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The Griper (1954)
George relentlessly lives up to the title
This is pretty much a one-note story. There's no real plot, just many examples of main character George complaining and denigrating everything around him. The other members of his family are the same way, but Betty, the girl next-door, is cheerful and popular. In the closest thing to a story arc, she is finally pushed too far and snaps at George, but quickly apologizes. As is normal in the "Discussion Problems in Group Living" series, nothing is resolved at the end, but George's conscience asks the viewers what they think. There doesn't seem to be much to say beyond the obvious "George should stop acting like that." Given that it's impossible to see what even Olivier could do with material like this, I don't think it's fair to pick on the actors. They speak their lines intelligibly. In sum, I'd say this is one of the lesser entries in the series.
A naming coincidence makes this episode a classic
This time out, Perry has a particularly needy client. Author Rosanne Ambrose, played perhaps a bit too intensely by Mona Freeman, thinks she's losing her mind and needs help from her doctor and her personal assistant. She also needs help from Perry because she's divorcing her no-good husband Hubert. Hubert has a slimy associate who ends up dead, leading Lt. Anderson to utter my favorite line from all of 'Perry Mason': "You're under arrest - for the murder of Kirk Cameron!" Perry has to accomplish a great deal in the rest of the episode, solving this murder plus another in New York, and also exposing a scam artist. It's a better-than-average story, made great by improbable visions of someone doing in the actor from 'Growing Pains' (with apologies to his fans).
*** BAD SPOILERS FOLLOW *** This episode is an exception to one of the rules for figuring out who's guilty. If Perry makes a big deal out of the fact that a person is not his client, that person is usually the murderer. However, another rule, that it's often someone with no apparent motive who's just there to be helpful, is in full force here.
The Case of the Helpful D.A.
Always more interested in justice than his conviction average, Hamilton Burger cooperates with Perry from time to time, but rarely as much as in this episode. From the first courtroom scene to the end, they almost seem to be working as a team. Even when Burger intends to charge Perry's client with murder, he gives that client a preview of what it's like to face cross-examination, and when he breaks down, Burger tells him that proves he needs to listen to his lawyer.
This episode's cast features several actors who had very long careers in TV and other media. Paul Winchell leaves Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff in their trunks to take a turn as an absolute slime-ball. Silent movie star Francis X. Bushman, professional "old ladies" Katherine Squire and Jesslyn Fax, and radio star Les Tremayne also lend their talents. (Tremayne also exclaimed the classic line "Guns, tanks, bombs - they're like toys against them!" in the 1953 movie "The War of the Worlds".) To top off a very interesting episode - Della and Perry dance at the end.
OK episode filled with familiar faces
In a bit of a break from the L.A. and small California town settings of most Mason episodes, this one takes place on Vandenberg Air Force Base, the site of missile launches over the Pacific. The plot follows a pattern that has become old hat by this far into the series: There's a nasty scheme involving jealousy and greed that Mason uncovers, but this just explains the chain of events that caused someone other than the main evil-doer to commit the murder.
What really distinguishes this episode for fans of old TV and movies are the many veteran character actors here. (Here come major SPOILERS, if you can decipher them.) Thus, we observe that Tarzan murdered Kolchak the Night Stalker's boss and framed Jor-El. However, it was ultimately the fault of Patty (a hot dog makes her lose control) Duke's father. Also, one of the heroic aviators from "Wings" shows up as a witness.
Other People's Property (1951)
The mildly interesting story of a jerk, a sap, and a wimp
This entry in Centron's "Discussion Problems in Group Living" series is told mostly in flashback, so we learn at the beginning that three boys are in trouble for a school prank that went wrong. We also quickly learn that Frank was the ringleader of the three. He misbehaved in class and was mildly punished, which filled him with a thirst for revenge against his teacher. He's clearly more interested in his own feelings than anything else, and is quick to rationalize away any other point of view. Basically, he's a jerk.
Jimmy's thought processes never seem to go beyond thinking that Frank's stupid prank would be a funny joke. At one point, he asks himself why he's never able to come up with good ideas like Frank. It's fairly clear that the answer is that he's bereft of imagination and quite unable to think things through to their consequences. He's a sap. Dale, on the other hand, sees from the beginning that Frank's plan could go horribly wrong, but he's too much in fear of being thought "chicken" or a tattler to do anything about it. He's a wimp.
As we've already been told, and could have guessed anyway with this trio, the "joke" is something of a disaster. The narrator really piles on the bad consequences of the prank, ranging from "it interrupted the important dress rehearsal of the school play" to real damage and sickness. There's a strange montage of images as the narrator tells the boys of "the eyes that saw what you did, the lips that told what the eyes had seen, the ears that...", etc. Once the story comes full circle, the narration seems stretches probability a bit to come up with the usual discussion questions. "What would you have done if you were Jimmy?" seems rather pointless, given Jimmy's apparent IQ.
As usual with these films, the acting is no better than what you'd expect from competent amateurs. They hit their marks and you can understand what they are saying. Even more that usual for films in this series, this one relies very heavily on the narrator. In all, "Other People's Properly" is not one of the best school guidance films from this era, but it is far ahead of some of the deathly-dull talky entries in the genre.
