Wednesday, October 7, 2015

“Natalie…take a cab!

Back in May of this year, I wrote a review of the DVD release CPO Sharkey: The Complete Season 1—and in my closing remarks, I casually noted that I’d really be excited about the release of the sitcom’s second and final season “if Time Life gets that far.”  Well, guess what?  Time Life did get that far; they brought forth CPO Sharkey: Season 2 on September 22…and thanks to my good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications, I was given an opportunity to check this set out.

Both seasons of CPO Sharkey, while also sold separately, will be part of a later release this October 20: Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection, an eight-disc set that also features a compilation (which will be released this October 13) entitled The Don Rickles TV Specials: Volume 1.  This release consists of an ABC-TV special, “The Many Sides of Don Rickles” (which originally aired September 17, 1970) and CBS’ “Don Rickles: Alive and Kicking” (from December 12, 1972).  Michael generously provided me with a screener for this release as well.

As my chum and colleague Andrew “Grover” Leal remarked on Facebook when I announced the blog would be coming back after a long hiatus: “Enough Don Rickles to keep a hockey team in pucks for years!”  Truth be told, I was thoroughly entertained by CPO Sharkey: Season 2, for I have long argued that it was the perfect situation comedy vehicle for the comic known as “The Merchant of Venom” (his 1971 effort, The Don Rickles Show, lasted a scant seven episodes…and his 1993 collaboration with Richard Lewis, Daddy Dearest, was cancelled after a 13-week tryout).  Creator Aaron Ruben used Rickles’ Navy background (Don was a Seaman First Class on the USS Cyrene during World War II) to fashion a series on which the famed insult comic played Chief Petty Officer Otto Sharkey—a twenty-four year Naval veteran driven to distraction by his company of recruits.  The men under Sharkey were various ethnic stereotypes: jive-talking Daniels (Jeff Hollis), Jewish intellectual Skolnik (David Landsberg), Latino Rodriguez (Richard Beauchamp), and Polish Kowalski (Tom Ruben).  Mignone, an Italian character played by actor Barry Pearl, didn’t get his option renewed for Season 2 and he was replaced by the Greek Apodaca (Philip Simms)—who had appeared briefly in a Season 1 episode, “Sharkey Finds Peace and Quiet.”

You take the good, you take the bad...Charlotte Rae guest-stars in "Punk Rock Sharkey" as the mother of a young girl (Lisa Mordente) who becomes infatuated with the Chief after he breaks up a melee in a bar.

The other big casting change in the second season was replacing Sharkey’s commanding officer Captain Quinlan (played by Elizabeth Allen) with Captain “Buck” Buckner, a by-the-book martinet played by veteran character actor Richard X. Slattery.  I suspect the change was made to make Sharkey more sympathetic: he never really confronted the affable Quinlan (perhaps the producers were concerned about him appearing too chauvinistic) in his trademark antagonistic fashion, so giving him a more formidable adversary in Buckner made more sense from a comedic standpoint.  (Oddly enough, Slattery was mostly bombast and wasn’t able to add any comic nuance to the part; perhaps he had become tired of being typecast in the same roles he had played on series like The Gallant Men and Mister Roberts.)   And yet, during Sharkey’s second season, character fave Beverly Sanders (whom I always remember as Dom DeLuise’s married sister Olive on Lotsa Luck!) made for an engaging Rickles nemesis as CPO Gypsy Koch in three episodes.  (Jonathan Daly’s Lieutenant Whipple was also back for Season Dos, but his skirmishes with Sharkey were de-emphasized—he functioned more as a sniveling “yes man” for Slattery’s Buckner.)

Dr. Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. (Steve Franken) and Dr. Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) guest star in "Sharkey Flies Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

If you’re old enough (*cough*) to remember when CPO Sharkey originally aired I think you’ll find the show a delightful nostalgia wallow.  Not every episode is a gem, of course, but there are some fitfully amusing entries.  “Operation Frisco” features Sharkey having to share cramped submarine space with his aide-de-camp Seaman Lester Pruitt (Peter Isacksen) and the men in a nice little homage to the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera.  “Barracks Baby” finds a pregnant woman from Mexico hiding out in Company 144 and about to deliver at the same time a no-nonsense Congresswoman (played by the legendary Pat “Bunny Halper” Carroll) is on the base on an inspection tour.  “Sharkey’s Back Problem” spotlights an uproarious performance from the show’s star when he winds up looped on painkillers for a bad back.

