Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Mary Astor Blogathon – Checkmate: “Brooding Fixation” (03/14/62)

The following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Mary Astor Blogathon, currently in progress from May 3-10 this week and sponsored by Dor at Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth at Silver ScreeningsFor a list of the participants and the films/TV shows covered, click here.  (Warning: This review contains spoilers.)

Young Daniel Brack (Scott Marlowe) returns home from Europe because his father, industrialist Arnold Brack, has died—apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  But Daniel is puzzled by the details surrounding Dad’s death…and what’s more, he’s disturbed by the behavior of his mother Esther (Mary Astor) and his uncle Martin (Frank Overton), neither of whom shows any outward grief or emotion over Brack’s demise.

Fortunately for Daniel, one of his father’s friends is criminologist Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot), a consultant to a detective agency known as Checkmate, Inc.  Daniel tells both Hyatt and Felice O’Neill (Olive Sturgess), the daughter of the manager of the Brack Estate, of his suspicions regarding Esther and Martin.  Arnold Brack had a taping system in his office (shades of Richard Milhous Nixon!) that recorded every single conversation that went on in that space—and yet no tape of the day of Brack’s death has turned up.  Daniel is also convinced that he was followed by a mysterious individual in the cemetery when he stayed behind to grieve at his father’s grave.

Hyatt swings into action and contacts associates Don Corey (Anthony George) and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) at Checkmate, who head out to Brack Acres for an investigation.  Meanwhile, at Brack Industries, the company’s board unanimously agrees to appoint Martin in charge of the company—seeing as how he’s essentially been running the day-to-day operations anyway.  Daniel is not quite able to hide his loathing for his uncle and mother, and the fact that he’s putting away a lot of booze doesn’t help.

Don questions Martin in detail when he learns that the story he gave to the police isn’t entirely accurate (there’s a three to four hour gap in which he disappeared and refuses to explain); Carl and Jed, in the meantime, have learned that the estate manager, head groundskeeper Paul O’Neill (Ford Rainey), stood to benefit from Arnold Brack’s death owing to a large investment he made.  Daniel becomes more and more obsessed that Uncle Martin and Mom are plotting against him—and it doesn’t look good when he catches both of them in an embrace in Esther’s bedroom.

The missing tape finally surfaces—it was O’Neill who hid the recording in the greenhouse, and he asked his daughter (who conveniently stumbled across it) to continue to conceal it from Daniel.  But because Felice is in love with the young Brack, she turns it over to him and all the suspects have a listen in the presence of the Checkmate detectives. 

The tape reveals that Arnold wasn’t particularly wild about the relationship between Daniel and Felice (after all, she’s merely a groundskeeper’s daughter)…and he goes positively ape shit when Esther tells him she’s through with the charade that is their marriage: she’s getting a divorce and marrying Martin, whom she truly loves.  Further listening reveals that Arnold was killed in a struggle with Martin over the gun—and Daniel finally gets peace of mind knowing that his mom and uncle are pretty cool…it was his dad that was a real dick.

If it all sounds a little like Hamlet…well, scribes Oliver Crawford and Mark Rodgers bend over backward to make sure the viewer doesn’t miss the comparison (Daniel refers to the play about “the melancholy Dane” several times during the episode, even grabbing a copy of the Shakespearean classic off the shelf and reading that it was autographed to his father from “Jack Barrymore”—seriously, I did not know The Great Profile ever went by that).  I knew the first time the reference was made I was going to loathe this episode—I’ve always considered Checkmate to be a cut above the usual detective drama, with witty, intelligent scripts and engaging turns from both the regulars and guest performers.  They seemed to really want to dumb this one down for the audience (assuming none of us went to school)…but I guess you can’t hit one out of the park every time at bat.

I’ve talked about Checkmate on the blog before—it was a short-lived CBS-TV series that ran two seasons from 1960-62, and sprung from the mind of acclaimed mystery novelist Eric Ambler.  Ambler’s idea for the series was to spotlight the talents of a trio made up of a private detective, his girlfriend and her professor father…and that those talents would be put to use not solving crimes, but preventing them.  The show would be produced through a partnership with Jack Benny’s JaMco Productions and Revue, the television arm of Universal Studios.

Actor Doug McClure was under contract to Revue at the time Checkmate was taking shape, and his last series was a short-lived western called Overland Trail.  Since Revue was already giving McClure a weekly paycheck, they decided to eliminate the girlfriend (who was to be played by Joan O’Brien) and just cast Doug—something that Ambler wasn’t too crazy about, and so he ended his association with the show (though he still received a mention as the show’s creator in the credits).  That’s the story that star Anthony George told an interviewer in 1997…and while it certainly sounds plausible, the casting of McClure might also have been an attempt to imitate some of the successful Warner Brothers TV crime dramas (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye) with its insistence on casting actors of various ages to attract a strong female demographic.  (I guess they hired Cabot to lure in the elderly women wild about tweeds and walking canes.)

The other problem regarding Checkmate was…CBS didn’t really want the show.  They were forced to put it on the air because they desperately wanted to renew Jack Benny’s contract, and they were as surprised as anyone when the series became a big hit, ranking #21 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1960-61 season.  NBC came a-courting, trying to get the series to switch networks…and instead, CBS moved it from its prime Saturday spot (where it had preceded Perry Mason) to Wednesdays, where its audience eventually lost interest.  That’s how a show written up in TV Guide on six different occasions (even getting a rare rave review from the magazine’s critic, Cleveland Amory) died after just seventy episodes and quickly faded into obscurity.

