Monday, March 31, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for April on TCM

John Ford, though a man of a prickly and mercurial nature, was a director with great artistic vision and critical and popular success.  Despite his laudatory career and multiple awards it took many years for the stars to align for Ford's pet project, a film based on Maurice Walsh's 1935 short story The Quiet Man.  It may have been due to timing or casting.  Perhaps the failure of studio executives to see any box office in the slight story or understand Ford's vision of expressing his lead character's nostalgic yearning and his journey through a mix of humour, mythology and Irish literary tradition.  Whatever the hurdles, the path was finally cleared by the man Ford befriended, bullied and made a star, John Wayne.  

Wayne was at this time making his first steps into production with Angel and the Badman and The Fighting Kentuckian at Republic Studios when he broached the idea of The Quiet Man to Herbert Yates.  Yates immediately saw the prestige of having a Ford picture under the Republic banner, but wanted a buffer against the possibility of box office failure.  The Quiet Man and its Irish location shooting was approved if, first, John Ford gave the studio a western.  As the publicity poster proclaimed he gave them "John Ford's Greatest Romantic Triumph!".

Rio Grande is at its core a story about healing, the coming together of a broken couple, a broken family and a broken country.  Based on a Saturday Evening Post story by  James Warner Bellah (Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) with a screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness (Tarzan and His Mate, Arsene Lupin Returns) Rio Grande is set at an isolated cavalry outpost in the southwest where Colonel Kirby Yorke, played by John Wayne, contends with raiding Apaches who escape U.S. authorities by crossing over the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo into Mexico.  York's superior, General Philip Sheridan, played with a gruff professionalism by J. Carroll Naish (Sahara, A Medal for Benny) gives Kirby a covert order to disobey the rules and at the next opportunity pursue the Apaches into the neighbouring country.  It is an impossible mission where Yorke's actions will be condemned by the very people who gave them.

 John Wayne, J. Carroll Naish

Sheridan:  "If you fail, I assure you members of your court martial will be the men who rode with us at Shenandoah."

Sheridan, Yorke and burly Sgt. Quincannon played by Victor McLaglen (The Informer, Gunga Din) share a bond which reaches back to their service in the Civil War when their activities on behalf of the Union caused a rift between Kirby Yorke and his southern-born wife, Kathleen.  Maureen O'Hara (Miracle on 34th Street, The Black Swan) plays the tempestuous Kathleen Yorke.  For the first time movie audiences were treated to the electric chemistry and unique friendship that made Duke and Miss O'Hara one of Hollywood's most enduring screen teams.  The beauty of our stars and the stark location of the film is enhanced by the black and white cinematography of Bert Glennon, Oscar-nominated for Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk and Dive Bomber.


Claude Jarmin Jr., John Wayne

Jeff:  "I'm not on this post to call you father."
 
Among recruits new to this frontier posting is Jefferson Yorke, the teenaged son of Kathleen and Kirby, played by Claude Jarmin Jr. (The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, Hangman's Knot).  Failing in mathematics at West Point, "Jeff" enlisted and finds himself face-to-face with the father he has never known due to his parent's long separation.


Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarmin Jr.
John Wayne, Chill Wills, Fred Kennedy, Victor McLaglen

Sandy:  "He said he was the teacher's pet of a chowder-headed mick sergeant.  What's that mean, doc?"

Kirby Yorke is pleased to meet the son who is following in his footsteps and flustered at how to handle the uncommon role of a father.  Jeff is a good kid who does his best and makes friends easily.  Those friends include Trooper Travis Tyree played with an appealing grace and ease by Ben Johnson (Wagon Master, Shane, The Last Picture Show) and the affable Trooper Sandy Boone played by Harry Carey Jr. (Red River, Three Godfathers, TVs The Adventures of Spin and Marty).  A highlight of the film is a display by these three actors of Roman Riding with the riders standing on more than one horse and jumping.  The trick riding is at the behest of Sgt. Quincannon who acts as an "uncle" toward Trooper Yorke.  The seeming favouritism leads to a fight between Jeff and Trooper Heinz.  Heinz is a lovely and memorable role for stuntman Fred Kennedy, who had been in films since 1938s The Adventures of Robin Hood and worked with Ford on many occasions.  Tragically, Kennedy would be killed performing a routine stunt on 1959s The Horse Soldiers.

John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara

Kathleen:  "Ramrod, wreckage and ruin, still the same Kirby Yorke."
Kirby:  "Special privileges to special born, still the same Kathleen."

