Monday 25 May 2020
Jonathan Hart (Robert Wagner) is a fabulously rich good-looking tycoon who has discovered that he is so rich that he longer needs to work at it. The money will just keep on accumulating. His wife Jennifer (Stefanie Powers) is a famous good-looking writer. The Harts have only one problem. Being rich and famous and gorgeous leaves them with a lot of spare time. They fill in that spare time by playing at being amateur detectives. Luckily it turns out that rich good-looking famous people seem to have a natural talent for crime-solving.
It’s a series that doesn’t exactly place heavy demands on the acting talents of the two leads. All they’re really required to do is to look fabulous and sexy, wear expensive clothes and trade wisecracks. And of course they have to have charisma and likeability - no television series can hope to succeed unless the leads have those qualities. Wagner and Powers have no difficulty whatsoever in meeting these requirements.
Robert Wagner was already a big star on both television and the big screen and with It Takes a Thief (1968-70) he already had a hit TV series under his belt. Stefanie Powers was less of an established name although her previous credits did include the starring rôle in the ill-fated but arguably slightly underrated The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. back in 1966.
It’s also no surprise that the health farm turns out to be a rather unhealthy place to be. It’s run by Dr Peterson (Roddy McDowall) and Dr Fleming (Stella Stevens) and they’re both clearly sinister and slightly deranged. They’re obviously up to evilness. Naturally there will be attempts to kill both Jonathan and Jennifer, but by then the Harts are starting to figure out what’s going on. What’s going on has been pretty obvious to the audience from the start.
The main problem is that there’s not enough plot for a movie-length pilot. What plot there is is also somewhat lacking in originality and imagination. It’s carried by the star power of the two leads and by the wonderfully dotty performances of Roddy McDowall and Stella Stevens. It’s not fantastic television but it’s a harmless time-waster.
Passport to Murder is much better. Jonathan and Jennifer get mixed up in dope smuggling in Mexico. They’re trying to get an old friend out of a jam, and as a result they get arrested, chased by helicopters and hunted down by crooked cops. This one is much better paced than the earlier episodes and the script has some decent twists and turns. The climactic action scene is well executed and exciting. This is a very good episode.
You Made Me Kill You is a very good episode. A young woman who works for Jonathan becomes obsessed with him. She is jealous of Jennifer Hart, and then decides she wants to be Jennifer Hart.
The Man with the Jade Eyes is one of those adventures in Chinatown/Mysterious Orient kind of stories which I’m actually quite fond of. A wooden box containing a stature is left in the back of the Harts’ car by a dying Chinese man. Before he dies he says about something about returning the man with the jade eyes to the temple. Maybe he means the statue. But the state doesn’t have jade eyes. It doesn’t seem valuable either but it soon becomes evident that here are people who will kill to get their hands on it. A fun episode.
It is a dark and stormy night when the Harts go to a dinner party at the haunted house their friends Fred and Amanda have just bought. Thus begins Night Horrors which, as you might have gathered, is even more lightweight ad tongue-in-cheek than most Hart to Hart episodes. There’s a hunt for hidden treasure, secret passageways, the lights keep going down, the telephone lines are cut. And of course there’s murder. If you love the Old Dark House movies of the 30s and 40s you might like this one. It reproduces the feel of those movies quite well. It’s fun if you’re in the mood.
Hart to Hart reminds me just a little of McMillan and Wife. Both deal with husband-and-wife crime-fighting teams. OK, Sally McMillan isn’t really even an amateur detective but she does manage to find herself in the centre of just about every major crime in San Francisco. In both cases you have scripts that are serviceable but not exactly dazzlingly original. Both series rely for their appeal on glamour and romance as much as on the mystery plots. Both series feature a loveable comic relief servant. And both rely to an extreme degree on the charisma of the two leads and on the chemistry between them. Personally I think McMillan and Wife was the better series but it’s a formula that will always work if you have the right leads (and it’s a formula that has gone on working since The Thin Man back in 1934).
