Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Guest Review: How Can Something So Wong Be So White?

By Philip Schweier

In the 1930s, the Monogram motion picture studio attempted to capitalize on the success of Fox’s Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movie series with its own stories of a benevolent and wise Chinese detective. And like Fox, Monogram chose a non-Asian actor to assume the role of Mr. Wong, created by Hugh Wiley for a series of stories published in Colliers magazine. He is an intelligent and cultured man of Chinese heritage in San Francisco, and a de facto consultant to the police

While Boris Karloff is today regarded as a major horror star, it may be somewhat dismaying to see him “slumming” in B movies (the B stands for basement). But the truth is Karloff, as a “serious” thespian, was rarely provided very ambitious material.

However, in my opinion what elevates an actor above his station is not the material he is provided but what he chooses to do with it. Karloff was a professional actor, so he acted, and did so well enough to raise the quality of the films in which he appeared. Granted, many were pretty low-budget (Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, anyone?), but after achieving fame as Frankenstein’s monster, it gave him the opportunity to do more than grunt and look menacing.

Maybe he had a mortgage payment due, or maybe he saw it a means to keep his name in front of the audience’s – and studio executives – collective eyes. Either way, it’s certainly more appealing than sitting around the house waiting for the phone to ring.

In Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), Simon Dayton (Superman’s Perry White, John Hamilton) shows up on Wong’s doorstep pleading for help. His life has been threatened and the amiable Mr. Wong is only too happy to help. Unfortunately, their 10 a.m. appointment the next day is about five minutes too late, as Dayton dies within the proverbial locked room.

Among the suspects are Dayton’s two business partners, who only moments prior to his demise convinced him to sign an added clause to their contract, making each the recipient of the others’ share of the company in the event of death. But when they also are done in, it leaves fewer options for whoever the guilty party might be.

As a mystery, it’s a fun little romp, with ample misdirection as well as red herrings provided by a cabal of foreign spies. As I said, Karloff presents Wong with intelligence and dignity, but if there is a downside, it would only be that the Asian aspect of the character seems superfluous. The plot was later recycled by Monogram for Docks of New Orleans (1948), one of the last of the Charlie Chan movies.

The Mystery of Mr.Wong (1939) followed a year later, in which Wong is invited to a party by Brendan Edwards (Morgan Wallace), whose life has been threatened over his possession of the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, a magnificent gem. Edwards is killed during the party, but Wong is quickly on the case, investigating the Edwards household. It includes Valerie Edwards (Dorothy Tree), the long-suffering wife, and her devoted secretary, Peter Harrison (Craig Reynolds), as well as Michael Strogonoff (Ivan Lebedeff), a parasitic musician whom the Edwards are sponsoring. A handful of Chinese servants are also among the suspects.

Unfortunately, this is not a “play fair” mystery, in that there are details to which the audience is not privy until the very end, as Wong reveals the killer. Still, Karloff is in top form and may account for the overall appeal of the film.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) was the next entry in the series. Wong is paid a late night visit the Princess Lin Hwa (Lotus Long), a high mucky-muck with a Chinese tea company, who arrived a few weeks back. She is assassinated before he can speak with her and Wong and police captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) go to investigate the ship she rode in on. Why they seem to feel Captain Jaime (William Royle) should know anything about one passenger’s personal beeswax isn’t fully explained, though unbeknownst to them, he’s clearly involved in something shady. Kibitzing the investigation is snoopy reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds).

Wong looks into the princess’s finances, courtesy of her bank’s president, Mr. David (Huntley Gordon). The detective must be on the right trail somewhere, because an attempt is made on his life. He discovers the princess was in the States to buy arms on behalf of her brother, a general in China. Captain Jackson (George Lynn) of the Phelps Aviation Company was to sell her some planes but the company is revealed to be a sham.

Wong is led into a trap, only to be rescued by Street. Wong then reveals all for the benefit of the authorities and the criminals, to convince them that he knows their game better than they do. Like Mr. Wong, Detective, it also provided fodder for the Charlie Chan series, remade as The Chinese Ring (1947).

When a police buddy of Capt. Street’s is killed in The Fatal Hour (1940), Wong leaps in to help with the investigation. The dead cop’s last known location, the Neptune Club, leads them to Harry “Hardway” Lockett (Frank Puglia). Not only is he a gambler and smuggler, he’s sicced Tanya Serova (Lita Chevret) on Frank Belden Jr. (Craig Reynolds), whose father has gotten sucked into Hardway’s smuggling operation. It seems dear old dad – soon to be dead old dad – is in over his head and has been letting Hardway use his jewelry store as a front for his smuggled goods.

