Saturday, November 9, 2013

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND - An Appreciation

Fifty years ago this month, shooting began on the original pilot of "Gilligan's Island", created and produced by Sherwood Shwartz. Filmed in Hawaii (with the last day of shooting falling on November 22nd, 1963), the pilot was bought by CBS-TV for inclusion on it's Fall, 1964 schedule. Casting changes for three of the characters/actors resulted in very little of the original pilot footage being used for the series proper. From this inauspicious beginning, a cultural phenomenon was created, although none of the cast, crew or producers knew it at the time.

(From left to right: Alan Hale, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Dawn Wells and Russell Johnson. All photos under Fair Use)

Despite strong ratings, "Gilligan's Island" was cancelled after only three seasons*, but it has remained in reruns on television worldwide to this very day. The characters of Gilligan and his fellow castaways are icons and the theme song is instantly recognizable to many people across a wide range. For those who do not know, or need a reminder, the premise of the series was simple: take seven people of varying backgrounds and strand them on a deserted island. The plots revolved around two basic themes: getting the hell off the island or surviving some impending catastrophe whether real or imagined.

The stranding of the seven castaways came about after their "three hour tour" was interrupted by a raging storm. The series featured a strong and talented cast starring Bob Denver as Gilligan, Alan Hale, Jr. as The Skipper, Jim Backus as Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schafer as "Lovey" Howell, Tina Louise as Ginger Grant, Russell Johnson as The Professor and Dawn Wells as Mary Ann. Occasionally a "guest star" would drop in on the island (for whatever outlandish reason) or a wonderfully written "dream sequence" was added to a plot to spice things up.

Although Schwartz pitched his series to network executives as a microcosm of society, it was always intended to be played as a broad comedy. The characters of Gilligan and The Skipper were also intended to be an homage to the great comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, as well as representing the bumbling first mate and his loyal leader. The millionaire reprentatives of society were, of course, Mr. Howell, and his wife, Lovey, while Ginger was the Hollywood starlet wannabe; brains and critical thinking in the form of The Professor and lastly, but certainly not least, Mary Ann as the sweet Kansas farm girl next door.

When "Gilligan's Island", with the episode, "Two On A Raft", premiered in September, 1964, it was savaged by television critics and for good reason. Since the original pilot was unusable due to casting changes, scenes without those characters were incorporated into newly shot scenes and a rewritten script. The results were a mixed bag at best. Yet, once the series started shooting, the elements that make the show a classic today emerged. As with the first few episodes of any television series, "Gilligan's Island" underwent (pun intended) its own shake down cruise. However, once the chemistry between the actors gelled and the writers became more familiar with their characterizations, the critics should have taken another look. There's a reason that a show so vilified by both the critics and the network that aired it has lasted for fifty years.

It's not only the chemistry between the actors, the absolutely correct choices they always made with the material and the appealing slapstick humor that has made the show endure, but also the show's subtle social awareness. The best example is the name of the ship itself, the S.S. Minnow, which was named after then FCC chairman, Newton Minow. Minow famously said in his first speech as Chairman in 1961 that, "...when television is bad, nothing is worse." After inviting his audience to watch TV from sign-on to sign-off, Minow declared, "I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland." He went on with a litany of offenders including, " shows...formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence...endless commercials...and most of all boredom." On the face of it, "Gilligan's Island" represented everything Minow railed against, but showed, among other things, that when seven strangers were thrown together in a primitive environment they could work together to survive. Or as Mr. Howell might exclaim in disgust, "How democratic!".
The Actors

Coming off his remarkable characterization as television's first beatnik (proto-hippie), Maynard G. Krebs, in "The Many Lives Of Dobie Gillis", Bob Denver switched gears to play Gilligan as a sweet, well-meaning, well, idiot. He was able to shade his character with moments that could evoke pathos from both the audience and his fellow castaways. Denver incorporated a certain amount of childlike eagerness in Gilligan with the character's willingness to at least try something once. He also has moments of unexpected bravery when he realizes that only he can rescue his fellow castaways from capture or danger. Even though it would seem that the Skipper always gets the best of Gilligan, in his darker moments, Gilligan can cut the Skipper down to size (as it were) by making jokes at the expense of his weight.

Contrary to popular belief, Gilligan was not the main cause of the many failed attempts at a rescue during the course of the series. No indeed. The majority of these rescue failures sit squarely on the shoulders of the many guest stars who dropped, floated and/or came ashore on "Gilligan's Island". A quick rundown of the ninety-eight episodes produced show that about half of them dealt with a possible rescue or a possible escape attempt. Of these episodes, the environment was the cause of two failed rescues, The Professor once(!), Gilligan himself accounts for about dozen, while the vast majority, over twenty-five, are failed rescue attempts because of the guest stars! Whether through indifference, chicanery or out right idiocy, the guest stars, those arriving on the island for whatever reason, foiled far more rescue attempts than poor Gilligan. The list of guest stars reads like a who's who of 1960s television and movies, including Denny Miller, Kurt Russell, Phil Silvers, Strother Martin, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Don Rickles and Nehemiah Persoff.

The folks that came ashore and betrayed Gilligan and the others were not always malicious. There were a few cases of the person acquiring amnesia after leaving the island or were just genuinely confused like Wrong Way Feldman, the only character to make two appearances on the isle. Yet, for the most part these people were showing the worst aspects of humanity. It makes you wonder if being on a deserted isle wasn't so bad after all and is part of the long term appeal of the series.

As the sidekick of the Skipper, Gilligan was a constant source of irritation, frustration and consternation, but in the end you knew that Skipper loved his "little buddy". As portrayed by veteran character actor Alan Hale, Skipper was at once a tough leader and a lovable teddy bear who was respectful to his fellow castaways (he always said "Mr. Howell" and "Mrs. Howell"). Within a very few episodes, Hale broaden his performance by frequently breaking the fourth wall, looking directly into the camera, when Gilligan fouled up something once again. Often his camera takes were easily read as "can you believe it" or "can any of you help me?" Hale also had this genuine believability when he yelled at Gilligan too harshly or called him an "idiot" too often that his Skipper character became so very remorseful and apologetic. Several times in the first season the Skipper's experiences in World War II came up, and not always for laughs.

Hale's most remembered bit, of course, is exclaiming "Gilligan!" in various volumes, and then striking him over the head with his captain's hat. Sometimes he wouldn't even say "Gilligan!" but would simply look at the camera with an expression, then look at Gilligan and then either remove Gilligan's hat or ask him to remove it himself. Then, whap, with the captain's hat. In all of the series, this bit was the only "violence" against each other by the castaways.

The millionaire and his wife, while representing the upper, upper class, did show both a free marketer and capitalists at their most greedy and childish. These no mean accomplishments were brought forth by the formidable duo of Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. Few today would realize that Backus was a fine dramatic actor as well as a comedian and voice over artist. The latter talent has him best remembered as the voice of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo. A good example of his dramatic work can be seen in an episode of "The Untouchables" and his role as James Dean's father in "Rebel Without A Cause". Schafer had a long career as a versatile comedienne and kept her actual age such a great secret that no one knew her age until it was announced with her death at the age of 90 (she was 64 when the series started). Schafer's character was a wonderful mix of charm, ditziness and gauche; although, Mrs. Howell hated anything gauche. Yet, you couldn't dislike her at all, in spite of her greedy nature and constant concern of how she and her husband look in their "society" circles.

As a friend of creator Schwartz, Backus was given free reign to ad-lib and a classic example of his ability of both including an in-joke with an extemporaneous remark comes in the episode, "Castaways Pictures Presents". When a crate with a silent film camera washes ashore, the Castaways decide to make a movie about their shipwreck in the hopes of getting rescued. Howell, of course, assumes the job of the director. Before calling for "action", Backus commands "quiet up there you birds", which is not only funny but an in-joke to the crew members literally above his head on the studio's catwalks.

(Ginger or Mary Ann. The conundrum.)
Ginger Grant, as wonderfully portrayed by Tina Louise, is the series' most problematic character. Mostly because she is mis-remembered as an airhead and mis-identified in the theme song as a "movie star". Ginger is neither. Whenever she mentions her movie credits, they read like a B-movie wet dream; she is certainly a Hollywood Starlet wannabe. With Louise's nuance of the character we find that Ginger is smart, inquisitive, flirty and definitely a woman with boundaries.

Due to the television censors at the time, no romances, except for the Howells, were ever allowed between the castaways. Except, of course, during the course of a possible rescue. Not against using her feminine wiles to achieve a possible rescue, Ginger, however, had a definite ethical code when it came to sex. She could easily and skillfully parry the advances of any man whether it be Tongo the Ape Man or the muscular surfer who happens to catch a wave to the island. But make no mistake, again within the conceits of 1960s television, both Ginger and Mary Ann were seen on more than one occasion as the primary cooks and laundresses. Typical women's work.

(The Professor dons some groovy shades in the episode, "Operation: Steam Heat")
The common joke nowadays is that while the Professor was pretty smart he sure couldn't construct a workable raft or successfully fix the S.S. Minnow! As played with a dead-on dead pan style by Russell Johnson, the Professor was at once the go-to guy for anything scientific and the guy whose multi-syllabic explanations would cause even the Skipper to break the fourth wall in pained ignorance. Of course, the Professor helped construct many rafts during the series and of course most of them failed (one notable exception, the raft that bore silent film), but not for any lack of trying or enthusiasm. Johnson's Professor was wonderfully enthusiastic in such downright academic ways as to be infectious; a difficult task given that his dialogue was written as to be almost wholly understood and undecipherable at the same time. Gilligan was often used as a translator of sorts by repeating what the Professor said using common language for the benefit of the television audience. Another inspired piece of script writing and social awareness as Gilligan's "translations" were often wonderfully literate and he apparently knew Latin.

Dawn Wells got away with a lot on the show, both monetarily and acting-wise, with her portrayal of Mary Ann. Monetarily because she had a different contract than the other actors. She was married to an agent at the time and CBS humored them by putting a clause in her contract for long term residuals payments in lieu of a substantial raise. CBS and the producers never dreamed the show would run for 50 years! Only Wells, Schwartz and Phil Silvers, whose Gladasya Productions financed most of the show, saw any long term monetary benefits from "Gilligan's Island".

Acting-wise, Wells achieved in her characterization of the girl-next-door mixed with the combination of just running around the island mostly wearing a blouse and incredibly short shorts a measure of real innocence. Sure, her naval was covered, as per the constraints of the time, but, holy cow, sweet and innocent with such a wardrobe has never really been achieved on television since then.

The Production

Crane shots. Not something one would usually associate with a television comedy, but when I think of "Gilligan's Island", one of things are the crane shots. The numerous crane shots used on the show were mainly establishing shots, which makes their inclusion all the more remarkable. Crane shots, like dolly shots, are rather time consuming to set up and rehearse. Most of the crane shots done inside the studio would involve moving down to a hut and featured no actors and therefore could be used multiple times. The crane shots used on the outdoor lagoon/jungle set most always featured actors (usually Bob Denver) and were used to show off the expensive set and to allow for a degree of scope that the soundstage sets sometimes lacked.

Throughout the course of it's run, "Gilligan's Island" employed many directors, but a few of these folks directed several episodes each. Most notable of these were Jack Arnold (26 episodes), Leslie Goodwins (11 episodes), Gene Nelson (8 episodes), Jerry Hopper (7 episodes) and the pioneering Ida Lupino (4 episodes). Arnold was a talented director of such 1950s science-fiction movie classics as "It Came From Outer Space", "The Creature Of The Black Lagoon" and "The Incredible Shrinking Man" before moving on to work almost exclusively in television. His work with black-and-white photography played a role in him directing most of the black-and-white episodes of "Gilligan's Island" first season. Goodwins was a Hollywood veteran who could move easily between westerns, crime-drama and comedy. Nelson has been a long time television director working most notably on the 12 and 1/2 hour mini-series, "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" and a slew of TV series including "Get Smart" and "Police Story". Hopper is probably best known as a director on such classics as "The Fugitive", "Perry Mason" and "The Addams Family" before retiring after 1972. Lupino, who started out as an actress, became one of the first woman film directors Hollywood whose early worked tackled controversial social themes. She primarily worked in television as well while continuing acting work, directing episodes of "77 Sunset Strip", "Have Gun Will Travel" and "The Untouchables".

While directors are primarily responsible for the look, action and feel of each episode, they must always work with the templates provided by a series Art Director and Director of Photography. In the case of "Gilligan's Island", the positions were filled by the very creative (William) Craig Smith and Richard L. Rawlings, respectively; both of whom worked on the series throughout its entire run. This is another reason the show has continued to be popular for a half a century.

"Gilligan's Island" was an indoor/outdoor show, meaning there were standing sets on a soundstage and an outdoor standing set which in this case consisted of an impressive lagoon with fake waterfall. The series was not unusual for the period with mixing location and soundstage footage and calling them the same. On the series, the switch from outdoor to indoor usually employed a commercial break and Smith's decision to use the same kind of fake plants both indoor and outdoor helped to add to the illusion. Smith and his fellow artists put together an interesting array of huts, palm trees and plenty of sand. As the series progressed the props department came up with some pretty clever ideas to give the castaways items from a phonograph to a battery charger to a pedal powered car. The switch from the black-and-white of the first season to color thereafter showed the versatility of Smith, modifying the huts for color and the lagoon set as well.

The switch from black-and-white to color was also a showcase for Rawlings as well. The first season was much darker than the remaining seasons with many scenes shot as nighttime on the soundstage. The "dream sequences" also allowed for more interesting shooting and lighting that Rawlings always rose to the level for and he also enjoyed the use of other standings sets at times (like the "Gunsmoke" set). While bright lighting was fairly typical of television comedies (even to this day), Rawlings took it a step further given the locale of a desert isle in the South Pacific. The tropical heat seemed to ooze from the television set, particularly in the color episodes.

Literature. An author argues that after fifty years, "Gilligan's Island", has become literature, if nothing else then by the very definition of the word. Light literature. There have been, in fact, many scholarly articles written about the show, although most were written within the last several years. Would the main writers agree with this assessment of "literature" or even subtle social awareness buried within the series? More so of the latter and less so of the former. Sherwood Schwartz had made plain some of these subtleties and the plots of many scripts also echo with some fairly compelling social issues. Dozens of writers worked on the series, mostly only on one script, with most of the rest of the scripts written by people who were also script or creative consultants. Those jobs are charged with rewriting scripts either partially or entirely. Hence, keeping the characterizations and themes consistent from episode to episode.

William Froug was a first season script and creative consultant and also served as an executive producer for about a third of that season, yet he never received a writing credit for the series. Sherwood Schwartz would bounce between executive producer and producer throughout the run of the show and, of course, was a prime un-credited script supervisor as was his brother, Elroy Schwartz. Both brothers received writing credit on many episodes. David P. Harmon was a writer for the series who was credited as a script supervisor more than any of others, mostly in the series's second and third seasons. Are these group of writers, primarily responsible for the scripts, to be considered 20th century Bards? No. They all did have a good knowledge of not only Shakespeare, but other works other literature as well, and even a casual viewing of the series would reveal that the Bard himself was a favorite. "The Producer" episode is certainly the apex of that knowledge and admiration. Yet, these writers, whether with a dream sequence or a plotline, touched upon social issues that are still relevant today. What follows are examples using one episode from each of the three seasons.

In, "X Marks The Spot", directed by Jack Arnold, the castaways learn through news bulletins that their island is to be a target for a missile launch of an experimental warhead by the USA. Since "Gilligan's Island" aired during the height of the cold war, it may not be surprising this topic would arise, but on a comedy show, it's nearly unheard of, especially the way it was handled in a script written by Sherwood and Elroy Schwartz. There are fairly serious moments as the castaways find themselves contemplating not only their impending doom, but also whether or not their lives have amounted to anything. In the end, the missile does land on the island, but unbeknownst to them, it has been disarmed. After attempting to disarm the warhead, Gilligan accidently crosses some wires causing the missile to fire and careen around the island. The Professor figures out the missile is harmless and everyone relaxes. Not only all that, but a couple pie in the face gags were thrown into script!

"Seer Gilligan", directed by Leslie Goodwins and written by Elroy Schwartz, has Gilligan finding some seeds that he eats and discovers he can read minds. A new twist on an old idea because of what pure honesty does to the harmonious society that the castaways have built. As one may have guessed, it isn't long before the others discover Gilligan's seeds and begin to eat them. Remember, the drug culture was fairly new at the time the series was filmed. The castaways find they must eat more seeds to know exactly what the others think of them. Pure honesty actually proves disastrous and for the sake of their relationships they decide to destroy the seeds.

The last season's, "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow", is enjoyable satire on how commercials have instilled the fear of age and immasculinity to sell their products. Directed by Anton (Tony) Leader and written by Brad Radnitz, the episode opens with Gilligan awaking to discover that his hair has turned white. Soon, equating white hair with old age, and thanks to one of The Professor's musing on the cause, Gilligan adopts an over-the-top old man voice and spends his time sitting in a chair with a shawl around his shoulders. How to cure old age? Skipper, Mrs. Howell and The Professor wait until Gilligan is asleep and dye his hair back to the original color. However the next morning, when Gilligan looks into the mirror, he is completely bald! How to cure baldness? Again, like a doctor or commercial, The Professor is consulted but can't come up with a cure, so the Skipper, who now is totally bald, and Gilligan go hide in cave. They self-ostracize themselves because of baldness! Eventually The Professor comes up with a cure which has the side effect of them both growing full beards.

As with any production that uses it, music can make or break a episode. Almost everyone knows the "Gilligan's Island" theme song, which was written by George Wylie and Sherwood Schwartz. The bulk of the music within each episode, the cues and other themes, were written primarily by two well known composers, Johnny (John) Williams and Gerald Fried. Williams, now well known as the composer of the "Star Wars" movies, also worked in television, penning memorable music and theme songs. His most recognizable TV themes were for "Lost In Space" and "Land Of The Giants". Williams worked only during the first season of the series.

Fried never achieved fame as a movie composer like Williams, but he also penned music for many memorable television shows including, "Star Trek", "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "Roots" (with Quincy Jones). Fried, in fact, penned perhaps the most memorable music for "Star Trek", the Kirk/Spock fight song from the episode "Amok Time". Fried worked on many of the episodes from the second and third seasons.

As with many composers for television at the time, many of Williams' and Fried's music cues were variations on the show's main theme song. An example of one of Williams' variations is found here and of one Fried's is found here. Both composers were smart enough to use instrumentation that reinforced the tropical island nature of the series and weren't afraid to use instruments not normally associated with a comedy such as harps. Yes, harps. One of the most interesting music cues appears many times in the second and third season whenever a sinister or mysterious mood was needed and can be partly heard here. It's a nicely done electric guitar piece performed by an unknown studio musician.

There are three songs which are perhaps as memorable as the series itself. In the episode, "Don't Bug The Mosquitoes", the rock band, The Mosquitoes (an obvious parody of The Beatles), come to the island to get away from fame and fans and the castaways concoct an idea to get them to leave the island, and in turn rescue them, by having the women perform their own song. As a result, the women become The Honeybees and they perform the song, "You Need Me (Us)". Trying to find out who wrote the music and lyrics for these fabulous rock send-ups proved to be nearly as impossible as finding out who shot Kennedy! So, I will go out on a limb and state that "You Need Me (Us)" music was written by Gerald Fried and the lyrics were written by the episode's writer, Brad Radnitz. See the video clip below.

The other two songs come from the episode, "The Producer", which finds Broadway producer, Harold Hecuba (played by Phil Silvers) in search of new idea for a smash hit. Desperate to be rescued the castaways hit upon the idea of a musical of "Hamlet" which Hecuba of course steals after sneaking off the island. The writers, Dee Caruso and Gerald Gardner mix familiar dialogue patches from Shakespeare's classic to form the lyrics while Gerald Fried came up with some wonderfully slight reworkings of two songs from "Carmen", music by Georges Bizet, the "Toreador Song" and "Habanera". There are people today when upon hearing "Carmen" automatically think of these lyrics. Only "Gilligan's Island" could come up with this idea and the fusing of two great pieces of art. See the video clips below.


"Gilligan's Island", a brilliant mixture of high art and low art? A subtle and profound social message about working together to survive in a hostile environment? A guilty pleasure that one hides expect during unfortunate drunken conversations? Perhaps the show is a little of all three with some other factors that only come through the passage of time and one's own life experiences. That is why it has endured, and in a way thrived, for the last fifty years. It should come as no surprise then that in another fifty years it will have continued to endure and be enjoyed and be the inspiration for other works art.

* - CBS had renewed the show for a 4th season, but that was year they cancelled "Gunsmoke". The outcry was so great about the venerable western, that CBS put the show back on their schedule and dumped "Gilligan" in it's stead.

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