Oh, the Civility!

ROBERT J. HUGHES

What's My Line? — a Sunday night fixture on CBS from 1950 to 1967 — is a bracing antidote to today's dispiriting talk-a-thons, humiliating reality shows and hostile cable-news programs.


This week on television, Goldie Hawn enacted a zany childhood scene on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Tom Cruise was so jumpy and energized on Oprah that you wondered about his mental health. Both actors flogged new projects — Ms. Hawn, a memoir; Mr. Cruise, a sci-fi movie — and both made long, choreographed and generally uninteresting appearances.

Farther down the dial, in the wee small hours of the morning, William Holden had a movie to plug too. But the actor, despite being dead for nearly a quarter century, managed to outshine today's stars. He was the mystery guest on a 1956 rerun of What's My Line? — the charming conversational game show from decades ago that is a 3:30 a.m. staple on the GSN cable and satellite network. During his appearance, Mr. Holden mentioned his then-new and now-forgotten movie, Toward the Unknown, only after the panelists guessed his identity. He spoke for maybe a minute. And unlike today's typically self-infatuated talk-show guest, he came across as charming, modest and mercifully laconic.

What's My Line? — a Sunday night fixture on CBS from 1950 to 1967 — is a bracing antidote to today's dispiriting talk-a-thons, humiliating reality shows and hostile cable-news programs. And with VCRs, TiVo and other time-shifting contraptions available to modern TV watchers, the show's retro charms are available to a much wider swath of viewers than its minuscule ratings would suggest.

And what a treat What's My Line? is: low-key but sophisticated, decorous yet not stuffy, and a real window onto another era. What's My Line? was unscripted, and it was broadcast live. Its panelists refer to current affairs in passing, and its guests were a veritable who's who of the arts high and low, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Liberace.

But what strikes you first is the civility. In this age of confrontational television, What's My Line? lets us breathe a little easier. Even if it's all in the past.

The show is simplicity itself: A panel of four tries to guess the occupation, or line, of a guest. When there's a mystery guest, the panelists are blindfolded and try to figure out the guest's identity. The panelists ask questions that require a yes or no answer, and try to deduce from the responses what the person does, or who he or she is. That's it. But that may explain its appeal. There's no competition, no backstabbing, no one-upmanship. It's as if we viewers were asked to join in a casual after-dinner party game at the home of urbane hosts.

Arlene Francis, John Daly,
Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen

No small part of the show's appeal lay in its engaging panel. For much of its run, the What's My Line? crew included the charming Arlene Francis, who was a theatrical performer and popular radio host; Bennett Cerf, the dapper founder of Random House, the publishing concern; and Dorothy Kilgallen, who had a radio show with her husband and was also a gossip columnist — and who, perhaps because of that calling's lowlier status, seemed to have more of an edge to her personality than her colleagues. From 1954 to 1956, radio comedian Fred Allen was the fourth panelist; following his death, that spot was filled with guests ranging from Steve Allen to a young Phil Rizzuto and a pre-Odd Couple Tony Randall.

At the start of each show, the panelists introduced each other, in a rather courtly and decidedly old-fashioned way that helps maintain the illusion we're privy to a charming salon. Sometimes, when Mr. Cerf and the show's moderator, newsman John Charles Daly, made some reference to their homes in Westchester, N.Y., I would have an image of a suburban John Cheever world (minus the despair, perhaps), or when Ms. Francis mentioned a book that Mr. Cerf had published recently I'd get a sense of what America was reading at the time.

These panelists helped make viewers feel they, too, were part of a Manhattan elite. They were clearly well-read, conversant with the arts and on top of current events. On one show, Mr. Cerf correctly guessed that the mystery guest was a Suez Canal pilot, during the time of that Middle East crisis, because he was aware of talks in New York related to it. One show even had as a mystery guest the judge who had recently performed the wedding service for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Since I began watching WML? I've pored over my copy of Mr. Cerf's memoir, At Random, for anecdotes about the show and his life, scoped Lee Israel's 1979 biography of Dorothy Kilgallen, and searched for Arlene Francis's memoir (she actually wrote a book about being charming, too). What's My Line? also sent me looking into the Suez affair and the 1956 presidential election, not to mention the movies, TV shows and plays that guests mention during their brief appearances. I have to believe that the panelists' contemporary viewers had their curiosity piqued in much the same way. And given that the network primetime audience back then was huge by today's standards, What's My Line? was truly educational TV with none of the pretense we now associate with the term.

As for the noncelebrity guests, they were all treated with consideration and respect. Of course, the show wasn't entirely representative of America's cultural diversity. But it did have a sizable number of women guests with interesting occupations, ranging from a sweet elderly woman who was the warden of a prison to a barrel-shaped blonde who managed a brewery. On two separate occasions, Japanese women, attired in kimonos, shattered stereotypes. One turned out to be a jazz pianist; the other, a pizza maker.

Apart from the interesting day-to-day occupations that What's My Line? so cheerfully explored, what remains fascinating are the show's more famous guests. How refreshing in our era of the tell-all to see Hollywood actors say merely a few words — mainly "Yes" and "No" — and a line or two about a current movie. Rather than subjecting viewers to tiresome anecdotes and desperate jokes, What's My Line? offers us a glimpse of glamour, allowing some of the mystery surrounding stardom to remain.

And what guest stars "What's My Line? attracted! Since I've been watching, they have included Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, director George Stevens (Shane, Giant), 1950s hostess and ambassador Perle Mesta, songwriters Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, the writer Herman Wouk and actress Claudette Colbert. Even newlyweds Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.

Watching Ms. Reynolds and Mr. Fisher in that moment of bliss, before husband dumped wife in favor of Elizabeth Taylor, captures some of the poignancy and the pleasure of viewing What's My Line? We may know what will happen, for better or worse, to these people caught on film a half-century ago. But at least we don't have to hear them talk about it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert J. Hughes. "Oh, the Civility!" The Wall Street Journal (May 27, 2005).

Reprinted from © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Robert J. Hughes is a Wall Street Journal reporter in New York.

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc


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