Two old sea salts are reunited in "Sharkey the Actor": that's Billy Sands of McHale's Navy fame playing a tailor (Sands was also a cast member on The Phil Silvers Show).

"You son of a gun!" David "Larry Tate" White guests as an admiral in "Captain's Right Hand Man" (with Jane Connell as Mrs. Admiral).
There are some episodes, however, that have become embarrassingly dated due to their dependence on ethnic humor; “Forget Pearl Harbor” is a particularly egregious example (the normally guileless Pruitt uses slurs like “Jap” and “Nip”—even though it’s not in keeping with his character as an harmless, easygoing rube), but “Sharkey and the South American Way” isn’t much better.  Like the first season release, Sharkey 2 features the following disclaimer on the box: “Warning: Some of the jokes and ethnic references heard in these episodes would most likely not be allowed on network TV today and reflect the tenor of the times.”  (We are talking about the era of Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man, to put all this in perspective.)  In addition, four episodes from Season Two exist only in truncated syndication form (a disclaimer before each of them humorously reads: “Back in the ‘70s, some hockey puck in Beautiful Downtown Burbank somehow misplaced the master video tape for this episode”): “Pruitt’s Paradise,” “It Happened One Night,” “Fear of Flying,” and “The Used-Car Caper.”

Rhonda Bates returns as Lester Pruitt's girlfriend Evelyn in "Pruitt's Paradise"...but she's joined by future Hill Street Blues player Betty Thomas, who plays a female recruit who's also warm for Pruitt's form.

I noted in the earlier review that Sharkey creator Aaron Ruben had a tendency to fall back on his former years as the creator of Gomer Pyle, USMC for inspiration (the Sharkey-Pruitt relationship is a mirror image of the one between Gomer and Sergeant Carter—wonderfully exemplified in Sharkey’s “Pruitt, the Russian Flu-Carrier”)—but he also dips into past episodes of The Phil Silvers Show for show fodder as well (Ruben and Bilko creator Nat Hiken also wrote together for radio’s The Milton Berle Show).  “Seven-Eleven Sharkey” is reminiscent of the Bilko classic “The Con Men” (in the Sharkey version, Sharkey takes on a pair of card sharps—one of them played by Jerry Lewis nemesis Buddy Lester—to win back some money Seaman Kowalski lost) and the Phil Silvers Show entry “Doberman’s Sister” no doubt inspired “Sharkey Meets Pruitt's Sister”—which features not only Isacksen in drag but Landsberg playing both Skolnik and his female sibling (someone forgot to do something about Landsberg’s five-o’clock shadow in the latter instance).  (The Pruitt-in-drag is really just a dream sequence; his actual sister is played by Maureen Arthur.)

Included on the Sharkey Season 2 set is a delightful bonus feature in which four of the show’s cast members—Harrison Page, David Landsberg, Tom Ruben and Barry Pearl—get together with star Rickles backstage at one of his Las Vegas bookings in April of 2015.  Rickles is at his best playing Rickles—he asks Page if he’s still acting and when Page answers in the affirmative Don asks “Why?”—but what struck me the most about the reunion was the tremendous amount of affection and respect all of the men have for one another (Don expresses his regrets to Tom Ruben on his father’s passing—Ruben is Aaron’s son) despite the short-lived run of the series.  The stories they swap about working on the show are often funnier than the actual episodes, and each individual is unabashed in their praise for Don and the wonderful opportunity they received in working alongside him.  (Don humorously asks the group if CPO Sharkey is rerun anywhere; Harrison tells him he has seen the show telecast in Europe.)

Don plays monk Brother Gregory in a sketch from "The Many Sides of Don Rickles"; Greg is technical adviser on a film about his life that's directed by longtime Rickles chum Don "Would you believe?" Adams.

