On the Grapevine: The Perfect Clown (1925)

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Because I had developed little to no interest in athletics (football, baseball, etc.) in my formative years, my adolescence was occupied by my mania for movies—with a minor in silent film comedy.  As such, my initial education on Larry Semon—who, during his prime, was second only to Chaplin in terms of moviegoer popularity—was fueled by reading reference books penned by Walter Kerr (The Silent Clowns) and Leonard Maltin (The Great Movie Comedians).  Kerr’s recollections of seeing Semon’s feature film The Wizard of Oz (1925) were summed up by this terse statement: “It is a film that ought to have bankrupted everyone associated with it.”

Larry Semon
I didn’t have access to any of Larry’s shorts and features at that stage of my cinema development (the initial run of PBS’ Silent Comedy Film Festival had come and gone), so it wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to sample the comedian’s work with shorts like The Sawmill (1921) and Golf (1922).  Director Norman Taurog, who helmed many of Semon’s comedies (including Sawmill), bluntly assessed Larry’s talent thusly: “He wasn’t funny.  That’s honest.  I loved the man but he wasn’t funny.”  But this does Semon a disservice: I think many of his short comedies have their moments (I like The Sawmill a lot), even though I would agree with Maltin that the comedian was “cold, and his constant use of such stunt men as Bill Haubor kept his comedy at arm's length from the audience.”

Larry Semon has been the subject of reassessment in recent years—Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian ofthe Silent Screen, written by Claudia Sassen, goes a long way towards meticulously chronicling the funster’s “quick rise to film comedy fame, his manic scramble to stay at the top, and his painful decline by the late ’20s,” as my Classic Movie Blog Association colleague Lea relates in her Silent-ology review.  I also think that Steve Massa—author of Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy—has a spot-on take on the onscreen Semon:  “His screen character was pure clown with windup toy movements, chest-high balloon trousers, clodhopper shoes, and a bowler hat, topped off with heavy white make-up on his horse face that made him look like a slapstick version of Nosferatu.”  (I’m not going to lie to you: the Nosferatu reference made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a Larry Semon comedy.)

I’m prefacing this review of The Perfect Clown (1925) with all this critical commentary because I must be brutal in my honest assessment of this film.  It’s not very funny.  The plot, which focuses on young stockbroker Larry Ladd’s (Semon) attempts to protect a satchel containing $10,000 when he’s unable to deposit the contents at the bank in time, is stretched out over 51 minutes…and I have never been so happy to see a movie end in my experience.  This would have made a so-so two-reel comedy (though I probably would have played it safe and cut it by a reel), but the material simply cannot maintain its feature length.

I had two brief periods of amusement: I smiled at a gag in which Larry, tightly clutching his money-filled briefcase, lays the contents down on the running board of an automobile after knocking a woman down, her parcels scattered on the sidewalk.  He gallantly helps her collect her things while the vehicle continues down the street.  Noticing his briefcase is gone, Semon experiences a mild panic attack before realizing what’s happened, and he goes running off in pursuit of the car.

The other bit that produced a more substantial titter is also automobile-related: Larry and his sidekick (Spencer Bell, embarrassingly billed as “G. Howe Black”) have had their car commandeered by a pair of cops looking for two escaped convicts.  (Larry and “Snowball” are wearing those same stripey prison pajamas—how they got into them is a plot point you wouldn’t believe even if I explained it to you with charts and graphs.)  Larry feigns car trouble, so the police appropriate another vehicle…and once they’re gone, the two “convicts” continue their mad dash (Larry is obsessed with getting the money bag back to his boss).  They round a corner…and there are the two cops, experiencing real car trouble.  Seeing as how their first choice of transport is working again, the gendarmes hop back in.

Much of The Perfect Clown is preoccupied with “fright” gags that wouldn’t have passed muster in a Columbia short.  I know that many film fans advocate you shouldn’t watch comedies without an audience, but in the case of this movie I honestly don’t see where it would make a difference.  Clownwill generate some slight interest in that Oliver Hardy (billed as O.N. Hardy, which also made me grin) has a small role as “Babe” Mulligan, the son of Semon’s character’s landlady (Kate Price).  Frank “Fatty” Alexander, later a member of the “Ton of Fun” trio, also appears briefly in the beginning as the man with a novel method for rug beating.

I don’t want this review to sour anyone on exploring the surreal comic world of Larry Semon; the straight dope is that feature films were not his strong suit, and after several flops he returned to the two-reeler arena, where as Massa observes he “panicked and began repeating his old gags ad nauseum.  This bankrupted him financially and emotionally, which led to a nervous breakdown and his death from pneumonia in 1928.”  (Most tragic, since Semon showed much potential as a character actor on the strength of a semi-serious turn as “Slippy” in the 1927 gangster film Underworld.)  As such, I’d be most hesitant to recommend a purchase of this film from Grapevine Video…though there is a small saving grace in that The Perfect Clown is paired with a classic Lloyd Hamilton short, Move Along (1926)—which I first saw on the aforementioned Silent Comedy Film Festival in those cherished days of my youth.

Behind the Door (1919) Blu-ray/DVD Giveaway

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It’s been a little over a month since we’ve handed out some excellent swag here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…so I thought I’d rectify the “fabulous prizes” drought by announcing a swell opportunity for members of the TDOY faithful to win a copy of Behind the Door (1919)—an upcoming release (due out April 4) from the hardest-working folks in the classic film heritage business: Flicker Alley.

If you make regular visits to this humble scrap of the blogosphere, you know that Flicker Alley is responsible for more than a few of the movies I’ve reviewed here in TDOY’s silent film showcase on Thursdays; past feature films written up on the blog include Victory (1919)/The Wicked Darling (1919), Tol’able David (1921), and Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924).  In addition, I’ve given titles like Children of Divorce (1927), The House of Mystery (1921), and Too Late for Tears (1949) the “Where’s That Been?” treatment at ClassicFlix, and the dusty TDOY DVD shelves are adorned with past bodacious Flicker Alley releases like Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies and The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. 1.  From Cineramato Curtis Harrington, Flicker Alley is dedicating to presenting the finest silent, classic, and eclectic film collections so near and dear to all of us.

This is why I am so pleased and honored to participate (along with so many other great silent and classic film sites) in Flicker Alley’s giveaway for the upcoming April 4 release of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual Format Edition Blu-ray/DVD.


Legendary producer Thomas H. Ince and director Irvin V. Willat made this—“the most outspoken of all the vengeance films” according to film historian Kevin Brownlow—during the period of World War I inspired American patriotism.

Hobart Bosworth stars as Oscar Krug, a working-class American, who is persecuted for his German ancestry after war is declared. Driven by patriotism, Krug enlists and goes to sea. However, tragedy strikes when his wife (Jane Novak) sneaks aboard his ship and is captured following a German U boat attack. Krug’s single minded quest for vengeance against the sadistic German submarine commander (played with villainous fervor by Wallace Beery) leads to the film’s shocking and brutal climax.

This newly restored edition represents the most complete version of the film available since 1919, thanks to the collaboration of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.

Sourced from the only two known remaining prints and referencing a copy of Willat’s original continuity script, this edition recreates the original color tinting scheme and features a new score composed and performed by Stephen Horne.  Flicker Alley is honored to present Behind the Door on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time ever.

Bonus Materials Include:

•            Original Russian version of Behind the Door: The re-edited and re-titled version of the film that was distributed in Russia, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
•            Original Production Outtakes: Featuring music composed and performed by Stephen Horne.
•            Restoring Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door: An inside look at the restoration process with the restoration team.
•            Kevin Brownlow, Remembering Irvin Willat:Directed by Patrick Stanbury, an in-depth interview with renowned historian and honorary Academy Award® winner Kevin Brownlow on the career of director Irvin Willat.
•            Slideshow Gallery: Original lobby cards, production stills, and promotional material.
•            12-page Booklet: Featuring rare photographs and essays by film historian Jay Weissburg, film restorer Robert Byrne, and composer Stephen Horne.


