June 29, 2022

Shows I've been watching: May, 2022



Shows I’ve Watched:
Shows Next on the List:
Dante
Surfside 6
The Rat Patrol
The Baron
Tightrope



Xhen it comes to half-hour television programs, we've been conditioned to think, first and foremost, of the sitcom. That wasn't always the case, of course; back in the late 1950s, there were often 20 or more half-hour dramas on the tube. Shows like Gunsmoke and Naked City started out at 30 minutes before expanding to an hour*, and series from Dragnet, The Rebel, Whispering Smith and Adam-12 to Peter Gunn, N.Y.P.D., Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt never found the need to stray beyond their original length.

*The Twilight Zone had one occasionally successful season at an hour before returning to 30 minutes.

This isn't meant to be a TV history primer, but noticed that half-hour dramas have popped up frequently in this feature over the past couple of years. And guess what! You're in for some more this month, with varying results. 

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When I was a kid, I remember enjoying The Rat Patrol, that World War II adventure series about four guys in two jeeps who seem to take on the entire Afrika Korps every week, blowing up cargo supply depots, foiling German plots, and generally making a nuisance of themselves whenever those Nazis in their sand-colored uniforms show up. I'm glad to have it in the collection, particularly since it seems, in retrospect, to be an odd choice for DVD release. 

Christopher George and Lawrence Casey
However, to present-day eyes (and those are the only ones worth considering, as far as this goes), The Rat Patrol seems to fall somewhere in-between Hogan's Heroes and Garrison's Gorillas, and not in a good way. For one thing, the commander of the group, Sergeant Sam Troy (Christopher George), has a way of rubbing one wrong. As a leader, he can be abrasive, creating doubt among the three men under his command. He never refers to them by their first names, and despite the amount of time they spend together, there's no particular suggestion of a personal, comradery relationship between the quartet. I realize that this may be the way it actually was over there, and I thank God that I've never had to find out for myself, but there's still a Band of Brothers vibe missing.

Actually, if it were left up to me, the group would be headed up by the Brit in the unit, Sergeant Jack Moffitt (Gary Raymond). He often appears more perceptive than Troy, sizes up situations quickly, and displays a humanity, an ability to understand the others in the group, that frequently seems to elude Troy. I'm thinking particularly about an early episode in which Moffitt's father is being flown to assist with a mission due to his expertise in Arab archaeology. When dad's plane crashes, Troy is dead-set against heading to the wreck to see if there were any survivors, insisting they proceed with the mission. Not only is Moffitt outraged by the decision, but the other two members of the unit, Hitchcock and Pettigrew (Lawrence Casey and Justin Tarr) seem to question him as well. I realize that Hogan's Heroes was a sitcom, but Hogan always managed to balance the needs of the mission with the needs of his men in such a way that neither his superiors nor those under his command lost confidence in him. More than once, I've felt Troy bordered on being relieved of his command, but again, I'm no expert.

It's true that Garrison's Gorillas, with an hour to play with, manages to offer us stories that are far more fleshed out than the often-truncated missions that the Rat Patrol go on, but I think you also have to acknowledge that Lieutenant Garrison is a better strategist, a better leader of men, a better inspirer of confidence, than Troy. His men are also tougher; in a showdown between the two, I'd take the Gorillas over the Rats any day. Or Hogan and his heroes, for that matter.

The real star of the show
Oddly, what often saves The Rat Patrol is the appearance of the German commander, Captain Hans Deitrich, played by Hans Gudegast—or, as we know and love him from The Young and the Restless, Eric Braeden. Not only is he by far the best actor on the show, he displays a far more nuanced character than any of the Americans. In several episodes he shows a humanity that we don't necessarily associate with Nazi officers—but then, as also becomes apparent, Deitrich is likely no Nazi himself, just a professional soldier, one who would probably never carry out the atrocities that so many did in Europe. (He must have some political acumen to keep his own command though, considering how many times he loses to Troy when they face each other in battle. And if this isn't treasonous to admit, I sometimes find myself rooting for him to come out on top at least once, like the Trix rabbit.) A la Lieutenant Gerard in The Fugitive, Deitrich is not in every episode, but he makes those that he is in better for his presence. While ABC kept The Rat Patrol on maneuvers for two seasons, Garrison's Gorillas only lasted one. I think they picked the wrong show myself.

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It's not quite "all Howard Duff, all the time" here, but in addition to his regular Thursday appearances on Felony Squad, we've just completed the run of his single-season half-hour series Dante, which ran for 30 episodes in 1960-61 on NBC. The always-reliable Wikipedia describes Dante as an "adventure/drama" series, and I suppose that's accurate as far as it goes, but you also have to realize that any series created by Blake Edwards is going to have a bit less gravitas than, say, Götterdämmerung. Put another way: if you liked Richard Diamond and Peter Gunn, you're probably going to like Dante.

