Monday, April 18, 2016

After The Thin Man



Back in May of 2009, I wrote an essay for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear that was to act as a companion piece to the first contribution I did for Edward Copeland’s Tangents—a post commemorating the 75th anniversary of the release of The Thin Man (1934).  I tackled the small screen version for TDOY; the classic William Powell-Myrna Loy mystery comedy was the inspiration for a TV show that featured Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk in the Powell and Loy roles of Nick and Nora Charles.  (Asta played “himself” in the series.)  The Thin Man’s television cousin ran two seasons over NBC from 1957 to 1959, and then made the rerun rounds on the network’s daytime lineup from 1959 to 1960.

I was a little pressed for time when I wrote the original 2009 blog post—an essay that I later expanded for a piece that was included in the e-book Thoughts on The Thin Man, edited by my Classic Movie Blog Association colleague Danny Reid—so I didn’t get to sample as many of the shows as I had hoped.  I thought of Danny when I learned that GetTV was planning on running reruns of The Thin Man TV series on Wednesday nights in March, and since I had planned to DVR all twenty-five episodes (from the first season), I told him I’d see what I could do for him (he confessed to me he’d never seen the boob tube version).  In my efforts to dub the recordings to DVD, I decided to edit out the channel’s generous commercial content…which means I pretty much watched all of the episodes.

Of the twenty-five, I had seen three episodes previously: “The Dollar Doodle” (the premiere installment), “The Duke of Sing Sing,” and “Double Jeopardy.”  I’ve stated on the blog in the past that many times a person’s enjoyment of a movie or TV show will be improved by the quality of the print, and I think The Thin Man is a good example of this.  The previous Thin Man episodes in my collection were purchased a good while back through my longtime professional association with Rodney Bowcock (though Martin Grams also had a hand in it—so it would be more fitting to call it “Gramcock”), and the source of many of those episodes were reruns from KXLI-TV Channel 41 (St. Cloud, MN)/KXLT-TV Channel 47 (Rockford, MN).  The GetTV prints are far superior (there are a few strong rumors that The Thin Man is being readied for a future DVD release), and are nice and sparkly.

While “Dollar Doodle” isn’t a particular standout, I’ll give it a high mark for casting an uncredited Joe Flynn as a jewelry store clerk (he kind of steals the scene with a bit of understated sarcasm).  “Sing Sing” has a nice contribution from character great/professional sneerer Robert J. Wilke.  But I overlooked an important guest appearance (aside from TDOY fave Edward Binns) in “Double Jeopardy”:


Yes, it’s the incomparable Olan Soulé, making a brief appearance as a bookseller.  The character actor content in these reruns compensates for the fact that for a wealthy couple, Nick and Nora Charles function in rather tatty surroundings (for an M-G-M production, these sets look kind of cheap).  (A Facebook chum of mine joked: “I've seen better-dressed sets in Racket Squad!”)

Of the episodes I had not seen…there were some very pleasant surprises.  “The Acrostic Murders” (11/01/57) is an offbeat entry involving a little old lady (Mary Young) who’s on a murder spree (Charles Lane and serials henchman Anthony Warde are the cops investigating this one with Nick).  Percy Helton’s presence in “The Fatal Cliché” (11/15/57) makes it more interesting than it should be, and “Robot Client” (02/28/58) is a silly but fun story about Nick’s investigation into a murder involving Robby the Robot.  (“Client,” as my kemosabe and guest reviewer Philip Schweier pointed out in the comments accompanying the last essay, is also available on DVD—it’s an extra on the release of Forbidden Planet.  But it also gets props for casting George “Cyrus Tankersley“ Cisar as the cop investigating the case, and Robert Cornthwaite—a.k.a. “Dr. Carrington” from 1951’s The Thing from Another World—as a similar mad scientist.)  One episode I did not have in my collection is “Murder is Where You Find It” (02/14/58), in which Whit Bissell plays a blind news seller who’s witnessed a murder (M Squad’s Paul Newlan is one of the suspects, as a man nicknamed “The Ice Pick.”)  (I have a total of 64 episodes…I need eight to complete my collection.)

