Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: The Perry Mason Book

“All I wanted was a list.  Just a little bitty list of Perry Mason episodes.”  That simple task would spur author Jim Davidson to write The Perry Mason Book: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s Favorite Defender of Justice—an e-book I picked up for my Kindle a while back.  Why?  Because I love watching Perry Mason, a habit I adopted when the series was in reruns on TBS in the 1980s; it would run five minutes past the lunch hour (12:05 ET), just as I was returning home from slaving over a hot book at Armstrong State College (now Armstrong Atlantic State University).  My major was in criminal justice, and so I was understandably drawn to a classic boob tube show featuring an attorney who—with rare exceptions—won every case he argued in court.  (Also understandably—I like to watch TV while eating lunch…regardless of my major.)

The quest for an accurate list of Masonry (sorry about that) would lead Davidson to form NAAPM—the National Association for the Advancement of Perry Mason.  (“My then-girlfriend wasn’t fond of the show and refused to watch it with me,” Davidson continues in the book’s foreword.  “So I figured, ‘There must be somebody out there who’d like to watch these episodes.’”)  Jim would eventually cobble together a tally of the show’s telecasts through the CBS Program Information Department in New York…and from there sprang forth a newsletter (in the days before the World Wide Web) and interviews with many of the individuals who worked on the show—including Raymond Burr hizzownself.  Eventually, Davidson had to disband the fan club to concentrate on the book he needed to write.

The Perry Mason Book does not take its “comprehensive guide” appellation lightly.  It begins with a history of how author Erle Stanley Gardner was inspired to create a character that has gone on to inspire many of the individuals familiar with Perry Mason (through books, movies, TV and other forms of pop culture) to become lawyers themselves—first with a thorough biography, and the events that led up to the debut Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, being published in 1933.  (All of the subsequent Mason novels and “novelettes” [short stories] are listed with painstaking detail, with lists of the characters that appear in each printed version, and as to when they were adapted as movies or episodes of the TV series.)  In addition, both Perry Mason novels written by Thomas Chastain (in 1989 and 1990) are discussed, and there’s an exhaustive list of the attorney’s appearances in magazines (many of the novels appeared in serialized form in periodicals like Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post.)

Mason fans are no doubt familiar with the film franchise produced at Warner Brothers from 1934-37 (available since 2012 on a 2-DVD collection from the Warner Archive); several of the features starred pre-Code cad Warren William as Perry.  There’s a section on these films in Davidson’s book (though the author doesn’t seem to have too high of an opinion on W.W.—sorry, Cliff).  The radio version of Perry Mason (which aired over CBS from 1943 to 1955, and later transferred to TV as the soap The Edge of Night) also receives its own chapter (I did not know that John Lund was the first actor to play Paul Drake on this daytime drama—I always associate him with being the weakest of the Johnny Dollars), not to mention the comic books (published between 1944 and 1964) and the brief Perry Mason comic strip from 1950-52 (I did not know there was one—daily and Sunday!).

As you’ve no doubt guessed, the largest section in The Perry Mason Book centers on the popular series that aired between 1957 and 1966.  There’s a list of every single episode telecast, with enough arcane trivia (cast lists, quotes, etc.) about each installment to impress even the most jaded fan.  The attempt to revive the show in 1973-74 (The New Perry Mason) is also discussed in loving detail…or to be more accurate, non-loving detail—producer Ernie Frankel is quoted as saying: “It was just a nightmare.  It was the worst time of my life.  I’ve been through combat and it wasn’t nothing like that.  It was just awful—just awful.”  (Frankel, a story consultant for the original series between 1965 and 1966, not only appears to be sitting on the fence but later went on to produce Young Dan’l Boone…so I guess there are some lessons not easily learned.)  Supplemental material is presented in the form of mentions of the show in various pop culture outlets, including records, games, audio books, and magazine parodies (remember the MAD Magazine send-up “The Night Perry Masonmint Lost a Case”?)

It goes without saying, of course, that a book like this is impossible to read from cover to cover—I skimmed a great deal of its contents to get a general feel for what’s inside, and I’m sure there’s a number of things I could have touched upon but didn’t.  But I can say without exaggeration that if you’re a Mason devotee like Andrew “Grover” Leal or Our Lady of Great Caftan, having this book on your computer is a must—even though the author admits that tomes like The Perry Mason Book are by their very nature destined to become out-of-date.  As for Mr. Davidson, he was able to use his knowledge and expertise on the series to become the co-producer of the Perry Mason: 50th Anniversary Edition DVD set and contribute to such essential reference books as The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network TV Shows and The Best of Crime & Detective TV.  You can rest assured that I will have The Perry Mason Book at the ready whenever I hear the familiar strains of Park Avenue Beat.

