JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

The Case of the Incompetent Cross-Examination

Another old black and white TV series that I’ve recently added to my Plex streaming library is the original 1957 Raymond Burr 271-episode Perry Mason show.

Perry Mason The Complete Series DVD

Perry Mason The Complete Series DVD

The show started airing when I was in third grade, but I’m not sure just when I began watching it. It’s all sort of confused with the Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason whodunits, which were among the best-selling paperbacks in those days.

My mother was a big fan of the books, and there were always a few Perry Mason paperbacks lying around the house. At some point I began to read them as well, but whether it was before or after I started watching the TV show, I don’t know.

The cover to The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll, a typical cover for a Perry Mason paperback

I do know that by fifth grade I was an avid reader of the Mason whodunits, because of an incident that occurred on a class trip to the Capitol in Harrisburg. During a visit to a gift shop, I spied the rack of paperbacks and discovered a Perry Mason novel that we did not yet have, but when I tried to buy it, the sales clerk turned to our teacher, Miss Klopp (that would be Miss Irene Klopp) to see if it would be all right to sell it to me. You see, the Mason paperbacks invariably featured an illustration of a woman in a provocative pose, which generally promised a much more salacious read than was actually delivered. Miss Klopp sharply questioned me, and once I understood that they thought the book was too adult for me, I explained that my mother always read the books first and only allowed me to read them if she thought they were suitable. There was a kernel of truth in that. Anyway, they allowed me to make the purchase.

The Perry Mason whodunits first appeared in the 1930s, and I don’t think they ever lost the 30s atmosphere. They were filled with foot-loose dolls, negligent nymphs, and spurious spinsters, and the characters uttered epithets like “Hell’s bells!”

I learned lots of useful things from the Mason novels, as Gardner tried to keep the forensic science and legal gymnastics as accurate as possible within the confines of his twisty, turny plots. So I became quite an expert on rigor mortis, how long after death it would take to manifest, how long it would last, and various techniques for delaying or extending it. Sticking the corpse into a freezer was a good one.

And there were lots of legal terms to learn like habeas corpus, corpus delecti, and the differences between the various types of murder: 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, premeditated, etc. And many very useful phrases such as “I object, your honor. That question is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial and not proper cross-examination.” I used that on my teachers a lot. (Not.)

Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale as Perry Mason and Della Street

I probably started watching the TV series around the same time that I started reading the novels. For me Raymond Burr is Perry Mason, Barbara Hale is Della Street, William Hopper is Paul Drake, and William Talman is Hamilton Burger. Only Ray Collins fails as Lt. Tragg; he’s too old compared to the character in the books although otherwise he’s perfectly fine.

Anyway, I was curious to see how the Perry Mason shows would stand up after all this time, and to my delight, they hold up quite well. Erle Stanley Gardner maintained tight control over the scripts, and he was adamant about keeping the characters true to the spirit of the books and keeping the courtroom and other legal procedures accurate. He went through a dozen writers before he settled on a group that could give him what he wanted, thus delaying the show for a year. So the shows are reasonably faithful to the books; the main problem is fitting so much plot into 53 minutes (TV shows didn’t have so many commercials in those days).

Oh, and I’ve also found The Perry Mason Book: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s Favorite Defender of Justice to be an invaluable resource. It has detailed information on Erle Stanley Gardner, the Perry Mason novels, comics, movies, radio shows, as well as the TV series (all of them) with interesting info about each episode. And no spoilers.

My only beef: With all that data (the print edition runs over a thousand pages) there’s nary a word about the Perry Mason theme music or how it came to be written. That jazzy theme (actual title “Park Avenue Beat”) by Fred Steiner is one of the all time top themes ever created for a TV series. There’s got to be a story behind it!

Update: I just realized that I wanted to name this “The Case of the Improper Cross-Examination” not “Incompetent”, but as my mother used to say, I schussled.

Do-do-do-do Do-do-do-do

I’m in the process of adding another classic television program to my Plex library, even though this one is currently available on Netflix.

“Why?” I hear you ask. Well, in the case of the Blu-ray edition of The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series, there are tons of extra features that make it worthwhile, not to mention that TV shows have a habit of disappearing from Netflix without warning. The extra features include things like un-aired pilots and lots of audio commentaries to individual episodes, as well as isolated music tracks to some of the episodes.

The Blu-ray, alas, is out of print, but happily I managed to snag a copy at a reasonable price.

Agnes Moorehead in The Invaders

I can still recall my first viewing of some of the famous episodes. For example, Agnes Moorehead, in what may be her greatest performance, in The Invaders (Season 2 Episode 15), is alone in an isolated cabin when her tranquil life is disturbed by tiny invaders from some unknown world. The episode is entirely devoid of dialog and is unforgettable. At least I never forgot it after seeing it when it first aired. And like so many of the best Twilight Zone episodes, I learned a valuable lesson from it.

