Monday, September 08, 2014

MAVERICK Mondays: "The Rivals" (1959)






MAVERICK Mondays: Number 8





MAVERICK: "The Rivals" (1959 Warner Brothers/ABC-TV) Starring James Garner as Bret Maverick, Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick, Roger Moore as John Vandergelt, Pat Crowley as Lydia Lynley, Neil Hamilton as General Archibald Vandergelt, Barbara Jo Allen as Mrs. Mallaver, Dan Tobin as Lucius Benson, William Allen as Livingston, Sandra Gould as Lucy.  Directed by Leslie H. Martinson.  Written by Marion Hargrove.

Traveling by train, the Maverick brothers part ways at the Denver stop, with Bart choosing the poker games there and Bret setting his sights on greener pastures further down the track: the exclusive Great Western Hotel and Casino at Hope Springs.  As he departs, Bart wishes his brother luck, noting that "they won't let you in unless your name is Vanderbilt, Vandergelt, Stuyvesant or Astor".  Enter John, a fellow passenger who just happens to have that Vandergelt last name.  As luck would have it, John has been eavesdropping and has a business proposal for the remaining Maverick.


John proposes an identity switch with Bret in order to woo Ms. Lynley incognito.  The Vandergelt heir has had his eye on the lovely Lydia for awhile but wants to be loved for his personality instead of his money.  He's also done his homework from afar and knows that they have a lot in common: she's a fellow bookworm who prefers "peasant pride" to riches, so his financial status would actually be a severe obstacle.  The exchange will also provide Bret with $1,000 per week to bankroll his casino entry, but of course, complications ensue.  Bret develops an attraction to Lynley himself, and Vandergelt's father Archibald arrives, ready to "do business" on an arranged marriage for his son.


The author of several essential MAVERICK installments, Hargrove adapted The Rivals (at Roy Huggins' suggestion) from the classic 1775 play of the same name by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  Director Martinson once stated that Hargrove "had a bead on MAVERICK that no other writer had" and the droll dialogue is perfect for both Moore and Garner, with their crisp banter driving this very entertaining episode.  It's also amusing to see Bret Maverick interacting with the senior Vandergelt in the final act, with the General's practical statements seeming to have a more receptive audience with the money loving poker player than with his own son.


Moore's "poor rich boy" is bemused as both Bret (referring to John's "bland, stupid look") and General Vandergelt ("You'd better take it easy until you get used to it" is the General's response to "I've been thinking") get their verbal shots in, and the confident junior Vandergelt shows he can dish it out in return.  The closest he comes to losing his stoicism comes after the ruse is discovered by his intended (deadpanning that he'll "go upstairs and open a vein").  The future James Bond fits nicely into the MAVERICK universe; and his performance in The Rivals led to him being cast as Cousin Beau Maverick after Garner's departure.


Garner's Bret isn't quite as put upon in The Rivals as he is in other Hargrove classics (Gun-Shy, The Jail at Junction Flats) but still exhibits plenty of quiet frustration throughout, ending with Brother Bart creatively getting that seat in the Hope Springs poker game that Bret had been seeking since his arrival.  In Hargrove's original script, Bart's bookending cameos were written for Bret's nemesis Dandy Jim Buckley, but Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. was unavailable (his 77 SUNSET STRIP had become a smash in its first season).  Given the constant undercurrent of competition between Bret and Bart, the denouement works just as well with the change, which the author approved.

The Earl of Bartley has arrived!
With funny lines for just about everyone, including Crowley's principled ingenue and Hamilton's bullying blue blood, The Rivals doesn't have to coast on the chemistry between Garner and Moore, but it easily could have.  There's a healthy respect between two resourceful individuals underneath each witty retort.  The potential realized here by Hargrove and Martinson makes one wish that Garner and the studio could have somehow resolved their differences, since it would have been fun to see Bret, Bart and cousin Beau team up at least once.

Unfortunately, by the time Roger Moore joined MAVERICK as a member of the family, Hargrove, Douglas Heyes, Roy Huggins and Russell Hughes were all long gone from the series (Hughes passed away in 1958) and the uneven quality of the scripts for that fourth season reflected the substantial creative losses.  In fact, The Rivals ended up being Hargrove's MAVERICK swan song, a classy and hilarious high point to bow out on.


HOW'D THEY DO AT POKER?

With one obstacle after another standing in his way, Bret never does make it to the poker room until it is too late, and his ruse is discovered.  Brother Bart's success in Denver is unknown, but he must not have fared too badly, since his bankroll was obviously healthy enough for an English Lord.

WISDOM FROM PAPPY?

"Early to bed and early to rise is the curse of the working class." (Side note: Bob Collins of LOVE THAT BOB had his own variation on Benjamin Franklin's famous quote, which we will visit in the next installment of that episode guide.)

THE BOTTOM LINE:

The Rivals was one Marion Hargrove's finest efforts, ambitiously tackling the highbrow source material with ample sprinkling of the writer's dark sense of humor.   An absolute hoot from beginning to end, with funny lines for almost everyone ("What Vandergelt conscience?" from Hamilton is one of my favorites) and Jack Kelly getting one of his biggest laughs of the entire series with barely sixty seconds of screen time.  Without question the very best MAVERICK episode featuring future regular Roger Moore, The Rivals is virtually flawless.  (**** out of four)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Television Review: LOVE THAT BOB - "Bob Goes Birdwatching" (1958)



LOVE THAT BOB: "Bob Goes Birdwatching" (Original Air Date: 3/25/58) Starring Bob Cummings as Bob Collins, Ann B. Davis as Schultzy, Rosemary deCamp as Margaret Collins, John Archer as Bill Lear, Nancy Kulp as Pamela Livingstone, Patricia Cutts as Cecily, Joi Lansing as Shirley Swanson, Dwayne Hickman as Chuck Collins, Charles Coburn as "Sir Humphrey Mallard".  Written by Paul Henning, Shirl Gordon and Dick Wesson.  Directed by Bob Cummings.

Series overview of LOVE THAT BOB a.k.a. THE BOB CUMMINGS SHOW previously published here for the one hundredth anniversary of the star's birth in 2008 at this link.

Ace photographer Bob Collins has an in-studio beach layout with Shirley Swanson and several other models that will probably stretch into the evening hours.  Work must come before play, but two of Bob's friends have other ideas: scientist Bill Lear and birdwatcher Pamela Livingstone.  Lear wants Bob to leave the office and photograph UFO's.  Lear's a believer, Bob isn't, and Bob turns him down--nodding to Shirley, Bob states that he "prefers a dish to a saucer".


As for beanpole ornithologist Pamela Livingstone, she doubts Bob will resist the opportunity to photograph a rare and endangered bird, and is prepared to use her feminine wiles to entice him.  While the future Miss Jane Hathaway has little success in that regard, her chances improve once Bob sees the picture she's brought along from her last outing:


That's Pamela, the nesting birdie......and the Pamela's veddy British birder friend Cecily.  Three guesses why Bob is suddenly interested, and the first two don't count.

Worth a thousand words, eh Bob?
True, Bob already has a sure thing right there in the photography studio, but getting strange is the name of the game on LOVE THAT BOB.  Bobby Boy smoothly gets Cecily's number and the game is afoot, but is he up for every obstacle he's going to face?


In Bob Goes Birdwatching, Bob Collins meets the female version of himself.  Cecily appears to fall for Collins at first sight, though we find out it isn't that difficult to pique her interest.  Her body language indicates that she's charmed by the photographer, but she appears to forget all about him once she meets Bill Lear--at least initially.  It's clear from Pamela's stories about Cecily that she "gets around" at least as much as Bob does.  She appears from our vantage point to be a perfect match for TV's biggest horndog. 


Bill Lear first appeared as a would-be suitor for Margaret in Bob Meets Bill Lear, but his social ineptitude is almost painful this time.  He appears to have a chance of his own with Cecily at first, but proceeds to blow it as he tells her all about Bob's past escapades--things he thinks will make her "downright hate him".  Of course these stories have the opposite effect.  By episode's end, Lear is embarrassingly reduced to spiteful cock blocking alongside Miss Livingstone. Best known for starring in DESTINATION MOON (1950), John Archer made multiple appearances as Lear during the final two seasons of LOVE THAT BOB.

Patricia Cutts
Charming Patricia Cutts was a blonde beauty who made the rounds of episodic television throughout the Fifties and Sixties. The daughter of British silent era director Graham Cutts, she was probably best known for the 1959 horror classic THE TINGLER.  Ms. Cutts suffered from bipolar syndrome, and sadly committed suicide at age 48 with an overdose of barbituates.


Every fourth season episode of LOVE THAT BOB was written by the team of Paul Henning, Shirl Gordon and Dick Wesson, and the quality of their scripts stayed impressively consistent when one considers they produced 36 episodes during that 1957-58 season.  They even found a little time to give us the lowdown on the UFO craze of the late Fifties, with Collins noting that the Air Force has had an explanation for "98 percent" of the reported sightings.  "What about the other two percent?" is Lear's counter.

Cummings and Coburn
Bob Goes Birdwatching is marred only by a resolution that will be lost on modern audiences, with Charles Coburn appearing as the elusive Sir Humphrey Mallard--or is he?  Nicknamed "The Monocle from Georgia", Coburn co-starred with Cummings numerous times during the height of Robert's film stardom (PRINCESS O'ROURKE, THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES, KING'S ROW).  The studio audience applauds Coburn wildly: the long-time theatre actor made his film debut at age 60(!) in 1937 and won an Academy Award for 1943's THE MORE THE MERRIER.  Coburn is far from a household name today, and the then fairly recent past history between the two actors is too obscure of an in-joke now.  A spry eighty-one at the time, Georgia native Coburn was often thought to be British.  Widower Coburn remarried the following year (bride Winnifred was forty years his junior) and continued acting in films until his death in 1961.


LOVE THAT BOB is a series often accused of sexism-- with some justification, though it should be noted that Shirley Gordon co-wrote over half of the show's 173 episodes.  Refreshingly, in Bob Goes Birdwatching we have a beautiful female guest star who is just as sexually liberated as playboy Bob Collins--pretty progressive for 50's TV.  Let's just say that I'd love to know who wrote what for this installment.  Nancy Kulp is a hoot as always, and Cummings does double duty again as director and keeps things light and brisk throughout.  The denouement will fall flat for 21st century viewers, and the "special guest star" surely doesn't look like he could keep up with Cecily.  At least, not with performance enhancing drugs still forty years away.  Still, a sub-par ending isn't enough to spoil a very funny half hour.  ***1/2 out of four.

DID BOB SCORE?  No, but it is a damned admirable effort of clearing every hurdle--except one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Film Review: NUMBER ONE (1969)







"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 98





NUMBER ONE (1969 United Artists) Starring Charlton Heston, Jessica Walter, Bruce Dern, John Randolph, Diana Muldaur, Richard Elkins, Bobby Troup, Mike Henry, Stephen Franken, G.D. Spradlin, Roy Jenson, Ernie Barnes.  Directed by Tom Gries.

Forty year old New Orleans Saints quarterback Heston is a former Super Bowl champion, but he's playing poorly in the preseason and has talented rookie Elkins breathing down his neck.  While pondering the end of his career, Heston has plenty of problems outside the chalk lines as well.  Despite his past accomplishments, Heston gets constant reminders that his future away from football is far from assured.  It doesn't help that his marriage is on increasingly shaky ground, with wife Walter finding herself in a career of her own.


Heston and Gries collaborated on three films in the late Sixties.  The first, WILL PENNY (1968), is cited by many as a true sleeper and Heston himself deemed it his favorite work in his biography In the Arena.  The star's warm feelings did not extend to the followup, NUMBER ONE, which Heston cited as his worst in the same book.  I think he's being too hard on NUMBER ONE, but the film has its share of problems, beginning with the star's failure to make a convincing NFL quarterback.


Then-Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer was on hand to give Charlton Heston passing pointers, but while Kilmer was a gritty winner, he didn't exactly remind you of Dan Marino with his mechanics--which Heston was directed to emulate (in order to match the stock footage).  Despite his 6'3" height and the larger than life aura he brought to so many prestigious historical and sci-fi projects, Heston never looks any more like a professional signal caller on the field than Alan Alda (as George Plimpton) did in PAPER LION the year before.


Forty-six at the time, Heston is also too old for the part, something further complicated by the character being an ancient (for a QB) 40 in the script.  How many 40 year old quarterbacks even now have "three good years left" (as coach Randolph claims Heston does), much less in 1969?   The star gives his customary all on and off the field (he sustained three broken ribs absorbing one tackle) as the prickly Ron "Cat" Catlan, but comes across as stiffer and less charismatic than usual.  Stilted dialogue by screenwriter David Moessinger (later executive producer of QUINCY, M.E. during much of The Hilarious Years) hinders him away from the stadium as well.


This isn't to say that NUMBER ONE isn't a film of some interest.  Retired offensive lineman Jenson is reduced to asking Heston for a $200 handout, something sobering in light of the financial and personal problems faced by many former players (including star linemen of the day Jim Tyrer and Mike Webster) during post-NFL life in the years since.  Few football films had explored this at the time.  We're told several times that Heston will have a difficult time adjusting to life after football financially, but the point of the prescient dialogue with Jenson is unfortunately undermined elsewhere.  Heston's problems are shown to be more emotional than monetary (in conversation with wife Walter), with no shortage of potentially lucrative opportunities in retirement.  Former teammates Troup and Dern are wildly successful in their respective business ventures, and both offer him a job, with Dern wanting Heston badly enough to blatantly root for his old quarterback's failure on opening day.

Would YOU buy a car from this man?
In another progressive move for a 1969 film that isn't undercut, African-American Elkins is the quarterback of the near future for the Saints, with the media and many fans anxious to see him take over for Heston.  Just three weeks after NUMBER ONE was released, James Harris became the first black signal caller to start on opening day for the AFL Bills, and at the time college stars at the position (i.e. Marlon Briscoe) were usually asked to change positions in that league and the pre-merger NFL.  The situation would sadly continue for many years (i.e. Warren Moon's undrafted status).  The matter-of-fact approach taken by Gries is especially refreshing given this real-life context, as only Elkins' talent matters and no reference is made to his race.  Unfortunately, Stephen Franken's stereotypically gay designer is presented in a less enlightened manner.

Ernie Barnes
Just as the aforementioned PAPER LION was made with the cooperation of the NFL and the Detroit Lions, NUMBER ONE had the same support, with real-life Saints players Monty Stickles, Danny Abromowicz and Hall of Famer Doug Atkins (entering his own final season in '69) playing themselves.  Retired NFL'er turned painter Ernie Barnes, the teammate closest to Heston, would later become well known for providing the highly visible artwork for TV's GOOD TIMES (1974-79).   Off the gridiron, New Orleans jazz icon Al Hirt appears at himself, and both Dern and future NORTH DALLAS FORTY coach Spradlin also co-starred with Heston in Gries' WILL PENNY.


Underappreciated as a director, Gries (BREAKHEART PASS) chose an appropriately jazzy score, filmed on location in Louisiana, and didn't shy away from ending the movie on the downbeat note that seemed inevitable throughout.  Too bad that the missteps elsewhere kept NUMBER ONE from coming anywhere close to the status suggested by its title. While it's no pigskin classic, it doesn't deserve its present obscurity either.

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

There's some effort made to show the physical effects of the sport in scenes between Heston and team doctor Spradlin, but the frankness of NORTH DALLAS FORTY was still a decade away in 1969.  Still, it was coming, and NUMBER ONE became dated quickly.  This, more than Heston's on-field miscasting, seems to be the reason that NUMBER ONE is largely forgotten.  PAPER LION (1968) (also not on DVD) suffers from the same problem, but, being a comedy at heart, it wasn't affected nearly as adversely as the more serious subject matter tackled here.


Why it should be on DVD:

On the plus side of the era discussion, you do get authentic Browns, Saints and Cowboy uniforms, something that the NFL wouldn't allow in the years to come for those films more critical of the league (FORTY, ANY GIVEN SUNDAY). 

The "snapshot of a bygone era" angle: NUMBER ONE would seem to be a must for Saints fans, particularly those old enough to remember when the team played its home games the old Tulane Stadium, a.k.a. "The Sugar Bowl" (which it hosted for 40 years).  The stadium stood from 1926 to 1980 and hosted the Saints until the Superdome opened in 1975.  That  long demolished venue is on full display here.

While it doesn't quite fit in with WILL PENNY (which doesn't need a partner, really; it is superb), NUMBER ONE would make a nice Heston-Gries twofer with THE HAWAIIANS, which seems a little overpriced on its own.  Dern and Atkins are among those still with us who would be available for extras.  NUMBER ONE recently aired on the MGM HD channel, so watch for a possible repeat showing there.

Monday, August 04, 2014

MAVERICK Mondays: "Poker Face" (1962)






MAVERICK Mondays: Number Seven






MAVERICK: "Poker Face" (1962 Warner Brothers/ABC-TV) Starring Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick, Nancy Hsueh as Rose Kwan, Rodolfo Acosta as Sebastian, Tol Avery as George Rockingham, Doris Lloyd as Lady Blakely, I. Stanford Jolley as Chauncey, Anna Navarro as Maria, Carlos Rivas as Luis, Richard Hale as Dr. Jones, William Fawcett as Stallion, Jorge Moreno as Renaldo.  Directed by Michael O'Herlihy.

Run out of Yuma by the sheriff for allegedly cheating at cards, Bart Maverick finds himself on a stage being looked down upon by the well-to-do, including banker Rockingham (Bart's accuser), Lady Blakely and religious missionary Hale.  He isn't alone in being ostracized by the bluenoses: they also shun Kwan because she's Chinese.  The "well-to-do" passengers are forced to change their tune when the stage is held up near San Rango by Mexican bandits led by Sebastian.

Rivas (left) and Acosta
After taking them all hostage, Sebastian takes an immediate dislike to the snobby racists but feels a sympathetic kinship with fellow outcasts Bart and Rose.  His budding affinity with the latter is not well received by Maria, who (with good reason) senses a threat to her own relationship with Sebastian.


117 episodes in and nearing the end (there were only seven more to come), it isn't surprising to see MAVERICK ready to borrow from John Ford's STAGECOACH in a search for new angles (and hey, wasn't that 1939 classic basically lifted from de Maupassant's Boule de Suif?), with Jack Kelly taking on the challenge of the John Wayne role in this setup.  


Poker Face is rather ambitious for any television Western, exploring racism, class tensions, and the use of religion as a cover for profit driven motives: specifically, exploitation of native peoples and their land.  Sebastian has plenty to say about the last in particular.  He lambasts the banker and missionary for seeking ill-gotten gains under a guise of altruism, but doesn't mind losing of money to Bart in an honest game.  Unlike the "ugly" Americans, in his view Maverick is earning the money, winning it fair and square.  A complete 180 from Rockingham's reaction to losing to Bart at poker earlier--he simply must have been cheated.

Tol Avery
Sebastian shows no predjudice, a common link he has with Maverick and Kwan.  Unlike the others, they know not to judge a book by its cover.  Maverick's background in poker is a big reason he doesn't, and Sebastian picks up on this as he grasps the game ("mostly played with the face").  All three make decisions based on character "reads": in Sebastian's case, he rebuffs two of his countrymen.  After chastising henchman Luis for lacking honor, Sebastian rejects Maria in favor of Rose because the former "likes power" while the latter appreciates him as a person.   Many TV westerns made commentaries on racial issues in the years preceding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the romance between Chinese Kwan and Mexican Sebastian being somewhat daring for both the genre and the era.


Nancy Hseuh
Bart ultimately ends up with the task of saving them all, albeit needing more than a little luck to do so.    Predictably, the upper class denizens appear to have learned little once safety is assured--Sebastian's implied point that everyone's life hinges on more than a little good fortune at the outset appears lost on those who needed to learn it the most.  Sebastian may lose to the more experienced professional player, but he's a quick study.  After he gets stuck, he raises the stakes to an uncomfortable level to negate his disadvantage.  Andy Beal would have been proud!



When all is said and done, Poker Face isn't heavy handed, but thematically it is a story typical of the more conventional TV westerns of the day.  While Acosta and Hseuh are the acting standouts, mention must also be made of the always solid Kelly as well.  With a script lacking the usual comedic lines, Kelly compensates nicely.  Tol Avery, making his seventh and final MAVERICK appearance, made a living playing stuffed shirted villains, and his conventional bluster provides the most effective contrast here.

Oh, and I have to post a picture of Anna Navarro.  You shouldn't have to ask why.

Anna Navarro.  Any questions?
HOW'D BART DO AT POKER?

Bart was seriously kicking ass.  Before leaving Yuma, Bart won $9,000 from Rockingham.  He is robbed of the winnings by the bandits, a temporary setback.  For then he teaches Luis and friends the game and cleans them out (in addition to winning his $9,000 back).  Next, after teaching Sebastian the game, he wins $60,000(!) from him.  Then, for even higher stakes--the highest, in fact--he needs, and gets, a little bit of luck.  Granted, Maverick should clean the clocks of amateurs and inexperienced players, but it's still pretty impressive given the pressure involved.  While the dollars above probably seem like retirement money for the 19th Century, well....just wait for the episode's final twist. 

WISDOM FROM PAPPY?

Two pearls.  "There's imperfection in all of us, it just shows more for some." And, "Sulphur and molasses will cure just about anything."  Some wisdom in the former, for sure, but Pappy appears to be running low on some humor to go with it after five years.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

At first glance Poker Face is a bit too much like a conventional western for a MAVERICK, and several fifth season entries fell into this category--Poker Face was a social statement that could have been made on any number of dramatic TV westerns at the time, unlike the sly, subtle civics lessons from the show's prime like (say) They Day They Hanged Bret Maverick and High Card Hangs.   Those scripts could have only been MAVERICKs.  But like the title suggests, don't fully judge Poker Face by its surface.  While the humor disappears for long stretches, the message is well suited for MAVERICK and the quintessential card game plays a large role in the outcome.  Kelly consistently provided fine work after Garner's departure, though he's outshined here by Acosta and Hseuh, two solid actors who left us way too young (Hseuh was only 39 when she passed away in 1980).   Poker Face isn't exactly the first MAVERICK I'd want to show a viewer new to the series, but ambitious writing and fine acting overcome the lack of laughs to make this entry worthwhile.    (*** out of four)


MAVERICK currently airs daily at 1 PM Central/2 PM Eastern without commercial interruption on Encore Westerns, and at 10 AM Central/11 AM Eastern on COZI TV.

Monday, July 28, 2014

MAVERICK Mondays: "Full House" (1959)






MAVERICK Mondays: Number Six







MAVERICK "Full House" (1959 Warner Brothers/ABC-TV) Starring James Garner as Bret Maverick, Jean Willes as Belle Starr,  Robert Lowery as Foxy Smith, Gregory Walcott as Cole Younger, Gordon Jones as the Marshal, Joel Gray as William Bonney, George Barrows as Black Bart, Tim Graham as Willie Thimble, Kelly Thordsen as Sam Bass and Nancy Kulp as the waitress.  Directed by Robert Gordon.  Written by Jerry Davis, Coles Trapnell and Hugh Benson.

After taking Foxy Smith's diamond stick pin (without Foxy's approval) in lieu of payment for $2,000 in poker winnings, Bret Maverick finds himself mistaken for Smith in Denver by the Old West's biggest and baddest:  Cole Younger, girlfriend Belle Starr, Sam Bass ($10,000 Reward: Dead or Alive); Jim Dalton ($12,000),; Ben Thompson ($10,000); Black Bart ($15,000); Jesse and Frank James ($25,000 for the pair); and William Bonney ($1,000--he's "just startin'").


Bret's wise old Pappy once said that "if you're given a rare steak intended for someone else, eat as much as you can before the mistake is discovered".  Much as he did in Seed of Deception, Bret follows this advice to at "T".  Especially when he adds up the totals from all those reward posters.


However, he might have done better to remember one of Pappy's other proverbs.  Specifically, the one about heroism: "A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only once.  A thousand to one is a good advantage!"


While flirtatious Starr finds "Foxy" to be more youthful and charming than expected, Bret meets with resistance everywhere else.  Younger is particularly suspicious of Bret, the temporarily detained real Smith "can't be boxed in by anybody", and "Foxy" is expected to have a cunning plan ready for the gang to pull off a heist.  Like any good poker player, Bret bluffs big with plans to rob the Denver Mint, expecting the outlaws to fold.  Naturally, they call.


In Full House, Bret's instinct for self-preservation loses out to his greed--not an uncommon occurrence.  While the intriguing setup doesn't have many surprises for MAVERICK fans in the storyline, the episode is chock full of treasured character bits.  Garner adopts a very funny 'tough guy' voice to get into character as Smith, and gets to show off his impressive skills at handling a gun (while simultaneously talking his way out of actually having to use it).  A recurring series theme is mined here: that Bret could make one Hell of a crook if he lacked a conscience.  Bart too.  But there's a difference between a rascally rogue and a ruthless criminal, and the Maverick brothers stay on the former side--just barely, sometimes.


The All Star Outlaws are no less worthy, with Willes (Day of Reckoning) being her usual seductive self, Walcott (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE) exuding surliness as he waits for "Foxy" to crack, and Grey providing the petulance, immaturity and menace needed.  Lowery gets the biggest laughs of the supporting cast as the dapper mastermind, and Jones provides a most unexpected MAVERICK Marshal.

Garner and Jones
We're used to seeing dour, humorless lawmen running Maverick out of town (i.e. Ben Gage in Gun Shy), but the smile never leaves Jones' face, even when observing the late night poker game (and letting the ensuing fight play out to a conclusion) in the opening scene.  The happy Marshal still gets his man, not once but twice, proving there's more than one way to uphold the law.


Full House was the only MAVERICK installment directed by Robert Gordon, who provided a few neat visual gags such as the superimposed total of the bounties (accompanied by the ringing of a cash register).  Writer Jerry Davis also provided the teleplay for Relic of Fort Tejon, another setup in which Bret had to take collateral instead of cash after a poker win (a camel!).  While Davis' resolution here isn't quite as memorable as his conclusion to that classic first season entry, both he and Gordon would have been more than welcome to contribute to MAVERICK more often.  Full House is just as consistent a winner as the poker hand it is named after.

HOW'D BRET DO AT POKER?

He won an even $2,000 from Foxy Smith, though collecting it proved to be problematic.


WISDOM FROM PAPPY?

None this episode, since Bret was too busy impersonating Foxy for over half of it.

Robert Lowery
THE BOTTOM LINE:

Full House is one of the funniest Bret solo outings, and one of James Garner's finest performances in the entire series.  Willes, Walcott and a young Grey are all quite good in their roles: Lowery and Jones are even better.   The idea of Bret Maverick as the reluctant leader of the most notorious outlaws in the West doesn't disappoint, and Davis should have been given more script assignments.  While a few of the more comedic entries of the Trapnell Era edged too closely towards farce, Full House suspends disbelief successfully throughout, with just the right amount of lucky coincidence.  Grounded by excellent casting, direction and performances, it's one of the third season's undisputed highlights.  (**** out of four.)


MAVERICK currently airs daily at 1 PM Central/2 PM Eastern without commercial interruption on Encore Westerns, and at 10 AM Central/11 AM Eastern on COZI TV.

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 may 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 doesn't appear, and won't 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!