Friday, May 26, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #5: “Hit-and-Run Driver” (12/28/35)

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s weekly dissection (well…I try to make it weekly) of MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay series continues with Hit-and-Run Driver (1935)—an interesting entry in that it was penned by two scribes whose names might be familiar to fans of Abbott & Costello movies: Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo (billed in the credits as Fred Rinaldo).  This screenwriting duo, after serving an apprenticeship at MGM penning Pete Smith and Robert Benchley shorts, was responsible for several of Bud and Lou’s best feature film comedies: Hold That Ghost (1941), The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and TDOY Halloween favorite Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).  (Lees & Rinaldo also wrote the screenplay for Olsen & Johnson’s Crazy House [1943], for which we are most grateful, and 1941’s The Invisible Woman…for which we are not.)  Both men were sadly felled by the blacklist in the early 1950s, and while Rinaldo seems to have hung up his gun after the Martin & Lewis romp Jumping Jacks (1952), Lees continued to write (using “J.E. Selby” as his alias) for such TV series as Rawhide, Lassie, and Daktari.

But let us now visit with the “MGM Reporter” (William Tannen)—a man later identified as…Jim.

JIM: Ladies and gentlemen, as the MGM Reporter it has been my job to bring to you accounts of criminal cases proving indisputably that crime does not pay…today my message is more urgent than ever…for a new menace is sweeping the country, causing more deaths than America suffered during the entire World War…

You can tell Jim is serious because he’s wearing his squinty expression.

JIM: Thirty-seven thousand were killed and approximately one million injured last year alone…from all over the country come reports of violent deaths, horrible mutilation…no one is safe from this new public enemy…who is he?  He may be your neighbor…he may be that person in the seat next to you…

Boy, wouldn’t it be weird if the guy seated next to you was also your neighbor?

JIM: He is the driver of any one of America's 25 million automobiles…I would like Captain James of the Kent County Traffic Division to tell you just how the police deal with this situation….
JAMES: Thanks, Jim…sit down…

“You make me nervous.”  MGM is just darn lucky that this short came out before RKO started its Saint movie franchise with The Saint in New York (1938), because “Captain James” is easily recognizable as actor Jonathan Hale—who played “Inspector Fernack” in five entries of that series with Louis Hayward and then George Sanders.  (And if this short had been released in 1938, MGM would have really been red-faced—that was the year Hale debuted with his most famous film role, that of J.C. Dithers in Columbia’s Blondie series.)

JAMES: To combat this type of killer, we've developed a highly scientific method of detection…so efficient is this method that few hit-and-run drivers escape ultimate conviction…as an illustration, take the case that happened last June, along the Columbia Turnpike…

And with that, we are whisked into the passenger seat of a car that is traveling a little too fast down a dark country road for my tastes.  The person behind the wheel seems a little inebriated, and he’s unable to stop when a young couple appear out of nowhere to cross the road…

 The driver of the vehicle crashes into the couple, spraying windshield glass all over the soft shoulder.  He gets out to examine the situation, and the young man (later identified as David Benedict), lying bloody on the ground, summons up the strength to call out “Help…”  The responsible party should do the right thing and move Heaven and Earth to get his victims to the hospital for proper medical attention with all deliberate speed.  But because The Voice is on in fifteen minutes—and he forgot to set the DVR—the unknown driver hops back into his jalopy and heads back the way he came.  Rat bastard.

At 2:15am, a call comes into the Kent County police station and it’s answered by the desk sergeant (William Gould)—someone is reporting the accident involving young David and his girlfriend, Eleanor Spears.  Quickly, Kent County’s finest are dispatched to the scene of the crime—Detective John “Sandy” Sanderson (Morgan Wallace), Detective Al Squires (Carl Stockdale), and a third detective named Lee (who goes unidentified at the [always reliable] IMDb) begin their examination of the crime scene, which involves…

…a tire track, for one.  Captain James explains via voiceover that a plaster impression of the track—a moulage—needs to be taken in order to show “the structure and depth of the markings.”  Sanderson also begins to collect every available piece of the shattered windshield, which we will later see he’s assembled as one might put together a jigsaw puzzle.  The detectives are initially discouraged that the car involved in the incident was headed toward New York—which means locating the vehicle will require a full-length feature film.  But an examination of the “oil drippings” reveals that that the car headed in the opposite direction, so we can have this baby wrapped up in twenty minutes.  (As for the victims…well, they are so badly hurt it’s impossible to question either of them.)

SANDERSON: As you can see from the map, Chief, the turnpike runs through Hanover…Woodland…Wells…and Oceanside…then comes to a dead end…

“You can also see why I have my eye on that sweet piece of property in Wells…I plan to open up a bar when I’m retired and on my pension.”