The routine of the post and its commander's defences are assaulted by the arrival of Kathleen Yorke, determined to purchase Jeff's release from the army.  The attraction between Kirby and Kathleen is as undeniable as their clinging to past grievances and stubborn refusal to understand the other's point of view.  Will proximity, hardship and the example of their maturing son be enough to bring the couple together.  Perhaps music will soften their hearts.  Victor Young's (Shane, Around the World in Eighty Days) score is very fine and a personal favourite of mine.  The soundtrack is filled with songs by Stan Jones such as the lovely My Gal is Purple, and Dale Evans' peppy Aha, San Antone.  The familiar tunes I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and Down by the Glenside may not be appropriate to the time of the story, but are certainly appropriate to the tone of the film.  The songs are beautifully sung by the regimental singers aka the Sons of the Pioneers in cavalry guise, with the soulful Ken Curtis taking lead vocals.

One of the things I like best about Ford's cinematic storytelling is that he brings us into a fully formed world such as the society of the post in Rio Grande.  A look between characters, an attitude or a cryptic remark infers a back story for the imaginative viewer.  There's a novel behind those looks that pass among Kirby and his officers.

Anticipating a hard winter of campaigning, the women and children, including 10-year-old Karolyn Grimes (It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, Blue Skies) and 11-year-old Patrick Wayne (Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Young Guns) are to be transferred to safety at Fort Bliss.  When the children are captured in a raid and taken across the border, volunteer troopers Tyree, Boone and Yorke take the lead in a dangerous mission to bring the children home safely to their anxious parents.  The theme of reunification is amplified once again in Rio Grande.

Rio Grande has it all - action, drama, romance, humour, songs and riding "after the manner of the ancient Romans".

TCM is screening Rio Grande on Wednesday, April 23rd at 10:45 am, as John Wayne is April's Star of the Month with wall-to-wall Duke playing on the network from Monday, April 21st to Friday, April 25th.  Sounds like any five days at my house!
 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon: Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater (1956 - 1961)


Dick Powell
1904 - 1963

Big Stars on the Big Screen is the name of a blogathon running March 20th and 21st sponsored by Aurora on her sterling television devoted blog How Sweet It WasThis link will take you to a wondrous land where bloggers of renown release their inner fanboy/girl.  Maybe some of the shows featured are your favourites as well.

Dick Powell accomplished a lot in his show business career.  The boy with the lovely tenor voice and way with a popular song became a band singer and master of ceremonies.  His engaging stage presence and vocal ability led to a contract with Warner Brothers Studios in 1932 and a role in the fast-paced Lee Tracy comedy Blessed Event.  Dick sang four songs in the movie, two by Harry Warren.  Composer Warren would figure prominently in Dick Powell's movie career at Warners, composing songs introduced by the singer in such films as Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and 42nd Street.  Future standards in the Great American Songbook include Warren and Dubin's I Only Have Eyes for You from Dames and I'll String Along With You from Twenty Million Sweethearts.  Dick Powell's popularity in such films as The Sing Marine, Broadway Gondolier, Flirtation Walk, Colleen and On the Avenue, often paired on screen with Canadian born hoofer Ruby Keeler or wife (1936-1944) Joan Blondell, kept the actor in the rut of a brash, but likeable young go-getter.

"I'm not a kid anymore but I'm still playing boy scouts."

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor
Murder, My Sweet

In 1940 Dick Powell made the move to Paramount Pictures and despite excellent movies such as Preston Sturges' Christmas in July and Rene Clair's It Happened Tomorrow, the fare was much the same.  In an effort to bring his image more in line with his age and his abilities Powell campaigned for the role of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity which went to Fred MacMurray.  Fulfilling a contract obligation to place their newly hired star in a drama, RKO cast the musical star in Murder, My Sweet, an adaption of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe story Farewell, My Lovely.  Critics and audiences were impressed with the new image projected by Dick Powell in the role of a hard-boiled detective.  They shouldn't have been taken by surprise.  Those musicals he made at Warners weren't operettas.  They had songs, but they still had the zingers and tough-minded characters associated with a Warners product, and Dick Powell was adept at the style.  More excellent film-noir followed in the 1940s including Cornered, Pitfall, Johnny O'Clock and Cry Danger.  Other personal favourites of this era are Mrs. Mike, The Bad and the Beautiful and The Tall Target.  In You Never Can Tell Powell showed that after all that time on the mean streets, he never lost his comedy chops as he plays a reincarnated police dog solving his own murder.  It's a dandy!

"The best thing about switching from being an actor to being a director is that you don't have to shave or hold your stomach in anymore."

Dick Powell began directing with the 1953 film Split Second.  He directed his wife (1945-1963) June Allyson in a remake of It Happened One Night called You Can't Run Away from It.  It is most likely the directing assignment on The Conquerer which brought cast and crew to a former nuclear testing sight in Utah caused that cancer which would take his life, and those of many involved in the film.

