Monday, June 28, 2010

It’s A Racket





In the early days of TV, when the price of sets was high enough to keep them out of a lot of American living rooms, the success of this fledgling industry was less than assured. 

Coverage by broadcasting stations was spotty at best, until about 1953.


It was therefore common to try to produce TV shows for as little money as possible. Most shows were broadcast live, or delayed broadcast by Kinescope, and few ventured outside of the studio or stage.

The famous gamble by Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball to film their I Love Lucy show proved the value of reruns and syndication, but prior to that filmed shows were somewhat unusual.

Produced as a syndicated show by Hal Roach Studios in 1950,  Racket Squad was an exception.


Hal Roach, who had established himself as a producer of comedy shorts in the 1920s and 1930s with Laurel & Hardy and The Little Rascals, went into Television in a big way after WWII.  

Some of his studio’s more recognizable series included The Stu Erwin Show, The Gale Storm Show, and My Little Margie.  As they were produced by a movie studio, they were understandably filmed, which is one reason why they are so well remembered today.

They lived on in syndication well into the 1960s


Starring Reed Hadley as Captain John Braddock, Racket Squad – like Dragnet - attempted to portray police procedures more realistically than other detective shows.



Hadley, you may remember, was the voice of Red Ryder on the radio, and would go on to star in Public Defender on TV after Racket Squad.   He appeared in numerous movies and TV shows from the late 1930s until his death in the early 1970s.



Racket Squad took the unusual route of profiling `white collar’ crime.  Bunko artists, grifters, and con men.


Each show opened with a prologue, delivered by Hadley:


What you are about to see is a real-life story, taken from the files of the police racket and bunco squads, business protective associations and similar sources around the country. It is intended to expose the confidence game - the carefully worked-out frauds by which confidence men take more money each year from the American public than all the bank robbers and thugs with their violence.


The `meat’ of the show dramatized some confidence game, and the police investigation and arrest.   The show was part entertainment, and part educational, wrapping up with the same epilogue each week.


I'm closing this case now - or rather, the courts will - but there'll be others, because that's the way the world is built. There are people who can slap you on the back with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. And it could happen to you


Racket Squad was nominated for 2 Emmy Awards during its 98 episode run.


We’ve four episodes of Racket Squad available on the Internet Archive  (and more may arrive over time).



Racket Squad The Salted Mine (1951)

Racket Squad: The Bill of Sale Racket


Racket Squad: Kite High

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Failed Pilots Part Deux





In part II of our look at failed TV pilots I’d planned to incorporate an episode of the unsold Screen Gems series Tales of Frankenstein, but alas, it has been removed from the Internet Archive.


We are left with 3 comedies from the early 1960s, the first one being Daddy-O  from 1961.  This failed pilot starred Don Defore shortly before he hit TV pay dirt playing the beleaguered patriarch `Mr. B’ in Hazel.


Considering the pedigree – this series was created by Max Schulman of Dobie Gillis fame (and yes, that’s Shelia `Zelda’ James, of Dobie Gillis,  playing his TV daughter) – it is a little surprising that this show was such a miss.


Still, it’s worth a look back.



Failed TV Pilot: 'Daddy-O' (1961)



Candy Moore was a familiar child actress of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with roles in shows like Leave it to Beaver,  The Donna Reed Show, and most famously, playing Lucy’s daughter for one year on the revamped Lucy Show in 1962.


She shot a pilot based on the play  Time out for Ginger which ran for 248 performances at the Lyceum Theatre in 1952-53.   Subsequently, the plot was used in several productions including a movie with Patty Duke called  Billie.


You’ll find Roberta `The Virginian’ Shore and Margaret `Wicked Witch of the West’ Hamilton in the cast as well. 


While not picked up as a series, this pilot was shown (as were many others) on a summer replacement show for Red Skelton called The Comedy Spot, which aired on CBS.



Failed TV Pilot: 'Time Out for Ginger'  



Next we have another `family’ comedy called Little Amy, starring Debbie Megowan – another recognizable child actress of the era.  She appeared on TV shows such as Grindl, My Three Sons, Tales of Wells Fargo, and Route 66 along as in movies such as Days of Wine and Roses.


A completely forgettable 30 minutes except for brief appearances by three guest stars; a very young Jack Nicholson along with Jack Albertson, and Doodles Weaver.




