From Cuba to France: A Look at Oppenheimer’s ANGEL (1960-1961)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In honor of the anniversary of I Love Lucy creator Jess Oppenheimer’s birth, today’s post looks at his first post-Lucy series, Angel (1960-1961, CBS), which he created and tailored around an up-and-coming French starlet, Annie Fargé. She plays Angel, a zany French woman who’s just married an American architect, John Smith (Marshall Thompson). Her difficulties adjusting to the American way of life, including some strident language barriers, form the crux of the comedy. In contrast to Angel and John are their next door neighbors, played by Don Keefer and Doris Singleton (Carolyn Appleby herself), a typically American married couple, full of cynicism and old habits. Despite little enthusiasm at the network, the show was well liked by critics. However, audiences didn’t catch on – her English was quite difficult to decipher — and the show shuffled around in three different time slots in its 33 episode season. The show was cancelled and has been seldom seen since.

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As with every series, Angel is best when it’s unique. But comparisons to I Love Lucy, the hour long continuation of which ceased production in the spring of ’60, are difficult to avoid. In addition to using the multi-camera setup and a Desilu soundstage (not to mention set pieces — the neighbor’s living room is a thinly redressed version of the Ricardo country home), both the show’s construct and its storylines are reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen before from Oppenheimer. Once again, a major root of conflict (and guffaws) in the primary relationship is the difference in cultures; this is magnified in Angel, but instead of having a Cuban husband, we have a French wife. While these differences are often a marvelous place to seek laughs, giving the wife (who’s already designed to be the show’s focus) this extra layer of comedy makes the husband’s characterization imbalanced. He now has no source of comedy besides being bemused at his wife’s antics; one of the brilliant strengths of I Love Lucy is that it used Desi’s natural abilities to make Ricky Ricardo a legitimate participant in the show’s comedy quotient. Without anything to hang upon John Smith besides his All American-ness, we have another mediocre set-up — the kind we find in mediocre sitcoms (like with Jim Backus’ character on I Married Joan).

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However, like Backus, Thompson is no slouch, and he does boring husband better than anyone we’ve covered on this blog, for his reactions are truthful without being humorless (as “honesty” can sometimes be), and he knows that his stability is a great foil to the mania of Fargé, who’s cute and delightful (as most critics said), but sometimes a little too sprightly. Don’t get me wrong: the spitfire aspect of her character is probably the funniest and freshest component of the series, but her characterization is such that it sometimes feels like we’re not laughing with her, but at her (because she really is struggling with English and being an American). And as the titular character, we almost need more strength from her. For instance, Lucy Ricardo, unlike later Lucy roles, was too smart for her own good. The few times that Angel is allowed to have an upper hand, or a conviction that gives her control, the show works. But again, so much of Angel is stuff we’ve seen before. Susie and George, the next door neighbors, are obviously the Mertzes (only 15 years younger), and although Doris Singleton has always been a hoot — she knows how to deflate a man’s metaphorical tire with a sharp quip — she’s not as buyable as Vance; when she’s given the exact same kind of lines, we really want her to be. That noted, she’s a welcome presence to have on the series, and certainly one of the factors that will make it of note to Lucy fans.

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So it’s not a great series by design, but the scripts are not bad, and when the writing is decent, there’s a lot to recommend. 12 episodes have been released on DVD by Shokus. I have a set of 31 out of the 33 and am only missing “The Maid” and “Angel Of Mercy,” the latter of which guest stars Alice Pearce (if anyone has these two episodes, please let me know)! As usual with these posts, I’m sharing with you my picks for the best episodes, in airing order.

 

01) Episode 1: “The French Touch” [a.k.a. “Pilot”] (Aired: 10/06/60)

With ulterior motives, Susie teaches Angel about being an American wife.

Written by Jess Oppenheimer | Directed by Lamont Johnson

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The pilot episode is clearly an Oppenheimer script, for it features logical plotting, a memorable climax (in which John and Angel use the French grocer as an interpreter) and a bit about the English language (cough, though, through) that may seem familiar. Singleton and Keefer are delightful in their varying reactions to Angel’s seemingly perfect dinner presentation, and Fargé is adorable. As a way to set up the series’ premise, this installment does the job well. This episode is not on DVD, but as of this writing, available on YouTube.