I really enjoyed “The Dead Giveaway” (12/13/57), which finds Nick on a TV quiz show (“We Have a Mystery”) investigating the murder of a man played by longtime The Guiding Light actor William “Henry Chamberlain” Roerick (“Oh Nola Nola Nola…”).  At the risk of spoiling it for you, the chief suspect is Nick’s fellow quiz show adversary…played by OTR veteran Les Tremayne, which means you have an actor who played Nick Charles on radio squaring off against the TV Nick:


“Unlucky Lucky Number” (01/24/58) is another delight because it lards the guest star quotient with Howard McNear (as an apartment manager), Herb Vigran (as a picture snatcher), Sid “Charley Halper” Melton (as a bookie), John Doucette (as a butcher) and the thinnest I’ve ever seen Simon Oakland (as a barber).  Still another character actor-packed entry is “The Pre-Incan Caper” (02/07/58); Werner Klemperer is the main guest star (as one of Nick’s adversaries, who bets him he can steal an antique right from under Mr. Charles’ nose), but you also have on hand Stanley Adams, Henry Kulky (fittingly, his character is an ex-wrestler), and Mayberry’s resident snob and witch Hope “Clara Edwards” Summers:


Singer Vic Damone plays himself in the appropriately-titled “The Damone Dilemma” (01/17/58); he has difficulty extricating himself from a lovesick woman (Yvonne Lime) whose gangster brother insists they tie the knot despite Vic already being married.  (The hood is played by TDOY fave Stacy Harris, so I cut this one a little slack despite not being a fan of Damone’s.)  As for “The Scene Stealer” (01/10/58), the show takes advantage of its MGM-TV status to shoot on many of its backlots, and include cameos from both George Murphy (in the commissary scene) and this guy:


And if you’re curious about the origins of Nick and Nora, “Asta Day” (01/03/58) relates how the couple got together.  It’s not a particularly exciting story (there’s no murder involved—Nick is merely looking into the matter of a man [William Hudson] who’s run out on his fiancée) but seeing “little” Asta is worth the price of admission:


Plus Sandra Gould, Gene Roth, and Frank Jenks are on hand.  Seriously, The Thin Man is most enjoyable if you’ve a fixation with character actors like myself.  Phyllis Kirk is delightful as Nora, and while Peter Lawford isn’t terrible as Nick I still maintain the guy doesn’t seem like an ex-gumshoe but rather someone who’s just finished a few sets on the tennis courts.  There are a few sly references to the couple’s past imbibing days: they get a bit tipsy in “The Angel Biz” (10/04/57), and then there’s this hilarious exchange with McNear’s character in “Unlucky Lucky Number”:

DINGLE: …and coincidentally, it’s just the color of your eyes…baby blue
NORA: Oh, well, Mr. Dingle…how observant of you…
NICK: It’s too bad they’re not the color of my eyes…I’ve never seen bloodshot walls

William Powell would have had a field day with that one.  I didn’t mean to give the impression that I don’t like The Thin Man TV series—I think it’s very entertaining, provided you don’t make too many comparisons to the movies.  Its brief stint on GetTV was part of the channel’s commitment to running classic television programs that may have flown under the radar; Wednesday nights in April they’re running reruns of the Gene Roddenberry-created The Lieutenant, supplementing their Saturday afternoon Westerns lineup (The Tall Man, Laredo) and their variety show schedule on Monday nights (The Judy Garland Show, The Merv Griffin Show).  But I received an e-mail from getTV’s Cindy Ronzoni this morning announcing that beginning May 2, The Thin Man will become a regular part of the channel’s weekday lineup…along with Nanny and the Professor, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and many other “retro” favorites.  Here’s the skinny:

Comedy Block
7:00 a.m. ET—THE THIN MAN
7:35 a.m. ET—THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW
8:15 a.m. ET—NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR
8:50 a.m. ET—THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR

Westerns Block
9:30 a.m. ET—A MAN CALLED SHENANDOAH
10:05 a.m. ET—THE RESTLESS GUN
10:45 a.m. ET—LAREDO

Action/Crime Block
12:00 p.m. ET—TOUR OF DUTY
1:00 p.m. ET – S.W.A.T.
2:00 p.m. ET—AIRWOLF
3:00 p.m. ET—RIPTIDE
4:00 p.m. ET—HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMICK
5:00 p.m. ET—THE EQUALIZER
6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. ET—IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT

Monday, April 4, 2016

“Count me out tonight, angel…I’m too busy being a winner…”

I’d like to extend a laurel and hearty handshake (see what I did there?) to the two winners in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s recent giveaway of Radio Spirits’ “Shakedown”: an eight-CD set of sixteen vintage broadcasts from radio’s The Adventures of the Falcon.  The Random.org gods smiled down upon Scott L. of Watertown, Wisconsin and Richard R. of Glendale, Arizona by making them the lucky winners; as always—I wish I had enough of these sets to hand out to everyone who entered, but alas…I cannot.  (Besides, I’m sure it would not go over too well with the RS folks: “You need how many Johnny Dollar sets?”)