Don being Don constitutes the highlights of the two television specials spotlighted in The Don Rickles TV Specials: Volume 1.  The first, “The Many Sides of Don Rickles,” features guest stars in Don Adams, Harvey Korman and Robert Goulet…and the overall production has kind of a laid-back, Love, American Style-feel to it.  (I watched this with Mom, who joked: “Those sets look like the director [Bud Yorkin] handed someone $4.85.”)  Scripted by Jack Riley (who can be spotted in some of the sketches) and Pat McCormick (along with Carol Burnett Show veterans Kenny Solms and Gail Parent), most of the skits are either mildly amusing or fall completely flat.  The show only really comes to life during some “backstage” interludes (where Don and his guests swap show business anecdotes) and at the end when Rickles participates in a “humor roundtable” with three real-life doctors, allowing Don to be his insulting best.

Another sketch from "The Many Sides" features Ann Morgan Guilbert as Don's frustrated wife.

“Don Rickles: Alive and Kicking” is very much an improvement; the sketches are a little better-written (one of the scribes is Arnie Rosen, who wrote many a Sharkey episode) and there are some nice moments as Don sings and dances (yes—and he’s not bad) with guest star Juliet Prowse and performs comedy alongside the late Anne Meara (which made me tear up considerably).  Rickles also does a skit with Harvey Korman that’s similar to the type of sketches the two of them would due on The Carol Burnett Show (even borrowing the punchline).  There are some surprise appearances from some of Don’s show biz friends (I’ll keep mum so as not to spoil them for you) but again, the comic really shines when he participates in his trademark shtick with the audience during the show’s opening…

…okay, I can spoil this much for you—below the mook with the pink shirt and ginger hair you’ll recognize two familiar TV faces.  One is Tim Conway, and the other is McLean Stevenson—one of the many featured performers on Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s Doris Day(s) (which I hope to return to one of these days…and no, I have not misplaced the discs).  Don gets McLean’s series right (M*A*S*H) but he mispronounces his name as “McLean Stevens” (I’m willing to cut him some slack, though, because he describes the top of Stevenson’s head as “chicken fat with a part in it”).

This one's for "Grover": future Barney Miller cast member Steve Landesberg appears in the U.N. sketch in "Don Rickles: Alive and Kicking."

“You know, Ivan—you make these sets sound so tantalizing,” I hear you saying right now.  (At least…I hope that’s you—particularly since my meds prescription ran out last week.)  Tell ya what I’m gonna do: I just so happen to have extra copies of CPO Sharkey: The Complete Second Season and The Don Rickles Specials: Volume 1 on hand…and since it’s been ages since I’ve hosted a giveaway here on the blog, I am going to pass both of them along to some lucky member of the TDOY faithful.  All you have to do is send me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Don Rickles giveaway” in the subject header and something devastatingly witty like “I want to win this contest, ya hockey puck!”  (You don’t have to include your snail mail right away if you’re not feeling lucky but keep in mind that I’ll be able to send out the sets quicker if you do.)  The deadline for the giveaway will be 11:59pm EDT this October 15 (Thursday), which coincidentally is my BBFF Stacia’s natal anniversary (stop by and wish her a happy one—you’ll be glad you did!).  The contest is limited to participants living in the U.S. only because I’ve been to the new Winterville post office and the person doing the strip searches for packages going to Canada is an ex-wrestler named “Gladys.”

Remember: you can’t win if you don’t enter!  (Yes, I know that’s patently obvious—but I couldn’t think of any other way to close this out.)  Good luck!

Monday, July 13, 2015

…just gimme that countryside…

You’ve no doubt noticed that things have been a bit quiet on the blog of late…and for that, I deeply apologize.  As in the case of past absences, there is a long and involved tale explaining my extended disappearance…so I invite you to turn out your lights…that’s right…lights out…everybody… (Okay, it’s really not all that scary…I just got carried away.)

A few days into the month of June, the ‘rents and I received a visit from the real estate broker who’s served as the intermediary in our dealings with the landlord.  The landlord lives quite a ways away from our rented digs in Athens, and so relies on this woman to handle all matters regarding the house.  Well, that’s the official explanation—I’ve long suspected the guy was just an asshole.  He gives new meaning to the term “absentee landlord.”

