Thursday, October 27, 2011

Boo! Boris in The Black Room (1935)

Boris Karloff
1887-1969

Boris Karloff lived his dream through commitment and hard work. The English born William Pratt was destined for government work if his family had had their way, but his heart belonged to the stage. Moving to Canada and working in many jobs including farm labourer, he eventually joined a Stock Company and found his place in the theatre. In films from 1919 first in bit parts and slowly working his way into larger character roles any early dreams of stardom were probably long gone by 1931 when he took on the role of the monster in James Whale’s production of Frankenstein. The combination of Jack Pierce’s make-up and Boris Karloff’s commitment to the character created a horror movie icon and assured the 44 year old actor a niche in movies and in the hearts of fans. The years ahead would feature many roles in, as he called them, “chillers” and lead to Broadway successes and television popularity.

Roy William Neill
1887-1946

Roy William Neill was romantically born on board a ship captained by his father off the coast of Ireland. Born the same year as Karloff, he entered film around the same time in 1916 as a busy and prolific actor, writer, producer and director. His directing credits include a mix of all genres including action, mystery, horror, comedy and westerns, directing Buck Jones in several silent features. I like him best in mystery mode with such movies as 1933s The Circus Queen Murder starring Adolphe Menjou, 1935s The Return of the Lone Wolf starring Melvyn Douglas, all but the first of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and his last and maybe best feature, the exemplary film-noir classic from Cornell Woolrich’s novel, Black Angel starring June Vincent and Dan Duryea. Roy Neill died of an unexpected heart attack while visiting England after completion of the Woolrich picture.

Holmes star Nigel Bruce, in his unpublished autobiography Games, Gossip and Greasepaint, said this of Neill:

"Roy was an Englishman by birth who had become an American citizen. He was a little man, very fussy about his clothes and like myself, he always smoked a pipe. He was an extremely kind and friendly person and all his assistants and the crews who worked for him were devoted to him. Roy was an extremely able director, having a great knowledge of film technique and of the use of his camera. During the many pictures we made under his direction we found him a joy to work for. Basil and I nicknamed him 'mousey' during our first picture and the name stuck to him from then on. We both became extremely attached to Roy Neill.”

I can’t help but think from that description that 1935s The Black Room directed by Roy William Neill and starring Boris Karloff was as felicitous a teaming between director and star as it was of star and co-star. You see, in The Black Room Karloff plays twins. It’s a movie trick that seems to fascinate both actors and audiences. Why settle for one Bette Davis when you can have two (A Stolen Life, Dead Ringer) or two of Olivia deHavilland (The Dark Mirror) or two of Hayley Mills (The Parent Trap) or two of Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers), etc.?

Let’s have a somewhat spoilerish look at The Black Room.

Baron Frederick de Berghman (Henry Kolker) refuses to celebrate the birth of his twin sons because, as he explains to his young friend Lt. Hassel (Colin Tapley), it means the end of the family. There is a curse of the family of de Berghman that they will end the way they began, with the younger of twin brothers murdering the older in the black room. The young lieutenant cannot believe in such nonsense, but sensing his friend’s sincerity suggests that the solution lies in sealing up the cursed black room, which is done immediately.

Time passes and forty years later the younger brother Anton has been gone from home for many years, driven away by the curse, although being born with a withered right arm may preclude his bringing any harm to his brother. Anton has been a student, a traveler and has grown into a thoughtful and kind man. The Baron Gregor de Berghman has remained in charge of the family estate with the assistance of family friend the now Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall). Colonel Hassel has become adept at hiding his fear and loathing of Gregor. Gregor is the sort of man who engenders fear and loathing. The local peasantry are of two minds about the Baron, some say he is a tyrant, others that he is a fiend. It is known that women who have ventured to the castle have never been heard of again.

Gregor has called his brother Anton back to the family estate asking for help with affairs which have become too difficult to handle. The obliging Anton returns to find the peasants on the brink of revolt, his brother a volatile sort, and Colonel Hassel’s niece Thea (Marian Marsh) a lovely and charming young woman. Thea is in love with Lt. Albert Lussan (Robert Allen) and frightened by the attentions of the Baron. Gypsy girl Mashka (Katherine DeMille) isn’t frightened by the Baron, but she should be.

