Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Guest Review: How Can Something So Wong Be So White?

By Philip Schweier

In the 1930s, the Monogram motion picture studio attempted to capitalize on the success of Fox’s Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movie series with its own stories of a benevolent and wise Chinese detective. And like Fox, Monogram chose a non-Asian actor to assume the role of Mr. Wong, created by Hugh Wiley for a series of stories published in Colliers magazine. He is an intelligent and cultured man of Chinese heritage in San Francisco, and a de facto consultant to the police

While Boris Karloff is today regarded as a major horror star, it may be somewhat dismaying to see him “slumming” in B movies (the B stands for basement). But the truth is Karloff, as a “serious” thespian, was rarely provided very ambitious material.

However, in my opinion what elevates an actor above his station is not the material he is provided but what he chooses to do with it. Karloff was a professional actor, so he acted, and did so well enough to raise the quality of the films in which he appeared. Granted, many were pretty low-budget (Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, anyone?), but after achieving fame as Frankenstein’s monster, it gave him the opportunity to do more than grunt and look menacing.

Maybe he had a mortgage payment due, or maybe he saw it a means to keep his name in front of the audience’s – and studio executives – collective eyes. Either way, it’s certainly more appealing than sitting around the house waiting for the phone to ring.

In Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), Simon Dayton (Superman’s Perry White, John Hamilton) shows up on Wong’s doorstep pleading for help. His life has been threatened and the amiable Mr. Wong is only too happy to help. Unfortunately, their 10 a.m. appointment the next day is about five minutes too late, as Dayton dies within the proverbial locked room.

Among the suspects are Dayton’s two business partners, who only moments prior to his demise convinced him to sign an added clause to their contract, making each the recipient of the others’ share of the company in the event of death. But when they also are done in, it leaves fewer options for whoever the guilty party might be.

As a mystery, it’s a fun little romp, with ample misdirection as well as red herrings provided by a cabal of foreign spies. As I said, Karloff presents Wong with intelligence and dignity, but if there is a downside, it would only be that the Asian aspect of the character seems superfluous. The plot was later recycled by Monogram for Docks of New Orleans (1948), one of the last of the Charlie Chan movies.

The Mystery of Mr.Wong (1939) followed a year later, in which Wong is invited to a party by Brendan Edwards (Morgan Wallace), whose life has been threatened over his possession of the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, a magnificent gem. Edwards is killed during the party, but Wong is quickly on the case, investigating the Edwards household. It includes Valerie Edwards (Dorothy Tree), the long-suffering wife, and her devoted secretary, Peter Harrison (Craig Reynolds), as well as Michael Strogonoff (Ivan Lebedeff), a parasitic musician whom the Edwards are sponsoring. A handful of Chinese servants are also among the suspects.

Unfortunately, this is not a “play fair” mystery, in that there are details to which the audience is not privy until the very end, as Wong reveals the killer. Still, Karloff is in top form and may account for the overall appeal of the film.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) was the next entry in the series. Wong is paid a late night visit the Princess Lin Hwa (Lotus Long), a high mucky-muck with a Chinese tea company, who arrived a few weeks back. She is assassinated before he can speak with her and Wong and police captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) go to investigate the ship she rode in on. Why they seem to feel Captain Jaime (William Royle) should know anything about one passenger’s personal beeswax isn’t fully explained, though unbeknownst to them, he’s clearly involved in something shady. Kibitzing the investigation is snoopy reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds).

Wong looks into the princess’s finances, courtesy of her bank’s president, Mr. David (Huntley Gordon). The detective must be on the right trail somewhere, because an attempt is made on his life. He discovers the princess was in the States to buy arms on behalf of her brother, a general in China. Captain Jackson (George Lynn) of the Phelps Aviation Company was to sell her some planes but the company is revealed to be a sham.

Wong is led into a trap, only to be rescued by Street. Wong then reveals all for the benefit of the authorities and the criminals, to convince them that he knows their game better than they do. Like Mr. Wong, Detective, it also provided fodder for the Charlie Chan series, remade as The Chinese Ring (1947).

When a police buddy of Capt. Street’s is killed in The Fatal Hour (1940), Wong leaps in to help with the investigation. The dead cop’s last known location, the Neptune Club, leads them to Harry “Hardway” Lockett (Frank Puglia). Not only is he a gambler and smuggler, he’s sicced Tanya Serova (Lita Chevret) on Frank Belden Jr. (Craig Reynolds), whose father has gotten sucked into Hardway’s smuggling operation. It seems dear old dad – soon to be dead old dad – is in over his head and has been letting Hardway use his jewelry store as a front for his smuggled goods.

With Frank Belden Sr. dead, the smuggling trail now leads to John T. Forbes (Charles Trowbridge). Conveniently, he lives in the apartment directly below Ms. Serova, who also gets bumped off. Even though she’d been playing Belden Jr., she was starting to appreciate his naïve ideas of matrimony, if only as an out from under Hardway’s thumb. But it couldn’t be Hardway who killed her; he was in Street’s office at the time of the murder.