I’m going to take a short break from the bestowing of swag…but rest assured, I have two upcoming doozies to hand out for next time; two recent RS sets of which I am most proud, liner note-wise.  I also have a couple of items that will be posted to the blog this week (I know, I’m trapped in “slack” mode again) so I humbly beg for your indulgence and suggest you keep an eye peeled for more sweet giveaways.  Remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

“Believe me, I agree, you'll never get bored with winning…”


Well, the number of entries for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s “Cry Uncle” giveaway wasn’t quite as robust as those for the previous “Mysterious Matters” contest…truth be told, I wasn’t really too surprised because simply on an anecdotal basis, I know there are far more Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar fans than those who are stoked by an episode of Let George Do It.  (I will say this: we had more entries than the “Merry Mix-ups” giveaway.  I promise I will give these away soon.)  As always, I enjoy having people enter these contests of swag and wish I could bestow a set upon everyone who e-mailed me.  But the Random.org gods have decreed that the three winners are Kathleen G., Roger S…and longtime TDOY reader/commenter Mike “Mr. Television” Galbreath.  (I didn’t protect Mr. TV’s identity because he loves when I mention him on the blog.)

What else do I have available from the “Lake of Largesse”?  Well, let’s continue with our private eye theme: I have two copies of Radio Spirits’ recent The Adventures of the Falcon release, Shakedown, to hand out to two random members of the TDOY faithful.  You’ll no doubt read all about this in the liner notes (well, if you’re lucky enough to win a copy) but I need to stress that while the success of the George Sanders-Tom Conway feature films inspired a radio version…the “Falcon” on radio was a different detective, answering to “Michael Waring.”  “Always ready with a hand for oppressed men, and an eye for repressed women” as the opening to the program informed us, a series that enjoyed a good healthy radio run over various networks from 1943 to 1954.  A number of actors played The Falcon during that span of time, including Berry Kroeger and Les Tremayne…but The Falcon on the broadcasts featured on Shakedown (an 8-CD set originally priced at $31.95) is none other than Les Damon (whom you might also know as one of the thesps who played Nick Charles on radio’s The Adventures of the Thin Man), with character great Ken Lynch assisting as Sergeant Corbett (Charles Webster is also heard as Corbett).

So it pretty much works the same as it did last time: any U.S. resident is welcome to enter for a chance to win one of these sets (keep in mind that I ask politely if you’ve won anything in the last thirty days to please beg off and allow others to have an opportunity to win free stuff); just drop me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Shakedown” in the subject header (now I’ll have that terrible Bob Seger song in my head for the rest of the day).  The deadline is next Sunday night (April 3) at 11:59pm EDT, whereupon I will once again summon the Random.org gods and pick two lucky winners.  Once again, heartiest congratulations to the “Cry Uncle” winners and remember…Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I got plenty of Sutton

When future Academy Award-winning director George Stevens arrived at Universal Pictures in 1932, he was already a seasoned motion picture veteran—having worked for many years at the “Lot of Fun,” the Hal Roach Studios, where he served as a writer, cinematographer and director on many of Roach’s classic two-reel comedies.  Stevens left Roach for bigger opportunities…but at Universal, he pretty much did what he did at his former studio, direct two-reel comedies featuring the likes of Frank Albertson, Henry Armetta and James “Is zat so?” Gleason.  (Though Universal is where George held the reins on his feature film debut, The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble.)

Stevens’ stint with Universal lasted only a year before he gravitated to R-K-O, which afforded him many more opportunities in the feature film department: he directed two of Wheeler & Woolsey’s finest comedies, Kentucky Kernels (1934) and The Nitwits (1935), and later made his mark with such classics as Alice Adams (1935), A Damsel in Distress (1937), and Gunga Din (1939).  But before he could do that…it was back to the world of two-reelers.  George receives directorial credit on several of Edgar Kennedy’s “Average Man” comedies (Quiet Please, Grin and Bear It) …not to mention a pair of Tom Kennedy (no relation to Edgar) shorts.  Stevens also instituted a short-lived series that was quite reminiscent of some of the comedies he helmed in the Roach “Boy Friends” franchise (High Gear, Air Tight, Mama Loves Papa) that was known as “The Blondes and the Redheads.”

