Category: Golden Age Article

The Rathbone-Bruce Countdown, Part One

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. It doesn’t get much better than that. From the late 1930s through the mid-1940s, they were Holmes and Watson.

I’ve seen all 14 films and they’re a remarkable mix of detective stories, crime stories, spy thrillers, suspense, and a few touches of comedy. The films gave us the definitive Holmes for an entire generation of viewers. They were exciting, thrilling, and well-played. I should stay that because a film is listed low on my list (with the exception of the #14 film), it’s not because it was a bad film. The series has so many good films in it, it was actually hard to make up my mind on the films between 2 and 14. 

14)  The Woman in Green (1945)

The weakest of the series. The Woman in Green was a film that struggled with its plot and villains. The character who ought to the primary villain lacked the personality of Holmes’ female antogonists in The Spiderwoman and Dressed to Kill.  So, the writers brought Professor Moriarity back despite having killed him six movies prior.  The problem is that the plot they created was too small for Moriarity. In previous movies, he’d tried to steal the crown jewels and then been working for the Nazis. In this film, Moriarty’s plot  amounts to is a fairly gruesome blackmail scheme. Hardly stuff for the Napoleon of Crime.

13)  The Pearl of Death (1944)

Holmes, while trying to illustrate the ineffectiveness of relying on an electronic burgular alarm to protect a valuable pearl, disconnects the alarm, allowing a thief to steal the pearl. From there, the story follows the premise of the Doyle story, “The Six Napoloeans.” However, it adds in a gruesome monster of a killer and makes for a suspenseful chapter in the series.

12) Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Not as exciting as the title might indicate, with a few rought spots. However, Holmes’ investigation into a series of murders at a convalescent home has a fantastic final confrontation requiring a lot of guts from our hero to pull it off.

11) Dressed to Kill (1946)

This is a film that gets trashed by some fans for everything from the title to similarities in plot to Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. The plot centers around three music boxes that were made in prison and purchased at an auction house and criminals desperate to receover them.  However, I love the use of music in this plot. Also, while this film features from Watson’s goofiest moments as he’s tricked by the villain into revealing the location of a music box with the help of a puerile ruse, Watson also gives Holmes the final clue that helps him solve the case.

Book Review: Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu

Currently, I’m up to Episode 10 of Season 7 of Monk on the Netflix Instant Watch, which means I’m pretty close to the end of the series. How do you get more Monk if eight years wasn’t enough? One thing that occurred to me is reading  the Monk novels by Lee Goldberg (or more to the point, listening to the book through Audible). While I could have started with the first Monk novel, Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, I decided to skip that one as it was adapted to a Season 5 episode and opt for a novel that had a far more interesting plot, Monk and the Blue Flu.

The Plot:  Police are not getting what they want in negotiations with the city. With a serial killer on the loose, detectives and senior officers phone in sick, staging a blue flu to put pressure on the city.

The Mayor of San Francisco offers to reinstate Monk and make him Captain of Homicide if he’ll help out during the crisis. Monk jumps at the chance and takes command of a motley crew of discharged cops called back to duty including a senile detective, a paranoid schizophrenic detective, and a violent psychotic detective.

The Mystery: Goldberg crafted a fine mystery here, with multiple cases playing out in the novel. We’ve got nine separate murders (with a shoplifting ring thrown in for the heck of it) and three different killers.

One complaint with Monk in the later seasons was that the mystery element of the show seemed  weak. No problem here. This is a fun ride with clever cases that really require some thought to solve.

The mystery is in the tradition of the cozy mystery, told without a whole lot of bloody details.  In other elements of the story, Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu is about as clean or even more so than the TV version, with the notable exception of some pretty tacky flirting between two of the psychotic detectives’ assistants.

Monkness:

Of course, a Monk story is more than just a mystery. The characters on Monk, particularly Monk himself add the comedy and drama that makes the show a winning combination even when we’re let down by the mystery. Here, Goldberg falls short.

The book is told from the perspective of Monk’s Assistant, Natalie Teager. This is a popular tactic for mystey writers to use when dealing with genius detectives (think Dr. Watson or Archie Goodwin.) It’s difficult to see the world through the eyes of a super genius, and that goes double for Monk. However, in the book, using Natalie doesn’t work well, as she doesn’t quite ring true to the Natalie we know from the TV series.

Natalie’s narration is filled with what’s known in the writing business as “telling.” We are repeatedly taken out of the story to get her opinions on everything from politics to shopping.

Her daughter, Julie doesn’t ring true either as a somewhat shallow fashion diva, nor does Captain Stottlemeyer seem to be quite right. Even Monk is occassionally not himself, going way over the top, even for him.

