Monday, April 30, 2012

Who Done It? (Universal, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie together: Who Done It?, the next in sequence in the boxed set of the complete Abbott and Costello on Universal and a quite funny film. It was the first film Abbott and Costello ever made that was not a musical — by 1942 Universal was convinced that their star comedians could carry a movie and draw an audience without having to drag in the Andrews Sisters, Dick Powell, Martha Raye or Ella Fitzgerald to warble a few songs — and though it was a pretty straightforward murder mystery with comedy (and the sometimes awkwardly structured script by Stanley Roberts, Edmund Joseph and John Grant doesn’t combine the mystery and comedy elements all that well — instead they just kind of sit on each other), it’s also a screamingly funny film from Abbott and Costello’s first introduction (they’re counterpeople at a delicatessen and Costello is trying to make a customer the limburger-cheese sandwich he’s ordered, only he’s so overcome by the fumes he keeps passing out and finally has to put on a gas mask to make the sandwich) to their final climax, a shoot-out on the roof of the radio building where the action has taken place. It has a cast that almost counts as all-star by Universal standards — the “straight” (in both senses) leads are Patric Knowles as Jimmy Turner, a professor who’s turned amateur radio writer and whose scripts have won him the job replacing burned-out writer Marco Heller (the marvelous character actor Jerome Cowan) on the GBS network’s big program, Murder at Midnight; and Louise Allbritton as Jane Little, Turner’s old girlfriend and now the producer of Murder at Midnight.

The cast is filled with eccentrically cast character actors as well: Thomas Gomez as GBS owner Col. J. R. Andrews (a pretty obvious takeoff on General David Sarnoff, the founder and head of NBC), Ludwig Stössel (billed without his umlaut) as Dr. Anton Marek, who’s not only Col. Andrews’ personal physician but also a Czech war refugee; Mary Wickes as Juliet Collins, a secretary at GBS whom Chick Larkin (Bud Abbott) asks his friend Mervin Q. Milgrim (Lou Costello) to romance in order to get them an “in” selling their radio script to GBS (and when they perform their script for her, one half-expects her to pull the old gag of hiring them, making them think their piece works as serious drama, then putting it on the air as a comedy); and William Gargan and William Bendix as the two cops who pull the case when Col. Andrews is killed, electrocuted by his own microphone during a broadcast. Later Dr. Marek is found murdered as well, and though this isn’t one of Abbott and Costello’s service comedies the motive was trendily war-related: Col. Andrews, who had served as a military cryptographer during World War I, has noticed that certain lines in a broadcast that’s ostensibly just a series of trivia are actually code giving away the sailing times and routes of American convoys so German U-boats can sink them, and he works with Dr. Marek because the decoded messages are not in English and Marek, a linguist as well as an M.D., can translate them.

Not particularly surprisingly, the killer turns out to be someone who’s otherwise barely in the movie (and whose character is otherwise so unimportant I can’t even remember his name), but the revelation of “who done it?” is more beside the point than usual in a film memorable for its fine comedy routines, including the “watts-volts” dialogue in which Abbott is attempting to explain to Costello the basics of electronic physics and Costello fails to see the connection between watts and volts, and works up to the punchline, “Next thing I know you’ll be telling me watts’ on second base!” (later there’s an in-joke in which Abbott’s and Costello’s characters hear Abbott and Costello do the “Who’s On First?” routine on a portable radio and talk about how they’ve never liked them) as well as a scene in which Abbott and Costello disguise themselves as acrobats and crash a theatre in the radio building (at first I wondered who would have put an acrobat act on radio, but then I realized this was a room in the building that was operating as a theatre for live acts and wasn’t connected to the broadcasting company) and the stunt work is amazing (both Abbott and Costello did a lot of their own stunts, and what they didn’t do themselves they had their brothers, Norman Abbott and Pat Costello, doing for them so you didn’t get the credibility-jarring mismatches in appearance between stars and stunt doubles that have marred quite a lot of movies).

There’s also a good slapstick scene in which A&C escape the radio building because cops Gargan and Bendix are in hot pursuit of them (there’s a great scene in which Gargan is tricked by Costello into handcuffing himself, and a follow-up scene in which Gargan has been let out of the handcuffs by Mary Wickes but A&C continue to taunt him because they don’t know that), only they have to sneak back in so Costello can claim his prize on the Wheel of Fortune program (and the “topper” of that gag is that the I.D. Costello uses to prove his identity is his old Girl Scouts membership card!) and a nice ending that goes on a bit too long but has some ingenious gags of its own, including Costello improvising a slingshot to shoot out some of the letters on a lighted rooftop sign that reads, “VOTE FOR TOWNSEND PHELPS,” so it forms the message “SEND HELP” — and after the villain is safely caught Costello throws something else at the sign so the “S” and the “HELP” parts of the sign burn out and we’re left with the word “END” to signal that the film has indeed ended. (I miss the words “The End” at the end of today’s films.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin (Paramount/Columbia/Amblin, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Adventures of Tintin — the name is annoyingly pronounced “Tin-Tin” throughout the movie instead of the correct “Tanh-Tanh” the character’s original creator, the French-speaking Belgian artist Hergé (true name: Georges Remy), would have intended — directed by Steven Spielberg using a blend of computer animation and so-called “motion capture” (the business of outfitting a live performer, or in this case an entire live cast, with green suits and red lights so their actions can be photographed, programmed into a computer and an entirely new body, digitally created, can be grafted onto their own). Spielberg even cast the actor who’s become the uncrowned king of motion capture, Andy Serkis, as the boy Tintin’s adult sidekick, the drunkard Captain Haddock — Serkis has previously played Gollum the renegade hobbit in The Lord of the Rings, King Kong in Peter Jackson’s recent remake, and Caesar the earth-conquering super-chimpanzee in the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I inevitably joked that someday Andy Serkis is going to make a movie in which he’s photographed normally and looks the way he does in real life … and nobody will recognize him.

The Adventures of Tintin was based on two of the original Hergé comic series, “The Secret of the Unicorn” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” (by coincidence “The Secret of the Unicorn” was my introduction to Tintin’s character in the old Children’s Digest magazine, which ran it serially, but by the time they got to the end of the story I found out it was merely a prologue to “Red Rackham’s Treasure” and got so disgusted that when my mom let my subscription to Children’s Digest expire I didn’t really mind — even back then I was disgusted with serial stories!), and though it got indifferent-to-negative reviews and didn’t do especially well in the U.S. (though it turned a good profit on foreign sales to countries in which the Tintin character has always been more popular than here), I found it a charmer start-to-finish, one of the few successful attempts at creating deliberate camp. It has its problems: the succession of improbable (to say the least!) situations and hair’s-breadth escapes for our heroes (Tintin, Haddock and Snowy, Tintin’s cute white dog) strains credibility, and as good as the CGI was there were times the obvious phoniness of things like Haddock’s beard and Snowy’s fur got to me and I wished Spielberg had shot the thing in normal live-action instead (though Charles argued that live-action would have been the wrong medium for the improbable world of the Tintin comics, whose entire appeal rests on making him a sort of super-youth whose accomplishments are far beyond the norm for his age — Hergé described him as 12, though he looks more like about 17 on screen and the actor playing him, Jamie Bell, was 25 when the film was shot — and on creating such wildly improbable plot situations that the stories eventually became parodies of themselves), and the uncertain lurching back and forth of Haddock’s character between besottedness and sobriety got wearing after a while.

The good news is that Steven Spielberg may not be the most profound or artistic director working in films today, but he’s by quite a wide margin the most assured one technically: whatever the values of the stories he films, he knows when to move the camera, when to hold it still, when to let a scene run, when to cut, when to go in for a close-up and when not to, and whatever you think of his films he always gives a sense of broad professional competence far above the aimless cuttings of too many modern directors. He’s also got the advantage of a script (by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish) that’s well constructed and manages to sustain its high spirits and energy level instead of flagging for dull, boring exposition scenes in between the action highlights like so many sorry films today do, and the dazzling series of references to other movies and other media (perhaps it’s because I love opera, but I especially liked the plot twist of having the villain engage an opera singer, Kim Stengel as “Bianca Castafiore, the Milanese Nightingale,” whose high note will shatter the glass encasing the third model of the old ship Unicorn which the villain, Daniel “James Bond” Craig as Sakharine, a.k.a. “Sugar Additive,” needs to get the third part of a coded message containing the location of a hidden treasure) adds to the appeal of the story instead of just sitting there as if the director and writer couldn’t resist the temptation to go, “Hey! Ain’t we clever?”

In 2006 Charles and I watched a documentary called Tintin et Moi [see below] at the public library, a film about Hergé and his famous character made in Europe and based on the taped interviews Hergé recorded for journalist Numa Sadoul, who was helping him with his autobiography (and the filmmakers noted that he heavily edited the resulting manuscript, with the outcome that there are parts of the autobiography that don’t even come close to matching what’s on the tapes) and one which raised the question of how Hergé’s conservative Roman Catholicism and his willingness to publish in a Nazi-owned paper, Le Soir, during the Occupation affected the Tintin stories. This show made the point that by keeping him 12 (though Hergé created Tintin stories for 40 years and updated the backgrounds, settings and accoutrements of life to keep them contemporary, he never let Tintin age) Hergé avoided having to depict him having any sort of sex life — though as depicted in this film the Tintin adventures are so relentlessly paced one can’t imagine him having time for sex! The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous movie, a piece of trivia but well-made and totally engaging trivia, and after the heavy-duty political meeting Charles and I had been to earlier that night it was a lot of fun!

Tintin et Moi (Angel Films, Finlands Svenska Television, 2003; U.S. release: PBS, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I suggested we meet at the library for the movie, Tintin et Moi, an intriguing documentary from Denmark, written and directed by Anders Østergaard, dealing with the Belgian cartoonist Hergé (true name: Georges Remy — a name he reserved hoping for eventual success as a modern painter, which never came because his artwork was pleasant and well crafted but not strikingly original and the gallery owner he shopped it to said, in essence, “Don’t give up your day job”) and his famous creation Tintin, a boy reporter (originally based on Remy/Hergé’s own career as a reporter for his high-school student paper) who got involved in adventures all over the world. Tintin was a slightly built young man with a shock of blond hair that stuck straight up from his scalp, much like the hair of a baby, and Hergé kept his age deliberately ambiguous (he did these cartoons from the 1930’s to the 1970’s and the appearance of the human characters didn’t change even though the settings were updated to remain contemporary). Hergé himself was tall, distinguished-looking and surprisingly handsome (he reminded me of the French actor Yves Montand), but the documentary’s main theme was how Tintin reflected not only his creator’s personality but also the political and social ferment of the time, particularly given that he not only continued to work during the Nazi occupation of Belgium but even published for a Nazi paper, Le Soir, after the Roman Catholic paper he’d published for previously shut down (somewhat surprisingly because it had been pretty nationalistic and anti-Semitic itself, reflecting the overall politics of the Roman Catholic church at the time).

