Saturday, February 28, 2009

G-Men Never Forget (1948) – Chapter 1: Death Rides the Torrent

As the familiar Republic eagle is shown spreading his wings, we know that our exciting twelve-chapter cliffhanger, G-Men Never Forget (1948) is about to begin!
It is night, outside a large penitentiary. As we hear sirens and whistles in the background, we witness a stocky man jumping down from the surrounding wall and making a break for it. He is secure in the knowledge that even though the guards are packing machine guns, they apparently can’t hit the broadside of a barn. He finds a car waiting for him in a nearby wooded area and gets in…but during this daring escape, another man is wounded and left behind.

The car speeds along for a while and then, stopping by a suburban tract house, the individual gets out into a second car, which also speeds away. For the first time, we learn that the escapee is Vic Murkland (Roy Barcroft), notorious racketeer. He instructs the man at the wheel to drive to “Doc” Benson’s sanitarium.

The scene shifts to a sanitarium run by Robert “Doc” Benson (Stanley Price), a fellow miscreant of Murkland’s who, along with his sidekick Slater (Jack O’Shea), greet Murkland warmly upon his arrival:

MURKLAND: Hiya, Benson...good to see ya...
BENSON: I'm certainly glad to see you, Murkland...

He must owe him money.

MURKLAND (to the other man): Hiya, Slater...
SLATER: Welcome home, Chief...everything worked according to plan, huh?
MURKLAND (taking off his coat): Not quite...Duke got shot just as he was makin' a dive for the car...
BENSON: Killed?
MURKLAND: I don't know...I'll have somebody find out...

Yeah, look into that, will you, Slater?

BENSON: Certainly seems like old times to have you back with us, Vic...
MURKLAND: Yeah, and it's gonna be like old times, Doc...if you still think you can do that plastic surgery job...
BENSON (chuckling): I've done tougher ones than that...look here... (He presents Murkland with some photographs) Take a look at those...it's Police Commissioner Cameron...
(Murkland studies the photographs)
MURKLAND: So you think you can make me look like this guy, huh?
BENSON: So much like him his own mother couldn't tell the difference...

That's not much of a challenge...his mother passed away three years ago...

MURKLAND: That's good enough for me...
BENSON: But it's not just good enough for you to look like Cameron...you've got to be Cameron...

So in addition to going under the knife, Murkland will also have to study under Lee Strasberg. The scene then shifts to the office of the real Commissioner Cameron, who, along with his lackey Hayden (Doug Aylesworth), welcomes Special FBI Agent Ted O'Hara (Clayton Moore) inside with a hearty handclasp.

O'HARA: Is there any further information on Murkland's present whereabouts?
CAMERON: No, I'm afraid not...he either has a very good disguise or a very good hideout...
O'HARA: He's not the type to stay in hiding for long...your men have a good description of him...and here's something you might add to it...Murkland has the habit of chewing the end of wooden matches and tossing them away...
CAMERON: Make a note of that, Hayden...
O'HARA: I think we can pick up Murkland through Duke Graham as soon as he's well enough to be moved... (Pause) Oh, uh...incidentally, I'd like the assistance of your best woman detective...
CAMERON: Certainly... (Via intercom) Send in Detective Sergeant Blake, please...

What the heck is going on here? Is Cameron really a commissioner or some sort of pimp? Why does that horndog O'Hara need assistance from a female detect...well, maybe I'd be better off not asking that question...into the office walks Francis Blake (Ramsay Ames):

BLAKE: Where do I fit in, Mr. O'Hara?
O'HARA: How'd you like to be my wife?

Blimey—he doesn't waste any time, does he?

BLAKE (after staring at Cameron with a puzzled look): We haven't known each other very long...what inducements have you to offer?

There's a line you don't hear much nowadays...

O'HARA: The capturing of Vic Murkland...
BLAKE: You've won yourself a wife, Mr. O'Hara...

