Tuesday, May 30, 2017

From the DVR: Mr. Saturday Night (1992)


During his stint as a “Not Ready for Prime Time Player” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live from 1984 to 1985, comedian Billy Crystal regularly convulsed audiences with his impressions of Muhammed Ali, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Herve Villechaize.  (How’s that for “comedy comes in threes?”)  Crystal also created original characters, like Lew Goldman (the elderly Jew constantly coughing up phlegm) and his most famous, talk-show host Fernando (“You look mahvelous!”).  One of his creations, Las Vegas comic Buddy Young, Jr., also made a handful of appearances (the comedian originally introduced Buddy on an HBO special in 1984) and proved to be popular enough to inspire a feature film, Mr. Saturday Night (1992).  With the box office success of comedies like When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and City Slickers (1991), Billy rose to the ranks of auteur and was allowed to direct Night (in addition to co-scripting and starring).

Billy Crystal as Buddy Young, Jr.
Borscht Belt jokester Buddy Young, Jr. once boasted of standing room only audiences in Vegas casinos and starring in his own CBS-TV series during the mid-1950s…but over the years, he’s gradually been reduced to playing nursing homes.  His brother Stan (David Paymer), his manager and agent, has to break the bad news and tell him that a cruise on which Buddy was booked to entertain has backed out of the deal, leaving the comedian quite upset.  (“That was my winter!”)  Stan isn’t finished being the harbinger of misfortune, however; he’s also quitting as his brother’s handler and retiring to Florida.  The two siblings have a nasty falling out.

Young Stan (Ben Diskin) and young Buddy (Josh Byrne)
Returning home to his devoted wife Elaine (Julie Warner), Buddy flashes back-and-forth between modern-day events and his past, and we witness how he and his brother got their start entertaining relatives after get-togethers.  Later, Buddy wins a talent contest (Stan pulls out at the last second) and is on his way to stand-up stardom.  The comedian resigns himself to the truth that he’ll have to soldier on in the business of yuks without Stan, and gets an assist from Annie Wells (Helen Hunt), an agent who’s been foisted on him by her boss Phil Gussman (Jerry Orbach), who was helped by Stan when he started out in the beginning as an agent.  It won’t be easy finding work for the aged funster; Buddy Young, Jr. is incapable of relating to the people in his life except through a steady stream of wisecracks (he’s estranged from his daughter Susan [Mary Mara]) and every big break that’s come his way has been sabotaged because he’s his own worst enemy.

In a USA Today article published in 1992, Alternate Oscars author Danny Peary chose Enchanted April as his personal pick for Best Picture, and listed four other films as honorable mentions: Howards End, A Midnight Clear, Night and the City, and the movie being reviewed right now.  (How Night and the City got on that list I’ll never know—maybe that’s why Peary sticks to writing about sports these days.)  He also listed star Billy Crystal as one of his runners-up for Best Actor (Armand Assante would have received Danny’s AO trophy for The Mambo Kings), so I was most curious to check out Mr. Saturday Night to see why it had garnered such high praise.  It’s the same old story—so many movies, so little time…but when I noticed that it was airing on HDNet Movies I decided to stalk and trap it with the DVR.  (Now here’s a message from Mutual of Omaha.)

Jerry Lewis with Crystal
I’m in general agreement with Mr. P on a lot of movies, but I think in the case of Mr. Saturday Night he overpraised this one.  Not that it’s a terrible film, but it’s one of those features where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  There are some wonderful moments sprinkled throughout the film, and the production was clearly a labor of love for Crystal; he’s a huge fan of the comedy greats, and one of his celebrated SNL impressions was that of Big Apple TV host Joe Franklin, who chatted with show business legends for a living.  In one scene in Night, Buddy is hanging out at the Friar’s Club with three of his “peers”—Slappy White, Jackie Gayle, and Carl Ballantine—while he waits on his appointment with Gussman.  (This is where he learns his old friend has given him the brush-off, and assigned Annie to handle his bookings.)  Buddy even encounters Jerry Lewis (as himself), and the two of them good-naturedly exchange insults (“Still combing your hair with the Exxon Valdez, I see,” Young cracks to Jer).  The show biz atmosphere is true-to-life, not to mention the backstage chaos on Buddy’s short-lived TV venture (which harkens back to a better movie, 1982’s My Favorite Year).

Teenage Buddy (Jason Marsden) and Stan (Michael Weiner)
The problem with Mr. Saturday Night is the main character.  He’s an unlikeable schmuck.  His schmuckiness isn’t so much a handicap (it’s a most realistic depiction of a lot of comedians)—it’s that Crystal the filmmaker doesn’t have the courage of his convictions to make Buddy Young, Jr. a complete shit for the entirety of the film.  As the movie heads toward its conclusion, Billy and co-writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel feel the need to tack on a “happy ending” by softening the Buddy character (he realizes he’s been an asshole all these years!) and going out on some schmaltz…and as Roger Ebert correctly pointed out in his review of the film, “anyone who has been a[n] SOB until the age of 70 is unlikely to reform.”  (It’s hinted that Buddy is a bit of a philanderer, but you never see him engaged in any affairs—it’s like introducing a gun in the first act of a play and then not using it in the third.)  I made a small allowance in the sequence where Buddy tries to reconcile with daughter Susan (because I am a sucker for sweet scenes), but it only made me wish that they had included more detail on why the two of them are estranged.  Also, too:  I don’t normally like to nitpick on things like this, but…oy, that old-age makeup.  Crystal looked like he was the victim of a Silly Putty landslide.

