Screen Couples

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.

Della and Perry1) 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.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) 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.

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McMillan & Wife

TV classics: McMillan & Wife

USA 1971-77, six seasons, 40 episodes, approximately 90-120 minutes each, NBC, color. Cast: Rock Hudson, Susan Saint James, John Schuck, Nancy Walker, Martha Raye et al.

Plot summary: Police commissioner Stewart McMillan and his young wife Sally solve murders they didn’t plan to stumble into.

Review: Originally an NBC Mystery Movie, McMillan & Wife premiered on September 17, 1971 as a so-called wheel series, sharing its time slot with Columbo and McCloud. Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, the show presented a married couple of sleuths and thus continued a tradition Hollywood had started with Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man movies in the 1930s and 40s. Entertaining and lighthearted, the series benefited from the charm and charisma of its two main leads, as well as their supporting stars Nancy Walker and John Schuck. Nominated for several Emmys and Golden Globes, the ladies of show left a lasting impression on their audience, critics and peers, while Rock Hudson created a character who was every bit as handsome and congenial as his most successful silver screen alter egos.

Scheduled for release as a complete boxset on December 4, 2012, McMillan & Wife is a treat for anyone who grew up loving mysteries that were light rather than gruesome. Blessed with popular guest stars of its time, including Tom Bosley, Linda Evans, Barbara Feldon, Roddy McDowall, Donna Mills, Stefanie Powers and David Soul, the show continues to be diverting and funny – a good example of a decade that shaped a new generation of mystery dramas, as well as a new dynamic between men and women which led to other successful shows such as Hart to Hart or Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

Hart to Hart

TV classics: Hart to Hart

USA 1979-84, 110 episodes, 5 seasons, 47 minutes each, ABC. Created by Sidney Sheldon, Producer: Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, Music by Mark Snow. Cast: Robert Wagner, Stefanie Powers, Lionel Stander

Plot summary: As hobby sleuths, Jennifer and Jonathan Hart investigate mayhem and murder with a little help from butler Max and their dog Freeway.

Review: Loosely based on The Thin Man narrative, Hart to Hart entered American living rooms in the summer of 1979. Starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as a wedded team of hobby sleuths, the show combined murder, mayhem and comedic situations with guest stars such as June Allyson, Diana Muldaur and Roddy McDowell. Supported by Hollywood veteran Lionel Stander as Max, Jennifer and Jonathan Hart investigated crimes in their hometown Los Angeles, as well as on trips around the world. Always combining duty with pleasure, Hart to Hart was a mystery show with the right amount of romance and action to entertain a family audience.

Originally written for Cary Grant, Robert Wagner was cast as a younger version of the charming leading man whose mansion was located in Mandeville Canyon. His on-screen chemistry with Stefanie Powers, once a guest star on his previous TV hit It Takes a Thief, was the main attraction of a show that never made it to the top of ratings. Warmly embraced by world audiences for the couple’s flirtations and banter however, the show had a decent five year run. With an unfortunate decline in script quality, the show was ended in 1984 and successfully rerun for many years until the formula was revisited in the early 1990s. Reprising their fan favorite parts in eight Hart to Hart TV movies, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers reunited with their equally popular colleague Lionel Stander who remained a set imperative until his death in 1994.

Still dearly remembered by audiences around the globe, the Hart to Hart TV movies are now available on DVD while fans are still waiting for seasons three through five of the original show to be officially released. With their felicitous homage to Nick and Nora Charles with a dash of Mr. and Mrs. North, it would be a shame to not see the Harts on DVD as a complete set. Self-made millionaire Jonathan and his journalist wife Jennifer deserve to be introduced to young viewers who may not watch as much TV as generations before them but rather stick to DVDs and online streaming. In 2012, the upbeat tone of the series and the romantic foundation of each episode are still as entertaining and enchanting as in the 1980s when the show premiered on ABC. It is the perfect show for any spring season – hearty, suspenseful and bewitching. You’ll never forget it, especially due to the charm and quality of the performances of the three main actors and an adorable Lowchen dog called Freeway.

Hart to Hart intro

The Thin Man

TV classics: The Thin Man

USA 1957-59, 2 seasons,  72 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, NBC, black & white. Produced by: MGM Television, Based on the mystery novel by Dashiell Hammett. Cast: Peter Lawford, Phyllis Kirk, Also starring: Jack Albertson, Patricia Donahue, Nita Talbot

Plot summary: After resigning from being a P.I., Nick Charles keeps stumbling upon cases that ask for his expertise and a little to massive amount of help from his socialite wife Nora.

Review: For fans of The Thin Man movies (produced between 1934 and 1947), this show takes some getting used to. The late 1950s show does not feature Myrna Loy and William Powell as fabulous Nick and Nora Charles with their incomparable on-screen chemistry and charm, instead it introduces a different yet equally sophisticated duo of actors: Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford. Their portrayal differs largely from Loy’s poise and Powell’s wit, but they are definitely entertaining and endearing in their own way.

Attempting to follow the success of The Thin Man movies, the TV show is also beautifully written and equipped with elegant robes for Phyllis Kirk and dashing suits for Peter Lawford. Unfortunately, the show’s irony and often sharp sarcasm did not last longer than two full seasons. It was MGM’s failed experiment at producing a show after dismissing television and thus failing to keep up with the changes of time.

Today, the show is not yet available on DVD although it is a worthwhile treat to watch Nick and Nora getting in and out of trouble with recurring guest stars like Patricia Donahue, Nita Taylor or Jack Albertson. Selected episodes are available online and a sample episode was even included on “The Complete Thin Man Collection“. So take your pick and lean back to enjoy this show, I sure didn’t regret coming across it and I keep my fingers crossed for more episodes to be available anytime soon.