The bulk of the film is based on tape-recorded audio interviews Hergé gave to French actor/writer/director Numa Sadoul in 1971 to 1973 and the heavily edited “autobiography” published based on the tapes — though at the end of the film it was revealed that Hergé went over the transcripts no fewer than four times, making editorial changes, so the published version is materially different from the actual tapes. Much of the film’s soundtrack consists of the tapes — in some cases a heavily stylized image of Hergé in cartoonish black-and-white sketch lines is seen with his lips animated to move in synch with what the real Hergé is saying on the soundtrack — as well as a few other talking heads and some of the original Tintin panels digitally altered to create a three-dimensional effect without actually changing their appearance as Hergé and his staff of assistants (eventually) drew them originally. The program was made for European TV and is scheduled to be shown on the PBS P.O.V. series in July (at least I hope it gets shown locally; some really great PBS shows being offered nationally this week are not being shown at all on the local station, including an American Experience on George Gershwin and “The Great Pink Scare,” about the careers of three East Coast professors in 1960 which were destroyed when they were found to have male nude magazines in their possession, as well as a Frontline on the radical Right’s success in restricting a woman’s right to abortion by driving so many clinics out of business nationwide), and as usual with P.O.V. screenings in the library it was introduced, and there was a discussion afterwards led, by a professor — in this case Phillip Gay, Ph.D., head of the San Diego State University sociology department and a particular expert in the sociology of mass culture.

The documentary was probably less meaningful to me because I wasn’t a big fan of the Tintin comics when I was growing up (one of his adventures was serialized in the Children’s Digest magazine and I recalled seeing it there, though the piece stretched out so interminably in serial form that I wasn’t at all upset to see it go when my subscription ran out and my mom didn’t renew it), whereas some of the people there were big fans and remembered getting each new adventure when it came out. One man in the audience was a retired professor who got into some intellectual arguments with Dr. Gay on his interpretations of Hergé’s messages — and also said he was happy that for the first time the Tintin books are about to be published in English translations that are actually faithful representations of Hergé’s original French rather than the rewritten ones his original editors insisted on. The most interesting person in the audience was a man with a thick foreign accent, a youngish person with a bald head (probably shaved), dressed in a yellow shirt and black denim pants, who got Dr. Gay and a lot of other people in the audience upset when he suggested that there was a homosexual subtext in the Tintin books in general and his relationship with the gruff sea captain who figured prominently in the later adventures (and who, according to Østergaard, represented Hergé’s alter ego in the later years whereas Tintin was his alter ego in the early days) — indeed, he got the same indignant reactions that people do when they point to the Queer subtexts in the Laurel and Hardy movies or the Batman and Robin comics.

The film itself was fascinating — it makes me want to go back and read the Tintin books at long last (especially in the new editions if they indeed emerge) — and it even built up to a surprisingly Capra-ish ending in which a long-lost friend of Hergé’s, a Chinese artist who helped him with an early Tintin book describing the hero’s visit to China (including drawing in all the characters in Chinese street signs to ensure that they would not only be actual Chinese words but would be appropriate to the context of the drawings), reunites with him after 42 years. I noticed that the publicity for the showing indicated that Hergé’s intent for the character of Tintin was to create someone “without fear or flaws,” which didn’t sound like much until I heard the words in French on the soundtrack: “sans peur et sans reproche,” which was the code of the medieval knights (indicating at least to his Francophone audience that Hergé wanted us to see Tintin as a modern-day knight) — and that apropos of whether there’s a subliminal Gay theme or not (Gay was much more interested in discussing the politics of the series, and in particular in condemning Hergé for having gone along with the occupation, worked for a Nazi paper and not resisted) it’s arguable that the reason Hergé never let Tintin grow up was he wanted to avoid having to depict him as having any sort of sex life, straight or otherwise. — 6/5/06

Save KLSD: Media Consolidation & Local Radio (Save KLSD/Campaign for Press Reform, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Save KLSD: Media Consolidation and Local Radio, and I was initially depressed by the idea of attending this one because we do all too much commemoration of defeats on the Left (or the sorry excuse for a Left) in this country, and the issue of KLSD, the short-lived (four years) San Diego outlet of the almost as short-lived Air America, an attempt at a progressive network of talk radio shows born in 2003 and died in 2010, was a major defeat. Not that I really regarded it as one at the time: given that my roommate blasts Right-wing talk radio throughout much of the day and night I’m all too familiar with the format and was unimpressed the few times I actually listened to KLSD. Quite frankly I wasn’t motivated to put much effort into saving a station I hadn’t especially liked: I listened to Randi Rhodes’ show, reportedly the most popular on the network, twice. Once she was interviewing peace activist Cindy Sheehan and treating her with respect, doing the kind of intelligent interview with her I would have done, but the other she was on her own and doing nasty, sleazeball snarkiness that enabled me to answer, once and for all, the question, “Would I like Rush Limbaugh’s style of humor if it were coming from someone I agreed with?” The answer: no. But a lot of people did attempt to come to the rescue of KLSD even though the effort was foredoomed from the start. One problem with Air America’s business model was that it depended on buying access to the air from companies with mega-holdings in radio like Clear Channel Communications, owners of KLSD and seven other AM radio stations in San Diego — and what giant corporations like Clear Channel giveth, giant corporations like Clear Channel can taketh away. Indeed, the stealth campaign against KLSD was conducted so secretly that the executives of Clear Channel in Dallas had lowered the boom on it and decided to pull the plug on its “progressive talk” format and replace it with “sports talk” (there were already two other sports-talk stations on the air in San Diego and the ratings plummeted when the format was switched) before anyone in San Diego, including anyone actually working at the station, knew what was going on.

Fortunately, the filmmakers — director Jon Monday and writer Jennifer C. Douglas — didn’t dwell on the ins and outs of the KLSD campaign but made their film much more about media consolidation in general, interviewing major figures on what’s left of the Left media in this country — veteran PBS host Bill Moyers (who keeps retiring and keeps un-retiring — his new show, Moyers and Company, is fully up to the standard of his previous ones, NOW and Bill Moyers’ Journal, and as it happened I had just watched the latest episode of Moyers and Company that morning featuring former screenwriter Marty Kaplan talking about media consolidation as well as the virtual buy-out of our political system by moneyed interests), Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Air America personality Randi Rhodes (the one who had put me off), MS-NBC host Rachel Maddow, as well as some people including U.S. Senators John McCain (who in 2003, when the clip featuring him at a Senate committee hearing was shot, was still one of the good guys, more or less, questioning media consolidation before he did his own Etch-a-Sketch act in a vain attempt to make himself appealing to the Republican base he needed to turn out in 2008) and Barbara Boxer, Congressmember Bob Filner, former Obama Administration official (until he was hounded out of office by a Fox News witchhunt) Van Jones and retired TV host Phil Donahue (who was hired by MSNBC when it launched — and almost immediately fired when the executives in charge resented his attacks on the war in Iraq) as well as former San Diego news personalities Bree Walker and Marti Emerald (who ran for and won a City Council seat in 2008 and is now fighting for her political life in a district redrawn to favor a Latino/a candidate).

Also on the list of interviewees were two people with a direct
Zenger’s connection: professor and media historian Robert McChesney and journalist and media-reform activist John Nichols (McChesney is a former Zenger’s cover boy — I read an article he wrote in Monthly Review and was so taken with what he had to say I wanted to interview him — and Nichols, who’s collaborated with him on some books, is a Madison, Wisconsin-based reporter I met when he was in San Diego covering the protests against the 2001 Biotechnology Convention and who’s been on the Zenger’s comp list ever since), and the film went into at least part of their analysis as they’ve expressed it in the books and articles they’ve written, jointly and severally, about how the consolidation of the media industry into fewer and fewer hands, and the rewriting of the government’s media laws to allow that to happen, has not only shrunk the range of acceptable views on the air (as I like to point out to my Right-wing friends, we don’t have a “liberal media” in this country — we have the center-Right media of the major big-city newspapers, the traditional broadcast networks and CNN, and the far-Right media of talk radio and Fox News) but has virtually wiped out any local content. Radio stations are now generally not only owned by giant conglomerates like Clear Channel but programmed out of a central office, with a local “studio” that generally consists of just one technician in a room assigned to ensure that the station stays on its frequency (the film mentions the example that in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit none of the major radio stations in the area were able to react to the emergency, and a tiny noncommercial low-power station whose technicians were keeping it on the air literally with car batteries became the public-information resource for people who needed to know what parts of the city were flooded, what evacuation routes were possible, where they could go for needed assistance and other stuff people facing a huge emergency like that need to know).

The film mentioned such phenomena as the infamous “list” Clear Channel came out with after 9/11 of songs their stations were no longer allowed to play, supposedly out of sensitivity to the victims (among the songs placed on the interdict were “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Great Balls of Fire”) but also very much according to the company’s Right-wing agenda (the list included a flat ban on anything by the Left-wing band Rage Against the Machine), the destruction of the Dixie Chicks’ career when Natalie Maines, the band’s leader, said that as a Texan she was embarrassed that George W. Bush came from their state (she said that in London, probably savoring the novelty of being in a country where the media are far more free than they are here and where the response to 9/11 didn’t include an organized attempt on the part of the Powers that Be to suppress all public dissent, no matter what slimy things Tony Blair was doing to George W. Bush’s bunghole in his eagerness to get his country on board with Bush’s jihad against Iraq) and the big radio conglomerates immediately pulled all the Dixie Chicks’ records off the major country stations. (This had a chilling effect on political songwriting in general; it sent a message to all aspiring artists that you embrace “causes,” especially Left causes, at your peril, and it’s no accident that the only people doing political songs today are old guys like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Steve Earle who are past the peaks of their careers anyway and therefore have nothing to lose.)

Indeed, if there’s anything I’d fault the film on it’s that I could have wished it were more radical — it pussy-foots around the whole question of whether the decision to kill KLSD and all the other Air America outlets on Clear Channel stations was ideological (given that the head of Clear Channel was not only a hard-core Republican but a major donor to the George W. Bush campaigns, how can you deny it? Especially when it was a decision that made no sense from strict profit-and-loss criteria); indeed, I would argue that the media law changes, including the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine by Ronald Reagan’s FCC appointees in 1987 and the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton as the result, so this film argues, of a compromise he reached with Republicans in Congress that in return for safeguarding the freedom of the Internet they could have their way with “old media,” including eliminating the caps on how many radio stations a single individual or company could own), have been part and parcel of a deliberate, decades-long campaign by the American Right and the corporations and wealthy individuals that fund it (including an increasingly militant ruling class filled with people like the Koch brothers who disdain the compromises previous generations of corporate elites like the Rockefellers were willing to make, and have committed themselves and their enormous fortunes to destroying all aspects of the welfare state, ending all controls on business whatsoever and realizing Ayn Rand’s ideal state in the U.S.) not only to establish Right-wing dominance of American politics but to make sure that that dominance is never reversed.

As Thomas Frank pointed out in his current book Pity the Billionaire, one of their ideological triumphs has been their ability to convince millions of Americans that whatever problems capitalism has can be solved with more capitalism, with getting rid of those few pesky regulations that are left and “unleashing the private sector.” The fact that in real life an “unleashed” private sector drives wages to subsistence levels, either by take-it-or-leave-it offers to American workers or by moving jobs overseas (or threatening to do so), and thereby destroys the basis for any shared prosperity by eliminating the middle class that provided them the market for their products, doesn’t bother them in the slightest: as long as they have the money, the guns and the media to shape the public’s consciousness so that we not only get raped but enjoy the experience and think (as John Nichols said in the movie) that things can be no other way — that God, human nature and the framers of the U.S. Constitution all decree that lassiez-faire is not only the only workable but the only moral way to run an economy and a society — their power will be unassailable.

