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

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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27Oct/120

You Ought to be on DVD: Unreleased TV Detectives

Previous: The Ziv Properties, Vintage Detective Movie Serials, I Heard it on Radio, Nero Wolfe

Some the details on some of these shows are rather scant. That's due to their lack of availability, so all we have are a few details.

Richard Diamond, Private Detective-Several episodes of this show have landed on DVD with the first season entirely in the public domain. But this series with a pre-fugive David Janssen ran 4 years, adapted many radio scripts, and featured early work by Mary Tyler Moore. With action, adventure, and good pacing there's no reason why Richard Diamond shouldn't be given a full out full series release with all 77 episodes available to be enjoyed.

77 Sunset Strip: A popular detective drama featuring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Roger Smith as his partner. The show was popular, ran for six seasons, and spawned many imitators. Currently rated a 8.1 on IMDB.

The Line Up: This program based on the classic radio show of the same name ran as a Dragnet Rival for six seasons and was resyndicated as San Francisco Beat.  Most episodes are still under copyright protection but are very scarce. Rated 7.4 on IMDB.

Hawaiian Eye: A fan favorite starring Robert Conrad as a handsome Private Eye plying his trade in Hawaii. Also starred Connie Stevens. Rated 7.8 on Imdb.

Johnny Midnight: Detective program starring Oscar Winning Actor and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar star (1950-52) Edmond O'Brien as a former broadway detective turned private eye. Rated 6.5 on IMDB.

Hawk: This 1966 series starred a young (30 year old) Burt Reynolds a a Native American detective working for the New York District Attorney's office.  Rated  7.0 on IMDB.

The Felony Squad: Classic police series starring Howard Duff (Sam Spade) and Ben Alexander (Dragnet) Currently rated 8.3 on IMDB.

Dan August: Another detective vehicle starring Burt Reynolds as Santa Luisa Police Lieutenant Dan August and ran during the 1970-71 season. Reynolds netted a golden globe nomination for his performance.  Rated 6.6 on IMDB>

Longstreet: 1971 Detective show featuring James Franciscus as a blind detective. Only episodes available on DVD are those featuring Bruce Lee. Rated 8.0 on IMDB.

Jigsaw: Short lived 1972 series starring James Wainwright as a police detective and later private detective who handled missing person cases. Rated 6.2 on IMDB.

Hec Ramsey: Western Detective series starring Richard Boone (Have Gun Will Travel) as a detective in the Old West. Also featured Harry Morga and was part of NBC's Mystery Wheel. Rated 7.8 on IMDB.

Lanigan's Rabbi: A police chief (Art Carney) solves crimes with the help of a rabbi (Bruce Solomon.) I know it's only rated 5.2 on IMDB but the whole concept is intriguing.

Tenafly:  Along with Richard Roundtree's Shaft, Tenafly was the first detective show to feature a black private eye. The star was James McEachin who I've most often seen portraying Lt. Ed Brock in the  Perry Mason and Lt. Frank Daniels on Matlock, two cops who were constantly arresting the wrong guy. As such, I think we're entitled to see him actually getting the right guy a few times. Rated 6.9 on IMDB.

Mathnet: Mathnet was a feature on PBS Square One program which grew bigger as the series progressed becoming a sort of comedy mystery show within a show rather than a mere Dragnet parody.  The show featured its fictional mathematicians usually all sorts of math principles to solve cases. The math is still up to date and it has great nostalgia appeal for "kids of all ages." Rated 7.6 on IMDB.

Cosby Mysteries: This 1994-95 series starred Bill Cosby as Guy Hanks, a New York criminologist who retired from the police force after winning the lottery and having a heart attack, but emerges to solve some difficult and puzzling cases. The series is only rated a 5.0 on IMDB, but I really don't get why.  It featured solid mysteries and a great lead and supporting cast particularly James Naughton as Detective Sully. Certainly, there has to be enough Cosby fans to make this one get on DVD.

I'd love your thoughts on my list. Also what other detective shows do you think deserve a DVD release. (Hint: Check TVShowsonDVD first as many programs have actually gotten released.)

