Tag: mixed review

Audio Drama Review: Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1, Week Three

This is the third part of our review of Radio Archives’ Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1 covering the third week of the series. For a look at an overview of the set, see the first week review.  Also see week two.

Oh Really, No O’ReillyIn a Western town that’s dying out since the railroad came through Denver, a crooked saloonkeeper and a dishonest undertaker engage a corrupt insurance salesman to take out a policy on a drunk drifter named O’Reilly when plans to poison him and collect the insurance money. That becomes a lot harder than they think. Golden Age Stars: Tyler McVey, Daws Butler, Marvin Miller, Don Diamond, Barney Phillips, and Howard Culver 

Review: This was based on a true story that was the basis of many stories including the 1955 Johnny Dollar serial “The Indestructible Mike Matter.” The story is hit and miss as a dark comedy but really does turn in a few very good plot twists at the end. Grade: B- 

The First National Radio Aptitude Test. An on-air radio aptitude quiz is conducted with some interesting answers.  Golden Age Stars: Alan Young, Marvin Miller, Daws Butler, Lillian Buyeff, Mary Jane Croft, Shepard Menken, Don Diamond, and Jerry Hausner 

This is a bit different. Andy Griffith gives a monologue about radio, its history, and the golden age of radio. I did have to chuckle when Griffin said he wouldn’t say anything about those headsets being worn by joggers and young people and wondered what he’d say to our modern world’s ubiquitous all-ages use of earbuds. He then sends the show over to a radio quiz master (Young) who provides a wacky quiz while receiving constant interruptions. 

There’s a lot to like. There are some funny jokes and if you’re a fan of the golden age of radio, there’s a boatload of talent from the era represented in this little production. 

On the other hand, this is a production that tries to overwhelm you with jokes, a lot of which don’t hit. There’s a Groucho Marx/You Bet Your Life parody that goes on too long. In addition, there’s a lack of logic. It was decided they wanted to include parodies of old time radio shows and poke fun at collectors, so without explanation they stop the quiz and do that. 

Still, this was entertaining. It plays well to nostalgia, has some funny bits, but could have been better. Grade: B 

The Mask: A businessman/art collector steals an old, sinister-looking mask from Africa with a bad reputation. He gets home and finds that reputation is deserved. Golden Age Star: Ben Wright 

This is an odd one, honestly. The businessman and a corrupt local official steal the mask and then the official is hospitalized with serious burns when his stove blows up and the businessman’s family start having minor fire-related injuries. Than the story has a twist…that’s almost absurd, but I think gives it a Twilight Zone feel to it. It does have some interesting turns, but there are also some flaws in the story logic. Still, it wasn’t a bad listen. Grade: B- 

For the Love of Laura: An actress and party girl frequently proposes marriage but never follows through until she asks herself who she’d really like to marry. Golden Age Stars: Janet Waldo, Shepard Menken,  Barney Phillips, and Vic Perrin.   

Janet Waldo does as good a job with the material as anyone could and the same can be said of all the actors. That said, Laura is just not a likeable character. The whole of the story is a combination of Laura leading men on, and imagining how good/how bad it might be to be married to each one.  She remains self-absorbed and shallow and strings each of these men along while she made up her mind. I will say she does show some character growth. She’s still shallow by the end, but not nearly as shallow as when she started. She’s self-absorbed but without being as foolish about it. 

I also think there are too many guys in the story. She has five beaus: a smart guy, a weightlifter, a golfer, her agent, and a guy who looks good but whose chief personality trait is breaking out a racist joke whenever there’s a lull in the conversion. Each time she remembers or fantasizes about one of them, she has to do it with each of them in turn. With so many male characters, they end up as shallow as her. If people wanted that much shallowness, they could just watch TV. Grade: C- 

Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby: More than a thousand years in the future, a couple are permitted by their government to get married and when they get a family-sized housing unit, they think the government is going to let them have a baby. They hope to be given a pink or blue card for their new baby. Instead, they’re horrified to draw a yellow card and find the extra room is designated for a seventy-five-year-old man who was cryogenically frozen in 1975 after having a near-fatal heart attack. Golden Age Stars: Herb Vigran, Marvin Miller 

This story deals with the idea of over-population, which was a huge environmental concern of the 1970s and 1980s. But I have to give writer Elliott Lewis credit for taking a different tact than many writers of the era. He doesn’t imagine some environmental cataclysm that wipes out the human race or humans going into space. He imagines humans continuing to find ways to survive until every inch of the planet is claimed and filled, the human population is in the trillions and has a powerful computer-led government running everyone’s lives, approving decisions to get married, where they can live, and how much food they’re given.  

The government that runs the plan does horrible things but is assured of it own beneficence, even stating so after having made a mistake that ruins this young couple’s life.  Whether you agree with or like Lewis’ setup, it was strikingly different. Of course, the radio program does dance around some of the ethical implications of this society.  

And it manages to get away with it because it acknowledges some broader human themes it chooses to explore through this world that manage to work. Herb Vigran is great as the man who finds himself more than a millennium out of time, awakened by Earth’s government because they need him for some purpose they don’t tell him. The character’s humanity pushes against a bureaucratic world. The character is very likable even as he makes questionable choices. 

The story also raises questions about the wisdom of cryogenic freezing, as it shows serious downsides with a little bit of upside at the end.

I do question its inclusion for a Friday program. Given its focus on having a baby, love, and relationships, this doesn’t fit with much with the “Adventure” theme Fridays were supposed to offer. Given a Sci-fi Comedy was played by comedy day, this might been a better fit on Thursday’s love day. 

Still, this merits a grade: B+ 

Our series will conclude on January 1st

Audio Drama Review: Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1, Week Two

This is the second part of our review of Radio Archives’ Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1 covering the second week of the series. For a look at an overview of the set, see the first week review.

The Mutiny Against George Washington: In the closing days of the Revolutionary War , there’s a mutiny at works led by Washington’s officers to overthrow the Continental Congress. 

Review:  A really strong piece. It doesn’t fit in the “Western” slot of Mutual Radio Theater, but it fits here better than anywhere else. The story has two parts. In 1775, as a member of the Continental Congress, the story shows how he’s chosen and takes command of an undisciplined continental rabble. In the second act, the war is effectively over, but the Treaty hasn’t been signed and the troops are waiting for pay after many false assurances from Congress.  

When I think of Fletcher Markle, I think of his behind the mike work on programs like Studio One during the Golden Age of Radio and he also was a producer and director on this seriesHowever, he does a magnificent job as Washington. The script takes a really interesting and nuanced view. It does inject some modern cynicism that certainly resonated with listeners a few years after Watergate and will still today. However, there’s also real respect for Washington even if he wasn’t the type of man who’d fit in 1980s society. It’s an intriguing story and my biggest problem is that it left me wishing this had been a multi-part story, because it was so interesting to listen to. Grade: A 

Let’s Play House: A couple plan to build a new house on a mountain but run into many obstacles. Golden Age stars: Frank Nelson, Vic Perrin, and Peggy Weber.  

Review: On the positive side, Andy Griffith does do a fair bit of narrating and I’m always up for hearing him tell a story. Also, Frank Nelson plays the typical sort of character he played with great success on the Jack Benny program. There were some funny moments in the story.  

But its big problem was that it doesn’t feel like a thirty-eight-minute radio play. The plot is essentially something like the movie The Money Pit but with new construction on a mountain instead of renovating a mansion. The story takes place over two years and jumps from comedic event to comedic event using exposition to fill the gaps. It also has really goofy incidental music that indicates that the story thinks its funnier than it is. This begins to grate after a while.   Grade: C- 

Double Exposure: A mob informant gets placed into the custody of an agency closely related to the government and is then given cosmetic surgery that he’s not told about until afterwards. The story opens with him disheveled in a fleabag hotel. The question is how did he get there? Golden Age Stars; Vic Perrin, Mary Jane Croft, Marvin Miller, Bill Zuckert 

Review: This was a really good crime/suspense story takes a lot of turns. The acting is generally solid, with strong performances from Croft and Perin. There’s a little bit of audio engineering issues when one character sounds like he’s not in the same room when he should. While this is distracting, this is still a fine story. Grade: B+ 

One Dollar Dream House: A young married couple move out of the Suburbs and become urban homesteaders, buying a large home in the middle of the city for $1 and beginning the process of rehabilitating. They also have a zeal to help make the world better, but can that withstand reality? Golden Age Stars: Ilene Tedrow, June Foray 

Review: This story becomes a bit of a counterpoint to the hapless yuppies building their dreamhouse on a mountain in the play two days before. I quite enjoyed this. The idea of “urban homesteaders” particularly in the context of buying, improving, and living in distressed property in urban zones with a minimal payment wasn’t anything I’d heard of, so I appreciated it from an educational level. I also liked the couple. They’re very sincere but run smack into reality. The story walks a fine line, it’s got great heart, but it doesn’t lose touch with the challenges of the real world.  

While like “Let’s Play House,” this play covered a long time period. It didn’t rely as much on narrator exposition but found less intrusive ways to let us know what happened. This type of thing could have the potential to be a really good radio or television series, as a heartfelt family drama in an unusual place. This was solid listening and I enjoyed it. Grade: B+ 

North to Marakesh:  A female reporter goes to Morocco to interview a warlord with grand ambitions. Fearing for her safety, her boyfriend (and competing male reporter) follows her. Golden Age Stars: Hans Conreid and Peggy Webber 

This story sets out promisingly enough with Leonard Nimoy giving great narration, setting the stage for an adventurous tale of danger involving this reporter going into harms way. Unfortunately, that’s the best part of the play.  It is horribly paced with a lot of humor added as padding. You can have a good adventure story with humor, but this uses it in the wrong way. It leaves you wondering how serious is the danger our heroes are going into? Through way too many conversations between characters, it takes more than half the play to get to the villain who’s not that interesting to start with. 

We’re told the female reporter is no fool, but she certainly talks like one in concluding the warlord isn’t a threat because he was educated in English schools. This despite the recent deaths of two reporters who went to interview them. The only remotely interesting character was a corrupt policeman turned guide. But that’s not enough to save this from being a big lowlight for the series so far. If not  for Nimoy’s opening narration, I would have graded this worse. Grade: D 

To be continued next week.

Audio Drama Review: Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1: Week 1

During my recent series on the American Audio Drama Tradition, I was intrigued enough to check out Radio Archives Mutural Radio Theater, Volume 1 set through the Hoopla App.

Mutual Radio Theater was a 1980 series that continued the Sears Radio Theater only on a different network and with a multitude of sponsors so Sears could still advertise on him but not have to foot the whole bill. The series was an anthology with five formats. Mondays were for drama and were hosted by Lorne Greene of Bonanza, Tuesdays were for Comedy and were hosted by Andy Griffith, Wednesdays were for Mystery and were hosted by Vincent Price, Thursday was about love and human relations and it was hosted by Cicely Tyson, and Fridays were for Adventure and were hosted by Leonard Nimoy (a replacement for Richard Widmark from the Sears series.)

The set collects the first four weeks of the series or twenty episodes of about 45 minutes in length. As an overall review of the set quality, let’s just say I doubt these recordings sounded quite as good to people listening to it in 1980. The sound quality is pristine, it’s top-notch. Any complaints you have with the set can’t be due to Radio Archives.

The commercials are a real time capsule. The AT&T “Reach out and Touch Someone” commercials encouraging people to call their friends on long distance were prominent, but there were so many sponsors. Probably my favorite commercials were the country-music-style commercials for Motorcraft Parts. The Agree Shampoo commercials also aged hilariously.

But what about the stories themselves? When you’re talking about twenty stories across five genres, you get variable quality. Some are good, some are not so good. But I don’t think that does the production justice. Over the next five weeks (we’ll take Christmas off), we’re going to look at each of the twenty episodes, starting with the stories from the first week. I also note Golden Age radio stars involved in each production.

The Shopkeeper: A shopkeeper keeps two outlaws from robbing his store by using a gun hidden under his apron. The sheriff suspects he might be part of an outlaw gang about to rob a mining payroll. Golden Age Stars: Vic Perrin and Mary Jane Croft.  

Review: This is a somewhat average Western story, helped by a nice bit of Suspense over who the protagonist is and what decision he’ll make. I had an inkling early on but the story does a good job throwing up red herrings. Grade: B 

Our Man on Omega: A sci-fi comedy imagining a celebration of the man who made first contact with aliens, a somewhat dimwitted computer tech who connected with aliens who experienced time backward and forwards and were shaped like U.S. mailboxes. Golden Age Star: Richard Krenna 

Review: This story has potential, but is mostly told through narration by our unnamed Master of Ceremonies.  The story tries to get political and offers up some dull one-note villains. It’s unengaging and comes off as just a bit of silly fluff and not all that good. Grade: D

Long Distance:  A man about to fly to St. Louis on business receives a warning from his aunt that it’s not safe to fly. He ignores her because she has a fear of flying. However, her call makes him late, he misses the plane, and it crashes. But that’s just the start of her warnings of doom that keep coming true. Golden Age Stars: Janet Waldo, Jerry Hausner, Bill Zuckert 

Review: This is a pretty standard spooky mystery setup. The solution was obvious early on, but I think the story did a good job taking us on the journey. I also liked the main characters. This is enjoyable if somewhat predictable outing. Grade: C+ 

Love Conquers All: A modern British teenager falls in love with her teacher and begins to read romantic literature on how to snare him. Golden Age Stars: None 

Review: I enjoyed this. The story starts off slow but develops over the course of the running. I like Cicily Tyson as the host/narrator and she’s given some good material to work with. While I initially found the teenage girl characters over-the-top, the main character became more realistic, even though she’d embraced a lot of silly ideas. I also liked the teacher. He had chastened a fellow teacher for marrying an ex-pupil but has a fondness for this teen girl. Will he hold onto his ethics or discard them? It’s an interesting story, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I was nervous it was going to go off the rails, but it didn’t.. It’s actually a lovely story that found a good way to resolve it’s issues ethically. Grade; B+   

The Ship: One of the world’s biggest oil platforms is hijacked. A member of the gang convinces a naïve provisioner to supply the tanker with food in exchange for his life and a cut of the takings. Golden Age Star: John Dehner. The play stars Brock Peters, who was best known for playing Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Peters is best known in the audio drama world for being the radio voice of Darth Vader in NPR’s Star Wars adaptations.

Review: So far, this is  the story that most easily could have been told during the golden age of radio, although probably not with an actual African character as a protagonist. Otherwise, this would have been an average episode of the radio anthology series Escape. Peters performance makes it worth listening to. Grade: C+ 

 

To be continued…next week.

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Book Review: Murder for Two

In Murder for Two, Flash Casey is upset that he can’t join the military and agrees to teach a photography class for the American Women’s Volunteer Services. One of his students wants to tag along and her father happens to be an investor in The Morning Express, so Casey has no choice but to let her tag along as he visits crusading reporter Rosalind Taylor. Things get complicated when Taylor gets murdered and Casey and his student find themselves in the thick of the action.

This was a fun read. There were some nice uses of cutting-edge photographic methods of the time, along with a pretty complex mystery with its fair share of red herrings. It also had a really good two-fisted action scene that I adored. Casey’s a lovable character with a gruff exterior who loves his job and goes above and beyond to do right by others but is also not someone you want to mess with. I don’t think the mystery quite has the breadth or depth of the first Casey Novel, Silent are the Dead. (reviewWhile Silent are the Dead was originally serialized over three issues of Black Mask Magazine, Murder for Two was only done over two.

The book uses standard tropes of detective fiction and most of the characters are pretty basic, but within those confines, it’s well-crafted by someone who knew what he was doing. This is great if you want a fun and breezy World War II-era detective novel that provides a clever-enough mystery, a dash of romance, and a character you can’t help but cheer for.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Book Review: The Kennel Murder Case

In the Kennel Murder Case, a wealthy man is found dead upstairs in a locked room with signs that point to murder. His brother is thought to be the prime suspect until he’s found dead downstairs in a closet. A key clue to solving the case is a badly beaten Scottish terrier. Of course, it falls to Philo Vance to unravel the case.

This is the sixth Philo Vance and in my opinion, it’s much better than the first. Vance is far more likable for one. While in the first book, Vance had a thru line arguing physical evidence was so humbug and how he knows better, the smugness is dialed down considerably. And physical evidence is important to him as he investigates and formulates his theory.

It also helps that Vance is a dog-lover and passionate about the Scottish Terrier breed, giving a really impassioned speech on the breed’s virtues. It humanizes his character quite a bit. Although, it should be noted there are some key differences in the way dogs were treated in the 1930s and what we view as best practices today.

In addition, writer S.S. Van Dine also featured some cameos from real people he knew, which gives the book warmth.

The puzzle has a lot of clues, red herrings, and moving parts that boggle the mind and keep the reader engaged. I’m not a huge fan of the solution, due to ridiculous and improbable mistakes and miscues by so many people. If a re-enactment of the murders as portrayed in the book were done on film, it’d be appropriate to play the Benny Hill theme over it.

Another annoyance is that  Sergeant Heath formulates his theories based on racial stereotypes, although these never pan out.  Despite this, this is an enjoyable read. If you love a decent puzzle mystery or are curious about Philo Vance, this is a fun way to experience the character, if you can tolerate the offensive content and the absurd content..

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Four Difference Between the Original and Later Columbos

Columbo in the 70s
Columbo 90s

Note: A version of this article was published in 2015.

Peter Falks had two runs as Columbo. The first ran from 1971-78 over NBC as part of the network’s Mystery Wheel. Columbo returned in 1989 over ABC in a series of TV movies, with the last airing in 2003.

There were four key differences between the newer Columbo films and the originals:

1) Length

Most of the original Columbo films had a 90 minute time slot on air which made them about 70-75 minutes without commercials. The new Columbo films took up 2 hours and had a running time of approximately 90 minutes. I have to admit, in general, this was a case of “less is more.”

One key example was the second ABC Columbo, “Murder, Smoke, and Shadows” where the film started strong but dragged on too long and at the end of Columbo’s denouement we had (and I kid you not), the police coming out and doing a musical number when they announced the arrest.

The old Columbos worked because of their limitations. They didn’t go on forever, and when there was a longer case thrown in such as with, “A Friend Indeed,” the time was well-spent while the only new film that I think benefited from the longer running time was, “Agenda for Murder.”

2) More Adult Content

Columbo in the 1970s remains a tasteful family-friendly TV show. The latter Columbo had a lot more sex in the plot and a lot more skin on the screen. A few episodes featured lurid plots and disturbing murder scenes. Of course, this isn’t to say that all of the latter Columbos were strictly adult affairs but quite a few pushed the envelope.

With one exception, the added sexual content and violence tended to detract rather than add to Columbo. At its core, the strength of Columbo are great characters and their interactions, and the episodes that had the most adult content such as, “Uneasy Lies the Crown” and “Murder: A Self Portrait” tended to sacrifice quality for titillation. If there was an episode that seemed more “grown up” that did work, it was, “It’s All in the Game” starring Faye Dunaway as a suspect who is trying to seduce Columbo to keep him off her trail but that works because of the character interactions.

3) More Experimentation

Of the forty-four 1970s Columbo films, only one messed with the formula of Columbo being an inverted mystery (Season 5’s “Last Salute to the Commodore.”) Of the twenty-four revived shows, there were half a dozen different attempts to break with the formula. These variations ranged from following the killer up to the point of the murder and finding someone else had already committed the murder, not showing the murder and then planting doubt as to the killer’s guilt, and then there were two adaptations of Ed McBain novels.

“Last Salute to the Commodore” was one of my two least favorite 1970s episodes, but some of these later experiments aren’t too bad. “Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo” begins with the funeral of “Mrs. Columbo” and is told through flashback from the point of view of a woman seeking revenge on the good Lieutenant by murdering his wife. The McBain novel adaptation, Undercover” is a fine thriller if you can get past the fact Columbo’s behavior is inconsistent with everything we know of the character. “Columbo Cries Wolf” also had some good moments,.

The other three are more problematic, but not for messing with the formula. Still, while some of the revived Columbos that go in other directions can be entertaining, they still can’t beat the best of the “normal” Columbo episodes.

4) Less Star Quality

The original Columbo was known for the amazing casting. Among the actors who played Columbo murderers in the old days were Anne Baxter, Robert Culp, Leonard Nimoy, Roddy McDowell, Martin Landau, Dick Van Dyke, Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban, Ruth Gordon, and so many more. Peter Falk was a fantastic actor and had great chemistry with so many guest stars and that chemistry made the 1970s episodes so memorable.

The new series had a virtual power outage, particularly in 1989 and 1990. Of the first eleven villains, the only actor in Falk’s league was McGoohan. The second best of the group was Fisher Stevens. That’s a big gap.

The series did get better guest stars between 1991-94 when Columbo cut back from 4-6 films a year to between 2 and 3 films. The results were among the best of the new run as Faye Dunaway was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Glove for her appearance. Dabney Coleman, George Hamilton, and Rip Torn turned in memorable and satisfying performances in their turns against Columbo.

Of course, not even a good guest star could save some films. A mustached William Shatner is miscast in Butterfly in Shades of Grey. Tyne Daley did the best she could with a fairly stereotypical flirty lush role in A Bird in the Hand but deserved far better as a Columbo villainess.

Conclusion

There did seem to be a fair share more stories in the later years that strained credulity in terms of motive or were plain derivative (i.e. “Strange Bedfellows.”)

Yet, the one thing that remained the same was Peter Falk. Some episodes felt like the only thing good in the movie was Columbo but almost always that still made it worth watching. There’s so much in every moment when Falk’s on the screen that he can carry the show by himself which was a good thing because he often had to.

By almost every measure, ABC’s Columbo was an inferior product to its predecessor, but it provided two dozen opportunities to see Peter Falk in action as his greatest character and that makes most of them worth viewing.

You can watch the 1970s episodes of Columbo on IMBD TV and all episodes of the series are available for viewing on Peacock.

DVD Review: Fast Company/Fast and Loose/ Fast and Furious Triple Feature

This DVD features three films from 1938 and 1939 following a rare book seller and amateur sleuth Joel Sloane and his wife Gerda. The series began after the first two Thin Man movies were released and this series was definitely in that same vein.

Each of the three films featured a different pair as the two leads which made it hard for the series to gain traction.

The first film Fast Company is the best. It stars Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice. It features a solid mystery with a lot of twists and turns. While I’d never heard of Douglas or Rice, they had great on-screen chemistry.

The second film Fast and Loose is also pretty good and has the best known leads in Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. The mystery was still pretty enjoyable.

The third film Fast and Furious is the most mediocre of the three. Ann Sothern, who’d be best known for the Maisie films, does a good job with the material given her, but the overall plot is not as interesting. Franchot Tone as Joel is adequate as a detective but doesn’t have that the same chemistry with Sothern. It’s not a bad film, but it’s the weakest of the lot.

Despite having the name “fast” in the titles, these films move at a cozy, leisurely pace. While many B pictures were around an hour, these films were 73-75 minutes in length which leaves plenty of time for investigations, questioning suspects, romancing, and a few good gags.

Overall, if you enjoyed the first few Thin Man sequels, these are worth checking out. Their quality could be better, but still they make for three fun evenings of viewing for fans of 1930s detectives.

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