Tag: Golden Age article

You Ought to be on DVD Revisited, Part One

Back in 2012, I wrote a series of articles about old movies and TV programs which ought to be on DVD but weren’t. Since that time, more material has been released on DVD, but still much of it remains elusive. So how much progress has been made in the last six years in getting great stuff to viewers? We’ll take a look.

The first article I wrote covered some vintage mystery series that were noticeably absent from DVD shelves. I’ve previously reported the serious progress made with Warner Archives releasing all the Perry Mason films  and six Philo Vance films.

Since then, there’s been a few releases. Let’s take a look at how the detectives I listed six years ago have fared:

Philo Vance:

Five years ago, there were six Philo Vance movies on DVD, now there are nine. The last three are post-War films, Philo Vance Returns with William Wright, and Philo Vance’s Gamble, and Philo Vance’s Secret Mission with Alan Curtis. Reviews seemed to be decidedly mixed about the quality of these releases. These are not from Warner Archive, but from a small company and let the buyer beware. Sadly, most of the William Powell stories as well as the Philo Vance case I’m most curious about (The Gracie Allen Murder Case) are still not available.

Hildegard Withers:

In 2013, Warner Archives released all six Hildegard Withers movies. Edna May Oliver is great when she plays the role, not so much for Zasu Pitts, but they’re all worth at least one watch.

Ellery Queen:

A mystery the Maestro himself couldn’t solve is why the Ellery Queen films starring Ralph Bellamy and the great William Gargan haven’t had a release.

The Lone Wolf:

In 2013, there had been one Lone Wolf film released. Since then, there have been two more, Counter-Espionage and Passport to Suez. These DVDs are made by Sony. All three of these DVDs contain one movie about an hour in length and cost around $20. For comparison’s sake, you can get the Perry Mason box set with six movies for $24.

Boston Blackie:

Sony has still only released two of the fourteen Boston Blackie films, both of them for a little bit less than $20.

After discussing movie series, I dedicated an entire article to Nero Wolfe and the lack of DVD releases outside of the excellent 2001 A Nero Wolfe Mystery series. There’s been some good news recently. A DVD box set has been released including the entire 14 episode Nero Wolfe TV series starring William Conrad and the very good Thayer David TV Movie based on the Doorbell Rang (not League of Frightened Men as I erroneously stated six years ago) which was a pilot for the series.

Other adaptations remain unavailable including the 1930s movies and the 1960 pilot with William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. Further, my hope of having a subtitled version of the 1960s Italian Nero Wolfe TV series released on Region 1 DVD with subtitles is probably a pipe dream. The series looks great from clips I’ve seen, but the only way to understand it will get an all-region DVD player and learn Italian. On the bright side, the 2012 Italian Nero Wolfe series has been released on region 1 DVD with English subtitles, so that gives me a little hope.

Then I took a look at films whose radio presence peaked my interest. The next year, one of those films, Mask of Demetrios, made it on to DVD and turned out to be a good movie. Sadly, none of the other three films I listed (Chicago Deadline, Mr. and Mrs. North, and To the Ends of the Earth) have been released.

We’ll return next week and take a look at what progress has been made on the rest of the titles I covered in 2012.

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DVD Review: The Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection

Harold Peary originated the role of the Great Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program in 1939. The character was an antagonist for Fibber McGee and proved so popular that he got his own radio show starting in 1941. Peary played the role until 1950 when he left it for the ill-fated Harold Peary show.

Before that happened, the Great Gildersleeve went from radio to feature films, including four that were directly adapted from the characters in the radio. The Warner Archives Great Gildersleeve Movie features all four of these wartime movies plus the film Seven Days Leave in which Gildersleeve plays a much smaller part.

So how do the films hold up? Let’s take a look at each one:

The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

This film is probably the truest to the radio program. The plot has a lot of gags and bits, but the central point is that a woman mistakenly thinks Gildersleeve has proposed to her. Unfortunately for Gildersleeve, the woman is the unmarried sister of Judge Hooker. And Judge Hooker is questioning Gildersleeve’s fitness to be guardian to his niece and nephew. His goal throughout the movie is to prove he’s fit and to stop Judge Hooker from revoking his custody.

This a good film. It’s well-balanced. A lot of goofiness comes out of Gildersleeve’s quest, but his goals make you want to cheer for him. The heart of the Great Gildersleeve series is that he does care for his family. It’s a fun movie with a lot of great twists and well-worth watching.

Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

Gildersleeve has jury duty for a gangster who’s on trial for a bank robbery. Unbeknownst to him, he’s been identified by the gangster’s mob as the one man who could persuade the jury to acquit their guilty boss. Unbeknownst to them, he’s already decided to push for acquittal on his own.

This one is decent and has some madcap hilarious scenes, including a great chase involving Gildersleeve at the end. However, there are a few elements that come off as dumb rather than funny. Still, not a bad watch overall.

Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

Gildersleeve’s niece Marjorie fears that her beau who is in New York is not being faithful to her, so Gily catches a train to find out what the score is. He’s traveling with Mr. Peavy, the town pharmacist who fears a wealthy woman’s decision which could spell doom for his drug store.

This is probably the most funny of the films. The movie keeps a quick pace as the situation continues to spiral out of Gildersleeve’s control. It’s delightfully over the top fun. Its only flaw is that it ends far too abruptly.

Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

Based on the radio series, someone decided that what the gentle, domestic comedy of the Great Gildersleeve called for was a comedy horror movie. The plot begins when two ghosts of Gildersleeve’s ancestors decide to help him win an election for Police Commissioner by hypnotizing a gorilla of a mad scientist so that Gildersleeve can discover an invisible woman. That sure sounds like a typical Gildersleeve plot.

This one has some funny moments, but it was a really flawed film. For one thing, there’s not enough plot for an hour film, so they keep doing the same gags over and over again, such as mistaken identity around the gorilla being there and someone in gorilla suit. Mr. Peavey says, “I wouldn’t say that,” about a dozen times.

Nick Stewart gets a lot of screen time as Chauncey, a chauffeur written as the racist “cowardly Negro” stereotype. It’s not just a minor point, it’s a big part of the second half of the film. Stewart was a good actor who deserved better than this role.   Stewart did eventually get better roles as he’d voice Brer Bear in Song of the South and play Lightnin’ on the Amos and Andy TV show, before founding the Ebony showcase, the first Black-owned theater, where Black Actors could play way better parts than the one he got in this film.

The one thing I do like is the title sequence. It looks spooky and shows a lot of labor went into it. The film itself is padded and at times, unpleasant to watch. This one was understandably a franchise killer.

Seven Days Leave (1942)

Johnny Gray (Victor Mature) learns he is heir to $100,000 through the radio program, The Court of Missing Heirs. He borrows from every member of his company to have a time with his fiancée before he goes to meet the lawyer in charge of this estate, the Great Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve advises the money was left by the descendant of a Union Civil War general and will only be willed to him if he marries the descendant of a particular Confederate general who was his friend. The descendant in question is Terry Havalok-Allen (Lucille Ball) who is also already engaged to someone else.

The movie is a musical with beautifully performed numbers. Gildersleeve even gets in on one of them. There are also great orchestras in the film, including Les Brown’s with Brown playing himself, Ginny Simms shows up to sing a song, and there’s a talented dance trio. The film looks expensive and looks mostly made before the crunch of wartime cost-cutting hit Hollywood.

The movie is a treat for radio fans. First, we get to see Gildersleeve, albeit his characterization is much more like on Fibber McGee than on his own program. We also get a look at two rare radio programs. The Court of Missing Heirs was an actual radio program, with no full episodes in circulation. In addition, the film has Grey and Terry attend a taping of Truth or Consequences and get involved in a game. The earliest available radio episode of Truth or Consequences is from 1945, so this gives insight into how the show looked and sounded in its earliest days.

In addition, Lucille Ball is good in this. She has great lines and good moments when her character is rebuffing Grey’s advances. In addition, Marcy McGuire is a lot of fun as Terry’s sixteen-year-old sister. In a rarity for these films, she was actually sixteen and not only was funny, but her musical numbers were great.

Everything works about this film except the lead character. Johnny Grey is not likable at all. He’s written as a greedy narcissist and none too bright. After all, he’s stringing his own fiancee along while he sets out to break up someone else’s engagement so that he can get big money. While the movie tells us he changes, we don’t see much evidence or growth. Grey sets out to win Terry over by being as obnoxious, intrusive and irritating as possible. My favorite scenes in the movie are the ones where he’s put in his place. The only reason he wins are genre conventions.