Terror TV Blogathon: “The Bellero Shield” – The Outer Limits

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s entry in The Terror TV Blogathon, hosted by The Classic TV Blog Association and currently in progress from October 29-31.  For further information on the participants and topics discussed, click here.

There is nothing wrong with your television set.  Do not attempt to adjust the picture.  We are controlling transmission.  If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume.  If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper.  We will control the horizontal.  We will control the vertical.  We can roll the image, make it flutter.  We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity.  For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.  We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set.  You are about to participate in a great adventure.  You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to…The Outer Limits!

No less a horror authority than author Stephen King described The Outer Limits as “the best program of its type ever to run on network TV.” (Though to be honest, he also made a similar statement about Boris Karloff’s Thriller.) Which you’ll have to admit: that’s heady praise for a program that couldn’t quite make it across the finish line in its second season.  (I’m talking about its original 1963-65 run; the revival that began in 1995 had a bit more success, sticking around on small screens on Showtime and the Sci-Fi Channel until 2002.)  Outer Limits most assuredly deserves its cult reputation, however; though there are a few clinkers in its catalog (“The Hundred Days of the Dragon,” “Tourist Attraction”) its best episodes can stand up to anything cranked out by Thriller or The Twilight Zone any day of the week.

In fact, I’ve often discussed OL episodes with my geek friends in the past…and if I had a nickel for every time one of them remarked “Was that on Outer Limits?  I could have sworn that was a Twilight Zone!” I would be so wealthy as to be completely inaccessible to you “proles.”  (I’m just kidding you.  I wouldn’t change.  Much.)  It’s easy to confuse the two shows (although TZ was only an hour-long presentation in its fourth season): both used its horror/sci-fi elements as commentary on the human condition, and both frequently employed the “twist ending” as a plot device.  But there was something a bit more sinister about OL episodes as a rule, defined by its dark, textured cinematography (with echoes of German expressionism and the film style later defined as noir).  And then…there was “the bear.”

“The bear” was the nickname bestowed upon the monsters/creatures featured in Outer Limits installments, an element insisted upon by both ABC and producer Joseph Stefano to heighten fear and suspense.  (When Stefano vacated the producer’s chair in the show’s second season, “the bear” went with him—though there were episode exceptions.)  OL was created by Leslie Stevens, whose previous series Stoney Burke (an underrated Western program starring Jack Lord) has been cancelled by ABC after a solitary season.  Stevens sold the network on a show he called Please Stand By, but when ABC insisted that the title of the series be changed, The Outer Limits became the substitute.  September 16, 1963 marked the debut of OL with “The Galaxy Being,” a slightly-tweaked version of the Please Stand By pilot.

Like The Twilight Zone devotees, fans of The Outer Limits cherish their favorite episodes.  Some of the best-remembered include “The Architects of Fear,” “The Sixth Finger,” “The Zanti Misfits” (TV Guide gave this one the #98 spot on its “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” in 1997), “Nightmare,” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” (#78 on TV Guide’s revised “Greatest Episode List” in 2009).  Our fearless leader and founder of the Classic TV Blog Association, Rick of the Classic Film and TV Café, even got into the act with a post listing his five favorites in 2012 (he includes “Zzzzz” and “The Inheritors”).  My own personal preferences include “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork,” “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” …and the episode that I shall take as my text for this blogathon: “The Bellero Shield.”

"There is a passion in the human heart which is called aspiration.  It flares with the noble flame, and by its light Man has traveled from the caves of darkness to the darkness of outer space.  But when this passion becomes lust, when its flame is fanned by greed and private hunger, then aspiration becomes ambition—by which sin the angels fell."

Scientist Richard Bellero (Martin Landau), who has longed for the approval of his father (Neil Hamilton) throughout his entire life, has been experimenting with a laser device that he hopes will convince the senior Bellero to hand over control of his company upon his retirement.  Richard, Sr., however, is not impressed; this infuriates Bellero’s ambitious wife Judith (Sally Kellerman), who takes out her frustration on a bottle of champagne with her husband’s laser gun.  This action produces a visit from a glowing extraterrestrial (John Hoyt), who explains that he hails from a world that “hovers just above the ceiling of your universe” and has ridden Bellero’s laser “bridge” down to earth.

