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Picnic (1986 TV Movie)
Undistinguished but adequate
13 March 2016
This televised version of a stage production is unlikely to supplant memories of the 1955 film version which Daniel Taradash so skillfully adapted to the CinemaScope screen but, judged on its own, it's a respectable take on a play that might almost be called an American classic. Casting and performance are all-important in this kind of venture and the results here are varied. Dana Hill makes a splendid Milly and Dick Van Patten couldn't be better as Howard. Conchata Ferrell at first doesn't seem quite right as Mrs. Potts but her larger-than-life personality soon wins out. Timothy Shelton is passable in the thankless role of Alan and Rue McClanahan has her moments as Mrs. Owens. On the other hand, Jennifer Jason Leigh can't quite bring off Madge and her semi-out-of-control hairdo is sometimes annoying. The weakness here is Michael Learned as Rosemary, the play's best part. Rosalind Russell was so much better. (The suggestion that she and Rue McClanahan should have traded parts is a good one.) As for Gregory Harrison, he doesn't quite capture the wounded little-boy-lost quality in Hal but he sure looks good with his shirt off.
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Lawman: Cornered (1960)
Season 3, Episode 13
Peter Brown again goes shirtless
28 November 2015
Just 4 weeks after first exposing his chest on the "Chantay" episode, Peter Brown again went shirtless -- though very briefly -- in "Cornered." Once again he's sleeping in the back room of the Marshal's office. There's no sheet or blanket over him and since he's bare-chested and sleeping on his back, we get a look at his upper torso. His sleep is troubled by a nightmare, however, and he wakens in a panic and sits up before realizing the nightmare isn't real. And that's that.

Though this bit of beefcake is disappointingly brief, the "Cornered" episode is well above average, dealing with the standard western themes of gunfighters and revenge but in a way that makes the story seem fresh. Thanks for this goes to Richard Matheson, a prolific writer best known for his "Twilight Zone" episodes and such sci-fi novels as "The Shrinking Man" and "I Am Legend." Alas, fans of Peter Brown's physique had to wait more than a year for a third and final look at his best chest in an episode titled "No Contest."
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Lawman: Chantay (1960)
Season 3, Episode 9
In which Peter Brown finally takes off his shirt
27 November 2015
While sleeping one night in the back room of the Marshal's office, Peter Brown is awakened by the presence of Sharon Hugueny, a teenage Indian girl whom he'd earlier befriended. Startled, Brown pushes back the covers, revealing that he's sleeping bare-chested in a clean pair of white-colored long underwear. Brown gently chides the love-struck girl for her behavior but does not, as they say, take advantage of the situation.

Finally, more than two years after the premier of "Lawman" and in the show's 85th episode, 24-year-old Peter Brown reveals his hairless chest, a chest heretofore hidden beneath long-sleeved, neatly-pressed shirts. What took so long? Other Warner Brothers westerns, such as "Cheyenne" and "Bronco," had actors who took off their shirts with pleasing regularity, but for some reason "Lawman" remained immune to this sort of "beefcake." In Peter Brown's case, this is especially puzzling since he had a torso which was easy on the eyes and since he had the potential to become one of those "heartthrobs" so dear to boy-crazy teenage girls. For whatever reason, however, the modesty continued. Brown appeared shirtless in only two more episodes: "Cornered" and "No Contest." All three of these brief bare-chest scenes occurred at night inside the Marshal's office, when Brown was aroused from his bed. In "Cornered" he wakens alone from a nightmare and in "No Contest" he's awakened by a visiting male friend. Sharon Hugueny is thus the only female to get a look at his bare chest and despite the possibilities, this scene is not played for romance. In fact, during the entire run of "Lawman," Brown is never presented as a serious object of true romantic attention. Strange.

One week later, in episode 86, John Russell finally did his only full-fledged "beefcake" scene in "Lawman" when he strips off his shirt to engage in a bare-knuckle boxing match.

