So you’re probably all familiar with the Warner Archive.  If you’re not, that’s the DVD-on-demand initiative started by Warner Bros. in 2009 and imitated by most of the other studios.  It has radically altered the home video business, basically ending retail marketing of catalog titles and supplanting it with direct-to-customer internet sales.

I’ll bet you’re also aware that in the last year or so the Warner Archive has begun releasing some obscure old (and new) TV shows in pricy, rarely-discounted box sets: The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Shaft, Tarzan, Medical Center, The F.B.I., Cheyenne, Daktari, ShaftSouthland.  Plus they’ve got one-off releases of a few dozen made-for-TV movies from the seventies and eighties.  Another studio, Sony, distributes its own burn-on-demand discs through the Warner Archive site, and they’ve got some TV series gems, too: Ghost Story, Born Free and, coming in October, the underrated, rarely-seen Dale Robertson western Iron Horse.

Also during the past year, I’ve been going back and forth in an unintentionally comedic and occasionally demeaning exchange with the Warner Archive’s publicists.  I was tempted to turn those e-mails into an epistolary sequel to “Dirt in the Bathtub,” in which I riffed on Shout Factory’s apparent inability to process my screener requests (productively, as it turned out, because they started sending me discs, at least for a while).

But I don’t like repeating myself, so let me just give you the upshot.  Which is that Warner Archive will not send me TV discs to review, although they have on various occasions (1) written back to ask if I’ve published my review of the discs they never sent me, or (2) offered to send me some movies instead (even though I made it clear I only write about television here).

I’m about ready to throw my hands up completely, but first let’s try something together.  I’d like to write about some of the shows Warner Archive is releasing.  The Gallant Men and Harry O just came out.  The Lieutenant is likely coming “very, very soon” (some clips were unveiled last month at Comic Con in San Diego).  I’ll probably get around to those and all of the older ones mentioned above, too.  But frankly, I can’t afford them all, and it’d send ‘em much closer to the top of the pile if Warner Archive coughed up some review copies.

So how about this: If you’d like to read what I’d write about some of those shows, hop on over to the Warner Archive’s convenient Facebook page and tell ‘em so.  Anyone can leave comments there, and the Warner people actually read and answer most of them.  While you’re there, why not post the link to my little blog and mention that you like this space. Who knows – maybe they would, too.

UPDATE, 8/10/12: It would appear that the Classic TV History Blog and the Warner Archive have reached a mutually beneficial arrangement.  Thanks to everyone who chimed in!

Invisible is right.

Word has it that the recent Blu-ray release of The Invisible Man, the 1975 series that starred David McCallum, is all fucked up.

The Blu-rays have cropped the episodes – which, like every TV show prior to the late nineties, were shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio – on the top and bottom to fit the standard widescreen television size of 16:9.  That means that poor David McCallum, who was already short enough to begin with, has been shorn of his hair and his legs in a lot of long shots.

There are apparently other problems with this Blu-ray – for one thing, all thirteen episodes are crammed onto a single disc – but obviously the Procrustean aspect ratio change is the dealbreaker.  It’s the same botch that afflicted one batch of Route 66 episodes (which were corrected) and the first season of Kung Fu (which weren’t).

(And the series pilot is actually stretched instead of cropped!)

VEI, which put out The Invisible Man discs, is one of several independent DVD labels that have sublicensed old TV series from Universal; it’s responsible for the absurdly overpriced McMillan and Wife box set, and for liberating the four episodes of The Snoop Sisters, a ninety-minute mystery wheel show that had been on a lot of collectors’ most wanted lists.

What’s particularly galling here is that VEI clearly knew better, because their simultaneous DVD release of The Invisible Man is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio.  I don’t pretend to understand the logic but it certainly appears that VEI has caved into imbecile pressure from the “I want it to fill my screen” crowd.

It’s not a total loss, since fans who know and care about this stuff can avail themselves of the DVDs instead of the Blu-rays.  But the state of classic TV on Blu-ray is so anemic – we have The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, and … what else? – that a screw-up like this can have wider consequences.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: fans will buy the DVDs instead, sales for the Blu-rays will suck, and VEI (and other industry watchers) will convince themselves that consumers in this niche don’t care about Blu-ray.  Well, some of us do – but you have to get them right.

This issue has received surprisingly indifferent coverage on the usual internet rant-podiums (maybe because the show, which I’ve never seen, is not highly regarded), but  you can read more about this disaster at my bête noire, the Home Theater Forum. Update: At “press time,” HTF posters are reporting that VEI has plans to issue a second pressing of the Invisible Man Blu-rays in the correct aspect ration.  We’ll see.

By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.

– Susan Orlean

All that was left of him was not a storage unit.  That wasn’t all that was left of his life.  He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind.  He didn’t die alone.

– Gina Leonard

1. I Wouldn’t Start From Here

It started with a question: who owns Route 66 and Naked City?  I thought finding the answer would be simple.  It wasn’t.

The question comes up because, last month, Shout Factory released all four seasons of Route 66, the Herbert B. Leonard-produced, Stirling Silliphant-created, filmed-all-over-the-United States, one hundred and sixteen-hour road movie that stands as one of the unique events in American television history.  That made Route 66 the first of Leonard’s television series to be completed on home video.

That’s complete with an asterisk, though, because one episode in the set (“A Fury Slinging Flame,” a significant anti-nuke treatise) is definitely missing about five minutes of footage, another episode (“Blue Murder”) is probably missing a few minutes, and all of the first fifteen episodes are derived from some badly mauled sixteen-millimeter prints that should never have passed a professional QC.  The reasons for these mastering failures remain murky (“murky” is a concept that we’ll be returning to often in this piece).  Route 66’s DVD history was a bumpy road, a trial-and-error process that fixed some mistakes and let others stand (I covered this in its early stages here), an unfinished mess that Shout Factory inherited from other companies (Roxbury Entertainment, producer, and Infinity Entertainment, distributor) without much of a track record in the TV-on-DVD business.

Personally, I’m in the half-full camp on this: seven-eighths of the episodes are in better than adequate shape, and I can finally throw out my VHS tapes of the last season.  (Plus, they sent me a freebie.)  But Brian Ward, the producer of the new Route 66 set, implied months ago in a forum post that the new box set of Route 66 would fix the video problems that afflicted the earlier releases.  Ward has an internet history of “truthiness,” of drumming up fans’ enthusiasm when Shout is getting something right and then bailing any time the chips are down, and when you reread what he wrote, it doesn’t make any concrete promises.  So technically Ward is off the hook.  But many of the small but vocal crowd who actually read these things felt duped, and launched a “cancel your pre-orders” campaign; as of this writing, about two-thirds of the Amazon reviews of the set focus exclusively on the image quality issues, or on the obnoxious fact that Shout has not disclosed whether it will release Season 4 (the only one new to DVD) separately.

I always suspect that these don’t-buy-it-movements are like the southern boycott of Bonanza (because of its stars’ pro-civil rights stance) in the sixties: complain in public but watch it with the shades pulled down.  It’s not as if fans have a better way of seeing the botched first season episodes – except, actually, they do.  Route 66 ran on Nick at Nite in the late eighties, from new video masters that were (for their time) gorgeous; copies of those circulate among fans, and they look vastly better than the copies of the first fifteen used in this DVD box.

Why couldn’t, or wouldn’t, Shout Factory (or its predecessors) access those tapes?  That’s what I wanted to find out.  I also wanted to know why the DVD releases of Route 66’s sister show, Naked City, sputtered out in 2006, with 78 of the 138 episodes still unreleased.

A lot of people (including, long ago, myself) have assumed that Sony owns both shows.  There’s a logic to that inference – Sony is the corporate successor to Screen Gems, which originally partnered with Herbert Leonard’s production company to produce the shows and then distributed them in syndication; and Sony’s logo appears on the back of the Naked City DVDs – but it’s wrong.  The real story is much more complicated.

2. Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long

Herbert B. Leonard got seven shows on the air between 1954 and 1960.  The first, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, was a big hit, and it gave the brash Leonard enough leeway to produce whatever he wanted, even though the executives at Screen Gems – who were theoretically his bosses – hated him from the outset.  Rin Tin Tin made Leonard a rich man, a comer not only in the television industry but also someone who could be taken seriously as a movie producer, too.

But Leonard spent his last decade without a home of his own, dependent upon the financial support of family and friends.  He got throat cancer, lost his larynx and his voice in 2003, and died in 2006.  It was a long, sad story that started when Naked City and Route 66 were canceled in 1963 and 1964.  Leonard had no shows on the air, no guaranteed income, and all the executives he’d defied and taunted in interviews had their knives out for him.  He pitched many pilots, some of them arty endeavors as Route 66 and Naked City had been, others kitsch like 1967’s The Perils of Pauline.  None became series.  He had a modest hit with Popi, a film he produced in 1969 for United Artists; he made a few bucks on a sepia-tinted, recut version of Rin Tin Tin (Rin Tint Tint?) that he syndicated in the seventies; he got a couple of short-lived sitcoms on the air in the eighties.  But most of the second half of Leonard’s life was wasted creatively, a waste that is quite measurable for anyone who has had the rare opportunity to see the single film that Leonard directed.

