(a recap by Will Kaiser)
NOTE: I want to dedicate this one to my late friend Billy, a Little House fan who loved Red Buttons. I miss you, buddy. – WK
Title: Circus Man
Airdate: February 5, 1975
Written by Ward Hawkins
Story by Preston Wood and Ward Hawkins
Directed by Victor French
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: An insane idiot who peddles magic powders takes over Walnut Grove, but he runs into trouble when Mrs. Oleson needs an appendectomy. Jack gets STOMPED.
RECAP: Today’s guest star is Red Buttons, a weird little fellow who was very famous in the mid- to late-Twentieth Century. I always think of him as more a “personality” than an actor, though he won a supporting-actor Oscar and Golden Globe in 1957 for a movie called Sayonara.
Sayonara is about a white American pilot who learns not to be a racist and finds love with a Japanese woman. I never saw it, and I’m not sure how well it’s aged, so don’t blame me if you run out to watch it and it’s horrible.
Red Buttons doesn’t play the pilot, but rather another American with a Japanese wife who goes AWOL to escape the U.S. government’s racist policies, which prohibited interracial marriage at the time.
Anyways, Red Buttons had his own variety show in the 1950s, but he’s best known to me for two seventies schlock masterpieces, The Poseidon Adventure and Pete’s Dragon. (Plus he was on Love Boat three times.)
In fact, his storyline in Pete’s Dragon essentially rips off the plot of this week’s Little House:
One last thing: This week our kids were at their other parents’ houses, so it’s just Dags and me for this one.
Okay, let’s get to it. We open inside the Little House in the middle of the night, where Jack is asleep. He ain’t much of a watchdog, as we shall see in a moment.
When the title comes up, David Rose obliges us with a waltz that’s “circus-y,” but without being loud enough to wake anybody up.
The camera then pulls the nifty trick where it backs out of the window to a vantage-point where it’s looking down on the house.
We see this one was written by Ward Hawkins and directed by our own Victor French, with an additional story credit for Preston Wood, who also wrote for Bonanza, Gunsmoke and (interestingly) The Addams Family.
(If you think that means this one will be funny, you’re about to have your illusions shattered.)
Anyways, our story-proper begins with an alarming sight: A man in a loud check suit is apparently hiding in the Ingallses’ barn with a gun. He raises it in the direction of the Little House, sort of! And fires!
Inside, all four sentient lifeforms leap out of bed in alarm.
Jack doesn’t even bark. Carrie’s reaction is unknown.
Pa grabs his own shotgun and rushes out of the house. He hides in the shadows. When he spots the creeper standing in the stable, he makes to fire.
But the man calls out “Hold on, friend!” in what the IMDb TV subtitles charitably call an “Irish accent.”
(Seriously, when one of the supporting cast is supposed to be a Scandinavian, they keep their accents light – probably because they don’t know what they’re supposed to sound like. But they have no such qualms when it comes to impersonating Irish people. This one is the worst of the lot so far.)
The man holds his gun over his head and introduces himself as “William O’Hara,” a “neighbor.” Caroline pops her head out and asks if everything’s okay.
DAGNY: She doesn’t seem too alarmed.
WILL: No. People in the country shoot off guns all day and night for no good reason. Do you think newcomers to town are amazed how good-looking Charles and Caroline are?
DAGNY: Yeah. It’s surprising nobody ever leches after them. But it’s not really that kind of show.
TV’s Red Buttons steps into the (moon-?) light with a hideous grin.
Bertie Wooster once said the smaller the man, the louder the check suit, and that certainly seems to apply here.
Charles asks why he was shooting. Red Buttons blathers about seeing a bobcat and firing at it from the road.
Charles, who by this point has seen all sorts of improbable goings-on in this town, puts his gun down and actually thanks the guy.
Red Buttons says he’s the owner of a traveling circus, and Charles notices for the first time a single circus wagon parked in the driveway.
Red Buttons gives a sob story about having noplace to stay the night, then says he’ll be off to find one. Idiot Charles invites him to camp down at Casa dell’Ingalls.