The series is also referred to in reference books as “The Blonde and the Redhead”—which makes a bit more sense, as there were only two women starring in the shorts.  The platinum blonde was baby-voiced Carol Tevis, while the gal with the crimson tresses (the common sense dame) was played by June Brewster…who left the series after the first five shorts and was replaced by Dorothy Granger, a Boy Friends alumnus.  Stevens also used another Boy Friends player in the Blondes and Redheads comedies, Grady “Alabam” Sutton, who in most of the shorts was the unlikely object of affection of the two women.

In his book Selected Short Subjects (a.k.a. The Great Movie Shorts), Leonard Maltin has effusive praise for the inaugural Blondes and Redheads effort, Flirting in the Park (1933)—which I have not had the pleasure of seeing but is available (along with three other B&R shorts) from Encore Home Video as part of their “R-K-O Comedy Classics” collection.  I’m sure Encore puts out a nice product…but the tariff on these shorts is a bit out of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s price range (I know you think blogging is the glamorous life…but it’s anything but, I assure you).  So I had to go with a collection in keeping with the TDOY budget: a set of four B&R shorts from Alpha Video at Oldies.com (it costs me a five-spot) culled from the collection of “The Movie Man,” John Carpenter.  (Full disclosure: Mr. Carpenter is a Facebook friend.)

Buying product from Alpha is always a hit-or-miss affair (I’ve heard some unpleasant stories about how they operate…but now is not the time or place) so I was pleasantly surprised with the content on this DVD, which kicks off with the third short in the B&R series, The Undie-World (1934).  This one is a lot of fun: Grady plays a violinist hired by mobster Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (who also worked quite a bit at the Roach studios, notably in the 1936 feature Kelly the Second) to ply his trade while Williams attempts to fool June and Carol (who live in an apartment across the way) that he’s the virtuoso.  Complications set in when June and Grady have an encounter in the hallway (upon seeing her, he’s a smitten kitten), and she’s convinced he’s the gangster—not “Big Boy” (who answers to “Bugsy McHugh” in the short).

Bugsy and Grady “double-date” with June and Carol, taking them to a “tea room” (where they encounter Roach Studio stalwarts Charlie Hall and Tiny Sandford—not to mention serials/B-Western veteran Ernie Adams)—with Bugsy a little ticked at Grady for becoming a serious rival for June’s affections (Grady also accidentally shot Bugsy in the foot, which doesn’t help his disposition any).  He asks several of his fellow gangsters seated at a nearby table to keep an eye on Grady…and then tells Grady that he paid one of the men to take a sock on the jaw from Grady in order to impress June.  You can probably guess where this is going: the mobsters take a powder and another gang, led by Palermo (Dewey Robinson), makes itself at home.  The twist is that when Grady slugs Palermo, Palermo congratulates the creampuff for his Moxie…and he asks Grady (after seeing his violin case) to help “put one of his boys to sleep.”

The Undie-World has some first-rate farcical situations and slapstick gags—not to mention some snappy comic dialogue (courtesy of Jack Townley and Jean Yarborough):

GRADY: Excuse me…I was detained by a misadventure in the hall…
BUGSY: Miss who?
GRADY: I was delayed by a mishap
BUGSY: Never mind the dames…let’s get down to business…

As enjoyable as Undie-World is, the second short on this DVD (the fourth in the series) is even better: Rough Necking (1934) casts June and Carol as sisters, and June is gaga for Grady despite her father’s (Spencer Charters) objections.  Father orders June confined to quarters, and hires a formidable female detective (who else but Hope Emerson?) to keep watch over her.  Carol, on the other hand, convinces Grady to help her put Madame Bodyguard out of commission…and then Grady will take her place.

Despite Grady’s nancy boy persona in movies (a character in one of the shorts refers to him as “Lollypop”), you wouldn’t think he could pull off the female masquerade…but he does, even to the point where June and Carol’s pop starts to flirt with him.  The fun begins when an old friend of Father’s (Roach veteran Fred Kelsey) and his idiot son (George Chandler) stop by for a visit…and discussion soon gets around to a “merger” between June and the Idiot (apparently she was betrothed when the two were kids).  So Carol gets Father out of the way, and Grady now impersonates June…and again, because myopia ran rampant in those old days of the flickers, Junior falls for Grady’s charms.  There’s some exceptional slapstick in Rough Necking (both Charters and Sutton execute funny slides down the stair bannister) but for me the laugh-out-loud moment finds Charters offering Grady-in-drag a swig of some of “the good stuff” and Grady, breaking female character for a few seconds, declares “I need it!”  Townley also co-wrote the story for this one, with an assist from yet another Hal Roach veteran, Fred Guiol.

