Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fighting the Battle of Burning Oak

Elizabeth Montgomery was always an activist.

She was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War when her TV series, Bewitched, was popular. Long after the series went off the air, she was an advocate of women's rights and gay rights (the latter influenced to a certain extent by her friendship with Bewitched co–star Dick Sargent, the second Darrin, who was gay).

Surely, it was due at least in part to Montgomery's influence that Bewitched was more than another slapstick '60s sitcom. It had the requisite bizarre circumstances the primary characters were striving to overcome with goofy supporting characters. But it was also clever, contemporary and cosmopolitan — and socially aware.

Consequently, it probably wasn't much of a stretch for her to do episodes of Bewitched like the one that first aired 45 years ago tonight, "The Battle of Burning Oak."

The premise was that Darrin (Dick York) was invited to join a country club, Burning Oak, that was very exclusive — and very bigoted. Viewers knew it wasn't the kind of thing that would appeal to Darrin; but it was the kind of invitation that was of enormous value to a social ladder–climbing, up–and–comer like Darrin's mother–in–law, Endora (Agnes Moorehead), imagined him to be. She said as much to Samantha, who thought nothing of it.

(Samantha, like many viewers, probably dismissed it as the rantings of a mother who believed her daughter had married beneath her — a theme that was well established on the show by this time and paved the way nicely for an episode about prejudice and stereotyping.)

To prove her point, Endora turned Darrin into the snob to end all snobs — a snob's snob and a sure bet to be asked by the screening committee to become a member.

And he was — in spite of the fact that the ladies of the screening committee had been unimpressed when they learned that Samantha did all her own housework.

Samantha deduced that her mother had cast a spell on Darrin and, with the help of her Aunt Hagatha, dug up some dirt on the committee members to level the playing field.

It all led to an amusing confrontation with the members of the club in which Samantha, with a little assistance from witchcraft, exposed the snooty members of the committee, some of whom claimed to have had ancestors on board the Mayflower.

From a group that advertised itself to be "pure–bred Americans," it turned out that some had ancestors on the wrong side of the law; for example, one was descended from a horse thief. Others did not have the noble ancestry they claimed; one was descended from a servant, another from a stowaway. And so on.

They all came to America to escape prejudice, Samantha declared. Actually, she continued, no one could rightfully claim to be a pure–bred American except an Indian. "And an American Indian could never get in here," she said with a sweet smile.

My memory is that some of the proper ladies of the club's board fainted when she said that.

At that point, Samantha rose when Darrin announced that it was getting late and it was time to go home.

In hindsight, it was courageous of writers Leo and Pauline Townsend to tackle the topic of bigotry.

At the time, Americans' social consciousness and sensitivity was emerging. The debut of All in the Family, which regularly challenged prejudice, was still a couple of years away. TV sitcoms were mostly silly in those days, seldom trying to make a serious point.

I suppose Bewitched had its share of silliness, too, 45 years ago tonight.

At one point, Endora, in her indignant way, observed that she had been protesting a new movie that portrayed witches as evil. I don't recall a specific title being mentioned, but I have often wondered, whenever I have seen that episode, if perhaps Endora was referring to "Rosemary's Baby," which was quite popular at the time.

The theme of witches being a persecuted minority was a recurring one — which, I suppose, gave Bewitched legitimacy to poke fun at bigotry.

It's hardly the same thing, of course. Witches are fictional characters. Prejudice against them can't be taken seriously, but prejudice against real people, whatever the reason for it, should be taken seriously.

That seems obvious today, doesn't it? But you have to keep it in the context of the times. It was a big deal at that time for a TV series to have a black leading lady who wasn't carrying trays.

(It's been quite awhile since I have seen the episode, and I don't remember now if there were any stereotyped servants at Burning Oak — but it wouldn't surprise me if there were. It's the kind of touch that would have appealed to Montgomery.)

Bewitched was uniquely positioned to challenge the prejudice and double standards of its time. The marriage of Darrin and Samantha, after all, was a "mixed marriage" — not in the way that phrase was interpreted by most people at the time, but mixed, nonetheless — and it was likely to produce offspring who carried the genetic material of both parents, as indeed it did.

It was also about a marriage in which the wife had more power than the husband, something that is much more common today than it was in 1969. Her actual power advantage (witchcraft) was a metaphorical edge as well. That made it easier, I suppose, for viewers to accept it when stories could be seen on more than one level.

The story lines, like the one in "The Battle of Burning Oak," played with questions about stereotypes and group depictions that were only starting to be asked — and it did so in a way that was virtually invisible if you weren't looking for it. The best episodes of Bewitched worked both as metaphor and as a serious story.

It seems our culture is taking prejudice seriously today, and you can attribute that to many factors — but don't underestimate the contribution Bewitched made on this night 45 years ago. In my experience, laughing about something is the first and most positive step to take in dealing with it.