The bandaged woman in Eye of the Beholder

Another episode that taught me a useful lesson while scaring the bejesus out of me was Eye of the Beholder, which aired on 11 November, 1960 (Episode 6 of Season 2), when I was 11. I remember watching it with my uncle Reed. It was about a horribly disfigured woman who had undergone several rounds of plastic surgery in a desperate attempt to correct the problem so that she could live a normal life. Her face was completely bandaged during the course of the episode which was clearly building up to a climax where the bandages would be removed. It got so intense that my 11-year-old self covered my eyes at the big reveal because I was sure that the surgery had failed once again, but then Reed said something that surprised me, and I uncovered my eyes just in time for the actual big reveal. Boy, I didn’t see that one coming. Donna Douglas, shortly before she became famous as Ellie May Clampett, starred. Strangely, Rod Serling, in his closing commentary, seemed to completely miss the point of the piece.

And then there was Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Season 5 Episode 3), where William Shatner played a man who might or might not be seeing a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Was he really seeing it? Nobody else did. Or was he having a recurrence of his nervous breakdown? In this one the big shock actually comes about halfway through. I’m not sure I learned a valuable lesson from this one, but it sure was memorable.

William Shatner in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Thank You, Gracie Allen!

Gracie Allen

While doing today's New York Times crossword puzzle, I came across this clue:

13d. Shortest-serving U.S. vice president (31 days)

Without hesitation I filled in the answer:

TYLER

That I know that answer and can retrieve it so handily is all because of Gracie Allen. Here's why.

In 1811 William Henry Harrison became famous for his victory over American Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and Tippecanoe became his nickname. So in 1840 when he ran for President of the United States, he used the campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!", John Tyler being his Vice-Presidential running mate.  

Alas, Harrison didn't get to enjoy his newly won office for very long, as 31 days after his inauguration he succumbed to pneumonia, making his presidency the shortest so far, and consequently Tyler's the shortest Vice-Presidency.

I could recall Tyler's name so quickly because the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" is one of those trivial facts that seems to be burned indelibly in my mind. And the first time I ever heard that slogan was from Gracie Allen in one of her wacky non sequitur replies on an episode of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show from the 1950s. This was long before I had any idea of what that slogan meant.

So thank you, Gracie Allen!

 

 

Now That's REAL Class Warfare!

The Starz series Spartacus is available on Netflix.

Now that the complete series is available, I've started watching Spartacus on Netflix.

I was initially a bit turned off by the depiction of extreme violence on the battlefield and in the gladiatorial arena, but I soon became engrossed in the story-telling and the intertwining plot-lines of the various characters.

Spartacus (111–71 BCE) is, of course, an actual historical figure, though not too much is known about him.

He was probably a Thracian who served in the Roman army and eventually ended up a slave, forced to fight as a gladiator.

He's most famous for escaping with a gang of fellow slaves and leading them into a full scale revolt against the Roman Republic. It's not known what his actual intentions were, but he is commonly portrayed as wanting to end the oppression of the underclass by the wealthy and powerful–Rome's one percenters, if you will.

Jai Courtney as Varro and Andy Whitfield as Spartacus

It was Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome's wealthiest citizen and destined to be one third of the First Triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey), who eventually put down the slave revolt and crucified several thousand survivors along the Appian Way.

There have been many depictions of Spartacus over the years. Howard Fast's novel Spartacus was written in 1951 during the McCarthy era as a reaction to his imprisonment for contempt of Congress for refusing to name names.

In 1960 that novel was made into a motion picture, also called Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas.

Lucy Lawless portrays a brutally cunning Lucretia, the wife of Batiatus, the owner of the Ludus

The Starz production of Spartacus goes in its own direction. I've only watched the first season so far, but I know that the series lead, Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with cancer shortly after completion of that season, delaying production of season two. Eventually it became clear he would not recover, and the role was recast. Whitfield died shortly thereafter.

Unlike many other dramatizations of ancient Rome, this Spartacus makes no effort to differentiate the various classes by their accents. Thus we have all the characters, highborn and low, Roman and non-Roman, upstairs (in the villa) and downstairs (in the ludus (gladiatorial school)) speaking the same slightly stilted dialog.

I finally realized that the somewhat awkward dialog (“You think this makes difference? My death will not heal scars you bare.”) is an attempt to provide a Latin-ish feel to the proceedings, as if the dialog is a literal translation from Latin. Latin is a highly inflected language and doesn't have articles (“a”, “an”, “the”) so it can be more expressive with fewer words.

And then there's the violence. Yes, there is a lot of it, and very graphic it is, but in a comic book kind of way. Practically all the blood is digital blood, splashing out in all directions; presumably a choice by the production team to make the violence a bit more palatable.

The tattoo on this fugitive slave's forehead should have been spelled "FVGITIVVS"

Although I'm far from an expert on ancient Rome, the period of the fall of the Republic and rise of the emperors has always held a special fascination for me. To my eye the production team has done a fine job of keeping historical details reasonably accurate, so I was a bit dismayed to see one of the slaves with the word "FUGITIVUS" tattooed on his forehead.