I’m not sure how much further I’m going to go with this series. It’s hardly fair to judge it on just a handful of episodes but there are so many other TV series and movies that I have lined up in my viewing queue that it may be a while before I revisit Hart to Hart. So far it seems very lightweight, which is fine. It hasn’t really grabbed me.
Monday 18 May 2020
Sheena is pretty much a female Tarzan. Raised in the jungle and speaking only halting English, able to communicate with the wild animals and proficient in Tarzan-like skills such as swinging through the trees.
The biggest claim to fame of the series is probably its star, the stunningly beautiful Irish McCalla. McCalla was a popular pin-up model. She admits that she got the part not because she could act but because she really could do stuff like singing from tree to tree. I imagine that her tall athletic curvacious body may have helped her a little in landing the rôle as well. In the early episodes she did all her own stunts.
I can imagine that Sheena must have been a popular lust object for teenage boys back in the ’50s. If that skirt had been half an inch shorter she’d have been arrested for public indecency.
McCalla may have been right about her lack of acting talent but she’s still awesome and she looks exactly the way a jungle girl should look. She manages to look glamorous while still looking like she’s at home in the jungle. She remains the best of the actresses to play the rôle. She might not be an actress you’d cast in a more demanding rôle but in a series like this she’s more than adequate and she has the necessary presence to make it convincing that the locals respect her.
Between Sheena and her modelling work for legendary pin-up artist Alberto Vargas McCalla became something of a cult figure.
The jungle adventure genre was well established in American television by this time, with Ramar of the Jungle in the early years of the decade and then Jungle Jim (wih comet Tarzan Johnny Weismuller). With the use of plenty of stock footage they were cheap and easy to make.
While the series was made in 1955 it gives the impression of taking place in a slightly earlier era. In fact it would be more accurate to say that this is the Africa of the imagination, the Africa of late 19th century adventure tales. On the other hand, like Ramar of the Jungle, it is very sympathetic to the locals and it’s probably fair to say that it’s tying to be respectful towards them. Of course by today’s standards it would still be considered to be very politically incorrect. If you judge it, as I believe you should, by the standards of its own time it’s quite enlightened.
Sheena gets helps in her battles against bad guys from her friend the hunter and safe leader Bob Rayburn (Christian Drake). The nature of their relationship was not spelt out. In the comic I believe he’s her boyfriend but in the TV series they seem to be just friends, albeit fairly affectionate friends. Not very plausible perhaps but it was 1955 and since they’re obviously not married they can’t be anything but friends. Sheena gets some help from her pet chimpanzee Chim as well.
There have been several other attempts to bring Sheena to the screen, including the very expensive 1984 flop Sheena. Which is nowhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest (and while Tanya Roberts is not as good as Irish McCalla she’s also not as bad as some would have you believe). It was just a very rash move to spend so much money on a movie that was only ever going to attract a cult audience.
In The Ganyika Kid a crooked fight promoter named Regan is confronted by an African, Towando, he had plucked out of the jungle and taught every dirty trick of the fight game. Regan made lots of money out of Towando until Towando headed back to the jungle but now Towando wants revenge. Sheena and her buddy Bob don’t like Regan at all but they can’t let Towando kill him.
In The Lash Sheena stops a brutal trader from whipping a native. This is not the last she’ll see of the Whip Man. He’s actually Bull Kendall and to say he’s up to no good would be an understatement. He has a devious scheme and only Sheena can stop him. A fine episode. With a memorable and truly menacing villain. When someone tries to take a whip to Sheena that someone is likely to regret it.
In The Renegades Sheena comes up against diamond thieves and a renegade tribe. The diamond thieves meet their match in Chim. Another OK episode.
