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Thursday, December 14, 2017

F TROOP Fridays: "Johnny Eagle Eye" (1966)

F TROOP Fridays: Episode 16

F TROOP: "Johnny Eagle Eye" (1966 ABC-TV/Warner Brothers) Season One, Episode 30.  Original Air Date: April 12, 1966.  Starring Forrest Tucker as Sgt. O'Rourke, Larry Storch as Corporal Agarn, Ken Berry as Captain Parmenter, Melody Patterson as Wrangler Jane, Frank deKova as Chief Wild Eagle, James Hampton as Bugler Dobbs, Joe Brooks as Vanderbilt, Bob Steele as Duffy. Guest Stars: Paul Petersen as Johnny Eagle Eye, Cathy Lewis as Whispering Breeze, James Griffith as Sergeant Crawford.  Directed by Seymour Robbie.  Written by Stan Dreben and Howard Merrill.

Muster is delayed, first by a frantic search for Vanderbilt's ever-ineffective glasses, then by the announcement of an Army marksmanship contest coming up at Fort Bravo.  The men are nonplussed by the announcement, but Captain Parmenter sees an opportunity for F Troop to "carve a niche in military history"(!). 

The letter is signed by Inspector General Burton, so poor Major Winster apparently didn't last very long after his failed Hekawi invasion in The New I.G.   Parmenter dismisses Janie's eager offer to represent (civilians are ineligible) and announces "open competition" will follow to determine F Troop's finest marksman.  All that's left is Bugler Dobbs' attempt at Chow Call, during which Vandy's glasses are located--inside the bugle.  The lenses are a little cracked, but still intact to help Vandy correct that 20/900 vision.

Forgoing the mess hall, O'Rourke and Agarn are off in the wagon for what we learn is a long overdue check-in with business partner Chief Wild Eagle.  W.E. is unhappy, and not because his cohort is again peddling goods made in Jersey City.  We learn the saloon is very well stocked these days, since F Troop's enlisted men apparently haven't visited the Hekawi camp in at least 12 days (see below).  That's how long the Chief has been hosting relatives: his sister Whispering Breeze, a.k.a. Mrs. Sitting Bull, and her son, the Chief's nephew Johnny Eagle Eye.

Guest stars Lewis and Petersen were wrapping up long-running gigs on HAZEL and THE DONNA REED SHOW (275 episodes as Jeff Stone for the latter) respectively.  Cathy Lewis was most famed for her lengthy radio resume (she was Jane Stacy on MY FRIEND IRMA); sadly, Johnny Eagle Eye would be one of her final roles.  She died of cancer two years later at 51.

Whispering Breeze and Johnny Eagle Eye arrived at the Hekawi camp for the weekend-- "twelve days ago".  The Lakota holy man believes in separate vacations, and is presently in Arizona.  Mr. and Mrs. Bull are as progressive in parenting as they are in their union.  "Say no to boy, him feel unloved."  Raising him to be a gentleman includes indulging his passionate interest in shooting, so the hills are alive with the sounds of gunfire.  Wild Eagle seems to understand why Sitting Bull is taking a breather from the Mrs. and his crack shot son.

"Him not crack shot, him crack pot!" according to Wild Eagle, but the Mrs. won't hear of it.  She encourages her son's marksmanship, to the point of insisting that Johnny Eagle Eye be allowed to test his prowess in increasingly daring demonstrations.  He shoots a "17 jewel gold watch" out of O'Rourke's hand  ("THAT goes on your bill!" the Sarge informs the Chief) and more impressively, shoots a caterpillar off the branch of a faraway tree and a match out of the Chief's hand while he tries to light his pipe.  It's all making Wild Eagle a nervous wreck, but the ever-resourceful O'Rourke may have a way to calm his business partner's nerves.

Well, we all know where this is heading.  Sergeant Crawford at Fort Bravo is the overwhelming favorite in that upcoming contest, but O'Rourke senses a changing of the guard.  "Can you imagine how much we can win bettin' than a man from F Troop can beat Sergeant Crawford?"

True, Johnny's not in the army, but the Sarge has a solution: put him in a suit of a buckskins, and he miraculously becomes an Indian Scout for F Troop.  Yes, the pilot episode taught us that Fort Courage already has 13 such scouts, but Johnny's prowess makes a 14th desirable.   And not just to the non-coms: Wild Eagle thinks taking Johnny away until Saturday is a great idea.  But Mrs. Bull is a tougher sell.  "He'll be a celebrity!  He'll come back with a medal from our leader!" O'Rourke declares.

"A medal from your President.  That I'll frame."  Momma warily lets the soldiers have their way.  It's on to the Fort, where O'Rourke and Agarn can take on the easier task of selling the Captain. 