With Frank Belden Sr. dead, the smuggling trail now leads to John T. Forbes (Charles Trowbridge). Conveniently, he lives in the apartment directly below Ms. Serova, who also gets bumped off. Even though she’d been playing Belden Jr., she was starting to appreciate his naïve ideas of matrimony, if only as an out from under Hardway’s thumb. But it couldn’t be Hardway who killed her; he was in Street’s office at the time of the murder.

When a radio writer named Griswold (Jason Robards Sr.) claims to have vital information regarding the case, he is murdered right in the police station. It provides Wong with the vital clue to how Ms. Serova was murdered and who might be responsible. All the murders share common ballistics, so the whole mystery gets tied up in a neat little package.

Doomed to Die (1940) – aka “Mystery of the Wentworth Castle” – opens with stock footage of an ocean liner burning at sea, followed by stock footage of newspaper presses and newsboys touting the disaster of the SS Wentworth Castle. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Cyrus B. Wentworth (Melvyn Lang), owner of the ship line, has a lot on his mind, not the least of which is that Dick Fleming (William Stelling), the son of his business rival, wants to marry his daughter. The two argue and Wentworth ends up dead. This is followed by more stock footage of cops on their radios and in patrol cars as the manhunt for Fleming ensues.

Wong is called in at the behest of reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), a close friend of Cynthia Wentworth (Catherine Craig). Using his Chinatown connections, he learns one of the passengers aboard the Wentworth Castle was Kai Lin, a Chinese smuggling tong funds into America. It turns out Kai Lin is also Lem Hou, the Wentworth family servant. Wentworth knew of the tong’s plan and the belief is he was murdered for his trouble. Slowly, the pieces begin to fall together.

Bobbie helps Dick escape from police custody, but when the police find him at his father’s home, Pops attempts to confess in order to save his son, but Wong won’t have it. He knows the real killer and all the whys and hows. Unfortunately, he declines to share most of them with the audience, as the culprit is hustled off to jail in short order.

This would prove to be Karloff’s final foray as the Chinese sleuth, as clearly the bloom was off the cherry blossom. No doubt the budget for the series had dropped below Monogram’s middling standards, given the ubiquitous stock footage and the obviously recycled footage from Mr. Wong in Chinatown.

Phantom of Chinatown (1940) starred Keye Luke, who until recently had been featured in the Charlie Chan movies as #1 son Lee Chan. This serves as a sort of prequel to the Boris Karloff films, as it depicts his first meeting with Capt. Street, and Wong is noticeably younger and more energetic. Rather that the sophisticated James Lee Wong, he is referred to as “Jimmy.”

Dr. Cyrus Benton (Charles Miller) has just returned from the Mongolian desert where he has discovered the “Tomb of Eternal Fire,” but at the cost of the expedition’s co-pilot Mason (John Holland), who was lost in Mongolia, his body never recovered. As he presents his findings, he collapses, poisoned. The police, led by Capt. Street (Grant Withers) arrive at the Benton home to investigate the man’s death.

Wong (Keye Luke), a family friend, is already on the scene and dopes out that the water glass Benton drank from contained poison. This scores points with Capt. Street, and the two decide to combine their efforts to solve the murder.

An artifact Benton brought back from China turns out to be missing, and holds the key to the whys of the murder. By laying a trap a trap the murderer can’t resist, Wong and Street hope to expose the culprit.

The story is much better than previous Wong outings, but Keye Luke brings very little to the role other than authentic Asian street cred. By this time, the series had run its course at Monogram. Perhaps when Fox ended its production of Charlie Chan movies in 1942, Monogram saw an opportunity to continue the “honorable Chinese detective” concept by picking up a more successful property. Chan’s first film under the Monogram banner was Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944).

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Guest Review: Killer B’s 3: Assignment: Miami Beach

By Philip Schweier

Too much time on my hands means that I’ve been frittering it away indulging in Netflix. There, thanks to the science of the Interweb we get to use one of mankind’s greatest technological accomplishments to enjoy second-rate movies that are close to 70 years old. Never mind all that James Cameron digital special effects stuff; just gimme a good old-fashioned murder mystery made on a shoestring budget.

The Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1945) features Jean Parker in the title role, a switchboard operator at the Townley Hotel. A fan of detective stories, she “suspicious characters” with every other guest until she overhears Williams, the owner of the hotel, getting gunned down over the phone. With her hapless boyfriend Johnny (Peter Cookson), she is thrilled to investigate, until she finds Williams’ body sitting in her apartment in the hotel.

Kitty and Johnny are jailed by the cops, led by Inspector Clancy. Clancy is played by Tim Ryan, in the same kind of cop role he played in previous Monogram B pictures such as Fashion Model and The Mystery of the 13th Guest. Convenient, since Ryan is credited with the screenplays of all three films, and many others.

Clancy calls all the potential suspects together for a grilling, where Mrs. Williams (Lorna Gray) claims her husband is in Chicago. With no corpus delecti to prove otherwise, Clancy lets them all go, but not before and Kitty insinuates Mrs. Williams has been carrying on with fellow employee Nick Joel (Hugh Prosser).

