Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Dark Shadows Daybook: July 25


Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 807

Tate pressures Aristede to reveal Petofi, but instead hears that the Count is in suspended animation, and only has a few more weeks to find his hand before a curse consumes him. Jamison, possessed by the Count, bluffs his way into freedom, then has Magda take him to Barnabas.

Welcome to the Gordon Russell Fan Club. Be seated.

I think, of all the deceased DARK SHADOWS luminaries, Gordon Russell is the one I’d like to meet most. As fans of the show, we focus so much on the actors -- the collective face of the show -- that we forget the writers who gave them their sound. Dramatic writing is crushingly hard. Keeping individualized voices, especially when so many of them come from the same social world, is a difficult task on its own. But that’s not even the toughest part. DARK SHADOWS episodes are like telephone cords made of progressing Möbius strips. Most dramatic scenes are about economy. Nothing can be wasted. You have discoveries and resulting conflicts eliciting change. A chain of those creates the play. Badda boom, etc. No matter the medium, this never changes. But on DARK SHADOWS, you have to do that and also stretch the storytelling to the longest format possible… one that makes a Wagner opera look like a Bazooka Joe comic strip. But you can’t let it feel stagnant. Philip Glass luxuriates in the fact that his listeners know that he’ll take his time. Soap fans think they want action-action-action when what they actually want is to distract themselves for as long as possible with people they care about doing things that are vitally important. If a standard writer had been given the outline to 807, they would have written a script half as long and a tenth as interesting. Russell and the other writers fill the scenes with intense discoveries and purpose, fleshing it out with memorable characters, but with no linguistic flab. How they do it is simply the alchemy of their art. I wish I could replicate it, but in lieu of that, I have no recourse but to marvel at it.

Russell is helped by dropping one of 1897’s most easily-forgotten exposition bombs, courtesy of Aristede, the Smithers to Petofi’s Montgomery Burns. Petofi’s mission to find his hand has been going on for a century, placing him beginning it within a year of Barnabas’ initial entombment. If publishers realized there could be a DARK SHADOWS author whose name is not Lara Parker, we could enjoy a book of short stories looking at the adventures over that century. Just imagine Quentin and Desmond using the hand for dimensional travel. A young Nicholas Blair using it. And so on. Petofi is helped by how others refer to his legacy as much as what he does. In this, Tate calls him someone who enjoys only the suffering of those around him. This both clashes with Thayer David’s ebullient performance and gives it subliminal menace. That mix -- Petofi’s jovial appearance versus the fog of evil that others describe -- may be what makes him one of the richest and most watchable characters in all of DARK SHADOWS. He is their Falstaff and their Gloucester all at once. Helping this is the fact that he’s the only character on the show to be played to the hilt by three actors, all of whom are named David -- Thayer David (whose first name was actually David), David Henesy, and David Selby.


But where would Petofi be without the writing? Nowhere at all. It’s fitting that this episode should feature Charles Delaware Tate and his curse so prominently. That’s a strange story -- even beyond Barnabas and Josette, it’s the closest we come to pure fairy tale. Imagine writing characters who inflame the public imagination so ardently. Like Tate’s powers to craft paintings that spring to life, that’s what the DARK SHADOWS writers must have faced at this time. How much are they Tate and vice-versa? And does that make Dan Curtis their Count Petofi?

Come to think of it, he was an avid golfer who was often seen wearing a single glove….


This episode hit the airwaves July 29, 1969.

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