Category: Golden Age Article

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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Audio Drama Review: The Reification of Hans Gerber

The Reification of Hans Gerber is an original Sherlock Holmes audio drama written in the twenty-first century. However, if you weren’t familiar with the Doyle canon, you’d be hard pressed to know that this was written by Doyle himself.

The plot captures the feel and atmosphere of Holmes without retreading over old ground. Holmes is called in to investigate the death of a wealthy man who left behind three nephews and a niece who expect to inherit until the will disappears, then one man is set to inherit. At first, it’s the eldest cousin, but a disowned relative named Hans Gerber emerges to claim the estate. It appears he’s out for more than the old man’s money when one of the cousins is murdered. The mystery is thoroughly engaging from start to finish.

Nicholas Briggs turns in his usual superb performance as Holmes, and Richard Earl plays Watson perfectly in the Edward Hardwicke tradition. One of the reasons the story feels so authentic is the amount of narration and description involved and Earl is a superb narrator. The other outstanding performance was Terry Malloy who plays Inspector Bainbridge, a police inspector who shows an amazing amount of competence.

It’s hard to overstate how much I enjoyed this. Pastiches so often fail to capture the feel of the original or are so busy inserting modern sensibilities and personalities into the story that they feel out of place. The authenticity of the story is outstanding. It’s tour de force  in writing, acting,  and production values.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Movie Review: Smart Blonde

In the 1930s, a lot of detective movie series were made, particularly as “B” features. The Torchy Blane series was notable for featuring a female lead.

The first film in the series is Smart Blonde which was released in 1937 and introduced Torchy (played by Glenda Farrell) and her hotheaded boyfriend Police Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton Maclane). It centers around the owner of a night club and several sports establishments wanting to sell out and live an honest life with his fiancee.  He’s run his businesses honestly and called in a friend who’ll keep them honest to buy his businesses. However, when the would-be buyer is killed, Torchy sets out to solve the case.

The beginning of the film is one of the best character introductions you’ll see in a “B” movie. It used the era’s trope of newspaper headlines to reveal Torchy Blane wrote big stories, hard news stories, front page stories, and then immediately we have Torchy speeding up in the back a cab which drives up near a moving train which she then jumps on to. Really, with her saying very little, the film establishes Torchy as this intrepid, no-nonsense reporter.

She’s a fascinating character and Glenda Farrell plays her beautifully with a mix of charm and pure grit, determination, and energy. The film moves at a very fast clip.  Smart Blonde clocks in at fifty-nine minutes, so it’s got a short time to unravel its mystery, but it does with snappy dialogue and a plot that doesn’t slow down much at all.

The story isn’t a screwball comedy, as so many early detective features were, but it is played for comedy and perhaps at times a bit overplayed. Steve McBride is a comic relief cop in the mold of Captain Street form the Mister Wong movies and he has an even more comical cop as his chauffeur and sidekick.  Some of the comedy is weak and there are unintentionally funny aspects of the film such as the costuming department had policemen in one scene wearing an entirely style of uniform from policemen in another. And of course, there’s a little bit of underworld sentimentality mixed in.

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of B-movie making that’s a cut above most B-films, particularly in this era. It gives Farrell and Maclane the opportunity to play the leads and the result is a fun and pleasing hour of entertainment that should dispel the idea that a “B” movie automatically means a “bad” movie.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Audio Drama Review: The Empire Strikes Back Original Radio Drama

The Empire Strikes Back was adapted by NPR soon after its release, just as the original Star Wars film was. Mark Hamill and Anthony Williams once again reprised their roles as Luke Skywalker and C-3PO with Billy Dee Williams also joining the cast as Lando Calrissian. The rest of the roles from the movie were filled in by other actors with Ann Sachs as Leia, Perry King as Hans Solo, Brock Peters as Darth Vader, and introducing John Lithgow as Yoda.

Compared to the solid Star Wars Radio Drama, the ten part Empire Strikes Back is a far better production. There’s hardly any padding (and none after the first episode.) The production works perfectly as an Adventure radio serial rather than a supplementary derivative of its source material. There’s quite a bit of extra running time and it’s all used to good effect and the big winner is the character of Hans Solo who is fleshed out even more than in the film. The audio drama fleshes out his relationship with Luke as well as Leia.

Perry King started off a bit shaky in Star Wars as Hans Solo, but he gives a really compelling performance here and his interpretation of Solo is different but just as good as what Harrison Ford did on the screen. Ann Sachs turns in another great turn as Princess Leia and again, the audio makes her a much stronger character.

