Monday, March 6, 2017

Taking a little Flack

In June of last year, Curt Ladnier—a member-in-good-standing of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful—needed a few episodes of TV’s The Thin Man for his collection and proposed a swap: the first five installments of the Peter Lawford-Phyllis Kirk boob tube version for some rare episodes of The Lone Wolf, a syndicated 1954-55 TV series based on the literary sleuth created by Louis Joseph Vance.  (The character appeared in a slew of B-movie mysteries—many of them with legendary silver screen cad Warren William as L.W.—and a 1948-49 radio series with Gerald Mohr…who also tackled the role in a handful of the films.)  The TV Wolf starred Louis Hayward and since I hadn’t sampled it I was only too happy to help Br’er Curt out.  We have since that time swapped many e-mails; he’s currently working on a DVD project capturing those episodes of The Felony Squad that I had to give up when we reluctantly jettisoned getTV from our DISH programming.

Curt is the proprietor of In Search of Jack Boyle: On the Trail of Boston Blackie’s Forgotten Creator—the title is self-explanatory—and he also blogs at Maljardin: Musings From the Desmond Crypt, a site dedicated to the cult horror TV series Strange Paradise.  He asked me if I would be amenable to hosting a guest review of the DuMont sitcom Colonel Humphrey Flack, and I welcomed the idea with open arms; TDOY has featured many guest pieces here in the past, from resident guest movie reviewer Philip Schweier to cub reporter Tom Stillabower.  I know you’re going to enjoy Curt’s contribution as much as I did…so without further ado, I present…Mr. Ladnier.

COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK:
THE DUMONT NETWORK’S FABULOUS FRAUD

Audiences love a light-hearted con story.  The enormous popularity of big screen productions like The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven paved the way for such recent television successes as Leverage, Hustle, and their like.  And these series had predecessors on the small screen, from ABC’s quintessential western sharpster Maverick to NBC’s criminally short-lived The Rogues.  But ushering these series onto television’s airwaves was the grand-daddy of all comedic con artist shows, the DuMont Network’s 1953 production Colonel Humphrey Flack.

Colonel Flack, a loveable scoundrel who inhabited DuMont’s Wednesday night line-up, was a genial fraud who lived by his wits.  Possessed of an air of quality and a taste for the finer things in life, he frequented the best clubs and hotels, typically with only a few cents to his name.  Flack never let the nuisance of poverty stand in the way of his comforts, much to the consternation of his less polished – but more practical – confederate, Uthas Garvey.  But in spite of his penchant for living beyond his means, Colonel Flack was more an opportunist than a criminal.  He was gifted with an unerring knack of turning any situation to his own advantage, and the insight to realize that there was money to be had whenever others were cheating the system.  He had a professed dislike of “beastly chiselers,” whom he took every opportunity to fleece in Robin Hood fashion (pocketing a modest percentage to cover expenses). 

Colonel Flack creator Everett Rhodes Castle
Despite television’s relative infancy in 1953, Flack and Garvey were old hands at the confidence game by the time they stole onto DuMont’s schedule.  The colonel was the brainchild of magazine writer Everett Rhodes Castle, who chronicled Flack’s exploits in a dozen issues of The Saturday Evening Post between 1936 and 1946.  Castle’s yarns proved popular, and as early as the summer of 1937 his creation had already leapt from the page to the airwaves.  Newspapers announced radio broadcasts of Col. Humphrey Flack on Milwaukee’s station WTMJ (1).  Little is known about this early production, but it was likely a syndicated series, as there is no indication it ever had a sustaining run on a network.  But the show wasn’t just a fleeting blip in broadcast history, as advertisements confirm it was on the air in various markets at least as late as the autumn of 1944 (2).