David Paymer and Julie Warner
I found the secondary characters in Mr. Saturday Night much more interesting; David Paymer is sensational as Stan (even if he has the same makeup problem), a man who’s sacrificed so much for his brother (he’s always kicked himself that he never got the courage to pursue the woman who eventually weds Buddy) and would probably feel better if he gave Buddy a solid punch in the jaw.  (Paymer got an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his turn, and deservedly so.)  Helen Hunt also exudes a lot of charm as Annie, who takes the time to look up who Harry Ritz, Jack Carter, and Phil Silvers were to demonstrate to her reluctant client (Buddy) she’s serious about getting him gigs.  Julie Warner is luminous in a role (no putty for that girl) that was originally going to be played by Kyra Sedgwick before Kyra became great with child.

Paymer and Crystal
I’m not sorry I sat down with Mr. Saturday Night; I knew I would gravitate to the plot (I revere classic comedy) and unlike some of the folks who reviewed the movie on its initial release, I thought some of Buddy’s “material” was pretty funny (I truly enjoy that rimshot! humor).  But I can tell you the precise point where the movie went south for me; there’s a brief scene where Paymer, Warner, and Crystal’s characters are watching Your Show of Shows—the legendary “This is Your Life” sketch—and Crystal’s Buddy sits stone-faced during the presentation.  (How could you not laugh at “Uncle Goopy”?  Okay, maybe my father wouldn’t.)  Maybe this either demonstrates the hollowness of Young’s comedy (maybe he doesn’t even have a sense of humor) or it’s jealousy on his part…but I just shook my head in disbelief after watching that.  (The irony is that Billy Crystal himself has noted many times that it was Sid Caesar himself who inspired him to become a comedian.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

One size does not fit all


One of the pitfalls in revisiting TV shows from the past—alluded to in the famous Peter DeVries quote at the top of the blog—is that some series simply aren’t as good as you might have remembered.  I have found this to be the case with many of the cartoons I dutifully watched as a young sprout, though I surmise that this is by design: kids will watch any kind of crappy animation provided there is some semblance of movement.  (Some of these cartoon shows that immediately come to mind are The Mighty Hercules, Cool McCool, and Milton the Monster; on the live-action side, I was disappointed that Sledge Hammer and The Greatest American Hero weren’t as great as when I watched them initially—though I still think Robert Culp’s character on Hero was a 24-karat gem.)

As such, it came as a most pleasant surprise when, after purchasing Square Pegs: The Like, Totally Complete Series…Totally recently at Oldies.com, I watched the show in its entirety (totally) over the weekend and was delighted at how well it still holds up.  (Oldies.com still has a few copies available at $4.98—and these are the original 3-DVD sets that came out in 2008.  The 2-DVD Mill Creek reissue is also available…but for $7.98.   I am nothing if not S-M-R-T when it comes to shopping.)  I was a huge fan of this sitcom during its original run in the 1982-83 season, and was a bit bummed when I learned it was not going to be picked up for another year because I thought it was a bright, funny look at high school angst.  (I suppose, in retrospect, that I should not have been surprised a smart series like Pegs was cancelled too soon…there’s a reason why we call that device “the idiot box.”)

Amy Linker, Sarah Jessica Parker
But on the off-chance that anyone reading this was cryogenically frozen during its original run, Square Pegs was the stirring saga of two young girls entering their freshman year at Weemawee Penitentiary High School: Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker).  Patty was, according to the write-up TV Guide gave the series in its 1982 Fall Preview issue, “the smart, skinny, nearsighted one” while Lauren was “the one with baby fat and braces.”  The girls wanted nothing more than to “click with the right clique and we can finally have a social life that’s worthy of us,” as viewers were reminded in a voiceover that opened the show each week.  (Patty: “No way—not even with cleavage!”)  “This year we’re going to be popular…even if it kills us,” Lauren assured her pal.  This quest for popularity would prove to be a daunting task.