When a radio writer named Griswold (Jason Robards Sr.) claims to have vital information regarding the case, he is murdered right in the police station. It provides Wong with the vital clue to how Ms. Serova was murdered and who might be responsible. All the murders share common ballistics, so the whole mystery gets tied up in a neat little package.

Doomed to Die (1940) – aka “Mystery of the Wentworth Castle” – opens with stock footage of an ocean liner burning at sea, followed by stock footage of newspaper presses and newsboys touting the disaster of the SS Wentworth Castle. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Cyrus B. Wentworth (Melvyn Lang), owner of the ship line, has a lot on his mind, not the least of which is that Dick Fleming (William Stelling), the son of his business rival, wants to marry his daughter. The two argue and Wentworth ends up dead. This is followed by more stock footage of cops on their radios and in patrol cars as the manhunt for Fleming ensues.

Wong is called in at the behest of reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), a close friend of Cynthia Wentworth (Catherine Craig). Using his Chinatown connections, he learns one of the passengers aboard the Wentworth Castle was Kai Lin, a Chinese smuggling tong funds into America. It turns out Kai Lin is also Lem Hou, the Wentworth family servant. Wentworth knew of the tong’s plan and the belief is he was murdered for his trouble. Slowly, the pieces begin to fall together.

Bobbie helps Dick escape from police custody, but when the police find him at his father’s home, Pops attempts to confess in order to save his son, but Wong won’t have it. He knows the real killer and all the whys and hows. Unfortunately, he declines to share most of them with the audience, as the culprit is hustled off to jail in short order.

This would prove to be Karloff’s final foray as the Chinese sleuth, as clearly the bloom was off the cherry blossom. No doubt the budget for the series had dropped below Monogram’s middling standards, given the ubiquitous stock footage and the obviously recycled footage from Mr. Wong in Chinatown.

Phantom of Chinatown (1940) starred Keye Luke, who until recently had been featured in the Charlie Chan movies as #1 son Lee Chan. This serves as a sort of prequel to the Boris Karloff films, as it depicts his first meeting with Capt. Street, and Wong is noticeably younger and more energetic. Rather that the sophisticated James Lee Wong, he is referred to as “Jimmy.”

Dr. Cyrus Benton (Charles Miller) has just returned from the Mongolian desert where he has discovered the “Tomb of Eternal Fire,” but at the cost of the expedition’s co-pilot Mason (John Holland), who was lost in Mongolia, his body never recovered. As he presents his findings, he collapses, poisoned. The police, led by Capt. Street (Grant Withers) arrive at the Benton home to investigate the man’s death.

Wong (Keye Luke), a family friend, is already on the scene and dopes out that the water glass Benton drank from contained poison. This scores points with Capt. Street, and the two decide to combine their efforts to solve the murder.

An artifact Benton brought back from China turns out to be missing, and holds the key to the whys of the murder. By laying a trap a trap the murderer can’t resist, Wong and Street hope to expose the culprit.

The story is much better than previous Wong outings, but Keye Luke brings very little to the role other than authentic Asian street cred. By this time, the series had run its course at Monogram. Perhaps when Fox ended its production of Charlie Chan movies in 1942, Monogram saw an opportunity to continue the “honorable Chinese detective” concept by picking up a more successful property. Chan’s first film under the Monogram banner was Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944).

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Guest Review: Killer B’s 3: Assignment: Miami Beach

By Philip Schweier

Too much time on my hands means that I’ve been frittering it away indulging in Netflix. There, thanks to the science of the Interweb we get to use one of mankind’s greatest technological accomplishments to enjoy second-rate movies that are close to 70 years old. Never mind all that James Cameron digital special effects stuff; just gimme a good old-fashioned murder mystery made on a shoestring budget.

The Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1945) features Jean Parker in the title role, a switchboard operator at the Townley Hotel. A fan of detective stories, she “suspicious characters” with every other guest until she overhears Williams, the owner of the hotel, getting gunned down over the phone. With her hapless boyfriend Johnny (Peter Cookson), she is thrilled to investigate, until she finds Williams’ body sitting in her apartment in the hotel.

Kitty and Johnny are jailed by the cops, led by Inspector Clancy. Clancy is played by Tim Ryan, in the same kind of cop role he played in previous Monogram B pictures such as Fashion Model and The Mystery of the 13th Guest. Convenient, since Ryan is credited with the screenplays of all three films, and many others.

Clancy calls all the potential suspects together for a grilling, where Mrs. Williams (Lorna Gray) claims her husband is in Chicago. With no corpus delecti to prove otherwise, Clancy lets them all go, but not before and Kitty insinuates Mrs. Williams has been carrying on with fellow employee Nick Joel (Hugh Prosser).

