Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon: "My Blonde-Haired Brunette"

This article is proudly brought to you as part of The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon hosted by Ivan G. Shreve Jr.'s thrilling blog, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  It is also brought to you by Joy dishwashing liquid, which gives your dishes that See Yourself Shine.

I assume that people reading this will be familiar with the premise of The Dick Van Dyke Show.  The show followed television writer Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) as he made his way through misadventures at home with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Richie (Larry Mathews) and at work inventing funny sketches for the fictitious Alan Brady Show.  

The series creator, Carl Reiner, was determined to forget about stock sitcom devices and draw material from his own experiences as a comedy writer and suburban family man.  He wanted this sitcom to be funny, of course, but he also wanted it to be smart, sophisticated and grounded.  Its grounded situations made it more real than The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet Show or Father Knows Best.  And it was, due to its leading lady, more sexy.  In a review of a Dick Van Dyke DVD collection, Donald Liebenson declared Laura Petrie "television's first babe-mom."  

Another unique aspect of the show was its timbre.  The show was never noisy or, in any other way, abrasive.  It only made sense for a series that showcased Van Dyke's easygoing charm to develop a natural and relaxed quality.  Jackie Gleason shouted.  Sid Caesar shouted.  Danny Thomas shouted.  Dick Van Dyke didn't shout.  Much of television comedy in the 1950s showcased a raucous vaudeville style, but the early 1960s offered a number of comedies that were quieter and more natural.  Other obvious examples are The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver.  

I have selected for discussion today the first season episode "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" (1961).  The plot of the episode is set into motion by a simple rift.  Laura is disappointed that Rob would rather sleep late on a Saturday morning than join her for an intimate breakfast.  It makes it worse that Rob is not polite in his refusal.  He snaps at his wife for waking him with a kiss.


For the rest of the weekend, Laura becomes increasingly distressed thinking that Rob is no longer attracted to her.  She obsesses over possible signs that the romance has gone out of her marriage and finally convinces herself that she must take desperate measures to remedy the situation.  On the advice of her friend Millie (Ann Morgan Guilbert), Laura dyes her hair blonde hoping that it will make her look as attractive as Bridget Bardot.  But Laura is appalled to see how she looks with blonde hair, believing that the only movie star she resembles is Harpo Marx.

Laura desperately tries to dye her hair back to its natural color before Rob arrives home, but she has only managed to dye one side of her head when her husband comes strolling through the door.  The audience got two good comic reveals out of the situation - they initially got to a laugh seeing Laura with her hair blonde and then they were able to get an even bigger laugh seeing Laura's two-tone dye job.

Laura, feeling defeated, falls into Rob's arms sobbing.  Moore's comic sobbing would prove to be one of her greatest stock-in-trade on the show.  Moore has said in interviews that it was her work on this episode that convinced Reiner that she could be funny and didn't have to always play straight woman to Van Dyke. 

Now comes the denouement.  Once the sobbing stops, Rob assures Laura that she doesn't need to change herself to get his attention.  He may not always be as demonstrative of his affection as Laura would like, but he insists to her that he loves her exactly the way she is.  Fans of the show never doubted the affection between this couple.  The show presented a couple deeply in love with one another.  It was the wholesomeness of their relationship that viewers found so endearing.

John  Rich, who directed this episode, later directed an episode of  All in the Family called "Black is the Color of My True Love's Wig" (1973).  This is the Dick Van Dyke episode in reverse.  Laura used hair dye to go from brunette to blonde.  Gloria (Sally Struthers) uses a wig to go from blonde to brunette.  But the reversal goes deeper than that.  Rob didn't, for a moment, like Laura as a blonde.  He liked her as her natural-born, unadulterated self.  But Gloria's husband, Mike (Rob Reiner), likes this change in his wife's looks and he no doubt likes it too much.  He tries to coax Gloria to wear the wig while they're having sex.  Gloria is hurt and angry that her husband doesn't appreciate her for who she is.  She complains,  "It's this pile of hair from Kresler's that's getting to you!  I just happened to be standing underneath it!"  This is a more cynical perspective of marriage.  Rob and Laura faced simple doubts and misunderstandings that could be resolved with a warm embrace.  But some greater ills are at work in this new situation.  A shouting match erupts between the couple and feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction are exposed. 

Laura's decision to dye her hair was developed reasonably and patiently over the first half of "My Blonde-Haired Brunette."  Gloria introduces her wig early on and offers an abrupt motive for buying the hairpiece.  She explains that, on days that she doesn't feel like washing her hair, she will be able to use the wig to cover up her greasy locks.  No wife in New Rochelle looked more well-scrubbed than Laura Petrie.  A housewife as stylish as her would not be caught dead with greasy, stringy hair.  But only in the gritty world of seventies television could a wife admit that she couldn't be bothered to wash her hair.  It had to make a man long for Laura Petrie, who surely wasn't wearing capri pants simply to hide the fact that she hadn't had time to shave her legs. 

Attitudes change from generation to generation and Rob Reiner, who happened to be Carl Reiner's son, was certainly part of the next generation.  He had in fact been the real-life model of the Petries' son, Richie.  How was his character to get out of this awkward situation?  In the closing minutes of the episode, Mike reconciles with Gloria by making a hollow speech about how she is more important to him than a wig.  But Mike is still left looking lascivious, superficial and even perverse.  The studio audience can be heard laughing loudly when Mike's infamously cranky father-in-law, Archie Bunker, sneers at him and calls him a "hair lover." 

The Dick Van Dyke Show celebrated family and marriage.  All in the Family, and too many shows that followed it, denigrated family and marriage.  Everyone Loves Raymond was often likened to Dick Van Dyke, but the acrimonious shouting that often occurred on that show made it a lot more like All in the Family

The Petries were a model couple who were always able to plausibly resolve their misunderstandings and differences before the end of the half hour.  Blogger Bob Sassone wrote, "I pretty much became a writer because Rob Petrie was one.  I also hoped I could get a woman like Mary Tyler Moore."  Many fans feel this way about the show.  The show's enduring appeal comes from the fact that fans liked the Petries and recognized the value of their relationship.  And, besides, who wouldn't want to hang around the office all day telling jokes with Sally and Buddy?

Additional Note (published September 12, 2014): The writer of the All in the Family episode, Michael Morris, had written a similar script for a 1968 episode of The Mothers-in-Law called "The Wig Story."  The episode is discussed in an enjoyable article at the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear website.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant piece of work, Anthony...particularly the compare-and-contrast with the All in the Family episode (which I remember vividly seeing as a young couch potato...and kind of creeped out by). "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" is one of my favorite Dick Van Dyke Show episodes because (and I may be in the minority here) I think Laura's pretty hot as a blonde.