Jon Caliri, Tracy Nelson
Pourquoi est-ce donc?  (Tish!  I spoke French!)  Well, the girls quickly found themselves at cross purposes with the high school’s popular clique, made up of vacuous Valley Girl Jennifer DiNuccio (Tracy Nelson), her BFF LaDonna “L.D.” Fredericks (Claudette Wells), and Jennifer’s none-too-bright boyfriend Vinnie Pasetta (Jon Caliri), memorably described on one occasion by one of Pegs’ characters as a “walking gland.”  Shunned by the “in crowd,” Patty and Lauren were forced to associate with misfits like themselves: class clown Marshall Blechtman (John Femia), who had an endless repertoire of bad celebrity impressions and jokes to go with them, and Johnny Ulasewicz (Merritt Butrick), whose fondness for New Wave music earned him the nickname “Johnny Slash.”  (People often mistook Slash for a punker but he emphatically insisted that New Wave was a “totally different head—totally.”)  The remaining member of this motley bunch was Muffy B. Tepperman (Jami Gertz), the annoyingly vivacious preppy who was constantly imploring her fellow classmates to show the proper school spirit (she was chairperson of Weemawee’s “Pep Committee").

Linker and Parker
Created and produced by former National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts, Square Pegs premiered in the fall of 1982 to positive critical buzz and very impressive ratings in its debut time slot Monday nights on CBS (though its competition was formidable: the popular ABC [non]reality series That’s Incredible and NBC’s Little House: A New Beginning).  Had the network kept the show around on Monday nights, Square Pegs might have continued for a season or two (Little House was in its last year, and CBS had a fairly strong Monday lineup despite M*A*S*H also calling it quits).  But the show shifted to Wednesdays later in the season, where its lead-in was the terrible Zorro and Son (Beatts notes in a segment included on the DVD collection that’s when she knew there was little hope for her creation), and the network was also discouraged by the small numbers in male viewership (which was one of the reasons why Beatts persuaded Bill Murray to guest star in one episode…more on that in a bit)—the fact that it was popular with practically every female member of the viewing audience was of little comfort to them. 

Merritt Butrick, Parker, Jami Gertz, Linker, John Femia
After the show’s May 1983 cancellation, TV Guide published an article entitled “Anatomy Of A Failure: How Drugs, Ego, And Chaos Helped Kill A Promising Series.”  I don’t believe the piece is online, but it is referenced in this well-written article by Gwen Ihnat at the A.V. Club.  I remember reading the TV Guide article at the time of publication and thinking there was something mighty hinky that—save for Beatts, who acknowledged: “I think that certainly, there was some drug abuse or drug traffic that may have happened, because I would say that that is norm for a set”—no one in the cast or behind-the-scenes would go on the record for attribution.  (You can argue, of course, that with minors on the set, folks might be a little reluctant to engage in a little cleansing confession.)  As to Beatts’ observation, Anne may have been thinking about the history of substance abuse on SNL, which has been soldiering on for over forty years now despite this pharmaceutical handicap.  (I also got a chuckle out of the “ego and chaos” mentioned in the article.  I mean, that must have been a first for show business, huh?)

Butrick
Many former members of the cast are interviewed in “where-are-they-now?” segments on the Square Pegs DVD collection (humorously titled “Weemawee Yearbook Memories”) and the drug abuse on the show is not remarked upon in any of those features either (which is certainly understandable; Gerald Casale, the bassist/synthesizer with Devo, recalled for Heeb in 2009 that he snorted coke with Jami Gertz and Sarah Jessica Parker in their trailers during the time the New Wave band guested on a classic episode, in addition to observing a lot of sexual activity).  But I’m not going to continue to dwell on the “sin and vice” aspect of Pegs because a) it’s boring, and 2) it doesn’t seem to have interfered with the truth that Square Pegs was a hell of a funny show.

The actors—and creator Beatts—are unanimous in their assessment that Square Pegs was a show that was ahead of its time.  I think in some respects this is accurate, but what I’ve noticed in many of the articles I’ve read about the series is that they ignore that Pegs was essentially an 80s version of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  There are differences, to be sure; the protagonist (Dwayne Hickman) of Dobie Gillis wanted little more out of high school (and later life) than “a girl to call his own.”  Patty and Lauren on Square Pegs desperately strived to be popular, and the romantical aspect wasn’t quite as prominent (though some Pegs outings did play on the “puppy love” trope—Lauren gets a major crush on the hunky janitor in “The Stepanowicz Papers,” for example).  What both shows had in common was the notion that it was okay to be a non-conformist in an atmosphere that unceasingly pressures kids to be and think alike.

Parker, Linker, and Nelson
Johnny Slash was the son of Dobie Gillis’ Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver)—a spacey, sweet-and-innocent manchild who marched to the beat of a different drummer, and who listened to that beat through his ever-present set of headphones.  Patty Greene was a slightly-less-obnoxious Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James) in that while her intelligence may have posed a handicap where the opposite sex was concerned (in “It’s Academical,” Lauren convinces her friend she needs to “play dumb” if she’s to have any chance with a senior on the quiz bowl team), any guy would be lucky to be with such a bright, funny girl.  Jennifer DiNuccio wasn’t as devoted to the pursuit of money as Dobie Gillis’ Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), but she was every bit as superficial and drop-dead gorgeous (Jennifer was already being looked after—her father owned a successful auto dealership—but in one of my favorite episodes, “Hardly Working,” she’s forced to become a waitress at the gang’s hangout due to slumping sales brought on by the Reagan recession).  The dynamic of the popular and unpopular kids interacting with one another was present on both sitcoms; Dobie and Chatsworth Osborne III (Steve Franken), for example, normally didn’t travel in the same social circles but when they did it made those episodes of Dobie Gillis that much funnier—the same is true of Square Pegs, with the episodes in which the cliques must form “alliances” (“Working,” “A Cafeteria Line,” “To Serve Weemawee All My Days”) being the ones that remain in the memory.