One of the logos for the production company, Four Star

From master of ceremonies to popular crooner to perpetual juvenile lead to gritty dramatic star to director to influential independent television producer.  In 1955 Dick Powell, along with David Niven, Charles Boyer and Joel McCrea founded Four Star Productions, with McCrea bowing out of the corporation early to be replaced by actress/director Ida Lupino.  Dick Powell was the savvy business leader and hard-working head of the group.  Four Star Playhouse was an anthology series which ran on CBS from 1952 to 1956 featuring each of Four Star's four stars in rotating stories.  Over the course of the series run they received 14 Emmy nominations and 2 Directors Guild of America awards.

"From out of the west, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater"

Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater was produced by Four Star Productions and ran on CBS from 1956 - 1961.  The 1950s was the heyday of anthology series and of westerns, and here we had the best of both worlds.  The series was created by western writer Luke Short and the earliest stories are purported to be based on Zane Grey stories, however the episodes are pure mid-century American television with the Grey name promising the adventure of the old west.

Each week our host to the half hour episodes was the familiar and welcome face of Dick Powell.  His old m.c. skills made him right at home in front of the television camera giving us pithy, amusing and sometimes corny introductions to the story to come.  Stories written by Short, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Geller, Fred Frieberger, Aaron Spelling and directed by John English, Christian Nyby, Budd Boetticher, David Lowell Rich and Don Taylor, etc.

Talk about big stars on the small screen - Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater had them all!  Barbara Stanwyck guested four times and Four Star would produce her popular 1960s series The Big Valley.  One of her episodes called Trail to Nowhere was written by Aaron Spelling as a (ahem) nod to Double Indemnity.  In interviews the producer/writer credited his boss at Four Star, Dick Powell with success.  Originally an actor, Spelling was encouraged by Powell to develop his writing skills and then to move into production.  When Spelling came up with the episode that could only be played by Barbara Stanwyck, Powell said "Well, go get her."  In hindsight Spelling knew that his boss had cleared the path for him to Stanwyck's door, but the confidence it gave him was immeasurable.  In her 1982 autobiography June Allyson wrote about her late husband's untiring efforts to mentor and help younger people in show business.  Dick Powell was unstinting in his support of the burgeoning talent, both on and off screen.

Other programs produced under the Four Star banner include Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen, The Westerner with Brian Keith, Trackdown with Robert Culp, Black Saddle with Peter Breck and Russell Johnson and Law of the Plainsman with Michael Ansara.  David Janssen starred in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, adapted from the radio series which starred Dick Powell.  The Detectives starred Robert Taylor.  Programs in the 1960s included The Rogues with David Niven, Charles Boyer, Gladys Cooper and Robert Coote, Gene Barry in Burke's Law and Anne Francis in Honey West.  

Joan Crawford guested twice on the program.  Ida Lupino and James Whitmore are featured in a taut first season episode entitled Fearful Courage.  This would be the first of five appearances for Whitmore in a challenging variety of roles.  You might tune in and see, to your surprise and delight, Edward G. Robinson, Ralph Bellamy, John Payne, Eddie Albert, Van Johnson, Lew Ayres, Chester Morris, Brian Donlevy, Raymond Massey, Sammy Davis, Jr. or Chuck Connors playing a fellow named Lucas McCain.  If it is talented ladies you wish to see, look no further as Julie Adams, Audrey Totter, Martha Hyer, Marsha Hunt, Beverly Garland, Rita Moreno, Constance Ford, Hedy Lamarr, Beulah Bondi, Mary Astor and Carolyn Jones found interesting frontier women to bring to life.  I guarantee you that if you tune into Zane Grey Theater, not only will you be entertained by an interesting story, but each episode will feature a favourite or familiar actor.

Cloris Leachman, Robert Ryan
You Only Run Once

The first episode of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater is You Only Run Once, one of four episode guest starring Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground, Bad Day at Black Rock) and Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein).  Circumstantial evidence and jealousy lead Ryan's rancher to run afoul of vigilantes led by a bitter John Hoyt.  With the likes of Parley Baer, Leo Gordon, Douglas Fowley and Whit Bissell in the cast, the script is quite involving and emotions are brittle.  

Also from season one, a favourite of mine is Stage for Tucson.  A talented ensemble led by Eddie Albert finds travelers facing a crisis at a stage stop.  Deforest Kelley, John Ericson, Ian MacDonald, Bing Russell and a fiesty Mona Freeman give entertaining performances that remind us why this is classic television.

Dick Powell
Adding to his workload on Zane Grey Theater

Of course, our host took the time to appear in a episode or two during the run of the series.  Courage is a Gun has a wonderful script about a hot-headed young gunfighter played by Robert Vaughn who is hired by saloon keeper James Westerfield to take out the sheriff played by Dick Powell.  How does the sheriff's love, the town doctor played by Beverly Garland, come in to play in this tense situation?

Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater was awarded a Writer's Guild of America award in 1961 for Anthology Drama, 30 Minutes in Length.  Other nominees that year were Alcoa Theatre, The Dupont Show with June Allyson, The Twilight Zone and Goodyear Theatre.

In 1961 Dick Powell, after the end of Zane Grey Theater, moved on to another star-studded anthology series in which he would host and appear, The Dick Powell Theatre.  The series won a Golden Globe for Best TV Program and was nominated for 9 Emmy awards, winning one for guest Peter Falk.  The program was also honoured with nominations and wins from the American Cinema Editors, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America.  Dick Powell's television legacy is one of great distinction as one of the first and most successful independent producers in the industry.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

SLEUTHATHON: Perry Mason (1957 - 1966)

"You never need to worry about him.  He's the old human dynamo.  He manufactures energy faster than any human being can use it up."

- Paul Drake describes Perry Mason in The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, published 1952

Mason's creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, was a man of uncommon energy himself.  As a youngster it often got him into trouble.  As a young man into sports and adventure, he put that energy to use as a boxer, a promoter and as a typist who studied at the law office that had hired him in that capacity.  Gardner passed the Bar age 21 and had a successful practice, in large part due to his ability to speak Chinese and his reputation for helping that community.  No detail was too small to escape his eye and while this appealed to clients, after a few years Gardner looked for more excitement and worlds to conquer.  He became a writer.  Again, that famous energy came into play as he worked at his law office during the day then spent the night writing.  The pulps, such as Black Mask were his training ground and fellow writers like Raymond Chandler became friends. 

"I had no natural ability to write.  Everything I learned I had to learn the hard way.  I'm still not much of a writer.  I'm a fair plotter because I studied the mechanics of plotting and analyzed plotting."

- Erle Stanley Gardner on his secondary trade

Eventually the complicated plots and tough-minded protagonists morphed into the determined and smart attorney Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws, published in 1953.  The years would bring over 80 Mason novels, translated into dozens of languages and popular all over the world in Gardner's day and ours.  My home library is filled with Perry Mason paperbacks.  They are the original page-turners.  Perry Mason goes to the end of the line and beyond for his frightened and less than honest clients.  Always he gets himself in a pickle, and always he gets out.  Whew!

The success of the book series interested Hollywood and in the 1930s and four features starred Warren William, followed by one each with Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods as Perry Mason.  They are entertaining Warner Brothers products, but they don't feel like Perry.  In 1943 Perry Mason began a 12 year run on radio and, as with the screen adaptions, Gardner wasn't entirely satisfied with the output.  He learned of himself that he wasn't the person to write the scripts and that he wasn't the "Hollywood" type, but felt keenly the lack of quality control and input.  As the 1950s rolled around and TV was becoming a major entertainment force, Gardner was reluctant to hand his baby over to strange hands again.  Would Hollywood finally understand Perry Mason, Della Street and Paul Drake?

Gail Patrick, film actress
Gail Patrick Jackson, Perry Mason Executive Producer
1911 - 1980

Paisano Productions was born out of the desire to control how Perry Mason would be presented to television audiences.  The company consisted of Gardner, his agent and friend Cornwell Jackson and Corney Jackson's wife, the actress Gail Patrick (My Man Godfrey, Stage Door).  Also with a stake in the company were Jean Bethell, who was Gardner's real-life Della Street, and her sisters, all legal secretaries who worked with Gardner through the lawyer years to author years.  It was a friendly combine, as the name suggests, and a profitable one.  Gail Patrick, who knew Hollywood and who had at one timed planned to be a lawyer, took on the more and more of the responsibilities and became producer.  She was the only female producer of major television programming at the time.  Anne Nelson was her counterpart at CBS, negotiating the myriad contracts as a vice president in charge of business affairs.  Again, the only top female executive at a network.

Eighteen scripts were completed based on familiar Gardner titles and casting was ready to begin.  Fred MacMurray was the early favourite for the lead.  William Hopper and William Talman both read for Perry.  Raymond Burr, on the strength of his District Attorney role in A Place in the Sun was asked to read for Hamilton Burger.  The actor agreed as long as he could also read for Perry.

