Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Posts Of Christmas Past




While I’m looking for new Christmas & Holiday fare to write about over the next month, I thought I’d repost the links to earlier blogs I’ve posted on this festive season.


In the baker’s dozen of blogs below you’ll find scores of old time radio episodes, TV shows, and movies to choose from – plus the back story behind them.


A Command Performance Christmas
A Christmas Quickie
Christmas TV – 1950s Style
A Christmas Companion To The Cinnamon Bear
A Classic TV Christmas
Holiday Movie Fest
Christmas Karaoke
An Armed Forces Radio Holiday
Cinnamon Bear - A 72 Year-Old Christmas Tradition
A Christmas Potpourri
Two Small Miracles For The Holidays
A Bing Crosby Christmas
An Old Time Radio Christmas



Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pilot Error





In order to sell a TV series producers generally are required to film some sort of `pilot episode’. Sponsors, or the network want to know if the characters are likeable, if the premise is interesting, and whether there’s ample room for future story lines.


Given the number of truly awful TV series that have made the grade over the past 6 decades, you really have to wonder about the pilots that failed to attract a buyer.


Not all of them were bad, of course.  Some simply were too derivative of earlier shows, while others were simply ahead of their time.


In TV lore, there is probably no more famous `failed pilot’ than the first shot at making `Star Trek’.  Although NBC didn’t buy the series based on the first pilot submitted by Gene Roddenberry (they thought it was `too cerebral’) the took the unprecedented step of ordering a second pilot.


Other pilots showed promise, but required tweaking of the cast.


The pilot for what would eventually become The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally called Head of the Family, and starred Carl Reiner. Largely autobiographical, this series based on Reiner’s life as a star and writer for Your Show of Shows, failed to sell with him as the lead.



Many of these failed pilots never made the air, although a few ended up as `filler’ episodes on anthology series during the 1950s and 1960s.  Most are lost in the dustbin of TV history, although I’ve written about a few in Failed TV Pilots and Failed Pilots Part Deux.



Today, another sampling of shows that . . . for whatever reason, never made it out of the starting blocks.


First stop, Destination Space, which attempted to cash in on the burgeoning space program craze of the late 1950s.  Like it’s far more successful cousin `Men Into Space’, Destination Space attempted to portray a more realistic outer space opera.



Most of the special effects were pulled directly from the 1955 George Pal production of Conquest of Space, and so this pilot at least has the `feel’ of golden age Sci-Fi. 


Unfortunately, the plot moves slowly, despite the efforts of a cast of very familiar faces; John Agar, Harry Townes, Whitney Blake, Charles Aidman, Cecil Kellaway, and Edward Platt.


Although many reviewers have looked upon this pilot unkindly, I confess that as a child of the 1950s, I enjoyed it for nostalgic – if not artistic – reasons when I saw it recently.


You can watch it, along with the others in today’s blog, on the Internet Archive.


"Destination Space"



Next stop, a TV pilot treatment of a one of the longest running detective characters in detective fiction; Bulldog Drummond.


As I wrote in Before There Was Bond, the character of Bulldog Drummond was created in 1920 by British author Herman Cyril McNeile who wrote under the pseudonym `Sapper’.


In all, `Bulldog’ would appear in 10 novels by McNeile (and a handful of short stories), and another 9 novels penned after his death in 1937 by Gerard Fairlie and later Henry Raymond. Between 1923 and 1969 there were 2 dozen Bulldog Drummond movies made, and from 1951 to 1954 Bulldog Drummond was portrayed on the radio by Ned Weaver for the  Mutual Broadcasting System.

In 1957, in what is admittedly a lesser attempt at bringing Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond to the screen, we get a pilot that eventually aired on Douglas Fairbank’s anthology series, Douglas Fairbanks Presents.


The episode is called `The Ludlow Affair’, and it starred Robert Beatty as a vaguely Americanized Drummond, racing around 1950s London in a vintage sports car, and dealing with dangerous villains.


Although the voice over (by Fairbanks) in the closing credits promised weekly adventures of Drummond in exotic locations around the world, the series was never picked up.


[item image]

DOULGLAS FAIRBANKS JR presents Bulldog Drummond



Last stop, a 1954 pilot based on the highly successful 1930s comic strip, Mandrake The Magician


Already portrayed on film by Warren Hull in a1939 12-part Columbia movie serial and on the radio during the 1940s by Raymond Edward Johnson, this 30 minute pilot for NBC starring real-life magician Coe Norton and Woody Strode failed to attract a buyer.


