzing the symbol of the feather scientifically, like dream analysis, which he thinks is a science, it seems. And then, because we’re supposed to be morons I guess, he step-by-step walks us through the symbol of the feather.

“What do you dream about? Of flying away and seeing far off places, right? Now, what does that suggest? A bird. A wild bird. White, because white suggests cleanliness and purity. A girl wanders by a strange enchanted lake, she finds a feather—“

“Five!” Shevawn tells him, absorbed in the idea of all of this. “Why five now?”

He’s stumped. It can’t be anything to do with the date, it’s the 20th of July and July is the seventh month. But the date does mean something to Shevawn.

Eight years ago to the day, her father said his last words. He asked for her to be good to her brother, but follow her heart. “When your young man comes by for you, you follow him wherever he leads you.” And after that, he fell into a coma and was silent for five days before he died.

She scoffs at the implication and says that she’s never had a young man, she’s never had a holiday since they opened the house up to tourists. Robert points out that there are dances every night in town during the summer, and he’s never seen her at one.

Liam doesn’t approve of the dances, so she doesn’t go.

This is what Robert was trying to say about peer pressure and giving up on yourself to suit the group. He urges her to step out of her comfort zone and forget what Liam thinks.

Just then, Liam comes in with a broom and mop and tells Shevawn to take her pick. She picks the broom, meaning Liam has to go mop the stairs, which sounds like one of the worst chores ever.

With her brother out of earshot, Shevawn asks Robert if he told everybody to get bent so he could chase his dreams, and he admits that he never had the balls. He gives a monologue about how he’s lost pieces of himself over the years trying to please others.

“There’s a dance at the International Hotel tonight,” he grabs Shevawn’s arm, and there’s something desperate in his encouragement. “All those good looking young navy men will be down there in their smart blue uniforms. You put on your prettiest dress and go down there tonight.”

Shevawn says she can’t go because nobody’s asked her, and she takes the dishes into the kitchen.

Robert smiles to himself and says that maybe somebody will.

As though swept in by that southern wind, a young naval officer rings the bell at The Willows. He’s young and very chipper, and explains to Liam that he was supposed to be sharing a room with his buddies at the International Hotel but there was some kind of mix-up and he was the one who ended up without a place to sleep. Everywhere in town is full up, but somebody said there was a room here.

Liam says it’s a tiny room that he doesn’t normally rent out, but Jack here doesn’t mind.

Despite Liam’s best attempts to argue, Jack bulldozes him and heads into the living area/dining room, where he sees Robert and recognizes him as the guy who told him about the inn. So it wasn’t the magic of a wind from south, but the machinations of a regular dude that brought Jack to this particular doorstep.

Shevawn is watching the moderately handsome stranger from the kitchen door when Liam calls out that this means she’ll need another place for dinner. She calls back to her brother that it won’t be a problem, and Jack notices her.

Like, he notices her.

As Jack heads up the stairs, trying to look at Shevawn as much as possible without tripping, Robert goes back to humming King Kamehameha to himself. Shevawn shakes her head at him, amused, and knowingly exactly what he’s been up to.

Act Two of the play opens with Robert sleeping on the sofa, and you can’t blame the guy, he was wandering the wilderness all night. He’s pretty lucky a banshee didn’t get him.

Jack is outside, watching the last of the raindrops fall from the trees as the skies start to clear. He looks kind of like a marionette from Stingray or Thunderbirds

He saunters inside with that determined amble of somebody who’s trying to look like they’re not about to do something super specific. In this case, it’s trying to snatch a conversation from Shevawn. He announces, pretty loudly, that there’s nothing like an Irish rainbow. Then he notices Robert sleeping on the sofa and gets a little sheepish.

According to Jack, Robert is “a nice old bug” who makes him feel kind of dumb.

Well, Jack better head into town and catch up with his friends. But, um, what do the locals do for fun in these parts? Shevawn tells him there’s a movie theater… and a dance at the hotel. Jack bites and asks her to go, but she hems a little and says she has to ask Liam.

Robert wakes up while she talks.

It’s enough of a jolt to change her answer, and she tells Jack he’s got a date.

With him gone, Robert sees another opportunity to give us a monologue about all the things he’d wished he done. This time, it’s why he didn’t become a poet. He lacked the courage, is what it boils down to, so he became an adman instead.

Just a sad, rumpled Don Draper sleeping on an Irish sofa in the middle of the afternoon.

He reads poetry to Shevawn and apologizes for his “entire generation.”

Then he asks her if she likes Jack.

She says he’s got a good mug on him, which is her opinion and that’s fine.

Jack, according to Robert, doesn’t have a drop of Irish blood in him, and that’s good news. Shevawn asks why that could possibly matter – after all, she’s Irish and Robert’s family is Irish and lots of Irish people are totally fine human beings.

It means that Jack isn’t in Ireland to find something.

“When an Irishman comes back to Ireland, no matter how many generations have passed, it’s because of some crying need.” Robert lights a cigarette, and we get a third monologue out of him about how when people feel like their lives lack direction, they look for new directions in old soil.

He goes on quite a bit for this one, and ends by telling Shevawn how much he loves her name. (He must not have seen how the production is spelling it!)

