Monday, January 24, 2022

Why, Mr. Queen, You're Ever So Keen! More Remembrances of Queens Past

How much did I like the Ellery Queen television series, when I first watched it as a kid, back in 1975?  Well, for my birthday my parents got me a tape recorder, which for months I had been agitating for, and with said device I proceeded, with a friend, to do my own episode of Ellery Queen!  I remember my friend was Inspector Queen and I was Ellery, plus I did a seductive continental adventuress named, as I recollect, Madame Poochie.  He played Inspector Queen as a senile old coot who called Ellery "Sonny."  The Ellery Queen theme got prominent play, you may be sure.  Tragically, the cassette on which the brilliant teleplay was recorded has not survived.

So you can see I really loved this series.  However, my EQ nostalgia does not prevent me from pointing out the clunkers in the series, as I see some of them today.  And the sequence of episodes 7 through 12 of Ellery Queen begins with one of the clunkers, The Adventure of Col. Nivin's Memoirs.  

This one is based on the old chestnut about the guy who is publishing some scandalous war memoirs, unloading dirt on a lot of living people, who of course gets bumped off.  Said murderee is played by Lloyd Bochner (Hart Bochner's proud papa), another one of those great Seventies television snobs.  

I was sorry to see that his only listed acting award nomination was for a dreaded Razzie for the 1983 Harold Robbins sex melodrama The Lonely Lady, the infamous Pia Zadora bomb.  Pia, also nominated, won the Razzie for worst actress but Lloyd lost to blond bombshell Christopher Atkins for his lengthy turn as a male stripper in A Night in Heaven.  Happily Lloyd Bochner will be remembered forever for his delicious role in the Twilight Zone classic "To Serve Man."

Jenny (Gretchen Corbett) has an idea but it's
probably not a good one

Lloyd exits the picture after one scene. leaving the field to Ellery and his dad and his publicist, Jenny O'Brien, who is played by Seventies American television's greatest Gal Friday, cute, smart and spunky Gretchen Corbett, who for several years played cute, smart and spunky public defender Beth Davenport on The Rockford Files, Jim Rockford's kinda-sorta girlfriend. 

Like a lot of boys at the time, I loved Corbett on Rockford and felt like the series never quite recovered after she left. Why did she not have her own series, or even a movie career?  

Corbett only appeared once on EQ, where again she seems to be the male lead's kinda-sorta girlfriend.  She's cute and spunky as ever here (though not so smart), but somehow in this case--I gotta agree with Brad--she's also rather tiresome.  I think the problem is that she takes too much attention away from the Queens' father-son relationship, which is central to the series.  

Of course the writers were faced with the perennial problem of why doesn't Ellery have a girlfriend?  Sure he's kind of an absent-minded, gangling doofus, but he's presumably rather well-off, smart, equanimous, and hella attractive.  (I mean, he's Jim Hutton!  Look at him!)  What's the deal here?  Thankfully, however, the writers didn't saddle Ellery with Jenny, who disappears after this episode. 

Otherwise, the episode is pretty damn bad, with future Oscar nominee Robert Loggia and very blonde, Danish born actress Nina Van Pallandt as fake Russians (I mean, they play real Russians, fakely) and Pernell Roberts in an utterly hopeless role as a fake Indian, made up in black, or really ochre, face. 

Oh, there's also one of those obvious tricked-up alibis that pinpoints the murderer as soon as it's trotted out.  The only thing I found watchable here was a furry-looking Rene Auberjonois, who puts way more into his performance than the episode deserves.  I have to admit I basically know him as the guy who played that twit on Benson, so it was nice to see him in another capacity here.

Happily this dud was followed by The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party, surely one of the best episodes in the series.  It's based on an actual EQ short story, which leads me to echo everyone else and ask, why on earth didn't they adapt more actual EQ short stories for this series?  EQ wrote some of the finest short mystery fiction every written, perfect for the one hour (with commercials) format.

Here the set-bound settings are just right, for what is a classic country house weekend mystery.  Ellery has been invited to theatrical producer Spencer Lockridge's Long Island mansion to go over Lockridge's plan to adapt one of his mystery novels for the stage; and when he arrives, on a dark and stormy night, he finds Lockridge and several of his guests reenacting the mad hatter's tea party from from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  

Things get weirder from there, beginning with Lockridge's disappearance overnight....