In case you thought I was kidding about the Dobie Gillis comparisons.  Femia and Butrick strike familiar poses.

Caitlin Adams
Square Pegs even had funny teachers like Dobie Gillis.  In the place of Dobie’s Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert) and Ruth Adams/Imogene Burkhart (Jean Byron), you had history instructor Rob “Lovebeads” Donovan (Steven Peterman), popular among the students because of his unconventional teaching methods (there was a running gag on the show in which Donovan would reminisce about his “radical” college years and always stop short when he was about to mention his partaking of weed).  Caitlin Adams played Allison Loomis, a liberated feminist (her area of teaching expertise varied from episode to episode) who was bitter about her ex-husband and hilariously called her class to order by running her fingernails down the chalkboard (the girls have a slumber party at her house in “Halloween XII,” another favorite of mine).  The principal, Winthrop Dingleman—you can probably guess what unfortunate nickname he was saddled with—was portrayed by sad sack actor Basil Hoffman as a golf-obsessed authoritarian, and Craig Richard Nelson turns up in several episodes as John Michael Spacek…who, despite the usual drama teacher stereotype, was married and had several kids.

The Pegs cast pose with Devo
Unlike Dobie Gillis, Square Pegs chose not to focus on the characters’ parents too much (preferring to reference them in jokes) though there were two exceptions: Leave it to Beaver’s Tony Dow plays Patty’s divorced father in “A Child’s Christmas in Weemawee”—a Yuletide-themed episode that ranks as the show’s low point (they try to stretch a half-hour show into an hour, with disastrous results; also, too: because this episode was split into two for syndication, it’s assumed there was twenty total episodes in the entire series when there was really just n-n-n-n-nineteen).  They fared better with introducing us to Muffy’s parental units in “Muffy’s Bat Mitzvah” (the Devo episode); character veterans William Bogert and Marj Dusay are Alan and Beverly Tepperman (Dusay also played the snooty ma of Lisa Whelchel’s Blair Warner on The Facts of Life—so this was a walk in the park for her), and as a bonus we get Dena “Mother Nature” Dietrich as Muffy’s hip aunt.  (Aunt Vida is quite taken with Johnny Slash, and much hilarity ensues.)

The cast of Hello, Larry (shudder)
I loved all the Square Pegs characters except for Marshall—it’s not that I found him pestiferous (I was the same kind of kid in high school, a pop culture-obsessed wiseass), it’s just that I wasn’t a fan of the actor who played him; I remembered John Femia from the loathsome sitcom Hello, Larry—a show I despised with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns despite the presence of Kim Richards.  But my favorite character on Square Pegs was Jami Gertz’s Muffy Tepperman, chiefly because my graduating class was packed to the rafters with Muffies, male and female.  I thought Muffy hysterically funny because of her cluelessness (in one episode, she responds to one of Marshall’s barbs with “I’m going to ignore that…because, frankly, I don't get it”) and considered her one of the show’s most intriguing personas in that, unlike Pegs’ protagonists of Patty and Lauren, Muffy wasn’t motivated to be accepted socially—she was just driven by her constant need to take charge.  There was also an interesting streak of villainy in her character; in “To Serve Weemawee All My Days,” it’s Muffy who stirs up trouble (as head of the “Morals Club”) by trying to get Mr. Donovan fired when it’s revealed that outside of class he’s in a relationship with an unmarried woman (quelle scandal!).

"People..."
Addressing her classmates with an elongated “People…” and punctuating her vocabulary with “It behooves me to say” and “It’s incumbent upon me,” Muffy was also at the center of one of Square Pegs’ funniest running gags: her tireless fundraising efforts on behalf of “Rosarita,” Weemawee’s “adopted Guatemalan child.”  By the time “Hardly Working” aired, Muffy was soliciting fundage so that Rosarita could get cable television, and when Patty inadvertently lets slip to Muffy that Jennifer’s having to take a job waitressing she laments to Lauren: “When’s the next flight to Guatemala—I hear they have cable now.”  (Muffy goes completely over-the-top by organizing a “telethon” to help Jennifer out—something that meets with Marshall’s enthusiastic approval because it appeals to his show biz ambitions.  I’d like to think that had there been a second season of Square Pegs the show’s writers would have gotten around to fashioning an episode where we would be presented with a more vulnerable Muffy.)  Like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Jami Gertz had a prolific acting post-Pegs acting career, appearing in such films as The Lost Boys (1987) and Less Than Zero (1987) and sitcoms like the schlubby-guy-with-a-hot-wife Still Standing (2002-2006) …but nothing ever made me laugh harder than the actress’s turn as Tepperman.  (“Why are you calling that woman Muffy?” my mother asked one night as she was watching 1996’s Twister, in which Gertz plays Bill Paxton’s girlfriend.)

