Patty Is Dead, You're Billie Now

People? Please stay together, and when we stop, circle around me. This is about as loudly as I can speak, so if you’re having any difficulty hearing me, move in closer. Please follow me into the first gallery, where we’ll have a look at the opening frame.

Why is this 15-year-old miserable during a high-spirited celebration of her athletic achievement? Is it because her dad is Mr. Magoo? Is it because her ‘high school boyfriend’ is a 24-year-old? Or is it because she’s a “lonely little in-between?”

You’re looking at a still frame taken directly from the major motion picture Billie. This is our first look at Patty Duke as the distressed, confused tomboy “with the beat,” Billie.

Who is Billie?

The lyrics of the title song offer no help whatever:

She looks like a Billie should look
Wears her hair like a Billie should wear
She walks like a Billie should
Talks like a Billie should
On her a Billie looks good

Billie has a problem. She’s a better athlete than “the guys.”

Billie, ostensibly a “family film,” is an alarming look into into the depths of gender dyphoria, also known as Gender Identity Disorder (GID). Today, GID is treatable, with gender reassignment surgery. When Billie was released in the fall of 1965, between seasons 2 and 3 of The Patty Duke Show (itself an exploration of duality), the MPAA code forbade movies on the subject. However, the filmmakers behind Billie employed a clever and unusual technique to get their messages across.

In the literary world, the technique is known as “symbolism.” Developed in the late 19th century, symbolism is a way of exteriorizing [sic] the the interiorized [sic] lives of characters by selectively imbuing ordinary household items with hidden, profound levels of meaning.

When Billie sniffs her track shoes, they are more than track shoes. When Billie pours out her anguish to a stuffed wolf, the audience becomes restless… due not only to Patty Duke’s performance, but also to the large photograph of her father, Tyler Fitzgerald, next to her bed. At the end of her song, Billie is left with a stark choice… the smell of the track shoe in her left hand – or – the bottle of perfume in her right? Symbolically, Billie must choose: male, or female? The character literally “weighs her options.” Indeed, it is from the end of this scene that our modern phrase “heavy-handed symbolism” is derived.

Without further adieu [sic], here is the pivotal scene that captures the essence of gender dyphoria with all the pungency of a pair of sweaty cleated track shoes – all sparked by a small, insignificant, teensy-weensy, it-meant-nothing slip of the tongue by Billie’s father, Thurston Howell III.

Billie is ‘out of sync’ with her world; is it any wonder that, by the end of the clip, her lips are out of sync with the soundtrack?

Please follow me into the second gallery to learn more about this talented, troubled character.

Patty Duke saw Billie as her first ‘real’ film role. When Ms. Duke blindly accepted a minor role in a forgotten picture called The Miracle Worker, she found to her horror that she had had no lines, and worse, the movie was in black and white. Duke’s television program proved popular, but it, too, was in black and white. Duke saw Billie as her chance to prove, once and for all, that she could act in color. Eventually, she would move to Idaho.

Here in the second gallery, we’re surrounded by portraits of the members of the so-called “Sit-com Mafia,” who demanded to be included in any motion picture project headed for the big screen that wasn’t really much better than that crap they show on TV. I’m sure you recognize them:

At right, from left to tight: Don Hollinger, that wimp that hung out with Marlo Thomas; one of the Darrins that appeared on Bewitched; Mel Cooley, who appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

And the gruff-but-lovable Coach Jones, who appeared on The Real McCoys, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Millionaire, The Ann Sothern Show, The Gale Storm Show, Bachelor Father, The Twilight Zone, The Bob Cummings Show, The Tab Hunter Show, Pete and Gladys, Surfside Six, Maverick, Mr. Ed, Dennis The Menace, McKeever and The Colonel, 77 Sunset Strip, Burke’s Law, Make Room for Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show, The Bill Dana Show, The Bing Crosby Show, The Smothers Brothers Show, Get Smart, Honey West, The Munsters, The Pruitts of Southampton, F Troop, The Man From Uncle, He and She, The Wild Wild West, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Judd for the Defense, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Flying Nun, The Debbie Reynolds Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Nanny and the Professor, Bewitched, The Odd Couple, The Rookies, Rhoda, Karen, Family, Maude, Soap, Mork and Mindy, Little House on the Prairie, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, I Love Lucy… and the film Mother Is A Freshman.

Let’s move on to the third gallery, “Billie’s Problem.”

On a non-symbolic, or “literal” level, Billie’s problem is that she can run faster than the boys can run. But how to get this on film? Special effects wizard Luis Buñuel, who had retired after his 1953 Oscar win for “The Twonky,” was coaxed out of the ICU and back into the USA to once again achieve the impossible: make it look like a girl can run faster than a boy. As if.

Recently declassified, the confounding illusion of speed can now be explained. Ms. Duke was actually jumping up and down on a low platform attached to the back of a speeding pickup truck, with the camera shooting backwards from the bed of the pickup, thus creating the illusion that Billie was running faster than – and rapidly outdistancing – her male competition. If you look carefully, you may be able to discern which scenes are special “trick shots” and which were photographed in a normal fashion (A 1960’s audience would have been baffled).

Our fourth and final gallery is The Gallery of Happy Endings.

Two different endings were filmed, and, at great expense, the Billie production team reunited all living members of the Pomona audience that attended the first showing of The Magnificent Ambersons. The “Serious Ending”- in which Billie hears that Coach Jones is in the hospital after being hit by an automobile and uses her high-speed running power to reach the operating room in time to donate the muscles from her legs to fashion the Coach a new heart – was so disliked that many in the audience suspected that Billie had been secretly directed by Orson Welles.

In the released version, Billie quits the track team because she “likes being a girl” and flees the city with Deckard, whom she suspects is a replicant.

Florence Griffith Joyner, who saw the film at the tender age of 6, has said that she was “negatively inspired” by Patty Duke’s masterful performance and has since credited her Olympic wins to “having the beat.”

I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have, and for the truly masochistic, the trailer is playing continuously in Gallery 5. (Look for dancer/choreographer Donna McKechnie in the Where’s Waldo shirt)

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The Studio Loan-Out/Crossover Of All Time

Can you imagine Woody Woodpecker singing “When You Wish Upon A Star?”

No? Then you may have trouble with a Fleischer character singing the Warner’s cartoon theme.

From Lee Hartsfeld.

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The Humphrey Bogart Rhumba, et al

I have a theory. I can’t prove it. But here it is: You know how songs sometimes “quote” other songs for a few seconds? You see the Eiffel Tower in a movie and a few notes from “La Marseillaise” get woven into the background music. That kind of thing.

Here’s the theory: the song most quoted in other songs is… “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.” Every time you see a ship, a body of water, a guy in a navy uniform, or Bert and Alf, you hear a little piece of the Hornpipe. The prize goes to an old TV sitcom with Jackie Cooper as a Navy doctor and Abby Dalton as his nurse. Sonny Burke was not content to quote “Sailor’s Hornpipe” in the “Theme from Hennesy.” He stole it!

That is music you (probably) won’t hear anyplace else. I try to put some here on Isn’t Life Terrible from time to time. Theme From WKRP In Cincinnati. See, I just did it again. But I’m an amateur at this – let me direct you to a pro.

Music You (Possibly) Won’t Hear Anyplace Else is a blog by Lee Hartsfeld that I highly recommend to you if your taste in music is… well, basically, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. If you love both kinds, you’ll enjoy Lee’s site.

Every couple of days, like clockwork, Lee makes new songs available. They are most definitely songs you (possibly) won’t hear any place else. Songs like:

The Humphrey Bogart Rhumba by The Freddy Martin Orchestra
The Hayseed Rag by The Dizzy Trio (Sounds like a Mickey Mouse Cartoon!)
Miss America by Johnny Desmond
Funny What You Learn From Women by Jack Paar
You’re Bound To Look Like A Monkey (When You Grow Old) by Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats

… as well as songs very much not like these. Lee transfers ‘em from his own collection of vinyl and shellac, cleans them up as needed (but never more than needed), and then shares the results with the world. You never know what you’ll find at Lee’s, except on Sundays, which are always devoted to religious music.

Scattered in with the songs are posts where Lee talks about politics, religion, and what his cats kill and drag home. Lee, the owners of 160 gig iPods thank you for helping us fill those babies up… and for giving us the opportunity to be listening to music that (possibly) no other iPod owners are listening to.

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Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Part 2

Here’s the second of four installments of Monitor radio sketches by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, “The King and Queen of Sophisticated Comedy.”

This brief history of the team comes from The New York Times: “Nichols and May first did improvisational theater with the Chicago-based Compass Players troupe, which evolved into the Second City company. They began performing their own act in 1957, arrived on Broadway in 1960 and broke up in 1962 after feuding over a play that Ms. May wrote and Mr. Nichols starred in, “A Matter of Position,” which closed in Philadelphia.

The last track isn’t a sketch – it’s Mike and Elaine as part of a round table discussion with Irv Kupcinet (or is it Mitch Miller? It’s hard to tell those two guys apart from their voices). Favorite tracks from this second bunch: “The Air Conditioning Repairman” and “Edith and Osbert,” which was written about international long distance calls, but works well today as a cell phone sketch.

Link to Folder

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Busted for an Illegal Right Turn

Another Larry Zeiger story (6m) as told by Larry himself.

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