It is cold outside. Or better: it’s freezing. And I don’t like to be cold, nor do I like anything to be cold. Least of all the weather when I have to get up in the morning and go to work. Give me cold, crispy air on a prolonged weekend I can spend in bed. Now that’s my kind of cold. That I can live with. Especially when I can wrap myself in a cozy blanket, have food in bed, enjoy a pot of hot tea and have a pile of films or a new TV show to binge-watch. Of course, I have some favorites but new gems always find a way on my shelves in mysterious ways. So here it is, my list of recommendations for anyone who, like yours truly, is in touch with her inner bear and craves to hibernate in a comfy cave. Don’t give freezer burn a chance and enjoy a good flick instead!
We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.
1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.
2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.
TV classics: aka If You had a Million
USA 1955-60, six seasons, 206 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Produced by Don Fedderson, Fred Henry. Cast: Marvin Miller, Paul Frees. Guest stars: Phyllis Avery, Carl Betz, Whitney Blake, Angie Dickinson, Barbara Eden, Beverly Garland, Ray Gordon, Barbara Hale, DeForest Kelly, Del Moore, Mary Tyler Moore, Agnes Moorehead, Maudie Prickett, Gloria Talbott, Robert Vaughn, Betty White, Bill Williams, Dick York and many others.
Plot summary: Millionaires are happy people or are they?
Review: In 1955, anthology programs were as popular on TV as procedurals are today. While most of them featured a different genre on a weekly basis, The Millionaire had a steady concept. John Beresford Tipton, Jr., a man as wealthy as he was generous, made out a check to complete strangers and asked his secretary to deliver them. He gave away one million dollars without any strings attached. Surprised by their sudden fortune, the recipients signed a legal contract to guarantee the anonymity of their unknown sponsor and were then abandoned to their fate. A blessing for some, a curse for others, Tipton’s gift always deeply affected the lives of people who had never dreamed of ever owning so much money.
Popular enough to be parodied on The Jack Benny Program and by Mad Magazine, The Millionaire attracted many guest stars who contributed to the show’s appeal. Although based on a simple idea, the program turned a similar situation into a new story every week and thus kept the original concept interesting for six seasons. Blessed with good scripts and the talents of Marvin Miller as Tipton’s bearer of glad tidings, the show created dramatic, funny and generally entertaining moments with actors such as Dick York, Betty White, Barbara Hale and Bill Williams. Successful for five years on CBS, the show was frequently rerun from 1960 to 1980 and temporarily revived on TV Land in the late 1990s. It is a pity that, today, the program has not yet been made available on DVD. It is a real gem for anyone who loves the Golden Age of television and a cordial invitation to dream of opening the door to Marvin Miller as Michael Anthony.
TV classics: aka The Legend of Custer
USA 1967, one season, 17 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, ABC, color. Cast: Wayne Maunder, Slim Pickens, Michael Dante, Robert F. Simon, Peter Palmer.
Plot summary: After the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel Custer takes command of the 7th Cavalry, a group of misfits, criminals and ex-Confederates at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Review: In the late 1960s, one of America’s most popular genres slowly began saying farewell to television in its traditional form. Often considered too rough, Westerns were replaced by modernized versions that used the Old West as a mere setting for whodunits or family-friendly stories. Starring Wayne Maunder in the title role, Custer was one of the last original Westerns, a show suggested by Larry Cohen and produced by 20th Century Fox. Although blessed with popular guest stars of the time such as Agnes Moorehead, William Windom or Barbara Hale, the show failed to become a success. Based on George Armstrong Custer’s life, the program was violent and often historically incorrect. Protested by Native Americans and opposed by The Virginian and Lost in Space on NBC and CBS, the show never really stood a chance. Canceled the same year it was launched, Custer became TV history after only seventeen hour-long episodes. Still remembered and cherished by die-hard Western fans today, the show can be revisited on DVD or on Youtube. For anyone who enjoys the style of the 1960s, Custer may be a real gem that deserves re-evaluation. The same goes for anyone who’s fond of TV classics in general, including those the majority of us has long forgotten – unfortunately or not. It’s your decision.
Watch Custer: Death Hunt here, guest starring Barbara Hale and Patricia Harty.
