The following is my entry in The Ida Lupino Centenary Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Maddielovesherclassicfilms on May 12, 2018. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ retrospectives on the film and TV career of this amazing actress and director!
In 1963, Sol Saks was the supervisor of all comedy shows on CBS. Unfortunately, one of those shows was floundering in rehearsals. So Saks called on his old friend Ida Lupino to help him out.
“It was ‘Gilligan’s Island,’” Saks said. “It wasn’t even on the air yet. I asked Ida to come down and direct the pilot. It wasn’t her kind of show, but she came as a favor to me.” When Saks walked on the set with Lupino, the cast stared at her in amazement. The cast had been grumbling, but Lupino’s presence quieted them.
“She revived that show,” Saks recalled. “She made them think, ‘If Ida Lupino is here, we must be something.’ Ida’s appearance had a lot to do with that show going on and becoming a success.”
Bob Denver, who played the title role in the series, was reportedly Lupino’s favorite cast member. Conversely, cast member Natalie Schafer seemed to resent Lupino’s clout as a female director. Lupino directed her final “Gilligan” episode, “The Producer,” after having directed a popular theatrical film, The Trouble with Angels. Upon entering the set of the show, cast member Natalie Schafer turned to Lupino and said, “Slumming, dear?”
Several sources have claimed that Lupino directed the series’ pilot episode, although directing credit goes to Rod Amateau. In any case, this episode was reworked considerably before the series aired. The only cast members to remain from the pilot are Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr. (The Skipper), and Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer (Mr. and Mrs. Howell). The Professor and Ginger Grant were shown in the pilot but were played by different actors (John Gabriel and Kit Smythe, respectively) than appeared in the series (Russell Johnson and Tina Louise). Instead of Mary Ann, the ensemble was then rounded out with Bunny (Nancy McCarthy), a wisecracking secretary.
Filming of the pilot occurred in the same week of Nov. 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (If you look closely at the opening footage of the S.S. Minnow leaving the pier, you can see a flag flying at half-mast.)
This pilot was never broadcast during the series’ original run, as CBS thought a better episode was needed to explain how the castaways got shipwrecked. Parts of the pilot were reworked into the show’s Christmas episode, but the complete episode was never aired until cable’s superstation TBS broadcast it on Oct. 16, 1992, nearly 30 years after it has been filmed.
“Good Night Sweet Skipper”
The Skipper sleepwalks during a recurring dream that takes him back to his World War II days, where at one point he had to convert a radio into a transmitter. As if happens, a popular radio personality known as “The Vagabond Lady” (voiced by cartoon voice-over artist June Foray) is planning to fly over the castaways’ uncharted island soon. The castaways figure that if they can get the Skipper to sleep, he’ll finally remember how to make the radio-transmitter conversion, and they can use his directions to fix their own broken transmitter and contact The Vagabond Lady for help.
Some of the castaways’ efforts to lull the Skipper to sleep are rather funny, but the episode’s set piece involves what the late Roger Ebert called “The Idiot Plot,” where the premise would be over in a minute if the cast didn’t behave like idiots. In this case, Gilligan obtains a bottle of sleeping pills from Mr. Howell, and he puts two of the pills into the Skipper’s dinner drink — but then he leaves the bottle next to the Skipper’s drinking cup. From there, the other castaways see the bottle, and each person gets the brilliant idea of putting a couple of pills in the Skipper’s drink. (At one point, Mary Ann actually sees Ginger putting pills in the drink, but for some reason, she never tells Ginger that she already did the deed.)
The Skipper walks over to his place at the dinner table, sees the bottle of pills, and gets the same brilliant idea everyone else had, putting “a couple of these” into his drink. Cut from the Skipper downing the drink to his suffering the after-effects of having consumed 10 sleeping pills in one shot. Haw-haw.
The castaways discover an old plane on the island and find out that its owner, a once-famous pilot named Wrongway Feldman (Hans Conreid), has been hiding out on the island for years. They try to convince Wrongway to fly back to civilization for help, but then the plane is mysteriously sabotaged during the night. Later, Gilligan finds out that Wrongway himself committed the sabotage because he’s too afraid to fly again after so many years on the ground. So he decides to train Gilligan (!) to fly the plane.
Conreid is a hoot as the appropriately-nicknamed off-kilter pilot. The episode’s best scene is probably Wrongway trying to instruct and re-instruct dimwitted Gilligan on how to handle the plane’s controls.
This episode concerns a visiting Hollywood producer, Harold Hecuba (played by comic actor Phil Silvers, whose production company brought “Gilligan’s Island” to the air). Egotistical Hecuba expects to be waited on hand and foot. The castaways grumble about this, but they reluctantly do it because Hecuba has promised to have his flunkies rescue the castaways if they cowtow to him.
The Professor (Russell Johnson) gets the idea that if the castaways create their own musical, they can win over Hecuba by letting him produce their show on Broadway. They decide to do a musical version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with the score provided by Bizet’s opera Carmen, to which the castaways add their own lyrics.
When they rehearse the show one night, Hecuba gets wind of it and declares that their acting is terrible (“Up to now, something really has been rotten in Denmark!”), and that he will show them how to act out the roles properly. With that, Hecuba proceeds to frantically perform every role, male and female (with Lupino doing an unscripted shake of the camera to indicate Hecuba’s speed at costume changing).
The next morning, the castaways wake up to find that Hecuba has left the island. They turn on the radio to hear that Hecuba has won over Broadway with “his” brilliant idea — a new musical version of Hamlet!
It’s not documented how much Lupino was involved in the script for this episode, but one Lupino biography cites Hecuba as a commentary on the “hypocritical Hollywood exploiters” that Lupino encountered in her film career. The biographer also claims that Hecuba is Lupino’s spoof of fat-headed Hollywood producers (Hecuba’s name has the same initials as Howard Hughes).