Kitty’s instincts tell her to look into another employee, the effete Roberts (Byron Foulger), but upon entering his apartment, they find the body of Harris (Bill Ruhl), a hotel guest revealed to be an insurance investigator looking into the hotel’s recent jewel thefts. But more dead bodies follow, and a wacky chase throughout the hotel. On the dodge from the law, Kitty discovers not only Williams’ body, but the murderer himself.

The movie plays as more of a comedy, without much mystery. The solution is revealed by accident, and the culprit is of course the least likely suspect.

The Living Ghost (1942) involves the disappearance of local financier Walter Craig, so the family calls in Nick Trayne (James Dunn) to investigate. Trayne, a former investigator for the DA’s office, has taken up practice as a pseudo-swami/professional listener, Craig’s secretary, Billie Hilton (Joan Woodbury) convinces him to come out of retirement.

While visiting the home, Train’s experience with handling eccentrics makes him well-suited to dealing with the dysfunctional family. That night, Craig (Gus Glassmire) reappears, seemingly in a catatonic state. Arthur Wallace (Howard Banks), Craig’s would-be son-in-law, becomes suspect #1 when another body turns up and circumstantial evidence points his way.

That theory falls apart when Craig attacks Trayne with a knife. He and Billie follow the clues to an abandoned house, looking for the man whom they believe induced Craig’s catatonic state. This leads to their coming up with a means of exposing the murderer.

This movie is a little more inventive than most, while presenting many of the tropes of murder mysteries: spooky butlers, clandestine meetings, footprints in the garden, all presented efficiently under the hand of director William “One-Take” Beaudine, so nicknamed for his prolific output. He learned his trade in the earliest days of the film industry when movies were churned out like sausages. He built a reputation for making the being the go-to guy for making a movie quick and cheap.

In A Tragedy at Midnight (1942) John Howard plays amateur sleuth Greg Sherman, trying hard to channel his inner William Powell. One morning, after the missus (Margaret Lindsay) is out for the evening, he finds a corpse in his wife’s bed. Actually, it the bed of a neighbor; the Shermans are staying in the apartment while theirs is being painted, and the owners are on vacation.

On the lam, Mr. and Mrs. Sherman attempt to suss out the identity of the dead woman, who actually has two identities. The trail leads to boyfriends, gangsters and other disreputable characters before returning to the radio studio for a live, on-the-air reveal of the killer, aided by their Chinese valet, Foo (Keye Luke).

With more development, the story could have become a respectable rip-off of the Thin Man movies. It has serial-style slug-fests and a few witty moments, but overall, the story is too condensed to be anything other than a dull, confusing mess.

The Fatal Witness (1945) stars Evelyn Ankers as Priscilla Ames, who is visiting her aunt’s home near London, when the elderly lady accuses her wastrel nephew John (George Leigh) of theft. He storms out, and after a night of drinking, ends up in the local hoosegow. But for the elderly aunt it’s even worse; she ends up dead. Naturally, all eyes turn to him, despite his ironclad alibi. It up to Inspector William Trent (Richard Fraser) to crack John’s alibi

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Guest Review: Killer B’s II: Texas Blood Money

By Philip Schweier

Recently, thanks to the kind folks at Netflix and someone known only as “Public Domain,” I had the opportunity to sit and stare at a few films that in their heyday were clearly the B film prior to something better… like maybe SOS Titanic. Here’s a rundown of what I witnessed:

Homicide for Three (1948): I don’t know how I managed it, but practically from the get-go I had the solution sussed out. In this film, Navy Lt. Peter Duluth (Warren Douglas) has a 36-hour pass in which to enjoy his wedding night, one year late. Instead of matrimonial bliss, he instead spends his time dodging murder charges as bodies start to pile up and he becomes the hottest thing to hit the San Francisco area since 1849.

Aside from its predictability (which you may or may not notice; your mileage may vary), it real charm is its co-star Audrey Long as the lieutenant’s bride. She has a charm that urges the restless young bridegroom further and further into the mystery, continuing to put their wedding night on hold.

Exposed (1947): What starts out as an interesting little mystery quickly spirals downward as the resolution evaporates into thin air. The only original thought in the whole film is that it features Adele Mara as Belinda Prentice, a wise-cracking and more-than-competent private eye who is sucked into what later becomes a mystery surrounding the murder of a local industrialist.

Both films were directed by George Blair, who at the time was honing his craft in the short form. After cutting his teeth on B movies of the 1940s, he made the jump to directing episodic television, with such shows as The Adventures of Superman and Lassie.

London Blackout Murders (1943) is set during the Blitz. Serial killer Jack Rawlings (John Abbott) is a tobacconist who injects a poison into unsuspecting victims at the height of the German bombing raids. When a young woman, Mary Tillet (Mary McLeod) moves into a room over his Whitechapel shop, she discovers a hypodermic needle concealed in his pipe, she suspects his morbid secret. When Mary’s beau, Peter Dongen (Louis Borell) pays a visit, she confides her suspicions to him.