Bill Murray's character (here with Gertz and Steven Peterman) has a lot of fun at Muffy's expense (calling her "Muffin," "Muffler," and "Mothball") in "No Substitutions"...but Gertz reminisces that Murray called her "Chicago" when not filming and that he let her road-test his rented Mercedes.

Claudette Wells (with compact), Butrick, Gertz
Bill Murray plays a substitute teacher (he’s an actor who teaches in-between thespic gigs) in “No Substitutions,” which is inarguably Square Pegs’ finest hour.  He pairs up the kids in Ms. Loomis’ class in a “marriage experiment,” much to Patty’s dismay because Lauren ends up wedded to Vinnie while she remains single (“Great—you get to marry Vinnie Pasetta, and I get to learn life can be cruel…I could have learned that in gym.”).  Murray’s Jack McNulty offers to “marry” Patty, which makes Lauren jealous…and that jealousy spreads to Mr. Donovan, who resents how quickly the kids have made McNulty the most popular teacher on the Weemawee campus.  Now, having Bill Murray guest star on any episode of any sitcom would reap tremendous comedy benefits (Nelson recalls that Murray never did scenes a second time in the same way, and Beatts laughs when she relates how the actor called her up the night before shooting to tell her he was incarcerated in a Tijuana jail…yet he was actually calling from Los Angeles) but this episode is also falling-down funny because the stick-up-her-ass Muffy is paired off with the laidback Johnny Slash, much to her undisguised contempt.  After four days of misery, McNulty agrees to divorce the students—something Muffy is delighted about, but Johnny is mortified (“I think we ought to have a baby”).

Square Pegs' pop culture references (this one is from "No Joy in Weemawee" -- you might have to enlarge this to get the extra joke in the byline) have been frowned upon by a few critics...but a classic movie fan like myself finds them irresistible, with sequences riffing on everything from Frankenstein to The Godfather.  In fact, the funniest bit in the terrible Christmas episode occurs when Patty has a vision of herself in her dad's ice fishing cabin, devouring a shoe like Chaplin in The Gold Rush.

Square Pegs never had the luxury of a “series finale,” but the last episode, “The Arrangement,” is a pretty good capper to the sitcom.  Vinnie wants to throw Jennifer a six-month anniversary party, but he’s not going to get that opportunity if he doesn’t pass a crucial math test.  Jennifer and L.D. prevail upon Patty for help, and Patty agrees under the proviso that the two girls treat she and Lauren like people and not “lint” …and that they also get invited to the shindig.  (On Pegs, LaDonna always called Lauren and Patty “that fat girl” and “that fat girl’s friend.”  Muffy’s pet nicknames for the duo were “Stringbean” and “Fang,” but seemed blissfully unaware that L.D. referred to her as “that loud-mouthed girl.”)  Lauren can’t fathom why Jennifer and L.D. are being so nice to her (Patty has refrained from clueing her in on their deal), and their moment of social solidarity ends when the two popular girls tell our heroines at Vinnie’s party to amscray usterbay.  The dejected girls wind up at Johnny’s place, where they watch TV with Slash and Marshall…and then the cool band that played at Vinnie and Jennifer’s soiree shows up, because they’re friends with the Slashman.  “Arrangement” is an excellent example of Pegs’ underlying message that high school popularity is not the end-all and be-all.  I’d rather hang out with Patty and Lauren than the shallow and self-absorbed Jennifer and LaDonna.

Nelson's short, Pat Benatar-like haircut didn't pass muster with Anne Beatts...so she had to wear a wig "that looked like a squirrel."  Wells took the time to get hair braided and beaded...and wound up having to also wear a wig because the beads were the wrong color.  (Hair issues.)

Nelson and Wells, circa 2008
I mentioned earlier that there are interviews with some members of the Square Pegs’ cast included on the DVD set; I think it’s sweet that Tracy Nelson and Claudette Wells do their segment together because like their characters, they later became the best of friends (they explain they bonded because of “hair issues”).  (There’s also a nice tribute to Merritt Butrick—“Johnny Slash”—from those who participated; Butrick passed away in 1989 from toxoplasmosis and AIDS-related complications.)  What amused me about these segments is that all the interviewees (not too surprising coming from Beatts, who used her own matriculating experiences as the spark plug for the series) seem to identify with the Patty and Lauren characters and admit that they, too, were “square pegs” in high school—just once I’d love to see someone blurt out “Yes, I was phenomenally popular in high school; I spoke fluent cheerleader and made the other students’ lives a living hell.”  (If you think I’m exaggerating about my outsider status during “the best years of my life,” I have people who will sign affidavits as to my geekdom.)  Square Pegs would later pave the way for similar high school series like Freaks and Geeks and a gazillion lame Disney Channel sitcoms, but there’s a reason why I never embraced the cult show My So-Called Life like its devoted fan base—I’d seen teen angst portrayed much better on the earlier Pegs…and in a much funnier fashion, too.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #5: “Hit-and-Run Driver” (12/28/35)


Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s weekly dissection (well…I try to make it weekly) of MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay series continues with Hit-and-Run Driver (1935)—an interesting entry in that it was penned by two scribes whose names might be familiar to fans of Abbott & Costello movies: Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo (billed in the credits as Fred Rinaldo).  This screenwriting duo, after serving an apprenticeship at MGM penning Pete Smith and Robert Benchley shorts, was responsible for several of Bud and Lou’s best feature film comedies: Hold That Ghost (1941), The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and TDOY Halloween favorite Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).  (Lees & Rinaldo also wrote the screenplay for Olsen & Johnson’s Crazy House [1943], for which we are most grateful, and 1941’s The Invisible Woman…for which we are not.)  Both men were sadly felled by the blacklist in the early 1950s, and while Rinaldo seems to have hung up his gun after the Martin & Lewis romp Jumping Jacks (1952), Lees continued to write (using “J.E. Selby” as his alias) for such TV series as Rawhide, Lassie, and Daktari.

But let us now visit with the “MGM Reporter” (William Tannen)—a man later identified as…Jim.

JIM: Ladies and gentlemen, as the MGM Reporter it has been my job to bring to you accounts of criminal cases proving indisputably that crime does not pay…today my message is more urgent than ever…for a new menace is sweeping the country, causing more deaths than America suffered during the entire World War…


You can tell Jim is serious because he’s wearing his squinty expression.

JIM: Thirty-seven thousand were killed and approximately one million injured last year alone…from all over the country come reports of violent deaths, horrible mutilation…no one is safe from this new public enemy…who is he?  He may be your neighbor…he may be that person in the seat next to you…

Boy, wouldn’t it be weird if the guy seated next to you was also your neighbor?

JIM: He is the driver of any one of America's 25 million automobiles…I would like Captain James of the Kent County Traffic Division to tell you just how the police deal with this situation….
JAMES: Thanks, Jim…sit down…


“You make me nervous.”  MGM is just darn lucky that this short came out before RKO started its Saint movie franchise with The Saint in New York (1938), because “Captain James” is easily recognizable as actor Jonathan Hale—who played “Inspector Fernack” in five entries of that series with Louis Hayward and then George Sanders.  (And if this short had been released in 1938, MGM would have really been red-faced—that was the year Hale debuted with his most famous film role, that of J.C. Dithers in Columbia’s Blondie series.)

JAMES: To combat this type of killer, we've developed a highly scientific method of detection…so efficient is this method that few hit-and-run drivers escape ultimate conviction…as an illustration, take the case that happened last June, along the Columbia Turnpike…

And with that, we are whisked into the passenger seat of a car that is traveling a little too fast down a dark country road for my tastes.  The person behind the wheel seems a little inebriated, and he’s unable to stop when a young couple appear out of nowhere to cross the road…


 The driver of the vehicle crashes into the couple, spraying windshield glass all over the soft shoulder.  He gets out to examine the situation, and the young man (later identified as David Benedict), lying bloody on the ground, summons up the strength to call out “Help…”  The responsible party should do the right thing and move Heaven and Earth to get his victims to the hospital for proper medical attention with all deliberate speed.  But because The Voice is on in fifteen minutes—and he forgot to set the DVR—the unknown driver hops back into his jalopy and heads back the way he came.  Rat bastard.


At 2:15am, a call comes into the Kent County police station and it’s answered by the desk sergeant (William Gould)—someone is reporting the accident involving young David and his girlfriend, Eleanor Spears.  Quickly, Kent County’s finest are dispatched to the scene of the crime—Detective John “Sandy” Sanderson (Morgan Wallace), Detective Al Squires (Carl Stockdale), and a third detective named Lee (who goes unidentified at the [always reliable] IMDb) begin their examination of the crime scene, which involves…


…a tire track, for one.  Captain James explains via voiceover that a plaster impression of the track—a moulage—needs to be taken in order to show “the structure and depth of the markings.”  Sanderson also begins to collect every available piece of the shattered windshield, which we will later see he’s assembled as one might put together a jigsaw puzzle.  The detectives are initially discouraged that the car involved in the incident was headed toward New York—which means locating the vehicle will require a full-length feature film.  But an examination of the “oil drippings” reveals that that the car headed in the opposite direction, so we can have this baby wrapped up in twenty minutes.  (As for the victims…well, they are so badly hurt it’s impossible to question either of them.)


SANDERSON: As you can see from the map, Chief, the turnpike runs through Hanover…Woodland…Wells…and Oceanside…then comes to a dead end…

“You can also see why I have my eye on that sweet piece of property in Wells…I plan to open up a bar when I’m retired and on my pension.”