Anton’s return is part of Gregor’s scheme to quell the rebellion and gain lovely Thea as his wife. It is a cunning plan involving murder, deception and the black room. Gregor will murder Anton and take his place subduing the angered peasants. He will worm his way into Thea’s good graces through her uncle. Gregor will have everything he wants. Gregor is not afraid of the curse of the de Berghmans.

The Black Room is a “little” movie with an epic feel. Boris Karloff is a joy to watch as both the adorable Anton and the grim Gregor. The atmosphere of dread and gloom is palpable and the pace is brisk. Recurring visuals that highlight the story are the use of mirrors that can't help but reveal truths, and graveyards and iconic religious statues that reinforce the spiritual nature of the curse and the belief.

In Karloff's Baron Gregor de Berghman we have a villain of the highest order and his comeuppance is as delicious as a splash of Irish in a cup of coffee to dispel a dark, dank October evening. Happy Hallowe’en!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rex Stout Causes Unrest in Marriage

The brownstone on West 35th Street, New York City wherein resides the over-sized genius who may or may not be the illegitimate offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler is as well known to mystery fans as Middle Earth is to Lord of the Rings devotees.

Nothing fills the mystery bookworm with such anticipation and dread as when a favourite detective makes that leap from the page to the screen. Sometimes perfection is achieved. Joan Hickson was born to embody Jane Marple. Sometimes the artistic license taken may leave you shaking your head, but the casting is heaven sent, as in the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce pairing in the Universal Sherlock Holmes movie series.

Nero Wolfe should have been a lock for film. Rex Stout's detecting team of Wolfe and legman Archie Goodwin combine that unfathomable genius we appreciate with the witty observations we like to think we would make, plus joyous helpings of action, labyrinth plotting and quirky characters.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) wrote his first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance in 1934 and his last, A Family Affair was published in 1975. It was that last novel that was my introduction as a teenager to the series. I read an obituary of Stout in the Sunday paper and straightway bought the book. Fans will realize this greatly coloured a lot of my later reading. Thankfully, there was a lot of reading to catch up on in the Nero Wolfe canon of novels, novellas and short stories.

Lionel Stander, Edward Arnold

Hollywood first came calling in 1936 with Meet Nero Wolfe starring Edward Arnold as Wolfe and Lionel Stander as Archie. I have yet to see the picture, but knowing Edward Arnold's work I do applaud that aspect of the casting. Lionel Stander as Archie. H'm, let me see. No! A wiseacre from way back was Bronx born Stander, but I just can't see him as Ohio born Goodwin. Did the producers miss the part about Archie's fatal attraction for the ladies?

Another Wolfe picture followed in 1937 based on The League of Frightened Men. Walter Connolly was cast as Wolfe (I can't call him Nero. Can you?) and, again, Connolly is a fine actor. Did he and the writers know what to do with the character? Again, Lionel Stander was Archie. Yeah. Sure. Lily Rowan would invite him for a weekend with her tony friends.

Radio might be just the thing! We can imagine the brownstone and environs in our minds eye and if the voice is right, and the scripts are up to snuff then radio might be just the thing.

The Adventures of Nero Wolfe, in 30 minute episodes, ran in the 1943-44 season and went through three leading actors. The first was British born J.B. Williams, followed by Santos Ortega with John Gibson as Archie. Mexican born Luis Van Rooten was the last actor to play the role on this program. A note here from a gal who misses her "stories". John Gibson appeared on The Guiding Light in the 50s, in some way connected with the Reverend Fletcher. Santos Ortega I remember well as Pa Hughes on As the World Turns in the 60s. Luis Van Rooten was also on As the World Turns at that time playing the dad of the legendary Lisa (Eileen Fulton).

The Amazing Nero Wolfe ran in the 1946 season and starred old Messala himself, Francis X. Bushman.

The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe in the 1950-51 season scored the casting coup of Sydney Greenstreet (the fat man!) as Wolfe. Can't you just hear him? Well, you can on OTR on the web. The program went through a succession of Archies including future directors Lawrence Dobkin and Lamont Johnson, Harry Bartell, Wally Maher and Gerald Mohr. Inspector Cramer on this program was played by William Johnstone who was dignified Judge Lowell on As the World Turns. I think Greenstreet and Mohr had great possibilities as a screen team. Ah, what could have been.

Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, Don Galloway, Raymond Burr

The television series Ironside ran from 1967-1975. The wheel-chair bound Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside was smarter than your average cop and inclined toward the gruff side upon occasion. I've always felt that The Chief and Sgt. Ed Brown had a quasi Wolfe-Goodwin relationship. For many years it was Don Galloway I would picture as Archie when reading the stories. Also, Johnny Seven who had the recurring role of Lt. Reese on the series would have made a fine Cramer.

Tom Mason, Thayer David

Frank Gilroy wrote and directed the 1979 TV movie Nero Wolfe starring Thayer David and Tom Mason. I only saw this the time it aired, but it looms large in my memory as quite the movie. Thayer David seemed to perfectly embody the irritating genius that is Wolfe and Tom Mason grew on me as Archie. The movie may have been a pilot, but sadly Thayer David passed from cancer after giving us this performance. The movie was nominated for an Edgar Award in the category of Best TV Feature or Miniseries. The winner was Levinson and Link's Murder by Natural Causes and the other nominee was Paul Monash's adaption of Salem's Lot.

Lee Horsley, William Conrad

Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts produced the 1981 series Nero Wolfe which ran for only half a season. I'm crazy about Conrad, but he really was just a grumpier Cannon waiting for Jake. Lee Horsley I prefer on the plain, as in Paradise, although he grew into a credible crime fighter in the short-lived Bodies of Evidence. What really worked for me in this series was the supporting cast. George Wyner was born to play Saul Panzer. George Voskovic as Fritz, Robert Coote as Theodore Horstmann and especially Alan Miller seething with irritation as Inspector Cramer were worth the price of admission.

Timothy Hutton, Maury Chaykin

Return with me to a decade ago when A&E was a regular channel surfing stop. You could count on an interesting Biography or an innovative original series such as A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Paul Monash scripted the 2000 pilot movie based on The Golden Spiders (see above Edgar Award mention). Hopes were high and hopes were met. The series became a personal project for actor Hutton who was one of the executive producers when the program began its unfortunately limited run on the network. Each episode was adapted from one of Stout's stories with scripts by William Rabkin and Lee Goldberg (Diagnosis Murder, Psych, etc.) and Sharon Elizabeth Doyle.

A repertory company of talented actors appeared in the episodes as different characters (Kari Matchett, Christine Brubaker, Francie Swift, Debra Monk, Julian Richings, Robert Bockstael, etc). Core characters were impeccably cast with Bill Smitrovich the cigar chomping Cramer, Colin Fox as a fussy Fritz coping with the world's most demanding gourmand. The busy Saul Rubinek showed up occasionally as Lon Cohen. He had played Saul Panzer in The Golden Spiders.

Attention to set and costumes was beyond reproach. Just as Stout's stories had his characters static in age while time swirled around them, the series was the same with Archie making quips about Nazis in one episode, and mini-skirts in another.

At the heart was, of course, the relationship between Archie and Wolfe. Timothy Hutton was just right as Goodwin. Sometimes I felt Maury Chaykin gave me too much of the petulance and not enough of the genius, but perhaps that was only because he hadn't lived with Wolfe as long as I had. Overall, I enjoyed his work and looked forward to seeing more of it. Unfortunately, A&E pulled the plug after only 27 episodes of A Nero Wolfe Mystery citing production expenses. If you want something done right, you are going to have to pay for it. We were taken to paradise, in this case West 35th Street, and turned away.


You are probably thinking to yourself that this is all well and good, Caftan Woman, but what has this got to do with Rex Stout causing unrest in your marriage? It's not what you may think. Garry has known about my thing for Archie since day one and he's cool with it. Last weekend my Honey Bunny was heading out the library and it being a blustery day here in Toronto and me being a soft-hearted sap, I pointed out that we had a multitude of books around the house and suggested perhaps a Nero Wolfe would fit the bill. His response: "No. I've read them all. They'll only make me hungry and, Sweetie, you're no Fritz Brenner." Nice to know what he really thinks of me!



Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Oh, happy day!



Link
Above is a party with Bing and Jane Wyman. Why a party? We are celebrating the most deserving winners of this year's CiMBA Awards.

