June 2, 2014

Peter Gunn - the smoothest P.I. on TV

This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

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Craig Stevens IS Peter Gunn
The first thing you remember, maybe the only thing you ever knew, is the theme.  Driving, pulsing, jazzy with more than a hint or two of danger.  The stingers as the opening credits end, like punches being delivered, or bullets being shot.  The show does very well by Henry Mancini.

The name:  Peter Gunn, Pete to his friends, Gunn to everyone else.  Never Pete Gunn.  Was there ever a better name for a TV detective?  Not a (Richard) Diamond in the rough, not a (Johnny) Staccato music note.  Maybe a (Thomas) Magnum, but that came much later, and doesn’t really take advantage of the wordplay.  Peter Gunn packs a gun, and if things get too rough he’ll let you know it, too.

Peter Gunn was a half-hour drama that aired on NBC from 1958 to 1960, and spent a final season on ABC before going off the air in 1961.  (But not out of the public consciousness, thanks to that theme.)  It feels more like an ABC drama, to be honest, at least to me.  Though it was produced by Blake Edwards*, long before the Pink Panther, it fits in well with the Warner Brothers shows that dominated the network in the late 50s and early 60s.  It’s better than many of them, though.  There’s a grit and an atmosphere to it that makes it one of the most noirish of TV series, with smoky saloons and foggy harbors and sultry girls with hints of danger, fists ready to fly and gunplay just waiting to break out.

*Whose first hit was none other than Richard Diamond.

The private eye patrolling this seedy beat was anything but: smooth, suave, urbane, suit tailored, tie knotted, pocket hanky carefully in place, with an ear for cool jazz and an eye for a hot woman.  Craig Stevens, reminiscent of Cary Grant in his speech and his manner, but with an edge that lets you know he’s every bit as tough as his name suggests.  His girl Edie, played by Lola Albright, singer at Mother’s, the joint that serves as Gunn’s office.  Any suggestions that Gunn has the typical PI’s wandering eye are very few and far between – and why would you when you know you’ve got Edie waiting for you?   His long-suffering contact at the department, Lieutenant Jacoby, Herschel Bernardi, a man who looks as if he wakes up world-weary.  Their relationship is friendlier than most private/public cop pairings – Jacoby even gets to call him “Pete.”

Mancini's music was a smash
Jazz, pool halls, the Beats – they’re all part of the scene in Peter Gunn.  Mother’s, the jazz club where Gunn hangs out, meets with clients, eyes Edie from a table; it has an air of dark sophistication, says Ray Starman in his analysis of TV noir, from a time "when respectable people walked down into basements and sat in smoky dark cabarets to hear music not written by Mozart or John Philip Sousa."  The owner of the place, "Mother," played in the first season by Emmy nominee Hope Emerson, thereafter by Minerva Urecal - confidant, protector, someone who maintains a finger on the pulse of the seamier side of town and knows where at least a couple of the bodies are buried.  A seemingly-limitless supply of sources whom Gunn taps for information – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know – from Babby the midget pool shark to Wilbur the Beat bard.  And Gunn pays for the lowdown with cash – I’d like to see what his expense account looks like.

The tough guys are tough, but never tougher than Gunn.  The girls are prettier, but never prettier than Edie.  The heavies may be quick with the trigger, but not as quick as Jacoby, when he has to be.  And you’re not going to get a lot of complications thrown in, not in a 30 minute show.  Gunn’s got a job to do, and he’s going to do it, and you’d be wise not to get in his way.  No loose ends, no wasted space.  Got a problem with that?

So I know what you’re thinking: why should I care about a detective series that was on TV over 50 years ago?  Good question.  If the mood and the music aren't enough for you, there's Stevens’ portrayal of Gunn.  In a genre that specializes in rumpled, hard-drinking, two-fisted playboys for heroes, Stevens is as smooth as a scotch on the rocks.  He has the PI’s gift for glib, but friends and enemies both know he’s a man who’s not afraid to mess up his suit if he has to.

Pete & Edie (Lola Albright)
Another is Gunn’s relationship with Lola Albright’s Edie, two adults* secure in the positions they each have in the other’s life.  Edie can take care of herself without being hard, but there’s a vulnerability that  shows itself in the scenes played out between the two, such as when she asks Gunn if he likes kids.  “Whose kids?”  he replies.  “Anybody’s kids,” she says, and you know they both know what she means.  She knows Pete’s life is not without risks, but it would be futile to try and change him.  He is who he is, and that’s why she loves him – and why he’s not afraid to say he loves her.  Albright provides her own smooth singing voice in Edie’s stage scenes, and you know Gunn’d have to be awfully dumb to play around on her.  Does he look that dumb?

*Let me repeat that.  Adults.  In short supply on television nowadays.

Jacoby is one of the more likable policemen in the private detective arena.  Sure he’s weary – he’s had his fill of disappointment and death, probably responsible for more than his share of it.  He looks at Pete as a friend more than an adversary; he knows, even before the words are out of his mouth, that his warnings to stay out of police business are useless.  And you know what?  I don’t think he’d like Peter Gunn any other way either.

