Tuesday 1 September 2015

Cool and Lam (TV pilot, 1958)

Erle Stanley Gardner is most famous as the author of the hugely popular Perry Mason mysteries, which were of course the basis for the equally successful TV series. Under the pseudonym A. A. Fair he also wrote the Cool and Lam series of novels about a mismatched pair of private eyes. 

With the Perry Mason TV series proving to be an immediate success when it launched in 1957 it was hardly surprising that thought was given to the possibility of a Cool and Lam TV series. In fact a pilot episode was made, although sadly that’s as far as it got. The good news is the pilot survives and it can be found online.

Jacques Tourneur, a superb director who helmed some of the greatest movies in the film noir cycle, was hired to direct. A TV series didn’t give him the same scope as a movie but he did a more than competent job and the pilot is certainly nicely paced.

Bertha Cool runs a detective agency. She is middle-aged, loud and overweight, incredibly penny-pinching and her ethics are flexible (and that’s being generous). Her partner Donald Lam is a weedy little lawyer whose ethics are only marginally less dubious than Bertha’s. The trick in adapting these books for television was to make these two rather shady characters likeable and amusing without being irritating. Both leads in the pilot, Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool and Billy Pearson as Donald Lam, generally succeed in doing this. No, I’d never heard of them either, and the relative obscurity of it stars may have counted against the show.

The other trick was to maintain a fairly lighthearted tone without succumbing to the temptation to play things purely for laughs. Cool and Lam does this quite well also. The plot is decent and with a fine director like Tourneur in charge it’s a solid and entertaining little mystery. The half-hour (which most TV series at the time adhered to) is a slight problem - Gardner’s plots were delightfully fiendish and would have been easier to adapt in an hour-long format but that’s a minor quibble.

Cool and Lam certainly had potential. Television executives however are not renowned by wanting to take risks and the shady ethics of two very non-glamorous private eyes may have been seen as too much of a gamble. The pilot though is worth a watch. 

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