March 17, 2021

What I've been watching: February, 2021

Shows I’ve Watched:
Shows I’ve Found:
The Roaring 20s
T.H.E  Cat
China: The Roots of Madness

The Lone Wolf

I'm now three-deep in the world of the Warner Bros. detective series of the late 1950s and early 1960s, having polished off Bourbon Street Beat and continuing to travel down 77 Sunset Strip. With Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6 still to come, it seemed like a good time to try a slight variation on the theme, which is what Warners must have thought themselves when they introduced The Roaring 20s to the 1960-61 season. 

(L-R) May, Provine, Reason
People sometimes accuse WB of operating an assembly line of cookie-cutter series, but this just isn't true at all. After all, the other shows I mentioned all focus on private investigators, but The Roaring 20s clearly breaks the mold by giving us two newspapermen—Rex Reason as beat reporter Scott Norris and Donald May as columnist Pat Garrison—who, in the course of their reporting day, just happen to act like detectives by solving crimes. Now we're obviously talking about a different genre here. And as their female sidekick, Pinky Pinkham, Dorothy Provine cuts a figure far different from Connie Stevens of Hawaiian Eye; sure, they might both be singers, but Dorothy dances as well, and she owns the Charleston Club, where everyone hangs out when they're not breaking news or solving crimes. Only a pseudo-intellectual could possibly confuse the two. Finally, whereas the other WB detective shows were set in contemporary, glamouous locales like Hawaii, Florida and New Orleans, The Roaring 20s takes place in New York City in, well, the 1920s. 

There is one way in which all these shows are alike, though: they're all dumb fun to watch. I don't mean they're stupid, or that the people watching them are stupid, though certainly some of us are. No, like the other shows from the WB factory, The Roaring 20s doesn't present intellectually stimulating puzzles a la Sherlock Holmes, or feature angst-ridden antiheroes or tackle allegorical social issues. What it does do is give the viewer an hour (minus commercials) of entertainment built around a core of likeable characters whose job is to track down the bad guys before they get away with murder, with just enough period details to remind you that you're in a world where Prohibition is still the law of the land but there isn't an Eliot Ness around to enforce it. And while I'm not sure about you, I can really use that kind of entertainment these days.

Similar to the other WB shows, Reason and May rotate as the leads (except for the first episode, which introduces them both), and occasionally show up in cameos in the other's episode, with Provine the constant every week, singing a song or two and doing the Charleston. For awhile it looked as if that might be all she was going to do, but in the eighth episode, "White Carnation," Pinky gets to take the lead in a story about her old flame (Ray Danton), who's been released from prison on a trumpted-up charge and is out for revenge. TV being what it was back in the '60s, you know the two of them aren't going to wind up together, but even so that doesn't prevent the ending from generating a genuine pathos.

In fact, if there's one actual difference between The Roaring 20s and the other shows from WB, it's that the show plays things pretty straight, with less of the humor that marks the others. I don't mean to suggest that it's humorless—it's too entertaining for that—but there's none of the occasional jokiness or winking moments that one gets used to in, say, 77 Sunset Strip. The closest thing to comic relief is Gary Vinson, who as copy boy Chris Higby serves as a kind of apprentice Jimmy Olson, but they wisely keep him from getting too irritating, and use him mostly as a messenger for plot points.

You're not going to grow brain cells by watching The Roaring 20s, and you won't learn much about the history of the era (although you do get to see some cool stock footage!), but you're probably not going to shout at the screen or wind up hate-watching it, either. These days, you could do a lot worse.

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It might help to think of T.H.E. Cat as a kind of American version of The Saint. Or maybe not. The improbably named Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat—T. Hewitt Edward Cat for short, and what kind of parents name their kid Tom Cat?—comes from a mysterious background: a former circus performer, a retired cat burgler, and now a professional bodyguard who uses his predatory intelligence, his cat-like reflexes, and his knowledge of martial arts in service of clients who need protecting from various baddies. Now that I think about it, with a background like that maybe he's a cross between The Saint and The Equalizer.  

Robert Loggia plays Cat, and he does a good job in the role—a cultivated accent that manages not to sound (too) affected; an agility and abruptness in the way he moves that is, dare we say it, cat-like; and an intimidation factor, whether in suit and tie or his all-black working duds, that must rank somewhere around 9.5 on a scale of 10. Now that I think about it, maybe he's a cross between The Saint, The Equalizer and Palladin in Have GunWill Travel. Anyway, he's the kind of hero where you know he's always going to come out on top, and half the fun is waiting to see him give it to the bad guys. R.G. Armstrong plays Cat's police contact Captain McAllister, who's honest and well-meaning and, well, about as effective as any other police captain in a series where he isn't the star, which is to say that even when he has the building surrounded with an impenetrable ring of steel, the would-be killer finds a way to get inside, leaving it to Cat to save the day. Robert Carricart is appropriately mysterious as Pepe Cordoza, Cat's old friend who owns the restaurant out of which Cat operates. Now that I think of it, maybe that makes it a cross between The Saint, The Equalizer, Have Gun—Will Travel and Peter Gunn.

T.H.E. Cat, which aired on NBC in the 1966-67 season, is from one of those obsolete genres known as the half-hour drama, which occasionally works to the show's disadvantage, requiring a wrap-up that can be both sudden and not quite fully fleshed out. Cat's adversaries (and sometimes his clients as well) also have a tendency to cross the line between enigmatic and eccentric, which can harm the overall dramatic impact. (I will admit, on this point, that it could be my fault, the result of watching T.H.E. Cat on Friday nights after The Wild Wild West and Batman.) It's a quibble, though, because Loggia's charisma in the role—and he has plenty of it—is enough most weeks to carry the show to a satisfying conclusion. And if we added any more shows to the formula, it might collapse under its own weight.

Like so many of the series I talk about in this space, T.H.E. Cat is available only on the gray market, with uneven quality from episode to episode, and it really deserves a commercial release. It might give this Cat at least one more life and the viewers out there one more chance to see a show that deserves a lot more attention.

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From the syndicated files comes 1954's The Lone Wolf, yet another story of a former thief-turned-private detective. Think of him as a cross between Simon Templar* and Hercule Flambeau—no, we're not going there again, even though, Michael Lanyard, like Templar, has a calling card: a medallion depicting a snarling wolf. And, judging by the number of encounters he has through the course of 39 episodes, he must order them by the bulk.

*It's said that The Lone Wolf was, in fact, the inspiration for The Saint

Lanyard is played, convincingly, by Louis Hayward, who projects the right mix of humanity (toward those he considers friends), menace (toward those who try to get in his way), and charm (toward the attractive stewardess, the attractive attendant at the counter, the attractive waitress, etc.). Stories often begin with Lanyard flying halfway around the world simply because a friend calls; along the way, he's subjected to many of the same pitfalls that frustrate private detectives everywhere: clients holding back the entire story, criminals who seem to be one step ahead, women who are as treacherous as they are attractive. He also suffers the same kind of physical punishment as his counterparts, those sucker punches from the guy hiding behind the door or the moll that conks him from behind when he isn't looking. And, of course, he'll even the score (and then some) before the episode's over. In fact, I'd say it's a toss-up as to who's the tougher between Lanyard and Cat (in this contest, the scribes from The Roaring 20s don't even stand a chance), but once Lanyard has the victim on the ropes, he'll beat him to a pulp (or what passes for pulp in the bloodless television of the '50s) until the police, or unconsciousness, intervenes. In it's own way, it's very satisfying. 

So we have a dependable premise and an attractive hero. What we don't always have is a convincing story; sometimes the solution is too easy, or too obvious, or too rushed—that old half-hour constraint again, although I ought to add that 30 minutes is about the right length here, and keeps the action going at a tidy pace. And, like other programs from the early '50's it's always fun to see actors in supporting parts who go on to pretty successful careers: Ernest Borgnine, DeForest Kelley, Harry Morgan, Marjorie Lord, Barbara Billingsley, Beverly Garland, and more. All 39 episodes of the series are available on YouTube, and while it's not going to win any awards, it will keep you entertained for a half-hour, and make you wish you had someone like Mike Lanyard on your side. TV  


  1. Paperback TV.
    That's what a friend of mine called series like these three - along with many others of this time frame ('50s to early '60s at the least).

    Alongside the plethora of Westerns, crime shows like these were the lifeblood of filmed television - much as the genre digest magazines were on America's newsstands during this period.
    (In an earlier era, they might have been called Pulp TV, but times, and publishing media, were evolving.)
    This is my youth we're talking about here; I'll have to stand down for the moment to go to Ye Olde DVD Wall and double-check things.
    I just wanted to stake my claim here; back later ...

  2. I loved "T.H.E. Cat" back in the day, and even then I could tell it owed a big debt to "Peter Gunn." Harsh opening title graphics (to a big first note of the theme), he hung out at a nightclub (and I seem to remember Lalo Schifrin actually playing in the combo in one episode), and there was even a moody little animation at the end of each act leading into the commercials. And I think the only cover of Schifrin's theme was done by Al Hirt on his "Green Hornet" album.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!