In one scene early in the book, Captain Stottlemeyer steps in dog doo at a crime scene. Monk insists that Stottlemeyer remove a shoe and have it sent for hazardous waste destruction-and Stottlemeyer actually goes along with this. I didn’t buy Monk going that far, nor Stottlemeyer humoring him to that degree. This also creates a strange inconsistency in the  story when Monk has Natalie surrender a shoe, he insists that she remove both shoes for symmetrical reasons, but no such insistence was made with Stottlemeyer earlier.

While the characters were more expressive about emotions in this story than in a normal episode of Monk, the emotional scenes had less impact.  On the TV show, the writers were experts at showing us things that evoked emotion. Here, we were more told how to feel about different scenes.

Of course, to be fair, Goldberg’s task is a challenging one. While its difficult to adapt books as  movies and television shows, it’s even harder to adapt a television show to a book. While, we may have an idea of what a character is like from reading a book, when we’ve seen a character on a TV show, the actor’s interpretation has given our imaginations a solid picture of who the character is, and we don’t like deviations.

You also lose things in translation between the mediums. For example, Goldberg couldn’t show us Monk during his therapy session with Dr. Kroger due to the limit of having the story told from Natalie’s point of view .

The book did have its moments in several scenes when Monk acted like Monk. Randy Disher was well-done, although we didn’t see enough of him in this story.  I will say that while the looney detectives on Monk’s replacement squad were a bit stereotypical, the idea of all of these psychosises coexisting within the same division was pretty funny.

It also continued the Monk tradition of providing hope for those with mental illness. The clear message was  that they could overcome their difficulties to function in society, even if their approach to life is a little different. While I won’t give away the exact conclusion, Goldberg did give Monk’s colleagues in amicable ending. 

If you read Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu, you can expect a pretty good mystery and a story that has its moments. However, don’t expect to get an episode of Monk via audiobook or paperback.

Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu is available from Audible.

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Hard Boiled Poirot: Three Murders on the Orient Express

Recently, I decided to start watching some of the David Suchet performances as Poirot. Of obvious was that famous title, Murder on the Orient Express which Suchet made in 2010.

It was different, different than anything I’d seen, heard, or read featuring Poirot. Starkly different. The story as done by Suchet reminded me more of The Dark Knight than a cozy Agatha Christie mystery. Checking IMDB, I found an interesting phenomena which would also apply to another Poirot TV movie, Appointment with Death. Viewers rate this version of Murder on the Orient Express a solid 7.9, but fan reviewers take a more negative view. I decided to begin an investigation to find which was the best adaptation of the story. So, in addition to having watched the 2010 David Suchet version, I viewed the 1970s movie and purchased the BBC Radio 4 version from Audible.

Some spoiler warnings below follow for those who haven’t seen, heard, or read Murder on the Orient Express.

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The Triumph of Rochester

Eddie

There are no small parts, only small actors.-Milan Kundera

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, Black actors who made it to Hollywood found themselves playing  the same old stereotypical roles the same old way

Yet, even during Segregation, a few Black performers managed to make a connection to a wider public. None did this better than Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

Anderson was born into show business and active in Vaudeville.  His big break in radio came in 1937 when he landed what was to be a one-shot performance on the Jack Benny show, but would instead start an association with Benny that would last for nearly 30 years in the role of Rochester. While Rochester was Benny’s valet, Anderson portrayal moved away from stereotypes to create one of the golden age’s most memorable characters.

Anderson became a popular regular on the Jack Benny show, with his entrances always drawing tremendous applause as seen in this 1942 video of a radio recording session:

Rochester may have been a valet, but Anderson made the character iconic and memorable with his style and perfect pitch comic timing as seen in this 1957 clip of the Jack Benny TV show.

Anderson was multi-talented. He was not only a great comedian, but he was also a talented singer and dancer. In the 1940 film, “Buck Benny Rides Again,” he gave a sterling singing and dancing performance with Theresa Harris in singing, “My, My, My:”

Appearing on the radio show, “Jubilee,” Anderson showed his comic stylings in a memorable performance of, the Vaudeville song, “Waiting for Jane,” :

Anderson also starred in several films apart from Benny including, “Cabin in the Sky.” In 1950, CBS auditioned a radio show for Anderson called, “The Private Life of Rochester Van Jones” which would have been a daily 15 minute serial. The show wasn’t greenlighted but we do have the audition recordings do exist and give us an idea of what might have been:

The more I see and hear of Eddie Anderson, the more impressed I am with him. His combination of gobs of talent and charisma was rare, and the character to achieve his dream in the face of adversity is still rarer.

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Harold Perry’s Honest Mistake

Has a career decision so backfired on a star as Harold Perry’s decision to leave The Great Gildersleeve?

