‘The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan’

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:

We are never quite told how long Col. Blake commanded the 4077th, but about the time of Potter’s arrival, Hawkeye remarks, ‘I’ve been sticking pins in my Frank Burns doll for over a year.’ After Potter’s arrival, an unstated interval passes before Margaret gets engaged to Col. Donald Penobscot. Her engagement goes on for eight months before Frank Burns needles her into demanding that Donald set a date for a wedding. (This specific number was mentioned in ‘Margaret’s Marriage’, written by Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell, who had worked on the show long enough to know better, but apparently didn’t care.) The marriage itself is short and tempestuous, but lasts at any rate long enough to make, and then break, a regular arrangement about banking Margaret’s monthly pay (‘The Merchant of Korea’), and for Margaret to suspect that she is pregnant (‘What’s Up, Doc?’). After the split, it takes months for the final divorce papers to come through (‘Hot Lips is Back in Town’). That takes us to the latter part of the seventh season. Still to come is Margaret’s on-again, off-again romance with Sgt. Scully, followed by her emergence as the anachronistic prototype of the Fully Liberated Seventies Career Woman.

It is simply impossible to fit all this into three years, and we are not seriously intended to. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but the producers counted upon their audience for a fair degree of outright amnesia. This was not entirely unreasonable in the show’s first run, where the episodes were doled out carefully, one per week for no more than half the year. But it began to be an excessive demand when M*A*S*H went into syndication and was ‘stripped’, five episodes a week; and in the post-DVD era, when ‘binge-watching’ is a recognized pastime, it becomes ludicrous. Even during the original run, the audience and critics (and satirists like ‘the usual gang of idiots’ at MAD Magazine) were making sour gibes about the unconscionable length of time that this three-year war was lasting. When you can watch the episodes in any order and see the contortions of chronology in stark relief, you can only laugh. The strength of the show’s concept, and still more of the characters, makes this flaw tolerable – but only just.

If you had never seen M*A*S*H before, and your first exposure to it was a set of three episodes, chosen more or less at random but staggered four or five years apart, you would form a very curious impression of the show. The first thing you would notice is the frequent changes of cast. Eleven actors were listed as regulars in the opening credits, but only two lasted all the way through. However, this is a thing that happens with TV shows, especially those with ensemble casts, and you would probably take it in stride. The change of tone would be harder to deal with. Many people are fans of the early seasons only, with their straightforward comedy, to the point where they refuse to watch the late seasons. A smaller number prefer the heavy drama of the later years, and a few stalwarts have sufficiently catholic tastes to appreciate both styles equally. But you would almost certainly be puzzled, and quite probably put off, by the change in the character of the chief nurse.

A small confession before we go on: This essay has a slightly misleading title, or rather, a misleadingly misleading title. But this may be a case where two wrongs actually do make a right. There is an episode called ‘The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan’, from the fifth season; and I have nothing to say about it, except that it has a misleading title, which could be put to better use. Margaret is not, in fact, abducted in that episode. She goes off by night to deliver a Korean baby, and Klinger, the only person she tells about it, forgets to inform anyone else before going to bed. The recurring imbecile, Col. Flagg, whose sole purpose is to dramatize the supposedly oxymoronic nature of the phrase ‘military intelligence’, shows up to look for her, and makes his usual hash of things. What is much more interesting, to my way of thinking, is that Margaret Houlihan actually was abducted about that time. That is, she lost her original character almost entirely, and was replaced by a radically different person who happened to be played by the same actress.

When the show began, the chief nurse was ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, played loud and brash by Loretta Swit, who was labouring in the shadow of Sally Kellerman. Kellerman was a show-stealer in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, and it took a long time for Swit to develop her own version of the character rather than trying simply to reproduce Kellerman’s performance. Legend has it that for some time, Swit actually used to sign photos of Hot Lips ‘Sally Kellerman’.