Warners briefly tried to promote Sharon Hugueny by casting her as one of Troy Donahue's girlfriends in "Parrish" but her career never took off. Incidentally, the Indian man to whom she's been promised in "Chantay" is played by Dean Fredericks, soon to achieve his 15-minutes of fame by going blond and playing Steve Canyon in the short-lived TV series based on the comic strip.
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Zorro meets Robin Hood in long-ago Spain
26 October 2015
Ah, the loneliness of a movie without a single review. This Italian swashbuckler, though minor, doesn't deserve such a fate. It tells, in efficient though undistinguished fashion, a familiar tale of an evil nobleman, ensconced in a castle, who oppresses the local population. Though threatened by a revolt and worried by the spread of a plague, the nobleman spends much of his time arranging a financially-advantageous marriage between his beautiful but defiant ward and his foppish, violence-avoiding stepson. Complicating matters is the arrival of a masked swordsman, half-Zorro, half-Robin Hood, who threatens the nobleman even as he charms the beautiful ward. There are no surprises here but things move briskly and the sets and costumes are easy on the eyes. There's even a brief torture scene inside a dungeon for those who like bare-chested-male-bondage.
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Of little interest
25 June 2015
Even the top-billed presence of the doomed-to-die-young Peter Lee Lawrence, plus lots of those eye-pleasing red coats once worn by Her Majesty's soldiers, can bring life to this tired "Northwest Frontier" drama. Most of the plot, such as it is, involves a band of these British soldiers wandering off from a fort on some kind of mission whose goals and purposes are never very clearly defined. There's conflict between the enlightened Lawrence and a narrow-minded, stick-to-the-rules superior who doesn't appreciate any aspect of the local culture, and there's a pretty girl thrown in there along the way, but it all just falls unto the "killing time" category. This makes "The Brigand of Kandahar: look like "Gunga Din!"
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A notch below average
19 June 2015
True, opening episodes in a series tend to be burdened by having to make a series of introductions. This one is no exception but the introduction of the main characters as well as several recurring settings is done reasonably well. The real problem lies in the story-line which begins with a hokey scene featuring a hooded figure chasing a pretty young women on a deserted highway and which then drifts into a tiresome discussion about which gun is which in a virtually identical pair. Fortunately for the series, the scripts got better, and also fortunately for the series, Barbara Hale was soon given a bit more to do than make coffee. As for the episode's title, the "redhead" is apparently described as "restless" only for reasons of alliteration, and how does a young woman on a waitress salary afford such a fine-looking apartment?
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Good, not too "churchy"
8 June 2015
This good-looking and well-mounted film fortunately avoids the slightly sub-standard look and feel of many such movies sponsored by religious groups. Like virtually all films about Jesus, it has a crucifixion scene and it's interesting to note how this scene compares to similar scenes in the past.

Earlier Jesus movies showed him being nailed through the wrists, but revised thinking on this point has prompted recent movies to show Jesus being nailed through the wrists. Perhaps to please both points of view, "The Lamb of God" shows nails being hammered both through the palms AND then through the wrists. Unlike crucifixions in other Jesus movies, this one thankfully dispenses with those ropes which are merely there to help hold the actor's arms in place.

Earlier Jesus movies generally showed him accepting the pain of crucifixion without struggle or even murmur of complaint. In Joseph Breen's made-in-Spain Jesus movie from the late 1950s, for example, it takes 10 blows of the hammer to nail Jesus' left hand, 14 more for his right hand, 6 for his left foot and 7 for his right one. That's 37 agonizing blows from a hammer driving nails through his flesh but this Jesus lies there calmly, not squirming, not even saying "ouch." This approach has changed. It now seems okay to show Jesus reacting to his pain, even letting out a few cries. Jeremy Sisto, the star of the 1999 "Jesus," actually howls in agony and writhes in a most undignified manner as he's crucified. The Jesus in "The Lamb of God," however maintains a serene silence. His feet are not being shown nailed but this omission is not uncommon in Jesus movies.

