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

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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.

Dallas Scene of the Day: ‘My Pretty Little Ellie’

Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Miss Ellie Ewing, Reckoning

Poor Mama

In “The Reckoning,” a sixth-season “Dallas” episode, Brooks (Donald Moffat) questions Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) during her testimony at the hearing to overturn Jock’s will.

BROOKS: Mrs. Ewing, did your husband ever write you about the codicil?

ELLIE: No.

BROOKS: Nothing at all?

ELLIE: Well, he told me on the phone that he had been trying to plan ahead, but it was hard. He was tired. He said that he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep for awhile. I remember that that frightened me.

BROOKS: Had you ever heard him say anything like that before?

ELLIE: Never. Jock was as strong as a bull. It must have been the fever or whatever. I don’t know, but he just wasn’t himself down there.

BROOKS: But he did write to you about how he was feeling?

ELLIE: Yes, several times.

BROOKS: Mrs. Ewing, may I ask you to read some of what he wrote to you?

Brooks pulls a letter from an envelope and hands it to Ellie. She puts on her eyeglasses and studies the letter for a moment, then begins to read it aloud.

ELLIE: “I’ve forgotten how miserable the jungle can be. Between the heat and the fatigue, I’m about done in. I’ve been running a fever lately, but I guess I’ll get over that. If Punk can survive it, so can I. We’re getting things done. It’s not like when we were young, though, Ellie. [Voice begins to break] I’m really feeling the years down here. My concentration isn’t what it used to be, either. I find myself trying to figure something out, then just drifting off somewhere. Back to younger days. Younger times. It’s funny: I stare out, and all these jungle plants just kind of dissolve — and there’s your face instead, just waiting there for me. My pretty little girl. My pretty little Ellie. Oh, how I miss you down here.” [Removes her glasses, wipes her eyes]

BROOKS: Mrs. Ewing, I won’t ask you to read any further. May we place these letters in the hands of the judge? [Hands letter to bailiff] Mrs. Ewing, I have just one more question for you: Aside from the fever and exhaustion, are you saying that at the time your husband wrote the codicil, he lacked mental competence? [She looks at J.R. and Bobby, seated across the room.] Mrs. Ewing, please answer the question: Are you saying when your husband wrote the codicil, he was mentally incompetent?

ELLIE: I’m saying that his sense of judgment not up to his usual standards.

BROOKS: That’s not what I’m asking.

ELLIE: If that’s the legal term you need to break the will, then yes, Jock was not mentally competent. [She sobs.]

Critique: ‘Dallas’ Episode 117 — ‘The Ewing Blues’

Dallas, Ewing Blues, J.R. Ewing, Larry Hagman

Don’t box him in

“The Ewing Blues” includes one of “Dallas’s” cleverest scenes. J.R. appears on a local TV talk show to tout his new chain of cut-rate gas stations, which is turning him into a hero in the eyes of the public. Cliff is watching the interview from the living room of his new townhouse, where a deliveryman arrives with the Chinese takeout he ordered. As Cliff reaches for his wallet, the man notices what’s playing on Cliff’s TV. “That’s J.R. Ewing, ain’t it?” he asks. “I tell ya, if he ran for president tomorrow, I’d vote for him! I would!” Cliff is left shaking his head and muttering, “So much for the intelligence of the average voter.”

With this scene, “Dallas” has a little fun with its audience. For years, viewers — present company included — had been treating J.R. like a hero. Now fictional fans like Cliff’s deliveryman were doing the same thing. The line about voting for J.R. even brings to mind the “J.R. for President” buttons and bumper stickers that cropped up during the summer of 1980, when “Who Shot J.R.?” hysteria was in full swing. (I also wonder if the dialogue reflects the era’s political realities. When “The Ewing Blues” debuted in January 1983, Ronald Reagan’s approval rating had sunk to an astonishing 35 percent, the lowest level of his presidency. In those months before Reagan’s popularity rebounded, perhaps Americans really would have voted to replace him with J.R.)

J.R.’s talk show appearance also offers another reminder of Larry Hagman’s genius. J.R. tells the host, Roy Ralston, that he’s cutting gas prices because he believes the oil industry has gouged consumers for too long. We know J.R. is lying because earlier in “The Ewing Blues,” he tells little John Ross that he has become the oil industry’s version of Robin Hood (“take from the poor and give to the rich”). Yet as J.R. talks to Ralston about how “the American public deserves a better hand than they’ve been dealt,” the sincerity in Hagman’s voice kind of makes us want to believe his character. How did Hagman do that?

