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An Appreciation

'50s Stars Subtly Paved Way for Change

Television: In their own ways, Imogene Coca and Arlene Francis were pioneers in their medium.

June 09, 2001|JULIA KELLER | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

They didn't march. They didn't mobilize. They seemed too caught up in the current of their times--the 1950s, when women's roles were rigidly circumscribed and sharply limited--to rock the boat.

But in their own subtle ways, they were readjusting the craft's direction.

Imogene Coca and Arlene Francis, major figures in the early history of television who died last week, seem at first glance to have fulfilled the female stereotypes of the era. Coca, who died at 92 at her home in Westport, Conn., was best known as a loose-limbed clown on programs such as "Your Show of Shows," often playing a man-crazy wallflower or ditsy wife. Francis, who succumbed at 93 in a San Francisco hospital, was a gracious, genteel presence on talk and game shows.

Viewed from another angle, however, the two were transitional figures, their work constituting important steppingstones toward a more enlightened era when women's roles in front of and behind the camera could be as varied and ambitious as men's.

In other words, they did what they could when they did it.

"Both Coca and Francis are underrated and understudied," said Marsha Cassidy, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is writing a book on daytime television from 1948 to 1960.

"There's an impression in the 21st century that way back there in the 1950s, TV put women in a certain category--the mom in heels and pearls and shirtwaist dresses in shows like 'Leave It to Beaver.' But the reality is that there were women working against the grain as well. They were able to challenge the stereotypical notions of the 1950s. Coca used her comic sensibility to challenge that role. And Francis was more clever than most women were given credit for being in that television environment."

Comedian Paula Poundstone acknowledges that Coca often was upstaged by characters played by Sid Caesar, Coca's partner in "Your Show of Shows," which aired from 1950 to 1954. "But if she was starting out now, she'd do it differently," Poundstone said.

"I give her all the credit in the world for doing stuff early on when it made a difference. She was cutting-edge. She fought some things."

Richard Heldenfels, author of "Television's Greatest Year: 1954" (1994), said of Coca's comedy and Francis' demeanor, "When you look at it in 2001, you see some stereotypes that might have been damaging," but there were, he noted, extenuating circumstances.

Coca became famous playing broadly comic figures such as the nagging wife or the screeching, helpless female. Francis, as host of "Home," which dished out domestic tips to housewives, and later as a panelist on the game show "What's My Line?," came across as a refined highbrow in white gloves. None of those roles would gain the unqualified admiration of today's feminists.

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Within the conservative context of the 1950s, however, Coca and Francis probably went about as far as they could, said Heldenfels, a television critic for the Beacon-Journal in Akron, Ohio. For one thing, he noted, "They didn't run their shows." As long as women were hired hands, they were required to do the bidding of the men in charge.

Ironically, when Coca did try to guide her own career by breaking with Caesar in 1954 and launching a solo show, she was criticized for destroying a great comedy team to pursue personal glory, Heldenfels said. The new show failed, and the resentment over her initiative seemed to linger throughout Coca's life, he added. "She takes some of the rap for the ending of 'Your Show of Shows.' There were control issues that come into play."

Such issues continue to this day, Heldenfels noted. "I always thought Roseanne got a bad rap" as the allegedly tyrannical executive producer and star of the popular ABC sitcom "Roseanne," which ran from 1988 to 1997.

"You're going to tell me that Michael Landon [producer, director and star of "Little House on the Prairie"] didn't run a tight ship? Or Bill Cosby [producer and star of "Cosby"]?"

But if a woman is in charge of a TV show or movie, she's sometimes regarded not as a driven and focused auteur but as a shrew. As difficult as it is today for women in the entertainment business, just imagine how daunting it must have been for women in the 1950s, Heldenfels said.

Still, some women attained management status in the early days of television. Lucille Ball, with whom Coca often is compared, co-owned Desilu Studios and profited from syndication and foreign sales of the show "I Love Lucy," in which she starred from 1951 to 1957. And women such as Ida Lupino, Jane Wyman, Betty White and Loretta Young not only starred in but also produced many of the TV shows in which they were involved in the 1950s.

Yet the contributions of those women, as well as those of Coca and Francis, often are overlooked, Cassidy said. "There were a number of pioneering women we've forgotten about. The history of television has been written primarily as an institutional history--what companies were running what?--and as the history of prime-time male stars."

Historical attitudes toward Coca and Francis are distorted because "we live in a patriarchal society," Cassidy added.

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