The Good Loser (1953)
An OK guidance film from Centron
"The Good Loser" is an entry in Centron's "Discussion Problems in Group Living" series. As usual in this series, the story is one big set-up for a post-film discussion, so there is no real conclusion. Some of the films in this series manage to present very interesting tales despite this limitation, usually on the strength of strong characters or unusual incidents. Others entries are improbable or simply dull. "The Good Loser" is somewhere in between.
Dramatic tension is lessened because there's no real villain in the piece (unlike such Centron efforts as "The Bully", "The Gossip", and "The Other Fellow's Feelings"). The main "bad loser" character is shown being sincerely helpful early on, and later apparently on the verge of apologizing for being resentful. Furthermore, it is clear that his bad attitude is due at least in part to the kidding he takes, especially from his somewhat clueless father. The lack of anyone who acts in a really bad way makes the story more nuanced and perhaps serves the guidance point better, but it also prevents this from being as much fun as the other Centron films mentioned above.
As with so many of these films, there is some distraction caused by the amateurish performances of the actors (who, to be fair, presumably really were amateurs). The oddly twangy accents of many in the cast also adds an element of strangeness.
The Outsider (1951)
The first, but not the best, of this series
There are some interesting elements in "The Outsider", but as the first in the "Discussion Problems in Group Living" series, it shows evidence that the format is still in need of some work. Even though the film only lasts a bit over 12 minutes, I was pretty tired of Susan Jane's whining by the end. The attempts at comic relief with the character Junior don't work today, but perhaps they did in an age that didn't worry much about childhood obesity. The ending is particularly anticlimactic, as Susan Jane exits the scene and some questions in text form appear on the screen, in silence. (Later films in the series ended with the narrator asking the questions while relevant scenes appeared, followed by the iconic big question mark.) Still, the film was a well-intentioned attempt to raise the issue social exclusion as it really was.
A particularly odd aspect of the film is the matter of quasi-southern accents used by nearly all the characters. Centron films were produced in the Lawrence, Kansas area, mainly making use of local talent. I grew up about 200 miles from Lawrence and don't recall anyone talking as they do here. Could this be a bunch of Kansans directed to speak in their best approximations of a southern accent? This phenomenon was less pronounced in later films in the series, but didn't entirely disappear. E.g., in "What About Juvenile Delinquency?" a boy mentions an upcoming "say-shun" of the city council.
The Trouble Maker (1959)
Poor Mel, a lesser villain in the "Discussion Problems in Group Living" series
Mel seems mostly to make trouble for himself, as his pathetic bragging and negative comments about others are more a nuisance to the rest of the school than a source of real woe. He compares very poorly to Frida from "The Gossip", who really knows how to spread distrust, and relishes the havoc that she brings. The discussion questions at the end suggest the possibility that perhaps someone should help Mel to stop being such a jerk, begging the question of why anyone would care. I wonder why there was no question about whether the quarterback should let a friend take stupid chances with his health. Over all, this is not one of the better offerings from Centron. I'm only giving it 5 out of 10 stars for its nostalgia appeal, which it shares with nearly all the entries in this series.
The Gossip (1955)
Another mini-drama from Young America Films
"The Gossip" is most noteworthy for the title character Freda, a worthy addition to Centron's roster of youthful villains that includes nasty Jack from "The Other Fellow's Feeling", the tormented anti-hero John from "Cheating", and brutish Chuck from "The Bully". Freda's malicious delight in spreading damaging stories with no regard to the truth, and her ability to poison the relationship between two close friends, make comparisons to Iago from "Othello" inevitable. The way she oozes malice is remarkable to see.
Unfortunately, this makes the drabness of the other characters all the more obvious. It's difficult to sympathize much with Freda's victims Laura and Jean, as neither has much of a personality, and they pretty much roll over and play dead when Freda does her thing. The boys don't so much act as just utter their lines. Overall, the presentation is pretty much what you expect from a 50's guidance film. However, the film does open with what might have been an odd attempt at referential humor (to the series "Dragnet", which had been on TV for a few years when "The Gossip" came out). Laura tells us that this is a true story, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!
An unusual offering from Centron
(Note: Although I really enjoyed the MST3K treatment of "Cheating", I'm commenting here on the original version, sans wisecracking robots.)
For this parable on the downside of cheating on school tests, director Herk Harvey gets a bit more experimental than is typical for these outings. The opening scene is dominated by an eerily lit pendulum clock that casts an ominous shadow on protagonist John Taylor as he awaits a phone call. This clock's slow ticking, measuring the passing time, is a recurring theme of the short. This certainly must be the aspect of "Cheating" that has made at least a couple reviewers compare it to the German expressionist style of film making.
From something out of "M", there's an abrupt transition to a scene reminiscent of 'The Telephone Hour' in "Bye-Bye Birdie". At this point, the story continues in flashback, with a narrator. Oddly, he addresses his remarks not to the viewer but to John (except for a brief aside to Mary and the "What would you do?" questions to the audience at the end). Most of the rest of the film is in the standard no-one-moves-much-during-a-take style of these Centron productions, with acting about as wooden as it's possible to be. However, there's at least one more stylistic oddity. The night after his first, successful cheating, John is haunted in bed by an apparition - the disembodied head of his teacher. This reminds me of a convention used in old romance comics, of all things!
While films like this certainly aren't great art, they are utterly fascinating as expressions of the concerns of their era. With its unusual approach, "Cheating" (along with "The Other Fellow's Feelings", in my opinion) is a stand-out of the genre.