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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
If 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!