Thursday, February 27, 2020

Purchase or Pass: Our Miss Brooks


In some of my freelance writing I have occasionally been accused of burying a lead. So let’s settle the main question for this piece up front: my verdict for Our Miss Brooks on DVD is a pass.



If you’re surprised, imagine how I felt.

Prior to the DVD set’s arrival I had two reasons to believe this show would be a welcome addition to my classic television library: it starred Eve Arden, and it was a series set in a school.



Whether it was The Mothers-in-Law or Grease or the Bewitched episode where Tabitha was born, I can’t think of a time I haven’t enjoyed watching Arden, or listening to her distinctively marvelous voice. She brought such convincing authority to the characters she played, it was easy to believe the sharp punch lines supplied by a script came from her own quick wit.

Our Miss Brooks was her breakthrough, first in 1948 when it debuted on radio, and then four years later when the series came to television. The role of high school teacher Connie Brooks seemed like a perfect fit for Arden’s persona – someone who is smart and capable, yet frequently befuddled by eccentric coworkers.

And school shows? Always loved them, whether it was Mr. Novak or Room 222 or Fame or The Paper Chase or Head Of the Class.

So what could possibly go wrong here? In a word: everything. 



One of the most basic elements of any series is the way its characters interact with each other. The authenticity of those relationships between friends, relatives, and coworkers are a reason why viewers come to care about them.

But on Our Miss Brooks those interactions seem forced and artificial, especially in the way people that have known each other for years keep referring to each other by name throughout a conversation. And all of the dialogue is delivered at a heightened intensity, the way it might be in a stage play where actors have to amplify each line so it can be heard in the back row.

That’s a bad situation for Eve Arden, whose comedic arsenal featured subtle expression changes and sly, dry understated retorts.

Another surprise for me was how Connie Brooks, described in more than one book about television as TV’s first independent career woman, would seemingly chuck that independence in a heartbeat if only science teacher Philip Boynton (Robert Rockwell) would return her affection. He’s clearly interested, but every time Connie makes a move he runs for the hills. 



I did like Gale Gordon as Madison High’s principal, Osgood Conklin, though he’s doing the same bellowing boss role here that he’d later perfect opposite Lucille Ball. The show’s most annoying character is student Walter Denton, played by a 25 year-old Richard Crenna. Crenna is another fine actor whom I’ve liked in just about everything he’s done – but here he speaks in such an unnaturally high-pitched voice that it pretty much took me out of every scene he’s in. 



My other big issue with Our Miss Brooks is that it’s a show about a teacher, but we never actually seen Connie Brooks teaching. I read (online, so take it for what it’s worth) that this was a result of Eve Arden feeling uncomfortable in front of a classroom of students, since she never graduated high school. True or not, without these scenes the show could just as easily been set at a library or a bank.

I know that millions of people have loved this show for many years, so clearly this is a situation where your mileage may vary. There are other classics that I’ve never embraced, and sadly Our Miss Brooks is now on that short list. If you think I’m nuts, let me know. 



7 comments:

  1. First, Eve Arden absolutely graduated high school (Tam High in Marin County, CA under her birth name Eunice Mary Quedens).

    And thank you for your well thought out review. Where I love 'Our Miss Brooks' it is from it's time. There's a reason few surviving shows from then are still available. Acting back then was stage based. It took decades for the natural style of acting we use today to come into use. I would remind you though that this cast had done 'Our Miss Brooks' for 5 years on the radio. Their acting on TV matches how acting was done on the radio.

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    1. Thank you for that information! And I've been told that the performances on the radio version are actually less exaggerated than those on the TV show. Will check that out sometime soon.

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  2. Mr. Hofstede, how about you do a "Purchase or Pass" commentary about the 1976-77 Robert Stack series "Most Wanted"? It's been released via manufacture-on-demand DVD.

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  3. The radio version of Our Miss Brooks is one of my favourite things, and the few episodes of the television series I've seen on YouTube match up pretty much with that (with the caveats of everyone being older and the sets having looked better in the imagination).
    I know it's not something you usually do, but do you have any comments on the audiovisual quality of the set?

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    1. I thought the episodes looked and sounded great for such vintage material. Not "I Love Lucy" blu-ray perfect, but I don't think anyone would be disappointed in the quality.

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  4. Eve Arden was great. So funny and quick witted. There is a reason some of those shows back them didn’t last very long. They weren’t good. It usually seemed to have to do with poor writing and editing versus the actors being bad on purpose. I mean they want a check every week so wouldn’t they try their hardest?

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  5. I have to agree with you, this is one of these show, both on radio and TV that I never understood the popularity of. I love Eve Arden and wish she had done more in the 60s and 70s, but like so many "classic films you have to love," I never understood this one.

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