Sunday, October 18, 2009
Letter to Loretta (aka The Loretta Young Show)
Trying on your mother's clothing is an almost obligatory form of mischief perpetrated by little girls, parading around in oversized dresses, hats, jewelry, and shoes. I remember pretending to be Loretta Young gliding gloriously through a doorway, making sure that her full skirted designer gown swirled attractively, turning to close the door with another calculated display of cascading fabric, and walking to the center of the room, where she introduced the current week's episode of The Loretta Young Show. The Oscar-winning prolific actress, who started working in films as a child in silent pictures and made her last movie in 1952, had astutely recognized the potential opportunities for an older actress (she was 40 at that time) in the new medium of television.
By 1953 anthology drama series, presenting different stories with different casts every week, had proliferated primetime programming with such classic offerings as Kraft Television Theatre, Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. Loretta Young had realized that as an aging Hollywood beauty she would no longer be offered the leading roles that had been the staple of her career; she felt that television would present a medium for her to display her glamorous persona while at the same time affording her the opportunity to play a variety of roles not available to her on the big screen. She also planned to select productions which reflected her deep religious convictions and devotion to charitable causes. With encouragement from her husband Tom Lewis, they configured the series as 39 half hour episodes originally entitled Letter to Loretta, with teleplays based on the content of actual fan letters. Loretta would host the series and also appear in all 39 productions. Desilu, already establishing its presence in Hollywood, was chosen to film the series. Procter & Gamble which had been looking for a series to sponsor picked up Letter to Loretta and it debuted on NBC on Sunday, September 20, 1953.
By the middle of the first season the name had been changed to The Loretta Young Show, although the letter format was used until the end of the second season. Unlike the drama series emanating from New York, which featured major stars of stage and screen, The Loretta Young Show featured veteran actors in support of Miss Young, who always had the lead role. Among those appearing numerous times as different characters were Ricardo Montalban, George Nader, Hugh Beaumont, Ann Doran, Jock Mahoney, and Craig Stevens. The big stars came out as guest hosts for 18 weeks in 1955 while Young recovered from a serious illness. They included Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Fontaine, Joseph Cotten, Rosalind Russell, Merle Oberon, Irene Dunne, and Dinah Shore. However, they were not allowed to make entrances through "the doorway", and it remained closed until Young's triumphant return to the series in October 1955.
Young's illness did force her to slow down and for the remaining six years of the series she appeared in approximately half of the episodes while serving as a hostess for all of them. She did however accomplish her goal of playing many diverse characters, from pious nuns to hopeless alcoholics, from devoted housewives to Indian maharanis. She was nominated for an Emmy each year while the show was on the air and received three for her performances. The stories she chose reflected her deep religious beliefs, carrying messages and lessons for both audiences and characters, promoting postwar adherence to the middle class values of family, home, and gender roles, and winning high praise and honors from various educational and civic groups. An important element of the series was the depiction of women as strong, intelligent, and capable of desire. By focusing on women's issues of emotional conflict and troubled relationships, and bringing their stories center stage, Young created a television show specifically targeting women viewers. Indeed, NBC reran the episodes as part of its daytime programming from 1962 to 1964 to capitalize on the series' appeal to female audiences.
NBC canceled the show in 1961 even though the ratings were still respectable, noting the burgeoning popularity of programs with continuing characters. At the same time, TV had found a permanent niche in the American home and the networks no longer felt the need for audeience-specific programming to gain acceptance for the medium. The Loretta Young Show, however, cannot be dismissed as glamorous fluff. It was the first and most successful drama anthology series hosted by a female Hollywood star, who also performed in many of the episodes. While the show was still in production Young received $4 million from NBC for rights to run episodes as part of its daytime programming. She and her husband formed their own production company in order to retain full control of the series, a rare business practice in the TV industry at the time.
Although Ms. Young's glamorous fashion-show entrances became one of the most memorable features of the series, it shouldn't overshadow the fact that she made a serious attempt to present quality, family-oriented programming, encouraging basic middle class ideals amid the evolving social milieu of postwar America.