Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: Torchy Blane Complete Movie Collection


Torchy Blane was the feature character in nine B movies released from 1937-39 starring Glenda Farrell in seven of the films, with the two other installments featuring Lola Lane and Jane Wyman. The character was also part of the inspiration for Jerry Siegel’s Lois Lane. All nine films have been released as a single set by Warner Archives.

Torchy was an intrepid female reporter solving crimes. I reviewed her first movie and I think the opening of her first movie, Smart Blonde really set the tone for the series. In it, she has a cab drive up to a moving train and jumps out of the cab and onto the moving train.

From the beginning, she established herself as a daring, clever no-nonsense reporter who manages to stay a step (or several steps) ahead of her boyfriend/fiancé Lieutenant Steve McBride (played by Barton MacClane in the seven movies starring Farrell) and his sidekick Gehagen (played in all nine films by Tom Kennedy.)

The idea of a female reporter being the girlfriend of a police detective was hardly original to this film series, but there was more done with it in Torchy Blane. As Torchy racked up a scoop in the first film, other reporters got jealous, with their bosses complaining to the police brass, who responded to their headaches by trying to frustrate her access to McBride. In another film, her fellow journalists decided to humiliate her by staging a hoax murder and getting her to believe it so that she would be embarrassed by having been duped. It’s rare for a movie from the 1930s to really explore the consequences of its premise and that’s one thing that sets the Torchy Blane film apart.

The films are a great mix of comedy, adventure, and mystery. Torchy’s intrepid adventures take her around the world, on a cruise trip, and even running for Mayor. Farrel and Maclane were usually more bit players and lacked the glamour of the A-list stars but that helps to make Torchy and Steve feel very realistic. Farrell is a delight to watch in each film as she’s always entertaining whether she’s playing an impish trick to get past the latest attempt by the attempt by the police to stop her from getting the inside dope, trying a daring stunt to thwart the bad guys, or delightfully worming another steak dinner out of Steve, she’s just fun to watch. Maclane was probably the weakest link in the series to start with but the character got better and by the end he was a step or two behind Torchy and would arrive in the end to help Torchy out. Gehagen is a lovable poetry-reciting goof whose rank on the police force appears to be Gehagen. The character is often Torchy’s unwitting dupe in whatever scheme she’s pulling to get her story.

The films have a great comic element but it’s rarely over-the-top or too absurd as many screwball comedies of the era. These are good, solid B films.

But it’s important to remember that they are still 58-63 minute, low-budget “B” films. So to enjoy them, you have to be willing to accept a few quirks such as policemen from the same department wearing uniforms that don’t match and the coroner being used as an escort for a witness to save budget on scenes. To embrace Torchy Blane, you have to accept Fly Away, Baby as a story of Torchy’s world tour even though that grand tour is told with stock footage and so-so soundstages. There are a few politically incorrect moments (although it’s very mild for the time) and anyone expecting a twenty-first century feminist will doubtless be disappointed in Torchy.

Yet, for my money, the Glenda Farrell films are wonderful, with the first four being my favorite followed closely by Torchy Runs for Mayor where Torchy fights her toughest battle against a corrupt political machine where she’s constantly abandoned and finds cowardice and calculation at every turn, until it’s clear that she’s the only one with the guts to stop them.

The Lola Lane film, Torchy Blane in Panama, is good as well. Lane had been part of the singing Lane sisters and would get a reputation for playing tough girls on screen and her performance of Torchy really showed that sort of toughness. I thought Paul Kelly was a disappointment as the replacement Steve McBride.

Jane Wyman in  Torchy Blane…Playing with Dynamite was a bit more problematic. Wyman would become a great Oscar-winning and Golden Globe winning actress, but she wasn’t that actress in 1939. She was only twenty-two when she made her sole appearance as Torchy (after appearing in a minor role in the first film) and she practically did a Glenda Farrell impression, wearing a blond wig for the role. The film’s plot really stretched believability even by B-movie standards with Torchy endangering lives by causing a near panic with a series of false alarms to get herself thrown in prison so she could reach a missing criminal. The film is rescued in the second half by some solid action and Gehagen’s comedy wrestling. It’s not a horrible film, and it’s enjoyable in its own right,  but it’s far from the best in the series.