Hot Lips was part GI, part man-eater, and all fire. Her character was perfectly expressed in a lengthy monologue from the third-season episode ‘Aid Station’, written by Larry Gelbart and Simon Muntner. She has just volunteered for dangerous duty at the front, where a battalion aid station has been hit by artillery and its surgeon killed. As she packs her kit bag, she tells Frank Burns:

I’m a married man too, Frank: married to the Army. I don’t want the future you offer – meeting behind garbage cans and behind laundry trucks. When the war’s over – and nothing good lasts forever – you’ll go home. Home to your wife’s bony arms. I’ll still be in the service. I’m an Army brat, Frank. My father was a colonel and my mother was a nurse and I was conceived on maneuvers. The Army’s in my blood. I need its discipline, its traditions. I thrill to the sight of a precise parade. I could faint from looking down at my own brass. That’s why I volunteered, Frank: to serve the Army I love. And don’t you worry. I’m coming back. Coming back to you for whatever time we have left together, because I’m not just Major Margaret Houlihan, Army nurse. I’m also Margaret Houlihan, frail, vulnerable, sensitive female. And if you touch one nurse while I’m gone, I’ll cut your hands off!

Seldom has a character had such a perfect moment of self-revelation. It could be a useful trick, when one is struggling to bring a character to life on the page, to give him a chance to soliloquize in this way, let him reveal his true inwardness to his creator. It would then be advisable, as a general thing, to burn the soliloquy. We are not all Larry Gelbart or even Simon Muntner; and anyway, we may be sure that Margaret’s monologue was the product of painstaking drafting and redrafting and ruthless cutting. But it was all worth it to give us that window on Hot Lips’ character – and that magnificent punchline at the end.

Half of Hot Lips’ role in the early seasons is to play a dysfunctional Lady Macbeth to Frank Burns, egging him on to usurp Col. Blake’s command by fair means or foul. In ‘The Trial of Henry Blake’, they hatch a scheme to have Henry court-martialled for giving aid and comfort to the enemy – ‘the enemy’ in this case being Meg Cratty, an American nurse who runs a free clinic just north of the 38th parallel, and was doing so years before anyone thought of partitioning Korea. The list of generals to whom Frank and Hot Lips have written letters of complaint is long and rather drearily impressive. At one point Henry complains, ‘You’ve gone over my head so many times, I have athlete’s scalp!’

The arrival of Col. Potter, as previously discussed, neutered the duo of Frank and Hot Lips. She was bound to treat a senior career officer (and a capable surgeon, so Frank’s superior on both counts) with a modicum of respect. That meant, at the very least, not plotting to remove him from his command. It also meant that if the Swampmen indulged in off-duty hijinks, or Klinger tried to finagle a discharge by dressing like Lana Turner, and Potter chose to let them blow off steam in these ways, Margaret had to acquiesce. There was still her affair with Frank, but that was getting to be old hat. The character was running out of things to do.

At this point, the writers could either write Hot Lips out of the show (as they did with Frank Burns) or change her role. They chose the latter. I find it significant that they did not give the job to their ace writers and directors, but to a pair of comparative novices. ‘Bug Out’, the fifth season premiere, was written by Fritzell and Greenbaum, who had firmly established themselves as the show’s star writers, and directed by Gene Reynolds himself. The job of changing Margaret’s character beyond recognition was handed off to Gary Markowitz and Alan Alda.

Markowitz was one of the relatively minor writers in the M*A*S*H stable. As one half of the duo of Regier & Markowitz, he had written three scripts for the show. The first of these, ‘George’, broke ground on prime-time television with a sympathetic treatment of a homosexual in the military. Perhaps that script gave Markowitz the liberal bona fides to recommend him to Alda as the man for this job. It certainly was not his impressive résumé that got him the assignment. He was still in his twenties, with only a handful of screenplays to his name, half of them co-written with John W. Regier. Alda, of course, was not a professional screenwriter at all, but essentially a gifted amateur who got the job by being the star of the show. He wrote some very good M*A*S*H episodes, but also some of the worst.

‘Margaret’s Engagement’ contains some very funny scenes, and the tag gives Frank Burns one of his few moments of genuine humanity. But on the whole, it is not a very good episode, and the problem is located squarely in the script’s treatment of Margaret herself. Never a model of tact, she plumbs new depths of insensitivity, not only in her callous abandonment of Frank, but in her dealings with the whole of the 4077th. She telephones from Tokyo that she has big news for everyone: ‘Not just big, great big, with whipped cream!’ Frank jumps to the conclusion that he is being promoted. A few people dare to speculate that the peace talks may be making progress. But no, the ‘great big’ news is that Margaret is engaged to be married. She expects everyone to be thrilled. In fact, everyone rightly regards it as a letdown, except Frank, for whom it is a deep personal betrayal – the loss, not only of his extramarital lover, but of his only friend on the post.

