4.22.2015

what i'm watching: everything is political: bewitched, george washington, will geer, and free speech

You may recall that my current comedy-before-bed TV sleep aid is a sitcom from my childhood: "Bewitched". I've been thoroughly enjoying watching its ridiculous, predictable humour and sometimes surprising messaging. I was in the middle of the eighth and final season when Netflix pulled the show. (Argh!) But thanks to our amazing world of media, I was able to switch over to YouTube, viewed on TV via Roku.

In Season 8, episode 21 and 22, Bewitched recycles a template from an earlier episode. In Season 1, daffy Aunt Clara (played by Marion Lorne) mistakenly brings Ben Franklin into the 20th Century, an opportunity for a hijinks and history lessons. When Marion Lorne died during Season 5, Aunt Clara's role was replaced by the daffy Esmeralda (played by Alice Ghostley), and it's Esmeralda who mistakenly brings George Washington into the present.

This is a well-worn conceit of magic and time-travel, but imagine my surprise when the Founding Father becomes a defender of the First Amendment and a critic of modern marketing!
George Washington, addressing a small gathering in a public park: Earlier I stood here and listened to some of you explain what is going on in this country. Things like assassinations, pollution, war - wars to end war that don't end wars. This does not please me.

[A man with long hair nods in agreement. "You tell 'em, George!"]

GW: Where is the voice of The People? Remember what my friend Tom Jefferson said? "What country can preserve its liberties unless its rulers are warned from time to time that the people reserve the spirit of resistance."

[Ordinary people all nod in agreement.]

Police officer, walking through small polite crowd that has gathered: OK, break it up, George.

GW: George? You will refer to me as Mr. President or General Washington.

Police: Sorry, General, but you have to break it up.

GW: And just what is it that you want me to 'break up'?

P: This rally. Unless, of course, you have a park permit to speak.

GW: The only permit I need is the Constitution of the United States.

Long-haired man: Hear, hear!

Crowd: Hear, hear! Right on!

GW: Hear, hear, hear.

Police: Why don't you be a good fellow and tell me where you escaped from.

GW: I have escaped from the past into the present, and I must say that what I have seen so far does not please me.

P: But you're gonna break it up or you're under arrest.

GW: Under the abstract theory of our government, a person is entitled to resist illegal arrest. We are allowed the right of free assembly under our Constitution.

[Crowd applauds.]
Later, at home, Washington wonders pointedly about his predicament.
GW: What has happened to this country that was founded on freedom? Does the Constitution still exist? The Bill of Rights?

Darrin: Yes, of course, Mr. President.

GW: Then why do The People not exercise their rights?

Samantha: Sometimes it's easier to be led than to lead. And a great many of our citizens prefer to stand on the sidelines and ignore their rights instead of defending them. They're called the "silent majority".

GW: Experience has shown that mankind is more disposed to suffer evils while those evils are sufferable than to right themselves and abolish those abuses.
In the second part of "George Washington Zapped Here," Darrin's boss Larry Tate seizes on the supposed Washington impersonator for - what else - an advertising campaign, and gets more than he bargained for. Even though it costs Darrin the account, Darrin is proud that the Father of the Country stood up for truth and authenticity.
GW, reading from script: '...and your clothes will be cleaner than clean and whiter than white.' How could anything be cleaner than clean or whiter than white?

Darrin: It's just a way of saying it, Mr. President.

GW: Doesn't make sense.

Larry Tate: So few things do these days. It's a sign of the times!

GW, reading: '...Then use the Whirlaway Washer, America's finest...' Is it really?

Tate: Would I lie to you, Mr. President?

GW: I don't know you well enough to make that judgement. Mr. Jameson, why is this America's finest washing machine?

Jameson, owner of the company, gritting his teeth, to Tate: Is this some kind of a put-on?

Tate: Mr. President, please, just read what is written.

GW: Not another word until you answer my question. After all, if my name is to be used, I will not have it tarnished by falsehood.

Tate: Look, it's a darn good washer. Now read it. Please.

Washington goes around the room, inspecting ads for various washing machines, reading out the name of each one.

GW: Superior Washing Machine, Ultra Washing Machine, Standard Washing Machine, Whirlaway Washing Machine. Each one looks very much like the others.

Jameson: Each one is very much like the others.

GW: Then why do you give them different names?

Darrin: It's called merchandising, Mr. President. You see, Whirlaway builds them, and then the stores put their own labels on them.

GW: In that case, Whirlaway washing machine is no better or worse than the others.

Darrin: Correct. [The ad man finds his ethics!]

GW: Then in good conscience I cannot say that Whirlaway washing machine is better than the others.

Jameson: I've had just about enough of this!

GW: And so have I, sir. Yesterday I was arrested for defending the Constitution of the United States. Today I am asked, in the name of honesty, to utter falsehoods. I will not lend my name to this deception.
But wait, there's more. George Washington is played by Will Geer. Geer is best known for his portrayal of Grandpa Walton on the hugely popular family drama "The Waltons," but he has other credits that may be more relevant. From Wikipedia:
Geer became a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1934. Geer was also influential in introducing Harry Hay to organizing in the Communist Party. In 1934, Geer and Hay gave support to a labor strike of the port of San Francisco; the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike lasted 83 days. Though marred by violence, it was an organizing triumph, one that became a model for future union strikes. Geer became a reader of the West Coast Communist newspaper, the People's World.

Geer became a dedicated activist, touring government work camps in the 1930s with folk singers like Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie (whom he introduced to the People's World and the Daily Worker; Guthrie would go on to write a column for the latter paper). In 1956, the duo released an album together on Folkways Records, titled Bound for Glory: Songs and Stories of Woody Guthrie. In his biography, fellow organizer and gay rights pioneer Harry Hay described Geer's activism and outlined their activities while organizing for the strike. Geer is credited with introducing Guthrie to Pete Seeger at the 'Grapes of Wrath' benefit Geer organized in 1940 for migrant farm workers. . . .

Geer was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. As a result, Geer appeared in very few films over the following decade. Notable among them was Salt of the Earth which was produced, directed, written, and starring blacklisted Hollywood personnel and told the story of a miners' strike in New Mexico from a pro-union standpoint. The film was denounced as "subversive" and faced difficulties in its production and distribution as a consequence.
George Washington Zapped Here, Part 1 (GW in the park at 15:54-17:40 and at home at 19:30-20:07.)

George Washington Zapped Here, Part 2 (GW with the ad men at 14:42-16:55; Samantha defends First Amendment rights while Darrin looks on approvingly at 18:35-21:18.)

While writing this post, I found a wonderful excerpt from a study of Bewitched, courtesy of Google Books. The author, Walter Metz, compares the politics of that earlier Ben Franklin episode with those of the George Washington episode, and divines a change in the national mood. I found it interesting enough to want to hunt down this book. If you're also interested, go here, search for "George Washington" and read pages 108-112.

3 comments:

allan said...

If just the the script was given, I'm sure no one would guess "Bewitched" as the show!

deang said...

I remember those episodes! And I went to the book link and read some; there would be a change in the national mood between 1966, the air date for the Ben Franklin episodes, and 1972, when the George Washington episode aired. I might track that book down myself.

laura k said...

Very cool.