Kitty’s instincts tell her to look into another employee, the effete Roberts (Byron Foulger), but upon entering his apartment, they find the body of Harris (Bill Ruhl), a hotel guest revealed to be an insurance investigator looking into the hotel’s recent jewel thefts. But more dead bodies follow, and a wacky chase throughout the hotel. On the dodge from the law, Kitty discovers not only Williams’ body, but the murderer himself.

The movie plays as more of a comedy, without much mystery. The solution is revealed by accident, and the culprit is of course the least likely suspect.

The Living Ghost (1942) involves the disappearance of local financier Walter Craig, so the family calls in Nick Trayne (James Dunn) to investigate. Trayne, a former investigator for the DA’s office, has taken up practice as a pseudo-swami/professional listener, Craig’s secretary, Billie Hilton (Joan Woodbury) convinces him to come out of retirement.

While visiting the home, Train’s experience with handling eccentrics makes him well-suited to dealing with the dysfunctional family. That night, Craig (Gus Glassmire) reappears, seemingly in a catatonic state. Arthur Wallace (Howard Banks), Craig’s would-be son-in-law, becomes suspect #1 when another body turns up and circumstantial evidence points his way.

That theory falls apart when Craig attacks Trayne with a knife. He and Billie follow the clues to an abandoned house, looking for the man whom they believe induced Craig’s catatonic state. This leads to their coming up with a means of exposing the murderer.

This movie is a little more inventive than most, while presenting many of the tropes of murder mysteries: spooky butlers, clandestine meetings, footprints in the garden, all presented efficiently under the hand of director William “One-Take” Beaudine, so nicknamed for his prolific output. He learned his trade in the earliest days of the film industry when movies were churned out like sausages. He built a reputation for making the being the go-to guy for making a movie quick and cheap.

In A Tragedy at Midnight (1942) John Howard plays amateur sleuth Greg Sherman, trying hard to channel his inner William Powell. One morning, after the missus (Margaret Lindsay) is out for the evening, he finds a corpse in his wife’s bed. Actually, it the bed of a neighbor; the Shermans are staying in the apartment while theirs is being painted, and the owners are on vacation.

On the lam, Mr. and Mrs. Sherman attempt to suss out the identity of the dead woman, who actually has two identities. The trail leads to boyfriends, gangsters and other disreputable characters before returning to the radio studio for a live, on-the-air reveal of the killer, aided by their Chinese valet, Foo (Keye Luke).

With more development, the story could have become a respectable rip-off of the Thin Man movies. It has serial-style slug-fests and a few witty moments, but overall, the story is too condensed to be anything other than a dull, confusing mess.

The Fatal Witness (1945) stars Evelyn Ankers as Priscilla Ames, who is visiting her aunt’s home near London, when the elderly lady accuses her wastrel nephew John (George Leigh) of theft. He storms out, and after a night of drinking, ends up in the local hoosegow. But for the elderly aunt it’s even worse; she ends up dead. Naturally, all eyes turn to him, despite his ironclad alibi. It up to Inspector William Trent (Richard Fraser) to crack John’s alibi

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Guest Review: Killer B’s II: Texas Blood Money

By Philip Schweier

Recently, thanks to the kind folks at Netflix and someone known only as “Public Domain,” I had the opportunity to sit and stare at a few films that in their heyday were clearly the B film prior to something better… like maybe SOS Titanic. Here’s a rundown of what I witnessed:

Homicide for Three (1948): I don’t know how I managed it, but practically from the get-go I had the solution sussed out. In this film, Navy Lt. Peter Duluth (Warren Douglas) has a 36-hour pass in which to enjoy his wedding night, one year late. Instead of matrimonial bliss, he instead spends his time dodging murder charges as bodies start to pile up and he becomes the hottest thing to hit the San Francisco area since 1849.

Aside from its predictability (which you may or may not notice; your mileage may vary), it real charm is its co-star Audrey Long as the lieutenant’s bride. She has a charm that urges the restless young bridegroom further and further into the mystery, continuing to put their wedding night on hold.

Exposed (1947): What starts out as an interesting little mystery quickly spirals downward as the resolution evaporates into thin air. The only original thought in the whole film is that it features Adele Mara as Belinda Prentice, a wise-cracking and more-than-competent private eye who is sucked into what later becomes a mystery surrounding the murder of a local industrialist.

Both films were directed by George Blair, who at the time was honing his craft in the short form. After cutting his teeth on B movies of the 1940s, he made the jump to directing episodic television, with such shows as The Adventures of Superman and Lassie.

London Blackout Murders (1943) is set during the Blitz. Serial killer Jack Rawlings (John Abbott) is a tobacconist who injects a poison into unsuspecting victims at the height of the German bombing raids. When a young woman, Mary Tillet (Mary McLeod) moves into a room over his Whitechapel shop, she discovers a hypodermic needle concealed in his pipe, she suspects his morbid secret. When Mary’s beau, Peter Dongen (Louis Borell) pays a visit, she confides her suspicions to him.

When the partner of Inspector Harris (Lloyd Corrigan) of Scotland Yard falls victim to Rawlings, Harris begins to suspect the man. His investigation reveals Rawlings to be a murderous doctor who disappeared 18 years earlier. Rawlings’ defense is rather original, yet to the point of being preposterous, turning what promised to be an entertaining thriller into a complete and utter waste of 53 minutes of film.

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) is a murder thriller featuring the “play fair” sleuth Ellery Queen. Created by cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, Queen is noted for providing the audience with all the clues necessary to solve the crime, rather than withholding vital information to which only the fictional detective may be privy, thus making Nick Charles or Hercule Poirot’s powers of deduction seem all the more remarkable.

Queen (Donald Cook) and his pal Judge Macklin (Berton Churchill) are visiting California where they discover Stella Godfrey (Helen Twelvetrees; oddly enough, she receives top-billing) tied up in their rental cottage. It seems she was kidnapped the night before from her family home nearby, and her cousin is later found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some of the other family members at the Godfrey estate are meeting in an attempt to break an elderly aunt’s will.

When two more murders occur, the vacationing Ellery Queen is disinterested in solving the murder, and his lack of enthusiasm is infectious, making the whole story one dull affair. It’s only when Stella is framed for yet another murder that Ellery takes an interest, because he’s spent 80 percent of the film schmoozing up to the young heiress. The solution to the crimes is predictable, so I wouldn’t recommend the movie to anyone but the most diehard of mystery fans.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Several developments—none of them revolting…

I’m back in the saddle again…temporarily, that is.  Finished up a set of liner notes for a CD collection of The Life of Riley broadcasts that will be released by Radio Spirits in the near future, and next on the agenda is a collection featuring that schoolteacher “who teaches English at Madison High”: Our Miss Brooks.  I thought the OMB assignment was interesting, particularly since my Facebook pal Pami took the WABAC machine to 1976 via scans of the program from the production of the play we performed in high school.  But in the amazing world of coinky-dinks that often seems to hold court here at TDOY, there’s also one connected to The Life of Riley project I just finished…in fact, it kicks off a bodacious list of classic TV-on-DVD releases that we’ll be able to look forward to in the coming months.

You know that in addition to his long run on radio as Chester Arthur Riley, William Bendix played the part in a 1949 motion picture (written and directed by Riley creator Irving Brecher) and in a 1953-58 TV version of the sitcom that he was able to do once his contractual obligations to Hal Roach had elapsed (Brecher had to substitute Jackie Gleason for Bendix in the first version of the TV show in 1949).  But Bill Bendix headlined a second TV series beginning in the winter of 1960; an hour-long western entitled Overland Trail that co-starred future The Virginian player Doug McClure.  As Fred Kelly, Bill was a curmudgeonly superintendent for a stagecoach line and McClure (as Frank Flippen, affectionately known as “Flip”) his rowdy, youthful sidekick in a short-lived series that blended western action and comedy (it was sort of like Tales of Wells Fargo meets Laredo).  Trail’s regrettably brief run on NBC was due to its kamikaze scheduling: it was on opposite Lassie and Dennis the Menace on CBS and Walt Disney Presents and Maverick on ABC—and I don’t think even full frontal nudity would have distracted audiences from those hits.   In another season, without the glut of westerns on TV at the time, Trail might have had a better shot but after 17 episodes Bendix and McClure rode off into the sunset (and of course, Doug turned up in San Francisco in the fall on Checkmate).  Timeless Media Video has thankfully rescued Overland Trail from obscurity and will release the entire series on DVD in a 4-disc set on February 14th next year—a real treat for fans of TV western oaters.

In other Timeless news, the company will complete the four-year-run of the classic boob tube western Laramie a week earlier (February 7th) with a 8-DVD set (the package art says 6 discs, but that is apparently a typo) of the show’s second season…and no one is more pleased than I to hear the final boot drop, as it were.  Apparently this collection will also contain a first season show, “Ride Into Darkness” (01/12/60), that was missing on the first season release (which I was not aware of; I have Season 1 but—yes, I know this is hard to believe—I have not opened it yet) as well as a featurette on star John Smith.  I can’t say I heartily endorse how Timeless released the Laramie series (they started with Season 3, which was the first one in color, and followed it with Season 4, then the inaugural season) though I can understand why they did it the way they did…and even though the quality of the prints is often iffy it’s just gratifying to see that this series got a DVD release despite insurmountable odds.

