Friday, July 18, 2014

F TROOP Fridays: "The Phantom Major" (1965)





F TROOP Fridays: Number Five






F TROOP: "The Phantom Major" (Season One, Episode 3; Original Air Date 9/28/1965) Starring Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch, Ken Berry, Melody Patterson, James Hampton, Joe Brooks, Frank DeKova; Guest Stars Bernard Fox, Willis Bouchey, John Holland.  Written by Arthur Julian.  Directed by Leslie Goodwins.

Bugler Dobbs (Hampton) blows assembly, and Captain Parmenter (Berry) brings out Fort Courage's monthly payroll for distribution.  Corporal Agarn (Storch) is given his $15, Sergeant O'Rourke (Tucker) his $17, with the latter correcting an error as the Captain accidentally overpays him. "You're all cavalry," the Captain marvels at the Sarge's honesty.


Our two ranking non-coms excuse themselves to their N.C.O. Club, for a second pay call, this one for O'Rourke Enterprises.


"Sarge!  You've got more money there than the U.S. Army!"  With that healthy payroll, it's no wonder why O'Rourke doesn't want to steal any more than usual from the service.  It's the biggest month the saloon has ever had (+33%), a record that we will see bested several times before the series ends its run.  Lest you think the men are becoming alcoholics, O'Rourke reminds us they aren't drinking that much more whiskey---just "that much more water" (the first of many references on the potency of that "XXX" ).  Agarn sums it up: The only way to get drunk at O'Rourke's saloon is "by ordering a double mince pie!"


Forrest Tucker told his castmates to "think Bilko", but this scene from the show's infancy draws two notable distinctions between F TROOP and THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW.  First, O'Rourke and Agarn are shown keeping their ill-gotten gains, while Ernest T. was generally foiled in doing so.  Secondly, while Bilko was a charlatan on the surface, he was a softy underneath--often the reason he failed.  O'Rourke and Agarn are gleefully and unapologetically crooked, taking full advantage of their monopoly by watering the whiskey!  At least those buying (say) dance tickets from Bilko really got what they were paying for.  It's only episode three and Fort Courage is already a much darker place than Fort Baxter ever was, something veiled from many reviewers by lowbrow slapstick.


Back outside, Parmenter is interrupted while paying Dobbs his $8 salary by Wrangler Jane (Patterson), but not for attempted hanky panky this time.  It's a telegram from Washington, specifically the War Department, stamped "Official, Urgent and Top Secret". Wilton deduces this might be important.


In the Inspector General's office, Colonel Herman Saunders (Bouchey) is hosting Colonel Willoughby (Holland) from the British Army.  The news that Cochise and Geronimo have joined forces is alarming enough to Saunders to try new tactics to stay ahead of the curve, courtesy of the soldiers fighting in India, The Bengal Lancers.  "We're both fighting Indians, you know!"  In other words, since it worked against dots, try it against feathers?  (Sorry, just felt I should get that obvious one out of the way early.)

Colonel Saunders is a pretty benign figure compared to the I.G.'s who will follow.  Maybe because he's named after F TROOP's associate producer, or perhaps because he isn't the antagonist for our anti-heroes.  It's the third consecutive episode to give us a visiting officer threatening O'Rourke Enterprises, but the first to bring the brass over from foreign soil.  Colonel Willoughby is offering the services of "living legend" Major Bentley Royce (Fox), his leading expert in "infiltration through the art of camouflage.

We hear more about the Major's exploits, which span two continents.  How effective is Royce at concealing himself?  Willoughby admits he's never seen him!


Well, there's a first time for everything, and that coat rack comes to life.  "Major Bentley Royce, reporting for duty, Sir!"


British actor Bernard Fox (still with us today but retired from acting at age 87) is probably most familiar as Dr. Hubert Bombay on BEWITCHED, ABC's biggest hit at the time (and the only ABC sitcom ahead of F TROOP in the Nielsens).  The Phantom Major now clearly visible, we dissolve back to Fort Courage where his new students are preparing for the teacher's arrival.


The Major is late, leading Agarn to wonder if "the Indians got him before he could show us how to get the Indians".  O'Rourke suggests a search party, with Parmenter in agreement.  He goes to his quarters to get the rifle from the closet.