Going Home (1971), a forgotten almost-masterpiece, was a father-son drama that Robert Mitchum agreed to make for scale, and that reunited a lot of Leonard’s Naked City and Route 66 collaborators – writer Larry Marcus, cameraman Fred Jackman, casting director Marion Dougherty, stunt coordinator Max Kleven.  Leonard talked about getting Haskell Wexler (a hot property after Medium Cool) to direct, then decided to do it himself; he struggled at first, but Mitchum backed him, helped him learn the new craft.  Problem was, Leonard made the film at MGM, whose president at that time was James T. Aubrey.   Aubrey liked to carve up movies in the editing room; Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Jack Smight, and Bruce Geller, among others, all told the press that Aubrey trashed films they made for MGM during the early seventies.  Aubrey was also Bert Leonard’s old nemesis, the head of CBS during the Route 66 years, and when he chopped thirty minutes out of Going Home, and then barely released it, it may have been just out of spite.  What remains of the film is the creative bright spot in a forty-year twilight.  But after MGM dumped it, Leonard’s promising directing career was over.

Herbert B. Leonard in 1987 (at a Museum of Broadcasting event, a recording of which is an essential extra on Shout Factory’s Route 66 box set)

Bert Leonard could not live modestly.  He was, after all, a cigar-chomping mogul of the Hollywood variety.  He gambled, he womanized, he borrowed money to finance unmade films and drawn-out lawsuits.  There were four wives and six daughters.  The last of the wives, Betty Kennedy, was an ingenue in Ladies’ Man, a Leonard-produced workplace sitcom that ran for a season in 1980-81.  “That was a real heartbreaker for Bert,” one of his friends told me.  Betty was thirty-some years younger than Leonard, and it was a volatile, on-again, off-again relationship; no one would go on the record about the specifics (and I could not reach Kennedy, now living in Reno, for comment), but I suspect that Leonard’s quasi-biographer, Susan Orlean, is being deliberately coy when she writes that Leonard “later described his relation to her as an addiction.”

Until the end, Leonard kept trying to get properties he owned made or remade.  He became obsessed with River of Gold, a big-budget feature Rin Tin Tin story that Disney optioned briefly.  There were still people who wanted to work with Leonard, but he refused to compromise on any professional point in which he believed strongly, no matter what the consequences; he drove away potential collaborators and backers, even the ones who liked him personally.  Stanley Moger, who fronted those tinted Rin Tin Tin intros to the tune of $800,000 and pulled the plug when Leonard ran over budget, called it a “habit for self-destructing.”

Leonard’s friends supported him.  The director Irvin Kershner, a friend who was involved with River of Gold, loaned him $100,000 in living expenses.  The stuntman Max Kleven (he was Paul Burke’s double on Naked City) gave him $350,000 over the years, and put Leonard up at his ranch for a while.  James P. Tierney, who was Leonard’s lawyer for a while (put another asterisk on that; we’ll come back to it), fronted him “ten to twenty thousand a month for three or four years.”

Eventually, Leonard’s only assets were his TV shows.  He’d been shrewd enough to retain the copyrights – certainly not a given during the early days of television – but he couldn’t hold on to them.

3. Like This, It Means Father … Like This, Bitter … Like This, Tiger

On the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, you can pull up records documenting the path by which Naked City, Route 66, and the other Leonard shows changed hands over the last fifteen years.  They are plentiful and complex.  I showed them to an intellectual property lawyer, who told me that to truly untangle the mess, you’d have to go down to D.C. and sift through the complete documents.

Most of those records point to, and were likely filed by, James Tierney, the attorney (with an asterisk) who represented some of Bert Leonard’s affairs toward the end.  According to Tierney, Leonard used the shows to settle his debts with Tierney, which eventually totaled $1.5 million.

“It’s a long story,” Tierney explained last month.  “He owned me money, and we came to an amicable accomodation about settling with me.  I always liked the show” – meaning Naked City, but including most or all of the others –  “and he wanted to sell it, and I bought it from him.”

Tierney was guarded when we first spoke, maybe because he didn’t know whether I knew about the paintings (and in fact I didn’t, yet).  The paintings were a Monet and a Picasso, among others, and according to Susan Orlean, Tierney conspired in 1992 to steal them from a client as part of an insurance scam.  He did time, and lost his law license.  (Tierney disputes this version of events, but refused to go into detail and quickly ended our conversation after I brought up Orlean’s book.  The California State Bar confirms that Tierney tendered his resignation with charges pending in 1999.)

You can understand how those allegations might color one’s assessment of a source, and yet Tierney sounded genuine in his affection for Leonard.  “He worked until the end,” Tierney said.  “He was always working on ideas.  He was an optimist.  He always thought that the next deal was right around the corner.”  Tierney also thought – and this is the only way that Bert Leonard could have hung in so long, and borrowed so much dough from so many people – that Leonard was “a charming, talented guy, just a real nice guy.”

4. How Much a Pound Is Albatross

Tierney may have liked the shows, but like his old friend he parceled them off over the subsequent years.  Route 66 went to Financo, a Dutch investment company, which sold it to Kirk Hallam, the would-be producer who wanted to remake the series as a feature film.  After the original DVD releases petered out, Hallam struck a deal with Shout Factory that gave the home video label “worldwide home entertainment and digital rights, and North American broadcast rights.”  (Route 66, Naked City, and Rin Tin Tin have all been in the lineups of these new nostalgia-oriented cable channels that have cropped up – MeTV, Antenna TV, I can’t keep track – so syndication is, after a long dry spell, once again a revenue source.)

As far as I can tell, Sony still controls two of Leonard’s less well-known shows, Rescue 8 (L.A. firefighters) and Tallahassee 7000 (Walter Matthau as a Florida lawman); Leonard signed the rights over to Columbia Pictures Television in the late eighties.  I’ve never seen them but I’ve heard that both series have some of the same on-location verisimilitude as Route 66 and Naked City.  (There’s also a rumor that they were stymied in syndication because some of the prints could not be found.)  Financo appears to be stuck with Circus Boy, the one with the kid Micky Dolenz and the elephant (anybody want to take that off their hands?).  And The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin . . . well, that one is too complicated to even get into here.

Naked City was the one show that Tierney held on to.  At the time Tierney took over the copyright, Sony – then the show’s distributor, evidently subject to an earlier deal made by Leonard – was already releasing the series on DVD through Image Entertainment.  “Then Sony sold their rights to me,” Tierney says, “and I didn’t renew the agreement.”  Tierney claims that the Naked City DVDs were profitable – that even though Image spent “thousands of dollars” creating the gorgeous new video masters, the DVDs took in $600,000 of gross revenue and made an 80% profit.  Tierney ended the relationship with Image over a financial dispute, and because (like me) he was annoyed that Image cherry-picked the episodes with the most famous guest stars and refused to switch to a season-by-season release pattern.

But there’s a lede that I’ve buried here: In April of this year, Tierney sold Naked City to Image Entertainment, following the “amicable” resolution of a lawsuit he filed against the DVD distributor in 2011.  Although Tierney retains remake and sequel rights, Image “effectively owns the original programming,” in Tierney’s words, including all home video and digital rights.

But don’t get excited yet.  Last week, a rep for Image told me that the company (which was recently purchased by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET) has no immediate plans to release the series on disc.  That’s a real shame.  Although Image is not a major player in the classic TV realm, it has licensed a few key properties and turned them in to elaborately-produced, well-reviewed disc releases.  The mind reels at the possibility of a complete Naked City box set, with audio commentaries and other extras, similar to the Thriller set Image released in 2010.  Or, better yet, a series of season-by-season Blu-rays, along the lines of Image’s most recent Twilight Zone upgrades.

5. The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half

There are still things about the above that I don’t fully understand.  One is the extent of Sony’s interest in Naked City and Route 66.  Did Leonard always own the copyright to his shows outright, or did Screen Gems keep a piece of them?  Susan Orlean writes that, by the eighties, Leonard owed Sony “a fortune” – but for what, exactly?  Last year Sony’s Vice President of Media Production told me that “both of those titles expired several years ago from the Sony Pictures Television copyright and have moved on to new copyright holders” (emphasis added).

Then there’s the question of Max Kleven.  According to Susan Orlean, the former stuntman gained certain rights to Rin Tin Tin in a court-ordered settlement against Leonard, who couldn’t pay off his debts to Kleven any other way.  But Kleven told me that he owns more.  “All that stuff has been to court twice, and as far as the court is concerned I own control of Rin Tin Tin, Route 66, and the Bert Leonard portion of Naked City,” Kleven said in May.  Indeed, the Copyright Office has a 2005 purchase and assignment agreement in the name of TRG Management, LLC & Max Kleven that lists not only Rin Tin Tin but also all the Route 66 and Naked City episodes.  James Tierney  points out that his own foreclosure on Naked City and Route 66, in 2000, predated any of Kleven’s claims against Leonard, and that the attorneys for Financo and Image checked the titles on the shows before closing the deals with him.  Kleven describes Tierney as a friend and a legal advisor.  Tierney politely disputes Kleven’s claims to ownership of any of the shows.