Overall, the Torchy Blane Movie Collection is a must-see for fans of Detective B-movies. It’s a thoroughly entertaining nine hours that’s easily the equal of many better known series.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Michael Shayne Mysteries, Volume 1


This two DVD collection collection collects four of the seven Michael Shayne films: Michael Shayne, Private Detective, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, Sleepers West, and Blue, White, and Perfect. 

These are the cream of the series. Nolan plays Shayne with loads of light-hearted charm and street smarts. In general, the writing is solid as it avoids the flaws of other films in the series that have since been released as solo stories. The films are detective comedies but do a good job providing a great balance between detective story and comedy.

Each film is based on a different book. However, only one of those was a Michael Shayne book. The other three were from other detective writers. While the films have a light comedic touch to them, each is also influenced by its source material and so each feels a little different.

Michael Shayne, Private Detective is the only one based on an actual Shayne book, and it finds Shayne watching an underage heiress who has a bad gambling habit. Shayne undertakes to keep her safe but quickly finds himself mixed up in a murder.

In The Man Who Couldn’t Die, Shayne goes undercover as a woman’s new husband to help her find out the secret behind strange goings on at her father’s estate. This is an atmospheric “old house” mystery with lots of comic misunderstandings thrown in.

Sleepers West has Shayne transporting a key witness on a train where he runs into an old flame and her fiance, who has a secret. Shayne has to keep the witness safe from the mob and also ensure she makes it to the trial. This one becomes a little more drama than mystery towards the end, but has a positive message and a lovely performance by Nolan.

Finally in Blue, White, and Perfect, Shayne pretends to quit the private detective business for the benefit of his fiancee, but in reality he’s going undercover to investigate the theft of diamonds. However, he’s fired from the job after a complaint is lodged against him by the perpetrators (who he can’t prove are guilty), so he does the only sensible thing he can: tricks his fiancee into giving him a thousand dollars so he can book passage on a boat to Hawaii and follow the crooks across the sea,  intending to capture the crooks, claim the reward, and pay her back. This film is enjoyable, particularly for featuring future Superman star George Reeves as a Spanish/Irish mystery passenger, but it is probably a little too convoluted for its own good.

It’s worth nothing that the films all seem to have an obsession with Shayne being Irish, with the theme being an Irish jig and Shayne whistling Irish songs.

Beyond that, the films are incredibly entertaining. The DVD boxset contains a nice booklet, and the CDs are in two slip cases, each with gorgeous artwork related to the films. In addition, there are four mini-documentaries about the Michael Shayne books and movies that make for great viewing for the true mystery fan.

Compared to other mystery box sets, the current $9.99 price on this set is dirt cheap. The reason for the price is that 20th Century Fox packaged the set as a double-sided DVD which is generally a cheap option. That’s ironic because everything else in the set is quite exquisitely done. However, the result of this is that this is a great bargain for fans of classic mystery movies.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season 2


This 3-DVD series collects the second short season of the Father Dowling Mysteries, originally broadcast in 1990 when the series moved to ABC after NBC produced its first season. The main cast of Tom Bosley (Father Frank Dowling), Tracy Nelson (Sister Steve), James Stephens (Father Prestwick), and Marie (Mary Wickles).

If I had to describe the difference between this season and Season One, I’d have to use the word “authenticity.” In Season One, our heroes were people who solved mysteries who just happened to be a priest and a nun. In Season two, they were a priest and a nun who came across mysteries in the course of their lives and duties.

