Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 144 — ‘Past Imperfect’

Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel, Past Imperfect

Bull run

In “Past Imperfect’s” best scene, Clayton Farlow storms off the elevator at Ewing Oil, barges into J.R.’s office and shoves him onto the sofa. Clayton, who is newly engaged to Miss Ellie, has just discovered J.R. has been poking into his past — and he’s none too pleased about it. “When are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that I love your mother and all I want is a chance to make her happy?” he says. J.R. looks a little rattled as Clayton stomps away, but a big grin soon breaks across his face. He turns to a shaken Sly and says, “A man who gets that angry over a little snooping must have something interesting to hide. I wonder what that is?”

Larry Hagman steals this scene with his smile, but the sequence also demonstrates why Howard Keel was an ideal successor to Jim Davis. This requires a somewhat lengthy explanation, so hang with me. First, consider the dilemma “Dallas” faced when Davis died at the end of the fourth season. The producers could have gone in several directions, including recasting Jock with another actor. Wisely, they decided instead to kill off the character and give the audience time to adjust to life without the show’s beloved patriarch. Then, in Season 6, “Dallas” began testing possible love interests for Ellie, including Dale Robertson’s Frank Crutcher, who was just as crusty as Jock but not nearly as intimidating. I also get the impression the show toyed with the idea of turning Donald Moffatt’s character, regal lawyer Brooks Oliver, into a beau for Ellie, which would have represented a total departure from Davis.

Finally, the producers turned Clayton into Ellie’s new mate. Perhaps they realized Keel offered the best of all options: He’s a big, commanding presence like Davis, but he’s also gentlemanly enough to ensure Clayton will never be accused of being a clone of the crotchety Jock. Since joining the show a few years earlier, Keel — a onetime star of MGM musicals — had become one of “Dallas’s” most reliable utility players, dutifully fulfilling whatever role the writers assigned to Clayton: Sue Ellen’s father figure/suitor, J.R.’s business adversary, Rebecca Wentworth’s gentleman caller. Clayton eventually became Ellie’s friend, which offered the first hint of the warm rapport that Keel and Barbara Bel Geddes would perfect as their on-screen relationship progressed.

Clayton also became a strong character in his own right, as we see in the wonderful scene in “Past Imperfect” where he summons J.R., Bobby and Ray to the Oil Baron’s Club — not to get their permission to wed Ellie, but to give them an opportunity to air any grievances they may have with him before the nuptials take place. Keel’s exchange with Steve Kanaly in this scene, when Clayton confidently assuring Ray that his opinion matters too, is especially good. But never forget: No matter how well Clayton got along with Ellie, Ray or anyone else, “Dallas” was J.R.’s show, and so Keel’s chemistry with Hagman mattered most of all. And since J.R. was destined to despise any man who courts his mama, the producers needed to fill this role with an actor who could play off Hagman. In Keel, they found their man.

This is why J.R. and Clayton’s confrontation in “Past Imperfect” is so crucial: It establishes that Clayton is no pushover. In the scene, Keel is fire and Hagman is ice; it’s not unlike the dynamic that exists between Hagman and Victoria Principal when Pam gets riled up. Perhaps not coincidentally, Clayton, like Pam, is an outsider who isn’t afraid to stand up to J.R., which earns Clayton instant respect from the audience — and perhaps from J.R. himself. Keel’s physical stature doesn’t hurt (the actor stood well over 6 feet, so he can look Hagman in the eye), but his booming baritone matters even more. In “Past Imperfect,” when Clayton tells J.R., “You are a liar!” the line sounds like it should be accompanied by a lightning bolt. Can you imagine Frank Crutcher or Brooks Oliver pulling off a scene like this?

J.R. and Clayton’s confrontation is a technical achievement too. Hagman, who directed “Past Imperfect,” films Keel coming off the elevator and marching into J.R.’s office in a single, continuous shot. This kind of camerawork requires a lot of coordination: Keel must deliver his lines while in motion — when Sly tells Clayton he can’t enter J.R.’s office, Clayton exclaims, “The hell I can’t!” — and the dialogue must be timed so Keel and Deborah Rennard complete their lines before Keel rounds the corner and begins his exchange with Hagman. We don’t see a lot of complicated shots like this on the original “Dallas,” but when they pop up, they’re often in episodes helmed by Hagman or Patrick Duffy. Why do actors make such inventive directors?