The 50th Anniversary DVD set includes some of the screen tests.  William Hopper's test shows that he would have been a terrific Perry, but Raymond Burr gave it is all.  He was advised to lose weight and return.  Gardner saw the test and insisted this was the man to play Perry Mason.  Someone who could convey the compassion and the intelligence.  Someone who was smart, but not a smart aleck.
  Raymond Burr as Perry Mason
1917 - 1993

Canada's Raymond Burr, born in New Westminster, BC, had been in Hollywood since 1946 and the talented actor certainly paid his dues.  The large young man attempted to pattern his career on that of the great Laird Cregar, and in his costume dramas like Adventures of Don Juan and film-noir as in Raw Deal, comparisons can certainly be made.  Raymond Burr's film career is a roller coaster ride of uncredited bits and supporting roles to which he brought one hundred percent of his talent and personality, whether the film be a big budget Hitchcock thriller like Rear Window, a sturdy docudrama like Walk a Crooked Mile or something on the cheap side like Bride of the Gorilla.  In a journey through classic entertainment you never know where you will run into Raymond Burr, be it as Joe Friday's boss in an early Dragnet, the sincere reporter in the American release of Godzilla or showing his comedy chops in Casanova's Big Night with Bob Hope.

Some of you may remember Raymond Burr's television commercials for an insurance group in the 1980s.  An acting teacher I knew at the time related an anecdote that Mr. Burr could have gotten a lot more money for the job than he settled for.  The teller of the tale was derisive about Raymond Burr not realizing that he could cash in on his fame.  I thought it was rather sweet that Mr. Burr didn't know he was that guy.

"You got to hand it to Raymond.  He got to be a pretty damn good lawyer."

- Erle Stanley Gardner on his star

William Hopper as Paul Drake
1915 - 1970

William Hopper, the son of columnist Hedda Hopper and stage performer DeWolf Hopper Sr., had been on the screen since the 1930s.  You'll find him in tons of Warner Brothers output as uncredited reporters and servicemen, but you'll also see the handsome, young dark-haired actor in choice roles in films such as The Runaway Heiress and Public Wedding.  After WW2, in which Hopper served in the Navy, he returned to Hollywood with more uncredited bits and larger roles in more interesting features such as Track of the Cat, The Bad Seed, 20 Million Miles to Earth and Rebel Without a Cause.  He is particularly effective in Good-bye, My Lady as the true owner of a lost and claimed dog.  William Hopper gives Paul Drake a lightly wry sense of humour and fun which balances nicely with the serious situations.

"He was a big kid.  He was a wonderful, wonderful man.  I loved him dearly."

- Producer Arthur Marks on his friend, William Hopper

Barbara Hale as Della Street
I don't think she believes what Paul is telling her.

Lovely and talented Barbara Hale aspired to a career as an artist, but was sidetracked into modelling and acting.  Immortalized as Della Street, fans can also appreciate her talents in movies going back to the 1940s including The Falcon Out West, The Boy With Green Hair, The Window, Jolson Sings Again, the title role in Lorna Doone, Unchained, 7th Cavalry and The Houston Story where she's a blonde singer putting the sizzle in Put the Blame on Mame.

Gail Patrick tagged her friend Barbara Hale for Perry's girl friday Della Street and initially Barbara declined as her children were young at the time and she didn't want to work outside of the home.  Gail persisted and after talking it over with her husband actor Bill Williams (married from 1946 to his death in 1992), they decided that it would be worth a shot.  After all, it was a TV show.  It might not run past those initial 18 scripts.

"Perry Mason would be very foolish if he didn't recognize the unusual charm and beauty of Della Street, and I don't think he's that foolish."

- Erle Stanley Gardner on his famous couple


William Talman as Hamilton Burger
1915 - 1968

William Talman was a stage trained actor who's career in films started to take off after his time in the Army during WW2 where he started out as a private and was promoted to major.  He played one of the screen's great villains in Ida Lupino's The Hitchhiker and is another remorseless criminal in Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery.  In The Racket he is just as believable as an honest policeman as he is as his baddies.  Among the cast of the John Cromwell film you will find Ray Collins as a district attorney.  Interesting roles on television would follow including that of a tormented racist in The Sarah Drummond Story on Wagon Train.

During the run of the show William Talman was involved in a tabloid scandal when he was arrested at a "wild party" and although charges were eventually dropped, CBS fired the actor.  However, it was through the intervention of Erle Stanley Gardner, and the vociferous fans of the show, that Hamilton Burger retained his rightful place as adversary to Perry Mason.  William Talman passed from lung cancer in 1968, bravely filming an anti-smoking plea shown on national television in 1968 and 1969.

"Bill Talman is really a wonder.  He actually looks as if he expects to win a case."

- Erle Stanley Gardner on the beleaguered district attorney

"Look at Burger!  I think there's smoke coming out of his ears."

- Janet Hall, 21st century Perry Mason fan

Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg
1889 - 1965

Ray Collins, an actor from his teen years, who could and did play everything on stage, radio and screen from great dramas like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to fluffy comedies like The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Francis, also turned to television in the 1950s.  He can be found on The Halls of Ivy, Father Knows Best and the anthology series like Playhouse 90.  A boon to every production, he was that and more to Perry Mason.  Nearing 70 when Perry Mason began in 1957, he may have been older than your average cop, but Ray Collins added a touch of class all his own and the fans love him.