More than anything, I love Hagman’s scenes with Linda Gray in “The Ewing Blues,” especially J.R. and Sue Ellen’s exchange in their bedroom. After Ray punches him during a Southfork cocktail hour, J.R. sits on the bed, holding an icepack to his swollen lip as Sue Ellen caresses his face. He tells her that he’s nervous about his talk show appearance in a few days and hints he’d like her to join him — and of course the onetime Miss Texas leaps at the opportunity to take another turn in the spotlight. This might be one of the sweetest gestures J.R. ever makes toward his wife. Think about it: J.R. never loses his confidence. He’s only pretending to be anxious so he’ll have an excuse to invite Sue Ellen on the show and involve her in his life. As he puts it, “We’re partners, aren’t we?”

David Paulsen, who wrote and directed “The Ewing Blues,” doesn’t just show us a softer side of J.R.; he also lets us see Bobby’s edge. To compete with J.R.’s cut-rate gas plan, Bobby wants to uncap the Wellington field, one of the Ewing Oil properties Bobby controls during the contest for the company. The problem: The cartel members are partners in the field, and they want it to remain capped. With help from lawyer Craig Gurney, Bobby tells Jordan and Marilee that he’s prepared to exercise a clause in their contract that requires them to either uncap the field or buy out Bobby at five times market value. “That’s armed robbery!” Jordan huffs. Gurney’s response: “No, that’s Paragraph 17A, Section F.” It’s one of my favorite exchanges during the episode.

The other great scene in “The Ewing Blues” comes at the end, when Ellie and Pam visit Brooks Oliver, the lawyer who agrees to help Ellie try to overturn Jock’s will. Ellie is quite timid at the beginning of the scene, clutching the letters that Jock wrote to her from South America. Oliver predicts their lawsuit will turn ugly and wind up in “the newspapers,” which prompts Pam to rebuke him for upsetting her. “She has to know exactly what she is getting into if she wants to go to court,” Oliver explains. This is when Ellie’s fighting spirit bursts forth. “Mr. Oliver, I don’t want to go to court. I don’t want to do any of this,” she says, slapping her hand on the desk. Besides Barbara Bel Geddes’ dramatic delivery, pay attention to the gentle strings that play in the background of this scene. The score, which helped composer Bruce Broughton win an Emmy in 1983, reminds me a little of the music Rob Cairns delivers on TNT’s “Dallas.”

Finally, some casting notes: Oliver is played by the wonderful character actor Donald Moffat, possessor of the fiercest eyebrows this side of Larry Hagman. Moffat is one of several familiar faces who pop up in “The Ewing Blues.” Gurney is played by Lane Davies, who would later star on the soap opera “Santa Barbara,” while another daytime television veteran, John Reilly (“As the World Turns,” “General Hospital”), plays Ralston, the talk show host. The most significant addition to the cast, though, is John Beck, who joins “Dallas” in this episode and begins a three-season run as Mark Graison. I had forgotten that Mark was introduced as an old Ewing family friend. In one scene, when he calls Southfork and Bobby answers the phone, the two characters chat like old chums. It’s surprising to witness, but I know the glad tidings won’t last long.

Grade: A

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Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas, Ewing Blues, Miss Ellie Ewing

Mama means business

‘THE EWING BLUES’

Season 6, Episode 14

Airdate: January 7, 1983

Audience: 21.4 million homes, ranking 4th in the weekly ratings

Writer and Director: David Paulsen

Synopsis: J.R. appears on a TV talk show and is lauded for his efforts to cut gas prices. After J.R. threatens to ruin Harwood Oil if Holly doesn’t cancel her refinery contracts, she turns to Bobby for help. To get the cartel to uncap the Wellington property, Bobby threatens to exercise a legal loophole in Ewing Oil’s contract with the cartel members. Mark Graison gives Brooks, his family’s attorney, permission to take Miss Ellie’s case, and Mark grows smitten with Pam when he meets her. Cliff moves into his new townhouse, while Afton grows frustrated with the way he treats her.

Cast: Tyler Banks (John Ross Ewing), John Beck (Mark Graison), Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie Ewing), Al Checco (deliveryman), Lois Chiles (Holly Harwood), Roseanna Christiansen (Teresa), Lane Davies (Craig Gurney), Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing), Bobbie Ferguson (Terri), Fern Fitzgerald (Marilee Stone), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen Ewing), Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing), Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs), Steve Kanaly (Ray Krebbs), Ken Kercheval (Cliff Barnes), Audrey Landers (Afton Cooper), Donald Moffat (Brooks Oliver), Timothy Patrick Murphy (Mickey Trotter), Scott Palmer (Farley Criswell), Robert Pinkerton (Elliot), Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Wentworth), Victoria Principal (Pam Ewing), John Reilly (Roy Ralston), Debbie Rennard (Sly), Danone Simpson (Kendall), Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley), Don Starr (Jordan Lee), Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing), Deborah Tranelli (Phyllis)

“The Ewing Blues” is available on DVD and at Amazon.com and iTunes. Watch the episode and share your comments below.