SANDERSON: So if the car turned around…and went in that direction…at that time of night…the driver must still be in that locality…now we have no known witnesses to the crime…but there are a couple of pretty definite leads to work on…

They’ll start with the moulage of the tire track found at the scene of the crime.  “We’ll know it…if we find it,” declares Sanderson.  Sanderson has already started to work on that “jigsaw puzzle” I alluded to earlier:

The plan is to canvass the local garages and see if anyone brought in a smashed-up automobile.  One garage, where a mechanic named “Walter” works (the actor is unidentified at the IMDb), informs Sanderson that someone did bring in such a vehicle—both the windshield and headlights were smashed.  “She must have hit something awfully hard,” observes Walter.  (No biggie, dude—just a couple of stray pedestrians.)  There’s just one teensy problem…

SANDERSON: Whad’ja do with the glass that was left from the windshield?
WALTER: There wasn’t none…she was brought in clean as a whistle…
SQUIRES: Listen, Sandy…this ain’t the car we’re lookin’ for either…

That’s because none of the tires are on the car match the moulage impression, unfortunately—and Walter swears he didn’t change any tires.  This could be a challenge!  But Sanderson gets the address of the car’s owner from helpful Walter (I guess there are no issues of confidentiality where auto repair is concerned)—it belongs to a young student named George Lambert (George Walcott), and he’s staying in town for the summer at the Beach Ridge Hotel.  Sanderson is going to have a chat with young Lambert, and he instructs Squires to go over the car “with a fine-tooth comb” since he’s noticed slivers of glass on the running board.  (He really wants to finish that puzzle.)

George is hauled into the police station and questioned by Sanderson and his fellow detectives.  Here’s his story: he spent the evening of the accident with his girlfriend at a fine establishment known as “Frankie’s Roadside Café,” arriving there at 11:45pm.  At 1:30, Lambert was ready to do some major pub-crawling and planned to head to “The Old Orchard Inn”—but his main squeeze wanted to go home.  The two of them had a quarrel about their plans for the rest of the evening (although by that time it was technically morning), and that resulted in her leaving with some of their mutual friends while George elected to stay at Frankie’s.  (Lambert had the keys to his car with him…so no one else could have driven it.)

LAMBERT: …I guess I must have been a little drunk, because…uh…Frankie, the proprietor—he’s a friend of mine—steered me to a table and talked me into having a cup of coffee with him…

As you can see from the above screen grab, Frankie is portrayed by portly character veteran Cy Kendall…which should be an immediate tip-off that George’s story is not quite kosher.  (You know Cy from the serials The Green Hornet [1940] and Jungle Queen [1945], featured on TDOY’s Serial Saturdays.)  George continues telling the gendarmes that the two of them heard a noise outside the roadhouse, and when they went outside to investigate George found that his car had been hit by someone who then sped off into the night.

LAMBERT: Look what that rat did to my car…
FRANKIE: Yeah…some drunken fool…there ought to be a law to deal with people like that…

I’m pretty sure there is, Frank.  Oscar, Frankie’s lackey (also unidentified at the IMDb), arrives in time to see his boss and George surveying the damage…and Frankie instructs his man to get a broom and sweep up the glass.  Thus endeth the flashback.

SANDERSON: …and what time did you leave?
LAMBERT: Well, I hung around till closing time—about 2:30…then I went straight home…
SANDERSON: To the hotel…?
LAMBERT (nodding): Yes…
SANDERSON: Then you didn’t go out along the Columbia Turnpike at any time…
SANDERSON (leaning forward in his chair): You’re sure?

This last bit made me laugh out loud—and I don’t know if it was Morgan Wallace’s delivery or the feeling that I got that the character was getting ready to say: “Listen, you little punk—I know in my donut-filled gut that you’re guilty, and I’m gonna get a confession if it takes me the rest of the day!  Al, get the phone book!”  (I’ll bet that phone book still has an impression of my father’s head on it.)

“Let me ask you a question,” Lambert inquires cheekily.  “Did you get the man who backed into me?”  He’s awfully smug for a person of interest, but Sanderson tells him the usual don’t-leave-town-we-may-have-further-questions-yadda-yadda-yadda.  “I hope you get that guy,” are George’s parting words as he bids Detective Flatfoot a fond adieu.  If this were an episode of Law and Order, the Lambert character would be merely a red herring leading us to another suspect…but since we’re at the halfway point of this two-reeler, it looks like George Lambert is our man—so how to prove it?

