Omnibus – “School for Wives” (11/11/1956)

As stated in several previous posts, much of Shatner’s early work in Canada would in for what he termed “juvenile” roles. When he was doing repertory theater, Shatner himself explained that he often would play “a young guy…with an innocent smile big enough to reach the back rows.” As the golden age of television proceeded there were more and more of these “young man” roles coming available to be truly played by young men…with radio it’s easier to hide your true age. With TV, next to impossible.

With the dearth of young professional actors in Canada, it’s easy to see just how desirable Shatner’s skillset and (most importantly) experience would be to executives and casting directors in the newly burgeoning television division of the CBC. In the mid-1950’s Shatner estimated that there were no more than two dozen full-time professional actors in Toronto. Of those, probably a significant portion were older and some were of course women. So there was a pretty small pool from which to cast those “young man” roles and Shatner must have been at the top of the list for just about all of them. His resume was excellent: he had been working for several years in repertory theater, the TV work he had gotten and his ability to memorize scripts were already earning him a good professional reputation and, of course, he was part of the troupe at the prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival. And so as Shatner acknowledges, his start in the business owes an enormous debt to these “juvenile” roles. Even the roles he played at Stratford were quite often these earnest young men usually trying to woo the girl.

Although performing in these types of roles was invaluable in getting Shatner a foothold in the industry, steady work and experience, he obviously wanted to advance beyond them and become a serious stage actor. Moving to New York was one of the first steps towards this goal, and starring roles like the one he received in “All Summer Long” show that directors and producers were beginning to see and cast him as different and more mature characters. But Shatner wasn’t quite done with the earnest young men just yet.

Omnibus, according to Wikipedia, was a 90-minute anthology program on ABC “created by the Ford Foundation, which sought to increase the education level of the American public.” This particular episode actually begins with something called “Scholars,” a half-hour film documentary about football coaches and players at Princeton, how they go about their business, what they study in game film and a general history of the sport and equipment and such. I watched a bit of it, but honestly skipped through most of it because NO SHATNER. The last hour or so of this episode is much more interesting. It is a live adaptation of Moliere’s 17th century farcical play, The School for Wives, and contains quite a bit of Shatner.

Omnibus’s “School for Wives” is performed (obviously) on a soundstage and contains very minimalist sets. As I noted above it was almost certainly performed live in the studio. Unfortunately I don’t have any stills or video to share with you as I watched this production at the UCLA Film and Television Archive and they have a very strict no photo policy. And there are no images of the production anywhere on the internet that I could find, so you’re SOL. Sorry. You’ll just have to use your imagination.

In this, probably Moliere’s most famous play, older man Arnolphe (played by the Cowardly Lion himself, Bert Lahr) tells his friend Chrysalde (Earl Montgomery) that he is going to get married soon. This is a big deal, as Arnolphe has spent years pointing out to every husband in the town that they are fools constantly being hoodwinked by their intelligent and promiscuous wives. Chrysalde points out that every one of these husbands is now just waiting for his bride-to-be to slip up and then it would be Arnolphe who would be the laughing stock of the town. Arnolphe responds that he knows all the tricks, and he has selected a woman “so innocent” that nothing could possibly go wrong. “An intelligent wife is a very dangerous thing,” says Arnolphe. To counter these intelligent wives he has groomed an ignorant woman, one “so sublimely stupid that I’ll never have to worry about her at all.”

Bert Lahr dressed up as The Cowardly Lion
Bert Lahr in his most famous role, The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

When I say “groomed” above, I very much mean it. Arnolphe has been Agnes’s ward since he first saw her at the age of four (ewwwwww.) Her father went missing or something (I honestly can’t remember) and Arnolphe put the girl in a convent (after giving the struggling mother money) and told the nuns to bring her up to be super dumb. When she turned 17, he locked her up in a house he rented under the assumed name of la Souche and made sure that she was guarded by two servants, Allen (Michael Strong) and Georgette (Elizabeth Wilson.) Arnolphe explains to his friend that he chose these two servants because they are just as stoopid as he believes Agnes is, so as not to “contaminate” her. Arnolphe plans to tell Agnes the very next day that they will be married.

A much younger Bert Lahr dressed in some period dress a bit like that found in “School for Wives.”