As to whether Jesus should look frail and aesthetic or healthy and robust, "The Lamb of God" goes with the latter view. In fact, handsome Mark Deakins, who plays Jesus, might even be called a "hunk," though he has no hair on his chest. (Unless it was shaved off.) He does have hairy armpits, however, unlike Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings." In this film Jesus has no interplay with the two thieves and there's no scene of him being speared in the side.
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Animals (III) (2014)
Better than it sounds
18 May 2015
The woes of a young couple addicted to cocaine and drifting through a homeless existence in Chicago may not sound like an enticing piece of entertainment. In fact, it threatens to be one of those earnest but dreary "social problems" dramas you might go to only out of a vague sense of obligation. And the title, "Animals," doesn't help matters.

Surprisingly, and pleasingly, "Animals" proves to be not only a movie that's "good for you" but also a movie which engrosses and entertains in an easy manner which seems deceptively effortless. Much of this credit goes to the two leads, David Dastmalchian and Kim Shaw, and to the script (by Dastmalchian) which shows us the various ways these two survive through guile and petty crime. You don't approve of what they do and you certainly don't envy their lives and yet they retain a likable quality and don't seem to be that far removed from our own selves.

Each of the supporting characters is well-cast and effective.

Those seeking a movie which veers from the usual multiplex offerings would be well-advised to consider "Animals."
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The decline of a once-promising talent
6 May 2015
The original "Voodoo Academy" heralded the emergence of a new, unique talent, but as the earlier reviewer from South Carolina indicated, this talent did not grow. David DeCoteau maintained a plateau for awhile and then began to slide. "2 Voodoo Academy" has him at about rock bottom. It has only 10 or maybe 15 minutes of anything resembling substance and the rest is simply padding. (And I don't mean the crotches of those boxer-briefs worn by a cast of young men who, in general, seem second rate, even by sheer pulchritude standards.) Seeing these lads take long, lingering, soap-less showers soon grows tiring, as does the footage of waves washing onto a beach. The result is a movie which will only appeal to those who find tedium erotic.
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Sugarfoot: Ring of Sand (1958)
Season 2, Episode 1
A good episode
11 February 2015
One of the show's better episodes. Tightly constructed, well focused, it only weakens toward the end with the unnecessary and unlikely addition of an extra character. Good use is made of two actors from Warner Brothers stable of TV stars -- John ("Lawman") Russell and Edd ("77 Sunset Strip") Byrnes -- and Will Wright is nothing short of perfect as the old desert rat. Though only about 64 years old at the time of this filming, he could easily pass for a man at least ten years older. The sense of a hot, arid landscape is well conveyed. Given this climate, one wonders why John Russell wasn't given an opportunity to take his shirt off at least once. Chests like that should not be kept hidden.
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Sugarfoot: The Ghost (1958)
Season 2, Episode 4
Many points of interest
6 February 2015
An unusual episode. For one thing, it all takes place at night. In a single night, as a matter of fact. And it involves elements not usually seen in a TV western: a haunted house, a ghost, empty graves, etc. Not surprisingly, a logical explanation is eventually found for all these spooky events but not before guest star Tom Rettig (of earlier "Lassie" fame) is given a whipping across his bare back. Of course, whippings in TV westerns were hardly uncommon. Just nine days before "The Ghost" aired, a shirtless Keith Larsen endured a whipping in a "Northwest Passage" episode and just one day before that show George Montgomery felt a lash across his bare back in a "Cimarron City" episode. But most victims of whippings in TV westerns were big, stalwart men whereas Tom Rettig was young (just 16 years old) and small (barely 5'4"). Still, while not a prime example of "beefcake," Rettig has his shirt off in several scenes, including one in which he's forced to reveal the whip marks on his back. This being the 1950s, however, that rule-of-thumb applies: male nipples are OK to show but the male navel must be kept hidden as much as possible. Another interesting note. This marks an early appearance by actor Martin Landau.
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Bronco: Volunteers from Aberdeen (1960)
Season 2, Episode 11
Too many plot elements
1 February 2015
Things begin in a fresh and intriguing manner. Bronco tumbles down the steep, sheer side of an isolated, deeply-sunk water hole. He thrashes about in the water, wearing himself out, unable to find a hand-hold by which he might haul himself upwards. Slow death by drowning seems a real possibility.

