This review is specifically for the episode of 'Goodyear Theatre' that aired on 8 June 1959. Titled 'Christabel', and subtitled 'The Secret Life of John Monroe', this was scriptwriter Melville Shavelson's attempt at a pilot episode for a TV series based on the life and writings of James Thurber. It took Shavelson another decade to bring that project to fruition with 'My World and Welcome to It', a highly imaginative series that ultimately failed yet is now fondly remembered.
Many of Thurber's stories depict a childless married couple who despise each other: Thurber was a lifelong misogynist, and there are few sympathetic portrayals of women in his writings and drawings. However, he did write a series of stories about family man John Monroe. These stories have far less bile than Thurber's usual work -- John and Ellen Monroe are happily married -- and they may well be more autobiographical than his usual fare. The Monroes have a shy and sensitive young daughter Lydia, who seems to be inspired by Thurber's real-life daughter.
In 'Christabel', we have a very simple story. Young Lydia Monroe begs her parents for a dog, but John and Ellen are reluctant to let her have one because they feel she lacks sufficient responsibility. Eventually, they relent and give Lydia a female dog, whom she happily names Christabel. All is well, until Christabel abruptly dies. There's a bit of tear-jerking at the end, as well as some pat wisdom.
James Thurber was a dog-lover who often wrote about live dogs and just occasionally about dead ones; I wonder how he felt about this very loose adaptation of his work. In the central role, character actor Arthur O'Connell is excellent as John Monroe, Thurber's surrogate. O'Connell brings a keen intellect and rapid dramatic sense to this slow-paced drama. Somewhat myopic, O'Connell spends much of his performance peering through thick eyeglasses which enhance his character's resemblance to the real Thurber. (In his childhood, James Thurber suffered a stupid accident which cost him one eye and permanently compromised the sight in his other eye.) As the Monroes' precocious daughter, pretty blonde child actress Susan Gordon gives an excellent performance. Unfortunately, Gordon is so implausibly pretty and attractive that it actually works against her characterisation: young Lydia seems a trifle too perfect for the world which she inhabits.
This low-budget drama is morbidly quiet, but that works when one considers the subject matter. Sadly, little of Thurber's bitter humour is seen here, but 'Christabel' makes its point with a gentle sting.