Probably the most famous instance of American sitcoms ‘pairing’ in the Sixties is The Addams Family and The Munsters. By all accounts, these two arrived sufficiently close together that it was highly improbable that either was attempting to copy the other. Sometimes, ideas are like that: there is a zeitgeist waiting and more than one person gets tuned into it, much as was the case between DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing. That’s not what we have here. I Dream of Jeannie didn’t appear until a year after Bewitched and everyone agress that, whilst it wasn’t a direct rip-off of Elizabeth Montgomery’s successful sitcom, it was aiming for the same effect.
Having watched the first three episodes, it’s clear to me that, whilst Bewitched hit its stride immediately, I Dream of Jeannie would need a little time to settle into its best manner. indeed, there’s a tremendous stylistic difference between the pilot episode and the series proper.
‘The Lady in a Bottle’ starts with unusual seriousness for a sitcom. Captain Anthony Nelson of the U.S. Air Force, on detachment to NASA, is preparing for a flight into space. It’s all done in the best dramatic fashion, including stock footage of genuine rocket launches, that blends in superbly with the film quality of the era. Something goes wrong, the mission has to be aborted, Tony Nelson ends up on a small, deserted, South Pacific island. He’s using wood and other found things to create a large S.O.S. sign on the beach for rescue. One of those items is a purple bottle of Arabian design that insists on roling out of line. Nelson unstoppers it, rubs it automatically – and a column of purplish smoke emerges and resolves into a genie. A girl genie. A beautiful, blonde doll of a Jeannie. Who kneels in sumission to her new master. And looks up. And her eyes light up. And the first thing she dores for her new master is to kiss him.
Now, bearing in mind that this gorgous honeypot of a genie is played by Barbara Eden, you and I and the gatepost would have identical thoughts on what was the second thing this Arabic speaking genie could do for us as her master (incidentally, what Jeannie speaks is actually Persian, not Arabic, because the Producer couldn’t find an Arabic tutor to teach Eden to say her lines phonetically, but he could find a Persian-speaker) but this is a 1964 American sitcom pilot, and besides, Tony is engaged to be married, to the lovely Melissa (Karen Sharpe), the daughter of his Commanding Officer, General Stone.
No, all Tony wants to do is get home. Which, after he’s christened his genie Jeannie, by accident, and wished her to speak English, also by accident, she magics up a rescue helicopter. She, having fallen in love with him, the first face she’s seen after 2,000 years in the bottle, wants to go with him. However, she being inexplicable on any rational level, has to stay behind, but Tony, considerately frees her. Which frees her to stow her bottle away with his things…
The rest of the episode plays, entertainingly, upon the gulf of understanding between Nelson’s perceptions as an Air Force Colonel, a rationalist in a technologically advanced role that requires intense security and the need to appear same and rational, and Jeannie’s ignorance of the mmodern world and her devotion as her master’s slave to fulfil his every need and wish and desire (except that one, though she would at the drop of a veil) by magic, instantly.
There’s the instant, and vital difference between the series in a nutshell. Samantha was not merely an equal, she was the star, the one who held the balance of power and weilded it brilliantly, Jeannie’s a dumb blonde in a fish-out-of-water fashion, a male wish-fulfillment figure.
The pilot featured General Stone and Melissa, who did not take kindly to arriving at her finace’s home to find a gorgeous blonde wearing only Tony’s shirt and showing far more leg than most American TV shows were prepared to admit women had, but come the series, neither were in evidence. They will make only one further appearance. Apart from Tony and Jeannie, there were only two holdovers from the pilot, these being Bill Dailey as Tony’s buddy, Roger Healey, who’d only had a tiny cameo in the pilot, and Hayden Rourke as Dr. Bellows, the base psychistrist, who’s worried about Tony.
It was immediately noticeable when the series was commissioned that the sexual element was drastically turned down. There was none of this kissing going around and Eden showed nothing like the amount of skin she had in the pilot. Yes, it’s a legend that not until the Eighties’ movies was Barbara Eden allowed to wear harem pants low enough to expose her belly-button (these Americans are crazy!) but in these two episodes she’s swaddled in lilac veils on non-traditional untransparency, so you can barely even see that bosom-flattening crop top that’s her genie costume. Indeed, they’re so swaddling that at one point I was convinced she was several months pregnant when she was filming episode 2.
That episode is very much Tony Nelson’s. Jeannie transports them back to the marketplace in Baghdad of 2,000 years ago for much hi-jinks as Tony is made slave to Princess Fatima and threatened with torture by the gigantic Ali, but, in a display of extreme stupidity, would rather be tortured with red hot pokers than marry Jeannie. Yes, I know. Jeannie, on the other hand, gets more play in the third episode, in which she intervenes to give her master a far too easy time of it on a survival course.
So, early days, and not quite focussed yet, but I know better things will come. Like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie was stripped five days a week by C4 in the Nineties and I look forward to getting further along, and getting the classic theme music as well.
Oh yes, and one more thing. The actor who played Tony Nelson, the hapless and confused victom of Jeannie’s magic? One Larry Hagman. Yes, that one, J.R. of Dallas. He was much better this way.