As luck would have it, the Commanding Officer at Fort Courage already has the men mustered for qualifying rounds.  Apparently seniority is a factor, since Trooper Duffy gets first shot.

Duffy blows the dust of that rifle that appears to have been with him since his Alamo days.  "I haven't used it that much lately", he admits, and after he does, it's clear it's going to stay that way.

Before the next contestant can take a crack at the targets, O'Rourke, Agarn and Johnny ride into the fort, with the Sarge regaling the Captain with tales of the young man's heroism after the troopers were ambushed by Apaches.

Corporal Agarn can't decide if Johnny drove off ten, six or three renegades, but no matter.  The young man agreed on the spot to be a scout for F Troop, and Sergeant O'Rourke graciously offers to take care of all the necessary paperwork for the Captain.  All neat and easy---but hearing the word "bet" triggers Parmenter.  Wilton reminds the men that Section 6, Article 5 of the Army Manual absolutely forbids members of the Armed Forces to gamble. 

(Guess that would have been news to Sergeant Bilko.  Maybe it was repealed sometime after 1866?)

(R) Fort Bravo's Sgt. Crawford, the army's best marksman

At the saloon, Sergeant O'Rourke assuades the fears of the commanding officer.  "All right, none of you men do any gambling!  I'm covering all the action!"  Visiting from Fort Bravo, reigning champion Sergeant Crawford can hardly believe his luck.  "You're bettin' that a man from F Troop is gonna outshoot me?"  Crawford's Fort Courage counterpart assures him that it is no joke, and raises the stakes to $1,000 as proof.   Crawford can hardly contain his glee, and his literal parting shot ("the chip AND the moose--with one bullet!") does succeed in intimidating Agarn, who wants his .002 percent of the stake (a.k.a. $2.00) back.

The Sarge, however, remains undeterred.  "I'd bet my last dollar on it--in fact, I have!"  His musing is interrupted by an insistent Whispering Breeze, who has brought oatmeal cookies, extra blankets, and a warning: if her son is not back on Saturday night as promised, her husband will arrive with a standing Army of 10,000 Sioux braves for revenge.   "Crumble Fort Courage like this."

Pretty emphatic cautionary gesture there.  When's the last time you saw a mother waste one of her homemade cookies?  That warning becomes considerably more ominous after Mrs. Bull leaves, when Captain Parmenter arrives with splendid news: the winner of the contest will be transferred to The White House in Washington, D.C. for a permanent post as Bodyguard for the POTUS!

"Relax, will ya?  This is not a time for panic, it's a time for calm judgement!"  As usual, Agarn provides the former, so it's up to Sergeant O'Rourke to come through with the latter.  The Corporal is cogent enough to point out that a treason charge might actually be the bright side of things, since Johnny's trip to D.C. will also bring Alamo-like odds to the Troop once Sitting Bull arrives.  (At least Duffy has a history of surviving those, right?)

On the other hand, the price of losing the contest is the entire working capital of O'Rourke Enterprises.  Given the penalty for treason, it's truly a "your money or your life" moment for the Sarge, but he doesn't have to give it nearly as much thought as Jack Benny.  "We've got to lose the thousand dollars.  We have got to get Johnny Eagle Eye to go home."

But the Son of Sitting Bull is keen on proving he's the best in the West, and refuses to withdraw.  "Who going to make me?"

"2,000 miles away?"  Mrs. Bull is ready to call for her husband. (Actually, Washington D.C. is about 1,450 miles away from Sitting Bull's territory, and 1,100 miles away from Fort Courage, proving that parents have been exaggerating for literally centuries.)  Ever the cool head, the Sarge opines that they just need someone to beat the young scout. 

It won't be easy--Johnny Eagle Eye only has ONE defeat in his short history, and that was two long years ago.  At the age of 12, to his father, which made the lad go "goony goony".  The sore loser held his breath, turned purple, threw a tomahawk, and ran away from home.  In other words, his mother has spoiled him rotten, just like Wild Eagle's son Bald Eagle.
The description of the temper tantrum sends O'Rourke and Agarn looking for another crack shot.  In this territory, there's only one.....

Janie is the best sharpshooter in the territory, but she isn't on board with the sleight of hand required to get her into this contest.  That is, until O'Rourke pulls out the one card that always plays with Wrangler Jane.  Yup,the Captain.  "The trusting type.  He let Johnny in as a scout, and...."  Well, his father's identity must be kept a secret, Jane.  The number of places that Wilton would be busted down and transferred to has varied throughout the season.  This time, it's Hoboken.  Far enough away to convince Janie to play along.