Did Bert Leonard give away the same shows twice?

6. Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain

Finally, there’s the question of the film and video elements.  Did Bert Leonard keep any of them?  A copyright isn’t much good if it doesn’t come with a usable copy of what’s copyrighted.  In that storage shed, Susan Orlean found prints and tapes of Rin Tin Tin and some of Leonard’s other shows.  But Leonard’s daughter Gina, who was caring for her father when he died and ended up with the keys to the shed, says that no one has sourced any film or video elements from his estate.  Tierney told me that, for Naked City, Sony “was holding” all the elements, and “now they’re turning them over” – to Image, presumably.

But what about Route 66?  The question of elements was central to the bungled early DVDs of that show.  The first round derived from ragged sixteen-millimeters.  After the resulting outcry, the subsequent Infinity/Roxbury releases appeared to source thirty-five millimeter elements, albeit with aspect ratio and audio flaws that suggested the mastering was being done inexpertly.  Where did these transfers come from?  Kirk Hallam addressed the issue in an interview in which he stated that, following the inferior original release (some of which was sourced from “videotape”), the “fine-grain masters” were rounded up from “vaults all up and down the East Coast.”  (Whose vaults?)  The “original film stock” for the episodes resided in a Sony vault in Burbank, but “the archivists begged me not to use that original film.”

As I’ve written before, aspects of that explanation strike me as obfuscatory (or perhaps just vague about what the technical terms actually mean).  My own guess – and this is pure speculation, and I invite anyone with knowledge of the situation to set the record straight – has always been as follows: that Hallam acquired the copyright of Route 66 but no usable film elements; that Sony sought more than Roxbury or Infinity wanted to pay for access to either film prints or the old video masters that ran on Nick at Nite; that Roxbury used either collectors’ prints or some other unknown, second-rate source to create the first Route 66 DVD release; and that for the subsequent volumes Roxbury capitulated and forked over the money to use Sony’s elements.

The big question is why Shout Factory opted not to redo the first fifteen episodes.  Was it merely a matter of dollars and cents, or was there another reason why better elements were unavailable?  I can understand how new transfers of fifteen hours of film could bust the budget, but what about those Nick at Nite tapes, which were inarguably better than the existing DVDs?  Were they tossed, or was Shout too cheap even to pay for access to them?

(Last week Shout Factory’s PR rep stopped responding to my requests for an interview with the producer of the Route 66 DVDs after I declined to submit questions in advance.)

7. The One Marked Hot Gives Cold

I never would’ve guessed that I’d get scooped digging around amid the depressing late-career business dealings of a down-and-out television producer.  But that’s essentially what happened last year when Susan Orlean – yes, the New Yorker essayist who was portrayed in the film Adaptation by Meryl Streep – published a book called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.  Orlean was a big Rinty fan as a kid, and turned the unlikely subject into a book about the line of movie dogs, and their eccentric owners and trainers.  Inevitably, when she came to Rinty’s TV years, Bert Leonard became a central protagonist in Orlean’s book; his epic rise and fall, his excesses and con-man’s charm, were irresistible.

But Orlean’s book also has a bit of a truthiness problem.  Leonard Maltin has compiled a long list of its rudimentary errors in the area of film history.  There are mistakes regarding Herbert Leonard, too.  For instance, Leonard had two daughters with each of his last three wives; Orlean credits four to his third wife and two to Betty Kennedy, the last (and technically Leonard’s fourth and fifth wife, since they divorced, remarried, and divorced again).  That might sound trivial, except that Orlean suggests that Leonard’s second marriage, to Willetta Leonard (who is credited as a producer on Route 66 and Naked City), ended due to the death of his only son, Steven, in a swimming pool accident in 1955.  The fact that, in reality, Bert and Willetta went on to produce two more children before splitting up confounds that bit of convenient psychology.  Reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, I got the queasy sense that Orlean was arranging the facts to fit a narrative, instead of the other way around, and that her narrative required Bert Leonard to end up as pathetic and unfulfilled as possible.  Gina Leonard, one of Bert’s daughters, insists that Orlean has exaggerated the extent of Leonard’s destitution and unhappiness during his final years.  She told me last week that her siblings, mother, and other family members – many of whom had cooperated with and encouraged Orlean’s book – are united in their belief that it does not do justice to Herbert Leonard.

(I should add that while I have used Orlean’s research as a guide for parts of this piece, I have made extensive efforts to fact-check everything sourced from her book with the parties involved – most of whom were clearly reluctant to revisit the topic.)

8. A Horse Has a Big Head - Let Him Worry!

I first saw Route 66 when I was in college.  One of my instructors, Katie Mills, was doing a dissertation on road movies and slung me tapes of a dozen or so episodes.  I confess: I didn’t get it.  The videotapes were so murky that I couldn’t appreciate the vintage location footage, and so I responded more to the flaws.  The guest stars were good, but the lead actors were either stiff or goofy (this was a problem with Naked City, too).  And why were there so many fistfights?

Well, now I know better.  Now I’m convinced, in fact, that Route 66 and Naked City may be the most important American television project of the sixties.  Maybe not the all-time, word-for-word, best television shows of that era, but definitely the ones I come back to most often when I want to know what people felt then, and how their lives actually looked.

The significance of the Bert Leonard-Stirling Silliphant shows makes the state of preservation and research on them all the more alarming.  The elements themselves are in uncertain hands.  (Who has the negatives?  I can only hope they’re stored safely in Sony’s vaults.)  James Rosin has published mostly unsatisfactory books on each, and I know of at least one writer each who has abandoned a book project on Route 66 and Naked City.  I’ve written around the shows myself – Naked City bit players; Route 66 locations – and I’ve skimmed Leonard’s and Silliphant’s papers at UCLA, but I haven’t done anything in depth.  Sam Manners, the production manager on both shows (how did he manage that?!) and probably the last prominent crew member from either, died while I was researching this piece, and before I could interview him.

Route 66 ended on a weak note, a stillborn, two-part farce.  (Silliphant, like Rod Serling, was not much of a comedy writer.)  But there’s a satisfying final scene: Buz (Martin Milner) and Linc (Glenn Corbett) go their separate ways, the former settling down to marriage, the latter ostensibly headed “home” but, perhaps, continuing to wander alone. I like to think he’s still driving around out there someplace.  The title of the episode is

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Correction (6/13/12): The original version of this piece described the plot of Route 66‘s final episode inaccurately.  Update (5/6/13): Since I published this, Shout Factory has issued a separate release of Route 66‘s fourth season, and Madacy (a subsidiary of Image Entertainment) has released two volumes of Naked City DVDs.  Most of the episodes are recycled from the earlier sets, but there are ten new-to-home video episodes.

Last year, under cover of night, E1 Entertainment let loose DVDs of a pair of rare and fascinating early television dramas.  It is unfortunate that “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” received so little publicity, since they are at present – apart from Sidney Lumet’s two-part, four-hour staging of “The Iceman Cometh” – the only commercially available segments of Play of the Week.

Play of the Week was perhaps the grandest outpost of the FCC-mandated Sunday afternoon cultural ghetto of the fifties.  Most of its productions were feature-length, and they attracted top-tier talent.  The two episodes here were likely chosen not because they represent the very best of Play of the Week, but instead to appeal to a cultural niche.  Even for the goyim among us, though, they are of considerable interest.

Both DVDs contain helpful liner notes by the brilliant J. Hoberman, the recently, scandalously laid-off Village Voice film critic (and a specialist in Jewish cinema).  Hoberman details the history of the two properties, both of which derived from modern theatrical adaptations of late nineteenth or early twentieth century works, contextualizing them within the oeuvres of the original writers, within Yiddish culture, and within the New York theater of the fifties.  But the two Play of the Weeks are also worth examining as examples of the talent-heavy event productions that flourished briefly in the late fifties and early sixties, the period in which videotape displaced live transmission as the technological mode by which anthological television was shown.

“The World of Sholom Aleichem” was adapted by Arnold Perl, who would go on to become one of the most talented and uncompromising writer-producers working in sixties television.  But the secret author of the piece was the blacklist.  Perl and most of the show’s repertory cast had been blacklisted, and would remain unemployable on the networks for many more years.  Play of the Week was able to hire them only because it was an independent, unsponsored production.  (Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast “The World of Sholom Aleichem” became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.)  The successful 1955 stage version of The World of Sholom Aleichem had probably saved Perl from professional oblivion, since his most substantial pre-blacklist work had been done in a medium (radio) and later for a television company (Bernard Prockter Productions, which had used Perl as a story editor on Treasury Men in Action and Big Story) which were long defunct by the time the blacklist crested.

