Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Bonanza 01x04: The Paiute War

If you enjoyed the last episode penned by Gene L. Coon, I have to ask why?

But there’s a chance you’ll also enjoy this one, which is also about strained relations with the Paiute and based off of an actual historical event.

We begin as we always do: with a man riding up on a horse to look at something. This time, the man is Mike Wilson, played by Jack Warden, and the something is a small trading post. Inside, Mike’s brother is negotiating a deal with two Bannock fur traders, who have brought along their wives to pick out fabrics. The Wilson brothers are intensely horrible people, and they decide to take the two women as payment for a bolt of cotton. Naturally, the fur traders object, but they’re severely beaten. And then we go to the title sequence!

It’s always jarring when the teaser is dramatic and, right after, the theme song is so jaunty.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Lucy Before Lucy: The Dark Corner

In most people’s minds Lucille Ball and film noir don’t occupy the same space. But, in 1946, Lucy co-starred in a neat little thriller called The Dark Corner.

At this time, she was 35 years old and making her B-movie circuit, starring in pretty much any genre that would have her. It was a strange time in her career, since she’d just aged out of the pin-up girl personae she’d had at RKO. You can’t be sexy and 35, that’s ridiculous. Everyone knows that when a woman hits the big 3-0, her faces just dissolves like Walter Donovan’s at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Noir suits her, surprisingly – and then not so surprisingly at all, because she’s the enterprising career girl here and not a femme fatale or a moonlit gardenia like Veronica Lake.

She plays Kathleen Stewart, loyal secretary of private eye Bradford Galt.

Apart from having the kind of name you might give to punish an unwanted child, Bradford Galt has got some problems. He recently relocated his business to New York, trying to escape the Faustian bargain he made with his friend and lawyer Tony Jardine. The end result of that bargain was some jail time for Galt, and some lifelong anxieties for Jardine.

Galt’s pretty sure all of that’s behind him, though, and he’s eager for a fresh start. That’s why it’s such a bummer when he’s almost bumped off by a hired goon. But, naturally, it’s not as simple as he first thinks.

There’s a lot we’ve seen before from earlier noir offerings. The opening music is the exact theme heard in 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming; a takeoff on “Rhapsody in Blue” that sounds undeniably like a cityscape full of sad, busy people. Lucy’s character has more than a few echoes of Ella Raines in 1944’s Phantom Lady, another steadfast secretary who sticks by her boss through thick and thicker. And rounding out the villain’s team is Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart, a more complicated but less interesting version of the character he played in 1944’s Laura.

For me, Lucy carries the human elements of the tangled Chandler-inspired plot, and she carries them well. Kathleen seems lonely. Deeply lonely. It’s been a few layers of snappy dialogue and plucky gal Friday stick-to-it-iveness, but it’s there. And it’s Lucy who puts it there, saving you from spending too much time wondering just why she’d be so loyal to a man she’s had two dates with and calls “Mr. Galt.”

She made two other noirs, by the by, Two Smart People, also in 1946, and Lured in 1947. Two Smart People is about a conman love triangle, while Lured is a more precariously categorized film about Jack the Ripper copycat murders. Both are worth watching, but fall a little short of The Dark Corner.
And the reason for that is thanks to cinematographer Joe MacDonald. MacDonald was no stranger to the genre, and while the plot doesn’t measure up to the other entries on his resume, this is probably his best work.

So if you’re in the mood for something a little off the beaten path, both in the noir category and for a Lucy fan, check out The Dark Corner sometime. It’s a fine way to kill a Saturday afternoon.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Dungeons and Dragons 01x01: The Night of No Tomorrow

Today's recap is the first guest post submitted by my friend, Daisy. Daisy is a lifelong SF fan and a big retro cartoon enthusiast, so she's chosen to take a look at some grand old Saturday morning gems with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Everybody be nice and keep your feet off the coffee table.

The first episode of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon is ‘The Night of No Tomorrow’, and… it is not one of the better ones.  It’s not terrible, either.  But it definitely has some pacing issues, and I do have to wonder about the decision to start the series after the kids have already arrived in the Realm, rather than leading into it with the amusement park ride and giving us a chance to see something of their lives on Earth.  It might have been a better way to get in some establishing character moments and give us an idea of what they’re trying so hard to get home to.

