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home : opinion : opinion May 20, 2022

12/1/2021 12:01:00 AM
More Shows That Conservatives Like
Finding an often-surprising conservative subtext in popular television
(Top) As Mr Roarke on “Fantasy Island,” the late, great Ricardo Montalbán often had a look about him that made you think he knew exactly what you were thinking.
(Middle) Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers are Jonathan and Jennifer Hart in “Hart to Hart.” Like Nick and Nora before them, the Harts enjoyed their cocktails.
(Bottom) William Powell and Myrna Loy (joined here by Skippy as Asta) were Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man films, which became the basis for “Hart to Hart.”
(Contributed Photos)

(Top) As Mr Roarke on “Fantasy Island,” the late, great Ricardo Montalbán often had a look about him that made you think he knew exactly what you were thinking.

(Middle) Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers are Jonathan and Jennifer Hart in “Hart to Hart.” Like Nick and Nora before them, the Harts enjoyed their cocktails.

(Bottom) William Powell and Myrna Loy (joined here by Skippy as Asta) were Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man films, which became the basis for “Hart to Hart.”

(Contributed Photos)

From The Desk Of
Thomas Lark

“Baby, Hollywood is dead.”

That’s how singer Michael Bublé put it 11 years ago. And the lyric is just as true to-day. As I recently wrote, my wife, Julie, and I are enjoying some classic television from that medium’s entirely better past. With a hat-tip and sincere thanks to my readers who enjoyed said piece about several classic shows, I herewith take up my pen (or keyboard) anew, as it has latterly occurred to me that there are a few other shows conservatives might enjoy. It’s also fun to look for and discover some surprisingly conservative subtexts within them.

One is “Fantasy Island,” which ran from 1977 to ’84 on ABC. I hear there’s a remake these days. See? Hollywood really is out of ideas. This one evidently features a female version of Mr Roarke. No, thanks. There’s only one Mr Roarke, and his name is Ricardo Montalbán. Accept no substitutes.

Yeah, sure. Some episodes are better than others, and some can be downright trite. But when it’s firing on all cylinders, “Fantasy Island” is a memorable show. Laurence Rosenthal’s sweeping music recalls Bernard Herrmann’s film scores from the 1940’s. And it’s nice to see the movie stars of yesteryear.

But the biggest asset of course is Montalbán. Perhaps the greatest Spaniard since Francisco Franco, Montalbán was one of Hollywood’s most devout Catholics. Born in Mexico to Spanish parents, 101 years ago this week, he later became an American citizen and a Republican. He was instrumental in a Hollywood-based group that promoted better parts for and more accurate representation of Latinos. He was married to the same beautiful woman for 63 years (one of show biz’s longest-lasting marriages); a dedicated family man and the father of four kids; and a man of prayer who attended Mass faithfully.

Here’s a true story. In 1957 (as he told Guideposts magazine, 40 years ago), Montalbán was stuck in New York City, committed as the lead in a big Broadway play. His wife had to leave with their kids in order to set up house in California, and weeks stretched into months without them. He missed them terribly and wanted the show to end so that he could leave for the West Coast and rejoin them. Yet the show had to go on. And on and on.

Ricardo and his faithful dresser, the quiet, humble and also devout Charlie Blackstone, regularly attended midnight Mass at St Malachy’s on 49th Street, right round the corner from the theatre district. The lateness accommodated the hours that actors and actresses necessarily kept. (Back then, there were actually people in show business who still believed in Christ and His Church.) Praying on his knees, Ricardo begged Jesus to show him the way: specifically a legitimate way out of the show. If only it would end! Yet it would not. It was just too popular.

Finally, the actor got an answer. But as so often happens when people pray to God for guidance, He doesn’t give them the answer they expect. So it was for Ricardo. In a sudden epiphany, he realised that the show’s cast and crew needed the work, and he was being selfish by yearning for hearth and home. Thus he prayed for the others involved in the play and stopped focusing on his own pain and loneliness.

A lesser man would have turned to drink or had an affair. But not Montalbán.

“I made a vow: ‘’til death do us part,’” he said. “Why say that if you’re not serious about it?”

