First, cover art for my next collection of essais, Style is the Rocket:
Featuring the title piece and a Bunch of Other Cool Stuff.
First, cover art for my next collection of essais, Style is the Rocket:
Featuring the title piece and a Bunch of Other Cool Stuff.
Marxist critics make the same claim more boldly for Marxist books. For instance, Mr Edward Upward (‘A Marxist Interpretation of Literature,’ in The Mind in Chains):
‘Literary criticism which aims at being Marxist must… proclaim that no book written at the present time can be “good” unless it is written from a Marxist or near-Marxist viewpoint.’
Various other writers have made similar or comparable statements. Mr Upward italicizes ‘at the present time’ because, he realizes that you cannot, for instance, dismiss Hamlet on the ground that Shakespeare was not a Marxist. Nevertheless his interesting essay only glances very shortly at this difficulty. Much of the literature that comes to us out of the past is permeated by and in fact founded on beliefs (the belief in the immortality of the soul, for example) which now seem to us false and in some cases contemptibly silly. Yet it is ‘good’ literature, if survival is any test. Mr Upward would no doubt answer that a belief which was appropriate several centuries ago might be inappropriate and therefore stultifying now. But this does not get one much farther, because it assumes that in any age there will be one body of belief which is the current approximation to truth, and that the best literature of the time will be more or less in harmony with it. Actually no such uniformity has ever existed. In seventeenth-century England, for instance, there was a religious and political cleavage which distinctly resembled the left-right antagonism of to-day. Looking back, most modern people would feel that the bourgeois-Puritan viewpoint was a better approximation to truth than the Catholic-feudal one. But it is certainly not the case that all or even a majority of the best writers of the time were puritans.
—George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’
M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #9 in the series.
Before we can continue with the story of Margaret Houlihan, we need to take note of an irrevocable change that happened on M*A*S*H at this time. In 1977, after five years on the show, Gene Reynolds stepped down as executive producer. He continued to be listed on the credits as ‘Creative Consultant’, but what this meant, in effect, was that the new production team had a chat with him once a week or thereabouts. It was no longer his show. Larry Gelbart, as we have seen, left a year earlier and was not even involved as an occasional consultant. At the same time, Allan Katz and Don Reo stepped down as producers after a single year at the helm.
So whose show was M*A*S*H now? Burt Metcalfe, who had been with the show from the beginning, and had shared production credit with Katz and Reo in the fifth season, was now credited as sole producer. But this is misleading. Metcalfe was a superb technician, who could always be relied upon to keep a show running smoothly, to work around any production glitches and keep the Hollywood-sized egos around him suitably groomed and massaged. He was a perfect right-hand man. That was the job he had done for Gene Reynolds for five years, and he would continue to do it for six more. But for whom? In theory, Reynolds was still his superior. But his actual boss was the other man listed in the new position of Creative Consultant: Alan Alda.
M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #8 in the series.
As you might expect from an eleven-year TV series about a three-year war, the continuity on M*A*S*H was frequently dire. Television in those days was often lax about continuity – the ‘series bible’ was an innovation that had really only come in with Star Trek a few years before, and had not yet fully caught on – but M*A*S*H was an egregious offender.
When the series began, Hawkeye was from Vermont, where he had a mother and a sister living; later he was an only child from Maine, and his mother was dead. Colonel Blake’s wife was originally named Mildred; then she became Lorraine, and Mildred was reused for the name of Colonel Potter’s wife. Potter had a son, and a major plot in one episode concerned the baby pool betting on the sex, weight, and birthdate of his first grandchild. A few years later, that extended family had vanished down the memory hole, and Potter’s only child was a daughter, who had children born before the war.
Chronology got equally short shrift. About five Christmases were crammed into the three-year duration of the Korean War. The date of Potter’s arrival at the 4077th is given as 19 September 1952, but in a late episode (‘A War For All Seasons’) Potter is playing Father Time on New Year’s Eve of 1950 (and again in 1951). A fourth-season episode refers to Vice-President Nixon, who took office in 1953 as Eisenhower’s running mate, but a tenth-season episode has Hawkeye writing a letter to President Truman, Eisenhower’s predecessor. Writers for M*A*S*H soon learnt to avoid tying episodes down to specific dates; but the continual turnover of the staff meant that there was always a new bug ready to make the same mistake.
Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit, was only one of two series regulars to last the show’s entire run. It would be unreasonable to expect that the writers would make an exception in her favour to their cavalier attitude; and in fact Margaret is not spared from the general incoherence. Her father, explicitly declared to be dead in an early episode, actually makes a personal appearance in the late episode ‘Father’s Day’. Indeed, Margaret’s development as a character is only made possible by the show’s Silly Putty calendar. Consider: [Read more...]
Before I forget, I want to make note of a very small incident:
We had hail this week in the Frozen North – in my particular neighbourhood, popcorn-sized hail two days in a row. Fortunately Sin-Ang, my new-to-me vehicle, has had hailpox before and is therefore immune. Down the hill, at Chez DiMento, they were not so lucky: golf-ball hail hammered the hapless Volkswagen of Sarah’s POSSLQ, leaving it with a bad case of pox on the very eve of their departure for a week-long road trip. The VW is drivable but not, I am told, so pretty as it was.
Although we only had popcorn up on the hill, it was very vigorous popcorn. The storm began very suddenly Tuesday afternoon, and I was answering a call of nature and did not have time to shut the windows right away. One hailstone, blessed by its Maker with a combination of marksmanship, daredevilry, and bloody-mindedness seldom seen in balls of ice, bounced in my open window, ricocheted madly round the bedroom, then found its way across the corridor and into the W.C. where it exploded on the wall in front of me with a triumphant smash.
In all my mumblety-mumble years, my lords and ladies, I swear that I have never before been hailed on in the loo. But now I have.
A while back, my good friend, esteemed colleague, and boss at Abyss & Apex, Wendy S. Delmater, began badgering me to put up a landing page where my essays on M*A*S*H would be collected for easy reference. I shirked this task as long as I decently could; but this evening (not finding myself up to more productive work) I slogged through the Byzantine maze of WordPress menus and editing windows, and came up with a simple page as a starting point for the series.
The keen of eye will notice that the cryptic legend ‘M*A*S*H’ has been added to the navigation menu above the masthead. Clicking on that will take you there, too.
M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #7 in the series.
When McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers left M*A*S*H, as I have discussed, they broke up two of the three double acts that made up the original cast. At the same time, quite unintentionally, they sealed the fate of the third. Frank Burns and ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan were still partners in crime after the departure of Henry and Trapper, but their crimes were never the same again. The arrival of Col. Potter started a process that led to Frank’s complete disintegration as a character, so that there was no option but to release Larry Linville from the show when his contract was up. This did not arise from any shortcoming of Linville’s as a performer. The decline and fall of Frank Burns was purely a matter of errors in writing; and for this reason I want to examine it in some detail.
I had stopped to window-shop, then come in to price a bit of cheap jewellery. The proprietor must have liked the look of me, for he trusted me enough to take a display box of rings and gewgaws out from under glass and let me rummage through them on my own. While I was amusing myself with that, another customer came in, a bulging canvas bag over his shoulder. He was one of these adventurers by the look of him, and not an experienced one; he had on a lot of shiny new armour and other rubbish, more stylish than practical, probably sold to him by some huckster who spotted him for a rube and told him the yarn about how this stuff was just what he needed. This fellow was the counterpart to the first-time camper who goes ‘roughing it’ with six carts full of gear and all the discomforts of home.
Your true hero goes out with a flint and steel and a case-knife, and comes back with a hoard of treasure and a rescued princess – if he wants them. I knew one once, such an old hand that he didn’t even trouble with the flint, and only bothered with princesses if he could score a brace of them. He said it was no more trouble to rescue two at a time, and a lot more sporting to try and bring them back without having them scratch each other’s eyes out. Princesses are a jealous lot, and give the lie to the old yarn about breeding equating to good manners. If you want to see worse manners than wildcats fighting, just stir up two princesses with the same dress on, and set them down in a room together. It needn’t even be dresses; your more particular sort will start up if they both have the same colour of eyes. Jade-green and violet are the worst; especially the ones with tip-tilted noses—
But I digress. This raw young kid with about a hundred pounds of gear on his person, not counting the bag, sauntered in as if he was somebody and heaved the bag up on the counter. I kept still and listened. It is always good to see a skilful tradesman at work, even if he is only a pawnbroker; and this one was a master. He said:—
‘Can I help you?’