The Dancing Millionaire (1934) is the only short on this DVD not directed by George Stevens—Sam White, brother of Columbia shorts department head Jules White, sits in the director’s chair and does a nice job with a story by Guiol, Townley and Leslie Goodwins (the future director of R-K-O’s “Mexican Spitfire” series).  Grady is the titular character (“Ronnie Graff”), who meets up with Carol and series newcomer Dorothy Granger at a dance studio after a run-in with a wrestler named Crusher McGee (Tom Kennedy).  Graff has McGee arrested and placed in the pokey…but McGee and his manager (Harry Bowen) get out and head for the same nightclub where Graff and his chauffeur (Jack Mulhall) have taken the girls.  This necessitates that Dorothy and Carol switch back-and-forth between two tables (“Pardon us while we powder our nose,” Dorothy says when they excuse themselves) so as not to alert Crusher to Ronnie’s presence—supplemented with a subplot in which Dorothy drops an engagement ring into a soup tureen.  Having Kennedy in this one amps up the enjoyment (what can I say—I’m a fan of Tom), but comedy veterans like Jack Duffy, Billy Franey and Spec O’Donnell also make appearances…as does Jack Rice as the dance studio manager (Rice would soon find steady employment in the Edgar Kennedy shorts as Edgar’s obnoxious brother-in-law).

The fourth and final two-reeler on the Blondes and Redheads DVD is Ocean Swells (1934)—the penultimate short in the series directed by Stevens and the first to feature Granger.  It’s probably the weakest of the bunch from the DVD, though it does have its moments; in this simple story of Dorothy, Carol and their “Auntie” (Zeffie Tilbury, the “Grandma” in the Our Gang comedy Second Childhood) vacationing at Catalina (before having to return to their dreary jobs in a laundry), the girls meet “wealthy” Bunny De Puyster III (Grady) and Hopping B. Hoppy Jr (Cully Richards).  The gentlemen are actually swabbies on a yacht; while the ladies are mistaken for the mother and daughters of the boat’s captain (Edgar Dearing).  The girls decide to throw a party on board…and then the captain comes back unexpectedly (the interaction between him and his “mother” is hysterical).  The problem with Swells is that it’s a little disjointed, plot-wise, (I’m not sure if it’s the print or the way it was actually written) but there’s still plenty of funny business—the highlight is a spill captain’s assistant Landers Stevens takes on deck after stepping on a bar of soap.  (The wrap-up on this one is kind of sweet, too.)

Stevens’ final B&R short was Hunger Pains (1935; another one I’d like to see), which also gets a nice write-up by Maltin in Selected Short Subjects—then it was off to feature films for him fulltime (and Oscars for A Place in the Sun [1951] and Giant [1956]).  After two more entries, Wig-Wag (1935; Sam White) and Pickled Peppers (1935; Ben Holmes), R-K-O decided to end the series…which was a curious thing, since the Blondes and Redheads comedies offered a nice contrast to the Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol two-reelers (both of which had a tendency to work the marital comedy formula to death).  Still, I was genuinely surprised by the hefty laugh quotient on these short subjects, and I’d highly recommend them for fans of two-reel comedies.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Now that’s more like it!


There’s no getting around it—the latest Thrilling Days of Yesteryear giveaway for two “Mysterious Matters” collections of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar broadcasts (courtesy of Radio Spirits) generated the largest response (nearly forty) in entries in the eleven years (and counting) since the ol’ blog has been in existence.  I kind of figured “the man with the action packed expense account” would rack up a large number of entrants, seeing as the previous record holder at TDOY was another Johnny Dollar collection, Confidential.

As always, I would love to be able to give out copies to everyone who entered…but as the saying goes, there can be only one two.  The random number generator at Random.org has made its decision, and the winners are jtonner and longtime TDOY reader-commenter Dan (of the Missouri Dans).  I am currently in e-mail communication with our lucky prize recipients to lock in their snail mail information, and I hope to have these out to them sometime next week (I had originally set my sights on Monday, but Father Shreve has informed me that he plans to have the family truckster maintenanced on that same day.  Le sigh.)  Also, too; I had a number of people lament losing out on The Couple Next Door: Merry Mix-ups promotion…so I’ve decided to hang onto those sets and give them out a little later down the road.