And so to occupy the off hours, when actors oft fall prey to self-destructive distractions, Montalbán found more salutary pursuits. He read books and went to museums, and most importantly, he went to Mass. Drawing strength from prayer and the Blessed Sacrament, he was able to endure the separation, and when the show’s run eventually did end, he was reunited with his wife and children.

Years later, on “Fantasy Island,” he became the wise and mysterious Mr Roarke. I like to think the character, though obviously immortal––an angel or a type of Prospero on a magic island––was, in this persona, a Spaniard descended from Irish Catholics who fled Fat Henry or his bastard daughter. There were many such exiles, hence the surname of Roarke. Magical and omniscient and actually possessed of a history much older, dating to Greco-Roman antiquity, the man in white is always firmly in control and the keeper of all the answers. He often lets subtly Catholic hints peek through his actions, from the exasperated look of Christian disapproval directed at hedonistic revellers in this or that bacchanale to references to “an infinitely greater Power than I.” The way he looks at you, Mr Roarke almost seems to be reading your mind. And on and on.

There are always several Christian messages and morals to be had. People so often realise that their fantasies aren’t quite what they expected, and Roarke is on hand to either hoik them out of some impossible situation or else give them something almost like a priestly admonition. And even when the scripts are lacking, Montalbán is not. He can be very good, even with a very bad script. That is a great actor.

Give it a try. Record it on Get-TV or get the series on DVD and watch it at your leisure. Squint your eyes and click your heels thrice, and you’ll find yourself back in 1981!

Now that would be a fantasy come true. 

“Darling, you’re amazing!”
Then there’s “Hart to Hart.”

Up until quite recently, I hadn’t seen this marvellous series since I was a kid. It ran from the good, old days of 1979 to ’84, and there were eight excellent reunion movies, made for television between 1993 and ’96. Julie recently got us those movies on DVD, and we’ve enjoyed them immensely. I later ordered the complete series on DVD, and fittingly enough et quelle co-incidence, the package arrived on Nov. 2, Stefanie Powers’s birthday.

Robert Wagner and Powers star as Jonathan and Jennifer Hart in this wonderfully clever updating of Nick and Nora Charles. The similarities to the Thin Man movies are obvious, right down to the darling dog. Instead of Asta, there’s the adorable Freeway, and he’s a real scene-stealer. The same is true of Lionel Stander as Max, the faithful butler, chauffeur and general factotum maximus. Max, Freeway and his son (one of many pups), Freeway, Jr, are no longer with us, of course. But they live on in our cherished televisual memories.

Interviewed two years ago on the occasion of the show’s 40th anniversary, Wagner quipped that the Thin Man parallels were “purely intentional.” He and Powers take up where lifelong Republican (he supported Thomas Dewey) William Powell and Myrna Loy left off in the 1940’s. And just as Nick and Nora liked their martinis, Manhattans and highballs, Jonathan and Jennifer enjoy their well-stocked bar, all whilst engaging in the same effortlessly witty banter for which the Thin Man films were famous. You really can make a fun drinking game out of every time each calls the other “darling.”

Wagner is pure class: handsome, witty and charming. And Powers is simply the most beautiful and talented actress ever on television. I’ve seen her elsewhere, and she is very versatile. And versatility is, after all, “the very pit and marrow” of the attribute of acting, to paraphrase the Bard. Just a few years ago, she starred on Broadway in a one-woman show as Tallulah Bankhead and, later, as Anna in a revival of The King and I.

Whodathunkit that a show, long years after that awful 1960’s sexual revolution, could be so conservative, showing a happily married husband and wife for whom the honeymoon never ends? The network nitwits wanted one or the other of the Harts to have an affair (quelle surprise). But Wagner and Powers, to their credit, put their feet down and prevented this, adamantly saying “no way.” Kudos to them.

“Hart to Hart” is really what mystery buffs call a “cosy.” Yes, the violence is unrealistic and often unnecessary. But you never see the actual murder take place, and things are generally kept tidy along that line, just as Dame Agatha Christie used to do it.

Simply put, “Hart to Hart” is a fun show. We recommend it, and you will, too.

“Well said, Mr H!”

“Thanks, Max.”

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