JAMES: It looked as though we had the wrong car…it had different tires and there were three makes of automobiles equipped with similar lenses…we had no witnesses…and our only subject had a perfect alibi…but the department never rested…

“We executed round-the-clock use of the truncheon until we got a confession out of that little weasel.”  No, I’m just kidding you (maybe).  The break in the case is revealed when the gendarmes bring Georgie in for more questioning.


JAMES (showing Lambert a photograph): Did you ever see those two persons before?

“Why, yes…I believe it’s from Gidget Gets a Cold Sore.  I saw it the other night with my preten…er, my girlfriend.”

JAMES: The boy is David Benedict…and the girl is his fiancée, Eleanor Spears…perhaps you’ll recognize them from this…

James shows Lambert a photo that the audience does not see—but the implication is that it’s a candid of the two lovers after they were plowed down in the accident.

JAMES: And it’s too bad that driver didn’t think about the law…he might have given those two youngsters a break by rushing them to the hospital…
LAMBERT: I quite agree with you, Captain—but after all…what’s that got to do with me?

Oh…puh-lenty, my young homicidal motorist.  You see, after an extensive investigation the ever-resourceful Al learned that George’s automobile was “washed and cleaned” before it was brought in.  He located a piece of glass in the vehicle, one that would appear to have magnification properties…

…it’s a piece from David Benedict’s broken eyeglasses!  An oculist confirmed the prescription for Detective Sanderson.

SANDERSON: David Benedict, Lambert…the boy who’s dying in the county hospital…
JAMES: And that piece from his glasses was found on the running board of your car!
LAMBERT: You can’t make me believe that!  You’re just trying to scare me into saying something!

The noose begins to tighten around George’s lily-white neck.  Sanderson went back to check on the kid’s story at Frankie’s Roadside Café…and found a piece of glass in the grass where Frankie alleged Lambert’s car was parked.  That would seem to square his alibi…except for the part where that same shard fits so neatly in Sandy’s glass jigsaw puzzle!

There’s a somewhat embarrassing scene with one of Sanderson’s detectives and Oscar the handyman where the cop extracts a confession from Oz that the tires on Lambert’s car were changed because he sold the discarded tires (they were dumped around the back of the garage) to a relative who owns a junkyard.  What makes this so uncomfortable is that Oscar is stereotyped to the nth degree (“You ask questions so fast I don’t know who I am or where I is no more”), with the detective threatening to throw him in the pokey if he doesn’t talk.  (Nowadays the cop would have just tased his ass and then claimed he was in fear for his life…if Oscar were lucky.)

Mantan Moreland would have made this funny.
The tire in question is rolled out to George along with the moulage, with Sanderson drily observing “They match.”  It’s all purely circumstantial, of course, but a couple of hours with Sanderson in the interrogation room and Lambert will start babbling he was on the grassy knoll that day in Dallas.  This won’t be necessary: the phone rings in James’ office next door, and it’s a Dr. Flynn (Howard C. Hickman) on the phone.

FLYNN: …the boy has regained consciousness…but I advise you to hurry, Captain…
JAMES: Fine—we’ll be right over!

James completes the call and re-enters the room with George and the other detectives.  “Come on, Lambert…we’re going down to the hospital to have a talk with David Benedict.”

“What for?” asks Lambert.  “The state may have a witness” is James’ icy reply.  (Stay strong, Georgie!)

Spoiler warning: he doesn’t stay strong.  Arriving at the hospital with Lambert and Sanderson, James learns from the doctor that he tried to get hold of James before he left the station—Benedict has suffered a relapse, and will have to undergo an operation.  “Any chance?” Sandy asks Flynn.  The way Flynn shakes his head as if to say “You’d be better off placing a bet on the Grim Reaper” made me titter.  When Flynn is asked if Benedict’s fiancée can provide an identification, the detectives are told that the accident rendered her blind and paralyzed.  “Had those people been rushed to a hospital immediately,” Flynn scolds, “both would still have their lives before them.”  (The Supreme Being would appear to have a whoopee-cushion-sense of humor.)

Director Edward L. Cahn nicely handles a sequence in which George Lambert is forced to watch his victim’s operation—the little anesthesia balloon inflates and deflates throughout…and then stops inflating…

 …signaling to the audience that David has drawn his rations and can now have a chinwag with the person in charge of the universe as to why he blinded and paralyzed his girlfriend, the sick f**k.  Lambert, witnessing Benedict’s death on the operating table, confesses in Perry Mason-like hysterics that, yes, he was guilty of the hit-and-run and he’s very, very sorry and he won’t ever do it again, promise, cross my heart.  “I…I…know it was a horrible mistake but…please…can’t you see my side of it?” he wails.  That will be up to Judge Hanging, played by another character vet, Sam Flint.  (His name isn’t really “Hanging”—I make leetle joke.)