When the partner of Inspector Harris (Lloyd Corrigan) of Scotland Yard falls victim to Rawlings, Harris begins to suspect the man. His investigation reveals Rawlings to be a murderous doctor who disappeared 18 years earlier. Rawlings’ defense is rather original, yet to the point of being preposterous, turning what promised to be an entertaining thriller into a complete and utter waste of 53 minutes of film.

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) is a murder thriller featuring the “play fair” sleuth Ellery Queen. Created by cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, Queen is noted for providing the audience with all the clues necessary to solve the crime, rather than withholding vital information to which only the fictional detective may be privy, thus making Nick Charles or Hercule Poirot’s powers of deduction seem all the more remarkable.

Queen (Donald Cook) and his pal Judge Macklin (Berton Churchill) are visiting California where they discover Stella Godfrey (Helen Twelvetrees; oddly enough, she receives top-billing) tied up in their rental cottage. It seems she was kidnapped the night before from her family home nearby, and her cousin is later found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some of the other family members at the Godfrey estate are meeting in an attempt to break an elderly aunt’s will.

When two more murders occur, the vacationing Ellery Queen is disinterested in solving the murder, and his lack of enthusiasm is infectious, making the whole story one dull affair. It’s only when Stella is framed for yet another murder that Ellery takes an interest, because he’s spent 80 percent of the film schmoozing up to the young heiress. The solution to the crimes is predictable, so I wouldn’t recommend the movie to anyone but the most diehard of mystery fans.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest Review: Killer B's

By Philip Schweier

My parents once lamented my tendency to spend an entire evening watching bad TV, conveniently forgetting that in their day, they spent many an entire evening watching equally bad films at their local theater – and PAYING for the privilege. Such questionable fare was referred to as “B” movies, and often was sandwiched between a cartoon, a newsreel, maybe a comedy short, and the feature presentation.

These low-budget cheapies usually starred journeyman actors searching for their eventual jump to greener pastures, and were usually churned out by such studios as Monogram Pictures. Thanks to Netflix, here is a sampling:

Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943): Thirteen years after grandfather’s death, Marie Morgan (Helen Parrish) is granted the privilege of opening his last will and testament. Her instructions are to return to the very room in which he presented her with it, in the house that has been shuttered ever since. Inside the gloomy old mansion, strange goings-ons lead to one peculiar death after another.

Police Lt. Burke (Tim Ryan) is assisted by his narcoleptic partner Speed Dugan (Frank Faylen; sharp-eyed viewers may recognize him as Ernie the cab driver from It’s a Wonderful Life), but it’s Johnny Smith (Dick Purcell) who does the real crime solving. Whether he’s a private eye or a reporter is left somewhat in doubt, but he manages to tie the case up neatly and win the girl in the end.

The Mystery Man (1935): Never have I seen so much padding in a film. Robert Armstrong plays Larry Doyle, an ace reporter out of Chicago. Despite his heroic deeds in seeing a local gang brought to justice, he is bounced from his paper, at which time he buys a ticket for as far as his money will get him – St. Louis. There, he meets up with a down-on-her-luck waif Anne Ogilvie (Maxine Doyle), whom he takes under his wing. They pose as man-and-wife in a scheme to win back the good graces of his former employer, but when super-criminal The Eel becomes St. Louis’ hottest meal ticket, Doyle takes the opportunity to win himself a spot on the local fish wrapper.

Doyle ends up implicated in the murder of two of St. Louis’ finest, but all this comes in the last 20 minutes or so of the film. But if you’ve managed to stay awake this long, you’re likely to suffer through the anemic ending with nary a whimper. It makes for a pleasant option to a root canal.

In Criminal Investigator (1942), Robert Lowery plays Bob Martin, a young reporter hot on the trail of murder. When a woman accused of embezzlement is released from prison, she ends up very dead, and Martin, who is investigating the story, befriends her younger sister. Those responsible are after the girl for her sister’s keys, which hold the answer to the mystery as to who actually killed the dead sister’s benefactor. It blends weak comedy, weak music and weak acting with a better than most mystery plot. As a B movie, it’s better than most, diminished mainly by block of wood Lowery, who would go on to portray Batman in 1949. Leading lady Edith Fellows conveys a convincing innocent charm, thanks her height of only 4’10.”