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13Oct/120

You Ought to be on DVD: The Ziv Properties

Previous: Vintage Detective Movie Serials, I Heard it on Radio, Nero Wolfe

Frederick Ziv was listed as #66 on our list of radio's most essential people, but he was also critical in early television. Ziv Television turned out some of the most fascinating first-run syndicated television series. Many of these titles will be recognizable to old time radio fans such as Mr. District Attorney, Boston Blackie, Easy Aces, Bold Venture (alas without Bogart and Becall), Dr. Christian (with Carey playing the nephew of the original Dr. Christian), and the Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater. In addition fans of I Was a Communist for the FBI would appreciate the even better TV series I Led Three Lives.

Sadly, most of these programs are unavailable on DVD. A few like Lock Up (starring Macdonald Carey) have lapsed into the public domain in their entirety or like Boston Blackie or Bat Masterson have lapsed partially, so some prints are available, but alas most of these programs if they're available at all are only available through gray market or black market source with variable quality.

It's a shame because Ziv had some truly entertaining programs that filled non-prime time hours.

In addition to all of the radio programs brought to television, there were many other highlights: There was the King of Diamond series that featured William Gargan's only acting appearance after the loss of his voice due to removal of his larynx. There were several great sea programs including Men of Annapolis, The Aquanauts, Harbor Command, Waterfront, and Seahunt. There was the sky diving drama Ripcord. MGM's only step on the Ziv programs was an over-priced released of Season 1 of Highway Patrol at a cost of more than $50.

Of course, it's not only Ziv's programs that MGM's neglected. Only one episode of MGM's Thin Man Television series from 1957 with Peter Lawford has been released and that as an extra with the Thin Man movies.

I hope that MGM will work to get these programs released, maybe by selling the rights to a company like Timeless Media Group or Shout  Factory who have shown competence in selling and marketing classic television shows. As it is right now, there's a lot of great TV going to waste in the MGM vault.

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8Jul/120

Video Theater 030: Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Texas Cowgirl

Holmes helps a young woman  in a travelling western show who has found a dead body in her hotel room.

Episode 4 (Original Air Date: November 8, 1954)

7Jul/120

Carry Me Back to Old Mayberry

Andy and Barney
Andy Griffith passed away at the age of 86. Griffith was the star of one of the most beloved programs in television history, The Andy Griffith Show. 

Griffith's legacy was not limited to that, however. Prior to Andy Griffith, he was a solid movie actor with He had a second great series two decades after in Elia Kazan's masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd (1957) and the comedic classic No Time for Sergeants (1958). Then nearly two decades after Andy Griffith ended, Griffith spent nine years as high priced yet thrifty great suited lawyer Ben Matlock, and then after Matlock ended he enjoyed a state of semi-retirement as a character actor who could still create magic in movies like The Waitress. 

That said,  none of Griffith's other work has had near the impact on his fellow citizens than  those eight years in Mayberry.  In 1998, 5 million people daily tuned into reruns of the Andy Griffith show. I doubt that number has declined much. Along with I Love Lucy, Andy Griffith remains one of those few shows that have not been forgotten by the sands of time.

What makes Mayberry stay strong?

Barney Fife: Any analysis of the show has to begin with Barney Fife. His five seasons on the show were the best of the series. He brought home four Emmy Awards for the role.  And won another as a guest star. Barney was the lovable buffoon and braggart who provided the show's greatest comedic moments in shows, "Barney Joins the Choir" and "Citizen's Arrest." However, he could occasionally pull off the great dramatic moment as he did, "Andy on Trial."

Gentle Human Comedy: If I could use one word to describe the Andy Griffith Show's comedy, it'd be "gentle."  Comedy today is often about put downs, denigrating women, denigrating men, denigrating different religions or political viewpoints, but Andy Griffith was about the foibles of frail human beings just like us who made mistakes and had their flaws.

It's a show that makes you laugh without leaving you to question whether what you laughed was really funny or just cruel.  On Andy Griffith, the comedy often came from efforts to spare people's reputation and feelings.  The Andy Griffith Show made more people laugh with its efforts to be kind than most shows that have tried to obtain laughter through cruelty.

Love and Music: The show in the midst of its hilarity would often create a beautiful dramatic moment that would touch the hearts of viewers as parents, as children, or just as plain humans who could relate to what the characters were going through.

Music was an important part of Southern life and played a significant role in the program with Sheriff Taylor, the Darling Family, Rafe Hollister, or others.  It gave the show a feeling of authenticity.

The Truest Show on Television:  Our trips to Mayberry would invariably come with a moral. The insertion of morals into the show was quite intentional. One man even used it as Curriculum for a Bible Study and a Baltimore pastor used it to create a sermon series when he observed that every one of the gifts of the Spirit could be illustrated by an Andy Griffith show.

The program taught good morals while rarely being "preachy." You'd laugh at the events, but then turn off the TV and then you'd come away with a nugget of truth.

Of course, the show is often considered unrealistic with its often idyllic portrayal of small town life. Yet The Andy Griffith Show was more about truths that endure rather than the passing reality of the moment.

The strongest criticism of Andy Griffith was  the lack of black characters. There was only one Black character with a speaking role in the eight year run of Andy Griffith. We should note that the problem was not limited to Mayberry. In the far more urbane Dick Van Dyke Show,  I recall only two Black Characters with speaking roles in the five seasons. I've also seen the first three seasons of Green Acres and again no black actors. This problem has more to do with a Hollywood culture that had failed to cultivate black stars and character actors than it does any racism on the part of the producers of Andy Griffith. 

More to the point, it doesn't matter in the long run to the show's staying power of the program as Rochelle Riley wrote for the Detroit Free Press:

 “For me, and for many generations before me, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was about our lives, regardless of color or background...

“My family didn’t watch ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ to count black people. We watched to see our way of life, one that included spending hours picking plums in the plum orchard, then sitting under a chinaberry tree eating them, or walking along ponds to collect cattails."

And many generations after will continue to enjoy the simple lessons of life in Mayberry.

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10Jun/120

Video Theater 029: Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Pennsylvania Gun

Sherlock Holmes (Ronald Howard) is called to a castle to investigate the murder of an American emigrant and for some reason, he's bringing fishing tackle.

Original Air Date: November 1, 1954

11Dec/110

Video Theater 023: Racket Squad: The Christmas Caper

Captain Braddock of the Racket Squad tells how his duty demanded he arrest Santa Claus-an old man who had been taken in by a phony Santa racket.

Season 3, Episode 15

Original Air Date: December 25, 1952

9Oct/111

Video Theater 021: General Electic Theater: Committed

An ad seeking adventure lands author Dan Holiday (Alan Ladd) in a sanitarium where everyone keeps calling him "Stokes."

Season 3, Episode 11 (Original Air Date: December 5, 1954)

5Jun/110

Video Theater 017: Martin Kane: The District Attorney Killer

A murderer who  pledges to get even with the District Attorney kills him in open court and implicates his defense attorney as the one who provided the gun. Martin Kane goes to work.

From the 1949-1951-run.

25Feb/111

The Complete Johnny Staccato Review

John Cassavettes

Johnny Staccato was one of those shows that acquired a cult following and could never do much else. It's 27 episode-run from 1959-60 assured it would never make it far in syndication. It's star, John Cassevetes didn't care for the show and had only taken the job to pay off some personal debts.  Cassavettes went so far as to publicly criticize the show in his successful effort to escape in his contract in the middle of the 39-episode season.

Still, the fans have made their feelings known. Those who remember Staccato gave it a fat 8.8 rating on a 10 point scale. For years, Staccato was entirely the province of grey market DVD makers. Now, thanks to Timeless Media, I can evaluate whether Cassavettes was right or the fans? For the most part, the answer is the fans.

More than a P.I. Show

First of all, I have to compliment Timeless Media on the quality of the recordings in their complete Johnny Staccato Box Set.  I'm pretty well used to the somewhat poorly aged prints that dominate TV reruns and public domain video. Somebody put a lot of work into making Johnny Staccato a great release. The video and sound are great even on my old analog set. It was a pleasure to see and listen to. While some would complain about the lack of extras, I can't really expect many extras  when we're dealing with a 51 year old show that was cancelled mid-season and where the star has been dead for 20 years. I'm thankful they got the show out and in such a beautiful form.

It can be tempting to write Johnny Staccato off as merely a ripoff of Peter Gunn. After all, both Staccato and Gunn are New York P.I.'s that hang around the jazz scene. The big difference with Staccato is that jazz isn't just something he hangs around for information, but he's truly a part of it as a musician. The scenes of Staccato on the piano are priceless. The music of the lates 50s pulses through Johnny Staccato.

