Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: Hawkins: The Complete TV Movie Collection


A recognizable and beloved Hollywood actor from Hollywood’s yesteryear playing a sharp and folksy lawyer who solves mysteries? That description will make people think of Matlock starring Andy Griffith. However, more than a decade before Andy Griffith played the hot-dog loving, Southern lawyer, Jimmy Stewart brought the concept to the small screen as Billy Jim Hawkins, a homespun West Virginia lawyer with a penchant for getting to the truth and winning tough cases.

The Warner Archives DVD set includes all eight Hawkins telefilms that aired in 1973 and 1974. The first film is ninety minutes long. The other seven are seventy-five minutes long as this film was aired along with another mystery series to compete with the popular NBC Mystery Wheel.

In each case, after a sensational murder has been committed, Hawkins is called in to defend the accused, who generally has a massive amount of circumstantial evidence pointing towards their guilt. Hawkins’ seeks to clear them with the help of his assistants. Hawkins usually has to win his client’s trust, inserts himself into his client’s world, and seeks to get to the bottom case with the help of his assistants.

Like Matlock and Perry Mason, every movie ends with a climactic courtroom scene where Hawkins reveals the true killer. There are a few more nods to legal procedure in this series than in either of those better known series. In particular, the series acknowledges that as Hawkins hasn’t been licensed to practice law in every state, in order to appear in those states, he needs to be working under a local attorney who will serve as the Attorney of Record for the defense even though he’s not actually arguing in court.

The Supporting Cast

In each episode, Hawkins is helped by one or more assistants. One of the key points of Hawkins’ backstory was that Hawkins had an enormous extended family of more than 100 people. In different episodes, different members of that family show up to assist. Most frequently, it’s R.J. Hawkins (Strother Martin) but Jeremiah Stocker (Mayf Nutter) and Earl Coleman (James Hampton) took turns as well. Stewart had the best chemistry with Strother Martin and R.J. Hawkins was the most interesting character, which is probably why R.J. Hawkins was in the final three films without any other assistants after only appearing in two of the first five.

The guest stars were generally quite competent. There’s an early performance by Tyne Daly, as well as appearance by golden age of Hollywood notables like Lew Ayers and Teresa Wright, along with character actress extraordinaire Jeanette Nolan. One of the more interesting guest appearances is James Best playing a serious role as a sheriff in the episode, “Blood Feud.” In a few years, he would take on the role of the ultimate comic sheriff as Rosco Coltrane.

The Lead

Ultimately, while the scripts were decent and the supporting cast is competent, it’s Jimmy Stewart that makes the series worth watching. While watching the first few minutes of the opening film, I thought Stewart had overplayed the folksiness, but once he settled into the role, he made Hawkins special. Hawkins is a country boy, and he doesn’t put on airs. Everyone who meets him is urged to call him Billy Jim.

Yet, at the same time, Hawkins has a keen mind and is aware of how the world works. Like many of the characters Stewart played over the years, Hawkins lives by a code.  His life is dedicated to the core principle that everyone’s entitled to a defense. Hawkins has a great way of connecting with and gaining the confidence of clients who’ve been unwilling to act in their own defense before.

In the courtroom scenes, Stewart is superb, building a level of rapport and using subtle humor to undercut the prosecution and then delivering an innocent “aw shucks, I’m just a country lawyer” type of comment to deflect  objections from the prosecution. The scenes where he confronts the genuine murderer are incredibly compelling. Hawkins was one of the more credible TV lawyers to be featured in this sort of program. In many ways, he seems true to life to other nationally known trial attorneys such as Gerry Spence as opposed to a character someone made up.

Stewart’s acting netted him a well-deserved Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

Why It Only Lasted One Season

In addition to Stewart’s win, the series was nominated for a Golden Globe as was Strother Martin for best supporting actor. However, despite critical recognition, the series went away after a single season. Why?

CBS created the series as a counter to NBC’s rotating mystery programs and CBS didn’t quite seem to understand a big part of why NBC enjoyed success. NBC rotated Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife.  The beauty of the mystery wheel was that these programs all appealed to the same audience and if you liked one, there was a good chance you liked them all, and NBC could count on you to watch their mystery movie every Sunday night.

CBS on the other hand rotated Hawkins with the TV series Shaft based on the Blacksploitation film series of  the early 1970s. The two series drew two very different audiences and there was little crossover in audiences between the two shows and as a result both got cancelled.  Hawkins could have lasted longer if not for the network’s scheduling mistake.

Is This Series For You?

If you love the classic lawyer series, these films are for you. Stewart’s Hawkins is at least as good as Perry Mason or Matlock. If you’re a fan of Jimmy Stewart’s later work, this is also a must as this was arguably Stewart’s last great role before his career went on the downswing and hearing loss drove him to semi-retirement in the early 1980s.

Overall, I found Hawkins to be an enjoyable series that stands up well when compared to most of its 70s peers.

 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Fibber McGee and Molly Double Feature


The Fibber McGee and Molly Double feature presents Jim and Marion Jordan reprising their roles as the most lovable citizens of Wistful Vista in two separate films.