The same thing goes for Brock Peters who is absolutely brilliant as Vader, who also gets more scenes in the course of the search for rebel base and for Vader. Peters has captured the essence and menace of Vader while offering his own twist.

Anthony and Billy Dee Williams as well as Hammil turn in good performances that are little different than what they did on screen.

The sound effects and music are exactly what you’d expect from Lucasfilms and the action is really well-executed. The awkward adaptations from screen to audio in Star Wars has become much more seamless and natural.

Probably the only really disappointing aspect of the production was John Lithgow as Yoda. Lithgow is a talented actor who has gone to much bigger and better things, yet while Peters, King, and Sachs took their iconic roles and made them their own, Lithgow essentially does a so-so imitation of Frank Oz’s performance. It made me wish they’d just gotten Frank Oz in the first place.

Still, despite that weak spot, this is one of the best Audio Drama series I’ve heard. It shows greater appreciation for the medium and really hits it out of the park, making this iconic story come alive.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0


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DVD Review: The Last Detective, Series One

Dangerous Davies, the Last Detective (played by Peter Davison of Campion and Doctor Who fame) isn’t your usual crime drama lead character. His estranged wife Julie describes him to one of her many boyfriends as “Dangerous because he isn’t…” ” He is “”The Last Detective’ because he’s the last man they’d put on anything important.”

His boss tells him, “The last detective, that’s what you are, Davies. The last detective I’ll ever think of for a job. Unless it’s a crap job; then you’ll be the first.”

Of course, PC Davies is far from incompetent. Whatever task he’s given, he takes on with relish and shows competence and intelligence. He’s easy to underrate and gains people’s confidence. He’s kind of like Columbo (most of his episodes are about the length of a 1970s columbo episode) except instead of being assigned every celebrity murder case, he goes out and investigates the report that a jeweler has shot a duck.

This first series collects four episodes including the feature-length TV movie, along with the episodes “Moonlight,” “Tricia,” and “Lofty.”

The TV movie is a great story as he takes on a cold case murder investigation without telling his superior based on a clue he came up with in a far less desirable case. It’s a well worked out procedural that does a great job showcasing the character and his overall decency. It’s probably the most traditional mystery of the four, and also the most engaging.

“Moonlight” is an odder story as Davies investigates the disappearance of an elderly man with a shady past, and an often tempestuous relationship with his wife. The story has some character moments and solid guest performances, but gets tedious in a few spots with the same themes harped on repeatedly. That and a less than a satisfying conclusion make this my least favorite episode of the season.

“Tricia” has Davies experience the downside of being a personable and caring person. He ends up taking on a case of a woman who claims to have been assaulted and robbed. The story shows Davies being shrewd and cautious as he figures out Tricia is falling for him and begins to discover what a bad thing that can be.

“Lofty” is the second strongest episode of the story. The episode begins by showing Davies’ friendship with an eccentric old man named, “Lofty.” When Lofty dies under mysterious circumstances, the police don’t care much, but with a word from her social worker, Davies presses. Believing the case to be a waste of time, his boss gives it to him. What follows is a solid investigation leading to a great mystery involving World War II and a ring. There are some red herrings thrown in, but I found this to be a very engaging story.

Overall, this was a strong series.  The mysteries are not concerned with big sensational “ripped from the headlines” crimes but rather with jobs that many policemen might look down upon. What makes Davies so admirable as a character is that any serious job, he takes on with serious dedication and determination. Finding how Lofty died or investigating Tricia’s robbery will not earn him plaudits from “the man upstairs,” however the way he approaches his work ultimately gives importance to it that supersedes the dismissive attitude of his superiors and gives the cases weight and dignity.

While the series has comedic elements, the comedy isn’t played broadly. Indeed, he’s a character you feel sympathy for because he’s a genuinely nice and decent person who it feels like life itself has turned against him with an estranged wife who (though not divorced) tells him about her boyfriends, and mocks and belittles him to his face,  younger colleagues who act like they’re in high school, and a series of unfortunate incidents that happen to him like he’s being followed by a rain cloud.

There are also two very important relationships. His friend Mod (Sean Hughes) provides a non-policeman sounding board for Davies in his investigation and the two have some wonderfully fun interactions and it’s with Mod that most of the real comedy occurs. And then there’s Detective Inspector Aspinall, who  has a complex relationship with him. While Aspinall rides him and saddles him with essentially meaningless cases, he also has some moments that are more respectful and rebukes the younger detectives who seem bent on finding new ways to make Davies’ life unpleasant.

Overall, this first series is a great start, showcases the fine acting talents of Peter Davison, and tells some great human mysteries.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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