They said prayers, performed ceremonies and dealt with church hierarchy and bureaucracy. It plays into the plots. In the “Solid Gold Headache Mystery” Sister Steve is named custodian of the estate of a wealthy man who she was visiting. In “The Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” she shows kindness to a blind conman and is taken in by him. A similar event happens to Father Prestwick in “The Confidence Mystery.” Father Dowling knows who an art thief is but is far more concerned about his life and his soul than bringing him to justice in “The Legacy Mystery.”  And Father Dowling’s pastoral relationship is key to his involvement in “The Falling Angel Mystery,” and “The Perfect Couple Mystery.”

The show isn’t preachy but it makes the characters more believable. Characterization was also better for Sister Steve. She’s still resourceful and frequently ditched her habit to go undercover. However, this didn’t happen every episode. Unlike in Season One, where she seemed to be super-competent at everything, she failed at a couple of her tasks. Sister Steve doesn’t make a good skatetress and doesn’t win at every video game. Thus she’s much more of a real person. This is also helped as we learn she has a hoodlum brother in, “The Sanctuary Mystery,” and that her father was an alcoholic in, “The Passionate Painter Mystery.”

The supporting acting shifted as subplots became more about Father Prestwick (who works for the Bishop) than their cook Marie. I didn’t like this as much as I prefer Marie as a character. Still, the officious and demanding Father Prestwick is more effective as a comic foil for Father Dowling.

The guest cast is mostly solid, although  a couple of scenes in “The Perfect Couple Mystery”  were  painful to watch.

In terms of the plots, they’re mostly okay. Many of the episodes felt more like adventures rather than typical mysteries and some were not all that clever such as, “The Ghost of a Chance Mystery.” Some of the better ones were, “The Visiting Priest Mystery” where a mob hitman tries to go undercover as a visiting priest at Saint Michael’s. “The Exotic Dance Mystery” which ends up with Steve going undercover as a card shark. “The Confidence Mystery” and “Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery” both have some clever twists though the similarity in plot made airing them both in the same season a dubious decision.

This season also featured “The Falling Angel Mystery.” Where a scruffy angel named Michael (not the archangel) shows up with a warning for Father Dowling. I was dubious at the plot as it could have been cheesy and there were some problems with the story. However, James McGeachin does a good job in the role and the twist is one I didn’t see coming. Of course, Father Dowling’s criminal twin brother Blaine has a return appearance much to Father Dowling’s chagrin.

Ultimately, the plots were not all fantastic. What holds it together is the characters are incredibly likable and a joy to watch.

 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series One

Pie in the Sky  is a British TV show that aired for five  series between 1994-97 and chronicles the adventure of Detective Inspector Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffiths) who would like nothing more than to retire and run his restaurant with the help of his account wife Margaret (Maggie Steed). Instead, while he opens his restaurant and serves as its chef, he’s subject to constant recall by his boss Assistant Chief Constable Freddy Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair.) This set collects the ten hour long episodes in the First Series.

The pilot episode is included, and  it was the worst episode of the first series. In fact, it tempted me to take the whole box set back to the library and be done with it. I’m glad I stuck with the series but the first episode was a hurdle to get over.

The writers had to get the concept of the series written, and it’s that Crabbe wants to retire after twenty-five years to open his own restaurant. However, things go awry on his last case.  He’s framed for taking a bribe from an escaped criminal. Fisher knows Crabbe’s really innocent but there’s no proof and Fisher instead proposed to hold an inquiry into the bogus charges over Crabbe’s head like a sword of Damocles. If he continues to be “on leave” and available at Fisher’s whims, Crabbe can run his restaurant most of the time. If on the other hand, Crabbe decides he’d rather not, then he can prepared to get accustomed to the joys of jailhouse food.

The plot was fine, but the episode got bogged down in giving us way too many details about everything. The lighting was terrible, and the character’s motivations were somewhat unclear.

However, once Pie in the Sky got past its first episode, it took off and became quite enjoyable.  The big change were the characters.

Inspector Crabbe became far more clearly defined. The first episode couldn’t quite decide if he had been frustrated by his inability to move up the ranks as Fisher had. Unlike Fisher,  he wasn’t a Machiavellian schemer. Thankfully, the idea of Crabbe acting out of envy for Fisher was dropped which made him more appealing.