The first is, Here We Go Again. As the title implies, it’s a bit of a sequel. In this case, the film’s teaming of Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy with Fibber McGee and Molly is their second joint movie. The first, “Look Who’s Laughing,” was released on a separate DVD collection of early Lucille Ball films. But there’s no sense of deep continuity other than that Fibber McGee has met Bergen before, so seeing that film isn’t a prerequisite.

The teaming works quite well when they interact, though they’re often left to do their own thing. The plot is that Fibber McGee takes Molly on a Second Honeymoon and after staying a night a flea bag hotel, he runs into Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen at a much nicer establishment. Bergen is trying to discover a synthetic alternative gasoline and a capture a rare butterfly because…it’s World War II and that’s what radio ventriloquists did.

As if the film hadn’t given Old Time Radio fans enough to salivate over, this also features Harold Peary appearing as the Throckmorton Gildersleeve. Even though he’d started his own spin-off series from Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, Peary plays Gildersleeve just as he did on Fibber McGee and Molly and only appears in a few scenes. Gale Gordon also appears, though not in his role from Fibber McGee and Molly as Mayor LaTrivia but as what passes for a villain in this film.

The movie holds up very well for its era. For the most part, the jokes work. The big exception to this is an unfunny, ill-conceived bit that had Bergen trying to infiltrate a native american tribe for the flimsiest of reasons. The musical numbers by Ginny Simms are superb. For fans of the golden age of radio, the movie allows us to see not one but three different big radio stars in action.

In addition to Charlie McCarthy, we also get to see Bergen’s other dummy Mortimer Snerd. Though McCarthy receives the most work and it’s interesting to see how they transferred such an active and robust ventriloquist dummy from radio to film. Though, I will say that Charlie McCarthy has a few moments (such as when he’s cheering the potential death of Bergen from various perils) that remind you why we now consider ventriloquist dummies walking around to be a creepy element of horror movies.

The second film is Heavenly Days derives it’s name from Molly’s frequent exclamation, “Oh heavenly days!” In this film, Fibber is visited by the Spirit of 1776 to begin a cross-country journey to the nation’s Capital in order to help out a friend who has become a “dollar a year” man, essentially volunteering his service to the government. Fibber heads to Washington, hoping that the voice of the common man is heard.

The film starts out okay and for the first fifteen minutes is very charming, including the McGees encountering a group of soldiers on a train and singing and we even get to hear Fibber sing. However, after that, the film runs into problems.

It’s a comedy that isn’t all that funny. It’s also a patriotic film. I’m all for patriotic films, but this one muddles its message. McGee’s whole quest is to get the voice of the average man heard in the corridors of power. He gets to Washington and actually disrupts Senate proceedings to give his own nonsensical speech. Then later, he has a trippy dream sequence where senators advise him if the Average Man wants to have a voice in government, he should probably get informed and make sure he knows what he’s talking about.

The plot, the message, and the ending feel incongruous. The film’s core problem may be that it expected too much of the Jordans. During, their radio program, they did many war-related episodes and while they could be preachy, they always remained entertaining. The reason was because they were focused on a single point (such as a scrap metal drive) and they had the entertaining cast of characters in Wistful Vista to help get the laughs. Here, the Jordans are left to get all the laughs and carry this meandering story.

The film does have its redeeming values. The presence of Fibber McGee and Molly on screen is a treat and they have charming moments including both of their musical numbers. The film features war orphans from several lands which is a historical reminder of a great tragedy in that war.

For movie buffs, it features an interesting oddity that relates to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In that film, hefty character actor Eugene Pallette plays Chick McGann, a henchman for political boss James Taylor whose job is to help keep Senator Smith under control. In this film he played a Senator which led me to think McGann got one of the vacant Senate seats that were left open at the end of the movie.

Eugene Pallette

Even though\ Heavenly Days is a well-intentioned mess, I still consider the DVD a good buy because Here We Go Again is just that good. It’s rare to see that many radio stars in that same film and for the film to actually be good. The current price is a fair value for the first film and and any enjoyment you get out of the second film is just gravy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Hildegard Withers Mystery Movie Collection


This DVD set brings viewers all six of the Hildegard Withers mystery movies that were released in the 1930s. The series began in 1932 with Edna May Oliver in the role of Hildegard Withers and James Gleason as Inspector Oscar Piper.  Oliver was succeeded in the lead role by Helen Broderick and then Zasu Pitts with Gleason continuing the whole run.

Each film was very much of its era. The acting from the supporting cast in the early films showed the struggle of many actors to adjust to the fact that talking films were different, so there’s a lot of over-acting. There’s also quite a bit of melodrama in the plots (although the ending to the first film The Penguin Pool Murders cut against that grain.) Inspector Piper is, in many ways, typical of movie police inspectors of the era. He always accused the right person of committing the crime because he always accused everyone of committing the crime.

The strength came down to the lead actress. Edna May Oliver elevated these films above the typical mysteries that dominated this era. Her take on Hildegard Withers was perfect. She was a proper middle-aged school teacher who was used to being listened to and commanded respect as she would speak to any man as if she were their stern school teacher rather than just a school teacher. She had both a sharp tongue and a sharp mind. Oliver’s delivery is a joy to hear.