I never realized it could be that damn easy. O'Hara tells "the missus" that the key to rounding up Murkland is through his henchman-on-the-mend, Graham (Drew Allen), who'll be in the prison hospital for two weeks...O'Hara, undercover as a goon, is in the same room with Graham when Blake, in full moll regalia, drops in for a visit and begins acting all lovey-dovey, reminding him that their ten-year-old child’s birthday will be celebrated that evening. Blake also shows off her new hairdo, and as O’Hara admires it he pulls out what looks like to be a big honkin’ knife from her coiffure, seconds before the guard tells Blake to amscray usterbay. Graham, despite his lack of a GED, has looked over the situation and decides to play the only hand he’s got:

GRAHAM: So...a wise guy, huh?
O'HARA: What's eatin' you?
GRAHAM: Gotta kid ten years old, have ya? After telling me you've only been married for two years...
O'HARA: So what?
GRAHAM: So there ain't no kid...and there ain't no party...and you're planning to leave here at ten tonight...well. I’m goin' along...
O'HARA: Ah, g'wan...you're crazy...
GRAHAM: Crazy like a fox...either I go along or you stay...and that swell doll of yours does a stretch for slipping you the knife...
O'HARA: I ain't made no plans for two of us, Duke...
GRAHAM: Well, you can start makin' 'em right now...

Blake lets Cameron know that Graham has taken the bait, and the Commissioner gets into a taxicab, giving the driver an address. But wait! He should have waited for the next hack to come along, because the driver has released a lever flooding the backseat with sleeping gas...making the Commish...very...sleepy... Back at "Doc" Benson's, he's just removed the bandages from Murkland's face to reveal...an exact double for Cameron! He hands Murkland Cameron's photo and a mirror:

BENSON: Take a look...if you're not Police Commissioner Cameron, I'm the Queen of Sheba!
MURKLAND: Swell job, Doc...you're an artist!
BENSON: Yeah...that's what the judge said when he sent me up the river...

He's even got the Judge's endorsement printed on his business cards, so it clearly meant a lot to him. Benson and Murkland are interrupted by the arrival of a henchman and the real Cameron, who's wearing a blindfold and has his arms tied behind his back:

CAMERON: What is this place?
BENSON: This is a rest home for the mentally afflicted...I'm the physician in charge...
CAMERON: Don't be a fool...I'm Police Commissioner Cameron...

Commish...meet Her Majesty, the Queen of Sheba...

BENSON: Yes, I know, I know...you think you're the Police Commissioner...but you're suffering under a very serious derangement... (Points to Murkland on gurney) Police Commissioner Cameron is seated there...
CAMERON: Who is this man?
MURKLAND: You heard what he said...I'm the police commissioner...
CAMERON (after a slight pause): Vic Murkland...

Maybe having Charles Boyer do the “gaslighting” would have been a better idea but it sounds to me like Benson needs to get another endorsement, if Cameron is able to see through Murkland's masquerade. Well, in all actuality it's more Murkland's match-chewing habit that calls him out rather than any superb detective work on Cameron's part. Suffice it to say, Murkland starts gloating to the Commish than all the years he's spent in the jernt has given him time to study Cameron's voice, mannerisms, etc. (I'm guessing they didn't have a free-weights room) and that he'll most assuredly be able to fool a flat-footed Fed like Ted O'Hara.

We are then taken to the outside of the Prison Hospital (yes, there is a sign that denotes it as such) where O'Hara and Graham are about to make a break for it. O'Hara overpowers an orderly and changes into his uniform, then instructs Graham to get into a laundry hamper. O'Hara loads the hamper onto a truck and smoothly drives out the front gate. The two men then meet up with phony moll Blake, who pretends to be miffed because Graham has dealt himself in on the escape. She only brought duds for one person (Graham will have to wear a raincoat that's in the back seat) and lends Graham her "rod": "See that I get it back." She then gets into the laundry truck and tells her "hubby" and his pal that from now on they're on their own.

By now, Murkland has usurped Cameron's identity and is ensconced in the Commissioner's office, seated at a desk and pretending to read important papers. He receives a phone call from Blake, who informs him that the plan worked "slick as a whistle." After their conversation, Murkland makes a phone call of his own...
Arriving at a garage hideout, Graham brings O'Hara inside and introduces him to a thug named Kelsey (Ken Terrell):

GRAHAM: Hello, Kelsey...phone the Chief I'm coming in with a new recruit...
KELSEY: New recruit, eh? You got Ted O'Hara, Federal agent...he framed you to bring him to Murkland...
GRAHAM (whirling around in O'Hara's direction): Don't shoot...this double-crossing rat is my meat!