Perry debuted in the role of Gildersleeve in 1938 as one of many side characters on Fibber McGee and Molly. However, the popularity of the character led to one of radio’s first successful spin-offs and one of the most enduring sitcoms of the golden era.

However after the 1949-50 season, Perry left NBC for CBS, and as his sponsor, Kraft refused to allow the Great Gildersleeve to go with him, so Perry left the role of Gildersleeve. There are many reasons that have been given behind why Perry left. For example, he wanted to sing more on the show than Gildersleeve’s production team would allow. This was also during the famous talent raids where CBS was snatching up talent from NBC by paying higher contracts, a tactic by which they’d landed Jack Benny and his good friends, Burns and Allen. So for more money and more creative control, Perry was off to a new network.

The new show Perry created had him starred as “Honest Harold” Hemp, a local radio host with a bunch of whacky friends. It was called simply, The Harold Perry Show. The show was not a huge success in terms of ratings and all but one of its episodes were sustaining. While the shows weren’t uniformly bad or weak, it’s 37-week run was an uneven mess that suggests that Perry should never have left Gildersleeve.

The Good

There were some good points to The Harold Perry Show. First was the performance of Perry himself. He always did the best he could with the material that was wrote for him. In addition, he did have a beautiful singing voice and his crooning was a highlight of most episodes.

Then there was the Joseph Kearns as Old Doc Yancy (aka Old Doc yak yak), an elderly vetrinarian. His delivery and character were perhaps the most consistently funny part of the show.

It also has to be acknowledged that some touches were funny such as the musical chimes at the house of one of Harold’s girlfriend who was a dance teacher, and their take off on tupperwear called Warbleware, which were dishes that sang.

Finally, the show did have  heart. Perry went to entertain the tropps at a Veteran’s hospital and asked the audience to help supply gifts. However, the show’s most moving moments came towards the end when Cousin Marvin came to live with Harold and Perry used the show to raise awareness for the Boys Club of America and read the now classic Alan Beck piece called, “What is a Boy” in two seperate episodes. Also, towards the end of the run, Perry recognized one boy or girl across America for acts of Honesty.

The Bad

The show lacked consistency. While the supporting cast that stayed through the show’s run, including Parley Baer as Pete The Marshall, was okay. The show kept adding and removing cast members throughout the show’s run. There were at least three love interests for Harold in the series.  There were the episodes where Cousin Raymond were staying with him and the Cousin Marvin episode towards the end.

In addition, to the constant rotating carasoul of side characters, it was kind of hard to get a beat on who Perry’s character was. In early episodes, the focus of the character was that he was always honest and civic minded. The honest part doesn’t last long in the world of sitcoms as people being less honest gets people into more comic trouble. As for the civic minded part, that took a downturn during the Mayoral campaign episodes.

The first five episodes of the show were fun to listen to. However in episode 6, the show began to go downhill a bit. But in Episode 7, it hit bottom and stayed there for some time. After the focus of the first seven episodes was on Honest Harold’s run for Mayor against his self-centered rival, Stanley Peabody. When Harold discovers that running for mayor is a hard job, he tries to sabotage his own campaign and then casts thd decisive vote for Peabody to avoid the responsibility.  Even in a sitcom, that doesn’t make us think a lot of the character.

The show stayed at bottom through most of the next ten episodes which featured Haorld’s lazy cousin Raymond, who was little more than a stereotypical slacker. The show then clunked along until it got quite a bit better when Haorld’s little orphaned cousin Marvin came to live with him, promting some fatherly episodes that were charming and funny

These paternal episodes were far more fun and entertaining than many previous episodes which focused on unfunny romantic subplots with women we cared little about. Had the show began with this sort of focus, it might have made it.

The Aftermath

Harold Perry billed the final show as the last show of the season. In reality, the show would never return. After more than a decade playing one of radio’s most recognizable characters, Perry found his career in decline in 1951, even while Gildersleeve would continue on for four more seasons with Willard Waterman playing Gildersleeve.

On The Harold Perry Show, a constant joke was that all was on television was old movie, but it was television that would hold the key to Perry’s future. Perry guest-starred on a wide variety of shows including Perry Mason, Red Skelton, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Public Defender. He only landed three recurring roles on TV: Herb Woodley on Blondie, Mayor LaTrivia on the unlamented Fibber McGee and Molly (which featured neither of the stars who made those roles famous) and as the voice of Fenwick Fuddy in a series of 1970s Hanna Barbara cartoons. He never approached the star status he enjoyed as Gildersleeve.

When The Great Gildersleeve came to television in 1955, the series lasted only one season with Waterman in the lead and is panned by many fans. I can’t help but wonder if Perry could have made a better go of it and enjoyed long television success as William Bendix did in bringing his great radio show, The Life of Riley to television.

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