Television

Adventures in Blu-ray: Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2

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Back in September of this year, I reviewed a new VCI/MVD Entertainment release in Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 1…and in that essay I mentioned that a second collection of Golden Age treasures would sally forth on October 9th.  In Lost Classics, Volume 2, the presentation spotlights four half-hour “pilots” for potential boob tube fodder—with two of the pilots admirably progressing beyond the audition stage.  The shows on Volume 2 have been culled from the voluminous collection of film archivist-historian-author-producer Jeff Joseph (through his SabuCat Productions); my Facebook compadre Thad Komorkowski also did much of the restoration work on this set.  (MVD’s own Clint Weiler moved heaven and earth to ensure that a screener copy made its way to Rancho Yesteryear for my perusal.)

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Louise Currie

The Case of the Sure Thing (1951) – Captain John Braddock (Reed Hadley), with the help of swindled victim Morgan Crowley (Milburn Stone), tells viewers a morality tale of how Crowley allowed himself to be suckered by a couple (Louise Currie, [friendly Rexall druggist] Griff Barnett) who run a con game on him that might sound familiar to those of you who’ve seen the 1973 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Sting.  Yes, Helen Miller (Louise) and “uncle” David Sutton (Griff) persuade Morgan into believing they get the skinny on winning horses before a betting parlor calls the actual race; dope that the future Gunsmoke doctor is, he drops 30 large on a filly…and loses his lab coat.  Fortunately for Morg, Captain Braddock is onto the couple’s racket (well, he’s with the racket squad and all) and he makes certain that Crowley doesn’t wind up in the poorhouse.

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Milburn Stone

The information on this show is that it was the pilot for Racket Squad, a crime drama that ran for three seasons on CBS (after originally debuting in syndication)—but the date at the beginning identifies it as having been telecast on June 7, 1951…and both Wikipedia and the (always reliable) IMDb identify “Sure Thing” as the final episode in the series.  (I used to settle these arguments at The Classic TV Archive…but they appear to be out of business at the present; I’ll take the Blu-ray’s word for it.)  Produced at the Hal Roach Studios, Racket Squad would run a total of 98 episodes and a few of them have found their way on public domain collections released by Alpha Video.  “Sure Thing” looks positively pristine here and even contains the original Philip Morris commercials.  (In case you’re hedging your bets, Mom watched this one with me and thought it great fun.  But she scooted off to bed after that.)

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Benay Venuta as “Bertha Cool” and Billy Pearson as “Donald Lam”

Cool and Lam (1958) – Writing as A.A. Fair, Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner enjoyed the equal success that he did with his Mason novels with the creation of a mismatched duo who ran a private detective firm in Los Angeles.  The “Cool” was Bertha Cool, an amply-proportioned elderly woman who opened her agency after the death of her husband; in the first book of the series (1939’s The Bigger They Come), she hires as an employee former lawyer Donald Lam, whose keen analytical brain compensated for his rather diminutive stature (he was little help when it came to a brawl).  The second Cool and Lam novel, Turn on the Heat (1940), was adapted by veteran comedy writer Edmund L. Hartmann (the author of many a Bob Hope vehicle and later creator of TV’s Family Affair) into this half-hour pilot produced by the same creative team (Paisano Productions) who got Perry Mason on the air in the first place.  (Mason’s Gardner even makes an appearance in this pilot to “sell” it to potential sponsors—amusingly from the set of Perry’s office.)

I think Cool and Lam certainly had series potential—Billy Pearson (Lam) and Benay Venuta (Cool) are convincing in the title roles—but the creators might have had trouble with the half-hour format; boiling down a novel to thirty minutes is always tricky, with so many characters introduced in that brief time frame I lost track who was who.  (The cast features familiar faces like Sheila Bromley, Don Megowan, the fifty-foot Allison Hayes, and Robert’s brother John Mitchum…plus Tris Coffin participates in a nice gag at the beginning as a former “Cool and Lam” client.)  The plot involves a doctor who hires our heroes to track down his missing wife (she’s been out of sight for about 20 years), and in thirty minutes the production just seems rushed.

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Legendary director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Night of the Demon) directed the Cool and Lam pilot.
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What a revoltin’ development this is! Lon Chaney as the star of The Life of Riley?

The Life of Riley (1948) – This was the one pilot in this collection that I was most looking forward to checking out.  Riley creator Irving Brecher would bring his blue-collar hero to the silver screen successfully in 1949…but he was then fortunate in that he could avail himself of the services of the actor who made the show such a huge radio hit: William Bendix.  However, Bendix was contractually forbidden to perform on that newfangled tee vee box, so Irv cast Lon Chaney, Jr. as Chester A. for this first pilot.  I bow to no one in my love for Creighton, but Lon, Jr. as Riley is just a train wreck—it does not work at all, since Lon practically makes him a manic depressive.  I was concerned while watching this pilot that Lon was going to snap and wind up offing his family (though he would be able to rely on Digby “Digger” O’Dell for help in the aftermath—Digger is played by John Brown, who originated the role on radio and is the sole asset in this audition).

In addition to Brown (who narrates a Pabst Beer commercial), the Riley pilot also features Rosemary DeCamp (as Peg) and Lanny Rees (Chester A. Riley, Jr.)—all three thespians would reprise these roles in the 1949 feature film (and on the 1949-50 TV series, which starred Jackie Gleason as Riley).  If you’re a fan of The Life of Riley, curiosity is going to compel you to seek this out; the half-hour—in which Riley suspects Junior swiped five dollars from the sugar bowl—was originally broadcast in radio form on January 28, 1945.

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Kurt Kasznar as Nero Wolfe

Nero Wolfe (1959) – The final pilot on Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2 was an attempt to bring Rex Stout’s famed literary sleuth to the small screen (Nero had been kicking around on radio since 1943)…and I have to admit, this one is a bit more convincing that the Cool and Lam pilot.  In “Count the Man Down” (written by Sidney Carroll), the corpulent sleuth (Kurt Kasznar) and his legman, Archie Goodwin (William Shatner), investigate the mysterious death of a scientist (Rene Paul) who snuffed it seconds after a missile launch.

Kasznar may not be as portly as I’ve imagined Nero Wolfe to be (my favorite TV Nero remains William Conrad for sentimental reasons), but he captures the finicky, mercurial nature of the character quite well.  (The only true debit is that Kurt’s Austrian accent is a major distraction.)  Shatner thankfully keeps his thespic excesses in check as Archie, even faithfully aping Goodwin’s eye for female pulchritude.  The suspect list includes Alexander Scourby, George Voskovec, and John McLiam…but I chortled out loud when I spotted Eileen Fulton in the small role of a receptionist on the receiving end of Goodwin’s once-over.  (Fulton is best-known for portraying Lisa Miller Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchell Grimaldi Chedwyn on the long-running CBS daytime sudser As the World Turns.)

blu-rayIf the four pilots on Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2 haven’t been entertaining enough (personally, I enjoyed the experience gigantically), there’s a fun little extra in the form of a CBS “blooper reel” with Gunsmoke’s James Arness introducing fluffs not only from his own series but goofs from Have Gun – Will Travel, Rawhide, and The Twilight Zone.  (There’s also a priceless bit from a Red Skelton-Jack Albertson sketch in which a cow decides to relieve itself while the skit is in progress.)  This is a must-own for classic TV fans!

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14 thoughts on “Adventures in Blu-ray: Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 2

  1. There are a few episodes of The Racket Squad out on youtube. I watched two but have a bit of a hard time understanding why it ran for three seasons. I didn’t find it very interesting compared to other 50s shows.

    The one restoration I’m desperately hoping and praying for is 77 Sunset Strip. I love this show so much. I can’t believe that a show like that is not out on DVD.

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    1. I love RACKET SQUAD in the same way I love those old “Crime Does Not Pay” shorts. Those morality plays are just ripe for mockery.

      I’m puzzled as to STRIP’s non-representation on DVD as well, though I suspect it might be because what a company exec once told my pal Cliff (from In the Balcony): “People won’t watch black-and-white unless John Wayne is in it.” 77 SUNSET STRIP has been making the rounds on MeTV (in the wee a.m. hours) and with the exception of the “Girl on the Run” pilot and two Yuletide episodes they’ve run them all — even the sixth season solo Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. eps.

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      1. Warner Archive has had STRIP on their subscription streaming site, but they put MONCHICHIS on DVD before it (!) They also shut the site down and merged with Filmstruck, which of course purged the TV content.

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      1. The MeTV episodes have been restored, yes (though they have edited them for extra commercials and the like). A friend of mine has said that if they take the time to restore the prints odds are a DVD release isn’t too far off on the horizon (the recent first season DVD release of THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, for example).

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      1. Margot, I couldn’t give you a honest answer because I don’t have the service. We could conceivably cut the cord in our household and just watch what I have available in the dusty TDOY archives…but we get our money’s worth because my father watches cable news 24-7-365.

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  2. I may have mentioned elsewhere that this was the one I really wanted to get – mainly for the long-thought-to-be-lost Nero Wolfe pilot.
    Lon Chaney as Riley was a bonus; that scrolled intro from Irving Brecher is a real piece of history. My understanding is that Lon lost the gig because of his proclivity for certain types of “liquid refreshments”, leading to the engagement of the then-just-getting-started Jackie Gleason for the part (little did they know …)

    Racket Squad is another long-standing fave of mine; the wild part is watching super-serious Reed Hadley warning us against falling for con games – and seconds later urging us all to enjoy the many pleasures of Philip Morris cigarettes (” … a product that deserves your patronage ,,,”) I’ll point out in passing that Reed Hadley was only about 60 when he died in 1971 – and looked about ten years older (but that was probably a coincidence …).

    Cool And Lam obviously should have been an hour show, comedy or not.
    CBS had a narrow view of such things, though, and so Billy Pearson (jockey turned art expert on the $64,000 shows) and Benay Venuta (“The road company Ethel Merman”) missed out on Stardom.

    As to Nero Wolfe, again at least an hour was needed; this may have been why Rex Stout personally spiked the series after seeing the pilot (and never authorized another series during his lifetime).
    Wolfe was supposed to be from Montenegro originally (that’s the southwest side of Yugoslavia), so Kasznar’s Viennese accent was not a problem for me.
    And of course, Shatner’s toupee of the time actually fit him …
    Ah well/oh hell …

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    1. Hadley turns up in the “Crime Does Not Pay” shorts from time to time, so it’s kind of a seamless scolding to holding forth on RACKET SQUAD. (I did chuckle at your cigarette comment…I suspect Reed’s early passing had something to do with his promotion of those coffin nails.)

      I either didn’t know (or likely forgot) the circumstances surrounding Nero’s place of birth but I think what distracted me re: Kasznar’s accent was all the hours I’ve listened to the radio version starring Sydney Greenstreet. I just hear Greenstreet whenever I’m reading one of Stout’s novels…which I probably shouldn’t, but there ya have it.

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  3. I think these DVDs sound like a blast! I remember Kurt Kasznar first from LAND OF THE GIANTS. Only later did I discover he was in the stage version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. It’d be fun to see him as Nero Wolfe.

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    1. You remember Kasznar like I do: as the Dr. Smith wannabe in GIANTS. I got a kick out of seeing him in movie musicals like KISS ME KATE and MY SISTER EILEEN later on.

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