Category: Golden Age Article

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: Hit, Run, and Homicide

We continue our reviews of Batman actors in other detective and mystery programs as part of our Amazing World of Radio Summer Series, focusing on their old-time radio work. This week, our focus is on Van Johnson, who played the Minstrel, and I’m posting a review of an episode of Murder She Wrote in which he appeared. (Note: A version of this was posted in 2019 in support of our Summer of Angela Lansbury series.) This episode was the eighth episode of Murder She Wrote that aired on November 25, 1984. It is available on Amazon.

The Review:

In the middle of a baseball game at the Cabot Cove Founder’s Day Picnic, a car chases a wealthy out-of-town businessman, hits him, and disappears. Several witnesses testify that no one was driving. The same car then runs down the businessman’s partner.

The businessman claims they were there at the invitation of a disgruntled former employee, Daniel O’Brien (Van Johnson), who wanted to meet with them. O’Brien is an inventor who had made plans for the driverless car and jumps to the top of the suspect’s list.

What Works

Murder by remote-controlled vehicle is a novel murder method, particularly for 1984.

Cabot Cove is very much a work in progress at this point as the show tries to grasp the feel of it. There’s a nice scene that captures the spirit of many small towns when a grocery store clerk points out O’Brien is an out-of-towner and Jessica points out that he’s lived there six years which leaves the clerk unimpressed.

It also feels like they’re still establishing Sheriff Tupper (Tom Bosley), who is a bit out of his depth about the whole case. I like the scene where Jessica provides him with a gentle and respectful nudge that gets him to stop spinning his wheels.

O’Brien has a former colleague (June Allyson) as a house guest, and the two have very sweet chemistry together.

There’s a fun discussion about driverless cars and technology that’s fascinating, if just a bit quaint for modern viewers in a time when driverless cars are becoming a reality.

What Doesn’t Work

Let’s start with the murder. The business partner is killed on a road with two shoulders, and he faced a choice. He could run up a hill with an impossibly high grade on his left, or he could run down a hill into a forest filled with trees. Our victim chooses to run up the hill, which he can’t climb, and the car hits him. If he had run into the forest he would have been fine.

While I can believe the victim panicked and did something stupid, it makes the killer’s plan look a bit haphazard, because the whole thing could have been avoided with common sense.

In the scene that made the teaser for the episode, Jessica is trapped in the remote-controlled car as it careens towards the edge of a cliff. It looks exciting, but in context, it makes little sense.

Tupper had spent an entire day searching for anywhere the car might have gone, hadn’t found it, and decided to go with the theory that a large truck had driven it away. Jessica points out that there’s a place that Tupper hadn’t looked. Tupper refuses to go check, complaining about his budget, and so Jessica goes off by herself, finds the car, and gets inside it. The killer, watching from an ominous van, remotely locks Jessica in, and guides the car down the highway, following it through Cabot Cove, towards the edge of a cliff over the ocean … and then stops it.

This is a scene where nothing makes sense. Tupper is unrealistically stubborn. Jessica has no reason to get in the car and get behind the wheel. The killer has no reason to send Jessica on a scary ride through Cabot Cove unless they were going to kill her, which they weren’t.

It’s true the car needed to be found as part of the killer’s plan, but once it’s found, mission accomplished. They did the remote-controlled chase for no good reason and exposed the van they were driving in to scrutiny. You can interpose your own reason for this, such as equipment failure or the killer losing their nerve, but that’s the audience having to fix the writer’s mistake as you won’t find it in the episode.

The clue to solve the case is simple, but a little bit too simple. I pretty much had guessed the involved parties already but didn’t feel too smart for doing so.

Overall: This episode is flawed and continues an odd streak in Murder She Wrote’s first season where episodes set on the West Coast are way better than the East Coast stories.

Still, it’s got one of the more interesting premises so far and you also have June Allyson and Van Johnson bringing some golden age magic. So despite its flaws, this episode is far more entertaining than it deserves to be and makes for good viewing.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5   This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Telefilm Review: Kraft Suspense Theater: Twixt the Cup and the Lip

We continue our reviews that focus on Batman actors in other detective and mystery programs as part of our Amazing World of Radio Summer Series, focusing on their old-time radio work. This week, our focus is on Ethel Merman.

She guest starred in a 1965 episode of the anthology series, The Kraft Suspense Theater, in “Twixt the Cup and the Lip,” a comedic heist story. A gallery employee (Larry Blyden) is fired by his employer for being far too honest, after telling two gallery patrons that a $2 million scepter was overpriced. He’s given two weeks working notice before his employment is terminated. His fiancee complains that he’s a doormat. So the employee does the only things he can do: start taking long lunches and coming in late now that the boss has fired him anyway. He dons a turtleneck sweater and cap (a sure sign in the mid-1960s of a heel turn), and hatch a multi-person conspiracy to steal the scepter with the aide of a corrupt ex-cop (Charlie McGraw), his landlady (Merman), a washed-up actress, and her daughter (Lucille Burnside), a wannabe actress.

