Category: DVD Review

Movie Review: The Great Rupert (aka The Christmas Wish)

In The Great Rupert/The Christmas wish, an animal trainer has trained a tamed squirrel named Rupert to wear a tiny kilt and tam and dance. However, a broadway agent informs him that the squirrel isn’t “box office” because he is too small to be seen in a Broadway show. This is the animal trainer’s last chance before he’s evicted from the shack leaning against the fancy home of his landlord (Frank Orth-Inspector Farraday from the TV version of Boston Blackie). He releases his tamed squirrel into a local park, but the squirrel struggles to survive in the wild, so he returns home and takes up residence in a hidey-hole between the shack and the landlord’s fancy home.

The story is actually about a down-on-their-luck Vaudeville family with the father, Louie, played by Jimmy Durante. It’s Christmastime, they only have forty cents for a tree, and they can’t afford shoes for their daughter (Terry Moore). At the same time, the miserly landlord learns that his gold mine investment has paid off and that each week he will be receiving $1,500 (about $16,000 in today’s money.)

With bad memories from the 1929 crash, he doesn’t trust banks, so he hides his cash upstairs in a hole in the wall, unaware Rupert has built his nest right behind it. The money takes up space the squirrel is storing nuts in, so he dumps the money out, above a hole in the shack’s roof, which the money falls through just as Louie’s wife (Queenie Smith) is praying. Christmas is saved and so is the rest of the year as the landlord keeps putting money in like clockwork and Rupert keeps tossing it out to Louie’s family, who are unwittingly paying their rent with the Landlord’s own money.

There’s a lot to like about the movie. Rupert was a stop-motion animation. For the times, he looks really life-like and cute.

Louie is mostly a typical Jimmy Durante character: positive, upbeat, and a lot of fun. Yet there were a few moments when he’d acknowledge the problems he’s facing. It makes the character someone who understands life’s challenges but faces them with laughter and a positive attitude rather than a crazy screwball character. Queenie Smith gave a sweet, down-to-earth performance and played well opposite of Durante.

While the story is light and fun, it does have some interesting ideas at its core. It asks what money is for and fundamentally how you approach the rest of the human race, Louie and his landlord have different approaches and it’s interesting to see how they play out over the course of the film. Again, this is done without being heavy-handed.

There’s some nice music here. A Christmas Party sets up a couple signature Durante piano numbers, including one wishing Christmas came twice a year, and a piece called Melody for Two Orphan Instruments.

The film does have its flaws. The original title, The Great Rupert, isn’t a good choice as Rupert is only the focus of the film at the beginning and toward the end. It’s often sold under the title The Christmas Wish, which makes far more sense. The plot does sag a bit in the middle before the final act and some of its resolution is too pat by modern standards. Still, this is a fun film with a sweet feel. It makes nice viewing around Christmas or any other time you want to escape the cynicism of our modern world.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Note: This film is in the public domain and is available at numerous sources on DVD, but is also available for free download through the Internet Archive.

DVD Review: Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2:Rare Pilots

This DVD collects four unaired pilots of 1950s television shows.

The first is a pilot for Racket Squad starring Reed Hadley as Captain Braddock. In general, if you’ve seen an episode of Racket Squad, then you have a good idea of what this episode is like as it shows how con men set up a clever scheme to rip off the mark. If there’s any difference between this episode and the series proper, it’s that Captain Braddock is a little harsher to the victim, greeting him with, “Hello, sucker.” Still, it’s an entertaining half-hour of television.

Second is Cool and Lam. After the success of Perry Mason, network officials decided to give another Erle Stanley Gardener detective a chance and so they adapted the story of detective team Bertha Cool (Benay Vanuta) and Donald Lam (Bill Pearson). I enjoyed this one. There’s good humor and a decent mystery. This a series I wish had been picked up.

A bit of an oddball in this collection featuring crime dramas is the 1948 pilot for The Life of Riley. The series had been a successful radio program starring William Bendix. However, due to Bendix’s movie contract, he wasn’t able to reprise the role over television. We get to see the first choice to play Riley over television instead–horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr.