Sadly, ill health forced his slowing down on work on the program and he passed away prior to its conclusion.  Official duties were taken over by Lt. Andy Anderson played by Wesley Lau and Lt. Steve Drumm played by Richard Anderson.

"Ray Collins was getting older and having trouble remembering his lines, but we never put any pressure on him.  We only had respect for such a fine actor."

- Arthur Marks, producer/director of Perry Mason



Perry Mason producer Arthur Marks referred to the series as a game show.  It is the whodunnit that keeps fans reading and watching as they match wits with the formidable Perry Mason.  Arthur Marks had been an assistant director at Columbia and MGM, where he first became friends with Ray Collins.  His involvement with Perry Mason began when he replaced an ailing assistant director on the pilot episode.  "Paisano" knew a good thing when they saw it and he was asked to stick around.  After assistant director duties on over a dozen episodes, Gail suggested he become a director and 76 future episodes are to his credit.  Mr. Marks happily moved into production at that time as well.  It was a busy and very creative time in his career.  

The budget from CBS was $172,000 per episode.  On the same network Gunsmoke had a $300,000 budget and over at NBC Bonanza's was over $600,000.  In an interview on the 50th Anniversary DVD Mr. Marks was proud of keeping the seasons within budget although he would go large on the first seven or eight episodes of the year with more sets, location scenes, extras, and maybe name guests to hook the audience and please the critics.  It's something to watch for when you are enjoying the show.

Mr. Marks attributes Perry Mason's to scrupulously sticking to the winning formula of setting up the murder with formidable suspects, the equal of our crusading hero.  He also acknowledges Raymond Burr's intelligence, talent and belief in the role and program.  Occasionally the network would put its oar in suggesting the show become more relevant like The Defenders or make Perry and Della more romantic.  As a concession, Gardner came up with the character of law clerk David Gideon played by Karl Held to handle the romance and appeal to the "young people", but he really wasn't necessary to the winning set-up and lasted only ten episodes.  What fans demanded, and enjoy to this day, are the interesting characters involved in a tangled murder story, the always legal yet tricky machinations of Perry Mason on behalf of his client, and a showdown in court with egg on Burger's face.

Subtle changes can be noted throughout the nine year run especially as it relates to women characters.  Firstly, a nod to the always fashionable Della Street.  The wardrobe department did her, and the guests, proud.  Over the years you will note that female characters moved away from only the damsels in distress and their nasty counterpoints to women in the workplace, burgeoning free spirits, and representatives of different generations.

Perry Mason's television popularity was immediate.  In 1959 it won an Australian Logie Award (the first year of the awards) as Most Popular Overseas Drama.  Raymond Burr became a popular guest on television variety shows and is especially winning on this episode of The Jack Benny Program.  

William Talman, William Hopper, Barbara Hale, Raymond Burr
"Perry" at the Emmy Awards

Emmy recognition also came Perry Mason's way including two in the technical categories.  Surprisingly the program only received one nomination for Best Series.

1958:  Best Dramatic Series with Continuing Characters (winner, Gunsmoke)  
1961:  Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing for Television (winner, Naked City)
1966: Individual Achievements in Electronic Production - Audio Engineering  (winner, Young People's Concerts)

A look at the acting nominations shows the evolving categories for those awards.

1959:
Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series
William Hopper - nominated (winner - Dennis Weaver, Gunsmoke)
Best Actor in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series
Raymond Burr - winner
Best Supporting Actress (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series
Barbara Hale - winner

1960: 
Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Series (Lead or Support)
Raymond Burr - nominated (winner - Robert Stack, The Untouchables)

1961:
Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Series (Lead)
Raymond Burr - winner
Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor or Actress in a Series
Barbara Hale - nominated (winner - Don Knotts, The Andy Griffith Show)

It surprises me that the series didn't receive more nominations and wins, and I find it almost unbelievable that William Talman never received an Emmy nomination.  Those Emmy folks are full of surprises.  If there had been an award for main title music in the 1950s, they would probably have overlooked Fred Steiner's Park Avenue Beat.


Through the years of its initial run, the years since in television syndication and the release of the DVD collections we have solved a lot of mysteries with Perry.  We've marveled at the TV adaptions of familiar titles such as The Case of the Empty Tin, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, The Case of the Sun Bather's Diary, The Case of the Fiery Fingers, The Case of the Footloose Doll, The Case of the Caretakers Cat and various combinations of Gardner stories and those written originally for the series by the prolific and talented writers like Jackson Gillis, Eugene Wang and Samuel Newman, etc.

