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One of my favorite shows on early TV was "Death Valley Days" featuring
The Old Ranger (Stanley Andrews). Being a child, the only problem was
the time schedule. On KARK, Channel 4, out of Little Rock, Akansas, the
syndicated "Death Valley Days" came on just before sign-off but at
least it was on a weekend night so I didn't have to worry about school
the next day.
Sleepy-eyed, I would watch the 20-mule team pull the borax wagons across the sands as Josef Bonime's enchanting "Bugle Theme" sounded me awake. The moving picture of the team transformed into a picture on the wall as the camera panned down to The Old Ranger seated at his desk. He spoke as he slowly rose to greet the viewers:
"Howdy, I'm The Old Ranger and Death Valley is my stamping ground. Many's a tale of adventure I'm going to tell about Death Valley country. True stories, mind you...I can vouch for that...on behalf of these two products, 20-Mule Team Borax and Boraxo. And now here's Rosemary DeCamp to tell you about it."
The stories were good one with many a veteran character actor appearing in various episodes. At times the story would be built around the sponsor's product. One such episode I saw recently was entitled "The Big Team Rolls," starring Judd Holdren of Commando Cody fame. The seasoned character actor, Tom London, was featured as the muleskinner, Sandy McPherson.
Judd Holdren as Dana Emerson plays a tenderfoot from Boston who comes to Death Valley to be near his sweetheart (Lucille Barkley) whose father operates the borax works that transport the borax across the mountains and desert to Mojave, California, twenty miles round trip. Dana is tested by being assigned the swamper job. To complicate the novice's first trip, a disgruntled employee attempts to sabotage the journey and steal the payroll brought back from Mojave. Dana must prove his worth to himself, to his dearly beloved and to her father.
Gene Autry's Flying A Productions produced the program. Many of the actors, including Stanley Andrews (The Old Ranger), were part of Gene's stock company of Thespians. Andrews appeared on several of the Gene Autry Show episodes as did many of the other featured players on Death Valley Days.
As with any anthology-type series, the quality of the shows varied from week to week, but each one was entertaining and at times educational. Fans of TV westerns should enjoy Death Valley Days.
Since my family only received NBC affiliate KARK out of Little Rock,
Arkansas, I only remember the Perry Como Show from its hour-long format
beginning in 1955 and running on Saturday nights from 7:00 pm until
8:00 pm CST through 1959. It then changed to Wednesday nights at 8:00
pm until it left the air in 1963. It was a program I seldom missed,
especially during its first few seasons.
The reader might be surprised at the number of hit records Perry Como released in the 1940's and 1950's. Often he charted several songs at the same time. Even with the advent of rock 'n' roll, Perry continued placing songs at the top of the pop charts. He used his show to introduce and to promote his recordings. I remember such hits as "Round and Round," "Hot Diggity," "Catch a Falling Star," and "Magic Moments" being sung for the first time on his show.
His program was almost as easy-going as his crooning. He would begin with "Dream along with me, I'm on my way to a star...." then chat for a few minutes with the studio audience and the viewers at home in a relaxed manner reminding many of President Franklin Roosevelt's famous fireside chats only with much less gravity.
Frank Gallop was the announcer with a deep voice, contrary to Perry's, who always confronted Perry from offstage with some sort of humorous dilemma. Frank became so popular with Perry's fans that he even released a few comedy recordings himself, such as the hilarious "The Ballad of Irving."
One part of the Perry Como Show that was well received by the viewers was the "We get letters" segment each week. A bevy of beauties would serenade Perry with "Letters, we get letters, we get stacks and stacks of letters!" Perry would then attempt to comply with a request from a home viewer, usually a particular song the writer wanted Perry to sing.
Perry's show was such a phenomenal hit that he was able to attract big name guests which made the show even more appealing. Perry would joke around with the guests who in turn would make amusing quips, for example, one guest called him "Perry Coma." Another would comment on Perry being a barber before becoming a singer and so on; all in fun and the audience loved it.
Perry always tried to end on a serious note, usually doing a religious or inspirational type selection. The closing theme was, "You Are Never Far Away." Perry was assisted by the Ray Charles Singers (not the famous soul musician, Ray Charles) and the Louis Da Pron Dancers.
Though I was in my early teens and an avid rock 'n' roll fan, I still enjoyed watching The Perry Como Show as one of the finest variety shows on the tube at the time.