But here’s good news: I have more swag to bestow!  And by the merest of coinky-dinks, it’s related to YTJD in a way.  Before he took on the role of “America’s favorite freelance investigator,” actor Bob Bailey was the star of an underrated Mutual detective drama entitled Let George Do It.  Listening to Bailey’s portrayal of private shamus George Valentine, you can detect the underpinnings of the lightheartedly wry style he would bring to Dollar, and because I contributed the notes to Radio Spirits’ latest George release, Cry Uncle, I have not one…not two…but three of these sets to hand out to lucky members of the TDOY faithful.

Also starring Frances Robinson (as George’s gal Friday Claire “Brooksie” Brooks—and yes, I know that’s not Frances in the photo upper right; that’s from when Virginia Gregg played “Brooksie”) and Wally Maher (as Lieutenant Riley), these Let George Do It broadcasts—sixteen in total—comprise an 8-CD set (which retails for $31.95) that provide cracking good crime drama entertainment for any old-time radio fan.  To enter the contest, just drop me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Cry Uncle” in the subject header, and I’ll generate three winners with Random.org when the giveaway ends.  The deadline for entries is 11:59 EDT Saturday, March 26…and it’s restricted to U.S. residents only.  (Sorry, folks—I’m no longer the man with the action-packed shipping funds to spend.)  If you’ve already won something on the blog, I ask that you wait thirty days before trying your luck again to be democratic and give everyone else a crack at the freebies.

Remember: when you enter this contest, write full details.  (A little Let George Do It joke for those in the audience.)  Get started on those entries, because Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Grey Market Cinema: San Diego I Love You (1944)


Back in August of 2014, it was announced that the Bible for movie lovers—Leonard Maltin’s yearly movie guide—would cease its yearly publication after spending forty-five years as an essential component of people’s nightstands, end tables…and really, anywhere there’s a TV in the room.  It began its long life in 1969 as TV Movies, but with the demand for paperback books becoming smaller and smaller each year in the Internet age (“Why do I need a book when I can just look it up on the [always reliable] IMDb?”), the well-known author/film critic decided to put an end to his creation with a well-placed pillow during the night.

With the decision to terminate Maltin’s movie guide comes also Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, a book introduced in 2005 as a companion volume to the ever-expanding Movie Guide by limiting it to films made before 1965, thus keeping its parent from weighing the same size as a small iron ingot.  I’ll miss the Classic Movie Guide most of all, primarily because it’s essentially my bailiwick here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…but also because, love him or hate him (I still run into people who haven’t stopped bitching that he gave Taxi Driver two stars), Mr. Maltin played a very important part in my education as a movie lover growing up.  His books on classic movie comedians and animated cartoons were mainstays of my movie reference library, and had it not been for his contributions in this arena I would not have had to satisfy my curiosity to see more films featuring Wheeler & Woolsey…or Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts-Patsy Kelly, for that matter.

I bought a physical copy of the third edition when it was released (to accommodate the first and second editions on my shelf), but I also invested in a Kindle version so that I could access it for easier reference whenever I’m composing reviews on the computer.  I won’t argue that there are certain films for which Len has a boundless enthusiasm for (he has a tendency to overrate a lot of the Disney product, for example) but should the Classic Movie Guide be revived in another format in the future (though the people involved in the project say this is the end), I would suggest that an epic re-review of some of the entries should be the first item on the agenda.  The Great Ziegfeld (1936) rates three-and-a-half stars in the Guide.  It may be Ziegfeld, but it ain’t that great.

San Diego I Love You (1944) is a movie favorite of Mr. Maltin’s (***), for a reason I’ll get to here in a sec.  Because of its three-star status, it’s a flick that has been on my radar for a good many years and thanks to my pal Martin Grams—“the Isaac Asimov of OTR books”—I tracked down a copy at his Finders Keepers website.  It tells the story of the Family McCooley, a close-knit clan from Waterville (not Winterville), CA, whose father Philip has invented an inflatable life raft in order that he might be able to sell it to a company entitled the International Research Bureau.  Philip, a high school teacher by profession, is reluctant to trek to San Diego (where the IRB is located) because the company has not been forthcoming with a firm offer to purchase the raft.  His daughter Virginia (Louise Albritton) has other ideas—she tells the high school principal her pop is officially resigning, and cajoles her dad into taking the leap to San Diego with her four brothers: Walter (Rudy Wissler), Joey (Gerald Perreau), Larry (Charles Bates), and Pete (Don Davis).