In fact, ‘Margaret’s Engagement’ suffers from that bane of comedy writing, the ‘Idiot Ball’ plot. Margaret herself carries the idiot ball for the first act, before handing it off to Frank. Faced with the fait accompli of losing Hot Lips to a West Point he-man, Frank goes loopy and tries to make himself a war hero. Fully equipped with rifle and camouflage, he rounds up a group of dangerous Communist guerrillas, cleverly disguised as a Korean family (and their ox) eating a meal. ‘They looked a little too much like a Korean family eating a meal,’ he explains. Hawkeye sarcastically suggests that the ox is a radio. Frank pulls himself together in time for the tag, at which point Hot Lips ends up with the idiot ball again, exchanging insults with Frank and actually coming out the loser.

The next step in the metamorphosis of ‘Hot Lips’ into ‘Margaret’ comes in an episode called ‘The Nurses’, written by Linda Bloodworth. The story is good enough in its own right, but it calls attention to a serious weakness in M*A*S*H. Thanks partly to CBS’s insistence on getting rid of most of the minor recurring characters, the nurses under Margaret’s command have been reduced to uniformed ciphers, the interchangeable ‘Nurse Able’ and ‘Nurse Baker’, played by a revolving cast of hungry young actresses.

This episode features a ‘Baker’, played by Linda Kelsey (her only appearance on the series), who finds herself in the middle of a tug-of-war between Houlihan and the rest of the nursing staff. With some clownish assistance from the Swampmen, they quarantine Baker’s GI husband (whom she has not seen since their wedding day) in Margaret’s own tent so that Baker can sneak in after lights out for a one-night honeymoon. It is never mentioned why they didn’t use the VIP tent for this purpose, but the real reason is to create an artificial complication by forcing Margaret to spend the night in the nurses’ quarters. Of course this makes it impossible for Baker to return to her own bed without getting caught.

Up to this point, we have had a fairly typical ‘Hot Lips’ plot: off-duty shenanigans at the 4077th, versus the watchful, rule-bound martinet, Major Houlihan. The chief difference has been that the protagonists were nurses instead of doctors. This, so far, is a healthy development. The lack of meaningful screen time for the nursing staff has been a weakness of the show since Alan Alda laid down the law that there were to be no more plots turning on the surgeons’ serial womanizing. But the development is stillborn. For the real purpose of the episode is not to give scope to the nurses, but to thaw the icy exterior of Major Houlihan and prepare for her transformation into a sympathetic character.

In the climactic scene, Margaret chews out the nurses for pulling a fast one on her.

          NURSE WALSH
Let’s face it, Major. You don’t trust us.

          MARGARET
And do you trust me? You act like I’m the enemy!

          NURSE BAKER
All right. If I had asked your permission last night, what would you have done?

          MARGARET
I would have said no.

          BAKER
See?

          MARGARET
Not because it’s against regulations, but because of the rotten way you’ve treated me.

          BAKER
The way we’ve treated you? What are you talking about?

          MARGARET
Did you ever show me any kind of friendship? Ask my help with a personal problem? Include me in one of your little bull sessions?
     (fighting back tears)
Can you imagine what it’s like to… to walk by this tent and hear you laughing and… and know I… I’m not welcome? Did you ever once ever offer me a lousy cup of coffee?

          BAKER
We didn’t think you’d accept.

          MARGARET
Well, you were wrong.

In the tag, Margaret catches the nurses (for the second time) trying to make fudge in their tent.

          MARGARET
Cooking in the tents is against regulations.

          NURSE PRESTON
Yes, Major. Have some?

          MARGARET
     (beat; smiles; tastes the fudge)
That’s really bad.

THE NURSES laugh.

          BAKER
How about a lousy cup of coffee?

Margaret has turned over a new leaf, and the show has found some new characters. There’s just one problem. None of these nurses will ever be seen again, and Margaret will ride their replacements just as hard as she has been riding them. The only thing accomplished is to give Margaret an ‘out’ from the corner that Hot Lips has been painted into; to give the character a shot of ersatz humanity. Baker, Walsh, Preston, and Gaynor disappear without a trace, and Margaret’s relationship with her subordinates is, as they say in the sitcom trade, ‘reset to zero’.