Basically, this Republic western from the late 1940's is Walter Brennan
all the way with admirable support from two of his sons in the film,
Jim Davis and Jack Lambert. The so-called star of the show, Rod
Cameron, is only so-so and the rest of the cast mainly plod through
their lines without much inspiration; this includes the likes of
Forrest Tucker, Jack Holt, and "Big Boy" Williams, three screen
stalwarts who usually did much better in the acting department.
Walter Brennan as the title character, Brimstone, reprises his Old Man Clanton role from "My Darling Clementine," which he parodied twenty years later (still an old man) in the magnificent "Support Your Local Sheriff!" Jack Lambert as the dullard son, Luke (reprised by Bruce Dern in "Support Your Local Sheriff!"), has one of the best lines in the film. Pop Brimstone uses the expression, "...Just as sure as the world is round." Surprised by his dad's revelation, Luke blurts out, "Round?" Later, Luke is still puzzled and tries to convince his dad otherwise. "I've been thinking, Pop. The world can't be round...cause if it was, the people down in China would be standing on their heads." Luke comments while distorting his face and body to indicate the predicament of those living on the bottom of the earth. Why Jack Lambert never received his just deserts for his acting talents remains a mystery.
The story is a bit lopsided and in places seems made-up as the film progresses. Generally, it's about the Courteen family of ranchers led by the old man who refuses to accept the end of the open range. He continues to fight a war against homesteaders, nesters, squatters, and the like by robbing stagecoaches of loot being transported for the interlopers. Suddenly, a mysterious stranger appears on the scene to begin robbing the robbers. The mysterious stranger teams up with the local sheriff to ferret out the real thieves. In the process he becomes involved in a split within the Courteen family concerning the youngest son, Bud (James Brown), in love with a nester, Molly Bannister (Adrian Booth). Bud finds himself in trouble with the law and with his own father. Unraveling the twisted plot is not easy but by the end of the show a satisfactory resolution takes place with a few surprises along the way.
Keeping with its reputation for delivering plenty of action, Republic makes sure there are fisticuffs and chases. The studio would possibly have been better off shooting "Brimstone" in black and white. The color leaves much to be desired with a few tinted black and white inserts. This may have been a bigger budget film for Republic, but cost cutting is still obvious with rear projections and backdrops clearly visible in several "outdoor" scenes. "Brimstone" is still a pleasing shoot-'em-up for fans of the genre.
Medgar Evers' tragic murder in Jackson, Mississippi, was overshadowed
by the cold-blooded killing of three civil rights workers near
Philadelphia, Mississippi, a year later. So too this film has been
overshadowed by an earlier movie, "Mississippi Burning," about the
Philadelphia homicides. I was even confused by the similar titles and
accidentally rented "Ghosts of Mississippi," thinking it to be the
earlier film. This is too bad because "Ghosts of Mississippi" is a
winner all the way and Medgar Evers' assassination was as significant,
if not more so, than the later dastardly acts of hate and malevolence.
Most of my generation remember one of Dylan's early recordings he wrote called "Pawn in the Game" about the Medgar Evers murder in which Dylan asserts that the coward who pulled the trigger and shot the civil rights leader in the back in front of his wife and three children was carrying out what the racist elements in Mississippi and in the nation as a whole had brainwashed the simple mind into executing. That the endemic racism in American was the real perpetrator of the heinous deed which deprived our society of one of its gifted leaders. "Ghosts of Mississippi" concentrates more on the scumbag who squeezed the trigger, played with élan by James Woods, almost a carbon copy of the killer in both speech, mannerisms, and looks.
James Woods is a member of a strong cast led by Whoopi Goldberg as the widow, Myrlie Evers, spending her life seeking a degree of justice for her husband and children. William H. Macy adds much needed humor in the role of Charlie Crisco, a member of the prosecution team. Unfortunately, his part is mainly limited to the middle section of the movie. Why director Rob Reiner and writer Lewis Colick decided to turn Macy's character into a cameo during the latter part of the film is unclear.
A subplot in the film is the growing involvement of prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin) in the case, opening his eyes not only to the past evils of the society in which he lives but also hostile residue left by the civil rights movement in the state. Married to the daughter of one of Mississippi's most racist judges causes him to be blind to much of the injustice prevalent around him. Significantly, his wife is named Dixie (Virginia Madsen). The change that takes place in his character (which also involves a change in wives) as he is drawn deeper into the thirty-year-old case is pinpointed by his inability to continue to sing "Dixie" to his daughter to chase away the ghosts she sees at night. In explaining to her that the song might actually be encouraging the ghosts to reappear in her bedroom, the two opt for "Old McDonald" as a more suitable goodnight song.