The problem is that during that period of Roman history, the alphabet didn't differentiate between the vowel sound "U" and its consonantal sound "W"–both sounds were spelled with a "U", but at that time the "U" looked like our modern "V", the letter "V" not having been invented yet. So the Latin word for fugitive would have been spelled "FVGITIVVS".

BTW, if you've ever wondered why the name of our modern "W" is "Double-U" when it clearly looks more like a "Double-V", now you know. See Letter Perfect by David Sacks for more information.

If you don't mind the gore, or are willing to put up with it in order to see some outstanding story-telling with brutal plot twists, I can highly recommend this series. One word of caution though: don't look at the cast list on the main imdb.com page (the individual episode pages are fine) as you'll discover that some cast members, especially ones that you might expect to stick around awhile, have relatively short lives. Similarly, don't read the triva on the episode pages, as there are some major spoilers that aren't marked as such. If you need some help keeping the characters straight, I'd recommend the episode synopses on the Spartacus wiki, but there again, don't stray too far, as the individual character pages are filled with spoilers.

The Sound of Music TiVoed

Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer as Maria and Captain von Trapp

Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer as Maria and Captain von Trapp

Via the science of DVRs, I finally got around to watching NBC's presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's final collaboration, "The Sound of Music", and I must say that I rather enjoyed it. Eight stars out of ten.

Now "The Sound of Music" is not one of my favorite things (all those nuns and children, so much godly stuff), but it does have a tuneful score, and since they performed (mostly) the original stage play rather than the bowdlerized movie version, they included two of the best songs, the cynical "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way To Stop It" about the inevitable Nazi take-over of the world. OK, that's overstating it a bit; that song is also about Elsa's realization that she can't marry a "dewy-eyed idealist" like Captain von Trapp.

Carrie Underwood and the children

Carrie Underwood and the children

I must give a nod to NBC, not just for airing the show, but for (mostly) avoiding extraneous and distracting overlays; they even played the ending credits without an annoying voice over. Though I could have done with fewer commercial interruptions; thank goodness for the skip-ahead button.

The cast was (mostly) up to the task of presenting a musical on live TV. It's always great to see Christian Borle and Audra McDonald, and they were classy as Max and the Mother Abbess. Carrie Underwood, while she didn't erase memories of Mary Martin (and why should she?), proved herself to be an accomplished musical actress in the role of Maria. Only Stephen Moyer, as an overly stiff von Trapp, was somewhat disappointing. Even the children were (mostly) not overly cute.

Stephen Moyer and Christian Borle as von Trapp and Max

Stephen Moyer and Christian Borle as von Trapp and Max

The main problem with this production, however (as distinct from the material itself), was the off-kilter sound; the orchestra often overwhelmed the voices, sometimes even during the underscoring.

But enough quibbles. I enjoyed it. I hope NBC (or some other network) does more like it. That's all that needs to be said.

Breaking Bad -- The Menu!

So I decided to have lunch at Sabrina's Cafe, and it seems I just can't get away from Breaking Bad

So I decided to have Skylar's 'Have an A1 Day' Stuffed French Toast.  

It was a bit much, but delicious! 

Skylar's 'Have an A1 Day' Stuffed French Toast at Sabrina's Cafe

Felina

So who knew Walter White would transform into Momma Rose, right before our eyes? 

"I did it for me." 

Walter White confesses to being Momma Rose the whole time. "I did it for me." 

The series finale of Breaking Bad was possibly the most satisfying finale of any show I've ever seen. It hit all the right notes, but for the most part I didn't see any of it coming. 

The West Wing--10+ Years Later

Allison Janney, who played CJ Cregg on The West Wing

Allison Janney, who played CJ Cregg on The West Wing

When The West Wing first aired in 1999, I almost didn't watch it, as I thought there was no way that commercial broadcast television could possibly do justice to the premise.

But I was wrong, and while the show did tend to simplify issues to get them to resolve in the 42-minute-plus-commercials format, it did a credible job of giving viewers a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in the White House.

At least it did until Aaron Sorkin left the show and it became The West Wing for Dummies. But I digress.

Recently I re-viewed the first season to see how it would hold up more than ten years later (although I have the DVDs of the first three seasons, it is far more convenient to view it streaming on Netflix).

And the answer is: pretty, pretty well.

Sorkin's dialog is still as fresh and snappy as ever, and the main characters are all well drawn, though I do find Martin Sheen's Josiah Bartlet a bit on the precious side. The theme music seems a bit pompous in retrospect, but overall the series still works.

(I wonder if Sorkin was a fan of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because he seems to build the season arc, foreshadowing events to come, in a similar fashion. Or maybe it's just good story-telling technique.)

From this perspective, it's fascinating to see how blatant Leo McGarry's sexism is. And the Apple logo on the notebook computers is still upside down.

And then there are all the actors in small parts who would go on to bigger and better things. There's Lisa Edelstein as a call girl, well before she became the the boss of Dr. House; and Reiko Aylesworth before she worked at CTU; and most startling of all is Lance Reddick in a barely credited role as a cop just before The Wire.

And I had forgotten just how much I have in common with Toby Ziegler: