Saturday, May 14, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of Veronica's Veils"

Goodnight, Gracie.

The great institution of the American burlesque had given up the ghost by the time this episode was aired in 1975. Social change and new media had left it behind. Oh, there were tittie bars aplenty, no shortage of those. But attendees didn't have the patience to sit through baggy pants comics and magic acts, or to watch a lady do an elaborate number that still left her panties and pasties on. As a form of theatre, burlesque has made a comeback in the intervening decades, but the context is rather different. Much of the audience is now female and/or gay, although the milkshakes still bring plenty of boys to the yard.

As it happens, the burlesque of "The Adventure of Veronica's Veils" is already a recreation of something past. The story takes place ten years after Mayor Fiorello H La Guardia had driven the burly-q's out of town in a possibly misplaced but attention-getting fit of moral zeal. Thus officially the troop is putting on a musical about burlesque that just happens to look like the real thing. (Vice cops mill around under the suspicion that it's a distinction without a difference.) Coincidentally or not last week's episode and this one inspect respectively the high and low end of New York's theatre scene.

The heyday of burlesque, at least in New York, lies in the past, as does much else. While by definition a formal murder mystery, since it excludes unmotivated crimes, has to do with the past, this one looks back further than you'd expect. The roots of the crime lie not days or weeks in the past, but years. Everyone talks about the old days, too, and in truth you have a better chance of solving the crime by listening to their reminiscences and searching for foreshadowing details than by the forensic pathway Ellery takes.

The victim this time out is Sam Packer, the producer of the show. Packer thought highly of himself as a showman, perhaps a more gutbucket Flo Ziegfeld, but he fell on hard times. And dead. One difference between this episode and those that came before it is that there's no buildup to the murder, no vicious on-screen tussles. Packer is already in the ground when we come in, generally thought to have died of a simple heart attack. Through a film made premortem, however, he's back to say that his death was anything but natural. While George Burns, a couple of years before his defining late career role as God, imbues Packer with a certain blunt charm, it's entirely believable that this man could piss off an acquaintance to the point of murder.

Along with his wife and associates, most of whom he regards as potential assassins, Packer has invited Simon Brimmer to his funeral. It's Brimmer whom Packer entrusts with the solution to his incipient demise. One egotistical showman recognizing another as a kindred spirit, in part. Thus there's another difference. This is a Simon Brimmer case before it's investigated by either of the heroes in the Queen family. This is the closest Ellery Queen comes to a Brimmer-centric episode. The emphasis does switch to Ellery and his dad and - spoiler alert! - it's Ellery rather than Simon who puts it all together. But Brimmer keeps a cool head and finds some good leads. In a few of his confrontations with Inspector Queen (vice versa really) it's fairly easy to cheer the radio man on.

Ellery is the next to get called in, via a different route. The widow is an old friend of his, possibly someone he carries a torch for. Her husband says he was/would be murdered, and thought she was as likely a suspect as any. If her husband's death was by natural causes, as was first thought, she can collect on his life insurance policy, money that she needs. But since he's cast doubt on that and left her under a cloud, she's stuck in limbo. Ellery digs into the case and spends a lot of time - platonically - with another woman. The titular Veronica Vale is the show's star attraction, although Packer seems to have thought differently. This is a little strange, because she really doesn't radiate sex at all. If she emits anything, it's constant complaint. Still, she has more depth than you might expect.

Inspector Richard Queen is the last one to get involved. Naturally he wasn't investigating a murder at first, because officially there was none. As it turns out there was some political pressure to keep this one under wraps, not the first time his bosses have meddled in his job. Once the Packer death becomes a police case he does have at least one bull-in-a-china-shop moment, but he shows good detective instincts as well.

This one works better or worse depending on what you're here for. Some of the rib-poking "Ooh wasn't it scandalous! Can you believe it?" humor falls flat. Yet the competition, the race to find the murderer first, does set off some entertaining sparks.


susan said...

Seeing the picture of George Burns took me right back to the days when we got our first television - 1955 or 6, I guess it was when I was about 9 or 10. A few neighbors had them but getting one of our own after a visit to the CNE (Canadian Natn'l Exhibition) late that summer was a pretty heady experience. Watching George and Gracie was pretty amazing:

George: "Gracie, suppose you start explaining these Christmas bills. Who got this $25 hat?"

Gracie: "I gave that to Clara Bagley. I've decided to break up our friendship."

George: "Then why did you give her an expensive hat?"

Gracie: "I have one exactly like it. When she sees me with it on, she'll stop speaking to me."

A conversation like that doesn't seem very funny any more but back then it and similar ones were hilarious. Of course so were the antics of Lucille Ball on 'I Love Lucy' along with so many others but that's another story.

He lived to be 100 and continued to perform almost to the end of his life, even had a concert scheduled at the London Palladium for his 100th birthday, saying he couldn't possibly die before that because - 'I'm booked'.

Anyhow, the way you describe this episode of Ellery Queen makes it sound pretty cool even if it wasn't one of your overall favorites. You'll be pleased to know that our new copy of the series is on the way so we'll be able to do more justice to your wonderful reviews in the very near future. We're looking forward to that.

Ben said...

I remember some of those shows. In reruns, of course, but I enjoyed them. Gracie Allen was a funny lady, and she and George worked well together. It was also clever in breaking the fourth wall. I remember at least once George caught up with what Gracie was doing by turning on the TV.

Notions of what's funny do change over time. Some dismayed oldsters think that it's just a matter of comedy getting more blue, but that's not really it. That's a superficial difference, and old news at this point. It's more that different comedic rhythms take over.

You'll have some of your own opinions too, which I also look forward to.