Friday, June 02, 2017

F TROOP Fridays: "The Return of Bald Eagle" (1965)











F TROOP Fridays: Episode 15







F TROOP: "The Return of Bald Eagle" (1965 ABC-TV/Warner Brothers) Season One, Episode 5: Original Air Date October 12, 1965.  Starring Forrest Tucker as Sergeant Morgan O'Rourke, Larry Storch as Corporal Randolph Agarn, Ken Berry as Captain Wilton Parmenter, Melody Patterson as Wrangler Jane, Frank deKova as Chief Wild Eagle, Bob Steele as Duffy, James Hampton as Bugler Dobbs.  Guest Star: Don Rickles as Bald Eagle.  Directed by Leslie Goodwins.  Written by Arthur Julian.

Yes, I'm a few weeks behind the times in saluting the late Don Rickles, who left us on April 6 at age 90.  Rest in peace, ya hockey puck!

Private Hannibal Shirley Dobbs is having a crisis of confidence at Fort Courage, with his "fat upper lip" giving him the idea that the bugle isn't right for him.  With encouragement from Agarn and the Captain, F Troop retains its Bugler, who soldiers on with renewed confidence that he'll learn a second song to go with "Yankee Doodle".  Calamity avoided--but it isn't the only one facing Parmenter this morning: Bald Eagle has been spotted in the area.


No, not the national bird of the United States.  This Bald Eagle is Chief Wild Eagle's long-estranged and bloodthirsty son, out to prove himself a brave warrior by conquering Fort Courage and collecting seventeen new scalps.   The Chief isn't the least bit interested, especially not when O'Rourke Enterprises' big end of the month sale is looming.  Undeterred, the obnoxious youngster vows to attack Fort Courage all by himself at the same time Captain Parmenter gets a new order from headquarters: seek peace at all costs, through Operation Bury the Hatchet.


The Return of Bald Eagle was included in both the Columbia House VHS and TV Favorites DVD releases, likely due to the lunacy of casting Don Rickles as the titular renegade, but for yours truly, this is one of the lesser lights from the stellar first season.  A talk show and celebrity roast fixture for decades, Rickles was consistently effective as a dramatic performer (THE RAT RACE, CASINO) but a little of him often went a long way in the sitcom format.


Rickles' relentlessness made him a perfect guest star, though, and Mr. Warmth is hilariously manic for a while as the would-be warrior who (understandably) just can't get anyone to follow him.    Unfortunately, his best moment, the gleefully goofy "Happy Birthday!" as he departs with his hostage, gets a quick edit the one time it would be funnier to linger--a rare muffed gag by old pro Goodwins (POP ALWAYS PAYS). 


After three home runs in succession out of the gate,  F TROOP experienced some growing pains with the next two installments.  The problem here?  After a riotous first act that sees the maniacal Rickles turning everyone else (even Storch) into a reactor, writer Julian grounds the momentum to a halt with a too-soft second half that reveals the bloodthirsty Baldy is really a poor, misunderstood kid at heart underneath all that murderous rage.


Yeah, the producers of Rickles' later sitcoms (i.e. C.P.O. SHARKEY) always softened his character, thinking that week after week of unrestrained Donnie would be too much of a good thing.  But this isn't a weekly dose of the Merchant of Venom--it's his lone F TROOP, and this series excelled during the first season keeping it real all the way to the closing credits.  Installments like The New I.G., The 86 Proof Spring and The Day the Indians Won ended just as hilariously as they began, devoid of lessons, hugs or retribution for its schemers in the end.  (The tired "character change as resolution" gimmick rarely showed up either.) Suffice to say that sentimentality isn't a strong point for this show or for Rickles.


