Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Riverboat (1959)


Debut: September 13, 1959
Starring: Darren McGavin; Burt Reynolds
Synopsis: These are the voyages of the riverboat Enterprise. Captain Grey Holden and his pilot, Ben Frazier, guide the stern-wheeler along the Mississippi River in the 1840's.

Trey: Riverboat ran from 1959 to 1961 on NBC. Wikipedia dubs it a Western, and I suppose at times it engaged in Western themes and stock elements, but it's set within mostly settled areas of pre-Civil War along the major rivers of the Midwest. I became aware of Riverboat thanks to discussions with this blog's founder, Jim, and this post he wrote in 2014 suggesting it had an influence on Star Trek.

We watched episode 3 of the first season "About Roger Mowbray" from September 27, 1959. It was from a story by Star Trek alum Gene L. Coon! In it, a young man (Robert Vaughn) has his marriage and his father's wealth-seeking schemes endangered when a spurned ex-fiancée (Madlyn Rhue) claims that he married his new wife for money and threatens to reveal his deceptions!

Jason: Jim's idea of a strong influence feels right, having viewed two episodes, both with stories penned by Gene Coon. The other episode I watched (mislabeled by whoever posted it to YouTube as episode 3), also with a screenplay by Coon, had a pronounced ST vibe, or at least a strong Gene L. Coon voice.

A brief moment in this episode made me laugh out loud, when, while rushing to seek medical help for one of the passengers, the captain orders his crew to crank the Enterprise up to full speed. We then cut briefly to the engine room, where Dick Wessel as engineer Carney Kohler shrieks out to his frenzied crew to give the engines everything they've got!

Trey: The harried engineer. It's a staple. This episode was very much in the Wagon Train mode, where the story primarily revolves around the drama of passengers on the riverboat. Our stars, the captain and crew, only play incidental roles in that. I wonder if this was the standard for the series?

Jason: This pretty much holds true for that other episode I watched, though the personal involvement of the captain was a bit more central to the plot.   

Trey: Let's talk about that Captain! McGavin's Captain Holden is set up as a heroic man of principle in the episode, but throughout most of the episode he's sort of passive and refuses to head off developing trouble--though at times he takes actions that seem ill-advised and possibly make it worse! In many ways, he's more the catalyst here than the protagonist.

Jason: What kind of screwball would allow a spurned ex-lover to retain their recently brandished Derringer after (barely) talking them out of murder? How about letting an actual (attempted) murderer remain at large after displaying clear signs of derangement?

To get us acquainted, this episode presents a moment early on when, apropos of nothing, a mule breaks through a stable wall into the street as Holden strolls by. The mule's owner strikes the animal viciously while trying to rein it in. Holden, appalled at this cruelty, immediately unleashes a fusillade of knuckle sandwiches followed by an impassioned speech to the dazed and prone animal abuser. This man is a knee-jerk, two-fisted moral enforcer! He is not shy when triggered by abuse of any kind, is strongly anti-murder, and also seems to be a rather staunch supporter of the second amendment. 

Holden is a fun character made delightful by McGavin's performance, but is perhaps more quirky than the late fifties audiences were up for given the show's relatively short run and middling ratings. To my eye, McGavin brings a singular kind of light ironic detachment to many of his roles. Here as the captain, he sometimes seems poised to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly in his exasperation with the chicanery of his various passengers. 

Holden's super-power -- he seems to round the corner with uncanny timing, forever interrupting plot-centric conversations or coming across unsavory scenes that incite his previously mentioned moral outrage.

Trey: Yeah, he's got an almost supernatural ability to also turn up just at the end of the dramatic scene. Of course, the whole episode shows a bit of the soap opera trope of "I was happening by and just couldn't help but hear the last of that.." to seamlessly transition to another scene.

In the rest of the cast we have Robert Vaughn as the titular Mowbray who will of course go on to play Napoleon Solo in the Man from U.N.C.L.E. series and a haunted and hunted killer in both The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Battle Beyond the Stars. His jilted ex, Cassie, is played by Madlyn Rhue who also played Khan's love interest in the Star Trek episode "Space Seed." Mowbray's wife, the heiress Jeanette Mowbray, is played by Vera Miles who was also in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--as well as being Miss Kansas 1948.

Jason: Vaughn delivers an ace performance here, somehow remaining sympathetic despite highly questionable behavior. Likewise with Rhue, Cassie also behaves terribly, but remains redeemable due to her charisma and talent for melodrama. 

Then there's Burt Reynolds, who plays the helmsman of the Enterprise. He doesn't have much to do in this episode, but when does get a moment of screen time keeps 85% of his charm tied behind his back. Maybe he's better in other episodes, the other one I've seen was after his departure from the show.  

My verdict: I'm finding these decades-old tv shows fascinating from a cultural standpoint and Jim's Star Trek theory added another layer of interest I probably wouldn't have otherwise. That said, this was an entertaining show, a well acted, well crafted, and well written piece of melodrama. 

Trey: I agree. It was exactly what I expected, but works, and I can see why it appealed to Jim.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: M Squad (1957)

M Squad

Debut: September 20, 1957
Starring:  Lee Marvin, Paul Newlan
Synopsis: The hard-boiled adventures of Lieutenant Frank Ballinger, a member of the Chicago Police Department's M Squad, an elite crime-busting unit.

Trey: M Squad ran from September 1957 to June 1960 on NBC. It starred Lee Marvin (in his debut as a lead) as the tough-as-nails Frank Ballinger. In the 2nd and 3rd season, it had a theme music composed by Count Basie. 

We found several episodes on YouTube and watched episode 37 in season 2 from June 12, 1959. It's called "Decoy in White" and has M Squad investigating the murder the owner of a chemical company ties in to a mob money laundering scheme. Bellinger has to protect a young woman who was an unwitting accomplice to the lethal ambush and who grabbed a double sawbuck from the scene that could expose the whole criminal enterprise.

An interesting note, The show's main sponsor was Pall Mall cigarettes who Marvin did promotional spots for. 

Jason: The past is a foreign country! Back to that Bassie theme, it really sets the tone for this debauched noir-adjacent world of men's men, smooth swindlers, stone cold killers, and platinum blondes. Notably, a young John Williams also contributed jazzy musical cues to M Squad over the course of its run.

Trey: Interesting! I think Marvin is great in this episode. He's already got the screen presence he;s going to take into his tough guy movie roles. And that "menacing purr" (as I read one reviewer described it) of his line delivery.

Jason: I totally agree. That trademark presence is fully developed and deployed to excellent effect. His speedily delivered, information-packed voiceover narration is a vital element of the condensed storytelling, but still manly as hell. 

Trey: Admittedly, there isn't a lot to it here. The story seems a bit simple maybe to those of us weaned on hour long dramas. But you know, I'm sort of sorry this format didn't hang around. It gets to the point and doesn't skimp on the action!

Jason: The plot is king here - we've only got 25 minutes to cram in all the beats required to get us to the climactic (and spectacular) beat-down. There is no time for character development or delving into the various characters' lives. The cast must deliver lines almost entirely devoted to advancing the plot, injecting whatever personality they can manage with scant moments of screentime. It's a bit jarring, but I have to agree that it works!

Trey: The platinum blonde, Judy Bamber, plays the young woman, Kitty Osborne. IMDB describes her as a "lovely, buxom, and shapely blonde bombshell" which is perhaps a bit repetitive, but I can't fault its accuracy! I recall her from Corman's A Bucket of Blood (1959).

Jason: Her performance here is almost as hard-boiled as Marvin's. A moment that raised at least one of my eyebrows: when Kitty produces her birth certificate for Bellinger's examination, fearful that he will declare her unfit to conduct her own life and ship her back to her parents for much-needed supervision. Or something!

Trey: Good thing she kept it handy!

Jason: Though produced in the late 1950s, the shadow of WWII hangs over this hyper-masculine entertainment. Bellinger (and presumably many of the tough guys of a certain age he encounters) is a veteran of the War, specifically the South Pacific Theater, where he learned about karate, which (as presented) was still regarded as novel and exotic. Bellinger calls it "the most vicious form of hand-to-hand combat known to man." 

Trey: Maybe I should take my daughter out of those after school classes?

Jason: Or up the frequency?

Trey: Is it just me or are TV fight scenes just better with a jazzy soundtrack?

Jason: You are not alone! And what a fight scene! Revolvers are emptied, karate chops land with devastating effect, both combatants are staggered, and only old-fashioned, straight ahead American body blows can bring down a convincingly powerful foe like character actor Mike Mazurki. 

For me this show was entertaining on multiple levels. I am left with an urge to find more, especially episodes featuring some of the impressive list of guest stars like DeForest Kelly, Burt Reynolds, and Leonard Nimoy.

Trey: It's well worth a few more action-packed half hours!

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Raumpatrouille Orion (1966)

Raumpatrouille - Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion

Debut: September 17, 1966
Created by Rolf Honold, Hans Gottschalk a.k.a. W.G. Larsen
Starring:  Dietmar Schönherr, Eva Pflug, Wolfgang Völz, Claus Holm, Friedrich G. Beckhaus, Ursula Lillig, Charlotte Kerr, Franz Schafheitlin
Synopsis: Maverick Commander Cliff McLane and the crew of the space cruiser Orion patrol Earth's outposts and colonies in space, averting disasters and protecting them from danger.

Trey: Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion (lit. "Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Spaceship Orion"), also know as Raumpatrouille Orion, and Space Patrol Orion, was the first German science fiction television series. Its seven episodes were broadcast by ARD from September 19 to December 10, 1966. It's since developed a bit of cult following.

In it's unspecified future, Earth has been united under one government and flying saucer type cruisers patrol Earth colonial space. Orion is one of the fast of these ships. It's commanded by Cliff McLane who gets put on a punishment patrol duty and saddled with a hard-nosed security officer due to his tendency to buck his superiors. Nevertheless, McLane and his crew are depended on in times of crisis. 

We watched episode 5, "Der Kampf um die Sonne" ("The Battle for the Sun") where variations in the sun's energy output threaten the Earth's climate, so the Orion crew investigates and discovers a long forgotten, gynocritic colony is responsible. 

Jason: Still reeling from the sad mediocrity of Barbary Coast, I dutifully queued up episode 5 of Space Patrol Orion. My attention was immediately arrested by the urgent horns of the propulsive theme music. I enjoyed the jazzy musical cues throughout the episode, which supported and enhanced the somewhat pulpy tone. I say somewhat because it seems to straddle the often blurred lines between pulp SF and more serious Golden Age SF. Am I crazy, Trey?

Trey: I wouldn't say you are crazy. I think (and this is likely only the first of comparisons I will make to Star Trek) it is in some ways a "purer" descendant of Star Trek's influences (Voyage of the Space Beagle, Forbidden Planet) than Star Trek is.

Jason: Well yes, the show has been called The German Star Trek for its obvious similarities, but the distinctions are interesting. Where Star Trek is commonly noted for its optimistic take on the future of humanity, Orion's future society is decidedly darker: post-colonial only in that their colonies were beaten into submission after two disastrous "Space Wars," environmental catastrophe on Earth evidently couldn't be avoided, and the Space Patrol is controlled by a panel of trigger-happy generals inclined to listen when the Central Computer recommends an apocalyptic preemptive strike to prevent their unknown adversaries from doing the same thing: "Threats may make them push the button.. And we don't know what buttons they have."

Trey: While being very pulpy and naïve in science aspects (perhaps even more so that Trek!) and simplistic in its character drama (and again, its at least less compelling in this aspect than Trek), it has an hint of realistic politics to its setting that was beyond at least what Roddenberry wanted to see in Primetime American TV.

Jason: An issue with the plot, from that SF stand point you allude to, would indeed be the hand-wavey faux science driving the story along. It was (appropriately) glossed over speedily and without any long-winded jargon-filled explanations. Just swallow it and move on! Trek isn't without this flaw, either.

Trey: True enough, though it's a matter of degrees.

Jason: I found it's dialogue snappy and enjoyable throughout, even with the vagaries of subtitling and possible losses due to translation:

"Are you from Earth?"

"Where else?"

Trey: I would agree with the caveat that the delivery is perhaps not always compelling.

Jason: I don't know. The cast was also pretty great with solid performances all around, most notably to my mind was the portrayal of the matriarch (or at least one of the most important officials, it is a bit unclear) of Chroma by Margot Trooger, whose regal presence and gravitas make her totally believable as a planetary ruler. She gets plenty of juicy lines. 

Trey: She certainly deserves mention. In its specifics, hers is a role American TV of the period wouldn't have offered. Though I don't think that it avoids the cliches Star Trek or Lost in Space would have served heaping spoonfuls of entirely!

Jason: Yes, the scenes between McClane and She are a highlight, but they are marred by McClane's puzzling reaction to the matriarchal government of Chroma. He's got women bosses already that he seems to respect! The reaction was needed I guess as a stand-in for whatever outrage such a notion would have induced in West German audiences, but there is where it falls into typical genre TV tropes. I did like:

"You're a child of the Earth!"

" A child of bad parents must free herself to gain success."

Trey: That was a great riposte on her part!

Jason: Though made on a fraction of Star Trek's budget, I thought the costumes, sets, props, and special effects really worked for the era, aided by the black and white production. Effects were employed tastefully, for story telling purposes, and get the job done. 

Trey: The baggy uniforms on the Space Patrol don't work for me, but overall I think the design is pretty good, even the obvious budget constraints. So, your summation?

Jason: My verdict: My new favorite show! I will be watching all seven episodes. 

Trey: I'm perhaps not as big on it as you, but I think it's good. An American remake in the 70s with a higher budget could have been really great as long as they stuck to the same sort of worldbuilding.


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