Lowery returns in Fashion Model (1946), playing Jimmy O’Brien, a stockboy (at his age?) accused of murder. Jimmy and his girlfriend Peggy (Marjorie Weaver) work to clear his name by tracking down the film’s MacGuffin, a brooch which seems to spell disaster for anyone who possesses it. The humor at times is extraordinarily weak, usually when trying to convey what dunces the police are, but it has certain Lucy & Ethel quality, which may have been funny in 1946, but today comes off as old hat.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The principal of the thing

The above is a photo of a program from a high school musical performed at my alma mater of Ravenswood Penitentiary High School in 1976, courtesy of my Facebook pal and high school chum Pami…and the significance of that production was that it served as the the-a-tah debut of your humble narrator, who was only in seventh grade at the time.  Do we have a picture of this?  Yes, we do…get a gander at the nerd in the top right corner (you might have to click to embiggen):

Nyaaahhh!!!  Talk about a geek!  (I am proud to admit, by the way, that I was voted in my high school yearbook “Most Likely to Be Pantsed During Gym Class.”)  Old-time radio and classic TV fans are familiar with the source material of this play as the long-running sitcom starring Eve Arden as America’s favorite schoolteacher—but apart from the character of Connie Brooks there’s very little in the actual stage musical that resembles OMB.  Connie’s object of affection in the stage version is a high school coach named “Hugo”, and the benevolent dictator in charge of the high school answers to “Mr. Wordsworth,” not “Osgood Conklin.”

I got the part in this play because my music teacher, Joyce Good (Pitchford), suggested I try out—I used to get extra credit points in her class by being my natural hambone self and she encouraged me to channel that energy into good and not evil.  I think I may have been the only one in the cast who was familiar with the radio/TV show (well, I had heard a few of the radio broadcasts—my exposure to the video version would come later) and all I really did in the play was imitate Gale Gordon.  In recognition of my talent for mimicry, I won the “Best Actor” trophy handed out yearly by the high school theatre department…and according to its director, the wonderful Lonnie Brewster; it was the first time he had given the award to an underclassman (seventh grader).

Anyway, I thought you might get a kick out of seeing what a doofus I was in high school (yes, I know that a good many of you are stunned by this revelation).  And incidentally, the title of this post is not one of my typically terrible puns—that’s the actual song I got to sing in this thing.  Sometime back, another Facebook friend (and the man who encouraged my early writing efforts), Forrest Poston, told me he still had his cassette copy of the play…complete with my vocals.  (I pray this does not fall into the wrong hands.)  In fact, I remember seeing Forrest backstage during one of the play’s performances (he was there to review it for the school paper) and he was telling me that I was “layin’ them in the aisles.”

“How’d my song go over?” I asked him.  After the longest pregnant pause in the history of the theater, he continued: “Yes sirree, boy…layin’ them in the aisles…”

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

By Philip Schweier

The Long Goodbye (1973) features an impressive pedigree. It is based on the novel by famed mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and the screenplay was adapted by Leigh Brackett, who penned a number of hard-boiled detective yarns for both film and pulps. The movie was directed by Robert Altman and stars Elliott Gould, with music by movie maestro John Williams.

Despite such talent behind the picture, I found it utterly lacking in every area. Let’s examine them one at a time, shall we? (Beware! Spoilers ahead.)

First of all, Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe works best when left in the era that spawned him: the 1940s. This version is set in “present day” (1973), except for Marlowe’s car, which looks as if it was handed down by Chandler himself. So much for the private eye axiom of remaining inconspicuous.

Nevertheless, the events of the film are not germane to any specific era. After a particularly nasty fight with his wife, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), a friend of Marlowe’s, requests that he give him a lift down to Tijuana. Upon his return to Los Angeles, Marlowe is promptly arrested while police search for Lennox. It seems Marlowe’s pal is wanted in connection with his wife’s death.

After three days in the jug, Marlowe is freed due to the fact that Lennox has turned up in Mexico dead himself. So Marlowe buries himself in work, beginning with the task of rounding up Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) on behalf of the alcoholic writer’s wife, Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt). Marlowe locates him in a “rest home,” hidden away by Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson).

Ironically, the Wades live in the very same beachside community in which the former Mr. and Mrs. Lennox resided, leading Marlowe to ponder if there may be a connection. However, no sooner does he start digging than he is paid a visit from local hoodlum Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), searching for some money Augustine believes Lennox passed to him, since Marlowe was the last person in LA to see him alive.

Augustine’s subsequent visit to Mrs. Wade strengthens the Wade/Lennox connection, and he begins to suspect that someone somewhere was having an affair with someone else. But before that angle can be fully investigated, Roger Wade ups and offs himself. With all the players dead, Eileen fesses up that Roger and Mrs. Lennox were involved for a short time, and he may have killed her while in a drunken rage, thus sending him into the money-grubbing hands of Dr. Verringer.

Case closed, were it not for Augustine’s intent to collect his money, and a $5,000 bill turns up in Marlowe’s mail, seemingly from Lennox. Augustine is convinced Marlowe knows more than he’s letting on. He’s on the verge of giving the shamus the beating of his life (using a very young Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger to do it) when Mrs. Wade shows up with Augustine’s money, in the very satchel Lennox had on him when Marlowe dropped in Tijuana.

All of which convinces Marlowe that Lennox is alive and well, carrying on and affair with Eileen Wade despite the fairy tale Eileen told Marlowe. He then journeys down Mexico way, tracks his friend down and promptly plugs him. End of story.