This rather routine Durango Kid outing is enlivened by several good
musical numbers, three written and performed by Smiley Burnette, a much
better musician and songwriter than comedian, and one written by Bob
Newman of the western swing group, The Georgia Crackers, not up to the
standards of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys but still well above
average. There is also a fine rendition of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks
at Home (Swanee River)," given a western twist by the band.
Of Smiley's three songs, "Don't Be Mad At Me," "Swamp Woman Blues," and "Coyote Song," "Swamp Woman Blues" is the most innovative. It's only 1946 and already Smiley is helping lead the way toward hillbilly boogie that would later be perfected by the likes of the Delmore Brothers featuring the virtuoso harmonica player from the hills of Arkansas, Wayne Rainey. Smiley's mouth harp has a blues feeling to it seldom heard by white players of the day. It's good that Smiley's music is so invigorating for his attempt at humor in "The Fighting Frontiersman" is lame.
The story by pulp fiction writer Ed Earl Repp concerns the discovery of Santa Anna's treasure by prospector Cimmaron Dobbs played by funny man Emmett Lynn, with two mules (Elmer and Amarillie)that often get more laughs than Lynn. Supposedly Mexican President/Generalisimo Santa Anna hid the treasure after the war to keep it out of the hands of the Texicans but the script doesn't make it exactly clear which war, the War for Texas Independence or the Mexican War. The beginning of the film indicates that it may have been the Civil War, but that would be historically incorrect.
Cimmaron was grub staked by his old pals in the saddle, Steve Reynolds (Charles Starrett) and Smiley Burnette (Smiley Burnette). Cimmaron has a better looking pal at the local saloon, a songbird named Dixie (Helen Mowery). It's not completely clear just whose side Dixie is on. Not long after Cimmaron's conversation with Dixie about his recent discovery, explaining to her that he was sending for Steve and Smiley to assist and protect him, that John Munro (Robert Filmer) and his three henchman, one being the famous stuntman Jock Mahoney as Waco, kidnap the old timer, hide him out, then try to torture him into telling them where the loot is hid. Steve's alter ego, The Durango Kid, is determined to free Cimmaron and share the wealth with the town folks.
Though there is plenty of action that makes one think of a Republic feature, much stock footage is used, giving the avid Durango Kid fan a feeling of déjà vu. Some of the editing of the old with the new is so amateurish that at times the old film and the new film are out of sync.
As the Gene Autry Show, one of the first TV westerns, progressed, with
few exceptions, it got better and better. This entry from the fourth
season is one of the funniest in the series. Pat Buttram finds an ideal
foil for his humor in veteran character actor, Hank Patterson (later
Fred Ziffel of "Green Acres") as the stagecoach driver, Idaho, who is
forced to sample Pat's cooking using Pats new "housewife's delight"
kitchen inventions, such as a flapjack flapper. When Idaho exclaims
that he doesn't like flapjacks, just hot, black coffee and some ham and
eggs, Pat explains that his flapjacks don't taste like flapjacks."
"What do they taste like?" inquires a surprised Idaho. With a straight
face, Pat replies, "Chicken."
In each episode, Pat usually had a gimmick for laughs. Mainly the gimmicks were somewhat silly, appealing to kids only, but this time his kitchen inventions are genuinely funny, for example the no tears facial equipment for pealing onions, goggles with a clothes pin attached for the nose. Even his jokes are better this time. Pat refers to Eli Whitney as the inventor who made gin out of cotton.
Gene was billed as a singing cowboy; so his legion of fans expected him to warble a ditty or two. But his admirers mainly wanted action and plenty of it. In his TV show, Gene would sing only one song placing it most often at the beginning or at the end of the show. That way the action was not interrupted or slowed down by a melody. He seldom if ever introduced new songs on his TV show. He mainly sang songs made famous by himself from his recording career or those sung in the movies he made over a twenty-year period. For "Outlaw of Blue Mesa," Gene sings a few verses of "When The Bloom Is On The Sage (When It's Round-Up Time In Texas)" at the first of the program, without his guitar.