The alien is equipped with a device capable of generating an impenetrable shield, protecting him from the human nature hostility of Judith (fear caused her to point that same laser gun at the being).  While an astonished Richard welcomes the alien visitor, and converses with him at great length about Earth’s scientific advances (science!), Judith schemes to obtain the device for her and Richard’s personal enrichment and acclaim.  She gets her chance when the alien momentarily lets down his defenses (the shield) and she puts a bullet in his brainpan.  With the help of her loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Dame (Chita Rivera), she drags the dead alien down into the cellar for a later dirt nap.

Having relieved the dead E.T. of his device, Judith demonstrates to Richard, Sr. its amazing properties (the senior Bellero is a bit of a peacenik, and is averse to using such a knick-knack for purposes of war) with the help of Mrs. Dame.  The problem is—she can’t deactivate it.  Judith’s salvation arrives when Mrs. Dame discovers (after introducing Richard, Sr. to the business end of a blunt object) that the alien hasn’t yet rung down the choir invisible; with his dying breath, he rescues Judith with his alien blood (the prime ingredient in activating the shield).  But there’s a price to pay: Judith is convinced that she’s still trapped in the shield, a prisoner of her madness.

Normally, I’d state that any resemblance between “The Bellero Shield” and the Shakespearean work known in the the-ah-tah as “the Scottish play” is purely coincidental…but that would be a fat stinky fib.  There’s no mistaking the parallel between “Shield” and Macbeth, particularly in the Lady Macbeth-like Judith Bellero, who’s every bit as ruthless as her literary counterpart.  To make certain we don’t miss the connection, both women go “a little funny in the head” at the end of their dramas, and both are plagued by a “damn’d spot” of blood on their hand (a physical manifestation of their guilt).  (Even the narration—by “Control Voice” Vic Perrin—paraphrases lines from Shakespeare’s play.)  Sally Kellerman’s performance as Judith will blow the first-time viewer away, and I’d argue that it’s one of the best things she’s ever done.

Martin Landau’s Richard, though a pliable sort, isn’t quite as bloodthirsty as Macbeth (so the comparison kind of falters in that respect), but he nevertheless gives a solid performance as the scientist suffering from some “daddy” issues.  The rest of the cast—Hamilton (a couple of years away from his signature role in Batman), Hoyt, and particularly Rivera (her character goes without shoes for unexplained reasons, and so we detect her hovering presence with eerie close-ups of her bare feet)—acquit themselves admirably as well.  Written by OL producer Stefano, “The Bellero Shield” owes its moody, claustrophobic atmosphere to the first-rate direction of John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square) and most effective cinematography by three-time Academy Award-winner Conrad Hall.  (Okay, I will admit that the first time I saw “Shield”—during my Marshall University days, watching WVAH-TV—I asked out loud of Hall’s low-key lighting: “This guy’s a wealthy scientist and he can’t even keep the lights in his house on?”)

In The Outer Limits’ second season, ABC decided to put what one author called its “child prodigy” up against Jackie Gleason on CBS (talk about a suicide mission); it’s believed that this is why Joseph Stefano hung up his producer shingle and the chores were handed off to Ben Brady.  OL came to an end on January 16, 1965…but its forty-nine episodes collected a generous pension in The Old Syndication Home, and they’ve been released to home video on a number of occasions (I started to sweat when I couldn’t get my disc to play; fortunately I had made a back-up copy the last time this happened) in addition to being available online at Hulu.  I now return control of this blog to you.  Until the next blogathon, when the control voice will take you to…The Outer Limits.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

“Heavenly days!”

Author-historian John Dunning once mused in the “bible” of old-time radio fans—On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio—that the three series which best defined the medium were The Shadow, The Lone Ranger…and Fibber McGee & Molly.  Fibber & Molly (the only comedy program on his admittedly short list) hasn’t dated well for some people (“What’s so funny about a guy opening a closet?” someone once asked me completely free of malice) but others (myself included) can spend hours of pleasure listening to the creative wordplay of writer-creator Don Quinn and peerless comedic performances of the show’s stars, the husband-and-wife team of Jim and Marian Jordan.

In addition to the Jordans, the cast of Fibber McGee & Molly included veteran performers like Bill Thompson, Gale Gordon, Arthur Q. Bryan, Isabel Randolph, Bea Benaderet, Elvia Allman, Shirley Mitchell, Richard LeGrand and so many others.  From 1939 to 1941, Harold Peary played Fibber’s neighbor and friendly nemesis Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve…who was so well-received as a character that he was “spun-off” onto a successful sitcom, The Great Gildersleeve (more on this in a sec).  (The Fib & Molly show also gave birth to another sitcom, The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show [later shortened to Beulah], when the titular star of that program became a favorite on the Jordans’ show in 1944.)