He tries to fire at O'Hara...but since he got the roscoe from the disguised Francis Blake, the chambers are all empty. O'Hara tips over a balsa wood desk in Kelsey's direction and the first official fight of the serial is on! O’Hara manages to shoot and kill Kelsey in the melee (and I think we know how painful that can be), but Graham has rabbit in his blood and has run out of the building in an effort to escape the long arm of the law. O'Hara takes after him, but to no avail...Graham has made it to the safety of Benson's sanitarium:

GRAHAM: ...and if that female cop hadn't handed me an unloaded rod, we'd a-finished O'Hara right there and then... (Graham's attention is diverted to the arrival of Murkland in his guise of Cameron) Who is this?
MURKLAND (grinning): Police Commissioner Cameron...
GRAHAM: Murkland! You've got everything...his voice...his walk...
MURKLAND: Yeah, and lucky for all of us I have...if I hadn't been in the Commissioner's office last night...
GRAHAM: Well, how was I to know it was a frame-up?
MURKLAND: Never mind the alibis...another bonehead play like that and we'll all land in the clink...now, listen...

Murkland outlines a scheme to start a protection insurance racket, and the first target is R.J. Cook Enterprises—a company currently completing construction of a tunnel that, by terms of the contract, has to be completed in time for its grand opening at noon the next day. Graham is assigned to shake down Cook (Edmund Cobb) for protection money, prompting the president to phone Cameron (Murkland in disguise) about Graham's visit. In describing Graham, O'Hara's suspicions are raised to the point where he's positive that Graham is responsible--and he's present when the goon calls Cook, ordering him to leave $20,000 near the sight of the tunnel or Murkland and Company will blow things up real good. The next day, O'Hara arrives at the drop and, subduing a Murkland henchman, steals his motorcycle and hauls ass toward the tunnel to prevent the detonation.

O'Hara, now inside the tunnel, attempts to contact the authorities with the emergency phone, but he's too late...another henchman has set off the charges. O'Hara looks up at the tunnel ceiling to see a large crack with water beginning to spill from it at a rapid rate.

Mounting his motorcycle, he cannot help but think that this is all starting to resemble a climactic scene from a better Republic serial, Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)...

Next Saturday, Chapter Two: 100.000 Volts!

Friday, February 27, 2009

“Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/twelve full ounces, that’s a lot/twice as much for a nickel, too/Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you…”

I’m in a remarkably upbeat mood for several reasons today. The first item that made a day a bit brighter was a post from beverage maven Matt Hinrichs at Scrubbles.net announcing a new line of soda pop from the Pepsi Company that will eliminate the high fructose corn syrup from Pepsi-Cola (and I’ve only heard a rumor or two, but supposedly this corn syrup stuff is bad for ya) and replace it with good old-fashioned sugar. (Cowabunga, kids!) All seriousness aside, they do manufacture soda brands without the corn syrup but you either have to purchase or import it from Mexico (Mexican Coke, the beverage of choice of Lloyd at mardecortasbaja.com) or wait til’ Passover (Kosher Coke and Kosher Pepsi). The sugar-sweetened beverages—which are scheduled to come out around April—will be known as Pepsi-Cola Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback (or more than likely, Mtn Dew Throwback). I’ve tasted Mexican Coke and thought it worlds better than the Coke available here in the States (though I’m still pretty much a Pepsi man at heart) so I’m hoping the Throwbacks will catch on and become a permanent part of my grocer’s shelves.


In TV-on-DVD news, TVShowsOnDVD.com announces that Universal Studios Home Entertainment has awakened from their slumber and will release the third season of the classic medical drama Quincy, M.E. to disc June 2nd. For those of you who’ve also been asleep or living in a cave, it’s been four friggin’ years since the release of Seasons 1 and 2—and although I should probably be cross and send Universal to bed without supper I’m just glad they’re on the ball and are prepared (knock blog) to continue to releasing this program’s remaining seasons on DVD. (Now, all we have to do is light a fire underneath them to finish out the 1967-70 run of Dragnet.) Good show, fellas.