Of course he's rescued and rather quickly, too, which is actually disappointing since this unique situation could have formed the basis for an entire episode. Instead it just leads into an account of a cattle drive heading toward a town desperate for the arrival of all that beef. And then the cattle drive sets up the story of a lovesick cowhand who's anxious to visit a woman in that town, an old flame, even though she's now married to someone else. And this romantic dilemma leads into a plot about robbing the local bank which, in turn, evolves into a murder case with a number of contrived twists. The episode eventually collapses under its own weight. It's as if they've tried to cram a number of story-lines into a single show.

Robert Reed (of later "Brady Bunch" fame) makes for a disarmingly clean-cut cowhand and Ty Hardin is his usual stalwart self even though he passes up several opportunities to take off his shirt. Maybe they just didn't have enough room left over for a bit of "beefcake."
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Branded: Fill No Glass for Me: Part 1 (1965)
Season 2, Episode 9
A feast of masochistic beefcake
24 December 2014
A curious feature of programs from the Golden Age of TV Westerns was their tendency to strip their heroes to the waist and then subject them to bondage or even torture situations. In today's television, the hero usually exposes his chest in romantic encounters but in a more restricted era he often removed his shirt simply to demonstrate his manly prowess.

After Chuck Connors is captured by Indians in this episode, he's seen bound hand and foot in the Indian camp with his shirt half torn off. Chief Wateekah teasingly heats the blade of Connors' broken sword over a fire, implying that he'll soon be pressing the red-hot blade against Connors' bare skin. Such isn't done but it helps establish the sadomasochistic tone of this and later scenes.

Next Connors, shirt still half torn off, is pulled by a rope behind two horses. Connors, sweaty and stumbling, actually falls down at one point and must struggle to regain his footing. Then we see that Connors has been tied spreadeagle-style between two tree trunks. His shirt has now been completely removed giving us a full look at his torso. His pants have been left on but they're low enough on his waist to reveal his navel -- a sight often avoided in the television era of the late 50s and early 60s. To complete the bondage, a gag has been tied around his mouth.

The episode ends at this point, with viewers urged to tune in next week to see the story's conclusion. During the week, it's somehow assumed that poor Connors must sweat and strain and endure hours of torment under the scorching sun. This kind of "cliffhanger" wasn't used again in a TV western until Lee Majors, stripped to the waist, was readied for a flogging inside a Mexican prison in a "Big Valley" episode from 1966 called "Legend of a General." Chuck Connors, no stranger to beefcake-bondage -- remember "The Vaqueros" episode from "The Rifleman?" -- was 44 years old when this scene was filmed but that 45-inch chest of his still looked might impressive.

Why all this masochistic suffering by heroes of TV westerns? For one thing, it allowed the hero -- usually played by a fine specimen of manhood -- to show off his physique without seeming to preen. His suffering also made him a more sympathetic figure to the audience since it demonstrated, despite his obvious strength and vitality, a degree of vulnerability. Besides, the hero couldn't very well be shown acting sadistically toward his enemies but his enemies could be shown acting sadistically toward him which would, in the process, allow him to prove his courage.
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Pretty but pretty dull
27 October 2014
Previous reviews have accurately pointed out the weaknesses of this film which has been attractively photographed in Japanese locations. Alas, one aspect of the photography only adds to the film's torpor. Too often, dialog is carried out by two characters, one of them on the left side of the CinemaScope screen and the other on the right. The lack of close-ups and a minimum of editing tend to make these scenes stiff and lifeless.

However, there is an extended sequence in a steam-room in which Robert Wagner and Ken Scott are seen with white towels wrapped around their waists. As "beefcake" goes, it's not all that much, but, hey, you take your pleasures wherever you can find 'em.
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A familiar story in an unusual setting
17 September 2013
As the earlier reviewer stated, this has the look and feel of an American "western" that's been transported to southern Africa during the Boer War. (The presence of a boy looking up to the stranger who's arrived at his family's farm - a farm called "Sunrise" - easily calls up memories of "Shane.") However, the plot falls more into the lines of "The Desperate Hours" as the farm is invaded and taken over by three deserters from the British army. Things follow predictably, (and a bit sketchily), from this point.