Official Release Date: April 4, 2017



Giveaway Hosted By:


Co-Hosted By:



One lucky winner will receive a copy of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual‑Format Edition Blu‑ray/DVD from Flicker Alley! Giveaway is open to residents of U.S./Canada and ends on April 12, 2017.


Leave a comment on this post after watching the trailer, and let me know what you think!

Adventures in Blu-ray: Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

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In 1922, motion picture audiences were treated to The Man from Hell’s River, the first of a myriad of feature films and serials starring a German Shepherd that had been rescued from a World War I battlefield by American soldier Lee Duncan.  Following in the paw prints of the earlier silver screen canine known as Strongheart, the new movie star hero known as Rin Tin Tin would work steadily until his death in 1932.  (The dog’s progeny, Rin Tin Tin, Jr., picked up the slack after that…though many have suggested that Rinty, Jr. wasn’t as talented as his old man…er, dog.)  The Rin Tin Tin films were an economic shot-in-the-arm for the fledgling Warner Brothers film studio, and in addition, jump-started future studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s early career in “the flickers.”

The history of this incredible canine movie star inspired writer Cy Howard (creator of radio’s My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi) to pen a story entitled Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Warner Bros.  Howard hired Arnold Schulman to collaborate on a screenplay, maybe because fellow comedy scribe Parke Levy once remarked of Cy, “Cy Howard couldn’t write his own name.”  (Ouch.)  While producer David Picker was employed at Warner’s, he took an interest in the Howard-Schulman project…and when Picker moved onto a job at Paramount, he took the property with him.  Naturally, the change of studio venue dictated that name of the movie had to change…and while it was known at one time as A Bark is Born(I wish they had gone with this one…but they abandoned it because of the A Star is Born remake in production at the time) it eventually became Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).  (She does not receive screen credit, but longtime Lily Tomlin collaborator Jane Wagner also worked on the script since Tomlin was at one time scheduled to play the role that eventually went to Madeline Kahn.)

Jackie Coogan, Aldo Ray, Madeleine Kahn
Hollywood, 1923.  Aspiring movie actress Estie Del Ruth (Kahn) befriends a German Shepherd who has managed to crash out of the city dog pound…but is upset because she believes the pooch is putting a serious crimp in her silver screen ambitions.  Au contraire—when the dog rescues her from the lecherous advances of a studio worker (a cameo by Aldo Ray), New Era Pictures president J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) gets the idea to make that mutt a star, spurred on by the enthusiasm of a would-be writer-director (Bruce Dern) who answers to “Grayson Potchuck.”  The canine, promoted on theatre marquees as “Won Ton Ton,” becomes a big name in motion pictures and Grayson goes along for the ride as New Era’s directing wunderkind.  But the success of both man and dog are due solely to Estie, the only person Won Ton Ton will listen to…and complications ensue when the eccentric Fromberg bans Estie from the set.

Despite this setback, the Won Ton Ton pictures continue to pack theater houses…but rumors start to run rampant in Tinsel Town that it’s Estie who’s the secret behind the dog’s success.  An ill-advised decision to team Won with silver screen sensation Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman) in a feature film just may be the catalyst that kills the career of one of Hollywood’s most endearing success stories.

Bruce Dern
In his memoirs, actor Bruce Dern remarks that he initially found the script for Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywoodhilariously funny.  Dern, a man known for his conservatism and disdain for the counterculture (despite appearing in a lot of movies in the 1960s that dealt with this theme—The Wild Angels, The Trip, etc.), doesn’t seem like the kind of individual with a substance abuse problem…so you sort of should wonder what kind of hallucinogenic drug he was on to come to this conclusion about Won Ton Ton.  It’s an incredibly flat comedy; there are some inspired bits here and there (when the dog is scheduled to be put to sleep at the pound, a priest [Andy Devine] walks “the last mile” with him) but the movie seems to mostly feed on the nostalgia boom prevalent in pop culture at that time (the surprise box office success of the That’s Entertainment! and That’s Entertainment, Part 2, for example).

You can make a strong argument that a more accomplished director with a solid background in movie comedy could have made more out of Won Ton Ton—even though Michael Winner had romps like You Must Be Joking! (1965) and The Jokers(1967) on his C.V., he’s probably better known for the Charles Bronson smash Death Wish (1974) (and other Bronson hits like Chato’s Land and The Mechanic [both 1972]).  Winner proves startlingly inept at staging comedic scenes, and the editing (by Bernard Gribble) in Won Ton Ton doesn’t do the laugh quotient any favors, either.  But ultimately, the schizophrenic script (it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a Hollywood spoof, a paean to the silent era, or a Disney-like family film) is responsible for doing in the finished project: make no mistake—it takes a deft hand mining laughs from touchy subjects like transvestism, prostitution, and doggie suicide.  Furthermore, it adopts the “big-destruction-is-funny” gospel of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World(1963—a movie I do like even though its reputation is obscenely inflated) to unnecessary extremes—seriously, people…you don’t alwayshave to blow things up real good.

Johnny Weissmuller
So why would I recommend Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood to classic movie fans?  Well, like the aforementioned World, Won Ton Ton features a cornucopia of celebrity cameos that although Leonard Maltin dismissed them as “pointless” I feel they’re the picture’s only saving grace.  There’s something immensely satisfying in seeing the great William Demarest (his last film appearance) in a brief bit as the guard at the studio gate, or Jackie Coogan and Johnny Weissmuller (also his swan song) as stagehands.  (One of the subtlest gags in the film is that Carney’s studio head is always spotted with a different woman at his side at various social/publicity events…and those bits of “arm candy” are portrayed by Gloria DeHaven, Ann Miller, Janet Blair, and Cyd Charisse.)  Broderick Crawford is an SFX artist (his specialty is dynamite); Fritz Feld (complete with mouth pops) is a servant; Dennis Day delivers a singing telegram; Harry and Jimmy Ritz (the Ritz Brothers) masquerade as cleaning women (I will not apologize for laughing at this, particularly when studio guard Mike Mazurki notices one of them is sporting a moustache); Huntz Hall a moving man (his fellow Bowery Boy, William “Billy” Benedict, can be spotted on Dern’s tour bus); and John Carradine a skid row bum.  The only cameo that didn’t work for me is Edgar Bergen as the burlesque performer (Professor Quicksand) who acquires Won Ton Ton…and mistreats the dog terribly.  (That left a bad taste in my mouth…though Bergen’s performance is accompanied by a brief glimpse of the indestructible Regis Toomey as a stagehand.) 

It’s just a hell of a lot of fun seeing both Stepin Fetchit (as the manservant who does a little trucking when Kahn and Dern move into their mansion) and Walter Pidgeon play butlers in this film that Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk aptly describes as “an endlessly fascinating car wreck of a film.”  Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood was originally released to DVD in 2008, but has been resurrected by Olive Films this week (yesterday) to make its Blu-ray debut (many thanks to Bradley Powell for the screener).  My fellow classic movie mavens are going to want to add this to their library for the star-gazing thrill, and remember: “Success is nothing without the dog you love to share it with.”

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Delinquents (1957)

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“They try to tell us we’re too young…” That lyric from the classic Nat King Cole song has special resonance for young Scotty White (Tom Laughlin) …because the parents of his best girl, Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard), have requested that he no longer date her.  It’s not that Scotty is an inappropriate suitor for Jan’s attentions—they just feel that a girl her age (she is sixteen, going on seventeen—as another song goes) shouldn’t be “going steady.”

Despondent, Scotty cracks under the strain of his teenage angst and goes on a three-state killing spree.  No, I’m just kidding about this—but he does hook up with a crew of young lawbreakers more than up to that particular task at his local drive-in.  Bill “Cholly” Charters (Peter Miller) and his gang step in to keep Scotty from taking a right pummeling from some other rough boys (even though Cholly’s pal Eddy [Richard Bakalyan] is responsible for the event that snowballed into the fracas), and a grateful Scotty allows Cholly to help him out with a bit of dating subterfuge: Cholly will masquerade as Jan’s new boyfriend, and pick her up at her home to take her to the movies.  Once they’re out of sight from her folks’ house, Scotty will take the baton from Cholly and continue the date portion of the evening.