They're mad I tell you!
Edward Andrew and Larry Hagman

What a nifty episode this one is.  First of all, Spencer Lockridge is one of the series' best murderees, being played by that great character actor Edward Andrews, whose full-length feature film career extended from Adam's Rib (1949) to Sixteen Candles and Gremlins (both 1984).  He was only 70 when he died but was another one of those character actors who seemed like he was born at age 50.  Somehow he often manages to be droll and sinister at the same time, as here.  

And there's a great supporting case including: Rhonda Fleming as Lockridge's unbereaved younger wife (she was actually only nine years younger than Andrews but looked fantastic); Larry Hagman, in those lean years between I Dream of Jeanie and Dallas, looking rather preppy indeed as bow-tied architect Paul Gardner; imposing Julius Harris as the black butler Doyle; noted character actress Carmen Mathews, a staple of television mystery, as Lockridge's acidulous mother-in-law Letitia Allingham; and scene-stealing Julia Sommars (still around) as Emmy Reinhart, a vivacious, flirtatious actress, Alice at the tea party naturally, who wants desperately to be in the play.

You may have noticed these people have the surnames of famous mystery writers (though "Reinhart" is misspelled in that case).  There's also a Lt. Carr and a Howard Biggers (Jim Backus, aka Gilligan's Island's Mr. Howell, not given that much to do).  Surprisingly there's no "Stout."  Rex Stout, by the way, died just three days before this episode aired.  

George Janek and Carmen Mathews

This is a plot heavy episode, as befits a classic EQ story, and if you are an EQ fan you should love it.  I certainly did! 

Incidentally, the kid playing Lockridge's obnoxious nephew Johnny, George Janek, died just last year, at the age of 58.  He must have been about 12 when the episode was filmed and had a very brief television career around this time.  Did anyone ever interview him?  So far he's the only child who played a real role in this series.

Next up are two additional high points of the series, The Adventure of Veronica's Veils and The Adventure of the Pharaoh's Curse.  

Veils gets Ellery involved with a murder in the world of burlesque, so engagingly explored by Gypsy Rose Lee in an actual Forties mystery, The G-String Murders. The episode opens with the late producer Sam Packer appearing on film at his own funeral announcing that he has has been murdered.  (People really hate producers, apparently, since two in a row have been slain in this series.)  

J'Accuse! George Burns as Sam Packer stirs the pot from beyond the grave

Well, that does make a great opening!  And when it's George Burns in the role, it's even better.  This episode aired a week after the theatrical premier of Burns' film The Sunshine Boys, for which the octogenarian actor and comedian would win the supporting actor Oscar in 1976.  In the film he and Walter Matthau play an old vaudeville comedy team reuniting on television to do their classic naughty "doctor sketch."  Surely it can't be a coincidence that, along with George Burns, there's a prominent doctor sketch in the burlesque show portrayed on Veils?  

A distraught Veronica implores Ellery to find her birdie.
Barbara Rhoades with Jim Hutton

Aside from the inimitable George Burns, this episode has a really fine cast generally, including Julie Adams, the monster's object of desire in Creature of the Black Lagoon, as Sam Packer's not so distraught widow; octogenarian acting veteran William Demarest (My Three Sons' Uncle Charlie to my generation and lots of fun stuff in film before that) as Pop Denny, the elderly stage doorman who likes his nip; the late Borscht Belt comedian Jack Carter as comedian Risky Ross; and adorable, scene-stealing Barbara Rhoades as Veronica Vale, the show's star stripper. 

Veronica's act involves veils and a parrot named Galahad, you see, and Galahad disappeared from the very room in which Sam Packer was found dead.  

Why, you ask?  Well, see if you can figure it out--match wits with Ellery Queen!  There's actually similarity here to a certain John Rhode detective novel, which pleased me enormously.

Not that Veronica!

Oh, yes, Simon Brimmer is in this one too, which is all to the good.  I think one reason the Brimmer episodes stand out, besides John Hillerman's general greatness in the role, is that Simon has to be provided with a plausible alternative murder theory to Ellery's, lending some added complexity to the plot, which is a neat one.

I might add that the episode tile alludes to the Christian legend of the Veil of Veronica, a cloth with which Saint Veronica is said to have wiped the face of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa (and which afterward bore an imprint of his face, recalling the Shroud of Turin).  Since here the title refers to a striptease act, this was a bit cheeky to say the least!

Back to EQ, what's a mystery series without an episode where people are getting knocked off, seemingly, by an ancient Egyptian curse?  That's what we get, sure enough, in The Adventure of the Pharoah's Curse

The murderee in this one is abrasive millionaire Norris Wentworth, played by another great character actor, Simon Oakland, who specialized in meanies but also played the wise psychiatrist in Psycho who in the last few minutes of the film explained to an early Sixties audience just WTF?! had happened in the basement.  