JUDGE: George Lambert…before passing sentence upon you, the court has taken into full account your side of this case…and I regret to say I can find no extenuating circumstances…

Well, so much for that.  The judge continues: “Now you say you are sorry, but your penitence cannot bring life to David Benedict or eyesight to Eleanor Spears...the magnitude of your crime and the havoc caused by your criminal neglect leave me no alternative…George Lambert, this court sentences you…”

“…to a dose of syphilis.”  Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya again.  The judge gives George twenty years…but in the words of Captain James, “In his heart he knew he had committed murder, and the indelible memory of what he'd done to that boy and girl will remain with him for the rest of his life.”

And on that upbeat note, I’ll remind you to return next week when our Crime Does Not Pay presentation will be Perfect Set-Up (1936).  (S.Z…stay out of mischief!)  G’bye now!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bank(s) holiday

You know the famous quote from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  The legend goes that up-and-coming movie mirthmaker Mario Bianchi was inspired to adopt the nom de screen of “Monty Banks” (also spelled “Monte Banks”) when the legendary Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, his employer, told him in 1917: “You can't play another 'montebank' [mountebank] with a difficult name like Bianchi!”  It makes for an amusing story…except that in a 1918 two-reeler, The Geezer of Berlin, “Banks” was still billed as “Bianchi.”  What we can be certain of is that despite his popularity in the 1920s as a comedy star in various shorts and features, Monte’s mostly remembered today (if at all) as the husband of British entertainer Gracie Fields (he directed her in four feature films during the 1930s).

Banks’ enduring contribution to silent comedy is featured in the Robert Youngson compilation Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961): the laugh-a-minute, thrill-a-second, runaway train climax from his 1927 feature Play Safe.  This sequence was later recycled for a two-reeler released that same year entitled Chasing Choo Choos (Play Safe didn’t do well at the box office)—and this engaging short is one of five comedies featured on a new DVD release from Alpha Video, Monty Banks: Hollywood’s Forgotten Comic GeniusChoo Choos is an entertaining cutdown (the eye-popping stunt work is courtesy of Harvey Parry), though to be honest I think you’re better off watching this material in Thrills and Laughter…only because that movie concentrates on nothing but the chase, whereas Choo Choos contains a little bit of the backstory that might be confusing if you’re not familiar with the plot of the full feature.

Monty Banks in Wedding Bells
The wonderful thing about Forgotten Comic Genius is that Chasing Choo Choos isn’t even the strongest short on the DVD; I really enjoyed Wedding Bells (1924), in which Monty plays a would-be groom who must deal with his jealous bride (Ena Gregory) the morning after his wild bachelor party.  Monty doesn’t know that his neighbor (William Blaisdell) from across the hall is babysitting his fiancée’s dog (she won’t marry him unless she’s certain the dog is properly looked after), and Neighbor has smuggled the mutt into Monty’s crib out of sight of the landlady (Louise Carver).  Ena thinks that Monty’s playing around, and refuses to do the matrimonial sashay down the aisle unless Fido is outta there.  So Monty hilariously attempts to shed himself of his new pet, with hilarious results…and then when Ena gets everything straightened out with the neighbor, Monty must get the dog back.  The gags in Wedding Bells are clever and the denouement is hilarious (I did see this one coming, I must confess), making the overall effort a most delightful two-reeler.

Banks in The Covered Schooner
Pay or Move (1924) is also a gem; Monty must protect the father of his girlfriend (Gregory again) from a sinister outfit known as the Koo Koo Kans (my, that’s subtle)—even though he’s in Dutch with the old man because he’s in arrears where his rent is concerned (Papa is his landlord).  There are good gags in this one, but what makes them so engaging is that Monty’s character is shown to be a very resourceful individual (he’s able to fool a couple of goons with some mannequins dressed in police uniforms).  The Covered Schooner (1923—directed by Harry Edwards; the title is a jokey reference to The Covered Wagon) is just a slight slip in quality, mostly because it starts out strong (Monty’s a florist who’s trying to close shop so that he can rescue his girl (Lois Boyd) from the amorous clutches of Captain Blaisdell) but peters out in the second half (Monty gets shanghaied aboard Blaisdell’s ship).  (Though one gag did make me snort out loud: for some odd reason, there’s a gorilla among Blaisdell’s cargo [and not a particularly convincing one], and Blaisdell and his crew decide to throw Monty into the cage where the animal is certain to make quick work of him.  Then they look inside…and both Monty and the gorilla are on the floor of the cage, shooting craps.)