Perl’s mature, post-blacklist work tends to fall into one of two categories – the blunt, accusatory rhetoric of his leftist passion plays for East Side / West Side (including the Emmy-nominated “Who Do You Kill,” about the fatal consequences of urban poverty and institutionalized racism) and the eccentric, quasi-existentialist black comedies he wrote for The Chrysler Theater.  “The World of Sholom Aleichem” harnesses both of these impulses, and the distinctive tension between them may represent Perl’s primary stamp on material that was not, of course, his own.

Indeed, the “world” of Mr. Aleichem (a nom de plume for Solomon Rabinovich) is very loosely defined.  Perl’s decision to include a piece by a different writer, Y. L. Peretz, in between two actual Aleichem works is already a bold assertion of editorial control.  “Bontche Schweig,” in Hoberman’s phrase “an allegory of proletarian passivity,” follows a much-abused nobody (Jack Gilford) through the gates of heaven; exhorted by the angels to finally speak out for himself, Schweig at last makes the humblest request imaginable.  The expert timing of the long build-up and quick reversal in this mordant, loaded vignette is worthy of early Woody Allen, although I think the true topper to Peretz’s punchline came not from Perl but from one of his contemporaries, Ernest Kinoy, when he took “B. Schweig” as his pseudonym.  (“Schweig,” just to explain the joke, is Yiddish for “silent.”)

As Hoberman notes, the first segment, “A Tale of Chelm,” diverges broadly from Aleichem’s original fable, in which a tailor is driven to economic ruin and madness by the inexplicable sex changes of his goat.  Perl, abetted by the casting of the comedic actors Zero Mostel and Nancy Walker, turns the Aleichem story into almost a Hebrew Honeymooners, a farce of home and community that offers an earthly explanation for the bovine’s gender reassignment and makes room for much of the kind of verbal wit that one associates with “Jewish humor.”  By contrast, the final story, “The High School,” has no humor at all.  Perl expresses his didactic streak in this nearly hour-long piece, which casts Goldbergs matriarch Gertrude Berg in a rare straight role.  An East Side / West Side for the turn of the century, “The High School” methodically chronicles a father’s acceptance of the merits of higher education for his teenaged son, and then the family’s lengthy and appalling struggle to triumph over the quotas that excluded Jews from most institutions of learning.

If “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was executed by a writer of some distinction and a journeyman director – Don Richardson, who slid quickly from The Defenders to Lost in Space after a move to Hollywood – then “The Dybbuk” reverses that equation.  Its source, a play by S. Ansky, was adapted by Joseph Liss, a minor writer who toiled amid the legendary talents who emerged from The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One.  But the director of “The Dybbuk” was Sidney Lumet, already (at thirty-six) an Academy Award-nominated feature director and soon to leave television behind for good.  Looking nervous and struggling to remember (or read) his lines, Lumet appears at the beginning of “The Dybbuk” to explain his personal investment in the material: his father starred in a production of the play in 1927, which also happened to be the first play Lumet saw in the Yiddish theater.  His presence on camera reminds us that the director was a bigger star than anyone in his cast save the ingenue, Carol Lawrence, who was then playing Maria on Broadway in West Side Story.  (Don Richardson may have been just as personally invested in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” but no one was going to give him a chance to tell that to the world.)

“The Dybbuk” captures Lumet’s television style at its apex, and the show is of interest primarily as a kind of auteurist snapshot.  Regardless of his personal (and ethnic) connection to the material, Lumet was, in some ways, an odd match for “The Dybbuk.”  Lumet was one of the cinema’s great rationalists, and despite its folkloric trappings “The Dybbuk” is essentially a ghost story, one that culminates with incidents of demonic possession and exorcism.  It’s easy to imagine someone like John Frankenheimer (who had staged “The Turn of the Screw” on Sunday Showcase a year earlier) devising clever trick shots and turning the show into a look-what-we-can-do-on-videotape extravaganza.

Lumet, true to his nature, de-emphasizes the paranormal elements.  There are no special effects in “The Dybbuk.”  When the spirit of the doomed Channon (Michael Tolan) appears on screen, he simply rises from behind a mound of dirt or, in the moving final scene, stands in the gloom, a row of tall candles acting as the bars between him and the corporeal world.  Lumet orchestrates the demonic possession simply by having Lawrence, playing the possessed, and the off-screen Tolan speak in unison.  The effect of the male and female voices blending is disturbing, even when the actors slip out of synch with one another.

Despite its subject matter, “The Dybbuk” evinces a certain distaste for the supernatural.  The wizened elder (Ludwig Donath) who narrates the play – initially unidentified as he addresses the audience directly, this character later turns out to be the community’s rabbi – refers to the Kabbalah as “a mountain of foolishness.”  The Kabbalah is what gets Channon in trouble; Hoberman describes his sudden death as punishment for blasphemy, but I think the cause, in Lumet’s staging, remains more ambiguous.  Lumet cuts away from Tolan, staring upward and addressing God, just before he falls.  Channon’s mortal distress in this split second is so hard to discern that it comes as a surprise when his body is discovered some time later.   Could Frankenheimer have resisted a lightning bolt here?  It is as if Lumet cannot bear either the melodramatic or the metaphysical implications of a vengeful god.

Lumet’s staging of that moment is unexpected and effective, but his restraint works less well in other sections of “The Dybbuk.”  Lumet puts his faith in the text and the performers; his only repeated visual flourish in “The Dybbuk” is a camera crane, which he uses imaginatively at times (pulling up to a heavenly point of view, for instance, during Channon’s final speech to God).   But the first act is talky and confined (to two rooms in a synagogue), and Lumet’s stiff compositions and timid camera placement cannot sustain the nearly forty minutes of expository Torah instruction and kibitzing from Channon’s fellow students (Stefan Gierasch, Jerry Rockwood, and Gene Saks, all charming and funny) that pass before the play’s tragic romance is activated.  “The Dybbuk” doesn’t come alive, as it were, until Channon’s soul enters Leah’s body.

Lumet sets up what I think is a deliberate clash of performance styles in “The Dybbuk,” using his actors to delineate a line between reason and emotion.  While the actors playing the Jewish elders remain contained, the pair playing the young lovers – Tolan and Lawrence – give expressive, Method-styled performances.  Lumet stages their first meeting almost entirely with voiceover, as they stare at each other across a room, forbidden by social custom from interacting for more than a moment.

The two actors generate real heat in this scene – if they didn’t, “The Dybbuk” would collapse completely at this point – and later Tolan’s intensity as he turns to the Kabbalah is mesmerizing.  (Tolan rightly considered this one of his best performances).  The final exorcism of the dybbuk again defies the conventions of the genre.  In his boldest directorial choice, Lumet stages it as a modern dance piece, choreographed by Anna Sokolow and beautifully executed by Lawrence.

Lumet insists on precise, minimalist work from all of the older actors – Ludwig Donath and Michael Shillo as the rabbis and especially Theodore Bikel, who, as the father of the bride and the target of the spirits’ anger, gives perhaps the most unadorned performance of a generally flamboyant career.  The Judaic Van Helsings who dominate the second half of “The Dybbuk” feel like transplants from a later era of genre filmmaking.  They affect the same implacable, matter-of-fact approach toward the unknown as Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass or The Exorcist’s Father Karras and Father Merrin.  (The Dybbuk’s incongruously doubled voice also anticipates Linda Blair’s growling demon voice in the Friedkin film.)  The rabbis pore over the ancient texts and debate the finer points of theology like scientists testing a thesis; then debate with the disembodied like lawyers in a (literal) trial; then finally perform the exorcism like surgeons probing for a tumor.  The possession of Leah, though clearly a paranormal event, does not inspire fear.  Rather, it is a social problem that must be solved through careful consideration and concerted action.  Upon a text rooted in ancient myth – Ansky derived “The Dybbuk” from Hasidic folklore he collected on an ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine – Lumet casts a modern and somewhat secular gaze.

If “The Dybbuk” remains in some ways a remote, flawed work, it may be because the strands of logic and emotionalism set up by Lumet (who structured many of his films, beginning with 12 Angry Men, along the same schematic lines) often seem to coexist rather than cohere.  As Hoberman points out, Lawrence’s West Side Story association provides a key subtext for “The Dybbuk.”  The Romeo and Juliet template of star-crossed lovers is present in the Ansky play; it is a universal idea amid an ocean of specific cultural references, and Lumet seizes upon it. Lawrence’s dark beauty, which dominates the climax, appears to have been his chief inspiration.

The doomed romance in “The Dybbuk” serves as an entry point into a show that, like “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” does not pander to gentiles.  Both shows deploy on-screen narrators – Sam Levene as Mendele the Bookseller in “Sholom Aleichem” and Donath in “The Dybbuk” – who make a token attempt to explain Yiddish culture to the uninitiated, but many of the finer points will be lost on non-Jews.  The axiom that television was parochial enough in the fifties to permit ethnic art like The Goldbergs, but quickly turned homogeneous once the cross-country cable was connected, is probably too simplistic.  Still, Play of the Week, with its proto-PBS diagram for highbrow quality television, was a defiant exercise in courting a niche audience long before the days of the cable multiverse.