Failed TV Pilot: 'Little Amy' (Produced 1962) 


If these three failed pilots all seem vaguely similar, it is probably because in the early 1960s there were frequent calls for more `family friendly’ programming on the TV networks.

Prime time TV in the 1950s often relied upon violent police or western format shows, where the bad guys ultimately were apprehended or killed (a morality tale), but not before a certain amount of carnage was depicted.


The rising rate of juvenile delinquency, and anti-social behavior was frequently blamed on the violent content of TV.


Of course, the same charges were levied in the 1930s and 1940s against radio shows as being too graphic, and destroying the morals of society.


Comedies (sit-coms) and variety shows therefore were slotted into the early hours of prime time to placate the critics, and `adult’ oriented programming aired later in the evening.  


To fill the void left by the dramas of the 1950s, a lot of comedy clones were created.


Luckily, in an era where Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons, and Ozzie and Harriet defined the ideal TV family, some of these lesser shows were never picked up.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Failed TV Pilots



Given that some network executive apparently thought that `My Mother The Car’ was good idea in 1965 and that `Dusty’s Trail’ would be a hit in 1973, you might be wondering just how bad a pilot episode has to be not to be picked up for the fall TV season.

Well, wonder no more.


Today we’ve four TV pilots that, for a variety of reasons, were never picked up by the network.  

Some were, admittedly, pretty bad.


Others were simply too derivative of other shows, or in some cases, simply the wrong show at the wrong time.  Either ahead or behind of its time.


Like crude stone tools found in a natural history museum, these may not be something you would want to view every day, but they are interesting bits of our past.


So pop some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy some of these cringe worthy efforts from the the late 1940s to the early 1960s.


First, we’ll go back.  Waaaaay back.


To October 12th, 1949 and the filming of a proposed TV show called Jerks of All Trades, starring The Three Stooges (Shemp, who took over after Curley’s stroke in 1946, is the third stooge).

The idea was, the boys would destroy a different profession on ABC TV on a weekly basis.  In the opening episode, they play interior decorators.   The pilot was filmed in one day.

The only problem was, Columbia Pictures, which had the boys under contract, refused to allow the pilot or any subsequent series that would compete with their two-reeler franchise to air.   So on the shelf this show went.


"The Three Stooges" Failed Pilot - Moe Howard

This episode never did air, but a version of this skit was performed by the Stooges on the Ed Wynn show in 1950 or 1951.




Joan Davis (See The OTHER Wacky Housewife Of The 1950’s) tried to parlay the success of her radio show by bringing it to CBS TV in 1950, but this oddity didn’t make the cut.


For reasons to me unknown, it runs 33 minutes without commercials.   Too long for a half hour slot, and too short for an hour.   Davis would fare far better two years later with I Married Joan, but this does have some curiosity value.


Failed TV Pilot: "Let's Join Joanie" (1950)



Next we get the first TV incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, from British TV.    This is a capable enough half hour drama, with pretty good production values for the time, but was never picked up for additional episodes.


Sheldon Reynolds would fare better in 1954, with a one year run of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (see Sherlock Holmes On The Small Screen and  Holmes Revisited.

Still, this production is not without its charms.


Sherlock Holmes - The Man Who Disappeared




Considering the talent of it’s star - Dave O’Brien -it’s a wonder that Meet The O’briens didn’t fare better than it did. 

What?  You don’t remember Dave O’Brien?


While not a `big’ star by any means, O’Brien was a staple in `B’ movies from the 1930’s into the 1950s.   He was a hoofer in 42nd Street, and succumbed to the evils of REEFER MADNESS (1936).  During the early 1940s, O’Brien found work in Monogram’s East Side Kids pictures.


He was Captain Midnight in the 1942 serial, and played in 22 of the Texas Ranger movies of the mid 1940s.   He was often to be found in (and writing) the Pete Smith Shorts for MGM, where he was usually played a hapless male trying to make a repair or renovation.  His stunt work and pratfalls were famous.


He even won two prime time Emmy’s as a staff writer for Red Skelton.  So this one-time effort from 1954 is an uncharacteristic misfire in his career.


 "Meet The O'Briens" (1954)

I’ll be back next time with four more failed pilots for your viewing pleasure.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Summer Heat – 6 Classic Noirs




In film noir men were desperate, women were dangerous, the milieu was seedy, and the streets and back alleys were always dark with just the harsh glare of neon to interrupt the shadows.