If you find Johnnie irritating and unlikable as I did, the question becomes whether that ruins the movie for you. For me, the good stuff in it out-weighs the bad, but your mileage may vary. In a scene my wife found disturbing, Johnny crosses a serious line by kissing Terry by force. My wife found some parts of the film very disturbing, including one where Grey forcibly kissed Terry. Looking at it through modern eyes, Johnnie Grey’s behavior is really predatory and the movie’s message that seems to affirm the behavior illustrates that even with the Hayes code, Hollywood films could have some creepy ideas about sex in them. This is not one I’d say is definitely not for kids.

Overall Thoughts:

The Gildersleeve films came before the TV sitcom was invented and often feel more like TV episodes than actual movies. The first three films managed to expand enough to tell a passable story but Gildersleeve’s Ghost only had enough good material for a half-hour TV episode and then repeated stuff to fill up the run-time. Seven Days Leave is fun for those willing to overlook Johnny Grey’s general sleaziness. Taken together, it is an eclectic set of wartime comedy.

If you’re a fan of old-time radio and the Great Gildersleeve, the set is worth checking out for all of the highlights, unless the lowlights are deal-breakers for you.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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TV Episode Review: The Avengers: The House that Jack Built

Series: The Avengers
Season 4, Episode 23
Original Air Date: March 5, 1966

“The House that Jack Built” begins atypically for an Avengers episode. Mrs. Peel (Diana Rigg) shows up to find John Steed (Patrick Macnee) developing photos. There’s no big case. She just stops by for a friendly chat before heading off to look at a house her solicitor sent her a letter saying she’d inherited.

When Mrs. Peel arrives, she’s trapped inside the house and forced to wander through a series of confusing rooms, traps, and weird contraptions seemingly meant to reduce her to a state of terror.

This is a brilliant episode. The directing is superb, giving this situation a very haunting claustrophobic atmosphere throughout. The design of this house and the all related traps lends to the suspenseful feel.

This episode is also a showcase for Diana Rigg. While Steed finds clues that put him on Mrs. Peel’s trail and allow him to be in on the finale, the focus is on Mrs. Peel as she creeps through this house with few words. Rigg is superb. Mrs. Peel is one of the few female characters on television in this era who wouldn’t break out in hysterics. Rigg plays Mrs. Peel with appropriate coolness, without portraying a flippant bravado that would take the viewer out of the episode.

While the Avengers had a fun light touch, this episode shows the series could work with a serious and suspenseful tone, too. This episode is a classic that’s well worth watching.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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My Favorite Non-Detective Old Time Radio Dramas

While we play detective shows on the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, I love many other programs from radio’s golden age, too. If you’re looking for family drama or for an exciting adventure, this list might provide some programs that are good for you.

Family Theater (1947-57):

The program was brought to you by the idea of family prayer. This is a lovely program that engaged some of Hollywood’s finest actors from Vincent Price and Bob Hope to Edmond O’Brien and Maureen O’Sullivan and Raymond Burr. The stories range from retellings of classics to dramatic tales that illustrated powerful lessons. The program’s messages are positive, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Some dodgy moments may offend modern sensibilities. Otherwise, this is a great example of what a family program can be. My favorites include the original story, “God and the Red Scooter” and their adaptation of “The Hound of Heaven.”

Cavalcade of America (1937-55):

Cavalcade of America would occasionally tell well-known stories of American history. Those episodes are okay. However, what makes me listen to Cavalcade are all of their obscure stories. They’ll tell about some aspect of a founding father’s life few remembered back in 1937 or talk about some now unsung hero who made a great difference in American history.

Cavalcade of America tells stories about how an American began selling ice overseas or the first American to become an opera star overseas. There’s the story of a lawyer who set out to protect an abused child in the absence of laws against child abuse by trying to apply laws for the protection of small animals. I learn so much from this show, and I am more historically aware than the average person. Most Cavalcade episodes are entertaining and enlightening. A few are a little too pedantic, particularly some early episodes. This anthology series also has a great cast, including episodes featuring Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Basil Rathbone.

