A PERSONALITY PIONEER
In the early days of television, what I call “warmth”, they referred to as “charm”. It’s a magical, mesmerizing quality you can’t quite define – that jumps from the screen and enraptures you in a blanket of utter delight. OK, that might be a tad over the top, but you can’t overstate the value of warmth in a morning TV host. There’s one television treasure, a true personality pioneer, whom few modern day producers or TV talent have ever heard of. She hosted a live morning show back in the ’50’s, before Today or Good Morning America were ever dreamed up. She was the Oprah of her day, when viewers had the choice of only three programs to watch at any given time. When 11AM came around, everyone was watching Miss Arlene Francis.
Arlene was already a household name when she appeared “live” on NBC’s Home in 1954. She was a regular on What’s My Line? – the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? of its time. She had also hosted the variety show Talent Patrol and the game show Who’s There? But it was Home that made Arlene a beloved star among the women of America. The show was an unqualified success with millions tuning in every weekday morning.
Arlene had “that certain something” that made audiences gravitate to her. Airchecks of Home are few and far between because the show was “live” and aired before that good ‘ole thing called videotape was invented. Watch a few minutes of Home and see if you aren’t completely beguiled by this woman who captivates right through your black and white screen. This clip is the first half-hour from the episode that aired Monday, March 25, 1957.
In 1960, Miss Francis was asked to write the book The Magic Of Charm. It captured the “cult” of charm and its relationship to attractiveness that helped define femininity in the postwar era. Here are the things she describes as “contributing to a charming aura”:
- “Charm is inextricably connected to good grooming and outward attractiveness”;
- “Learn how to walk with an ‘uplifted carriage’ and a sense of grace”;
- “Don’t pull your girdle down every time you get up”;
- “Smile often”;
- “Apply makeup artfully to enhance one’s best features”;
- “Wear classic, comfortable clothing selected for its elegant simplicity from an upscale store”;
- “Speak in a ‘well-modulated’, controlled and quiet voice”;
- “Charm is self-deep and one must actively develop one’s best self”;
- “The TV camera has an X-ray attachment, it pierces, it penetrates, it peels away the veneer. It communicates the heart and mind of a man and makes crystal clear the fact that the only charm is genuine charm, the charm that emanates from a person who is completely true to himself”;
Masculine pronouns notwithstanding, I would venture to say that her advice for enhancing your charming aura applies as much today as it did back then. Arlene basically states that the camera never blinks – and the camera can expose a phony from a mile away. You must also remember that early TV personalities were salespeople as well. The second clip above shows Arlene selling the new Cadillac for 1957. It was felt the more “averageness” a star exuded, the more credible they were for selling products. Arlene, in fact, never endorsed a product she hadn’t used and like.
Home came to an early end in 1958 – the victim of internal disagreements between network executives. But Arlene revised the show as The Arlene Francis Show in 1958. It was a 30-minute mid-morning daytime talk show with a mixture of friendly chat and celebrities and centering around home and family life. And she even added a co-host, Mr. Hugh Downs, who worked perfectly beside her. The show, though, flopped. Arlene then went on to a stage career.
Arlene’s feminine grace and utter glamour permeated the atmosphere of daytime TV like a fragrance. She was a founding “femcee” whose exacting standards we still measure female talent by more than sixty years later.