Having watched this episode, I can’t help but feel that the stilted acting, and lame dialog, and weak plot had something to do with that. 


Still, it has a degree of nostalgic value.






Hopefully more of these gems will show up on the Internet Archive, and other venues. 


While they may not represent the best that the golden age of TV had to offer, they are still valuable glimpses of our shared past and deserved to be saved, and shared, for future generations to enjoy.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Matt Clark: Railroad Detective





In 1954, television was still the new kid on the entertainment block, and radio and the movies were still king. Some regions of the country were yet to see their first broadcast station.


TV was making inroads, however.


RCA introduced their first color set that year – at the astounding price of $1000 – equivalent to about $8,000 in today’s dollars. A hefty price tag for a 15-inch screen, with a less than perfect picture.

Movie studios could see the writing on the wall, however, and they quickly began producing content for this new medium.

While Warner Brothers produced a long string of hit TV shows (Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Lawman, etc.), it was Republic Studios that garnered the first TV Emmy Award for a `Western or Adventure Series’ in 1955.

The show was Stories of the Century, and it starred Jim Davis as railroad detective Matt Clark, and for most of the series run - Mary Castle as his undercover partner Frankie Adams.


Although it ran only 39 episodes, and failed to revive Republic Studio’s flagging finances, the series is well remembered today for its solid action sequences and early appearances by many soon-to-be famous actors.


Richard Jaeckel played Billy the Kid and spaghetti western legend Lee Van Cleef appeared as Jesse James. Richard Webb showed up to play John Wesley Hardin, Jack Elam portrayed Black Jack Ketchum, and Marie Windsor played Belle Starr.



The `high concept’ for this series was to dramatize the lives of famous western outlaws, using a fictitious railroad detective (Matt Clark) as being in on, or nearby their final fate. This despite the fact that these `stories’ spanned nearly 50 years of western history.


This contrivance aside, the opening narration to each episode read: "The official newspaper files of the early west record many stories of famous and notorious characters of that period . . .”


After which Jim Davis would identify the outlaw (or outlaws) that would be the subject of that night’s episode.  

While the series makes some attempt at historical accuracy (at least dates and places), the events shown don’t always agree with the historical record. 


This was, first and foremost, entertainment . . . not a documentary.


Republic studios – best known as producers of western movies – had ample footage from earlier productions that they could weave into this series.  Scenes where Quantrill raids Lawrence, Kansas in 1863 comes from Raoul Walsh's DARK COMMAND (1940), and the wagon chase scene from WAR OF THE WILDCATS (1943) shows up in the Black Jack Ketchum episode.


By matching up clothes and uniforms to the scenes lifted from older movies, the director managed to blend new footage with the old, giving the low-budget series a more expensive `feel’.


Add in some well-staged fisticuffs or gun play, at least one chase scene, and the comeuppance of the bad guy at the end, and you had a 30 minute episode.


Tall, rangy Jim Davis (who would gain greater fame as Jock Ewing in Dallas), was a veteran of Republic Oaters of the 1940s, and could be both likable, or tough as nails, when the scene required it.


Mary Castle as Frankie Adams added a bit of welcome estrogen to the mix, as Clark’s beautiful but very capable partner.  A role model that was – for TV at least – a bit ahead of its time.


The problem with the series was that with each outlaw captured or killed in one episode, in short order the more famous denizens of the west has been taken care of, and the writers had to find more and more obscure bad men (or women) to profile.


Hence we got episodes on little known rascals like Joaquin Murietta, Bill Longley , and Burt Alvord mixed in with tales of Geronimo, Billy The Kid, and the Doolin Gang.


After 39 episodes, they were running out of material.

The Internet Archive currently has 17 episodes of this series available to watch or download.  You can get a complete listing at this link.


Jim Davis would work steadily in TV until his death in 1981, while starring in the hit primetime soap Dallas.

Between 1958-1960 he co-starred with Lang Jefferies in RESCUE 8, about a Los Angeles Fire Rescue unit, which pre-dated the TV show EMERGENCY by more than a decade.


Mary Castle, who at one time was viewed as possible replacement for Rita Hayworth, fared less well.


She was married briefly three times, and her personal life derailed badly due to alcohol . After several arrests in the late 1950s for intoxication, her acting career eventually evaporated.

Her last acting credit is from an 1962 episode of Gunsmoke, and the character is just listed as `Saloon girl’.


Castle died in 1998 at the age of 67 of lung cancer.