‘Hot Lips is Back in Town’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #10 in the series.

Let us go back a bit, to the spring of 1977. The finale of the fifth season of M*A*S*H was ‘Margaret’s Wedding’, which was also the swan song for Gene Reynolds (who directed the episode) and Larry Linville. It also marked the first on-screen appearance of Col. Donald Penobscot, whose off-screen engagement to Margaret Houlihan had already caused such far-reaching changes to the tone of the show and the balance of the cast.

On this occasion only, Penobscot was played by Beeson Carroll: clean-cut, likable, well-spoken apart from a tendency to mix up words when drunk (he finished ‘396th out of 227’ at West Point, where he went in for ‘Greco-wrestle Romaning’). It was a hilarious rather than a happy ending to the engagement. The Swampmen, in one of their most heartless practical jokes, encase the hapless Penobscot in a body cast the night before the wedding. By the time they relent and try to tell Margaret that he has not broken half the bones in his body, it is too late: the newlyweds are already departing by helicopter, and can’t hear over the noise of the chopper blades. The only blue note in the composition is played by Frank Burns, standing alone and forlorn on the helicopter pad, saying to the empty sky: ‘Goodbye, Margaret.’

And goodbye it is: for while Loretta Swit returned in the new season and remained with M*A*S*H to the end, Hot Lips was gone for good. (It is significant that her nickname is used only a handful of times in the last six seasons.) Nor was it simply a case of replacing ‘Miss Houlihan’ with ‘Mrs. Penobscot’. The new production team, dominated by Alan Alda, decreed that Margaret’s marriage should be doomed from the start.

In ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, besides writing out Frank Burns and writing in Charles Emerson Winchester III, Fritzell and Greenbaum were assigned the task of wrecking the marriage during the honeymoon. Margaret actually leaves Donald in Tokyo and returns to the 4077th before her leave is over. The Swampmen, consumed with curiosity, pester her with kindness until she confesses:

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‘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: [Read more…]