Cholly snows Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (James Lantz, Lotus Corelli) with a yarn about working as an apprentice stockbroker (that reminds me: I should probably invest in hoodlum futures), and once he’s collected Jan, he persuades Scotty to attend a “party” that’s scheduled to be held at a seemingly abandoned house in the woodsy part of town.  Janice isn’t particularly wild about the idea…and her instincts prove right on the money: there’s drinking!  And dancing!  To raucous hopped-up jazz music!  Why…it’s almost as if this new crowd that’s adopted our young lovers are…delinquents!

Before he became the critically-acclaimed director of such films as MASH (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975), Robert Altman held the megaphone on a low-budget teensploitation flick known as The Delinquents(1957), filmed in Altman’s hometown of Kansas City, MO (depending on the source, the budget ranged from $45,000 to $63,000).  Motion picture exhibitor Elmer Rhoden, Jr., president of the Commonwealth Theaters chain, wanted to reap some of that sweet, sweet drive-in cash and hired Bob (who had been making industrial films and docs locally for The Calvin Company) to tackle the project; Altman scouted locations, cast the film, and cranked out the screenplay (inspired by j.d. movie successes like The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause) in about a week.

Many of Delinquents’actors were local Kansas City-ians of Altman’s acquaintance (his then-wife Lotus Corelli plays Mrs. Wilson, while their daughter Christine essays the role of Sissy, Scotty’s kid sister) but Bob and Elmer made a pilgrimage to The Golden State to find more practiced thespians who could play the three male leads.  Peter Miller, who portrays Cholly, had not only appeared in Blackboardand Rebel but had on his resume Forbidden Planet (1956) and Crime in the Streets (1956).  Character veteran Richard “Dick” Bakalyan (as Eddy) had his first important dramatic film turn in Delinquents; he would later appear in such films as Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and Chinatown(1975)…but he’s probably best known as “Cookie” in the Walt Disney Studios’ “Dexter Riley” trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969—though he’s called “Chillie” in this one), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).  (Andrew “Grover” Leal humorously refers to Dick as Disney’s “Everyhench.”)  In addition, Bakalyan graces the cast of The Cool and the Crazy (1958), also produced by Rhoden, Jr. and directed by TDOY idol William Witney.

The star of The Delinquents (as Scotty) was Tom (Tommy) Laughlin—it was not, as previously reported, his feature film debut (Laughlin was also in These Wilder Years and Tea and Sympathy), but it served as an important launch pad for a motion picture career that would later be defined by the 1967 biker classic The Born Losers and cemented by 1971’s Billy Jack (Tom plays the same character in both movies), a film that has an inexplicable cult following.  (Laughlin’s Billy Jack is a man dedicated to teaching peace and non-violence by beating the stuffing out of anyone who looks at him cross-eyed.)  Billy Jack was such a monster box office hit that it led to a slate of follow-ups: The Trial of Billy Jack(1974), Billy Jack Goes to Washington(1977), The Return of Billy Jack (1986), and Billy Jack at Waikiki (1990).  (Um…I think this last title may be incorrect; I may have it confused with a “Ma and Pa Kettle” vehicle.)  In later years, Altman might have regretted selecting Laughlin for his movie; the two repeatedly clashed during the making of Delinquents, with Bob memorably describing the star as “an unbelievable pain in the ass.”

Absent the problems with Laughlin, Altman’s film went smoothly: The Delinquents was put together in three weeks, and the finished project was picked up by United Artists (for $150,000) for distribution, ultimately earning a nice return of $1 million.  But Bob wouldn’t look upon his debut feature with fondness in later years; UA altered the ending and included some sappy Crime Does Not Pay-like narration at the movie’s conclusion, which the director didn’t find out about until he attended a preview of the movie.  Delinquents played mostly at drive-ins, but it did attract the notice of The Master of Suspense—who hired Altman to direct episodes of his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents(and that led to future assignments on boob tube classics like The Millionaire and Combat!).  Still, when London’s National Film Theatre put together a retrospective of Altman’s work in January of 2001, The Delinquents was noticeably absent (a program note stated that Altman preferred that it not be seen).

Is the movie terrible?  No, it isn’t—unless you have loftier expectations from a drive-in teen flick.  What’s very impressive about The Delinquents is the level of professionalism present in such a low-budgeter; Altman demonstrated with this debut that he was a talent to watch, even though devotees may be disappointed at the lack of a film signature…save for a free-wheeling party scene that previews Bob’s fondness for free-wheeling improvisation.  The acting may be amateurish at times (this tends to happen when you use amateurs) but the black-and-white photography is a standout (cinematographer Charles Paddock noted that Altman suggested he watch The Asphalt Jungle to emulate its style) and again, the overall product is quite polished.  (The music from KC’s own Julia Lee and the Bill Nolan Quintet Minus Two in the opening nightclub scene is first-rate, too.)

The Delinquentsmakes its Blu-ray/DVD debut today, courtesy of Olive Films—“a boutique theatrical and home entertainment distribution label” (according to the company) that has made many their releases available to this humble scrap of the blogosphere (thanks to Bradley Powell) to review from time to time.  Fans of Robert Altman (and believe me—there’s an army of them out there) will want to add this to their video shelf so that they can truly appreciate a major filmmaking talent learning his craft.

Taking a little Flack

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In June of last year, Curt Ladnier—a member-in-good-standing of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryearfaithful—needed a few episodes of TV’s The Thin Man for his collection and proposed a swap: the first five installments of the Peter Lawford-Phyllis Kirk boob tube version for some rare episodes of The Lone Wolf, a syndicated 1954-55 TV series based on the literary sleuth created by Louis Joseph Vance.  (The character appeared in a slew of B-movie mysteries—many of them with legendary silver screen cad Warren William as L.W.—and a 1948-49 radio series with Gerald Mohr…who also tackled the role in a handful of the films.)  The TV Wolfstarred Louis Hayward and since I hadn’t sampled it I was only too happy to help Br’er Curt out.  We have since that time swapped many e-mails; he’s currently working on a DVD project capturing those episodes of The Felony Squad that I had to give up when we reluctantly jettisoned getTV from our DISH programming.

Curt is the proprietor of In Search of Jack Boyle: On the Trail of Boston Blackie’s Forgotten Creator—the title is self-explanatory—and he also blogs at Maljardin: Musings From the Desmond Crypt, a site dedicated to the cult horror TV series Strange Paradise.  He asked me if I would be amenable to hosting a guest review of the DuMont sitcom Colonel Humphrey Flack, and I welcomed the idea with open arms; TDOY has featured many guest pieces here in the past, from resident guest movie reviewer Philip Schweier to cub reporter Tom Stillabower.  I know you’re going to enjoy Curt’s contribution as much as I did…so without further ado, I present…Mr. Ladnier.

COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK:
THE DUMONT NETWORK’S FABULOUS FRAUD

Audiences love a light-hearted con story.  The enormous popularity of big screen productions like The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven paved the way for such recent television successes as Leverage, Hustle, and their like.  And these series had predecessors on the small screen, from ABC’s quintessential western sharpster Maverickto NBC’s criminally short-lived The Rogues.  But ushering these series onto television’s airwaves was the grand-daddy of all comedic con artist shows, the DuMont Network’s 1953 production Colonel Humphrey Flack.

Colonel Flack, a loveable scoundrel who inhabited DuMont’s Wednesday night line-up, was a genial fraud who lived by his wits.  Possessed of an air of quality and a taste for the finer things in life, he frequented the best clubs and hotels, typically with only a few cents to his name.  Flack never let the nuisance of poverty stand in the way of his comforts, much to the consternation of his less polished – but more practical – confederate, Uthas Garvey.  But in spite of his penchant for living beyond his means, Colonel Flack was more an opportunist than a criminal.  He was gifted with an unerring knack of turning any situation to his own advantage, and the insight to realize that there was money to be had whenever others were cheating the system.  He had a professed dislike of “beastly chiselers,” whom he took every opportunity to fleece in Robin Hood fashion (pocketing a modest percentage to cover expenses). 

