February 25, 2015

M Squad: where the M stands for Marvin

I begin by plagiarizing my own blog, but who better to talk about the Lee Marvin experience in M Squad than Lee Marvin?

In an October 1959 interview with TV Guide, Marvin holds court on M Squad, what it's like, what it means.

Who knows? You tell me. It's a cop series, what else? The guy's a cop. Who wants the truth? It's like an artist. He's got this painting. He says, 'But don't you see, it's yah-foo-lah-lah-lah. You notice how that yellow shines?

I dunno, it's moving. Lieutenant Ballinger - who knows - he's a cop. You tell me. We took Chicago. It was all that was left. I know Chicago cops. Rough. They have to be. The whole city would explode. It's like a bomb, Chicago. I know. Look at the setup. 

What about his co-star, the city of Chicago?  Jack Webb says "This is the city" when he introduces Dragnet, but we all know that Chicago is the city, the Windy City, the City of Broad Shoulders, the City that Works.  A city that's both grand and gaudy, hard working and hard living, luxury apartments and slums.  Lots of shots from winter, the snow applying a thin cover of purity, masking the hard core underneath. Home of the Bears, the Cubs, Frank Ballinger.

We shoot locations, twice a year.  No permit, no co-operation.  They don't want any part of us.  We're going next week again.  Shoot and run.  It finally came down to: 'Okay, any public building, but nothing else, no stopping traffic.'  I stay back, out of sight.  Hat pulled down.  Director says okay, walks through what I do, says, 'Like that, Lee.'  I do it, we shoot it and blow.  Kids come along, see the crowd, it's always the same thing in Chicago.  Right away, 'Who got killed?'  That's what a crowd means to most Chicago kids.

One time we're up on a roof.  On the edge over the sidewalk.  Me and this actor, struggling over a gun.  I thought I'd hoke it up a little. We can't carry sound equipment, have to move too fast. Dub it later. I saw these two gals walking along.  Right under us. I yelled, 'Gimme that gun, I'll kill you!' They looked up, yah, hoo, whu, hmm?  Two men on a roof, killing each other. And these girls went right on.  They didn't even break stride.

Lieutenant Friday, Dragnet, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lineup.  What's their problem? No problem. It's routine.  It's static.  But not Chicago. They stop it before it happens. They have to.

Chicago'd go like a bomb, the whole place.  I know.  I spent a year there, going to secretarial school.  After the war, out of the Marines, wacked up, shot near the spine, whoo lah, hero.  I couldn't do anything.  Nothing.  I didn't know ho.  High school, no training.  Navy ROTC school in New Jersey, 14 years old and they pulled rank on me.  This old admiral, 61, still in uniform, and a kid 14 years old.  I cut out and sold my uniform.

It's like M Squad.  The M doesn't stand for anything.  It's any dirty job.  Let's face it, we're the Storm Troops.  A lone cop, Chicago, what else?  M Squad.  I liked The Loop.  That's what somebody wanted to call it.  I wanted to do a lot of things.  I talk to myself, driving along, who doesn't?  You come out of a conference, you sit there at a stop light, say, 'Yeah, fah-loo-dee-doo, BUT, you say.

Try paraphrasing that.  It doesn't work, trust me.  Plagiarism is the only way to go.

M Squad, Marvin's only foray into scripted series television, ran on NBC from 1957 to 1960*.  It was a half-hour drama, the once-commonplace television form that's now vanished.  Marvin plays the aforementioned Frank Ballinger, detective lieutenant at M Squad, a special branch of the Chicago Police that works on major crimes such as corruption and murder.  Ballinger's boss is Captain Grey, played by Paul Newlan, who is usually already there when Marvin arrives at the crime scene.  Newlan is good, even though most of his lines consist of saying either "Look into it, Frank," or "Do you think that could be it, Frank?" or "Remember to be careful out there, Frank - she's killed before, she won't be afraid to kill again."  This is usually followed by a meaningful pause.

*There were 117 episodes made over those three season - thirty-nine per season.  They don't make them like that anymore, either.

Ballinger is a no-nonsense cop who lives and breaths his job.  Glimpses into his private life are few and far between, and usually wind up being part of the cover he's using in his investigations.  He takes crime as a personal affront; Chicago is his city, baby, and don't you forget it.  You mess with Chicago, you mess with Frank Ballinger.  An author said once that it's best, when watching M Squad, to remember that it was made before the Miranda decision.

The music for the first season was typical tough-cop style; effective enough to win a Grammy for Stanley Wilson, but nothing unique.  For the second season, the producers went to Count Basie, who gave the show a completely different feel.  It was alive, jumping, edgy.  Like Chicago.  Throw in scores by greats like Benny Carter, Sonny Burke and Stanley Wilson, along with a young composer who still went by the name of Johnny Williams.