I tend to classify detective yarns into one of three categories. There are those that are ludicrously simple to dope out, following clichés and dropping clues that are one notch above Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. Then there are those that are a little more intelligent, and with a little effort a mystery fan can reach the same resolution as the sleuth in question, if he/she wants. Then there are those, and I’m sorry to say that many of Raymond Chandler’s stories fall into this category) that are a confusing series of event involving murder, mayhem and red herrings. With these, all you can do is forget playing armchair detective. Just sit back and soak up the film noir atmosphere.

The Long Goodbye falls in the last category. Whys and wherefores don’t seem important, it’s all just a muddled mess. That brings us to the issue of the director, Robert Altman. I should be more generous here, seeing as how I had the privilege of being an extra in an Altman film, The Gingerbread Man (1998), when it was filmed here in Savannah. Despite taking direction from Altman, my scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

My experience in viewing Altman’s work is that he strives for a great deal of realism, forgetting the fact that realism is what people go to the movies to escape from. His constantly overlapping dialogue might add a touch of veritas, but it can be hard for many audiences to follow.

Another distraction in the film is the constant attention paid to Marlowe’s flaky neighbors. Feminists, lesbians, exhibitionists, hippies, call them what you will, they seem only there to illustrate what a tripped out place California was at the time. Yeah, we get it.

Altman also tends to use tricky camera techniques and odd angles, which are neat but should be used sparingly. Otherwise, he’s merely winking at the audience. “See what I’m doing here? Aren’t I clever?” Case in point, Marlowe and Eileen are having a conversation in front of a window, during which the camera begins to focus not on them, but on the window itself, then on what lies outside the window, and the tiny figure of Eileen’s husband on the beach in the distance. It’s cute, but tedious to watch.

The Long Goodbye has been criticized for featuring Elliott Gould in the title role. A Jewish Philip Marlowe? Well, why not? Marlowe might not be a Jewish name, but he wouldn’t be the first to Anglicize his name for business purposes. Gould is a fine actor, and pulls off the wise-cracking Marlowe pretty well. But this Marlowe pretty much chain-smokes his way through the entire film. Sure, it was 1973 and smoking wasn’t frowned upon nearly so much as it is today. But I haven’t seen this much lighting up since Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978).

Finally, there’s the interesting use of music in the film. For the most part, it features only a single song, “The Long Goodbye,” written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer. But the melody is applied in any number of ways: as a dirge played by a mariachi band in Mexico, and as Muzak played over the sound system in a grocery store; even as the Wade’s doorbell. It’s interesting and playful, but let us not forget that this is John Williams several years before Star Wars, and not too many years after Land of the Giants.

For fans of the private eye genre, I would recommend that they avoid The Long Goodbye in favor of either Marlowe (1969), presenting an updated version of the private eye, or Farewell, My Lovely (1975) starring Robert Mitchum in a tale set in the 1940s.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

The passings parade

It has not been a particularly cheerful time these past couple of weeks for TV fans…because we’ve had to bid a fond farewell to many beloved faces that used to appear regularly on the old cathode ray tube.  Perhaps the most recognizable name to those people who aren’t as preoccupied with nostalgia as I am know who Andy Rooney was—the radio-television writer and 60 Minutes personality who used to close that program every week with the segment “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney.”  Rooney, who had announced on October 2 of this year that he would no longer appear regularly on the newsmagazine, experienced complications from surgery (undisclosed) and had to be hospitalized in late October.  He died on November 4 at the age of 92.

When my father watched 60 Minutes on a regular basis (I honestly couldn’t tell you when he stopped making it a habit; I’d probably moved out by then) he was a huge fan of Rooney’s; he even had several of Andy’s books on the shelves at home…and in some ways, reminds me of Rooney in that he’s always kvetching about something or another.  I can’t swear to it, but Dad probably signed off on the news magazine segments (and Rooney’s syndicated column) about the time Andy’s weekly ruminations started veering off in the direction of the controversial; in later years he managed to piss off gays, Native Americans, Latinos, religious groups and fans of Nirvana.  (To be honest, I sort of gave him a pass on that last one.)

While Rooney remains best known for his work on 60 Minutes he should also be saluted out for his contributions to other programs such as The Garry Moore Show, The Twentieth Century and The Great American Dream Machine; he also wrote for Arthur Godfrey’s radio and TV shows (Arthur Godfrey Time) and before his 60 Minutes stint did a series of humorous specials on CBS that included 1975’s Peabody Award-winning Mr. Rooney Goes to Washington and one of my personal favorites, Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner (in 1978).  If there is indeed a life out in the Great Beyond, Rooney is probably complaining about conditions in his typical curmudgeonly fashion.

Two of television’s character actor icons have also shuffled off this mortal coil—and as irony would have it, both on the same day.  Actor Leonard Stone was eulogized in numerous obituaries for his signature role as used car salesman Sam Beauregarde (father of ill-fated gum chewer Violet Beauregarde) in the 1971 feature film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory…but here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, we remember Stone for the fact that he literally seemed to be in every episode of the 1967-70 revival of Dragnet (yes, I realize he only appeared in five installments—but I swear it seemed like more).  He also had recurring roles on such series as Camp Runamuck (as Doc Joslyn), General Hospital and L.A. Law; his film roles include The Mugger, The Big Mouth, The Shakiest Gun in the West, Angel in My Pocket, Soylent Green and Hardly Working.  Stone died one day before his 88th natal anniversary on November 2.

In the 1950s, legions of kidvid viewers knew character thesp Sid Melton as Ichabod “Ikky” Mudd (“Mudd with two d’s”) on Captain Midnight (aka Jet Jackson)…and those who could stay up later than that recognized Sid as Charley Halper, the nightclub owner that employed Danny Williams on The Danny Thomas Show (aka Make Room for Daddy).  Melton’s character of Halper also appeared on the 1970-71 revival series Make Room for Granddaddy, and the actor also had recurring roles on such shows as It’s Always Jan, The Gale Storm Show (Oh Susanna!), Bachelor Father, Gomer Pyle, USMC and The Golden Girls (he played Salvadore Petrillo, the late husband of Estelle Getty’s Sophia Petrillo in flashbacks).

But at the risk of inviting the ire of known Green Acres despiser ClassicBecky—Melton’s best-known role here at TDOY remains Alf Monroe, one-half of the Monroe brothers (the other “brother” being Ralph, played by Mary Grace Canfield) contracting duo on the 1960s bucolic sitcom whose slow and steady attempts to renovate “the old Haney place” now owned by Oliver (Eddie Albert) and Lisa Douglas (Eva Gabor) still makes me tee hee with unbridled glee to this day.  In fact, a commenter over at Kliph Nesteroff’s Classic Television Showbiz (where Mr. N did a nice photo tribute to Sid before most of the online obituaries came out) remarked, “Looks like the Douglasses will never get that renovation done on the Haney place now…”  It brought a tear to my eye, knowing that we lost a versatile and amazingly talented man at the age of 94 on November 2 (though the always reliable IMDb argues November 3).

Two gentlemen who started their show business careers during Radio’s Golden Age have also gone on to their greater rewards: radio and TV announcer George Ansbro, a man who holds the record as the longest-tenured employee of any network in broadcast history (58 years, 3 months and 12 days with ABC), passed on at the age of 96 on November 5.  He began his career in the ether as a boy soprano on Milton Cross’ Children’s Hour in 1928; three years later he was working for NBC as a page and he started announcing for General Sarnoff’s network three years after that.  He worked on soap operas, quiz shows and various other broadcasts but he’s best known as the man who informed Dr. I.Q. “I have a lady in the balcony, Doctor…” and announced the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Young Widder Brown.  Securing a job in television, he soon became a familiar voice on ABC during their daytime lineup doing voice-overs and bumpers (often heard during the sudser One Life to Live).

And one of my comedy heroes, Emmy Award-winning writer-director-producer and Savannah, GA native Hal Kanter, said goodbye at the age of 92 on November 6—I did a birthday shout-out to Mr. Kanter last December and mentioned that he wrote for such radio programs as Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah and Bing Crosby’s Philco Radio Time.  But he also got in on TV’s ground floor, starting out on Ed Wynn’s 1949 comedy-variety series and later creating The George Gobel Show, Valentine’s Day and the landmark sitcom Julia in addition to working on Chico and the Man and All in the Family.  In his later years, Kanter served as the co-writer of the annual Academy Awards ceremony telecast…though sadly, none of his directorial efforts like Loving You (with Elvis Presley) and Once Upon a Horse (with Rowan & Martin) carted off any Oscar gold (but it’s where he was awarded his Emmys).  It’s truly sad when the great “funny men” leave us…and he will be fondly remembered here at TDOY.

A special fare-thee-well goes out to cartoonist Bil Keane, creator of the panel comic strip The Family Circus, who has presumably gone to join that creepy dead grandfather that used to turn up in the strip every now and then.  I don’t mean to make light of his passing, but that comic was a little unsettling at times; this obituary (Keane passed away on November 8 at the age of 89) makes mention that Bil was a big fan of The Far Side and Zippy the Pinhead (Zippy even made an appearance one time in Circus) but the wackiest thing I ever saw in Circus was a Sunday panel where creepy dead Granddad was playing fetch in the Great Beyond with the recently expired dog from For Better or Worse.  (I swear I’m not making that up.  When I brought up the news of Keane’s passing to World O’Crap’s Scott C. he joked that Keane can now finally look for his missing “L.”).  Parents of young children who are concerned as to what they’ll stick on their refrigerators now that Keane is gone can rest assured—his son Jeff (the inspiration for “Jeffy”) will insure that the adventures of the family continue.

