Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: The Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection

Harold Peary originated the role of the Great Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program in 1939. The character was an antagonist for Fibber McGee and proved so popular that he got his own radio show starting in 1941. Peary played the role until 1950 when he left it for the ill-fated Harold Peary show.

Before that happened, the Great Gildersleeve went from radio to feature films, including four that were directly adapted from the characters in the radio. The Warner Archives Great Gildersleeve Movie features all four of these wartime movies plus the film Seven Days Leave in which Gildersleeve plays a much smaller part.

So how do the films hold up? Let’s take a look at each one:

The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

This film is probably the truest to the radio program. The plot has a lot of gags and bits, but the central point is that a woman mistakenly thinks Gildersleeve has proposed to her. Unfortunately for Gildersleeve, the woman is the unmarried sister of Judge Hooker. And Judge Hooker is questioning Gildersleeve’s fitness to be guardian to his niece and nephew. His goal throughout the movie is to prove he’s fit and to stop Judge Hooker from revoking his custody.

This a good film. It’s well-balanced. A lot of goofiness comes out of Gildersleeve’s quest, but his goals make you want to cheer for him. The heart of the Great Gildersleeve series is that he does care for his family. It’s a fun movie with a lot of great twists and well-worth watching.

Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

Gildersleeve has jury duty for a gangster who’s on trial for a bank robbery. Unbeknownst to him, he’s been identified by the gangster’s mob as the one man who could persuade the jury to acquit their guilty boss. Unbeknownst to them, he’s already decided to push for acquittal on his own.

This one is decent and has some madcap hilarious scenes, including a great chase involving Gildersleeve at the end. However, there are a few elements that come off as dumb rather than funny. Still, not a bad watch overall.

Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

Gildersleeve’s niece Marjorie fears that her beau who is in New York is not being faithful to her, so Gily catches a train to find out what the score is. He’s traveling with Mr. Peavy, the town pharmacist who fears a wealthy woman’s decision which could spell doom for his drug store.

This is probably the most funny of the films. The movie keeps a quick pace as the situation continues to spiral out of Gildersleeve’s control. It’s delightfully over the top fun. Its only flaw is that it ends far too abruptly.

Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

Based on the radio series, someone decided that what the gentle, domestic comedy of the Great Gildersleeve called for was a comedy horror movie. The plot begins when two ghosts of Gildersleeve’s ancestors decide to help him win an election for Police Commissioner by hypnotizing a gorilla of a mad scientist so that Gildersleeve can discover an invisible woman. That sure sounds like a typical Gildersleeve plot.

This one has some funny moments, but it was a really flawed film. For one thing, there’s not enough plot for an hour film, so they keep doing the same gags over and over again, such as mistaken identity around the gorilla being there and someone in gorilla suit. Mr. Peavey says, “I wouldn’t say that,” about a dozen times.

Nick Stewart gets a lot of screen time as Chauncey, a chauffeur written as the racist “cowardly Negro” stereotype. It’s not just a minor point, it’s a big part of the second half of the film. Stewart was a good actor who deserved better than this role.   Stewart did eventually get better roles as he’d voice Brer Bear in Song of the South and play Lightnin’ on the Amos and Andy TV show, before founding the Ebony showcase, the first Black-owned theater, where Black Actors could play way better parts than the one he got in this film.

The one thing I do like is the title sequence. It looks spooky and shows a lot of labor went into it. The film itself is padded and at times, unpleasant to watch. This one was understandably a franchise killer.

Seven Days Leave (1942)

Johnny Gray (Victor Mature) learns he is heir to $100,000 through the radio program, The Court of Missing Heirs. He borrows from every member of his company to have a time with his fiancée before he goes to meet the lawyer in charge of this estate, the Great Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve advises the money was left by the descendant of a Union Civil War general and will only be willed to him if he marries the descendant of a particular Confederate general who was his friend. The descendant in question is Terry Havalok-Allen (Lucille Ball) who is also already engaged to someone else.

The movie is a musical with beautifully performed numbers. Gildersleeve even gets in on one of them. There are also great orchestras in the film, including Les Brown’s with Brown playing himself, Ginny Simms shows up to sing a song, and there’s a talented dance trio. The film looks expensive and looks mostly made before the crunch of wartime cost-cutting hit Hollywood.

The movie is a treat for radio fans. First, we get to see Gildersleeve, albeit his characterization is much more like on Fibber McGee than on his own program. We also get a look at two rare radio programs. The Court of Missing Heirs was an actual radio program, with no full episodes in circulation. In addition, the film has Grey and Terry attend a taping of Truth or Consequences and get involved in a game. The earliest available radio episode of Truth or Consequences is from 1945, so this gives insight into how the show looked and sounded in its earliest days.