Oddly enough, a similar plotline, with a similar emotional payoff, works much better in the sixth-season episode, ‘Images’, written by Burt Prelutsky. Margaret (who is now Mrs. Penobscot) is similarly hard on a new nurse who is taking longer than expected to adjust to conditions at a MASH. In ‘The Nurses’, Lt. Gaynor complained that she could no longer feel anything. Lt. Cooper’s problem is that she feels too much. Cooper specifically asked to be assigned to a MASH, but the reality is more than she is emotionally prepared for. We first see her bolting out of the O.R. during an operation, leaving B. J. Hunnicutt without a scrub nurse. This is not an unheard-of reaction to one’s first experience of meatball surgery, but Cooper isn’t getting past this stage fast enough to suit Margaret, who displays her characteristic leadership skills by yelling at Cooper and threatening to have her shipped out.

Prelutsky, who was one of the show’s regular writers at this time, capably fills in the viewer both on the usual expectations of new nurses and on Cooper’s deviation from the norm. Most of the heavy lifting occurs in a scene where Nurses Able and Bigelow (Judy Farrell and Enid Kent) ask Hawkeye and B. J. for help.

          BIGELOW
Do you think you could talk to Hot Lips?

          ABLE
I don’t know how much more Cooper can take. She’s having a rough time.

          B. J.
So are the surgeons she’s walking out on. Maybe she shouldn’t be here in the first place.

          ABLE
No, she’s a good nurse. She’s just young and inexperienced.

          HAWKEYE
Like our patients.

          BIGELOW
This place takes getting used to. It took me a while, and I used to work emergency in Chicago. Accidents, suicide, homicide…

          HAWKEYE
Ah, the good old days.

          ABLE
Why pull her out just because her emotions aren’t packed on ice yet?

          BIGELOW
Do you think you could buy her a little time?

Meanwhile, Margaret has found Klinger feeding a stray dog outside the mess tent, and reacted with yet another Houlihan threat:

          MARGARET
Whose mutt?

          KLINGER
Nobody’s. He’s just been hanging around.

          MARGARET
Yeah, don’t let him hang around too long. Keeping an animal is against regulations.

          KLINGER
Who am I to break regulations?

          MARGARET
     (kneeling to pet the dog; softly)
Get him cleaned up.
     (catching herself; loud and tough again)
And make sure he only eats scraps, because if he doesn’t, you will.

Later we see her sneaking food to the dog herself, telling him, ‘Don’t turn me in for this.’

The Swampmen are, of course, unable to change Margaret’s mind, and she barges into Col. Potter’s office to demand that Cooper be transferred. He turns her down flat.

          POTTER
Now, Major, Cooper’s just going through her own little baptism of fire.

          MARGARET
I don’t give a damn about her baptism! I care about the patients!

          POTTER
So do I, but she still needs our support! So long as she doesn’t quit on herself, we won’t either. Look, give the girl a chance. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll personally throw her back on the jeep.

          MARGARET
I’ll give her a chance if that’s an order.

          POTTER
Then it’s an order.

Later, we see Margaret in the mess tent, having a cup of coffee by herself while some nurses are talking over breakfast. Able mentions that she is collecting scraps for the puppy. ‘Didn’t you hear?’ asks Bigelow. ‘He was killed this morning.’ The camera stays on Margaret for the remainder of the conversation, and we see that she is close to tears when she gets up and leaves. Outside, she bumps into Hawkeye and nearly runs over him.

          MARGARET
(angrily)
What do you want?

          HAWKEYE
You look all choked up, and I don’t think it’s the food.

          MARGARET
I don’t know what you’re talking about, and anyway it’s none of your business.

Hawkeye persists:

          HAWKEYE
Look, Margaret, sooner or later this place gets to everybody.

          MARGARET
I don’t fall over, Captain. Everything around here will be just fine, if there’s a little less leaning and a lot more leadership. We need obedience. We need discipline. Not this chaos. Doctors like you, constantly out of uniform. Nurses who don’t belong in uniform. Dogs running around loose in camp, they’re getting run over by jeeps—

At this point, Margaret can no longer fight back her tears, so she bolts for the privacy of her tent. Hawkeye follows her.

          MARGARET
Get out of here!

          HAWKEYE
No. Your emotions are all churned up. You’re not doing yourself a favor keeping a cork on it. Let it out.

          MARGARET
Let out what? There is nothing to let out! I’m not churned up, I’m not emotional! If you want to cork something, go cork your mouth!
     (shoving HAWKEYE towards the door)
Go. Go. Will you just— will you just get out!

          HAWKEYE
(talking over MARGARET)
Margaret. Margaret – listen. I saw you sneaking food to that dog all week. This morning he got run over. Are you trying to tell me you’re not upset by that?

          MARGARET
I’ve got people dying all around me! You think I get upset because a dog gets run over? Why should I get upset about a— About a little dog—

She breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably. In the next scene, we see her approaching Cooper in post-op:

          MARGARET
Cooper…

          COOPER
Yes?

          MARGARET
I’ve been a little rough on you. I want you to know that I’m sorry.

          COOPER
     (surprised)
You mean that, Major?

          MARGARET
Yes, I do. This place gets to everybody. Sooner or later, you can’t help but let it out.

          COOPER
That’s… very understanding of you, Major. Thank you.

MARGARET turns and heads for the exit.

          COOPER
Why the change?

MARGARET turns back to face COOPER.

          MARGARET
     (smiling)
None of your business. Just get back to work. And don’t let it get to you.

So why does this work so much better than Margaret’s false awakening in ‘The Nurses’? I can identify two reasons.

First, while Cooper’s appearance is another one-off, Able and Bigelow are recurring characters, whose relationship with the chief nurse actually matters. This particular version of Nurse Able was played by Judy Farrell, Mike Farrell’s then wife, who made several appearances in the role. Bigelow would continue to appear intermittently for the rest of the series’ run; she actually shows up in the finale, where she frankly announces the end of her career as an Army nurse: ‘I’ve had it.’ The whole incident cannot be written off, as ‘The Nurses’ was, by the facile sitcom convention of the ‘reset to zero’.

The second reason is much more important. In ‘The Nurses’, Margaret’s change of heart is motivated essentially by self-pity. She has been cruel and callous to her subordinates, and is hurt when they respond in kind. In ‘Images’, she actually feels the same emotions of grief and loss as Cooper, though for a different object. Through sheer overexposure, she has become numb to human suffering and death, but she can still feel for the death of a dog, and she realizes that Cooper’s emotions are normal. It is Margaret, the hardened MASH nurse, who is emotionally deformed, even though it is a déformation professionelle, and a necessary one. By recognizing Cooper’s humanity and making allowances for it, she recovers some of her own.

This change, alas, will not be deep or permanent. In the eleventh season, in an episode called ‘Hey, Look Me Over’, Margaret will overhear her nurses complaining about a colonel, a notorious perfectionist, who has come to inspect the nursing staff: ‘She’s almost as bad as Houlihan.’ But this is not so much because Margaret, as a person, has backslid; it is more because the writers have lost their way. The frequent changes of staff, and still more the changing preoccupations of the producers after Gelbart and Reynolds left, pulled Margaret in so many directions that her character eventually lost all coherence. I shall deal with this development next.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

Comments

  1. Really enjoying your intelligent commentary.

    We watched every episode when it broadcast, and probably several times again in syndication. It didn’t do to examine things too carefully – amnesia is a good definition, and, as loyal watchers, we had it.

    I haven’t seen them in years – but remember every word you quote. How’s that for amnesia?

    Thanks, Tom.

    Alicia

  2. That was no idiot ball people were carrying in “Margaret’s Engagement.” It was an idiot ball pit.

  3. Stephen J. says:

    Another excellent column; many thanks. It says something about the age I was, back when I would regularly watch M*A*S*H in syndication, that all the rampant continuity violations you mention I simply never noticed; indeed, I would probably have been hard put to remember any details of the characters’ backstories at all, much less the inconsistencies therein.

    I will be looking forward to your further exegesis on Margaret, who I always liked more than her personality seemed to warrant — no small amount of that due to Loretta Swit’s physical attractiveness, it must be granted, but also due to the fact that the Jerk With the Heart of Gold/Defrosting Ice Queen (to borrow two of TVTropes’ terms) are among my favourite character types. Discovering goodness at the heart of unpleasantness is something I have always found very moving.

  4. “I could faint from looking down at my own brass.” 😀

    It seems odd to say: the military was more roughly handled in the first 3-5 years, but the military tradition was more denigrated in the latter half of the series. Part of this was losing Houlihan, part of it was the show’s continuing drift to the left. (Being pro- or anti-war can be right or left, it depends on who you’re fighting.)

    Thanks for another tour de force.

    • Yup. The thing is, in the early years, the military was roughly handled by people who knew the traditions intimately and were laughing at the Army from personal experience. Many of the earlier writers had served in the Second World War. Later on, they were replaced with writers who were young, inexperienced, and (unless I am mistaken) often without military experience. They had only a vague second-hand idea of what they were supposed to be laughing at.

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