It was a stark, gritty, cynical, and often sexually charged film genre, and while not the only game in Hollywood from the mid 1940s to the late 1950s, practically defined the era.


It is said that film noir just `happened’, that it wasn’t planned.  The term film noir wasn’t even coined until 1946, several years after the genre took hold.


Like pornography, defining film noir is difficult.  But you know it when you see it. 


The characters are usually drawn into a nightmarish world, with no way out.  Happy endings, as in life, are a rarity.


The stories often leapt from the pages of pulp magazines and authors of hard boiled detective novels. Names like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett,  Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich.




I’ve select 6 examples of film noir to fill your hot summer nights.  All are available on The Internet Archive.  



First stop,  The Amazing Mr. X  (1948)

A little film with a lot of cinematic style, this B movie is far better than the title suggests.


In the UK it was released as `The Spiritualist’, and that better describes it, as this films takes us into the dark and seedy world of phony mystics.  At 78 minutes, this film doesn’t overstay its welcome, and Terhan Bey gives a terrific performance. 




The Crooked Way  (1949) Starring John Payne

Take one war hero with a silver star, but suffering from amnesia, and send him home only to discover that he had a criminal past and is wanted by the cops for crimes he cannot remember . . . and you have the ingredients for this classic little noir.


In short order he is pursued by the cops, beaten by the mob, and framed for murder.  Welcome to his nightmare . . .




The Chase (1946)

Robert Cummings, better known for his light comedies of the 1930s through the 1950s, occasionally took a turn in dramatic roles.  Here he plays (another) returning veteran from WWII, who is hired as a chauffeur for a gangster, and ends up on the run with the gangster’s wife.



Please Murder Me (1956) Starring Raymond Burr and Angela Landsbury.


A year before he personified Perry Mason on TV, Raymond Burr played a different attorney in Please Murder Me.  He gets his client off, only to discover she really was a murderess. 


Wracked with guilt, he then plots how to bring her to justice . . . .  I won’t give away the ending.



Stranger, The  Starring Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, and Loretta Young.


Perhaps the best of the movies presented today, particularly when you consider the star power involved, and the direction by `boy genious’ Orson Welles.


This is a tense cat-and-mouse game between a war crimes investigator (Robinson) and an infamous Nazi living in disguise after the war in Connecticut.



The Big Combo (1955) Cornel WIlde, Richard Conte


Another gem, well remembered for its stylish cinematography, musical score, and dark and violent themes.  


The Big Combo revolves around a mob boss (Conte), and the detective (Wilde) who is doggedly trying to bring him down, despite a lack of support from his superiors.  Look for Lee Van Cleef and a young Earl Holliman as a pair of torpedoes.


You’ll find some additional film noir selections in my essay from last year, entitled Classic Film Noir.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Patty, Maxine, And Laverne





It would be hard to find any act that personified the 1940s more closely than the Andrews Sisters.  They were a close harmony sister act, and derivative in many ways of the Boswell Sisters from a decade earlier.


The Andrews Sisters became a `overnight success’, after just 12 years of performing- often on the Vaudeville circuit- with their first hit Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen in 1938.  This became the first gold record ever garnered by a female singing group, and helped launch the then-unknown sisters into the national spotlight.



From there, they would appear in at least 15 Hollywood movies, charted 113 Billboard hits with 46 reaching the top ten. They sold more than 75 million records, and appeared on hundreds of radio shows, including their own. 


During the war years, they would cut scores of victory disks, broadcast direct to the troops on AFRS, and make countless personal appearances.  


They may not have been glamorous pinup girls like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, but they were a reminder of the `girls-next-door’ the the servicemen left behind.

In later years, they would appear on numerous TV shows, have a successful cabaret act, and even appear on Broadway.


But despite their enormous success, there were family rifts and squabbles, divorces, a 3-year break up of the act in the early 1950s, and periods of time when the sisters were reportedly not talking to each other except on stage.


Nevertheless, the trio maintained a cheerful and upbeat persona on stage, and brought hope and a sense of home to millions of G.I.s during the war.


We’ve a couple of video clips and snippets from YouTube, an Andrews Sisters movie, numerous radio shows, and some of their famous recordings for you to savor.


But first, a look at the sister act that inspired the Andrews Sisters (and a bevy of pale imitations).  The Boswell Sisters.




