Tag: Golden Age article

My Big Finish Twenty, Part Four

We continue our look at twenty great Big Finish releases in celebration of Big Finish’s Twentieth Anniversary.  Last week, we featured #10-6. Two week ago we covered numbers 15-11. See Part One for numbers 20-16.

We wrap up our Big Finish Twenty with my final five.

5) Jago and Litefoot Series 10

I love Jago and Litefoot. I wrote four long posts detailing the history of their wonderful audio drama adventures, so of course they’d go on this list. Their absolute best Series was Series 10. (See my review here.) The set features some great adventures including Jago and Litefoot sending letters to their younger selves, competing with each other for the attention of their biographer, and Jago being buried alive and waking up in a dystopian future. The individual episodes are superb with the finale serving as a capstone to the first Ten Series of Jago & Litefoot.

Other contenders for Best Jago and Litefoot Series for me would include Series 1, Series 3, Series 5, and Series 8.

4)The One Doctor

The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and his companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) arrive in what the Doctor terms as a vulgar period of history where most things are known and there’s little exploration or curiosity. The Doctor and his exploits are pretty well-known. So well-known that a con man is impersonating the Doctor with the aide of his assistant Sally. The Doctor stumbles onto his impersonator but before he can get that sorted out, an evil overlord shows up and threatens to destroy the entire star system unless the system’s greatest treasures are brought to him.

This is the best Doctor Who comedy story Big Finish has released. It has a great cast including the future Doctor Who companion actor Matt Lucas, a clever script that makes sense, while still delivering a variety of humorous situations. Overall, this is an absolute joy.

3)Hamlet

Yes, you read that right. While it’s best known for its Science Fiction and Nostalgic TV adaptations, Big Finish did two Shakespearean plays, King Lear and Hamlet. Both plays were  well-performed with stellar casts that bring these legendary stories to life. Hamlet is my favorite of the two, since I generally like Hamlet a bit more than King Lear.

Hamlet is one of the best stories ever written, but that doesn’t mean adaptations of Hamlet are all good.  There are many poorly acted and poorly executed versions of the play that involve actors giving hammy performances or droning through their lines. There was a version of Hamlet that was subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff.

This is a brilliant Hamlet. Big Finish didn’t mess around with the script but they got some very good actors to appear in it. Alexander Vlahos is a great Hamlet. His delivery is pitch perfect. He makes every line real and credible.

The big advantage of this one is the sound design. Most audio versions of Shakespeare plays tend to be either recorded versions of the play or actors just reading the lines. However, this story has a very realistic and well-done sound design done by a company that specializes in making great-sounding audio. The sound and music are never intrusive or overdone and definitely enhance the experience.

This is a tremendous production that does justice to one of the greatest stories of all time.

2) Doctor Who: The Chimes of Midnight

The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and his companion Charlotte Pollard (India Fisher) arrive at an Edwardian Mansion on Christmas where on the stroke of midnight, a servant is killed in a bizarre way. The Doctor and Charley find themselves drawn into the story and try to solve the mystery as reality and time seem to bend in this strange and unusual place as more servants continue to die each time midnight strikes.

This is an amazing and multi-faceted story. It’s science fiction, it’s a mystery, a dark comedy, and a satire on the English class system. It has some hilarious moments, some dark moments, and ends with some sweet and emotional moments. It features great acting, superb direction, and top-notch writing. Chimes of Midnight has been consistently listed as one of Big Finish’s best releases since it came out in 2002. (In 2015, it was voted the best monthly Doctor Who release by listeners.) It’s a story that lives up to its massive hype and is a must-listen.

1) Doctor Who: The Last Adventure

All of the Doctors who appear in Big Finish Doctor Who stories were given a proper ending to their tenure on television with their regeneration, or I should say all but one.

When Colin Baker was cast to play the Sixth Doctor, he had high hopes for a long, happy tenure in the role but ended up with a short, unfortunate tenure. His character as written was unlikable (particularly in his first story) while he was given a clashing, multi-color costume universally panned. On top of that, the show’s script editor thought he wasn’t fit for the role and said so publicly. The show went on hiatus for 18 months and when the show returned, it did so with a “trial” that reminded the audience of the recent unpleasantness. Baker did a good job with what he was given, but was ultimately fired from the show and didn’t return for a regeneration story. Instead, his successor Sylvester McCoy appeared on the TARDIS set wearing Baker’s outfit and a blonde wig.

Baker’s Doctor got a second chance at Big Finish. On audio, the Sixth Doctor became a more likable character and got several new companions while starring in a host of well-written and memorable releases including the previously mentioned One Doctor. That really gave Baker a chance to show how good a Doctor he could be and gave many fans a new appreciation of his Doctor.

After so many years and so many stories, Producer David Richardson had the idea of finally giving the Sixth Doctor a proper ending. This led to the Last Adventure, which features four stories throughout the Sixth Doctor’s life that ultimately set the stage for his regeneration and a final confrontation with his enemy the Valyard. Each story is told with a different companion and the stories take different tones from an eerie story about a strange train yard to a light-hearted story about doglike people who have stay indoors to avoid becoming human to a suspenseful tale of malicious evil in Victorian London (with Jago and Litefoot) to a final confrontation in the TARDIS, this box set covers a lot of ground and each chapter is well-written and well-executed. They’re not only a solid conclusion to Baker’s era, but they also each stand up as strong stories in their own right.

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My Big Finish Twenty, Part Three

We continue our look at twenty great Big Finish releases in celebration of Big Finish’s Twentieth Anniversary. Last week we covered numbers 15-11. See Part One for numbers 20-16. This week we’ll cover numbers 10-6.

10) UNIT Encounters

Big Finish’s original Doctor Who license was limited to production based on the classic era of Doctor Who and the first eight Doctors. That changed in 2015 as they were allowed to tell stories based on characters in the revived series. The first new series that Big Finish did was UNIT featuring Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgraves) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) and adding a new cast of characters around them. The UNIT releases are action-packed stories of UNIT defending the Earth from danger in the absence of the Doctor.

Encounters is one of my favorite of these sets. While generally, the UNIT box sets feature four hour-long episodes based on a single threat, this is much more an anthology piece. In four different episodes, the UNIT team deals with a disabled Dalek in South America, has a creepy sci-fi ghost story, meets up with classic Doctor Who monsters like the Sontarans, and has a hilarious meet-up with an alternate dimension. It’s a fun box set that shows the great range of both the writers and the actors.

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9) Live 34

This is one of Big Finish’s most impressive experimental stories as we are brought four separate news casts from the radio station Live 34, the top channel on Colony 34 where the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companions Ace (Sophia Allred) and Hex (Philip Oliver)  have inserted themselves to challenge the regime of Premier Jaeger, the Colony’s long-time ruler, who has been delaying a general election for five years.

The story is chillingly realistic. The news programs feel true to life. Andrew Collins and Duncan Wiseby deserve a lot of credit for the way they played a news anchor and a news magazine host respectively. They manage to create a feeling of authenticity that brings appropriate gravity to the proceedings. The realism makes the grim nature of this police state planet feel plausible and that’s terrifying.

One complaint some people have about the story is that we’ve seen this all before: tyrannical government feeds masses misinformation and oppresses the planet, Doctor comes to the rescue. Yes, that’s true. But the difference between a good Doctor Who story and a bad one isn’t the total originality of the plot, it’s how the story is told. And this one is told brilliantly in a way that makes the grim reality of a police state come to life.

 

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8) The First Doctor Adventures, Volume 1

I was dubious of this series. The idea was to record adventures featuring the First Doctor, played by David Bradley (who played the original First Doctor William Hartnell in an Adventure in Space and Time.) The series also had the actors who played the original Doctor Who companion actors in that same film play the First Doctor’s companions. This seemed gimmicky and unnecessary.

Yet, it worked wonderfully. The two stories were marvelous. “The Destination Wars” features the First Doctor encountering the Doctor Who villain the Master in an encounter that predates their meeting on television in a great science fiction time manipulation plot. Then there’s “The Great White Hurricane” which finds the crew landing in New York City just before the Great Blizzard of 1888. This story is a fantastic historical which brings to life a part of American history which I’d never heard about before and tells a really compelling story.

The acting is also superb as each of the leads offers their own interpretation of their classic roles and makes these characters their own. Whether you’re a fan of the original Hartnell stories or not, this box set features some incredibly well-done drama and is definitely worth a listen.

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7) The War Doctor: Casualties of War

For Doctor Who’s Fiftieth Anniversary, the series introduced legendary British actor John Hurt as a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor (the War Doctor) who lived and fought during the great Time War with the Daleks. Hurt’s appearances on TV were limited to two TV episodes, but Big Finish did a series of four three-episode box sets examining the life of the War Doctor, of which this is the last, having been released just after Hurt’s death in January 2017.

The box set contains three solid stories that deal with the cost of the Time War not only in lives, but in the cost to the soul, and to the very idea of truth. The set works on many levels. On one hand, the story is a great space opera offering big battles and high concepts. There are even a few moments of levity. On the other hand, the costs and suffering of the Time War are wearing on the Doctor’s heart and mind, particularly as he sees how the war has touched one of his previous companions, Leela (Louise Jameson.)

The entire set is well-written with great music and sound design, as well as solid acting including featured performances from Hurt, Jameson, and Jacqueline Pearce.

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6) The English Way of Death

In this story adapted from a novel by Gareth Roberts by John Dorney, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Leela Ward) travel to 1930s England to return an overdue library book but they run into time tourists who have illegally come from the future and more alarmingly, a sinister alien who is using zombies in a nefarious scheme.

The villains in this story are somewhat generic, particularly the zombies, though I found one plot twist in part four to be quite hilarious. Roberts does best with character pieces and this is quite cleverly done as a period drama gives him the chance to introduce all the sorts of interesting characters including a gung-ho British Colonel who gets drawn into the adventure, the cowardly Percy, and some of his braver colleagues from the future. The dialogue is rich and is perhaps even funnier than the TV story, “City of Death”, though not quite as stylish.

This is one of Big Finish’s best releases with the most popular classic series Doctor and one of the funnier stories they’ve ever made.

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My Big Finish 20, Part One

My Big Finish Twenty

September is the 20th Anniversary of Big Finish productions turning out audio dramas and this month we’re celebrating with a series of articles looking at twenty great releases from Big Finish.

I should say that this is NOT a “Top 20 Big Finish” releases article, since I’ve not listened to every single Big Finish release. Some are only available on CD and shipping rates from the UK can be prohibitive. Some are for series that I’ve never gotten into like Blake’s 7 or Dark Shadows. Others I’d like to listen to someday but haven’t gotten around to. In addition, Big Finish has lost the license for some other properties such as Sapphire and Steel.

It’s also not my top twenty favorite releases. That would be heavily skewed towards Sci-Fi and certain Doctor Who actors. Rather this is a list of twenty great Big Finish releases. There’s still a lot of Science Fiction and Doctor Who on the list, but my aim is to cover a bit of the breadth of Big Finish’s catalog and offerings. I do have these in an order of quality. Comparing vintage mystery show revivals to madcap Science Fiction is a bit of a challenge, but we try.

20) Hound of the Baskervilles:

There have been many adaptations of the Hound of the Baskervilles, but this may be my favorite. Director/Star Nicholas Briggs and writer Richard Dinnick decided to do an absolutely faithful adaptation, which is impressive as most writers can’t seem to resist to tinkering with one of the greatest mystery novels of all time. What we get is the richness of the story, along with super but not intrusive sound effects. The cast is superb and professional, Briggs is a solid Holmes, and Richard Earl does a great job bringing Watson to life. One of the most remarkable facts about this is that the entire recording was done in a single day. It’s a must-listen-to for Holmes fans.

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19) Light at the End:

For the Fiftieth Anniversary of Doctor Who, on television, the Tenth and Eleventh known regenerations of the Doctor joined forces with the previously unknown War Doctor (played by John Hurt.) Yet, that left a lot of Doctors out. One of the key premises of Doctor Who is that when his life is in mortal jeopardy, the Doctor can regenerate into another human form.

Light at the End is the Anniversary special for all the other Doctors (save Christopher Eccleston, who took part in neither.) The five living Doctors from before the revived series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann) star along with one of their companions, with three now-deceased Doctors played by appropriate substitutes but only making brief appearances as they battle their long-time foe, The Master.

The most surprising thing about this story is that despite all these characters, the story is coherent. Writer Nicholas Briggs (who didn’t want to do a multi-Doctor story) wrote a script that managed to keep everything in balance and give each Doctor something to do, and give the script a coherent plot. Light at the End is a superb celebration of fifty years for the Doctor Who Series that still manages to hold up as a well-written, beautifully scored and directed production.

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18) Doctor Who:The Lost Stories The First Doctor Box Set

This was from Big Finish’s range of “Lost Stories,” which were adaptations of Doctor Who scripts that were written or proposed but never made for a variety of reasons. While the initial series focused on Colin Banker’s canceled second season as the Doctor, this expanded to the rest of the classic Doctors.

The First Doctor Box Set focused on two scripts written for William Hartnell’s First Doctor by Turkish writer Moris Farhi in 1964. During Hartnell’s time on Doctor Who, the series was split half between Science Fiction stories and historicals. The bulk of the box set is taken up by the story, Farewell Great Macedon, an epic script that puts the Doctor and his companions into the thick of events as they meet Alexander the Great just before his death.

Surviving cast members Carole Ann Ford and William Russell return as the companions Susan and Ian and voice the roles of their departed co-stars and provide narration in a brilliantly written story that manages to capture the feel of Early Doctor Who as well as pulling readers into the midst of this key time in history.

The second story, “The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance” is good but a bit high-concept and it’s hard to see how it ever would have worked on television. At less than an hour long, it doesn’t have time to be fully developed. Still, if the second story is largely forgettable, the first story makes this box set well worth listening to.

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17)The Avengers: The Lost Episodes, Volume 3

When Americans think of the British TV series, The Avengers, they think of Emma Peel and John Steed bringing their larger-than-life adventures to America. They aired over the ABC TV network in Prime Time. Yet, before the Avengers came to America, there were three seasons of the series shot in the U.K. The first season of the series from 1961 was almost completely lost with only three episodes and part of another surviving.

Big Finish brought all 26 episodes of the first season to life in their Avengers: The Lost Episodes series which starred Julian Wadham as John Steed and Anthony Howell as Dr. David Keel, a general practitioner who joined Steed on missions after his fiancee is murdered by a gangster in the first episode.

The Lost Episodes are a much more straightforward 1960s crime drama, although later episodes do get into espionage. Big Finish does a great job creating the feel of the 1960s through sound effect, music, and the type of performances given, and several of these lost episodes show the first season of Avengers was good even in its early days.

For me, Series 3 is the best set of the series. Click here my full review of Series 3.

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16) How to Win Planets and Influence People

Not only can the Doctor regenerate, but so can his foes from his own race. Big Finish has added some new regenerations for some of the Doctor’s Time Lord enemies. Big Finish cast comedian Rufus Hound as a new version of the Meddling Monk and he’s had some great stories. However, my favorite thing Rufus Hound has done for Big Finish is the short trip, “How to Win Planets and Influence People.” This is part of the Doctor Who Short Trip range. Those usually feature a short Doctor Who story of between 25-40 minutes that’s available as a download only. However, this is a bit different.

In this story, the meddling monk is giving a speech to a corporate convention as a motivational speaker, giving attendees a crash course in supervillainy and detailing how to defeat the Doctor with his many examples of how he failed to defeat the Doctor.

The production does a great job playing off of Hound’s stand up skills, while also poking fun at Ted Talks, as well Sci-Fi genre conventions for both Doctor Who villains and supervillains in general. Yet, it becomes clear more is going on than just a speech as the story goes on. Overall, this release is just a hoot and a great showcase for Mister Hound’s talent.

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My Top Six Most Wanted Missing Old Time Radio Episodes

In podcasting, few things make me happier than getting word more detective radio programs have come into circulation. Over the last few seasons, we’ve revisited several series where I’d done every available episode for only for more episodes to come available.

The list of series I would love to have new episodes for is vast. I’d love more episodes of series that have 90% of their episodes missing, such as the Fat Man and The Thin Man. I’d love episodes for shows which we have only dozens of episodes out of hundreds, such as the Saint, Barrie Craig, and Nick Carter. I’d love more episodes of series where we already have most of them such as the Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Dragnet, Richard Diamond, and Johnny Dollar.

When it comes to specific missing episodes, the list is far shorter. We have no idea what the missing episodes are about, so one missing episode could be as good as another in theory. Yet, there are some episodes where we do have tantalizing details about them that make one I’m particularly curious about. Here are my top 6:

6) Dragnet, Production 1-June 3, 1949

We are missing the very first episode of Dragnet from the radio series that ran for six years and led to four different TV series, a major motion picture, and a successful spin-off in Adam 12. Production 1 is one of only eleven lost episodes of the radio show but it’s such a historic broadcast, and it’s a shame we can’t hear it. The only reason it ranks so low is we do have Production 2, which gives us a hint of what Production 1 was like with its very different opening theme and somewhat different style. Production 1 isn’t Dragnet as most people know it, but it’s still the beginning of the series, and I’d like to be able to hear it.

Note: This episode is one various sites frequently claim to have for sale, but when you listen to the episode, it’s actually Production 2.

5)Yours Truly Johnny Dollar: The Lonely Hearts Matter, Episode 4: April 28, 1956

The fifteen-minute Johnny Dollar serials with Bob Bailey are the best audio dramas of radio’s golden age. Thankfully, they are almost entirely intact, with only four installments missing. Three of these missing episodes are Parts Two or Three. If a chapter is going to be missing, one of these middle chapters is best as most plot developments are readily captured in recaps.

However, the Lonely Hearts Matter is missing Episode Four. In my opinion, that’s the second worst episode to be missing. The worst possible episode to not have is the final episode of the serial since you don’t know how the story ends. Episode Four is critical as it’s in this episode that Johnny begins to move towards the solution and the drama of the final chapter is set up. As it is now, the Lonely Hearts Matter is not a satisfying listen. The leap from parts three to five is a huge one.We can read about what happened in part four thanks to John C. Abbott’s definitive book on Johnny Dollar. However, there’s nothing like actually hear the episode.

4) Yours Truly Johnny Dollar: The Curly Waters Matter, 02/01/1959

After the end of the serial era, the show resumed the typical half-hour format. Most episodes were entirely self-contained. So while we may not have all the episodes, we don’t need them to understand the episodes we do have. One exception to this is the Curly Waters Matter. This episode is missing and that’s bad for two reasons. First, it introduces Betty Lewis who would be a recurring character for the last year and a half of the Bob Bailey era as Johnny’s first and only ongoing girlfriend. In addition, the plot for next week’s program’s (The Date of Death Matter) is a bit of a sequel to this one. Many of the events are recapped, so you can understand what went on in that episode, but it’s disappointing we couldn’t hear these events for ourselves.

3)Let George Do It: George Meets Sam Spade-09/26/1947

Dennis at the Digital Deli located a tantalizing ad from a newspaper for the radio series, Let George Do It with the caption, “George Meets Sam Spade.”

The radio show doesn’t exist in circulation (only one episode of Let George Do It from 1947 does), so we’re left with a lot of questions. Was this an actual team-up between George Valentine and Sam Spade despite being on different networks? Was it a guest appearance by Sam Spade actor Howard Duff on Let George Do It? Was it a situation where a parody of Sam Spade appeared, perhaps voiced by Elliott Lewis who worked for Mutual around this time and could be a soundalike for his friend Duff. We’ll never know until the episode is found.

2) Dragnet-The Big Cop-Original Air Date: 08/02/1951

This is the only radio/television episode of Dragnet from the 1950s to tackle the issue of police corruption. A listener emailed me with the theory the radio and TV versions of this episode were being suppressed. It doesn’t require a conspiracy. Hundreds of thousands of hours of 1950s radio are missing. That said, I’d love to see how Dragnet dealt with this topic in the 1950s.

Note: This is another episode that is often listed as being available for sale, but the episode sold is an unrelated burglary case.

1) Matthew Slade-The Day of the Phoenix, Part Three: July 1964

This episode concluded the 1960s Detective series Matthew Slade, Private Investigator. It aired in 1964, a couple years after the official end of the Golden Age of radio. The absence of the concluding episode of the Day of the Pheonix is why I’ve held off on doing this series.

This episode is tantalizing because there’s evidence it exists. It’s listed in the Digital Deli’s log, and I saw the episode for sale on a now-defunct website that offered Old Time Radio MP3 CDs. I didn’t buy it because of the seller’s shady setup, but it does give hope the show is out there.

We’re running out of great detectives that we haven’t done yet, so we may end up running Matthew Slade without Day of the Phoenix.

If you have any of these episodes, I’d love to hear them and to share them with my audience. Before emailing me, please be sure that you’ve listened to the episode and verified it is what it purports to be. (Particularly with the missing Dragnet episodes.)

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You Ought to be on DVD Revisited, Part One

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

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

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

Philo Vance:

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

Hildegard Withers:

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

Ellery Queen:

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

The Lone Wolf:

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

Boston Blackie:

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD Review: The Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection

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

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

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

The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

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

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

Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

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

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

Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

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

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

Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

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

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

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

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

Seven Days Leave (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Thoughts:

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

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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