For the second episode in a row, Captain Wilton Parmenter gets to display competence on his own without orchestration from his NCO's.  After bringing the Colton Brothers to justice in Corporal Agarn's Farewell to the Troops, the Captain makes Operation Bury the Hatchet a success by doggedly (if rather obliviously) appealing to the "good" side in Fort Courage's attacker. It's here that we learn that Baldy's supposed idolatry of Geronimo contains more than a little resentment, a rather abrupt revelation.  While ultimately disappointing, The Return of Bald Eagle is a very well remembered episode for Rickles' presence alone.  He's perhaps the only performer who can come across like a bull in a china shop on F TROOP--even Milton Berle (The Great Troop Robbery) couldn't pull that one off.


THINGS YOU LEARNED:

While the Captain has a thin upper lip, he's no better suited to the bugle than Dobbs is, owing his inability to a "fat tongue".  (On the bright side, that's good news for Wrangler Jane!   Oops, sorry...)

Chief Wild Eagle has two sons by a prior marriage: Bald Eagle and Boy Deer.  The latter is a "Dear Boy" per his father, but he must have fallen out of favor later on.  He's never in the running to be Wild Eagle's heir, with Crazy Cat surpassing him despite constantly, blatantly yearning for Wild Eagle's demise.

Wild Eagle is a very progressive employer, implementing the Berry Juice Break at least two decades before the coffee break became an accepted practice in the workplace.


NUMBER OF TIMES O'ROURKE COULD HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH TREASON:

Fort Courage is a treason-free zone, with the men of F Troop even successfully repelling an honest attack--albeit a single-handed one.


PC, OR NOT PC?

Well, Don Rickles is playing a native American, need I say more?


WISE OLD HEKAWI SAYING?

No wisdom this time from the Chief, just a lot of wincing at his least favorite son.  No wonder: not only is he peaceful, but he has no motivation whatsoever to contribute to the family business!


THE BOTTOM LINE:

I was a little harsh on this one the first time around.   The first act of The Return of Bald Eagle is hilariously goofy, as is Rickles himself, but the abrupt change to mawkishness in Act Two just doesn't work for this show or its guest star.  But it's still half of a good episode.  No disaster--just too conventionally average in the end, which makes it one of the lesser lights of a stellar first season.    (**1/2 out of four)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Television Review: LOVE THAT BOB: "The Beautiful Psychologist" (1956)


LOVE THAT BOB a.k.a. THE BOB CUMMINGS SHOW: "The Beautiful Psychologist" (Original Air Date: October 25, 1956)  Starring Bob Cummings as Bob Collins, Rosemary DeCamp as Margaret MacDonald, Dwayne Hickman as Chuck MacDonald, Ann B. Davis as Schultzy, King Donovan as Harvey Helm, Jeff Silver as Jimmy Lloyd, Marcia Henderson as Laura Hayden.  Written by Shirl Gordon, Paul Henning and Phil Shuken.  Directed by Norman Tokar.

Series overview of LOVE THAT BOB a.k.a. THE BOB CUMMINGS SHOW at this link. 


Bob believes that his now seventeen year old nephew Chuck is ready for flying lessons, but sister Margaret is dead set against the idea.  Noting that any Air National Guard service is at least two years away, Margaret thinks her son is too young for the lessons, and she isn't swayed by her brother's status as an instructor in the Guard.  Nor is she persuaded when Bob notes that he made "aces" out of numerous recruits.


Chuck has more immediate concerns--namely, his dinner--but some timely eavesdropping the next morning gives Bob proof that he is idolized by his nephew.  Hearing Chuck repeat Bob's heroic feats to awestruck classmate Jimmy leads the playboy shutterbug to believe there's another reason his nephew doesn't want the instruction: the teenager is intimidated at the prospect of living up to his uncle's accomplishments.  Bob is thrilled when the high school's counselor Laura shows up to discuss the youngster's studies, but less so when he finds himself being analyzed by the titular therapist.


One of the last installments before Chuck's eighteenth birthday took place onscreen (The Double Date), The Beautiful Psychologist is the first of several third season entries to explore the younger MacDonald's transition from high school to college.  We're past building model airplanes (The Fallen Idol) now, as Bob feels Chuck is ready to fly the real thing.  Much as Chuck would like to follow in Bob's footsteps in other ways, the youngster is more in tune with his mother on this idea, still proud of Uncle Bob's aerial achievements without feeling ready to emulate them.


Bob's ego seems a little outsized this time out, not only mistaking Chuck's lack of current interest for fear, but attributing that fear to the feats he's been hearing about for years--air and ground, no doubt.  Truthfully, though, while Chuck continues to brag about his Uncle, it's Jimmy Lloyd who seems to have the hero worship affecting his self-esteem ("Tall, dark and handsome---I'd settle for tall!").  Indeed, when combined with all the gushing over Bob's legendary exploits, that stare that Lloyd gives Colonel Collins' Air Force portrait is almost homoerotic.


While Harvey Helm still envies Bob's life of freedom, he does have some slight corrections to the WWII stories, which might alone make flying seem more realistic for Chuck--if that was the problem.  Bob never figures out that it isn't, one of two ways that LOVE THAT BOB again subverts expectations this time.  The Beautiful Psychologist isn't all about puncturing that hot air balloon, and Bob's (fake) humility ends up giving him an avenue to a heretofore unavailable female.  Well, maybe--I'm not all that convinced he had any kind of shot (see section below).


This was the only episode for Marcia Henderson, and she pleases the eye and ear enough to make one wish she'd returned.  Well known to the era's TV viewers as the female sportswriter in DEAR PHOEBE, she's a good fit for another (at the time) traditionally male profession here.  Henderson skillfully delivers the episode's funniest line, in which she revises her diagnosis of our aging flyboy.  Her professional analysis: Collins has a "neurotic tendency to employ a decided confabulation opportune in the gratification of his dominant male psychosis".  Most creative way yet to call our boy a wolf!


Henderson already had a Theatre World award (for the Broadway version of PETER PAN) and big screen leads in THE GLASS WEB and CANYON RIVER to her credit.  Sadly, her promising career was soon cut short by a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually led to her retirement from the screen in 1962.  Married for 27 years to actor Robert Ivers (G.I. BLUES), Henderson was only 58 when she passed away in 1987. 


The Beautiful Psychologist doesn't provide a decisive comeuppance for Bob, a way out of the kitchen for Harv, or a resolution for Chuck's immediate future.  Much like Bob on his confidence-builder (!) of a flight at the end, it neither soars nor crashes, providing consistent chuckles but few laugh-out-loud moments.  If Bob took Laura to his usual heights either on air or land ("just give me time, Schultzy!") he did it off-screen. 


WHO WAS BLOCKING?

For once, Bob was his own blocker, inadvertently "proving" childhood regression by riding a bicycle through the household and insisting that Harvey Helm take credit for all of their war heroics.  Schultzy and Margaret certainly weren't helping, but the former was surprisingly neutral for once.


DID BOB SCORE?

In spite of himself, Colonel Collins did manage to get Miss Hayden into the cockpit with him.  But despite that look of high confidence at the fadeout, the counselor (who we learn is doing her post-graduate work) might well be up there in a professional capacity.  She earlier seemed fascinated by his avocation, with interest level looking high--until that precise moment that he made his move.  That's a big red flag, Bob! 


A typical LOVE THAT BOB setup, agreeably but not exceptionally executed.  Par for the course during the brief third season period that Tokar and others manned the director's chair (after Rod Amateau's departure and before Cummings took over fulltime).  With Henderson living up to her titular description and providing a worthy foil, The Beautiful Psychologist has enough laughs to make for a pleasant if not quite hilarious half-hour.  (**1/2 out of four)


Saturday, May 06, 2017

Leon Errol Series: TEXAS TOUGH GUY (1950) / HIGH AND DIZZY (1950)


TEXAS TOUGH GUY (1950 RKO Pictures Short) Starring Leon Errol as Leon/Tex Errol, Dorothy Granger as Mrs. Errol, Wendy Waldron as Betty Errol, Robert Neil as Joe, Gwen Caldwell as Millie, Lela Bliss as Marion Smyth, Charles Smith as Hubert Smyth, Charles Coleman as the Butler.  Screenplay by Julian Woodward.  Directed by Hal Yates.



HIGH AND DIZZY (1950 RKO Pictures Short) Starring Leon Errol as Leon, Dorothy Granger as Mrs. Errol, Betty Underwood as Irma, Willie Best as Wesley, Marlo Dwyer as the dog owner. And Introducing "Irmatrude" as itself.  Written by Earl Baldwin. Directed by Hal Yates.

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


In 1950, illness forced Leon Errol out of the final two entries in the JOE PALOOKA film series and reduced production of his RKO two-reelers to three that year instead of the usual six.  But even half the usual output was enough for the venerable funnyman to provide us with his specialties: dual roles and drunken carousing.


TEXAS TOUGH GUY gives us two Leon Errols for the price of one, with ol' Rubberlegs donning a ten gallon hat and positively epic mustache to play his brother "Tex" Errol.  Oil tycoon Tex has a $4 million fortune, but he's still persona non grata to Leon's wife after declining an invitation to daughter Betty Errol's engagement party.  The marriage to seemingly well-to-do Hubert Smythe is far more thrilling to Mrs. Errol than to Betty herself--in fact, it's entirely mother Errol's idea.  Betty prefers the poor but pure aspiring diner owner Joe and Leon is firmly in his daughter's corner as they attempt to thwart the arranged nuptials with stuffy Hubert.


As I said, the Smythes are seemingly well off: Hubert and his mother are far more attracted to Tex's millions than to Betty herself, with that knowledge giving Leon the idea to save the day with a couple of masquerades: Leon will impersonate Tex while waitress Millie will become Tex's newly adopted daughter to flush out the Smythes' ulterior motives.


TEXAS TOUGH GUY gives us a more sympathetic Leon Errol than usual, one assuming an alter ego for the sole purpose of helping his daughter and her nice-guy true love.  He also takes on considerable expense to give "Millicent" the necessary wardrobe to pull of her ruse for the cause.  But don't worry, we aren't getting a vice-free Leon: he makes that clear while ogling  model in the clothing store...


....unknowingly doing so in front of the disapproving Mrs.


Writer Julian Woodward wrote several shorts for Errol and his RKO stablemate Edgar Kennedy, including the latter's 1948 swan song, CONTEST CRAZY.   He provides funny lines and Yates keeps things consistently lively, and as always Leon shoulders the comedic load.  Nearing seventy at this point, the star isn't as nimble with physical humor as he once was, but he's still in peak form verbally. 


"Tex" Errol is rich, but any similarity to Lord Basil Epping (or Leon himself) stops there: the Texas oilman never touches hard liquor and has only kind words for his sister-in-law.  TEXAS TOUGH GUY really gets cooking after Leon steps into his brother's skin and takes full advantage of the opportunities presented to him.  The phony Tex praises "brother Leon" shamelessly, chides the Mrs. for "puttin' on a little beef" and throws insults at the younger Smythe that he knows can't be returned.  Leon almost lays it on too thick, though, when he eschews Tex's usual glass of milk for a "Texas Redeye" from the Butler (cactus juice, a slug of gin, and kummel "to kill the taste, son!").

Waldron and Neil
Making her series debut was Wendy Waldron, who made three appearances in Errol's two-reelers, playing Leon's daughter in all three.  After her acting career ended in 1953, she moved to New York and into modeling full-time.  Ubiquitous screen butler Charles Coleman made his final series appearance (he died in March 1951).  

(L to R) Smith, Caldwell and Errol)
Gwen Caldwell made her big-screen debut as Millie.  Linked romantically at one time with Mickey Rooney (and later guest starring twice on his sitcom HEY MULLIGAN!), Caldwell was only occasionally credited during her eight year Hollywood career: like Waldron, she found greater success as a model.  Lela Bliss is her usual haughty self as Mrs. Smythe.  Buoyed by energetic performances, TEXAS TOUGH GUY is a highly enjoyable entry in the Leon Errol series, one more very funny farce from a very funny man.


HIGH AND DIZZY gives us a singular Errol, and a much more familiar one: asleep on the living room sofa after being out all night.  At least, that's what the Mrs. thinks, and she voices her intent to divorce the "wolf" this time.  Fortunately, Leon sets her straight about the good deed he was actually performing for her: his car broke down, he had to taxi home after his lodge meeting (it broke up at 11:30 P.M., the Mrs. checked, and didn't have the heart to wake her after arriving so late.


Yes, if you're buying that explanation, this is your first Leon Errol short.  The story soon falls apart: "Irmatrude" the singing chicken is found in the kitchen, smelling like LaFleur # 7 perfume and squawking "Home on the Range".  Leon claims to have won the bird in a raffle, but Irma from the Hotsy Totsy Club soon calls him with the truth (Errol gave her, and every other girl at the Club, his number the night before).  Errol drunkenly made off with Irmatrude the night before, and Irma demands her stage partner's safe return--the chicken is worth $5,000 and took three years to train.


Leon quickly attempts to recover the bird, but Mrs. Errol has already offered jittery window washer Wesley fifty cents to kill it!  Irmatrude escapes after unnerving him with a funeral dirge, and a neighbor's dog takes interest in Leon's new feathered friend.  In his effort to avoid buying a $5,000 dinner and having his escapades exposed, Leon Errol gives chase--all the way to the window ledge on the fourteenth floor.  Meanwhile, Irma heads for the Errols' home and a face to face with the Mrs. seems imminent.


Lofty setting notwithstanding, HIGH AND DIZZY fails to match the comedic heights reached by TEXAS TOUGH GUY.  It appears to be more modestly budgeted, with all of the action taking place in Errol's apartment building and only five credited actors to TEXAS TOUGH GUY's multiple sets and nine speaking parts.   The constraints show with action that is alternately labored and frantic before inevitably getting Leon out on that flagpole.  


In his penultimate film role, the great Willie Best shares barely five seconds of screen time with Errol--one more missed comedic opportunity.  As expected for the era, he's in a stereotypical role, albeit a somewhat less demeaning one than usual: a medical professional's diagnosis explains his constant nervousness.  Insensitive to her husband, Mrs. Errol is even moreso to Willie: note her dismissal of his condition and subsequent cheerful request for him to kill the chicken after hearing it.  Hard to blame Leon much for galavanting, given what we see of his home life!


The attraction receiving special billing of is Irmatrude, another discovery of famed animal trainer David "Curly" Twiford.  Irmatrude was actually a male, and signed to a three picture contract with RKO in January 1950 for his harmonizing abilities.  HIGH AND DIZZY (originally titled MY FINE FEATHERED FRIEND) is the only film appearance I could find for Irmatrude.  After this initial splash, the singing rooster lacked the staying power of Twiford's most famous trainee, Jimmy the Raven.

Betty Underwood
Then-aspiring RKO starlet Betty Underwood (STORM OVER WYOMING) appeared in five shorts between 1948 and 1950; she retired from the screen after marrying aeronautics pioneer Lester Deutsch and is still with us today at age 91.   Marlo Dwyer has even less screen time than Best as the dog's owner, and Leon Errol spends a considerable amount of HIGH AND DIZZY interacting with the two performers from the animal kingdom.


Leon Errol's shtick brings a smile whether he's inebriated or not, but the gimmicky HIGH AND DIZZY scurries to its foregone conclusion without realizing its true potential.  It succeeds in showcasing its budding star bird, but is an average entry at best in the canon of its human star.  Perhaps seeing a little of Leon's lasciviousness at the Hotsy Totsy Club or giving him more screen time with Best (wouldn't it make sense for the window washer to be involved in the ledge antics?) would have helped with the laugh quotient.


TEXAS TOUGH GUY (*** out of four)
HIGH AND DIZZY (** out of four)

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.