But Janie is right; they need someone in F Troop.  Who's the man to teach Johnny Eagle Eye a lesson in humility?


Yes, Vandy---you!   It takes a little convincing--tales of nearsighted marksmen in days of yore and a little bit of help during a card trick--but F Troop's sentry is eventually fired up and ready to challenge the young upstart. 

"What card???  Whose hand???"
That is, if he can find his way out the door.

Having the sentry in the contest conveniently frees the lookout tower for Janie.

(Here's hoping no one fires the cannon anytime soon.)

With Vandy and Janie on board, and Agarn securely out of view but able to tamper with the targets, all the elements are in place.

That Vandy!  What a jokester!

No wonder Johnny is incredulous when he sees his challenger.

But that long winning streak is coming to an end (with an asterisk, what with the cheating and all).  After starting off one inch off the bulls-eye, Johnny completely unravels against the "seasoned" Vanderbilt, missing all three bottles. 

By the time all is said and done, Vandy is offering handicaps, and Johnny is storming out the gate.  Hey, he ran away from home last defeat, and he's running back after this one!  It's another successful mission for the non-coms, but there's one Hell of a hangover...

Imagine: Vanderbilt shooting against Crawford.

"A thousand dollars down the drain!" 

Or is it?

"Awarded to F Troop, winner of Marksmanship Award!"   No joke, that's really what it says:

No, Vanderbilt didn't really BEAT Crawford.  The reigning champion was disqualified!  "They looked into his papers and found out his real name is Crow Foot!  He was never officially inducted into the Army--he was going to enter the contest under false pretenses."

For shame!  Leave it to the Sarge to sum it all up, and leave the Captain thoroughly impressed with the philosophical thinking: 

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

And with that out of the way, back to the normal, everyday deceptions at Fort Courage.  O'Rourke has plenty of profits to share with Wild Eagle in the coda, Johnny Eagle Eye has (finally) stopped crying, and the Chief starts once he learns that Johnny has taken up the drums and is staying for two more weeks for lessons.

Wow, a month away from his wife and son--and counting.  That Sitting Bull is one broad-minded husband and father!


Why didn't Vanderbilt get that transfer to D.C. that was promised to the winner?  (Imagine: Vanderbilt in charge of protecting Andrew Johnson....)  And since F Troop technically won, did O'Rourke double his money?  (Well, okay, $1,996 for O'Rourke, $4 for Agarn.)


Yeah, Johnny's prospective arrival in Washington would have done the trick, and so would that background check if the O'Rourke Enterprisers had been unfortunate enough to actually send the young Bull to shoot.

But seriously--O'Rourke's so-called treachery utterly pales in comparison to what's going on over at Fort Bravo.  Not only is Indian Crow Foot actually in the army, but he's been there for quite some time, probably several years--long enough to get promoted to Sergeant (that took O'Rourke ten years!)!  He's also won this annual contest before, at least once.  I wonder how many co-conspirators over at Fort Bravo were executed over the resulting scandal?


Mrs. Bull describes her parenting as progressive, and the rest of Johnny Eagle Eye follows suit. Two Native Americans are the best marksmen in the entire Army, far outclassing any white man.  Johnny Eagle Eye's only legitimate loss ever came to his father (of course, another Native) and the only sharpshooter in his class, civilian or otherwise, is female.  And, while it took a bit of chicanery, Private Vanderbilt scores one for the differently abled as the new best shot in the army (at least, officially).  Un-PC?  F TROOP gets a bum rap, I tell ya!


The incredible sprint to the first season's finish line continues, as Johnny Eagle Eye is F TROOP at its subversive best.  The Captain remains clueless and the "sinners" don't just go unpunished: in fact, they are rewarded handsomely. O'Rourke and Agarn either make a lot of money (the stage came in with a lot of tourists, we learn in the tag) or a LOT of money (if the "bet" stood)--downright earthshaking karma for the sitcom world of 1966.  Even if you aren't reading that much into this, Johnny Eagle Eye is one more loopy winner from Dreben and Merrill.  The laughs are plentiful and Robbie brings them home with fervor.  Longtime radio star Cathy Lewis gives a highly enjoyable performance--sadly, one of her last..  (**** out of four) 


hobbyfan said...

I have both seasons on DVD, Hal, and I looked a this episode a few months back. Personally, they might've been better off having Jane go undercover (dressed as a man, etc.) to win the competition, but it wouldn't have been as much fun, would it?

Hal said...

Thanks for reading, Hobbyfan! Yeah, that's another plausibility, but you're right, Vandy "winning" was much funnier. And of course, seeing Joe Brooks get more to do was a nice bonus.