Monday, January 14, 2019

25 Greatest Classic TV Series

In 2012, I became one of the founding members of the Classic TV Blog Association (CTVBA), a fabulous group of bloggers who celebrate classic television. This year, the CTVBA embarked on its most ambitious project to date: a list of the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series.

Our definition of "classic" was any prime-time TV series that began broadcasting prior to 1990. Each member applied his or her own criteria in nominating series. My criteria were quality, enduring popularity, and social influence. Over 55 shows were nominated in the first round of voting, but only 29 made it to the second and final round.

Here is the final official list of the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series (for more details, check out the CTVBA web site):

1.    The Twilight Zone
2.    I Love Lucy 
3.    The Mary Tyler Moore Show
4.    Columbo
5.    All in the Family
6.    Dragnet
7.    Monty Python’s Flying Circus
8.    Star Trek
9.    The Prisoner
10.  M*A*S*H
11.  The Dick Van Dyke Show
12.  The Fugitive
13.  Dallas
14.  Doctor Who
15.  The Andy Griffith Show
16.  The Defenders
17.  The Golden Girls
18.  Perry Mason
19.  SCTV
20.  The Honeymooners
21.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents
22.  Hill Street Blues
23.  The Odd Couple
24.  The Outer Limits
25.  The Avengers

Honorable Mentions:  Get Smart, The Ed Sullivan Show, Leave It to Beaver, and WKRP in Cincinnati.

I think it's a pretty strong list overall, but there were some definite surprises. I can't argue with The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy in the top two spots. Both were landmark TV series that are just as good today as when they debuted.

David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble.
However, my choice for #1 spot was The Fugitive. I can think of no other TV series that was as uniformly strong for a three-year period (and the fourth season was also good). This modern-day Les Miserables turned Dr. Kimble and Lieutenant Gerard into iconic characters. The two-part series finale was a national phenomenon, with the last episode earning the highest Nielsen rating of any regular TV series until M*A*S*H eclipsed it.

The Defenders belongs in the Top Five. It boasted superb writing and acting, plus it explored some of the most complex social issues of the 1960s. Indeed, many of its episodes seem just as timely today. I suspect its too-low ranking may have been a case of not enough voters having seen The Defenders.

Beaver and his father.
Leave It to Beaver, which is relegated to an honorable mention, is one of the finest family sitcoms. The dialogue and plots are remarkably realistic and many of my favorite episodes are the ones in which Ward Cleaver admits to one of his shortcomings as a parent. There were many good family sitcoms, but Beaver was one of the best.

While I watched Dragnet (the 1967-70 version mostly), I wouldn't rank it among the greatest classic TV series. Yes, it was one of the first radio hits to make a successful transition to television, the music remains recognizable, and there were some famous quotes. But the repetitious formula caused me to lose interest quickly.

Peter Falk as Columbo.
Likewise, Columbo seems ranked too high. Don't get me wrong, Peter Falk is a fine actor and he makes Lieutenant Columbo one of the great TV characters--but the show's formula also wore thin despite the production of fewer episodes than most series. I suspect I'm in the minority here since Columbo is still in heavy rotation on cable television thanks to Falk and his guest star murderers.

Finally, The Odd Couple was a good show with a funny premise, strong characters, and two terrific actors--but it doesn't belong among the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series.

Of course, any "greatest" list is bound to stir some debate...and that's part of the fun! What do you think of the Classic TV Blog Association's 25 Greatest Classic TV Series list?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Three-Word Movie Game

Today, we're trying out a new game in which we describe a movie in three words and ask you to name it. That sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Most of the questions below are pretty easy, but there are a few that might pose a challenge. Please answer only three per day so other people can play. There is a "best answer" for question, but other answers may be possible. Let us you know if you enjoy this game!

1. Inn, Vermont, snow.

2. Holmes, phantom, Canada.

3. Vampire, mother, windmill.

4. Newlywed, housekeeper, mansion.

5. Farmer, gunfighter, boy.

6. Binoculars, camera, cast.

7. Robot, diamonds, elevator.

8. Physician, slave, pirate.

9. Dog, orphans, grave.

10. Murder, South (U.S.), slap.

11. Lighthouse, plants, blindness.

12. Painting, deception, bell.

13. Reindeer, questionnaire, computer.

14. Politician, mask, swordfight (yes, it's usually two words!).

15. Museum, bone, song.

16. Opera, globe, sled.

17. Museum, engineer, youths.

18. Murder, poker, revenge.

19. Mermaid, kidnapping, skydiving.

20. Wig, telephone, pirates.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark

If not for a small band of Norwegian commandos, Adolf Hitler might have had an atomic bomb before the U.S.--leading to a very different outcome for World War II. The Norwegians' exploits form the basis for the fascinating premise of Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark (1965).

The film opens in Oslo, Norway, in 1942 with the Germans manufacturing "heavy water" in a fortified factory surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The lead scientist. who doubles as spy for the Allies, smuggles a microfilm to guerrilla fighter Knut Strand (Richard Harris). Knut convinces a philandering physicist, Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas), to examine the evidence. 

Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas.
Pedersen has his suspicions immediately, but cannot confirm them until consulting with British and American colleagues (to include Albert Einstein). Still, it's no surprise when they all conclude that the Nazis are producing water with a greater than normal amount of hydrogen isotope--a product that is used in creating atomic energy.

The Allies quickly decide that the factory must be destroyed, but its proximity to a nearby village creates the first challenge for Knut and Pedersen. A British bombing of the production facility could be deadly for the town's 6,000 residents. However, the factory's location and high level of security make it an almost impossible task for a ground attack. What will they decide?