Arnolphe runs into the young man Horace on the street right outside the house he has locked Agnes away in. Horace is the son of an old friend of Arnolphe’s, Orontes, and I’ll give you one guess as to which actor plays this charming, earnest and somewhat naive young fellow trying to win the object of his affection. You got it! William F. Shatner.

Horace is obviously trying to get into the house that Arnolphe was leaving, but Arnolphe does not realize this and asks Shatner if he has “been with a woman yet.” Shatner responds enthusiastically that he is actually in love with the young woman right inside that house. Arnolphe smiles, then realizes that Horace is talking about Agnes and does that cross-eyed face and “hmmm hmmm hmmm” sputtering sound like a cartoon character.

Bert Lahr crossing his eyes and preparing to sputter.

Now, Shatner’s character and his acting in this production are very, very happy-go-lucky and slightly over-the-top, which is not as out of place as it sounds in a farce like this. He wears a long, shoulder-length wig and his performance is quite broad but thank god he never tries to affect a French accent, something I don’t think any of us would ever recover from…although he was born and raised in Montreal so maybe that would be the only accent he could plausibly pull off. And as broad as Shatner is, nothing can touch Bert Lahr’s performance which consists almost entirely from this point on of what must have been his signature acting move: doing direct-to-camera eye crossing, sputtering and spit takes. In fact, had I not been watching this in a library I would have immediately started a drinking game to take full advantage of it.

In his autobiography, Up Till Now, Shatner mentions this production and Bert Lahr’s performance in it:

When he came in to rehearsal the very first day we all sort of held our breath, all of us ready to help him. But he didn’t even glance at his script. He had memorized every single word. So while we were stumbling through the first reading he had already mastered the nuances. Well, this was great. The next day we came in and we’d all learned a little more and Bert Lahr forgot a couple of words. As we got closer to the airdate most of us knew large sections of the play and he was forgetting full pages. The more nervous he got, the more he forgot. By the time went on the air he’d forgotten almost the entire play and we ended up ad-libbing large sections of the Moliere comedy. I know there had to be people watching that play and wondering why they’d never heard those lines before.

As I’ve stated, I was able to watch this episode and I don’t remember anything particularly egregious happening in terms of the cast and their line readings. It is certainly true that there are points where Lahr stumbled with or flubbed his lines a bit, but I didn’t think it looked like the cast around him was making the dialog up as they went. However, it’s certainly possible I suppose. I’ve never read the actual play so I can’t say for sure. This also could be one of your typical William Shatner stories: a lot of inaccuracies surrounded by just enough truth to help it pass the smell test. Shatner also writes that “School for Wives” was directed by Sidney Lumet. Guess what? It wasn’t (it was actually directed by Hal Davis.) Shatner (and/or his ghostwriter) were confusing this with a couple of Studio One productions that aired the following year.

Anyway, back to the action.

Horace confides to Arnolphe his love for Agnes and his plan to marry her, not knowing that Arnolphe and la Souche are one and the same person. He explains to Arnolphe that Agnes thinks la Souche is a fool of a guardian, and that everyone in town thinks he’s a nincompoop. Cue Bert Lahr sputtering and cross-eyed. HA HA HA! Comedy gold, people. Comedy fucking gold. Drink!

Bert Lahr.

There are various comedy hijinks that ensue, but the bottom line is that Arnolphe confronts Agnes about her love for Horace. He tells her that she must marry him, not Horace, and says that she must lock herself away in her room and throw a rock at him (Horace) should that young mischief-maker ever attempt to see her again. Immediately upon closing her door, here comes Horace looking for Agnes. As Arnolphe watches from behind a hedge, Agnes dutifully opens her window and throws a rock at Shatner. Shatner picks up the rock and walks away. Arnolphe is ecstatic and tells Agnes that she has done a great job.

Later, Arnolphe finds Shatner drinking sadly in a tavern. At first Arnolphe is delighted, thinking that Agnes throwing the rock at him has thoroughly depressed young Horace. But no…Agnes had attached a note to the rock asking Horace to find some way to get around “that old goat.” Arnolphe does yet another giant spit take and eye-crossing and sputtering. DRINK!

Bert Lahr spit take.

The whole scene is actually quite funny, because the note that Agnes wrote (and that Horace reads to Arnolphe) is comically long, far too long to have been written in the 10 seconds or so that Agnes had to write it.