The episode is fairly entertaining. It’s easy to sympathize with most of the characters to an extent except the sleazy ex-cop. Merman adds to every scene she’s in and manages to make the most of a small part. The plot itself has a few turns, as some of the co-conspirators begin plotting double-crosses. At least one of these felt a bit forced. The ending is fun, but a little bit too pat. Still, Larry Blyden turns in a really earnest and fun performance as the protagonist, and Ethel Merman adds just a touch of star power to make “Twixt the Cup and the Lip” a thoroughly watchable bit of 1960s television.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Telefilm Review: Mannix: The Crimson Halo

We continue our reviews that focus on Batman actors in other detective and mystery programs as part of our Amazing World of Radio Summer Series, focusing on their old-time radio work.

“The Crimson Halo” was the third episode of Mannix‘s sixth season, broadcast in October 1972. Attorney Noah Otway (Burgess Meredith) hires Mannix (Mike Connors) to determine whether a recent attempt on the life of his client, Dr. Graham Aspinall (Joseph Campanella) was targeted at him, or if it was just a random drug addict who had been attempting to steal drugs from a doctor. At first, it appears that no one would have a motive at all, as Dr. Aspinall’s life’s work is dedicated to performing surgeries on cancer patients who have what are considered inoperable tumors and are lost causes according to their own doctors. Yet somehow, Aspinall’s method is able to give them a 50-50 chance.

Mannix discovers that while Aspinall may be a life-saving miracle worker, he’s also an arrogant egotist who hands out fierce tongue-lashings to everyone he considers beneath him (i.e. the entire human race), and is manipulative and cold. Mannix finds himself drowning in motives, and then gets decoyed to a spot where someone tries to shoot him. His client pulls him off the case. But once you shoot at Mannix, he’s not stopping, no matter what the client says.

The first half of the episode is really solid. It does a great job of establishing the world of Dr. Aspinall and all the people who hate him. It’s mostly Mannix questioning suspects, but the dialogue is sharp and crisp as you’d expect from a Levinson and Link TV show during this boom time for TV detective programs. There is a bit of sag in the middle, and the story takes a few improbable turns to get to its final twist. The solution does make the episode make sense and makes sense of some parts of the story that felt incongruous.

The appearance of Campanella is a bit odd to long-time fans of Mannix as, in the first season of the series where Mannix was working for a “modern”  1967 detective agency, Campanella played Mannix’s boss, Lew Wickerstrom. It’s not unprecedented to have an actor play one guest character in one season and another years down the line, or for an actor to play a guest character and get cast later as another main character. But it is weird to have an actor cast in a major role in a series, and then come back as another guest character.

Still, despite the curiosity aspect of the episode, Burgess Meredith’s guest performance is what really makes the episode work. He’s in less than half a dozen scenes but he owns each one and really sells both his character and the conclusion in a way that makes this a really solid episode.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Telefilm: Murder She Wrote: A Fashionable Way to Die

As an adjunct to our Amazing World of Radio summer series featuring old time radio programs that include 1966 Batman Villain actors in them, I’m reviewing TV detective and mystery programs in which these actors appeared as much as possible this month.

First off, we focus on Barbara Rush on Murder She Wrote. Ms. Rush appears in the 1987-88 Murder She Wrote Season 4 season premiere. Ms. Rush plays Eva Taylor, a fashion designer who is one of the innumerable friends of Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury), and has invited her to Paris for the unveiling of her brand new collection, which promises to put her fashion label on the map.

The problem? Eva’s in debt to a ruthless French businessman (Lee Bergere)  who has underworld ties she doesn’t know about. On the eve of her debut fashion show, he shows up and gives her a choice: either sign a contract to make him a 50-50 partner in her business or he’ll repossess everything. She signs away half her business and after the show, she tells Jessica, who she foolishly didn’t tell in the first place because she was afraid Jessica would think she’d only invited her to Paris to hit her up for money. Jessica, being Jessica, says she’ll confront the shady businessman and get this straightened out, but when they go to find him, they find he’s been murdered. Suspicion soon falls on Eva, and it’s up to Jessica to clear her of the killing.

You might think that if the season premiere of a television program, one that had spent two straight seasons ranked in the top five in ratings, was going to have an episode set in Paris, that it would be filmed on location. It was not. This was filmed on the Universal backlot, using American actors playing French parts, which might have been the only real glaring weakness of the episode.

Everything else works fine. The mystery is above average, with some really puzzling clues to think out and piece together. There’s also a nice solid twist at the end that turns the solution on its head. While the accent of Fritz Weaver as Inspector Hugues Panassié is a bit thick, he’s nevertheless charming and fun in the role.

All in all,  this is an example of a typical Murder She Wrote episode. By no means is it among the program’s standouts, but “A Fashionable Way to Die” delivers an intelligent and diverting and fun mystery with our heroine’s keen mind on full display.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

 

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Telefilm Review: Dragnet: The Big Bed

For around a decade, the number of episodes of the 1950s Dragnet TV series circulating out there have remained consistent, with no new episodes to be found, and more than 200 of the 276 TV episodes still missing. Then, a few weeks ago, three of them dropped on YouTube, on the channel of a company named Movie Craft. I decided to review one of those episodes, “The Big Bed”.

“The Big Bed” was broadcast on June 5, 1958, and it was the thirty-sixth episode of Dragnet’s 7th season. In it, a woman reports her brother missing. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) investigate and find him in a scene that’s a bit intense by the standards of other existing episodes of the 1950s series. They then set about the work of finding the killer.

It has to be said that even in its seventh season, the original Dragnet TV series was still a very good television. True, it didn’t have the innovative edge of the early radio or TV series, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to say the quality of the series had declined from what we saw in season four. It managed to tell a sharp, realistic police investigation in twenty-six minutes of airtime. It had evolved to be a reliably good program and would remain so until the eighth season.

The episode did include a nod to Dragnet‘s only big attempt to build an ongoing storyline into the season, as Smith was studying for his Sergeant’s exam. The next season, Friday would become a Lieutenant and Smith a Sergeant, and it wouldn’t change much other than the opening logo. In isolation, the scene is amusing, but it’s tough to imagine anyone cared about this storyline even back then.

The episode features a guest appearance from William Boyett as Lt. Mort Geer, which is an Easter Egg, as Boyett is probably best remembered for his major role in the 1960s Dragnet spin-off Adam-12, as Sergeant MacDonald. This certainly calls to mind Webb’s 1960s productions. Yet, it wasn’t the only thing. While the series was just as good as an episode of three seasons prior, the series had changed stylistically. In many ways, Dragnet seemed to have evolved in the direction of what it would be like when it returned to TV in 1967,after a seven-and-a-half-year absence.

It really would be fascinating to see more episodes from these later seasons become available, so we can really get a feel for the evolution of the series during this era. Overall, this episode was a welcome addition to the ranks of circulating Dragnet episodes.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Telefilm Review: The Chevy Mystery Show: Enough Rope

Peter Falk first played Columbo in 1968. However, the character first came to television in 1960, played by Bert Freed in a one-off episode of The Chevy Mystery Show a 1960 Summer Anthology show. This original television performance made its way onto the Internet. (More on how that happened later on.) So I took a look at the OG Columbo story.

“Enough Rope”, the episode featuring Freed as Columbo, would later be expanded by writers and Columbo co-creators Richard Levinson and William Link, first into a stage play and then as the mystery movie that would introduce Falk as Columbo – Prescription: Murder. The basic plot of both “Enough Rope” and Prescription: Murder is the same. Dr. Roy Fleming (played by Richard Carlson in “Enough Rope”), a New York psychiatrist, murders his wife and, with the help of his mistress, gives himself a perfect alibi. He arrives to find the bumbling police Lieutenant Columbo (Freed) investigating the case, and it becomes apparent as the episode goes on that Columbo knows Fleming did it.

The biggest surprise about this episode is that it’s in color, which was rare for television in the 1960s. Although given the relatively small number of color sets in the US at the time, it’s safe to say most people who saw it watched it in black and white. The color is great and a real treat for this episode. The episode was not aired live, but it was recorded live, so that if a line was flubbed or a minor mistake was made, the cast just moved on. This gives the production a bit of a stage play feel.

There’s a temptation to compare Freed’s performance to Falk’s iconic take on the character, which isn’t fair. Not only wouldn’t Falk take on the role until 1968, the fairly unrumpled NYPD detective Falk portrayed in the first Columbo film, Prescription: Murder, bore little resemblance to how we think of the character today. That character wouldn’t be really formed until 1971. So given that Freed’s performance came before Falk’s,  and before Thomas Mitchell’s stage performance, it deserved to be evaluated on its own merits.

Freed was a skilled character actor and does a great job creating a detective character for which there wasn’t much precedent. On first impression, Freed seemed a lovable chubby oaf of a detective, only to show more and more flashes of his true cunning. You can also see some of the genesis of the ideas that would define the Columbo character.

I like Carlson as Fleming more than Gene Barry in the same role in Prescription: Murder. He’s a little more believable as a psychiatrist. He runs the gamut of emotions nicely as the walls close in and he finds himself in a battle of wits with Columbo.

While Freed and Carlson are terrific, the rest of the cast is just okay. The series was hosted by Walter Sleazak in those early days when TV anthologies had hosts. Some, like Ronald Reagan on the General Electric Theater, added charm and warmth. Others, like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock added a bit more atmosphere to the strange tales they told. Sleazak adds nothing. He’s just a guy having a smoke while recapping the episode so far for anyone tuning in late.

The ending to the story is a bit mixed for me. I’ve always felt that Prescription: Murder, with its feature-length runtime, is too long. With “Enough Rope”, I find myself thinking that an hour is a bit short for this mystery. The length of Columbo episodes during the 70s is really just right. The result in “Enough Rope” is relatively simple, although in style, the final clue definitely has the feel of some later Columbo episodes. I don’t quite care for the clinching moment which resolves the battle of wits between Flemming and Columbo in a less satisfying way. It’s not bad for a 1960s Mystery Anthology show but it gives me more appreciation for the far better ending that Levinson and Link gave Prescription: Murder.

Overall, “Enough Rope” is a fun mystery for the era and really represents a chance to witness the first draft of Columbo and what was already there before Peter Falk came along. So it’s of interest to fans of Columbo or fans of TV mystery drama and is worth watching…while you can watch it.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

How This Got on the Internet

The Paley Center at UCLA held a live online screening of “Enough Rope” in April 2021. The event was to be live and not subject to being rewatched. The portion they archived included interviews with experts. The episode showed up last year on the Internet Archive with the UCLA branding attached and was posted to YouTube. The video I’ve linked above is titled a “Remaster.” Whether this removed the UCLA branding or perhaps is from another rare copy of this program, I don’t know. The copyright on “Enough Rope” was not renewed, and so this episode is in the public domain. I’m not certain what recourse anyone could have. But it’s early days and the circumstances of the release of the episode leaves me uncertain whether this will remain on the Internet forever.

Audio Drama Review: CBS Radio Mystery Theatre: Your Move, Mr. Ellers

“Your Move, Mr. Ellers” aired over the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre on December 30, 1976. In the episode, an insurance investigator (Bob Readick) is investigating a series of thefts that have occurred over several years from a respected jeweler. He’s concluded it must be an inside job and his suspicions appear to have fallen on the firm’s most respected employee, the chess-loving Mister Ellers (Roger De Koven), who has a friend (Jackson Beck) with a shady past and maybe a shady present. And the young man (Jack Grimes) Ellers mentored seems to have found himself in the middle.

For today’s old-time radio fans, the casting of this episode includes some wonderful Easter egs. Readick was the immediate successor to Bob Bailey as radio’s most well-known insurance investigator. In addition, the other three members of the cast were all veterans of the Golden Age of Radio. Grimes had voiced Jimmy Olsen on “The Adventures of Superman”, where he also worked with Beck, who served as announcer and was the star of several old-time radio series, including “Philo Vance”. DeKoven was no star, but a consumate character actor who was perfect for a role like Ellers’.

While Readick’s presence evokes Johnny Dollar, I actually think the episode has undertones that evoke a more contemporary influence: Columbo. At one point, the insurance investigator states that he had Ellers convinced he was an incompetent bungler: the exact sort of situation that Columbo thrived on. And while we don’t “see” (or hear) the crime committed beforehand, and it’s not a strict inverted mystery, it definitely isn’t exactly a traditional whodunit either.

The story uses chess as a theme, and weaves through the narrative right up to a satisfying and insightful conclusion. It’s a carefully plotted and well-produced play performed by four pros who know their business. There are certain plots that are a bit predictable, but more than enough surprises and good drama to make this a very satisfying forty-five minutes of listening.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Book Review: The “Lost” Sam Spade Radio Scripts

Sam Spade, “The Greatest Private Detective of Them All”, thrilled listeners for the five years he was on the air.  Most of that time, the character was played by Howard Duff. However, around 80% of Duff’s episodes are missing, along with one episode from his successor in the role, Stephen Dunne. After listening to every Sam Spade episode in circulation, if you find yourself hungry for more, you’re not alone.

While it’s not the same thing as uncovering more lost recordings of the series, The “Lost” Sam Spade Scripts, edited by Martin Grams, is the next big thing. Eschewing any superstition, Grams offers up a baker’s dozen of scripts for The Adventures of Sam Spade as written for broadcast, including commercial messages and the parts read by announcers, in this book from Bear Manor Media. 

Grams has selected a variety of stories, including one which sees Sam on jury duty, and the somewhat gimmicky but fun “Caper with Ten Clues”One of the scripts is the only missing episode from Dunne’s 24-episode run as Spade, which was also a Christmas episode. As such, it serves not only to complete the Dunne era, but also to give us a taste of what a Sam Spade Christmas episode sounded like.

What does stand out is the brilliant writing of the scripts. Grams chose the thirteen episodes to exclude subpar outings, but those were few and far between among circulating episodes anyway. The scripts highlight the snappy, hard-boiled dialogue; the smart, efficient storytelling; and the genuinely clever humor that make Sam Spade such a favorite of mystery enthusiasts to this day. While we don’t get Duff or Lurene Tuttle (who played Sam’s secretary Effie Perine throughout the series’ run) performing the script, I easily imagine their voices reading them.

The only story that I was a bit iffy about being included was “The Inside Story on Kid Spade”, which was a recycled script from Suspense, turned into a flashback to Spade having an early career as a boxer. It’s not a bad script, but it doesn’t feel like a Sam Spade episode or even a probable backstory for the character. But Grams makes his fair case for its inclusion, and I can’t rightly say that another story that was available to Grams would have been a better choice.

All in all, the book is a must-buy for fans of Sam Spade. It gives readers a chance to delight in thirteen stories of one of America’s most iconic private eyes that haven’t been available to the public in more than 70 years.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Great Gildersleeve, Volume 8

The eighth volume of The Great GIldersleeve from Radio Archives collects the twelve circulating episodes between episodes seventy-seven to ninety-one and all starring Harold Peary in the titular role as Tow Water Commissioner Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. This set takes us through the end of the show’s second season and features two episodes of the third, all from 1943. While there are three lost episodes, it feels like we miss less that impacted ongoing plotlines than in previous box sets. The big exception would be that the mini-feud between Gildersleeve and Judge Hooker (Earle Ross) over a fender appears to have been ironed out in the missing eightieth episode.

I have to praise Radio Archives for the wonderful cover art that they commissioned for this set, with Gildersleeve and Leila Ransom (Shirley Mitchell) as the the focal point of the first ten episodes of the set, which build up to their scheduled nuptials. Related plots deal with planning the wedding and the honeymoon, as well as Gildersleeve’s attempt to work up a budget. I think the second half of the season gives a bit more meat to Leila as a character beyond “Southern Belle who likes to manipulate men,” making her much more sympathetic and well-rounded. In the season finale, just before the show went on summer vacation, the wedding day found Gildersleeve with a serious case of cold feet, leading to a shocking season-ending twist.

There is more than the wedding going on in Summerfield in this set. This box set also sees the introduction of Ben (played by future Dragnet co-Star Ben Alexander) as the bashful young beau of Marjorie (Lurene Tuttle) and he makes a fun addition to the cast. Meanwhile, Leroy (Walter Tetley) goes to work for Mr. Peavey, the druggist (played brilliantly by Richard LeGrand) in the second half of the season. Gildersleeve and a few of his pals also sing together, which is a foretaste of the coming of the Jolly Boys Club in later seasons.

The War features, although in a smaller way, during the second half of season two. When Leroy gets his first paycheck, he buys a lot of knick-knacks for the family and otherwise wastes it on typical kid things. He is reproved for not using some of his money to buy war bonds. Season three’s larger focus on the War would show up in the final episode in the set.

The new focus was due to the donation of the sponsor, Kraft, to the Third War Loan Drive. The town is focused on selling more bonds to meet its quota and sends the head of city departments out canvassing (including Gildersleeve) door-to-door to sell bonds. Yet, in many ways, Gildersleeve’s heart is just not in it. For one thing, he is mad at the chairman of the drive, the local newspaper editor. He tries to start a one-way feud over the editor having published an editorial raising reasonable concerns about the town’s water quality, and drags his feet on getting out to cover his territory. Gildersleeve also expresses frustration with the war, with how it has disrupted the world and changed the general focus and behavior of women. Nearly two years after Pearl Harbor, Gildersleeve is no doubt speaking for many listeners. Yet, the end of the episode brings him, and hopefully other war-weary Americans, back to center.

The episode may be the strongest of the set for showing Gildersleeve’s humanity. And really that’s the strength of the series. Gildersleeve is a funny character, but ultimately quite human with both big flaws (such as as being a loud-mouth and braggart) and positives such as being well-intentioned, responsible, and caring. And after its second season, Summerfield feels far more like a real town where real people live, which makes the comedy far more satisfying.

Overall, this is another strong collection from an old time radio sitcom that was getting even better as it went along.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

DVD Review: I Wake Up Screaming

In 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming (also known by the title Hot Spot), a waitress-turned-rising star (Carole Landis) is murdered just before she was set to travel from New York to Hollywood to begin a film career. She had used at least four men to get where she wanted to go but the suspicions of the man in charge of the case, police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), fall on Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), a sports and entertainment promoter who’d plucked her from obscurity but had been left high and dry by her latest career move. Betty Grable stars as the dead woman’s sister, who knows more than she lets on.

I Wake Up Screaming is a must-see for fans of classic film noir, with a moody atmosphere backed up by its clever lighting and blocking. The mystery is engaging and is a cut above typical plots. There are many suspects and secrets that make it hard to know who we’re even supposed to be rooting for, let alone who did it.

The cast is outstanding. Grable was a top performer known for musical comedy roles, stretching herself into film noir and turning in a believable and relatable performance. Mature was at the beginning of a long-successful career as a leading man. Landis was perfect as the woman on the make. The supporting cast is great, with Elisha Cook, Jr. (best known for playing Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, which was released the same month as I Wake Up Screaming) playing the desk clerk alongside such reliable supporting players as Alan Mowbray, Allyn Joslyn, and William Gargan.

Yet, what makes this film stand out from the pack is Laird Cregar’s performance as Ed Cornell. Cregar was only 28 when the film was made but is absolutely believable as a veteran cop who always gets his man. Yet, he’s hardly a comforting figure. In fact, the murdered woman’s sister identifies Cornell as a man whom she’d seen looking at her sister from outside the restaurant window back when she was a waitress, something that Cornell shrugs off, and is easily dismissed, as he had an airtight alibi and claimed that he just liked to keep an eye on what was going on in the area where he lived. Cornell is also unshakable in his declaration that Frankie Christopher committed the murder which makes you wonder if he did it. At the same time, you wonder if his judgment is clouded somehow. More than anything else, even though he represents the law, there’s something sinister about him. The movie gives Cornell an ability to show up out of nowhere that would make Batman envious. There’s also an underlying sadism about the character that’s unnerving. In one particularly chilling scene, Cornell gets Christopher to give him a ride home and passes the time in the car cheerfully talking about Christopher’s inevitable execution.

Cregar’s performance is mesmerizing, and one for the ages. It’s Oscar-worthy, although the competition for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award that year was tough. Sydney Greenstreet got nominated for his iconic role as Kasper Gutman and lost.

It’s worth noting that both Kregar and Landis’s careers and lives were tragically cut short, so seeing them in the same film is both a treat and adds some poignancy to the viewing experience.

The film has a few weak points. As the ostensible male lead, Victor Mature is merely competent, but he doesn’t have to be any better than that, with the script and the supporting cast he’s given. While Landis and Grable turn in good performances, their level of glamour does require a bit of suspension of disbelief to buy into them as “just ordinary working girls.” But this wasn’t sort of portrayal wasn’t uncommon for the time.

It should be noted that the DVD includes some decent extras, including a deleted scene that has Grable singing, which reflects a previous version of the script that had Grable working as a song plugger – a person working in a department or music store singing songs to demonstrate to customers interested in purchasing sheet music. The scene would have been so discordant in the final cut. As a preserved deleted scene, it’s an interesting curiosity featuring Grable singing and also highlighting a forgotten way that people make a living.

All in all, I Wake Up Screaming is an underrated classic of the noir genre and a must-see for Laird Cregar’s performance alone.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Dante: Opening Night

In last week’s article, I highlighted TV programs that were not easily accessible due to copyright. Among them was Dante, the series starring Howard Duff as night club operator Willie Dante.

However, after writing the article, I was tipped off that the series was available online. The British company Talking Pictures TV is a television program that features rare old programming and is broadcast in the UK. It runs a website called TPTV Encore where you can access some of its back catalog on-demand. Some of its programming is limited release and is limited to viewers in the UK and Ireland. However, some of its productions are available worldwide, and so as a U.S. viewer, I can watch Dante. 

Since I can watch it, I figured I should review it.

Background:

Dante was a recurring feature on Four Star Playhouse, a 1950s Anthology Series. Dick Powell originated the role of Wille Dante, the operator of an illegal gambling room. The eight episodes featuring Dante aired between 1952 and 1956. A YouTube Compilation of all 8 Powell episodes is available to watch here.

In Fall 1960, Dante came to NBC TV with Howard Duff tanking over the role of Willie Dante as Powell was getting older and also moving into more behind-the-camera work.

How to Access:

To access the show, you go to the website and register for free. Once you’re registered, you can click on the “Four Star Productions” link at the top of the page which leads to a whole lot of tantalizing television, much of which isn’t available to stream anywhere else, including episodes of the 1960s cult hits Honey West and Burke’s Law, along with a good number of tantalizing programs that aren’t available for free streaming elsewhere.

The first episode that’s available is entitled “Opening Night.” According to Wikipedia, this is the second episode of the series and if the plot summary is correct, that makes sense. There are some brief commercials before the show starts as well as at least one midroll ad when I watched.

The Plot:

It’s the opening night for Dante’s new San Francisco nightclub, Dante’s Inferno. Dante insists that’s all that’s happening. There’s no gambling. He’s gone strictly legitimate. The police, encouraged by an ambitious DA, don’t buy it, and neither does an ambitious gangster who knows Dante from the old days and is determined to force Dante to make him a partner. If Dante doesn’t, it could lead to a murder, with Dante set to take the fall for it.

Review:

This feels like a proper series opener, as we’re introduced briefly to Dante, given hints about his history as well as meeting his two sidekicks for the series, Alan Mowbry and Tom D’Andrea.  Much of the first half of the program is concerned with the District Attorney’s suspicions and establishing the character. Here is a point where the series is betrayed by its half-hour length. There’s not really time to do the sort of introduction the show’s trying to do while also having a crime adventure pop up for Dante in the second half of the program.

Howard Duff’s performance is what ultimately makes the difference. Duff, who is most famous for playing Sam Spade on the radio, is just as capable here. He manages to make Dante a multi-faceted character and portray him as a cool customer who exercises a wry sense of humor while dealing with the inquiries of both the press and overly suspicious police officers, while jumping in as the big man of action in the final minutes of the story.

While the main story resolves, the episode leaves us with key questions, such as whether Dante has really given up illegal gambling and if so, why. The episode leaves viewers wanting to see more, although I don’t know whether these questions will be followed up long-term. Though they may spend too much time on set-up, it does deliver an exciting ending and Duff’s performance makes it a decent watch, and an intriguing start to the series.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Dante and Other TV Shows in Copyright Limbo (UPDATED)

(See Update Below)

After Howard Duff hung up his fedora as radio’s Sam Spade, he took on the role of Willie Dante in the 1960-61 NBC series Dante. He plays the operator of an illegal gambling room called The Inferno, who gets into all kinds of trouble, facing off against all sorts of characters in a series that was often described as charming. The series enjoys a solid 7.5 rating on IMDB among those who remember it, which is an exceedingly small number of people.

Classic television is a niche interest and knowledge of Dante and shows like it are even more niche. The series was created in 1960 and 1961, at a time when copyright lasted for 28 years and then needed to be renewed, and it was. So the series isn’t in the public domain. It’s also not legally available anywhere. Dante is currently only available from sellers of gray market DVDs and at the time of writing, there are a couple of episodes posted on YouTube. Those aren’t legal copies, but no one’s enforcing copyright law regarding Dante. However, businesses and streaming platforms are not going to release high quality DVDs or stream a series that way.

Duff’s successor as Spade, Stephen Dunne, also has a series from the same era in the same situation. He stars as one of two brothers (the other is played by Mark Roberts), who are also private detectives in a 1960-61 syndicated series, The Brothers Brannagan. The opening sequence of this one-season wonder is preserved on YouTube and should have been enough to make the series a cult classic, with the classy ’60s music leading into a voice calling, “Hey, Brannagan,” and one of them asking, “Which one?” before getting asked a question. From all appearances, they custom-filed every opening, but that wasn’t enough for them to avoid copyright limbo.

Of course, something doesn’t have to be obscure to find its way into limbo. Take The Thin Man. It’s a classic mystery novel. It’s one of the most successful film franchises of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Yet, the two-season, 72-episode run of the 1957-59 TV series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk has been little-seen for decades. It’s not that no episode has been released, but only two have, and you have to hunt them. One episode was released as an extra as part of the out-of-print Complete Thin Man Collection.  Another, “The Robot Client,” was made available on the Forbidden Planet DVD because Robbie the Robot made a guest appearance.

And it’s not just the shows of the late 1950s or early 1960s that suffered this fate. Another Howard Duff-led vehicle, the 1966-69 series The Felony Squad, in which Duff plays Sergeant Sam Stone, is also completely unavailable by legal means. The series also featured Ben Alexander, who played Frank Smith in the the 1950s Dragnet series and wasn’t able to reprise his role for the 1960s revival because he was starring in this. The only legal purchasable footage of any character from this series is when Howard Duff makes a window cameo in the Season 2 episode of the 1960s Batman series, “The Impractical Joker.Of course, the joke in the scene is undermined for modern audiences, as we have no idea who Duff is portraying. Failing to release a Howard Duff TV series that also features Ben Alexander, while also ruining a window scene joke from the 1960s Batman series isn’t a felony but maybe it ought to be!

Solutions

We’ve just talked about TV series that are tied to Dashiell Hammett or to actors who played Dashiell Hammett-created sleuths. But there are many series that find themselves generally unavailable to viewers. In some ways, it’s understandable to do this. Even with the rise of print-on-demand DVDs and streaming sales on Prime or Apple that require no physical presence, there is a cost to TV studios for making shows available, and some programs and movies are unlikely to be profitable enough to merit the expense to get them to market.

Is there a solution?

In the past, some in Congress have pushed for laws that would allow some neglected works to become “orphan works” that could freely be used if notice were given and no one came forward. Yet, this has been resisted by many in the entertainment industry, who view it as a throwback to the era of copyright renewals, when media companies’ failure to file timely renewals led to episodes of programs like The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show entering the public domain.

One thing that occurred to me is the recent spate of stories of large media companies withdrawing works both released and unreleased in order to get a tax write-off. In effect, the tax code is subsidizing them destroying films. Whether such a write-off should exist is a political question far beyond my purview here. But it seems like if we’re going to provide that sort of tax breaks to corporations, it would make sense to give them to companies to release work into the public domain rather than destroying it. And when it comes to old TV shows and movies languishing in the vault, maybe some small tax write-off could be made available in the public domain. It certainly makes more sense than subsidizing the wholesale destruction of unreleased films.

However, such issues are not likely to be on the national agenda any time soon. Until they are, knowledge of these series will be limited to a select in-the-know clientele, much like those who showed up at Dante’s gambling rooms.

UPDATE:

A commenter pointed out that Dante is available on the British Website Talking Pictures TV. It is a website where you can watch certain rare classic television programs and films. Some of these are only available in the UK, but many also are available to those of us in the U.S>. The site does require free registration but I was able to access Dante from there. While it’s not ideal that this is the only legal way to access the series, it is a legal way and I’m thankful for the comment and also for being made aware that Talking Pictures TV is available to U.S. watchers.

A Look at the Hardy Family

A big Hollywood studio grabs at a recently popular film franchise from the past, turns it into a series, and uses it as a centerpiece of a new package of programs. Sounds like the story of the latest Netflix/Disney/Paramount series.

It actually happened in 1949. MGM launched MGM Radio Attractions, a package of syndicated radio programs that would eventually land on the Mutual Broadcasting System. While there were some original series not based on any actual movies, and they would add the British-produced Black Museum in 1951, MGM leaned heavily into their film legacy. MGM played into its back catalog of film hits with MGM Theatre of the Air adapting old MGM movies as a sort of low-budget answer to The Lux Radio Theatre, and then it took its short film series, Crime Does Not Pay, and turned that into a radio series. It had Ann Sothern reprise her role in the ten Maisie films in The Adventures of Maisie. Lew Ayers and Lionel Barrymore were invited to pick up their stethoscopes and play their parts from the Dr. Kildare series. And to bring us to our subject, Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, and Fay Holden were invited to bring the Hardy Family of fifteen films to radio.

The Hardy Family first appeared in a 1928 play called Skidding, which was adapted to film in 1937, A Family Affair, and featured sixteen-year-old Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy, with his father played by Barrymore. It was decided to make a series centered around the Hardy family, with Stone cast to play Judge Hardy and Fay Holden to play his wife Emily. The series was popular, although the one public domain entry and final film, “Love Laughs at Andy Hardy” may be the best-known to non-fans. The series follows Hardy as he grows up and goes through the pangs of life and young adulthood and all the various misadventures that happen along the way.

Of all the major film tie-ins, this is probably the one that has fared worst in terms of serving episodes and quality of recordings, although they’re still listenable. There were likely 78 episodes made, but there are maybe a dozen that you could collect from various websites. The Internet Archive has a decent sample of what’s out there. In reducing Hardy’s adventures from feature-length films to half hour radio programs, the result is much more typical sitcom fare. The radio series didn’t feature the film character of Aunt Milly, and while some lost episodes might mention her, it appears that Andy Hardy’s sister went the way of Chuck Cunningham, as all dialogue seems to indicate that Andy is an only child.

Most of the episodes center on something happening to Andy which he views as magnificently stupendous and the most amazing thing to ever happen to anyone. Invariably it’s not, and there’s no chance for it to be. And the comedy ultimately centers on his over-the-top expectations and imagination meeting reality.

This is a series where the scripts are decent, but nothing amazing. What ultimately makes the series are the performances. Mickey Rooney brought massive, manic energy to the role. These stories had to be faced and he powered through each episode with one of the most energetic performances you’ll ever hear. Fay Holden plays Emily Hardy with a sort of eccentricity that’s reminiscent of a more low-key Gracie Allen. Lewis Stone’s Judge Hardy is a calm voice of reason that brings balance to the stories. With their work in film, they play off each other beautifully.

The series lacks a lot of the heart of films, which included some moments that brought heart and sentiment that the radio series lacks. But it also doesn’t undermine the films. If you want a decent sitcom with a talented cast who gives each script their all, or if you’re a fan of the Andy Hardy films, this series is worth checking out.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Great Gildersleeve, Volume 7

The seventh volume of The Great Gildersleeve from Radio Archives features twelve episodes that aired between November 29, 1942 and April 4, 1943. This stretch of episodes continues along the same lines as previous volumes, with its typical cast of characters including his niece Marjorie and nephew Leroy, the cook Birdie, and key characters from around town, such as Judge Hooker, Mr. Peavey, and Floyd the Barber. Gildersleeve’s budding off-again on-again romance with Leila Ransom takes center stage. It also introduces the bashful and easily manipulated boyfriend of Marjorie, Ben (played by future Dragnet co-star Ben Alexander.)

Highlights of the season including a lovely Christmas episode, less with a centralized plot but more with a series of vignettes that capture someone trying to celebrate Christmas with good cheer even while being patriotic and operating on a limited budget.

The series also has a formal crossover with Fibber McGee and Molly (Jim and Marion Jordan), with radio’s most iconic comedy couple traveling from Wistful Vista to Summerfield, which is a nice moment for fans, as the Gildersleeve character started on Fibber McGee. This crossover occurs after Gildersleeve and his nephew Leroy (Walter Tetley) appear on the post-Christmas episode of Fibber McGee and Molly, in which the Jordans had been unable to appear due to a health issue.

The episode “Income Tax Time” is a fine patriotic episode about the importance of everyone reporting their income tax, as Gildersleeve struggles with whether to report his interest income. The great part of the episode is that through all the sincere patriotism, the episode has a hilarious twist ending that’s comedy gold.

On the war front, there is also an episode warning about the danger of over-vigilance and assuming the worst and getting paranoid, as Gildersleeve accidentally starts spreading a rumor about sabotage and creates all kinds of problems.

There’s nothing wrong with this set in terms of its audio quality. It collects the episodes that Radio Archives was able to lay its hands on with the highest quality available. Missing episodes are a fact of life for old time radio listeners but they’re especially felt here. The collection covers 19 weeks but there are only twelve episodes available. This leads to some changes occurring perhaps in missing episodes or off-screen. For example, Gildersleeve’s super-competent secretary disappears without explanation, and is replaced by barely competent help whom Gildersleeve keeps meaning to fire but never gets the time. In addition, the engagement between Leila and Gildersleeve is called off in one episode but apparently things are patched by the time the circulating episode was released four weeks later.

Probably the biggest challenge for many modern listeners to enjoy is the Gildersleeve-Leila Ransom relationship. While Leila fits into a comedy trope of the time, she’s messed up. She uses flattery to get men to do what she wants and to keep them competing with one another for her affection. She’s prone to over-the-top jealousy, and any deviation of plans to do something else is met with a manipulative, pouty statement like, “Well, Throckmorton, if working late because you’re in a job that oversees infrastructure in the middle of the War is more than me, that’s fine.” Lelia is well-played by a really talented actress, Shirley Mitchell, who played many of these sorst of characters. She does her best with the material given. Still, a bit of Leila can go a long way, and some of these episodes have a little bit too much.

Still, despite Leila’s antics, this is an enjoyable set. Ben is fun, and the barbershop setting helps to give the show a sense of rhythym. The show in its second season is clearly moving in the right direction.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Film Review: Who Done It?

Who Done It? is a 1942 Abbott and Costello film in which Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play two soda jerks who aspire to become radio mystery writers. However, their efforts to pitch a mystery get derailed when an actual murder occurs in a program that they’re attending. They leap in to try and investigate like good amateur sleuths, but find themselves running through the station from the police while trying to clear their names, and stay alive.

Who Done It? is a fun Abbott and Costello film with a lot to commend itself for fans of old-time radio detective programs, as there’s a mystery involved and we also get to take a “behind the scenes” look at a radio stations during the Golden Age of Radio. Abbott and Costello had become massively popular thanks to the Who’s on First? baseball routine and they have a good time poking fun at their own success. The supporting cast was solid, featuring future Oscar nominee William Gargan and future Life of Riley star William Bendix, along with a fairly young Mary Wickes.

The movie is definitely one of their more fast-paced films, with the murder mystery serving as a ticking time bomb and also limiting the number of settings. Yet, it still delivers some great laughs, a satisfying solution to the mystery and one of great big over-the-top slapstick finales this early era of Abbott and Costello films was known for.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Who Done It? is part of The Best of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Vol. 1 or Abbott & Costello: Universal Pictures Collection.

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