It’s indicative of the scope of their success that no sooner had Mitt Romney essentially locked up the Republican nomination that he suddenly, almost overnight, pulled even with Obama in the polls — and that the main reason people polled who were voting for Romney gave for doing so was, “He’s a businessman, he’ll know how to fix the economy” — as if the debacle of the past four years hasn’t affected one whit the idea that businesspeople are omniscient and we peons dare to question their competence and sagacity at our peril. It’s also indicative of the success of the Right’s decades-long campaign for full-spectrum dominance of American politics, economics and public perception that Thomas Frank’s book didn’t end with a ringing call to action for his readers to fight the evils he’d spent his pages exposing, but with a grim dystopian vision of what America will look like if (and one got the impression he was merely being polite by saying “if” and not what he really thinks, “when”) the Right gains complete control of this country — and while the makers of Save KLSD did try to end their movie with an inspirational call to action, it’s indicative that they literally had to go back to Bobby Kennedy to find a political figure who embodied their call to justice and the belief that a better world than Ayn Rand’s Libertarian dys/utopia is still possible.

Manhattan Tower (Remington, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Manhattan Tower, an obscure but quite good little movie produced by a short-lived outfit called Remington Pictures in 1932 (the editors of the American Film Institute Catalog didn’t get to see this one but they reported that the reason Remington Pictures didn’t last was that the company’s founder, A. E. Lefcourt, who put up the $50,000 to make it, died right after making this film). It’s a cheap-studio knockoff of Grand Hotel but within its budget limitations (as well as the state of its preservation; the version we were watching was an download of an actual restoration, but though the soundtrack was complete some scenes were still missing visually and were filled in with blank film, so the screen would suddenly go black while the sound continued) it’s an excellent movie, centered around the two factors that are often said to determine all human relationships, especially marital ones: sex and money. The entire film takes place inside the Manhattan Tower skyscraper (obviously inspired by the Empire State Building — indeed in the final scenes of the film it’s represented by footage of the actual Empire State Building) and the central character is Kenneth Burns (Clay Clement), New York manager of the National Products Company, who instead of concentrating on that job spends most of his time speculating on the stock market. Befitting the Depression era in which this film was made, his investments have all gone south and rendered him broke (when we see him listen to market quotes on the radio and every stock referenced is going down in price, my first thought was, “He’s either short-selling like crazy or he’s losing his shirt,” and of course the latter turns out to be true), and he’s facing a $2,000 margin call, without which his broker will sell him out completely. He’s so desperate, in fact, that he swindles the $1,000 life savings of his secretary, Mary Harper (Mary Brian, top-billed), and promptly loses it when he can’t come up with the other $1,000 he needs because his bookkeeper, Mr. Hoyt (Jed Prouty), won’t O.K. his request for an advance on his salary. Mary and her fiancé Jimmy Duncan (James Hall) were counting on that money so they could get married and buy their dream home in Kew Gardens; Jimmy works in the electrical room of the tower but is hoping he and his boss will get a contract to put wire into another major building and get considerably more money.

In addition to swindling the 99 percent out of their meager savings to maintain his own speculations — as if that weren’t bad enough — Burns is also cheating on his wife Ann (Irene Rich), whose own fortune gave him the capital to launch his career as a (bad) investor; he first makes a pass at Mary, and when she virtuously turns him down (though the fact that she let Burns touch her arm inspired a jealous hissy-fit from Jimmy) Burns instead takes up with one of his other office workers, party girl Marge Lyon (Noel Francis — a girl named Noel?), who’s shown up in a party dress from a party that literally lasted all night and was still going when she realized she’d have to leave it to get to work. (She calls her boyfriend de jour to pack up her street dress and bring it to her so she can change at the office, and his attempts to find her in the big building are the film’s principal source of comic relief.) As if all that weren’t enough plot, there’s another storyline: two big depositors in the Tower Security Bank on the bottom floor of the tower are threatening to pull their deposits out, and attorney Whitman (Hale Hamilton) — who’s also in love with Ann Burns and is encouraging her to divorce her broke and philandering husband and marry him instead (and hubby, being the rotter he is, tells her that $50,000 is his price for her freedom) — arranges a meeting and ultimately the bank chairman persuades his big depositors to stay in. Unfortunately, Whitman’s ditzy secretary Miss Wood (Nydia Westman) overhears the conversation in the meeting, concludes that the bank is about to fail and not only pulls her own money out but mentions all this in a crowded elevator and starts a run on the bank.

Manhattan Tower is actually a more unusual movie than the synopsis makes it sound, partly because writers David Hempstead (story) and Norman Houston (adaptation and dialogue) deploy their clichés in fresh and unexpected ways and partly because the director, the very interesting Frank R. Strayer (a potentially major filmmaker whose innovative experiments and genuine flair for the Gothic and strange got put aside when he won the job directing the Blondie series films at Columbia), shoots it in wild and provocative ways, including building-eye view shots of the people below as they swarm into the tower for the day’s work (contrary to the synopsis on, the Tower is not a residential building; it’s entirely offices) and an astonishing effect from the elevator’s point of view showing it moving up or down the shaft whenever people in the story use it to move more than one floor up or down at a time. (When they’re just going from one floor to the next, either above or below, Strayer uses a simple elevator crane: still a highly unusual device for a low-budget indie in 1932.) For an indie the sets are enviably substantial and solid-looking, and though some of the shots of the building itself were undoubtedly done with models, the effects are utterly convincing. Manhattan Tower is an extraordinary movie, one of the real gems of the early 1930’s, obviously inspired by the success of Grand Hotel but considerably darker and richer than the major-studio brethren that also tried to apply the formula of Grand Hotel to a business skyscraper (Skyscraper Souls, Steel Against the Sky, etc.) and with some reflections on the arrogance of wealth and power that seem all too timely today!

Hush (Front Street/Hush/Lifetime, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran an old movie from Lifetime I’d recorded onto DVD two years ago: Hush, a 2005 production starring Tori Spelling as Nina Hamilton, a San Francisco native and children’s book author and illustrator (her most successful productions feature Tess the Cat, a character based on her own pet) who’s married to a doctor who came from a small town called Mill Crossing (which I believe was supposed to be in Washington state — a lot of Lifetime movies are set in Washington state so Vancouver, British Columbia can “play” the location on screen) and who, as the movie begins — following a shadowy prologue and a title reading, “Ten Years Later” (a lot of Lifetime movies begin with a shadowy prologue and a title indicating that the main part of the film takes place some time later, but ten years is a long jump even for them!), and we meet Nina and her doctor husband Noah (Tahmoh Penikett, who has a rather long, homely face but a nice bod — we get a couple of scenes in which we get to glimpse his hairless chest and, quite frankly, that was one of the big reasons I wanted to see this film!) at a fertility clinic whose head, Dr. Berke (played by an actor named Hiro Kanagawa who looks only mildly Asian, despite his name), had just made nationwide headlines by helping one woman give birth to quintuplets. Alas, the Hamiltons’ attempts at in vitro fertilization haven’t gone anywhere nearly so well: when the film open she’s down to six embryos and four have just been implanted in her, but shortly after she and her husband move to Mill Crossing (and there’s been a sign of hope when she throws up twice in one morning … ), she uses the restroom in the local diner and her menstrual period starts in the restroom stall, much to her chagrin.

She’s helped by the counterperson, Callie (Victoria Pratt), who turns out to be the villain of the piece: she’s Noah’s ex-girlfriend and they used to just “play around” until one night, up in a tower to which Callie had bootlegged the key, they did the down ’n’ dirty and, in one of moviedom’s most infuriating clichés, the infallible pregnancy at a single contact kicked in — only with Noah disinclined to marry Callie, she ended up having an abortion and, rather than risk anyone in town finding out and adding yet another item to their long list of things to gossip about Callie over, Noah the doctor-in-residency did the abortion himself. Callie has never forgiven him and, when he and Nina move to Mill Crossing, she soon learns that they’re childless, that Callie has just two embryos left in cold storage after her last fertility attempt, and they’re planning to try again but Noah has persuaded Nina to settle in town before she risks the rigors of yet another chancy pregnancy attempt. We’ve already been told that those are the only embryos that can be created from Noah’s and Nina’s DNA because the doctor said it would be too risky to try to extract any more eggs out of her — and we’re shortly given the answer to the question we’ve been asking all movie, namely, why don’t they give up trying to procreate on their own and adopt? Nina makes that very suggestion and Noah responds in a rage, saying that he doesn’t want an adoptive child because his own father died young and therefore he was denied the joy of having people look at him and point out the ways in which he resembled his parents (though he resembled his dad enough that he’s already the third-generation doctor in his family and his grandfather is making plans to pass the practice to him the way he would have to his dad had his dad lived). Callie befriends Nina to worm her way into her confidence, then steals Nina’s I.D. and goes out to San Francisco, poses as Nina and gets herself implanted with Nina’s two remaining embryos — and when Nina and Noah discover this, the film abruptly turns into a weird offtake of The Great Lie, with Nina and Noah inviting Callie to move in with them and the two women striking an uneasy peace since one of them is carrying the other’s baby.

Of course, this being Lifetime it can’t let the melodrama pot just stay on simmer; it starts boiling over when Callie clubs to death Dell Carter (Gabrielle Rose), the local realtor, who refused to give Callie a job as an agent, and it really explodes when Callie lets slip to Nina’s mother Florence (a nice sympathetic-older-woman role by Susan Hogan) that she’s waiting for the father of her baby to divorce his wife and send her back to San Francisco, and Florence unwittingly seals her own doom by telling Callie that she’s allergic to peanuts — whereupon Callie immediately whips up a sponge cake with peanut oil, serves some to Florence and then boosts Florence’s emergency medication from her purse and dangles it teasingly in front of her as she expires from her deathly allergy. (As if ripping off The Great Lie wasn’t enough, writers Steven Frank and Julie Ferber Frank — a married couple, one assumes from the names, which makes a viewer wonder whether they have any children and, if so, how were they conceived: the fun way, or those other ways? — stole from another Bette Davis vehicle, The Little Foxes, as well.) The finale is a fight to the finish between Nina and Callie, who’s finally given birth to a baby girl and threatens to kill the baby if Nina tries to take her; in order to try to get her to lay off, Noah pretends to club Nina with a fireplace poker (or was it a tire wrench, I wasn’t sure) and, when Callie sees through Noah’s trick, she stabs him and leaves him writhing on the floor (given that the other doctor in town is his old grandfather and he’s collapsed, one wonders who’s going to give Noah the medical attention he needs) and Nina, her adrenalin spiked by Callie’s threat to kill the child, rushes her on the stairs and kills her with the sheer force of the blow.