“The McCooley Republic” takes a train to San Diego, and on the way they commandeer the compartment belonging to reclusive millionaire John Thompson Caldwell IV (Jon Hall).  Caldwell is, for reasons unexplained, unable to tell these interlopers “Get the hell out of my compartment!” and stoically puts up with their shenanigans despite the fact that he owns the freaking railroad.  Arriving at their destination, the McCooleys get settled (Virginia is given a cashiers’ check by her father to secure a house for rent…and ends up putting a down payment on a decrepit old manse that comes complete with a butler named Nelson [Eric Blore])—only to learn that the man who signed off on Philip’s raft invention is only a cousin to the man who runs the International Research Bureau…none other than John Thompson Caldwell IV.  Before “Johnny” and “Ginny” wind up in a romantic clinch at the fadeout, we witness a number of whimsical episodes between the couple…as well as a subplot involving a woman (Irene Ryan) who’s mistaken for a prospective boarder.

San Diego I Love You isn’t a terrible screwball comedy…but many of its situations came off as kind of forced to me, and I also have to confess a teensy dislike for those movies who seemingly want to celebrate eccentricity but run the risk of making those eccentrics so obnoxious it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to stay in their corner.  It’s set up early on that the matriarch of the McCooley family died unexpectedly, and Virginia has had to be both mother and sister in her absence.  To be honest—she hasn’t done a very competent job in the Mom department; the four boys run around and cause havoc as if their actual mother went by “Lobo.”  There’s an amusing bit at the beginning when one of the kids is on the roof of the McCooley house (please don’t fall…I beg you) flying a toy airplane and one of his brothers comes along to throw a mattress on the ground below.  The airplane kid loses his balance and falls off the roof, landing neatly on the cushion…and I chuckled at this, reasoning that this is probably not the first time the little rugrat has taken such a tumble.

The sequence on the train, where Caldwell graciously shares his space with the family, is kind of painful to watch because the four young hellions go to town, blowing on trumpets and throwing rubber balls against the wall, while their “Mom” is oblivious to their antics.  The irony here is that in a later scene, Virginia has to put up with a too-inquisitive kid (Teddy Infuhr) in an elevator who wants to see the inflatable life raft, as his mother (Our Lady of Great Caftan fave Esther Howard) looks on disapprovingly.  An earlier sequence finds cute-as-a-bug’s-ear Joey making a paper airplane out of the cashier’s check and lobbing it out of a hotel window.  (Kids…you know I love ‘em!  The only benefit of this is seeing Matt McHugh—brother of Warner’s mainstay Frank—provide the punchline to the scene.)

Stacia fave Clarence Muse as a porter (of course)...

...and Sarah "Ma Smalley" Selby as the real estate agent.

Universal Pictures leading man Jon Hall plays the part of the millionaire Caldwell, and while I think he’s a bit miscast, his performance doesn’t completely sink the film (Hall is probably best known for a series of Technicolor adventures opposite Maria Montez, including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves [1944] and the delightfully kitschy Cobra Woman [1944]).  Leading lady Louise Albritton is also not too impressive in the thespic department, but she’s easy to take (I’ve seen a number of her movies…and the only one I ever remember is 1943’s Son of Dracula, in which she plays pure dagnasty evil).  San Diego’s major strength is its wonderful supporting cast; you’ll enjoy seeing Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore interact, and in addition to Irene Ryan there are nice contributions from a gaggle of character greats: Fern Emmett (the poor man’s Margaret Hamilton), Hobart Cavanaugh, Edward Gargan, Victoria Horne, Sarah Padden, Dewey Robinson, Gene Roth, and Almira Sessions, to name a few.

Jack Rice plays a hotel clerk...Florence Lake a secretary...all we need now is Dot Farley and Edgar Kennedy and it's gravy, baby!

Billed fifth in the cast credits is the incomparable Buster Keaton, who plays a bus driver inspired by Albritton to shake off the rut of his daily route and detour to nicer scenery along the beach.  I think this is the reason why Maltin rates the movie so highly, and I certainly won’t argue that the bus sequence is the highlight of San Diego, I Love You.  (“This bus don’t go along the beach!”)  Many volumes of Movie Guide ago, Leonard posited that the state of current movies was so awful he was tempted to assign four stars to everything touched by such movie personages as Laurel & Hardy, Alfred Hitchcock…and Buster Keaton.  (Perhaps I’m a bit biased in this respect but I think this movie would have improved one hundredfold if Keaton’s part had been expanded.  I was impressed at his billing for what is essentially an extended cameo, demonstrating that despite the conventional wisdom Buster was “washed up” his name still meant something on a theater marquee.)