The Thin Man sample episode

Whodunits

So hands up: who’s as addicted to whodunits as I am?! In writing or on screen – doesn’t matter. To me, the appeal is just the same. When I say whodunits, I mean classic gems like The Thin Man series or Perry Mason, the kind of stories that focus on suspense rather than gore. Not the kind of murder mystery we have seen on worldwide bestseller lists for many years now or the numerous police shows, no matter how successful or gripping they may be.

See, I grew up exchanging Miss Marple novels with my grandma, watching all of Perry Mason and reading Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, as well as The Famous Five. My mom introduced me to The Father Brown Mysteries and I remember falling in love with Hart to Hart when I was peek-a-booing from behind my (grand)parents’ couch. I always loved the hilariously witty dialogue, the thrilling stories and most of all, the shrewd but darling characters, which is why I was probably destined to also fall for Murder, She Wrote in my teens, another show I still greatly enjoy as an adult today. I find myself every bit as drawn to the classic tales of an infallible investigating hero as back in the days when I was as a girl who loved to play detective wherever she went with whomever would humor me. And I find a sparkle of innocence I often miss in a lot of today’s mystery shows paired with a usually clear message of right versus wrong.

One of the few recent shows I feel picks up on my favorite genre and storylines is Castle with its disarmingly charming male lead and love interest policewoman. The show does a beautiful job at never getting too dark, it’s always entertaining and it is simply terrifically cast. Another program I greatly enjoyed was the Lifetime TV movie adaptations of Ellen Byerrum’s A Crime of Fashion novels Hostile Makeover and Killer Hair. Same groundwork on the suspense-minus-gore front with an addition of a vintage-addicted female lead, and yes, you’ve already guessed it, a love interest policeman in that case.

So all right, now may be the time to admit it, I have a rather pronounced weakness for a strong touch of classy romance sprinkled on top of all the investigating and the suspense. But what’s wrong with that?! Isn’t that what makes the characters so appealing after all, that glimpse of an amorous private life in addition to their gritty adventures? I mean, can you really imagine Nick Charles without his Nora or Perry Mason without his Della Street? I surely can’t and gladly confess to preferring Margaret Rutherford’s four Miss Marple stints from the 1960s over any other adaptation because Mr. Stringer was so loyal to her in his admiration. Always a romantic even in the most tenuous of storylines…

Remakes

Although it may sometimes seem as if remakes are a contemporary idea, they actually go back to the 1920s (e.g. The Battle of Sexes, made in 1914 and then again 1928, each directed by D.W. Griffith) and the 1930s when talkies became more popular than silent movies. When studio bosses decided to re-do successful films. Hollywood, after all, has always been an industry.

But as old as its core motivation, the discussion of remakes has also remained the same – is it necessary to re-tell a story that has worked before? Can’t Hollywood come up with new ideas? New characters and plots?

Well, in times of reshaping and relaunching TV shows from the 1970s and 80s, I guess the answer is clear. It is often cheaper to pick up on an already established franchise. May seem more sensible. Almost like an homage – although  how could it be  if everything that used to work and made a product genuine is being replaced, updated and beautified?

Opinions will always differ on remakes. I myself was thrilled when I first heard about a new version of The Women back in 2008. Annette Benning’s name truly pleased me when I saw it listed for the project. Then I saw the movie. And in spite of Ms Benning, it paled in comparison to the original movie from 1939 on all levels.

But remakes can work. There are examples, sometimes unknown to us today. Love Affair from 1939 for example, starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. It was remade by the same director, Leo McCarey, in 1957 with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, called An Affair to Remember. And then again under its original title in 1994, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Benning, plus Katherine Hepburn.

The Window from 1949 (see Talking Classic‘s first “Talkie of the Week” entry) was also remade in 1966, under the title of the short story the film was originally based on, The Boy cried Murder. I have not yet seen this version but would love to see how and if they made it work.

Father of the Bride and Father’s little Dividend from 1950 and 51, directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Spencer Tracey, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Bennett, were also remade in 1991 and 95. Then with an all-star cast led by Steve Martin and Diane Keaton.

What’s striking about the remakes of Father of the Bride and The Women though is the almost screwball-like quality paired with hysterics. Although equally well cast, the films don’t live up to the originals. It may be a reflection on the 1990s and 2000s, but the adaptations seem to lack a sense of sincerity in their otherwise entertaining and comedic plots. Steve Martin is not a Spencer Tracey, Diane Keaton is no comparison to Joan Bennett, nor is Meg Ryan a Norma Shearer. How could they be? They live in different times and so do the stories that were told so beautifully in their own time, with their original cast.

Now another remake is being discussed, green-lit by Warner Bros. The Thin Man is supposed to be redone, starring Johnny Depp and Rachel Weisz. I personally adore the original six movies which came to theaters between 1934 and 1947. William Powell and Myrna Loy. What better a pairing could you find? I am not convinced that you could replace them. Or that the plot will work in a new movie with a contemporary perception of Dashiell Hammett’s characters. Mind you, it worked to base a couple on Nick and Nora on TV in the 1980s. Hart to Hart was a good success. But William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora are so iconic – just have a look at the screen version of Bewitched  from 2005. Another example for an over-the-top version of a classic hit franchise. It disappointed fans and didn’t exactly score with the critics. However, the film did bring in some money, so if that’s the old motivation, I better keep spending it on the originals. And hope for more of them to be released on DVD.