John Carpenter, Movie Man
The weakest short on Forgotten Comic Genius is Paging Love (1923)—fortunately it’s also the first short, so it’s kind of like eating your vegetables before you get to the dessert—and really, it wouldn’t have been that bad if someone had just considered making a one-reeler out of the material (the plot in this one, in which Monty must sell a copy of his prospective father-in-law’s [busy Blaisdell] encyclopedia to win his daughter’s [Boyd again] hand, is painfully thin).  (The last five minutes has Banks channeling his inner Harold Lloyd when the shenanigans go “high and dizzy.”)  All five of these comedies come from the collection of my Facebook chum John Carpenter (a.k.a. “The Movie Man”), whose participation in Alpha’s Blondes and Redheads: Lost Comedy Classics was so essential to that DVD release’s success.

As I was browsing the Internets looking for photos to illustrate this essay, I laughed out loud at some of the search results because a small group of people seem to have confused Monty Banks with Harold Peary, radio’s The Great Gildersleeve—and because I knew you’d be saying right now “Oh, come now, Ian” I grabbed this screen shot for proof:

Yes, that is misidentified at Getty Images.  I would expect something like that at eBay or even the (always reliable) IMDb…but Getty?

“It is almost impossible now to describe a once-popular comedian like Monty Banks by speaking of his mannerisms; he doesn't seem to have any,” observed Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns.  “He is short, on the plump side, possessed of a miniature mustache that would seem suave on a head waiter but it is somehow a badge of apprehension on him.  He is likeable.”  Kerr goes on to say that despite his extensive comedy training Banks rode out his career in silents emulating Harold Lloyd (while taking special pains to ensure that the “thrills” in those features steered close of trickery).  “The stunting is impeccable, worth keeping in film anthologies; but we cannot quite remember the man.”  That’s why we’re fortunate to have releases like Monty Banks: Hollywood’s Forgotten Comic Genius—they do so much to make certain we don’t forget.  (Many thanks to my Alpha pal Brian Krey for the screener.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

“You poor creatures…I wish I could help you…but you're by yourselves now…”

Back in July of last year, when The House of Yesteryear was enmeshed in that (mercifully) brief thrall of madness I jokingly called The DISH Austerity Program, there was really one outlet on our system for uncut, commercial-free movies…and that was HDNet Movies, a channel that spun-off from HDNet (now signing all correspondence as AXS TV) in 2003 and launched by gazillionaire Mark Cuban…who is, in some quarters, said to be considering a Presidential run in 2020 after also threatening to do so in 2016.  Not because he can solve America’s problems…but more along the lines of “If Donald Trump can become president, why can’t I?”  (This is the point on the blog where I curl up in a ball and weep uncontrollably…just bear with me and it will pass quickly.)

Despite my barely-disguised revulsion for Cuban and his ilk, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have DVR’d a movie or two from HDNet Movies when the occasion arises.  Most of the fare on the schedule consists of proven crowd pleasers like The Karate Kid (1984) and The Bridges of Madison County (1995), but there’s a nugget or two to be mined if you’re willing to work for it (and have a proper grubstake—yes, I watch a lot of westerns, as you might have guessed).  HDNet Movies’ a little like the Encore Movie Channel—past hits mixed in with recent flicks—and because I have not stepped inside a googolplex since 2009, it gives me an opportunity to catch up on some good “moon pictures” I’ve missed.

In Never Let Me Go (2010), a title card reads: “The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.  Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.   By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.”  What follows is a reminiscence by a woman (Carey Mulligan) identified as “Kathy H,” as she looks back fondly on her experiences at a boarding school known as Hailsham.  The young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) has two close friends at the school: Ruth C (Ella Purnell) and Tommy D (Charlie Rowe)—Kathy has quite the romantic attachment to young Tom, but Ruth effortlessly steals the boy’s affections because she’s a bit of a b-word.  Hailsham isn’t all that different from the usual repressive boarding school, though the students there are constantly encouraged to get in touch with their artistic side by submitting their work to The Gallery, which is administered by a mysterious woman known only as Madame (Nathalie Richard).

Isobel Meikle-Small as the young Kathy
Okay, I tell a lie—there is one slight difference, and it’s a most sinister one.  One day, the students are informed by beloved teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) of their purpose for being there…because “The problem is you've been told and not told…”

Do you know what happens to children when they grow up?  No, you don't, because nobody knows.  They might grow up to become actors, move to America.  Or they might work in supermarkets.  Or teach in schools.  They might become sportsmen or bus conductors or racing car drivers.  They might do almost anything.  But with you we do know.  None of you will go to America.  None of you will work in supermarkets.  None of you will do anything except live the life that has already been set out for you.