Today, one of my favorite Golden Hollywood Girls is celebrating her 91st birthday. Or her 92nd, depending on the source you believe in. I stick with the younger option because the birth date April 18, 1922 has such a nice ring to it. Besides, which woman doesn’t like to be younger rather than older?!
In general, 90-something is quite a milestone and (in my humble opinion) deserves a proper celebration – especially if the smile that comes with it is as bubbly and contagious as it always has been. So here’s your party hat, dear Barbara Hale, a big birthday hug and a smooch on your rosy cheeks. I hope you’re having a ball today, are blessed with good health (for many more years to come) and are surrounded by love and cheerful laughter.
Thanks so much for all the joy you have brought to my life as Della Street, on the silver screen and in interviews. Apart from my big love for Perry Mason, I’ve also always relished your on-screen collaborations with your charmingly handsome husband, Bill Williams. So for those of you who haven’t had the chance to see any of those “family projects”, here’s one of my favorite examples, The Clay Pigeon. A classic gem for a joyous day. Enjoy!
Talkie of the Week: 7th Cavalry
USA 1956, 75 minutes, technicolor, Columbia Pictures. Director: Joseph H. Lewis, Written by Peter Packer, Based on the story “A Horse for Mrs. Custer” by Glendon Swarthout. Cast: Randolph Scott, Barbara Hale, Jay C. Flippen, Frank Faylen, Jeanette Nolan, Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey Jr., Michael Pate, Donald Curtis, Frank Wilcox, Pat Hogan, Russell Hicks, Peter Ortiz.
Plot summary: After Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, Captain Benson returns to Indian territory to bring back the bodies and atone for his absence from the doomed battle.
Review: When Tom Benson returns to Fort Lincoln, he learns about General Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn. The Captain himself was absent from the crucial battle in Indian territory. With Custer’s permission, he accompanied his young bride Martha Kellogg on her journey to their new home. Accused of cowardice and misguided loyalty to his mentor Custer now fallen from grace, Captain Benson volunteers to retrieve the bodies of his fellow men. With a group of unlikely heroes, he returns to what the victorious Sioux consider sacred ground to execute the President’s orders to give the fallen soldiers a decent burial.
7th Cavalry, like many Westerns, is a story based on historical facts but not faithfully so. Adapted from a story by Glendon Swarthout, the film depicts the aftermath of the Battle of Little Big Horn without focusing on General Custer. Although an absentee main character, Custer only serves as a background figure to introduce the film’s actual hero, Captain Tom Benson. Played by Randolph Scott, Benson is the outcast survivor of a battle he didn’t attend but cannot escape. As a soldier, he doesn’t only have to cope with the the loss of his company but also with the downfall of his fallen superior, a man whom he has admired for his decency and expertise. Confronted with mistrust and criticism by a military Board of Inquiry led by the father of his wife-to-be, Benson masters the art of walking the fine line of duty and allegiance, convincingly stressed in Scott’s performance. Supported by a gracefully devoted Barbara Hale as Martha Kellogg, the actor led a decent ensemble in a film that captivates with words rather than action. Calm and slow paced, 7th Cavalry is not a John Wayne Western, nor a movie for an impatient crowd. It is a movie with a charm of its own, made for an audience who doesn’t mind following a wide array of dialog until the hero finally takes off to follow his destiny.
Beautifully cast and shot in Mexico, the film offers a look back at a time when films were not yet dominated by special effects and CGI. Although lengthy and verbose for some, 7th Cavalry has its definite perks for anyone who’s fond of a quieter performance style and demure storyline. Blessed with the talents of Western veteran Randolph Scott, as well as Barbara Hale’s often underestimated naturalness and warmth, the film deserves to be preserved for an audience who appreciates uncelebrated classics and their place in film history.
Get a glimpse of 7th Cavalry here.
Talkie of the Week: The Far Horizons
USA 1955, 108 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Rudolph Maté, Written by Winston Miller, Based on the novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould Emmons. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Charlton Heston, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Alan Reed, Eduardo Noriega, Larry Pennell, Julia Montoya, Ralph Moody, Herbert Heyes, Lester Matthews, Helen Wallace, Walter Reed.
