Thursday, April 14, 2016

Gilligan and the Beanstalk

Mary Ann (Dawn Wells): When in doubt, use the farmer's formula: One part sunshine, two parts water and three parts prayer.

Professor (Russell Johnson): [reading from book] "The scientific approach to the rapid growth of citrus fruits is assured with the proper amounts of vitamin D, aqua naturalis and fertilizer containing sodium chloride, nitrate of potassium and calcium. If this doesn't achieve results, try one part sunshine, two parts water and three parts prayer."

As I have observed here before, to watch Gilligan's Island, it was often necessary to suspend one's disbelief considerably. Reality programming may have enjoyed a boom in the early 21st century, but in the middle of the 20th century, fantasy ruled the airwaves. After all, Gilligan's Island was on in a decade that had sitcoms featuring things like talking horses, witches, genies and transplanted hillbillies.

Occasionally such programs would do episodes that tackled — or attempted to tackle — a serious topic, as Gilligan's Island did 50 years ago tonight with "V for Vitamins," but sitcoms that took on serious topics often seemed compelled to double down on the fantasy part to compensate.

In "V for Vitamins," the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) experienced a sudden weakness, an inability to do things he once did with ease. The Professor (Russell Johnson) concluded, after examining the Skipper, that it was due to the absence of vitamin C in his diet — a deficiency, he further concluded, that would kill each of the castaways in turn, according to their size. The Skipper, being the largest, would go first. Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), being the smallest, would be last.

Now, it is a fact that vitamin deficiencies can be serious matters, even deadly, and this might have been a great opportunity for Gilligan's Island to educate the public. Instead it veered off into fantasy.

Now, that, too, can be effective as an educational device, depending upon how it is applied. In this case, I think it was mostly applied for laughs — and, for a sitcom, there isn't anything wrong with that. But it rather starkly illustrates the difference in the objectives of sitcoms of the '60s and sitcoms of the '70s.

Sitcoms of the '70s often took on serious topics — but they used them differently. I guess that went with the territory. The talking horses, hillbillies, genies and witches were gone; they had been replaced by people you were more likely to encounter in your day–to–day life, like Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, and the issues they dealt with were issues you were more likely to deal with in your day–to–day life as well. The TV writers of the '70s didn't want to be frivolous, but they believed that the best way to handle divisive subjects was to find common ground through humor.

After learning that the Skipper had a vitamin C deficiency, Gilligan (Bob Denver) somehow found an orange in the jungle — and apparently didn't know that oranges are sources of vitamin C. Nor, apparently, did he know that pineapples — one of which could be seen on the table when Gilligan told Ginger (Tina Louise) and Mary Ann about the vitamin C deficiency they all had — were also sources of vitamin C.

And I am not a farmer by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me that, if there is an orange or a pineapple growing somewhere, there are bound to be others nearby. It has not been my experience that one of anything — except, sometimes, humans — grows anywhere on this planet. Even a single orange seed would yield a tree that produced more than one orange.

But Gilligan claimed there were no other oranges in the jungle — and the subject of the pineapple just never came up.

Gilligan did try to be generous with the orange, offering to divide it into seven equal parts so each person could have some. But then arguments broke out about who need more and such. In the end, of course, the Professor had to point out that a single slice of an orange wouldn't be enough to help any of them. They needed more vitamin C on a regular basis. Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) tried to get people to sell him their slices.

As all this was going on, the orange shriveled in the hot sun.

The castaways decided that the thing to do was plant the seeds, and the Professor found, in one of his books (that's another thing — why would the Professor bring along so many books on what had been intended to be a three–hour cruise?), guidelines for accelerating the growth of citrus fruits.

So the castaways went about planting the seeds.

One of the things that had to be done was to keep the seeds warm on the chilly island nights. So the men were taking turns standing watch over the torches, making sure they stayed lit.

But when Gilligan took his turn, he dozed off, and the torches went out.

Meanwhile, Gilligan fell into one of those TV dream sequences in which he dreamed he was Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" fame — only instead of sending him to get beans, his mother (played by Mrs. Howell, Natalie Schafer), sent him to get oranges.

On his way to the market, Gilligan encountered a con man (Mr. Howell) who talked him into giving him the jewels his mother had given him to exchange for oranges. The con man sold Gilligan what he said were "magic" seeds that would produce an orange grove. His mother was upset and threw the seeds out the window — and they magically produced a beanstalk rising to the sky.

Gilligan climbed the beanstalk and found a castle among the clouds. It was occupied by a giant (the Skipper) who had a housekeeper (Mary Ann) who was Gilligan's instant ally. The giant also had a goose that laid golden oranges, and Gilligan resolved to take it back with him. That, he was sure, would please his mother.

But there were delays in getting away from the castle. Gilligan and the housekeeper heard cries for help and freed two old people (Ginger and the Professor) who were being held captive. In typical Ginger style, the old woman insisted on rewarding her rescuer with a kiss; when she kissed him, she was transformed into a young, beautiful princess. She explained that she was a princess who had been put under a spell that could only be broken by a kiss from a young man.

The old man said that he was really a prince, and he needed a kiss to turn him back into a prince. Gilligan refused, but the princess observed that Mary Ann's kiss was what he needed.

If anything, Mary Ann was more reluctant than Gilligan, but she went ahead with it. The old man did not turn into a prince, and Mary Ann said so in disgust: "You're not a prince!"

"No, I'm not," the old man replied. "Well, don't believe everything you hear, girlie!"

(Once I saw Russell Johnson talking in an interview about that episode. He said he took the cackle and jig from Walter Huston in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," my favorite Humphrey Bogart movie. Well, if you're gonna steal — excuse me, borrow — you might as well steal/borrow from the best.

(In fact, I saw interviews with most of the actors who were regulars on Gilligan's Island, and most, if not all, said their favorite episodes were the ones in which they got to play special characters within the context of their usual characters. "V for Vitamins" gave just about everyone an opportunity to spread their wings a little — except, I thought, for Schafer, whose contributions to episodes were typically modest, anyway.)

Gilligan tried to get back to the beanstalk, but he was cornered by the giant in an amusing sequence in which Denver's own son, Patrick, played his father, allowing Hale to play the giant.

It was about this point when the Skipper and the Professor woke up Gilligan, whose first concern was the torches.

The Skipper and the Professor weren't worried about that. They had discovered lemons and grapefruit growing in the jungle, solving their vitamin C problem.

Which leads me to another issue.

The castaways' island was so small it did not appear on any maps. Based on the images of the island that viewers saw, there were no volcanoes or mountains or anything like that — although there were episodes that referred to a mountain or a volcano on the island. The TV show had been on the air nearly two full seasons when this episode had aired.

In all that time on such a tiny island, doesn't it seem strange that not a one of the seven castaways had ever discovered lemons or grapefruits growing there?

Consequently the subject of vitamin C and its essential role in human health never needed to come up.

Still it was an entertaining story.