Red Buttons continues grinning maniacally and thanks him. Seriously, he barely blinks, which makes him look like a possessed ventriloquist’s dummy.
Charles says it’s the least he can do.
DAGNY: The least he can do? I’m not sure unsolicited bobcat-scaring equals a night’s rent, even in those days.
Put it all together and it’s an upsetting scene, but at the end David Rose brings in a light Irish jig, so I guess we’re supposed to conclude O’Hara is O’Kay.
The next morning, the girls gawk at the circus wagon. A raven appears on top of it and starts “talking,” though I can’t understand a fucking word it says. The girls are impressed, however.
Red Buttons says he’ll show them the main attraction of his circus. He directs their attention to the poster on the side of the wagon, which depicts a snarling black gorilla (and looks a little too much like racist caricatures of the time for my comfort).
The creature’s name, Red Buttons tells them, is “Congrilla.” (The part of Africa that today occupies the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo was just being “explored” by Europeans in 1877. So I think it’s quite likely Congo was used as an exotic marketing term at roughly this time in the U.S.)
Red Buttons draws back the curtain to reveal not a gorilla, but a chimpanzee, and David Rose gives us a little comic “ta-dah” in the orchestra to indicate it’s harmless. (In real life, chimpanzees are far more dangerous than gorillas.)
Red Buttons tells them Congrilla was once an actual gorilla, but got shrunk by a “witch doctor.” He does this in an excruciatingly long and painfully un-entertaining speech.
The girls take off for school, but Charles arrives to shoot the shit with Red Buttons. Caroline heads out to the henhouse, and Buttons does a magic trick where he produces eggs out of thin air.
Then we see Charles at the mill (working alongside Carl the flunky).
Mr. Hanson appears and tells Charles, “Ole Olafsen wants another thousand boards for the siding.”
Another thousand boards? For the siding? The Olfasen place seemed pretty modest the last time we were there.
But maybe he represents a big company that’s going to build Minnesota’s first three-thousand-board building or something?
Or maybe he didn’t really want them, and Hanson just mentioned him because he saw Doc coming up the walkway and wanted him to hear the name. After all, Ole Olafsen was the person the memory of whose birth made Doc give up heterosexual love forever.
Doc is grumpy, pissed there’s a circus con man in town.
Annoyed at his ex’s bitching, Mr. Hanson fakes a migraine to take attention away from him.
Doc immediately starts acting like they’re back together again, complaining to Charles that Hanson never listens to his medical advice.
They bicker and Charles looks at them in bafflement.
Later, again in the middle of the night, the Ingallses are awakened by Red Buttons, this time screaming “Thief! Robber!” The chimp and the bird are shrieking as well. Boy, this is not the type of guy you’d want to camp in your yard for very long.
Charles goes out and Red Buttons is either injured or pretending to be. They don’t tell us which, and then we suddenly fade to commercial having no idea what just happened.
After the break, we see Charles is wrapping a bandage around Red Button’s (very small!) torso.
Everybody has stayed up to hear his story. Ma’s even made coffee.
Red Buttons says he was attacked by a “blackguard” trying to steal a “treasure” he keeps in a green box. “I speak the truth now? Tell me!” he says to the girls. His asking this makes no sense, but they nod stupidly.
Then he says the box contains “the Secret of Śamin” – which he pronounces “sha-MEE” or “sha-MEEN.” This is apparently a word that means “tranquil” or “peaceful” in Sanskrit (and has some similar meanings in other languages). But I think it was possibly picked by our writers because of its similarity to sham.
Red Buttons says the Secret of Śamin is “a powder with the almost magical ability to heal the illness of man and beast alike.” (I hate to cite this character at length, but since through much of the story he says he’s being misquoted, I’ll have to do it at times.)
Anyways, the girls eat this crap up whilst Charles and Bed-Head Caroline smile indulgently. Given these people get up at four a.m. to milk cows and the like, I don’t think any of them would be smiling right now.
Addressing Mary as “princess,” Red Buttons asks for a little water. To “Oriental” music in the orchestra, he opens the box and takes out a little packet that looks like it might contain a tea-bag or something.
