Thursday, October 13, 2005

'Til Death Do Us Part

I'm not going to pinpoint exactly how old I was in 1971, but let us say that I was old enough to say stay up and watch the NBC Mystery Movies on a school night, but young enough that MacMillan & Wife had a distinct impact on my schemes for the future. Not that I planned to marry a police commissioner or solve murders for a living (or even for a hobby), but I did picture myself living an action-packed, amusing and affluent life-style with a handsome guy who adored me.

(Three out of four ain't bad! We definitely need more cash around here, though.)


In case you're quite a bit younger than me--or spent your formative years more productively--here's the official lowdown on MacMillan & Wife, the first season of which is newly released on DVD.

"They were the happening '70s answer to Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man movies, and when McMillan & Wife premiered as part of the "NBC Mystery Movie" lineup (in three-way rotation with McCloud and Columbo) on September 17, 1971, they were an instant hit with both critics and viewers. The two-hour pilot "Once Upon a Dead Man" set the serio-comic tone for the series: San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan (Rock Hudson, his film career in decline) and the goofy doofus Sgt. Enright (John Schuck) frequently found themselves in the midst of a mystery, typically beginning when McMillan's cute and kooky wife Sally (Susan Saint James) stumbled onto telltale evidence or a murder scene. The McMillans were the perfect image of '70s California cool, attending trendy parties and charity benefits while solving robberies, murders, and other malicious goings-on, sporting the latest fashions (Hudson's handlebar moustache and longish hair perfectly complementing Saint James's bellbottoms and shag hairdo) and verbally sparring with some of the goofiest dialogue this side of Hope & Crosby's Road movies."

How fun is that? Very fun, let me assure you as someone who has spent the last week watching them in bed (me in bed, that is, although Sally and Mac spent a fair amount of time between the sheets). And, best of all, NO SCHOOL TOMORROW!!.

The simplistic plots (Tolstoyian compared to some of what passes for prime crime time these days--the ghastly MONK, anyone?) were padded by the romantic interplay between Mac and Sally (Hudson and Saint James' on-screen chemistry was considerable regardless of off-screen preferences). I think the lack of nastiness between them is part of the charm. Mac teases Sally and Sally teases Mac, but there's no cutting edge to the banter--and that's refreshing in a day and age where meanness is so often mistaken for wit.

There's a lot of cuddling and tickling and flirting--they even have a special toast. (Which I wish someone would explain to me--Arriba, Aruba, Arigula? WHAT ARE THEY SAYING???) He adores her and wishes she would stay out of trouble (she's the daughter of a famous criminologist, however, so snooping is in her blood). She worships him and wishes her chest were bigger. I'm telling you, it's as real as it gets.

So, in short, I am advising you to buy this DVD in bulk, so that they will put out Season Two right away and I can add it to my Christmas list. And if you buy it through Mr. Thrilling's website, we will have more cash around here, and all my childhood dreams will be coming true.

You probably want to know what you'd be getting for your money. Eight episodes or about ten and a half hours, starting with Once Upon a Dead Man (the pilot). In this one an Egyptian sarcophagus is stolen during a charity auction that Sally helped organize. (No wonder I loved this series.) This is a fun one, though they had yet to define what the series would ultimately be.

In Murder by the Barrel, the MacMillans are moving into their new home when Sally discovers a body in a barrel that should contain her good china. I HATE it when that happens! This introduces Sally's enviable yellow roadster (a nice little Nancy Drewish touch) and we finally get to meet Mildred the Maid (Nancy Walker) who is amusing in small doses, but frankly needs her ass fired. (Okay, okay, but they did sort of overdo the eccentric family retainer thing in later seasons.)

The Easy Sunday Murder Case has some very funny bits concerning a woman who is more concerned with her kidnapped dog than her MIA boytoy husband.

I'm still not sure what was happening in Husbands, Wives and Killers since I drifted off--my last vision of Mac in a pink bunny suit (or did I dream that?). A valuable necklace becomes the target of a master thief at a masquerade ball.