The Rival Queen starts with two guys escaping from a prison camp in Tanganyika. One is Bull Kendall, a former carnival strongman, while the other is a former carnival magician. Kendall wants to start a war between two neighbouring tribes to further a scheme he’s cooked up. He needs his wife’s help but she’s not likely to give it so the magician hypnotises her into thinking she’s The Queen of the Spirit World. The tribes will listen to her and Bull Kendall will get his war. He thinks his plan is foolproof, especially when he has Sheena captive and bound. But has he underestimated Sheena? This episode is quite a bit of fun.
Eyes of the Idol is the cleverest episode I’ve seen so far. A local tribe, usually peaceful and law-abiding, has been committing robberies. It has to do with the recently established cult of a strange idol. The nature of this idol is a very cool idea, and the witch doctor’s method of trying to eliminate Bob is ingenious. A very good episode.
In Forbidden Cargo gunrunners are supplying rifles to a rebellious tribe but they may be spreading typhoid as well as guns. Sheena and Bob must stop them from doing both these things. It’s lucky that Chim understands English so well so Sheena can send him to tell the doctor that he’s needed. He’s a very smart chimpanzee. This was the time of the Mau Mau rebellion so at the time it would have been quite topical. An entertaining enough episode.
Secret of the Temple concerns the ageing American Dr Heller looking for the secret of eternal life. He has heard the legend of the Elders of the Temple, hidden deep within the jungle, who know this secret. Rather unwisely he’s hired a scoundrel named Lewis as a guide to take him there. Sheena and Bob will have to find Dr Heller before he gets himself into real trouble. An enjoyable episode.
The Leopard Men begins with the Africans employed as bearers by a prospector being strangely terrified by leopard footprints. Then one of the Africans is killed. Not by a leopard, but by Leopard Men. Everyone assumed the Leopard Men were a myth, but perhaps everyone was wrong. The trouble is that the prospector blames Sheena and accuses her of being a Leopard Woman. Sheena and Bob will have to find out abut these Leopard Men. This is a pretty good Sheena in Danger episode incorporating one of the major themes that have already become familiar in this series - greed driving men to do evil.
Sheena Queen of the Jungle is a kids’ adventure series. As such it’s light undemanding entertainment. And for males of just about any age it offers Irish McCalla to drool over. And who doesn’t love jungle girls? I certainly enjoyed the ten episodes I've managed to see so far. Recommended for jungle adventure fans.
Monday 11 May 2020
McCloud had a slightly odd early history. The first season comprised one-hour episodes but for syndication two episodes would be combined, not always smoothly, into a two-hour TV movie format with some cuts made in order to squeeze in even more commercials. The Australian DVD release preserved the original formats while the US release offered the syndicated versions. By season two the series had settled into the same TV-movie format as series such as Columbo and McMillan and Wife (with which it was rotated in NBC’s Mystery Movie wheel series).
The second season went to air in late 1971 and early 1972. It's mostly the formula as before although as the series progressed it apparently became more overtly comedic.
McCloud has a feel that is very reminiscent of classic 1930s Hollywood B-movies - it has a likeable hero, decent murder mystery plots, some comic relief and a generally fairly light-hearted tone. It’s not wildly dissimilar in tone to the Charlie Chan movies.
And like the Charlie Chan movies it features a fish-out-of-water detective hero, in this case a country bumpkin rural deputy marshal from Taos, New Mexico who finds himself working with the New York Police Department. And like Charlie Chan Sam McCloud is easy-going and good-natured and criminals tend to underrate his abilities. In fact he has a subtle and devious mind and he’s remorseless when he’s on the trail of a wrong-doer.
Marshal Sam McCloud might be an unconventional character in some ways but he’s a pretty straightforward hero although he does make the occasional mistake. He is very much an uncomplicated good guy. He’s an engaging enough character (and Dennis Weaver’s performance is entertaining enough) to make even the lesser episodes quite watchable.