Some years before the demise of his first incarnation on radio, Colonel Flack made the transition to the fledgling medium of television.  While a weekly Flack TV series was still decades away, on April 13, 1939 the Colonel was the protagonist of NBC Television’s one-shot production A Spot of Philanthropy.  Loosely based on Everett Rhodes Castle’s 1938 short story of the same name, the program starred George Taylor as Colonel Flack and Michael Drake as the long-suffering Garvey (3).

Wendell Holmes as Colonel Flack
Despite his early foray into television, radio was far from finished with Colonel Humphrey Flack.  He was next heard on NBC Blue, in their program Listening Post’s June 22, 1945 dramatization of the Saturday Evening Post story “Colonel Flack and the Tender Ethic” (4).  Flack fans must have been delighted, as the story hit the airwaves the same week the magazine version debuted in print.  Three years later, the colonel finally snared a sustaining series on network radio when the Wilbur Stark/Jerry Layton company Program Productions sold NBC a twelve-episode run of Colonel Humphrey Flack.  Premiering at 8:00 PM EST on Thursday July 3, 1947, the series was a summer replacement for either The Aldrich Family or A Day in the Life of Dennis Day (announcements from the era disagree).  Directed by Ed King, the series starred Wendell Holmes as Flack and Frank Maxwell as Garvey, in scripts written by Tom Dougall and Sheldon Stark (5).  At the close of the summer season, NBC declined to contract for further episodes, and the series folded with its September 18, 1947 broadcast.

Also in 1947, mystery luminary Ellery Queen chose Colonel Flack for inclusion in the hardcover anthology Rogues’ Gallery: The Great Criminals of Modern Fiction.  Published under the London imprint Faber and Faber, the collection Included Everett Rhodes Castle’s 1943 tale “The Colonel Gives a Party.”  The story’s publication in Queen’s anthology marks the colonel’s only appearance between the covers of a book.  As of this writing some 70 years later, the remainder of Colonel Flack’s literary escapades remain uncollected and unreprinted. 

Undeterred by the failure of their 1947 radio production to gain traction, Stark-Layton Productions redoubled their efforts to further develop the Flack franchise.  In 1953, they sold pilots for both a proposed television series and another radio adaptation to ABC.  The television production aired under the title “Colonel Humphrey J. Flack” as the May 31, 1953 installment of Plymouth Playhouse (a.k.a. ABC Album Playhouse).  This time around, British actor Alan Mowbray stepped into the role of the colonel and Frank McHugh played Garvey, in a story about the impoverished pair embarking on an ocean cruise courtesy of tickets won in a raffle (6).  The production was rebroadcast on the West Coast two weeks later, on June 16, 1953 (7).

The radio pilot brought the Mowbray/McHugh pairing before the microphones of ABC Playhouse for that series’ June 11, 1953 broadcast, also titled “Colonel Humphrey J. Flack.”  The episode related Flack and Garvey’s plan to aid a young medical student in recovering his life savings (8).  In selling ABC pilots for both radio and television, Stark-Layton Productions probably felt they had all bases covered for the launch of a new Flack series.  But in the end, the network declined to move forward with either.

Frank Jenks (as Garvey) and Alan Mowbray (as Flack)
However, the failure of the ABC television pilot had a silver lining.  Rather than throwing in the towel on the project, Stark-Layton switched gears and pitched it to the DuMont Television Network.  The gamble scored success and, under the sponsorship of the American Chicle Company, Colonel Humphrey Flack joined DuMont’s weekly line-up on Wednesday October 7, 1953.  Alan Mowbray returned in the role of Colonel Flack, but Frank McHugh did not make the transition from the pilot.  Instead, the part of Garvey was taken up ably by veteran character actor Frank Jenks (9).  The series was well-received, with Billboard praising its “smart scripting” and the “smooth teamwork” of its principal performers.  “Here’s one show that continues to provide us with welcome relief from mayhem, cops and robbers,” was the sentiment from the television critic of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (10).