In addition, Lucille Ball is good in this. She has great lines and good moments when her character is rebuffing Grey’s advances. In addition, Marcy McGuire is a lot of fun as Terry’s sixteen-year-old sister. In a rarity for these films, she was actually sixteen and not only was funny, but her musical numbers were great.

Everything works about this film except the lead character. Johnny Grey is not likable at all. He’s written as a greedy narcissist and none too bright. After all, he’s stringing his own fiancee along while he sets out to break up someone else’s engagement so that he can get big money. While the movie tells us he changes, we don’t see much evidence or growth. Grey sets out to win Terry over by being as obnoxious, intrusive and irritating as possible. My favorite scenes in the movie are the ones where he’s put in his place. The only reason he wins are genre conventions.

If you find Johnnie irritating and unlikable as I did, the question becomes whether that ruins the movie for you. For me, the good stuff in it out-weighs the bad, but your mileage may vary. In a scene my wife found disturbing, Johnny crosses a serious line by kissing Terry by force. My wife found some parts of the film very disturbing, including one where Grey forcibly kissed Terry. Looking at it through modern eyes, Johnnie Grey’s behavior is really predatory and the movie’s message that seems to affirm the behavior illustrates that even with the Hayes code, Hollywood films could have some creepy ideas about sex in them. This is not one I’d say is definitely not for kids.

Overall Thoughts:

The Gildersleeve films came before the TV sitcom was invented and often feel more like TV episodes than actual movies. The first three films managed to expand enough to tell a passable story but Gildersleeve’s Ghost only had enough good material for a half-hour TV episode and then repeated stuff to fill up the run-time. Seven Days Leave is fun for those willing to overlook Johnny Grey’s general sleaziness. Taken together, it is an eclectic set of wartime comedy.

If you’re a fan of old-time radio and the Great Gildersleeve, the set is worth checking out for all of the highlights, unless the lowlights are deal-breakers for you.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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TV Series Review: Banacek

A version of this review appeared five years ago

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. He 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? How does $23 million in paintings vanish from a truck transporting it?

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 thirteen episodes were released.

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

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, 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 since the episodes were set outside of Boston.

The second season disc for Banacek contains the original pilot which shows a bit of the original conception. 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 a 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.

Overall thoughts:

Banacek is certainly not an essential mystery series. Unlike Columbo, Poirot, 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 well-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, Banacek is a hard series to lay your hands on. The season sets are out of print. Last time, I recommended a bargain best of Banacek DVD with six episodes on it and that’s also gone out of print. I watched it originally through Netflix’s DVD rental service. but Netflix no longer carries it. If your local library doesn’t own it, viewing the series may come at a premium that could price it out for anyone but diehard fans until a new printing is done.

 

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TV Series Review: The Indian Detective

In 2017’s CTV/Netflix series Russell Peters stars as Toronto Police Constable Doug D’Mello. D’Mello stops a truck at the border that he’s been led to believe contains drugs. When it turns out not to be the case, D’Mello becomes a viral video joke. He is suspended for a month and demoted to Constable Fourth Class. When he receives a report that his Indian father is ill, D’Mello catches a flight to Mumbai, India. There he ends up staying with his father, who is in the habit of telling people Doug is a detective. This sets Doug up to be involved in multiple mysteries that end up tying into a case far closer to home.

In the first three episodes, the mystery works quite well. The first two episodes are seemingly disconnected cases but do end up tying together. Our overall mystery isn’t a whodunit. It’s trying to understand what their plot is and how our hero is going to stop them. The main villain, Indian drug lord
Gopal Chandekar (Hamza Haq) uses Doug’s investigations in the early episodes to forward his own ends. The actual method of resolving the case is not as strong as it could be, but it’s not stupid or unbelievable.

The supporting cast has some solid performances. Hamza Haq not only plays Gopal Chandekar, he also plays his American twin brother and does a good job making them feel like separate characters. Doug’s father Stanley D’Mello is one of the more likable characters in the story. He and Doug share regret over him never being around, and he’s trying to rekindle the relationship. He and Doug don’t get far but there’s room left open for a second series at the end of this one. Priya Seagal (Mishqah Parthiephal) is a young Indian attorney fighting for poor clients in the slum. She serves as Doug’s conscience and he also starts to fall for her. Canadian acting legend William Shatner plays David Marlowe, an overleveraged, ultra-rich developer looking to strike a deal with the Chandekar brothers for some property. He’s fun whenever he’s on screen.

I have more mixed feelings on Peters’ performance. His character reminds me of Paul Blart, Mall Cop, only less likable. Peters’ character can be obnoxious, particularly in India. It’s as if someone decided the stereotype of Canadians being polite was harmful and used Peters’ character to remedy that. He is rude and condescending to Indians. Thankfully, it’s not all the time, but it’s still off-putting. However, he’s more complex than his worst moments and I give the character credit for correcting his father’s mischaracterization of his job. He volunteers that he wasn’t a detective in Canada in the first episode rather than having it drug out or revealed in a bit of forced comedy.

The series is advertised as a comedy, but it’s not funny. Few scenes amused me and nothing made me laugh. I found the ending for Doug’s character too pat. Things happened to him that couldn’t be justified on the basis of the story.

The series is no classic, but it’s not bad either. It has some charming characters and a pretty solid plot and it managed to hold my interest throughout its runtime.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Broadchurch Series 3 Review

Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch had a fantastic and brilliant first series (see my review here.)  It focused on the effect of the murder of a boy on a small British town and the search for the killer. The cast was superb, led by David Tennant as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Olivia Coleman as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller.

Series 2 was, in my opinion, a bit of a mess. Miller and Hardy are in different positions within the police department. It focused on the ludicrous trial of the killer from series one that ends in his acquittal. Meanwhile Hardy and Miller work unofficially through a tedious mystery that had nothing to do with the small town but had some stakes for Hardy to settle an old case that had haunted him.

Series 3 is set two years after Series 2 and finds Miller and Hardy have both reset their lives. They’re back in their old positions when 49-year-old Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh) reports she was raped at a party. Miller and Hardy investigate the case. Meanwhile, Beth Latimer (Jodie Whitaker) is the mother of the boy murdered in the first series. She shows up in series three, working as an advocate for SARA (sexual assault response association) but is estranged from her husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) who remains unable to find closure after their son’s killer was acquitted.

The process of investigating the crime is handled solidly. It’s a good procedural which was almost Dragnetesque at times (particularly in the first episode) as it took us step by step through the unique process of investigating the crime in the United Kingdom and showing what the victim experiences and what forensics they take as they try to preserve any evidence. It’s told with sensitivity and without sensationalism.

Julie Hesmondhalgh gives a believable and relatable performance as Trish. The story handles her in a realistic and sympathetic way. Not all of her actions are sympathetic, but they’re understandable within the context of what she’s going through. Hannah Millward plays Trish’s daughter well, creating a character caught between her mom and her estranged dad, who is one of the suspects in the case. She’s a likable and well-written character.

The stars turn in their usual great performances. The chemistry between Hardy and Miller has matured. Hardy is brilliant and caring, but he’s also no-nonsense and can be abrupt and harsh which Miller tends to soften out. In Series 1, they clashed frequently, but by Series 3, they’re comfortable with each other. Although, at times, it’s obvious he still annoys her.

However, there has been a balancing of the two characters. Hardy has softened a tad over time, while Miller has become a bit harder after the events of Series 1, which can be seen in her interactions with her father and her son.

Both are raising children on their own. Hardy has brought his daughter to Broadchurch so they can have a second chance while Miller is raising her young son and daughter alone.

The series runs headlong into the issue of the state of sexuality in Western Civilization today and the type of men produced by a society over-saturated with pornography. This is illustrated throughout the series and hits home for both detectives. Miller catches her son using and distributing porn, and sexual pictures of Hardy’s daughter are sent throughout the high school. This leads to one of the most memorable scenes where Hardy confronts the perpetrators and gets very Scottish on them.

The series message and the issues it raises are timely after the revelations of late 2017 and raises serious questions that society has to come to grips with.

The development of the Latimers is a realistic tale of contrasts. Beth has not forgotten her son and is dealing with the grief, although her husband’s drama is making that a challenge. She has taken stock of her life and taken that grief and used it to help others. The Latimers’ teenage daughter Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont) has grown. Mark’s inability to deal with it leads to tragic territory but is also very brilliantly performed.

For all that’s praiseworthy about the Third Series of Broadchurch, there are issues. In many ways, the greatest problem with Broadchurch Series 3 is that it isn’t Series 1.

With the exception of Trish and her daughter, the new characters add little depth. They are suspects, witnesses, and the friends and family of them, unlike the vibrant characters of Series 1 with ticks that made the audience care about them. One such character was totally dropped from the series finale, with us not finding out what happened to her and her husband.

This is typical of a detective drama. With few exceptions, outside of the detectives and close supporting characters, we’re concerned about most characters to the extent that they can provide a clue to help us solve the case. Broadchurch Series 1 was unique it won’t be easy to ever recapture that lightning in the bottle. That might be a case for leaving well enough alone and only making one series of Broadchurch, but it’s not an argument against the quality of the subsequent series.

The problem is Chibnall tried to make it feel like series one, particularly in bringing back characters. Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill) returns to deal with the declining church attendance in town. And newspaper editor Maggie Radcliffe (Carolyn Pickles)faces the Broadchurch Echo’s scummy corporate owners. They plan to close the local office of the Echo. Both Darvill and Pickles are solid performers and did great work in the first series. However, in Series Two, their work is wasted. Both characters are thrown into random scenes throughout the first six episodes, only achieving tangential relevance to the “B” plot of the series in the seventh episode. Only Maggie has a scene that ties into the series’ main plot. It’s good, but I question whether it was worth all the wasted scenes throughout this entire series.

There were also new characters who didn’t make much of an impact. Veteran character actor Roy Hudd played Ellie’s widowed father David, who mainly served as an object for Ellie’s contempt and occasional tirades, as well as managing to kick the already depressed Paul Coates.

While there’s much to the series’ message, it may undermine itself by painting with too broad of strokes. It would be easy to conclude from this series that Alec Hardy is the only decent man left in Broadchurch, if not the UK, or even the entire planet. Every other man we get to know is a fiend, a coward, or otherwise weakly leaving the women in their lives to pick up after them. Even Hardy almost takes a passive approach to a problem that has his daughter wanting to leave Broadchurch and needs Miller to get him to man-up. A bit more balance would have made the series more impactful.

Overall, Broadchurch Series 3 is a good crime drama with two strong leads,  great supporting actors, and a timely message. However, its attempts to live up to the greatness of Series 1 fail to do so and detract from the viewer’s experience.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

 

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DVD Review: Assignment Redhead

Note: Twitter followers @radiodetectives voted this as the movie I’d review this week rather than Whodunit.

In 1951, the Australian radio company Grace Gibson released the first audio drama series featuring Major Gregory Keen, of MI-5. Series creator Lindsay Hardy turned this into a book, “Requiem for a Redhead,” which became a basis for the British movie, “Assignment: Redhead.” (aka Million Dollar Manhunt.)

The basic plot is the same as in the radio drama. A criminal mastermind known as Dumetrius kills a Colonel and takes his place on a flight from Germany to London. On the flight is a U.S. serviceman who takes a picture of Dumetrius. With the help of Hedy Bergner (Carole Matthews), a singer who is a secretly a spy for him, Dumetrius has the serviceman killed and a British Airman named Peter Ridgeway is framed for the crime. Keen (Richard Denning) steps in to locate Dumetrius and hunts for Ridgeway when he escapes.

The movie has some solid points. The original 104-part serial had a lot of repetition and the movie cut a lot of the fat. One thing I like is that we don’t get to see Keen acting like a fool in his being in love with Heddy Bergner and blind to the fact she’ s working for Dumetrius for more than 16 hours as in the radio drama. The plot remains interesting and engaging with some great elements still included. Richard Denning (star of Michael Shayne and Mr. and Mrs. North) turns in a good performance.

Yet, the movie is nowhere near as good as the radio drama overall. The film is low budget and it shows. With a Film Noir, a low budget feel can work, but a spy film needs a bit more room in the budget. The seventy-six minute run time cuts some of the more annoying elements of the radio serial, but it also eliminates a lot of the good stuff, including many complicated relationship dynamics. We don’t get to see Heddy’s growth as a character or her conflict as we do in the radio serial. Instead, her change towards the end of the story is abrupt. In addition, because Keen is an American in this version and his aide Sergeant Coutts is a Brit, there’s not some of the shared backstory and Coutts’ tireless loyalty which was such a great highlight of the radio drama. Key sequences from late in the story are cut or compressed. Even if I hadn’t heard the radio serial, I’d know something was missing. Weirdly, the initial set up is kept mostly intact. The acting is as spotty as you’d expect from a low-budget film.

Overall, this isn’t a horrible movie, but it’s tough to offer a general recommendation. If you’ve heard the radio series, then it’s worth checking out for the curiosity’s sake. If you’ve thought about listening to the radio serial, and want to check out the movie first, I’d recommend listening to the radio drama first. It’s far better than what was put out on the screen.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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