Filmed largely in Norway, The Heroes of Telemark benefits mightily from the snowy vistas that frame the action. The scenes of the commandos trudging through snow drifts, with the wind whistling in the background, is enough to make most viewers reach for a hot beverage regardless of the time of year. One of the film's highlights is an exciting ski chase that pre-dates later skiing sequences in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and Jean Claude-Killy's Snow Job (1972).

Douglas and Harris amid the snow-covered backdrop.

While Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris inject some star power into the proceedings, both are saddled with one-dimensional characters. That's odd considering that Anthony Mann's 1950s Westerns are noted for their emphasis on characterization over action. It's also difficult to buy Kirk's sudden transition from a university professor to a gun-carrying commando who kills bad guys without remorse. On the plus side, Mann packs The Heroes of Telemark with exciting set pieces: the hijacking of a ship; the explosive raid on the factory; and the sinking of a ferry carrying the heavy water.

Ulla Jacobsson.
Although partially based on the real-life Knut's 1954 book Skis Against the Atom, the screenplay takes some liberties with the actual events. Numerous attacks on the water production facility over a period of several years have been condensed into two raids, which makes for a more streamlined plot. However, the inclusion of a renewed romance between Douglas's scientist and his ex-wife (played by Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson) adds nothing of value of the story.

Stephen Boyd and Elke Sommer were attached as the stars early in the production planning (when the film was to be called The Unknown Battle). Boyd had appeared the previous year in Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). After several delays, though, Boyd abandoned the project and, according to some sources, he sued Mann for $500,000 because he missed out on other lucrative roles.

There have been other films, books, and documentaries produced about the courageous men who ensured that Nazi Germany never developed an atomic bomb. The Heroes of Telemark may not be the most accurate version, but it's a well-made, atmospheric adventure that serves as a good introduction--and it looks fabulous on Blu-ray. Sadly, it was also Anthony Mann's last completed film. He died while directing the Cold War thriller A Dandy in Aspic in 1967 with star Laurence Harvey completing it.


Allied Vaughn Entertainment provided a review copy of The Heroes of Telemark Blu-ray.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

James Garner Stars in a Disney Duo

After an immensely successful decade in the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions hit a rut in the 1970s. The quality and popularity of its films, as a whole, took a nose dive. Two of its better efforts during this period are now largely forgotten despite the presence of James Garner. Signed to a two-movie deal, Garner appeared opposite young male co-stars in a pair of above-average Westerns.

The first, and best, is One Little Indian (1973), which focuses on the relationship between a U.S. Cavalry deserter (Garner) and a boy who has been raised by the Cheyenne, but captured by soldiers. A grizzled sergeant and a chaplain name the boy Mark and treat him kindly. However, Mark (Clay O'Brien) just wants to return to his Indian mother. He escapes from the fort and eventually encounters Corporal Keyes, who is on the run to avoid a hanging for his desertion. The pair are saddled--literally--with a pair of camels, an adult female named Rosie and her offspring (who comes to be called Thirsty).

Thirsty and Mark.
This unlikely quartet head towards Mexico with a Cavalry patrol in hot pursuit. Along the way, they narrowly avoid capture, inadvertently cause a cattle stampede, and meet a lonely widow (Vera Miles) and her young daughter (Jodie Foster). But, as the bond grows between Keyes and Mark, the former must decide what to do with his young friend.

Films like this depend largely upon the believability of the relationship between the main characters. That's not an issue in One Little Indian, in which Mark's initial distrust of Keyes gradually evolves into a deep friendship. Much of the credit goes to the always likable Garner and his young co-star O'Brien, whose intense eyes convey as much emotion as his dialogue.

Vera Miles and Jodie Foster.
The use of the camels provides a nice offbeat touch--and, of course, the target of a some humorous Garner wisecracks. Keyes alludes briefly to the Camel Corps, which was created by Jefferson Davis when he was Secretary of War. (At this point, I know some of you are probably remembering Hawmps!, a 1976 film about the use of camels in the West...but I have seen Hawmps! so let's not go there.)

Incidentally, young Clay O'Brien also starred opposite John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). Under his real name, Clay O'Brien Cooper, he grew up to become a rodeo star, winning seven world championships and earning almost $3 million.

Garner's second Disney picture, The Castaway Cowboy (1974), also pairs him with a young co-star in Eric Shea. It opens with Booton MacAvoy (Shea) discovering the body of a man floating in a cove near his island home. The visitor recovers and reveals that he's a cowboy from Texas named Costain, who was shanghaied and dumped into the Pacific. Although Booton's widowed mother (Vera Miles again) treats him well, Costain just wants to get back to San Francisco.

James Garner and Eric Shea.
His plans change, though, when he learns there are wild cattle on the island. He and Booton's mother hatch a scheme to capture the cattle and sell them to ships heading back to the U.S. There are numerous obstacles to overcome, such as training the island natives to become cowboys and figuring out how to get the steers on a ship since the island has no dock. There's also a local banker (Robert Culp) who wants the plan to fail because he wants to marry the widow and gain ownership of her 10,000-acre ranch.

Vera Miles.
The Castaway Cowboy is lighter fare than One Little Indian and not as engrossing. There are too many comedic scenes of the islanders learning how to ride and rope. Eric Shea, who played Carol Lynley's irritating little brother in The Poseidon Adventure, overacts here, too.

Still, the island setting is a nice touch and Garner and Vera Miles have more scenes this time, which works to the film's advantage. I was also pleased that we actually saw how the steers were transported from shore to ships (as I had some real concerns about that).

If you only see one of these movies, then I recommend One Little Indian. But if you have some time on a lazy day, then you could do a lot worse than a double-feature comprised of these James Garner Disney pics.