Fibber McGee & Molly had a nearly twenty-five year run on radio: their show was a half-hour staple on NBC from 1935 to 1953, became a weekday quarter-hour from 1953 to 1956, and finished out radio careers with short skits on Monitor from 1957-59.  The Jordans would also star in several movies as their radio counterparts (Look Who’s Laughing, Here We Go Again) and inspired a short-lived TV version (1959-60) that did without Jim and Marian’s services (the boob tube McGees were played by Bob Sweeney and Cathy Lewis).  In their heyday, Jim and Marian Jordan joined the ranks of Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy!) as radio’s most popular mirthmakers; during the war years, the couple were tireless in their “keeping up” of the nation’s morale.

I wrote the liner notes for a Radio Spirits collection featuring many of the series’ wartime broadcasts, Cleaning the Closet, earlier this year…and as blog luck would have it. I have a copy of this set (a 10-CD collection with a MSRP value of $39.98) to give away to one lucky member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful.  Maybe it’s because the last contest was such a success or maybe I’m just in a pre-Christmas mood of generosity but I’ve decided to “bundle” this giveaway with a copy of The Great Gildersleeve: For Corn’s Sake—an eight-CD set of broadcasts from Fib & Molly’s “sister” series (valued at $31.95) that also features a booklet composed by your humble narrator.  Gildersleeve was a long-running radio veteran (from 1941 to 1957) that launched a short-lived movie franchise (1942-44) and a brief transition to TV (1955-56).  For Corn’s Sake focuses on broadcasts from 1952 and 1953, when by that time actor Willard Waterman had taken over the role of Summerfield’s water commissioner (and notorious bachelor on the prowl) from series originator Hal Peary (he left the show at the end of the 1949-50 season).

Are you interested?  Of course you are!  Here’s how to enter (oh, for the days of box tops and dimes)…

1) Send me an e-mail with “Fibber/Gildy” in the subject header to igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com.  You have until 11:59pm EDT on November 5, 2016 (next Saturday) to enter.

2) Make sure you are a U.S. resident or have a U.S. mailing address.

3) If you’ve won one of the blog’s contests in the past thirty days, it’s the very picture of blog etiquette (blogiquette?) to sit this one out to allow other members of the TDOY faithful a chance to get some fantabulous swag.

4) I will choose one winner—sorry I don’t have enough sets for two this time—Sunday morning and inform the lucky person of their tremendous good fortune.  Keep in mind that when entering, you don’t have to provide a snail-mail address…but I will need it should the roll be called up yonder.

5) As always…there is no number five.

Good luck to everyone who enters this contest—I know the winner is going to love the hours of laughter they’ll spend listening to the antics of Fibber, Molly, & Gildy and I want to extend special thanks to the good people of Radio Spirits for allowing me to distribute freebies of their fine product to OTR fans.  Remember—Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Quiet Man (1952)

I’ve joked on the blog in the past that the time I spent living in Morgantown, West Virginia—from January 1992 to June 2000—is referred to both by myself and the family as “my years in exile.”  My stay there was marked by my longest period of gainful employment: I worked nearly the entire time I lived in Mo-town for University Health Associates, the insurance billing arm of the West Virginia University Medical system.  Among the many friends I made at UHA was an individual who oversaw ordering office supplies for the company…I’ll keep his identity on the Q.T. and give him the nom de blog of Durwood.

Durwood was a big fan of John Wayne movies, and since I had a reputation for being somewhat of a classic film buff myself, it often gave us a subject to talk about since one of my duties was sorting the company mail in the mornings, which I did in an area adjacent to his.  (Conversation tended to break the monotony inherent in the task.)  He even lent me a VHS copy of McLintock! (1963) on one occasion—the movie had just been released to home video at that time, and I had never seen it.  Durwood was a kind of macho guy—the women in my section considered him a bit of a chauvinist, though the ones who had known him longer (as in “I-went-to-high-school-with-him”) clued me in that it was mostly an act.  Anyway, we were holding forth on The Duke one day as I was sorting, and he said to me: “You’d probably be surprised at which John Wayne movie is my favorite.”

I tossed out a few titles—Red River, Rio Bravo—and was completely gobsmacked when he replied “My favorite is The Quiet Man.”  Amazed because it’s also my favorite (though it’s in tough competition with Stagecoach and The Searchers), and I was pretty much my friend’s opposite in terms of temperament, politics, worldview, etc.  And yet…in a way it’s not too surprising.

Ex-boxer Sean Thornton (Wayne) returns to the land of his birth: the peaceful village of Innisfree in Ireland, where he’s welcomed by the populace (normally a little bewildered and suspicious of newcomers) due to his strong family roots.  He arranges to purchase his former homestead, “White O’Mornin’,” from the wealthy Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) …and in doing so makes an immediate enemy in “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who had wanted the property for his own.

The enmity Sean earns from Danaher will come back to bite him in the tuchus…because Thornton has fallen, and fallen hard, for Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara).  With the help of seachrán (matchmaker) Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) and parish priest Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond), “Squire” Will is duped into believing that Sean has set his cap for the Widow Tillane, and since Will rather fancies the Widder himself, he reluctantly agrees to allow Thornton to court Mary Kate (Flynn convinces him that he hasn’t a chance with Tillane because there’s no way she would consent to sharing the Danaher home with Mary Kate).  After following custom and tradition in the “expected” fashion, Sean and Mary Kate are wed…but at their reception, Will learns of Flynn and Lonergan’s deception and he refuses to relinquish Mary Kate’s “fortune” (her dowry).

Sean argues to his bride that the dowry doesn’t matter—but he doesn’t understand that it’s of vital importance to Mary Kate; without the “fortune,” she’s little more than a servant in the House of Thornton.  What Mary Kate doesn’t comprehend (in fact, the viewer doesn’t learn this until about an hour into the film) is that her husband could confront her brother with physical violence…except that as “Trooper Thorn,” he sent a man to the canvas and that opponent never got back up again.  He’s taken a vow to hang up his boxing gloves…but as we have learned from so many Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher Westerns, there are some things a man can’t ride around.  We’ll experience that eventual donnybrook between Sean and Will in one of the most memorable brawls ever captured on celluloid.

Whether you’re a John Wayne fan or not, it’s impossible to ignore that in many of the actor’s movies John Wayne played…John Wayne.  The Quiet Man (1952) is a notable exception (as is 1940’s The Long Voyage Home, another film of The Duke’s of which I am quite fond), giving Wayne to play a role quite different from his established silver screen persona.  Wayne fans won’t be disappointed in that The Duke delivers the he-man, two-fisted heroics they’ve come to expect (with Quiet Man’s rip-roaring fight finale) …yet all the same, I think they’ll be captivated by the thespic range he demonstrates as a stranger in a strange land, swept off his feet by a lovely lass he first spots walking barefoot through the lush green pastures of “the old country.”

Though he was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine in 1894, director John Ford (who often insisted on calling himself by his Irish name, “Sean Aloysius Kilmartin O’Feeney”) had a deep and abiding love for Ireland (where both of his parents were born before emigrating to the U.S.A.).  It’s present in many of his movies—The Shamrock Handicap, Hangman’s House (which has a steeplechase sequence similar to The Quiet Man), The Informer—but his Irish influences also dictated many of the themes in his non-Irish works: the rituals of courtship, the loss of a loved one, the presence of a close-knit community and its traditions, etc.  Ford’s return to County Galway (his father’s home was in Spiddal) to make a movie based on Maurice Walsh’s 1933 Saturday Evening Post tale (screenplay by Frank S. Nugent) would win the director his fourth and final Oscar (Winston C. Hoch and Archie Stout would also take home a trophy for their breathtakingly lush color cinematography).

Color films were a positive boon to actress Maureen O’Hara, because the effect of the actress’ striking red hair is completely lost in a monochromatic movie; when we first see Mary Kate Danaher we view her just as Sean Thornton does: a virtual Eve in his ideal of Paradise.  I don’t want to get the impression that it’s all about Mo’s beauty, however; her Mary Kate is one of the movies’ most positive and strong female characters, refusing to consummate her marriage to Sean because she sincerely believes she’s not entering the union on equal terms without her “fortune.”  Yet she gives herself to her husband even though he’s not come through for her (a marked difference from, say, the unsavory association between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind) because theirs is a mature relationship—she accepts that Sean has a reason for not fighting her brother for what is rightfully hers even if she doesn’t realize why.

Because it’s a fine broth of a film, The Quiet Man has become a viewing tradition on St. Patrick’s Day…but the movie is so darn good it seems a shame to limit it to just that day; I got the opportunity to revisit it this week when Olive Films released the classic as another DVD/Blu-ray in their “Olive Signature” series (many thanks to Bradley Powell for the gratis screener) on Tuesday (October 25) of this week.  Sure, and it’s been released on previous editions before but Quiet Man gets the deluxe Signature treatment with some bodacious supplemental features: audio commentary by author-historian Joseph McBride (author of Searching for John Ford: A Life); a visual essay (“Don’t You Remember It, Seánin?: John Ford’s The Quiet Man”) from historian Tag Gallagher; and a tribute to the late Maureen O’Hara from actresses Ally Sheedy and sisters Hayley and Juliet Mills.  “The Making of The Quiet Man,” a featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin that has been making the rounds of the movie’s home video releases since 1992, has an encore appearance on this release as well as “Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures” (available on the Olive Signature release of Johnny Guitar).