Last week’s look at McCloud leads us into the murky waters of syndication for our sequel.  During the seventies, the New Mexico marshal’s home studio, Universal, cooked up some of the industry’s most creative – one might also say mercenary, or repugnant – ways of squeezing some rerun coin out of its unprofitable properties.  This second part of our McCloud coverage is the story of a show mutilated by its rightsholder, and rescued – four decades later – by an independent DVD label.

In the seventies and eighties, when made-for-television movies were some of the hottest properties on television, enough of them accrued for their owners to bundle them into syndication packages.  These offerings were similar to the packages of old TV shows that cable and local stations could buy, except that they consisted of unrelated telefilms instead of episodes of a single series.  They were a good fit for showcases like CBS Late Night and other time slots that regularly ran old theatrical films.

Once the made-for-TV movie proved its value in off-network reruns, the executives at Universal had an idea: why not create some “new” TV movies out of spare parts?  The “parts” were series that had flopped after a single season, or less.  Because the predominance of “strip” (i.e., five days per week) syndication placed a premium on long-running shows, these failures were perceived as having no rerun value, even if they’d been critical hits.  In the seventies, Universal began to cannibalize these write-offs, sewing together two or more episodes of forgotten series, giving them a generic new title, and dropping them into syndication packages along with authentic telefilms.  With few reference books and no internet to consult, unsuspecting viewers would recognize these hybrids as recycled television episodes only if they’d been among the few to watch the failed show when it was on the air.  That these telefilm Frankensteins were incoherent and unsatisfying – instead of telling a single story, they put the characters through several abrupt, unconnected plots – didn’t matter.  They added to Universal’s profits, without any obvious negative consequences.

Most of the series that Universal cannibalized for this program remain obscure today: Tammy; Mister Terrific; Pistols’n’Petticoats; The Outsider; The Psychiatrist; Matt Lincoln; The D.A.; O’Hara, U.S. Treasury; The Partners; Doctors’ Hospital; Man and the City; Paris 7000; Toma; Chase; Get Christie Love; Sons and Daughters; Lucas Tanner; Griff; Fay; Sara; Mobile One; Kingston Confidential; Gemini Man; Cliffhangers; Turnabout.  But a few of them have since built up enough of a cult following that it seems surprising, in hindsight, that Universal would pilfer them in this way.  When Kolchak: The Night Stalker first entered syndication, only fourteen episodes were made available; the other six were tied up as mutant telefilms.  Alias Smith and Jones, the Roy Huggins-created western, also had some episodes turned into telefilm features and then returned to the syndication package years later.

The other studios “TV movied” a handful of old series this way – Fox (The Man Who Never Was and Blue Light) and QM (Dan August) – but mainly it was Universal that rummaged through the vaults with its extract-every-last-dime philosophy.  And the hybrid TV movies were only the start.  Universal went syndication-crazy in other ways, turning cross-overs into two-parters (a logical idea, actually, that landed an unsyndicated Owen Marshall in the Marcus Welby package) and attaching failed series to successful ones (the few episodes of the George Kennedy vehicle Sarge were syndicated together with The Bold Ones).  The most invasive of these reworkings remains infamous among TV fans: Universal turned Night Gallery, the hour-long horror anthology, into a half-hour syndication package, slicing out large sections of the longer segments and adding stock footage to others to achieve a uniform length.  Then the studio took The Sixth Sense, a one-season occult drama, edited its hour-long episodes down to a half-hour form, and married them to the recut Night Gallerys in order to hit the magic number (100 episodes) that syndicators supposedly desired.  Night Gallery was restored to its original form for a home video release back in 1991, but the uncut Sixth Sense episodes emerged (on the Chiller Channel and then Hulu) only a couple of years ago.

All this effort on Universal’s part ran counter to the creators’ intentions for these shows.  “All the rhythms are off, and it doesn’t play so well any more,” said Night Gallery director John Badham in Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1999).  “On its own it was a very good episode and I was horrified when I saw it,” said Joel Rogosin of The Meanest Man in the West, which combined one of Rogosin’s episodes of The Virginian with one produced by another unit, in Paul Green’s A History of Television’s The Virginian (McFarland, 2010).

The man responsible for this butchery was Harry Tatelman, a Universal vice president whose department oversaw, among other things, the recutting of feature films to meet television censors’ requirements.  Tatelman was a kind of self-hating corporate yes-man, an old-time Lew Wasserman lackey who had started with MCA as a literary agent in the forties.  Tatelman left to produce feature films and some of the Warner Bros. westerns and detective shows in the fifties, returning to the bustling Universal shortly after MCA purchased the studio in 1959.  “Lew made me crawl when I came back,” Tatelman said in Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood (Da Capo, 2001), but his fealty to the company was such that he had no compunction about hacking up other filmmakers’ work behind their backs.  “The resulting pictures were not good, but Harry was widely praised by the financial people for his ability to turn otherwise useless film into money,” said producer and television executive Frank Price in A History of Television’s The Virginian.  “By the time anyone had learned what had happened with the old episodes, it was pretty much too late to change anything.”

Although it likely turned a modest profit in the short term, Universal’s thinking seems totally backward in the current vintage television market.  Short-lived television series have become marketable again on niche cable networks like TVLand, Trio, Encore, ALN, RTN, and MeTV; to some extent, they have even displaced played-out behemoths like Wagon Train or The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, which had so many episodes that some were omitted from syndication just to make the packages manageable.  And while many remarkably obscure television series have enjoyed successful DVD releases, the made-for-television film has remained an almost wholly uncommercial prospect.  (Only the Warner and Sony manufacture-on-demand DVD-r initiatives have, in the last three years, attempted to release vintage TV movies in any number.)  Any number of the series that Universal once chopped up for TV-movie scrap have a hook that a licensor like Shout Factory or Timeless could use for a DVD release: Get Christie Love (blaxploitation); Mister Terrific (superheroes); The Outsider (Roy Huggins’s first draft for The Rockford Files); The Psychiatrist (early work by Steven Spielberg); and so on.

*

Here’s the best-case scenario with one of Universal’s hybrid TV movies: Two episodes of a series are glued together but remain essentially uncut, with only the title sequences replaced.  (Of course, for historians like myself, the removal of the original credits is already a disastrous consequence.)  But it could get much worse.

That’s what brings us to McCloud, which, as a successful, long-running series, would seem to be immune to this indignity.  But McCloud had a pre-history that the other NBC Mystery Movie wheel shows didn’t.  While Columbo and McMillan and Wife debuted as ninety-minute shows in 1971, McCloud had spent its freshman year as part of Four-in-One, an earlier, unsuccessful alternating-series concept.  Instead of taking turns, the four shows under this umbrella (the others were Night Gallery, The Psychiatrist, and San Francisco International Airport) would each broadcast six consecutive episodes and then cede the time slot to the next one.  The Four-in-One shows were all an hour in length, which meant that the six 1970 McCloud segments were too short to fit into the same syndication package as the feature-length episodes (which ultimately numbered forty, counting the pilot).

The obvious solution was for the Tatelman unit to glue the hour-long McClouds together into three new segments – The Man From Taos, Manhattan Manhunt, and Murder Arena.  (Was someone at Universal having fun with alliteration?)  Instead of simply fitting two episodes back-to-back, these hybrid McClouds intercut between them, to give the impression that Marshal McCloud was solving two crimes at once.  (This was possible only because Dennis Weaver wore the same brown coat and cowboy hat in almost every scene.)  In an odd way, the recut McClouds anticipated the serial cop shows of the eighties and beyond – real cops do work more than one case at the same time.  But the patchwork syndication edits could not balance the dramatic highs and lows of the originals, and the results were schizoid and semi-coherent.

The toughest episode for Tatelman’s editor – and we know who he was, because the credits of the hybrid telefilms all list one editor, Jean-Jacques Berthelot, whose name does not appear on the hour-long segments – to blend with another one was “Our Man in Paris,” which saw McCloud kidnapped and sent abroad to deliver a package for some smugglers.  Obviously McCloud couldn’t be on two continents at once.  But a scene in the series’ first episode, “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” in which Chief Clifford got so riled up that he put the marshal on a plane back to New Mexico, gave Berthelot the airport segues he needed to drop the Parisian adventure right into the middle of the other segment.  Overdubbing changed the bad guy (Carl Betz) in “Who Says…” from a blackmailer into the leader of an international smuggling ring.  Hey, a villain’s a villain, right?

(Evidently Douglas Heyes, the writer of “Who Says…,” didn’t think so; he replaced his name in the credits with a pseudonym, “Matthew Howard.”)