Film buffs and today's fans of TCM get a special kick out of the guests appearing on the program.  It's like old home week watching the likes of Julie Adams, Morris Ankrum, Robert Armstrong, James Bell, Bruce Bennett, Willis Bouchey, James Coburn, Jeanne Cooper, Robert Cornthwaite, John Dall, Virginia Field, Constance Ford, Dabbs Greer, Neil Hamilton, Josephine Hutchinson, Otto Kruger, Barbara Lawrence, Keye Luke, Paula Raymond, Ann Rutherford, Kenneth Tobey, Constance Towers, Bobby Troup, and so many, many more.  It is especially nice to spot George E. Stone (The Racket, Little Caesar, The Front Page, 42nd Street, Boston Blackie series, etc.) as a court clerk in the first six seasons.  No lines, but he's a part of the scene, administering oaths and accepting evidence.  Mr. Stone's eyesight was failing him at the time and he could use the work and benefits that went along with being a part of the business.

Declining ratings and schedule shifting contributed to Perry Mason closing up shop at the end of the ninth season in 1966.  They went out on a dandy episode, perhaps the first official finale in TV history and a true shout out to fans and the hard-working crew, The Case of the Final Fade-Out.  An arrogant actor, played by James Stacey, is murdered on the set of a popular television series.  When Lt. Drumm interviews those present at the scene, he is interviewing the actual crew.  A producer played by Denver Pyle is named Jackson Sidemark, a combination of the Jacksons of "Paisano", Jackson Gillis, Art Seid and Arthur Marks.  Everyone gets into the act!  Barbara Hale, in a blonde week, plays a bimbo flirting with Arthur Marks, who claims to know the right people in show business.  Tending bar is Corney Jackson and CBS executive Anne Nelson.  Gail Patrick is a spectator in the courtroom.  The judge is none other than Erle Stanley Gardner.  The episode is a delight and a darn good mystery.

Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale
The Case of the Substitute Face

"We had more fun.  You just can't imagine.  It was a lovely time."

- Barbara Hale on nine seasons of Perry Mason


Fritzi of Movies Silently is hosting the Sleuthathon, a blogathon of gumshoes, risk-takers, and the righteously snoopy.  Let's all curl up with our screens and enjoy time well spent with dedicated bloggers and their favourite sleuths.  


Quotes from:
TV Guide article by Dwight Whitney, 1961
The Case of the Real Perry Mason by Dorothy B. Hughes
50th Anniversary DVD collection - interviews   


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for March on TCM



It's been a long winter.  March is coming in like a lion.  Who wants to leave the comforts of home and hearth for an adventure?  You don't have to give up the coziness.  You can share the vicarious adventures of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe as he gives his all for Queen and country.  Let's hit the high seas with one of films' greatest screen teams, Errol Flynn and Alan Hale.

Dashing screen star Flynn's many skills as an actor were seen to great advantage in the epic adventure films produced by Warner Brothers in the 1930s and 40s, mostly directed by Michael Curtiz.  Reportedly, the actor and director had a thorny relationship, but the product on the screen was the best of its kind and timeless entertainment.  An excellent appreciation of Errol Flynn can be found in this article by Rebecca Barnes aka Classic Becky.

Singer and actor Alan Hale had been in pictures since the age of 20 in 1912.  Fond as I am of the output of the silent era, there are some actors that are meant to be heard and that rich baritone of Hale's is a gift.  Fourteen times Flynn and Hale shared the screen in films made between 1937s The Prince and the Pauper and 1948s Adventures of Don Juan.  Their audience appeal was at its height in pictures like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dodge City and The Sea Hawk where Hale's blustery and loyal sidekick was the perfect companion to Flynn's committed and sometimes foolhardy heroes.


Alan Hale and Errol Flynn
David Bruce in background
 
The Sea Hawk, released in 1940, is said to be a remake of the 1924 film based on Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel, but I can find no similarities beyond that of the title.  The script for the 1940 film is by Howard Koch (Three Strangers, Letter from an Unknown Woman) and Seton Miller (Kid Galahad, Two Years Before the Mast).  The thrilling score is from the glorious pen of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Kings Row, The Adventures of Robin Hood) and it is the well from which springs all the heart and emotion of this epic adventure.

The Sea Hawk is the story of two empire builders, Philip of Spain and Elizabeth of England.  Philip is amassing his Armada and Elizabeth, apparently a fiscal conservative at this time, is wary of her minister's advice to increase her naval strength.  Spying and skullduggery is rampant at court.  On the high seas a group of privateers known as the Sea Hawks plunder the plunderers to fill the coffers of England.  Chief among them is Flynn's Geoffrey Thorpe, a favourite of Her Majesty.


Flora Robson and Errol Flynn

Flora Robson, who first portrayed Elizabeth I in 1937s Fire Over England for Alexander Korda, once again takes on the role and of all the actresses who have given their all to the task Ms. Robson (Black Narcissus, 7 Women) is my favourite.  Her Elizabeth is shrewd, imperious, slyly humourous, quick to temper yet nobody's fool.  In short, she is a joy to watch.