Gene Autry's Flying A Productions employed a stable of character actors and new discoveries that helped make the series successful. In "Outlaw of Blue Mesa," Gene's protégé, Dick Jones, is the alleged outlaw. At the time he was known as The Range Rider's sidekick, Dick West. The Range Rider (stuntman Jock Mahoney)was another of Gene's associates. Gale Davis appeared in several of the earlier episodes of The Gene Autry Show, but now had her own series, "Annie Oakley," which Gene's Flying A Productions produced. Denver Pyle (later Briscoe Darling on "Andy Griffith," Uncle Jesse Duke on "The Dukes of Hazzard," and Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in "Bonnie and Clyde") plays the boss outlaw. This was one of his many appearances on The Gene Autry Show, usually portraying one of the outlaws.
The story is fairly routine but entertaining. Young Tom Jackson (Dick Jones) is attempting to get even with the couple he holds responsible for the death of his father, who died in a mine explosion. Tom believes that his father's business partner, Edward Hadley (Pyle), and Ed's wife, Marie (Claire Carleton), were behind the explosion, even though Ed is now in a wheelchair as a result of the so-called accident. Tom, as the Kid, dressed in black wearing a mask, robs stagecoaches carrying Ed and Marie's money made from the mines. To Tom's surprise, the money boxes are empty, but no one believes him except for his sister, Sally (Margaret Field). Gene is an insurance detective sent to investigate the robberies. Naturally, Pat tags along to either help or hinder. What Gene and Pat uncover is a surprise for all.
Jack Norton made a good living playing drunks. His face, if not his
name, is familiar to anyone who has seen Hollywood films from the
1930's and 1940's. Often his parts were small ones where his appearance
would add to the hilarity of the scene, sort of a drunk in the crowd
type scenario. When attempting to broaden his comedic approach as in
this short, he usually faltered. He was an actor effective in only one
role, somewhat like an early version of Foster Brooks.
In "The Stupor-Visor," Norton is pitted against his wife, played by Kitty McHugh, a lady with a lot of charm and better comic timing than Norton exhibits, when the couple suddenly find themselves running against each other as supervisor, she chosen by a women's club, he by a men's group. The script written by director Charles E. Roberts must have looked good on paper with lots of fun written in for a battle of the sexes farce. Unfortunately, the gags are ancient ones that even Milton Berle wouldn't have touched.
If you think releasing a cage full of rats in a room full of women is funny, then you'll laugh your self to death watching "The Stupor-Visor." Otherwise, beware.
The mystery part of this made-for-TV flick is better than the comedy
routines, most of which fall flat, though there are a few skits that
tickle the funny bone, such as the shootout in a sex toy shop. To enjoy
the show, the viewer must accept John Ritter as a philandering
stockbroker crafty enough to foil big time wise guys; Markie Post as a
Hollywood hooker named Marla, without a pimp or madam; and Cindy
Williams as Catherine Todsen, the most naive woman since Doris Day was
a virgin. If you can dig this, then you should enjoy the shenanigans of
the two opposites, Marla and Catherine, trying to solve the mystery of
who killed the husband/lover Donald Todsen (John Ritter), gunned down
in the line of duty (while being serviced by Marla). Add to this pot of
mirth two of the dumbest cops since Rosewood and Taggart in "Beverly
Hills Cops," and you have a dukes mixture that works part of the time.
Though this film predates the big hit "Pretty Woman" by two years, its depiction of prostitution is just as far-fetched, Marla being viewed as a victim of society's pliers and philosophizing about the virtues of being a streetwise harlot. Only once does Catherine bring up the ugly subject of such negative aspects of the trade as disease. Marla makes a short rationalization in reply then changes the subject. Making such a virile and demeaning profession glamorous is questionable, especially when it is compared to the dreary, boring, unexciting lifestyle lived by Catherine.
"Tricks of the Trade" as a double entendre is an apropos title since Marla uses her tricks of the trade to track down the killer and uncover the hidden loot. The viewer may also be surprised when the real murderer is revealed at the end.
The definitive movie Sherlock Holmes is Basil Rathbone; the definitive
movie Dr. Watson is Nigel Bruce. Together, these two brilliant actors
made fourteen Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946, most of them
loosely based on stories by Arthur Conan Doyle; a few based on Doyle
stories in name only. All are thrilling, exciting excursions into the
realm of mystery and deductive reasoning, even the later low-budget
The original pairing of the super sleuth with his bumbling if lovable assistant portrayed by Rathbone and Bruce was in "The Hound of the Baskervilles," where star billing went to Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville. The popularity of Holmes and Watson showed the studio that the audience cared more for the two supporting players than for the somewhat stiff Greene. Next time in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," Rathbone and Bruce deservedly received top billing.