Perhaps most pleased with Colonel Humphrey Flack was the star himself, Alan Mowbray.  Though he had portrayed a wide range of characters in hundreds of films, Mowbray feared he was best remembered for the handful of times he had played a butler.  Landing the lead in DuMont’s series changed that.  “Now I’m called ‘Colonel’ as much as I’m called Mowbray,” he confided to reporters in 1954 (11).  Even more satisfying was the remark from Flack creator Everett Rhodes Castle, who commented that he couldn’t tell where Alan Mowbray left off and Colonel Flack began (12).  “I always try to be the complete rogue,” Mowbray expounded upon his affinity for the character, “but always keep within the law.  The colonel never commits an overt act of any sort.  That’s important because so many children are watching” (13).

Children and adults alike tuned in to make Colonel Humphrey Flack a mainstay on DuMont.  The network chronicled Flack and Garvey’s escapades through 39 live weekly telecasts, eventually drawing the season to a close on July 2, 1954.  With the Colonel’s departure from the airwaves during the summer months, newspapers reported that the series was likely to move to CBS (14).  In the end, however, autumn was not to see Colonel Flack’s return to any network.  DuMont had some limited success in syndicating their kinescopes of the original 39 broadcasts to regional markets, but no further episodes of the series were put into production.  Alan Mowbray later attributed the unexpected cancellation of the show to the rise in popularity of westerns.  “We were crowded off by cowboys,” was his glib assessment (15).

With his prolonged absence from network schedules, things looked bleak for Colonel Flack’s television career.  But you can’t keep a good rogue down, and in 1958 Flack was back, when CBS Films approached Stark-Layton Productions about a revival to be marketed in first run syndication.  Sporting the almost imperceptibly tweaked title of Colonel Humphrey J. Flack, the new series went into production in the autumn of 1958, bringing Alan Mowbray and Frank Jenks back in the principal roles.  Mowbray was heartened by the fact that this revival would be shot on film, unlike the series’ earlier live incarnation on DuMont.  “Every time I went in front of those live cameras I wished I wasn’t there,” he remarked to The Detroit Free Press. “Why I didn’t collapse at the end of the season I don’t know.”  He was happy for the chance to portray Flack in a more polished filmed production -- and the prospect of residuals for subsequent reruns was also enticing.

Colonel Humphrey J. Flack hit the airwaves at the close of 1958, and was sold to major markets across the U.S.  Attracting sponsors ranging from Standard Oil to Budweiser, the 39-episode package garnered praise from Variety as “the only fresh comedy series in syndication.”  However, critical acclaim did not prevent some misconceptions from arising about the new series’ content.  Few of the filmed episodes were remakes of installments from DuMont’s earlier live production, but returning fans who tuned in to episodes such as “Saddle Sore” or “Back to the Coal Mines” may have gotten the mistaken impression that the revival series was simply an attempt to re-shoot the original 39 scripts. 

Certainly, multiple sources over the years have cited this as fact, but the idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  A comparison of the titles between both series reveals very few similarities, and Alan Mowbray himself drove the final nail in this misconception’s coffin.  In a 1959 interview, he reflected on Flack’s filmed exploits in relation to the earlier live telecasts.  “We used … new stories this season, so we [still have the] old ones to dip into if our … writers can’t come up with anything.  They are our insurance policy” (16).  So Mowbray believed the DuMont scripts could be used as the basis of a subsequent season for 1959–60.

Unfortunately, even having a few dozen scripts in reserve couldn’t ensure a second season for Colonel Humphrey J. Flack, and CBS Films commissioned no further episodes after their run wrapped production in the spring of 1959.  Given that low ratings were the primary factor behind the series’ demise, fan response to the cancellation was surprisingly vocal.  When Michigan broadcaster WWJ-TV removed the show from its schedule in December 1959, a local civic group published a protest on the front page of The Detroit News and organized a letter-writing campaign to CBS Films (17).  In the end, Flack fans could take comfort in the fact that the filmed series remained available in syndication for years, but no new episodes would be produced. 