He asks the girls if they’d believe he’s 95 years old, then asks Charles how long broken ribs take to heal. Charles (who would know!) says weeks to months.
Red Buttons pours a little powder from the packet into the water and drinks it. David Rose gives us an Irish jig again as Buttons tells us his broken ribs “will be healed in a day or so.” He tells the girls they must keep this a secret.
Then we cut to Mr. Hanson talking to Mrs. Oleson in the Mercantile. I don’t think we’ve ever seen him in there before, actually.
Mr. Hanson, whose headache was apparently real after all, is trying to return a half-bottle of medicine. (The label says it’s good for “dizziness, colored tongue, fatigue, spots before the eyes, obesity,” and “thin blood.” So it isn’t the laudanum, then . . . though I bet that would be quite helpful with a headache, actually.)
Mrs. Oleson says no refunds for medicines. Mr. Hanson points out it says “money-back guarantee” right on the label. She suggests he drink the other half of the bottle and see how he feels then. (This summary makes the conversation sound wittier than it is.)
“I bet Mr. O’Hara could help you,” says a weird girlish voice out of nowhere. It’s Laura, of course, but she’s so heavily overdubbed she sounds more like the psychopathic doll Talky Tina in that episode of The Twilight Zone.
Laura tells Mr. Hanson Red Buttons’s “secret powders from India” would cure his headache . . . though Buttons never mentioned where the Secret of Śamin came from. (Probably Mary stayed up the rest of the night learning Sanskrit to translate it, though.)
Mrs. Oleson dismisses Laura’s claims as “just rubbish.”
But Mr. Hanson abruptly departs, and we next see him guzzling from a cup at the circus wagon. Within seconds, he declares his headache gone. Red Buttons will accept no payment, though.
Cut to Doc screaming at Mr. Hanson about listening to quacks. Hanson screams back that since Doc’s pills did nothing, he must be the quack. Then he starts singing and dancing! It’s probably the best part of the episode.
Mr. Hanson literally dances away, but Doc continues screaming at Charles that everyone’s gone crazy. Charles says he’s making a big deal out of nothing. I take Charles’s point, but I also hate when people are dismissive like that.
Charles says, “Look, the Olesons got shelves and shelves of that phony medicine in their store, and you never complained about them selling that.”
He gaslights, in other words. Charles’s false equivalence, and rejection of medical information beyond his ken, makes me shudder to think what would happen in Walnut Grove in the face of COVID-19. (Sadly, all you have to do is look around today to see what.)
Doc predicts the whole community will soon be deluded into buying fraudulent “cures,” and huffs off. He must be especially pissed since just last week he, Charles and the Rev became the town’s de facto public health department.
Back in the Mercantile, Mrs. Oleson is having abdominal pains. Unlike some higher-billed players on this show, Katherine MacGregor does not act like they’re giving her an orgasm.
Red Buttons appears, and Mrs. O immediately makes a crack about his magic powder and expresses irritation that he’s competing with legitimate merchants in town. Buttons says he has no desire to compete, then purchases a length of hair ribbon. (For the ape? For the bird?)
Then Red Buttons picks up an anvil that is for some reason sitting on the floor right at the checkout counter. Mrs. Oleson says she thought he was supposed to have broken ribs. He says, “You heard the truth! . . . Just a few pinches of the powder . . . as good as new.”
(What I don’t understand is that Charles was the one who wrapped up Red Buttons’s supposed injury. Wouldn’t he be able to tell his ribs weren’t really broken? Shouldn’t there have been bruising? Abrasions?)
Mrs. Oleson suddenly transforms into a true believer and asks if she can have some of the powder for her abdominal pain. She even offers to pay. Totally ridiculous.
WILL: Sometimes this show depicts her as too shrewd for her own good, and sometimes as an utter fool.
DAGNY: Well, she can be gullible. There’s a reason she runs a mercantile here instead of in Sleepy Eye or Mankato.
Red Buttons gives her the Secret of Śamin, once again accepting no payment.
Later, Doc Baker rides out to the Little House in his Bunny-powered phaeton. He jumps out and starts screaming at Charles again.
