Tag: mixed review

Review: Sealtest Variety Theater

Doing a live radio broadcast from a Houston hotel ballroom to a rowdy crowd on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1949 seemed like a good idea to someone. That infamous 1949 broadcast of the Sealtest Variety Theater became one of the biggest live radio fails in history and what the series is remembered for.

The Sealtest Variety Theater had a total of 42 broadcasts between its premier in September 1948 and it going off the air in July 1949. It was hosted by Dorothy Lamour who had co-starred in most of the Road movies with the legends Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The show featured a dazzling array of stars including Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, William Powell, Boris Karloff, and Sidney Greenstreet along with legends such as Hope, Abbott and Costello, Jim and Marianne Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly, Norris Goff and Chester Lauck and Lum ‘n Abner, Harold Peary as the Great Gildersleeve, and Ed Gardner as Archie from Duffy’s Tavern.

Lamour’s charisma and star power was on full display. She remained likable throughout the series run and provided nice musical performances as well. She appeared to have been enjoying the series, laughing regularly and making the audience want to laugh along with her.

Additional musical entertainment was provided by Henry Russell and his orchestra and the Crew Chiefs. The music is all pleasant to listen to and on par with what you’d hear on most other radio programs.

Through the show’s first seven months on the air, the format included plenty of music, a dramatic sketch between Lamour and the guest of the week, and a comedy bit. Sometimes Lamour performed in the comedic sketches. Other times, a comedy team like Abbott and Costello would perform a typical routine or there’d be an occasional stand-up sketch.

The comedy was pretty solid for the Golden Age. The dramatic sketches were a mixed bag. Some were fairly good, but others seemed trite, silly, or simplistic. I mostly enjoyed them, but there were a few times I felt bad that a talented actor had to work with that material.

The infamous Saint Patrick’s day performance fell during this run. The wild crowd and technical difficulties led to sound quality issues and a profanity being spoken over the air by a male voice. To her credit, Lamour remained calm through it all. It was radio veteran Gardener who lost it and ignored her attempts to keep the show on script by trying to come up with something random that would make the crowd happy.

The event made headlines and Lamour didn’t run for it. In one sketch later on where she had to boast of what deeds made her character tough enough for something, she said, “Oh yeah, well I did a show at a hotel in Houston.”

In April, the show tweaked its format. The music stayed, but the dramatic sketches and individual comedy guest spots were done away with. Eddie Bracken joined the series and it became something of a sitcom like Lamour and Bracken playing fictionalized versions of themselves, with Bracken finding ways to get himself and Lamour into trouble every week.

Bracken was a fair comic talent. In many ways, his style called to mind Alan Young’s style as an exuberant born loser who often believed Hollywood actors were exactly like the people they played in the movies.

Young filled in for Bracken in an incident that illustrates the culture of the golden age of radio. Young happened to be at the studio to record his own program and did the guess spot on Sealtest on 15 minutes notice. You couldn’t even tell the script had been written for another actor.

Overall, this is a decent comedy/music program.It didn’t have mind-blowing comedy or music, but it’s a pleasant and fun listen with some great talent. It deserves remembered for more than technical difficulties and some rowdy drunks ruining its Saint Patrick’s Day program.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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TV Series Review: Nero Wolfe (1981), Part One

The 1981 Nero Wolfe TV series is a controversial topic. For many fans, this fourteen-episode series is bad, with the critically acclaimed A Nero Wolfe Mystery making the series look even shabbier. Others have fond memories of the series, and it may even have been their introduction to Nero Wolfe.

I’ve wanted to watch the series for some time. After many years of waiting, we finally have an official DVD release. I have finally seen the whole series, and I’m ready to wade in with my opinion. This will be a long review as we take a look at many aspects of the series.

Key Adaptation Decision

Probably the most critical decision made with Nero Wolfe was to make it a contemporary program. This sets it apart from the period setting of A Nero Wolfe Mystery. It’s a perfectly defensible creative decision because Rex Stout had been writing Nero Wolfe up until six years previously and he’d always set the books in contemporary times.

This helped the series in some ways but hurt it in the look of the show, the way characters were portrayed, and the challenges of adapting stories that happened decades previously as if they occurred in 1981.

Casting

While the cast is not as good as the 1979 TV Novie’s, it’s solid. William Conrad has some good moments as Wolfe. Critics point out Conrad was shorter than Wolfe and  wore a beard plus Conrad’s usual mustache. Wolfe only wore facial hair in one book. Personally, the height’s not a big deal, and I like the beard. It distinguishes Wolfe from Frank Cannon and it makes him look distinguished which actually helps me buy him as Wolfe.

To be sure, I have problems with the way Wolfe’s portrayed, but it comes down more to writing than to acting. There was not a scene in all fourteen episodes where I thought, “This would’ve been better with another actor.”

Lee Horsey as Archie Goodwin is the best asset the series has. He makes a good 1980s take on Archie Goodwin. Because of the era, his performance is different from the book, but Horsey maintains the character’s charm and humor while still being a solid legman.

The one casting choice which doesn’t work is Allan Miller as Inspector Cramer. In the books, Inspector Cramer has this working-class, almost rumpled feel to him. He walks around chewing a cigar. Allan Miller is too smooth, polished and dapper to be Inspector Cramer regardless of the era. If they wanted the characterization Miller brought to the role, they would have done better to give Wolfe an original-to-TV police foil.

Adaptation Positives

There are some good touches for the series. Good effort went into building the set.  An April 3, 1981 story in TV Guide details how Art Director John Beckman flew out to New York, studied how Browstones were built, and paintstakingly created the facade on the Paramount lot. They built a four-story oak spiral staircase as well as a four-story working elevator that cost $175,000 (or half a million dollars today.)

On top of that, you have the crown jewel of the series, the Orchid Room. This is the one area where Nero Wolfe outdoes a Nero Wolfe Mystery, a lot of thought and effort went into creating a beautiful orchid room with 2,655 plants brought in. It’s a beautiful set and seeing it is a highlight of the series.

I also have to give the series credit for taking one of my favorite Nero Wolfe moments from The Rubber Band where Wolfe hides a client from the police in the orchid room under plants and working it into an original story even when that novel wasn’t adapted.

The series does have some good scenes with Wolfe arguing with people over cooking and orchids. Those scenes are true to the spirit of the character.

I also have to give them credit for keeping Wolfe house-bound for all but two of the fourteen episodes. It’s a far better ratio of housebound to not than the New Adventures of Nero Wolfe or even the original stories.

In researching the series, I learned from Charles Transberg’s book William Conrad: A Life and Career that Conrad had strict working hours in his contract and if the filming went past his time for departure, they’d have to finish filming without him. That’s the sort of thing Nero Wolfe would have in his contract if he ever became an actor.

Adaptation Negatives

There are a lot of issues I could take with this series, ranging from the trivial to the really serious flaws. I’ll start with the lesser ones and work to the big ones. I’ll save a look at issues with specific episodes for Part Two.

First of all is the office set. My first big annoyance is the set lacks a “red leather chair,” the most important piece of furniture (aside from Wolfe’s own chair) in the novels.  However, a bigger issue with the office furniture is just how cluttered the office looks.

The TV Guide article revealed that $250,000 was spent in to fill the Brownstone set with antiques. There’s some nice pieces, but it doesn’t look particularly well-put together and seems a bit busy. It looks a lot like my desk, with various and sundry things seemingly where they are at random and it shouldn’t. Based on the amount of order and rigor Wolfe puts into the house, you imagine its very orderly,  and not like the great detective needs a decluttering consultation with Marie Kondo.

A more serious blunder was choosing to adapt whole novels into one-hour episodes. A Nero Wolfe Mystery had the right idea when they did novel adaptations in two episodes and short stories in one. Doing it in the way Nero Wolfe does it ends up with many plots feeling rushed and important moments are missing.

The series also tended to have a clumsy approach to introducing aspects of the Wolfe world and/or Wolfe’s eccentricities. The story pauses briefly to show us the set designer bought a big globe like the one in the novels. Another story has an entire brief scene where Wolfe guzzles down a glass of beer and tosses the bottle cap in the drawer with no one else around.

The worst introduction of a part of Wolfe lore came in the thirteenth episode, “The Blue Ribbon Hostage.” In the novels, Wolfe insisted others be seated so that their eyes would be on the same level as his. Throughout the first twelve episodes of the series, this was not an issue at all as others stood while Wolfe sat or Wolfe stood while others sat with no mentions of “eyes at level,” until thirteen episodes in they decided to have him do it.

You simply can’t have Wolfe inconsistent on his eccentricities. To quote Wolfe in his first novel, “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.”

However, the biggest issues with the series come down to the character of Wolfe himself.  Nero Wolfe eliminates most of the character’s less likable habits.  Wolfe is never lazy and never has any hesitation about taking on work. He doesn’t have the mercenary sense of Wolfe in the book.  The one negative trait he’s left with is his opinionated nature on orchids and cooking. Other than that, if he’s not dealing with a murderer, he’s a large teddy bear of a man who is actually called “sweet” in one episode.

The problem with that is it’s not true to the nature of Nero Wolfe. It’s like the opposite of today’s “grim and gritty” reboots  where instead Wolfe is relieved of the burdens of his faults and rough edges. Yet, the decision calls to mind G.K. Chesterton’s warning, “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.”  The way the character is written, there’s a whole lot less Nero Wolfe to him.

Rex Stout wrote Wolfe as a fully developed human being, replete with flaws. In the course of the books, Wolfe does have many great moments where he surprises you and you get see more his sense of honor, his kindness, and his appreciation for different parts of his family. Yet, it’s done in a way that’s understated and true to Wolfe’s approach to life.

Since the series gets Wolfe wrong, it hurts the most important relationship in the books, that between Wolfe and Goodwin. In the books, the two men have gifts and talents that compliment each other and have an almost symbiotic relationship. However, they also tend to clash because of their differing personalities, with Archie providing his unique interpretation of Wolfe’s actions and beliefs.

While Wolfe is technically the employer and the boss, Archie is the one who balances Wolfe’s checkbook and often times has to spur  Wolfe to work when he would rather sit around and read all the day long when he’s not eating or tending his orchids. Several times, Archie has to deal with Wolfe losing interest in a case and his “relapses” into a semi-depressed state.

It’s an interesting state of affairs that provides for lots of interesting plots in the books. In the TV series, the two work together with little friction at all. The only exceptions are a book-accurate scene  in The Golden Spiders and a scene in the final episode where Wolfe orders Archie not to go to a meeting that Wolfe feels is a trap and threatens to fire Archie. Archie chooses to quit instead. It’s not great, but this conflict is as close as the series get to capturing the nature of these two characters.

Next week, we’ll finish up and talk about the individual episodes and my overall thoughts on the series.

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Audio Drama Review: Night of the Triffids

In Night of the Triffids from Big Finish productions, the survivors’ great advantage against the Triffids appears to be thrown in jeopardy by the coming of a worldwide darkness. David Masen, the son of the protagonist in Day of the Triffids leaves the Isle of Wight by airplane to investigate.

The Production has some commendable elements. The cast is strong, particularly Sam Troughton and Nicola Bryant. The effects do a good job of bringing the Triffids to life. The sound design helps create tense scenes, particularly the part with David and Marmi swimming and battling Triffids who have evolved to survive underwater.

The writing is the challenge.  Night of the Triffids is a good adaptation of a so-so book. The story has some interesting ideas such as finding out how the United States fared in the catastrophic blindness, the encroachment of the Triffids, and the aftermath. Yet, the story’s inciting incident fades from importance and resolves itself in the last two minutes. At the same time, the story asks us to follow a lot of wild and improbable plot twists. Most notably is the attempt to take a character from the original book and turn him into the prime villain of this story when this story is set mostly in America. They have to explain how the character survived probable death, got across the ocean in a post-apocalyptic future, and rose to be a major leader.

This is not horrible, but it isn’t a worthy successor for the original.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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Book Review: Tickets for Death


In Tickets for Death, Michael Shayne is called in to investigate counterfeit race track tickets at a small town outside of Miami. He and his wife Phyllis drive to a hotel. Before he can even get started investigating, he has to kill two thugs in self-defense.

This is a generally solid early Michael Shayne story. The story moves at a great pace, and we are given quite a bit of two-fisted action and a complex mystery with many clues as well as quite a few red herrings.

The only negative is that this novel continues his over-the-top playing fast and loose with the police and evidence. I  thought that writer Brett Halliday had reached the point of reigning in how irresponsible he wrote Shayne as being until the last couple chapters, where he does the most egregious thing I’ve ever read Shayne do.

Despite that, this is a fun read. By no means is it a great novel, but if you’re looking for a detective story from the 1940s with a hard-boiled bent, this one will certainly do the trick.

Rating:3.5 out of 5

 

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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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