Among other achievements, television producer Jess Oppenheimer was one of the co-creators of a little TV show titled “I Love Lucy.” Hence, in 2007, when Gregg Oppenheimer, Jess’ son, offered to the Library his father’s business archive, the Library happily accepted this treasure trove of entertainment history.
Within the Oppenheimer Collection, alongside various “Lucy”-related episodes, elements, photos and ephemera, were items related to Mr. Oppenheimer’s many other show biz endeavors which included various non-“Lucy” small screen endeavors. And while none of them quite match the comedic heights of the 1950s misadventures of Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel, these other ventures are not without their charms and notoriety.
One of these items is the full series run of Oppenheimer’s 1960-1961 TV sitcom “Angel.”
“Angel’s” premise was that a dashing American architect, named (obviously) John Smith, who meets and marries a sweet French girl—Angel–while visiting France. They marry and he brings her back to the States as his new bride. The comedic crux of the series is largely built on Angel Smith learning not only the English language but also discovering the odd, odd ways of America.
The “Angel” of the title was actress Annie Farge. Farge (nee Henriette Goldfarb) was born in Belgium in 1934 and made her film debut, in France, in 1954. In Paris, Farge worked with the immortal mime Marcel Marceau and was friends with the writer Albert Camus. She eventually married dancer Dutch-born dancer Dirk Sanders and traveled with him to America when he came to New York as part of the Roland Petit Ballet Company. In the Big Apple, Farge understudied on Broadway.
If you believe the legend, Farge came to Oppenheimer’s attention through a photo sent to him via her NY agent. Oppenheimer was looking for the perfect, lithe little French actress for his new series “Angel” and he found the perfect one in Farge. If articles of the era are to be believed, Farge was hired for the series without even so much as a screen test.
Meanwhile, after screen testing various actors (whose filmed auditions are included in the Library’s Oppenheimer Collection), handsome actor Marshall Thompson was hired to play Angel’s husband while the dependable comedy actors Doris Singleton and Don Keefer were hired to play the Smith’s long-married next door neighbors, Susie and George.
Written and produced by Oppenheimer and directed by veteran director Lamont Johnson, the unaired pilot (also now part of the LC’s collection) for “Angel” was filmed in 1960.
Reportedly, when Oppenheimer showed the finished product to CBS executives, they were not overly impressed with his Angel-in-America program. But Oppenheimer, undeterred, lined up two sponsors—Post Cereals and Johnson’s Wax–for it and hence that enticed the network to make the show a “go.”
“Angel” aired for the first time on CBS on October 6, 1960 as part of the network’s Thursday night lineup.
At the time of its debut—and, no doubt, goaded on by the producer and network’s press departments–much was made of the new series’ various connections to the already-classic “I Love Lucy” which had ended its legendary run four years before. Along with the Oppenheimer link, one September 1960 review began: “Another Lucille Ball—but with a French accent?”
Moreover, the show’s stiffly animated opening credits, with the show’s leads depicted as slightly enhanced stick figures, strongly echoed the one-time opening of “I Love Lucy.” Then, to make sure the comparison was fully felt, Jess Oppenheimer was even credited (and depicted in the animation) as the show’s creator in the opening, a most unusual occurrence for TV then, and now.
As one could easily assume, linguistic misunderstandings and malapropisms were frequent in the series, but its true undercurrent—like “Lucy” before it—was really the battle of the sexes. At the time, even Oppenheimer himself said, “Basically, ‘Angel’ is an investigation of a young marriage.”
Wide-eyed and gamine (the actress stood only five feet tall and weighed in at a mere 90 pounds), Annie Farge was a charming leading lady with an accent so thick it almost sounded fake. But she was not the physical comedienne that Ball was (but, then again, whoever has been?), so “Angel” did not engage in the same sort of broadly-played situations that Mrs. Ricardo used to. Nevertheless, “Angel” found ample fodder in various other misunderstandings and complications.
For example, in one episode, infatuated with American elections, Angel offers up her living room as an official polling place. For the big day, Angel not only sets up voting booths, she even put out refreshments! Never has democracy been so much fun! That is, until her husband comes home.
In another, episode, “The French Lesson,” Angel is asked to be a French tutor for an eager young student. Though she’s expecting a little boy, handsome actor James Garner (playing himself) shows up. He’s about to take on a new film, set in France, and needs some assistance with the language. Though Angel has no problem beginning the lesson, husband John is less than thrilled with his wife’s handsome new student.
Throughout the show’s run, “Angel” was enhanced by a pleasant plethora of talented, familiar faces popping up in guest parts. These included: Mary Wickes (very funny as a very demanding maid almost hired by Angel), Denise Alexander, Gale Gordon, Tommy Kirk, Mel Blanc, Joe Besser, and Olan Sole.
Upon its debut, “Angel”–and Farge, especially–got a warm welcome from most of the press. After seeing its first episode, show biz bible “Variety” pronounced the show “a winner.” But despite its fetching leading lady and great pedigree, “Angel” wasn’t quite unique enough to break out that season and the show came to an end after 33 episodes.
If Farge’s entry into America was not the success that everyone was hoping for, it did little to clip the wings of its leading lady. After a handful of additional US TV appearances—on shows like “The Rifleman” and “Perry Mason”—Farge returned to France where she appeared in both feature films and on French TV. But Farge found her greatest success largely, later, behind the scenes. She became the manager of French singing and composing superstar Michel Polnareff and she also became a very successful theatrical producer, bringing to the French stage productions of “Hair,” “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” among others. She died, of cancer, in 2011.
After “Angel,” Farge’s co-star Marshall Thompson would enjoy a long career. He was the lead in the network series “Daktari,” also on CBS, from 1966 to 1969, and he appeared in innumerable film and TV roles. He died in 1992.
As for Oppenheimer, “Angel’s” end did little to slow his creative streak. He would go on to helm the TV show “Glynis,” a quirky half-hour sitcom/whodunit hybrid for the 1963 season that starred the uniquely gifted Glynis Johns. Then, he created “The Debbie Reynolds Show,” starring the unsinkable Reynolds for the 1969 season. Both of these series also endured for single seasons.
Oppenheimer passed away in 1988.
It is a theory of early TV programming trends that, in the later 1950s and early 1960s, unable to replicate the personal magic of Lucille Ball, in order to create “another ‘I Love Lucy,’” various TV shows turned, instead, to literal movie magic and special effects for their leading actresses, thus begetting such series as “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched.” One could also extend that thesis to include actresses with accents, elements of culture shock and linguistic wordplay as “Angel” is not that different from the 1956-1957 series “Hey, Jeannie!” (a.k.a. “The Jeannie Carson Show”) where the British-born Jeannie Carson starred as a young Scottish lass who had just moved to the USA.
Despite “Angel’s” somewhat truncated run—though, by today’s cable and streaming standards, 33 episodes could be the equivalent to three, maybe even four, seasons!—the series is not without its appeal, and its strengths. Annie Farge is, without a doubt, a delight and Thompson is a fine partner/foil for her. And though some of what “Angels” traffics in are tried-and-true sitcom tropes, they remain treated inventively enough to earn its place among Oppenheimer’s great oeuvre.
Episodes of “Angel” are available at the Library of Congress’ National Screening Room.
For more information related to this blog or any Library of Congress holdings, please see Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.