Not noticing there's a little something extra in his closet until after he's closed it and is halfway across the room, Berry gives a superbly uncertain take before going back to find Major Royce.  "Just giving a practical demonstration of the infiltration tactics that have made me (pause) a living legend."  When O'Rourke and Agarn arrive shortly after, Royce disappears again.


This prompts a bit of speculation on the Captain's mental state once he tries a "Gotcha" on Royce and instead finds the cupboard bare.  Agarn decides to have a look himself, and Storch gets his own shot at a delayed reaction to the Major's "return".  (It's not as subtle as Berry's but every bit as funny.)

Just a bit of whimsy, according to the Major.  After Parmenter proudly introduces O'Rourke and Agarn as the two best Indian fighters in the West, Major Royce informs them that they are now "the two second best".  After that concise establishment of his self-importance, Bentley gets down to business: F Troop will be transformed into a "crack fighting unit" (good luck with that, Major) of roving soldiers that will learn how to "live off the land", in effect "making the Fort obsolete".


Why, Major Royce informs us that he and his men lived for a full week off nothing but curried cartridge belts--the draft style of course.  O'Rourke and Agarn are clearly less than thrilled already, but Royce is interrupted from outlining his plans further by the arrival of Wrangler Jane....


...which enables him to get under Wilton's skin too, by charming his lady.  "No man is ever too busy to talk to a beautiful lady!"  "Don't say anything, just stand there looking beautiful!"  She finds the English visitor very dashing---and we can safely say Captain Parmenter is already less than thrilled with his new teacher.


Before he leaves (out the window, gracefully!) he invites Janey to afternoon tea, and we find out what is in his luggage.


Hmm, sufficient for the specific invitation, but no second set of clothes.  Better spruce up before that date, Major.  The Captain makes his own unsuccessful attempt to duplicate Bentley's leap, and we're left with the noncoms as our last men standing.


O'Rourke and Agarn both realize the ramifications of losing Fort Courage as a home base--namely, the loss of the rapidly rising O'Rourke Enterprises.  The Sarge isn't too concerned just yet, since they have "an Ace in the hole": Royce's new pupils.  As the Sarge aptly puts it: "once he sees F Troop, the Phantom Major may just disappear altogether!"

At tea time, the smooth British Major is already making progress.  With Wrangler Jane, anyway.  While Wilton tries again to master the window exit, Miss Thrift is out of her buckskins and looking damned nice in a formal dress.  The attention of another man brings out the attentiveness in Captain Parmenter.  Why does it always take that for this dude to reciprocate Jane's attention?


It may just be Jane milking the jealousy angle for all it is worth, but it's hard to tell.  It does seem for once that she really does find the visitor attractive and interesting (blowhard though he is), and Wilton is motivated enough to win the brief skirmish to pull Jane's chair out for her.


Unfortunately, his ADD kicks in, and he snatches defeat from the jaws of victory:


"Good Heavens, leave before you kill her!" is the Phantom Major's helpful advice, and Jane actually tells him not to hurry back!  But while he's scoring points with Wrangler, Bentley is batting .000 with the uniforms, and O'Rourke and Agarn suggest 'honoring' the Major with a cannon salute--taking care of it themselves this time.  Uh oh.


Nagging Question # 1: How could they be so sure they wouldn't miss and kill or injure Jane, or the Major?  That shot shows little margin for error. maybe a foot at most, and that's one notoriously errant cannon.....

Curiously, a man who almost raised his voice over the chair contest is calm, smiling and awarding three claps afterward.  "Oh, good shot!"


Major Royce announces he is leaving--but only to replace his teacup.  He's undeterred from his mission.  "I told you I would make the fort obsolete", and that includes the cannon.

Act Two opens with the Major and his new pupils (sans NCO's and the Captain) dressed and ready for their first infiltration exercise.  Royce's disguise as a tree leads to every salute being an adventure.


Credit is due when credit is due, and I have to hand it to the men of F Troop here.  They normally cannot shoot straight, walk straight or even execute an "about face" in unison (the Captain ended up whispering "face me!" earlier),  However, to a man they have donned their disguises just as effectively as the "living legend" and are able to follow his marching orders outside the gate in unison and without bumping into anything!  Is it too obvious to use that recurring joke again, or is the Phantom Major just that kickass as a teacher and leader?


If the privates are taking to these new techniques, the Captain and his top two enlisted men seem dismayed.  "What did you do in the Indian War, Daddy?  I was a tree stump in F Troop!" is Agarn's stated lament.  Nevertheless, an order is an order, and the captain exits to get into his tumbleweed outfit(!).  For O'Rourke and Agarn, though, trouble at the Fort means "time to talk it over with Wild Eagle".


Interestingly, when we arrive at the Hekawi camp we see the Chief taking a hands-on approach to his half of the business, assisting a maiden while she makes another basket.  Say what you want about some of the corner cutting at O'Rourke Enterprises, but you apparently get meticulous souvenir craftsmanship under the Chief's watchful eye.

After a wise old Indian saying fails to get us any closer to a solution, ever-paranoid Agarn attempts to find them a private place to pow-wow.  After all, any tree stump is potentially one or more F Troopers eavesdropping.  Wow.  The Bengal Lancers reached "hands across the ocean"--and gave us a 19th century version of Big Brother!  Is this F TROOP or THE PRISONER???


Even a seemingly friendly horse is suspicious enough ("The horse is real...I think!") to drive them into the furthest tepee for O'Rourke customary "revealing of plans to the enemy".  I've probably said this before, but General Benedict Arnold was a rank amateur compared to the Sarge! 

Dissolving back to Fort Courage, Bentley Royce awaits the arrival of Willoughby and Saunders, but has plenty of time to take another break for afternoon tea.  The Major is still enthralling to young Jane, this time with tales of fighting Tigers in India.  After several days of these stories, Captain Parmenter is at the facepalm stage.


While the Major enthralls Jane and waits on his superior officer, Sgt. O'Rourke is waiting on a smoke signal from Chief Wild Eagle.  It arrives on cue, and surprise!  The Hekawis are "calling all braves" together, a likely prelude to going on the warpath.


At least, according to the Sarge, the only soldier who "reads smoke".  Thus starts that very familiar, yet always hilarious routine with Tucker and Storch overacting with style and simultaneously playing the ego of their mark.  First a scouting party is suggested, then Agarn overenthusiastically opines that Major Royce's infiltration techniques could come in handy.  O'Rourke quickly and sharply grounds him: "Have you gone loco?  This is no time for a training maneuverI think those Indians mean business."


But, as would be the case in The New I.G., Sgt. O'Rourke's bait is taken by the visiting officer with the um, healthy self-esteem.   "I think it's a smashing idea!"  Assuring the captain that they'll be back before the arrival of their British and U.S. superiors, Major Royce retires to put on his tree trunk.

"Keep the pot hot, my dear!"  Yep, he actually said that.
With this being a limited scouting assignment, the Major sees no need to take along more than one single bison--manned by O'Rourke and Agarn.  If you thought Dobbs was a tad unconvincing as a horse, get of load of this:


Captain Parmenter uneasily suggests taking "along another tree stump", but Royce brushes him off.  O'Rourke and Agarn will handle it.  Just like they handled that cannon salute earlier.....

Once near the Hekawi camp, Royce sends the "buffalo" to observe the terrain--little knowing that once they do, he going to be outnumbered three trunks to one as we hear Wild Eagle call out to his underlings.  If you're thinking this is not a good thing for our man Bentley....


....you're right.  While Tucker and Storch would become Ghost Busters a decade later, it is Frank de Kova who gets credit for capturing the Apparition Formerly Known as The Phantom Major.


Meanwhile back at Fort Courage, Major Royce has missed his optimistic ETA.  Willoughby and Saunders are already there, enjoying some of that tea while the former reassures a nervous Parmenter that nothing could have happened to "the Living Legend".


But with the arrival of the "bison" at the gate, it's obvious that something has.  The arrow sticking out of its ass is a dead giveaway.  Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn are okay otherwise, aside from having to report that the Phantom Major was captured.


Not by Indians, but "by another tree".  To make it even more humiliating, they let him go, complete with a horse (yes, a real one) to escort him back to the fort.  Supposedly "savage" Chief Wild Eagle didn't find it necessary to kill him, scalp him or hold him for ransom-- instead getting the point across by just using him as a messenger (via a note that Jane reads).


It confirms that it was the Hekawis who captured Bentley.  (More on the contents of that note in the wrap-up below.)   It all adds up to an unmistakable conclusion for Colonel Saunders: the idea of infiltration through camouflage will have to be scrapped.  A good idea, Colonel: if it doesn't work against the Hekawis, it surely won't work against Cochise and Geronimo.  (The latter definitely wouldn't have Wild Eagle's apparent sense of humor about it, based on this episode.)

Wrapping it all up, there's a followup smoke signal from the Hekawis:


"Please disregard previous message."

FIVE THINGS YOU LEARNED:

The mince pies at the Fort Courage saloon do contain alcohol--some don't.  Appropriately for this installment, it's a British dish.

Curry makes cartridge belts tastier.

Captain Parmenter loves tiger stories.

Promotion to Corporal gets you a whopping 88% pay raise ($8 to $15), but the next rung on the ladder, Sergeant, is only a 13% increase from there ($17). 

4:00 in the afternoon is "a bit early" for tea.

A LITTLE MORE SALARY CALCULATION:

We learned in the pilot that F Troop drew rations and pay allotments for 30 men, but only had 17.  Assuming those 13 phantom members are privates, that's $104 per month that was getting shoveled into O'Rourke Enterprises, at least before the Captain's arrival.  Left to the imagination is whether or not this practice has continued now that Parmenter is handing out pay each month.



NUMBER OF TIMES O'ROURKE COULD HAVE BEEN TRIED FOR TREASON:

Once, for yet again revealing army secrets to the enemy.  For once, the possibility unnerved the soldiers enough to check out every tree and horse in the Hekawi camp before getting down to business. 

NUMBER OF TIMES MAJOR ROYCE WAS CALLED "A LIVING LEGEND"?

Let's see, Colonel Saunders, Sergeant O'Rourke, Corporal Agarn and Colonel Willoughby all said it once, and Bentley Royce himself modestly limited his use of the self-descriptive term to a single reference (that we heard, anyway), so a total of five times.  According to Captain Parmenter, however, it was a daily occurrence.


P.C. OR NOT P.C.?

Unquestionably the former.  The usually genocidal and/or condescending U.S. officers are strangely genial this time, but an arrogant British imperialist shows up to be subverted and decisively routed by our cooperating frontier capitalists.  Peaceful, profitable coexistence beats manifest destiny on F TROOP once again.

LISTEN CAREFULLY:

American actor Holland didn't quite 'sound' the part, so his lines were dubbed by a veddy British (and uncredited) thespian.  Also, when Wild Eagle speaks to his tree trunk accomplices, he calls one of them "Crazy Cat"--but Don Diamond wouldn't make his first appearance until the sixth episode (Dirge for the Scourge).


WISE OLD HEKAWI SAYING?

"Bullfrog who sits on lily pad never do much croaking."  If that doesn't resonate with you, we do get that second helping in writing after the "battle".  Wild Eagle punctuates his victory lap with the aforementioned note that reads: "You never can fool Indian with sap in tree."  The latter might be the easiest Hekawi saying ever to decipher.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

The first of Arthur Julian's 29 F TROOP teleplays, The Phantom Major is a well executed culture clash.  London-born Leslie Goodwins is the perfect choice to direct, striking just the right balance between the familiar Fort Courage slapstick and Fox's deadpan drollery.  This was the first of 5 episodes helmed by Goodwins, a veteran of countless Leon Errol RKO shorts and the MEXICAN SPITFIRE film series (with Errol and Lupe Velez).  Julian left in a couple of groaners that could have been cut, but on the whole, The Phantom Major works as both a solid introduction to the goings-on at Fort Courage and just a flat-out funny high concept installment.  ***1/2 out of four.

F TROOP currently airs on Me-TV for a full hour each Wednesday night at 10 PM ET/9 PM CT!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Film Review: THE JOKER IS WILD (1957)

 



"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 97




THE JOKER IS WILD (1957 Paramount) Starring Frank Sinatra, Eddie Albert, Mitzi Gaynor, Jeanne Crain, Beverly Garland, Jackie Coogan, Ted de Corsia, Leonard Graves and Sophie Tucker.  Directed by Charles Vidor.


Chicago, late 1920's.  Up and coming singer Sinatra (as Joe E. Lewis) decides to leave mobster de Corsia's nightclub for a rival with better showbiz connections, despite ominous threats from the employer.  Ignoring the warnings, Sinatra leaves anyway, taking piano player Albert with him.  Unfortunately, those threats weren't idle--three of de Corsia's goons ambush Sinatra, slicing his tongue and larynx, fracturing his skull and leaving him for dead.  Miraculously Sinatra survives, but is forced to relearn how to speak, and once he does, he discovers his old singing voice is gone.


After a depressed Sinatra quietly skips town, he resurfaces in New York as a burlesque clown.  Loyal Albert tracks him down and sets up a charity gig with Tucker (playing herself), which leads to a second wind professionally.  Forced to improvise, Sinatra finds his groove as a sharp tongued, blase comic, albeit one fueled by liquor dependency and the emotional scars from attempted murder.  Sinatra succeeds onstage, but the traumatic experience continues to haunt him.  Self-depreciating jokes during performance become defense mechanisms everywhere else, causing numerous problems for Frank and those closest to him.


As is almost always the case in film bios, a number of liberties were taken with Joe E. Lewis' life.  To name two: Lewis' comedic skills were part of his act from the beginning, and he resumed his club career in the same capacity (without a detour into humiliating slapstick) after a grueling multiyear recovery.  But Lewis himself okayed the changes, and he clearly didn't turn this into a vanity project, since plenty of fissures in his character are portrayed unflinchingly.  Lewis is shown to be at fault for his failed marriage with actress Martha Stewart (Gaynor) and for an equally ill-fated romance with a society girl (Crain).


Lewis' longtime friend Frank Sinatra was tapped to play him, and therein lies the key reason that the film works.  Sinatra was at the peak of his powers as a singer and as an actor in 1957, and while THE JOKER IS WILD is set up to rise or fall almost solely on his shoulders, it succeeds solidly at that level.  It isn't surprising that he handles the songs superbly ("All the Way" received an Oscar nomination for best song), singing them live rather than pre-recording and lip-synching.   However, those primarily familiar with Sinatra the actor through his Rat Pack pictures will be pleasantly surprised by the chops he shows here.


Fresh off two Oscar nominations in 4 years (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM), Sinatra nails Lewis' nonchalant persona and perfects the offhand delivery of the comic's one-liners (i.e. "I woke up at the crack of ice").  He doesn't attempt a direct impression (Lewis' distinct elocution was recorded for posterity on the 1961 LP It Is Now Post Time, on Sinatra's Reprise label) but captures the essence of being "always on".  He's also impressive in the scenes immediately following the attack.  The superb execution of Sinatra's hospital awakening (and his immediate reaction to the realization that he's mute) says it all, making it unnecessary for Vidor to go into detail about the years of therapy Lewis needed to regain the ability to speak.


While it's Sinatra's show all the way (yeah, I know, too easy), the excellent supporting cast deserves mention for fine work in often thankless roles.  Quintessential sidekick Albert has a few good scenes as the ever devoted pianist (and butt of lighthearted jokes onstage); Garland has a one-note role as Albert's long-suffering, equally patient wife; and Gaynor gets the showiest female part as the lady who finally lands Sinatra but is slow to realize the downside.  Curiously, real names are used for Lewis, Mack and Stewart but mafia figures are renamed in the screenplay (de Corsia's character is based on the notorious Jack McGurn).

THE JOKER IS WILD just kind of peters out after two hours, ending with a half hearted "resolution" on Sinatra's part but commendably avoiding a neat wrap-up of his troubles.  It's an underwhelming finale but not nearly enough to sink this well-directed bio, one of the best of its era.


So....why isn't this on DVD?

Two reasons often noted in this space: Paramount has been indifferent to many catalog titles, and it is also possible that music rights could be an issue.  But there must be something more going on in this particular case, since THE JOKER IS WILD was never even made available on VHS, unlike most other Paramount titles.  The picture's unique structure provided for 75% of the net profits to be split between Lewis, Sinatra, Vidor and author Art Cohn (who wrote Lewis' biography of the same name in 1955) while Paramount financed the production.  It's possible that there is an estate issue with one or more of the four principal partners.  (Side notes: Cohn died a mere six months after the film's release in the same plane crash that claimed the life of his next biography subject, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS producer Mike Todd.  Director Vidor died of a heart attack in 1959 after completing only one more film, A FAREWELL TO ARMS.) 


Why it should be on DVD:

Where do I begin?  I guess by restating the obvious: it is one of Sinatra's finest acting performances, and an engrossing telling of Joe E. Lewis' life story (liberties notwithstanding).

THE JOKER IS WILD is fascinating viewing for Rat Pack aficionados.  There's a scene between Lewis and a cutting heckler that seems much closer to Sinatra's volatile late-career image than to the seemingly indifferent Lewis, and if aspects of Lewis' performance banter look a little familiar, it's because Dean Martin borrowed quite a bit of it (including directly lifting a few jokes) in reestablishing himself as a solo act post-Jerry Lewis.  In a sense, you're seeing Frank's version of what would become Dino's stage persona.

Bottom line:  Let's hope this title is made more widely available in the near future; until it is, TCM airs it about once a year.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Film Review: THE HEAT'S ON (1943)



THE HEAT'S ON (1943 Columbia) Starring Mae West, Victor Moore, William Gaxton, Lloyd Bridges, Hazel Scott, Lester Allen, Joan Thorson, Xavier Cugat.  Directed by Gregory Ratoff.

Broadway producer Gaxton schemes to get free publicity for his show, and star West, by having Moore's "Decency" Foundation get his show temporarily closed for content.  Unfortunately the plan backfires as West takes advantage of the opportunity to move to another theatre and Gaxton's show ends up permanently closed.  It's back to the drawing board for the producer as he now tries to concoct a way to lure West back into the fold.


It's fitting that Mae West--a pre-Production Code icon if there ever was one--is the star of a satire on the effect of censorship on the entertainment industy in general.  Unfortunately, THE HEAT'S ON turns out to be toothless.  By having Moore's organization focused on cleaning up Broadway instead of Hollywood, an opportunity is missed for West to get digs in at the Code and the Hays Office.  To be fair, it probably would have been impossible to get THE HEAT'S ON past the film censors in 1943 if it had that kind of bite.


In addition to her typical post-Code problems, West wasn't given her usual creative input on THE HEAT'S ON, which certainly would have helped.  Mae's dialogue lacks the zing her fans will be accustomed to (its akin with watching Groucho deliver his lines during ROOM SERVICE) and she's onscreen for less than one-third of the film's 79 minutes.  All in all, not enough Mae, and as a result, probably the weakest of her starring vehicles--until the Seventies, that is.

Hazel Scott at the piano
THE HEAT'S ON was one of only five feature film appearances for legendary jazz pianist Hazel Scott, and she is dazzling, undoubtedly the picture's musical highlight.  Scott's second scene resulted in her famous confrontation with Columbia studio head Harry Cohn.  Protesting the intention to show the sweethearts and wives of African-American soldiers sending their men off to war wearing unkempt hair and ragged clothes, Scott went on a three day strike and effectively shut down production.  Scott got her way--the costumes were changed (see photo above)--but Cohn told her she'd "never work in this town again".  Regardless, Scott was right, and she was dynamite in both of her scenes.  You can read more about Hazel Scott here.  Suffice to say it's our loss she wasn't onscreen more often.

Victor Moore (right); dude was a pre-Viagra playa, ya'll!
Veteran character actor Moore adds quite a few laughs doing the rumba with West (and fighting a losing battle to keep his toupee on).  Hey, Moore, then 66, might not have looked virile enough for Mae West, but don't judge the book by the cover--his real life wife at the time was 22!  (They stayed together until his death in 1962, too.)  A young Lloyd Bridges is also in the supporting cast.

It's too easy to say The Heat's Off, and also unfair--the picture has a few bright spots.  Just not nearly enough of them.  Mae West completists will certainly want to check it out, but to everyone else, I'd recommend sticking with MY LITTLE CHICKADEE, SHE DONE HIM WRONG and I'M NO ANGEL.

DVD Availability?

Yes, on demand through Amazon.