Henry Daniell plays Lord Wolfingham, a man with loyalties only to himself and if spying for Philip will advance his personal cause, he has no qualms.  Daniell is such fun to watch in the villainous or unlikeable roles.  His unbending nature and mellifluous voice, like a charming snake, adds so much to his characterizations in films as diverse as Camille, Holiday, The Body Snatcher and The Philadelphia Story.

Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley, Lassie Come Home) as the trusted minister Sir John Burleson gives an air of trustworthiness that is a comfort in the palace.  Comfort is needed when the ambassador from Spain, Claude Rains as Don Jose Alvarez de Cordoba makes his presence felt.  Here Rains (Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) pulls out his patented "he's saying all the right things, but I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him"  character.  Don Jose's only human side is evident in his relationship with his niece Dona Maria played by Brenda Marshall (Footsteps in the Dark, Captains of the Clouds).


Brenda Marshall and Errol Flynn

Maria, our love interest in the picture, is established as worthy in her first few scenes.  On the journey to England's court, their ship is captured by Thorpe despite the diplomatic flag they carry.  We first see Maria as playful in a deck top tennis match with her maid Miss Latham played by Una O'Connor (Cavalcade, Witness for the Prosecution).  Confronted with her captor she is a haughty aristocrat.  When she sees the released British galley slaves there is pity and shame on her face.  Maria as played by Ms. Marshall is a keeper.

Errol Flynn and a beautiful leading lady, you would think that's all you would need, wouldn't you?  But, no.  Thorpe is notoriously tongue-tied around the ladies, as his crew duly notes.

"I hear the Queen is the only woman he can speak to without buckling his knees."
"Man to man I calls it!"
General hilarity.

The crew is a great part of what makes The Sea Hawk work.  Beyond Alan Hale we have J.M. Kerrigan (The Long Voyage Home) as a loyal and headstrong sailor.  David Bruce (Lady on a Train) makes a strong impression as a confederate with hidden depths.  William Lundigan (I'd Climb the Highest Mountain) swings into action with his heart-melting smile.  Uncredited in one of his first half dozen film bits is 36-year-old Edgar Buchanan (TVs Petticoat Junction) who had just turned over his thriving dental practice to his wife in order to pursue acting.  As his role here shows, Mr. Buchanan was quickly on his way to becoming the greatest scene thief of all time.

The Spanish military is ably represented by Captain Lopez played by a courtly Gilbert Roland (The Lady and the Bullfighter), Captain Mendoza played by Pedro de Cordoba (Sabotage), Ian Keith (Nightmare Alley) as cagey Peralta and Jack La Rue (Road to Utopia) as over-confident Lt. Ortega.  Keep your eyes peeled for the likes of Whit Bissell, Jay Silverheels, Gerald Mohr and John Sutton.  There may be a drinking game.


Errol Flynn

The action set pieces in The Sea Hawk are every bit the exciting, escapist fare they are meant to be yet still have their poignancy and high stakes investment.  Political tensions are at their height and Thorpe takes on a covert operation to steal plunder meant for Spain's coffers at its source in Panama.  Naturally, the Queen must disavow any knowledge of his actions.  Despite all efforts at secrecy, the spy network of Lord Wolfingham does its job and Thorpe and gallant crew sail off into a trap and tragedy.  The segment of the film which takes place in Panama replaces the sumptuous black and white photography we have been enjoying with a sepia tone denoting the exotic and steamy locale.  A bold and successful move by three time Oscar nominated (Captains of the Clouds, Sergeant York, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) cinematographer Sol Polito.


Henry Daniell and Errol Flynn

All of the intrigue, romance and action of The Sea Hawk leads to that most satisfying of filmdom events, a climactic duel between adversaries/a touching reunion of lovers/a raucous cheer from lovable rogues.  Take your pick, it's all there and it's all yours.


Flora Robson throws down on other Liz I pretenders

Dame Robson's lines as Queen Elizabeth at the conclusion are a reminder of the time of the movie's creation.

"And now, my loyal subjects, a grave duty confronts us all: To prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country; but when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist. Firm in this faith, we shall now make ready to meet the great armada that Philip sends against us. To this end, I pledge you ships - ships worthy of our seamen - a mighty fleet, hewn out of the forests of England; a navy foremost in the world - not only in our time, but for generations to come."

TCM is screening The Sea Hawk on Monday, March 10 at 10:00 pm as one of "Bob's Picks", so if you won't take my word for it ...







THE LUCY AND DESI BLOGATHON: Lucy's Summer Vacation (1959)

Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting The Lucy and Desi blogathon running on December 1 - 3. Click HERE for all the ...