DAGNY: He and Hanson are broken up, so he has nobody but Charles to complain to anymore. He could have talked to Miss Thorgood, but he fucked that whole thing up.
WILL: . . . Thorvald!
Doc says he’s diagnosed Mrs. Oleson with appendicitis, but she won’t have surgery because she believes in the power of Red Buttons’s “magic nostrum.”
Charles and Caroline don’t react to this news with applause, I suppose since Caroline and Harriet recently decided they’d try to be friends.
Red Buttons comes out of his circus wagon at this point, hand in hand with Congrilla. Doc pulls himself up to his full height and stalks over to him. He makes an imposing figure. (Kevin Hagen was 6’2”, if you can believe what you read on the internet.)
(However, he’d be no match for an enraged chimpanzee.)
Doc accuses Red Buttons of telling Mrs. Oleson his powder “would make her completely well.”
“Oh, how a man’s words do get turned around,” says Buttons. “What I said was, ‘The good Lord willing,’ and I promised her it would do no harm at all.”
(Although it was torture, I rewatched the scene, and he does not actually say this, though I suppose he might have done so after we cut away.)
Charles and Caroline, meanwhile, stand and listen to this argument like the American Gothic people.
Doc cuts him off and says Mrs. O needs emergency surgery. He orders him to tell her the Secret of Śamin is “worthless.” Red Buttons says he’ll put Congrilla away and be right there.
Fade to commercial. And ohmigod, we’re only halfway done.
After the break, Doc gives Red Buttons a lift to the Mercantile.
Nels, Doc and Red Buttons burst in on Mrs. Oleson in bed with her hand in her crotch.
WILL: Do you think she’s . . . ?
DAGNY: No. That’s too far, even for Walnut Groovy.
Anyways, it’s hard to tell, but it looks like Mrs. O’s in a single bed. Do she and Nels have their own bedrooms? A lot of wealthy couples in the Nineteenth Century did; generally they were wealthier than the Olesons, but Harriet has ambition. And I expect they have the space.
Well, Mrs. Oleson asks Red Buttons for another dose of the stuff. Doc gets red in the face (as it were), but Nels holds him back.
Red Buttons gives her some, and then says it’ll be very helpful in preparing her body for the surgery. Mrs. O gets upset, but Buttons says Queen Victoria and “the Princess Almira of Italy” have had the same procedure, and of course that convinces her instantly. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I couldn’t find any Italian princess named Almira (though George Frideric Handel did write an Italian-German mashup opera by that name that’s pretty good).
Oh, and some fans have apparently complained that appendectomies weren’t around yet in the 1870s, but that’s a crock of shit.
Red Buttons turns around. Doc’s still scowling, but Nels is obviously grateful. Good old Nels.
Later, a huge crowd has formed outside the Mercantile, but we don’t recognize a single one of them . . . well, except Mr. Hanson, Charles, Carl the flunky, Mr. Nelson the Gray-Haired Dude, Not-Neil Diamond, and a guy who might be Tom Carter, one of the typhus patients from last week.
Nels unlocks the door and announces the Missus is fine. Everyone applauds, which seems a little excessive.
DAGNY: Look at Hanson staring adoringly at Doc. They’ll get back together.
Then Mr. Hanson starts shaking Nels’s hand like he’s taken first place in the Founder’s Day Alive Wife contest.
But Doc is still furious, and says to Charles that Red Buttons has to go. He leans forward and says in a terrible, menacing voice: “One of us is gonna have to talk to him.”
I don’t know what this means. Is he blaming Charles because he’s letting Red Buttons park in his driveway? That, too, seems excessive. And if he’s physically threatening Charles, well, let’s just say my money is not on Hiram in that matchup.
Cut back to the “circus” wagon (by this point, it’s clear the episode title was a bait-and-switch). More jolly music jigs along while Red Buttons plays with Congrilla.
Charles comes strolling up. He tells him Doc has accused him of being a fraud, which I think Red Buttons is quite well aware of by this point.
Of his “remedies,” Buttons says, “Well, ‘harmless’ is what I said they were. . . . If people thought more, it was their own imagining.”
“You also said it would cure broken ribs in a day,” Charles says flatly.
“I might have left that impression,” says Red Buttons – and it is pretty much exactly what he said. He admits this bit was “blarney only.”
WILL: What is his deal exactly? Faking broken ribs in the middle of the night is pretty elaborate. If he doesn’t sell the powder, why does he do this? And how does he live? He didn’t pay for that hair ribbon with magic tricks.
Well, whatever the reasons, Charles politely but firmly gives Buttons the boot. But he’s cuddling with Congrilla as he does it, which dampens the impact somewhat.
Red Buttons agrees, and Charles shakes his hand to show no hard feelings. And good Lord, still eighteen minutes to go. What else could possibly happen?
Well, we’ll find out. The next morning, Laura and Mary are shocked to find the circus wagon gone. Pa, who’s hitching up Chonky and the other draft horse, basically says that’s show folk.
He gives the kids a penny each (20 cents today) to go spend at the Mercantile, and they bring Jack along.
WILL: Do you think if Charles had murdered Red Buttons he’d handle this conversation the same way?
DAGNY: Oh, definitely. It’s easiest. He’d just have to bury the body and sell the horses.
WILL: And push the wagon into Willow Lake, monkey and all.
When the girls arrive at the Mercantile, they leave Jack on the porch . . . but the sudden reappearance of the harpsichord on the soundtrack suggests something terrible is about to happen. (Seriously, the harpsichord is becoming as reliable an omen of disaster on this show as the wind.)
Sure enough, a cat comes creeping out of nowhere. Jack chases it . . . and winds up trampled under the heavy hooves of The Gray-Haired Dude’s horses!
Seeing what’s happened, Laura rushes into the street and finds Jack’s crushed body in a heap! Commercial!
(I will note, The Gray-Haired Dude stopped his wagon immediately after the accident. Plus, Johnny Cash Fusspot, who was happening by, pulled his horse over to help. Walnut Grovesters are by and large good people.)
When we come back, Jack is lying in a box in the Little House’s common room. He’s not dead, but he’s unconscious. Pa says he has no broken bones, which is pretty much the only medical information we get about his condition.
Laura blubbers that Red Buttons could save him with his magic powders. Ma and Pa exchange embarrassed looks.
Pa tells Laura Red Buttons was a fraud. “No he wasn’t,” Laura says, but Ma, who enjoys throwing cold water on people’s fun, jumps in with a quick “Your father’s right.”
“No, he isn’t,” says Laura defiantly, and escapes up the ladder.
Charles gets up and puts his hat on. “Where are you going?” says Caroline. “To get O’Hara,” says Charles. “If Jack dies, she’ll never forgive me for not bringing him back.”
I don’t buy that Charles would waste his time chasing a flim-flam man. Plus, I’m not sure how he would find him, since he had no idea where he was going. Will he follow the trail of chimpanzee and raven shit in the road?
But Charles and Chonky charge across the prairie, and they do catch up to the wagon at a bend in the road. They all return to the Little House, to Laura’s delight and relief. Ma rolls her eyes, though.
Mary and Carrie, who don’t get to do shit in this story, basically hide in the center of the room.
Red Buttons, with some reluctance, gives Jack a dose of Śamin whilst Ma and Pa huff and squirm.
“He’ll get well now, won’t he?” says Laura, to which Red Buttons responds, “The good Lord willing.”
He and Charles step outside, where Charles confronts him about not fessing up. Red Buttons says he never said he would, precisely. He says if it was so important to Charles to shatter her faith, he would tell her himself. (Charles did tell her himself, but whatever.)
“If you don’t go inside and tell her right now, I’ll fucking kill you,” says Charles.
Just kidding, of course! He just goes back inside in disgust.
Bizarrely, then, we see everyone in the house has gone to sleep in their clothes. Ma and Pa are in their bed, Red Buttons is slumped at the table, and Laura is wrapped in a blanket on the floor next to Jack. I don’t believe this for a sec either.
David Rose, who rarely misses an opportunity for a musical quote, gives us an echo of “Beautiful Dreamer” as the characters slumber.
Suddenly Jack wakes up and is fine! You know, a college chum of mine is a veterinarian in Wisconsin. (He’s not a Little House watcher, but nevertheless he’s cool.) I asked him to comment on this situation, and he said:
I would speculate that the LHotP dog experienced head trauma. A closed head injury (i.e., without skull fracture or external injury) can result in swelling and/or bleeding within the cranial space. Prolonged loss of consciousness, essentially coma, is one possible result of traumatic brain injury (TBI), and because the respiratory control functions of the brain can be affected, the dog is fortunate that breathing was maintained still.
The dog on Little House is probably fortunate in a couple regards: No seizures or embolic consequences occurred resulting in worsening of condition before awakening, and any residual memory loss or mild impairments were undetectable owing to its nonverbal status. But it would also be possible to experience behavior changes (aggression, unpredictability) that would be incompatible with being a family dog.
(Thanks, Dr. Omega! We’ll keep an eye on Jack and reach out again if he suddenly turns vicious or something.)
Laura yells to everybody, and Red Buttons beams as a sweeping waltz version of his “Full O’Shit” theme jig comes in. (It’s doubled by the harpsichord this time . . . so I guess that makes the instrument Lawful Neutral rather than Lawful Evil on the alignment grid?)
Charles looks at Pa with tears in her eyes and says, “I told you Mr. O’Hara could make Jack well again.” She goes on to make things even worse, saying if Red Buttons sticks around, no one will ever stay sick or hurt again in Walnut Grove.
Just like with Mrs. Oleson, the writers aren’t consistent with Laura’s character. Sometimes she’s as sharp as a tack, and other times, like now, she’s a complete dipshit.
But I guess maybe Laura’s recent encounter with Ernest Borgnine left her more open to supernatural possibilities.
Anyways, Ma and Pa make ugly faces during her cringeworthy speech.
Laura begs Red Buttons to stay one last time, but he answers, “No, child.”
Then he shocks Laura by dropping his phony accent and talking like he’s from New York. (So for once it makes sense that the guest star’s Irish accent was so bad.)
He confesses his whole personality is “all circus tricks.” He says he’s just a lonely loser who tries to puff himself up into something more special.
Laura starts weeping, and Red Buttons gives Charles a happy-now-bub? look.
Then he turns back to Laura, takes a teardrop from her cheek and changes it into an egg.
Pleased with the way things have sorted out, Charles gives Red Buttons a smug nod. Then he turns to Carrie and tells her there’s no Santa Claus.
Charles follows Red Buttons back out to the wagon, and says, “Thank you.” Buttons replies, “Go fuck yourself.”
Buttons says he feels heartbroken too. I will say, his acting is much better when he’s playing O’Hara as a sad normal person.
Then Charles says, “If you ever happen by this way someday, stop by, we’d like to see you.”
WILL: God, what an insult. Did Charles forget he’s basically running the guy out of town on a rail?
DAGNY: It’s like The Littlest Hobo. He’d drive everybody crazy, but at the end they wouldn’t want him to leave.
But Red Buttons brightens immediately, and says “The good Lord willing!” in his fake accent again. Then he and his circus wagon Irishly jig their way up the driveway. Ugh, good riddance. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum.
STYLE WATCH: Ma wears a bonnet we’ve never seen before (I think) . . .
. . . as well as a new robe that appears to be the same pattern.
DAGNY: That makes sense. You’d never buy a bathrobe to match a bonnet, but if you had fabric left over after making one, you’d use it to make something else.
Charles appears to go commando again.
THE VERDICT: This one’s bitterly painful, like peeing on an electric fence in a snowstorm. Everyone behaves stupidly all the way through, except for Doc, who behaves like an asshole.
Ultimately, the question of what the lesson is here is very muddled. (Always listen to the experts? Cut con artists some slack if they’re nice? Or never cut them any slack? You should allow children to believe nonsense as long as it doesn’t harm anybody? Or you should prevent them from ever believing it? Or you should let them believe it, but then make sure to destroy that belief before it’s too late? Who knows.)
A complete stinker.
UP NEXT: Child of Pain