The last noteworthy TMV release is one that will contain Seasons 2 and 3 of State Trooper, a syndicated crime drama that ran from 1956-59 and starred serial stalwart and B-western cowboy hero Rod Cameron as square-jawed lawman Officer Rod Blake.  Trooper, a series that boasted that it was “based on true cases from the files of Nevada State Police,” had a western feel to it (due in large part to Cameron’s participation) and also co-starred Robert “Carl Denham” Armstrong and Don Haggerty as colleagues of Blake’s (they were Nevada sheriffs; Haggerty being in charge of Vegas).  The first season of State Trooper saw a 4-DVD release on Timeless back in December (along with another Cameron private eye series, COronado 9) and while this Season2/3 collection also has a December street date (12/13) it will consist of the remaining 65 episodes plus the show’s pilot (which didn’t make it into the first box set).  Now all Timeless has to do is track down and put the actor’s first TV crime drama, City Detective (1953-55), on disc and they will have successfully executed the coveted Rod Cameron hat trick.

On the same day Timeless finishes up State Trooper, another TV western classic rides back into town in the form of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp—the first season of what some consider to be the boob tube’s first adult western (keep in mind, though, that it debuted in the same season as the dean of TV oaters, Gunsmoke) will be released on December 13th with all thirty-five episodes of its first season to be made available in a set from Inception Media Group.  Now, if you’re thinking this all seems a little déjà vu…it’s because technically it isEarp’s first season has already seen DVD action before; it was released by the Falcon Picture Group in 2009 and plans to release the second season were not far behind but for some reason scuttled shortly before Season 2’s street date.  (Not that Season 1 didn’t have its problems; according to a couple of sources one of the episodes on that set is actually from Season 2.  I am relying only on hearsay here because…well, you’ve probably guessed the reason by now.)  But Inception has acquired the DVD rights and apparently has decided to give fans a second chance to acquire the set—personally, this is starting to play like a similar scenario when Rhino released a “Best of” collection of the show in 2005 (containing twenty-six episodes) and then Timeless issued the same set two years later, except that it contained only fifteen episodes.

We could probably have a lengthy debate on whether or not the 1968-70 series Here Come the Brides should be called a western (I’d argue that it is…and I’d bring snacks in case the debate ran long) but something that we could all agree on is that the news of the show’s second and final season will finally be released to DVD next February 28th will be a tonic to those fans who have been waiting since May 2006 for, once again, the other boot to drop.  Shout! Factory has wrested away this DVD assignment from Sony Home Entertainment and on the date mentioned will release the remaining 26 episodes from the show’s final year on a 6-disc set.  (For those of you not familiar with the show, this is the season where Bobby Sherman’s Jeremy Bolt loses his stutter…apparently because it was making him less cute.)

TVShowsOnDVD.com made the announcement back in October that the Factory has decided to shoulder the burden of a few properties owned by Sony and make them available on DVD; Police Woman, the 1974-78 crime drama starring Angie Dickinson as supercop Pepper Anderson will see its sophomore season (24 episodes on 6 discs) on DVD on February 7 of 2012—fans of that show have been waiting almost as long as Brides devotees (the last Police Woman release was in March 2006).  The 1961-66 sitcom Hazel, which recently marked its 50th anniversary here at TDOY and Edward Copeland on Film…and More, has also been obtained by Shout! Factory—the date on the second season released has been moved up (a flyer from the company originally hinted the first of November) to February 21st with a 4-disc set containing 32 episodes.  (Definitely going to have to put that on my wish list.)

But the biggest news to come out of the Factory is that they have secured the rights to one of TDOY’s favorite TV series of all time, Route 66—according to this press release at TSOD, the company “now owns extensive proprietary rights to this beloved television series, including all 116 original episodes, its archived materials, worldwide home entertainment and digital rights, and North American broadcast rights.”  Roxbury Entertainment, 66’s previous owner, has “retained the trademarks and television remake and film rights” to the series because they are working on a reboot of the show (apparently not having learned the lessons of the abortive attempt to do so in 1993).  That’s really all the press release has to say at this point—I would assume that Shout! would eventually get around to releasing the show’s fourth and final season to disc but I’d also like to see the possibility of repairing the previous three season box sets, what with their varying degrees of quality in the transfers.

CBS-Paramount announced a week or two back that the sixth season of the private eye chestnut Mannix will be released in a 6-disc set (containing all 24 episodes) on January 24th next year.  TV fans know that Joe Mannix (played by Mike Connors) was one tough essobee in the crime drama game, but I think what I admire most about Joe is that he managed to avoid the dreaded split-season releases that have unfortunately befallen his heftier colleague Frank Cannon (William Conrad) with regards to DVD.  Best of all, there are two more seasons to go for Mannix, which will make his final caseload oeuvre complete in two additional sets.

