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Sunday, February 18, 2018

MAVERICK Mondays: "The Jail at Junction Flats" (1958)

MAVERICK Mondays: Number 22

This special edition of MAVERICK Mondays is The Horn Section's contribution to The Classic TV Villain Blogathon, hosted by The Classic TV Blog Association (The Horn Section is a proud member).  The blogathon started yesterday and continues today, with over a dozen of your favorite television antagonists celebrated.

Dandy Jim Buckley's time on
MAVERICK was truncated when 77 SUNSET STRIP became a hit and made star Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. unavailable midway through the 1958-59 season.  But in only five episodes, Buckley set the template for every charming rogue that bedeviled Bret and Bart after him.  None could match the original, who made his biggest splash in his penultimate MAVERICK appearance.

MAVERICK: "The Jail at Junction Flats" (ABC-TV/Warner Brothers 1958)  Starring James Garner as Bret Maverick, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Dandy Jim Buckley, Patrick McVey as Sheriff Pine, Jean Allison as Madame Higgins, Dan Blocker as Hognose Hughes, Bert Remsen as Deputy George, Claudia Bryar as Mrs. Pyne.  Written by Marion Hargrove and Elmer Kelton.  Directed by Walter Doniger.

Bret arrives in Broken Wheel, Wyoming determined to mind his own business: poker.  Unfortunately, he sees Dandy Jim Buckley when he pokes his head into the saloon, and is unable to duck before Buckley sees him.  It's a small world indeed (Bret's word is "crowded") but one with a new, honest Jim.  According to Jim, anyway.  Yes, the Dandy One insists that he has gone straight, and just needs a $2,000 loan to begin his legitimate horse purchasing business, promising Bret a 100 percent return on investment.  Against his better judgement, Bret agrees to back Buckley's venture.

Aided by a sudden--and phony--gold rush, Dandy Jim wildly exceeds his projection for equine sales with $10,000, but Bret wisely figures those customers will soon be seeking a refund.  With the intention of giving the townspeople their money back, Maverick splits the proceeds with Buckley---and awakens the next morning to find himself tied up with his money missing. 

Bret trails Buckley to the titular town and finds the Dandy One in its titular jail, having stashed the $10,000 and needing to be freed from the brick fortress in order to retrieve his money--and Bret's.  Just two problems: Sheriff Pine (still smarting from the legendary escape of "Hognose" Hughes years earlier) has turned Junction Flats' jail into an impenetrable brick fortress, and Dandy Jim is incarcerated for shooting Pine's nephew.

Bret, Bart and Beau Maverick faced a lot of corrupt lawmen, card cheats, and scoundrels during MAVERICK's five year run.  One antagonist stood out vividly, at least for Brother Bret: Dandy Jim Buckley.

Series creator Roy Huggins envisioned the conscienceless Buckley as a true rogue to contrast with our antihero Mavericks.  Jauntily played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as a dapper, unabashed cheat with a Harvard accent, he was most accurately described by writer Marion Hargrove's introduction to him on the script's cast page:

DANDY JIM BUCKLEY                         Friend to Dandy Jim Buckley.

Still, Dandy Jim Buckley might seem like a strange choice for this particular blogathon.  Is Buckley really a villain?  He was actually a genuine friend to the younger Maverick brother, providing valuable assistance when Bart was charged with murder in High Card Hangs.  And while Bret considered Jim a nemesis, the Dandy One helped Bart with the sting operation that retrieved Bret's stolen $15,000 in Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.  No question, these are points in Buckley's favor, but any doubter of Dandy's antagonistic credentials can have that dubiety assuaged in The Jail at Junction Flats. 

In fact, this episode is a landmark in television villainy.

"Bret, old boy!  Have you got any money?"

When Buckley debuted in Stampede he was everything Roy Huggins envisioned: Bret was forced to watch his back the entire time as the two recovered stolen money.  Maverick's situational ethics won out at that early stage for the show.  The Dandy One was not only forced to turn in the $40,000 for an honest ten percent reward, but saw his share left with the Sheriff and ended the episode behind bars. 

Stampede was a fine introduction to the rascally Buckley, but with an ending that made little progress towards Huggins' stated goal in creating MAVERICK: "to invert as many clich├ęs and conventions as possible".  By the time The Jail at Junction Flats arrived a year later, confidence and subversion had both grown considerably, and Marion Hargrove was just the writer to concoct the installment that arguably best achieved Huggins' objective.

One just might subtitle The Jail at Junction Flats "Buckley's Revenge".  He lives rent-free inside Bret Maverick's head from fade-in to fade-out.

"I was minding my own business, which is poker.  One look into the community center and I knew I was in the wrong town."