That said, and without further ado, here’s ‘The Night of No Tomorrow’.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Voyagers! 01x04: Agents of Satan

It’s Harry Houdini’s birthday today, and I love combining historical trivia with your recap experience, so we’re watching an episode of 1982’s Voyagers!

This was a family show created by Scholastic to get kids more interested in history, even though it’s wildly historically inaccurate. Every week, displaced time travellers Phineas Bogg and Jeffrey Jones get flung to a temporal emergency by a device known as The Omni. Bogg, played by Jon-Erik Hexum, claims to come from a future society of time travellers called, unsurprisingly, voyagers. Jeffrey, on the other hand, is a kid from 1982 who got caught up in all of this when his dog attacked Bogg’s history guidebook. Through a twist of fate and fall out of a window, he was flung along with Bogg back to the time of Moses.

It’s not so bad, because as it turns out, Jeffrey – played by Meeno Peluce, real life brother of Soleil Moon Frye of Punky Brewster – is an orphan and also destined to be a time cop anyway. And he’s useful. Bogg, despite being responsible for aligning the time stream, doesn’t know much about the past. The guidebook he lost was crucial to his success. Luckily, Jeffrey’s dead father was a history professor, so Jeffrey is a pint-sized poindexter who knows everything Bogg doesn’t.

Every week, The Omni sends them to a new temporal emergency, and it’s often something that’s interwoven with several other temporal emergencies, so our dynamic duo has to untangle history like it’s a necklace you left at the bottom of your purse. Once that’s done, they get to move on.

Today’s episode starts with a Puritan woman in a white bonnet running through a misty swamp at night, pursued by an angry mob with dogs and torches shouting things like: “After the devil-witch!” and “There is no hiding from the Lord!”

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Alfred Hitchcock Presents 07x39: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

There’s an old urban legend about an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was so gruesome – so disturbing – that it was never aired on network television. Of course, we all know that urban legends are blown out of proportion, and whatever kernel of truth they were based on is buried under years and years of exaggeration.

But this urban legend is true.

By 1962, Robert Bloch had a nice sideline as a screenwriter. As a teenager, he had become the youngest member of the Lovecraft Circle, and had since published countless short stories and novels. One of those novels, Psycho, had been adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960, and it made quite the splash. After that, Hollywood came calling and Bloch quickly established himself as a reliable source of spine-chilling scripts.

A good number of those scripts were adaptations of his own short stories, so when he was asked to pen an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on his 1942 tale “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” it didn’t seem like it was going to be anything but another paycheck for a job well done.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The United States Steel Hour 03x06: A Wind from the South

This is some really hoity-toity TV.

I feel like a Damon Runyon character giving a Smithsonian tour.

For St. Patrick’s Day, we’re watching Julie Harris in a 1955 live play for The United States Steel Hour called “A Wind from the South.”

So let’s start with a little about Julie Harris, an actress who can reasonably be called the first television star. Not the first star on television, in the early days many personalities were making the great migration from radio, and movie stars like Dick Powell and Barbara Stanwyck were already noting the boost the new medium could give to their stalled careers. Julie Harris, though, was the first personality forged in the public consciousness by her appearances on TV.

As her career grew, she became one of the great figures of American live theater, but for a white hot decade she was television and to the average member of the public who couldn’t get to Broadway to see a play, television was how she was best known.

She played Joan of Arc in The Lark, Nora in A Doll’s House, Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina, Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, and basically a ton of powerful yet fragile women trapped in cages of circumstance and society. She was effectively predicting the pending feminist revolution with most of her early television performances, including the one we’re looking at today.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Big Valley 01x14: The Brawlers

I’m kind of sad. I wanted the first episode of The Big Valley we recapped to be the one where Jarrod goes temporarily blind and has to try a case against Lloyd Bochner. In fact, it was on my to-recap schedule along with episodes of Ghost Story and Kolchak: The Night Stalker when I got sick.

But when life gives you lemons, do the Irish immigrant episode for St. Patrick’s Day instead! (And also something about lemonade?)

The Big Valley, like Lancer or Bonanza, is about a wealthy ranch family full of scorpion sons. Handsome and intriguing, to love them is certain death. But, also like Lancer and Bonanza, this is never openly acknowledged. And, in the case of The Big Valley, there’s one really fun difference: living women who are part of the family.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

East Side/West Side

In 1963, CBS has several problems.

The big one is George C. Scott, a Broadway actor turned electrifying film sensation. For some baffling reason, somebody at CBS decides to try and get Scott to commit to doing a TV show. Under normal circumstances, getting a solid character actor to make a show for you isn’t a bad idea, but Scott has been very vocal about his derision for TV. And he is what is euphemistically known as “difficult.”

They send him a series overview about a war correspondent having dramatic adventures.

He hates it.

Meanwhile, there’s James T. Aubrey, a man nicknamed The Smiling Cobra, and president of CBS from 1959 to 1965. Aubrey is the man who thinks busty country girls falling in streams is the best thing ever. His shows include Petticoat Junction, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Beverly Hillbillies. His motto is: “broads, bosoms, and fun.” And that is an actual quote.

Unfortunately for Aubrey, it can’t all be talking horses and exploding toilets. CBS is still holding on to a reputation for high quality, intelligent programming. A reputation that goes all the way back to its radio days, and one that’s guarded by network chairman William Paley. (Picture the old knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade faced with the undeniable ratings crush of Gilligan’s Island.) Paley’s tenure has brought us Perry Mason, The Defenders and Route 66.

It usually goes something like this: William Paley happily greenlights The Twilight Zone. Jim Aubrey, noticing the lack of jiggling mountain girls, takes away all of its money and gives it to Andy Griffith, who doesn’t need it because nobody ever leaves Mayberry and all the sets are already built. Everybody thinks Andy is happy as a clam, but they don’t know that he’s started going to all of the production meetings to make sure his show isn’t hijacked by Ellie May 2.0 moving into town and holding a beauty contest to raise funds for a water tower. Rod Serling is bitter, Andy Griffith is working seventeen hour days, and nobody is doing what they really want.

And now, into the mix, comes the potential for a serious legal case with George C. Scott, if they don’t figure out something – anything – to fulfill the terms of this contract.

A show is put together. It’s like Naked City, but with social workers instead of cops. Social workers in Harlem. Scott’s character answers to a female boss and shares and office with a black co-worker, played by none other than Cicely Tyson. (This was the first time a black actress was co-starring in an hour long drama. She’s magnificent, of course, but she’s Cicely Tyson, so obvs.)

Scott wants realism. He wants it so badly, he’s being as obnoxious as possible at all turns. Aubrey wants a harem of beautiful women and Park Avenue mysteries. The pilot script is written in five minutes flat, and looks like a pretty conventional social drama, with a courtroom scene and a tidy finish. It’s called East Side/West Side. It gets the go-ahead, despite not really having a plan for a full season, or a functional production team.

Other scripts don’t come in. The people assigned to write them are, uh, I don’t want to say flake-tastic beatniks, but history implies that that’s what they were. The only solution CBS has time for is to just film whatever script they get, with almost no revisions.

This was the collision of reckless mistakes, strange clashes of personality, and desperate scrambling that allowed this show to twice make episodes that were masterpieces. And, almost impossibly given the realities of the era, both stories are about black lives.

“Who Do You Kill?” is upsetting and raw. It stars James Earl Jones, then unknown outside of theatrical circles, and Diana Sands. Sands had played Cicely Tyson’s role in the pilot episode of the series, but had quickly dropped out because of all the backstage drama. They play Joe and Ruth Goodwin, a couple doing their best to get by with limited job opportunities for Joe. Their struggle is intensified when a rat bites their sleeping infant. They can’t get her to the hospital, and the bulk of the story concerns the aftermath of their loss.

The cut of the episode available on YouTube is missing the section that actually contains the rat, but it’s the best anybody can do. MGM has yet to release the series on DVD.

In “No Hiding Place”, Ruby Dee and Earle Hyman play a couple who have made it out of the slums, only to face a different set of problems. They move in to Maple Gardens – “A Friendly Community” – to find mistrust and cruelty from their white neighbours. Not only that, they become the center of a blockbusting scheme. (I feel like it would be responsible to warn you that this one has a more depressing ending than the above episode about a dead baby, so you are now warned.)

These high points couldn’t last, of course. In an era of limited channel selection and fervent letter writers, the worst of humanity alerted Jim Aubrey to his biggest fear. He had accidentally created edgy, controversial television that unflinchingly tackled social issues. This had to be stopped.

The hounds were released in the form of directors from the rural comedies taking out all of the serious content, finally moving George C. Scott’s character to Park Avenue, and having giggling debutants turn up for no reason. Some people weren’t comfortable with Cicely Tyson’s character being so prominent, so Aubrey’s people demanded she be turned into a hat stand. No longer a professional equal, no longer the kind of character who places autistic children in specialized education programs, she was now a token. Ten episodes in, there was talk of renewal only if Tyson was replaced with a white actress.

By episode nineteen, they were all out of Harlem.

In a twist that sounds like it came from a Simpson’s episode about cynical television executives, George C. Scott’s character gets a job with a congressman. The show becomes about how a hotheaded cynic has to conform to bureaucracy and learn to appreciate Kennedy era political optimism.

It should come as little surprise that there was no second season.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Bonanza 01x03: The Newcomers

This is a great episode if you secretly hate Hoss. I love Hoss, so damn this episode a million times.

We begin with everybody riding up to look at a small camp and complain about a man named Blake McCall, who butchered a prize steer that morning and refuses to leave the Ponderosa even though Ben asked him nicely. Adam, who is still going through his strangely aggressive early episode phase, boils over with rage at the mere mention of McCall and gives his father a rather dramatic I-told-you-so. I grow weary of grim-dark Adam and want regular Adam now. With the random singing and the architecture pencils.

The last time McCall gave them trouble, he was alone, but the camp indicates that he’s now travelling with other people. Little Joe and their foreman, Jose Moreno, think that McCall has gone insane with gold fever and their only option is to ride down to his camp and shoot him. Ben’s says to cool it, and tells Jose that he doesn’t get a vote because he’s not a Cartwright. That’s a totally unnecessary thing to bring up, since it was already three-to-two against Joe’s idea. Ben’s just being petty.

Down at McCall’s camp we see a handful of people hanging around a fire and drinking coffee. One of them is Blake McCall himself, but the one that stands out the most is a delicate blonde woman perched on a rock. A scruffy looking guy in a brown jacket sits next to her. She turns out to be Emily, and he turns out to be her brother John. John is sassing McCall about his troubles with the Cartwrights and seems jumpy about the decision to pass through the Ponderosa. But, in fairness, the Ponderosa is ridiculously big so you can’t really just go around it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Artemus Gordon: Master of Disguise

By 1965, Ross Martin had already been a scene-stealing sidekick. As Andamo in Blake Edward’s Mr. Lucky, he’d proven that not only could he handle the comedic timing necessary to counterpoint a smooth, ladies’ man hero, he could also lend an unexpected credibility to fantastic situations.

He was just the man Michael Garrison would need to balance the high rolling Easterner in his new twist on the super spy craze. Garrison had bought the rights to James Bond’s first television appearance in a Climax! adaptation of Casino Royale, and since then had been toying with ideas for bringing the Bond ethos to primetime. His solution was a breezier take on spies, without going to the full-on spoofs that would begin emerging in 1966, and he wanted it set in the 1870’s. Combining the fading Western with the latest trend.

Robert Conrad would be James West, originally seen as a more undercover operative complete with secret identity and false backstory, and Ross Martin would be Artemus Gordon. Gordon was to be the gadget man, the brains of the operation, and a master of disguise.

Artie was not a typical or stock character for Westerns, and that presented a problem. Especially when Garrison proved that he had a hard time staying on budget, and a revolving door of producers provided a notoriously uneven first season. (For four episodes, the central duo suddenly have a butler named Tennyson who disappears as uneventfully as he arrives.)

Martin told the Newark Evening News in May of 1966 that he’d tried to quit three times during that hectic first season. “Each producer tried to put his stamp on the show and I had a terrible struggle,” he recalled, “I fought them line by line in every script. They knew they couldn’t change the James West role very much, but it was open season on Artemus Gordon because they had never seen anything like him before.”

But by the second season, the behind-the-scenes stress had levelled out and a consistent voice was found in producer Bruce Lansbury, who was more than happy to emphasize the differing skills of the two leads. Particularly the idea of a weekly disguise for Artemus Gordon.

Ross Martin told TV Guide in 1966 that role had become a “show-off’s showcase” – and now, instead of being slumped over in a corner while West finished off twenty goons single-handedly, he was part of the story. In fact, he became so integral, that when he suffered a heart-attack during the show’s fourth season and was temporarily replaced, it was… not so great. The show really suffered in his absence.

Artie’s disguises usually started with a bare bones idea in the script. Then Ross Martin would make a sketch of what he wanted to do for the character’s look, and discuss the performance quirks with the director. Once it was all hashed out, he’d get together with the costume department, his makeup artist, a wig maker, and even a cobbler to polish off the finer details. 

And it really paid off, as we’ll see as we count down his top five disguises:

5. The Grand Elector of Saxony

“Everybody knows the Grand Elector of Saxony! In all the capitals of the world, I come and go as I please!”

That’s how you get into a party at the Albanian Embassy without an invitation.

In the season one episode “The Night of the Dancing Death” there’s a lot going on. There’s a sinister prince who is obsessed with literally fighting a bear in hand-to-hand combat, there’s a giant hole in the floor that opens up directly over a ballroom full of dignitaries, there’s a pretty lady switcheroo and a newfangled typewriter, and yet somehow the first thing everybody talks about is Artie’s disguise as a pompous dignitary.

It’s the little things in this one, like did you know that you address the Grand Elector as “Your Highness” and not “Your Grace?” And that the Grand Elector is never too busy to steal hors d’oeuvres?

It’s just fun.

4. Lt. Jonathan Greely

This is the best example of an Artemus Gordon disguise being more interesting than the episode it happens in. In “The Night of the Arrow,” West and Gordon are tasked with investigating a genocidal General’s recent successes. They come at it from opposite directions, with West trying to broker a truce with the Cheyenne while Artie goes undercover as a cavalryman.

He becomes proud Southerner and notable alcoholic Lt. Greely, who likes to remind people that the Civil War is over and that a true officer is never sober. It’s all part of a plan to get thrown in the stocks, but I would easily watch a whole show about this guy.

It’s also one of the few times he goes blond for a disguise, and his eyebrows look weird.

3. Hassan Amir Ortuglo

In “The Night of the Doomsday Formula” we’re treated to two separate disguises. The first is simply an impersonation of a missing scientist who’s invented an unstoppable chemical weapon. Pretty straightforward for the Secret Service’s man of many faces.

Next up, in order to infiltrate the Hadrian Club and face off against a dastardly arms dealer played by Kevin McCarthy, Artemus overreaches. It’s a pretty good sign that a disguise which is supposed to be a failure in the story itself has grown to be a fan favourite. The dastardly arms dealer isn’t falling for any of it when Artie tries to buy his way into the inner circle of doomsday device shoppers, but he keeps him around.

The best part is a sitar performance that goes awry when Artie’s pre-recorded music starts to skip.

2. Beldon Scoville Jr.

Ah, Beldon Scoville Jr., a Russian doll of identities.

In the final act of “The Night of the Undead,” phrenologist Phala recognizes the bumps on the head of Major Brainard, a bombastic Teddy Roosevelt type, as the same as the bumps she found on meek Beldon Scoville Jr.

Beldon had tumbled into a waterfront dive seemingly by accident, looking for a voodoo medallion to match one he’d already happened to find. He wanted to have a pair of earrings made for his Aunt Maude, despite the fact that those earrings would be hideously unwearable. What Phala thinks is that Beldon Scoville has disguised himself as Major Brainard – what she doesn’t know is that it’s all Artemus Gordon.

1. Sir Ian Jellicoe Cooper-Featherstone

“The Night of the Colonel’s Ghost” is a taut, creepy episode soaked in atmosphere and whodunit tension. As the body count rises in a haunted town, it’s only a matter of time before Artemus Gordon shows up to make sure Jim West doesn’t wind up with the next broken neck.

Of course, he couldn’t just show up as anybody, because even though there’s no way for the people of Gibsonville to recognize him, he has his job description. He dons his ultimate disguise as British big game hunter and tin star enthusiast Ian Jellicoe Cooper-Featherstone, a man who is absolute chuffed to be in a cursed town.

“It’s Sir Ian Jellicoe Cooper-Featherstone,” he cheerfully tells everybody gathered in the parlour after the most recent murder, “You may call me Sir.”

He manages to convince everybody except a green-feathered parrot who delights in chirping out: “Fraud! Fraud!” whenever he’s in the room. West is probably more amused by this than a good friend should be...

So that’s my top five! I’m sure I missed some favourites, because with over a hundred disguises under his belt, it’s a really tough thing to narrow down.

And don’t forget to check out the other fun and fabulous entries in the Classic TV Sidekicks Blogathon! It's been a great event with a ton of wonderful articles highlighting the finest supporting players in a century of great TV. I've really enjoyed participating in my first blogathan!