The pilot is historically significant. It was a taped program back in 1948 when live Kinescopes would dominate early television for the better part of five years. However, the big problem was Lon Chaney playing Riley. He  wasn’t cut out for the part. The TV script was based on a radio script and Chaney tried to play it like Bendix did and it just doesn’t work.

His delivery is flat and uninspired. When Jackie Gleason became the first TV Riley in 1949, he gave it his own spin. I’m not a huge fan of his approach, but at least he realized he couldn’t be Bendix.

Note we get to see John Brown as Digger O’Dell, the undertaker, often heard on the radio program. I have mixed feelings on this because Digger is such a broad character. I imagine him walking around with a black mustache and black coat and being tall. However, John Brown just looks like an ordinary guy in an ordinary suit. So that was a bit jarring.

The final pilot is 1959’s Nero Wolfe starring Kurt Kazner as Wolfe and William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. Shatner is a great choice for Archie, bringing great charisma to the role. Kaszner is an interesting choice for Wolfe. Kaszner was Austrian born. Having a European play Wolfe is closer to the book than most other portrayals of Wolfe which ignore the fact that he was from the Eastern Europe country Montenegro. William Shatner brings that swagger that’s a requirement to play Archie Goodwin and is pretty fun to watch. The plot was decent. Wolfe solved this case mostly from reading the newspaper and that was clever. Though the episode wasn’t based on the Wolfe stories by Rex Stout, it captured the spirit of them nicely.

On the other hand, this was a series that would have needed to be an hour rather than the pilot’s half-hour length. The episode was a bit bare-bones and lacked the style I associate with a Wolfe story or any of Wolfe’s and Archie’s supporting cast. Kaszner wasn’t quite big enough to play Wolfe which the wardrobe seemed to try to make up for by putting him in clothes that were a bit too big, which doesn’t work. Also, Wolfe has a cold in the pilot and is stuck in bed, which is a weird thing for a pilot to do as its establishing what a normal episode is like.

The bonus feature with this set is a not-for-air blooper reel that was sent out by CBS to managers of its affiliates, featuring many bloopers and flubbed lines. The programs featured are mostly Westerns, but with the Twilight Zone and The Red Skelton Show. I will warn that this is not really for kids. The unscripted bad language is not censored, so it’s PG-13 stuff.

Overall, for those interested in classic television, this set does offer some fun rarities. While this wasn’t the best the 1950s had to offer in television, it’s a mostly entertaining look at what might have been.

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Telefilm Review: Magnum, P.I.: Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii

Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii is the premier episode of Magnum PI. It aired on December 11, 1980, eleven months after the last episode of The Rockford Files aired leaving television without a top private investigator.

In the episode, Magnum (Tom Selleck)goes to pick up an old Navy buddy only to find he’s been murdered and posthumously accused of trafficking. cocaine. Magnus sets out to clear his friend’s name.

What Works:

Tom Selleck would win both an Emmy and a Golden Globe in the course of his eight season on the show. Here, we get a good sample of why. He delivers acting that’s above and beyond what you expect from a private detective show.

He’s helped by a script that does a superb job introducing Magnum and setting him up as an interesting and complex character. On a superficial level, he seems like a lighter character than James Rockford’s work-a-day private eye, with his own place on the grounds of writer Robin Masters’ palatial Hawaiian estate, but it’s more complex than that.

Magnum served in Vietnam and was a Navy Seal and in Navy Intelligence. He explained his reason for leaving the military, briefly: “One day, I woke up age thirty-three and realized I’d never been twenty-three.” Magnum and his friends had spent their youth getting shot at in a war zone and there’s this sense of him hoping to recapture something he lost.

Yet, he also has a sense of honor and decency. This first story has him trying to solve the murder of a friend and restore his good name. Magnum also resists the advances of his friend’s sister because he doesn’t want to take advantage of her. Magnum was a bit of a maverick in the Navy and is glad to be out of it. However, there’s a hint the Navy’s not entirely out of him when he describes a helicopter surveillance flight as “a mission.”