The reason why there are only a few sets and half a dozen monologues is twofold. First, there was the budget, which was not very high and required good closed-room stories with a handful of characters dealing with quiet, psychological issues that didn’t need any special props or set dressing. The second is because these episodes weren’t recorded on film, they were recorded live on kinescope. The less action needed to be recorded, the better. Just to avoid technical problems during broadcast.

That night, at the International Hotel, we’re in for a treat as we watch the first North American broadcast of Irish dance on television! A bunch of serious-faced little kids all line up and do a fine job of their performance, as far as I know. I’m not an Irish dance expert, but it looks good to me.

Shevawn and Jack applaud for them when it’s over, and Shevawn is lovely in her plain but pretty dress. Except she’s got a flower crown, which I guess is okay because they weren’t yet done to death at musical festivals and in hipster fashion editorials in 1955. But still. Come on, Shevawn.

Jack whirls her around the dancefloor once the couples music starts, and he says how happy is he to have found himself a soulful Irish colleen. He tells her she’s the kind of girl they write mournful songs about, like “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.” Just a redhead, red-blooded picture book image of an Irish girl.

The reason this works, despite the kind of overdone midlife crisis angle we’ve got going with Robert, is that it asks some questions about what’s real about the American idea of Ireland. It’s ironic that we have an American actress playing Shevawn, and also that it’s being spelled Shevawn then. There’s an undercurrent of condemnation for the tourist’s view of a land green with fields of shamrocks, and yet it’s ultimately a no more authentic view than The Quiet Man was.

Despite the nosey, disapproving looks of a few town busybodies, Shevawn agrees to go for an evening walk with Jack and get some air away from the dance.

Back at The Willows, Liam and Robert are waiting for Shevawn to get home, but neither of them are admitting it. The jolly tourist husband is hammering out a couple of tunes on the piano, while his jolly tourist wife plays cards with Jean.

The jolly tourist husband tells Robert that he missed out by skipping the tour. The sights were beautiful. Robert wanders over and asks him to play King Kamehameha on the piano. It’s been stuck in his head because the first time he ever visited Ireland, the “whole country was Hawaiian crazy.” That would have been one of the first rounds of that, when Hawaii first became a state, and some people insisted on pronouncing it “Ha-why-ya” on the radio.

Liam is pouring beers at the dining room bar, and the jolly tourist calls out for a cold one as he plays Robert his song. (No! If you want cold beer, wait until you’re back in the United States tomorrow!) When who should walk in but the elderly busybodies who were frowning at Shevawn in the last scene. Come to bring all the trouble with small towns right to Liam’s bar.

Their names are Paddy and Biddy, in case we weren’t going to be certain whether or not they were local.

Biddy orders them a couple of Liam’s famous pink gins. Beer, you see, gives Paddy terrible gas and he’s not allowed to have it. Biddy has a habit of not respecting other people’s privacy.

She asks where Shevawn is at, as innocently as you like, and Liam says that his sister went out for a walk, and when he catches the gossipy gleam in Biddy’s eye, adds that she mentioned she might stop by the dance at the hotel. Biddy tells him that the dances are shameful bacchanals where Yanks make you do the bunny hop, and the girls have started wearing makeup.


Robert overhears them and slams his empty pint glass on the bar top, clearly angry with them for confirming all his earlier points about peer pressure wrecking up lives. He heads out to the porch and sits on the steps to wait for Shevawn.

She’s quick to arrive, and Robert warns her not to go into the inn just yet. She spies the pair of old busybodies, and tells us that the two of them are a miserable brother and sister.

“Liam and me in twenty years,” she jokes.

Suddenly, feverishly, Robert grabs her shoulders and makes her promise that her joke won’t come true.

“Not you, Shevawn. Oh no, not you.”

Shevawn finally gets around to noticing that Robert is on the brink of some sort of serious emotional collapse, and asks him what’s wrong. Short answer: he’s realized that he’s lived more years than he’s got left and it’s freaking him out because he thought he’d be more special than he was.

For a quick change of subject, Robert asks her to tell him about the dance, even though she keeps pressing to hear about what his deal is. Eventually, though, she describes her evening and its ups and downs, including when Jack tried to kiss her and she realized that he didn’t want her. He wanted an Irish girl’s love as a souvenir.

“I’m not a girl in a song. I’m not a girl in a boastful story. I’m Shevawn.”

She’s right, of course, and it’s a good point. But the story isn’t doing a good job of making it by having Shevawn be a very flat depiction of the kind of barefooted Irish maiden that might appeal to an American middle-aged frustrated creative type. She feels like a character in the story of what’s happening to Robert, not the other way around, and that’s kind of disappointing. The performance is helping a lot, but she seems like a sliver of a real woman trapped in an authorial fantasy instead of a deeply beautiful soul trapped in a life of drudgery.

Robert kisses her.

He apologizes for setting her up with Jack, and confesses that he thought Jack would love her straight away because he loved her straight away.

“I’m an old fool,” Robert murmurs, holding her close in the shadow of the willow trees.

“You’re not old, and you’re the wisest man I’ve ever known!”