Jacoby (Herschel Bernardi) and Gunn 
Edwards later made a movie based on the series, called Gunn.  It was OK.  Craig Stevens was back, and Ed Asner was OK as Jacoby, but Laura Devon was all wrong for Edie.  Watch it if you see it on TV, but don’t go out of your way for it.  Peter Strauss played Gunn in a pilot that never went anywhere, which was too bad.  He had the right stuff for the role, especially the way he looked in a tux.  That would have been a series I would have watched.  The word on the street is that they’re trying another remake, or at least thinking about it.  I’d think about it very carefully if I was them; it’s a property you don’t want to mess up.  Blow it, and I’ll drop it like a bad habit.

Half-hour dramas, once a staple on television, are deader than the dodo nowadays, which is a shame.  You ought to check this show out, if you know what’s good for you.  With its cast of colorful snitches, properly crooked hoods, and a dame or two that could be either a vamp or a vixen (or both), Peter Gunn is one show that’s going to give you the story, the whole story and nothing but the story.  The bad guys get what’s coming to them, the hero gets the girl, and we all get to hear that cool music one more time.  What more do you want?

14 comments:

  1. You nailed this one. The attitude is always the draw for me to watch this series again. I'm going to keep an eye out for the movie "Gunn" but I'll heed your warnings. Thanks for reminding me why I love this show :)

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    1. Glad you liked it! Yeah, "Gunn" isn't great, isn't bad, but several times my wife commented that "Pete'd never do that to Edie!"

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  2. I only remember seeing a little bit when I was a kid, but that driving - almost primal beat in the theme has stayed with for years. Excellent. Thanks for taking me down memory lane.

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    1. I know - anyone who has a chance should check it out if for no other reason than to see how the music fits the series. Glad to bring the memories back!

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  3. Loved your review of PETER GUNN, Mitchell. As for the show, what I liked best was the style, punctuated by the terrific Henry Mancini theme (I own the first of his two albums of PG music). I wish someone would bring back the half-hour drama. It was cool when the viewer was dropped into the middle of a plot already seemingly in motion. There was no slack in shows like PETER GUNN. I agree with you about the disappointing theatrical film (all the more so because I think Edwards made it) and the Strauss telefilm. I always thought Stevens was a little rigid as Pete, but that seemed to go with the character. It was certainly the highlight of his acting career.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Rick! That music is so cool - it's impossible for the show NOT to be cool. I really thought the Strauss movie could have been something - at least on paper, Strauss would have made a very suave Gunn. Saw that before I ever saw the original, though, so I'd have to refresh my memory after having seen the series.

      I think the show that really suffers in comparison to Gunn is "Mr. Lucky," which I think follows Gunn right now. John Vivyan may be a good guy, but I can only imagine the series would have profited by having Stevens in that role.

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  4. I echo Rick's comments above. This may be a style over substance situation, but man, what style it was. They just don't make 'em like Peter Gunn anymore. The 30 minute time slot was another advantage - no filler or fat to trim.

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    1. Thanks, David. I've really gotten to like the half-hour drama as well; when I'm watching Gunn, or Bat Masterson, or one of the other half-hour Westerns, and there are so many times when they could go off on some tangent that, as you say, would be pure filler. I start to worry that they're going to introduce some romance or misunderstanding or some such nonsense, and then I remember - wait, they don't have time to do that!

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  5. Thanks for your review which is for me, must admit, an intro to Peter Gunn. Sounds like a great show. I love film noir and private eyes particularly on vintage films, television even old radio. Lucky that this show is still around to be discovered.

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    1. Indeed - check it out; I don't think you'll be disappointed!

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  6. I have to admit I've never seen a single episode of this show. I will definitely be checking it out on MeTV. The noir mood you describe sounds like something I would really enjoy. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Amy - hope you enjoy the show!

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  7. Snazzy, jazzy coverage of a snazzy, jazzy show, Mitchell! I like Craig Stevens a lot in this. He's right at that late 50s/early 60s transition, looking a bit square and polished on the surface but harboring a loosey-goosey, Beat poet soul underneath the flash suits. I too miss the 30-minute drama format; while it could be limiting, when done right it gives the stories a pared-down tautness sometimes lacking in the hour-long form (i.e., the half-hour SECRET AGENTs sometimes play better for me than the later longer eps; ditto GUNSMOKE). Your post reminds me that I need to pick up the rest of this series (I only have the season 2 set from Region 2).

    Heck of a write-up - thanks!

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  8. I remember when the show originally aired. Craig Stevens was so cool. The man could wear a suit. I have all 3 seasons on DVD and watch them often. Mr. Stevens went on to star in 2 other series after Gunn. Man Of The World and Mr. Broadway. Neither one lasted more than a season but it didn't matter. I imprinted on Craig Stevens like a baby duckling to it's mother.

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