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by Sam Juliano

One of my fondest childhood memories dates back to the summer of 1967.  At that time television was all the rage for the baby boomer crowd especially programs that spoke directly to adolescent tastes and sensibilities.  Invariably this meant re-runs of the Man of Steel, the Swiss Family Robinson in space, an exciting new series set on a star-ship guided by a dynamic captain and his pointy-eared communications officer and underwater adventures negotiated from a high-powered submarine.  Each of these fantastical shows enthralled us as we followed uncompromising schedules where not even a single miss was conceivable.  Many of us found no trouble connecting with characters whom by the sheer power of their personalities stoked our imaginative embers.  The small screen infatuation ascended to an interactive plateau after I was invited to join a “Batman Fan Club” by an enterprising friend and classmate who is now a famous heart specialist.  The meetings for this fledgling fraternity were held in young Richard Palu’s basement in a meticulously maintained and manicured suburban one-family, where a family dynamic comparable to that played out in Leave it to Beaver made for some happy experiences.  Patricia and Nello were model parents who brought up their two sons (at the time 13 and 11) dotingly, imparting in them purpose and responsibility.  The patriarch was active in the community, coaching sports’ teams and serving a scout master, while the brood’s dedicated housewife was active in community and church groups.  (In a remarkable aside, Patricia is now entering her 97th year and continues to live in the very same Fairview, New Jersey home where the specters of the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder once inhabited, and she’s as sprite and as sharp as ever, even maintaining an active Facebook account).

The mid-week meetings of the club were held at 4:00 P.M. and could be described as disciplined talk sessions.  Each of the eight or nine members would discuss the current week’s episodes and what they liked best about the airing.  A favorite related activity as I recall involved the group dressing up as the villain of their choice, though the selection wasn’t limited to the show aired that week, but rather to all the shows seen over the first year and beyond.  This included the Riddler, the Penguin, the Joker, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, the Mad Hatter, King Tut, the Puzzler, the Sandman, Zelda the Great, Minerva, Ma Parker, Olga, the Clock King, False Face, Bookworm, Minstrel, Louie the Lilac, the Archer and others in a lineup that eventually numbered 34 Caped Crusader adversaries.  Since the membership was exclusively male, the Catwoman never had a taker, and there was always heated competition for the Big Three, particularly the Joker, the most iconic nemesis of all, and the character boasting the best portrayal on the 60’s show than any other subsequent incarnation – better than Jack Nicholson, better than Heath Ledger and Jared Leto.  On Batman 66 Joker often had the best episodes because the shows he starred in usually had the most appealing story-lines.  Villainous ambition was never as elaborately conceived and staged, and Cesar Romero in an inspired updating of Gwynplaine from Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs rigs a high school basketball game so he can bet money on the underdog, invents a machine that can stop time and place and even in one show builds a flying saucer.  Romero’s vitality matches Frank Gorshin’s acrobatic Riddler, and his defining high camp was always perfectly attuned to the unique vibe of the show. The Riddler is a criminal genius capable of extraordinary lateral thinking in decoding and formulating puzzles of all kinds was of course a membership favorite as was the Penguin, portrayed by one of the series’ most renowned stars, Burgess Meredith.   The actor’s trademark purple hat, monocle, cigarette holder, umbrella and signature voice, when he mimicked the squawk of his polar namesake.  His thugs wear black bowler hats and dark clothing adorned with names of various animals of prey, such as birds (“Hawk”) or fish (“Shark”), or sometimes simply “Henchman.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

What saved the mid-60’s two-year run of F Troop from some serious Song of the South-like stereotyping is the cartoonish way the shows’s characters were portrayed.  As a result none can ever be taken seriously and as a result the Indians -played by often uproarious Italian and Jewish comics- are extensions of Caucasian attitudes and behavior, offering up a mirror on the unrepentant land pilferers.  The foghorn-voiced Sgt. O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker), a big man with a Bud Abbot demeanor and the irrepressible Corporal Randolph Agarn, (Larry Storch) a stand-up comic whose purpose to provide the comic foil in Lou Costello fashion are the main players. The bumbling-to-a-fault Captain Parmenter (Ken Berry) was an actor with dance training was called up to trip and fall over things, but he had the heart of the blonde-haired Wrangler Jane Thrift (played by Melody Patterson who was only 16 when first cast) who was summarily smitten with her handsome officer.  While those four characters inhabited the narrative dynamic, the Hekawi Indians were featured in most episodes. Their leader, Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) had some of the series’ best lines.  One uproarious passage was one he uttered in response to a query about how the tribe was given its name:  “Many moons ago tribe move west because Pilgrims ruin neighborhood. Tribe travel west, over country and mountains and wild streams, then come big day… tribe fall over cliff, that when Hekawi get name. Medicine man say to my ancestor, “I think we lost. Where the heck are we?”   Chief Wild Eagle and the Hekawes often referred to Parmenter as the “Great White Pigeon”.  Wild Eagle also admits “Don’t let name Wild Eagle fool you.  It was changed from Yellow Chicken.”  As a sly jest predicated on the myth that Native Americans are the 13th tribe of Israel, most of the Hekawi Indians were portrayed by veteran Yiddish comedians favoring classic Yiddish shtick.

There was a running gag in the show where someone would be given directions. The directions usually included “Turn right when you see the rock shaped like a bear. Turn left when you see the bear shaped like a rock.”  Many viewers have thought that because “Old Charlie” the town drunk would usually be thrown through the saloon doors (or window), bounce off a support post, fall face forward over the hitching rail, spin around and land on his face or back in three episodes, he was actually a young stuntman in “old man” make-up. In reality, “Charlie” was ace stuntman Harvey Parry, who at that time was sixty-five-years-old and had been a stuntman for almost forty-five years.

The fort’s lookout, Trooper Vanderbilt, one whose eyesight is so impaired that he seems blind  (even with glasses (20/900 in each eye, according to Agarn) and answers questions from the lookout tower about what he sees with incongruous responses such as, “No, thank you Agarn. I just had my coffee”, also once allowed two Indians wearing feather head-dresses to enter the fort unchallenged. Asked why, he replied, “I thought they were turkeys.”  In another episode he mistakes a group of turkeys for attacking Indians.   In one episode he shoots his pistol in a crowded barracks—and manages to miss everyone. Of course the satiric humor of placing a sharp-eyed sentry for Fort Courage as a person who can barely see is sledge-hammer clear, but actor Joe Brooks gives such a bumbling, good-natured portrayal, that one is loathe not to join in on the fun. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

I first came across and became subsequently hooked on Perry Mason as an impressionable teenager in the late 60’s.  The syndicated show aired on the New York City-based WPIX-TV once a day including weekends, barely a year after a celebrated nine-year run on CBS when 271 one-hour episodes made their debut.  With a package that extensive the likelihood of watching the same show multiple times over a short period was low, though at the rate of once a day even a lower grade students could figure out the entire run could fit comfortable into one calendar year with a few months left over.  However, all of the episodes did not run until the mid-80s when TBS finally obtained the rights after the long period when 195 (through the first six seasons) comprised the available cache.  A typical episode begins by setting up the conflict in the life of Perry’s future client.  More often than not it was blackmail, marital disintegration, embezzlement, stalking or a threat of bodily harm, but the mise en scene was even more varied.  Mason was played by Raymond Burr, a gravely-voiced, burly and impassive actor whose demeanor was unrelentingly stern.  He was predisposed to exhale through his nostrils, and he was always seemingly way behind the eight ball until suddenly everything came together in marked Hercule Poirot fashion.  Mason solved an unending line-up of baffling mysteries on each show with the help from the private investigator Paul Drake (played by William Hopper) and his faithful secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale) to ultimately register victory after victory over hapless prosecutor Hamilton Burger (William Tallman).  To pull off his last-minute courtroom triumphs Mason often broke down witnesses on the stand or produced surprise witnesses that left the prosecution’s case in shambles.

What I never quite understood or questioned back in those days when acceptance was rarely challenged was that Mason not only exonerated his clients without an apparent exception but more often than not he tricked the actual murderer to confessing during cross-examination on the witness stand!  I never asked myself how or why every killer was present in the courtroom for virtually every case or how every supposedly air tight alibi was exploited and negated by a a super-human lawyer whose success ratio was as stellar as that of the Dynamic Duo, the Man of Steel, that inveterate pipe-smoker from Downing Street and the previously-alluded-to Belgian with the manicured mustache and the little grey cells.  Anyway, near the start nearly all clients would consult with Mason before anything vital had gone down, but then would quickly require the lawyer’s criminal defense expertise when someone ended up dead about twenty minutes in.  In most episodes crusty Police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg (Ray Collins of Citizen Kane notoriety) would arrest the client with some damning evidence and a laughable bravado that that in the end never stands up.  Inevitably Mason with the resourceful Drake and efficient Della piece together mitigating counter-evidence to trap and expose in grand fashion the real culprit.  One of the consistent pleasures of the show for viewers occasionally flummoxed by the unchanging formula is to observe the unsuspecting criminal stutter and stumble on the witness stand, the place where truth is always uncovered. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

American coming of age films became all the rage in the early 70’s.  Frank Perry’s sexually candid Last Summer appeared midway through 1969.  Peter Bogdonovich’s masterpiece The Last Picture Show, based on an acclaimed novel by Larry McMurtry took this sub-genre to new heights and Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 showcased a splendid convergence of mood, atmosphere and period flavor.  Both released in 1971, the same year as the now virtually forgotten Red Sky at Morning, directed by James Goldstone from a popular novel of the same name by Richard Bradford.  1972 saw the release of two other long-anticipated novel-to-film adaptations, A Separate Peace, based on the great novel by John Knowles, and Bless the Beasts and Children from the Glendon Swarthout novella.

Red Sky has inexplicably been ignored on video tape and DVD and is only available in practically unwatchable bootlegs and online via a print hardly better.  Yet as Allan would often note when coming upon rarities he long sought after: “It is all we have and we much make do.”  Indeed there was a time when home video was a fledgling format and our acquisitions on tape of film treasures like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Nosferatu in beat-up-prints were thought at the time to be of great collector’s value when consumers hadn’t a clue how continued improvements were just around the corner.  But now, with the advent of greatly enhanced DVDs and the pristine quality of blu-rays it is unusual to come across a 70s film so poorly transferred, but the you tube incarnation is fairly decent. The aforementioned Last Summer and another early 70s film by Frank Perry, Diary of a Mad Housewife have not fared better.

Goldstone’s film is set in New Mexico during World War II, where an Alabama teenager relocates with his mother after the naval officer father has departed for his service.  The boy must deal with the culture clash solo and this includes race relations, a Hispanic bully, a flirtatious tomboy, and even the destructive ways of his mother who doesn’t seem to value her reputation.  Richard Thomas, the lead who plays this “nervous nelly” teen in his signature fashion (his previous work in Last Summer is comparable), one some critics at the time likened to “G rated James Dean.”  Thomas, who of course achieved his greatest fame as John Boy in “The Waltons” tries hard to fit in with the pack, and his scenes with Catherine Burns are especially compelling.  To be sure Red Sky at Morning sometimes loses focus as it tries to bring together sometimes myriad sub-plots:   Throughout the course of the movie, Joshua not only cares for his troubled mother, manages the household help, and befriends an eccentric local artist, but is introduced to a host of issues — including troubled race-relations, sex, bullying, and more — at his new high school. For instance, the local twin tarts — colorfully named Venery Ann, and Velma Mae — aggressively pursue Joshua and his friend Steenie, much to the ire of their shotgun-toting father; meanwhile, Joshua is bullied by two stereotypical Chicano hoodlums, the latter of whom is unnaturally protective of his busty yet religiously pious and naive sister who goes on to meet an awful fate at the hands of psychopathic Aniov.   (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The characters on Green Acres are distinctly cartoonish.  Each was amplified, stretched, exaggerated and subject to slapstick punishment at any moment.  The element of surprise was sometimes delightfully original, though of course like all shows re-runs demanded a different sense of appreciation.    Green Acres showcased contractions like the Heney Egg-Layin’ Inducing Machine, bringing to mind the Wile E. Coyote Acme catalog.  The characters’ voices were as diverse as Mel Blanc’s repetoire, and the background scenery was tongue-in-cheek, a parody recalling Fred and Wilma Flinstone’s home in Bedrock.

The real charm in Green Acres for many were the supporting characters.  Some might opine it is the chemistry between Oliver and Lisa, on par with George and Gracie, albeit with a bit more sophisticated stupidity.  The townspeople were probably even more absurdly animated than Oliver and Lisa and were played straight.  As to the imaginative and colorful sets, the show was a breath of fresh air at a time when Dick Van Dyke and Gomez Addams were grey.  The pacing was also on par with cartoon speed, and coming as it did from the studio that produced Mister Ed.