Colonel Flack creator Everett Rhodes Castle
Despite television’s relative infancy in 1953, Flack and Garvey were old hands at the confidence game by the time they stole onto DuMont’s schedule.  The colonel was the brainchild of magazine writer Everett Rhodes Castle, who chronicled Flack’s exploits in a dozen issues of The Saturday Evening Post between 1936 and 1946.  Castle’s yarns proved popular, and as early as the summer of 1937 his creation had already leapt from the page to the airwaves.  Newspapers announced radio broadcasts of Col. Humphrey Flack on Milwaukee’s station WTMJ (1).  Little is known about this early production, but it was likely a syndicated series, as there is no indication it ever had a sustaining run on a network.  But the show wasn’t just a fleeting blip in broadcast history, as advertisements confirm it was on the air in various markets at least as late as the autumn of 1944 (2).

Some years before the demise of his first incarnation on radio, Colonel Flack made the transition to the fledgling medium of television.  While a weekly Flack TV series was still decades away, on April 13, 1939 the Colonel was the protagonist of NBC Television’s one-shot production A Spot of Philanthropy.  Loosely based on Everett Rhodes Castle’s 1938 short story of the same name, the program starred George Taylor as Colonel Flack and Michael Drake as the long-suffering Garvey (3).

Wendell Holmes as Colonel Flack
Despite his early foray into television, radio was far from finished with Colonel Humphrey Flack.  He was next heard on NBC Blue, in their program Listening Post’s June 22, 1945 dramatization of the Saturday Evening Post story “Colonel Flack and the Tender Ethic” (4).  Flack fans must have been delighted, as the story hit the airwaves the same week the magazine version debuted in print.  Three years later, the colonel finally snared a sustaining series on network radio when the Wilbur Stark/Jerry Layton company Program Productions sold NBC a twelve-episode run of Colonel Humphrey Flack.  Premiering at 8:00 PM EST on Thursday July 3, 1947, the series was a summer replacement for either The Aldrich Family or ADay in the Life of Dennis Day (announcements from the era disagree).  Directed by Ed King, the series starred Wendell Holmes as Flack and Frank Maxwell as Garvey, in scripts written by Tom Dougall and Sheldon Stark (5).  At the close of the summer season, NBC declined to contract for further episodes, and the series folded with its September 18, 1947 broadcast.

Also in 1947, mystery luminary Ellery Queen chose Colonel Flack for inclusion in the hardcover anthology Rogues’ Gallery: The Great Criminals of Modern Fiction.  Published under the London imprint Faber and Faber, the collection Included Everett Rhodes Castle’s 1943 tale “The Colonel Gives a Party.”  The story’s publication in Queen’s anthology marks the colonel’s only appearance between the covers of a book.  As of this writing some 70 years later, the remainder of Colonel Flack’s literary escapades remain uncollected and unreprinted. 

Undeterred by the failure of their 1947 radio production to gain traction, Stark-Layton Productions redoubled their efforts to further develop the Flack franchise.  In 1953, they sold pilots for both a proposed television series and another radio adaptation to ABC.  The television production aired under the title “Colonel Humphrey J. Flack” as the May 31, 1953 installment of Plymouth Playhouse (a.k.a. ABC Album Playhouse).  This time around, British actor Alan Mowbray stepped into the role of the colonel and Frank McHugh played Garvey, in a story about the impoverished pair embarking on an ocean cruise courtesy of tickets won in a raffle (6).  The production was rebroadcast on the West Coast two weeks later, on June 16, 1953 (7).

The radio pilot brought the Mowbray/McHugh pairing before the microphones of ABC Playhouse for that series’ June 11, 1953 broadcast, also titled “Colonel Humphrey J. Flack.”  The episode related Flack and Garvey’s plan to aid a young medical student in recovering his life savings (8).  In selling ABC pilots for both radio and television, Stark-Layton Productions probably felt they had all bases covered for the launch of a new Flack series.  But in the end, the network declined to move forward with either.

Frank Jenks (as Garvey) and Alan Mowbray (as Flack)
However, the failure of the ABC television pilot had a silver lining.  Rather than throwing in the towel on the project, Stark-Layton switched gears and pitched it to the DuMont Television Network.  The gamble scored success and, under the sponsorship of the American Chicle Company, Colonel Humphrey Flack joined DuMont’s weekly line-up on Wednesday October 7, 1953.  Alan Mowbray returned in the role of Colonel Flack, but Frank McHugh did not make the transition from the pilot.  Instead, the part of Garvey was taken up ably by veteran character actor Frank Jenks (9).  The series was well-received, with Billboard praising its “smart scripting” and the “smooth teamwork” of its principal performers.  “Here’s one show that continues to provide us with welcome relief from mayhem, cops and robbers,” was the sentiment from the television critic of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (10).

Perhaps most pleased with Colonel Humphrey Flackwas the star himself, Alan Mowbray.  Though he had portrayed a wide range of characters in hundreds of films, Mowbray feared he was best remembered for the handful of times he had played a butler.  Landing the lead in DuMont’s series changed that.  “Now I’m called ‘Colonel’ as much as I’m called Mowbray,” he confided to reporters in 1954 (11).  Even more satisfying was the remark from Flack creator Everett Rhodes Castle, who commented that he couldn’t tell where Alan Mowbray left off and Colonel Flack began (12).  “I always try to be the complete rogue,” Mowbray expounded upon his affinity for the character, “but always keep within the law.  The colonel never commits an overt act of any sort.  That’s important because so many children are watching” (13).

Children and adults alike tuned in to make Colonel Humphrey Flack a mainstay on DuMont.  The network chronicled Flack and Garvey’s escapades through 39 live weekly telecasts, eventually drawing the season to a close on July 2, 1954.  With the Colonel’s departure from the airwaves during the summer months, newspapers reported that the series was likely to move to CBS (14).  In the end, however, autumn was not to see Colonel Flack’s return to any network.  DuMont had some limited success in syndicating their kinescopes of the original 39 broadcasts to regional markets, but no further episodes of the series were put into production.  Alan Mowbray later attributed the unexpected cancellation of the show to the rise in popularity of westerns.  “We were crowded off by cowboys,” was his glib assessment (15).

With his prolonged absence from network schedules, things looked bleak for Colonel Flack’s television career.  But you can’t keep a good rogue down, and in 1958 Flack was back, when CBS Films approached Stark-Layton Productions about a revival to be marketed in first run syndication.  Sporting the almost imperceptibly tweaked title of Colonel Humphrey J. Flack, the new series went into production in the autumn of 1958, bringing Alan Mowbray and Frank Jenks back in the principal roles.  Mowbray was heartened by the fact that this revival would be shot on film, unlike the series’ earlier live incarnation on DuMont.  “Every time I went in front of those live cameras I wished I wasn’t there,” he remarked to The Detroit Free Press. “Why I didn’t collapse at the end of the season I don’t know.”  He was happy for the chance to portray Flack in a more polished filmed production -- and the prospect of residuals for subsequent reruns was also enticing.

Colonel Humphrey J. Flack hit the airwaves at the close of 1958, and was sold to major markets across the U.S.  Attracting sponsors ranging from Standard Oil to Budweiser, the 39-episode package garnered praise from Variety as “the only fresh comedy series in syndication.”  However, critical acclaim did not prevent some misconceptions from arising about the new series’ content.  Few of the filmed episodes were remakes of installments from DuMont’s earlier live production, but returning fans who tuned in to episodes such as “Saddle Sore” or “Back to the Coal Mines” may have gotten the mistaken impression that the revival series was simply an attempt to re-shoot the original 39 scripts. 

Certainly, multiple sources over the years have cited this as fact, but the idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  A comparison of the titles between both series reveals very few similarities, and Alan Mowbray himself drove the final nail in this misconception’s coffin.  In a 1959 interview, he reflected on Flack’s filmed exploits in relation to the earlier live telecasts.  “We used … new stories this season, so we [still have the] old ones to dip into if our … writers can’t come up with anything.  They are our insurance policy” (16).  So Mowbray believed the DuMont scripts could be used as the basis of a subsequent season for 1959–60.