Death is a Seven Point Favorite was clearly aimed at the male audience. I think the show was successful because they gave everyone a little something. Sally is smart but scatty--she's a non-threatening little darling but she plays a crucial role in solving crimes. Yes, Mac would undoubtedly solve the crimes without her help, but neither he nor we would have as much fun. And as for Mac, he is a man's man (yeah, yeah, we know) and he may suffer the occasional pratfall, but he is never the butt of any (female's) jokes. See what I'm saying? It's actually a delicate balance. She's not so dumb that she annoys the female audience or so capable that she annoys the men--and everybody loves Rock.

But I guess if they were going to offend anyone, it was the female audience, because a lot of Sally's dialog consists of bits like this:

Sally: "I know, Mac. I guess you're right. It's just that Billy is so terrific!"

Eeegah! Still, she's awfully darn cute and a lot of fun.

(This is not a photo from the first season, but I do remember this episode rather well--I bet you do too!)

Sally is kidnapped by a master jewel-thief (a lot of master jewel thieves turned up in the series--probably a social class thing) in The Face of Murder, but not for so long that it ruins the story. May I say here that I even LOVE the lead-in to the series? The music (this is scary) is sort of corny lazy 70s jazz--Harry Mancini, am I right?--that just seems perfecto, and those great photo overlays of Sally and Mac--they have a sort of nostalgic even poignant charm--and then all those terrific historic shots of San Francisco. Setting is a great part of what makes this series special--talk about a romantic locale!

'Til Death Do Us Part is probably the episode I best remember. It's one of the most original, although it's certainly the most preposterous I now realize. The tension slowly builds up to that moment when Sally and Mac wake to find their home tented by exterminators.

And then, last show of the first season: An Elementary Case of Murder. It's kind of The Parradine Case meets MacMillan & Wife. I have to confess I found Sally's pregnancies tiresome and disruptive (even as kid myself). Not as disruptive as when the imbecillic writers/producers decided to kill off her character in the last season (WHAT is the matter with these lame-brains--and I use the term deliberately. Do they honestly not credit the audience with the smarts to separate the actress from the role? The only time it doesn't work is when they don't pick the right replacement person). Anyway, I guess in those days it never occurred to anyone to CONCEAL Saint James' pregnancies, or that the child-bearing thing was liable to be a drag on the sleuthing.

One of my pet peeves, as you can tell. Don't get me started on The Mummy Returns AKA How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Franchise.

So that's it, the first season of the show that probably is at least partly responsible for my love affair with amateur sleuths and the crimes they solve. My private pet theory is that it was partly inspired by...wait for it... Bullit?

Or maybe not.

Anyway, they don't write them like this anymore.


Tori said...

I loved MacMillan & Wife, too!

Nora said...

I've recently become a fan of "McMillan & Wife" thanks to reruns on "CoziTV" and have sought more episodes out on my own as well as google searching for more info on certain details of the show (that's how I ran across this older blog post of yours!) Anyway, I thought you might be interested in knowing that I've created a tumblr to honor all things McMillan- it's my guilty pleasure! :) And I thought I would share...

Strangenstein said...

One of my most vivid "mystery movie memories" is of a man in a scary type of gas mask walking into a living room. For years I tried to track down what it was and now, finally, after all these years I believe it to be "Til Death Do Us Part"! I was almost seven when this episode aired and that one scene has been stuck in my head. I was doing some channel surfing recently and came across a channel that shows all kinds of old TV shows: McMillan and Wife, Banacek, Night Gallery, etc. TDDUP is coming up soon and I have my DVR set to record. Could this 40+ years movie mystery memory finally be solved?!?

Anonymous said...

The toast is: Arriba, Abajo, Al centro, Adentro. It's an old Mexican toast, lift glass, lower glass, clink glasses in center, then drink it down.