At the same time, she had a streak of romanticism about her, as well as a caring nature. Oliver played great off Gleason as the two worked together to solve the case and were also gently competitive and even romantic.

Oliver was replaced by Helen Broderick whose one outing in, “Murder on the Bridal Path,” was fairly unremarkable. Zasu Pitts took over the role and the production took an interesting turn. Pitts was known for playing somewhat ditzy comedic roles and was also several years younger, so her Hildegard Withers is a much more flighty character than how Oliver played her, and Inspector Piper is actually the key figure in solving the case in Pitts’ first outing as Withers in, “The Plot Thickens.”

While I didn’t care much for Pitts’ first turn as Withers, her second (and last), “Forty Naughty Girls,” is actually pretty good. It’s about a murder at a Broadway play. Piper begins the investigation while the play is still going on. Withers smells perfume at the scene of the murder and goes and smells every woman on the stage in search of one that could provide a clue. The movie clocks in at just over an hour and the entire film is set in that one setting over the course of about an hour, so the movie goes along at an almost real time pace. While Pitts plays Withers a bit smarter, it’s still not at the level set by Oliver. It feels like Pitts is playing Pamela North from the Mr. and Mrs. North TV series.

Overall, the three Oliver films are very good and the others are okay for the most part. The more you enjoy films from the early to mid-1930s, the more you’ll get out of this set. My only complaint is that they didn’t get the rights to the Eve Arden Hildegard Withers telefilm for this set and include it in the release.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

 

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DVD Review: The Saint, Set 1

The Saint, Set 1 collects six episodes from Roger Moore’s fifth’s season as the Saint, the first to actually be in color.

The Episodes glory in the Saint’s entry into the world of Color with one beautiful location after another. From Monte Carlo to Venice to Hamburg to Scotland, the series showcases the globetrotting nature of the Saint’s adventures, as well as the wide variety of forms they can take. In, “The Queen’s Ransom,” the Saint accompanies the American wife of an European king in returning a treasure to him and has to outwit a gang of International criminals in the process. In, “Interlude in Venice,” Simon helps out the naïve daughter of an American politician who is at risk of getting swept off her feet by a conman. In, “The Reluctant Revolution,” Simon is compelled to throw in with revolutionaries trying to overthrow a “Banana Republic.” In, “The Convenient Monster,” he encounters a woman who claims the Loch Ness monster is really out there in Scotland.

The variety of the Saint’s adventures is part of what makes the series a standout. The adventures range from straight up mysteries to spy and political thrillers. Through it all, future James Bond Roger Moore plays the Saint as smart, tough, and charming. He’s also joined by a solid guest casts in each and every story.

Overall, these episodes are marvelous and a great start to the Saint’s full color adventures.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Here Comes Cookie, Six of a Kind, Love in Bloom

George Burns and Gracie Allen won the hearts of millions by coming into their homes over radio and television for more than two decades. It’s often forgotten that the two also appeared in films in the 1930s. A 2003 DVD from Universal Home Entertainment collects three of these rare films.

Here Comes Cookie (1935): In this one, Gracie plays the daughter of a wealthy man who fears that his daughter’s beau is a fortune hunter, so he decides to leave everything to Gracie. Gracie gets the idea that her father wants the family to be as poor as possible. This is a screwball piece and Gracie has some good moments, though George is relegated to a bit role. The film is a fun screwball affair with some old vaudeville actors featured.

Six of a Kind (1934): Like many of the Burns and Allen films, Six of a Kind is an all-star comedy. This one also features W.C. Fields and Charles Ruggles, along with Mary Boland and Allison Skipworth.

The plot involves a meek man (Ruggles) going on vacation unwittingly carrying $50,000 from his bank. George and Gracie sign on as travelling companions to share the ride. W.C. Fields comes into the story as a Sheriff and replicates a famous scene shooting pool from his Vaudeville days. Gracie has some hilarious lines, and George even gets a few laughs in as well.

Love in Bloom (1935): George and Gracie get the least screen time in the longest feature on the DVD. While they’re featured prominently in the credits, they have bit roles as the heroine’s brother and sister-in-law. The heroine (Dixie Lee) comes from a circus family and wants a decent, honest life, but struggles to escape her background even as she falls in love with a talented young singer/songwriter (Joe Morrison) and they go to work in a music shop on the strength of her salesmanship skills and his talent. The film is really a romance rather than a comedy and George and Gracie are pretty much side characters with them having a couple funny moments: one where Gracie tries to get out of a ticket and another where she tries to “sell” the music store to its owner. Beyond that, the movie is worthwhile when given a chance. Joe Morrison isn’t the best leading man but he’s got a good voice and Dixie Lee’s performance coupled with the old fashioned decency of the story, give it a certain charm despite its flaws.

Overall, the rare films on this DVD, while by no means in the same class as the greatest comedies of the era, are enjoyable. If you’re a fan of Burns and Allen, it’s a bonus as you get to see some of their work in films. However, to get acquainted with them at their best, their radio and TV performances are still the best bet.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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