Or perhaps I should say “gave.”  After exchanging pleasantries in that typical fashion of Southern ladies, the broker drops the bomb on us.  My parents weren’t able to come to an agreement regarding renewal of the lease—they wanted the landlord to assume the financial responsibility for the truly decrepit condition of the outside pipes on the property, which he patently refused to do despite owning the house—and so the broker agreed to let us rent the place on a month-to-month basis since we had demonstrated that we were damn fine tenants in the four years we’d been living there.  Apparently, however, we weren’t that damn fine—she was there to inform us that he had decided to sell the place, and we had sixty days to vacate.

My mother didn’t take this news well at all.  She’s never liked the house from the moment we moved in (or so she says—“Your father insisted we rent this dump”) but she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about packing up all our shit and relocating…mostly due to the fact that we no longer have the strength or stamina to successfully accomplish this goal.  Nevertheless, we had to go; fortunately for us, my sister-in-law would be in the Athens area to help us find a new Rancho Yesteryear.  My nephew Davis would be spending his first week at summer camp in the North Carolina area, and this allowed Katie to donate her much-appreciated time to find new lodgings.

The new Rancho Yesteryear.
We set our sights on a place in Winterville, Georgia.  Located in a peaceful community that brags about its status as “the City of Marigolds,” it’s about twenty minutes from the old Rancho Yesteryear…and though it’s a bit smaller than the old digs (and sadly, the rent is more) Mom fell in love with the place.  (Particularly since it’s equipped with a fireplace.  Yes, I realize having a blazing fireplace down South is insane, but I never claimed my mother wasn’t crazy.)

We also made plans to be out of the old place by the first of July…because we were damned if we were going to give that essobee any more of our rent dollars.  Sisters Debbie and Kat flew in to perform above and beyond the call of duty, and had it not been for their efforts we’d probably still be in the old place…sitting around naked.  We got most of our crap out on June 30—we even had the guy who moved us the last time return for an encore (he saw me when he came over for an estimate and shouted “I remember you—the guy with the DVDs!”)—and though we technically stayed over an extra day to have a cleaning crew come in and tidy up, the real estate broker did not charge us any extra pro-rated rent.  (For reasons that are still unexplained, the landlord did not allow her to list the house for sale and we kind of think by that point the broker had run out of f**ks to give with regards to the joint.)

Even with the amount of help we received in the move (for which we are most appreciative), things were not always smooth sailing.  For example, we couldn’t take our AT&T U-Verse with us to the new home (even though U-Verse could be real putzes at times), so we had to look for a new television provider.  We went with Dish (only because there was a Dish dish already in the yard of the new place), and not only had problems with the installation (the first guy couldn’t find the house) but learned to our chagrin that they block many of the Atlanta Braves ballgames on the weekends.  (When I called to ask about this bullsh*t, the customer service rep swore to me this was not Dish’s doing.  Apparently she did not think I was capable of researching this issue online.)

The Internet problems were just as bad.  Dish doesn’t offer Internet access; instead they farm it out to…who did not get a glowing recommendation from the guy who finally installed our Dish equipment.  (He didn’t have trouble finding the house.)  The Windstream people left a wireless modem on the carport of the new house, and while I stupefyingly managed to hook up the equipment, they had to send a second guy out to complete the installation because the phone jack wasn’t connected.  (They did not tell me this in the “Hola! We were here while you were out!” note they left with the modem.)

But the biggest clusterfudges involved our trash and sewer.  We had to contract trash pickup to a private concern because we now live south of Pixley, and on the first day of collection they drove right by the house.  (I thought at first that I didn’t get the cart and all our crap down to the curb in time…but when they passed us by the second week without taking the refuse I had to call the trash people and inform them of their mistake.  To their credit, the guy who came out to collect our garbage was quite nice and most apologetic.)

Then the pizza de resistance.  Saturday, July 4th, sewage-y water starts backing up in both the tub in the main bathroom and the shower stall in the smaller bath off my Mom and Dad’s room.  It’s brackish, smelly water, filled with leaves…and it would have to happen on the freaking Fourth of July; we call our new landlady, who tells us she’ll have her guy out to look at the problem as soon as he returns her call.