I have had the privilege this year of voting in Canada's Federal election, Ontario's Provincial election and Toronto's municipal election (and the privilege of 3 election campaigns!). I must say that no voting experience has given me as much pleasure as the CiMBA's. Congratulations one and all!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Reginald Marsh's "Red Buttons", 1936

Today's post is something a little different. In a rash act, Caftan Woman signed up for Patti Abbott's flash fiction challenge to write a story of under 1000 words based on any painting by Reginald Marsh. Patti will donate $5.00 for every story submitted to Union Settlement, a social service agency in East Harlem serving 16,000 people, with a minimum contribution of $100. Check out Pattinase.


“Loretta. I really should be a Loretta. Like the actress with the big eyes. It’s a name with allure. Not like plain old Jean.”

“Very nice. How would your grandma Jean feel about you changing your name?”

“Easy. I’ll change her to Loretta too. After all, she’s been living with Jean a lot longer than me. She must be even sicker of it. I’ll get her dolled up in a dress just like mine with snazzy red buttons and won’t we be a sight?”

“You certainly will.”

“Gee, Mary, aren’t you a chatterbox today. It’s Saturday afternoon, we look fabulous, and you act like you’re going to the chair.”

“Oh, don’t mind me.”

“Oh, I don’t. I think you’ve been working too hard, that’s what. Old man Simpson is a slave driver and I’ll tell him so one of these days. He’s even wrecking our day off. Wally should have been here by now. Bill too.”

“Bill?”

“Yes. Now don’t get mad. You said you didn’t want to come out because you felt like a third wheel so I told Wally to get Bill Hammond to come along.”

“I wish you and Wally wouldn’t discuss my personal life. And why Bill Hammond of all people?”

“What’s all this about personal life? We’re best friends, aren’t we? Besides, Bill Hammond is crazy about you.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, really. I don’t know why you can’t see it. I can. I suppose it’s because I’m a woman in love. Gee, if I was working in Accounting with all those guys I’d have dozens of dates. Before Wally of course. The first time I laid eyes on that smile of his I knew he was the one for me. I wonder what’s holding the guys up anyway.”

“Probably something to do with setting up the new branch.”

“Gee, they’ve got all week to do that. It’s Saturday afternoon! Oh, Suzette!”

“Suzette?”

“Now that’s a name with real allure, French allure.

“Sure. For a French Poodle.”

“Oh, you. Everything is more alluring in French. Someday I’m going to go to Paris, and if I ever have a daughter I’ll call her Suzette.”

“Okay. You put an “ette” on anything and suddenly it’s French. You could put an “ette” on Jean, you know.”

“Jeanette! Like the singer. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sing like that? Hey, you can be Mariette. Jeanette and Mariette out on the town.”

“Eating baguettes.”

“Ha ha ha – oh, I’m sorry, Mary.”

“What for?”

“I did that snort thing that happens when I laugh.”

“Yeah. You’ve done that since you were a kid.”

“Well, last week Wally and I were listening to Jack Benny and well, my snort thing really got on his nerves. Honestly, he’s been cranky as a bear lately. Have you noticed anything at work?”

“No. Why should I?”

“I tell you that old man Simpson is a slave driver.”

“Actually, Mr. Simpson is really nice.”

“Mary, really? Old man Simpson!”

“Now listen. This is important. Big news.

"Okay. I'm listening. What's the big news?"

"I’m taking a promotion.”

“Mary, that’s swell! Gonna be in the money, huh? Care to lend me a tenner?”

“Listen, I’m going to be the office manager at the new branch in Buffalo.”

“You’re moving?!”

“If a gals’ going to work, she might as well look for advancement.”

“You wouldn’t have to work if you gave Bill Hammond a tumble.”

“Oh, will you get off Bill Hammond! I want more. I want the challenge, the adventure.”

“Mary, most people leave Buffalo and come to New York for adventure. Aren’t you going about this a little backward? . I can’t believe you’re really going to move. I won’t believe it. Can’t old man – Mr. Simpson give you a promotion right here?”

“But, Jean, I want to go. I really do.”

“You want to go? Well, I don’t get this at all. Wally will have a thing or two to say about this.”

“Wally will have nothing to say about it! Look, Jean, it’s my life and it’s none of Wally’s business, or yours for that matter!”

“Mary, what’s gotten into you? I’m the best friend you’ve got. I have every right to…”

“Oh, forget it.”