Unfortunately, even having a few dozen scripts in reserve couldn’t ensure a second season for Colonel Humphrey J. Flack, and CBS Films commissioned no further episodes after their run wrapped production in the spring of 1959.  Given that low ratings were the primary factor behind the series’ demise, fan response to the cancellation was surprisingly vocal.  When Michigan broadcaster WWJ-TV removed the show from its schedule in December 1959, a local civic group published a protest on the front page of The Detroit News and organized a letter-writing campaign to CBS Films (17).  In the end, Flack fans could take comfort in the fact that the filmed series remained available in syndication for years, but no new episodes would be produced. 

Today Colonel Flack persists primarily as a footnote in entertainment history.  His radio adventures are lost, and his print appearances languish in the yellowed pages of vintage periodicals.  A handful of kinescopes of his DuMont exploits are held by the UCLA Film Archive in California and the Paley Center for Media in New York, while his syndicated television series is now a part of the Viacom film library.  Aside from one or two isolated broadcasts, he has been absent from the airwaves for decades.  Yet despite being all but forgotten today, he blazed a trail for series ranging from It Takes a Thief to Tenspeed and Brownshoe.  And for that, God bless Colonel Humphrey Flack!

SOURCES
1.           The Waukesha Daily Freeman: Waukesha, Wisconsin (July 31, 1937)
2.           The Bismarck Tribune: Bismarck, North Dakota (September 3, 1944)
3.           Terrace, Vincent.  Television Specials: 5336 Entertainment Programs, 1936 – 2012 (2nd edition).  McFarland Press, 2013
4.           The Findlay Republican Courier: Findlay, Ohio (June 22, 1945)
5.           Billboard Magazine: “Colonel Humphrey Flack” (July 19, 1947)
6.           The Cleveland Plain Dealer: Cleveland, Ohio (May 31, 1953)
7.           The San Bernardino Sun: San Bernardino, California (June 16, 1953)
8.           The Abilene Reporter: Abilene, Texas (June 7, 1953)
9.           Billboard Magazine: “Colonel Humphrey Flack (TV)” (October 17, 1953)
10.         The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Brooklyn, New York (November 25, 1953)
11.         The Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati, Ohio (June 29, 1954)
12.         The Chicago Daily Tribune: Chicago, Illinois (January 24, 1959)
13.         The Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati, Ohio (June 29, 1954)
14.         The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (June 18, 1954)
15.         The Chicago Daily Tribune: Chicago, Illinois (January 24, 1959)
16.         The Detroit Free Press: Detroit, Michigan (May 31, 1959)
17.         Broadcasting: “Flack for ‘Flack’” (December 21, 1959)

NOTES & EPHEMERA
1.           Various sources state that the 1958–59 CBS Films series was later marketed under the alternate titles The Fabulous Fraud, The Imposter and The Adventures of Colonel Flack, but to date no advertisements or documentation confirming these variant titles have surfaced.
2.           While the show’s basic formula remained substantially the same between the DuMont series and its later syndicated incarnation, there was one significant change.  A laugh track was added to the filmed series, giving the revival a more pronounced “sitcom” feeling.
3.           Two large archives of scripts from the DuMont Network’s Colonel Humphrey Flackare known to exist.  One is included in the Edward Jurist Papers, 1940-79 held in the UCLA library’s special collections and the other resides with the Steven H. Scheurer Collection of Television Program Scripts at the Yale University Library.

The Colonel Flack stories in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST
1.           Introducing Col. Humphrey Flack (April 25, 1936)
2.           Col. Humphrey Flack Makes Three Thousand Per Cent Net (November 21, 1936)
3.           Colonel Humphrey Flack and the Barking Overcoat (January 23, 1937)
4.           Colonel Flack and the Affair of the Countess Radeska (May 15, 1937)
5.           Clean-Up (July 24, 1937)
6.           The Colonel Builds a Backfire (November 6, 1937)
7.           The Great Christmas Sweepstakes (December 25, 1937)
8.           A Drop of Elephant Blood (March 5, 1938)
9.           A Spot of Philanthropy (November 12, 1938)
10.         The Colonel Gives a Party (May 8, 1943)
11.         Colonel Flack and the Tender Ethic (June 23, 1945)
12.         Colonel Flack and the Common Man (April 20, 1946)

COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK (1953–54) episode list
1.           Art is Fleeting (October 7, 1953)
2.           Saddle Sore (October 14, 1953)
3.           The Eight-Ball and the Side Pocket [a.k.a. The Pool Table] (October 21, 1953)
4.           The Humboldt Affair [a.k.a. The Horse Race] (October 28, 1953)
5.           title unknown (November 4, 1953)
6.           The Bucket Shop (November 11, 1953)
7.           The Missing Heir (November 18, 1953)
8.           title unknown (November 25, 1953)
9.           The Movie Racket (December 2, 1953)
10.         The Syndicate (December 9, 1953)
11.         The Inventor (December 16, 1953)
12.         title unknown (December 23, 1953)
13.         The Flack Match (January 2, 1954)
14.         The Wildfire Fund (January 9, 1954)
15.         Prince Fahz of Baklava (January 16, 1954)
16.         The Mansion (January 23, 1954)
17.         title unknown (January 30, 1954)
18.         The Knave of Diamonds (February 6, 1954)
19.         The Monaco Stradivarius (February 13, 1954)
20.         title unknown (February 20, 1954)
21.         title unknown (February 27, 1954)
22.         The Flower Girl [a.k.a. The Latin Major] (March 6, 1954)
23.         The Columnist (March 13, 1954)
24.         The Pomeranian Society (March 20, 1954)
25.         Vacation (March 27, 1954)
26.         The Swami (April 3, 1954)
27.         The Wild West (April 10, 1954)
28.         title unknown (April 17, 1954)
29.         Gambling Fever (April 24, 1954)
30.         The Cruncher [a.k.a. King Hakmir Khan] (May 1, 1954)
31.         title unknown (May 7, 1954)
32.         Achilles Heel (May 14, 1954)
33.         The Perfume Story (May 21, 1954)
34.         Good Old Bob (May 28, 1954)
35.         Back in the Salt Mine (June 4, 1954)
36.         By the Beautiful Sea (June 11, 1954)
37.         Atlantic Crossing (June 18, 1954)
38.         Happy Birthday (June 25, 1954)
39.         The Bradley Diamond (July 2, 1954)

COLONEL HUMPHREY J. FLACK (syndicated) episode list
1.           Lady Bluebeard                                                                                                                   
2.           Colonel Flack Gets Kilt
3.           The Formula
4.           The Bank Teller
5.           Something for the Birds
6.           The Real Estate Caper
7.           Saddle Sore
8.           Colonel Flack’s Big Deal
9.           The Big Wheels
10.         The Diamond Ring
11.         Colonel Flack to the Rescue
12.         The Blackmailer
13.         The Star Maker
14.         The Treasure Hunt
15.         The Emperor’s Snuff-Box 
16.         In Flack We Trust
17.         Flack and the Maharajah
18.         Colonel Cupid
19.         Back to the Coal Mines
20.         The Hypnotist
21.         The Producer
22.         The Happy Medium
23.         The Friendship Club
24.         Colonel Flack and the Gangster
25.         Horse of Another Color
26.         Follow the Bouncing Meatball
27.         West of the Weirdos
28.         Colonel Flack and the Little Leaguers
29.         Colonel Flack’s New Muffler
30.         Garviola, the Matador
31.         Surplus
32.         The Missing Moolah
33.         Colonel Flack and the Dragon
34.         Pearls of Wisdom
35.         Spaceship Ahoy
36.         Up from the Apes
37.         The Tycoon
38.         Colonel Flack and the Counterfeiter
39.         Lo, the Etruscans

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Treasure of Monte Cristo (1949)

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Edmund Dantes (Glenn Langan) has no sooner stepped off a boat (on which he’s employed as a second mate) docked along San Francisco’s waterfront when he must come to the rescue of a woman being attacked by a pair of goon-like gentlemen.  The female in question is Jean Turner (Adele Jergens), an heiress who’s currently receiving mail at a sanitarium (or “nuthouse,” as Dantes colorfully refers to it) because her guardian has placed her there to keep her from receiving the substantial fortune left to her by her father.  Jean cashes in when she’s either married or reaches the age of twenty-five; she mentions to Edmund that she’s nearly there, age-wise (yes, I knew Jergens was in her early thirties when this film was produced), but if the two of them were to tie the knot she could defeat her custodian’s eevill scheme.  (It would be a temporary business arrangement.  A three-month merger.)

Glenn Langan, Robert (Bobby) Jordan
So they’re off to “The Biggest Little City in the World” (Reno), and the morning after, Jean is having second thoughts.  When Ed ventures out to get her some cigarettes, he discovers upon his return that she’s vanished…but the address of the sanitarium has been scrawled on the mirror in lipstick.  (If Jean was abducted…wouldn’t the people putting the snatch on her notice something like this?)  Arriving at Casa del Cuckoo, Dantes hides in an upstairs room in the asylum when a man enters…and is shot by an unseen assailant.  This makes Ed The Amazing Colossal Patsy (actor Langan is known for his starring role in the 1957 cult sci-fi film The Amazing Colossal Man), as he’s arrested, tried, and sentenced for the murder of a man he’s never even met!  (Worst.  Honeymoon.  Ever.)

Adele Jergens
Despite its clunky title, which would be more fitting for a swashbuckling epic, Treasure of Monte Cristo (1949) is a decent noir whose only deficits are flabby pacing (I was kind of disappointed in director William Berke, who can usually make these little programmers hum) and uneven performances.  Far be it from me to want to deny actor Glenn Langan a career in show business…but the guy is in dire need of a charisma transplant (I know, he did quite a few biggies at Fox, like Forever Amber [1947] and The Snake Pit[1948]); a better leading man would have improved this picture enormously, and I’m only saying this because I have a thing for Adele Jergens.  (Adele and Glenn have zero chemistry.  Zip.  Nada.)

Margia, Margia, Margia! (Dean, that is.)

“If you love or live in San Francisco, this movie's like a time machine back to 1949,” observes Stuart Galbraith IV in his review at DVD Talk…and I think that’s another deficit in Treasure—it’s more of a travelogue at times than movie thriller.  (A narrator at the beginning even regales us with some Frisco stats before the story gets underway.)  Shooting on location is always nice in a film, but it shouldn’t overshadow the plot…which is conventional to the point of cliché from the get-go.  (There’s even a scene with a paralyzed victim who must communicate by moving his eyeballs.)  I wasn’t quite as taken with the suspense as Galbraith; truth be told, I had a little trouble staying awake at several points in the film.  (You could argue that the suspense is generated by “will he be able to keep from nodding off?”)

Steve Brodie
Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans will be amused at the presence of Bobby Jordan (billed here as Robert), portraying the friend who helps Langan crash out on his way to San Quentin—I’ve seen Jordan in a couple of Tales of Wells Fargo episodes of late, and can’t help but be a little wistful at how his adult life turned out (I think Leo Gorcey once remarked that his friend “didn’t have a guardian angel”).  Familiar movie heavy Steve Brodie plays the bad guy (pro-tip: never hire an attorney sporting a pencil-thin moustache) and member-of-the-TDOY-faithful b piper will be overjoyed to see Lippert “good luck charm” Sid Melton (billed as Sidney) as a henchman (thankfully, he keeps the shtick to a bare minimum).

Heeeeeeeeeeere's Sidney!

There’s a DVD disclaimer at the beginning of this film that reads: “The original nitrate negative to this picture had decomposed, but fortunately a master positive survived.  Even after restoration the sound track is not perfect.  We hope this imperfection will not affect your enjoyment of this rare film.”  It did not (though the part about the sound concerned me to where I waited until the cleaning ladies finished vacuuming), and it just reinforces what has become a mantra here on the blog: film preservation is most important, because nitrate won’t wait.  You can purchase a copy of Treasure of Monte Cristo on the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collector’s Set Vol. 4, available at The Sprocket Vault.

The Eagle has landed

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I had originally scheduled a huge silent film epic for review in this space today.  (Okay, it’s not that epic—it was gonna be Way Down East [1920].)  But since my Tales of Wells Fargo DVR project continues apace, I decided to grab something short and sweet for the blog’s silent movie spotlight today…and that’s when I came across a DVD of The Eagle (1925), an Image Entertainment disc that I purchased back in 2009 and have now freed from its shrink wrap exile.  (Do not judge me.)

Rudolph Valentino
The movie tells the tale of one Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino), a lieutenant in Russia’s Imperial Guard during the reign of Catherine the Great.  A heroic rescue of Mascha Troekouroff (Vilma Banky) and her Aunt Aurelia (Carrie Clark Ward), who are at the mercy of a runaway carriage, does not escape the notice of the Czarina (Louise Dresser)—who rewards Vlad with one of her prized horses (coincidentally, the one he jumped on to save Mascha and Auntie) and is prepared to repay him with much, much more (she can make him a general!) if he only acquiesces to her request that he join her for a royal roll in the hay.  When he politely spurns her advances, she puts a price of 5000 rubles on his head.

Vilma Banky, Valentino
Mascha is the beautiful daughter of nobleman Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus), a despotic nobleman who has “liberated” the lands and wealth of Dubrovsky’s father (Spottiswoode Aiken).  Returning home when he receives word that his father is practically through Death’s Door, Vlad arrives just in time to witness the old man snuff it…and makes a solemn vow to avenge the death of the senior Dubrovsky.  In addition, he will assist the victimized peasantry by donning a mask to become Zorro The Black Eagle!  (Music sting)

Dubrovsky gains entry into the House of Troekouroff by posing as Marcel Le Blanc, a tutor hired to help daughter Mascha in French.  (I am not going to lie to you.  I giggled when the title cards referred to “Professor Le Blanc,” for obvious reasons.)  Vladimir is torn between his passionate love for Mascha and his pledged allegiance to bring down her father.  After all, you can’t kill your father-in-law before the wedding—that’s usually reserved for the reception!

My CMBA colleague Fritzi of Movies Silently fame declares that The Eagle is “highly recommended for people who think they don’t like Valentino.”  I think she’s on target with that; I don’t dislike Rudy, but I’ll readily admit that he ranks a little further down on my list of favorite silent movie actors.  But I enjoyed The Eagle so much that I downloaded Valentino’s penultimate film, Cobra(1925), from Epix on Demand during our past freeview weekend and I plan to put that on when I get an opportunity.  (Trying to expand my silent cinema education, as it were.)

What I appreciated so much about The Eagle is that it’s infused with a good deal of whimsy; true to its Robin Hood-like plot, the movie insists on not taking things too seriously and the action-adventure-romance aspects are lightly leavened with humor.  Valentino displays a rather deft touch with comedy in something as simple as attempting to remove a ring from his finger.  The acting highlights in Eagle belong to Louise Dresser, who is fantastic as Czarina Catherine; I just about spit Crystal Light Fruit Punch across the room watching her “seduce” Vladimir (she slyly pours out the wine she’s supposed to be drinking and then pantomimes downing her glass of vino…and Valentino does the same).  (It was Fritzi that reminded me that Dresser is also in another Catherine the Great picture, 1934’s The Scarlet Empress, as Empress Elizabeth; I need to revisit that one sometime soon.)

The laugh-out-loud moment belongs to Albert Conti as Kuschka, Vladimir’s fellow comrade-at-arms; when Dubrovsky runs for the tall grass to put as much distance between himself and the Czarina as possible, Kuschka gladly steps in to become Catherine’s “kept man.”  He even intervenes on his friend’s behalf when Vlad’s captured by Catherine’s soldiers and is scheduled to be executed—Kuschka owes a lot to Dubrovsky because, after all, Vladimir made him a general!  There’s also much hilarity in the sequences where visitors to Kyrilla’s wine cellar find themselves greeted by a formidable pet bear…though admittedly, I couldn’t stop thinking “What happened to the gas man?” since I had just finished that Radio Spirits Jack Benny project last week.

Rudy, cinematographer George Barnes, director Clarence Brown
The Eagle was a shot-in-the-arm to Rudolph Valentino’s flagging film career at the time of its release…but sadly, after only two more pictures (Cobraand 1926’s Son of the Sheik), Rudy would leave this world for a better one at the age of 31 in 1926.  He was most fortunate to have worked with Vilma Banky as his co-star in this film (Banky is drop dead gorgeous, no getting around it—but she’s also able to keep from being overshadowed by “The Sheik”) as well as director Clarence Brown, who later oversaw some of Greta Garbo’s most memorable silents (Flesh and the Devil, A Woman of Affairs) as well as later classics like National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling(1946).

At the risk of sounding like I’m beginning a slow march to fogeydom, I particularly enjoyed this DVD version of The Eagle (I believe the Image disc is now OOP) because it was one of the many movies released under the banner of “The (Paul) Killiam Collection.”  This is how I watched movies in the days before TCM (and we were damned lucky to have them!); on public television (part of The Silent Years), before it was inundated by oil company advertising.

Grey Market Cinema: Black Tuesday (1954)

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Convicted racketeer Vincent Canelli (Edward G. Robinson) has a date with “Old Sparky” (in layman's terms, the electric chair).  He’s not, however, going out alone; the state has a doubleheader planned that evening in that they’ll also be frying Peter Manning (Peter Graves), a man who robbed a bank of $200,000…but unfortunately, killed a cop as he was making his getaway.  The governor has offered Manning a ten-day reprieve if he’ll reveal where the missing money is located…but since he’s still going to be sitting down in the hot seat after that pause, Manning sends the gov some sand and pounding instructions.

Hal Baylor, Edward G. Robinson, Alexander Campbell, James Bell
As preparations for “Black Tuesday” (the day when executions are carried out—not to be confused with “Black Friday,” natch) continue, Canelli’s moll Hattie Combest (Jean Parker) schemes with Vince’s top gun Joey Stewart (Warren Stevens) to crash him out.  Their ingenious scheme involves Joey posing as one of the newspaper reporters witnessing the execution, while guard John Norris (James Bell) is persuaded to tape a gun underneath the chair for Canelli’s use.  Why is Norris being so cooperative?  Well, his sister Ellen (Sylvia Findley) has been abducted by Canelli’s mob…and if Norris doesn’t rise to the occasion, it’s lights out for Ellie.

The breakout goes per plan—except for a minor snafu involving Manning being wounded during the escape.  Canelli needs Manning alive—and fortunately for him, there’s a prison doctor (Vic Perrin) among the hostages the mobster has taken—because Peter is the only man who can retrieve all that lovely cabbage.

Despite his incredible versatility as a motion picture actor, Edward G. Robinson is more often than not associated with his portrayal of gangsters in his voluminous resume of films.  From Little Caesar (1930) to Key Largo (1948), Eddie G. was a commanding presence onscreen—the fact that he was never nominated for a competitive Oscar (he had to settle for an honorary statuette, awarded to him posthumously in March of 1973) just goes to show there’s something awfully hinky about that Academy Awards nonsense.  Like his fellow Warner Brothers co-worker, James Cagney, Robinson chafed at being typecast as a gun-toting villain…but let’s not make any bones about it: he was damn good at what he did.

Black Tuesday(1954), which allows Robinson to pull out all the stops in the manner of Johnny Rocco from Key Largo, is an unrecognized movie gem…and the disappointing aspect of this buried treasure is that because it was a United Artists release, it’s often difficult tracking down a nice print (had it been a major studio production, this bad boy would have been released to DVD ages ago).  I bought my copy from Finders Keepers, and while it’s certainly watchable I’ll warn you right now the source copy has really been through the wringer.  But at $6.99, it’s impossible to pass up—I suggest you try and grab this if you can.

Oops. (This will give you an idea.)

Milburn Stone, Jean Parker, Peter Graves, Robinson
As Vincent “King” Canelli, Eddie G. is a man who knows only violence…and the undercurrent in the film (written by Sydney Boehm, who also penned The Big Heat) is that capital punishment may be the only effective way to deal with the Canellis in the world.  (I found the atmosphere surrounding the execution—with reporters jockeying for good seats—a little disturbing.)  One of his hostages is a priest, Father Slocum (Milburn Stone), and Vince has very little hesitation about putting a bullet in Slocum’s brainpan if necessary.  (Slocum: “Listen to me, Vincent…you can’t keep on killing and killing…” Canelli: “No?  Just watch me…”)  The only hint of humanity present in Canelli is his relationship with Hattie (their scenes together briefly reveal Vince's tender side) …but once she’s out of the picture, the snarling primitive in him takes over.

Black Tuesday was directed by Hugo Fregonese, an Argentinian-born director whose career never really caught fire in the United States (I’m a big fan of The Raid [1954], which was also scripted by Boehm and features Tuesday co-star Peter Graves in a small role).  It is pulls-no-punches violent—so much so that it was banned by the Memphis, TN Censor Board in its initial release for its “grimness and brutality.”  Nevertheless, it’s great fun to see Robinson back in the saddle after his movie career in the 1950s was threatened by the House Un-American Activities Committee (sadly, Eddie “named names” …and his starring film roles became fewer and fewer as the decade rolled on); I’d like to see his Vincent Canelli tangle with Cody Jarrett—the menace played by Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Warren Stevens
There are a lot of future small screen faces in Black Tuesday: Graves would go on to star on the likes of Fury and Mission: Impossible, and “Father” Stone was a regular, of course, on the dean of TV westerns, Gunsmoke.  Speaking of westerns, that’s Jack Kelly (as he always insisted in interviews, “Maverick’s brother”) as the reporter who gets kidnapped by Robinson’s gang—one of the hoods is played by TV professor (and co-star on the boob tube oater Black Saddle) Russell Johnson.  Kelly’s character is the guy Warren Stevens’ Joey impersonates (and successfully, since it’s Kelly’s first execution rodeo) …and I must say, they had a lot of luck on their side in their plan to break Robinson’s Canelli out—suppose they had sent one of the veteran reporters instead?  (Stevens, by the way, was also no slouch when it came to TV: he guested on scads of boob tube favorites and had a regular role on Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers.)

OTR veterans Vic Perrin and Harry Bartell are also on hand (Harry is a pilot who’s going to fly Robinson and Company out of the country once they’ve got Graves’ money in their greasy mitts) as are character greats Arthur Batanides, Ken Christy, Edmund Cobb, Frank Ferguson (as the cop handling the hostage situation!), Paul Maxey, Stafford Repp, and TDOY fave William Schallert (also in Fregonese’s Raid).  An uncompromising film from its first frame to its last, Black Tuesday is a great little noir.

Hurry on down to Hardie’s

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My fellow classic movie mavens are well aware that in the month of February (and first three days of March—except leap year), The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ runs their “31 Days of Oscar” tribute.  This event and “Summer Under the Stars” usually allows me to catch up with whatever I have squirreled away on our DISH DVR, and I was very much looking forward to watching the content (and slapping my favorites onto disc).

But…in the immortal words of Robert Frost: “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley.” (Who says this blog isn’t highbrow?  Besides 98% of the blogosphere, I mean.)

The good people at DISH decided to have a “freeview” weekend of HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime the weekend of February 17-20.  The following weekend, we were treated to free Starz.  The weekend after that, Encore.  And we just finished up a freeview of Epix this past weekend.  For a recovering movie nut like your humble narrator, this is an embarrassment of riches—particularly because when there isn’t anything on the schedule worth grabbing, there’s always On Demand offerings I can download.  I have been spending every free waking moment luxuriating in movies, movies…and more movies.

Laramie stars John Smith and Robert Fuller
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I went hog wild during the Encore freeview…because their On Demand features episodes of the classic TV westerns they offer on their schedule—this is how I was able to build my substantial Wanted: Dead or Alive collection back in December of 2015.   Encore Westerns on Demand has episodes of Death Valley Days, Laramie, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Tales of Wells Fargo (a recent acquisition), and Wagon Train—which presented me with a dilemma: which show do I download?

I eliminated Death Valley Days and Wagon Train right off the bat; I like both shows—but they’re not something I have to have.  I leaned heavily toward Laramie, particularly due to the piss-poor quality of the Timeless Media Group DVDs…but I’ve got a 30-day window with these downloads, and I didn’t think I could get all EW had in that amount of time (particularly since they’re 50-minute shows).  There’s DVR space to consider, too—I like to have enough of a “buffer” in case Mom (who learned how to work the DVR during her convalescence) wants to grab any Rambomovies or something with Jean-Claude God Damme.  (I don’t know why she insists on recording stuff with commercials…particularly since she hasn’t learned to fast-forward yet.)  So, it came down to either Wyatt Earp or Wells Fargo…and since all six seasons of Earp have been released to disc, I went with Fargo (its DVD release history is a little spotty).

Tales of Wells Fargo originally premiered as a December 14, 1956 episode of CBS’ Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, “A Tale of Wells Fargo”—with a teleplay by Frank Gruber from a Zane Grey story.  The producer of this episode, Nat Holt, had also produced the 1949 film that gave future Wells Fargo star Dale Robertson his first onscreen credit, Fighting Man of the Plains (Fargo creator Frank Gruber also wrote this screenplay…in addition to the novel on which it was based).  Holt had quite a time talking Robertson into doing “Tale” as a regular series—Dale initially didn’t think much of the script, and only agreed to commit to the pilot as a favor to his friend.  He never dreamed that the show would leap to #3 in the Nielsens in its second season (Tales of Wells Fargo officially premiered over NBC on March 18, 1957).  (Wells Fargo remained in the Top 10 in its third season, and continued to be a solid ratings performer until its final season in 1961-62.  More on this in a bit.)

I thought that by downloading all the Wells Fargo Encore Westerns had to offer, I could play a few for mi madre—a longtime fan of the show.  I know I mentioned this on the blog in the past (my previous experience with Wells Fargo was a single episode, “Jesse James,” which was on Timeless’ The Classic TV Western Collection) but my father used to tease my mother unmercifully about this series, derisively referring to the star as “Dale Roberts” and saying…well, I won’t repeat exactlywhat he said (it’s a little insensitive) but he hinted that Mr. Robertson was a few horses shy of a remuda.  I’ve watched 13 out of the 14 episodes in the first season (“The Silver Bullets” did not download properly, much to my dismay) and a couple from Season Two…and I don’t know why Dad kids Mom so.  Granted, I do not possess the sophisticated television tastes as my old man (and by “sophisticated television tastes” I mean shows about UFOs and cops placing people under arrest) but I’m finding Tales of Wells Fargo to be a pretty entertaining series.  It’s not a great show (there are superior western half-hours, like Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel) but it’s far and away better than The Cisco Kid or any other juvie oater you’d care to name.  Robertson didn’t consider Wells Fargo an “adult western” or a “kids western”—but a “family western,” assuming your family conducted private investigations for the Wells Fargo company for a living.  (That’s the premise in a nutshell: as Jim Hardie, Robertson chased down bad hombres who robbed the company’s stagecoaches or freight wagon in the 1860s/1870s/1880s, and brought the miscreants to justice.  This was quite a few years before the Wells Fargo company started committing fraud on a major scale.)

Hugh Beaumont as Jesse James
One of the aspects of the program that I’ve observed is its rather compassionate portrayals of its outlaw element: in the aforementioned “Jesse James” (07/01/57), future Leave it to Beaver dad Hugh Beaumont portrays Jesse as a very sympathetic sort, and in “Sam Bass” (06/10/57), rifleman Chuck Connors makes the titular bandit a jovial, happy-go-lucky fella (the real Bass was apparently also a “no worries” kind of guy).  (Connors also appears in the premiere episode of Tales of Wells Fargo, “The Thin Rope”—adding some interesting shadings to the villain.)  The nature of Hardie’s work dictated he make contact with many Old West legends, including Belle Starr (a nice turn by Jeanne Cooper), John Wesley Hardin (Lyle Bettger), Billy the Kid (Robert Vaughn), and Butch Cassidy (Charles Bronson).

Jack Elam
Of the episodes I’ve viewed so far, I was very impressed with “The Hijackers” (06/17/57); Hardie puts a premature end to his vacation by tracking down the son (Harry Holt, Jr.) of a wealthy man and his fiancée (Jacqueline Holt) and finds their trail leads to a ghost town, where they’re being held captive by Jack Elam and his gang.  There’s a beautifully done (and wordless) sequence in which Robertson and Elam play hide-and-seek in the abandoned burg, and when the closing credits rolled I was not at all surprised to see serials ace John English attached as director.  (The author of this one is N.B. Stone, Jr., later responsible for Ride the High Country.)  The following episode, “Stage to Nowhere” (06/24/57), is also first-rate; Hardie is escorting an outlaw (Walter Coy) to the hoosegow when their stagecoach is chased down by the man’s gang—also on board are a timid newspaper reporter (the ubiquitous Lyle Talbot) plus a woman (OTR’s Barbara Eiler) and her son (Bobby Clark), who have an important connection to Jim’s prisoner.

Michael Landon
You’ll spot a good many familiar future TV faces and veteran character thesps in these episodes of Tales of Wells Fargo: Michael Landon is not only in “Sam Bass” but “Shotgun Messenger” (05/07/57)—which I’d wager was the first time he worked with his future Little House on the Prairieco-star Kevin Hagen (as one of the bad guys, of course).  Some time back on Facebook, I made a joking reference to actor John Carroll being “the poor man’s Clark Gable” …and my social media compadre Christopher Snowden (the proprietor of Television Diary) responded that he always considered Dale Robertson to be quite Gable-ish.  When I concurred that I can definitely hear a Gable-ness in Robertson’s speech patterns, Chris observed: “[H]e's also there in scenes where Robertson's character is charming the ladies—chin down, and eyes uplifted as a big ingratiating smile spreads wide.  And all of these mannerisms are still in place twenty-odd years later, when he appears for short stretches on Dallasand Dynasty.”

The moustache helps a lot.  (From a 1965 TV pilot, Diamond Jim.)
William Demarest with star Robertson
In the fifth season of Tales of Wells Fargo, Earle Lyon replaced Nat Holt as the series’ producer; Lyon related in an interview: “I took over the last two years.  Dale Robertson called me one day and said he felt Nat was getting too old and couldn’t remember things.  Dale was pretty upset with the way things were going with the series.” NBC decided to side with the show’s star, and Holt’s inaugural season as producer went so swimmingly the network made the decision to not only expand Wells Fargo to an hour in Season Six but produce it in Living Peacock Color.  A cast of regulars was also added as Jim Hardie acquired a horse ranch near San Francisco (star Robertson was quite the horseman in real life) including future My Three Sons co-star William Demarest (as the stock crotchety ranch foreman, Jeb Gaine) and future Folgers’ pitchwoman Virginia Christine (as Hardie’s neighbor, The Widder [Ovie] Swenson).

Tales of Wells Fargo had stiff competition in its final season—it was scheduled Saturday nights opposite Perry Mason, and though it came in a respectable second, ratings-wise, the decision was made (the show was getting a bit expensive for the cost-conscious MCA/Revue to produce) to send it to the Old Syndication Retirement Home.  Star Robertson would later headline Iron Horse, another boob tube oater that barely hung on for two seasons, and J.J. Starbuck (1987-88), a Stephen J. Cannell creation that also resurrected Ben Vereen’s character of E.L. “Tenspeed” Turner (which he had played on the short-lived 1980 series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, also created by Cannell).

Tales of Wells Fargo’s first and second seasons are available on DVD (Tales of Wells Fargo: The Complete First and Second Seasons); in addition, there’s a collection containing “selected” episodes from Seasons 1-5, and Tales of Wells Fargo: The Best of the Final Season in Color.  In looking at what I downloaded from Encore Westerns, neither seasons five or six seem to be in their package—perhaps they will air these in the future.  Wells Fargo plays much, much better than I had hoped…and later, I will make a small sacrifice to the satellite gods for allowing me to grab these episodes for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.