Friday, March 24, 2017

Television Review: HONDO: "Hondo and the Gladiators" (1967)





"Your lives are meaningless compared to HONDO!"






HONDO: "Hondo and the Gladiators" (1967 ABC-TV/Batjac/MGM) Episode 15; Original Air Date December 15, 1967.  Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery Jr. as Buffalo Baker, Gary Clarke as Captain Richards.  Guest Starring Claude Akins as Brock, Barton MacLane as Markham, Jamie Farr as Smithers, Richard Hale as Jamarro, George Keymas as Nakka, James Chandler as the Sheriff, Phil Arnold as Bob, Montie Plyler as Jake, John Wood as Goya, Lydia Goya as Lydia, Mike Masters as The Bully and Chanin Hale as Carrot Top.  Directed by Eddie Saeta.  Written by Turnley Walker.


Welcome to the Horn Section's contribution to the Third Annual Favourite Episode Blogathon, hosted by our friend Terence Towles Canote at his wonderful blog, A Shroud of ThoughtsCheck out all the entries for the 2017's edition, and while you're there, check out Terence's archives as well--A Shroud of Thoughts has been around since 2004 and the archives are stuffed with goodies.






For my contribution this year, I'm skipping ahead in the our
HONDO episode guide to my personal favorite of the 17 installments of that sadly short-lived series: the one that best exemplifies the bond between Hondo Lane and his loyal dog Sam.



Series Overview for HONDO: TV's Unlikeliest Cult Hit at this link  


Hondo Lane's latest scouting assignment takes him into New Mexico Territory, where settlers have angered Mescalero Apache Chief Jamarro by moving into Big Rock Valley before a peace treaty has been signed.   The only white man Jamarro trusts, Hondo reassures the Chief that his terms will be honored.  To seal the deal, Lane promises to bring peace envoy Markham back to the Mescalero camp to sign the paper in a proper ceremony.  Complicating matters, Jamarro is presiding over a restless tribe that includes several renegades (led by Nakka) who would prefer to leave the agreement unsigned.
 

Awaiting the arrival of Markham's party in the nearest town, Hondo has a run-in with Brock, owner and operator of The Gladiators: a traveling "fighting man, fighting dog" show.  Behind Lane's back, Brock's reigning champion is set loose on an unsuspecting Sam--and soundly defeated.  When Hondo rebuffs Brock's offer to buy Sam (and as usual denies ownership), the bare-knuckle brawler drugs and kidnaps Sam to "train" him for pit fighting.  Hondo discovers his canine sidekick is missing just as Captain Richards arrives with an impatient Markham in tow for the urgently needed peace summit.



"If it's a choice between losin' Markham and losin' Sam, Sam wins!"

Despite Hondo's gruff exterior and the fierce independence he insists on for himself and his constant canine companion, Hondo and the Gladiators demonstrates just how much Sam means to him when the chips are down.  Markham promises to bring the wrath of Washington down on Fort Lowell if he cannot get cooperation, and with a Mescalero Apache war all but certain if this envoy fails, D.C. might be the least of the Captain's worries.  Even so, for Hondo anything is worth risking to rescue Sam from a sadistic captor. 


"You're gettin' soft, too.  Too many table scraps!"

From Lane's deadpan monologue to Sam in the hotel room to his quiet desperation as he searches for his stolen pal, Hondo and the Gladiators is probably Ralph Taeger's finest episode as an actor.  Unfortunately, Hondo's oft-repeated refrain that Sam "belongs to no one but himself" is taken literally outside of the friendly confines of Fort Lowell, and the guilt that Lane feels after failing to realize this--while predictably unstated--is palpable throughout. 


"That's my dog.  You're not gonna fight him."

It's an overused term for sure, but after fifteen episodes and twice that many disavowals of ownership, that line truly speaks volumes.  Taeger delivers it perfectly, and the stoic star also expresses just the right touch of silent panic when it appears that the sadistic showman might have succeeded in brainwashing Sam during "training".


"I don't give a holler down a dry well what one man does with another, but settin' dumb animals on one another isn't my idea of a sport!"

Disclaiming possession and making Sam get his own food?  Might make Hondo Lane a less than ideal human companion to modern eyes, but consider Brock, who is more than happy to own the animal.  As long as it is profitable, that is: "I got no use for a loser" is his response as his former champ flees when Sam defends himself.  Brock cages, tethers and muzzles Sam to ensure that the dog is deprived of food and water until "after his lesson"--and to eliminate any possible self-defense from the canine when he's being whipped with that chain.


Brock's cruelty to animals is only the most disgusting example of the man's gutlessness.  Veteran heavy Claude Akins skillfully essays this manipulative huckster, undermining Brock's courageous image in the pit with a constant (yet subtle) lack thereof out of it.  Brock takes off his jovial public mask in private to assistant Smithers, terrorizing the timid employee as much as his unfortunate dogs.  But this supposed tough man also meticulously avoids a confrontation with Lane during Sam's abduction, and noticeably stays put at the bar while ladies onstage are sexually harassed and their impresario assaulted (Hondo defends the damsels in distress).


Inside the pit, well, I did say it's an image of toughness.  It's hard not to notice that Brock twice tries to goad Hondo into challenging for the "big prize money", but wants no part of Hondo Lane outside the controlled setting of the pit.  You guessed it: Brock has flunky Jake ready to surreptitiously blackjack anyone who gets too close to besting the traveling showman for that reward. 


"Sorta sickenin', I'd say."

With those words, the Sheriff made his frustration clear at his lack of legal grounds to stop the blood "sport", an unusual topic for a prime time show to be addressing now, much less in 1967.  Hondo and the Gladiators makes a solid plea for humane treatment of animals both domestic and wild (the wolf-dog hybrid that Brock has trapped to provide Sam with an opponent), and since Hondo Lane is making it, that statement is appropriately forthright and succinct.   When Sam draws a bettor, the gambler draws exactly what you'd expect once Emberato finds out.



"Soon they will ride into Half Moon Pass.  And they will never ride out!"

The audience is so invested in the fate of our four-legged scene stealer that it's easy to forget that the lives of Hondo, Buffalo, Captain Richards and Markham are also hanging in the balance with mutineer Nakka waiting in ambush.  True, Walker's secondary storyline isn't exactly new to the series: a wise old peace seeking Chief is being undermined by an insurgent in the tribe thirsting for conflict. 


It's been a primary plot twice already with Hondo's father-in-law Vittoro (Hondo and the War Cry, Hondo and the War Hawks), but the writer gives us a new wrinkle that forces Hondo Lane to be in two places at once.  Unlike Vittoro, Jamarro trusts Lane--and only Lane--having never met Buffalo, Richards or anyone else from Fort Lowell.  With the premature presence of unwelcome settlers, Hondo's credentials mandate his presence for talks that cannot fail.


Turnley Walker was best known for his non-fiction books (including RISE UP AND WALK, the true story of the author's triumph over polio) but occasionally wrote teleplays, including a 1956 adaptation of his best-known work for GOODYEAR PLAYHOUSE.   Hondo and the Gladiators was Walker's final TV script and contains possibly the longest teaser of its era, with a full ten minutes of action taking place before the opening credits.


Walker's above average plotting and unique structure enhance the viewing experience, but his dialogue could have used another draft or two.  Hondo's stilted replies during his initial encounter with Brock makes the usually astute scout come across like a dunce ("talk to the dog!") for not grasping the obvious danger that this showman presents to Sam.  Claude Akins isn't always served well either.  Akins does a faultless job making you hate Brock, and unsubtle lines (i.e. "I do what pleases me!" and "I treat my help and my dogs the same!") spelling out what we are seeing for ourselves hinder him instead of helping.


Unlike Walker, Eddie Saeta wasn't a HONDO newcomer; the longtime assistant director had served in that capacity for the majority of the show's first fourteen episodes.  Saeta went into Hondo and the Gladiators with thirty years' experience as an A.D., but this installment was one of only three times that Saeta took the director's chair in his long Hollywood career.  He clearly relished the opportunity.


The director's first challenge is staging the opening skirmish between Sam and Brock's reigning champ.  Thanks to tight editing and effective use of sound, Saeta presents the scuffle effectively, and his direction of the extras is impressively detailed.  On the surface, the improptu dogfight draws an enthusiastic crowd full of eager gamblers, but take a close look at the extras: the gathering also includes plenty of women and children with unhappy faces.  Those not shielding their eyes, anyway.  Brock, doesn't care, though he doesn't drum up much business in this locale.  (Later, in Brewster, the more fervent crowd is almost 100% male; I saw one woman holding a parasol in freeze frame once.)

Heads thrown back to show their features....
The director stages an enjoyable rendition of "Hangtown Girls" by professional dancer Lydia Goya and the super-flirtatious Chanin Hale in the saloonwith the tense sequences in the desert involving Hondo's search for his lost pal, the stomach-churning "training", and Nakka's well-staged ambush on the peace mission.  With a long association with The Three Stooges in his thirty-year background, it isn't surprising that Saeta provides the occasional comedic touch to lighten up this tense story.  And this aside.....


....he doesn't overdo it, making nary a false move for forty minutes.  For my money, Saeta is pitching a shutout going into the final inning.

"Sign your paper with all the ceremony you want.  I'm goin' to Brewster!"

The secondary plot resolved, Hondo races to Brewster, where Battling Brock has dispatched all local challengers and is hyping his main event, between a half-wolf  "brought in from the high country" to face "this savage fighting dog you see here":


After Hondo's arrival, Brock lies to the Sheriff about ownership and then distracts Sam by rattling that chain when Hondo tries to call his dog.  With no other recourse, Hondo challenges Brock to a pit fight with Sam's fate at stake.


After a full hour of Brock's villainy, we've been looking forward to this comeuppance, but unfortunately, it's in this final act that Saeta finally stumbles.  Brock seizes the upper hand with the first two knockdowns, but then gets launched backwards and airborne when he attempts a finishing kick to the head.  Brocks move makes little sense in terms of strategy (since he's way out in front) or physics, so while it looks cool on film, it's still distracting.  Hondo can't seem to connect, so Brock's repeated attempts to cheat (i.e. an attempted blackjacking by Jake while Brock has his fingers in Hondo's eyes) make about as much sense as Dick Dastardly's always did. 

Yeah, Saeta lays things on a little thick, but the execution is far from terrible, just frustratingly inconsistent.  Still, when Hondo Lane breaks out of Brock's eye gouge and finally lands a solid right cross to the scoundrel's face, it's definitely a cheer out loud moment.


Hey, don't take my word for it: check out the reaction from Brewster's Sheriff.



Brock has a fight on his hands now, and all the while, Sam is barking like crazy while chained and muzzled on the edge of the pit.  The landings are a little more evenly distributed, and Brock appears a less sure of the outcome.  Ultimately, though, this isn't really Hondo Lane's fight: Brock's ass belongs to the one he's been maltreating all episode, right?

It's after a Hondo tackle that Sam finally breaks that chain, forcing Brock to face his own "killer" creation--and us to face the limits of our suspension of disbelief.  After all, Sam is still muzzled, so how much damage can he do?  Pro that he is, Akins does an admirable job trying to sell it.  This is a look of terror:


Brock cries and pleads for help, taking his cowardice to new levels.  To be fair, we could possibly believe that Sam could be scratching him, if we didn't see otherwise.  Unfortunately after the canine responds to Hondo's command and disengages, Saeta makes a poor choice in showing not just one, but multiple inserts showing us that Brock literally doesn't have a scratch on him afterwards.


When the Sheriff tells us later in that coda that Brock was "mostly in one piece", well--duh!  Showing him face down or obscuring the view enough with his hands to deny a good look would have allowed .  To be fair, it's a truly fitting final image before the fadeout to see Hondo liberating his pal from that muzzle.


Hondo and the Gladiators also boasts the show's usual quota of impressive guest stars, and then some. 


Guest starring for the second consecutive episode, Jamie Farr gets a much meatier part this time as the conscience of this installment. 


Moonlighting from his regular gig on I DREAM OF JEANNIE, Barton MacLane is at his grousing best as the skeptical peace envoy. 


Phil Arnold (like the director, a veteran of numerous Three Stooges shorts) gets some light moments at the Impresario presenting those Boston Belles, and James Chandler makes an impression out of a few lines as the humane, fair-minded lawman.  As mentioned earlier, Lydia Goya and Chanin Hale put on quite a show at the saloon.  If it's possible to make up for Kathie Browne's absence from this one, they do.



Like the show's hero, Hondo and the Gladiators is ragged and unpoised at times, but wins you over when all is said and done.  Just like countless "champions" who preceded him, Sam has been drugged, stolen, beaten and thoroughly maltreated by his capturer.  And what motivates Sam to finally get loose and go after the sadist?  None of the above--it's seeing Brock hitting Hondo.  If it's possible for a television show to truly summarizes why a dog is man's best friend. I think Hondo and the Gladiators makes that statement better than any program I can think of.


Not that Hondo Lane doesn't return the favor.  Chanin Hale's showgirl takes a shine to the scout while he's enjoying a beer during rehearsals, and Hondo's interested (I know--who wouldn't be?).


But just as things are starting to get interesting, he hears the commotion outside, and from the sounds of it, Sam is in trouble.....


......meaning that the beautiful redhead will just have to wait.  Sorry, Carrot Top. 

Maybe if I'd modestly lifted my linen....


HOW MANY CANS OF WHOOPASS?

Too bad that Brock didn't get to face the Hondo Lane we saw before he made peace with his past in Hondo and the Superstition Massacre.  The traveling showman was clearly ahead on points when the pit showdown came to an abrupt halt. Understandable, given that Hondo was coming off a hangover and an emotionally draining day that climaxed with a life-or-death battle with Nakka's forces.  Hondo also took a punch from a frustrated Buffalo in the desert, but lit into Mike Masters' aptly named Bully twice: once for egging on Sam's scuffle (and making money off it), and once for harassing the Boston Belles during their performance. 


IS THE CANTINA STILL STANDING?

Fort Lowell's cantina gets a rest, since Hondo and Buffalo are on the road.  But Hondo's subduing of the Bully results in a broken table, and free whiskey for the night from the barkeep.  A much more good-natured response than the property destruction usually gets.  Then again, Lane was protecting the dance hall girls, and they were bringing in a crowd.



A DOG'S LIFE:

What more needs to be said?   This one's all about you, Sam!


THE BOTTOM LINE:

A few instances of subpar execution and dialogue aren't fatal flaws to a uniquely structured, emotionally resonant episode.  Powered by excellent work by Taeger, Akins and Farr, and energetic direction by Saeta, Hondo and the Gladiators is memorable and touching in the end.  Rewatchable, too.  It isn't the best episode of HONDO, but for its insight into the hero's relationship with both of his best friends, it is my personal favorite.  (*** out of four)


HONDO airs every Sunday morning at 10:15 AM Central on getTV. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Leon Errol Series: THE JITTERS (1938)

The Leon Errol Salute Series: Number Three




THE JITTERS (1938 RKO Short) Starring Leon Errol, Vivian Tobin, Richard Lane, Alphonse Martel, Jack Rice.  Written by Leslie Goodwins and Charles E. Roberts.  Directed by Leslie Goodwins.

The introduction to our Leon Errol series is at this link.


The tables have turned!  For once, Leon Errol is wondering where his wife (Tobin) was last night.  Her answer: she was practicing for the finals of a dance contest with temperamental instructor Maurice (Martel) at The Ambassador.  Leon, who doesn't jitterbug, is jealous, and becomes even moreso when he's sent out to have dinner alone.  Understandably lacking much of an appetite for steak, Mr. Errol opts for liquid nourishment instead, and his waiter (Rice) joins him. 


It's Rice's alcohol-fueled suggestion to join 'em and then beat 'em that inspires tipsy Leon.  Fortified by a couple of hours' worth of doubles (he started with three), Errol wobbles into The Ambassador, intending to give his perceived rival a punch in the nose.  After staggering down the wide staircase to the amusement of several patrons, Leon Errol finds himself mistaken for instructor Maurice just prior to the scheduled introductory class on the titular dance.


Well, hey, Cab Calloway did sing that whiskey, wine and gin in your jug would have you ready to jitterbug.....

THE JITTERS is cited by many as the best of Errol's 98 shorts for RKO Radio Pictures.    The disagreement with his wife gives us a few spoonerisms ("You can't drag our good game in the nutter!") from a sober Leon.  Veteran Errol watchers will find another layer of humor in watching the boozing carouser act like such a fuddy duddy, and even newcomers can see the overindulgence coming once he's left to his own devices for dinner.


What follows is an entire second reel showcasing Errol's still-considerable skill at physical comedy.  Certainly one of the best on film for one of the century's most famous drunk acts.  Dean Martin and Foster Brooks could compete with Errol's slurred vocalization, but an intoxicated and ambulatory Leon was simply untouchable.


Leon wobbles on his cane while he's standing still, so you can imagine the sight of him walking down the studio staircase.  With his broken, dangling cigarette remaining unsmoked throughout, Errol also does his take on the classic "mirror" routine before "instructing" a class full of dedicated women who vainly try to follow his increasingly shaky swayings in the climactic scene for two hilarious minutes.  The ladies are way too sober to have much of a chance, but they all try gamely.  It's one of the funniest sequences that I have ever seen in any short subject.


THE JITTERS is cited by many as the very best of Leon Errol's 98 shorts for RKO Radio Pictures.  If it isn't, it certainly can't be far from the top spot: preserving a lengthy version of one of his finest Ziegfeld routines for posterity and giving it an inspired setting.   IMO the best possible introduction to Mr. Errol's work--if you can find it.  (**** out of four)

I apologize for the poor qualify of the screencaps; as you can see we really, really need this one remastered and easier to find.

Monday, February 20, 2017

MAVERICK Mondays: "The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick" (1958)








MAVERICK Mondays: Number 21








MAVERICK: "The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick" (1958 ABC/Warner Brothers TV) Starring James Garner as Bret Maverick, Whitney Blake as Molly Clifford, Ray Teal as Sheriff Tucker, Jay Novello as Oliver Poole, Robert Griffin as the Mayor, Burt Mustin as Henry, John Cliff as Cliff Sharp.   Written and Directed by Douglas Heyes.



Bret Maverick rides into Elbow Bend, New Mexico shortly after a mysterious gunman robs a Wells Fargo office of $40,000 in nearby Hallelujah.  The criminal kills the clerk as he rides off, then plants his gun, hat and a few small bills from the robbery in Bret's hotel room.  Maverick soon finds himself framed for the robbery and convicted on testimony from three eyewitnesses.  Bret's facing the gallows--but while Sheriff Tucker has his man, he doesn't have most of the stolen money, and the gambler's reticence in revealing its "hiding place" gives Maverick an ace in the hole.


Well, that and Tucker's greed.  Taking on coroner Poole as a third partner, the Sheriff strikes a deal with the tight-lipped gambler: he'll fake the hanging and allow Maverick to slip out of town in exchange for revealing the booty's location only to the two of them.  While Poole oversees the burial of the empty coffin, Bret escapes from his captor.  The two accomplices surely can't tell the townspeople the truth, and shortly after they arrive back in Hallelujah, Maverick's widow arrives to visit her husband's grave.


Douglas Heyes opened MAVERICK's second season with Bret's biggest pickle yet, and the elder Maverick sibling gets to show off his deductive skills away from the poker table.  The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick commences with a lengthy and largely wordless sequence (the only line, spoken by the Sheriff: "Any strangers ride into town tonight?") that ends with Bret behind bars and facing his final evening on earth. 


Bret takes that one opening from the dishonest Sheriff (ever-dependable Ray Teal) and escapes.  Knowing that Tucker and Poole are compromised allows Bret to return to Hallelujah in disguise in this segment's funniest scene--as his "shorter, less handsome'" twin brother.  Turns out that's a good thing, since Maverick learns that in death he's also taken on all of Cliff Sharp's crimes along with his identity.   "Bret Maverick" is now reduced to a murderer's alias, so clearing his name isn't just a desire--it's now a necessity.


Heyes' ingeniously plotted script gives Bret plenty of opportunities to adjust his tactics to changing game conditions.  Each new revelation makes tracking down the $40,000 that much more imperative: lest Bret spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, facing a hanging just about anywhere he goes if his "true identity" is discovered.  Mrs. Sharp mistakes him for a lawman, and in fact Bret basically is, having to play undercover detective in order to find the man who framed him and the money stolen by that man.  By the time all is said and done, Maverick's ability to read people has saved his life twice and taken him to the money that eluded the "real" law men.


The professional gambler having higher morals than the upstanding citizens?  It's a satirical well often mined by MAVERICK, and seldom more ironically than in The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick.  In one of Heyes' best bits of business, a betting pool emerges in Hallelujah's saloon on whether their doomed scapegoat will reveal the location of the loot before his last breath--with nary a voice in opposition.   The Sheriff also reveals that is heavenly Hallelujah's first court-sanctioned execution. implying that lynchings weren't uncommon before.  So much for there being "a little bit of good in the worst of us", as the Mayor says repeatedly.


As he often does, Bret Maverick gets to point out their hypocrisy in the end: it not for the greedy, corrupt officials who are now behind bars, an innocent man would have been hanged.  The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick ends with the Sheriff is in jail for setting an innocent man free, and Molly Sharp is facing trial despite the fact that Cliff Sharp is dead and the money is returned, eliminating all possible charges.  "Now what's going to happen?" is Coroner Poole's frequent question, and whatever does apparently won't be dictated by any logic.  Hallelujah is no place for a poker player.  Little wonder Bret, Bart and the former's mustachioed twin all avoided it in future segments.


HOW'D BRET DO AT POKER?

No poker for Bret, though he plays solitaire in his jail cell and cuts cards once with the "widow" later.  Perhaps it's a good thing that Bret didn't make it to the table in the opener of MAVERICK's sophomore season, given the way his luck is going: a coin flip with brother Bart started him on his path to Hallelujah in the first place.  He doesn't start "running good" again until he wins the cut with Molly Sharp at the dinner table.


HOW MANY TIMES DOES BRET GET A GUN PULLED ON HIM?

Twelve, with nine of those being the posse from Elbow Bend that rouses him out of bed in his hotel room.  Not sure if that's a record; something new to start tracking?

NAGGING QUESTIONS:

Two stand out.  How did Bret fire seven shots without reloading at the farmhouse?  More glaringly, how did he get his hat back before he located Cliff Sharp?

WISDOM FROM PAPPY?

"There's more than one way to please a lady."  Not the wittiest Pappyism, nor the most profound.  But it certainly fits.  Bret's charm is a great equalizer against Cliff's combination of money and menace.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

Nagging questions aside, MAVERICK was a finely tuned machine at the outset of its sophomore season.  As was often the case with Heyes, his script stands up to repeat viewings, with many lines becoming funnier the second or third time around.  A solid tone-setter for not only this show's finest year, but one of the best ever for any scripted series.  (***1/2 out of four)


MAVERICK airs Saturday mornings at 9 A.M. Central on MeTV.