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My Television Diary: 4/1/12

01 Apr

A few things I watched this week:

The Richard Boone Show (1:4, “Where Do You Hide an Egg?,” 10/15/63)

When you love a star in a particular series, you tend to look at his other projects, to see if the magic is still there. Usually, it isn’t. Chuck Connors is perfect as The Rifleman, but when you see him in Branded or whatever, there’s just something missing. Ditto for Carroll O’Connor, who was just as good an actor on In the Heat of the Night as he was in those early seasons of All in the Family, but… the electricity is gone.

I’ve been watching Richard Boone a lot lately. He’s letter-perfect as Paladin in Have Gun – Will Travel, so I wondered how he was in his next series. The Richard Boone Show was tailored for him, an hour-long anthology series in which he’s supported by a stock company of actors, most of whom appear in most of the episodes. This one was crafted by a pair of Twilight Zone veterans, producer Buck Houghton and director Douglas Heyes, and tells the tale of three Bowery losers who pull a heist. As a gritty film noir, it probably would’ve been dynamite. Instead, it’s a comedy, and never gets out of first gear. Worth watching once, though. The three amateur crooks are played by Harry Morgan, Robert Blake and Boone, and the best performance by far is that of… (surprise!) Robert Blake. Boone isn’t bad, but the role of the dimwitted “Dodo” just isn’t a good fit for him. And if he’d scratched his head with his knuckles just once more, I’d have thrown my remote control at him.

To Tell the Truth (7/28/59)

Watching To Tell the Truth is a pleasant but humbling experience for me. Unlike a lot of the vintage guessing-game shows (Password, What’s My Line, The Name’s the Same etc.), this one doesn’t start out by giving away the secret. You watch and try to figure out which of the three contestants really is who he says he is (the other two are impostors). A panel of celebrities asks them various questions, and after time runs out, the guy telling the truth stands up and the impostors are exposed.

So I do my absolute best to guess which of the three really is the national trampoline champion, the Massachusetts prison warden, the Coney Island lifeguard, or whatever. I wish I could say that my keen powers of observation have rooted out the impostors on a regular basis. But after watching a couple dozen episodes, my batting average is about .300, which is worse than it would be if I just reflexively guessed “Contestant Number Two” in every game.

This episode featured Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest. I considered the completeness of the men’s answers, and the confidence with which they were given. I studied their faces to see who appeared the most and the least confident. When the game was over, and host Bud Collyer asked, “Will the real Sir Edmund Hillary please stand,” the result prompted my usual frustrated burst of profanity. The impostors on this show are always better liars than you expect them to be, and this is a tough game to play. But it’s a fun show to watch.

Frontier Doctor (1:2, “San Francisco Story,” syndicated 1958/59)

The gentleman you see crushed beneath a pillar (and bleeding conspicuously from the mouth) demonstrates what can happen to villains on Frontier Doctor, a relatively obscure western show.

Republic Pictures did its best to get into television production, once the small screen killed off the B-westerns and serials that were its staple products. The company never really had a lot of success in the new medium, but I really like what little I’ve seen of its most familiar series, Frontier Doctor.

The title character is exactly what he sounds like, a Wild West doc who deals with shot-up outlaws, anthrax outbreaks, suspicious cases of unexplained sudden death and the like. Rex Allen, who’d been more or less the last of the B-western heroes, plays the title role. He’s not bad, and I like him, but he lacks the charisma that might have helped this series catch fire. Instead, it lasted just a season and faded from memory.

That’s a shame, because the show really has a lot going for it. The action sequences are spectacular (thanks to the twenty years’ worth of western thrills in Republic’s film vault), and the episodes I’ve seen have a lot of zip to them. In this one, Dr. Baxter sends his patient on to San Francisco for an operation, where he’s quickly smothered to death in his hospital bed by a crooked business partner. Later, when confronted by the doctor in a plush cabaret, the murderer feels the crush of frontier justice delivered by the timely arrival of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

It’ll only happen in my dreams, but it’d be great if this series could be mastered for DVD from the camera negs. So much of Republic’s library survives in excellent quality, but the public domain episodes in circulation for Frontier Doctor are pretty beat-up. If you need your vintage television to look pristine, take warning. But if you can handle an emulsion scratch and less-than-perfect contrast, this show is well worth watching.

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