J.D. Cannon plays McCloud’s boss, Captain Clifford. Weaver and Cannon are a perfect pairing, their verbal sparring being sometimes friendly but with just enough of an edge to make things interesting. Diana Muldaur is a semi-regular as McCloud’s girlfriend Chris and she and Weaver have the right chemistry.
The second season is perhaps a bit more uneven than the first. It gives the impression that the producers weren’t quite sure how far they wanted to push the lighthearted tone. And occasionally they perhaps push it a little bit too far.
Kidnapping stories are a cop show staple and it’s not easy to keep coming up with fresh twists on the theme but Peter Allan Fields’ script for Encounter with Aries manages to do so. The wife of a wealthy astrologer is kidnapped. The police don’t have to look for the kidnapper. He comes to them. But that doesn’t help them because he has the means to have the victim killed automatically.
The very strong supporting cast helps a great deal. Sebastian Cabot is great as the manic astrologer whose erratic behaviour goers the police extra headaches. Susan Strasberg as the ditzy girlfriend of the kidnapper and Louise Latham as the astrologer’s wife (just as ditzy but in a different way) add to the enjoyment. Dennis Weaver is in good form, with Sam McCloud doing the Columbo thing extremely well (you’ll understand what I mean when you watch it). As always the sparring between McCloud and Chief Clifford (J.D. Cannon) is delightful.
There’s a terrific early scene with McCloud having to deal with a crazy old guy worried about aliens bombarding him with gamma rays (the other cops always pass on the most annoying complainants to McCloud). McCloud handles the situation beautifully. The bonus is that the old guy is played by the always wonderful Elisha Cook Jr.
McCloud gets involved in the case because he’s on the stolen car detail and Bubba is accused of stealing a car. McCloud figures that there’s a whole lot more going on here and since Chief Clifford is anxious to nail this Faraday character he decides to dig a bit deeper. A cheap photographer’s model named Jackie Dawn (Stefanie Powers) who has befriended Bubba seems like a good place to start. It’s obvious that Bubba is likely to get himself in very deep trouble and McCloud has promised Bubba’s Mom (played by Joan Blondell) that he’ll stop that from happening.
The story is routine enough but the fine supporting performances (especially by Powers and Blondell) help a good deal and Dennis Weaver is in fine form so it all works rather well.
Somebody's Out to Get Jennie gets McCloud entangled with a very crazy girl. Jennie’s boss (with whom she seems to have been in love) was killed in a helicopter crash. Jennie has this idea that he’s still alive. But Jennie is crazy so no-one is going to listen to her. McCloud has been given the thankless task of reviewing the case of the helicopter accident but the case is already all but closed. McCloud probably wouldn’t have bothered much with the case either but Jennie is so confused and frightened and McCloud is a sucker for birds with broken wings and she just gets drawn in. And McCloud has this habit of not jumping to conclusions. If a crazy girl comes up with a crazy story it might be nothing but her madness, but on the other hand even crazy people are sometimes right.
McCloud also gets a crash course in art appreciation and has a lucky escape from an over-sexed lady art critic who just loves anything western. Especially men.
In The Disposal Man McCloud gets a tip-off that there’s a contract out on tycoon Arthur Yerby. McCloud figures that if you have to catch a hit-man (a disposal man) it would be helpful to talk to another hit-man, to find out out how they operate. So he does. And he picks up one extremely interesting pointer.
Of course it also helps to know who would be likely to hire someone to kill Arthur Yerby. Yerby is the kind of man who isn’t well liked and the more people know him the less they like him, so it seems possible that the killer could have been hired by someone very close to him.
It’s a serviceable plot with some reasonably effective suspense. The art gallery action finale is done well. And it provides another opportunity for mocking modernist art and that’s always good to see.
A Little Plot at Tranquil Valley maybe tries too hard to be whimsical and tongue-in-cheek. McCloud happens to be on the scene shortly after an armed robbery at a pharmaceutical supplies warehouse and he captures the world’s most incompetent armed robber. He later manages to get himself captured by slightly less incompetent robbers. The actual plot is very routine. This episode tries to compensate for this with some colourful and bizarre moments, and partially succeeds. The scenes in the Tranquil Valley Funeral Home are amusing (you gotta love that a funeral home not only has conducted tours but has a sexy tour guide) and the two eccentric thugs who capture McCloud have their funny moments. The bumbling robber Ralphie is a bit overdone. Burgess Meredith goes a bit overboard also as the funeral home director who is also a criminal mastermind.
It’s just generally a bit too silly.
In Give My Regrets to Broadway McCloud swaps shifts with another detective, Charlie Harrington. Harrington gets gunned down working McCloud’s shift and McCloud naturally blames himself. The question is, did the killer just pick a random cop to shoot or was he deliberately targeting Charlie or maybe deliberately targeting McCloud? Sam gets curious about the fact that Charlie’s singer-actress daughter has just landed a major rôle in a big Broadway production. It seems like she doesn’t have anywhere near enough experience to land such a plum rôle. Of course he’s still not sure that Charlie really was deliberately targeted but odd little things like this get under Sam’s skin. He might be just a rural marshal but he has all the instincts of a born detective and he notices trivial details.
This one does feel a bit padded. We get no less than three musical numbers (and not just snippets but whole songs). Two are Broadway big production numbers, while the third is a country song and it’s sung by Dennis Weaver.
The plot here is less than dazzling but there are compensations. There’s some very amusing (and at times rather risqué) dialogue. There’s Milton Berle as a Broadway producer, playing it very straight and doing a very fine job of it (although his rant at the theatre to his incompetent cast is clever and amusing). There’s some delightful banter between McCloud and the wealthy middle-aged but glamorous and definitely man-eating Louise Blanchard (played by Barbara Rush). So the episode still manages plenty of entertainment value.
Season two of McCloud gets off to a great start and then falters a little but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. And it has undeniable charm. Recommended.
Sunday 3 May 2020
A Man Called Harry Brent, which survives in its entirety (six half-hour episodes), originally went to air in 1965.
When businessman Tom Fielding is murdered it should be a really easy case for Detective Inspector Alan Milton (Gerald Harper). He has the murderer in custody and there’s not the slightest doubt that she did it. Unfortunately it’s not simple at all. He has no idea of the killer’s identity and no idea at all why she killed Fielding. And what is the connection to Harry Brent?
Harry Brent (Edward Brayshaw) is engaged to be married, to Milton’s ex-girlfriend Carol. Harry and Carol were witnesses to the murder, in a manner of speaking. So Milton is to some extent already personally involved. If Harry is involved in a deeper way, and there is evidence that could point in that direction, it could be an uncomfortable situation for the Inspector.
Inspector Milton is not at all sure about Harry Brent. Lots of things about him seem suspicious, but of course it’s possible that he may have been set up. It’[s also possible that personal feelings are clouding Milton’s judgment - it’s obvious he’s still carrying a torch for Carol. Their break-up was apparently just a little messy.
Milton also thinks that this case may be a lot more complicated than it seems to be. He’s right about that, and it’s also more dangerous than it seems to be. There are people with guns involved (which in England in 1965 was a pretty big deal). Milton himself is threatened by a man with a gun. There’s also a glamorous actress and they’re always trouble.
This serial dates from the era of shot-in-the-studio shot-on-videotape British television but there’s quite a lot of location shooting as well. As a result it doesn’t have the very cheap very claustrophobic feel that so many mid-60s British TV series have. It’s still a bit static at times but that was par for the course for British TV in 1965.
A Man Called Harry Brent suffers from some of the problems that afflicted some British television at that time, being a little static, very dialogue-heavy and with a certain stiffness. It also has many of the strengths of the best of 1960s British television with some fine writing.
Some of the other Francis Durbridge serials are better but this one’s quite enjoyable. Recommended.