Add a lineup of guest stars that become a who's who of '50s and '60s television, Ruta Lee, Charles Bronson, Mike Conners, Janice Rule.  Watch out particularly for the dames like Ruta; they'll get you in the back if you're not ready for them.  Add a dollop of noir; the black-and-white images, the bright lights of the mean streets and the shadows that hide the seedy corruption, the two-bit chiselers, the punks and the rest of the hoods looking to take advantage of the honest people that make the city work.  It's an authentic slice of life, closer in look to Naked City than Dragnet.  If you've not seen it, check it out on YouTube, or invest in the box set, because if you like your shows with two-fisted action, hard-nosed cops and cold-blooded killers, you're going to like M Squad.  It stands alone - almost.

Because, of course, there's Police Squad!


Police Squad!, a creation of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, was their follow-up to the big-budget disaster spoof Airplane.  One of the stars in Airplane was Leslie Nielsen, playing against type as a straight-faced doctor who, when someone said to him "Surely you can't be serious," could reply "I am serious... and don't call me Shirley."

In 1982, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker cast Nielsen as the star in their upcoming ABC sitcom, which would do to the stereotypical police drama what Airplane had done for disaster flicks.  Nielsen was to play Frank Drebin, detective lieutenant* for Police Squad, a special branch of the Police Department.  Drebin's boss is Captain Hocken, played by Alan North, who is usually already there when Drebin arrives at the crime scene.  Most of North's lines consist of saying either "Look into it, Frank," or "Do you think that could be it, Frank?" or "Remember to be careful out there, Frank - she's killed before, she won't be afraid to kill again."  This is usually followed by a meaningful pause.

*Actually, he was Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant.  One of the show's many charms.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  While Police Squad! lampooned all cop shows, it was specifically modeled after M Squad and another '60s half-hour drama, Felony Squad.  If you don't believe that, check this out (and make sure to watch part two as well):

One of the comments on this video is right; the M Squad clip should have come first, because after watching Police Squad!, it's going to be impossible to take the same scene seriously.  That's not a knock on the latter, because were it not for Police Squad!'s brilliant satire, you wouldn't look at that episode of M Squad and roll your eyes.  Only the very good and the very bad get satirized; the rest of them don't matter.

M Squad is very good.  And it does matter.

Today's entry is part of the Classic TV Blog Association's "Classic TV Detectives Blogathon" - check the link for other great entries in this week's blogathon!


  1. This show has been on my mind lately as something I should check out. Thought it might be right down my alley. You've convinced me.

  2. I love the Lee Marvin quotes and the labeling of Chicago as Lee's co-star (it was!). Although PETER GUNN is rightly known for its jazzy Henry Mancini score, I also love Count Basie's title tune. I don't remember what original title music sounded like (but that was interesting to learn it won the composer a Grammy). I remember watching M SQUAD as a kid when it was in syndication. That was my introduction to Lee Marvin! He was terrific as the rugged hero, though frankly I am surprised that he lasted that long on a regular series. That kind of routine work doesn't seem consistent with his persona. Glad you included the parallel to POLICE SQUAD, too.

  3. The POLICE SQUAD parallel is amazing. Just love this general era of detective shows, with M Squad, Naked City, Peter Gunn all having that tough vibe. Quite a contrast with the breezier PI shows Warners had at the same time (i.e. 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside 6, etc). Watching M Squad now, you're right, it's really Lee Marvin that elevates it above the others. Great writeup

  4. Great post! Actually perfect, because it's going to send all of scurrying to try to watch episodes of "M Squad"!

  5. I'm ashamed to admit I have never watched a single episode of this show, though I've known about it for quite some time. Maybe this will be the impetus to finally check it out.

  6. Correction to my comment -- Of course I meant to say "send all of US scurrying to try to watch episodes...". It's interesting that I also had not been much aware of this series but came across it when I was doing a birthday post for Marvin a week or so ago. Again, wonderful post! And Marvin -- one of a kind! His childhood was kind of hoity-toity but he became such a tough guy onscreen!

  7. I'm with Rick--the Lee Marvin quotes say alot about the show and his approach. And I'm with Caftan Woman too--I'm convinced I need to watch M Squad immediately. Thanks for this essay!

  8. I'm another who hasn't seen any of this show, but you have inspired me to go looking for it. Great post!

  9. Thanks everyone for the great comments! I've been pressed for time this week, so my apologies that I'm not answering each one individually. I am convinced, however, that I should be getting some kind of commission for the sales of the boxed set! Seriously, it is well worth your time checking out some of the episodes on YouTube, and buying the set if you like it. But be sure you buy Police Squad too!

    Re Marvin doing the series: that stream-of-consciousness interview up there is remarkable - I would have loved to read the reporter's notes as they were talking. I think that Marvin felt, from what I've read elsewhere, that doing the TV thing was part of the progression he had to make in order to advance to the next level, that being movies. He'd done a lot of TV in the Golden Age, had now done a weekly series, and now - if I remember his words - "that's out of the way," or something like that. And indeed, except for his role in the reality show "Lawbreakers," this was it for him as a series television star.

    Glad you all enjoyed the piece!

  10. Great job on the post, Mitchell. Add me to the list of those never having seen M Squad. But I located an episode online and notice some similarities in style to Dragnet which is a plus in my book.

  11. My brother and I never missed M Squad as kids and became life long fans of Lee Marvin.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!