‘It says Cash for Treasures, Old and Rare,’ said the kid, referring to the sign outside. ‘If you’ve got the cash, I’ve got the treasures.’ [Read more...]
M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #6 in the series.
We have arrived at the fourth season of M*A*S*H. The show has weathered the first storm of cast changes with its audience more or less intact, though the tone is subtly changing. The war is still a horrible and inhuman calamity, beyond the power of any of the characters to prevent or affect; but we can no longer say the same of the Army.
Hitherto, the spirit of the armed forces has been represented by the duo of Frank Burns and ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, not so much characters as caricatures, and their futile quest to turn a parcel of draftee doctors into GIs. They were the Enemy, with a capital E; the North Koreans and Chinese were merely a disaster, usually offscreen. But now Colonel Potter, the career man, is in charge, and third on the bill: he is one of Us, and that means that the Regular Army, in toto and categorically, can no longer quite be regarded as Them.
There will be plenty more stories about military stupidity, wrongheaded regulations, gung-ho but incompetent officers; but the emphasis changes. These things that continue to afflict the 4077th are diseases of the military; we begin to lose the sense that the military, as such, is the disease. In this, the show is changing with the times. The Vietnam War reached its final catastrophe in 1975: North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon on April 30, just six weeks after ‘Abyssinia, Henry’ was broadcast. M*A*S*H, the film, was a thinly veiled protest against that war; the TV series continued in the same vein. But there was no longer a war to protest against; if the show had gone on that way, it would have become a museum piece.
As it was, M*A*S*H lost a considerable chunk of its audience. Many fans of the show stopped watching in outrage after Henry Blake was killed; the show dropped out of the top ten in the Nielsen ratings the following season, though not out of the top twenty. But the new characters, Potter and Hunnicutt, quickly won over the remaining viewers, and the fourth season produced a new flowering of technical excellence.
This was the last year with Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds in charge (now credited as co-producers). They continued to refresh the pool of writing talent, in part, by tapping their long-time connections in the industry. One of the new writers was Rick Mittleman, who received his first and, alas, only M*A*S*H credit for an episode called ‘Hey, Doc’. [Read more...]
M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #5 in the series.
In one of my previous posts on M*A*S*H, I mentioned that the original cast, with its three distinct comedy double acts, could have carried on almost indefinitely, but that external forces prevented them. The old theologians liked to talk about the three great sources of temptation, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil; and one could make a pretty fair case that these three tempters broke up the three double acts and prepared the way for the series’ eventual decline. Actually, the frequent changes of cast were a mixed blessing for M*A*S*H. The exquisite structure of the original cast was broken up. On the other hand, new actors and new characters meant new situations that the writers could exploit; and since the writers themselves were replaced at a fairly steady rate (until the great climacteric of ’79, to be discussed later), there were always fresh approaches and new points of view in the scripts.
The third season, for instance, featured the first scripts by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place, the show’s first women writers; their chief contribution, perhaps, was to make the nurses more important to the stories, without using them merely as love interests or sexual foils for the surgeons. Mary Kay Place guest-starred in an episode she had co-written, ‘Springtime’, playing a nurse whom Radar inadvertently (and comically) seduces by reading her a horrible poem by ‘Ruptured Brooke’:
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick….
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw—
At which point Place throws herself at Radar, moaning, ‘You don’t give a girl a chance!’ Whereupon the rest of the poem (‘A Channel Passage’) is fortunately lost.
But the real genius of the middle years of M*A*S*H belonged to a veteran writing team that Larry Gelbart brought in for the third season: Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who had cut their teeth in radio, and had worked in television since the beginning of that medium. Before he died, Greenbaum did a long interview for the Archive of American Television, which (among many other reminiscences) sheds much light on the process of writing for M*A*S*H.
Greenbaum and Fritzell, more than anyone except the show’s creators, had their fingers on the pulse of M*A*S*H; they understood the characters (and the armed forces) intimately. So the producers relied on them exclusively for the most difficult and delicate writing jobs of all: writing out old characters and introducing new ones whenever the cast was changed. [Read more...]
Hat tip to Michael Flynn. Out of the mouths of smart-alecks comes spot-on satire: