BOOTLEG FILES 715: “The Vivian Vance and Margaret Hamilton Maxwell House Coffee Commercials” (series of 1970s television commercials).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial reissue value for television commercials highlighting a specific brand.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
For an actor, being typecast in a particular role can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it offers the opportunity to enjoy a high-profile part in a popular production that, with luck, can be leveraged into fame and fortune. On the other hand, however, it locks the performer into a specific character and makes it nearly impossible for that individual to be accepted in other roles, thus severely limiting a career.
During the 1970s, a pair of actresses who became too heavily identified with distinctive roles found themselves enjoying a new level of attention via a series of light comic television commercials for the Maxwell House coffee brand. And while these commercials did not entirely erase the audience identification that Vivian Vance and Margaret Hamilton women had with their celebrated pop culture characters, it nonetheless offered a brief reminder that they were far more versatile than the show business world was willing to acknowledge.
Before Vivian Vance joined the cast of “I Love Lucy” in 1951, she was a working actress with no national recognition. Her career included a few Broadway shows and many regional theater productions, plus a pair of brief and forgettable film performances that sparked no great excitement. But after Vivian Vance took on the role of Ethel Mertz in “I Love Lucy,” she became a household name and an Emmy Award-winning star.
Unfortunately, Vance found it very difficult to escape the public perception of being Ethel Mertz, and she would reportedly become hostile when fans called her Ethel. Even though she grudgingly agreed to reteam with Lucille Ball on “The Lucy Show” – she demanded that her character would be called Viv – she found herself losing roles because she was so strongly associated as Ball’s comedy sidekick. Indeed, she was rejected for the role of Vera Charles in Ball’s 1974 film “Mame” because producers didn’t want the perception of an “I Love Lucy” reunion.
To Vance’s relief, she snagged a series of commercials in the mid-1970s for Maxwell House playing a character called Maxine. In this role, Vance’s Maxine operated the coffee cart in an office, and Maxine specialized in pouring cups of Maxwell House’s instant coffee to the beleaguered desk jockeys who sought a caffeinated mini-escape from their cubicles.
The crux of the Maxine commercials was the astonishment that instant coffee could taste so great. In one commercial, Vance holds an open bottle of the instant coffee under the nose of a young female office worker who is falling asleep at her desk. The aroma rouses this woman from her lethargy, and by the end of the commercial she is perky and fielding a comment from a greasy male colleague who grins, “Hey, Suzy, you’re looking mighty fresh!”
In another commercial, a woman storms into the office to confront Maxine. “So, you’re the other woman in his life?” she announces, with a beleaguered man following her. But woman’s harshness quickly gives way to jollity when she adds, “My husband is always raving about Maxine’s coffee and how much better the coffee is in the office than at home!”
Vance played Maxine wearing a light blue vest with a nametag. She addressed her fellow actors with a popped-eye expression and a seemingly manic smile, which seemed a tad insincere – especially when one considers she was espousing the glory of instant coffee. If Maxine didn’t gain the iconic stature of Ethel Mertz, at least it kept Vance in the public view and helped keep her busy during a relatively lean career period when small roles in TV movies and guest shots on sitcoms were her most conspicuous achievements.
Following Vance as the Maxwell House celebrity spokesperson was Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” And while she had a long career as an actress, she never snagged another role that came anywhere close to the Witch’s power. During the 1970s, Hamilton would lovingly revisit the Wicket Witch’s persona with gentle child-friends appearances on “Sesame Street,” “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” and with wild double-entendre humor in “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special.”
Maxwell House gave Hamilton an off-beat role as Cora, the owner of a New England general store, in a series of commercials extolling its coffee. Wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses and either an old sweater or plain apron, Hamilton’s Cora only sold Maxwell House in her coffee section. “If anyone knows beans about coffee, they do,” she insisted.
Hamilton’s laid-back and worldly-wise Cora would calmly advise young couples, uncertain mothers and clueless men that anyone could brew up a pot of coffee that was “good to the last drop.” Some of the commercials included actors who would go on to the proverbial bigger and better: Judd Hirsch turned up as a delivery man, Audrey Landers as a nervous bride-to-be and a very young David Caruso was on-screen as a smart-aleck teen in overalls. But the real charm of these advertisements belonged to Hamilton, who offered a warm grandmotherly vibe in her calm advocacy of the coffee’s brilliance.
Unlike Vance’s Maxine, Hamilton’s Cora seemed to resonate – even the anarchic “SCTV” fun bunch had a riff with Andrea Martin as an evil doppelganger who whistles for a pair of winged monkeys to force a coffee-hating clerk to consumer her favorite brew before insisting the viewers buy the coffee for themselves “and your little dog, too!”
Vance passed away in 1979 and Hamilton in 1985, and Maxwell House’s later commercials opted to avoid recurring characters hawking the product. The old commercials have never been gathered for any home entertainment format release, but a number of them can be found in YouTube postings of varying visual quality.
Maxine and Cora never really erased the legacies of Ethel Mertz and the Wicked Witch, but at least they helped two beloved stars temporarily break out into new personas. And, hey, Maxwell House wasn’t such a bad coffee brand – so at least they hitched their reputations to something that was truly worth buying!
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