Today Colonel Flack persists primarily as a footnote in entertainment history.  His radio adventures are lost, and his print appearances languish in the yellowed pages of vintage periodicals.  A handful of kinescopes of his DuMont exploits are held by the UCLA Film Archive in California and the Paley Center for Media in New York, while his syndicated television series is now a part of the Viacom film library.  Aside from one or two isolated broadcasts, he has been absent from the airwaves for decades.  Yet despite being all but forgotten today, he blazed a trail for series ranging from It Takes a Thief to Tenspeed and Brownshoe.  And for that, God bless Colonel Humphrey Flack!

SOURCES
1.           The Waukesha Daily Freeman: Waukesha, Wisconsin (July 31, 1937)
2.           The Bismarck Tribune: Bismarck, North Dakota (September 3, 1944)
3.           Terrace, Vincent.  Television Specials: 5336 Entertainment Programs, 1936 – 2012 (2nd edition).  McFarland Press, 2013
4.           The Findlay Republican Courier: Findlay, Ohio (June 22, 1945)
5.           Billboard Magazine: “Colonel Humphrey Flack” (July 19, 1947)
6.           The Cleveland Plain Dealer: Cleveland, Ohio (May 31, 1953)
7.           The San Bernardino Sun: San Bernardino, California (June 16, 1953)
8.           The Abilene Reporter: Abilene, Texas (June 7, 1953)
9.           Billboard Magazine: “Colonel Humphrey Flack (TV)” (October 17, 1953)
10.         The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Brooklyn, New York (November 25, 1953)
11.         The Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati, Ohio (June 29, 1954)
12.         The Chicago Daily Tribune: Chicago, Illinois (January 24, 1959)
13.         The Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati, Ohio (June 29, 1954)
14.         The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (June 18, 1954)
15.         The Chicago Daily Tribune: Chicago, Illinois (January 24, 1959)
16.         The Detroit Free Press: Detroit, Michigan (May 31, 1959)
17.         Broadcasting: “Flack for ‘Flack’” (December 21, 1959)

NOTES & EPHEMERA
1.           Various sources state that the 1958–59 CBS Films series was later marketed under the alternate titles The Fabulous Fraud, The Imposter and The Adventures of Colonel Flack, but to date no advertisements or documentation confirming these variant titles have surfaced.
2.           While the show’s basic formula remained substantially the same between the DuMont series and its later syndicated incarnation, there was one significant change.  A laugh track was added to the filmed series, giving the revival a more pronounced “sitcom” feeling.
3.           Two large archives of scripts from the DuMont Network’s Colonel Humphrey Flack are known to exist.  One is included in the Edward Jurist Papers, 1940-79 held in the UCLA library’s special collections and the other resides with the Steven H. Scheurer Collection of Television Program Scripts at the Yale University Library.

The Colonel Flack stories in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST
1.           Introducing Col. Humphrey Flack (April 25, 1936)
2.           Col. Humphrey Flack Makes Three Thousand Per Cent Net (November 21, 1936)
3.           Colonel Humphrey Flack and the Barking Overcoat (January 23, 1937)
4.           Colonel Flack and the Affair of the Countess Radeska (May 15, 1937)
5.           Clean-Up (July 24, 1937)
6.           The Colonel Builds a Backfire (November 6, 1937)
7.           The Great Christmas Sweepstakes (December 25, 1937)
8.           A Drop of Elephant Blood (March 5, 1938)
9.           A Spot of Philanthropy (November 12, 1938)
10.         The Colonel Gives a Party (May 8, 1943)
11.         Colonel Flack and the Tender Ethic (June 23, 1945)
12.         Colonel Flack and the Common Man (April 20, 1946)

COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK (1953–54) episode list
1.           Art is Fleeting (October 7, 1953)
2.           Saddle Sore (October 14, 1953)
3.           The Eight-Ball and the Side Pocket [a.k.a. The Pool Table] (October 21, 1953)
4.           The Rumboldt Affair [a.k.a. The Horse Race] (October 28, 1953)
5.           title unknown (November 4, 1953)
6.           The Bucket Shop (November 11, 1953)
7.           The Missing Heir (November 18, 1953)
8.           title unknown (November 25, 1953)
9.           The Movie Racket (December 2, 1953)
10.         The Syndicate (December 9, 1953)
11.         The Inventor (December 16, 1953)
12.         African Expedition (December 23, 1953)
13.         The Flack Match (January 2, 1954)
14.         The Wildfire Fund (January 9, 1954)
15.         Prince Fahz of Baklava (January 16, 1954)
16.         The Mansion (January 23, 1954)
17.         The Department Story (January 30, 1954)
18.         The Knave of Diamonds (February 6, 1954)
19.         The Monaco Stradivarius (February 13, 1954)
20.         Do You Call This a Life? (February 20, 1954)
21.         The Flower Girl (February 27, 1954)
22.         The Latin Major (March 6, 1954)
23.         The Columnist (March 13, 1954)
24.         The Pomeranian Society (March 20, 1954)
25.         Vacation (March 27, 1954)
26.         The Swami (April 3, 1954)
27.         The Wild West (April 10, 1954)
28.         Poor Little Rich Boy (April 17, 1954)
29.         Gambling Fever (April 24, 1954)
30.         King Hakmir Khan (May 1, 1954)
31.         title unknown (May 7, 1954)
32.         Achilles Heel (May 14, 1954)
33.         The Perfume Story (May 21, 1954)
34.         Good Old Bob (May 28, 1954)
35.         Back in the Salt Mine (June 4, 1954)
36.         By the Beautiful Sea (June 11, 1954)
37.         Atlantic Crossing (June 18, 1954)
38.         Happy Birthday (June 25, 1954)
39.         The Bradley Diamond (July 2, 1954)

COLONEL HUMPHREY J. FLACK (syndicated) episode list
1.           Lady Bluebeard                                                                                                                   
2.           Colonel Flack Gets Kilt
3.           The Formula
4.           The Bank Teller
5.           Something for the Birds
6.           The Real Estate Caper
7.           Saddle Sore
8.           Colonel Flack’s Big Deal
9.           The Big Wheels
10.         The Diamond Ring
11.         Colonel Flack to the Rescue
12.         The Blackmailer
13.         The Star Maker
14.         The Treasure Hunt
15.         The Emperor’s Snuff-Box 
16.         In Flack We Trust
17.         Flack and the Maharajah
18.         Colonel Cupid
19.         Back to the Coal Mines
20.         The Hypnotist
21.         The Producer
22.         The Happy Medium
23.         The Friendship Club
24.         Colonel Flack and the Gangster
25.         Horse of Another Color
26.         Follow the Bouncing Meatball
27.         West of the Weirdos
28.         Colonel Flack and the Little Leaguers
29.         Colonel Flack’s New Muffler
30.         Garviola, the Matador
31.         Surplus
32.         The Missing Moolah
33.         Colonel Flack and the Dragon
34.         Pearls of Wisdom
35.         Spaceship Ahoy
36.         Up from the Apes
37.         The Tycoon
38.         Colonel Flack and the Counterfeiter
39.         Lo, the Etruscans

11 comments:

Greg Daniel said...

Great post as 1) the character/premise are right up my alley; and 2) I have zero previous knowledge of Flack & company. Of course, the lack of print, video, and/or audio collections have put me in a bit of a bind, but it's kind of nice to have a thirst that can't just be quenched by going on eBay or Amazon and tossing out a few shekels (when I have a few shekels to toss about). Thanks for sharing this one.

Curt Ladnier said...