In this edition’s “I can’t believe that is coming to DVD!” department, the word is out that the short-lived 1964-65 sitcom My Living Doll will be making its debut at the DVD cotillion on February 28th thanks to MPI Home Video.  This set will only be a two-disker, containing 11 episodes of the series that starred Bob Cummings as a psychiatrist entrusted with the care of one Rhoda Miller (Julie Newmar), a statuesque woman who is in reality a robot prototype (AF709) left in Bob’s care…his assignment is to teach her to be a real woman.  Because of Newmar’s later exposure on Batman, My Living Doll has always held a cult status among her faithful…and according to what I know (and if I am wrong, please correct me) they’ve only been able to locate 11 episodes out of a total of 26.  (Actress Newmar, who has a Facebook page, has put the word out that any collectors with 16mm prints of the show’s episodes should either give her a shout-out or Chertok Productions…as in Jack Chertok Productions, the studio that produced Doll, My Favorite Martian, Private Secretary and several others.)

A couple of date changes that may be of interest to TV-on-DVD collectors: the heralded fourth season release of The Donna Reed Show (The Lost Episodes!), originally scheduled for December 20, has actually moved up a week to December 13—and according to this press release, there’s an extended episode on the collection entitled “Donna Meets Roberta” that guest stars Roberta “The Shaggy Dog” Sherwood in what apparently was a “back door pilot” for a Sherwood spin-off series (co-starring Gale Gordon) that never got off the ground.  In addition, the honkin’ big box set Underdog: The Complete Collector’s Edition will see a February 21st release, and not January 24th as originally scheduled.

I thought I’d close out the TV-on-DVD announcements with another one of those wild coincidences that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post…and with that, let’s take the WABAC machine back to…

SHERMAN: Where are we going now, Mr. Shreve-body?
ME: Set the dials to October 11, 2011, Sherman
SHERMAN: Right!  October…um…cheese and crackers, I thought we’d go back further than that!

Indeed…because it was during a “Coming Distractions” post that I made this observation after seeing Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965) on TCM’s schedule in November:

November 16, Wednesday – People who have been reading this blog for a while now—and yet still have managed to not lose any of their friends—know that I have a tendency to refer to actor Marshall Thompson as “Marshall ‘Daktari’ Thompson” because of his starring role as the veterinarian who practiced his profession at a nature preserve center in East Africa on a hit TV series than ran from 1966-69.  TCM is going to show the film that served as Daktari’s pilot, Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965), at 10am so if you’ve never seen the series you can get a taste for what it’s like; why this film—or the TV series, for that matter—isn’t available yet on DVD is puzzling because a) it’s tailor-made for family film/TV devotees and b) it’s not in black-and-white.

So was it a coincidence that on November 15th the Warner Archive released not only Clarence on MOD DVD but the first season of Daktari (all eighteen episodes) as well?  Or do I just have a tremendous amount of pull in the industry?  No, it’s more likely the first one…particularly since if I did swing any weight at Warner, people like Laura at Miscellaneous Musings fame would be dropping one of the Maverick season set discs into their player right now.  But I am pleased to see this turn of events…and the surprise of surprises was that my Mom seemed excited by the news as well—apparently she was quite fond of Daktari.  (Yeah, The Twilight Zone and The Dick Van Dyke Show were never her cup of tea but a show with animals running loose in the wild gets her enthusiastic thumbs-up.  I was definitely left on the doorstep as a child.)

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest Review: Killer B's

By Philip Schweier

My parents once lamented my tendency to spend an entire evening watching bad TV, conveniently forgetting that in their day, they spent many an entire evening watching equally bad films at their local theater – and PAYING for the privilege. Such questionable fare was referred to as “B” movies, and often was sandwiched between a cartoon, a newsreel, maybe a comedy short, and the feature presentation.

These low-budget cheapies usually starred journeyman actors searching for their eventual jump to greener pastures, and were usually churned out by such studios as Monogram Pictures. Thanks to Netflix, here is a sampling:

Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943): Thirteen years after grandfather’s death, Marie Morgan (Helen Parrish) is granted the privilege of opening his last will and testament. Her instructions are to return to the very room in which he presented her with it, in the house that has been shuttered ever since. Inside the gloomy old mansion, strange goings-ons lead to one peculiar death after another.

Police Lt. Burke (Tim Ryan) is assisted by his narcoleptic partner Speed Dugan (Frank Faylen; sharp-eyed viewers may recognize him as Ernie the cab driver from It’s a Wonderful Life), but it’s Johnny Smith (Dick Purcell) who does the real crime solving. Whether he’s a private eye or a reporter is left somewhat in doubt, but he manages to tie the case up neatly and win the girl in the end.

