Monday, July 16, 2018

MAVERICK Mondays: "War of the Silver Kings" (1957)






MAVERICK Mondays: Number 23







MAVERICK: "War of the Silver Kings" (1957 ABC-TV/Warner Brothers) Original Air Date: September 22, 1957.  Starring James Garner as Bret Maverick, Edmund Lowe as Phineas King, Leo Gordon as Big Mike McComb, John Litel as Judge Thayer, Carla Merey as Edie Stoller, Bob Steele as Walter Jackson, John Hubbard as Bixby.  Teleplay by James O'Hanlon.  Directed by Budd Boetticher.


Bret Maverick rides into Echo Springs dirty and disheveled, but not broke--thanks to the $1,000 bill he keeps pinned inside his coat for emergencies.  Tracing this lone large around a sheaf of newspaper with his penknife, Maverick maneuvers himself into a nice room at the hotel with his "quintupled" bankroll.


One subterfuge leads to the next, placing Bret in the local poker game with the incredibly wealthy and seemingly invincible mining magnate Phineas King.  Maverick deftly deduces that Phineas is a cheat, and hands King a rare defeat at the table, which the mogul refuses to take lying down.  First Bret is not-so-subtly warned to leave town.  Then, a beating from the King's men convinces Maverick that his adversarial bully needs humbling, so Bret decides to hit him where it hurts---right in the silver vein.


Point Blank was creator Roy Huggins' choice for MAVERICK's pilot episode, but with Jack Warner's insistence that every WB series had to be based on a studio-owned property, that honor went to The War of the Silver Kings instead.  It would be the first of three installments directed by Budd Boetticher (THE TALL T) and also the first of three teleplays from James O'Hanlon (Betrayal).  While it's impossible to defend Warner's cheapskate ways (denying Huggins his royalties for a "created by" credit), the final result isn't harmful.  In several ways The War of the Silver Kings is actually a better introduction to professional gambler Bret Maverick.


The card game is barely present in Point Blank, but poker plays a much larger role in O'Hanlon's script with Bret's takedown of Echo Springs' table bully setting the plot in motion.  Maverick shows us a masterful bluff of the hotel's clerk before the game, but this is dwarfed by the crispness of his play during it.  Bret is dealt a pair of Aces on an early hand, receives a third Ace on the draw---and promptly folds to King's seemingly routine bet on what is revealed to be a full house that King has drawn three cards to.


Quickly identifying Phineas as a cheat, Bret waits until he has King heads-up to make his move.  Demonstrating a full read on his man, Maverick asks for a cut before the draw.  King quickly tries to save face with a $1,000 bet after Bret's check, which turns into a check-raise when Maverick comes over the top with his (importantly, sealed) envelope with "$4,000" inside from the hotel's safe.  Unable to manipulate the hand to his liking, King folds his unimproved pair of Jacks to what we see is Bret's unimproved pair of fives).  It's clearly the first crack in King's armor, but more troubling to the mining boss is the fact that Bret is on to him.  Perhaps the wiser move would be accepting this one loss---after all, Bret isn't likely to stay long-term and this is only one pot---but King is not one to truly take any chance.  Especially not this one.


The War of the Silver Kings also aptly displays Bret Maverick's derring-do away from the table.  He neatly protects himself from further attack with a simple newspaper ad and gets a non-King man elected Town Judge with a stealth word-of-mouth campaign.   But good old fashioned study plays just as big a role as charm: it is Maverick who brushes up on the legal reading and finds that the Apex Law remains intact.  Echo Springs is slowly moved from one man's fiefdom into a mining town with full-blown competition.


The combination of Maverick's easygoing charm and King's increasingly unsavory demands moves henchman Big Mike McComb into Bret's camp, making McComb the first of the colorful recurring characters in the MAVERICK universe.  It is hinted at the fadeout that McComb will be a permanent sidekick.  While that didn't come to pass, Leo Gordon would reprise the role four more times--notably in Boetticher's According to Hoyle and the legendary Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.


That oft-cited Law of the Apex really did exist, as a provision of the General Mining Act of 1872.  The courtroom scene seems to be the sole element of C. B. Glasscock's 1935 book War of the Copper Kings (to which Warner Brothers owned the rights, meeting Jack Warner's criteria) that was retained by O'Hanlon.


The War of the Silver Kings ended up being the final television appearance for longtime leading man Edmund Lowe, who appeared in only three more films before retiring.  John Litel has a nice showcase as the town drunk who makes the most of his second chance, and would return as another honest politician in The People's Friend.   Longtime cowboy hero and future F TROOP regular Bob Steele is noticeable as one of the townspeople under King's villainous yoke.


With Boetticher at the helm, this initial MAVERICK offering is played straight, with Bret impacting several lives in a positive way by episode's end.  Even King, who comes to accept sharing the mining community's riches and to respect his adversary's "guts".  But Huggins's creation is already mostly realized, at and away from the table: Bret never fires his gun (he pulls it only once, on McComb) and generally gets the worst of the fisticuffs.  Bret Maverick is one hero who prevails on his wits, proving the effectiveness of poker skill in other areas of life.


HOW'D BRET DO AT POKER?

See above.  He at least tripled that $1,000 initial stake by the end of the evening.

WISDOM FROM PAPPY?

None yet.  Bret didn't start spouting Pappy's proverbs until the third episode.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

The key shortcoming in The War of the Silver Kings is a change that Huggins was forced to make: originally, Bret Maverick was to keep a healthy portion of the mining settlement, but both ABC and Warner Brothers objected.  Huggins realized he'd have to subvert expectations in stages, so he played it straight at the denouement and acquiesced to these wishes.  As a result, Bret Maverick gives all of the money to the miners, something we would later learn to be completely out of character.  This dings the installment a little, but neither network nor studio could hold back all the skewed convention in this sterling debut.  (***1/2 out of four)


MAVERICK is back on Encore's Western channel Monday through Friday at 2:45 P.M. Central, and also airs on MeTV every Saturday morning at 9 AM Central.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Television Review: HONDO: "Hondo and the Sudden Town" (1967)








"Your lives are meaningless compared to HONDO!" 

HONDO: "Hondo and the Sudden Town"  (1967 ABC-TV/MGM/Batjac Productions) Episode 11; Original Air Date: November 17, 1967.  Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery Jr. as Buffalo Baker, Gary Clarke as Captain Richards, Willam Bryant as Colonel Crook, Michael Pate as Vittoro, Glenn Langan as Victor Tribolet, William Benedict as Willie, Gene Raymond as Senator Alden Knight, Rod Cameron as Martin Blaine,  Leonard Stone as Gus Kelso, Tom Reese as Chad Wilson. Written by Palmer Thompson.  Directed by Harry Harris.



Former Senator Alden Knight--the "Silver Knight of the West"--and partner Martin Blaine arrive in the territory intending to revive the ghost town of Surprise, Arizona and its eponymously named silver mine in the heart of Apache hunting ground.  Game driven out during the previous boom is just starting to come back to the area, but Knight's name still carries a lot of weight in Washington: the troopers are under orders to protect the real estate investment fronted by the ex-Senator (yet quietly masterminded and largely financed by Blaine).


It figures to be a short exploration since Surprise No. 1 has been grubbed out for years, but Blaine has already arranged to make success certain.  Having made those preparations, Kelso blackmails Blaine for a higher cut of the profits.  Blaine's response is to kill two birds with one stone by having Kelso silenced permanently and framing the Apaches for the murder.  Meanwhile, employees are hired, Tribolet trades freighting services for land, and business is booming in the former Surprise, now renamed Silver Knight.  There's only one thing missing--actual silver bullion from the all important mine.


"It's kind of like tryin' to patch up a leaky water trough.  You plug up one end, the other end busts open."

Hondo and the Sudden Town brings another external threat to the ever-fragile peace in Arizona Territory.  This time, it's newly private property purchased by the politically connected that threatens the treaty, and all based purely on chicanery.  The geological test is likely as fraudulent as the scheme--note that it was apparently done without Vittoro's blessing, unlike the survey in Hondo and the Superstition Massacre.  This highly artificial stimulation is initially successful, trickling profits all the way down to the newly employed town drunk Willie.  But the gravy train stops with the white man--Apaches will face a great challenge in putting food on the table if the ghost is revived permanently.


"Your word has always been good, my Son."

Vittoro hears about the return of settlers from his scout, and for once we see the wise old Chief's patience tested--along with (briefly) his faith in Hondo Lane.  The end of Emberato's two moon timetable finds Silver Knight still filled with miners and more traffic on the way.  Even the Chief's son-in-law isn't immune to being scuffed up a bit when it appears that Lane was lying.


"You've been put out to pasture for pennies."

His love for taking center stage is intact even after he sours on the deal's legitimacy, but Senator Alden Knight isn't the expected blowhard.  An honest statesman for most of his adult life, Knight ended up pushed out by "a younger man with a chestful of medals" and facing his winter years financially insecure.  A widower as a young man (like Hondo) who never remarried, he longs for the cheering crowds almost as much as monetary gain.  Becoming Blaine's figurehead is understandably appealing, for Knight's political career could be resuscitated right along with the mine.


"My friends, a new day is dawning for this territory!"

By the time the Senator discovers the dirty dealings beneath the facade, it's too late for the frontman to bail--his name is on everything.  A decent man unwittingly ensnared in Blaine's web, the Silver Knight is a tragic figure in the end.  The cost of retaining his moral sense is losing that sterling reputation that took four decades to build and meant far more to the Senator than money.


Little wonder that Blaine and Tribolet hit it off--in fact, the latter even seems awed by the newcomer at times.  Blaine is just as bastardly as Fort Lowell's resident magnate, yet even more skillfully connected at the nation's capital and smoothly efficient at eliminating obstacles without ever getting his hands dirty.  Martin Blaine coolly imposes his will on forces both physically (Wilson) and politically (Knight) powerful without ever breaking a sweat.  Blaine's lone error is choosing the bigoted Wilson for the most unpleasant task--the henchman is simply too ignorant of Apache ways to convincingly pin Kelso's demise on the tribe.




Hondo and the Sudden Town was the first of back to back segments directed by Harry Harris, who handles the show's fisticuffs better than anyone outside of Lee Katzin.  Reliable heavy Tom Reese (FLAMING STAR) gets two bouts with our titular hero.  For once, Reese isn't the most physically imposing actor on the set with 6'5" Rod Cameron around.  The grandiose actor was widely known for his canny business sense in real life, choosing first-run syndication for all three of his 1950's vehicles (for the fatter residuals).  Cameron proves to be an inspired choice for Blaine, one of his few villainous roles on the small screen.


Cameron (STATE TROOPER) rates special guest star status in the opening credits, but Gene Raymond gets the showier part as he recounts his greatest D.C. glories at the saloon and later baffles 'em with BS when explaining the scheme's profitability.  Likely better known as the husband of Jeanette MacDonald than for his own lengthy career, Raymond is unexceptional but credible.

Beery and Benedict (R)
Hondo and the Sudden Town was the last of four appearances for longtime Bowery Boy Billy Benedict as saloon fixture Willie.  It is somewhat surprising for a character actor with 317 IMDd listings and a career spanning 53 years, but these four episodes are Benedict's highest number for any TV series.   The Oklahoma native went uncredited frequently, but that only happened to him once on HONDO (Hondo and the Comancheros).  Incidentally, the real Surprise, Arizona has become something of a sudden city in the 21st century: the population has more than quadrupled (from 30,848 to 132,677) since the year 2000.



HOW MANY CANS OF WHOOPASS?

Damn close to a six-pack.  As noted above, henchman Chad Wilson runs afoul of Hondo twice, failing to get revenge in the rematch.  The ill-fated Kelso and Blaine also end up on the wrong end of Hondo's fists.  Lane's ring record is marred a little by Apache braves angered at the white man's continued intrusion, but to be fair, it took a sneak attack by four of them.


IS THE CANTINA STILL STANDING?

Hondo's brief dispatchment of Kelso caused no property damage, and every other fracas took place outdoors.


A DOG'S LIFE:

Sam's the one who locates the key evidence convincing Hondo of Apache innocence in Kelso's killing, and also gets to display his horse-fetching skills.  Sam also gets some amusing visuals during the montage of rebuilding Silver Knight, and Harris never has him far from the action.


MISSING MINUTES:

This might be the episode harmed most by edits in syndication, as every TV print I've seen is missing the crucial scene at Destarte's grave between Senator Knight and Hondo.  We learn a lot about Knight's early life before public service in a short time (including somewhat surprising commonalities with Lane) and the monologue is crucial to the final resolution, which seems a little rushed without it.




NAGGING QUESTION:

Which state did Senator Knight represent for forty years?  If he was the Silver Knight of the West, even California wouldn't have been a state long enough in 1869 (the year in which Hondo is set).  Louisiana (admitted 1812) is the most westward state that would fit that timeline.


Writer Palmer Thompson contributed scripts to over three dozen TV series before his untimely death at age 51.  While Thompson's tale of Surprise has few of them, he does have a great grasp on these characters and the rather heart-rending arc of the unfortunate Knight is compelling.  Speaking of sad fates--ABC's quick hook for HONDO become official just days before this superb installment arrived.  A real shame, for Hondo and the Sudden Town displays a show in full stride after only eleven installments.  (***1/2 out of four)




HONDO airs at 10:15 A.M. Central every Sunday morning on GetTV, and on Saturday, June 30th GetTV airs a HONDO marathon from 11 AM until 7 PM Central which includes this episode.  




HONDO: THE COMPLETE SERIES is also on DVD from Warner Archive.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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






"Your lives are meaningless compared to HONDO!"  













HONDO: "Hondo and the Judas" (1967 ABC-TV/Batjac/MGM) Episode 9: Original Air Date November 3, 1967.  Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery Jr. as Buffalo Baker, Gary Clarke as Captain Richards.  Guest Stars: Forrest Tucker as Colonel William Quantrill, Ricky Nelson as Jesse James, John Agar as Frank James, John Carradine as Dr. Leonard Zeber, Roger Perry as Johnny Reno, Richard Bakalyan as Cole Younger, Roy Jenson as Bob Ford, Fritz Ford as Charlie Ford, Kip Whitman as Jim Younger, Ken Mayer as Marshal Bragg, Charles Maxwell as Leek Harker, Pete Dunn as Bottles.  Teleplay by Frank Chase; Story by Andrew J. Fenady.  Directed by Lee H. Katzin.


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



Mail call at Fort Lowell.  Hondo Lane receives a terse letter that simply reads: "New Canaan.  Life or Death.  Now."  Signed with the letter Q.  The scout mysteriously and abruptly rides out alone, leaving Sam with Buffalo Baker as he begins a multi-day journey east.  Along the way, Lane is recognized from afar by the Harker brothers.  Unaware that Emberato has been pardoned, the aspiring bounty hunters trail the scout when he departs.


"A man can live with one wing, but not with gangrene."

Once Hondo arrives in New Canaan, he finds an almost deserted ghost town.  Inside the saloon: Lane's former Confederate commander, Colonel William Clark Quantrill.  Thought to have died four years earlier, Quantrill is alive but not particularly well--he's missing his left arm and prone to ill-tempered outbursts.  Lane also discovers that the Colonel sent the same cryptic note to all of his former Raiders: the James brothers, the Youngers, Bob and Charlie Ford, and late arrival Johnny Reno. 


Once all are present for the surprise--to Hondo, at least--reunion, Lane learns the all-important situation he's been summoned for is Quantrill's planned robbery of an Army payroll wagon.  But that isn't the ex-commander's only project: he also has vengeance on his mind against the "Judas" among them who cost him an arm and left him for dead in a ditch.  Wanting no part of either idea, Lane leaves a note and begins the long trek back--with three would-be assassins hot on his trial and the Colonel not far behind.


We discover in Hondo and the Judas that the protagonist's search for his wife's killer took him all the way to the Kansas-Missouri conflict.  There, the man General Sheridan hailed as "the best scout and infiltrator on either side" gained that reputation in the South's most notorious guerilla unit.  That is, two years before he was "late of 7th of Texas".  While not necessarily contradicting what we were told before, this revelation still seems improbable for a number of reasons.


Fenady provided the story but assigned this teleplay to Frank Chase (Hondo and the Savage), whose heavy-handed approach marred that interesting FORT APACHE variation.  In his sophomore installment, BONANZA veteran Chase is uncharacteristically sloppy, blundering badly before the opening credits.  Lane leaves Sam at Fort Lowell, explaining that "this is something before you--before Destarte, even."  Uh, not according to Hondo's long-cited reason for joining the South in the first place, which was avenging her death!  Katzin certainly should have cut this, particularly since it is contradicted later in the same episode by Quantrill.


Going against the show's entrenched universe is a no-no for any episode, but it's of utmost importance to have Lane's impetuses clear here.  We're about to learn that Hondo fought under a notorious bushwhacker who led massacres targeting and killing numerous civilians--not unlike the one that killed Lane's wife, unborn child, and "sick old men".  Positing Hondo Lane as a loyal follower of a sociopathic opportunist doesn't do much for one's affinity.  That military reputation espoused by General Sheridan also takes a hit with the disclosure that Hondo was captured in Lawrence on the eve of Quantrill's most flagrant raid.


Consistent inconsistency with both the series' established backstory and this episode's reigns throughout Hondo and the Judas.  In one particularly blatant example, Robert Ford objects vociferously to riding with a madman (Quantrill); barely thirty seconds later he charges Hondo with being "the only one who wants to get out of this deal"(!) and is angry enough to fight about it.


Exercising artistic license on the highly chronicled figures in Hondo and the Judas is a given; the decisions on when and what are as questionable as all the rest.  As you'd expect from a Fenady production, research is evident: William Quantrill was once a schoolteacher, and in a key moment, Chase neatly makes the point that many of his guerrillas were boys (and teenagers were killed by his reckless actions).   But the Colonel's claim that to be "a Southerner" who fought for the South as a matter of "duty and love"?  Well...


"I used to be like you, I could forgive my enemies...…"

Quantrill was born in Ohio and spent subsequent pre-War years in Illinois, Utah, Kansas...Hell, practically everywhere but a Southern state.  A northerner who fought for the South, in reality.  Just like Hondo--a commonality, if presented, would create understandable circumstances for Lane ending up a Raider.  Not the only missed opportunity along these lines--the real Cole Younger was also motivated to become an underground fighter by the death of his father at Union hands, for example.



The presence of so many infamous rogues seems more liability than asset, since the misdeeds of the James-Younger gang and Quantrill's Raiders are much more widely known than those of (say) the Apache Kid.  That said, with Hondo and the Judas being such an outlier for the show in premise and quality, it's the presence of those figures and the cast (a cultist's dream) providing most of the entertainment value.


"Say it clearer than that, Ford!"

Bob Ford is Hondo's lone antagonist among his fellow Raiders, and also the only one showing overt allegiance to the Gray.  Since Hondo is now working for the hated Blue Bellies, the younger Ford accuses the scout of being the Judas--frequently.  Johnny Reno is Hondo's closest friend of the Raiders, with Cole Younger also consistently supportive.  Frank James noticeably ensures Hondo gets a fair fight once things come to a head with Ford.


"People think he died a hero in the War, let it stay that way."

Quantrill isn't glorified here.  The Colonel we meet tricks Hondo Lane into meeting him under false pretenses.  He saves Hondo's life (for a second time), but mainly because he needs to use Lane's current honest job status for a covert robbery.  A self-serving opportunist to the end, Quantrill uses these loyal ex-soldiers, uncaring about anyone's life save Zeber's--and his own.  Manipulative?  When Lane makes it known that he'd like to pass on "the plan", Colonel Quantrill shames him, asserting that he led the Lawrence raid solely to save Hondo's neck!  Hondo's response is a priceless (and wordless) combination of disgust and disbelief:


What would have happened if Quantrill had lived?  Hondo and the Judas posits that he would have applied his "hit and run" tactics to robberies--just the James-Younger gang on a larger scale.  Nothing noble there.  Nevertheless, the script (through Doc Zeber mainly) implies more than once that Quantrill was a once a noble man but was corrupted by the horrors of war and betrayal.  Eh--highly debatable, and frankly leaves a bad taste.


After nearly a decade of affability between THE MUSIC MAN and F TROOP, Tucker reminds you of just how frightening a villain he could be.  Roger Perry is equally impressive as the tortured loner Reno, but Ricky Nelson is merely adequate at best in his stunt-casting as Jesse James.  The most intriguing character is the fictional Zeber, essayed by old pro Carradine.  A broken-down yet hard to read physician, he appears at various times to be the Judas or the real brains behind the mad mastermind.  In the end, the Doctor seems inspired by Hondo's forgiveness towards his former adversaries.


In reality, Bob Ford was exactly eighteen months old when the Lawrence massacre took place, his brother Charles was all of six years of age, and John Reno was never anywhere near the South or Quantrill.  Suffice to say it took far more than the typical number of liberties to get all these malefactors together and the advisability of doing so turned out to be rather dubious.  When all is said and done, Hondo and the Judas is a misfire.


MISSING FROM SYNDICATION:

Television prints and the version streaming on the late Warner Archive Instant missed two key conversations between Ford, Zeber and Hondo.  The missing minutes are restored to the complete series DVD version from Warner Archive.


HOW MANY CANS OF WHOOPASS?

The coward Robert Ford (whose future assassination of Jesse is subtly referenced in the tag) is Hondo's main antagonist here, angry at Lane for his current job and eventually getting his ass kicked after throwing a punch at a disabled Hondo.  It's the titular one's only fracas of the episode, but it's a really good one as Ford fights dirty, then finds the ante upped considerably by his temporarily one-winged adversary.  One of the finest fistfights of the entire series and easily the best minute of this episode.


A DOG'S LIFE:

Chase apparently wasn't much on writing for canines.  Sam was absent from both of his teleplays after the teaser.


IS THE CANTINA STILL STANDING?

Fort Lowell's cantina barely gets a scratch from Buffalo's losing effort in an arm wrestling match, but the deserted watering hole in New Canaan gets quite a workout after Ford edges too close in his commentary.


In Bruce Eder's excellent bio of The Horn Section's patron saint for All Movie Guide, he singles out Tuck's "very effective" performance here in "one of the better episodes" of the series.  Well, I agree with half of Eder's assessment.  One of very few missteps for what was usually a solid-to-excellent series, Hondo and the Judas is a questionable idea poorly executed.  (*1/2 out of four)



HONDO airs every Sunday morning at 10:15 A.M. Central Time on getTV.

HONDO: THE COMPLETE SERIES is also available on DVD from Warner Archive.