Friday, August 26, 2016

Some years ago I discovered the Nero Wolfe series of mystery novels by Rex Stout.

Nero Wolfe is a brilliant armchair detective, and that "armchair" part is quite literal, as he prefers to solve his cases from the comfort of his New York brownstone. The corpulent Wolfe (Stout describes him as weighing "one seventh of a ton")  works as a private detective to support his two passions, raising orchids and eating gourmet food. Assisting Wolfe is his legman/Watson Archie Goodwin, a semi-hard-boiled type who anticipates not only Philip Marlowe but even Bret Maverick.

From his first appearance in Fer de Lance (1934) Nero Wolfe was an immediate success, and Hollywood quickly came a-calling. Meet Nero Wolfe (1936) was an adaptation of Fer de Lance from Columbia Studios, apparently intended as that company's answer to the Charlie Chan series at Fox. Indeed the script alters ultra-cool private eye Archie into a sort of half-wit Number One Son, and the total miscasting of comedian Lionel Stander in the part means it wouldn't have worked in any case. Edward Arnold as Wolfe seems like a decent idea, but the script changes Wolfe from a calm but intimidating, stationary presence to a flamboyant, maniacally active scenery chewer.

The next year Columbia adapted the second Wolfe novel, the classic The League Of Frightened Men. Stander unfortunately returned as Archie, and Wolfe was played by a completely unsuitable Walter Connolly. This clip will show you how that idea turned out:

Rex Stout did not care for the Columbia adaptations and ended the series. During WWII Stout agreed to several Wolfe series on radio; all were short-lived. Only two episodes from these programs survive. One of these, "The Shakespeare Folio" from the 1945 series The Amazing Nero Wolfe, stars former silent movie idol Francis X. Bushman (yes, Messala from Ben-Hur) as a decent Wolfe. But this version also suffers from an inadequate Archie in Elliot Lewis, who sounds more like Tony Randall than a hard-boiled dick.

In 1950-1 Sidney Greenstreet starred in 26 episodes of The New Adventures Of Nero Wolfe. Gerald Mohr, Harry Bartell, and Lawrence Dobkin all took turns playing Wolfe's legman Archie Goodwin (allegedly the show went through so many Archies because Greenstreet did not like being upstaged). This was by far the most successful radio Wolfe.

Greenstreet captured the character quite well, and Mohr was the closest yet to the Archie of the books (Mohr had previously played Philip Marlowe in one of radio's all time greatest series).


By the '50s television was established, and of course there was interest in a Wolfe TV series. Perhaps someday we'll get to see this (NY Times, Mar 14 1959):

A pilot and 3-4 half hour episodes were shot, but the network could not find a sponsor. Shatner is far from the ideal Archie and the half hour format doesn't seem right for stories based on character. But Kasznar is a promising Wolfe, and perhaps someday we'll get to see his approach to the role.

I might as well mention The Fat Man, another 1959 pilot from an old radio show. In this version, he's pretty much Nero Wolfe in all but name (only a lot more active physically). A solid script by crime vets Goff and Roberts is given a few noir touches by director Joseph Lewis (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo), and Robert Middleton -- probably a bit too much of a coiled spring to be successful as a quietly intimidating Wolfe -- is quite good in the title role. A very well done pilot, too bad it didn't sell as a series.

In the early '70s there was talk of a NBC Mystery Movie series with Orson Welles as Wolfe and Bill Cosby as Archie, but this never panned out. In 1977 Frank Gilroy (Pulitzer Prize winner for The Subject Was Roses) wrote and directed a pilot starring veteran actor Thayer David as Wolfe.

David was the first actor on film to fully capture the classic Wolfe combination of quietly condescending arrogance with impractical, childlike petulance.

This is an excellent pilot (despite the inevitably disappointing Archie of a barely tolerable Tom Mason -- why does Hollywood have such trouble with that character?) and should have been picked up by a network. However watching it you may notice the usually portly David is rather thin for Nero Wolfe. It turns out he was quite ill during the filming and would die the next year. The series idea was shelved, as was the film itself, not airing until almost three years after it was shot.

This Wolfe series would be recast, eventually emerging on NBC with the wildly inappropriate William Conrad as Wolfe. It didn't last long, and Wolfe would not show up again on TV until the filmed-in-Canada A&E series with Maury Chaykin of the early 2000s. Many Wolfe fans consider this the definitive adaptation of the character. I do not. Chaykin is charmless and gruff where he should be slyly devious. Timothy Hutton co-starred as a predictably inadequate Archie.

I think my favorite 'Archie' was Doug McClure in another Wolfe-in-all-but-name pilot, The Judge And Jake Wyler. Bette Davis isn't too comfortable in the 'Wolfe' role, and the Levinson-Link script goes way, way overboard on her eccentricity (germs). But McClure comes off very well -- he's not quite James Garner, but he's good.

It's too bad McClure and David couldn't have co-starred in a Wolfe series.

But who knows? Perhaps someday Hollywood will finally get it right and we'll have a Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin series worthy of Rex Stout's wonderful creations.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the great detective Nero Wolfe. If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In 1982 Bruce McCall published his extraordinary Zany Afternoons, a nostalgic look back at the future that never happened.

There has never been anyone quite like Bruce McCall. His fascination with advertising recalls Harvey Kurtzman, and his obsession with the possibilities of now archaic technology has become routine for numerous steampunks. But the way McCall combines these interests, both repelled by yet somehow attracted to a previous generation's unyielding faith in the future, makes his vision unique.

McCall was born in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada in 1935. He recalled his childhood influences in a 2015 interview:

I grew up in Canada during World War Two, which meant black-and-white Canadian comics – an oxymoronic word cluster if ever there was one. For some weird reason, probably linked to paper rationing, American comic books only trickled across the border. My alternative was Chums magazine from the early Twenties, in fat bound annual volumes that my father consumed in his teens and never got around to throwing away. Stuffy, prolix, literate and laced with tales of derring-do as public school lads went off to defend the Empire, Chums was everything comic books were not, and I’m grateful for the difference.

The description of Chums magazine -- already nostalgia by the time McCall even read it -- inspires visions of Pythonesque Ripping Yarns. But it also makes me think of S.J. Perelman, a devoted reader of the purplest prose as a boy, then a satirical lampooner of his youthful reading habits in adulthood.

McCall spent almost two decades in the advertising business, first in 1950s Toronto specializing in drawing automobiles, then as a freelancer in New York. The breakthrough in his career came in 1970, when he joined the new National Lampoon, giving him an outlet for his half-nostalgic, half-satiric pieces.

McCall's fans are especially fond of his cars. His '50s models, inspired by his days in the ad trenches, capture the baby boomer obsession that bigger is better:

Another popular McCall target is the traditional nuclear family, always given anonymous, dead-eyed smiles:


 But for all his hilarious sendups of the '50s, McCall's greatest work harkens back to the 1930s. It's tempting to see this as the upper classes of Chums fiddling while Rome burns, as he loves to juxtapose the depression era with absurd decadence, such as this examination of the new fad among the super-rich, tank polo.

Or The Moto-Ritz Towers, a lavish Manhattan apartment building, complete with Zeppelin (perhaps the ultimate future technology that didn't happen?) hovering about.

 The depression setting gives this luxury car piece a depth not found in the Bulgemobile:

 You'll notice McCall's use of space in this last layout. Perhaps his masterpiece in this area is this spoof of the Titanic:

Although McCall's most impressive, jaw dropping work is his illustrations, he's also a plain old funny writer. For a Popular Mechanics spoof called "Popular Workbench" ("written so even you can understand it") he wrote these sidesplitting classified ads. Kurtzman and Al Feldstein did the same thing for Mad, but their work was never quite so surrealistically non-sequitur:

McCall could do similar pieces in a contemporary context, as in this take-off on discount store circulars done for a Lampoon Sunday newspaper parody:

There's a lot more Bruce McCall out there (such as his spoof of the baseball classic The Glory Of Their Times) but it'll have to wait until another blog entry.