02) Episode 5: “Angel’s Temper” (Aired: 11/10/60)

John tries to keep Angel from losing her temper, but it backfires.

Written by Fred Fox & Irving Elinson | Directed by Jess Oppenheimer

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The premise is very similar to a third season episode of I Love Lucy, but the excitable nature of Angel’s character makes it an appropriate — equally appropriate — story here. There’s a cringeworthy scene (by our 21st century standards — worth a grain of salt) with Angel and an Asian gardner, but that’s all made up for in the amusing script and the marvelous guest appearance by Mel Blanc as a hapless sweeper salesman. As usual, he’s hilarious, and although it seems like a time-filler, it’s a classic. This episode is available on DVD.

03) Episode 17: “Call Me Mother” (Aired: 02/09/61)

Angel mistakes her visiting mother-in-law for their new maid.

Written by Arthur Alsberg | Directed by Ezra Stone

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Madge Blake guest stars in this episode as Mrs. Smith, John’s mom, who comes to meet Angel for the first time. Unfortunately, Angel mistakes her mother-in-law for the maid that they’ve just hired, and orders her to get in the kitchen and start right away. The audience is ahead of Angel, and although I mentioned above that the character works better when sharp and devious, the mistake comes not because of unintelligence, just a miscommunication. Thus, the comedy is able to work. This episode is not available on DVD.

04) Episode 21: “House Guests” (Aired: 03/09/61)

Angel invites Susie and George to stay with them during their redecorating.

Written by Arthur Alsberg | Directed by Ezra Stone

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Of all the installments that made my list for the best, this is the one with the least original premise. The secondary couple coming to stay with the primary couple and causing in-fighting amongst the four is as clichéd as they come. But the script is able to work in individual character moments, particularly for Angel, making the story jibe with the series’ premise. Also, it’s difficult to deny the comedy to be found in all the bedroom and bed mix-ups. It’s predictable, but it makes us laugh regardless. This episode is available on DVD.

05) Episode 24: “The Dentist” (Aired: 04/06/61)

Angel refuses to pay a dentist bill for a missed appointment.

Written by Arthur Alsberg | Directed by Ezra Stone

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Without a doubt, this would be my selection for MVE, the best episode of the entire series. In addition to maintaing its comedy throughout, the premise is original and fits the character of Angel. There are several episodes of this series in which its Angel vs. the system, and again, this is her character’s most interesting facet. Here she takes on a dentist (Parley Baer) who charges her for a missed appointment. (We can all relate, right?) Fueled by her foreignness to the American system, the whole affair culminates in a some marital feuds and a well done court scene. Fresh from start to finish. This episode, fortunately, is available on DVD.

 

I could have picked five additional episodes to highlight, but they’re much more suited as honorable mentions. They are: “The Easy Touch” [a.k.a. “Angel And The Con Men”], in which there’s a fantastic bit where Angel and Lyle Talbot have a discussion about actors and films (without knowing any of their names), “Happy Marriage,” in which Susie and Shirley Mitchell (remember her from Lucy?) teach Angel about what eventually happens to American marriages, “The French Lesson,” in which Angel gives French lessons to James Garner, as himself, and almost becomes a film star herself, “Unpopular Mechanics,” in which Angel and Susie wreck John’s boss’ car (Gale Gordon makes one of his several appearances), and “The Trailer,” in which both couples go halfsies on a house trailer, only to learn that they’ve been suckered. All of these episodes, with the exception of the first one listed above, have been released on DVD.

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UPDATE – 02/17/17: I have now added the two previously missing episodes — “The Maid” and “Angel Of Mercy” — to my collection, thereby making it complete. Having now seen all 33 offerings, I would not amend my list, although “Angel Of Mercy,” with the hilarious Alice Pearce, could make a fine additional honorable mention!

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules!

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2 thoughts on “From Cuba to France: A Look at Oppenheimer’s ANGEL (1960-1961)

  1. I remember this series from when it originally aired, and I was a kid. The only episode that stayed with me over the years was “The Dentist.” Glad to read your opinion that it was the best one. Great insights on Oppenheimer’s work, especially the observation on how Lucy’s character changed in later incarnations.

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