Timeless Media Group would come to Checkmate’s rescue, as far as classic TV aficionados were concerned.  The company released two “Best of” sets of Checkmate shows in 2007 and 2008, and then two years later released the entire series to disc in a 14-DVD collection.  Some of the episodes make for very entertaining television, and while I suspect that the Jack Benny association might have had something to do with it (Benny even appeared in a January 3, 1962 installment, “A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Game”) the show never skimped when it came to celebrity wattage.  Episodes featured such guest stars as Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter, Cyd Charisse, Charles Laughton (in one of his rare boob tube showcases) and Lee Marvin—even TDOY bête noire She Who Must Not Be Named was in an entry entitled “Deadly Shadow” (11/12/60)…and she was actually quite good.

So naturally I was curious to see how one of my favorite actresses—and the subject of this here blogathon, as they say ‘round my neck of the woods—would fare…namely Mary Astor.  Alas, she’s a bit of a disappointment—though it’s not a reflection on her performance; I think it’s simply because she doesn’t really have much to do.  The episode focuses mainly on the tortured Scott Marlowe, an actor who specialized in juvenile delinquent roles in several 50s movies (notably The Cool and the Crazy)…and to be honest, his shtick starts to get old by the first commercial break.  (I was actually rooting for Mar and Frank Overton’s characters—Overton is another favorite of mine; yet he, too, is wasted in his part—to put Marlowe out of his misery so we could knock off early for the day.)

The problem with Astor’s part is that it really could have been played by any other matronly actress, it’s that underwritten.  (I guess they were sort of hoping that the novelty of seeing Mary would make people overlook how thin the part is)  But to be fair, the old saw about “there are no small parts, only small actors” doesn’t apply here because Mary is very convincing in several scenes as a weary woman who’s just fed up with the sham that was her marriage—manacled to a man who constantly put his business and family name ahead of everything.  (How and why she expects things will be different once she’s married to his brother goes unexplained—but then again, they only have 48 minutes.)

Not every episode of Checkmate is must-see television, but I think overall the series had a pretty high batting average.  I’ve stated before that it’s my favorite vehicle for the talents of Sebastian Cabot, who is unfortunately best known as nanny to three irritatingly repugnant children in the TV sitcom Family Affair.  Doug McClure is also a necessary tonic at times; his signature role as Trampas on the TV western The Virginian waiting in the wings (and it took sometime for Doug to find his rhythm on Checkmate; his early episodes have him coming off as something like a jerk).  As for Anthony George…well, I know I’m bound to get some hate comments…but he just never made that much of an impression on me—I even forgot he used to be on The Untouchables until I caught him in a rerun on Me-TV one night.

As for Mary Astor…she was nearing the end of her interest in show business: she did a few more guest appearances on shows like The Defenders, Burke’s Law and TV’s paradox (Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey) before exiting the stage with a small role in Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte (1964).  I wish her Checkmate role had been more of a showcase for such a talented thesp…but even Academy Award winners have to buy groceries.


Silver Screenings said...

Thanks for providing such interesting background info on the "Checkmate" series. I had no idea! (It always makes me laugh when networks buy an unwanted property under duress then, when it becomes a hit, everyone clambers for it.)

It's too bad that Mary Astor's part wasn't fleshed out a bit more but, like you said, even Oscar winners have to pay the rent.

Thanks for participating in our blogathon. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Great find. I'm not familiar with the series, but I'd love to catch this episode.

Caftan Woman said...

My mom is a big "Checkmate" fan so I bought her some DVDs one year and found myself enjoying the series very much. I didn't know how much until I realized I was disappointed to have seen all the episodes we had. Don't recall this one. I guess I shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to see it, but I know I will one of these days.

Aubyn Eli said...

Interesting little glimpse into a show I'd never even heard of. Sorry to hear that Mary Astor didn't get much to do here, but I might check out the TV show one of these days.

Somehow, I don't think Gertrude and Claudius explaining that Hamlet's Dad was really an asshole would have solved anything in Hamlet.

Stacia said...

Daniel is not quite able to hide his loathing for his uncle and mother, and the fact that he’s putting away a lot of booze doesn’t help.

Oh, 1960s TV shows, you were so great.

Speaking of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, I just saw that for the first time last week, and Astor is great in it.

Gwen Kramer said...

Thanks for the write-up on the series and Mary Astor's role. It's a shame the writers did not make better use of her talents...

Judy said...

I hadn't heard of this series before but was fascinated by your account of this episode, even though it didn't give Mary Astor much scope. Amazing to think what changes her career took in, from silents right up to TV series like this one!

FlickChick said...

Oh boy - you took me back with this series. And you are right - when it comes to Mary Astor - there are no small parts. She elevated everything she appeared in just by her presence.

DorianTB said...

Hey, Ives, I'd heard of CHECKMATE; Sebastian Cabot is another Team Bartilucci fave, even though we've never had an opportunity to watch it. As you and our fellow bloggers have said, Academy Award winners have to buy groceries, too, and it's true, there are really no small roles, only small players (and/or maybe small talents?). Anyway, I'd be glad to watch Mary eating noodle soup if that was all she was called upon to do; she's always aces in our book! Thanks oodles for joining our Mary Astor Blogathon, pal!

Lasso The Movies said...

This is extremely interesting. I was unaware that Mary Astor took part in "Checkmate". Thanks for the insight.

Page said...

I was so glad to see you were reviewing Checkmate. I have never seen an episode.

I appreciate your honest review and insight into what made the show work and then Astor and her role in it, what didn't work.

I'm just not sure that I want to go forward with finding it which is a shame because the genre of the series is interesting.

You are our go to guy when it comes to classic TV so I appreciate your delving into it for the Blogathon.

Talk to ya soon! And please tell mom Shreves, Happy Mothers Day from me.