EPISODE NINE: THE ADVENTURE OF VERONICA’S VEILS
(Written by Robert Pirosh; original airdate 11/13/75)
A gem of a cast in a burlesque background, beginning with George Burns who, even though he only has a cameo, rates top billing!
Burns spent most of his hundred years performing. He was “discovered” when, as a seven-year-old syrup maker, he was caught singing harmony with a few other child workers. The “Pee Wee Quartet” sang in saloons, brothels, and on street corners for pennies. He danced and did comedy, usually with a female partner, but nothing really clicked – until he met Gracie. They performed onstage and screen, but it was in the radio that they achieved lasting success in a program that evolved into one of the first and best situation comedy/variety shows. They moved to television in 1950 and lasted until 1958. Burns understood his value here was playing the straight man. He made me laugh in a different way than my favorite, Jack Benny, who had created a multi-faceted persona; Burns instead let Gracie be the “personality.” And yet, his dryness, his terrible singing, his low-key delivery always made me smile. When Gracie succumbed to heart disease in 1965, Burns, who had become a successful TV producer, could have rested on his laurels. But at the age of 79, he played one of The Sunshine Boys onscreen, replacing his best friend Jack Benny who had died – and his career was reborn. He even played God – three times.
I think I first met William Demarest when he played Shirley Temple’s rogue of a stepfather in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Another prolific character actor who appeared in 140 films, including ten for director Preston Sturges, Demarest replaced an ailing William Frawley on the 60’s sitcom My Three Sons. He was a mainstay of screwball comedy, appearing in some of my favorites, like The Lady Eve and The Devil and Miss Jones.
I can’t say I was a real fan of Jack Carter’s abrasive form of comedy, but he was a part of that fabric of comedians and singers who dominated the mid-century nightclubs and The Ed Sullivan Show. He was friends with Sid Caesar and Dean Martin, and he managed to squeeze in stage and TV appearances, including many a celebrity roast. Don Porter made several dozen films before settling into much TV work. He played Ann Southern’s boss and Gidget’s dad, and guest-starred on enough great series that he joins the pantheon of “I know that guy!” guys!
Julie Adams was a Midwestern beauty queen who made a so-so impact in the movies (her most famous starring role was in The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and had an extensive career in television. I always found her elegantly pretty, in the manner of Vera Miles.
Barbara Rhoades appeared for eight months as a showgirl on Broadway in Funny Girl and then began a long career in a lot of TV shows, usually as a comically boisterous, often sexy best friend. She also did some movie roles in the 70’s but that didn’t jumpstart her away from the small screen. She is still with us, although her last credited performance was on the soap opera One Life to Live in 2011.
In 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia shut down burlesque. Ten years later, veteran producer Sam Packer (Burns) is reviving the style in a new revue, Take It Off, starring sexy Veronica Vale (Rhoades) and comic Risky Ross (Carter), and directed by Dickie Bowie (Joshua Shelley) with financing by Broadway backer Gregory Leighton (Porter). Three days before opening, Packer drops dead in Veronica’s dressing room. The cause of death is ruled a heart attack, until at the funeral a film is played where Packer insists that he will have been murdered in the last of several attempts on his life. He believes the killer is either a member of his company or his wife Jennifer (Adams), and he leaves the solving in the capable hands of . . . Simon Brimmer!
Jennifer goes to her friend Ellery Queen and begs him to solve the case since the insurance company won’t pay off Sam’s life policy to her unless she is proven innocent of the crime. Ellery and Brimmer conduct separate inquiries and, in the end, Simon comes up with a nice penultimate (and wrong) solution. It is up to Ellery to figure things out, and he must take into account the mysterious disappearance on the day of Packer’s death of Veronica’s trained parrot, Galahad.
The milieu of the theatre and burlesque is all well and good, but it’s done in as economical a way as possible. (There is one nice high angle shot of Ellery walking down the aisle of the empty theatre at night, but we never see a full theatre . . . or a crew or any sense that this is an extravagant production worthy of Sam Packer.) Burns’ extended cameo is a highpoint, and Barbara Rhoades has the lions’ share of scenes with Ellery. Bill Demarest, 83 at the time, seems frail but gives his all as Pop, the requisite grouchy stage door guard. Adams is lovely and Carter and Porter are okay. It just feels like some scrimping was done on atmosphere and suspect development.
When the solution rolls around, I don’t really buy how Ellery drew upon the cause of death, which (as he himself tells the audience in his challenge) is requisite knowledge for figuring out whodunnit. There are two more clues, one physical and the other verbal, that I didn’t spot, and they’re . . . fine but kind of tenuous. Nobody is going to get convicted on this kind of “evidence,” and the murderer would have done well to keep their mouth shut.
One thing I did like was that Simon’s rivalry with Ellery is taken quite seriously here, both by the characters and the writer. He isn’t merely coming upon information Ellery already gleaned; instead, he uses different avenues to find out what’s up, and while his solution comes out of thin air, it’s an entertaining one.
Another thing is that some of the dialogue is funny, in a burlesque “ba dah BUM” style. Two examples:
Brimmer is rehearsing his radio show and has hired an older actor named Marcus Brady (Haydon Rorke) to play a role . . .
Brimmer: That’s your cue, Mr. Brady.
Brady: My script says, “Pause, pregnant with suspense.”
Brimmer: This is only a half-hour show, Mr. Brady. We can’t wait out the full term of the pregnancy.