Finally, as I was lazily glancing over some of the old material that I posted when Thrilling Days of Yesteryear was still being hosted by Salon Blogs, I noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve done any serial reviews (the last one was the 1946 Republic chapter-play Daughter of Don Q in August 2007). As fortuosity would have it, I recently picked up a pair of serials on DVD from AC Comics (they had a half-price sale) and since I already wrote about one of them (The Black Widow) back in 2006 I’ve decided to tackle the second, G-Men Never Forget (1948) beginning tomorrow and running each Saturday for the next 12 peril charged weeks. (I just love that title—it sounds like the result of what would happen if Douglas Sirk had tackled a cliffhanger.) G-Men has quite a reputation among some serial fans—others look at it and say: “Feh…”—but you can judge for yourself.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

R.I.P. Wendy Richard

My good friend from across the pond, Gary Dobbs, mentioned in a comment he made on a post I composed in October of last year that British actress Wendy Richard had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and wasn’t expected to live past twelve months. Sadly, the medicos were spot-on with this…as the talented woman who appeared in the long-running sitcom Are You Being Served? and the soap opera warhorse EastEnders has indeed shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 65.

Younger TV fans are probably more familiar with Richard’s role as matriarch Pauline Fowler on EastEnders, a program she became a cast member of when the series premiered in 1985 and on which she appeared in approximately 1400 episodes before departing in 2006. But here in the good ol’ U.S.A., where we’re blessed in knowing that public television has progressed a little beyond (but not much more) Benny Hill in British television comedy, she’s instantly identifiable as Miss Shirley Brahms, one of the dutiful drones whiling away at Grace Brothers Department Store on Are You Being Served? (Richard reprised the Brahms role in a follow-up series to AYBS, Grace and Favour—known to U.S. audiences as Are You Being Served? Again.)

In total honesty, I think the day public television discovered Served? was a dark one, indeed…because the show itself has apparently come to represent what American audiences think Britcoms are all about (double entendres and sniggering sex jokes). But Richard’s performance as the Cockney salesgirl who suffered under the autocratic thumb of pompous Captain Stephen Peacock (Frank Thornton) and the equally self-important Betty Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), her supervisor, was truly one of the bright spots of the series—her cheekiness and all-around good-humored outlook on life being a real joy to behold. One of my favorite AYBS episodes is “Closed Circuit,” in which Miss Brahms has been asked out by a man of means because he overheard her doing a commercial for the department store…unaware that her earthy Cockney tones were substituted with a sexy voice with which he’s fallen in love. (Being a sitcom, the situation requires the rest of the Grace Brothers employees to play members of Miss Brahms’ “family”…and the wacky complications ensue.)

Because I collect a lot of classic British sitcoms on DVD, I’m always finding Richard making appearances in the darndest places; I’ve seen her in episodes of Please Sir!, On the Buses, The Likely Lads, Dad’s Army and Not on Your Nellie. She was always a breath of fresh air to any tired Britcom plot, and to hear of her passing at such a young age is indeed a tragic thing.

R.I.P., Wendy. You will be missed.

“…a special detail of the Chicago Police …”

When classic television fans received the scuttlebutt back in June of last year that Timeless Media Group had plans to release a DVD box set of the 1957-60 crime drama M Squad, there was much rejoicing that this rarely-seen but fondly remembered half-hour series (starring Lee Marvin) would be made accessible on disc. Initially, Timeless’ plans were to release a collection containing 100 episodes (sort of a “Best of” deal) but the company decided to make a public plea asking collectors to sift through their holdings and check if all 117 episodes could be accounted for. Vintage TV buffs came through in the clutch, and the set was readied for a street date of November 11, 2008 with a SRP price tag of $119.98; a hefty tariff to be certain—but if one is diligent and patient enough, eventually you can luck into a discounted bargain (which I did—Buy.com offered the set for $55.78).

I think the $55.78 tag suits this set because I’ll be honest with you right from the start: many of the episodes included are of iffy quality, though there’s not one among the ones I’ve seen so far that I could call “unwatchable.” (Having to scour through attics, basements and crawlspaces to put together the whole enchilada, you’re naturally going to have to expect that some shows aren’t going to be pristine.) Truth be told, I like the fact that some of the M Squad episodes are a little on the beat-up side; it’s sort of like tuning into an obscure UHF station (with an analog TV, natch) to watch a series that a majority of stations wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, preferring to showcase That 70’s Show instead. The only time I’d ever seen M Squad was when it was once featured as a one-shot oddity on TVLand—a cable station that now prides itself in showing edited-for-TV movies and Extreme Makeover as part of “television’s heritage.”

M Squad premiered on NBC-TV September 20, 1957 as a Friday night crime drama produced by Latimer Productions and filmed in Hollywood by Universal/MCA’s TV arm, Revue Studios. Sponsored by Pall Mall Cigarettes during its three-year stint, it was a Friday night staple for the network until the mid-season of its last year on the air, when it was moved to Tuesday nights at 10:00pm. Lee Marvin, an actor who was making a name for himself as a villain in feature films like The Big Heat (1953), The Wild One (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), essayed the role of Lt. Frank Ballinger—a Chicago plainclothes cop assigned to “M Squad.” It was never really fully explained during the course of the series just what function “M Squad” served in relation to the Chicago Police; in the premiere episode of the series (“The Golden Look”) it’s described as “a special section that can be assigned to any department” and in “The Matinee Trade” (11/08/57) it’s “for the special cases and the dirty ones.” Ballinger’s superior was Captain Grey (originally Inspector Grey), a tall, burly individual (even taller than co-star Marvin, who was no slouch in the long-and-lanky department) with a basset-hound face played by character actor Paul Newlan. In Squad’s first season, Marvin’s character didn’t always answer to Grey (due to his being shifted around from department to department) but by mid-season Grey was established as the “boss,” and in the second season Newlan received credit right after Marvin’s name. (Both men had an incredible rapport with one another, and would often punctuate their scenes together with amusing throwaway bits—a good example is in the second season opener “More Deadly,” in which Grey and Ballinger discuss a case and Ballinger keeps elbowing Grey away from a cooling fan. At the end of their conversation, Ballinger gets up and hands his superior a paper fan, which Grey uses to fan himself a couple of times, and then does a double-take.)

M Squad did for Chicago what Dragnet did for Los Angeles…and what Naked City would later do for New York City. The first season episodes emulate Dragnet’s output in many ways (though Dragnet’s plots were culled from actual closed case files, whereas Squad was left to the fancy-free flights of the scribe’s imagination) but it wasn’t long before Marvin put his individual stamp on M Squad, creating a cop with a sardonic sense of humor and a barely-concealed streak of violence. When Ballinger was collaring a miscreant and his life was being threatened—he didn’t resort to any namby-pamby “shoot-‘em-in-the-hand” Lone Ranger crap; he shot to kill, knowing that innocent bystanders were at the mercy of his prey should said prey go completely crazy-go-nuts. If he didn’t have to shoot anybody, however, rest assured said suspect would receive a pummeling unparalleled in the history of television cop shows. A very good example of this is a second-season episode entitled “Dead or Alive” (09/26/58): a journalism school graduate (Judi Meredith) overhears Frank make a remark about capturing a couple of thrill-killers “dead or alive,” prompting her to unleash a bleeding-heart screed in her father’s newspaper about the police endorsing unorthodox methods to capture what she believes are a pair of just “misunderstood” youngsters. Ballinger, on the other hand, has the experience on the force to discern that these budding young sadists (who are holding a sickly old man as a hostage) should be taken in with as little violence as possible…but if they resist arrest, there’s nothing wrong with putting a bullet into their collective brainpans if their actions are a threat to the public at large. Marvin, in essence, played Ballinger in the same manner as his big-screen villains: they were rat bastards…but they displayed enough charm and charisma to make you overlook all that.

Many of the best M Squad episodes feature the Frank Ballinger character going undercover to smoke out a suspect—and Marvin approached these “identities” with the ferocity of a Method actor (“What’s my motivation in getting this punk to spill the beans?”). Contrast this with Jack Webb’s Joe Friday—who pretty much remained Joe Friday in every undercover masquerade he took, be it short-term cook or porn merchant. An example of Marvin’s playful approach to his undercover work can be found in “The Hard Case” (11/15/57): Ballinger’s old buddy (Howard Negley), once a baseball player and now retired and working as a night watchman, has been accused by a jewel thief named Harry Slaughter (Ray Foster) of being the inside man on one of Slaughter’s capers…and since the jewels haven’t been recovered, the cops have swallowed Slaughter’s story. But Ballinger is convinced that the watchman is telling the truth, and arranges to pretend to be Slaughter’s cellmate (“Lloyd Nelson”) in prison in an effort to get him to tell the truth:

SLAUGHTER (laying in his bunk, then dropping out of it onto the floor): Hey, Nelson…what’s your charm over Bicker?
BALLINGER: He’s just a big bag of wind…the day I get out, I’m gonna look him up—and he knows it…
SLAUGHTER: And that Elmer! That’s the first time I saw him stand up to Bicker…
BALLINGER: Elmer’s a good boy…he’s gonna join up with us when he gets his diploma…
SLAUGHTER (annoyed) What about me? Ain’t we got some talkin’ to do?
BALLINGER: I don’t know…you sure goofed that heist job
SLAUGHTER: I got a tough break, that’s all…how was I to know they put on a special guard?
BALLINGER: You was supposed to find outthat’s how…
(Two guards approach Slaughter and Ballinger’s cell and the two men quickly stop talking. One carries a clipboard, not looking up as he reads—the other inspects the cell.)
FIRST GUARD: 1572…Slaughter…Nelson…
SECOND GUARD: Check…
(The two guards move on, and when their footsteps get softer and softer the two cellmates resume their conversation.)
SLAUGHTER (low tones): I was workin’ alone, Nelson…that’s what was wrong…that’s why I want to team up…
BALLINGER: I still say you shoulda been smarter
SLAUGHTER: I was smart. Smarter than the cops and the whole lot of ‘em…
BALLINGER: Sure you were…so you got ten years and nothin’ to show for it…if you’d been any smarter, you coulda got life
SLAUGHTER (craftily): Suppose I was to tell you I got twenty thousand out of it…stashed away and waitin’ for me…
BALLINGER (looking at him): I thought the watchman got that!
SLAUGHTER: Sure, that’s what I told the cops… (Looking around and lowering his voice) I had this bag of diamonds in my hand, see, when I heard someone come in the store…so I hid ‘em!
BALLINGER: You ain’t so dumb at that!
SLAUGHTER (laughing): You should seen ‘em! They tore the store apart tryin’ to find ‘em…
BALLINGER: I’ll bet…

Ballinger is able to get Slaughter to come across with the location of the diamonds (telling him a story about a buddy who did something similar in Seattle only to return three months after the heist to discover the building had been torn down) but has a bit of difficulty in getting the news to the prison’s warden because the corrupt guard known as “Bicker” clues Slaughter in as to Ballinger’s true identity, setting our hero up for a proper beatdown. Fortunately, everything comes out in the wash—I love the Warden’s apology for having a guard like Bicker around for so long, by the way: “…I’m sorry about Bicker…I should have spotted him before.” (Knowing what I know about Chicago cops at that time, however, it would have been difficult for the Warden to spot an honest one.)

In “The Alibi Witness” (12/06/57), an ex-con named Wally Gardner (Edward Binns) is identified as a robbery suspect, even though Gardner maintains he’s innocent and has an alibi—a witness (Robert Simon) who was giving him a light at the time of the robbery—to prove it. The twist in the story comes when the witness claims he’s never met Gardner (and it is revealed just why he maintains this claim), leaving the ex-con up creek de la merde. “Blue Indigo” (01/17/58) is an interesting entry—and notable for appearances from OTR vets like Lillian Buyeff, Larry Thor and Barney Phillips—about a psychopath who kills blonde females while listening to the title tune. And in “Dolly’s Bar” (02/07/58), TDOY fave Claire Carleton is a gin-joint proprietor who is trying to keep a secret about her past (a secret that a Walter Winchell-like columnist used to blackmail her until his death) from being revealed; Janice Rule plays a up-and-coming stage ingénue and Joe Flynn has a funny bit as a safe expert who, upon opening the deceased columnist’s safe and finding it empty cracks: “Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.”

Writer Merwin Gerard borrows liberally from The Desperate Hours (1955) to create the half-hour “Hide Out” (03/28/58); a fun entry in which Ballinger once again dons his undercover duds—this time playing the part of boyfriend to Carol Grayson (Stacy Graham), who being held hostage with daughter Lori (Terry Burnham) by desperadoes Luke (Jack Elam) and Pete Castro (the ubiquitous Dick Miller). The presence of cult icons Elam and Miller—plus the “romantic” antics of Marvin (his rapport with Burnham is good, too)—make this episode a lot of fun; DeForest Kelley plays Ballinger’s partner, a role he would repeat in two other first-season episodes (“Pete Loves Mary” and “Diamond Hard”). And there’s a wealth of guest talent in “The System” (05/30/58), an entry that spotlights Ballinger’s undercover turn as a shoe salesman (“Frank Lang”) looking for an illegal floating crap game managed by hood Eddie Constantine (Tol Avery). Rose Marie is a gin-joint owner who steers patsies to Constantine’s game, Ted de Corsia is a patsy planning to roll the operation in a winner-take-all gambit, and Paul Maxey (Lassie, The Peoples’ Choice) is a out-of-town businessman who proves most helpful in steering Frank to Constantine’s hideout—an apartment rented to the gambler by Columbia comedy two-reeler doyenne Ann Doran.

As of this post, I’ve watched the entire first season of the series and a few installments from the sophomore year; the second season is a lot more snappier and in many instances more violent—and it was also in Season 2 that the familiar Theme from M Squad (written by Count Basie) was introduced:

The first season theme, composed by the show’s musical director, Stanley Wilson, was a bit somber and sounds like it would be a perfect fit for some forgotten film noir of the 1940s. If Theme From M Squad sounds a little similar to the music that was featured in the series Police Squad! and The Naked Gun movies, it’s because M Squad was the inspiration for those spoofs (although the shot of the police siren is a nod to another series, N.Y.P.D.):

Watching these first season episodes, I spotted a virtual who’s who of TDOY favorites: Bruce Gordon, Henry Brandon, Gail Kobe, Stafford Repp, Wally Brown, Bobby Driscoll, Mike Connors, Werner Klemperer, Kevin Hagen, Barbara Pepper, Madge Blake, Morris Ankrum (often cast as Ballinger’s superior when Grey wasn’t around), Barry Atwater, Angie Dickinson, Jean Carson, Dave Barry, Raymond Bailey, Sid Melton, Whit Bissell, Lyle Talbot, Jean Willes, George E. Stone, Dan Tobin, Jeanne Cooper, Joe Maross, Kent Smith, Ruta Lee, Marian Seldes, Whitney Blake, Herb Rudley, Stanley Adams, Alan Baxter, John Hoyt, June Vincent, Vaughn Taylor, Amzie Strickland, Charles Bronson, Gloria Talbott, Jim Davis, Paula Raymond, Philip Ober, Fay Spain and Larry Blake. The OTR contingent is also well-represented with Tyler McVey, Ken Lynch, Peggy Webber, Herb Ellis, Olan Soulé, Ralph Moody, Russell Thorson, Lawrence Dobkin, Roy Glenn, Harry Bartell, Jeanne Bates and Sarah Selby.

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a DVD box set more than the M Squad collection, even though the varying quality of the material earns it a caveat emptor…and I have to admit I often have to stifle a snicker during the show because all those years of Police Squad! have affected me to the point that I find myself expecting Lee Marvin to crash into some garbage cans as he pulls into the police station. Marvin’s exposure on the series didn’t hurt his movie career one bit, and if you’re a fan of the actor (as I unabashedly am) you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of this true vintage TV treasure.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

R.I.P., Howard Zieff

A cursory glance at my CharredHer homepage revealed a neon-like headline: “’My Girl’ director dies.”

Confession time: having not ever seen My Girl (1991)—Macaulay Culkin makes me break out in a rash—I had to read the piece to learn that Howard Zieff has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 81 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

If the AP had gone with “’Private Benjamin’ director dies” I would have picked up on it a little sooner (though I probably still would have raced to the IMDb to check). To be honest, it’s Zieff’s earliest work which I remember the most—the shaggy-dog Slither (1973; the subject of a great piece by Ray at FLICKHEAD to point out the irony of it all), the warmly nostalgic Hearts of the West (1975) and the scathingly satirical House Calls (1978), which was tragically adapted for television as a 1979-82 sitcom starring Wayne Rogers and Lynn Redgrave/Sharon Gless. Private Benjamin (1980) was also a huge box office hit, but nothing Zieff directed afterwards came close to matching the quality of his first hat trick.

Before getting into movie directing, Zieff was a popular TV commercials director in the 1960s; among his creations was the classic Alka-Seltzer “Mamma Mia, atsa spicey meatball” spot.

R.I.P., Howard. If they really want to do you a tremendous service, they’d release Slither to DVD ASAP.

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #23 (31 Days of Oscar edition)

Seeing as how I’ve been skating by the past few days on posting nothing but comic strips, I figured I’d emerge from my undisclosed location and put something of substance on the blog…

(Waits for laughter to subside)

Thanks ever so. You’re a good group. I’ve been keeping busy with an outside project on which I’m putting the finishing touches, but I’ve also kept myself amused watching quite a few episodes of a classic TV show that I hope will lend itself to a review here on the blog in the next day or two. Add to this mix a few viewings of some classic movies via the 31 Days of Oscar on TCM:

Destination Tokyo (1943) – This one was a no-brainer for yours truly, insomuch as I’ll pretty much watch any film with one of my movie idols, John Garfield, in it—but what I found curious about Destination is that not only is Julie in this one but so is the poor man’s Garfield, Dane Clark. (Garfield and Clark are also in Hollywood Canteen [1944] and Pride of the Marines [1945], in case you were curious.) Cary Grant, in the only WW2 film he made during WW2, is the skipper of the U.S.S. Copperfin—a submarine chosen to infiltrate Tokyo Bay and gather the necessary intelligence for the Doolittle raid (which was chronicled at another studio in a picture entitled Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo [1944]). Destination is your typical paint-by-the-numbers propaganda piece (naturally, the Japanese are not particularly well spoken of during its 135 minutes running time) but the direction (Delmer Daves, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Albert Maltz from Steve Fisher’s story) and cast are hard to beat: Alan Hale is “Cookie,” the comic relief galley cook, Robert Hutton is “The Kid” (whose emergency appendectomy is one of the film’s highlights) and both Tom Tully and Warner Anderson appear long before The Caine Mutiny (1954) and the TV adaptation of the OTR crime drama chestnut The Lineup. (John Forsythe gets his first onscreen credit here, too.)

Susan Slept Here (1954) – My friend Maureen recommended this Frank Tashlin-directed musical comedy that stars Dick Powell as a washed-up screenwriter who ends up as custodian to juvenile delinquent Debbie Reynolds. (And let me just say here that if Reynolds is a j.d., I’m a Reagan Republican.) Naturally, I’m game for a Powell picture (this was his last onscreen starring role) but I have to admit that I squirmed a bit during this sex comedy (Powell marries Reynolds’ seventeen-year-old character to get her out of trouble with cops Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon), even though it does have an interesting supporting cast in Glenda “Torchy Blane” Farrell, Anne “Honey West” Francis, Alvy “Hank Kimball” Moore and Les “Mentor” Tremayne. Destination Tokyo’s Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb wrote the play on which Susan is based, with Gottlieb contributing the screenplay. Tashlin devotees might get more of a kick out of it than I did.

Sounder (1972) – I’m probably not as enthusiastic about the oeuvre of Martin Ritt as I am other directors on the blog, but I really am a fan of his work—particularly Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), The Front (1976) and Murphy’s Romance (1985). I gambled on Sounder—having not seen it before—and thoroughly enjoyed the experience; the great Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson (I saw Cicely on TCM promoting this movie the other day and she is still a stone fox) are the patriarch and matriarch of a Depression era (Louisiana, 1933) sharecropper family for which times have always been tough…and get much tougher when Winfield is arrested for stealing (and slaughtering) a hog and is sentenced to one year of hard labor in a prison camp, leaving Tyson and her three children the responsibility of getting the crop in. The evocation of that time period is beautifully captured by cinematographer John A. Alonzo, and though it was tough luck competing in the year that brought The Godfather (1972) to cinematic screens, Sounder is a must-see film for the truly outstanding performances by the two principals (along with future TV director Kevin “The White Shadow” Hooks as their oldest son, Carmen Matthews, redneck sheriff James Best and supportive schoolteacher Janet MacLachlan) and Ritt’s low-key direction. The scene where Winfield arrives home after serving his time is a cinematic moment not easily forgotten.

Oh, I almost forgot…I did something Sunday night that I haven’t done in quite a few years, namely watched the Oscar telecast. Another three-and-a-half hours of my life I’m not getting back.