The Green Acres years were 1965-1971 located at Stage 5 at general Service, where 170 half-hour episodes were put on film.  They were shot on 35mm film with a single camera, no videotape, no live audience, and because of Eva Gabor’s incidence it was a closed set much of the time.  Filing was also out of sequence.  The initial peak into the world of Oliver Wendell Douglas came by way of a narrated prologue, with host John Daly acting as newscaster, providing a formal introduction to the premise.  This was of course preceded by the opening sequence and theme song.  Cleveland Emory rightly called the series a hybrid of The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, two other shows with added laugh tracks.  Of course Green Acres was never made to be taken seriously.

 

more to come.

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by Sam Juliano

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

It would be difficult to fathom any baby boomer male identifying any television property seen with more regularity in the 60’s than the re-runs of The Adventures of Superman, which never left the air in those impressionable years, and for most was the superhero property that predated all the rest.  While arguably eclipsed in overall popularity by the mid-60’s camp classic Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward, there are many genre fans who preferred the way the crime dominated show played it straight and the never ending fascination for the lead actor George Reeve, whose controversial death at age 45 in 1959 has been the subject of continued theories and even a feature length film.  Even during Superman’s re-runs, many of us were as intrigued by the real life actor than we were by the two characters he so compellingly portrayed, one with the big S on his chest and the emblematic cape and the other a be-speckled, mild-mannered reporter, whose transformation was accomplished in minimalist terms that defied rational.  As kids we thought, heck if Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen never caught on why should we question the fantasy we wanted so much to believe.  And for the most ardent fans of the series, the first of the Reeves to play one of the most famous of all television and movie characters was the one remembered most fondly, the one who set the bar for all others, every bit as irreplaceable as Johnny Weissmuller, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in their most famous roles.

Still there were other players who help to forge the dramatic chemistry that made the series fly as high as its famed character when crisscrossing Metropolis to rescue those in peril.  As Clark Kent, Reeves was reserved to a fault, always absorbing taunts from gruff Daily Planet Editor Perry White, but always seemingly in the right place at the right time and able to wiggle out of every pickle, if often by seconds.  The smiling Kent seemed to derive plenty of satisfaction from knowing a secret nobody else does. Lois Lane had a crush on him, though her own character was played by two women who approached the role differently.  The spunky Phyllis Coates is no-nonsense and often tries her hand on beating back the bad guys.  She is basically humorless, but her replacement Noel Neill brought the missing ingredient with a great deal of warmth factored in.  As cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson’s naivete is campy and provides the show with some of its humorous elements. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

There are two ways to frame The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The first is to categorize it as an extension of sorts to the seven-season Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which it immediately followed.  the other is to count it as a standalone show with many distinct contrasts, including the obvious running time, temperament and general disavowal of the patented twist ending that was common with its celebrated predecessor.  It could be argued that the three season Hour had a more persuasive kinship with Boris Karloff’s Thriller, which ran in 1960-61, even if Gothic horror is only part of the Hitchcock equation in this sadly underrated and under aired television property.  In addition to dual categorization there is a similar disagreement among television fans about the quality of the final product.  Some prefer the taut, economical and more pointed Presents while others see the successor as the opportunity to expand material and develop stories more comprehensively.  While I do appreciate Presents greatly, and consider it one of anthology television’s finest entries, I am with those who find that at its very best Hour eclipses Presents, but there is as there would be with the daunting challenging of maintaining quality every week in a one-hour shows far more duds and shows that simply do not work.  To be sure the scripts are generally more complex, and the production values more elaborate and interesting, not to mention character development obviously a stronger thrust with extended duration.

Yet writers for the most part were partial to Presents.  Says Henry Slesar:  “There was always the possibility of doing what I call ‘gems.’  The half-hours were compact and full of sharp point-making, bringing the audience in at the middle, and then hitting them with the climax.  Very clean.  This got a little difficult to achieve in the hour shows, which  were more like features except that they weren’t, not really.  They were actually more like extended half-hours.  More was told about the same thing.  I think the show suffered because of it, and I think the Hitchcock people felt so too.”  Still there were some that disagreed.  Gilbert Seldes in TV Guide opined “When Alfred Hitchcock decided to extend his show to a full hour, he ended one of the best series in television history and brilliantly began another which is even better.  With more time at his disposal, Hitchcock adds a new dimension to his work.  You may call it depth and you may also say that to the mystery of action, of which he is a great master, he now adds to the mystery of human beings.” (more…)

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