BluRay/DVD Reviews

DICK POWELL’S THE ZANE GREY THEATRE – SEASON ONE (VC ENTERTAINMENT)

By • Apr 6th, 2014 •

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Dick Powell must have had mucho pull among his peers. The roster of A & B level stars guesting on his show is formidable. Just glance up at the tip of the iceberg to see what I mean. And for the most part they are served well by taut scripts with compelling character arcs.

I will be wending my way through all 29 episodes over the coming weeks (and months) but I feel I should report in on what I’ve seen thus far.

COURAGE IS A GUN – a well-structured teleplay drives this unique variation on the trigger-happy young gunslinger and the older, more mellowed Marshall. Good twists abound, side-stepping the clichés of the concept. Dick Powell and Beverly Garland give grounded performances alongside the sweaty, overwrought, yet often quite effective Robert Vaughn (who would later play someone wiser, more cautious, but just as overwrought and sweaty in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). A satisfying episode. Who is director John English? Not surprisingly, he was born in England. Did a ton of films from the 30s to the 50s, predominantly westerns, including serials like THE LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN and ZORRO’S FIGHTING LEGION. After that it was episodic TV work, everything from ‘The Gene Autry Show’ to ‘Mike Hammer.’

LARIAT – This episode doesn’t do well by Jack Palance. First of all (and this may seem trivial, and maybe it is, but it still matters), it’s pretty clear that he can’t wield a lariat, and it’s equally clear that Dick Powell can’t use one either (in the intro). But that’s the least of it. Palance looks great, and holds one’s attention on the screen (how could he not), but the narrative feels rushed, cramming too much into the 25-minute parameters. And the direction doesn’t always bring out the right emotions from the characters. I had trouble buying the key beats in the second half. Again, it was very nice to have Palance on board. I hope I find that he does another one in the next season.

Ralph Meeker stars in A TIME TO LIVE, hot on the heels of his nihilistic, misogynistic performance as Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s classic lunatic noir, KISS ME DEADLY. Again, we’ve got a solid, cliché-dodging script, this time by Aaron Spelling. Possibly intentionally, the story frame resembles that of another classic noir, DOA, only this time it’s in Western clothing. Steve Elkins (Meeker) is shot in the chest during a robbery, is told he has six months to live, and is determined to find his killers and pay them back. But it proves to be not nearly as simple a task as he would have liked. The dreamy Julie London gets to sing abridged versions of ‘Ten Thousand Years’ and ‘Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,’ which is a great and unexpected treat for us. London started singing in clubs when she was fifteen, and at this point in her career it was what she did best, though when she implores Meeker, “Don’t leave me” it is with great conviction. This is a fine episode, and interestingly (a sign of the times, I guess), the songs aren’t credited in the end title sequence.

BADGE OF HONOR is an adequate episode, but it’s also an important one. The opening title reads ‘Introducing Robert Culp.’ And it’s instantly apparent that he has star quality. Culp was one of the best actors of his generation, and he was a fine screenwriter and a good director as well. He expanded a previously-written article for me, at my request, while I was editing ‘The Perfect Vision Magazine,’ about his friend Sam Peckinpah. Culp was a bright, tough guy who could not tolerate fools, or even moderately intelligent people. He tolerated me until I apparently fell below these standards by pointing out some flaws in THE WILD BUNCH. BADGE OF HONOR became the pilot for his own show, TRACKDOWN, but if this one hadn’t done the trick, another soon would have. He was destined to take his place in Hollywood (and in particular, TV) history.

Powell lets the audience know that the star of BLACK CREEK ENCOUNTER (aired in March, ’57) is “Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine.” The actor’s win for MARTY occurred two years earlier, in ’55, and he had since appeared in Sterling Hayden’s version of the battle of the Alamo, THE LAST COMMAND. He’s effective here as a repentant gunfighter, goaded to put on his weapons again by Jan Merlin as Davey Harper, the son of one of his victims. Adding to his dilemma, Borgnine has a son of his own, played by Billy Chapin (of Charles Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, also made in ’55, though Chapin looks younger here than he did in that classic fantasy-noir). The crisis is compelling, but the twist ending doesn’t quite work, despite a determined effort to set it up in the script. Perhaps Merlin, who played western villains many times, wasn’t up to this particular twist. Or perhaps Roy (THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE) Del Ruth couldn’t find the correct directorial path. But a more likely explanation is that what works well on paper sometimes just falls short of success when transposed to celluloid, translated by a whole passel of flesh-and-blood actors and sundry crew members.