So we couldn’t use the plumbing for nearly two days, and staying in a hotel while the crisis abated was out of the question because we had already done that due to a similar problem that occurred during the last two days we spent in the old house.  (We were inches away from saying “this is not our problem” but we felt it wouldn’t be right when the cleaning people came in.)  You haven’t lived until your eighty-three-year-old father is having to squat waste solids into a trash bag-lined bucket, which he then stored in a closet located on our new carport.  Mom and I eventually had to take Dad’s “deposits” to a dumpster at a nearby Golden Pantry—whose manager graciously agreed to let us dump our trash during the Great Trash Abandonment Crisis.  (We now refer to the carport enclosure as “the dookie closet.”)

The landlady had to send “her guy” out because the new house is equipped with a septic tank.  The septic tank guy mentioned to us that he had told Landlady of a troublesome pipe that needed replaced in April (which turned out to be the reason for the July Fourth backup) after ruling out that the problem was caused by some torrential rains that fell during the days of our move.  The pipe was replaced, but at the risk of making a horrible pun that woman is officially on my sh*t list.  (I might be able to control my bowels but asking elderly people to do so is outrageous.)

These are just a few of the highlights of our moving adventure.  We’re gradually returning to a sense of normalcy, and though I wish our problems with both Dish and Windstream weren’t a continual headache both Mom and Dad are quite happy at the new Rancho Yesteryear.  (There’s a stand down the road that sells farm-fresh produce, and the ‘rents are positively giddy with the vegetables—Dad: “These tomatoes taste like tomatoes!”)  I’ll miss living in the Classic City (what can I say—I’m a city boy), but I suspect our new adventures in Hooterville will provide much wacky fodder for the blog.

At any rate, I hope to resume normal blogging here soon at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  Thanks for your patience during the unplanned leave of absence.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Guest Review – A Day in the Life of Dennis O’Keefe: Raw Deal (1948), The Fake (1953) and The Diamond Wizard (1954)

By Philip Schweier

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I took the time to watch a trio of crime thrillers, all starring Dennis O’Keefe. O’Keefe was a minor leading man in Hollywood who started out as an extra in the early days of talkies. He climbed through the ranks, also appearing on radio, and transitioned into television in the 1950s and ‘60s.

First of the films that I watched was Raw Deal (1948), in which he co-starred with Claire Trevor. O’Keefe plays Joe Sullivan, serving a stretch in prison on behalf of crime boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr). Coyle arranges to bust Joe out, but only in the hope that Joe gets gunned down by the authorities. Joe’s girl, Pat Cameron (Trevor), is waiting with the getaway car ready. With the cops hot on their heels, Joe and Pat head to the apartment of Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), who works for the law firm working on Joe’s release. It seems Ann has developed a bit of a crush, and Joe intends to use it as leverage for help in getting out of town.

Traveling with two women enables Joe to squeak past the law and head for Crescent City, where he expects to meet up with Coyle, receive $50,000 that he’s owed, and head to South America. But Pat quickly notices Anne’s growing attachment, and begins to wonder how loyal her criminal boyfriend really is.

The film features a number of narrow brushes with the law, as well as a young Whit Bissel as the subject of a separate manhunt. Realizing he’s been betrayed, Joe decides to settle his score with Coyle before leaving the country.

Raymond Burr plays the part of crime boss Coyle to perfection. His sadistic nature slowly gives way to growing paranoia, as he fears Joe come gunning for him. Between Coyle’s growing anxiety, and Pat’s increasing jealousy, the film is an emotional thriller leading the audience to wonder how matters will eventually resolve themselves.

In The Fake (1953), O’Keefe is on the right side of the law, playing insurance investigator Paul Mitchell, who has been assigned to protect a masterpiece of art by da Vinci while it is on loan to London’s Tate Gallery. There, he meets Mary Mason (Coleen Gray), the daughter of an impoverished painter.

The da Vinci is under scrutiny due to the thefts of two other paintings, both of which were replaced by forgeries. Mitchell follows one lead after another as attempts are made to steal the da Vinci, beginning at its arrival in England. Meanwhile, he also continues to pursue Mary Mason. This romantic endeavor that is complicated when it appears her father may be involved in the art thefts.

As capers go, it’s enjoyable without trying too hard to be more than it is. It hardly ranks high on anyone’s list of mysteries, especially when one stunningly obvious clue seems to escape the notice of Mitchell and his cohorts. But it benefits from having been filmed on location in London at the Tate Gallery. Also, segments of Mussorgsky's “Pictures At An Exhibition" are used for the musical score, providing not only irony but a cheap source for music cues.