The Olive Signature release of The Quiet Man also features a 4K master scanned from the original negative, allowing for an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience of a film that received a total of seven Academy Award nominations including Best Supporting Actor (McLaglen) and Best Writing, Screenplay (Nugent).  The Quiet Man even got a Best Picture nom…and if it weren’t for the fact that the unnominated Singin’ in the Rain (the greatest movie musical of all time) should have won the top prize that year in a saner world, I wouldn’t have any regrets declaring Quiet Man the best of all the nominees (and far superior to the film that did win, The Greatest Show on Earth).  Buy a copy of the Blu-ray (or DVD) and either squirrel it away for the next St. Pat’s or defy tradition and watch it again at your convenience.

Forgotten Noir Fridays: David Harding, Counterspy (1950)

The radio adventure Counterspy (or David Harding, Counterspy, as it was occasionally called) was the third series in what the late OTR historian Jim Harmon once described as a “Triumvirate of Tension” …because Counterspy, Gang Busters, and Mr. District Attorney were all produced by the legendary Phillips H. Lord.  While Gang Busters set its sights on police work and Mr. District Attorney on the justice system, Counterspy—which premiered during wartime, on May 18, 1942 over the Blue Network (later ABC)—took the espionage route, highlighting cases from the WW2 counterintelligence unit known as the United States Counterspies.

“Hold on, Ian!” I hear some of you saying.  (Particularly since you’ve gotten my name wrong yet again.)  “United States Counterspies?  Did I fall asleep in history class when that agency was discussed?”  You most certainly did not, my friend.  (If there was any napping to be done, your humble narrator was probably way ahead of you.)  There was no such animal; the “USC” was created by producer Lord to get around any potential conflict surrounding the series’ content (Lord had already had a tussle with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in the days when Gang Busters was known as G-Men, and he was not anxious to repeat the experience).  Counterspy began in its halcyon days telling fictionalized tales of counterintelligence agents matching wits against Germany’s Gestapo and Japan’s Black Dragon…but since the U.S. of A. is constantly in a state of perpetual war (I believe there was a week in 2009 when there wasn’t a war going on—but I could be wrong), it was a cakewalk to shift the program’s focus to the Cold War once WW2 ended.

Counterspy was an ABC staple from 1942 to 1950, then moved to NBC for three years before finishing out its lengthy radio run on Mutual, calling it quits on November 29, 1957.  House Jameson (The Man Who Would Be Sam Aldrich) was David Harding in the inaugural telecast, and then Don McLaughlin took over…with Mandel Kramer portraying Harding’s assistant Peters (who, as a government employee, earned a salary so low he could not afford a first name).  (Both McLaughlin and Kramer would work together on the daytime drama As the World Turns; McLaughlin played “Chris Hughes” on that TV series for close to thirty years.)  Counterspy was a popular program on radio (aimed toward a juvenile audience with sponsors including Bit-O-Honey and Pepsi, it was also unbending in its depiction of violence) but to offer up an alternative perspective, one critic (per Jim Cox’s Radio Crime Fighters) described the show’s characters as “by-the-book, humorless, heavy-footed, hard-nosed, unromantic federal agents.”

Which brings us to David Harding, Counterspy—a 1950 Columbia picture produced to cash in on the fame of the radio program.  The studio had enjoyed much success with movies based on radio properties like Crime Doctor and The Whistler, but since many of their other film franchises (Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf) were closing shop by late 1949, Columbia looked for new B-picture fields to plow.  Why Don McLaughlin—once described as having “the most American voice on the air”—wasn’t considered to reprise his radio gig for the new movie series is a question I can’t answer; instead, Columbia decided to use contract player Howard St. John—who, despite having appeared in four  previous Columbia features including The Undercover Man (1949) and 711 Ocean Drive (1950), receives the ever-popular “introducing” in the opening cast credits.

In David Harding, Counterspy, the titular “United States Counterspies” head has radio commentator Charles Kingston (Alex Gerry) brought in after hearing Kingston broadcast a criticizing story about scientific information being stolen by a foreign government.  Kingston naturally wants to know why the USC has put the snatch on him…and instead of simply explaining that the outfit can do whatever the hell they want (and often did on the radio version), Harding tells him an anecdote of a 1943 incident involving a California torpedo manufacturing plant, where naval officer Phil Iverson is contacted about the possibility of enemy agents obtaining top secret information and sabotaging plant operations.  Iverson agrees to pass along any information he digs up to Harding…but not long after his initial contact with the USC, Iverson dies of asphyxiation after a fire breaks out in his apartment.  His widow Betty (Audrey Long) accepts the coroner’s jury verdict that the death was accidental…but Harding has his doubts.