DeSoto discovers the Mississippi:

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What if Bob Newhart had never become a sitcom icon? What if he'd gone through his post-'60s career as just another standup comic, TV show guest star, occasional movie character actor?

How would he be remembered?

He should be remembered, not for his pleasant sitcoms, but for the brilliant comedy albums he made in the 1960s. His telephone technique had, as we saw last time, already been anticipated by Shelley Berman. But they were two very different performers. Berman came out of the Compass Theater-Second City tradition of improvisation, with its suggestions of, and empathy for, method acting.

Newhart didn't improvise. He had no great interest in Second City or the new "riffing" comics like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce. In many ways he was a throwback to the old "monologists", who recited their material like a dramatic soliloquy. The telephone was an important prop for Newhart -- it limited the amount of direct contact he had to make with the audience.

Newhart used two basic situations -- the authority figure who turns out to be less than authoritative, and the cog in bureaucratic machinery. His famous "history" routines, where some mid-level exec type listens disbelievingly as a Great Figure describes some Great Innovation they've come up with, were sort of a combination of the two forms:

One of my favorite Newhart bits, "USS Codfish" aka "Submarine Commander". His ship's captain is a naive junior executive thrown into the corporate jungle:

This is similar in approach:

The following is probably Newhart's second most famous routine, after "Abe Lincoln". The instructor is basically a helpless everyman, but thrust into the authority situation:

The previously posted "King Kong", with the new janitor desperately trying to learn official corporate policy on giant apes climbing the building, is one of my favorite Newhart bits. Another great
"little man" routine is this:

Newhart shows more Berman influence as we suffer along with the old accountant. But there's never as much pain as in a Berman bit -- Newhart will not allow the hurt to overwhelm the absurdity.

Although Woody Allen is the standup associated with the New Yorker, it was really Newhart who most brought that magazine's style of humorous "casual" to the nightclub stage. His routines are pretty much Robert Benchley stories reworked. Allen essentially combined the styles of Sahl, Berman, and Newhart- -- masochistically suffering more than the latter, but similarly never permitting the masochism to overpower his nebbish characterization.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Phoning It In

The telephone comedy routine is almost as old as the instrument itself. The hugely popular "Cohen On The Telephone" was one of the first big novelty records around WWI. It reputedly sold a million copies, an amazing achievement for the era:

Sequels and remakes of "Cohen" would be released until the end of the 1920s. Around that time George Jessel did a phone routine that, as it was addressed to his mother, gave the bit somewhat more emotional depth: "Hello, mom. This is Georgie, your son. Yes, the one from the checks…"

George Jessel phones Mama. Let's hope it wasn't collect. 

You might see brief variations on the telephone routine in the '30s and '40s -- the radio series Duffy's Tavern began each week with one, as the bartender Archie spoke to the never-heard bar owner Duffy:

There was also a comedienne named Arlene Harris who apparently did phone routines on the radio about this same time. How popular she was I don't know (I only know of her because she did a Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s).

Aside from these instances the telephone routine would essentially lay dormant until the '50s.

Shelley Berman had already failed as a dramatic actor when he hooked up with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and other unknowns to help found Chicago's improvisational Compass Theater in 1955.

The Compass players c. 1955: Elaine May, Shelley Berman, and Mike Nichols in the back.

According to Berman his suggestion to form a three-person act with Nichols and May was rejected by the former. Perhaps as revenge/self-protection, Berman worked out his own telephone routines, which notably did not require other actors. This format also had the effect of distancing the performer from the audience, in opposition to the new postwar "personal style" of people like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce.

This routine is much more about Berman's pain and suffering than the woman on the ledge, who during much of the routine is almost an afterthought. Even the official title, "Department Store" takes the emphasis off the ledge climber.

Berman included "Department Store" on his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, in 1959.

Inside Shelley Berman was very successful and even won a Grammy. But Berman's time in the spotlight would be brief. Another Chicagoan, clean cut where Berman was neurotic, was waiting in the wings.

Bob Newhart was a former accountant and small-time radio joke peddler who had never done standup in his life when he recorded a comedy album for the new Warner Brothers label in 1960. It became the bestselling album of the year -- not just bestselling comedy album, bestselling album, period -- and won the Grammy for Album of the Year, the first time a comedy record had ever done that.