The “Who Says…”/“Our Man in Paris” hybrid, The Man From Taos, was ninety-four minutes long (two hours with commercials), but the other two were intended for ninety-minute slots and totaled only seventy-three minutes each.  That meant that, for those, some twenty to twenty-five minutes of the original episodes were excised.  Manhattan Manhunt kept almost all of the Broadway murder mystery “The Stage Is All the World,” but discarded the lighter half of “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue,” which had alternated between a dark anti-drug A story and a comedic subplot about a mounted officer’s missing horse.  Murder Arena combined “The Concrete Canyon” (a murder-at-the-rodeo story with meaty parts for an A-list guest cast) with “Walk in the Dark” (a Leslie Stevens teleplay, in which a Central Park stakeout took a backseat to McCloud’s romancing of a policewoman played by Susan Saint James) by making trims to each, which sent both plot-crammed storylines lurching forward at a jerky, breakneck pace.  Clumsy voiceovers laid over awkward cutaways to inserts and extreme long shots – fortunately for Berthelot, McCloud was one of those “shampoo commercial”-era shows that relied heavily on telephoto lenses – created tenuous connections between the bifurcated plots.

*

The most pernicious aspect of these recut first-season McCloud episodes is that in some ways they have been accepted as the official versions.  For instance, Wikipedia, TV.com, and Epguides.com all list the new titles as the primary ones.  The Internet Movie Database describes “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City” and “Our Man in Paris” as “Part 1” and “Part 2” of The Man From Taos.  That’s inaccurate not only because the original episodes are unrelated, but because they commingle within the recut version.  The Man From Taos doesn’t have a discrete “Part 1” or “Part 2.”

For decades, the first six episodes have rarely been shown in their original cuts.  When Universal released the first two seasons of McCloud on DVD in 2005, it missed the opportunity to restore the hour-long segments to their proper form.  And that would have been that – most old TV shows get one shot on DVD, and no redos – if not for the heroic efforts of Madman Entertainment, an independent Australian label that licensed the Region 4 rights to McCloud.

When Grant Taylor, a DVD producer for Madman, asked Universal for the hour-long episodes, the studio informed him that they had no video elements for the original versions.  But Taylor didn’t give up.  McCloud was “a personal favourite,” he told me in an e-mail last year, and Taylor resolved to do the series justice.  Since not only the American but also the subsequent British and Scandinavian DVD releases had sourced the first season re-edits, Taylor “kind of saw it as the last chance.”

Taylor commenced a search of Australian stations that had rerun McCloud, but found only the recut versions.  On a trip to London, he mentioned his quest to a friend who recalled that a British broadcaster had shown the hour-long episodes many years earlier.  Holding out little hope that the station in question had retained copies of the masters, Taylor checked with his sources there and learned that, “miraculously, all six were still in the vault.”

“We had dubs made and when they arrived at the office it was like the Holy Grail,” Taylor wrote in his e-mail.  “I don’t think I had ever seen the original versions, and after viewing them it was like watching a completely different season. The episodes were so much tighter and made sense, unlike the bizarrely cobbled together feature-versions.  We did a bit of audio restoration and then set about getting them out. To create a definitive release, we elected to include the syndicated feature versions as a bonus, allowing viewers to note the differences.”

The Madman set, which came out in 2010, really does make it possible to observe some night-and-day differences between the original McCloud episodes and the syndication versions.  In general, the Four-in-One edition of McCloud was a quirkier, looser show, more sixties than seventies, more of a character-driven procedural and less the polished mega-mystery it became as part of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise.  Much of the deleted footage is atmospheric: gorgeous second-unit Manhattan scenery (Universal sacrificed production value and time-capsule status when it recut the shows) and relaxed interplay between Weaver and the supporting cast.  The first season of McCloud also had its own title sequence (kind of an ugly one), which disappeared after the show joined the Mystery Movie wheel.

The scenes that were cut for syndication – probably totaling close to an hour across all six episodes – have their minor surprises and delights.  McCloud pitches pennies with street kids in “Walk in the Dark,” outshoots the chief on the firing range in “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” confronts hippies and a modern-day Lady Godiva in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.”  Joanna Moore achieves a lovely, wistful camaraderie with Dennis Weaver in scenes excised from “The Concrete Corral,” and Leo Gordon’s cameo in Manhattan Manhunt becomes a meaty comic role in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.”  A number of other actors were cut out of the shortened versions altogether: Maggie Thrett and William Bryant (in “Horse Stealing”), Mwako Cumbuka (in “Walk in the Dark”), and Dennis Fimple (in “The Concrete Corral”).  Doug McClure, then the star of Universal’s The Virginian, makes a quick, inexplicable in-joke cameo as one Gringo Fontana, which didn’t make the cut when “The Concrete Corral” was folded into Murder Arena.

So McCloud gets a happy ending on home video, one of which American fans may still be unaware.  It gets better: in the U.S., Universal dropped McCloud after its first DVD release, but Madman has continued the series up through the fifth season.  The Madman catalog also offers seasons of Ironside and Quincy, M. E. that aren’t available in North America . . . so if you’re placing an order, you might as well stock up!

Thanks to Grant Taylor and Ben Pollock at Madman Entertainment, and to syndication expert “Neil Brock” for sharing his research on the re-edited TV movie phenomenon.

Hammered

January 8, 2012

Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced  fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots.  Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane.  A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties.  The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley.  MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication.  Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut.  The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).

The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one.  The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.

In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin.  Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer).  The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men.  Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin.  The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.

By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels.  That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer.  But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.

Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock.  Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.

Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s.  But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing.  McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove.  He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker.  He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.

Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office

I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.”  I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters.  McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.

In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed).  This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story.  (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.)  But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard.   He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback.  When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.

Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels.  For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition.  (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)

As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent.  Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star.  Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image.  He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).

Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers

If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise.  Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony.  The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive.  Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel.  The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability.  He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.

According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books.  There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops.  But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.”  In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face.  (Then, of course, he kisses her.)  “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed.  None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.

Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin’”

If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not.  Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage.  Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless.  The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”

So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes.  Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210.  The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass.  At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs.  His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown.  “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently.  Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.

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MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity.  That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit.  So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work.  (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)

We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments.  The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television.  It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.

It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images.  Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane.  Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big.  Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out.  Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series.  His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).

Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following.  There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come.  His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply.  Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there.  “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.

Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”

It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA.  Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value.  The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection.  (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)

But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material.  The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark.  The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world.  And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots.  There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer.  Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company.  Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.

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Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed.  The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label.  While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.

Tempus Fugitive

August 21, 2011

Well, they’re at it again.

In a way, I feel like I can measure the history of this blog on the timeline of the neverending clusterfuck that is The Fugitive on home video.  The aurally mutilated second season debuted in June 2008, only six months after I opened the doors here, and my editorial on the subject was one of the first pieces to attract the attention of anyone . . . well, anyone other than my parents, basically.

Since then, Fugitive producer Alan Armer, who I quoted in that piece, has died.  CBS continued the ignominious DVD release of The Fugitive, issuing a partially corrected version of the first bogus volume by mail only and then mangling the remainder of the second and third seasons.  The fourth and final season came out intact, all but proving Jon Burlingame’s well-researched theory that CBS’s brow-scratching over the Capitol Music Library was the source of the butchery.  And yet, CBS never saw fit to issue a full apology or explanation for its sins.  And me: I’ve mostly stayed out of muckraking and consumer affairs reporting, and tried to avoid feuds like those I started with internet knuckle-draggers Paul Mavis (still the resident reactionary over at DVD Talk) and Ron Epstein (still the proprietor of the world’s slowest-loading internet forum), because, as you can tell from those parenthetical follow-ups, they don’t accomplish much.

Now there comes news that CBS will be repackaging all 120 episodes of The Fugitive into a pricy box with a stupid subtitle (“The Most Wanted Edition”) for Christmas.  There will be a disc of unspecified extras and a bonus CD of uncertain content.  But CBS’s press release leaves the big question unanswered: will the original soundtracks be restored or will the abominable Mark Heyes synthesizer sonatas continue to tramp all over the fuge’s flight?

I don’t have that answer.  I heard this box set was in the works back in February but, once again, no one at CBS would return my calls, so I haven’t reported on it in this space.  The original intent, I think, was to restore the original music . . . but six months is a long time, and who’s to say that the same idiots who fucked it up the first time haven’t struck again?

Either way, CBS has already blown in it one sense, by failing to address the issue up front.  Once again, they’ve insulted and annoyed fans by implying that the music just doesn’t matter.  Right now it’s a lose-lose situation: if the Heyes “music” is still there, then the box set is pointless; if the original music is back, then CBS has flubbed its best chance to win back some of the fans’ good will that went on the run, along with Pete Rugolo’s classic cues, three years ago.  If it turns out that the Rugolo music is all back where it belongs, then that’s a big win – but I suspect fans have been primed to turn surly over the amount of time it’s taken, and the double-dipping that will be required of many of them.  The usually amiable blogger Ivan Shreve thinks it’s all a plot “to screw the fans over one final time” – and that’s even if the new set includes the original music!