“Mary? Honestly! Oh, Mary. Mary, you’re not…not you and…”

“Hey, there are my patiently waiting girls. Sorry about this and I have to get back, but here’s $5 for the afternoon and Bill and I will – hey, what goes on here?”

“Secrets.”

“Secrets? What kind of secrets?”

“Big secrets. Mary secrets.”

“Mary secrets?”

“Yes. Did you know that our Mary is really America’s greatest career gal? It’s true. She’s going to run the whole shooting match in Buffalo. She’ll probably be running the whole company before we know it. Imagine that. You think you know a person. Isn’t that a kick in the pants? And Wally, no one is going to talk her out of it.”

Friday, October 14, 2011

Favourite movies: Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Charles Laughton as Marmaduke Ruggles
You can call him "Bill" or "the Colonel" if you like.

Some novels are meant to be seen as well as read. Harry Leon Wilson was successful in that way. His novel His Majesty, Bunker Bean was a Broadway play that was filmed three times in 1918, 1925 and 1936. Merton of the Movies also made it to Broadway via George Kaufman and Marc Connelly, and to the movies in 1924, 1932 (as Make Me a Star with Joe E. Brown) and in 1947 starring Red Skelton. Wilson’s most popular success Ruggles of Red Gap came to life on Broadway with music by Sigmund Romberg and was filmed in 1918 starring Taylor Holmes (Nightmare Alley, Quicksand, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College), father of Phillips Holmes (An American Tragedy, Broken Lullaby, The Criminal Code). Edward Everett Horton had the title role in a 1923 version of the story. Fond though I am of silent movies, and I’m more than fond, it does seem a shame to see and not hear Edward Everett Horton. In 1950 the story was given the Technicolor slapstick treatment in Fancy Pants with Bob Hope playing an actor who played a butler. A television production in the 1950s gave Michael Redgrave a chance at the role of Ruggles.

In 1935 frequent movie goers might have reached the conclusion that Charles Laughton was the greatest and most versatile actor in Hollywood. He could be seen in Les Miserables as the obsessive and tragic Javert. He was Oscar nominated for iconic and still imitated turn as Captain William Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Perhaps the most likeable and sweetest role he ever played was Marmaduke Ruggles in Leo McCarey’s version of Ruggles of Red Gap.


Charles Laughton, Roland Young

Ruggles is a third generation valet loyally serving the family of the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young). It comes as quite a shock to Ruggles to learn one morning that his profligate employer has lost Ruggles in a card game to the Flouds of Red Gap played to perfection by Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland. Effie and Egbert are the sort of nouveau riche couple of whom Noel Coward would write “Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel and the right people stay at home?”

James Burke, Charles Laughton, Charles Ruggles

Egbert is as extreme in his lack of pretension as his wife Effie is in her desire to conquer society. Ruggles is not only aghast at the thought of traveling to an uncivilized part of the world; he is at a loss with how to deal with his employers. Egbert insists on referring to Ruggles as “Colonel” or “Bill”, and actually encourages him to sit at the same table and quaff a few. Following the dictates of duty, Ruggles joins in the merriment with “Sir” and thus begins the breakdown of all moral order.

Charles Laughton, Mary Boland

“Madame” at least understands the differences in their stations, but “Sir” doesn’t have a clue.

A word here about "Madame" and the Travis Banton designed the costumes for the movie. Effie is a vision, always done to the nines and close to over-the-top. The way Mary Boland can kick that train out of the way and pace the room in agitation is truly awe-inspiring.

Charles Laughton, Mary Boland, Charles Ruggles
The silent reactions in this scene are very funny.

Ruggles of Red Gap is filled with what I think of as the eloquent silences of Leo McCarey. Like many directors of the era, McCarey’s career began in silent cinema. His comedic instincts were honed at the playground known as Roach Studios where he worked as a writer and director with comic greats such as Laurel and Hardy (Big Business, Hog Wild, Perfect Day, Brats, etc.). In 1937 when filming The Awful Truth his improvisational style first intimated then inspired leading players Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. McCarey’s Oscar winning Going My Way is a nice example of a leisurely paced film that almost belies his sure hand. Much screen comedy is pushed at us, and pushed successfully. McCarey pulls the audience along like a packet boat on the Erie Canal. We will get where are supposed to, to the payoff – the laugh, and we enjoy it more for the trip taken.

