The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

14Dec/141

Video Theater 059: Dragnet: The Big Little Jesus

Friday and Smith search for a stolen statue of the Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve for a church that desperately needs it.

Original Air Date: December 24, 1953

30Aug/140

DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun constantly finding themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 Movie, “The Fatal Confession” as well as the seven episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries or bone-chilling suspense, or CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonist and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating that balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throw back to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He was truly good and kind, and also didn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do usually in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though it times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens) who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular. As for the episodes themselves:

“The Fatal Confession” had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishoner, but the last quarter of it or so was just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature length first episode of the 1989 series begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery,” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery,” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives such as "it was the right thing for me" don't really ring true. It’s impossible to believe a nun would say or if someone wanted to be a nun with such weak reasons, that the Catholic church would allow it. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part, “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family becomes Father Dowling’s new Assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business but is drawn into an effor to help his brother Peter go straight and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about half away through the second episode but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery,” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is  a great cat and mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with, “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marked the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written family friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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10Aug/140

Video Theater 055: Decoy: Night of Fire

DescriptionCasey goes undercover in an office to investigate an arson. The business owner suspects a former mental patient.

Episode 23 (1957)

13Jul/140

Video Theater 054: An Eye for An Eye

Casey is undercover as a drug addict in hopes of busting a heroine ring when a junkie dies, leaving behind a checkbook with $6,000 in it.

Episode 18

22Jun/140

Video Theater 053: Decoy: To Trap A Thief

A businessman alleges that $10,000 was missing from money recovered from robbers. Suspicion falls on a patrolmen near retirement. Casey (Beverly Garland) goes undercover to find the truth.

Season 1, Episode 4 (1957)

8Dec/130

Video Theater 047: Checkmate: The Human Touch

Peter Lorre plays a recently released criminal mastermind who has hatched a plot to get even with the criminologist who sent him to prison. Aired: January 14, 1961 Season 1, Episode 15

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18Aug/131

TV Series Review: Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime

Agatha Christie's best known detectives are Poirot and Miss Marple but far from their only ones. The 1983-84 series, Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime followed the adventures of a lesser known detective pair Tommy and Tuppence (played by James Warwick and Francesca Annis). 

Before the series began, an adaptation of the first Tommy and Tuppence novel The Secret Adversary aired as a telefilm and told of the first adventure of Tommy and Tuppence when they met after World War I in need of work and began their careers with an ad in the newspapers and found themselves involved case of international intrigue. The plot was superb with a lot of tricks and an amazing number of red herrings. The cinematography was great for the 1980s with a far better quality than the typical British TV show of the era.

The cinematography of the main series was more typical of the era which was a definite downgrade. The series finds a married Tommy and Tuppence taking over a detective agency and assuming the pseudonym of the jailed original owner of the Agency, Mr. Blunt while Tuppence pretends to be his confidential secretary, Miss Robinson.  The stories are set in the 1920s  and the producers do a great job creating a period feel, even on a limited budget. Annis carries the show in that regard, looking very much the fashionable 1920s woman in looks as well as her general manner.

The book upon which the series was based,  was a bit of a tongue in cheek look at popular detective fiction and that feel comes through with several tips of the cap to the great detectives while maintaining a light feel to most stories.  The pacing could be a bit slow with too much melodrama and lead to a resolution that was more than a little bit rushed.  There were some great episodes in the series, but some stinkers as well.  The best episodes in the series are arguably the last two, "The Case of the Missing Lady" (from a comedy standpoint) and "The Cracker" from a dramatic standpoint with "The House of Lurking Death" probably the weakest.

In the end, the series is worth watching because of the delightful performance of Annis and her chemistry with Warwick. While not a great show, like many other programs of bygone days, it will beat most of what's on television these days.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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11Aug/130

Video Theater 043: Sherlock Holmes: The Case of Harry Crocker

An escape artist shows up at Baker Street asking for Holmes' help to clear him of murder. Episode 9 (1954)

20Jul/130

TV Series Review: Banacek

More than a decade prior to becoming universally associated with the character of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith, George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a Boston-based Polish proverb-spouting insurance investigator who made a comfortable living solving cases the insurance company couldn't crack and collecting ten percent of the insurance company's savings.

The series aired from 1972-74 and it focused on classic impossible mysteries. How does a football player on the field disappear in front of thousands of fans? How does a million dollars in cash vanish from behind a locked display case? And how does $23 million in paintings vanish from a truck transporting it? These are just a few of the stories that occupied Banacek's time and how he made his money. Banacek takes no case where the missing item is less than a million dollars in value. While a murder usually happens in the course of the investigation, it's not guaranteed. The focus is on the big property crime, not on violence.

Banacek was part of NBC's Mystery wheel, so its original running time with commercials was 90 minutes, with the shows themselves running a shade over 70 minutes in length. This allows for plenty of development, particularly in the early episodes, without a lot of fluff. A grand total of 13 films were recorded.

Throughout the series Peppard was supported by Ralph Manza who provided the comic relief as Banacek's chauffeur and erstwhile sidekick who would occasionally take a crack at the solution that would be invariably offbase. Murray Mattheson played Felix Mulholland, a book store owner that seemed to know everything about everything.

In addition to the mystery, Banacek was portrayed as God's gift to women, at least those who weren't looking for a serious relationship. Among the Banacek women was future Lois Lane Margo Kidder. However, actual scenes in bed were avoided throughout the series, as mere verbal hints were all that would be allowed.

The second season did see some changes. In the first season, the insurance company was more than happy to hand over six digit checks in order to avoid seven digit losses. However, in the second season, an insurance company exec tried to thwart Banacek with the help one of his own investigator Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford) who tried to maintain an on-again, off-again romance with Banacek while trying to beat him out of his exorbitant fees.

This was a bad move, as it tampered with the show's dynamic, slowed down the stories and didn't add anything to the plot. Kirkland wasn't particularly likable. In one story, she wormed her way into an investigation asking to learn from Banacek while on a leave of absence from the company  and then tried to sell him out to her insurance company. The character didn't appear in the last two episodes of the second season which were set outside of Boston.

The second season disc for Banacek contains the original pilot which shows a bit of the original conception. The insurance company executive who began using Carlie as a foil for Banacek in the second season was played as respecting Banacek to an uptight investigator who hated Banacek horning in on their cases even though Banacek managed to solve them. In the original conception, Banacek only worked cold cases that hadn't been solved in sixty days and the executive commented on how much money the insurance company has squandered on investigators' pay and expenses searching for millions of dollars in gold. Perhaps this is why the producers went with a format where Banacek came on with a promise of reward soon after the items were stolen. It made more economic sense. In the case in the pilot, they ended up out all the money they paid the investigators plus the reward.

Peppard played Banacek differently in the pilot. He was quieter, less flip character. He spent a good fifteen minutes straight on screen at one point saying nothing. He spoke with conviction explaining why he didn't change his last name to something less obviously Polish.

Jay and Carlie were also in the pilot. Jay was quite different. He owned a limo rental business based in Dallas rather than being Banacek's employee and simply drove him around. He also pulled a classic doublecross when he bribed the operator to listen in to Banacek's phone call and overheard a key clue which he used in hopes of collecting the reward. Definitely a different conception than the loyal, albeit dimwitted character who'd appear in the rest of the series.

Carlie was staying in Banacek's hotel room and was pretending to be asleep. She'd wormed her way into the room with use of feminine wiles and then tried to pounce on the lead just ahead of Jay. At the scene of the dig, Banacek (prematurely) congratulated Jay. She asked why Banaceck didn't congratulate her. Banacek replied that all he and Jay had shared was a limo.

At least, the Carlie character was consistent.

Overall thoughts:

Banacek is certainly not an essential mystery series. Unlike Columbo or Monk, Banacek is one of those shows you can take or leave.

Peppard is at his best as the wise-cracking detective who stays one step ahead of cops and official insurance investigators while hunting down items of unbelievable value.

The first season is a solidly performed series with great mysteries, solid plots, and great solutions. The second season has too much airtime taken up by Carlie Kirkland and that drags down the stories. Still, even that season has the great entry, "If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn't He Tell Us Where He Is?" as well as the fairly good, "Rocket to Oblivion."

Overall, I'd give the series three 3.5 stars out of 5.0 with Season 1 getting 4 stars and season 2 getting a 3.

In terms of availability, the Banacek series has gone out of print, so the DVDs are absurdly over-priced. The best way to view the series is through a Netflix subscription.

If you don't subscribe to Netflix, the best bargin as of this writing is the Best of Banacek DVD which is selling on Amazon for $6.05 plus shipping with a very limited supply remaining. The DVD comes with 4 episodes from the first season.  Given that the complete 17 episode series is selling for $150 + shipping on Amazon, it's a decent deal-while it lasts.

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24Nov/120

You Ought to be on DVD: Beloved Radio Comedy Characters

Unreleased TV DetectivesThe Ziv Properties, Vintage Detective Movie SerialsI Heard it on RadioNero Wolfe, and Mark VII Limited Productions

For 24 1/2 years, Husband and Wife Jim and Marion Jordan played Fibber McGee and Molly over the radio as it became one of the most recognizable and iconic shows of radio's golden age. From that show, span off Harold Peary as the Great Gildersleeve, a role he held down for eleven years, two as a supporting character on Fibber McGee and Molly.

However, what many people don't is that these radio legends made a series of movies. In 1937, Fibber McGee and Molly had bit parts in This Way Please and followed up with three more movies in prominent roles in Look Who's Laughing, Here We Go Again, and Heavenly Days. Only Look Who's Laughing  has been released and that as part of a Lucille Ball RKO pictures collections.

Peary appeared in two of these films as Gildersleeve.  Gildersleeve also had parts in three other films in the late 1930s and early 40s before four Gildersleeve were made between 1942-44.

Of course, they weren't the only beloved radio comics to get shorted in DVD released. Lum and Abner had a career on radio running from 1931-54, with a few breaks here and there. They made seven films in the process. Four of the Lum and Abner films have lapsed into the public domain.  However, the last three, Goin' to Town, Partners in Time, and Lum 'n Abner Abroad remain far more difficult to obtain.

Finally William Bendix made a name playing Chester Riley on The Life of Riley. The radio series is widely available, however television show availability is far more spotty without an official release. In addition, The Life of Riley movie hit theaters in 1949 towards the tale end of the radio run.  One show writer/producer who lived into the 21st had made a big deal about radio fans sharing episodes of the radio series, yet seemingly took no steps to get an official release of either TV shows or Movies on to DVD. What a revoltin' development.

Then we have Our Miss Brooks. The movie version starring Eve Arden has finally been released as an archive DVD. Great! Will we soon see the four seasons released for fans to enjoy on an official release with great video quality?

Perhaps, most neglected radio show that moved to television is the Burns and Allen program. No official DVD release of the show's mostly copyrighted filmed run has occurred. Mostly what is available are somewhat badly restored episodes from the kinescope runs.

Here's hoping for better care and availability of our comedy heritage in years to come.

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