This is about the halfway point of the play, and Omnibus’s host (Alistaire Cooke) comes on to give us some background information on Moliere and The School for Wives. Apparently, Moliere drew on some of his own experiences when writing the play. His wife was also more than 20 years younger than him when he married her (and he first saw her when she was 6. Ewwwwww.) According to Cooke, Moliere wanted his young wife to know that the best husbands were middle-aged. This makes almost zero sense to me…the middle-aged Arnolphe in this play is an utterly terrible person.

Anyway, Moliere found a year after he and his wife were married that she was constantly flirting with infidelity and had been raised to be very spoiled. So he sat down and wrote this play. Still, I don’t see how this Arnolphe is very sympathetic or how he would teach Moliere’s wife about the virtue of older husbands. The play certainly touches on women who were raised to be ignorant but I don’t see at all how it advocates at all for younger women marrying older men, unfortunately for me.

But back to the play. More comedy hijinks ensue, involving fake heart attacks, pretend ghosts and foolish servants. Eventually, Horace manages to break Agnes free of her house imprisonment and spirits her away. Of course, as soon as he sees Arnolphe he confides in him that he has Agnes. Predictably, Arnolphe looks at the camera, crosses his eyes and comically sputters. DRINK!!!

Bert Lahr, in “School for Wives.”

Long story short: Arnolphe gets Agnes back through duplicitious means, Horace asks his father for permission to marry Agnes and is denied because his father has already promised that he will marry the daughter of Henriques, another family friend. Horace is devastated and once again pleads with Arnolphe to intercede on his behalf and convince his father to let him marry Agnes (again, not knowing that Arnolphe and la Souche are the same person.)

Everyone meets at the tavern. Horace, Horace’s father Orontes, Henriques, Arnolphe, Agnes and Chrysalde. Arnolphe, of course, does not try to convince Orontes to let his son marry Agnes. On the contrary he asks that they marry him off that very night to whomever Henriques’s daughter is.  Chrysalde tells everyone that la Souche and Arnolphe are the same person, Shatner yells that Arnolphe is a traitor and none of that matters anyway because it is quickly revealed that Henriques is actually Agnes’s long lost father, and he has promised her to Horace. Yay! Through a miracle stroke of luck, Horace and Agnes are forced to marry a person they actually love. Thanks, odd 17th century kind-of-happy ending! The play ends with Chrysalde telling a sad Arnolphe that he is actually quite lucky: “You didn’t want to be a deceived husband, and now you won’t be!”

Finally, our host Alistair Cooke comes back and gives about 5 minutes of serious news about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that had just basically ended the night before. So a little something for everyone on tonight’s episode of Omnibus.

All in all, I sort of enjoyed this breezy little production of “School for Wives.” Some (almost) constantly smiling Shatner, tons of sputtering spit takes from Bert Lahr, and a quick farce about middle-aged men and the cuckolds they marry. Hilarious!

And with this performance, Shatner kind of quietly says goodbye to those “juvenile” and romantic “young man” roles that dominated his first 4 years of professional acting. From here on out he would begin transitioning into more serious and professional roles like lawyers, college scholars, doctors and even slightly manic, intense and troubled men in shows like Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

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Shat Level: 3 = Solid Shat

Shatner’s Web

It’s time to detail all of the connections between Omnibus’s “School for Wives” and other Shatner appearances! 

Michael Strong, who played dumb-ass servant Allen in this production, had just appeared with Shatner a few weeks prior in the Goodyear Television Playhouse production of “All Summer Long.” 10 years later Strong would again be seen with Shatner, this time as Dr. Korby on the early Star Trek episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Finally, he and Shatner would both appear in the two part TV miniseries Vanished in 1971.

Robert Goodier appeared with Shatner at Stratford for all three seasons The Shat was there, plus in the 1956 Broadway version of Tamburlaine the Great and the 1957 film version of Oedipus Rex. It is also possible that he and Shatner were in the Omnibus version of “Oedipus Rex.”

Mary V. Ahern and Fred Rickey were the producers of Omnibus, and would be have Shatner back again one more time for “Oedipus Rex.”

Sadly, but understandably, Shatner would never work with the spit-filled Bert Lahr again.

Further Studies

Go watch it for yourself at The UCLA Film and Television Archive!

Read a bit more about Omnibus.

Shatner

Author: Shatner

I give myself to him, William Shatner.

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