Speaking of Sterling Hayden, Powell’s got him for THE NECESSARY BREED, directed by Christian (THE THING) Nyby, and penned by Clarke (SHALAKO, THE VIKING QUEEN) Reynolds. This was five years after he testified before the HUAC blacklist-brigade as a cooperative witness, naming names of fellow filmmakers and helping to ruin their careers, an act he rued for the rest of his life. It’s very possibly not a co-incidence that he plays a reviled bounty-hunter who is shunned by everyone, including the woman who once loved him, for making money in this degraded way (and as Doug Pratt mentioned in his ‘DVD Newsletter’ review of the collection, the HUAC metaphor surfaces elsewhere in this first season). The 6’ 5” Hayden appears to be utterly uncomfortable in his own skin. Large and hulking, dominating the frame but in an awkward, misshapen way, he’s a wonder to behold. Released in February, 1957, a year after his fatalistic performance in Kubrick’s THE KILLING, this is essential viewing for Hayden completists. Now if only his 1958 performance (Season 2, episode 5) for the Goodyear Theater would become available (hint, hint, VCI…) [Incidentally, this is the episode where Powell, in his intro, displays a rather amusing Wanted Poster. To say any more would be a spoiler of a diminutive kind.]

THREE GRAVES – An amazing showcase for a young but precocious Jack Lemmon, this role easily cold have resulted in him making the short list for MAVERICK. He’s got the charm (perhaps not as much as the incomparable James Garner, but certainly as much or more than Jack Kelly), the easy humor, the frenetic Lemmon Voice Over delivery, and the ability to be dramatic (or at least serious) when need be. In the story, his character concocts a clever way to profit from a town that forbids the carrying of fire-arms…but of course, things rarely go the way they’re planned. James (KILLER SHREWS – ’59; RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS – 2013) Best essays a villainous role with aplomb.

RETURN TO NOWHERE – Children are used as moral levers in a few episodes. The child here (Jimmy Baird) is one of many SHANE clones. He peers under the doors to a saloon to watch his new idol out-draw someone (a memorable moment from SHANE), and even has more than a passing resemblance to Brandon de Wilde. Stephen McNally, who I never felt one way or the other about, displays a fine range of emotions here as a gunman returning after eight years to reclaim his wife, only to find that she has remarried…the sheriff. Audrey Totter is okay. John Ireland is good, but doesn’t have enough to do. Ralph Moody, as a grizzled old town denizen, shows how a minor roll in a half hour series episode can still make a big impression in the right hands.

VENGEANCE CANYON – Walter Brennan anchors an odd multi-plotted narrative. A young, affable guy (Ben Cooper) is seeking his father…in order to kill him, and he goes practically psycho whenever the topic comes up. Brannan and two cohorts are fleeing with bank robbery loot and the blood of a dead child on their hands. Added to this, they’re in Commanche territory and their demise is all but inevitable. Robert (1932’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE) Florey directs, and some of the emotional flips miss their mark. Conversely, a few of the plot points are telegraphed. The final shots, however, are quite powerful, with a CITY LIGHTS vibe.

This series ran for five seasons, ending in 1961, was comprised of 146 episodes, and wrapped production two years before Powell succumbed to THE CONQUEROR Disease. He’s a good host, and series screenwriter Aaron Spelling provided him with well-researched, relatively-relevant monologues leading into each episode.

VCI apologizes at the beginning of each episode for the occasional missing moments of these Powell’s prologues, trimmed by previous licensors of the show to delete commercial breaks. Those trims are noticeable at times, but never ruin the fun.

I can’t wait to watch the rest!

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