Connee Boswell (who was always photographed sitting either due to a childhood accident or polio – sources differ) went on as a successful solo act after the trio retired in 1936. 

You can certainly hear the Boswell influence in the Andrews Sisters recordings, although the sheer versatility of the Andrews Sisters is hard to match.   They sang Boogie-Woogie, novelty tunes, polkas, patriotic songs, love songs, and even country music and gospel.


After their first hit, Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen in 1937, the trio scored numerous top 40 singles over the next three years, including these top ten hits.


"Hold Tight, Hold Tight"
"Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel)"
"Well All Right (Tonight's the Night)"
"Say Si Si (Para Vigo Me Voy)"
"The Woodpecker Song"
"Ferryboat Serenade"
"Beat Me, Daddy, Eight To the Bar"


Ferryboat Serenade made #1 on the Billboard Chart in 1940, and by that time the Andrews Sisters were a household name.


The quintessential Andrews Sister song, one that would define not only the trio, but the war years of the 1940s as well, came in a 1941 Abbott and Costello movie called Buck Privates.

Often imitated, but never equaled.  Here are Patty, Maxine, and Laverne doing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.




In 1942, after their success in two Abbott & Costello features, the trio began to appear in movies of their own.  While most were less than stellar attempts at film making, they were popular . . . and entertaining . . . to a war weary audience.


1942’s  Private Buckaroo is a prime example.  The plot is so flimsy as to not exist, but serves simply as an excuse for some light hearted comedy, along with songs and music.


Still, this is not a bad way to spend 67 minutes.


Appearing along with the Andrews Sisters are Dick Foran, Joe E. Lewis, Shemp (the `forgotten stooge’) Howard, Mary Wickes, and a very young Donald O’Conner.



Private Buckaroo (1942)



During the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, the only singing sensation to outsell the Andrews Sisters was Bing Crosby.   So, quite naturally, record producers decided to team them up . . . and the happy result was perhaps the most successful collaboration of two recording acts in musical history.


The following links will take you to more than 3 dozen of their collaborative recordings, including Cool Water, Don’t Fence Me InAccentuate The Positive, and Pistol Packing Mama. 


Bing-Crosby-Andrews Sisters-11-20

bing-Crosby-Andrews Sisters-21-30
bing-Crosby-Andrews Sisters-31-38


And here you’ll find a repository of more than 45 of the trio’s 78’s, including many obscure or forgotten (sometimes with good reason) songs.

Andrews Sisters-38-84 


On the radio . . .  well, you could pretty much catch the Andrews sisters on some musical variety show every week from the late 1930’s until the early 1950’s. 


Shows like Mail Call, and Command Performance (both beamed to the troops overseas) often had them as guest stars, or even hosts.   The girls even had a radio show of their own, The Eight to the Bar Ranch, with Curt Massey. 


It was later renamed the N K Eight to the Bar Ranch as a nod their two sponsors, Nash Automobiles and Kelvinator.


Tennessee Bill’s OTR Archive has 19 half hour episodes of the 8-to-the Bar show which may be listened to, or downloaded here.


The trio ended the decade of the 1940’s with their biggest hit, I Can Dream, Can’t I which featured a plaintive solo by Patty, a departure from the close harmony for which the girls were famous.    The next year, they followed with I want to be Loved . . . again, a huge hit.


During the early 1950s their personal appearances often sold out, including at the prestigious London Palladium in 1951. 


But  the group broke up for 3 years in the early 50’s, for reasons that have been held privately, and by the time they got back together their place in popular music had been captured by a handful of `new’ sister acts like the McGuire Sisters, the DeCastro Sisters, and `girl groups’ like the Chordettes

There were attempts to make comebacks in the late 1950s and into the 1960's, but none really clicked.  The new mover and shaker in the music world was Rock & Roll, and many of the mainstream entertainers of yesteryear found themselves in the same position.


Laverne became sick with cancer in 1966 and died a year later.  In 1968, Maxine retired, leaving Patty to perform as a solo act. 


They reunited in 1974, after the Bette Midler revival of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy brought attention to their music to a whole new generation, to star in Over Here!, which opened on Broadway on March 6, 1974.  The show ran for 341 performances, and the cast album charted.


Maxine died in 1995, while Patty is still thankfully with us at the age of 92.