Being much closer to a Shevawn than a Robert, this earns a raised eyebrow from me.

Jean calls to Robert, breaking the romantic moment with the reality of their lives and the people in them. They arrange to meet to talk on a bench by the lake, next to an old ruined castle and Shevawn hurries off.

Robert ducks inside to tell everyone he’s going for a walk.

His wife reminds him that they have a train to catch, and watches him ignore her with a look of contempt on her face. Jean is also a woman trapped in her own life, but because she’s not young and pretty and made of daydreams like Shevawn, the story doesn’t care what it does to her. She’s an obstacle to Robert’s happiness, not the other way around.

Act Three begins with Robert and Shevawn making out on the castle bench. They stop so that he can recite “Sweet Innisfallen” at her. It’s a folk song about how beautiful things slip through your fingers, except Robert leaves out those lines and chooses the ones that aren’t so troubling. Again.

Shevawn says she can’t get over the feeling of being loved. It seems so new and overwhelming.

Robert decides it’s time for another monologue. This time about how he’s weak and spoiled for giving into his love for her, and she’s the strong one. Well, nobody’s going to argue with him on that one. Shevawn stops his monologue with a monologue of her own. Duelling speeches!

Hers is about how Liam was in love and it didn’t work out and that’s why he’s so mean and shouty, but she thinks she can handle him now that she understands how hurt he must’ve been. And she’s got courage to face the world, all because a washed up adman kissed her. That’s nice.

She also throws in that she won’t ask him to get a divorce or come back for her, since that goes against what she believes. But she’s grateful for the time they’ve had, and the new super powers his love has given her, and when the next wind from the south comes calling, she won’t answer.

Robert treats us to the final stanza of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” because it’s time for an American poem, I guess.

The next morning, Jean is yelling at Liam because she gave him some shirts to be sent out for cleaning, and he gave them to some local nuns to do, and the nuns didn’t deliver them on time for Jean to be certain she could have her shirts and not miss her train.

You live in America in the 50’s, Jean, just buy new shirts when you get home. It’s the dawn of consumerism.

But, of course, it’s not really the shirts as we soon learn when Jean confronts Robert with how he takes her for granted. All the little things she does to keep their lives running smoothly that he doesn’t even know are being done. She also reveals that she knows all about him and Shevawn, and Robert tells her that he loves Shevawn very much.

This kills something inside Jean.

“It suddenly occurs to me how often I’ve turned to you and said: ‘Are you coming or not?’ But I don’t feel like saying that now…”

She gathers up her coat and her luggage and stops at the door.

“I wonder if maybe we could learn to be a little kinder to one another.”

Haila Stoddard played Jean, and maybe it’s the brevity of her moment, but she blows all of the monologues out of the water with her poignancy here.

In the foyer, Jack and Shevawn share their own awkward moment. Jack seems embarrassed and disappointed in how their date went the night before, and Shevawn is avoiding eye contact. Jack stows his pride and apologizes for the pass he made, and tells her it was because he knew he’d only get the one date with her in his “whole stupid life.”

She brushes him off as Robert comes down the stairs. Not nice, Shevawn, Jack is just a simple marionette trying to make it in a moody non-puppet world.

Jack asks Jean if there’s room for him in the car just as far as the bus station, and Shevawn and Robert try to get a moment alone but keep being interrupted by everyone’s last morning logistics. The jolly tourist couple give Shevawn goodbye hugs, and Liam is trying to deal with the shirt debacle.

But finally, the two of them get their farewell.

Robert tries to give her his wristwatch so that she can remember him. Classy.

Shevawn says she’ll always remember him and always have all the poems he recited in her heart.

As the car takes all the Americans away, Liam and Shevawn watch.

Liam tells his sister he knows she fell in love with Robert, and he’s not nice about it. But Shevawn counters that she doesn’t want them to twist into horrible, bitter people like Paddy and Biddy.

They fight a little, but in the end, Liam does his best to apologize:

“I haven’t had anything to eat yet, and you know what I do to eggs…”

Yeah, somehow you manage to destroy the yolks. Still trying to figure that one out.

Shevawn stays to watch the rain come down.

Whether their lives are improved by her having experienced her first taste of love is up to you.

Merv Griffin sings us out.


  1. Excellent and vivid recap! It's customary to say that we need that kind of serious, one-off drama on television today; of course, we can get it through some of today's TV movies, particularly on cable. But what we can't get is the immediacy, the electricity of live drama, and that's an important difference. Someone once said that in today's TV, the actors perform to the camera, whereas in live television, knowing that there was an in-the-moment immediacy with the audience, it was impossible not to think that you were performing to them, the unseen viewers in the darkness beyond the lights. It's virtually a separate genre from other types of TV, and that's what we need more of today.

    1. Thanks, Mitchell!

      I find that even in the live musicals that are going on now on NBC and Fox, that crackle is missing. Especially with "Grease" — all those sound stages and filming tricks to make it look like a movie instead of a play. Maybe the trouble was that they didn't have one audience with them the whole performance, connecting with the ups and downs and helping guide the story.

      It would be refreshing if one of the networks did a straight play next winter.