Plot summary: After purchasing the Louisiana Territory in the early 1800s, President Jefferson sends Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out West to explore the new territory and claim the adjacent land leading to the Pacific Ocean for the United States.
Review: There are a lot of things one could say about Paramount Pictures’ The Far Horizons, historically correct is not one of them. As one of the few features (if not the only) ever made about the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-06), the film is a piece of fiction rather than a serious rendition of actual events. Dominated by a dramatic love story, the film borrowed an exciting setting to weave a colorful story around an adventure that in itself bears enough material for two feature-length adaptations. Based on Sacajawea of the Shoshones though, a novel by Della Gould Emmons, The Far Horizons falls sadly short of paying tribute to a now famous team of brave explorers.
Sacajawea, although praised as a key figure of the successful expedition, is but a mere shadow of the actual historic figure. Donna Reed – refurbished with a wig, her skin a deep made-up brown – did a decent job transforming herself into a native teenager who, as fiction would have it, falls in love with Charlton Heston’s philandering Lieutenant Clark. But the spark is strangely missing. Reduced to an unfortunate loser in love, Fred MacMurray did his best to flesh out his version of Meriwether Lewis, a man who (in real life) presumably committed suicide a few short years after completing his expedition but was on friendly terms with his fellow explorers. Barbara Hale played Julia Hancock, a young woman who choses Clark over Lewis in the beginning of the movie and has to deal with her fiancé’s change of heart when he returns to Washington in the end. Although none of the heartache ever happened, Barbara Hale’s scenes with the main characters are heartbreaking and one of the reasons to give this picture an honest chance. It’s also a plus to see this film released in widescreen format on DVD. Produced in Technicolor and VistaVision, the nature shots are beautiful and even breathtaking at times, the quality genuinely mid-1950s.
In general, The Far Horizons is not the kind of film you may turn to more than once (unless you are a fan of one of the above mentioned actors). Rated by Time Magazine as one of top ten historically most misleading films in 2011, the plot definitely leaves a lot to be desired. It is still a film, however, that – despite its many controversies – also has acting highlights towards the end and even offers discreet comments about society, including the status of the female sex.
Watch the original trailer here.
Talkie of the Week: The Lone Hand
USA 1953, 80 minutes, color, Universal International Pictures. Director: George Sherman, Written by Joseph Hoffman and Irving Ravetch. Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, Jimmy Hunt, James Arness, Ray Roberts, Frank Ferguson, Wesley Morgan.
Plot summary: In order to secure the survival of his family, Zachary Hallock gets involved with the wrong side of the law and thus puts the trust of his son and newlywed wife to the ultimate test.
Review: As a widowed father who is trying to start a new life with his son (Jimmy Hunt), Zachary Hallock (Joel McCrea) works hard on a little farm he only recently purchased and soon occupies with his new wife. In order to overcome the sudden loss of his harvest, he gets involved with a local gang of outlaws who are notorious for their robberies. His son, raised to be inquisitive and righteous, gets suspicious of his father’s new source of income and soon starts asking questions like his stepmother Sarah Jane (Barbara Hale). Unable to tell them the truth behind his actions, Zachary loses his son’s respect and his wife’s trust. It takes an unexpected turn of events to win them both back and make them understand the situation.
Shot in Colorado in 1953, The Lone Hand would be the first out of two movies starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Hale. As a reliably gifted Western star, McCrea governed the movie from the start, supported by Jimmy Hunt’s touching performance and Barbara Hale’s always hearty and wholesome presence. Together, they turned this little film into a memorable experience for anyone who is fond of family Westerns with a dash of suspense. Unavailable on DVD so far, the film is a gem that can be seen in occasional reruns on TV and deserves to be passed on from one generation to the next.
Watch a teaser here.
Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
USA 1937, 70 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William Clemens, Written by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan, Based on The Case of the Stuttering Bishop by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Donald Woods, Ann Dvorak, Anne Nagel, Linda Perry, Craig Reynolds, Gordon Oliver, Joseph Crehan, Helen MacKellar, Edward McWade, Tom Kennedy, Mira McKinney, Frank Faylen, Douglas Wood, Veda Ann Borg, George Lloyd, Selmer Jackson and Charles Wilson.
Plot summary: Perry Mason gets involved in a case of identity theft and ends up defending the possible heir to a murder victim’s fortune.
Review: As the sixth and last adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular whodunits, Warner Brothers released The Case of the Stuttering Bishop in 1937 with Donald Woods as famed lawyer Perry Mason and Ann Dvorak as his faithful girl Friday Della Street. Based on Gardner’s ninth book, the film tried to turn a difficult plot into seventy minutes of entertaining noir, unfortunately another failed attempt at the box office. For Mason fans, the film may now be a gem to complete their collection, for a general audience, however, the film did not manage to live up to Gardner’s original story.
Although blessed with Donald Woods as yet another Mason, the film, once again, lacked the enticing chemistry between Perry and and his savvy secretary, an element the radio and TV show would get down to a T in the 1940s through 60s. Ann Dvorak, despite her decent lines, brief (book-inspired) action scene and physical presence, did not manage to shine as Della Street and Joseph Crehan did not get enough screen time to actually flesh out another pivotal character from the original books, private detective Paul Drake. Charles Wilson, though, as district attorney Hamilton Burger, met the rather unlikeable persona from Gardner’s novels and Edward McWade was a charming stuttering bishop Mallory. Together, they made the film an enjoyable hour of entertainment without living up to the story’s full potential.
Despite my bias for Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and their smash hit show from the 50s and 60s, I must admit, however, that Donald Woods did a fine job at breathing life into his very own Perry Mason. Of all the adaptations from the 1930s, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop may even qualify as my favorite, although each of the six films had its beauty and strengths. As a Mason fan, I’m grateful either way for Warner’s decision to release all of the first Mason films in one boxset on DVD – it sure made the best early Christmas gift I gave myself this year.
Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Black Cat
USA 1936, 66 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William C. McGann, Written by F. Hugh Herbert, Based on The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Jane Bryan, Craig Reynolds, Carlyle Moore Jr., Gordon Elliot, Nedda Harrigan, Garry Owen, Harry Davenport, George Rosener, Gordon Hart, Clarence Wilson, Guy Usher, Lottie Williams and Harry Hayden.
Plot summary: When Peter Laxter calls Perry Mason to change his will in order to test the loyalty of his granddaughter’s fiancé, his actions result in a series of sudden deaths the prosecution investigates as murders.
Review: Following four silver screenadaptations with Warren William starring as Perry Mason, Warner Brothers took another shot at success in 1936 by releasing The Case of the Black Cat based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s seventh whodunit, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Introducing Ricardo Cortez as the famous attorney-at-law and June Travis as his irreplaceable Della Street, that new production did not follow up on previously disappointing attempts of turning Mason into a Nick Charles but rather tried to soak up the essence of Gardner’s original novel. Featuring Garry Owen as private eye Paul Drake, an important asset to Mason’s law practice, and Guy Usher as district attorney Hamilton Burger, The Case of the Black Cat was suspenseful and noir right from the start. What the film lacked, however, was that kind of enticing chemistry between the story’s main characters, an ingredient Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, Bill Hopper (as well as William Talman and Ray Collins) would so easily create on the small screen two decades later.
Although hard to compare to the smashing TV show of the 1950s and 60s, this adaptation from 1936 already took a step into the right direction. Regardless of his excellent performance skills and gentlemanly quality, Warren William did not get to leave a lasting mark as Perry Mason and unfortunately, nor did Ricardo Cortez with his one-time chance at proving himself. June Travis, as the fourth actress to breathe life into Mason’s skillful girl Friday, also didn’t make a big enough difference to win the hearts of Gardner’s fans. Just like her predecessors, she was pretty and useful but never as distinctive as the character in the original books.
In general, The Case of the Black Cat offered a calmer version of Gardner’s crafty lawyer, especially when compared to the screwball-induced The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Velvet Claws, the improved take on the novels still did not stand out enough, however, to attract a larger audience. Today, The Case of the Black Cat is a great little film for anyone who loves Perry Mason. Although for most, Raymond Burr will always be the perfect Perry and Barbara Hale his unrivaled Della, this film is a great example of how Hollywood has always tried to tell stories the audience has already embraced. It is also a treat for anyone who is enamored with the 1930s, the slang, movies and fashion of those troubled days.
Available on the Perry Mason Mysteries DVD boxset.