There are also quite a few comedic scenes in “Past Imperfect,” a reflection, perhaps, of Hagman’s sitcom roots. The best of these moments occurs when Clayton sweeps into the Southfork living room during cocktail hour to present Ellie with an engagement ring. He faces her and J.R. stands between them, with Jock’s portrait looming over J.R.’s shoulder — a harbinger of the two obstacles Ellie and Clayton will have to overcome on their way to the altar. The funny part comes when Keel takes the drink out of Bel Geddes’ hand and hands it to Hagman; Ellie and Clayton never take their eyes off each other, and the sneer on J.R.’s face makes it clear he doesn’t appreciate Clayton treating him like a servant.

Hagman also showcases Ken Kercheval’s comedic timing throughout “Past Imperfect.” In one scene, Cliff is talking about offshore oil leases at dinner with Pam and Mark when Afton asks him when he’s going to take a break and taste his meal. Cliff ignores her and keeps talking, so she gracefully sticks a forkful of food into his mouth. The blabbing continues, but after a few moments, Cliff finally realizes what happened. “Oh, this is good. Afton, it’s terrific,” he says. In another scene, Cliff interrupts a romantic moment between Pam and Mark with another monologue about the offshore oil deal he’s pitching to them. They ignore him and walk away. “Well, I thought I was talking to somebody,” he says.

I like how Hagman frames the latter scene, with Pam and Mark facing each other and Cliff in the middle, looking at both of them. (It echoes the earlier cocktail scene with Ellie, Clayton and J.R.) Hagman delivers several other nifty shots in “Past Imperfect,” including one where Sue Ellen drops off John Ross on his first day of school and watches workers raising the Texas flag in front of the building. Hagman opens with a tight, stationary close-up of the flag; as the flag rises out of the frame, it reveals Peter Richards leaning against his jeep in the distance, waiting for Sue Ellen. It’s a cool effect, although it also illustrates how stalkerish Peter is becoming.

Speaking of John Ross’s first day of school: “Past Imperfect” seems to confirm what I suspected — that the beginning of “Dallas’s” seventh season takes place in the summertime. This makes sense, since John Ross attends a day camp in these episodes, and that’s the kind of thing kids do in the summer. But if we assume John Ross’s school year begins on the first Tuesday of September, how do we explain the scenes in this episode that take place one day earlier, when J.R., Bobby and their secretaries are shown going about their business during a typical day at the office? You don’t suppose J.R. was heartless enough to make everyone work on Labor Day, do you?

Grade: A

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Barbara Bel Geddes, Clayton Farlow, Dallas, Howard Keel, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman, Miss Ellie Ewing, Past Imperfect

Four’s a crowd

‘PAST IMPERFECT’

Season 7, Episode 13

Airdate: December 23, 1983

Audience: 20.1 million homes, ranking 1st in the weekly ratings

Writer: David Paulsen

Director: Larry Hagman

Synopsis: Clayton tells the Ewing brothers he wants to make Miss Ellie happy, but he becomes angry when he finds out J.R. has been snooping into his past. Cliff, believing J.R. wants to bid on offshore oil leases, approaches Mark about bidding too, but Mark is skittish. After Sue Ellen breaks up with Peter, Lucy learns he’s dropped out of school. Bobby buys a boutique for Jenna to run. In Rome, Katherine searches for Naldo Marchetta, Jenna’s ex-husband.

Cast: Christopher Atkins (Peter Richards), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Morgan Brittany (Katherine Wentworth), James L. Brown (Detective Harry McSween), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Pat Colbért (Dora Mae), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Michael Griswold (Thomas Hall), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Alberto Morin (Armando Sidoni) Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“Past Imperfect” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.

Comments

  1. I totally agree with you re the nice comic touches in this episode, Larry Hagmans’ skill as both a director and comic actor ( think of his roles in Superman, Mother, Jugs and Speed and a few other films ) are both brilliantly shown in this episode.
    As for Ken Kercheval, I’m not sue of his background as an actor before Dallas but he also had an excellent comic touch – giving his otherwise thankless role as the loser/foil of JR an extra dimension.
    And Howard Keel – I can’t think of any other actor with the stature or screen presence to step into Jim Davis’ shoes as the patriarch of Dallas and be able to fit in and when needed, stand up to, all those macho Ewing men.

