Tag: good review

DVD Review: Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2:Rare Pilots

This DVD collects four unaired pilots of 1950s television shows.

The first is a pilot for Racket Squad starring Reed Hadley as Captain Braddock. In general, if you’ve seen an episode of Racket Squad, then you have a good idea of what this episode is like as it shows how con men set up a clever scheme to rip off the mark. If there’s any difference between this episode and the series proper, it’s that Captain Braddock is a little harsher to the victim, greeting him with, “Hello, sucker.” Still, it’s an entertaining half-hour of television.

Second is Cool and Lam. After the success of Perry Mason, network officials decided to give another Erle Stanley Gardener detective a chance and so they adapted the story of detective team Bertha Cool (Benay Vanuta) and Donald Lam (Bill Pearson). I enjoyed this one. There’s good humor and a decent mystery. This a series I wish had been picked up.

A bit of an oddball in this collection featuring crime dramas is the 1948 pilot for The Life of Riley. The series had been a successful radio program starring William Bendix. However, due to Bendix’s movie contract, he wasn’t able to reprise the role over television. We get to see the first choice to play Riley over television instead–horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr.

The pilot is historically significant. It was a taped program back in 1948 when live Kinescopes would dominate early television for the better part of five years. However, the big problem was Lon Chaney playing Riley. He  wasn’t cut out for the part. The TV script was based on a radio script and Chaney tried to play it like Bendix did and it just doesn’t work.

His delivery is flat and uninspired. When Jackie Gleason became the first TV Riley in 1949, he gave it his own spin. I’m not a huge fan of his approach, but at least he realized he couldn’t be Bendix.

Note we get to see John Brown as Digger O’Dell, the undertaker, often heard on the radio program. I have mixed feelings on this because Digger is such a broad character. I imagine him walking around with a black mustache and black coat and being tall. However, John Brown just looks like an ordinary guy in an ordinary suit. So that was a bit jarring.

The final pilot is 1959’s Nero Wolfe starring Kurt Kazner as Wolfe and William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. Shatner is a great choice for Archie, bringing great charisma to the role. Kaszner is an interesting choice for Wolfe. Kaszner was Austrian born. Having a European play Wolfe is closer to the book than most other portrayals of Wolfe which ignore the fact that he was from the Eastern Europe country Montenegro. William Shatner brings that swagger that’s a requirement to play Archie Goodwin and is pretty fun to watch. The plot was decent. Wolfe solved this case mostly from reading the newspaper and that was clever. Though the episode wasn’t based on the Wolfe stories by Rex Stout, it captured the spirit of them nicely.

On the other hand, this was a series that would have needed to be an hour rather than the pilot’s half-hour length. The episode was a bit bare-bones and lacked the style I associate with a Wolfe story or any of Wolfe’s and Archie’s supporting cast. Kaszner wasn’t quite big enough to play Wolfe which the wardrobe seemed to try to make up for by putting him in clothes that were a bit too big, which doesn’t work. Also, Wolfe has a cold in the pilot and is stuck in bed, which is a weird thing for a pilot to do as its establishing what a normal episode is like.

The bonus feature with this set is a not-for-air blooper reel that was sent out by CBS to managers of its affiliates, featuring many bloopers and flubbed lines. The programs featured are mostly Westerns, but with the Twilight Zone and The Red Skelton Show. I will warn that this is not really for kids. The unscripted bad language is not censored, so it’s PG-13 stuff.

Overall, for those interested in classic television, this set does offer some fun rarities. While this wasn’t the best the 1950s had to offer in television, it’s a mostly entertaining look at what might have been.

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Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 3

This is the third six episode set of the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas presented by Falcon Picture Group. This volume, like most others in the series, adapts stories from the TV Show.

“The Obsolete Man” stars Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) as a librarian in a totalitarian state who is sentenced to die because he’s been declared obsolete. I have to admit, I was nervous about this one because the TV version featured an iconic performance by the great Burgess Meredith, but Alexander does a good job carrying the performance off and the timeless message of the story still makes it work today.

“Back There”starts Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) as a young man who visits a Washington DC based club and has a conversation with four wealthy men over whether a time-traveler could change history. As often happens with those sort of debates, he finds himself transported back to 1865 on the day Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and gets a chance to test his theory. This was a nice story with a good twist at the end, though a lot of the time travel stuff is never explained.

“A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” stars Adam West (Batman) as an older wealthy man married to a gold-digging wife who he wants to please. His brother is working on a de-aging formula that works on animals and he pressures his brother into trying it on him. The TV version is not a favorite of most fans, but this was entertaining and it’s all down to Adam West’s performance. You feel sorry for this guy, who, by modern standards, we’d consider a victim of emotional abuse.

“Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room” stars Adam Baldwin (Firefly) as a two-bit crook who has been ordered to commit murder. He rents a cheap room and waits to do the job and encounters one person who tries to change his mind: The man in the mirror. This one works over radio and Baldwin does a good job playing both versions of his character.

“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” finds a suburban neighborhood cut off from civilization when power fails and no one can leave. Paranoia spreads as the residents suspect one of them is in league with whatever caused this. This was a great tale of what fear and paranoia can do to a community and, by extension, to the world. It’s a chilling cautionary tale and the radio version is almost as good as the TV take.

“Escape Clause” is a Faustian bargain story where a middle-aged hypochondriac (Mike Starr) sells his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to live as long as he wants. The story is a bit of dark comedy as the protagonist finds out immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however I think the story has a more subtle message.

Overall, I probably enjoyed this Twilight Zone collection. The stories all work fairly well and there are a couple all-time classics that are well-handled. On top of that, we get to hear radio acting by some actors who never got to work much in the medium due to when their careers began.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5 

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Audio Drama Review: Space 1999: Breakaway

Space 1999: Breakaway is Big Finish’s feature-length audio drama re-imaging of the first episode of the 1970s Gerry Anderson TV series Space 1999.

Commander John Koenig (Mark Bonnar) returns to his post in command of Moonbase Alpha in order to facilitate the launch of a probe towards the planet Meta. However, he arrives to find a mysterious illness said to be fake takes out the pilot of his ship and has ravaged the primary crew of the Meta Probe. Doctor Helena Russell (Maria Teresa Creasey)  is trying to find some way to stop the illness while Commissioner Simmons (Timothy Bentinck) of the World Space Commission is thwarting her for fear the word of the illness will spread and stop the launch of the Meta probe.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not grow up watching Space 1999 and have no nostalgia investment in the series. I did watch the TV episode  Breakaway” which has been made available on YouTube by DVD manufacturers Shout Factory prior to listening to the audio version. My initial impression of the TV episode is its fine. There are some interesting concepts, but it’s a bit dry for my taste.

However, the Audio Drama was superb. Writer Nicholas Briggs takes a fifty minute TV episode and turns it into an audio drama twice that length. While this is usually a recipe for a padded mess, I’m happy to report that’s not the case. The audio version has all the key plot points of the TV script with a lot of enhancements. The character feels more real and fleshed out. The pseudo-science of the series is a bit more realistic and grounded, with several aspects of the plot being far better explored over audio. The script is well-paced, it never drags. It held my interest from start to finish.

The acting is really good. I’d only heard Bonnar playing a Doctor Who enemy in Big Finish’s Doom Coalition and Ravenous box sets, so this is a very different performance. His performance is grounded, believable, and really engaging. Commander Koenig’s a man trying to make sure the Meta Probe, a project he’s put years of his life into, gets off the ground while also trying to protect the life of his crew. The story begins to reveal those goals may not be compatible. Creasey turned in a solid performance playing a character that could have easily been unlikable due to how harsh she is, but what came through is that Dr. Russell (Creasey’s role) is acting out of concern for human life and her anger is entirely appropriate.

The soundscape has nods to the original series,  but it feels modern and cinematic. The audio version also features some superb including a great new take on the original theme.