In addition, every episode of Peter Gunn seems to end with at least two, and usually four dead bodies. Staccato often ended the show with no dead bodies. Cassavettes influence made Johnny Stacatto much more a Detective Drama than it did Peter Gunn's shooting gallery.

Also, another big difference between Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato is that while "Mother" in Peter Gunn seemed to exist in the story primarily as a plot device and the owner of Peter Gunn's favorite hangout, Waldo (Eduardo Ciannelli) who owns Johnny's favorite spot is a far more fleshed out and there's an almost father-son dynamic of their relationship.

As a Private Detective, while Craig Stevens who played Peter Gunn looked and sounded like he was out of central casting for a detective hero, Cassavettes didn't have the look of  a great detective hero. Perhaps, it was because I first saw him playing the murderer in the Columbo movie,  "Etude in Black", but it took me a while to buy him as a hero. However, Staccato after a while Staccato's looks became a plus.

Staccato was a Korean War Veteran who rarely became involved in cases for the money. He rushed off to help his friends and solve cases with little concern for fees. He was the proverbial knight in tarnished armor.

According to the first episode, Johnny abandonned full-time piano playing for the life of a private eye when he realized he didn't have the talent to make it big. In the first episode, Johnny states he had turned in his musician's union card years before, but still seemed to play part-time at Waldo's.

Staccato's cases occassionally fell under the category of "typical PI fare" such as in, "House of the Four Winds," where Johnny deals with trouble in Chinatown  and "Night of Jeopardy," where Johnny shoots a counterfeiter and now the mob is after him for the plates.  In "Act of Terror," Johnny is hired by a hypnotist to find his missing wife but Johnny becomes suspicious that the man (and his dummy) may know more than they're letting on. In these sort of rough and tumble situations, Staccato handled himself as well as any detective on television. 

Other episodes had far deeper dramatic and even moral meaning. In "Evil," Johnny takes on a huckster who is using a mission to scam people out oof money. This episode took a few clever turns. In, "Tempted," Johnny has a chance to take a beautiful woman and $200,000 necklace. In the, "Return," Johnny has to stop a Korean War Veteran who escaped from a mental hospital from killing his wife. In, "Solomon," Johnny is asked to commit perjury by the city's greatest defemse attorney in order to acquit a client the lawyer believes to be innocent.

Of the first 23 episodes, I'd say 22 are are among the best hour detective shows of the era (the exception to this being, "Double Feature" which added nothing to the silly "everyone has a double" plots that many shows just have to try.) It was towards the end of the run that the show began to fade. Cassavettes wanted out, and it began to show on the screen starting with, "An Angry Young Man" in which the story was weak and had Johnny unbelievably moving rhythmically to the polka. The show bounced back a bit with "The Mask of Jason" which featured a young Mary Tyler Moore as a beauty queen scared of an ugly man, but by the end of the episode, the audience has to wonder where the real ugliness lay.

The last two episodes were straight downhill. In "A Nice Little Town," the writers go literally out of their way to make a political point, sending Johnny out of New York to a small town where a former U.S. soldier who had defected to the North Korean side had been murdered by two men in absurd masks. We then get to watch unlikable townfolks attack Johnny for not having an American name and for being either a commie or stupid. The episode concludes without Johnny capturing the killers, so that Johnny can make a speech to the strawman anti-communist town. Whether Cassavettes was concerned with making a political point, trying to impress avante garde activist types, or pushing the storyline in hopes that it would help the show get cancelled due to public outcry and get him out of his contract, or some combination of the three, we don't know.  However, no record exists suggests that the episode played any part in Staccato's exit.

The last episode of Johnny Staccato was, "Swinging Long Hair," which was odd as no one in the episode had long hair. The episode had some great music, but was one of the shabbiest shows of the series in terms of its writing. It ends with Stacatto remarking that one of the bad guys still needed to be killed but as someone else would have to do it as, "I've had it."  Thus star and character bid farewell together.

While the show's quick decline was sad to watch, the quality and greatness of the first 23 episodes make this set well worth owning and I'm glad that I do. Johnny Stacatto was a great show and there may have been more episodes if John Cassavettes had agreed.

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