Friday, February 4, 2011

Season One, Episode 3: The Swan Bed

Air Date: October 21, 1960
Director: Elliott Silverstein
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Betty Field, Zina Bethune, Henry Hull, Murray Hamilton

There are lots of episodes of Route 66 that begin a certain way and you have no idea where in the hell they're going. "The Swan Bed" is one of those. It opens with the familiar Nelson Riddle theme and Buz and Tod driving the Corvette across a bridge into New Orleans. Seconds later, we end up in the sweltering little shack of a place where Carrie Purcell (Zina Bethune) lives with her nasty mother, Mrs. Purcell, played by Betty Field (most famous for her role as Mae in Lewis Milestone's 1939 version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men; Bethune and Field are pictured above).

From there, the episode spirals into all kinds of unpredictable - borderline implausible - directions. Buzz and Tod link up with Carrie at the store where she works in New Orleans. They ask her out on a date (good move - she's a total babe, one of the best looking women ever on a Route 66 episode). Then the episode cuts to an old man named Amery Grant who's played by Henry (The Werewolf of London) Hull. Hull is a crusty old coot in this episode, thoroughly believable. He's a fisherman who lives on a big, old boat and seems to contract out with fisherman.

Cut back to Carrie. She has a big fight with her possessive mom, who doesn't want her to have anything to do with Buz and Tod. She runs out on her mom. Carrie eventually visits Old Man Grant to borrow money for her date with Buz and Tod. Grant is conked out when she arrives. He's an old-school lush who got shitfaced and passed out. She borrows the money to help pay for her date. She thinks she only borrowed a little bit. She is shocked to find out she has inadvertently borrowed thousands of dollars.

Wait, wait, there's also a subplot involving a Parrot Fever (a.k.a., psittacosis) epidemic in New Orleans and a public health physician named Dr. Stafford, portrayed by Murray Hamilton, the guy who played the mayor in Jaws (1975) and poor, cuckolded Mr. Robinson in The Graduate (1967).

Are you following this??? There's going to be a quiz afterward...

Tod and Buz take Carrie out in what has to be one of the most awkward scenes ever in a Route 66 episode. They go to a joint to watch an old friend of Buz, who happens to be an exotic dancer. Buz and Tod (especially Buz) ogle at the woman on the atage while she dances to brassy stripper music. Eventually, thank God, Tod is sensitive enough to go on a walk with Carrie, leaving Buz to continue drooling over his exotic dancer friend.

This plot description is dragging, I realize, so I'll hurry it up: Two Bad Guys show up who want to take over Old Man Grant's boat for illicit purposes. Turns out they're running an illegal operation breeding and selling exotic birds. There are lots of birds in this episode. One of their birds is responsible for the Parrot Fever outbreak.

Tod, Buz and Carrie end up crossing paths with the Bad Guys. It gets ugly. Tod tries to fight them. Tod gets his ass kicked. Buz fights them. He kicks their asses. That public health guy played by Mr. Robinson enters the picture again and figures out the source of the parrot fever. The Bad Guys are busted. Carrie makes peace with her mother, who apologizes for what a lousy mom she's been. At the end of the episode, Buz and Tod are kind enough to remove her old bed from her house (there's a swan's head on the headboard, hence the episode's name), and we watch the duo hauling it out to the trash heap as the Nelson Riddle score plays over the closing credits.

Did you get all that? I'm not sure I did.

In a word, "The Swan Bed" is convoluted. So many things are happening in this episode. But, unlike "A Lance of Straw," the payoff makes it worth slogging through all of the twists and turns, all of the head-scratching moments where you wonder what the hell is going on. Henry Hull (pictured left) turns in a first-rate performance as the old man. Betty Field seems much older than 47 (which she is in this episode). She would return in one of the best Route 66 episodes ever made, Season Two's "The Mud Nest" in the fall of 1961, and after that she turns up in Season Three's "Across Walnuts and Wine." And I know I said this before, but Zina Bethune as Carrie Purcell - whose career never really took off - is so beautiful that you wonder why in the hell crazy Buz is watching the exotic dancer with the thousand-yard stare instead of drop-dead stunning Carrie.

There is also a spectacular fight pitting Buz against the Bad Guys in stingy-brimmed fedoras. They wallop Tod, but they're no match for Buz. Unlike some Route 66 fights, this one holds up well after the passage of forty years. Finally, the footage shot on the docks of New Orleans makes for one of the most intriguing backdrops ever used in a Route 66 episode. These rundown parts of the city add an air of suspense and mystery to the episode. The end result is an asset to the series, and a strong early episode to counteract "A Lance of Straw."

It's not perfect, though. Betty Field, an enormously talented actress, is not put to good use like she'd later be in "The Mud Nest." Alas, she isn't in enough of the episode. The subplot involving Parrot Fever seems strangely superfluous, and the scenes with the public health specialist just end up slowing everything down.

Zina Bethune is the best part of the episode, with her innocent yet sensual performance. She would go on to appear in another Route 66 episode, "Kiss the Maiden All Forlorn" (hey, you can't accuse the show of having mundane episode titles). I looked up her credits. Her acting career never really took off. She would go on to appear in a number of TV series. Apparently she was a dancer who suffered from scoliosis when she was young and later went on to become an advocate for the disabled.

Incidentally, director Elliot Silverstein would later go on to direct the 1965 comedy-western Cat Ballou, starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. He'd also briefly assume the role of teenage heartthrob David Cassidy's stepfather.

Bottom Line: "The Swan Bed" brought the series back on track, after the dubious "A Lance of Straw." While it's a very good episode, it would be followed by one of the best in the entire four-year run of the series.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10


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