I’m certainly not that pessimistic.  If The Fugitive becomes available again in its original form, that’s all that matters, and I’ll be the first to forgive CBS for all the screw-ups that occurred along the way.  (Although, it certainly would’ve been satisfying had the release come with a little public crow-eating from the craven executive who commissioned the replacement scores.)  The real losers here will be the faithless who shrugged, decided that the synthescythed episodes were as good as it would ever get, and forked their cash over to CBS for those worthless volumes.  And you know what?  They deserve to get screwed.  If something’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right.  If the DVD re-release does fix the music, then it will be a rare case where those of us who complained and refused to shell out for a disgraceful hatchet job are fully vindicated.  And if the new DVDs are still Heyesified?  Well, better to never see The Fugitive at all than to see it in that state.

Now: Explain to me why this set won’t be on Blu-ray?

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You may have inferred from the above that I’m a hawk when it comes to image and audio quality issues.  That’s a position that one could take for granted in the glory days of the digital home video era.  But lately, as streaming video gains in popularity, I’ve begun to feel ever more lonely out here on my purist island.

I touched on this when I reported on some of Netflix’s alarming decisions with regard to physical media a few months ago, but it needs to be spelled out front and center: Streaming video is rolling back the quality benchmarks established by DVD and Blu-ray to something a lot closer to the days of VHS and TV syndication.  Netflix and Hulu have become a dumping ground for substandard video encodes that would’ve been rejected by any major DVD label.  The technology itself is dependent on bandwidth variables which fall outside the control of anyone who finds mid-film interruptions or image quality downgrades unacceptable.  The supply of streaming-only exclusives – rare movies and TV shows that missed out on a disc release – has slowed to a trickle.  No major streaming provider is supplying bonus features created for disc releases - even though it’s technologically simple to do so - much less producing new ones for streaming-only content.  This is bargain-basement home video, folks.

Streaming’s champions, which include some movie buffs who should know better, pull out “convenience” as their trump card.  I’m afraid I find it very inconvenient to have to QC every film beforehand for aspect ratio errors, digital artifacts, or horizontal motion blurring, and then to wonder – once I find the one in ten encodes that passes that test –whether Netflix’s server or my ISP will crap out right in the middle of it.

If streaming is the inevitable delivery system of the future, then movie fans must take a stand now and insist that streaming meet or surpass the best possible disc viewing experiences.  If you’re a Netflix user, you’ll be able, as of next month, to choose separate streaming and/or disc rental plans (up until now, they’ve been bundled).  I strongly encourage you to vote with your dollars and reject the streaming option until Netflix demonstrates a commitment to the quality as well as the quantity of its virtual library.

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If I count streaming as the biggest threat to home entertainment so far this century, I have on the other hand come around as a qualified enthusiast for the manufacture-on-demand platform.  When this revolutionary idea debuted in 2009, it had flaws that were sticking points for a lot of movie buffs: the transfers were subpar; DVD-R was not a stable medium; the cover art was hideous; the prices were far too high and discounts too few; it was almost impossible to buy them, except from eBay price gougers, if you lived outside the U.S.  I think all but the last two considerations have become irrelevant.

The price point is still way too high, and I think it’s taking advantage of die-hard fans who would support the MOD releases in bulk but have to settle for a fraction of what they’d like to buy.  (And if anyone cares to release some numbers proving that the Warner Archive doesn’t have an appreciably higher profit margin than the old retail model, I’ll happily eat those words.)  But at least Warner has plowed some of its bounty back into tangible upgrades: nearly all of the new Warner Archive releases have excellent transfers; a few of the old nineties-era TCM masters from the first wave have been upgraded (and hopefully there will be more); and, not that I care, but they’re even spending money on decent cover art now.  You only have to look at some of Warner Archive’s half-assed imitators – namely MGM and Universal, with their Amazon-fulfilled rosters of horribly edge-enhanced low-res DVD-R releases – to see how much Warner is getting right.

Most importantly, Warner has kept its promise on making the Archive a high-volume proposition.  More than a thousand movies from Warners’ prodigious library have been released, and finally (after a two-year wait) they’ve turned their attention to series television.  It’s still a head-scratcher as to why Maverick, the biggest and most commercially viable gem among Warners’ TV holdings, has never received a full home video release.  (And I’ve heard that Gene Roddenberry’s The Lieutenant, which I reported would be among the first TV series on offer, has fallen afoul of a music clearance problem.)  In the meantime, though, I’m pleased with the offerings of the last few months: The F.B.I., Medical Center, The Man From Atlantis, and now The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.  Some of these are dreck but some of them aren’t, and if my requests for review copies are answered I hope to give them some consideration in this space soon.

Revised slightly on August 22, 2011, to expand upon my intemperate anti-streaming rant.

Nostalgia’s Menace

July 29, 2011

I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show.  North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies.  Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him back from whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched.  What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber.  And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together.  Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction?  What does Jay North get from these people?  Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone?  Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.

Jay North: Rebel without a comb.

Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March.  Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.

My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson.  This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled.  Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell).  The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.

Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag.  The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands.  Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive.  Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself.  Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy.  (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.)  It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take.  But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.

My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction.  Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner.  The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward.  The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes.  But they are, at least, mildly surprising.  The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.

But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format.  The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat.  Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.

(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week.  See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island.  I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)

Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot.  It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory).  But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?

There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach; if you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing faux-family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh.  But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material.  Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions.  He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hatable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season).  Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin.  In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson.  A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic is an intriguing source of unease.  But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.

And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, as if he’d been trained to expect a Tootsie Roll for every successfully completed punchline.  On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill.  I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner.  Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable.  Not only did Beaver have an indelible secondary cast, but it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness.  If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.

Earlier I wrote that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true.   Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson.  This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision.  Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake.  Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”).  Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”).  Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”).  And so on.  The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over.  So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.”  (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)

On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood.  But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash.  It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace.  Still, I’m not unsympathetic.  As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.

1. Avid enthusiasts of the work of the famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim refer to themselves as Sondheimites.  They use this term without irony or self-consciousness and if you crack a joke about it (say it out loud, fast, if you’re not following me here), they do not find it funny.

That was only my first faux pas as I entered the world of Sondheim, an artist whose work I’m afraid I fail to get after my admittedly limited exposure.  Sondheim’s lyrics are viewed as extremely complex and sophisticated, but he still works within the tradition of the twentieth-century American musical theater, and that’s a tradition that always puts me to sleep.

So let’s say that, like me, you dig old TV shows but you don’t have any particular affinity for the musical theater.  That’s okay because, while Sondheim’s four songs are the marketing hook for this DVD release (and the only reason it exists), there are a lot of other ways into “Evening Primrose,” which was, for the record, an original hour-long musical created in 1966 for the short-lived prime-time anthology ABC Stage 67

One way in is through John Collier, upon whose short story “Primrose” is based.  Collier was a terrifically witty and macabre writer, who has been compared to Roald Dahl (although I think Collier is the bigger talent).  It’s because of Collier’s tone that “Evening Primrose” has sometimes been categorized as a kind of lost Twilight Zone episode.  And while “Primrose” only intermittently achieves that flavor, it does more or less duplicate the plot of “The After Hours,” the Zone episode in which Anne Francis gets locked in a department store after closing time and discovers that the mannequins are alive.  Or perhaps I have that backwards, since Collier’s story was first collected in Fancies and Goodnights in 1951, and Rod Serling was known for unconsciously regurgitating ideas from works of fantasy that he’d read while planning The Twilight Zone.

Another way is through James Goldman, who wrote the teleplay (or the book) for “Evening Primrose.”  Goldman, the lesser-known brother of screenwriter William Goldman, was a witty and facile writer in his own right, best known for the play and film The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine says things like, “Of course I have a knife.  We all have knives.  It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians!” 

Another way in is through Anthony Perkins.  Although both Sondheim and Perkins himself were vocally critical of his performance, I find Perkins charming and wistful here, an ideal actor for the material and a far cry from the creepiness of Norman Bates.  And a final way in is through the expert staging of Paul Bogart, who was almost certainly the most accomplished American television director to specialize in shooting on videotape.

2. Paul Bogart is the nicest guy in the world.  Paul is a barrel-chested man, with a fully white beard, whose visage, in repose, fixes itself into an ominous scowl.  It’s silly, but his appearance is so imposing that I put off contacting him for some time after I decided that I needed to interview him.  But once Paul begins to speak, his welcoming smile and soft voice express his true personality.  Most directors develop an imposing demeanor, and a certain ego; after all, on a set, dozens of people await his or her orders.  Lamont Johnson, who died late last year, was compact in size and not at all physically imposing, but he had a general’s demeanor; when I visited him in Monterey, he never once cracked a smile in ninety minutes, and basically intimidated the hell out of me.  Paul, by contrast, is an unfailingly sweet and easygoing person, and also an unnecessarily self-deprecating artist.  You’ll see, in the interview we did for the DVD, that Paul is sometimes quite critical of his work on “Evening Primrose.”  Don’t take his word for it.  Watch the show yourself, and see how skillfully he pulled together all the disparate elements of this odd musical on an incredibly tough schedule.