As such, Harding taps Lt. Comdr. Jerry Baldwin (Willard Parker) to take Iverson’s place…with Betty, who was Phil’s secretary before and after they tied the knot, persuaded to come back and work as Baldwin’s secretary.  (There’s a little romantical history between the two as well…with Jerry nobly allowing Phil to have Betty despite his strong feelings for her.)  With Baldwin’s help—and the dedication of the straight-shootin’ agents of the USC, who are humorously chewed out by Harding for screwing up from time to time—those saboteurs will soon be brought to heel and the United States of America will once again be the yardstick by which truth, justice, and the American Way are measured.

There’s not a lot of “noir” in David Harding, Counterspy; the only saving grace of the film is that as a Cold War relic, it’s a fascinating look at the political tenor of the times.  Facebook chum Hal Erickson writes in From Radio to the Big Screen that the movie has difficulty matching its “powerhouse opening” with what follows: “If all this [Harding’s lecturing Kingston] seems incredible to modern viewers inured by the whistle-blowing, tell-all journalism seen on the various cable news channels, remember that David Harding, Counterspy was made in the middle of the Cold War, when you just plain didn’t question any action perpetrated by the U.S. Government (at least not out loud).”  While I disagree with Hal’s point about “journalism” (personally, I don’t think people on the tee vee machine tell-all or whistle-blow enough), I am in concurrence that the flashback to the earlier war incident robs Counterspy of a great deal of potentially interesting filmmaking.

St. John’s portrayal of Harding kind of makes the character a bit of a wanker, to be honest; at one point in the movie he tells Baldwin—after Jerry admits he doesn’t like him very much—“My boy, you'll find very few human beings who do.”  (Mother Harding: “It’s true…my boy has been a douchenozzle since the day he was born.”)  It’s been a while since I’ve listened to any surviving Counterspy broadcasts…but I don’t remember David Harding being such a tool as interpreted by Don McLaughlin.  (And really: would you entrust Howard St. John with a government agency after his bad guy turns in Born Yesterday or Li’l Abner?  I sure wouldn’t.)

Audrey Long is best-remembered for the film noirs Desperate and Born to Kill (both 1947), and she acquits herself nicely here as the sympathetic Betty; Willard Parker (who played Joel McCrea’s role in the TV version of Tales of the Texas Rangers) is an okay if obnoxious hero; and I smiled when I spotted Raymond Greenleaf (as the company doc)—last seen in this space as the crooked governor in FBI Girl (1951).  The best asset in David Harding, Counterspy is the presence of Mister John Dehner as one of Harding’s agents (Frank Reynolds); which lets Mr. D trot out both Swedish and Southern accents during his undercover work.  (“I’m a Southerner,” he declares to nurse Jean Willes, who retorts drily “I never would have guessed.”)  The movie also has a carryover from the radio show in a character referred to as “Peters” (still no first name), played by future Earth vs. the Flying Saucers director Fred F. Sears.

Columbia’s Counterspy franchise was short-lived: the studio released one more title in Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard that same year before abandoning the idea (we will visit with this movie in a future edition of Forgotten Noir Fridays, with the good news being that Dehner is in that one, too).  Directed by B-Western veteran Ray Nazarro with story and screenplay by Clint Johnston and Tom Reed, David Harding, Counterspy is worth a look for those of us who enjoy seeing radio properties brought to the silver screen.  Oh, there’s a notification on the Forgotten Noir Vol. 7 box informing us that with the VCI DVD release, this is the first time David Harding, Counterspy has been shown since 1961.  I will leave you to make the appropriate joke.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: The Omaha Trail

