Tuesday, December 18, 2012

No Longer “Untouched”.

Given my enjoyment of such Prohibition Era Warner Bros. gangster classic films as THIS and THIS, it’s a wonder I’ve waited this long to find my way to the 1950s classic TV series THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-1963). But, the same Black Friday 2012 sales that gave us THIS and THIS, and further expanded our journeys into PERRY MASON and GUNSMOKE, also takes us to late 1920s – early 1930s Chicago, and drops us into the midst of the legendary battles between G-Man Eliot Ness and Gangster Al Capone.

THE UNTOUCHABLES begins as a two-hour special (later released theatrically!) that tells the story of Ness putting together a special and incorruptible squad of Federal Agents (meaning those who can be trusted to not be on the take – thus “untouchable”) to bring down Capone. It was produced by Desi Arnaz (of I LOVE LUCY fame) at Desilu Studios (that later gave us the first seasons of STAR TREK and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE), and aired on April 20, 1959.

More Desilu Productions below:

Note Steven Hill (and not Peter Graves) on the box!
It stars Robert Stack in the role of rock-jawed, no nonsense crime buster Elliot Ness. Special guest stars included Keenan Wynn as an ex-racketeer who joins Ness, and Neville Brand (later of LAREDO) who chews just enough scenery as Al Capone. 

Neville Brand (as Texas Ranger Reese Bennett) at lower left
But, Stack is not the only star of the show… The “signature style-point” of THE UNTOUCHABLES is its ever-present narration by famed journalist Walter Winchell. Winchell’s voice-overs not only facilitate the events of each episode, but give the stories the feel of a documentary!

Disc One of this set (all I’ve been able to enjoy so far) includes the two-hour pilot for THE UNTOUCHABLES – which included introductions by both Desi Arnaz and Walter Winchell, and two more episodes of the “regular” series:

The Empty Chair” (10/15/1959): With Capone imprisoned, his lieutenant and enforcer Frank Nitti (perfectly played by Bruce Gordon) vies with Capone’s “bookkeeper” Jake Guzik (the great professional guest star Nehemiah Persoff) for the top mob spot. BTW, the status of “Guest Star” for both Keenan Wynn and Nehemiah Persoff likely tells their fate in THE UNTOUCHABLES as well as any “spoiler” might.

Ma Barker and Her Boys” (10/22/1959): Claire Trevor (who started in the genre-defining John Ford / John Wayne western film “Stagecoach” – 1939, which I promise to review sometime in 2013… not to mention THIS Academy Award winning performance) is Ma Barker, who leads her “boys” on a multi-state crime spree and on a collision course with Elliot Ness. The episode begins with Ness’ raid on the Barker place but, in flashback, tells the story of how Ma Barker came to be.
This outing is a magnificent example of how good TV could be in those (regrettably) bygone days. Indeed, with quality material like this – and WAGON TRAIN (which we will be discussing soon), one wonders why television was held in the low regard that it was. Trevor is simply amazing in this one! See it, if you can!

Other Notes:

At least in the episodes I’ve viewed, THE UNTOUCHABLES, though it began in 1959, does not exhibit the “tinny” and less interesting type of music scores that were utilized in the early episodes of PERRY MASON and GUNSMOKE, and also hampered the otherwise fine First Season episodes of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1964). THE UNTOUCHABLES sounds more like a mid-sixties show, with the take-notice, “full-bodied scores” that were a staple of such programs. (Yeah, I know… It takes a real music-score geek to appreciate this. The rest of you are free to go!)

Barbara Nichols’ performance as “Brandy La France” (voluptuous wife of a “murdered mousy nobody, turned informant”) may very well be the inspiration for the character of HARLEY QUINN of BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES. Nichols appeared in both the Pilot and “The Empty Chair”. Check it out for yourself – and you may at least modify any thoughts you may hold about Harley originating with the play “Guys and Dolls”. (Of course “Brandy” could have been born of “Guys and Dolls” herself… this stuff is so much fun to consider, isn’t it?)

Lastly, for a '50s show, THE UNTOUCHABLES is not at all shy about mentioning narcotics and prostitution as mob activities, along with the expected alcohol bootlegging - at least in what I've seen thus far.  Themes that adult dramas like PERRY MASON tended to ignore (in deference to the times?), and the latter of which GUNSMOKE seemed to deftly "dance around".

It amazes me to consider the number of great TV series and movies I’ve either discovered – or rediscovered – strictly due to DVD. (From PERRY MASON and THE FUGITIVE, to LOST and THE WAKLING DEAD – not to mention lots of Cagney and Bogart films!) It MUST amaze me, because I keep writing about such occurrences here!
We keep FINDIN' 'EM, don't we!
I’m certain many of you have your own… Let’s hear about ‘em in our Comments Section. I’d like to know what similar discoveries were made by all of you!

Or, try it in its handy COMIC FORM!


scarecrow33 said...

Hey, Joe! Great post!