During World War II with England in peril from the Luftwaffe, Holmes and Watson were utilized to booster the war spirit. Holmes could be heard at the end of the war-time films haranguing his fellow countrymen and their ally, the United States, about patriotism and gallantry. Winston Churchill was touted as the savior of his nation.
"Pursuit to Algiers," based on Doyle's "The Return of Sherlock Holmes," finds the crafty detective helping escort Nikolas (Leslie Vincent), heir of a foreign country and a target for conspirators, to assume his crown following the assassination of his predecessor. There are many clever scenes involving Dr. Watson unknowingly being used as a decoy to protect Nikolas. When Nikolas' supporters first contact Holmes surreptitiously, they employ a ruse involving a fish and chips cypher, beyond Watson's grasp. In the process Watson is propositioned by a hooker who calls the good doctor, Ducky, much to his chagrin. Holmes takes the high road by plane; Watson takes the low road by boat. There is much chicanery aboard the ship that takes up most of the movie. The ending may come as a surprise for many.
One of the high points of "Pursuit to Algiers" is Watson's story of "The Giant Rat of Sumatra." Entreated by his fellow passengers to tell about one of Sherlock Holmes' greatest adventures, Watson volunteers to entertain all with his giant rat fable. His use of inanimate objects on the table for purposes of illustration to make the exploits he relates more colorful is well worth the price of admission.
There are more songs than usual for a Sherlock Holmes outing. Such traditional Scottish airs as "Flow Gently Sweet Afton," sung by Marjorie Riordan as a girl from Brooklyn named Sheila Woodbury with something hidden in her sheet music satchel and "Loch Lomond," sung by Watson himself, not only serve as icing but are utilized to embellish the plot.
The twelfth in the Sherlock Holmes series and coming at the end of the war, "Pursuit to Algiers" is one of the most entertaining of the lot and there is no rousing speechifying by Holmes at the end. Those speeches were wonderful morale buildings at the time, but are a bit quaint for today's audiences.
"Four Daughters" begins as just another clone of "Little Women" type
melodrama. A single father with four musically talented eligible
daughters has his hands full trying to keep them in line and guide them
in their courting rituals. What turns the film around is the sudden
appearance of a new Hollywood star, some critics say the first
anti-hero long before James Dean graced the big screen. From the time
the dark, foreboding figure of Mickey Borden (John Garfield) appears at
Ann Lemp's (Priscilla Lane) gate splashing his self-pity and doomed
philosophy on the rest of the cast, "Four Daughters" becomes much more
than just a chick flick.
Though Garfield is the main reason to watch "Four Daughters," there are other flashes of brilliance to enjoy. Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz, later responsible for such gems as "Casablanca" and "Mildred Pierce," pinpoints certain images with his camera (aided by cinematographer Ernest Haller of "Rebel Without A Cause" fame) that sticks in the viewers mind, for example the screeching gate that Ann's first suitor, Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn), swings on so merrily becomes symbolic of the shifts in moods and affections by those who use it.
That Garfield delivers the standout performance is obvious, but the rest of the cast keeps up with him most of the way. The underrated Jeffrey Lynn plays his role to perfection, as the neglected suitor whose love for his cherished Ann never falters even when she's with another man. Claude Rains, somewhat miscast as the father of the four coming-of-age young women, gives a fine portrayal of a set upon doting family head who gets lost in the shuffle. The three Lane Sisters, already famous for their musical abilities, turn into accomplished actresses, playing their parts well. A raft of supporting actors, including Dick Foran, Frank McHugh, May Robson, and Eddie Acuff, makes it all believable.
How opposites attract is part of the ploy for touching the quick of the viewer's imagination. Ann is the eternal optimist, even when she and Mickey are down and out. She always looks on the bright side and like so many caught in the pliers of the Great Depression in those days, she saw prosperity just around the corner. Mickey recites an entire list of bad things that have happened to him seeking company in his misery from Ann, which Ann refuses to do. Mickey expects to go out with a bolt of lightning striking him dead as he rounds the corner of life. Mickey has meager talent as a composer; Ann has talent to spare as a singer and musician. Ann is big on beauty; Mickey is big on personality in a warped sense of a way. And the differences go on and on. How all this is reconciled in the end is an important part of the movie, not to be missed.
See "Four Daughters" for John Garfield's doozy of an acting debut on the big screen. The only time he was better came seven years later when he again mesmerized the film goers with one of the greatest screen performances ever, as Frank Chambers in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," opposite the equally charismatic Lana Turner. But also watch "Four Daughters" to catch important elements that may be missed if too much concentration is placed on the star of the show.
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