Even the greatest professional poker player will have that nemesis that simply provides a bad matchup for him.  In the game's parlance, just the mere sight of Buckley puts Bret on tilt.  Maverick's unease in Dandy's presence is immediate and palpable:

With good reason.  As was the case with every episode, Bret just wants to get right down to making an honest living at the poker table--impossible with card-marking Buckley already there.  But things are going to be different this time: Bret never gets closer to a poker game than he is at the end of that opening narration: a brief glance, from outside the saloon.

Jim Buckley is after Bret's bankroll.  And later, Bret's horse, Bret's labor, Bret's time---face it, Bret's show.  And we're subtly invited to sympathize with Dandy throughout.  Buckley makes his entrance jovially and amiably--and pretty much grins for the duration, even singing a cheerful song in captivity.   In contrast, Bret often looks like he's trying to pass a kidney stone. 

With frequent close-ups, director Doniger aids this subversion often.  For example, while Buckley (using the alias "P. T. Barnum" after his Broken Wheel scam) consults with "lawyer" Maverick from his cell in the titular jail, Doniger has Buckley closest to the camera for most of the scene's duration, allowing us to see the wheels turning in Buckley's head instead of Bret's.

And with Bret gripping the bars from the outside,   Buckley doesn't break the fourth wall, but he doesn't need to.  We already know he's about to use Bret's own greed (and to a lesser extent--yes, decency) against him.  Later, when the tables are turned and Bret's the one in a cell, Doniger points his camera at Bret from outside the bars the entire time--it's telling that each two shot is not with Buckley, but the dimwitted Deputy George:

At least Hargrove doesn't take the narration away from Bret--he was saving that particular inversion for Gun-Shy.

"Hard work never killed anyone--who didn't do it"--Pappy

"It would be a pitiful thing if you had to work for a living.  Son, use your wits."--Pappy

With Pappy Beauregard Maverick's fine example set for them, it is any wonder that both Maverick brothers would wisely choose a profession that earns the greatest amount of money for the least amount of work?  But as mentioned earlier, Bret's nemesis has him off his game, and another glaring example is demonstrated when it's time to get Dandy out of that "absurd" jail.

Normally Bret would figure out a less physically taxing way to get Buckley out, but the best he can do here is taking a shovel, lantern and axe into the basement of an adjacent dress shop to dig Buckley's way to freedom.

Perhaps fatigue was a factor in Maverick's dearth of better ideas, since he'd had several sleepless nights restlessly wondering what Dandy was up to.  He could chalk up one more--the necessary tunnel proved to be an all night task.

Contrast this with Buckley's response to the same dilemma later.  Dandy arrives after dark, with the none too bright Deputy George on duty.  The assistant was easily distracted for Jim's escape earlier, even singing along with Jim's spirited rendition of All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight.  Bret ended up incarcerated for abetting Buckley's escape, given away by the dirt under his fingernails; Dandy arrives wearing his trademark white gloves. 

Disarming George with a schoolyard trick, Buckley cracks the safe holding the keys afterward.  Considerably less strenuous than Bret's escape plan.

The one-upmanship continues for the duration.  Bret invests his $2,000 with Buckley, giving him a 150 percent profit in exchange for five nights of insomnia when the $4,000 turns into $10,000.  Buckley seizes the entire stake in Bret's sleep, and the shooting (in self-defense, as it turns out) lands Buckley in jail.  "Lawyer" Bret wrests the upper hand, gaining a 75/25 split in exchange for his services (granted, Bret works his ass off for it).  With Bret quickly locked up for aiding and abetting Buckley's escape, Dandy Jim gets his opportunity to reassert a 50/50 split, which he does--after leaving the heartbroken Sheriff locked in his own fortress, agonizing over what is now a trifecta of escapes.

And as the "friendly enemies" divide the money for the third and final time, Bret is careful to disarm Buckley and send him in the opposite direction.   Buckley U-turns some distance away, but after spending almost the entire episode playing defense, Bret has anticipated this and misdirected himself to avoid Dandy's pursuit.   We end up even-Steven.

Or do we?

Hey, I promised you a landmark television episode, and after that head fake the real finale delivers.  Having procured a buffalo rifle, ever resourceful Dandy Jim Buckley gets the drop on Bret after a dissolve, robbing him a second time (this time at gunpoint) and leaving with the entire $10,000.

That's right.  The bad guy wins.  In a Western.  Airing at 6:30 P.M. on Sundays.  In 1958.   With no Alfred Hitchcock appearing to reassure us that Buckley actually got his just desserts.

Our hero Bret Maverick ends up hogtied in the middle of nowhere, out a gun, a horse and $5,000...

