Category: Golden Age Article

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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TV Episode Review: Poirot: Theft of the Royal Ruby

With his friends otherwise occupied, Poirot is ready to settle in for a Christmas alone with good food and good books to keep him company when he’s called in to investigate the theft of a ruby from a spoiled and immature teenage prince whose country is key to British interests. Poirot has to recover the ruby and that will involve spending Christmas with the wealthy Lacey family the government suspects are key to the whole affair.

Overall, this episode was Poirot was delightful and from start to finish. The mystery is well-written with its fair share of suspects and false clues, but also manages to portray a 1930s British in a truly charming and warm-hearted way, while also having a nice bit of romance thrown in.

If you’re looking for a light and well-told mystery for Christmastime, this Series 3 episode of Poirot is sure to hit the spot.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Note: This episode is available on DVD or for free Streaming through Netflix

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Audio Drama Review: A Gun for Kilkenny


Back in the 1990s, Random House produced a series of audio dramas based on the work of the great Western Writer Louis L’Amour and originally released on cassette.

In “A Gun for Kilkenny” a stranger shoots and kills a local badman in a bar and is taken to be the mysterious Marshall Kilkenny. The town is grateful for the stranger doing the killing and he milks the gratitude for all it’s worth because…what could go wrong?

The characters at first blush seem to fit the Western Archetypes (the saloon girl, the pacifist Quaker storekeeper, the saloon owner,) but they kept surprising me throughout the story. While we may have guessed the gist of the ending, how we get there is surprising. The story raises several great questions. What’s the difference between a “good” gunslinger and a bad man? What happens when you embrace a seemingly friendly killer?

There’s no big stars in the cast, but the performers turn in universally solid and believable performances. The soundscape is well-done and captures the Spirit of the Old West fine. The sound quality is good for something originally made for a cassette tape.

Overall, this was an engrossing performance that made me curious to hear more.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Private Practice of Michael Shayne


The Michael Shayne that appeared in his first book, Dividend on Death has little resemblance to the character as he’d come to be known in film, television, and future books. In the second book, The Private Private Practice of Michael Shayne, the later character begins to emerge.

The book features the close friendship and partnership between Shayne and reporter Tim Rourke, which was a hallmark of the series. In addition, Shayne shows a bit of character and humanity in trying to ward off an ambitious young lawyer from an unethical deal. The barely grown Phyllis Brighton returns from the first book and Shayne steps in (against her wishes) to save her from crooked gamblers. There’s a bit of reluctant romance that begins to develop between Shayne and Phyllis and it’s handled nicely and believably.

To be clear, he’s not Philip Marlowe, certainly not as mopey and world-weary. The character is plenty of fun and has a lighter, comedic flare. The plot of this book was used as one of the major inspirations for the first Shayne movie starring Lloyd Nolan, Michael Shayne, Private Detective, and the movie and book track pretty well. The result is a Michael Shayne who manages to be comical but not foolish, and tough without being abrasive.

The story is well-plotted, even if it’s not particularly innovative. The humor works a couple twists including Shayne finding a way to get himself out of a murder charge but later outsmarts himself when he tries to mess around with the murder gun. Given all the evidence tampering both in this book and the previous one, it was satisfying to see a consequence to it for Shayne.

This still isn’t quite the Michael Shayne of later books, but it’s a huge step forward for the character.

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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