The Mystery Man (1935): Never have I seen so much padding in a film. Robert Armstrong plays Larry Doyle, an ace reporter out of Chicago. Despite his heroic deeds in seeing a local gang brought to justice, he is bounced from his paper, at which time he buys a ticket for as far as his money will get him – St. Louis. There, he meets up with a down-on-her-luck waif Anne Ogilvie (Maxine Doyle), whom he takes under his wing. They pose as man-and-wife in a scheme to win back the good graces of his former employer, but when super-criminal The Eel becomes St. Louis’ hottest meal ticket, Doyle takes the opportunity to win himself a spot on the local fish wrapper.

Doyle ends up implicated in the murder of two of St. Louis’ finest, but all this comes in the last 20 minutes or so of the film. But if you’ve managed to stay awake this long, you’re likely to suffer through the anemic ending with nary a whimper. It makes for a pleasant option to a root canal.

In Criminal Investigator (1942), Robert Lowery plays Bob Martin, a young reporter hot on the trail of murder. When a woman accused of embezzlement is released from prison, she ends up very dead, and Martin, who is investigating the story, befriends her younger sister. Those responsible are after the girl for her sister’s keys, which hold the answer to the mystery as to who actually killed the dead sister’s benefactor. It blends weak comedy, weak music and weak acting with a better than most mystery plot. As a B movie, it’s better than most, diminished mainly by block of wood Lowery, who would go on to portray Batman in 1949. Leading lady Edith Fellows conveys a convincing innocent charm, thanks her height of only 4’10.”

Lowery returns in Fashion Model (1946), playing Jimmy O’Brien, a stockboy (at his age?) accused of murder. Jimmy and his girlfriend Peggy (Marjorie Weaver) work to clear his name by tracking down the film’s MacGuffin, a brooch which seems to spell disaster for anyone who possesses it. The humor at times is extraordinarily weak, usually when trying to convey what dunces the police are, but it has certain Lucy & Ethel quality, which may have been funny in 1946, but today comes off as old hat.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The principal of the thing

The above is a photo of a program from a high school musical performed at my alma mater of Ravenswood Penitentiary High School in 1976, courtesy of my Facebook pal and high school chum Pami…and the significance of that production was that it served as the the-a-tah debut of your humble narrator, who was only in seventh grade at the time.  Do we have a picture of this?  Yes, we do…get a gander at the nerd in the top right corner (you might have to click to embiggen):

Nyaaahhh!!!  Talk about a geek!  (I am proud to admit, by the way, that I was voted in my high school yearbook “Most Likely to Be Pantsed During Gym Class.”)  Old-time radio and classic TV fans are familiar with the source material of this play as the long-running sitcom starring Eve Arden as America’s favorite schoolteacher—but apart from the character of Connie Brooks there’s very little in the actual stage musical that resembles OMB.  Connie’s object of affection in the stage version is a high school coach named “Hugo”, and the benevolent dictator in charge of the high school answers to “Mr. Wordsworth,” not “Osgood Conklin.”

I got the part in this play because my music teacher, Joyce Good (Pitchford), suggested I try out—I used to get extra credit points in her class by being my natural hambone self and she encouraged me to channel that energy into good and not evil.  I think I may have been the only one in the cast who was familiar with the radio/TV show (well, I had heard a few of the radio broadcasts—my exposure to the video version would come later) and all I really did in the play was imitate Gale Gordon.  In recognition of my talent for mimicry, I won the “Best Actor” trophy handed out yearly by the high school theatre department…and according to its director, the wonderful Lonnie Brewster; it was the first time he had given the award to an underclassman (seventh grader).

Anyway, I thought you might get a kick out of seeing what a doofus I was in high school (yes, I know that a good many of you are stunned by this revelation).  And incidentally, the title of this post is not one of my typically terrible puns—that’s the actual song I got to sing in this thing.  Sometime back, another Facebook friend (and the man who encouraged my early writing efforts), Forrest Poston, told me he still had his cassette copy of the play…complete with my vocals.  (I pray this does not fall into the wrong hands.)  In fact, I remember seeing Forrest backstage during one of the play’s performances (he was there to review it for the school paper) and he was telling me that I was “layin’ them in the aisles.”

“How’d my song go over?” I asked him.  After the longest pregnant pause in the history of the theater, he continued: “Yes sirree, boy…layin’ them in the aisles…”

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

By Philip Schweier

The Long Goodbye (1973) features an impressive pedigree. It is based on the novel by famed mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and the screenplay was adapted by Leigh Brackett, who penned a number of hard-boiled detective yarns for both film and pulps. The movie was directed by Robert Altman and stars Elliott Gould, with music by movie maestro John Williams.

Despite such talent behind the picture, I found it utterly lacking in every area. Let’s examine them one at a time, shall we? (Beware! Spoilers ahead.)

First of all, Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe works best when left in the era that spawned him: the 1940s. This version is set in “present day” (1973), except for Marlowe’s car, which looks as if it was handed down by Chandler himself. So much for the private eye axiom of remaining inconspicuous.