And what does Miss Lucy mean by this cryptic statement?  Well, that’s “the big reveal” of Never Let Me Go, and I’d be robbing you of a unique movie-watching experience if I said anymore.  There’s no getting around it: this film—a combination of romance and dystopian science-fiction—will make you sit up and ask: “What the…front yard?”  If you’re familiar with the source material, the critically acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro published in 2005, you already know how this one ends…and you can certainly find more information on the film in other corners of the Internets.  But Leonard Maltin kept his big bazoo shut in his capsuled write-up on the film in his 2015 Movie Guide, and the least I can do is follow his example.

The acting in Never Let Me Go is first-rate, with a cast of thesps that I must grudgingly admit I have but only a passing familiarity.  I got the opportunity to see Carey Mulligan in Suffragette (2015) during one of our HBO-Cinemax “freeviews,” and enjoyed her performance tremendously in that one.  The actress leapt at the chance to play the lead in Never Let Me Go, purportedly because Ishiguro’s novel is her favorite book.  She’s most convincing in both her teen and adult years as a strong individual who remains resolute despite having been informed early in life of her fate, and her measured, understated turn has lingered in my memory despite it having been about a month since I sat down and watched this from the DVR.

Mark Romanek
Other than veteran actress Charlotte Rampling (in a nice showcase as the ominous headmistress), I don’t think I’ve seen any of the other stars from Never Let Me Go in anything else although I did recently DVR Lions for Lambs (2007) from HDNet so I’ll soon be chalking up another entry from Andrew Garfield’s oeuvre soon.  I know Keira Knightley only from the impressive amount of photographic publicity she seems to generate; the director of Never, Mark Romanek, admitted in an interview that it was nearly impossible to make Knightley look “plain”—“…even at her worst, Keira still looks astonishing.”  To Knightley’s credit, she admitted that she was unable to relate to the movie’s “love triangle,” but she managed to do a pretty good job convincing me.

Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield
I’ve joked on the blog many times about certain movies not being “date films”—Never Let Me Go qualifies in spades, mostly because of its grim subject matter.  (Again, I’m doing my best to hide some of its content but I can see why its plot plays better in the original novel, set in Japan, than it does in the film’s UK.)  It’s a most challenging movie, with haunting moments of both sadness and uninhibited joy (the reunion that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy have after not seeing one another in some time is both refreshing in its optimism and devastating in its doom), and Rachel Portman’s exemplary music score also scores points in the movie’s favor.  If you like movies that have wandered off the main path, this one will be a buried treasure.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“Well…how-dee do!”

Rick Mitz, author of The Great TV Sitcom Book, once joked that Amos ‘n’ Andy constituted the “two dirty words” of American broadcasting (and he even thought the “’n’” suspect).  I myself refer to the program as “the third rail” of old-time radio, insomuch as the medium’s first true phenomenon has been clouded with controversy ever since its premiere over Chicago’s WMAQ on March 19, 1928 (the show went national over NBC’s Red network in August of 1929) and stayed with the show long after it left the airwaves on November 25, 1960.  Created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two vaudeville performers who had a talent for black dialect, the long-running serial/sitcom began as Sam ‘n’ Henry over rival Windy City station WGN in 1926; the two men left the following year after a dispute with the station…and since they were unable to use the “Sam ‘n’ Henry” name (it was still owned by WGN) they changed the name of the characters to their better known alliterative association.

Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll
Amos ‘n’ Andy was one of the Golden Age of Radio’s most durable programs in addition to most popular.  In its early years (1928-43) it was a comedy serial, and its history is documented in a first-rate McFarland book penned by my fellow Radio Spirits scribe Elizabeth McLeod, The Original Amos ‘n’ Andy.  (McLeod has always championed that the serialized Amos ‘n’ Andy presented its characters in a sympathetic fashion—that it was only when the show adopted its sitcom format that the racial stereotypes became more blatant.)  From 1943 to 1955, it was presented as a weekly half-hour sitcom, and from 1954 to 1960, the show played out its waning radio years as The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall—a weeknight program with Gosden and Correll performing skits as their characters while spinning records as disc jockeys.  Amos ‘n’ Andy made the eventual transition to television (casting African-American performers in the title and supporting roles, of course) in 1951 but CBS-TV would cancel the series two years later despite its popularity, under protest from organizations like the NAACP…and in 1966, CBS completely removed Amos ‘n’ Andy from its syndication package.  (The Wikipedia entry for Amos ‘n’ Andy notes that Rejoice TV, “a small independent television and Internet network in Houston,” reran the show in 2012…though there’s scant mention as to whether CBS, which purchased the rights to the series from its creators in 1948, brought in their team of attorneys.)