John Hillerman is fun as Higgins, even though his initial take on Higgins seems to be a bit more broadly British than I remember from my times watching Magnum as kid. We get some great scenes between Higgins and Magnum which help set the stage forĀ  the most consistently interesting character relationship of the series. We also get to see Higgins go into action towards the end of the episode.

Rick (Larry Manetti) is kind of interesting and I like the idea of him having a Casablanca fixation and a real first name he would rather not share. It’s a shame they didn’t go ahead with the Casablanca stuff in the original series.

Beyond that, the series has most everything I really liked about the program as a kid and I still like as an adult: the Ferrari, the helicopter, and that theme music which practically screams adventure. On top of that, there’s some nice Hawaiian scenery although that’s not the main focus.

What Doesn’t Work:

The solution became somewhat obvious during a flashback sequence. It became painfully obvious when Magnum flew over the criminal’s boat. While the mystery itself isn’t bad, it could have landed a lot smoother and been a bit more challenging.

Also, T.C. (Roger Mosley) is mostly functional in this episode. We don’t know a whole lot about him at this point other than that he served in the Marines with Rick and together they served with Magnum in Vietnam. Of course, this may have been based on audience needs. When I watched Magnum growing up, the fact T.C. flew a helicopter alone made him cool and likable. As an adult, I’d like his character to be better developed, but I can’t work up too much annoyance over the fact it isn’t due to the nostalgia factor.

Overall:

Magnum, P.I. began its eight season run with an emotionally compelling case that did a great job establishing its main character and setting the tone for the rest of the series. Magnum can be considered the successor to Rockford Files. Magnum also laid the groundwork for the A-Team, another series featuring Vietnam vets back home as action heroes.

As a pilot, this is rock solid. While this isn’t good as it gets for Magnum, P.I., it’s a terrific opener that does nearly everything you could ask for.

Rating 4.25 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: We’re Off to Kill the Wizard

While visiting her niece somewhere in the Midwest, Jessica is invited to the opening of the latest amusement park by mogul Horatio Baldwin (James Coco) Baldwin wants to open a grisly theme park based on Jessica’s books, an offer Jessica refuses. Later Baldwin is found dead with a gun in his hand behind his locked office door. When the coroner finds he was killed by a blow to the head before the shot, the local police ask for her help.

What Works:

James Coco is marvelous as Baldwin. The first big scene is at a ceremony for Baldwin’s latest theme park where he plays a monk being hanged in a scene that’s played with perfect hammyness. Later, we get to see Baldwin as he tries to negotiate with Jessica. He treats everyone horribly, something Jessica doesn’t miss. When Jessica refuses his initial offer, he presses a button that locks the door so she can’t leave. When she threatens to press charges, he lets her go and sets out to dig up blackmail on her.

Jessica plays marvelously off Baldwin. She knows exactly who she is and what she’s about. Baldwin makes a great target for her moral indignation as his park is seeking to present violent and gory material to children. I thought it would be fun to watch these two battle over the course of the episode, but alas Baldwin was the designated corpse.

Jessica may have the best fan relations of any author ever. She not only signed Baldwin’s secretary’s book, but helped with the investigation to help clear herself as she disappeared after the crime was committed.

I also like the police motive for inviting her in. They’re neither in, “This is a police investigation, stay out” mode or “Please, we are helpless, solve the mystery,” mode instead Captain Davis (John Schruck) concludes that since they have a locked room mystery, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask a mystery writer for her opinion.

While this episode doesn’t have golden age Hollywood legends, the episode contains actors who appeared in other mystery series including Christine Belford (Banacek) and James Stevens (The Father Dowling Mysteries.)

What Doesn’t Work:

The killer came up with an ingenuous plan involving altering the office phones. Jessica is only able to solve the mystery because the killer stupidly failed to fix the phones, which is an inconsistency.