Nevertheless, the events of the film are not germane to any specific era. After a particularly nasty fight with his wife, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), a friend of Marlowe’s, requests that he give him a lift down to Tijuana. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Marlowe is promptly arrested while police search for Lennox. It seems Marlowe’s pal is wanted in connection with his wife’s death.

After three days in the jug, Marlowe is freed due to the fact that Lennox has turned up in Mexico dead himself. So Marlowe buries himself in work, beginning with the task of rounding up Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) on behalf of the alcoholic writer’s wife, Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt). Marlowe locates him in a “rest home,” hidden away by Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson).

Ironically, the Wades live in the very same beachside community in which the former Mr. and Mrs. Lennox resided, leading Marlowe to ponder if there may be a connection. However, no sooner does he start digging than he is paid a visit from local hoodlum Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), searching for some money Augustine believes Lennox passed to him, since Marlowe was the last person in LA to see him alive.

Augustine’s subsequent visit to Mrs. Wade strengthens the Wade/Lennox connection, and he begins to suspect that someone somewhere was having an affair with someone else. But before that angle can be fully investigated, Roger Wade ups and offs himself. With all the players dead, Eileen fesses up that Roger and Mrs. Lennox were involved for a short time, and he may have killed her while in a drunken rage, thus sending him into the money-grubbing hands of Dr. Verringer.

Case closed, were it not for Augustine’s intent to collect his money, and a $5,000 bill turns up in Marlowe’s mail, seemingly from Lennox. Augustine is convinced Marlowe knows more than he’s letting on. He’s on the verge of giving the shamus the beating of his life (using a very young Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger to do it) when Mrs. Wade shows up with Augustine’s money, in the very satchel Lennox had on him when Marlowe dropped in Tijuana.

All of which convinces Marlowe that Lennox is alive and well, carrying on and affair with Eileen Wade despite the fairy tale Eileen told Marlowe. He then journeys down Mexico way, tracks his friend down and promptly plugs him. End of story.

I tend to classify detective yarns into one of three categories. There are those that are ludicrously simple to dope out, following clichés and dropping clues that are one notch above Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. Then there are those that are a little more intelligent, and with a little effort a mystery fan can reach the same resolution as the sleuth in question, if he/she wants. Then there are those, and I’m sorry to say that many of Raymond Chandler’s stories fall into this category) that are a confusing series of event involving murder, mayhem and red herrings. With these, all you can do is forget playing armchair detective. Just sit back and soak up the film noir atmosphere.

The Long Goodbye falls in the last category. Whys and wherefores don’t seem important, it’s all just a muddled mess. That brings us to the issue of the director, Robert Altman. I should be more generous here, seeing as how I had the privilege of being an extra in an Altman film, The Gingerbread Man (1998), when it was filmed here in Savannah. Despite taking direction from Altman, my scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

My experience in viewing Altman’s work is that he strives for a great deal of realism, forgetting the fact that realism is what people go to the movies to escape from. His constantly overlapping dialogue might add a touch of veritas, but it can be hard for many audiences to follow.

Another distraction in the film is the constant attention paid to Marlowe’s flaky neighbors. Feminists, lesbians, exhibitionists, hippies, call them what you will, they seem only there to illustrate what a tripped out place California was at the time. Yeah, we get it.

Altman also tends to use tricky camera techniques and odd angles, which are neat but should be used sparingly. Otherwise, he’s merely winking at the audience. “See what I’m doing here? Aren’t I clever?” Case in point, Marlowe and Eileen are having a conversation in front of a window, during which the camera begins to focus not on them, but on the window itself, then on what lies outside the window, and the tiny figure of Eileen’s husband on the beach in the distance. It’s cute, but tedious to watch.

The Long Goodbye has been criticized for featuring Elliott Gould in the title role. A Jewish Philip Marlowe? Well, why not? Marlowe might not be a Jewish name, but he wouldn’t be the first to Anglicize his name for business purposes. Gould is a fine actor, and pulls off the wise-cracking Marlowe pretty well. But this Marlowe pretty much chain-smokes his way through the entire film. Sure, it was 1973 and smoking wasn’t frowned upon nearly so much as it is today. But I haven’t seen this much lighting up since Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978).

Finally, there’s the interesting use of music in the film. For the most part, it features only a single song, “The Long Goodbye,” written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer. But the melody is applied in any number of ways: as a dirge played by a mariachi band in Mexico, and as Muzak played over the sound system in a grocery store; even as the Wade’s doorbell. It’s interesting and playful, but let us not forget that this is John Williams several years before Star Wars, and not too many years after Land of the Giants.

For fans of the private eye genre, I would recommend that they avoid The Long Goodbye in favor of either Marlowe (1969), presenting an updated version of the private eye, or Farewell, My Lovely (1975) starring Robert Mitchum in a tale set in the 1940s.

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