That gentleman over Buster's left shoulder is character great Vernon Dent, who menaced many a Stooge in his day.  He also appeared in several of Keaton's movies, notably the Columbia two-reelers Nothing But Pleasure (1940) and Pardon My Berth Marks (1940).

Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano receive the screenplay credit for this one (they also served as producers), with story by Richard Bransten and Ruth McKenney; it was based on an unpublished work by McKenney originally titled “Washington, I Love You”…but Universal changed the locale to San Diego because there was a glut of “D.C. housing shortage” flicks in theaters at the time (there’s a trace of this in the scene where the McCooley family tries to rent a hotel room).  In the director’s chair: journeyman Reginald Le Borg, whose resume includes several of the films in the Inner Sanctum franchise and Destiny (1944), with Gloria Jean and Alan Curtis.  I think if you’re a fan of screwball comedy you’ll take to this one; I know I sound a bit dismissive but if you’re up for a viewing I’ll let you know that the entire movie (and a bit extra) is available at your friendly neighborhood YouTube.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Is this mike on?


Well, this would be the time on the blog where I announce the winners in the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear Merry Mix-Ups giveaway: two sets containing 1958 and 1959 broadcasts of the radio sitcom The Couple Next Door, courtesy of Radio Spirits.  Unfortunately, there were no winners…because there were no entrants.  This, by the way, isn’t the first time this has happened at TDOY.  Back in January 2011, the good people at Columbia Home Video were generous enough to provide me with a DVD/Blu-ray combo of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which I offered as a fabulous prize to some lucky member of the TDOY faithful.  The response?  Nothin’, as Yukon Cornelius might say.  (I don’t even know what happened to the prize; I probably hawked it on eBay if past performance is any indication.)

I’ve been letting a number of theories swirl around in my cranium (where there’s plenty of room) as to the non-response to the giveaway.  First, no one likes The Couple Next Door.  (This is why I tried to give it a nice build-up…and seriously, you’re missing out on a wonderful program.)  Or, it could be that with the dearth of posting around TDOY of late, nobody’s been back lately to see if there has been any activity.  (Which is the theory I’m leaning toward.)  But, hey—there’s no use crying over spilled leche.  We’ll simply move on to our next giveaway.

Last month at the Radio Spirits blog, we celebrated the 67th anniversary of the premiere of radio’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar…and to do something a little different from the previous essay I wrote on the show for Dollar’s 65th (“The Happy Anniversary Matter”), editor Karen Lerner allowed me to flex my creative muscles and concoct a little short story entitled “The Older-and-No-Wiser Matter.”  (I used to write a good deal of fiction back in the day, so I had a lot of fun with it.)  Two of the Johnny Dollar collections for which I contributed liner notes were mentioned in the post: Confidential and RS’ newest release, Mysterious Matters—which features broadcasts by six actors who played “America’s favorite fabulous freelance investigator”: Charles Russell, Edmond O’Brien, John Lund, Bob Bailey, Bob Readick, and Mandel Kramer.

So you can see where this is going.  I have two sets of Mysterious Matters to give away (a 10-CD set valued at $39.98) to two lucky blog readers living in the U.S.A…and if you want to be considered for the contest, just e-mail me at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Mysterious Matters” in the subject header.  The entry period will run until Friday, March 18 at 11:59 EDT…and after choosing the winners via Random.org, I will announce who the lucky people are on Saturday (March 19) and get their prizes out to them posthaste.

I need to issue a caveat here.  When Radio Spirits sent me this big honkin’ box of giveaway swag, they mailed it to my old Rancho Yesteryear address…which necessitated forwarding to the new digs here at Castle Yesteryear.  I don’t think the post office was particularly happy about this, because the box arrived in rather questionable condition (hey—it was heavy, so I kind of can’t blame them for kicking it around and then disguising their fun with duct tape).  As I was pulling sets out of the box, a number of them rattled…so I believe there may have been a jostling of the contents during their journey to Pixley Winterville.  (I am hoping this will not impact any of the recordings in a major way.)

Also, too; if I’m feeling generous, I just might smuggle in these sets of The Couple Next Door that I couldn’t give away…so bevare!  Take care!  And remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!