My only criticism is there’s a scene where a news interview cuts to a documentary to facilitate exposition.  That’s it, everything else is great. The listener should be warned that this is, in effect, the feature-length pilot episode that will set the stage for a new Space 1999 series and therefore raises a lot of questions that will be answered in the regular series.

Overall, this superb audio drama sets a high standard for the rest of the range.

Rating:4.5 out of 5

Space 1999: Breakaway is currently available exclusively at Big Finish’s website.

Audio Drama Review: Imagination Theatre: The Investigators

The late Jim French is best remembered for his greatest creation Seattle-based, modern private eye Harry Nile. However, French produced many detective and crime shows during his remarkable four-decades plus in radio.  Imagination Theatre: The Investigators from Radio Spirits is a sampler pack of nine different crime shows that French produced over the years as part of his imagination theatre.

The set kicks off with three episodes of Harry Nile. These shows come from 1999, towards the tail end of run of Phil Harper (the original actor to play Harry Nile.) We’ve reviewed this series extensively before, but for those who haven’t heard of it, Harry Nile is a period piece set in the late 1939 through the late 1950s. Initially, he worked out of Los Angeles, but then he moved to Seattle where French’s research and attention to detail really shine. The episodes are superb. They’re tailored to provide a complete, compelling mystery in just about 20 minutes.

Next is three episodes of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which isn’t to be confused with the BBC Radio series of the same name.  This stars John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes and Lawrence Albert as Watson. I’d listened to one of these before and hadn’t thought much of it. However, I did enjoy these. While they’re not the greatest Holmes’ pastiches and a few of the British accents are a bit iffy, the stories do have a Doylesque feel to them. While I wouldn’t consider them in the same league as Big Finish’s or the BBC interpretations, it’s better than 1947-49 radio version with John Stanley. If you enjoyed that take, you’ll enjoy this one as well. 

Following that, we’re treated to two episodes of The Adventures of Dameron which I was happy about.  Dameron was French’s first radio detective. The episodes in this set aired in 1972 and were set in contemporary times. Dameron (Robert E. Lee Hardwick) is a freelance troubleshooter who takes on all sorts of cases. He’s like a 1970s Frank Race, though generally with better production quality. There’s a dearth of 1970s radio detectives, so the two in this set are a definite treat.  We also get to hear actress Pat French who later played the role of Harry’ Nile’s secretary and partner Murphy.

We further get two episodes of Mr. Darnborough Investigates starring David Natalie. These are cozy mysteries made in 2005 and 2015 but they could have been done in the golden age of radio or over the BBC in the 1940s. Darnsborough is a gentleman detective who calls to mind Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey. If you enjoy those characters, you’ll like Darnsborough.

Then we get a couple episodes of Kerides the Thinker. This series has a different setting for a mystery series: Third Century BC Alexandria, Egypt. Kerides (Ulrick Dihle) is a travelling Greek student who goes around solving mysteries, accompanied by Adria, a former slave girl (Sarah Schenkkhan) who was freed after Kerides revealed her former master is a murderer. On one hand, I love the idea for the setting and it’s clear the writers did their homework. On the other hand, the mysteries are so-so and the way Adria is written makes her seem insufferably whiny and unpleasant. Instead of being grateful for her freedom, she’s upset she has lost her place in the world and has no idea what to do. It’s an interesting concept, but the way it’s realized doesn’t quite work for me.

Next up are three episodes of Kincaid, the Strange Seeker starring Terry Rose. This one is a series about a TV reporter who investigates mysteries that always have a supernatural cause such as bank robberies that turned out to be done by ghosts. I’m not a fan of supernatural mysteries, and I also wasn’t sure how to feel about these episodes. They weren’t scary and don’t have a Twilight Zone twist. The stories seemed off the wall more than anything else. In addition, I was bothered by how Kincaid got hit with unwarranted skepticism despite a solid track record. Other than that, the production values were still good. This just wasn’t my thing.

Following this, we’re given three episodes of Raffles, the Gentleman Thief starring John Armstrong. These are based on the character of A.J. Raffles, a brilliant gentleman thief created by E.W. Hornung.  These were popular in their time but have faded from public consciousness.  The adaptation does a good job of capturing the spirit of the original stories with good acting and good effects. The first two episodes are adaptations of Hornung’s original stories and the third is a solid pastiche. I’m not a huge fan of Raffles, but I could appreciate the way they handled the character. My only complaint is that Raffles, particularly as portrayed in these stories, isn’t an investigator of any sort, but plenty of people who enjoy detective fiction love Raffles. If you do, you will enjoy these stories.

Then we have the Hilary Caine Mysteries which is my second favorite thing that Jim French Productions put out. It features Australian Actress Karen Heaven as Hilary Caine, an on-staff “girl detective” for the British Tittle-Tattle Magazine. The series was set in the 1930s and finds Hilary stumbling into a crime scene being investigated by Inspector Finn (Randy Hoffmeyer). At first, she seems to be a bit silly, but ultimately she shows her cunning in solving the case. These are fun, light mysteries and Heaven is wonderful in the role of Hilary Caine.

The collection rounds up with two episodes (including one double length episode) of the Anthony Rathe Chronicles which is a modern British drama that follows the career of a guilt-ridden attorney who solves crimes to atone for a case he got wrong. It definitely has a modern BBC feel. It’s a bit soapy for my tastes, but the mysteries are well-written.

Overall, this was a fun mix of programs. While I liked some more than others, it was interesting to hear or re-listen to such a variety of detectives. It’s great to have a chance to appreciate all the audio dramas Jim French put out over nearly half a century, when most people thought audio drama was a thing of the past. I also think the success of this set may help Radio Spirits determine whether they release larger sets for Jim French series outside of the quite popular Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes series.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Radio Series Review: Your Hit Parade

Your Hit Parade was one of the most successful music programs of radio’s golden age, running from 1935-53 on radio and then continuing over television until 1959.

The series evolved into playing the top tunes of the week (often in no particular order) with each song sung live on the air by one of the series’ vocalists. There are more than 100 episodes in circulation, and you can hear a little of the evolution of music over two decades. However, it should be note there’s only handful of recordings from the 1930s and even fewer episodes of the 1950s. The sweet spot for circulating episodes is between 1942 and 1949, so if you love 1940s pop music, Your Hit Parade is for you.

It’s probably my favorite era in popular music with popular music being influenced by old time country western and jazz, along with some great sentimental songs for crooning, World War II patriotic hits, and love songs that were actually about love and marriage.

There were of different vocalist who sang on the series but the most famous was Frank Sinatra, who had two stints as the show’s male vocalist. One of the delights of listening to the series is hearing Sinatra sing some songs that you wouldn’t associate with him like “The San Fernando Valley.”

Of course, Sinatra and the others had to sing some of the lesser songs including the most bizarre song to make the hit parade, “The Woody Woodpecker Song. “

This song stayed on the charts for months, including weeks as the top tune in the country. You can hear Sinatra’s frustration with having to sing this song over and over again. Most bizarre is that Your Hit Parade was based in part on what people were asking the bandleader to play and I strain to imagine adults in the 1940s asking the bandleader to play, “The Woody Woodpecker Song.”  Still, while it’s bit annoying,  it’s not offensive, it’s just bizarre that this tune was this popular with adults.

However, despite a few clunkers, there are a lot of forgotten musical treasures, and some fun performances.  In addition, the series has some episodes that will surprise you such as one episode from 1938 when comic legend W.C. Fields was performing comedy with Baby Snooks “Daddy” Hanley Stafford as the announcer/straight man. In addition, there are some episodes in circulation dated after the show ceased broadcasting a radio version which I assume were the soundtracks of the TV version which were often broadcast over radio.

Overall, I enjoyed listening to the circulating episodes and I would recommend them to any listener with a taste for the pop music of this area.