George Montgomery, in the twilight of his long career, plays the "Shane" character and he has two "beefcake" scenes which effectively show off his sweaty, unshaven chest. Romantic interest is supplied by Deana Martin, daughter of Dean Martin, but there's little chemistry between her and the much-older Montgomery.
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Competent "B" movie with points of interest
30 August 2013
Its title implies a "behind-enemy-lines" thriller set inside Nazi Germany, but this 1943 production is set in the good ol' U.S.A. - mostly in Southern California. It tells about a skilled counterfeiter (Dean Jagger) who finds himself suddenly sprung from prison by a well-organized group of law-breakers seeking to make use of his talents. These law-breakers, headed by John Carradine, set him up at a print-shop located next to an amusement park arcade. At first Jagger, who's held as a virtual prisoner, assumes his "benefactors" are simply criminals of the standard variety seeking to make illegal money, but gradually he discovers they are actually agents of the Third Reich endeavoring to undermine America's war effort. Jagger now vows to no longer work for them but they threaten to kill his mother unless he co-operates so Jagger then tries to find a way to alert the F.B.I. while still doing his captors' bidding.

As well as offering intriguing glimpses of American life and attitudes during World War II, this low-budget production also provides characters and a story which hold one's interest, though its story-line wavers a bit in the second half. The obligatory romance between Jagger and a young woman working at the arcade is temporarily derailed by a subplot in which Jagger tries to convert a young Nazi to the American side. In the process, the Nazi falls for the young woman and it takes some heavy-handed and not quite convincing plotting to resolve this romantic triangle.

The movie's highlight scene occurs when the Nazis decide to use force on the reluctant Jagger. He's shown, stripped to the waist, bound to his printing press, while Sidney Blackmer - yes, Sidney Blackmer - beats him 21 times across the back with a nasty-looking length of rubber hose. This being 1940s Hollywood, the hose is never shown actually striking Jagger's back and Jagger's reaction shots - he's only photographed from the shoulders up - merely show him to be mildly distressed, as if he ate something that didn't quite agree with him. Meanwhile John Carradine, who sits nearby reading a book, says: "Brutality disturbs me. Turn on the radio." Perhaps soothing music will mask the sound of that hose smashing into Jagger's back. Alas, Carradine's notion of brutality is quite limited. Any cop or prison guard would know that a rubber hose is more effectively used not on a man's back but on another, more sensitive part of his anatomy. And as for Jagger, that beating seems to have absolutely no ill effect on him, not even a back-ache.
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Bursts of action can't save muddled plot
28 August 2013
The "behind-enemy-lines-rescue" is a reliable plot but it fails here largely because the movie doesn't seem to know what point it's trying to make. Having U.S. Air Force pilots dropping gas-bombs on innocent civilians would seem to position the movie as a condemnation of American involvement in Vietnam. However, showing those Vietnamese fighting against the Americans to be commanded by brutes who rape and torture and kill helpless prisoners blurs the line between "good guys" and "bad guys." The audience is left with no one to root for, (especially since none of the characters is of any interest or value), and the movie is written in too shallow a way to allow it to claim to be "dark" or "cynical." Making things worse is the movie's tendency to pad its footage with extended and unnecessary scenes, such as all those shots of characters trudging through the jungle accompanied by monotonous music.

This movie has acquired a cult reputation, however, because of a scene from it posted on YouTube. This scene shows the torture of the two captured USAF pilots. These pilots - young, hairy, attractive, and soaked with sweat - are only seen from the waist up but apparently they've been stripped naked and apparently they're being subjected to electric shocks delivered directly to their genitals. It's rare that the movies show or even imply genital torture. It's also rare to show manly torture victims screaming at the top of their lungs as these two pilots do. (They're played by Jim Dixon and Bernard Higgins.) Compare this scene to a similar one in "Rambo 2." Sylvester Stallone is also subjected to electroshock torture but he's allowed to keep his pants on, thus putting his genitals "off-limits." He also doesn't lower himself by screaming but instead allows himself only a few grunts of discomfort. Needless to say, the torture scene in "Assault Platoon" is far more convincing, far more memorable.
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A Man Called Shenandoah: The Onslaught (1965)
Season 1, Episode 1
The right way to begin a continued-story series
8 August 2013
This curiously titled episode shows the advantages of the half-hour format for television drama. (Why has this format disappeared?) It's compact, briskly paced, and efficiently introduces both characters and plot elements. Some of these elements -- Robert Horton's ring, the enmity of the gunman who tries to kill him -- intriguingly hint at future story developments. Obviously "Shenandoah" will be a traveling show with Horton moving from place to place, thus giving the show logical opportunities to introduce new characters and new settings in each episode. But does this mean we won't again see saloon-hostess Beverly Garland? She's almost too good a character to lose. (Incidentally, her bedroom looks surprisingly large and elegant for such a small, frontier town. Queen Victoria would have felt quite at home there!) An intriguing part of this episode is its exploitation of the "beefcake" factor. Shortly after the show starts, Robert Horton, getting ready to take a bath, has his shirt off. He's then confronted by a gunman determined to kill him and a shoot-out occurs. The shoot-out turns into a chase with Horton riding off, only to be brought down by bullets. We see him lying unconscious on the ground where he's discovered by a pair of grubby prospectors. They sling the still-unconscious Horton belly-down over a horse. Horton winds up in a town where he's laid face-up on a table inside a gambling saloon. Then he's seen tucked into an upstairs bed.

Throughout this entire sequence, Horton remains gloriously bare-chested, and even after passing the age of 40, that hairy chest of his -- so familiar to "Wagon Train" viewers -- still looks mighty good. Especially pleasing are the scenes of him during the shoot-out. A bare-chested man with a gun -- what a combo!
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Cheyenne: War Party (1957)
Season 2, Episode 12
Too much plot, not enough chest
30 July 2013
There's a lot of plot squeezed into this episode, maybe too much. Cheyenne exchanges bullets with a nervous man, meets the man's wife, resists romance, confronts greedy gunmen, holds off Indians, faces torture, etc. Viewers may be more interested in two of the episode's guest stars: James Garner, miscast as a villain, and Angie Dickinson, looking surprisingly plain and subdued.

When Cheyenne falls into the hands of hostile Indians, he's staked out on the ground and threatened with hot coals being held to the soles of his bare feet. This is an early example of the "beefcake-bondage" scenes for which these TV westerns became famous, but it muffs the "beefcake" factor. Despite the show's propensity for showing off Clint Walker's chest, he's allowed to keep his shirt on in this scene. What were they thinking?! Later in the same year (1957) Richard Boone found himself staked-out by Indians in a "Have Gun Will Travel" episode and even though he couldn't compete with Clint Walker in the physique category, he did that scene gloriously bare-chested.
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Cheyenne: Quicksand (1956)
Season 1, Episode 11
Not your typical western
16 July 2013
"Quicksand" demonstrates a laudable desire to move away from the standard B-movie plots. It's actually more of a character study in which a small group of people, trapped in hazardous circumstances, must individually examine both their past lives and their future hopes. It's all rather superficial, of course, since the restrictions of a limited running time don't allow for much depth, but the efforts are pleasing and they're helped by the presence of a better-than-average cast.

One of my fellow reviewers has mentioned the cast members, such as Dennis Hopper, who went on to bigger and better things. Also worth mentioning is Norman Frederic who plays the taunting Indian chief. Several years later, under the name Dean Fredericks and with bleached blond hair, he played the lead in the "Steve Canyon" TV series. He also starred in the cult sci-fi movie "Phantom Planet" in which he has an extended "beefcake" scene which shows off his hairy chest. To play the Indian chief in "Quicksand," however, he's shaved his chest smooth.

