Finding respite in 1970s television
Reading that Barbara Eden (“I Dream of Jeannie”) recently turned 91 was shocking.
How did this perky blond get to this age? Had she swapped her vaporous outfit for compression stockings, polyester pants and orthopedic shoes? If she was that old, her sitcom must have been made in the Middle Ages of television.
The announcement of his age, the horrors of the news, and the senseless or violent shows of today made me travel back in time to the 1970s in search of old television series. Last week I went trolling and came across “Columbo” with Peter Falk. Its writers got it pretty easily: they just had to insert these sentences after every fourth paragraph: “Oh, one more thing”, “Well… it’s true, but you see” and “You know, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of that.”
There was no doubt about the outcome. You always knew who the culprit was because he or she committed murder nine minutes after the last credits and right before your frightened eyes.
Enter Peter Falk as a grimy genie out of a murky bottle, dropping cigar ash onto white carpets or someone’s velvet slippers. His black shoe-button eyes lacked nothing. What he didn’t know, his wife knew. What she didn’t know, her brother-in-law did. You were sure to know that you were surrounded by geniuses for the duration of the show.
The shows I’ve seen so far have included Leslie Nielsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Eddie Albert, Ray Milland, Roddy McDowell and Blythe Danner in their casts. They and others are the satellites that surround Peter Falk as he stumbles through elegant homes (no filthy hovels allowed), mangles neatly tended flowerbeds, and shears the horn off unicorn topiary.
I have to keep in mind that this show was produced in the 1970s, when flare pants were popular, along with gaudy horizontally striped sweaters, longer hair, and bad eye makeup. An actress, believed to be in her 50s, walks around her bedroom wearing a gold lamé dress with a huge bow at the neck, a hemline well above the knees and chunky gold boots. Fashion Police: Where have you been? Was there someone doing the costumes that day or was it a “come as you are” shoot? Did we really dress like that? Please say we didn’t.
So far, both male and female performers have been topped with really bad wigs or toupees. Nielsen appeared to be on track for a quick liftoff. McDowell’s was too big for his head. If he turned around quickly, I think his mat would have stayed up on top of him. Was there a baldness epidemic in Hollywood in the 70s? Did some madman cut all the pigtails of working actors as they slept in raised beds surrounded by gathered draperies? None of them seemed to be in possession of their natural hair.
In those distant 70s, cars were also different. In this TV show, they appear to be about a block long and 2 inches tall. Apart from the rambling Columbo wreck, every car is shiny and factory-fresh.
The main difference between “Columbo” and today’s crime shows is that his show was basically free of gore. The sound of a gunshot is heard, a heavy object wrapped in a towel looms before your eyes, the flash of a polished knife passes… however, you never, ever see the victim shaking his hand. chest or head with that telltale scarlet river flowing wide. You are briefly shown bloodless bodies unlikely to rise. Surprising.
Gore free on this program: not there.
The stabs are as delicate as silk lace and bloodless. Science and common sense tell us it’s impossible for a gaping wound or seven not to bleed, but in the world of Columbo, fans are treated with a serene gentleness made by a bullet or a blade.
“Columbo” remains locked in its time: a placid spectacle without vomiting. I recall 50 odd years every night to watch it, knowing that my rare burger will stay in its place with its dollop of ketchup. Optional yawn.
Susan Keezer lives in Adrian. Send him your good news at firstname.lastname@example.org.