With the cancellation of The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll weren’t quite ready to abandon the characters that made them famous…and with the prompting of ABC, anxious to duplicate the success of their hit animated series The Flintstones, they came up with an idea that would allow them to continue the show in cartoon form.  It was not a new idea; a cartoon version of Amos ‘n’ Andy had actually been attempted as far back as 1934 at the Van Beuren Studios but after two entries (The Rasslin’ Match and The Lion Tamer) the series was abandoned.  This time around, Freeman and Charlie would lend their characterizations to a pair of anthropomorphic animals…and Calvin and the Colonel was born.

Charlie & Gos with their cartoon counterparts
The “Colonel” was Colonel Montgomery J. Klaxon (voiced by Gosden), a crafty Kingfish-like fox who ostensibly ran a real estate firm but more often than not was involved in any number of get-rich-quick schemes.  Like his radio counterpart, the Colonel possessed a streak of larceny and many of the Calvin and Colonel episodes would find the character cooling his heels in the cartoon animal hoosegow.  The “Andy” of the series was Calvin J. Burnside (cartoon characters seem awfully fond of “J” as a middle initial for some reason), a dimwitted bear (Correll) who, depending on the situation, either served as the Colonel’s patsy or confederate in whatever scheme Klaxon had cooking on the burner.  Calvin and the Colonel didn’t really have an “Amos” character (though Andrew “Grover” Leal has posited that that function was fulfilled in the minor character of “Gloria,” Calvin’s manicurist girlfriend voiced by Gloria Blondell) but by the time Amos ‘n’ Andy had reached its radio sitcom stage the character of Amos Jones had started to take a backseat to the Kingfish-Andy shenanigans anyway.  (An acquaintance of mine who had just started listening to the radio show once asked me: “Why isn’t this series called Kingfish ‘n’ Andy?”)

The Colonel had a Sapphire-like spouse in Maggie Belle (voiced by Virginia Gregg)—although her name is spelled “Maggi Belle” in the show’s closing credits, I’m going to go with “Maggie.”  Instead of having to put up with a mother-in-law like the Kingfish, Colonel Klaxon suffered under the domineering thumb of Susan Culpepper (Beatrice Kay)—Maggie Belle’s sister, affectionately known as “Sister Sue.”  The character of Maggie Belle is not one of Ginny’s finest thespic hours, mostly because of the severe limitations of the role (she’s there to be a constant scold to the Colonel and little else) …but Kay doesn’t come off that much better (though I do giggle when she calls The Colonel an “old foof”).  I believe this can be explained by the fact that the radio counterparts of Sapphire and “Mama” were also rather thinly written…yet I wish they had considered letting Ernestine Wade and/or Amanda Randolph perform the Maggie Belle/Sister Sue roles to give their cartoon counterparts a little more oomph.  (I can certainly understand the reluctance to do this, though.)  The remaining character on Calvin and the Colonel was “Judge” Oliver Wendell Clutch (Paul Frees)—a shady lawyer (appropriately portrayed in weasel form) who the Colonel was always asking for advice (Clutch was the show’s Stonewall/Algonquin J. Calhoun counterpart).

Bob Mosher & Joe Connelly
Calvin and the Colonel was produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher through their company Kayro Productions…and if it seems a little odd that the two men responsible for Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters would get involved with a project like this, it’s because Connelly and Mosher not only wrote many of the original half-hour Amos ‘n’ Andy radio scripts but the TV ones as well.  Many of the Calvin and Colonel teleplays are credited to Joe and Bob, mostly because they dusted off a lot of their earlier Amos ‘n’ Andy efforts and recycled them for their “funny animals.”  Even though Amos ‘n’ Andy earned a fair share of criticism for promoting unflattering racial stereotypes, there was never any real malice in the program’s content—you could read the scripts without the black dialect and still enjoy a fitfully funny sitcom…which is why Calvin and the Colonel works so well, in my opinion.  The only thing that gave me pause about the animated series was that Calvin seemed to have an eye for a lot of females who were not of the ursine persuasion (I chortled at the thought of fundamentalists having a field day with this dating “outside of his species”) though he does get engaged to a female bear in “Calvin’s Glamour Girl.”

My interest in Calvin and the Colonel was stoked by the recent purchase of three volumes of the show released by Alpha Video.  I’d previously watched an episode or two at YouTube, but the more episodes I tuck under my belt the more I enjoy this pleasurable little series.  I’ll state right off the bat that this is due in large part to my familiarity with the source material, but as someone who loves old-time radio I think like-minded folks will follow my lead.  It’s quite hooty hearing the voices of Kingfish and Andy emanate from a fox and a bear, and in addition to the regular cast you’ll hear OTR/character favorites (in various episodes) like Joe Flynn, Jesse White, Frank Nelson, Barney Phillips, Will Wright, June Foray, Howard McNear, Hans Conried, Charlie Cantor, Frank Gerstle, Marvin Miller, Elvia Allman, Forrest Lewis, Olan Soule, and Peter Leeds.  (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing.”)

