Monday, February 15, 2010

Mary's Incredible And Very Expensive Dream

Of all the many variety shows and specials on network TV in the '70s, the strangest may have been Mary's Incredible Dream. This was a Mary Tyler Moore special that aired in 1976. Moore had already decided that the next season of her show would be the last, and was hoping to launch a variety show as her next project. And she made it clear in interviews that she saw this special -- created and written by Jack Good, who also did the Monkees' "33 1/2 Revolutions Per Monkee" special -- as a test run for what a Mary Tyler Moore variety hour might be like: "As a performer I can go to my grave happy now. I've done everything I want to do," she told Marilyn Beck. "I'm talking to Jack Good about doing a weekly musical variety show. Since he created and produced my special, I'm convinced he can do anything."

Beck also revealed that Moore was really enthusiastic about the special -- or if she wasn't, she was at least trying to seem that way:

Mary's so convinced the special is the best thing ever to hit the airwaves she's been talking it up to anyone who will listen. And has been cornering so many of her friends for preview cassette-unit glimpses of the all-musical hour that actress Betty White finally told her teasingly, "It's a shame you don't put it on TV, instead of showing it door to door."

It's basically a standard variety special in a lot of ways: glitzy, cheesy musical numbers, and a song list that spans about five decades (making sure everyone in the audience will like at least some of the songs). But it has no sketches or any dialogue for anyone except the narrator -- plus one line of dialogue for Mary at the beginning -- and instead connects the musical numbers with what Moore called "a story of the eternal cycle of man. If viewers don't want to follow the story they can just enjoy the music and dancing." (Update: There is also a bit of talking in the form of Chicago-style introductions to the songs, and Moore has one other line of dialogue in the course of the special, to someone on the phone: "I can't talk now, I'm having this incredible dream.")

The fact that Moore, who usually kept a low media profile at the time, was out there plugging the special in the press was an indication that she really wanted to make a case for it, and for Jack Good's bizarre mish-mash of music, religion, philosophy, and high-in-every-sense-of-the-word camp. Of course, you could read some of her praise for Good as being almost the same as blame, pointing out in advance that the whole concept was his, not hers: "When he came to me with the idea," Moore told UPI's Vernon Scott, "I told him he had carte blanche. Without any structure or guidelines from me, Jack produced a unique, no-holds-barred musical happening."

At least it was an attempt to do something different; that can't be denied. And it's remembered a bit more fondly than the variety show she finally did do (without Good) after her sitcom ended: Mary was a disaster, and so was the retooled sitcom/variety hybrid The Mary Tyler Moore Hour. Moore was like the opposite of singer/dancers who want to prove they can act: she'd proved herself as an actress, but wanted to be taken seriously as an all-around entertainer.

But whether it's this special, where she tries to talk-sing her way through "I'm Still Here" or make a decent try of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields's "Nobody Does It Like Me", or her flop stage musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, she's not exactly a top-tier entertainer. Even on her own show, Georgia Engel's version of "Steam Heat" was better than most musical numbers Moore did without Dick Van Dyke around. And this special probably is a better showcase for Ben Vereen, in one of his first big TV parts, than Moore, who gets to do all the stuff she's only OK at and little of the stuff she's great at (delivery of and reaction to dialogue).

But it is what it is, and I can't help enjoying it just for the strangeness of it all. This is a special that ends with Mary Tyler Moore as a pink angel, floating and spinning in front of religious symbols and clouds while singing "Morning Has Broken." This is a special with Arthur Fiedler conducting the "Hallelujah Chorus" in heaven; a historical version of "Sh-Boom," and Jerome Kern's "She Didn't Say Yes" retrofitted as a song about the temptation of Eve. TV really could be pleasantly insane in the mid-'70s.

Also, any special that begins with the "CBS Special" logo and ends with the MTM kitten is a special that gets a few extra points just for logo coolness.

Mary's Incredible Dream Act 1
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Mary's Incredible Dream Act 2
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Mary's Incredible Dream Act 3
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Mary's Incredible Dream Act 4 and credits
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Griff said...

Jaime, I can't access the video of this (so forgive me if I have the details wrong), but I recall there being an additional line of dialogue somewhere near the middle of the original network broadcast of the show. We see Mary on the 'phone telling "Ted" that she can't talk to him right now -- she's having this incredible dream. This was interesting to me; it blurred the distinction as to whether this was Mary Tyler Moore's dream, or Mary Richards' dream. [Of course, it could have been depicting Mary Tyler Moore taking a call from Ted Knight, but I don't think we were meant to look at it in such a meta way.] I wondered whether this was added at some point to aid in audience identification.

I would give special mention to the appearance of the Manhattan Transfer, which comes off fairly well here. Have you ever seen Good's 1973 rock musical adaptation of Othello, CATCH MY SOUL? This was rather uneasily directed by Patrick McGoohan (and I believe Good tried to disown the picture), but it's of a piece with Good's other conceptual work of the time.

Anonymous said...

Mary Tyler Moore didn't really validate herself as an all-around actress in the eyes of the industry until her performance in "Ordinary People", a few years after this special and her variety show.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Griff: You're right, she does say the "I'm having an incredible dream" line, but she doesn't say who she's talking to.

Rob Bates said...

I didn't watch all this, but what I saw came across as "Mary's Incredible Vanity Project."

I think at this point in her career Moore misunderstood the nature of her appeal, which was as the sweet, nice (sometimes too nice), Midwestern girl-next-door, not some glamorous diva in fancy dresses. On the MTM show, when it seemed Mary Richards was coming across as too perfect, the writers would come up with situations to humiliate her, like in "The Put on a Happy Face" episode. And she always shared the spotlight on her show -- it was her show, but she never came across as THE star.

Lucille Ball was also a glamorous starlet who owned her own production company and was a perfectly good singer and dancer, but, in her shows at least, she was careful not to come across that was way. Even on Carol Burnett's show, which really was a glitzy variety show, it opened with her in a janitor's outfit.

The only thing I remember about the "Mary" show -- I was about ten at the time -- was a bit with "The Ed Asner Dancers," which was a bunch of bald Asner-lookalikes singing and dancing. That was kind of funny.

Chris L. said...

Very Shatner-esque rendition of "I'm Still Here". She should do a whole album like that...As soon as I saw Jack Good's name in relation to this project, it explained a lot. "33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee" was a similarly bizarre, pretentious mishmash. For starters, even though it was The Monkees' special, British rockers Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll (who no one in America had ever heard of) got most of the screen time. The "plot" was that Charles Darwin (played by Auger) creates The Monkees in a test tube. Plus Garden of Eden references. Then an interpretive dance sequence about evolution. Then totally out of nowhere a 50s rock 'n' roll bit with Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard (all in good form, actually). And since it's 1968, lots of "psychedelic" touches (sped-up tape, colors out of whack, hippies). The Monkees hated it, and NBC buried it on Oscar night (on the West Coast it aired opposite the Oscars).

Anonymous said...

That's quartet is The Manhattan Transfer, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

yes... with Java Jive in Act II it's definitely Manhattan Transfer.

Steve said...

Whoo-boy! I think we just found the show the sparked the popularity of the remote control.

The problem with shows like this in that era was you kept waiting for the laugh track, or the applause after a song. And when you didn't hear it, it was like Daffy Duck hearing crickets after his dance routine... which pretty much sums up the whole experience. Hey, isn't "Happy Days" on?

On the other hand, the video composting is quite good for the era. In another five years guys my age would be watching high-concept music videos on MTV and Michael Nesmith's "Elephant Parts" would win a Grammy. So, what do I know?

Anonymous said...

Didn't Shirley McLaine do a similarly wigged-out vanity project TV special in that era?