SANDERSON: So if the car turned around…and went in that direction…at that time of night…the driver must still be in that locality…now we have no known witnesses to the crime…but there are a couple of pretty definite leads to work on…

They’ll start with the moulage of the tire track found at the scene of the crime.  “We’ll know it…if we find it,” declares Sanderson.  Sanderson has already started to work on that “jigsaw puzzle” I alluded to earlier:


The plan is to canvass the local garages and see if anyone brought in a smashed-up automobile.  One garage, where a mechanic named “Walter” works (the actor is unidentified at the IMDb), informs Sanderson that someone did bring in such a vehicle—both the windshield and headlights were smashed.  “She must have hit something awfully hard,” observes Walter.  (No biggie, dude—just a couple of stray pedestrians.)  There’s just one teensy problem…


SANDERSON: Whad’ja do with the glass that was left from the windshield?
WALTER: There wasn’t none…she was brought in clean as a whistle…
SQUIRES: Listen, Sandy…this ain’t the car we’re lookin’ for either…

That’s because none of the tires are on the car match the moulage impression, unfortunately—and Walter swears he didn’t change any tires.  This could be a challenge!  But Sanderson gets the address of the car’s owner from helpful Walter (I guess there are no issues of confidentiality where auto repair is concerned)—it belongs to a young student named George Lambert (George Walcott), and he’s staying in town for the summer at the Beach Ridge Hotel.  Sanderson is going to have a chat with young Lambert, and he instructs Squires to go over the car “with a fine-tooth comb” since he’s noticed slivers of glass on the running board.  (He really wants to finish that puzzle.)


George is hauled into the police station and questioned by Sanderson and his fellow detectives.  Here’s his story: he spent the evening of the accident with his girlfriend at a fine establishment known as “Frankie’s Roadside Café,” arriving there at 11:45pm.  At 1:30, Lambert was ready to do some major pub-crawling and planned to head to “The Old Orchard Inn”—but his main squeeze wanted to go home.  The two of them had a quarrel about their plans for the rest of the evening (although by that time it was technically morning), and that resulted in her leaving with some of their mutual friends while George elected to stay at Frankie’s.  (Lambert had the keys to his car with him…so no one else could have driven it.)

LAMBERT: …I guess I must have been a little drunk, because…uh…Frankie, the proprietor—he’s a friend of mine—steered me to a table and talked me into having a cup of coffee with him…


As you can see from the above screen grab, Frankie is portrayed by portly character veteran Cy Kendall…which should be an immediate tip-off that George’s story is not quite kosher.  (You know Cy from the serials The Green Hornet [1940] and Jungle Queen [1945], featured on TDOY’s Serial Saturdays.)  George continues telling the gendarmes that the two of them heard a noise outside the roadhouse, and when they went outside to investigate George found that his car had been hit by someone who then sped off into the night.


LAMBERT: Look what that rat did to my car…
FRANKIE: Yeah…some drunken fool…there ought to be a law to deal with people like that…

I’m pretty sure there is, Frank.  Oscar, Frankie’s lackey (also unidentified at the IMDb), arrives in time to see his boss and George surveying the damage…and Frankie instructs his man to get a broom and sweep up the glass.  Thus endeth the flashback.

SANDERSON: …and what time did you leave?
LAMBERT: Well, I hung around till closing time—about 2:30…then I went straight home…
SANDERSON: To the hotel…?
LAMBERT (nodding): Yes…
SANDERSON: Then you didn’t go out along the Columbia Turnpike at any time…
LAMBERT: No…
SANDERSON (leaning forward in his chair): You’re sure?


This last bit made me laugh out loud—and I don’t know if it was Morgan Wallace’s delivery or the feeling that I got that the character was getting ready to say: “Listen, you little punk—I know in my donut-filled gut that you’re guilty, and I’m gonna get a confession if it takes me the rest of the day!  Al, get the phone book!”  (I’ll bet that phone book still has an impression of my father’s head on it.)

“Let me ask you a question,” Lambert inquires cheekily.  “Did you get the man who backed into me?”  He’s awfully smug for a person of interest, but Sanderson tells him the usual don’t-leave-town-we-may-have-further-questions-yadda-yadda-yadda.  “I hope you get that guy,” are George’s parting words as he bids Detective Flatfoot a fond adieu.  If this were an episode of Law and Order, the Lambert character would be merely a red herring leading us to another suspect…but since we’re at the halfway point of this two-reeler, it looks like George Lambert is our man—so how to prove it?


JAMES: It looked as though we had the wrong car…it had different tires and there were three makes of automobiles equipped with similar lenses…we had no witnesses…and our only subject had a perfect alibi…but the department never rested…

“We executed round-the-clock use of the truncheon until we got a confession out of that little weasel.”  No, I’m just kidding you (maybe).  The break in the case is revealed when the gendarmes bring Georgie in for more questioning.


Dum-de-dum-dum…

JAMES (showing Lambert a photograph): Did you ever see those two persons before?


“Why, yes…I believe it’s from Gidget Gets a Cold Sore.  I saw it the other night with my preten…er, my girlfriend.”