When we reach Red Gap we are introduced to Ruggles’ new extended family. The money belongs to Effie’s mother, Ma Pettingill played with gusto by Maude Eburne. She has no problem spending her riches to delight her kin, although she is more like her son-in-law Egbert in that she doesn’t worship the green stuff. Her other son-in-law is a rat named Charles Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield). He came west from Boston when he heard of the windfall and married into the family. He is, unfortunately, Effie’s tutor in all that means high society.

Zasu Pitts, Charles Laughton

Effie has high hopes of impressing all and sundry with her genuine English valet. The first step is for Egbert to inform the local press so that the jealousy among her set may begin. Back from what he felt were the confines of Europe, Egbert reverts to his comfortable attire and heads to Nell Kenner’s place. Nell (Leila Hyams) runs an open house with free flowing beer and is frequented by the crowd that would not be impressed by a genuine English valet. Egbert introduces Ruggles as “the Colonel” and the local press embellishes that title with imagined feats in exotic climes in the service of His Majesty. Ruggles even stops his protestations at the misunderstanding when he meets fetching widow Mrs. Judson (Zasu Pitts), who helps Nell out from time to time. First beer, then carousing, now romance for Ruggles?!

Lucien Littlefield, Maude Eburne, Charles Laughton, Mary Boland, Leota Lorraine

The muckety-mucks are all agog and anxious to meet Effie’s distinguished visitor. Effie is mortified. Belknap-Jackson is outraged. Ma Pettingill and Egbert think the whole mix-up is a hoot. Ruggles, for the first time in his life, is a somebody.

Charles Laughton

Belknap-Jackson pulls some dirty work to get Ruggles out of town and out of the way. Above note the look of joy and relief on Laughton's face when Ruggles discovers that those he believed were truly his friends were not behind his dismissal. Sharing lunch in the saloon with Egbert and Ma leads to a justly lauded scene where Laughton/Ruggles movingly recites President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Ruggles is no longer a third generation servant. Ruggles may not know exactly who he is, but he is a man. A man at the crossroads. The Earl of Burnstead has found life pretty tough on a fellow who has to pick out his own clothes and will soon be arriving to set the universe aright by bringing Ruggles back to the fold. The Earl’s visit will also place Effie and the Belknap-Jacksons back at the top of the social ladder, where they belong.

Tradition and duty is thoroughly ingrained in Ruggles' character. What will become of Ruggles and his dreams? What would you do if you were he? What does Mrs. Judson think of her beloved's secret life? What do you want to happen for Ruggles? What about poor Effie? If you can watch the perfect ending to this charming movie without both smiling and shedding a little tear, you are made of sterner stuff than this writer.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Celebration

Happy CMBA Members

Casual readers of this portion of the blogosphere know that by clicking on the Classic Movie Blog Association icon to the right that they are in for a world of fun, interesting and informative reading on the only subject that really matters. These days the link will lead you to the nominees for this year's CiMBA Awards. Awards are an important part of any organization to promote and encourage excellence. 2011 will be a particularly memorable year for me as it is the year I became a member of the CMBA and, I am chuffed to say, a nominee in two categories. "Chuffed" hardly covers it. I'm busting my buttons and you can lay odds that the news will be in this year's Christmas newsletter!

In a couple of days I will attend to the harrowing part of this process - the voting. Nominee time was tough enough. My scratch pad is full of so many arrows, circles and x's that it looks like a treasure map. For now, my leisure time is filled with reading and appreciating a year of quality and creativity.

One question: Are there loot bags?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon - Two from the Heart

Light the candles and let the streamers fly. Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the host for a blogathon party celebrating 50 years of The Dick Van Dyke Show aka “Rob” as in “Are we watching Rob?”, “Is Rob on?” “Which Rob is it today?”

When a series is full of so many highlights as The Dick Van Dyke Show, how do you choose one episode to write about? Well, I didn’t choose one, I chose two - two episodes written by series creator Carl Reiner. Two episodes that say a lot about the respect and affection Mr. Reiner has for his profession, its history and performers, and also for comedy fans.