At time the Franks’ script, directed with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer by Harvey Kahn, makes me wish for the relative restraint of Christine Conradt, and the film is full of plot holes — like why Callie’s previous campaign of terror (she not only knocks off Tess, Nina’s cat ­— ya remember Nina’s cat? — she also kills Dell Carter, and one wonders why no one from whatever sort of police department Mill Crossing has is bothering to investigate the death of a woman found fatally clubbed in a field) hasn’t attracted the attention of the authorities, though one thing the filmmakers did get right (kudos to casting directors Susan Taylor Brouse and Lynne Carrow) is that Tori Spelling and Victoria Pratt look enough alike to make it believable that the personnel at a fertility clinic (aside from Dr. Berke, who’s not in the office when Callie comes in) could implant one’s in vitro fertilized embryos into the other — even though the first time we notice the resemblance the question we’re asking is, “What is this? Is Noah only attracted to this one specific body type of woman?” What makes Hush watchable (aside from those nice shots of Tahmoh Penikett’s chest) is Victoria Pratt’s bad-girl performance; for all the histrionics they put the good people through, Lifetime’s writers and directors do manage to make their villains surprisingly subtle at times, and this is one of those times — we really believe in Callie as put-upon counterperson stuck in a small town whose mild transgressions get her in far more trouble than she deserves, and for all the sillinesses of the Franks’ script they do a good job peeling back the layers of the onion until we see the psychotic evil of Callie’s character.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dumb Dicks (RKO Pathé, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was an download of a 1931 RKO Pathé comedy short called Dumb Dicks, a truly weird 19-minute movie that from the start of it — an establishing shot of the nameplate of the Lafayette National Bank (“Lafayette isn’t a nation,” Charles joked) followed by the sounds of gunfire coming from a criminal gang in a number of cars firing so many shots so rapidly and in so many different directions it seems like they’re there less to rob the bank than to assault it, and just when you’re wondering how a scene so brutal got into a film both the genre classification and the credits themselves claimed was a comedy, suddenly we see a white car parked in front of the bank and our two “heroes,” private detectives Benny Rubin and Harry Gribbon (like Laurel and Hardy, the stars of this comedy are using their own names for the names of their characters), sleeping through the whole thing. At one point an errant shot wakes up Rubin, but Gribbon quickly convinces him it’s just an automobile backfiring and he goes back to sleep — until it dawns on his pathetic excuse for a consciousness that people are actually firing machine-gun bullets in his general direction and they’d better do something, fast. They switch on their radio, which is tuned to the police frequency, and thus learn that there’s a robbery in progress at the Lafayette National Bank. So they turn to the nearest passer-by and ask where the Lafayette National Bank is — and only then do they learn that they’ve been parked in front of it, asleep, all this time.

They invade the bank with their own gun and, naturally, both the bank customers and the real police think they’re part of the robbery, though they talk themselves out of being arrested by promising to catch the real crooks and recover the $100,000 that’s been stolen. They trace the gang to a lavish (or at least as lavish as a Pathé Comedy production budget could make it) house in the country owned by Jabez (Ivan Linow), head of the gang, and knowing that Jabez is a sucker for fortune-tellers they decide to disguise themselves as such and affect Turkish accents (even though they have no idea what a Turkish accent sounds like) and Turkish drag — only Jabez decides that their false whiskers would look better if he switches them. From then on the film is an elaborate chase through the house, which comes complete with secret panels and trick entrances and exits, with Benny and Harry thinking they’ve trapped the crooks only to find that they’re the ones who are trapped (there’s a deliciously funny sequence in which Benny thinks he’s tied up the crooks, and Harry says, “Yes, but you’ve tied me up with them!”), until after 19 minutes of all the complications writer Ewart Adamson (he’s just credited with “story,” which usually means someone else wrote the actual script, but he’s the only writer listed) and whichever gag people worked on this film could think of, credibly if not brilliantly directed by Ralph Cedar, the actual police show up, rescue Our Heroes from the gang, take back the money and absolve our dumb dicks of any guilt for the theft.

The intent of supervisor Lew Lipton and his crew seems to have been to take two Jewish-ethnic humorists and see if they could be turned into a Jewish version of Laurel and Hardy, and while one could readily imagine this film being funnier if the real Laurel and Hardy were in it (let’s face it, they could do a lot more variations on stupidity gags than Rubin and Gribbon could!), this one’s quite good and shows signs that its makers had studied the masters and, shall we say, appropriated material: one scene blatantly ripped off the sequence in Buster Keaton’s The Navigator in which he arms a toy cannon to fire it at the baddies, only his foot is caught up in the pull-cord for the cannon and it always seems to arrange itself so it’s aimed at him instead of the bad guys (a sequence that got even funnier when Keaton recycled it himself in The General with a full-sized cannon!).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Day the Earth Froze (Mosfilm, Suomi-Film, American International Television, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to tap the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archives for a suitable film for a low-energy night. I dug out The Day the Earth Froze, which I assumed (mostly on the similarity of its title to The Day the Earth Stood Still) would be a bad science-fiction movie. Instead it turned out to be a 1959 co-production of Finland and the Soviet Union, directed by a Russian named Aleksandr Ptushko (though that was not the way he was credited on this print, whose logo proclaimed the U.S. distributor as “American International Television”!) from a script by Viktor Vitkovich and Grigori Yagdfeld with Väinö Kaukonen credited as “Finnish dialogue editor,” based on the national epic of Finland, the Kalevala. This (badly) English-dubbed version featured a narrator, Marvin Miller, who in the dull and slightly bored tone of the narrator in an audio-visual movie for high schools explains that the film is based on the stories of Elias Lönnrot, who is compared to the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen — and in the case of the Grimms, certainly, the comparison is accurate: like the Grimms, Lönnrot traveled throughout his country, partly for work (he was a doctor in his day job) and partly because of his interest in folk tales and legends, which he got people in villages throughout Finland to tell him and eventually wrote down in two giant collections, the Old Kalevala (1835) and a later one simply called Kalevala (1849), which like the later editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass consisted of rewrites of the earlier material as well as new stories. Though the Kalevala as it exists today is a 19th century transcription rather than an authentically old epic poem like the Iliad, Odyssey and Nibelungenlied, it’s actually based on ancient legends (unlike James MacPherson’s notorious 18th century forgery Fingal, a Scottish epic attributed to the poet Ossian, supposedly Fingal’s son, but actually entirely MacPherson’s invention) and Lönnrot did attempt to write it in the poetic style of the Finnish bards who originally created the material and handed it down in an oral tradition, complete with heavy-duty alliteration (also a feature of the Nibelungenlied and the libretti Wagner adapted from it for the Ring cycle) and regular meter, which 19th century English translators largely followed and 20th century English translators largely ignored. The Kalevala is a loosely connected series of interlocking plots, and the movie’s opening narration gets so confusing that for a moment there I was wondering when we were going to be tested on who was who and how they were related, and how much that would count towards our final grade in the class.

But the major part of the film deals with the hero Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin, who was actually quite hot — he looked like a slightly stockier version of Prince Valiant and even though the medieval costumes didn’t do much to reveal it, a few shots showed off a quite impressive basket); his girlfriend, Annikki (that’s not a particularly unusual name for a Finnish woman but the MST3K crew had a lot of fun with it, at one point cracking “Annikki in the U.K.” as a reference to the Sex Pistols’ famous song); the evil witch Louhi (Anna Orochko, whose costuming and makeup made her look like a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and Orson Welles as Macbeth — though her gadget for flying is a cloak instead of a broomstick, the scenes with her in the air seemed so much like the ones in The Wizard of Oz I half-expected her to leave behind a message in smoke reading, “Surrender Annikki”); an old wise guy named Väinämöinen (in the entire Kalevala he’s actually the first human — the Finnish equivalent of Epimetheus or Adam — but that’s not at all the case here), another guy named Ilmarinen and various locations called Pohjola and Kalevala. I recognized a lot of the proper names from the works of Jean Sibelius, by far Finland’s most famous composer, who wrote a lot of music based on the Kalevala, including a five-movement symphony with choruses and voices called Kullervo (which was drawn from a part of the Kalevala not included in this film: it deals with the warrior Kullervo, whose uncle murdered his father and the rest of his family but spared his mother and sister; later Kullervo becomes a free-lance warrior, meets and falls in love with a woman only to learn that she’s his sister, then fights a war against his father’s kinsmen and annihilates them, and finally commits suicide out of lingering shame over both incest and genocide — he’s sort of a combination of Siegmund, Siegfried and Etli, a.k.a. Attila the Hun, who appears as a character in a part of the Nibelungenlied Wagner did not use) as well as a four-movement suite (not designated as a symphony but effectively one) called The Lemminkäinen Suite.

Alas, the people in charge of this movie were far below Sibelius in talent — at least judging from their work in this version of the film (when I looked it up on the review that came up was from someone pleading with people not to judge the 91-minute original release, Sampo, on the basis of this severly cut and heavily re-edited piece of junk) — and The Day the Earth Froze comes across as a barely watchable piece of nonsense, appealing enough to look at (since it was a Soviet co-production it was shot in “Sovcolor,” actually the old Agfacolor process the Russians had looted from the Germans after World War II, and though the print we were watching wasn’t of high quality it still had the delicate pastel look that makes Agfacolor so appealing — a far cry from the shrieking, overbright Pathécolor American International used for its own color productions!) but making virtually no sense dramatically. The main dramatic issue, to the extent there is one, concerns Lemminkäinen’s search for the Sampo, some sort of magical whatsit, in the land of Pohjola (yet another Sibelius work inspired by the Kalevala is called Pohjola’s Daughter, from which I had assumed that Pohjola was the name of a person instead of a place); he gets it but then loses it on the way home (in the original legend it falls into the sea and is unrecoverable), though in the movie he manages to save a piece of it and it’s a sort of amorphous hunk of blue crystal rock about the size of a dinner plate. Just what the Sampo is or why it’s so important (or why its loss is such a tragedy) isn’t really explained in this script, but its loss is significant enough that to avenge herself against Lemminkäinen for first stealing and then losing it, the witch Louhi (ya remember Louhi?) steals the sun from the sky and hides it in a cave, thereby plunging the world into darkness and cold (even colder than usual in Finland? Let’s face it, this is a country that’s so far north on the globe they’re used to it being dark for months on end!) until Lemminkäinen finally vanquishes her, restores the sun to its proper place in the sky and the film ends.

Maybe it is unfair to judge this film on the basis of what we have — perhaps if we got to saw a subtitled print of the 91-minute original cut this might actually emerge as a good, or at least moderately entertaining, movie (and one would think there are enough interesting stories in the Kalevala that more filmmakers than Aleksandr Ptushko would be attracted to it as a source!) — but what we have is a nice-looking but unwittingly silly film hampered not only by bad dubbing and a patronizing narration but also a virtually nonexistent special-effects budget (though the scene in which the sun’s rays penetrate out of the cave where Louhi hid the sun and start making their way back to the sky where they belong is cool) and a musical score by Igor Morozov (billed as “Otto Strode”!) which wouldn’t be that good even if we didn’t have Sibelius’ Kalevala-inspired works to compare it to, and the MST3K ridicule was especially nasty when they had the townspeople, in the scenes where they’re singing Morozov’s musical drivel, chant, “Failure! A failure!” regarding Lemminkäinen’s loss of the Sampo in tones that couldn’t help but remind me of Sir Robin’s minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Boston Blackie (Ziv TV series, 1951-1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Boston Blackie TV episode was called “Cop Killer” and it was the second show aired when the show went on the air (September 27, 1951), a Ziv Television production directed by Paul Landres (who later directed the Alan Freed rock ’n’ roll quickie Go, Johnny, Go) from a script by Warren Wilson. The series star was Kent Taylor, playing Boston Blackie, a former thief who had served a prison sentence, though he was still suspected by the cops in general and Inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) in particular — commenting on one of the “B” quickies from Columbia in the 1940’s that also used the Boston Blackie character, I described Faraday as combining the worst qualities of Javert and Ahab, but in this version instead of being convinced that Blackie is still a crook, he’s merely irritated by the meddlings of a private detective and even more irritated when the private guy solves the crime (much like Holmes and Lestrade, and all too many detective/cop teams since). What’s fascinating about this one is the sheer body count: it begins with an armed robbery of an armored car which results in the murder of the entire crew driving the armored car (including a very young and uncredited David Janssen as the man behind the wheel) and the use of an anti-tank weapon to stop the car — only the weapon also singes the money the crooks were trying to steal, which becomes an important clue later when one of the bills turns up in circulation despite the head crook’s instruction that his underlings not spend any of the money until he figures out a way to fence it and get “clean,” unmarked and unsinged, bills. Then the crooks murder a rookie cop, Tommy Adams (Richard Crane), who stopped them for a moving violation and who was a particular protégé of Blackie’s — whereupon Faraday drops his opposition to Blackie’s participation in the investigation. The big turning point occurs when Blackie gets caught — temporarily, of course — in the villains’ trap when he realizes that the person he’s brought to the villains’ hideout thinking he’s a witness is in fact one of the gang. It was an O.K. crime show for the period, quite action-packed for its time and half-hour time slot (the half-hour crime show seems to have died with the reboot of Dragnet in the 1960’s) but a bit disappointing, especially in the car: one of the main attractions of this series was that incredibly long, low-slung black sports car Blackie drove, but here he’s tooling around in an ordinary white convertible that appears to belong to his on-screen girlfriend, Mary Wesley (Lois Collier). — 11/30/11


I picked out the next episode in sequence on the discs I’ve been burning of the Boston Blackie TV show, “Inside Crime” from the second of the show’s two seasons (originally aired December 19, 1952) and with Blackie driving that beautiful low-slung black car (I’d thought it was a sports car but it appeared to be able to seat four, though just how comfortable the two in the back would be is anybody’s guess) that was almost as much a star of this series as the human male lead, Kent Taylor, was. It was about a bank robbery in which the crooks wore gas masks (for no apparent reason other than disguise, since they did not use gas to incapacitate the people working in the bank when it was robbed — they came in after hours so the only people still there were counting the day’s receipts and putting them into the vault) and clubbed the security guard on the head — only the robbery was witnessed by a homeless man with a dog, and when the guard came to he was being cross-examined by insurance investigator Hanlon (a quite nice tough performance by one Clark Howat) and accused of being a co-conspirator. Hanlon actually gets the guard to confess just to spare his wife from being arrested herself as an accessory (this part of the story seemed contemporary now with the tactics used by police to browbeat suspects into confessing having been the subject of investigative news stories and PBS documentaries), but Boston Blackie is unconvinced and neither is Inspector Faraday (Frank Orth), his nemesis in the 1940’s Columbia movies but here his frequent, if reluctant, collaborator from the official police force. The story by Buckley Angell and Donn Mullaly is based on too many improbable coincidences — it just happens that the security guard’s wife is a good friend of Boston Blackie’s girlfriend, Mary Wesley (Lois Collier), and thereby is able to contact Blackie and get him in the case; and it also just happens that when Mary and the homeless witness are in a restaurant, two of the robbers happen to show up at the same restaurant and are able to target the homeless guy for elimination. As just about anybody could guess if they’d seen more than one or two movies in their lives, the nasty insurance investigator and the mastermind of the robbery turn out to be the same person, and Blackie busts him and turns him over to Faraday. It was a nice show, beset by a poor (grey and foggy) image from the download, but the show overall is appealing (and that cool car is practically a character in itself!) and I’m looking forward to the episodes we’ve downloaded (we have 20 in all, about one-third the total). One oddity is the presence of Lee Van Cleef in a minor role as one of the crooks — though his last name was spelled “Cleff” in the closing credits! — 12/2/11


We screened the next Boston Blackie episode in sequence, “Queen of Thieves,” originally aired December 5, 1952 as part of the show’s second season, directed by George Cahan from a script by Herbert Purdom and Irwin Lieberman (and, peculiarly, Frank Orth is still credited in the cast list as Inspector Faraday even though it was quite obviously another actor filling in for that week’s episode). What makes this episode particularly treasurable is the marvelous character of Needles (Mary Young), the dotty old grandmotherly type who’s actually the titular queen of thieves, as well as running a sideline making bets on longshots at horse races. To place the bets she uses Archie (Skelton Knaggs), a veteran pickpocket (Knaggs speaks with one of the worst fake British accents I’ve ever heard) who doesn’t place the bets at all, confident that Needles’ horses will always lose — only one comes in and he now owes her $60,000 he doesn’t have. Needless to say, he gets offed by Needles and her gang — only he doesn’t quite get offed: he survives, but in a hospital, where he comes to with amnesia (movie amnesia, anyway) and can’t remember a thing about who he is or why he’s done anything. Like Ma Barker, Needles has a gang of much younger men acting as her hit people and thugs, and she’s naturally upset that the person she delegated to kill Archie didn’t quite finish the job — though this was a relatively decorous episode with much less of a body count than some of the ones we’ve seen — and she has Blackie beaten to try to put him out of commission, but of course it all ends happily with Needles and most of her gang being arrested. It was a fun show but it was Mary Young’s delightful characterization that really “made” it. — 12/4/11


We watched a Boston Blackie episode from December 26, 1952 called “So Was Goliath,” the title stemming from the remark Boston Blackie (Kent Taylor) throws towards attorney and fixer Arthur Bishop (a nicely slimy Emory Parnell) when Bishop warns Blackie he’s a “big man,” and Blackie fires back, “So was Goliath.” The two cross paths when Blackie’s friend Sid “Legal Eagle” Capper (John Kellogg) is shown in the boxing ring — he’s taken up prizefighting to work his way through law school but the workouts and training sessions are cutting into his time for schoolwork and threatening to lead to him flunking out. Blackie is enlisted by Sid’s girlfriend Jenny (Anne Kimbell) — oddly the listing for this show gives her the last name “Capper” but she’s clearly not his sister and she’s equally clearly not his wife (yet) — who, in a quite powerfully acted scene, expresses her anguish that Sid is doing himself permanent physical and mental damage in the ring that will eliminate his ability to become a lawyer. She expresses this to Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) when the two are watching Sid’s fight on TV — Jenny turns it off when Sid is knocked down and doesn’t see that he got up before the count was over, then turned the fight around and knocked out his opponent for the victory — and Blackie himself gets involved and finds that Sid’s manager (played by Allen Jenkins in a welcome return in all his Allen Jenkins-ness) was successfully blackmailed into selling Sid’s contract to Bishop for $25,000, and Sid can’t buy his way out of the contract unless he can raise that figure. Blackie investigates and finds that the opponent for Sid’s next fight, Spoiler Garrett (a nice Nat Pendleton-esque performance by John Indrisano), is managed by Bishop — as is Sid, a bozo no-no according to Boxing Commission rules.

The plot then takes a turn anticipating that of Humphrey Bogart’s last movie, The Harder They Fall, in that Blackie learns that — unbeknownst to Sid — all his fights since Bishop took him over have been fixed: one of Bishop’s seemingly omnipresent thugs (at one point they kidnap Blackie at gunpoint just as he’s getting into that monumentally cool black sports car he drove, which practically qualifies as a character in itself, leaving his girlfriend — to whom he has not given the keys — to figure out how to get home by herself) has been bribing his opponents to throw the fights. Blackie turns the plot around by briefing Spoiler that he knows about it and riling him up so much that he fights the fight to the best of his potential — in fact, he gets so riled that he and Sid start beating each other up in the locker room even before their scheduled bout begins — and Sid holds out for eight rounds before Spoiler’s attack is too much for him, he loses the fight but regains his respect and career direction, and with the case spelled out for him by both Blackie and a sports reporter who was investigating the whole thing, police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) — Blackie’s bitter opponent in the 1940’s film series but his friendly rival and collaborator here — takes Bishop and his whole gang into custody. Though a bit rushed towards the end — this is one half-hour crime drama script that could have used a longer time slot — this is still one of the best Boston Blackie TV episodes, well written (by Oliver Crawford) and directed (by Eddie Davis) and quite welcome for Allen Jenkins’ presence, a superb performance by Anne Kimbell (quite better than the usual damsel-in-distress of these productions) and an overall atmosphere that even on the limits of a Ziv TV budget approaches film noir. — 12/17/11


For the last two nights in a row Charles and I screened episodes from the Boston Blackie TV series, including “The Heist Job,” one which we’d already seen on a VHS tape that contained single episodes from a number of 1950’s TV series, including Dangerous Assignment and another crime show as well as (a real “ringer” in this context!) Ozzie and Harriet. “The Heist Job” was an episode from late in the series’ two-year run (originally aired February 6, 1953) and featured former Dead End Kid Billy Halop as Johnny Evans, an ex-con turned cab driver who still hates Boston Blackie (Kent Taylor) for having given the police the evidence that sent him up in the first place. Halop turns in a good, if rather predictable, performance in a role solidly to his usual “type,” capturing the self-destructive arrogance that makes him an easy mark for a plot to frame him for a heist. About the only “original” wrinkle in the script by John Loring (a “front” for Robert L. Richards, according to is that the person framing Johnny is his brother-in-law, Harry Webb (Peter Leeds) — who (falsely) tells Johnny that his wife was in on the plot with him. It’s a workmanlike episode but with little to recommend it but Halop’s performance (and a nicely morally ambiguous one by Marge Evans, a.k.a. Jane Bryant, as Johnny’s wife), some more glimpses of Boston Blackie’s incredibly cool black sports car, and a final action climax (considerably less exciting than director Eddie Davis was hoping for) set on a drawbridge and pretty obviously inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge-set finale of The Naked City.

Last night’s episode was even later in the show’s original run (April 17, 1953) but a good deal better written and more exciting. It was called “False Face” and featured a quite inventive plot — this time Eddie Davis, who usually directed, also wrote the script from a story by J. Benton Cheney — in which Elizabeth Farrell (a marvelous femme fatale performance by June Vincent), a former plastic surgeon who lost her medical license due to malpractice, seduces a man named Dave (George Eldredge) whose only use to her is his striking resemblance to banker Lawrence Stuart (also George Eldredge). For two years she slowly remodels his face so that his natural resemblance to the banker becomes a virtually identical “look,” then she kidnaps the real Stuart (she lures him into an antique car she’s offering to sell him and then her assistant Slick, played by Marshall Reed, drugs him and sends out the fake Stuart) and has her double go into the bank and help himself to half a million in cash from the vault. What’s more, she arranges for Boston Blackie to be her witness verifying the false “Stuart”’s identity as the real one — only she’s undone when Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) snaps a photo of his dog Whitey, with the kidnapping happening in the background — and after Stuart (the real one) claims he was kidnapped and held while the embezzlement was occurred, and police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) is convinced he’s faking amnesia while Blackie is convinced he really has amnesia, eventually the plot unravels when Dave insists that now that they’ve stolen the money he wants Elizabeth to change his face back to his natural appearance, and Elizabeth decides to kill him instead — only Blackie and Faraday arrive, not in time to save Dave’s life (Elizabeth puts him into an hypnotic state and marches him off the side of a building, much the way the villainess in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie The Woman in Green tried to do with Holmes) but in time to arrest Farrell and Slick and unravel the plot. “False Face” was an engaging story and one of the episodes in this series that might have been stronger in an hour-long time slot (an odd criticism for me since I’ve often in these pages lamented the demise of the half-hour crime show and wished modern police procedurals could use the shorter length instead of having their scripts padded to fill hour slots) but was still exciting and inventive. — 12/20/11


Charles and I didn’t have time to run a Boston Blackie TV episode last night, but the night before we’d run one that was labeled on as “The Blonde” but which appears to be one called “Studio Murder” that aired on March 13, 1953, in which Blackie defends a man accused of being a hit-and-run driver who killed a milkman by running him over. He swears that while his car struck and killed the guy, he wasn’t driving it at the time; instead he’d picked up a brunette in a restaurant and she had driven the car while he slept. Given that this was identified as “The Blonde” and yet the woman in the case was identified over and over and over again as a brunette, I kept waiting for a twist in which she’d turn out either to be a brunette wearing a blonde wig or a blonde wearing a brunette wig to avoid capture. Instead she turned out to be a dark-haired movie star on the Ziv TV lot, making a period Western — Blackie and his police-officer friend, Inspector Faraday, trace her because the guy whose car she was driving when she ran over the milkman remembered her wearing a silver-sequined dress, and the snippy designer who made the dress recalled that he had sold it to a film studio for use in a period film in which the star was obliged to have a shoot-out with the baddies — only she’d already committed at least three murders and was planning to eliminate the last people she wanted to get rid of by substituting a loaded gun for the blank-filled prop gun she was supposed to use in the final scene — only Blackie and Faraday were there and were able to pick her off once they saw what was happening. It was a good show and I liked the anticipation of the Law and Order gimmick of having a person in a public position being arrested in the most “public” position possible — in this case, the murderous star being apprehended while shooting the final scene of her movie. I also liked the idea of a movie star being the killer — Hollywood didn’t usually draw on its own for villains in those days, and even the film In a Lonely Place soft-pedaled the Dorothy B. Hughes novel that was its source by copping out so that screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) wasn’t a serial killer in the film, as he was in the book — after all, there’s not that much of a difference between celebrity diva-hood and psychopathology! — 12/23/11


Charles and I watched a Boston Blackie episode from the short-lived (two years) early 1950’s TV series, an intriguing little number originally aired January 2, 1953 called “Death Does a Rhumba,” in which Blackie ends up investigating a smuggling ring masterminded by corrupt importer/exporter Latso (Maurice Jara). He’s hatched a plot to sneak industrial diamonds in the U.S. by making maracas containing them instead of the seeds that usually make the instrument’s rattling noise, only a waiter named Fernando (Leo Penn, who looks convincingly Latino despite his Anglo-sounding name) hijacks the shipment — apparently in the employ of some rival criminal who offers him the job, which he takes so he can make enough money to marry his girlfriend Valdita (Vicki Bakken), who dances at La Golondrina restaurant where Fernando also works — and we get a long sequence of her dance just to satisfy the cheesecake fanciers in the audience and to give Lois Collier, the actress playing Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley, a chance to make some jealous remarks. The plot kicks off with one of those preposterous coincidences the writers of these shows (Burt Sims got the teleplay credit on this one and the intriguingly first-named Sobey Martin directed) relied on to get their stories told in just a half-hour time slot (25 minutes when the time allotted for commercials was removed — currently a “half-hour” commercial TV show is 22 minutes or even less!): Boston Blackie (Kent Taylor), Mary and their friend Inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) just happen to decide to have lunch at La Golondrina at the time Latso murders Fernando — at first it’s hinted that it was Latso’s thug Garrett (Richard Reeves) who killed Fernando, but Garrett’s thing is shooting people (there’s a nice scene in which he holds a gun on Blackie and Mary in Blackie’s apartment, but eventually Blackie figures out a way to disarm him) while Latso collects rare knives used by Mexican indigenous people in sacrifices, and since Fernando was stabbed Blackie deduces Latso committed the crime himself. Eventually, of course, Blackie figures out the scheme and the criminals are arrested. This was a pretty good episode in the show, not one of the great ones but appealing (and from my point of view any glimpse of that incredibly cool low-slung black car Blackie drove in this series is worth watching it for!) even though, as Charles pointed out, the characters of Boston Blackie and his girlfriend Mary don’t have the chemistry of the actors who played Mr. and Mrs. North in the contemporary series (Richard Denning and Barbara Britton), nor do the writers give them the repartee the Norths had got (and Mr. and Mrs. Charles had before them in the Thin Man movies!); also Kent Taylor as Blackie, while decent looking and credible as an action hero, is hardly at Denning’s level of drop-dead gorgeousness — but the Boston Blackie series is still fun to watch. — 12/27/11


The only thing Charles and I had either the time or the energy to watch was a Boston Blackie episode, “The Friendly Gesture,” towards the end of this show’s second and last season, which starts with a lot of stock footage of a prison during the middle of an escape, and then we get to see at least the crotch and legs of the escapee. He turns out to be bank robber Barney Stevens (Ben Cameron), and he makes it out of the joint and into the waiting station wagon of a former associate, Dave Brubaker (“Dave Brubeck went really bad!” Charles joked — to which I replied, “He had to. Jazz didn’t pay all that well back then”), who wants to team up with Barney to rob a bank in L.A. Barney had cased before he got popped. This being a half-hour crime drama (a form of entertainment now utterly extinct), the plot has to bring the crooks and the good guys together in a hurry, and so screenwriter Dennis Cooper (presumably not the man who’s written dark novels and poems with Queer themes — who was actually born in 1953, the year this show first aired) has Boston Blackie in the bank doing routine business when the teller who’s waiting on him asks him, “Hey, isn’t that Barney Stevens, the bank robber, over there?” Blackie goes up to the mystery man, and after a bit of banter the man pulls out a gun and announces that he is Barney Stevens and he’s there to hold up the bank — only another bank employee gets in the way and Stevens flees without getting any of the money. One would expect Dave, who was waiting for him in the getaway car, to be upset by this, but in fact Stevens gets cornered and arrested by the cops.

The bank’s manager decides to go public with the story of how the courageous teller foiled the robbery — and the teller’s wife receives a threatening phone call from Dave announcing that her husband will be killed. When he takes the bus home from work (which seems to stop right on their doorstep!) she gestures to him, wanting to warn him of the threat, but too late — Dave is there in his car and shoots and kills the poor guy on the spot. For some strange reason, the teller uses his dying breath to swear his wife to secrecy about who shot him, and Blackie and his girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) try to get the widow to talk to no avail. Eventually they show her some photos of suspected bank robbers, which she squints at — except for one photo in the stack, at which she widens her eyes when she sees it — and just then Dave makes another phone call, warning her that if she ever identifies him she’ll meet the same fate as her husband. Dave has overplayed his hand: the moment she gets his second call, she abruptly changes her mind and decides she will identify her husband’s killer to Blackie and the police after all. “You already have,” Blackie tells her — no doubt referring to the way her eyes lit up when she saw the man’s photo in the stack. Eventually he’s identified and caught. There have been better Boston Blackie shows in the package we downloaded from, but this was a good one, suspenseful, well characterized and excitingly directed by the oddly named Sobey Martin. — 1/2/12


Charles and I eventually watched a couple more Boston Blackie episodes as a nightcap. One was called “Minuet for Murders,” which really doesn’t make much sense since the story is really about a burglar who’s been striking various homes across Los Angeles and sneaks in and out so quietly he is nicknamed “The Phantom Burglar” by the media. He is Rainey (veteran sour-faced character actor Skelton Knaggs) and he attempts to heist a drawer full of money from Madison (John Carson), a disbarred attorney who catches Rainey in the act and instead of turning him into the police, decides to use him in his own criminal schemes. Blackie gets involved when Lenore Aldwin (Evelynne Eaton), a friend of Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier), recruits him to recover papers Rainey stole from her which she says are worth $500 to him and completely useless to anyone else — only when Blackie contacts Rainey (at a miniature-golf course!) Rainey writes him a note demanding $10,000 for them, and eventually another thug gets involved in the case after Rainey is killed at the golf course — a police officer shoots him in the leg, intending merely to wound him rather than kill him, but he falls into a water hazard and hits his head on a rock, thereby silencing him even more permanently than his disability did. Eventually — in one of those twist endings that the writer, Robert C. Dennis, thought was a lot more surprising than it in fact turned out to be — Lenore herself turns out to be the mastermind of the whole operation: she was using the letters for blackmail, and Madison and Rainey had actually been hired by her victim to recover them. Blackie tricks her by confronting her with the package of letters, which she seizes and throws into her fireplace — and of course those were merely a decoy; Blackie has the real letters and can therefore prove she was a blackmailer.

The other show, interestingly, also revolved around a mute who communicated with people by writing them notes — only in that case it’s Blackie himself who’s posing as a mute. It’s called “Red Hot Murder” because it deals with a gang of arsonists (making it uncannily appropriate viewing given that for the first few days of 2012 Los Angeles was plagued with up to 50 random arsons in which people’s cars were torched; a suspect has been arrested and he turned out to be an undocumented immigrant from Germany who was apparently doing it out of a hissy-fit because his mom was about to be deported). Needless to say, the arsonists in this show are considerably more businesslike: they’re hired guns for warehouse and company owners looking to pull insurance scams — they secretly move goods out of the warehouses, then torch them, so the people hiring them profit twice: they file false insurance claims stating that the goods were destroyed in the fires, then can resell them on the black market. (One of the RKO Dick Tracy films featured a similar racket, only with fake jewel robberies instead of arsons.) The gimmick is that Blackie and one of the arson gang end up in a fight in one of the warehouses just before it goes up; the gang member is killed but Blackie decides to report his own death and impersonate the gang member to infiltrate the group and find out who the mysterious “Big Man” (there’s always a mysterious “Big Man,” it seems, at least in the movies!) is who’s running it.

To pull this off he wears a white hood, supposedly covering up either burn scars or a plastic surgery job (though it looks less like authentic bandages than a Muslim woman’s veil and he doffs it incredibly easily), and he pretends that the fire injured his vocal cords and at least temporarily deprived him of the power of speech. It was an interesting conceit — though writers J. Benton Cheney and Milton M. Raison hit the “sentimental” stop on their typewriter keyboard and had Blackie’s disguise “outed” by his dog Whitey, who chases his master down and recognizes him at once — while he’s in the middle of a bunch of arsonists trying to pass himself off as a heartless criminal. Still, it was a fun show, and while I miss the antagonism between Blackie and Inspector Faraday from Jack Boyle’s stories and the earlier films (the TV show made no mention of Blackie’s original background as a reformed thief, or Faraday’s Javert-like disinclination to believe he’d really reformed) — indeed, Faraday (Frank Orth) didn’t appear at all in “Minuet for Murders” — the 1951-53 Boston Blackie TV show is well worth having. Charles and I have both done Web searches trying to find out the identity of that fabulously cool black car Blackie drives on the show — a low-slung sports car but one with accommodations for four people, and three tails on the back — and none of the candidates offered by the various people whose posts we’ve read on the subject look like the car on the show. (One poster even said he e-mailed fabled custom-car designer George Barris — who made the version of the Batmobile used on the late-1960’s TV series Batman — only Barris never replied.) — 1/3/12


Charles and I watched another Boston Blackie episode from, “Shoot the Works.” Originally aired March 27, 1953, this one begins in Las Vegas, where Blackie (Kent Taylor) and his girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) are about to leave when they run into an old friend of theirs named Sam Acropolis (I’m not making this up, you know!), who’s being targeted by a mystery man wearing coke-bottle glasses. Acropolis wins over $1 million at a casino roulette table by repeatedly betting the number 13, which comes up four times in a row (only in the movies!), and then he’s suddenly killed by the mystery man, who flies back to Los Angeles with Blackie and Mary. Police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) is assigned to investigate the case because, even though the killing occurred in Vegas, L.A. has jurisdiction because the victim lived there. The victim also had a young blonde trophy wife whose main interest is making sure she gets all her late husband’s winnings at the casino (can you say “gold digger”?) and who is superbly played by Barbara Knudson, and in the end Blackie traps the killer — who’s played by Bobby Watson, the 1940’s movie actor whose stock in trade was Adolf Hitler: he played serious Hitlers, comic Hitlers, fake Hitlers in (alleged) newsreels and even after the war, in Billy Wilder’s 1948 film A Foreign Affair, donned Hitler drag because Wilder needed a scene of Marlene Dietrich’s character meeting and being warmly greeted by Der Führer.

The Blackie episode we’d watched the night before, “Hired Hand” — which originally aired a week before this one, March 20, 1953 (for some reason far more of archive’s downloads of this show are from the second and last season of it than the first) — was considerably better, a great story about chicken ranchers Amos and Rachel Hendrix (James Anderson and Lorna Thayer) and their hired hand, Gillian (Walter Coy), who was paroled to them from a mental institution and is fearful that if he screws up the job, he’ll be sent back. The conflict between the Hendrixes is that Amos wants to sell the ranch to a developer, Rachel wants to keep it, and Amos has hit on the idea of murdering his wife and framing Gillian for it. At one point he actually takes a shot at her, then gives Gillian the gun and tells him to clean it — and Gillian freaks out because even holding a gun is a violation of his parole — and at another point he plants a bomb inside the ranch truck. Not surprisingly, this is the sort of story where the suspense is over how the real criminal is going to get caught rather than who the real criminal is.

It’s an excellent little suspense tale, with a marvelous performance by Coy (who plays his role much the way Bruce Dern acted in To Kill a Mockingbird a decade later) and an overall atmosphere that reminded both Charles and I of Alfred Hitchcock Presents — an especially noteworthy comparison given that one of the most sinister Hitchcock shows (and one of the few Hitchcock directed himself), “Arthur,” was also set on a chicken ranch and featured the owner murdering his wife (though in that version it was because she wanted to sell the ranch and he didn’t), then putting her body in the chicken feeder and giving the chickens so strong a taste for human flesh that eventually they turned on him and killed him. (Arthur was played by Laurence Harvey — who, unfortunately, never worked on a Hitchcock feature film — and the show convinced me that nobody else needed to make a sequel to Psycho because Hitchcock already had, in The Birds: Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho is constantly compared to a bird — her last name, “Crane,” is the name of a bird; in her tight cinch skirt she walks like a bird; Norman Bates even tells her, “You eat like a bird” — and in my reading, The Birds is a Psycho sequel in which actual biological birds avenge themselves against humanity for killing the birdlike Marion Crane.) Though Blackie and Mary come off almost as extras on their own show — like some modern devotees of farmers’ markets, Mary particularly likes the eggs from the Hendrix ranch and makes it a point to go there for them rather than buy eggs at outlets closer to home, which is what she and Blackie are doing there when the plot heats up — “Hired Hand” is still effective drama and is one of the best episodes of this compelling series. — 1/5/12 and 1/6/12


Charles and I didn’t get to watch a movie until almost 11 p.m., when we ran another Boston Blackie episode: “Oil Field Murder,” only the third show aired (and in which Boston Blackie was driving an ordinary production Ford convertible instead of the really cool custom job he drove in season two — Charles and I have read a search page on the Web with a bunch of car nuts frustrated that they haven’t been able to pin down just what this car was or, if it was a custom job, who made it) in which a rather slatternly woman approaches Blackie in the hallway of his apartment, another slatternly woman turns up in Blackie’s apartment and then gets herself killed by a shooter firing from an open elevator into the room. It turns out the women were both mixed up in a scam to sell presumably worthless oil-field stock — only the well they’ve been drilling actually strikes oil. Charles recognized the ripoff of the Producers premise before I did — the gimmick being that they’ve sold over 100 percent of the phony oil company and were just going through the motions of actually drilling, only now that the well has struck oil they owe over 100 percent of the profits — and indeed the idea was nothing new: it had been an urban legend on Broadway for decades before Mel Brooks got hold of it, Groucho Marx had wanted to use it as the plot for A Night at the Opera, and it had already been done seriously in a mystery-thriller context in the 1944 film The Falcon in Hollywood. It wasn’t one of the better Boston Blackie episodes — though it was nice to see Inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) arrest Boston Blackie (Kent Taylor), thereby returning to the original conceptions of their characters from Boston Blackie creator Jack Boyle (i.e., that Blackie was a reformed criminal and Faraday was a Javert-like cop convinced that he hadn’t really reformed and determined to arrest him as soon as he could document that he was committing crimes again), and not at all surprising to see that the slatternly woman that survived, Brenda (Pamela Blake) — supposedly the secretary of the man who had disguised himself as the foreman of the well crew but who was actually the owner of the company (Blackie deduced that she wasn’t really a secretary from the length of her fingernails) — turn out to be the killer. This show got better later in the run, and though I usually don’t like the cutesy-poo plot lines involving Blackie’s dog Whitey, this one had Whitey fall for a female dog owned by one of the women and that was clever (even though it was obviously a ripoff from Billy Wilder’s marvelous, and woefully underrated, 1940’s musical The Emperor Waltz). — 1/8/12


Charles and I had run a Boston Blackie episode the night before last: “Deep Six” (my cue sheet had the title as “Blind Beggar” but that was clearly wrong), a nautically themed episode in which Blackie (Kent Taylor) and his girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) are at a sleazy waterfront bar called the Spindrift Café attending the engagement party of homely sailor George Mittner (Hugh Sanders) and Louella (Tracey Roberts), gold-digger and former girlfriend of Mittner’s shipmate Skip Clark (Clark Howat). It was an O.K. episode with a nice femme fatale performance by Louella, who wasn’t interested in Mittner but in the five-figure bankroll he’d saved up from his pay — no suspense there; the question, once Mittner is found dead, was who was her co-conspirator: Clark, Captain Jansen (Lee Van Cleef, though he was still spelling his last name “Cleff” — either that or the Boston Blackie credit-sequence creators were unable to get the spelling right), Hayes (Peter Mamakos) or the true culprit, Lang (William Bakewell, whom I’ve already commented on in terms of his downward career trajectory from appearing opposite Joan Crawford and Clark Gable — and actually being billed ahead of Gable! — in Dance, Fools, Dance at MGM in 1931 to making crap like the Republic serial Rocket Men from the Moon two decades later). This is one of the Blackie episodes that really suffers from being restricted to half an hour’s running time (actually 25 minutes less the commercial interruptions — today’s “half-hour” shows run only 20 to 22 minutes!): there’s a plethora of suspects aboard Mittner’s ship and we never find out much about any of them except Clark — indeed, we get the impression that Louella was so “loose” that just about every male in the episode cast except Blackie had had her — and it also doesn’t help that it’s an unusually claustrophobic episode (virtually all of it takes place either at that ratty bar or on board the ship all these sailors work on) and we don’t get to see that incredibly cool mystery car Blackie drove during most of the second season. — 1/14/12


The Boston Blackie episode we watched last night was called “Blind Beggar” and it had overtones of The Beggar’s Opera about it: it starts with a blind beggar being run down and nearly killed by a cab driver. The beggar is taken to the hospital in an ambulance, only when it arrives the beggar is gone and the orderly is missing. Boston Blackie and his girlfriend Mary (incidentally in this first-season episode the Blackiemobile is a black production Ford convertible: that incredibly cool sports car for which this series is remembered came in its second — and, alas, last — season), who witnessed the accident (in order to keep their stories within the half-hour time frame, virtually all the episodes involved Blackie solving crimes he personally witnessed) and ultimately traced the killer to a man who hired people to pretend to be blind or otherwise disabled so they could beg on the street and get money, which he then split with them. Blackie discovers this when he apprehends one “blind” beggar and finds his suit to be padded to make him look bigger than he is, and at one point he gets locked in the cellar of the blind man’s apartment and notices that his shaving kit is next to a mirror: something that would be routine for a sighted man but not for a blind one. It was an O.K. episode of a show that got better as it continued (this one originally aired October 8, 1951 and was only its fifth episode) and was always engaging and entertaining, even though virtually all mention of Jack Boyle’s original Boston Blackie’s past as a criminal who had reformed — and police inspector Faraday’s (Frank Orth) conviction that he hadn’t really reformed and determination to nail him as a crook — was omitted for these shows, and Charles said he expected this series to be a lot more noir than it was. — 1/24/12


I finished the fourth of my five discs of Boston Blackie downloads from A few days before Charles and I had watched “The Gunman,” a quite noir-ish episode featuring yet another one of the plots in which Blackie is propelled into the action by a friend of his girlfriend Mary — in this case, Anne Morgan (Anne Kimbell), whose husband Barry Morgan (John Kellogg) who’s a small-time crook who’s got into the orbit of a crooked salvage dealer who does just enough legitimate business to stay on the right side of the law (apparently) while making his real money doing not-too-carefully-specified (by writers David Harth — whose last name is misspelled “Heath” on — and Howard Dimsdale) but nonetheless nefarious deeds. This is one of the most convincingly noir episodes of this show, less from visual atmospherics than from the overall plot line and in particular the character of the corrupt salvage boss, who’s able to maintain the air of a just-getting-by proletarian.

Last night’s episode was “Scar Hand,” based on the old chestnut (also used in movies in the first episode of the Whistler “B”-series with Richard Dix for Columbia and a stand-alone “B” noir called Strange Bargain from RKO in 1948) of a man so desperate for money for his family that he hires a hit man to have himself killed so his survivors can collect on his insurance (which wouldn’t pay if he committed suicide by his own hand but would if he were murdered). In this case the person wants the $10,000 from his insurance because his son needs a life-saving operation and the only person who can perform it is a New York specialist, and the fee is needed not only for the doctor’s services but the hospitalization and other recovery costs. The doctor actually agrees to do the operation for free, but the killer (Karl Davis) is already on the loose and, of course, there’s no way the would-be victim can contact him to tell him he’s changed his mind. Though this was from the first season and therefore Boston Blackie is driving a regular 1950 Ford production convertible instead of the really cool (and bafflingly mysterious — even the contributors to a Web site for car buffs were fooled!) black streamlined sports car he drove in season two — it also was one of the most convincingly noir episodes in the show and had a nice denouement in which Blackie, of course, was able to track down the killer and stop him before he knocked off the no-longer-wanna-be victim. — 2/3/12


After a hiatus Charles and I picked up the last of the five discs of Boston Blackie TV episodes from 1951-53 we had downloaded from and ran the first of the six programs on them: “The Devil’s Daughters,” a first-season episode which was played mostly for camp — it had that dreadful comic tone I object to in a lot of crime shows being aired now (but which seems to be what audiences want these days; the campy crime shows like NCIS and its spinoffs are doing well while tough, gritty ones like Prime Suspect are getting canceled or else moved around in the schedule so much it’s hard to find when they’re on if you want to watch them — this began when Brandon Tartikoff was program chair at NBC and he moved shows around so much, and so often, the joke was he should have been named “Random Tartikoff”!) — but which had an interesting and chilling pair of villainesses: sisters Peggy (Christine McIntyre, coming off her long career as ingénue lead in a lot of the Three Stooges shorts) and Sandra, who do a lot of small holdups of grocery stores and gas stations (though in the opening scene they’re robbing a jewelry store of both money and jewels, the latter of which would require connections with fences to turn into cash) and at one point one of the women shoots the hand of a grocery clerk who’s actually cooperating with the robbery, apparently just for the hell of it (and because it’s a convention in TV crime fiction that things start to unravel for the crooks when they get trigger-happy and shoot someone). It was an interesting show mainly for the device writers J. Benton Cheney (story) and Eddie Davis (script) used to get Boston Blackie and his crew — his dog Whitey, his girlfriend Mary (Lois Collier) and police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth), essentially Lestrade to Blackie’s Holmes — on the trail of the crooks. They turn out to be the wife and sister-in-law, respectively, of the owner of a restaurant where Blackie et al. are “regulars” for lunch — indeed, so much so that when an officious waiter tells Blackie that he can’t bring his dog into the place because it’s illegal, Blackie says, “That’s not a dog, that’s a short human with long hair,” and the owner backs Blackie up and allows the pooch to remain — only the restaurant owner gets strangled in his back office (way bigger than any back room in a real restaurant, Charles assured me) by the male confederate of our two devil’s daughters. The show zips through the apprehension of the girls and ends with a nice shoot-out on what looks like scaffolding to erect a billboard in which Blackie takes out the bad guy who was working with the two bad girls and who killed the restaurant owner — a lot of the final sequences on this show seemed to go out of their way to emulate the famous shoot-out on the Brooklyn Bridge that ended The Naked City — and it’s a nicely done ending to a show that otherwise provided reliable entertainment but little more (and as our roommate John pointed out, Kent Taylor was adequate as Boston Blackie but hardly in the same league as an actor with Chester Morris, who’d played him in the 1940’s Columbia “B” series!). — 3/14/12


I ran an unusually good Boston Blackie episode called “Revenge,” originally aired January 23, 1953, in which the opening shot shows a man waking up from what looks like a pretty deep bender, walking to the next room of his apartment and finding a woman there, shot dead. It turns out the man is film director Lloyd Austin and the woman is his wife Gail, and Austin’s agent calls in Boston Blackie because he’s convinced Lloyd couldn’t have killed his wife even though not only does the evidence all point to him, he’s ready and eager to confess to it. In the opening we’ve seen Lloyd retrieve a scarf monogrammed with the letters “E.A.” from the corpse and attempt to dispose of it in his garbage disposal (it’s a bit surprising that they already had garbage disposals in 1953), only the blades didn’t do a good job of chewing it and Blackie later retrieves it. It turns out that Lloyd’s mother was the legendary silent star Estelle Austin, who has continually got into trouble writing bad checks from which Lloyd has routinely bailed her out, thereby feeding her delusion that she’s still rich — only John Harrington, her co-star in her most successful film, Desert Symphony (which Blackie remembers seeing five times in his childhood), has found out about this and seized on it as a way of blackmailing Austin. Just where he got the idea of killing Gail Austin and framing Estelle for the crime is unclear, but he did — and in order to assist him he hired a former prizefighter named Rocky who also was an old friend of Blackie’s (like Nick Charles, Boston Blackie — at least the TV version thereof — had quite a lot of friends in low places), who joined the plot on the idea he was protecting Estelle but in an exciting action climax turned against John when he threatened to kill not only Blackie but Estelle as well. The Sunset Boulevard parallels in this script by Howard Dimsdale (directed by series regular Sobey Martin with a lot more creativity and commitment than he usually brought to this series) are almost too obvious — I joked at the end that Estelle was going to mention Lloyd’s father, a funny-looking bald man with an Austrian accent who was the director of Desert Symphony as well as being her first husband — but they give this show a depth and power usually absent from the episodes of this series, and some of director Martin’s compositions are surprisingly noir even though the camp interludes with Blackie’s dog Whitey (who kibitzes as Blackie and Inspector Farraday play chess) I could have lived without. And since this was a second-season episode we got some more glimpses of that incredibly cool custom car Blackie drove (in season one he just drove a normal everyday 1950 Ford convertible, but in season two he got a unique sports model almost certainly built especially for the series, since every guess I’ve seen online as to just what make and model the car is has been proven wrong; the car’s streamlined look, unbroken by nameplates or hood ornaments indicating what make it is, also adds to the impression that it was a custom job). — 3/24/12


I ran the next Boston Blackie episode in sequence, “Gang Murder,” about a gang of four criminals who specialize in jobs involving opening safes — only their safecracker gets killed in the opening scene by another gang member, a kill-crazy guy who breaks the gang boss’s rule to avoid committing murder. He tries to conceal the body by covering it in cement, but the police find it anyway and it turns out the man’s younger brother is a young cop who quits the police force and goes out on his own to find the killer and avenge his brother by killing his brother’s killer. Not wanting to see a promising young cop blow his career by committing an act of vigilante justice that would also be flagrantly illegal, Inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) asks Boston Blackie (Kent Taylor) to investigate — which Blackie does by posing as an ex-con from San Quentin (the real person he’s impersonating is still safely in prison) with safecracking skills. Worried about Blackie’s virtue with “all those gun molls” — including one who appears to be the dead man’s and the live vigilante ex-cop’s sister — Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley (Lois Collier) impersonates a tough girl herself and hangs around the gang, flirting with one of the members to get an “in.” Blackie is tortured by a suspicious gang boss and locked in the gang headquarters until they pull their next job — robbing a newspaper that’s been running a contest in which readers mail in $1 each to enter (one would think a savvy gang of crooks would not want to steal a whole bunch of $1 bills, given the bulk involved in carrying and trying to conceal them compared to the meagerness of the reward, but that’s what Herbert Purdom put in his script) — though of course the police get there on time and there’s a final scene in which the revenge-driven cop confronts his brother’s killer in custody with a gun but can’t bring himself to fire (and a last-minute revelation that Faraday made sure the gun was not loaded). There’s also a neat reversal in which the moll, who may or may not be the victim’s and the cop’s sister, first appears to be on the side of good but then holds the rogue cop at gunpoint. This is one of the better Boston Blackie episodes — director Paul Landres keeps the action moving and the suspense taut — and the only pity is it was still too early in the run of the show for Blackie to be driving that incredible custom black sports car he drove in season 2! — 4/12/12


When Charles got back, I showed him the next Boston Blackie episode in sequence, “Death by Dictation,” episode 18 from the first season and noteworthy for some particularly interesting writing by Bernard Ederer and Robert A. White and one of the earliest appearance of Boston Blackie’s unusual car. In this version it’s white instead of black, and the design is quite different — the hood has a boat’s-prow point instead of a curve, there’s only one fin in the back and there’s even less detail on the body than there was later — and what’s most interesting about the way the car looks this time (in most of the first-season episodes Blackie drove a highly non-unusual production Ford convertible) is that it has the unmistakable contours of the Jaguar XK 120, Jaguar’s main production sports car of the time. So was the Blackiemobile a fiberglass custom body mounted on an XK 120 chassis and essentially built around the overall shape of a normal XK 120? That makes as much sense as some of the explanations that have been floated not only on but on car collectors’ sites as well, including offering suggestions for the identity of Blackie’s car that don’t make any sense at all when they post pictures of cars looking quite different from the one in the series.

The story itself is also quite good: it begins in good film noir style with mystery woman Madeline Warren (Valerie Vernon) bursting into Boston Blackie’s apartment with a story about how she’s supposedly being blackmailed over some indiscreet letters she once wrote — only Blackie gets suspicious, especially when Madeline insists that he accompany her to the money drop and, when he declines, she holds a gun on him and forces him into that cool white car. (Both Charles and I noted the similarity between this story and the opening of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely — all that was missing was the murder in a Black bar.) At the drop point there’s a shootout between Madeline and a minor-league thug called Shanks, and Madeline ends up escaping while Blackie takes the wounded Shanks to a hospital, where he, his girlfriend Mary (Lois Collier) and police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth) question him. The plot gets more complicated than that but it ultimately turns out to revolve around a murder that previously took place in an office, which Faraday investigated but never solved, and Madeline was the secretary of the murdered man and she was the blackmailer, claiming to have recorded the murder on a dictation cylinder. It ends up with an exciting shoot-out at a miniature golf course (Blackie ends up on top of a windmill picking off the thugs below in what seemed to me to be a visual quote of the ending of the 1931 Frankenstein), the sort of quirky location Alfred Hitchcock liked to use for the climaxes of his movies. It was an engaging little episode and Paul Landres’ direction and Valerie Vernon’s acting were both better than what we usually got from this series. — 4/19/12


I ran Charles and I the last of the 24 Boston Blackie episodes we had downloaded from — actually quite a bit less than half the 58 episodes that were made (according to the page on the show, 26 episodes were filmed in black-and-white and 32 in color — meaning that producer Henry Ziv was anticipating Walt Disney in his idea of making TV episodes in color because someday TV would be in color even though it wasn’t in 1951 — but none of the downloads from were in color) — one from early on in the show’s history (first season, episode 11, first aired November 19, 1951) called “Toy Factory Murder” in which the show opened with a lonely draftsperson doing art sketches of a new doll for a toy company for an upcoming ad, when someone sneaks into the office, shoots him dead and exits via the fire escape. Then the victim’s widow, Mrs. Poole (Mary Kent), is tracked down by a couple of thugs named Giuseppe and Fyodor, who sap her on the forehead to discourage her from talking to the police. Of course, the treatment has precisely the opposite effect from the one the crooks intended: instead of silencing her, it makes her quite talkative both to Boston Blackie (Kent Taylor) and police inspector Faraday (Frank Orth). Eventually Blackie and Faraday learn that the toy factory also had a sideline making top-secret firing devices for artillery for the U.S. military — and in order to preserve the secrecy of the design and keep enemy agents from getting hold of it, the toy factory owner (suggesting he had seen the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Dressed to Kill) divided the device into several parts and had a different team of workers make each part, with only the draftsman who drew the entire plan knowing how all the components fit together and having the information about the total design.

Alas, the plan fell awry when the baddies realized they could target Poole by sic’ing a typical film noir femme fatale on him — a rambunctious young woman (Christine Larson) who led him through a joyride including hot music and hot sex. She got him to give up the secret, but she didn’t kill him — she was too proud to wear low-heeled shoes and Blackie found a low heel, detached from its shoe, on the fire escape on which the killer fled (one watches old movies and TV shows in vain for any hint that fire escapes were ever used for their alleged purpose of escaping from fires; they seem to have been just a convenience for fleeing criminals and a location for film and TV directors to stage picturesque shoot-outs) and deduces that Mrs. Poole killed her husband because she was jealous over his shenanigans with Christine — only it turns out she killed him (in a confession scene magnificently delivered by Mary Kent) because Christine had not been his first dalliance: he’d been cheating on her for all 30 years of their marriage and she’d just reached the breaking point. It was a nice episode to leave this quite interesting series on — even though it was too early in the show’s run to get another look at Boston Blackie’s cool custom car (in this part of the run he was still driving a standard Ford convertible) — especially since this was one of the most noir of the episodes, less in the photographic quality (which was pretty plain) than in the scripting by Herbert Purdom, who gave Blackie quite a lot of surprisingly world-weary Raymond Chandler-style dialogue and also created some quite noir villains.

Overall the show lost something from the de-emphasis on Blackie’s criminal past and the turning of Faraday from a Javert-like nemesis always convinced that Blackie is returning to crime into a typical stupid comic-relief police character, made far dumber than a real police official (especially one who’d risen that high in the ranks), and it gained considerably from that incredible car Blackie drove in the later episodes, but it also had three appealing principals (Taylor, Orth and Lois Collier as Blackie’s girlfriend Mary Wesley — interestingly, they’re drawn not only as unmarried but in no particular hurry to “make it legal,” and the writers did not do the usual trope of having their wedding plans interrupted by case after case after case), a wide variety of villains, some clever plots and a wry understatement (just about any other U.S. filmmaker shooting a script about military espionage in the early 1950’s would have filled it with breathless defenses of The American Way of Life and bitter denunciations of those enemy countries — never named, not that 1950’s audiences couldn’t have guessed who was meant — committed to taking it away from us; not Purdom and director Paul Landres, who treated the spy plot as just another MacGuffin) that makes it hold up quite well today. — 4/21/12