Dr. Christian (1937-54)

After playing a kindly doctor in a series of films featuring the Dionne Quints, the Danish-born actor brought to life the kindest country doctor imaginable. As Dr. Christian, he stood at the center of the upstate New York community of Rivers End. Dr. Christian lived a life of selfless love and care for everyone in the community. He not only cared for broken bodies but broken hearts and the health of the whole community. Later episodes in the 1940s were chosen from fan-submitted scripts. The lessons in Dr. Christian are often out of fashion, but few are useless relics. Usually, they’re timeless truths that we have forgotten.
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Fort Laramie (1956)

Just before he achieved stardom on TV, Raymond Burr stars as the rugged and wise Captain Lee Quince, second in command of Fort Laramie. The program featured uncompromising realism in its portrayal of life in the army in this Old West fort. Despite this, the show wasn’t dry or constantly dark or humorless. It was intelligently written. One episode would be funny and light, reflecting some odd but true aspect of life in the West. Then it would be followed by a tragic story. That meant the tragic story hit harder than it would have otherwise. The feature has a solid recurring cast including Harry Bartel and Jack Moyles and great production values.

Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (1947-48)

Captain Phillip Carney (Elliot Lewis) captained the Scarlet Queen as she sailed across the world. He various adventures with the aid of his first mate Red Gallagher (Ed Max). This was one of the few adult adventure series on the radio. It’s brilliant, filled with great characters, suspense, and an ability to bring exotic ports to life in a Hollywood radio studio. While all 35 episodes of the series are good, the first 20 are superb. They have a running plot of a particular cargo Carney is trying to deliver with a big enemy that’s trying to stop him through the villain of the week. It’s a pretty interesting approach and not something done in the 1940s.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1947-56):

A lot of religious dramas aired in the 1940s and 50s. In my view, this was the best. It dramatized stories from the Bible, mostly the New Testament. It features a good (but uncredited ) cast and almost no commercial interruption. Much like some later dramatization of the Bible for television, it expands on some stories to fill half an hour. Usually, this works. On occasion, new themes are drawn from the added material and take the story in an odd direction. Again, most of the time, it worked quite well. It’s a shame more episodes of the series didn’t survive, with only about 1 in 7 circulating today.

I’ll also offer honorable mentions to Bold Venture and I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Share your favorite radio dramas in the comments below.

The Top Ten Best Episodes of Night Beat

The recently completed Night Beat series was one of
the best-written and best-acted series we’ve ever played. There were so many great episodes. Narrowing it to a top 10 is a challenge, but here is my best shot.

10) The Man with Red Hair
Original Air Date: August 21, 1952

Randy is picked up in a bar by an intriguing woman who has an unusual itinerary for their date. Along the way, they’re stalked by a man with red hair. Good mystery with an emotional conclusion.

9) The Slasher
Original Air Date: November 10, 1950

A slasher has been terrifying women in the city. Randy thinks he’s discovered who’s behind it and the next victim. Some great twists in this one.

8) Mr. and Mrs. Carothers

Original Air Date: October 26, 1951

A cute, elderly couple ask for Randy’s advice on how to have a good time in the Windy City. All is charming until Randy gets a hint the husband is planning the unthinkable. The story builds up suspense and mystery while giving characters very believable motives.

7) Tong Water
Original Air Date: April 17, 1950

Randy goes to Chinatown to prevent a breakout of a Tong war that could spread across the country.

6) Jukebox Romance

Original Air Date: May 18, 1951

A man with dwarfism is ready to kill after a bully decides to arrange a meeting between him and the lady jukebox operator. In this special episode,a beautiful performance by William Conrad comes out of nowhere and steals the show.

5) I Know Your Secret

Original Air Date: April 10, 1950

Randy comes across a woman ready to commit suicide based on a simple message: “I know your secret.”

4) Einar Pearce and Family

Original Air Date: October 13, 1950

Randy is vacationing in Minnesota and is put on the trail of wanted criminal Einar Pearce, but is captured by the criminal’s family to stop him from going to the police…until they’re done with him. This is a very different Night Beat in a quaint rural setting with unforgettable characters.

3) Fear
Original Air Date: May 25, 1951

Randy receives a letter from a man threatening to kill him sometime during the night.

2) Sanctuary
Original Air Date: June 22, 1951

The set up is brilliant. A madman holds a boy hostage in a church belltower. Can police get the lunatic out without harming the boy? A suspenseful story with a surprise conclusion.

1) Expectant Father

Original Air Date: December 28, 1951

William Conrad’s best single performance on the series as he plays a carousing colleague of Randy’s about to become a father. The vast majority of the episode is Conrad and Frank Lovejoy playing off each other. The script has some dated elements, but it connects to common feelings and conflicts that men deal with. A great piece of writing, brilliantly acted.

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