3. You can’t always get what you want.  The “Evening Primrose” presented on the DVD is a black-and-white copy of a show originally telecast in color.  That’s a heartbreaking shame, especially since Jane Klain, Research Manager at the Paley Center For Media, undertook an Ahab-like quest to track down the original color tape in time for the DVD.  I really wanted to see her zealous efforts rewarded with success. 

Jane has compiled a number of theories as to why the color tape for “Evening Primrose” went missing, and hasn’t proven any one of them to her satisfaction.  Because the master tapes of many other Stage 67s still exist, and because of certain other anecdotal evidence compiled by Jane, I lean toward the notion that the tape was pilfered years ago by some knowledgeable but unscrupulous Sondheimite.  But we’ll probably never know for sure.

In fact, during her search, Jane unearthed a new kinescope that far eclipsed the other known elements in image quality.  (Remastering the new kine is why the DVD was delayed from an initial release date in April until last fall.)  So now “Evening Primrose” looks better than it has any right to, but it’s still a (literally) pallid rendering of a show telecast in vivid color back in 1966.

4. But look anyway.  “Oh, and I still have some test footage we shot on film with Anthony Perkins,” Paul Bogart said in passing as we made plans for my trip to North Carolina to record his interview for the DVD.  This was news.  On a previous visit to Chapel Hill, I had plundered the attic of Paul’s rustic home, which was lined with ¾” videotapes of hundreds of his television shows.  But I hadn’t encountered any film reels.  The “Evening Primrose” canisters, it turned out, were in a closet downstairs.

When Paul handed the film cans over to me, he explained what they were.  The footage consists of establishing shots of Anthony Perkins in and around Macy’s, and outside the store in Herald Square; and then shots of two extras (different from the pair used in the final version) who feature prominently in the show’s twist ending.  They’re not “deleted scenes,” although DVD consumers might tend to pigeonhole them in that category.  I’m also not quite it’s accurate to call them “test footage,” as we labeled it for the DVD, because upon reflection I suspect much of this MOS material was in fact intended to be used in “Evening Primrose.” 

When Bogart shot the scenes, on September 13, 1966, the idea was probably to use them in the finished production.  But sometime prior to the start of taping on September 25, Macy’s opted out, and the producers hurriedly arranged a move to Stern’s (a now-defunct department store across the street from Bryant Park).  All of the Macy’s-related footage was now useless.  And that’s why it ended up in Paul Bogart’s closet instead of an editing suite and, eventually, oblivion.

As I carried the film cans to the airport, a thought struck me: could I be holding the only surviving color footage of “Evening Primrose”?  Since the show was going to be in color, it wouldn’t have made sense for the film to be shot or even developed in black and white.  Bogart and his collaborators would have wanted to see how the location and the costumes looked in color.  But perhaps the film had faded after forty years in Paul’s closet? 

Eventually the DVD producer, Jason Viteritti, confirmed that the footage was, in fact, in color.  But my part in the production was done as soon as I handed over the film cans, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see the footage until the DVD arrived.  When I finally did look at the footage, it struck me as a revelation – a reason to have the DVD in and of itself.

As you can imagine, these twenty-odd minutes of location footage represent a priceless Manhattan time capsule: a long look, over multiple takes in a variety of set-ups, of mid-sixties Macy’s shoppers and Herald Square pedestrians, all going about their daily business (or, perhaps, trying conspicuously to ignore the camera in their presence).  But it’s also a unique opportunity to observe both director and actor formulating their approach to the material, and to compare their first stabs at it to the final version. 

For instance, many of Bogart’s set-ups in Macy’s are nearly identical to their counterparts in Stern’s (compare the frame grab below to the title card at the top of this post).  As I watched take after take of Perkins mingling with authentic department store customers in the opening sequence, I realized how essential Bogart’s conception of these scenes was to the success of the whole piece.  Bogart emphasizes the realistic world of the store in daytime – his use of the handheld camera in these shots is very cinema verite and, indeed, without Perkins in the mix, one could mistake them for outtakes from Frederick Wiseman’s The Store.  Once Perkins enters the nighttime world of the store dwellers, Bogart favors a look that complements the artifice of the fantasy world into which Charles has entered.  Studio sets replace practical locations and Bogart (influenced, no doubt, by the limitations of shooting on videotape) uses more deliberate camera movements, and more static compositions.  Bogart was a director who shunned any kind of showy stylistic flourishes, and this peek at his outtakes offers a valuable chance to study an “invisible” television director’s modus operandi in detail.

As for Perkins, there’s the wonderful moment where he tries to remain in character as a passerby – unaware of the camera stationed high atop a nearby building – recognizes and approaches him.  At least one of the other people in the department store is clearly a professional extra – the young brunette digging through the bin of dress shirts – but I can’t make up my mind about the woman in green seated on the park bench next to Perkins.  She could be a plant, but I think she’s just playing along with the scene, as any good New Yorker would.

5. Sondheim wasn’t first.  Actually I discovered this information after the “Evening Primrose” DVD was finished, but it’s worth recording here nonetheless.  It turns out that John Collier’s story came close to being adapted for television a decade before the Goldman-Sondheim version.  In 1956, David Susskind paid writer David Swift, the creator of Mister Peepers, five thousand dollars to adapt “Evening Primrose” as a live television spectacular.  Susskind got as far as changing the title to “Primrose Path” and drafting a list of casting ideas for the two leading roles.  Those lists of names include some possibilities that are exciting (Paul Newman, Natalie Wood) and some that are unlikely (Richard Boone, Richard Widmark, Jean Simmons).  I have a hunch that the names atop each list were Susskind’s favored choices, since they were less well-known than most of the others and more likely to fit the budgetary realities of a live TV production.  Who were they?  Barry Nelson as Charles and Lois Smith as Ella.  As to why did this version of “Primrose” never went beyond the planning stages…?  At least for now, that remains a mystery.

DVD News

August 26, 2010

A visit to the invaluable TVShowsonDVD website reveals some news about The Fugitive that is, shall we say, eyebrow-raising.  Since I first reported, two years ago, on CBS’s craven decision to mutilate The Fugitive’s underscoring, the entirety of the series’ second and third seasons have been released on DVD.  All of the subsequent releases have contained substantial music alterations, as well.  In the meantime, there has been much speculation on whether CBS would choose to release The Fugitive’s fourth and final season with the music intact.  That’s because, during year four, the producers of The Fugitive switched from the Capital Music library (which is thought to be the source of CBS’s legal risk-aversion) to a library of cues composed by Dominic Frontiere for The Outer Limits and Stoney Burke as their source of stock music.

The sole extra announced for the initial fourth-season DVD release is a featurette with a provocative title: “Season of Change: Composer Dominic Frontiere.”  Is that a signal that the music on this release will finally, again, be the original music?  Or a fuck-you to all of us who have been bitching and moaning about the failed second- and third-season DVDs?  If CBS is going to the trouble of explaining Frontiere’s uncredited involvement in The Fugitive, is it possible the featurette will also offer an explanation and/or an apology for what happened to the middle two seasons?  Either way, it’s an unpleasant irony that the only bonus feature to be produced for any DVD release of The Fugitive will be devoted to an individual whose name never appeared in the show’s credits.  Maybe that’ll help to make up for the fact that MGM’s DVD releases of The Outer Limits (a sixties classic to which Frontiere’s contributions really were essential) also offered no special features.  But: not really.

*

Just yesterday I was explaining to someone that his options for watching the 1959 private eye series Johnny Staccato were not pretty.  One, there were the sixteen-millimeter transfers that have been floating around for decades; they’re uncut, but every copy I’ve ever seen is generations removed from the original and looks awful.  Two, there are the versions that ran on the now-defunct Trio cable channel five or six years ago.  Those looked gorgeous, having been remastered by Universal from thirty-five millimeter elements, but each episode was cut by three or four minutes.

Well, happily, all of that has changed in the last twenty-four hours, because Timeless Media Group has announced that it will be releasing the entire Johnny Staccato series in October.

Most of the shows Timeless has licensed from Universal have been westerns.  Many of those are obscure; some of them are even good (The Virginian) or quite rare prior to their DVD release (Whispering Smith), but they don’t really represent the best of the Revue productions of the fifties and sixties.  Neither does Johnny Staccato, for that matter: it’s a rip-off of the other “jazz detective shows,” Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and it’s not different enough from either of them to be that exciting.  But its historical significance is undeniable.  Cassavetes, perhaps the greatest of American film directors, did his first Hollywood work behind the camera on the series, writing and directing several episodes.  Many actors who guest starred on Johnny Staccato were either veterans of Cassavetes’s first film Shadows (Tom Reese, Lelia Goldoni) or would play important roles in his later films (Gena Rowlands, John Marley, Val Avery, Paul Stewart, Jimmy Joyce, Mario Gallo).

TVShowsonDVD also has news that another of the companies that’s been dipping in the Universal well will be bringing us The Snoop Sisters, one of the NBC “mystery wheel” shows that tanked after half a season (meaning, four episodes).  Fine and dandy, but let me start the chorus now: where’s Tenafly?

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