JAMES: The boy is David Benedict…and the girl is his fiancée, Eleanor Spears…perhaps you’ll recognize them from this…

James shows Lambert a photo that the audience does not see—but the implication is that it’s a candid of the two lovers after they were plowed down in the accident.

JAMES: And it’s too bad that driver didn’t think about the law…he might have given those two youngsters a break by rushing them to the hospital…
LAMBERT: I quite agree with you, Captain—but after all…what’s that got to do with me?

Oh…puh-lenty, my young homicidal motorist.  You see, after an extensive investigation the ever-resourceful Al learned that George’s automobile was “washed and cleaned” before it was brought in.  He located a piece of glass in the vehicle, one that would appear to have magnification properties…


…it’s a piece from David Benedict’s broken eyeglasses!  An oculist confirmed the prescription for Detective Sanderson.


SANDERSON: David Benedict, Lambert…the boy who’s dying in the county hospital…
JAMES: And that piece from his glasses was found on the running board of your car!
LAMBERT: You can’t make me believe that!  You’re just trying to scare me into saying something!

The noose begins to tighten around George’s lily-white neck.  Sanderson went back to check on the kid’s story at Frankie’s Roadside Café…and found a piece of glass in the grass where Frankie alleged Lambert’s car was parked.  That would seem to square his alibi…except for the part where that same shard fits so neatly in Sandy’s glass jigsaw puzzle!


There’s a somewhat embarrassing scene with one of Sanderson’s detectives and Oscar the handyman where the cop extracts a confession from Oz that the tires on Lambert’s car were changed because he sold the discarded tires (they were dumped around the back of the garage) to a relative who owns a junkyard.  What makes this so uncomfortable is that Oscar is stereotyped to the nth degree (“You ask questions so fast I don’t know who I am or where I is no more”), with the detective threatening to throw him in the pokey if he doesn’t talk.  (Nowadays the cop would have just tased his ass and then claimed he was in fear for his life…if Oscar were lucky.)

Mantan Moreland would have made this funny.
The tire in question is rolled out to George along with the moulage, with Sanderson drily observing “They match.”  It’s all purely circumstantial, of course, but a couple of hours with Sanderson in the interrogation room and Lambert will start babbling he was on the grassy knoll that day in Dallas.  This won’t be necessary: the phone rings in James’ office next door, and it’s a Dr. Flynn (Howard C. Hickman) on the phone.


FLYNN: …the boy has regained consciousness…but I advise you to hurry, Captain…
JAMES: Fine—we’ll be right over!

James completes the call and re-enters the room with George and the other detectives.  “Come on, Lambert…we’re going down to the hospital to have a talk with David Benedict.”

“What for?” asks Lambert.  “The state may have a witness” is James’ icy reply.  (Stay strong, Georgie!)


Spoiler warning: he doesn’t stay strong.  Arriving at the hospital with Lambert and Sanderson, James learns from the doctor that he tried to get hold of James before he left the station—Benedict has suffered a relapse, and will have to undergo an operation.  “Any chance?” Sandy asks Flynn.  The way Flynn shakes his head as if to say “You’d be better off placing a bet on the Grim Reaper” made me titter.  When Flynn is asked if Benedict’s fiancée can provide an identification, the detectives are told that the accident rendered her blind and paralyzed.  “Had those people been rushed to a hospital immediately,” Flynn scolds, “both would still have their lives before them.”  (The Supreme Being would appear to have a whoopee-cushion-sense of humor.)

Director Edward L. Cahn nicely handles a sequence in which George Lambert is forced to watch his victim’s operation—the little anesthesia balloon inflates and deflates throughout…and then stops inflating…


 …signaling to the audience that David has drawn his rations and can now have a chinwag with the person in charge of the universe as to why he blinded and paralyzed his girlfriend, the sick f**k.  Lambert, witnessing Benedict’s death on the operating table, confesses in Perry Mason-like hysterics that, yes, he was guilty of the hit-and-run and he’s very, very sorry and he won’t ever do it again, promise, cross my heart.  “I…I…know it was a horrible mistake but…please…can’t you see my side of it?” he wails.  That will be up to Judge Hanging, played by another character vet, Sam Flint.  (His name isn’t really “Hanging”—I make leetle joke.)


JUDGE: George Lambert…before passing sentence upon you, the court has taken into full account your side of this case…and I regret to say I can find no extenuating circumstances…

Well, so much for that.  The judge continues: “Now you say you are sorry, but your penitence cannot bring life to David Benedict or eyesight to Eleanor Spears...the magnitude of your crime and the havoc caused by your criminal neglect leave me no alternative…George Lambert, this court sentences you…”

“…to a dose of syphilis.”  Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya again.  The judge gives George twenty years…but in the words of Captain James, “In his heart he knew he had committed murder, and the indelible memory of what he'd done to that boy and girl will remain with him for the rest of his life.”


And on that upbeat note, I’ll remind you to return next week when our Crime Does Not Pay presentation will be The Perfect Set-Up (1936).  (S.Z…stay out of mischief!)  G’bye now!