There's no such shaving for Clint Walker, however. His "beefcake" scene here -- perhaps the best of the show's first season -- displays his chest in all its hirsute glory. You can even see his navel, something not always visible in 1950s' "beefcake." The fact that he appears bare-chested during a scene in which he's at risk and facing danger only adds to the appeal.
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Cheyenne: The Argonauts (1955)
Season 1, Episode 3
Flawed but interesting
16 July 2013
A curious episode. It attempts to fit "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" into the format of an hour-long TV show, and in the process, it tends to demote Clint Walker from a starring role to a supporting role. Its relatively brief running-time doesn't give Edward Andrews, (yes, Edward Andrews!), sufficient time to make entirely plausible his change in character, and it shortchanges a subplot involving Cheyenne's visit to an Indian village to help an ailing white woman, but the story still holds our interest and it gives Rod Taylor a pleasing role as Andrews's good-hearted partner. Taylor also gets a chance to bare his hairy chest which, though easy on the eyes, obviously can't complete with Walker's 48-incher. (This episode marks the first of many times on "Cheyenne" that Walker takes off his shirt.) In a sort of balancing act, we're introduced to both "good" Indians and "bad" Indians. But one question remains: just why was this episode called "The Argonauts?"
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General Electric Theater: No Skin Off Me (1957)
Season 5, Episode 20
Boxers and Beefcake
16 July 2013
John Ericson had kept himself in good enough condition to pose naked, at age 47, for a Playgirl centerfold. Some years earlier he played a boxer in this G.E. Theater drama from 1957 and while he kept his trunks on he often appeared shirtless and sweaty and thus had ample opportunity to show off his easy-on-the-eyes physique. Ah, the 50s. Most of Ericson's ring opponents seem to be young, clean-cut white men. He even gets a chance to box a bare-chested Ronald Reagan who looks OK for a man in his mid-40s but who, perhaps, shouldn't have allowed himself to go nipple-to-nipple with the still-in-his-prime Ericson.

The story they're in is basically a three-character affair about a cocky young boxer, his older and wiser trainer, and his pretty girlfriend who's grown concerned about the way his life is heading. This is only a half-hour show so there's little time for subtlety or nuance and the ending seems a bit rushed -- and more than a bit implausible -- but seeing John Ericson shirtless and proud is an asset not to be dismissed.
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Wagon Train: The Martha Barham Story (1959)
Season 3, Episode 6
Flint McCullough almost gets tortured -- again
5 July 2013
Robert Horton, playing frontier scout Flint McCullough, was stripped of his shirt and subjected to various tortures in three episodes of the long-running "Wagon Train" series. First came "The Gabe Carswell Story" in January of 1958 in which a vengeful Indian staked him out bare-chested, in spreadeagle style, and left him to slowly roast and dehydrate under the scorching-hot sun. (This came just one month after a shirtless Richard Boone suffered the same fate in a "Have Gun Will Travel" episode.) Then came "The Ruth Marshall Story" in December of 1959 in which -- after shooting an arrow into his leg -- Indians suspended Horton by his wrists, again bare-chested, and left him to dangle with his feet off the ground until he lost consciousness. Finally, in a December of 1961 episode titled "The Traitor," Horton was tied to the side of wagon and given 20 lashes with a bullwhip across his bare back by a sergeant in the U.S. Cavalry. Together these three torture sequences constitute perhaps the high point of homoerotic sadism during that entire era of television.

"The Martha Barham Story" offers a splendid opportunity to add a fourth torture sequence to this pantheon of pain. Horton, along with a U.S. Cavalry Captain played by the semi-handsome, well-put-together Mike Road, is captured by Indians. The word "torture" has already been used several times in the dialog and the Cavalry Captain has already been tortured, though we don't see this, by having burning torches applied to the soles of his bare feet. Now he and Horton are scheduled to be tortured to death at daybreak in some unspecified manner but it will clearly involve the use of fire. Yes sir, all that hair on Horton's chest will soon be set aflame! However, the Indians make the mistake of not securing their captives for the night before the torture. True, they leave Horton and the Captain barefoot inside a ring of fire on the assumption that even when the fire dies down, these men will be unwilling or unable to walk across the glowing embers on their bare feet. Ha! (No wonder Indians always come out second-best in these encounters.) Horton simply strips off his jacket and shirt -- thus giving us the requisite look at his bare torso, nicely gleaming with sweat -- so that he can tie them around his feet. He's then able to slowly, carefully walk across those hot coals carrying his fire-crippled companion. (Security was obviously not a high priority in this particular Indian village.) After all that build-up to an orgy of beefcake, bondage, and brutality, one can't help be disappointed that Horton emerges with nothing more than a case of mildly-toasted feet. Even his shirtless scenes, which come quite late in the episode, occur at night and thus aren't well-lighted. And then there's the matter of Ann Blyth, this episode's guest star, who plays an annoying sort of woman. We're told that she and Flint McCullough had once been an "item" but this seems merely a way to assure us that Flint McCullough is "straight" despite the tender way he carried the Captain across those coals on his well-muscled shoulders.