Yet another series to add to my "to watch" list! Actually, I was interested when "The Untouchables" was first released to DVD a few years ago, but what put me off was the "Season 1, Volume 1" garbage. I don't want part of a season! I want a whole season at a time! That marketing ploy has turned me off from several purchases I would otherwise have made. Now that you've written so favorably about it, however, I want to check it out.

You wanted to hear about some other series that people have gotten interested in through the DVD release? Well, here are a few of mine:

I am really enjoying "The Virginian." I have Seasons One and Two so far, and I just found a store that has the next two seasons at a decent price. On a vacation with my brother's family last year, we stayed at "The Virginian Hotel" in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and it got me interested in the series, so I purchased a Season One sampler at one of our stops on the trip. After about 3 episodes or so, I was hooked.

Another one is "Petticoat Junction" which I never watched as a kid, but I found a "Best-Of" set at a bargain price one day, and it got me interested in the rest. I wish they would release Seasons Three and beyond.

It surprised me that "The Doris Day Show" was released to DVD, in all 5 seasons, because I had thought that it was pretty much a forgotten series. I purchased each season almost as quickly as they came out, and really came to enjoy and appreciate Doris Day's talent. When it first aired, it was on Mondays at 9:30 and my brother and I would have to pretend to be asleep, and then we would watch it on his little TV in our bedroom. We both identified strongly with the two boys, who were about our same ages at the time. However, because of the lateness of the time, we only managed to "sneak" a few viewings, so most of the episodes were new to me when I watched them a couple of years ago.

Another series I really love, which I "discovered" through a DVD release, is the Robin Hood series starring Richard Greene. There are tons of episodes on each disc, and after a year I am still only on Disc 3 of the set.

And since it's almost Christmas, let's throw in a Christmas movie. "Rupert the Great" is a remarkable story that held my interest all the way through. Even though it's only partially about Christmas, it's a delightful film once you get past the awful stop-motion animation that is used in a few early scenes. Jimmy Durante never did a finer performance, as far as I'm concerned. That's another one I discovered through a bargain DVD purchase.

Another one I have come to appreciate in recent years is "Holiday Inn." Sure, it's hokey and old-fashioned, and terribly non-PC, but it has some delightful moments that are worth savoring each holiday season. Some black-and-white movies are colorful enough without actual color. I really enjoy black-and-white movies that are well-filmed (I'm speaking technically) and this is a prime example for Christmas.

Anyway, that at least scratches the surface. Those are a handful of my current "special favorites." I look forward to locating a copy of "The Untouchables" soon (sigh, despite the "Season 1, Volume 1" packaging).

Joe Torcivia said...

And, if I may toss the complement back, Scarecrow, another great and informative comment that adds exactly what I was looking to add to this post! And, all the more amazing is that, as extensive as both “my list” and “your list” are, there is no duplication!

The Virginian is one that I’ve strongly considered – given the huge revival of my interest in westerns, which were always second to sci-fi / fantasy – but am somewhat intimidated by the size and length of its run, and the investment of time and money that would come with it. (…Gunsmoke and Bonanza alone will probably outlast DVD as a format!) But, the pilot for Laredo (pictured in this post), “We’ve Lost a Train” (end of Season Three) was part of The Virginian, making it all the more enticing.

…And, to digress on westerns, I have WAGON TRAIN already “written up”, and just need to properly format and illustrate it. You’ll see it in early 2013. Somehow, The Untouchables sneaked in ahead of it! That’s Blogging, for you!

I have great memories of Petticoat Junction and Doris Day as well. Sitcoms are “down the list” behind sci-fi / fantasy and westerns but, as Get Smart proves, they are still in the mix.

Way back when (Hard to believe I can now use that phrase in reference to DVD!), I was once opposed to the splitting of seasons into “Volume One” and “Volume Two”, but I came to realize the wisdom of the “price point” argument – and that it would simply be the only game in town.

Consider the wonderful stuff that would not be on my shelves, and ready to enjoy at a moment’s notice, if I held a hard line against Season Volumes:

Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Perry Mason, The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and now The Untouchables. I’d hate to imagine my DVD collection without these.

Bonanza – and strangely, ONLY Bonanza – does the “split season thing” as correctly as it can be done. Volumes One and Two of a season of Bonanza are released on the SAME DAY, giving you the FEELING (if not the actuality) of purchasing it as “complete seasons”.

But, now that most of these series are complete (though Gunsmoke and Bonanza probably never will be – or very near complete as is Perry Mason), Season Volumes matter less… because the biggest knock on them for me was when, how long (or if) “Volume Two” would follow “Volume One”.

“Some black-and-white movies are colorful enough without actual color.” Is so great a quote, I’d like to steal it someday! I’ve always preferred movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s (though I’d say theatrical CARTOONS reached their height in the ‘40s and ‘50s), but seeing them uncut, commercial free – and with extras in most cases – through DVD, has made me appreciate them all the more!

Oh, but just reading this Blog reveals that quite regularly!