It’s television animation, of course, but despite the limited budget the style of Calvin and the Colonel is reminiscent of that in the creations of Jay Ward (Rocky and His Friends) or Total Television (King Leonardo, Underdog).  A 2006 post at Michael Sporn Animation notes that the company who produced Calvin was TV Cartoons/Creston Studios (who also did the non-Jay Ward version of Crusader Rabbit), and the roster of talent that cranked out the installments included Chuck McKimson, Norm Gottfredson, Lee Mishkin, Phil Roman, John Sparey, Ben Washam, Tom McDonald, Volus Jones, Dave Weidman, Jim Davis, and Bob Bemiller—“They were more WB & Disney people unlike the Hanna Barbera shows which initially seemed to use more of their MGM cohorts.”

That post also observes that Calvin and the Colonel was the “second prime time show to premiere” after The Flintstones—which I don’t think is entirely accurate if The Bugs Bunny Show is worked into the equation (you can argue that the animation on Bugs had already appeared in motion picture theatres…but the segments that introduced the cartoons had not).  (Television Obscurities notes that CBS Cartoon Theater even predated The Flintstones by four years—though like Bugs, the show featured shorts previously unspooled in theatres.)  It is accurate to say that the success of that “modern Stone Age family” ushered in a slew of prime-time cartoon efforts in the 1961-62 season, with Calvin joined by the premiers of The Bullwinkle Show (okay, technically a continuation of Rocky and His Friends), The Alvin Show, and Top CatCalvin only lasted two months in its 8:30pm Tuesday slot (stiff competition from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) before it returned in January of the following year to a Saturday time slot (7:30pm) to fulfill its obligation to sponsor Lever Brothers.  It then made Saturday a permanent home—mornings, that is—for another year before fading from the small screen landscape.

Calvin and The Colonel working for the sponsor.
Though produced in color, Calvin and the Colonel originally aired in black-and-white…which is why so many of the prints you’ll find at YouTube and elsewhere are presented in monochromatic form (most of the sources I’ve consulted question as to whether the series was ever syndicated), except for the program’s inaugural episode, “The Television Job”…

…which I will graciously share here with you until some hoser pulls the YouTube plug.  “Job” (the black-and-white version), “The Polka Dot Bandit,” “Thanksgiving Dinner,” and “The Costume Ball” are featured on Alpha’s first volume of the series, while Volume 2 includes “Sycamore Lodge,” “Wheeling and Dealing,” “Sister Sue’s Sweetheart,” and “Nephew Newton’s Fortune.”  (“Wheeling” is one of my favorite Calvin outings—The Colonel is under orders from the women in his life to ship Nephew Newton’s car to him out on the West Coast…but he and Calvin have a mishap that results in Newton's ride being filled with cement.  It’s an unusual episode in that The Colonel emerges victorious in this one—at the end of the show, he breaks the fourth wall as he enjoys breakfast in bed: “I know I didn’t earn all this love and affection, but…I’m a married man, so I’m gonna take what little I can get.”)

But if you’re like me and there’s often too much month at the end of the money, Volume 3 is the Alpha Calvin and the Colonel collection is the one you should get—it features four color episodes in “The Colonel’s Old Flame,” “Sister Sue and the Police Captain” (this one was an episode I watched on YouTube—in color!—but it has apparently been yanked), “Calvin’s Glamour Girl,” and “Colonel Out-Foxes Himself.”  This last one is very funny (it’s the one on which I heard Conried and Cantor), as The Colonel attempts “The Pocketbook Swindle” after it’s been pulled on him…with unsuccessful results.  Animation history king Jerry Beck calls the show “illustrated radio” …which is certainly fair, though I’ve heard the same term applied to much of the Hanna-Barbera product as well, and Calvin and the Colonel can certainly hold its own with Huck, Yogi, and the rest of my childhood heroes.

I told Grover I'd only buy these dolls if one of them said "Holy mackerel, Calvin!"

Dell Comics published two Calvin and the Colonel comic books in 1962 (one of which was in their “Four Color” series, which is why the second issue was labeled “#2”) and Milton Bradley released a board game to capitalize on the (non)popularity of the program (Leal also notes that there were “Calvin” and “The Colonel” dolls available for purchase—they talk, too!—and Beck has published this image of a C&C coloring book)—you can find the board game/comic books on eBay, if you’re curious.  I’d settle for a DVD release of the complete series only because I believe it’s much better than its reputation and it doesn’t deserve its current obscurity.