Griffiths  does a great job portraying Crabbe as a crusty, wise eccentric with a strong ethical core that leads him into constant conflict with Fisher. At one point in this series, he’s offered retirement if he drops a case, and he takes  a firm ethical stand. Time and time again, he’s shown to be good-hearted and trying to do the right thing.

Mrs. Crabbe grows quite a bit from the series opener, where she was defined as an accountant unimpressed by good cooking.  Steed and Griffiths have an incredible chemistry and she shows herself a smart and well-defined character with a great sense of humor and opinions of her own. She also is tender and supportive of her husband in a way that makes for a sweet relationship.

I should also give some praise to Bella Enaharo who plays Detective Constable Cambridge. At first glance, she’s little more than a respectful, low-ranking officer on the police force. However, she really grows to be an interesting and fully developed character.

The strength of the show is its characters. The stories are mostly solid tales that are good Comedy Dramas with mystery an occasional and less-developed element.. The writers have strong political viewpoints that work their way into the story. Most of the time, it’s not too strident. Indeed, the series is an example of how to soft sell your political ideas. However, sometimes the writers’ political views make the plots more predictable than they otherwise would be.

If you can get past that as well as the pilot,  this is a very enjoyable and pleasant series with great characters, a good premise, and some fairly interesting stories.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Red Skelton Whistling Collection


The Whistling Collection from Warner Archives features all three MGM films from the 1940s in which Red Skelton played Wally Benton, an actor/writer who plays the Fox, a radio detective who comes up with his own plots.

In Whistling in the Dark (1941) , Wally, his girlfriend Carol (played by Ann Rutherford), and the sponsor’s daughter are kidnapped by a racketeer who wants to murder a man who is en route to New York. Wally poses a threat to the racketeer’s plans to lay claim to a wealthy woman’s fortune. Wally is forced to come up with a perfect murder plot and he has to figure out how to save his life from it and the life of the two women with him, as well as an innocent man set to die. He does so in a way that’s both ingenuous and hilarious, and it involves a brilliantly madcap fight with the thug Sylvester (Rags Ragland).

In Whistling in Dixie (1942), Wally and Carol travel down South to investigate mysterious goings on in a Southern town including the disappearance of a young man. There the Fox seems to have found Sylvester working for a local judge but it turns out to be his not so evil but just as dub twin brother Chester (also played by Rags Ragland.) There’s a genuine mystery, political corruption, a Confederate treasure, and lots of shenanigans involving twins.

In Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), Wally is framed as Constant Reader, a murderer who has been sending notes to a politician after committing his crimes. Wally has to prove his innocence and his efforts including going undercover as a pitcher on a Major League baseball team in which every player wears a beard. Several real-life Brooklyn Dodgers appear, including then-manager Leo Durocher. Ragland returns as Chester. The whole thing ends up in another madcap fight scene, this time aboard the ship.

Overall, the Whistling movies are a lot of fun. Unlike some lesser comedy detective mysteries, they never seem to forget that the lead isn’t just supposed to be funny, he’s supposed to be a detective. Throughout Wally shows  clever thinking, although his good plans occasionally go wrong. Skelton and Rutherford have strong chemistry. No one will confuse them for William Powell and Myrna Loy, but they make a nice on-screen pairing.

The stories’ take on the radio drama of the era is fun and cute. The first two stories have quite a bit of cleverness behind their plots. The third is a bit more thin. The way Wally is framed weak, and like the second movie is centered on him and his girl trying to get married even though there wasn’t a reason why they wouldn’t have married after Whistling in Dixie. The final third of the movie is funny, but essentially it’s two very long slapstick scenes at the ballpark and aboard the ship with the only breaks being people taking cabs to get one from scene to another. Nothing against slapstick, but I preferred the style of the other two movies better.

Still, all three films are good, and they all work with good performances from the returning cast and nice gags throughout. If you love detective movies with a dash of comedy or just love Red Skelton, this is a great collection to purchase.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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