Thursday 1 March 2018

Maverick season 2 (1958)

The late 1950s was the beginning of the brief golden age of the American television western. One of the most admired, and quirky, of these westerns was Maverick which debuted in 1957. It’s blend of good-natured humour and action made it a major hit and it made James Garner a star.

Despite its success Maverick was a rather troubled production. The production schedule was so grueling that it was necessary to split the series between two lead actors. James Garner (as Bret Maverick) and Jack Kelly (as his brother Bart Maverick) starred in alternate episodes. This caused some tension, especially given that Garner was by far the more popular star. In later seasons Roger Moore was introduced to the cast as a third brother, the English-educated Beau Maverick. Garner was unhappy with various aspects of the series and departed while Moore, feeling that the quality of the scripts was declining precipitately, later became equally anxious to leave. 

In spite of these problems Maverick in its prime was great television. The second season is usually regarded as the high point of the series.

The various Maverick brothers were all professional gamblers. They were basically honest and decent even if they were prepared to do just about anything that was within the law to make a fast buck.

It’s interesting to compare Garner’s performance here with his rather similar performance some years later in the equally successful and equally celebrated The Rockford Files. It’s a valid comparison since both series were created by Roy Huggins. Both series combined action with style and wit. Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford have a lot in common. They’re likeable and charming, they have perennial troubles with the law despite being basically honest and they rely more on their wits than on their fists or their guns. There are a few differences. Maverick is actually pretty good with a gun while Rockford is terrified of firearms, and while Rockford is not quite a coward he’s much less willing to risk his neck than Bret Maverick. The differences really say a lot about the differences between 1950s and 1970s TV and, arguably, the differences between America in the 50s and America in the 70s. Rockford is a nice guy but he’s almost an anti-hero. America in the 50s wasn’t yet cynical enough to embrace anti-heroes. Rockford is a slightly more complex character but both Bret Maverick and Rockford have more depth than you expect in a character in a TV series.

Season two kicks off with The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick, and sure enough Bret does get hanged. Well, sort of. A bank robber and murderer is on the run. His escape is successful because Maverick is mistakenly identified as the bandit. Bret finds himself tried and convicted and is due to be hanged. The sheriff is anxious to persuade him to reveal the location of the stolen money. Bret of course has no idea where the money is but his one chance of staying alive is to convince the none-too-honest sheriff that he does know where it is. The sheriff cooks up a clever scheme to get his hands on the money and Bret plays along but he still has that appointment with the hangman. A further complication is the arrival of Bret’s grieving widow, her existence coming as a complete surprise to Bret. It’s a very convoluted but very clever story and it has all the hallmarks of the series at its best, with wit and style and genuinely unexpected plot twists.

Next up is The Lonesome Reunion and Bret is in gaol once again, and again the charge is murder. This time he’s on the trail of $120,000 in stolen money. He has no intention of keeping the money but he does have hopes of getting his hands on the very tempting reward being offered. There are three ruthless outlaws also after the money but an even bigger problem is a hardbitten lady deputy sheriff who is not only an expert shot but can also trade wisecracks with Maverick on even terms. Once again the script is inventive and original.

The main problem with the series becomes immediately apparent in the third episode, Alias Bart Maverick. That problem is Jack Kelly. It’s not that Kelly is a terrible actor. He’s reasonably competent. But he’s not James Garner. He doesn’t have Garner’s effortless charm, he doesn’t have Garner’s charisma and he doesn’t have Garner’s ability to make the dialogue sparkle. People watched the series for James Garner so there’s a real danger the Jack Kelly episodes are going to come across as filler. To make matters worse there’s Richard Long’s performance as charming swindler and card sharp Gentleman Jack Darby. Long overshadows Kelly completely. In fact Long does the Maverick thing far better than Kelly does in this instalment. 

The script, by Douglas Heyes (who also directs and whose television work was always impressive), is quite good. Gentleman Jack swindles everybody he encounters, including Maverick, and to add insult to injury he causes Bart to be arrested. Bart is determined to get his money back but he doesn’t want revenge. Gentleman Jack is an incorrigible crook but he’s just so darned charming. It’s a problem for the series that Gentleman Jack is a much more entertaining character than Bart Maverick but Long’s delightful performance makes Alias Bart Maverick worth watching. 

The Belcastle Brand opens with Bret Maverick lost in the desert. He is rescued by an eccentric family of English aristocrats. He finds himself leading a safari (in Wyoming!) and he ends up lost in the desert again, with the aforesaid English aristocrats in tow. Not just lost, but facing death unless they can reclaim their stolen gear from a large gang of very well-armed bandits. The script makes the Marquis of Belcastle and his family the butt of many jokes but we discover that the courage and fighting spirit that the Belcastles were displaying back in the days before the Norman Conquest are still present in the current generation. 

High Card Hangs is the fifth episode of the season and it’s the third time we’ve seen one of the Mavericks about to be hanged for murder. This idea is getting real old real fast. It’s lazy writing and this script has other problems as well - a contrived cringe-inducing ending in which the audience gets a little lecture on what to think. This is a tiresome episode and it’s a Jack Kelly episode as well. Garner can just about carry a weak episode but Kelly can’t.