O’Keefe is once again in jolly old England for The Diamond Wizard (1954), this time as U.S. Treasury Agent Joe Dennison. He’s trailed a gang of thieves who’ve stolen a million dollars from a U.S. Treasury vault. Upon arrival, he discovers his case intersects with that of Scotland Yard Inspector McClaren (Philip Friend), who is investigating the disappearance of Dr. Eric Miller (Paul Hardtmuth), an atomic scientist. They compare notes, and Dennison discovers Miller has secretly been creating bogus diamonds, either willingly or under coercion. Their combined investigation evolves into a police procedural, as Dennison adapts his American methods to British sensibilities, while he and McClaren compete for the affections of Dr. Miller’s daughter, Marline (Margaret Sheridan).

Both The Fake and The Diamond Wizard were produced by British studios (Pax Films and Gibraltar Films, respectively), though perhaps due to its American leads, they have a more American tone. According to the IMDB, O’Keefe is credited as co-director on the Diamond Wizard, and co-authored the script under the pen-name Jonathan Rix.

While none of O’Keefe’s films stand out as exceptional thrillers or film noir, they’re pleasant diversions for those that haven’t seen them before.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

GetTV Theatre: Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960)

In 1949, Columbia Pictures brought Willard Motley’s 1947 novel Knock on Any Door to the big screen in a feature film directed by Nicholas Ray.  It’s the story of a young juvenile delinquent named Nick Romano (John Derek) who’s accused of killing a cop at point blank range and the attorney who agrees to take his case (against the advice of his law partners), Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart).  Door has its admirers and detractors; I’m fond of the movie as a Bogart fan, and it’s long been of interest to those cinephiles who consider themselves members-in-good-standing in the Nicholas Ray cult (it’s kind of a precursor to the director’s classic Rebel Without a Cause [1955]).  (Not the strongest film Ray ever directed…but I’d watch Door again over A Woman’s Secret [1949] any day of the week.)

Motley’s third novel (published in 1958) was a sequel to Knock on Any Door, and was released by the same studio eleven years later: Let No Man Write My Epitaph examines the troubled history of Nick’s progeny (also named Nick, and played by James Darren), a son born out of wedlock by one of Romano’s girlfriends, played by Shelley Winters.  Sadly, mom Nellie and Nick, Jr. reside in the same West Hamilton neighborhood in the Windy City, and the prognosis of the younger Nick making something out of his life does not look positive.  But the kid has a loving surrogate family, made up of former jurist Bruce Mallory Sullivan (Burl Ives); Flora (Ella Fitzgerald), a saloon chanteuse; cabbie Max (Rodolfo Acosta); ex-pugilist “Goodbye” George (Bernie Hamilton); prostitute Fran (Jeanne Cooper); and amputee-newshawk Wart (Walter Burke).

The audience gets a glimpse of Nick’s childhood at the beginning of Epitaph (young Nick is played by Michael Davis), and then the film fast-forwards to his high school years.  Like his father, Nick often has difficulty staying out of trouble…and hopes his occasional lapses into juvenile delinquency won’t deter him from his dream of becoming a musician (Nellie has worked in a number of clip joints in order to support her son and pay for piano lessons to boot).  Sullivan, a disgraced judge who’s descended into an alcoholic haze, uses his connections to secure a patron for Nick in the form of lawyer Grant Holloway (Philip Ober), whose daughter Barbara (Jean Seberg) takes a shine to Nick.  However, Nick’s career plans are threatened by his mother’s involvement with Louis Ramponi (Ricardo Montalban), a hood whose flower shop is merely a front for his real business: dope peddling.

The theme of how environment can dictate the direction of one’s path in life is explored in Epitaph as it was in Door; Door emphasized how Nick, Sr. was a good kid from the slums (lawyer Morton hails from a similar background, which is why he agrees to take Romano’s case) who just never got the breaks in life.  The ambiguity of the two films, however, is present in the suggestion that one’s genes may be the triumphant winner in the fifteen-round bout of Nature vs. Nurture.  In Door, Nick, Sr.’s father was previously on trial for a self-defense killing (Bogart’s Morton botched that trial—resulting in the man’s death while he was still behind bars—which is the second reason why he defends Derek’s Romano), and that seems to suggest that the males in the Family Romano are predisposed to run-ins with the gendarmes.