As with Berman, many of his routines were one-sided phone conversations. Berman himself was not pleased. Wikipedia:

In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, 87-year-old Berman accused comedian Bob Newhart of plagiarizing his improvisational telephone routine style, describing its genesis and saying it was a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." He continued, "I was coming to work at night and a guy stopped his car, passed me by, and said 'Hey, Shelley! There's a guy [who] stole your act!'" When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star." Berman later added, "I thought it was a rotten thing to do. I thought the agents who sold him - I thought they were just as guilty as everybody else. But, my God, to go into a town and do my show, and the critics saying that I borrowed some stuff from Newhart..."

Sometimes Newhart's subject matter was also reminiscent of Berman. Here Newhart does his own take on a ledge bit (note he does not use a phone).

The subject is the same, but the style is completely different. Berman stresses his own masochistic discomfort and suffering, while Newhart emphasizes the absurdity of taking modern psychology to extremes.

Here's a similar routine with a phone:


The same basic setup as Berman -- calling in about an emergency to an authority figure. But Newhart doesn't suffer himself -- he accepts the insanity of the red tape as just another part of the job.

We'll take a more detailed look at Bob Newhart in our next entry.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

Friday, August 12, 2016

In our last entry we explored Roy Huggins' fondness for con games. This time we look at another aspect of his career, his tendency toward noir.

In 1946 Huggins published his first novel, a Chandleresque private eye yarn called The Double Take.

The Double Take was quickly bought by  Columbia studios, and Huggins was hired to write the screenplay -- within a year of his first publication, he was in Hollywood, and in Hollywood he would stay.

I haven't read The Double Take, but it's apparently a very Raymond C. tale of sordid double crosses and tawdry L.A. ambiance. Hollywood gave the movie the jovial title I Love Trouble (probably inspired by the popular I Love A Mystery radio series).

Debonair Franchot Tone stars as private eye Stuart Bailey (remember that name). Instead of some seedy office Bailey does business in an attractive art deco suite. There are some noirish scenes -- especially when Bailey goes to Portland and deals with a gambling racketeer -- and we get some atmospheric shots of Long Beach (I think that's where they were -- I'm not an Angeleno) oil wells and a Venice Beach diner.

But I Love Trouble is most interesting for when it's not being noir. It's essentially The Thin Man, but this time about a hard-boiled dick instead of an amateur sleuth. The emphasis is mostly on repartee rather than mood.

Everybody banters in I Love Trouble. Even the brunette waitress (whose name I didn't catch) gets in a few sharp digs at star Franchot Tone.

Stuart Bailey has woman trouble, but so what? He loves it:

"I love beer":

Another Huggins novel was filmed in 1949, again with Huggins scripting.

The title Too Late For Tears sounds like a women's magazine novelette, and the film does have a female protagonist. It's kind of what Double Indemnity would be if we followed Phyllis rather than Walter. Restless housewife Lizabeth Scott stumbles upon a bundle of money and is determined to keep it, no matter who gets killed in the process. TLFT's serialized origins are very noticeable, as there's a  plot twist every ten minutes and a previously unmentioned major character shows up about halfway through.

But this is the flip side of I Love Trouble. There's occasional bantering, but it's never allowed to lighten the dark mood. Even the best lines have a menacing undercurrent to them.

In the early half of the fifties Huggins worked mostly in westerns, with a few notable exceptions like Pushover (1954). Around this time Huggins testified before HUAC that he'd been a member of the Communist Party in the thirties, and he named 19 former colleagues to the committee.

In 1955 Huggins moved into TV for Warner Bros, where he created the first hour long western Cheyenne. But his great breakthrough came in 1957, when Maverick made a household name of James Garner. The next year Huggins created 77 Sunset Strip, intended to be the Maverick of detectives. 77SS concerned a private eye named Stuart Bailey (I told you to remember that name) and the sometimes noir, sometimes comic cases investigated by himself and his cohorts.

