Friday, December 27, 2013

F TROOP Fridays: "The 86 Proof Spring" (1965)

 



 F TROOP Fridays: Number Two





F TROOP: THE 86 PROOF SPRING (Episode 14; Original Air Date 12/14/65) Starring Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch, Ken Berry, Melody Patterson, Frank deKova, Don Diamond, J. Pat O'Malley, Bob Steele, James Hampton, Joe Brooks.  Guest Star: Parley Baer.  Written by Fred S. Fox and Iz Elinson.  Directed by Charles R. Rondeau.

Your typical sleepy day at Fort Courage is in progress, interrupted by a smoke signal from the Hekawis.  Cpl. Agarn (Larry Storch) alerts business partner Sgt. O'Rourke (Forrest Tucker), the only soldier who "reads smoke", who translates Wild Eagle's message: the still is out of order again.  With the copious amounts of water already diluting their saloon's whisky, this is a serious matter.  Even if (per episode 13, O'ROURKE VS. O'REILLY) O'Rourke owns "the only saloon for one hundred and nine hot n' thirsty miles".


Once we reach the Hekawi camp, it appears that Wild Eagle (Frank deKova) has plenty of whisky to spare.  Or had plenty to spare until last night, anyway, as the "shouting" exacerbates his big morning headache.  O'Rourke and Agarn again tell him to stop holding out liquor for the tribe, with Agarn dutifully reminding him that "Indians ain't supposed to drink".  Lest you think this stereotype will go unchallenged, Chief Wild Eagle immediately protests this "paleface propaganda", citing the $24 Manhattan Island deal (again!) as proof that his ancestors "drank long before white man".  It can be debated whose side of the discussion is supported by that historic transaction.  Suffice to say that if Wild Eagle had been around in 1624, Peter Minuit would have paid through the nose for such prime real estate.  Hell, that's just $4 more than Wild Eagle charges for a "first class" Fake Indian Attack.


Moving back to 19th Century economic considerations, O'Rourke decides they'll need to hide the still at the N.C.O. club at the fort.  This is unnerving to Agarn (what else is new), and not because he'll have to share a horse with O'Rourke on the way back to make room for transport of the dismantled parts.  Not long after the journey back is complete, Agarn will have good reason for discomfort: the arrival of Colonel Watkins (Parley Baer).

Whaddya mean, "fitness test"?
Watkins gets right to the point.  "We have positive proof that the Indians in this locale have been obtaining liquor."  Captain Parmenter (Ken Berry) doesn't have any questions about the intelligence, which is par for the course with him since the Sarge's claims are rarely scrutinized beyond a singular query either (if that).  Watkins intends to stay on the post until the source of the whisky is found and destroyed and implies that the Captain will pay the price if this source isn't located.  The Colonel then unknowingly walks right over to the source of the intoxicant, which rests on top of Agarn's horse and under a blanket.

The copper tubing sticking out from that blanket arouses suspicion until O'Rourke helpfully lets Watkins know that he's "spoiled the surprise".  He has parts for a "hot water heater for the men's baths".  The Colonel is pleased ("a clean soldier is a happy soldier!") and the Captain is touched, staying behind to confer with his NCO's while Dobbs (James Hampton) sees Watkins to his quarters.


With copper tubing literally in front of his face Parmenter then makes plans to do a house to house search in town.  I wondered why neither Watkins nor Parmenter demanded an immediate search of the Hekawi camp itself, since that would seem to be the logical starting point to me, rather than town.  It is notable that while liquor by the drink in the saloon is legal, private ownership of a still apparently isn't legal at Fort Courage based on what the Captain tells us.

It is clear that Watkins isn't your "wipe out the Indians" type visiting officer.  He's a condescending bigot instead, because, you know, Indians couldn't possibly obtain alcohol on their own.  Someone is providing it to them and they simply cannot be allowed fire water.  Yes, we heard what Agarn said to the Chief earlier, but the Corporal wasn't insinuating that the Hekawis are children.  His concern is strictly economic: any whiskey the Hekawis drink is whiskey that cannot be sold in the saloon--in other words, drink all you want as long as it isn't the merchandise!  Hmm.  Doesn't that make O'Rourke a little like a modern-day drug dealer who won't employ a user (or use himself) since it would cut into profits?  (I think just got way too dark and deep for F TROOP here.  Let's move on.)

Too deep for this show, Hal!  Light hearted! Light hearted!!
Anyway, O'Rourke and Agarn dutifully finish the search and declare the town to be "as clean as a hound's tooth".  Parmenter is prompted by Wrangler Jane (Melody Patterson) to search the post, and before long there's only one building left: the Non Commissioned Officers club.  He is quick to point out that he's not accusing O'Rourke and Agarn of anything, and O'Rourke is equally quick to point out that the NCO club is "strictly off-limits" to commissioned officers.  "But, to put your mind at ease, Agarn and I will give this place a thorough search."

You see any still, Agarn?
After looking right at it and not seeing it, O'Rourke declares, "that's thorough enough".  He reports his findings back to Captain Parmenter, who is satisfied with the findings.


That is, until after a dissolve, when he checks his ever-present Army Manual.  Specifically, on page 82, Article 364-A, it clearly states that the commanding offier of a post IS permitted in the NCO "in cases of emergency".  The Colonel's intimidating threat applies in the eyes of the Captain, who also rebuffs O'Rourke's point ("We've searched our club!") with the Manual.  Page 12, 36-b helpfully confirms that "officers are more efficient than non-coms".


Ah, but O'Rourke didn't become Fort Courage's reigning business mogul without learning how to think on his feet.  Using the same weapon that's just been used against him, O'Rourke cites a "revision" to Article 364-A on page 102 for the Captain to waste time researching.  While the bait and switch buys time, O'Rourke sends Agarn out of the room, and into one of Larry Storch's finest displays of both timing and physical comedy.  The Corporal dutifully leaves, indicating to the Sarge that he gets it.  Which, of course, he doesn't at first.


Once outside, it takes about 6 more seconds, and then....Agarn gets it.


I don't know why people say he's dumb (or why it took until Season Two for anyone to say so).  As he races over to get the still dismantled and out of the club, the Captain locates page 102, Article 3c: Sunrise: How to Determine if for Shooting People At.  O'Rourke then realizes that the revision is actually on page 221 in the "latest edition".


It's a good thing, too.  The still may be back out of view but Agarn needs a little extra time after locating some merchandise that he and O'Rourke missed clearing out earlier:


And unfortunately there isn't enough room for the still AND two kegs of whiskey under that blanket on the horse.  With Colonel Watkins still touring the Fort, Agarn has to think fast, not his strong point.  The kegs are thrown in the deepest, darkest hiding place the VP of O'Rourke Enterprises can find:


Then again, the well isn't that deep.  Just to the bottom.  This portion of the ongoing shell game took long enough that even Parmenter seems slightly suspicious, ominously (by F TROOP standards, anyway) saying "We'll see" when O'Rourke correctly tells him he won't find a still when he searchs the NCO Club.  But he doesn't, only noticing that the ongoing search has kept O'Rourke and Agarn so busy that they haven't even unloaded the parts for the water heater yet.  Duty before luxury.


The unintended consequence of Agarn's improvisation isn't limited to the further depletion of the saloon's supply of whiskey.  While the rest of the troopers (officers included!) crowd around the well and rave about the improved taste of the water, O'Rourke and Agarn go unnoticed while quietly moving the still back to the NCO club.  When he learns why the well is the center of attention, O'Rourke's expression says it all:


I'd say that reaction is about 0% dismay over the drunkenness to come and 100% dismay over the loss of two full kegs of whiskey myself.  It's debatable whether the "whiskey to water ratio" is above or below Fort Courage saloon level with two full kegs down the deep well, but the result is the same: Hawkins, Parmenter and the privates are enjoying a large, free sample of O'Rourke's product.


Enjoying it until the next morning, that is.  When the rooster crows, the other shoe falls, as Wild Eagle's Big Headache has now spread to the gallant defenders of Fort Courage.  Only O'Rourke and Agarn are sober(!) and Colonel Hawkins is now threatening to have Parmenter shot at sunrise, a threat that the Captain actually welcomes during what is probably the very first hangover of his life.


On the bright side, if his execution is scheduled, at least the Captain will know to turn to page 102 in the Manual in order to determine if it is "sunrise" yet.

Parmenter deemed the finding of this still an "emergency" even before his life joined his rank in jeopardy, and the newfound urgency sends him undercover as "an old trader looking for a drink of fire water".   O'Rourke certainly doesn't want to lose the Great White Pidgeon, but the Captain is outranked in importance by the Enterprises that bears his own name (Season One = profits before people, every time, folks).  So he tricks the Captain into the longest possible route to the Hekawi camp while sending Agarn down the shortcut to alert the Chief.  The deception isn't discovered until....


Wrangler Jane recognizes Wilton and confirms that he's taking the long way.  Often the unintentional wet blanket for O'Rourke's business interests, she further notifies Wilton that his Sergeant knows better than to think he's sent him on the shortcut.  Well, deception is a limited resource, after all, as now even Parmenter wonders aloud if O'Rourke and Agarn are "trying to keep something from me".

Trying??  They're succeeding quite well, Captain!
Chief Wild Eagle puts in his usual ruse to Old Trader Wilton, even admonishing him that "Indians not supposed to drink".  When Captain Parmenter asks to pow wow with the Medicine Man, we notice a changing of the guard at the position, as Roaring Chicken (Edward Everett Horton) is out and veteran English actor J. Pat O'Malley is in.


Horton had appeared in six of the first 13 episodes as Roaring Chicken.  It's obvious that in this episode and the following week's HERE COMES THE TRIBE that the dialogue by O'Malley's unnamed Medicine Man was written for Horton (I laugh just picturing Horton having fun with "yum-yum" and "Him just flashy quack!").  While O'Malley was a solid old pro, he would only last these two episodes.  Not his fault, but these lines would have been gold with Horton's quivering delivery. (Note: I'm unsure of the reason why Horton didn't do these episodes; perhaps he was ill?  He was 79 at the time but continued working steadily until his death in 1970.)


The Medicine Man's patient is none other than Crazy Cat (Don Diamond).  His position of prominence within the Hekawi tribe is still a few episodes away.  In fact, he's accused of multiple thefts but vigorously protesting his innocence. That is, until the "medicine" takes its yum yum hold on C.C. and rather easily obtains a full confession.  With a very interested Parmenter observing, the normally canny Wild Eagle gets sloppy.  First he explains the powder's truth-extracting quality, then he leaves the Captain alone with the powdered truth medicine while escorting Crazy Cat to his punishment, undercover Wilton hurriedly pockets it for his own use.


That use is back at the fort, of course, and apparently takes place the following day (given the revelation that follows the scene).  Well, the Captain did have to take the "long way" home and get back into uniform.  Sgt. O'Rourke is shrewd enough to turn down the "refreshing tonic" the Captain offers him, but the Enterprises' weaker link is happy to try a yum yum glass, with the same tongue-loosening results the Medicine Man got.  "We've got the purtiest little still you ever did see right in our NCO Club!"  Check out this look after Agarn's confession: Captain Parmenter looks devious enough to, well, run the Enterprise.


Despite Sgt. O'Rourke's vigorous protests over Agarn's mental state (and Tuck's side-splitting delivery of the line "What have you put in---in that tonic, Sir??"), there's no getting around it, the Captain insists on a second search of the club.  What he finds is a shock to him, O'Rourke and us:

Now how the Hell did that happen?  The cupboard is once again bare, and the Captain apologizes once he sees the empty NCO Club.  Our explanation comes after a smash cut back to the Hekawi camp.


Three braves snuck into the Fort last night and took the still.  The Medicine Man saw Parmenter steal the truth herbs, and the Chief figured the Captain would be using them "to make you talk".   Quite a revelation if you ask me.  Now I can buy the assumption that three Hekawis can sneak into Fort Courage at night unnoticed, since Private Vanderbilt is on sentry dutyBut how did the braves get inside the locked NCO Club?  Take a close look, right before the Captain's entry in the prior scene:


The locks are all intact, and Parmenter needs the Sergeant's key to get inside.  No sign of breaking and entering.  So does Wild Eagle have a key to the place too?  Or is O'Rourke such a sound sleeper that the Braves can sneak into the non-com quarters and not only take his key, but replace it when they're done?  Mr. Fox, Mr. Elinson: this development is a wee bit shaky, guys!


Anyway, back to the matter of fixing the now almost ambulatory still.  While O'Rourke ponders the options, the Medicine Man decides to ask Mother Nature, specifically "the Spirit of Running Water", to bring them the fire water.  This gives the Sergeant his idea.  "A cuckoo idea" he concedes, but one that just might work.  In the next scene, O'Rourke is leading the officers and Dobbs to a spring.


But not just any spring: the episode's titular one!  "That's an 86 proof spring right before your very eyes!"  And, according to O'Rourke, the source of the Indians' whiskey.  All the while, Agarn, Wild Eagle and the Medicine Man stay out of view and keep the "spring" running from the hilltop.

Well, they had at least 3 kegs left for this.
"It looks like a chaser, Sir, but it's the real thing!"  Mother Nature may do some strange things, but Colonel Watkins isn't about to let her stand in the way of his assignment.  He orders the destruction of this natural wonder.  O'Rourke tries to obtain permission to take care of it later, but Watkins insists on seeing it happen, pronto.  As the dynamite is lit, the Sarge is helpless to warn his co-workers, who are continuing to supply the stream and sampling it too.  Checking the quality, obviously.  What dedication!


The explosion a success, a worried O'Rourke goes to check the aftermath as the officers congratulate themselves on a job "well done".  Everyone is alive, if not necessarily well, as Agarn marvels at the "kick" their liquor has. 

Maybe palefaces shouldn't drink either...
In the tag, O'Rourke Enterprises is up and running again, with a new smoke signal from the Chief providing a bookend with the opening scene.   "Still fixed good.  Much whiskey.  Love white brother."  O'Rourke smiles and deduces they are having a "big party" up there: "Every word misspelled."  So THE 86 PROOF SPRING ends as it began, with one exception:  Relieved to be back in business, O'Rourke and Agarn no longer seem to mind that the Chief is holding out liquor for the tribe.

5 THINGS WE LEARNED:

Vanderbilt enjoys pitching horseshoes, relaxing for him but a dangerous avocation for the rest of us.

The Hekawis may be peaceful, but they're tough on financial crime.  We don't get a look at that Iron Tepee though.

The new Medicine Man may only be a "temp" but he has some damned effective truth herbs. He apparently took the recipe with him when he departed; we never see them used again after this episode.

Before maturing into Wild Eagle's second in command and heir to the Hekawi Chief-dom, Crazy Cat did time for theft.  A story of redemption that should warm hearts everywhere!

In more than a little incongruity with the show's timeline (as demonstrated by the two points above), the black and white 86 PROOF SPRING apparently takes place after the color RETURN OF WRONGO STARR since dynamite is readily available in the former but was a brand new invention in the latter.  (For the record, Alfred Nobel applied for a patent on his invention in 1867.)


NUMBER OF TIMES O'ROURKE COULD BE CHARGED WITH TREASON:

Since it would be a bit of a stretch to say his constant movement of the still is endangering the life of his commander, I'll say once, and that's only IF the three Hekawi braves had been caught letting themselves into the NCO club.  Consorting with the enemy?   Well, yeah, but I try not to count that, since that happens constantly every week.

NUMBER OF TIMES THE STILL MOVED IN 25 SCREEN MINUTES:

Five.  From the Hekawi camp to the Fort, then inside the NCO Club, outside the NCO Club, back inside it, and back to the Hekawi camp in the dead of night where it apparently stayed until it was fixed.

NUMBER OF WHISKEY KEGS LOST BY O'ROURKE ENTERPRISES:

We can assume five of these also.  Two ended up in the water well at Fort Courage, and all three pictured above were likely lost to the dynamite explosion. 


INTERESTING IN HINDSIGHT:

You can see where the writers were headed with the Hekawi hierarchy by having Crazy Cat's scene with the "truth herbs" parallel Corporal Agarn's.  Just a two episodes later, the Hekawis would go from an unnamed Medicine Man to an unseen one altogether, and Crazy Cat would take Roaring Chicken's place as Wild Eagle's Agarn. 

PC, OR NOT PC?

The tired old "Indians aren't supposed to drink" stereotype is trotted out, but only to be destroyed as thoroughly as that "spring" is.


BOTTOM LINE:

I previously gave this the highest rating in my Season One DVD review.  Fred S. Fox and Iz Elinson created a hilariously inspired hide and seek game with their first F TROOP, but they did write themselves into a bit of a corner with the shaky end to the "truth herbs" saga.  This flaw is more than redeemed:  Larry Storch in particular gets a fabulous showcase without a single line while preparing the NCO Club for "inspection", and the gloriously surreal denouement actually fits with the "fantastic occurrence" (the Colonel's words) that befell the Fort's water supply earlier--same spring, obviously!   Fox and Elinson sadly penned only four more teleplays as a team before the latter passed away in 1967.  It would have been even funnier with Roaring Chicken, but after a review much more thorough than O'Rourke and Agarn's search for the still, I'll stick with my original assessment that THE 86 PROOF SPRING delivers a yum yum result.    **** out of four.

F TROOP currently airs on Me-TV Monday-Thursday nightly at 9:30 ET/8:30 CT

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