Ellery is questioning Veronica Vale about her affair with Gregory Leighton . . .
Veronica: Greggie likes me for my talent. He reads to me from O’Neill and Ebsen.
Veronica: Yeah . . . I didn’t know Buddy wrote plays.
Maybe you had to be there.
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EPISODE TEN: THE ADVENTURE OF THE PHAROAH’S CURSE
(Written by Peter S. Fischer, Story by Rudolph Borchert; original airdate 12/11/75)
June Lockhart (who is still with us, bless her) tends to pop up on the oddest movies, playing a Cratchitt or the dreaded (but really nice) Lucille Ballard in Meet Me in St. Louis. She stars in She-Wolf of London, which pretends to be a horror movie but is really a nifty little mystery. Mainly, Ms. Lockhart haunted my TV screen (in the best of ways) throughout my childhood, playing Timmy’s third mother (after Jan Clayton and Cloris Leachman) in Lassie, Judy, Penny, and Will’s mom in Lost in Space, and a kindly country doctor in Petticoat Junction after Bea Benaderet died.
Ross Martin made movies – he made a terrifying villain in Experiment in Terror and a charming one in The Great Race – but his big claim to fame was as Secret Service agent and master of disguise Artemus Gordon in The Wild Wild West, one of my favorite TV shows growing up. Robert Conrad provided the sex appeal and action, but Martin’s Artie was the heart and soul of the show.
Simon Oakland, who, like Jack Benny, found his joy playing the violin, had one of those faces you saw everywhere and, more often than not, trusted as the police chief, editor or doctor. He famously explained the killer’s pathology at the end of Psycho, got bumped off (twice!) on Perry Mason, and played the exasperated foil to Darren McGavin’s monster finder on Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Nehemiah Persoff is now 103 and had a distinguished film and TV career. He played Marlon Brando’s craven brother in On the Waterfront, Henry Fonda’s supportive brother-in-law in The Wrong Man and Barbra Streisand’s solemn father in Yentl.
Oh, and keep your eye out for a very quick moment with a very young John Larroquette as a bellhop.
Norris Wentworth (Oakland) was a distinguished aircraft manufacturer until he was investigated by a Senate subcommittee for war profiteering. IT was never proved that he manufactured faulty aircraft, but his career was ruined. Now he has another chance in the limelight: he has recovered the fabled tomb of Amon-Ra, most recently stolen by the Nazis and had brought it to New York to be displayed in the museum run by Dr. Otis Tremayne (Martin). All of society is attending the opening gala of the exhibit, including Wentworth’s embittered wife Claudia (Lockhart), his angry son Bud (Joel Steadman), and his assistant, archaeologist Lois Gordon (Nedra Deen) who had accompanied Wentworth on his expedition and had authenticated the mummy.
The festivities are interrupted when Dr. Mustapha Hadid (Persoff) crashes the party and warns Wentworth that his appropriation of Amon-Ra will set off the curse that has claimed six previous owners. Wentworth tempts fate by opening the tomb in front of the guests and then orders Harry, the museum guard (Wallace Rooney) to throw Hadid out.
Later that evening, Wentworth returns to his home for a meeting with Simon Brimmer, who is developing a special six-part radio series where each episode deals with the mysterious death of one of Amon-Ra’s owners. Wentworth agrees to cooperate “just as long as you don’t make me out to look like a grave robber” when he receives a phone call. He tells Brimmer something urgent has come up and that he must leave immediately. He drives off into the night.
Meanwhile, Ellery has had to hire a stenographer named
Nikki Porter Margie Coopersmith due to an unfortunate accident his finger had with a can opener. His dictation is interrupted when Inspector Queen receives a call from Velie, telling him that Norris Wentworth’s dead body has been discovered – in front of the tomb of Amon-Ra!
Another take on the King Tut curse! Another script by Fischer! The second episode in a row with Simon Brimmer!! All of this bodes well and, sure enough, this is easily one of the best episodes in the series. From the creepy opening shot as Persoff sneaks into the museum to the final confession of a killer whose identity comes as a complete surprise but was completely and fairly clued, and whose confession raises the level of drama in this show, everything works. It is one of the better-clued puzzles, and even the extraneous bits work to point Ellery in the right direction.
Best of all, it’s the finest use of Simon Brimmer so far. His desire to solve the mystery is prompted by something other than a sense of rivalry; in fact, he proposes to Ellery that they team up because they are the only two who believe that Wentworth was murdered. (Naturally, Ellery’s reasoning for this is clue-based, while Brimmer needs Wentworth to have been killed in order to provide the capper on his proposed series.) This is also Brimmer’s best “false” solution! In fact, it is the solution I had in my head (at least the method if not the killer), and Fischer even provides a juicy clue that is a total red herring made to lead Brimmer (and me) totally astray.
I’ve pouted a bit over how sometimes the silliness injected into the series can distract from the good parts. Here, Ellery’s vagueness not only is not over-the-top, it serves the greater plot. And for one of the only times in the series, the finale is heart-breaking. An interesting side-note, however: William Link himself spoke about this episode in his memoirs, using it as evidence that “the Ellery Queen show was too complicated for its own good.” We have been pondering the reasons why EQ lasted only one season, and it looks like the pandering to the real fanboys in the manner of clever clueing (Link points here to the clue of the keys) and complex puzzle plots is not what your great unwashed public comes to see! They want the jokes . . .
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