“Oh, my goodness! They’re wearing bloomers!”
Chances are, you’ve seen the title Bloomer Girl and you’re looking at the cover art above, and you’re wondering why the hell you should care. I’ll tell you. A lot of aspects of entertainment history are underrepresented on home video, and the old days of live television is one of them. This disc offers us a glimpse into those days, when television borrowed heavily from both radio and live theater to create a new medium. Here we get a rare glimpse of the television format in its infancy.
Another reason to care is the talent involved. Bloomer Girl was an episode of Producer’s Showcase, broadcast live on May 28, 1956, based on the 1944 Broadway musical. It stars Barbara Cook, who had just been in theaters in Candide, and was about to explode into big celebrity fame in The Music Man. The musical’s songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, the pair who composed the classic songs for The Wizard of Oz.
Taking place in the pre-Civil War south, Bloomer Girl tells the story of Evelina (Cook), who, unlike her girly-girl sisters, hates having to wear huge hoop skirts and instead fights for the right to wear bloomers (a.k.a. comfy, baggy pants). Oh yeah, she’s also fighting for women’s rights to vote and ending slavery, but mostly it’s about the bloomers.
The best thing about the performance is Barbara Cook, who is truly radiant in the lead role. She’s full of youthful energy, and you’ll really believe that she’s this optimistic, upbeat girl ready to take on the whole world. Everybody’s acting, singing, and dancing is broad and enthusiastic, which fits the mood for what is an overall peppy and feel-good musical. There’s not a lot of drama, as everyone happily moves along from one musical number to the next, with an extended dance sequence making up almost the entire third act.
Somewhat incongruously, the musical then introduces some serious themes. The women fighting for the right to vote is portrayed in a charming, upbeat manner. The Civil War setting, however, demands the story also deal with slavery. This is done by introducing Pompey, a slave longing for his freedom. Evelina befriends him and helps him on his way. At first, I thought the racial content wasn’t that bad, especially since actor Rawn Spearman is charming as Pompey, and he certainly knows how to sing. Later on, though, we get images of a slave being sold at auction, and, God help us, there’s even a short blackface routine. These scenes are short, but still offensive, even when you try to distance yourself from them through historical context.
That’s really the only way to enjoy Bloomer Girl—as a historic artifact. As such, the picture quality is about as good as it can be, restored from a kinescope copy of the broadcast. The picture is fuzzy and hazy, but never so much that you can’t tell what’s happening. The mono sound is fine, with everyone’s singing voices coming through clean and clear. Dialogue scenes, however, are hit and miss, as the audio tended to drop during some spoken lines. As for bonus features, you’re able to watch the show with or without its original commercials intact, for an extra-retro experience.
There we have it, a trip back into TV history, warts and all. This is really more a disc for history buffs than it is for musical fans. Check it out if you want to see what television looked like back when it was new.