Unlike those other two shows, Willie Dante (Duff) is not a private detective, although he does spend most of his time solving crimes that involve him either directly or indirectly. No, he's a restauranteur in San Francisco, and I guess we can blame Gordon Ramsay for not having come along twenty years earlier to show us just how dramatic a series about a restaurant could be. Actually, there's plenty of drama implied, since Willie used to straddle both sides of the law, running a previous incarnation of his restaurant—named "Dante's Inferno," naturally—with an illegal gambling joint in the back room. Willie's gone straight since then, along with his two associates, Maitre d' Stewart (Alan Mowbray) and bartender Biff (Tom D'Andrea), who go back a long time with Willie and also know how to play the game. They also aren't afraid to exert a little muscle, although Willie can throw a right as well as anyone.

Howard Duff and Alan Mowbray
And it's a good thing he can. You see, even though Willie's an honest businessman now, nobody really believes that. The police don't, and they're constantly suspecting Willie of not telling all he knows whenever something suspicious comes up (which is roughly every episode). His former underworld cronies don't, and they're always trying to move in for a piece of the action on a game that doesn't exist. Even Biff encourages him to get at least a little action going, but those days are long gone for Willie; his establishment may be called "Dante's Inferno," but it would appear that this is a circle that Willie himself doesn't want to visit.

There's a healthy dose of humor in each episode, an Edwards trademark, and the three regulars are enjoyable to watch. Duff in particular is always good, and he makes you kind of wish that the writers wrote stories that demanded more of him, because he can handle it. Interestingly enough, Dante—like Richard Diamond before it—started out as a series of eight dramas on Four Star Playhouse, played by Dick Powell,* and these take place as a prequel, before Willie gets out of the gambling business. The tone of Powell's Dante is slightly darker than the series, and Powell once again proves just how well he made that transaction from song-and-dance man to two-fisted noir star. This isn't a knock on the series, though; Dante will never win any awards, and it doesn't go very deep, but it will provide you with an entertaining half-hour that's enjoyable, straightforward, and unencumbered by the neuroses of today's storylines, and that works for me.

*Powell also played the original Amos Burke of Burke's Law.

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How about an hour-long show to top things off? The Baron is yet another ABC series, this one an import from the Brits (it was a prime time for imports; The Avengers, Secret Agent, The Saint, The Prisoner, The Protectors, The Persuaders!, etc.), and, in fact, if you want a thumbnail description of the series, it would be "The Saint as played by an American." 

The titular Baron is John Mannering (Steve Forrest*), a successful and wealthy American antiques dealer working in London, with a sideline gig as an occasional secret operative for British intelligence. His frequent travels and hobnobbing with rich clients make him a perfect choice for undercover missions, and because of his reputation, his expertise, and his numerous contacts, he occasionally finds himself involved in adventures that are, for lack of a better word, freelancing. 

*I always, always forget that Steve Forrest's brother was Dana Andrews, until I run across it again.

To be upfront, The Baron is going to fall into the "fun" category of shows that I review here. It's not as good as The Saint, hardly as thought-provoking as The Prisoner, and not as much fun as The Persuaders! It doesn't have to be, though, and it does have several advantages. First and foremost, by casting an actual American in the role of the Baron, you're already guaranteed a level of authenticity that's often missing in British shows. Second, while Forrest isn't a great actor, he's a good one, and makes a good presence; smooth, likeable, clever, and convincing as an educated man who can also be a very tough one (he was a former Army captain during World War II). If you think "Roger Moore lite," you wouldn't be far off the mark. It also doesn't hurt that he's often assisted by Sue Lloyd as Cordelia Winfield, a "regular" agent. And of course it has the British "sound"—not the accents, although they're there, but the music by Edwin Astley

Terry Nation is the script supervisor for The Baron, and if you know your British television, you'll recognize him as the creator of Doctor Who's Daleks. And while the Baron doesn't run into anyone that bad, he'll meet plenty of nasty people along the way, and you'll be glad you're on his side. The Baron doesn't have a regular place on the Hadley television schedule; it fills in on Saturday nights when our Saturday-night movie runs short, and that seems to be the perfect place for it. TV  

3 comments:

  1. This is about The Baron, and about how you fotgot to identify the author of the long-running series of novels that the series was based on - the great British mystery writer, John Creasey.
    When you get the chance, go to YouTube and check out To Tell The Truth from September 16, 1963, when John Creasey appeared with two impostors to play against the panel.
    I won't say anything else about the spot; let it come as a surprise to you.
    I'll just add here that in the Baron novels, John Mannering is definitely British; Creasey was alive and publishing when the TV series was made, and was no doubt fully compensated for the use of the character.
    Anyway, it's an enjoyable TTTT spot, So There Too ...

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    1. I've always thought there was something wrong with me because I've never got on with the Baron at all, but devoured Creasey's Toff books as a child. Incidentally that's an impressive list of dozens of pen names on his Wikipedia page!

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    2. Chicago Calling (Hi there, John!):
      Remember when I mentioned John Creasey's appearance on To Tell The Truth in your blog (in connection with the Gideon's Way series)?
      I'm just wondering if you ever took the time to seek that YouTube out for yourself; it's really a lot of fun - especially the opening.

      Oh, and Mitchell - that goes for you as well.
      And after that, look up John Creasey's whole life; he was quite an interesting character ...

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