“In the days before the railroad, it was the ox train that moved our mighty empire to the fabled gold coast,” reads the title credits of the 1942 western movie The Omaha Trail.  “Some men saw in the new era of the railroad the end of their own ox train regime.  They fought a stubborn, bloody battle of resistance. This is a story of those times, of those trains, of those men.”  Yes, indeed.  Our starting point in this cinematic journey is Habersford, Missouri—where “Pipestone” Ross (Dean Jagger) operates a successful ox train bidness, assisted by his partner Ben Santley (Howard Da Silva).  Ben’s sister Julie (Pamela Blake) is Ross’ fiancée, his proposal sealed by a diamond engagement ring with more karats than Bugs Bunny.
Ross is going to have to slow his roll…because Patrick Candel (James Craig), a drifter Ben picked up on his return trip to Habersford, has also developed an interest in the fair Julie.   After a donnybrook with one of Ross’ henchmen (Morris Ankrum) in the town saloon, Pat attracts the attention of a man named Vane (Edward Ellis)—who has a business proposition for the scrappy young man, liking the cut of his jib.  Vane wants Candel to transport a locomotive engine to Omaha by oxen, and is prepared to pony up 15 large for his services…and knowing that a fat bankroll like that will put him in excellent stead where courtship with Julie is concerned, he accepts the deal.  There’s just one snag: Candel soon discovers there’s not a stray ox to be had in town; Ross has bought up every available steer…but being a reasonable man, he agrees to sell Pat and Vane a team for—wait for it—$15,000.

So why has Ross demonstrated such agreeability—particularly when his ox team business would be jeopardized by competition from the railroad?  Hard as it is to believe, “Pipestone” is all for progress and is convinced that there’s plenty of room for both the ox train and the choo-choo train.  Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya—Ross is most displeased with this turn of events, and informs Ben that they will accompany Pat and Vane to Omaha while scheming for a way to (bad pun ahead) derail Vane’s burgeoning venture.

To be honest—I’m never entirely comfortable tackling an M-G-M programmer because the gloss of that studio always makes their B-pictures look like A-minus pictures.  As such, that’s what The Omaha Trail has going for it; sure, it’s a routine shoot-‘em-up with Indians on the warpath and the like, but it has one hell of an impressive cast—who nevertheless treat the humdrum material as if it were Stagecoach (1939).

Future Academy Award-winner Dean Jagger is in fine fettle as the iniquitous Ross, who shows his cowardly colors at the end during the eventual showdown with Craig’s Candel.  Personally, I thought Da Silva ran circles around him in the thespic department; his villainy isn’t in black-and-white and despite recognizing the threat that is Vane’s locomotive to his future business model, he’s squeamish at the thought of people being killed (chiefly his sister, who’s accompanying Ross to Omaha) in the process.  Pamela Blake, whom we last visited in Kid Dynamite (1943), makes for a most beguiling ingénue (I enjoy watching her in serials like The Mysterious Mr. M [1946] and Ghost of Zorro [1949]).  It’s just a shame that her marriage choices are between the oleaginous Jagger and the cardboard Craig.

Yeah, I said it.  I’m not a fan of James Craig’s…and to be even more brutal, I’m perplexed as to how he ever had a movie career in the first place.  Most of his gigs at M-G-M in the 1940s were obtained due to his resemblance to studio “King” Clark Gable, who was “doing his bit” in the U.S. Army Air Force.  This is not to say the actor stunk up every movie he appeared in; he’s surprisingly first-rate in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), mildly tol’able in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) …oh, yeah—he’s also in While the City Sleeps (1956)—though I obviously adore watching that movie for other reasons (Howard Duff, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, George Sanders, etc., etc., etc.).  When Clark was demobbed, Craig went back to B-picture city and later did quite a bit of TV before calling it a wrap, eventually become successful in real estate.

Chill Wills and Donald Meek provide Omaha Trail with the comic relief; the future voice of Francis, the Talking Mule sings an infectious little ditty entitled ‘Taters and Corn (that’s later reprised by Craig’s character on a pump organ, accompanied by the cast) while Meek effectively plays against type as a cantankerous Scottish engineer in the employ of Ellis’ Vane.  Harry Morgan (still being billed as Henry) also channels his inner goon as Nat, a stooge who works for Ross (and who carelessly causes an incident that brings down the wrath of a Sioux tribe the party meets on the trail).  Iron Eyes Cody and his brother J.W. are the two Native Americans befriended by Candel (before Nat goes on to demonstrate why we can’t have nice things), and there are bits from familiar Western vets like Bud Geary and Ethan Laidlaw.

The Omaha Trail was directed by actor-songwriter Edward Buzzell—who’s a bit out of his wheelhouse with this Western (the only other oater I could find on his resume was 1940’s Go West…and that Marx Brothers romp is stretching the definition of “Western” a bit); he’s better known for M-G-M musicals like Best Foot Forward (1943) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949).  I was more intrigued by the producer credit; I know Jack Chertok mostly for his small screen contributions like The Lone Ranger, Private Secretary, and My Favorite Martian.  Short and sweet (it’s over and done with at 61 minutes), try and catch it the next time it airs on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (it’s not on DVD).