Oakland, whose character funded the Egyptian expedition that brought back the mummy to an American museum, has a fine time being nasty to everyone around him for five minutes or so before he deservedly bites the dust, supposedly a victim of the curse. 

The rest of the cast has lots of familiar names (or faces): saintly TV mom June Lockhart, yet another widow who is not overly grief-stricken by her husband's death; Ross Martin as the belittled museum director (Artemus Gordon from the TV series The Wild, Wild West, who solved all the cases while his partner, Jim West, played by uber buff fitness nut Robert Conrad, seduced lovely ladies and engaged in fisticuffs in the tightest pants on television); and Nehemiah Persoff as the obligatory hysterical Egyptian hurling imprecations down upon the murderee for violating the sacred tombs, yadda, yadda, yadda.  (As Brad pointed out this great film and TV vet is still around at 103, bless him.)  

Yet the scene stealer is Wallace Rooney as the security guard, an actor I honestly didn't recognize at all. He looks rather like a stockier version of the late John Mahoney, aka Frasier's father.

Ellery and secretary on the case!
Jim Hutton with Nancy Belle Fuller 

I thought this one had some of the series' cleverest plotting.  (I liked that bit about the keys!)  I also enjoyed the comic bits with Nancy Belle Fuller as Ellery's temporary secretary.  She had a very brief TV and film career in the Seventies.  

I actually thought this part was played by Pamela Sue Martin, Seventies television's Nancy Drew.

Oh, yes, Simon Brimmer is in this one too.  Hooray!

The remaining two in this sequence, The Blunt Instrument and The Black Falcon, are enjoyable but they drop off a bit from the previous three, I would say.  

In The Blunt Instrument the murderee is snooty mystery writer Edgar Manning, who is found dead at his desk with a fatal head wound--apparently inflicted, appropriately enough, with the "blunt instrument" award he just won at the Crime Writers of America banquet.  Some meta bits here! 

Manning is played by Keene Curtis, best known to me and a lot of other people I imagine as John Allen Hill, the snooty guy who owned the restaurant above the bar in several seasons of the television sitcom Cheers.  

Did Cliff Wadell (Dean Stockwell)
have a compulsion to kill his employer?

Curtis makes another fine murderee in the EQ murderee gallery.  The supporting cast includes John Dehner and Joanna Barnes as ex-spouses and rival publishers, Eva Gabor as an actress and Manning's mistress (could she have been the origin of Madame Poochie?), and Richard Jaeckel, then a recent supporting actor Oscar nominee, as tough guy crime writer Nick McVey.  

However, for me the standout is the late Dean Stockwell as Manning's embittered research assistant, only forty years old at that time and still rather boyish looking, over a dozen years after the films Compulsion and Long Day's Journey into Night.

I enjoyed the plot in this one.  I think it devolves into more of a howdunit and howcatchem, which is just as well, since the motive is as old as the books and stands out a mile.

In a missed opportunity,
Tab Hunter and Roddy MacDowell
are not a couple in The Black Falcon

Finally in The Black Falcon, we are confronted with the question of who poisoned the nightclub owner in his wine cellar.  There are some clever bits in this one, including another dying clue (or is it) and there's Simon Brimmer too. 

We also get Swedish film actress Signe Hasso, who goes at it like she's trying to win an Oscar, Howard Duff, the late Tab Hunter, Roddy MacDowell (you knew he was bound to show up in this series) and, as the wine steward with a key clue, the late William Schallert, aka Patty Duke's long-suffering father on The Patty Duke Show.  

No wonder he was long-suffering!  How would you cope if you had a teenage daughter, an identical cousin no less, who loves to rocknroll and loses control of herself at the mere sight of a hot dog?  Go have children!

This is a pretty good episode, but I must say I found the past actions of one of the characters remarkably stupid!  Oh, well, at least Simon Brimmer gets his comeuppance, yet again.  You have to admire that man's resilience in the face of constant Elleryversity.


  1. "...Robert Conrad, seduced lovely ladies and engaged in fisticuffs in the tightest pants on television)"

    No, those would be the ones worn by Robert Fuller (Laramie, 1959-63).

    1. Don't know that one. Will check out though, in the interest of accuracy of course.

  2. In The Black Falcon, the comely nightclub singer is played by Rosanna Huffman - who away from the cameras was Mrs. Richard Levinson (I wonder if she did her own singing ...).
    Just thought you'd like to know ...