Monday, January 25, 2016

TV Archaeology, or More Reasons to Adore Arlene Francis

Great excitement, kids, in a small but avid corner of televisual fandom - the remarkable team behind YouTube's invaluable What's My Line? channel have uncovered a hitherto lost episode of every sensible person's favorite series!

We've come a long way from a few years ago, when there were only bits and fragments of a few WML?'s available online; today, the YouTube channel now hosts more than 750 episodes, and as of last night, one more, from October 1, 1950.  It's an early iteration; the program is only eight months old, and it's remarkable how primitive it seems compared even with shows from a season or two later. The lighting is harsh, the set makeshift, and the unfortunate Hal Block really does remind one what a gem and jewel, despite the puns, the show had in the estimable Mr. Bennett Cerf and the occasionally trying but always game Mr. Steve Allen.

Still, even early WML? is good stuff, and this episode is no exception. The Mystery Challenger would likely be even more of a mystery today, for I doubt one person in a thousand recalls the scandalous bodice-ripping potboiler Forever Amber, let alone its author, Miss Kathleen Winsor. Amber is one of those novels that becomes a vast popular sensation for reasons absolutely unrelated to its merits. Every era seems to have one - Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, Princess Daisy, even, God help us, the lamentable Fifty Shades - tumultuously popular, endlessly discussed, and then after a few years, virtually unread. The lady herself is pleasant enough if by no means as colorful as, say, a Jaqueline Susann, and though she doesn't know it, this moment, when her second book, the bestselling Star Money, has recently hit the stands, is more or less her last hurrah.  By then she'd had two successful novels, divorced her college sweetheart, swiftly married and then divorced Artie Shaw (as who didn't in that era?), and gone on to her third husband (there'd be one more; he lasted). And that's more or less it. She put out six more novels, but none recaptured the fickle public, and while she seems to have had a happy enough life until her death in 2003, she nonetheless figures as one of the less familiar Mystery Challengers one can think of.

The episode cuts out just before the end, so perhaps we'll never know if the panel guessed the occupation of the rotund Mr. Florian Obuchowski of Stamford, Connecticut, who follows Miss Winsor. Still, the first guest, Mrs. Marion Hickey of Newark, New Jersey, is a real charmer, and Miss Francis (if it's even possible) goes further up in my estimation as she exclaims, on the lady's exit, "She's a woman of distinction!"*

Takes one to know one, if you ask me.

I really do recommend the WML? YouTube channel, as well as its sister page on Facebook. Be warned, though: these people are some serious What's My Line? fans, able to dissect at a moment's notice and in great detail the exact moment that Stopette was replaced by Helene Curtis as series sponsor, the varied virtues of guest panelists from Phyllis Newman to Wally Cox, and just exactly when host Mr. John Daly stopped smoking (as he is here) onscreen. They make me feel like a piker, albeit a highly grateful one.

* I find it interesting, sometimes, to look into what happened to WML?'s non-celebrity guests after their brief moment in the spotlight. Despite Arlene'e encomium, I can't find much on Mrs. Hickey, but I certainly wish her the best. Sadly, if we can credit that here Mr. Obuchowski is a sprightly 30, it would seem like things didn't work out so well for him; a 42-year-old gentleman of the same relatively unusual name was convicted of embezzlement in the sum of more than $50,000 in 1962. I suppose that WML? prize money didn't really go all that far, even in 1950 dollars...


  1. Primitive indeed! What is that the panelists are sitting at? A banquet table? But the propped up chalkboard and the shadow of the boom or any of the rest doesn't matter because the show is always interesting and entertaining. I love the WML channel on YouTube but it's a rabbit hole that is hard to pull away from once you go there. And those fans are vehement!

    Forever Amber was a fun, easy read especially for the length but they made a truncated mess of the movie. The Production Code's and Preminger's fault not the performers who are all spirited. Speaking of them Amber's star my beloved Linda Darnell is one of my favorite Mystery Guests answering in charming Italian throughout her appearance.

  2. one never needs another reason to love arlene. and on the flip side, one could never find enough reasons to like hal bloch.

  3. The whole "set" looks like it might collapse at any minute.

  4. Thank you, as-yet-unknown-to-me person who I assume must be a member of the WML Facebook group, for this wonderful article. I linked to it in the group just now-- but I imagine you'll find that out on your own. Whoever you are. :)

    Thank you again for this-- beautifully written and much appreciated.

    1. Thank you! I am indeed a happy participant on the FB group, but for various reasons keep a pretty high firewall between blogging and what passes for real life. it was a lovely surprise to see this post over in that other world this morning, though. Almost as lovely as a new opportunity to appreciate Arlene (and Dorothy, and all).

  5. I too try to find info on WML contestants (and participants on other shows as well). Nice to know I'm not alone in this.

    I recently wondered if one Aphrodite Jones, a would-be actress who was a contestant on an episode of the Match Game I watched the other day, had gone on to any success, and I learned that today she's a very well-known (though clearly not to me) true-crime writer and television personality.