Thanks for the kind words about my essay, Greg! Yeah, Colonel Flack is a bit on the obscure side. Your local public library might have some of the original SATURDAY EVENING POST stories (I know mine has the pertinent issues on microfilm). A meager handful of the TV episodes are circulating among collectors of vintage television. So far I've managed to unearth one kinescope from the DuMont run, and two episodes from the 1958 - 59 syndication package. One is from a late 1990s broadcast on TV Land, so at least one episode has aired since the widespread advent of home recording. I've also just discovered that the syndicated series has aired on Australia's Network Ten (though I have no idea how long ago). So there could be copies lurking somewhere Down Under, if we could but find them.
-Curt Ladnier

C. I. said...

Curt, I am the webmaster of the DuMont Television Network historical website at dumontnetwork.com. Where on earth did you find that 1953 DuMont kinescope? C.

Curt Ladnier said...

I wish I had some interesting anecdote about locating the copy of that DuMont kinescope, Clarke, but the banal truth is I stumbled across it in the holdings of another video collector. I was actually looking for something else on his list, and just happened to notice COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK while I was digging. As a fan of the light-hearted con genre, I had long wanted to sample FLACK, and the collector was kind enough to trade me his copies. And, of course, that eventually sparked my interest in writing an article. I must say, at the risk of contradicting Alan Mowbray, I prefer DuMont's live series to the later filmed production. The DuMont show felt less like a situation comedy (even though I guess it really was a proto sitcom). The kinescope is of Episode 37 (title unknown) broadcast June 18, 1954. The plot involves Flack and Garvey confounding a pair of cardsharps on an ocean cruise. The episode was helmed by Seymour Robbie (a prolific director for television, who later worked on BATMAN and THE GREEN HORNET, among many other projects). The episode also features a young Court Benson in a supporting role. The kinescope shows some marked print damage, and does not include any commercials. But it's still quite viewable, and I'm thrilled to be lucky enough to have run it to earth.

C. I. said...

According to my reference sources, the title of your episode is "Atlantic Crossing." I'd dearly love to see that kinescope. C.

Curt Ladnier said...

Thanks for identifying that episode for me, Clarke. One good turn deserves another, so I posted a copy of the kinescope to YouTube this evening. Check it out:

https://youtu.be/eW-_HRgMtmM

I hope you'll enjoy seeing it. BTW, would you happen to have title info on any of the other 1953 - 54 episodes I was unable to identify? I know one of them was titled "The Wild West," but I'm not positive of the broadcast date yet.

C. I. said...

Bless you for posting that, Curt. In 30 years of DuMont research (the web site itself will be 20 years old soon), I have seen only clips of the DuMont version. As to the other absent titles, let me do some digging and see what I can learn. I don't have all the answers, but I'm getting better with the questions. :) Thanks! (And thanks to Ivan for his blog, which has facilitated all this.) C.

C. I. said...

P.S. According to my sources, "The Wild West" aired on April 10, 1954. I'll see how many more titles I can unearth.

Curt Ladnier said...

Thanks for the additional info, Clarke. I'm in the process of culling thru old newspapers for further titles and descriptions of episodes of COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK. Also found the website of another video collector who has further FLACK episodes, but I don't know if they're from DuMont or the later syndicated series. I suspect they're from the later run, but don't know for sure at this point.

Curt Ladnier said...

Good news, Clarke! One of the FLACK videos I got from that other collector I located this week turned out to be another DuMont kinescope. This one is Episode 7 "The Missing Heir" broadcast November 18, 1953, and this one includes the original commercials. I've also had a fair bit of luck with identifying more of the previously undocumented episodes titles from COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK. Ivan has very graciously updated my article to include the titles: "African Expedition" (12/23/53), "The Department Story" (1/30/54), "The Latin Major" (3/6/54), "Poor Little Rich Boy" (4/17/54), and "Good Old Bob" (5/28/54). So there are only four left to identify. If you can shed any light on those, I'll be anxious to hear about it. Thanks.

Curt Ladnier said...

Here's a link to the kinescope of "The Missing Heir" on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PdwAq8IybA

Be sure to watch for a young Jack Klugman as one of the villains.