R.I.P. to all of these talented individuals…and we won’t forget the following as well:

Georgina Cookson (October 1, 81) – Stage, screen and television actress whose film credits include Your Past is Showing and Darling; also appeared in episodes of such TV series as Citizen James, The Prisoner, UFO and Steptoe and Son

Alan Fudge (October 10, 77) – Film and television character actor who scored regular gigs on such TV series as The Man from Atlantis, Eischied and 7th Heaven; his films include Bug, Capricorn One, Chapter Two, Brainstorm and The Natural

Wyatt Knight (October 25, 56) – Film and television actor best known for his appearances as “Tommy Turner” in the Porky’s trilogy; also had guest roles on such TV series as The Waltons, T.J. Hooker, Family Ties and Chicago Hope (the date of Knight’s death has also been reported as October 26 due to the actor’s committing suicide)

Tom Donovan (October 27, 89) – Television director-producer who oversaw many of TV’s live anthology productions during its golden age; also worked on many daytime dramas such as Another World, Love is a Many Splendored Thing and Ryan’s Hope (the link is to Stephen Bowie’s fine tribute at The Classic TV History Blog to Donovan as well as an equally eloquent nod to the passing of Robert Collins, a film and TV writer-director best known for creating Police Woman who passed away on October 21 at the age of 81)

Reese Palmer (October 27, 73) – R&B vocalist who was front man for the doo wop group The Marquees, who back up Chuck Berry on Back in the U.S.A. (along with Etta James)

David Wicks (October 27, 31) – Actor-stuntman who was killed during the filming of Expendables 2, proving once again that irony can be quite ironic sometimes

Beryl Davis (October 28, 87) – British vocalist who performed alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman; later appeared in the quartet The Four Girls (with Jane Russell, Rhonda Fleming and Savannah native Connie Haines)

Dave Donnelly (October 28, 69) – Rochester, NY-based country music musician

Dolores Duffy (October 29, age unspecified) – Film and television character actress recognizable in her role as Iris Puffybush on the sitcom Strangers with Candy

Phyllis Love (October 30, 85) – Stage, screen and television actress whose film credits include Friendly Persuasion and The Young Doctors; her TV work includes episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, The F.B.I. and Bonanza

George Rountree (October 30, 61) – Longtime musical director for the Four Tops who also worked with such music legends as Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Temptations

Liz Anderson (October 31, 81) – Country music singer-songwriter who penned (My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers and The Fugitive for Merle Haggard in addition to having solo hits like Mama Spank and The Game of Triangles (with Bobby Bare and Norma Jean); mother of Lynn Anderson—she wrote Lynn’s Top Ten hit If I Kiss You (Will You Go Away)

Richard Gordon (November 1, 85) – British motion picture writer-producer whose specialty was horror and sci-fi B-films—among his credits are such classics as The Haunted Strangler, Fiend Without a Face, Corridors of Blood and Devil Doll

Lou Maletta (November 2, 74) – Broadcast executive who founded the Gay Cable Network, which established the groundwork for the 24-hour cable channel Logo

Cory Smoot (November 3, 34) – Guitarist for the costumed heavy metal band Gwar

Annabelle Lyon (November 4, 95) – American ballerina who danced with some of the most prestigious ballet companies of the era, including George Balanchine’s American Ballet

Cynthia Myers (November 4, 61) – Former Playboy Playmate and film actress whose best known role is that of “Casey Anderson” in the 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Theadora Van Runkle (November 4, 83) – Oscar-nominated costume designer whose credits include Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, The Reivers, The Godfather Part II, Nickelodeon and Peggy Sue Got Married

Gordon Beck (November 6, 75) – British jazz pianist and composer

Margaret (O’Mahoney) Field (November 6, 89) – B-picture actress who appeared in such films as The Man from Planet X, Captive City and Inside Detroit; also had long career doing guest roles on such shows as Lawman, The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone…but couldn’t land a gig on either Gidget or The Flying Nun, which starred her daughter Sally

Joe Frazier (November 7, 67) – “Smokin’” ex-heavyweight boxing champion best known for his three epic fights against Muhammad Ali, including the infamous “Thrilla in Manila”; also appeared in films (Rocky, Ghost Fever, Home of Angels) and TV (The Jeffersons, Movin’ On, Frank’s Place) as a result of his fame

Hal Bruno (November 8, 83) – Veteran ABC News journalist whose expertise was the field of political journalism

Heavy D (aka Dwight Myers) (November 8, 44) – Jamaican-born rap/hip-hop artist who also dabbled in acting, appearing in such films as Life and The Cider House Rules and regular roles on TV shows like Roc, Boston Public and The Tracy Morgan Show

Jimmy Norman (November 8, 74) – R&B/jazz musician and songwriter who co-wrote the extended lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ Time is On My Side and charted with tunes like I Don’t Love You No More (I Don’t Care About You)

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