Efrem Zimbalist, Jr as an especially suave Stuart Bailey in 77 Sunset Strip.

77SS really demands an entry for itself, and in any event I've only seen perhaps 20 episodes, mostly from the first season. One of these was an adaptation of a Bailey novel from the '40s, Lovely Lady, Pity Me.

Huggins left Warners in 1960, after he was denied creator's credit and royalties for 77SS. He ended up at Fox as the head of TV production. He didn't really accomplish much there -- aside from causing congressional hearings about an episode of his series Bus Stop, but that's another story -- though he did get his name on the Fox logo, the only time I've ever seen this happen:

Oh, and also around this time Huggins created a little thing called The Fugitive, which IMHO is the greatest TV series of all time. Maybe we'll discuss it later.

In 1963 Huggins moved to Universal, where he produced The Virginian and created the Fugitive knock-off Run For Your Life.

Roy Huggins in the 1960s:

In 1966 the Paul Newman movie Harper (based on Ross MacDonald's Archer character) revived the moribund private eye genre. Mannix debuted on TV the next year, and in 1968 Huggins took his own shot at the form with The Outsider.

Darren McGavin (who'd played Mike Hammer for MCA's Revue productions a decade earlier) starred as David Ross, an ex-con loner working as a private eye. The opening shows the Harper influence, as Ross burns his toast and debates drinking some possibly expired milk.

Even more than 77 Sunset Strip, The Outsider shows Huggins trying to combine his humor and noir interests into one style.

A shadowy Darren McGavin in The Outsider:

I've seen three episodes. The first, "One Long-Stemmed American Beauty", dealt in Chandleresque fashion with the movie business (a frequent Chandler target).  Two other Outsider episodes are currently on YouTube:

"I Can't Hear You Scream" is late '60s problem piece, as Ross tries to clear a black criminal wrongfully convicted of murder, and butts heads with the black cop (James Edwards) who thinks he's guilty. This episode however does feature a prototype Angel Martin figure, sleazily lurking around, giving Ross info. But significantly while Angel is Jim Rockford's best friend, this guy gives Ross the creeps:

"Periwinkle Blue" finds Ross investigating a comely new widow who may or not have killed at least one husband.

This has my favorite Outsider scene, where Ross orders fried chicken and finds he's missing a few pieces, so he calls up the chicken place and gives them a piece of his mind.

"What the...? There's supposed to be a whole chicken in this box."

Can't you just see Jim Garner playing this scene?

The Outsider lasted only one season, but when James Garner expressed interest in working with Huggins again, the latter dusted The Outsider off and reworked it into The Rockford Files.

Like David Ross Jim Rockford is an ex-con (wrongfully convicted like Dr. Richard Kimble) but he has a very warm relationship with his truck driver father, an important addition which significantly distinguishes Rockford from cynical loner Ross.

In its first season Rockford was heavy on the Chandlertown atmosphere but curiously took little advantage of Garner's comic abilities. For all the comparisons to Maverick it more resembles Marlowe, Garner's 1969 attempt at filming Chandler. Only with the second season and the classic episode "The Aaron Ironwood School Of Success" did Rockford find the light touch, which led to such memorable characters as Freddy Beamer, Gandolph Fitch, and the incredibly perfect Lance White.

Although Rockford was the crowning triumph of Huggins' career he had one more bit of noir left in him. In 1976 he produced City Of Angels, about a private eye in 1930s L.A.

Wayne Rogers as Jake Axminster in City of Angels:

This was the Outsider/first season of Rockford pushed back in time, with a little Chinatown thrown in, and some consider it a lost classic. I haven't seen it in so long I can't really comment. I do recall it did a three parter about the 1934 coup attempt General Smedley Butler warned against (though IIRC Butler himself is not seen). What has really stayed in my mind was Axminster's antagonistic relationship with a vicious cop (played by the wonderfully menacing Clifton James), who would love nothing more than to put him in San Quention. This cop's name was Lieutenant Quint, the name of the cop in I Love Trouble, allowing us to come full circle.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Roy Huggins and how he helped bring his own version of noir to TV. If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.