Saturday, February 27, 2016

Coming soon: Queen Watch

A new project is coming this way. Queen Watch, an episode by episode look at the Ellery Queen TV series that ran on NBC in 1975 and '76.

Why this? Why now? Well, I've long had an interest in/love of both the book series and the show. I got a DVD set of the first/only season as a very thoughtful gift a couple of Christmases ago. At one time Nathanael Booth did an episode-by-episode analysis of the show, but his blog ended and there's not even an archive now. Anyway, my focus (more on which later) will probably be a little different.

Ellery Queen is a funny case as a TV series. Those members of the public who know the character at all are as likely as not to visualize Jim Hutton's portrayal when they hear the name. Natural enough, as Hutton excelled in the role, and no one else has played the character in movies or TV for the last forty years. But strange, too, since the series was not considered a success when it aired, as evidenced by the fact that there was no season two.

In addition, it was an idiosyncratic read on the title character. Hutton played Queen as an all-American absent-minded professor, Sherlock Holmes as a Frank Capra hero. This was in line with his talents. He'd always been a Jimmy Stewart type who never had a Capra to partner with, and thus had to settle for being the tender right hand to tough guys like John Wayne and Charlton Heston.

For me it's a winning approach, but it does make a noticeable change from the novels. As has been noticed. Joseph Goodrich is a fan of the character and likes the show, and he's actually put Ellery Queen onstage. But he has reservations about some aspects of the series.
My only real objection stems from certain aspects of the way Ellery's character is handled. Jim Hutton's otherwise-admirable portrayal errs a little too often for my taste on the side of comic absentmindedness. This character trait was obviously chosen to 'humanize' Ellery, to make him more 'appealing' to the audience. Amusing as it can sometimes be, it has little to do with the EQ of the books.
Which, fair enough, but there's more to the story. Fredric Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the creators of Ellery Queen, were a lot of things, but initially they weren't great writers of character. In Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout created a hero who could be mistaken for no one else's, and whom he really didn't need to change over the course of four decades. By contrast the earliest Queen novels show a standard Interbellum dandy with some convenient skills. Agatha Christie would have made him a suspect, then tossed him aside when the murder turned out to be committed by someone much cleverer.

To their credit they got bored writing for the character in this way and found other levels to him. The Wrightsville novels published during and right after WW2 were pivotal, making him more fallible and less bombastic. As a result the character reads as a study in reinvention on a Time Lord level. If there are many Ellery Queens, Hutton very much could be one of him, being smart enough, and he does share a post-Wrightsville hesitance.

Where the Queen stories had gotten it right from the start lay in both the ingenuity of the crimes and solutions and the savvy of telling stories about storytelling. The latter begins with the fact that Dannay and Lee wrote under the byline "Ellery Queen" while writing mysteries about a mystery writer named Ellery Queen, but it doesn't end there. The narration dances under your eyes, creating an alternate reality that holds together on its own terms, but feels like it could fly apart any second. Add in the fact that the first Jorge Luis Borges story translated into English ("The Garden of Forking Paths") appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, the boys did their part to popularize metafiction.

This play with narrative lasted throughout the book series, in some novels more than others. It also found its way into the TV show, in different forms. That's one of the things I'm going to be looking at.

Anyway, this all starts in March and goes on until whenever.


susan said...

I read a lot of the original Ellery Queen mysteries so long ago that I only remembered having thoroughly enjoyed them at the time. As a kid I was a big fan of Perry Mason and always guessed who was the culprit in the first ten minutes to the great amusement of my dad. Of course, the shows were so formulaic that after the first couple it was relatively simple to determine 'who dunnit' - the least likely and often least likeable character. We didn't see Jim Hutton's Ellery until we got the dvd's a few years ago (too many other things going on in the 70s) but they were remarkably good and considerably more difficult mysteries to solve in the given time. Peter Falk's Columbo was good that way too.

Is is true that the series was cancelled because the ratings were low or was it because Tim Hutton was already ill? They certainly had a large cast of famous Hollywood actors who were happy to make cameo appearances, something that had worked years before with the Batman series and should have kept people watching. Then again, maybe by then the general audience didn't enjoy being challenged to the extent they once had.

I don't know if you ever saw any of the Nero Wolfe series that starred Tim Hutton as Archie Goodwin, but it was one that well deserved being cancelled. We were very sensitive about those being done well - perhaps because the books were so very good.

John Hillerman's Simon Brimmer was a great foil for Ellery and I also loved the relationship he had with his dad. The other thing that made them especially cool was the wonderful period detail of the sets and setting. I'll be looking forward to your reviews of the individual shows.

Ben said...

I've only read a couple of Perry Mason novels, but the Raymond Burr show seemed to be faithful to them, at least as they developed. Had a great cast, too.

The creative team that put Ellery Queen together also created Columbo. Another great relic of the seventies. They'd go on to do Murder She Wrote Later on, which was a little cheesier but did have Angela Lansbury.

I'm not sure Jim Hutton even knew about his cancer yet when the show was canceled. He did some more TV acting in the year afterwards, before things started going downhill. My impression is that it was one of those borderline cases. If it were cheaper to produce it might have been renewed, but recreating 1940s aesthetics years later takes money.

The Nero Wolfe show I only caught a glimpse of while I was a guest at someone's house. Maury Chaykin actually did seem to be a good Wolfe. It's easy to get period drama wrong, though.

Brimmer is a great character. A snob but a likable snob for all that. The father/son relationship is probably the strongest tie to the books, at least as far as characterization goes. Velie is also great to watch.