“Dallas’s” Oil Baron’s Ball episodes are fan favorites, and for good reason. Not only do they show the cast dressed to the nines, we also get to see the actors together in one place. (The Southfork barbecue and wedding episodes are pretty much the only other occasions where this happens.) The balls often are remembered for their big moments — tearful tributes to dead Ewings, knock-down/drag-out fights — but don’t overlook the smaller scenes that show the characters gossiping about each other or commenting on the events unfolding around them. It’s not quite Altmanesque, but it’s as close as this show gets.
The most dramatic moment in “Oil Baron’s Ball III” comes at the end, when J.R. — in full-fledged jerk mode — humiliates Pam by taking the podium to announce Bobby and Jenna’s wedding date. It’s a perfectly fine way to finish the episode, although I get a bigger kick out of the vignettes that precede it: J.R. and Jordan Lee standing over an appetizer tray, bickering about Cliff; a pushy paparazzo stopping J.R. to take his picture; Ray and Donna filling their glasses at the champagne fountain while wondering if there’ll be a brawl at this year’s ball. These scenes help set the mood and allow us to feel part of the action, as if we’re moving around the room with the characters.
I also appreciate two scenes that require no dialogue to be effective. In the first, Sue Ellen crosses the ballroom alone with a concerned expression on her face. Because we know this character so well — and because Linda Gray can say so much with a single raised eyebrow — we know exactly what’s on Sue Ellen’s mind at this moment: Where is my husband, and what kind of trouble is he getting into? Likewise, when we see J.R. lurking in the shadows, listening as Mandy encourages Pam to tell Bobby she still loves him, we know J.R. is going to throw a wrench in Pam’s plans — not because J.R. discloses his intentions to another character, but because Larry Hagman has that look. The glint in his eye and the slight, mischievous smile say it all.
Other small moments in “Oil Baron’s Ball III” stand out. Before the Ewings leave for the ball, director Michael Preece brings the characters out of their bedrooms and into the hallway to admire each other’s outfits. The men look timeless in their tuxedos, while the women look extremely ’80s in their glittery Travilla designs. Later, Charlene Tilton has a nice moment when Lucy comes home and finds John Ross at the dining room table, playing checkers with Teresa. When Lucy takes her young cousin upstairs to put him to bed, he asks why she isn’t at the ball with the rest of the family. “I’m not part of that kind of life anymore. Things that are important to your mommy and daddy really aren’t very important to me,” she says, demonstrating how much she’s grown this season.
My favorite moment of all is a fun scene that pits J.R. against Clayton. It begins with J.R. leaving for work when he finds Miss Ellie and her new husband standing in the driveway, greeting a furniture delivery crew. After Ellie explains she’s bought new bedroom furniture and leads the deliverymen into the house, J.R. notices Clayton’s car is blocking his and asks him to move “that blue thing.” Clayton tosses him the keys and says, “Be my guest.” Parking problems like this happen in many suburban families all the time; isn’t it nice to know they happen to the Ewings too? And how much do you want to bet J.R. messed with Clayton’s mirrors, just to be mean?
The only thing here that doesn’t ring true is Ellie. Donna Reed exits the scene by looking off into the distance and moving out of camera range, except she doesn’t walk as much as she floats. It’s another example of how different Reed is from Barbara Bel Geddes, who most certainly never floated. I can accept the unique sensibilities the two actresses bring to the role, but I’m having a harder time dealing with how the character is being written since Reed took over the role. In another “Oil Baron’s Ball III” scene, Ellie confides in Donna about Clayton’s difficulty adjusting to life at Southfork. Donna compares the situation to Ray’s struggle to escape the shadow of her first husband, Sam Culver. It’s a perfectly apt analogy, except Ellie can’t seem to recognize this. In the past, Mama could be naïve, but in this scene, she seems almost dim.
Nevertheless, I admire how “Dallas” has made Clayton and Ellie’s problems a major storyline. Howard Keel does an especially nice job making Clayton’s struggle feel real without ever portraying the character as weak. I also like how “Dallas” continues referencing its own past. In addition to Donna’s mention of Sam, this episode finds Bobby comparing Pam’s doubts about Mark’s death to Ellie’s struggle to accept Jock’s demise. We also see Cliff tell Mandy about Pam’s emotional breakdown during her marriage to Bobby, and we find Eddie snooping into Lucy’s past by looking up old newspaper clippings about her wedding to Mitch.
Seeing Eddie combing through the library’s mirofische collection — with help from a pretty librarian, naturally — offers a reminder of how far technology has come since this episode was produced three decades ago. If Eddie wanted to find out about Lucy’s past today, he would only have to punch her name into Google and start scrolling. But honestly, where would be the fun in that?
‘OIL BARON’S BALL III’
Season 8, Episode 8
Airdate: November 16, 1984
Audience: 22.5 million homes, ranking 2nd in the weekly ratings
Writer: David Paulsen
Director: Michael Preece
Synopsis: To humiliate Pam, J.R. announces Bobby and Jenna’s wedding date at the Oil Baron’s Ball. J.R. is intrigued when he spots Mandy. Miss Ellie worries Clayton feels uncomfortable at Southfork. Eddie breaks a date with Betty to ask out Lucy. Sly takes a break from work.
Cast: Michael Alldredge (Steve Jackson), Norman Bennett (Al), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Eric Farlow (Christopher Ewing), Tony Garcia (Raoul), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Jenilee Harrison (Jamie Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Omri Katz (John Ross Ewing), Howard Keel (Clayton Farlow), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Fredric Lehne (Eddie Cronin), Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Jenna Wade), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), Donna Reed (Miss Ellie Farlow), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Sherril Lynn Rettino (Jackie Dugan), Deborah Shelton (Mandy Winger), William Smithers (Jeremy Wendell), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Christopher Stone (Dave Stratton), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis), Morgan Woodward (Punk Anderson), Kathleen York (Betty)