  2. C. B., what I like is not just the intensity in Clayton’s face as he confronts J. R., but how startled the secretaries look in the Ewing Oil couter offices.

  3. Of course I meant to say the surprised look on Sly’s face not the secretary’s as in plural since only Miss Lovegren & John Ross Ewing The IInd were in the Ewing Oil Co. Ltd. offices when Clayton Farlow burst in!

  4. Admittedly, I am a Jock lover and I do think the writers did a disservice to the Clayton character as time went on but I agree Howard Keep was the way to go. I tend to think Clayton had more in common with Jock than people tend to believe. Like the scene at the Oil Baron’s Club- he wasn’t asking (nor did he need) permission but he was direct in getting problems out, very similar to Jock’s desire to air problems out when Gary comes back in Season 2.
    Jim Davis was hard to replace in any sense. No other actor would be accepted in that role and a new character had a lot of requirements: first off, any man coming in had to have two things: money and power. Clayton had too much money and clout of his own to ever truly fear JR. This fact was established long before he was even in the running for Ellie. Secondly, like you said, he had the physical stature and presence to be a bit scary, JR occasionally lied to his daddy, he probably disappointed him a few times but he always feared him. Jock would gladly have shoved JR down if the need arose. Thirdly, something often overlooked was the fact Ellie was attracted to a strong man. I know a lot of people want to romanticize her relationship with Digger (probably due to the fan fiction out there) but many times throughout the show she cited Jock’s strength an attraction. The men she seems drawn torn are strong, ambitious business men (Matt Devlin in Season 3 is a powerful land developer but she was still attracted to him, an odd thing for a rancher’s daughter), Frank Crutcher is a successful oilman, Clayton was no pushover. She was a strong willed woman who needed an equally tough guy. Digger was anything but strong. Sorry to all the Digger fans out there!

    • Missiea5, thanks for your comments! I agree with everything you wrote. Like you said, sorry to the Digger fans but he just wasn’t the right man for Mama.

  5. I’ve always felt Clayton was the perfect second go round for Miss Ellie. If fact when my father passed away four years ago and with my mother being in her early 60’s we all realized it was highly likley a Clayton Farlow would come along and join the family. What we meant by that was he was such a good man and the type you’d trust with your own mother’s golden years.
    But I never quite put the thought into it you did Chris. You are right this is a guy who worked his way up from recurring character to regular cast much the way a ballplayer works his way up through the minors, gets a cup of coffee and finally becomes an all star player. His role starts out quite small as the father of Sue Ellen’s lover and he plays it with dignity and parlays it into ever increasing opportunity and screen time. In my mind Wisconsin mind Keel portrayed Clayton as the stereotypical southern gentleman and that characterization took him far and was just what Miss Ellie needed at this point in her life. Without that screen presence he would have been just Dale Robertson who gets a tryout and quickly fades away. (Crutcher was just too crotchety for me to take seriously.) Kudos to Keel and the best of Clayton Farlow was yet to come.

    • Thank you, Dan. The more I watch “Dallas,” the more I admire Howard Keel. You hit the nail on the head when you say that he played his role with dignity.

  6. Well, I have said a few times here that I think Clayton would have been a better husband for Sue Ellen, with Miss Ellie marrying someone like Punk Anderson or Jordan Lee. But you do make a great case for why they ended going in the direction they did with Clayton. You’re right, it was a tough call to make in regards to giving Miss Ellie a new husband after Jock. If they’d gone with the wrong actor it could have ruined the show. And the way you lay out how the character of Clayton had been featured on the show since his introduction does make it seem like this something the producers hadn’t considered until they’d seen how well Howard Keel was fitting in with the show and the rest of the cast and then realized this was the best way to keep him around.

    I also like the talk of Hagman’s direction, which is something that many (including myself) overlook. That’s a whole separate talent apart from acting, as well. That shot you talked about and show, with J.R. standing inbetween Miss Ellie and Clayton, and Jock’s picture in the background, is pretty darn clever. This makes me want to track down that Blog movie Hagman directed, just to see how he did. Maybe you should do a post specifically about Larry Hagman as a director, covering the best scenes that he directed on the show? The same for the other cast members who directed episodes too?

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Past Imperfect,” a seventh-season “Dallas” episode, J.R. and Sly (Larry Hagman, Debbie Rennard) stand in the […]

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