...while Dandy Jim Buckley rides away with $10,000, $8,000 of it in decidedly ill-gotten profit, happily singing Weeping, Sad and Lonely.

It's pretty common today, but to say that television audiences weren't used to this six decades ago is an understatement.  Roy Huggins noted that MAVERICK dropped from a 46 share to a 42 the following week, and he received a number of letters from angry viewers.   But any loss of momentum for this one-of-a-kind Western was short-lived: two weeks later, Shady Deal at Sunny Acres (with Buckley returning) drew a 46 share.  Even-steven, just like Dandy Jim and Bret after their second confrontation.

"Weeping Sad and Lonely
Sighs and tears, how vain
When this cruel war is over
Praying then to meet again"

Unfortunately for us, Bret and Dandy never did meet again.  Hargrove originally had him aggravating Bret one last time in The Rivals, but Zimbalist's 77 SUNSET STRIP was a breakout hit in 1958-59 and made him unavailable for further MAVERICKs after his single scene with Bart in Shady Deal at Sunny Acres

Buckley was never far from memory:  Bart impersonated him in Pappy and several ersatz Dandy Jims followed, most notably Mike Road's Pearly Gates (replete with white gloves and refined manner).  But none matched the one-of-a-kind opposing force that Buckley established.

Zimbalist was off to represent law and order on 77 SUNSET STRIP and THE F.B.I. for better part of the next two decades.  Which is too bad.  A missed opportunity, IMO at least, for a Dandy Jim Buckley spinoff series.

"Buckley, you're a crook and a cheat and a double-crosser, but you're not a killer. You could no more squeeze that trigger than quit marking decks."--Bret in STAMPEDE

The Jail at Junction Flats isn't quite perfect.  Bret seems to give up way too easily in the denouement to a man he knows wouldn't kill him, as stated above.  There's also the little matter of the money that Buckley took to the poker room ($75 or so) at Junction Flats that magically reappeared for future divisions of the ten grand.  Nevertheless, when it comes to rewatchable MAVERICK segments, this groundbreaker is right up there at the top.


Dandy Jim Buckley gets to play all of the poker--offscreen he makes it to the table in both Broken Wheel and Junction Flats--while Bret has to settle for a game of slapjack with Deputy George in this bizarre world MAVERICK.  Probably a good thing for Bret, who was running badly enough to lose his $2,000 bankroll away from the table.


Dandy Jim Buckley usurps Pappy too, as we are devoid of Pappyisms this time.  Not to fear, Buckley is providing us with the pearls of wisdom that normally come from the eldest Maverick.  The two best:

"You can only feel so bad, Sheriff, and then the essential cheerfulness of a man takes over."

"The way lawyers take money is one thing.  The way thieves take it is another."


Marion Hargrove takes the creator's stated objective for the series to another level in The Jail at Junction Flats: he inverts several MAVERICK inversions of the norm.  Not that he neglects the show's twisted way of doing business: Bret is punished for not going all the way with his grafting.  A kinder, gentler way to illustrate the fallacy of half-measures a half-century before Mike Ehrmantraut schooled Walter White?  Well, you could read it that way.  For my money, The Jail at Junction Flats is a better parody of MAVERICK itself than the more heralded Saga of Waco Williams, and is Dandy Jim Buckley's finest hour.  Hilarious, and too historically important not to rank at or near the show's top tier.  (**** out of four)

MAVERICK airs every Saturday morning at 9 A.M. Central on MeTV.

And, as I mentioned at the top, this post is part of the Classic TV Villain Blogathon!  Click on the link below to check out the other posts in this two-day blogathon featuring your favorite Classic Television antagonists.



Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for the entertaining review. Sounds like a classic episode! In my memory, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" was the all-time best Maverick, but this sounds close.


Rick29 said...

Very entertaining post! I always thought that Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was constrained by his roles in 77 SUNSET STRIP and (much more so) in THE FBI. I can only remember one of his appearances as Dandy Jim, but I do recall that he was lot fun.

Mitchell Hadley said...

It is fun watching Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in this role - of course, it's fun watching everyone in the show in their roles, but he's certainly a worthy adversary.

Joanna said...

OMG! Your essay is fantastic. Maverick always felt so groundbreaking and different from other series--now I know have a better understanding why. Cool essay.

David Hofstede said...

Great post about a series I really need to revisit again soon.

Daniel B? said...

Fantastic review. Thank you. I need to re-watch this show. It's been so long. I know it's wonderful. I just need to start it up again. This blogathon has sent me to about 8 different shows that I need to re-visit or visit for the first time. Good, good times.

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I can only remember one of his appearances as Dandy Jim, but I do recall that he was lot fun Chris Gayle expensive cars

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