(Mike Road, who plays the Captain, never gets to take his shirt off in this episode, perhaps to avoid competing with Horton, the show's resident "beefcake" provider. If you want to see Road's bare chest, check out a "Sea Hunt" episode which he filmed at about this same time. In this episode, titled "Underwater Beacon," Road shows off his chest which is nicely thatched with hair, particularly over the sternum.)
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A guilty pleasure
20 November 2011
It begins with the discovery of a body washed up on a beach -- a classic start to a mystery story -- but there proves to be little interest in the fate of that particular body. Murder? Accident? Suicide? The movie never delivers a satisfying answer because the body on the beach turns out to be simply a flashy introduction to the story of a troubled marriage among the idle rich. Even this aspect of the story isn't well handled because the movie doesn't seem to realize that Cliff Robertson is or at least should be the main character. He's the ex-beach boy who's now married to the wealthy Lana Turner but whose sense of decency causes him to feel guilty about living in her world of privilege. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds himself drawn to the youthful innocence of Stefanie Powers, the girlfriend of the body-on-the-beach who's come to Acapulco to investigate the situation.

However, though Robertson is the character in the compelling position, the character who undergoes the greatest degree of growth and change, the movie understandably keeps turning its attention to Lana Turner. After all, she's the top-billed star and it's with her name that the movie hopes to attract its core audience of Sunday-matinée women. Turner certainly looks good, all things considered, and she's dressed and jeweled with all the requisite glamour, but her character never comes to life and the attempt to give her depth and sympathy through the revelation of a "shocking secret" from her past simply doesn't work. The revelation seems too pat, too contrived, and the fact that it's delivered through a monologue Turner implausibly shares with her maid doesn't help matters.

Interest starts to ebb away in the second half and an effort to re- charge the movie with a bullfight sequence seems more silly than exciting. Still, there's enough of a "glow" to this old-fashioned star vehicle to qualify it as one of those "guilty pleasures" whose charms can't adequately be explained to the uninitiated.

Cliff Robertson does what he can with the material but seems glum and uncomfortable and one never really accepts that he loves Lana Turner. For her part, Turner strikes the right poses but fails to become anything more than a look-don't-touch pin-up. Acting honors actually go to Hugh O'Brien who's usually seen in nothing more than a variety of crotch-bulging swimsuits and whose hairy, sun-bronzed torso seems the very distillation of raw male sexuality. (Robertson has only two bare- chest scenes, one of them quite minor, and while he still has an attractive physique, his beefcake appeal is put on better display in the 1959 "Gidget.") Ruth Roman adds some peripheral interest to the proceedings and one wishes more had been done with the character of reluctant gigolo, Ron Husmann.
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Jessica Fletcher -- born but not yet evolved
15 October 2011
The character of Jessica Fletcher hadn't quite come into focus yet when this pilot episode was written. She seems a bit "folksier," quick to dispense home-remedies for cleaning dress stains or curing corns on feet. She has as yet only a tentative grasp on what it means to be a best-selling author and too often seems a bit bewildered about life in the Big City. The later Jessica Fletcher grew in assurance and seemed to find strength in her Cabot Cove background rather than viewing it simply as a safe retreat from a troubling Outside World. This growth in her character probably helped account for the long-running appeal of the show.

While this pilot episode has the somewhat questionable advantage of greater length, it doesn't rank as one of the show's better offerings, but it certainly has a curiosity value and it does offer a pleasing array of guest stars: Arthur Hill, Brian Keith, Anne Francis, Raymond St. Jacques, Ned Beatty, Burt Convy, etc.
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