Epitaph (at least the movie version—it might be different in the novel, which I have not read) also commits a couple of glaring continuity errors in the course of its narrative.  Nellie Romano continues to believe that Nick, Sr. was innocent of the cop’s murder in Door, forgetting that Romano eventually confesses to the deed while on the stand.  (One could argue, of course, that Nellie continues to blindly believe in Nick’s innocence regardless of what the facts dictate.)  The character of Holloway is referenced as the public defender in Nick, Sr.’s trial, but I don’t remember the senior Romano having any other lawyer but Morton in Door (again, it’s possible they changed the name of the Holloway character from the novel).

Aside from these nitpicks—and the casting of twenty-four-year-old James Darren as a high school student (yes, I know he was under contract to Columbia, but really—“Moondoggie” as a teenage hood?)—Let No Man Write My Epitaph is a most worthwhile movie, a film whose unavailability on DVD is a crime in itself (I thought it had never been released on home video at all but this Amazon listing proves me wrong).  Its disappointing box office performance might be the reason Epitaph has slipped through the cracks, but my advice is to resist all that hooey; the supporting cast alone is worth the price of admission.  Several people around the Internets describe this feature film as a “film noir”…but apart from the crime angle, it’s stretching the definition a bit.  It’s more of a social drama, with an interesting theme of redemption and an admirable portrayal of how people from disparate elements of society can effectively band together to form a surrogate family.

The big casting “get” in Epitaph was Shelley Winters, fresh off her Oscar triumph for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).  Winters gives a great performance, but she was also instrumental in convincing the filmmakers that James Darren, Burl Ives, Jean Seberg, Ella Fitzgerald and Bernie Hamilton be cast in their supporting roles.  (Shel also wanted George C. Scott to play the part of the sebaceous pusher ultimately essayed by Ricardo Montalban…but she came up short on that score.)  Singer Fitzgerald gives one of the truly impressive performances in Epitaph, as a heroin-addicted saloon singer (the scene where she begs Ives for the needed money to get a fix is quietly effective).  I also admired Hamilton’s turn as the ex-boxer, though I was sort of uncomfortable in that his efforts to save Darren’s Nick from a gang of street punks resulted in his return to the pokey (there was a law on the books at that time that being hit by a prizefighter constituted “assault with a deadly weapon”).

Burl Ives’ performance as the down-and-out Judge Sullivan is a marvel.  The winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Big Country (1958), Ives was responsible for an impressive string of performances in its wake including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (though technically released before Country) and Day of the Outlaw.  His character possesses a nice sense of melancholy in that he’s pined for Winters’ character for many years; I didn’t even mind too much that his presence suggests if only single mom Shelley could land herself a man everything would be hunky-dory.  In addition, I enjoyed spotting TDOY fave Percy Helton (as the man who runs the flophouse where Ives resides) and Frank Sully, not to mention Dal McKennon (as a court clerk) and Francis De Sales.

Directed by Philip Leacock, a British filmmaker who had had recent U.S. success with Take a Giant Step (1959) and The Rabbit Trap (1959); he works wonders with Robert Presnell, Jr’s (Man in the Attic, A Life in the Balance) adapted screenplay.  Admittedly, I’m more familiar with Leacock’s work on the small screen; he helmed any number of classic episodes from the likes of Route 66 and Gunsmoke, as well as made-for-TV efforts such as When Michael Calls (1972) and The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972).  (Please don’t judge me.)  Epitaph is considered one of Leacock’s best films, and if you’ve not seen this movie—and your cable system carries the digital channel GetTV—I urge you to catch this one this afternoon at 4:30 EDT.  (There will be encore showings on June 14 [7:30am EDT], June 18 [1pm EDT], June 27 [9:35am EST] and June 29 [10:35am EDT].)  AT&T U-Verse unfortunately doesn’t carry GetTV (boo hiss), but I was lucky to be able to see Let No Man Write My Epitaph (it’s been on my must-see list for many years) thanks to Cindy Ronzoni at GetTV—many, many effusive thanks to her.