Escape to Tampico gets things back on track with Bret Maverick playing bounty hunter, but then he decides he isn’t sure if he wants to bring this particular killer to justice. This is one of the more serious episodes with complications involving friendship and loyalty. And it’s a great story.

The Judas Mask benefits from its colourful Mexican setting and it’s one of the better Bart Maverick stories. Bart is robbed but is assured by a nice young lady that it’s for his own good.

The Jail at Junction Flats is pure whimsy and delightfully done, with Bret having to match wits with Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr). Bart and Dandy Jim are in and out of the Junction Flats Jail, which is more of a fortress than a jail.

The Thirty-Ninth Star sees Bart Maverick involved in a chase for something extremely valuable that was carried in a certain suitcase. Nobody seems to know what the item was but there are several groups of people who want it badly enough to go to very extreme lengths. A reasonably well scripted episode.

Shady Deal at Sunny Acres features both Maverick brothers. Bret has been defrauded of a very large amount of money by a crooked banker. There seems to be no way he can get his money back but Bret is not leaving the town of Sunny Acres without it. This is a sort of all-star episode with not just both Garner and Kelly but also both Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Dandy Jim Buckley and Richard Long as Gentleman Jack Darby plus a number of other great character actors including John Dehner and Regis Toomey. This is an outstanding episode. The story is a very elaborate long con which is even more enjoyable since the victim is a crook. You can’t cheat an honest man but you can certainly cheat a cheat.

Island in the Swamp has the virtue of being fairy original and it’s also quite charming. Bret is held prisoner on an island in the swamp in the bayou country. The inhabitants of the island have a secret that they are obsessively determined to keep from the outside world, and if they have to keep Bret there indefinitely they’re prepared to do so. It’s not that the islanders are particularly vicious, in fact they’re most quite affable, they just really want to keep that secret.

Prey of the Cat isn’t a terrible story but it’s not really a Maverick story. It has none of the wit and quirkiness that a good Maverick story should have. It’s a routine western tale with Bart   getting tangled up in a domestic intrigue that leads to murder, with Bart seemingly trapped by a woman’s machinations. Jack Kelly plays it very straight, as he usually did, and the result is a bit on the dull side.

The Spanish Dancer has one rather clever idea and it has a terrific guest starring appearance by Slim Pickens, and it has Richard Long once again as Gentleman Jack Darby. Unfortunately Jack Kelly is particularly dull in this episode and it just doesn’t have the sparkle it should have.

Holiday at Hollow Rock is a decent Bret Maverick story about crooked gamblers, corrupt sheriffs and a horse race which may or may not be honestly run but the happiness of two young people depends on the outcome.

Game of Chance features a priceless string of pearls that might be fake, and a fake countess who might be real. Both Maverick brothers get conned by the countess, and they’re out to return the favour. The plot twists are predictable but it’s reasonably well executed.

Gun-Shy, scripted by Marion Hargrove, is a very clever parody of what was at the time the most famous of all TV westerns, Gunsmoke. It works because as well as the very funny parody aspect the episode also has a fine classic Maverick plot with an assortment of shady characters (including a certain Bret Maverick) trying to find a buried hoard of Confederate gold. Absolutely superb performances by the entire cast which also helps. There are those who consider this to be the greatest Maverick episode of all. Maybe they’re right but what is certain is that Gun-Shy is one the two best episodes of the second season, the other being Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.

Two Beggars on Horseback is quite enjoyable. For complicated reasons Bart and Bret have to get Deadwood before the riverboat gets there, or they’ll be down $10,000 each. But getting there isn’t easy - they have to face hostile Indians, crooked traders, crazy retired Confederate generals and worst of all the beautiful, clever but not very trustworthy Jessamy Longacre.

The Rivals is another Marion Hargrove script that is not what you expect in a western. The story is lifted from Sheridan’s 1775 play of the same name. The play is one of the most celebrated examples in the English language of the comedy of manners. Adapting a comedy of manners would be a ludicrous move for the average western but as a Maverick episode it works just fine. In fact it’s a delight, even with guest star Roger Moore attempting a Texan accent.

Duel at Sundown is notable for a guest starring appearance by a pre-stardom Clint Eastwood. He plays Red Hartigan, the best gunslinger in the territory but at heart a coward and a bully. Red is hoping to marry Carrie, the daughter of Bret Maverick’s old friend Jed Christianson. Jed has a plan to use Maverick to prevent the marriage from taking place but Jed’s plan could just get Bret killed. A solid episode.

Yellow River is another routine Bart Maverick story. Bart ends up being trail boss on a cattle drive and it’s a fatal cattle drive for some. Unfortunately I thought the twist ending was much too obvious.

The second season is usually considered to be Maverick at its creative peak. Producer Roy Huggins understood exactly how to make the show work and writers like Marion Hargrove provided the witty and adventurous scripts that made the show at its best so unconventional and so charming. Combine that with James Garner and you have television magic.

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