Speaking of inconsistent, there’s a bizarre detail put in by the writers. She disguises a roll of film as microfilm containing blackmail information collected by Baldwin and then announces that it was film from her vacation the previous year to Spain. It was jarring. Why would she take an undeveloped role of film from a trip year ago on a flight to see someone else? Why not just say it was from this trip to see her niece.

Overall:

“We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” is a well-done episode. Yes, the mystery has flaws and the story is not as fun after Baldwin is killed, but it manages to have some nice scenes of Jessica sleuthing mixed in with a few moments of light gunplay to keep the story engaging.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Hit, Run, and Homicide

In the middle of a baseball game at the Cabot Cove Founder’s Day Picnic, a car chases a wealthy out of town businessman, hits and disappears. Several witnesses testify that no one is driving. The same car then runs down the businessman’s partner.

The businessman claims they were there at the invitation of a disgruntled former employee Daniel O’Brien (Van Johnson) who wanted to meet with them. O’Brien is an inventor who had made plans for a driverless car and jumps to the top of the suspect’s list.

What Works

Murder by remote controlled vehicle is a novel murder method particularly for 1984.

Cabot Cove is very much a work in progress at this point as the show tries to grasp the feel of it. There’s a nice scene that captures the spirit of many small towns when a grocery store clerk points out O’Brien is an out of towner and Jessica points out that he’s lived there six years which leaves the clerk unimpressed.

It also feels like they’re still establishing Sheriff Tupper, who is a bit out of his depth about the whole case. I like the scene where Jessica provides him a gentle and respectful nudge that gets him to stop spinning his wheels.

O’Brien has a former colleague (June Allyson) as a house guest and the two have very\sweet chemistry together.

There’s a fun discussion about driverless cars and technology that’s fascinating if just a bit quaint for modern viewers in a time when driverless cars are starting to become a reality.

What Doesn’t Work

Let’s start with the murder. The business partner is killed on a road with two sides and he faced a choice. He could run up a hill with an impossibly high grade on his left or he could run down a hill into a forest filled with trees. Our victim chooses to run up the hill which he can’t climb and the car hits him, when if he had run into the forest he would have been fine.

While I can believe the victim panicked and did something stupid, it makes the killer’s plan look a bit haphazard because the whole thing could have been avoided with common sense.

In the scene that made the teaser for the episode, Jessica is trapped in the remote controlled car as it careens towards the edge of a cliff. It looks exciting but in context it makes little sense.

Tupper had spent an entire day searching for anywhere the car might have gone, hadn’t found it, and decided to go with the theory that a large truck had driven it away. Jessica points out there’s a place that Tupper hadn’t looked. Tupper refuses to go check, complaining about his budget, and so Jessica goes off by herself, finds the car, and gets inside it. The killer’s watching it an ominous van, remotely locks locks Jessica in, and guides the car down the highway, following it through Cabot Cove and heads it towards the edge of a cliff over the ocean…and then stops it.

This is a scene where nothing makes sense. Tupper was unrealistically stubborn. Jessica has no reason to get in the car and get behind the wheel. The killer had no reason to send Jessica on a scary ride through Cabot Cove unless they were going to kill her, which they weren’t.

It’s true the car needed to be found as part of the killer’s plan but once it was found, mission accomplished. They did the remote controlled chase for no good reason and exposed the van they were driving in to scrutiny. You can interpose your own reason for this such as equipment failure or the killer losing their nerve, but that’s the audience having to fix the writer’s mistake as you won’t find it in the episode.

The clue to solve the case is simple, but a little bit too simple. I pretty much had guessed the involved parties already but didn’t feel too smart for doing so.

Overall: This episode is flawed and continues an odd streak in Murder She Wrote’s first season where episodes set on the West Coast are way better than the East Coast stories.

Still, it’s got one of the more interesting premises so far and you also have June Allyson and Van Johnson bringing some golden age magic. So despite its flaws, this episode is far more entertaining than it deserves to be, and makes for good view.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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