The Return of Happy Spangler (Season 1, episode 30)
Directed by John Rich

Morey Amsterdam, Dick Van Dyke, Jay C. Flippen, Richard Deacon

The friendly, wise-cracking tie salesman Laura ran into while shopping just happens to be Happy Spangler, the radio show writer who gave Rob his start in the business and who pushed him toward his eventual success. “Hap” left the business 15 years ago due to personal problems and Rob, feeling a debt of gratitude, hires his old boss for The Alan Brady Show. Pleased with the opportunity, but afraid of failure, Hap spends the business hours reminiscing about the good old days. We also get a funny routine on his first day on the job from Rob who impersonates Alan Brady’s reaction to a script. After all, if there is one thing at which writers excel, it is at not writing. Eventually, Rob is placed in the position of having to let Hap go. His old mentor is more than understanding while admitting that “like an old ball player, he doesn’t want to play every day, but would like to know he can still hit one out of the park”. Putting on his boss hat, Rob picks Hap’s brain and together they come up with a sketch for a four minute script hole. It is the classic Lecturer on Comedy explaining why slapstick doesn’t work, all the while paralyzing us with slapstick gag after gag.

Guest star character actor Jay C. Flippen (1899-1971) as Happy Spangler not only had the friendly face and persona of how you would imagine an admired mentor, he had a background in Vaudeville as a monologist, musician and master of ceremonies. His years of experience gave weight to the role. A familiar face from movies such as Winchester ’73, A Woman’s Secret, Down to the Sea in Ships, Bend of the River, he usually played gruff, but friendly fellows. Of course, if your first experience with Mr. Flippen was They Live by Night or It’s Always Fair Weather, you can be forgiven for not thinking he’s the greatest guy ever. Later in the decade, Mr. Flippen lost a leg due to a diabetes related amputation. It didn’t put an end to his career as he appeared in movies with old friends John Wayne in Hellfighters and James Stewart in Firecreek. We hear a lot about the cutthroat side of show business, but friendships are still important as evidenced by Flippen’s career and Carl Reiner’s script for The Return of Happy Spangler.


The Return of Edwin Carp (Season 3, Episode 27)
Directed by Howard Morris

Bert Gordon, Richard Deacon, Arlene Harris, Mary Tyler Moore
Dick Van Dyke, Richard Haydn, Rose Marie

Alan Brady is on vacation, but does his writing staff take a well-deserved rest? No, Rob has committed them to a replacement hour of television and they are stumped until inspiration strikes.

Rob: What’s the one thing that's never been done on television?

Buddy: You can’t do that on television.

Rob: No. Radio!

That’s right, it is the middle of the 1960s and Rob wants to revive old time radio. He’s sure audiences would love to see favourite old stars and a younger audience would appreciate it as well. Buddy, Sally and even Laura aren’t as convinced, but what else do they have?

The line up starts to come together with Arlene Harris (1896-1976). The Canadian born comedic actress and her Chatterbox character were very popular on Al Pierce’s program where she appeared with Morey Amsterdam. Bert Gordon (1895-1974) aka The Mad Russian who performed with Eddie Cantor is eager for the television gig. No, he’s not a wrestler, he’s a dialect comic with priceless delivery.

The crowning jewel in Rob’s mind will be to get Edwin Carp, the fish expert and deadpan philosopher. Carp was a character created by the great Richard Haydn (1905-1985) in the 1930s. It was a character with legs. In 1954 he wrote The Journal of Edwin Carp, illustrated by Ronald Searle, and in this 1964 episode Carp won fans all over again. Haydn, of course, is the nasally character star of memorable roles in Alice in Wonderland, And Then There Were None, Ball of Fire and The Sound of Music. In our story, Haydn portrays Carp with a domineering mother and a drinking problem. You see, he gave up the show business because of stage fright. He can’t perform publicly unless he is smashed on elderberry wine. Edwin Carp is a naughty wino! Some tough love from Rob puts things to rights and all three guest stars have their moment to shine in a winningly funny episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

In these days of fragmented entertainment options and declining quality on network television, we are lucky to find ourselves in the position of being our own programmers. How it might surprise the pioneers of radio to know that in the 21st century, people are turning to old time radio through the internet to enjoy their leisure time. Also, in 2000 animator Richard Balzy (The Iron Giant, Pocahontas) produced and directed a short film based on material from The Journal of Edwin Carp with Hugh Laurie voicing our intrepid hero.

An appreciation for quality never goes out of style, and that is why we celebrate 50 years of The Dick Van Dyke Show with the happy thought that it will always be a part of our lives.