Saturday, August 6, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario"

We begin with a closeup of a classic rotary dial telephone in a familiar study. Very familiar, at least, if you've been watching this series. A hand lifts the receiver, and the man attached to that hand speaks into it. This is the first sign that something is off. Although the tweed coat and Bear Bryant hat match those of our hero, the hair under the hat is blond. Furthermore the man voice and manner are all wrong. His tongue is too thick for the words he speaks. The a woman shoots him in the back and he falls. Another not-quite-familiar figure cuffs her and he rises again. A director yells "Cut!"


Sending characters in a TV show to Hollywood when they usually function somewhere else is a classing jump-the-shark sign, right up there with sending them to Hawaii.Probably worse, though, because a Tinseltown show is more likely to result in a self-congratulating "as himself" cameo from a guest star who owed someone a favor.

The strained cameo doesn't happen, perhaps because the show is cast about 29 years in the past from shooting time and no one would look the same. Well, no one except for Guy Lombardo. And it's not a jump-the-shark episode. Sending Ellery and the Inspector away to sunny Southern Cal does take a couple of assets away. For one thing there's no Velie, although Inspector Richard Queen does make a runner out of mistaking an LA detective named Harris for Velie. And the stakes aren't as high. Ellery and Richard Queen don't have to solve this case in order for the latter to prove his worth in his job. They could in theory get on the plane back home and leave the murder of a rather unpleasant man as someone else's problem. Still, it's interesting in a number of respects.

One more note on the setting before we get to plot, theme, character, and oral hygiene. The producers didn't have need to make any special effort to set an episode in Hollywood, because this was where they'd been shooting all along. This leads to some visual dissonance when a scene takes place both outdoors and in the daytime, because it's always dry and sunny. I can't say for sure, but I think it's because the show was being filmed in the "Ford to City: Drop Dead" era. The location of movies like Marathon Man, The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three, and of course Taxi Driver. For most Americans New York City was what urban decay looked like. If it was less deadly than its reputation and more interesting than today's gentrified and branded metropolis, you still couldn't really sell it as the Big Apple of old.

So what happens in this one? Ellery has sold a book to the studios. A kind of rinky-dink studio, we're told, although maybe the circus picture shooting the next lot over will turn things around for them. Ellery's been flown out to do help with publicity, basically working as a living prop. The Inspector, apparently with some vacation time accrued, accompanies him. They meet the actor playing "Ellery Queen" in the movie, Gil Mallory, and not too surprisingly he's a massive jerk. He pointedly declines to shake the real Ellery's hand, appropriates movie-Richard Queens lines for himself, and demands that everyone onset up to the director cater to his every whim. You just don't do that to Vincent Price.

In a reshoot of the scene where he's supposed to fake his own death in exposing a murderess, the prop gun fires real bullets and the fake Ellery Queen really is really killed. (God help any TV station that showed this episode in syndication around the time Brandon Lee died.) It subsequently turns out that he was supposed to be wearing a bulletproof vest, but refused it because it made him look fat. He's undone by his vanity in multiple ways.

Ellery's a writer of fiction who writes a hero with his own name, but it's never entirely clear that this is actually supposed to be him. The filmmakers have clearly decided that it is, though, flying to New York to measure all the furniture in his office, causing some surreal double takes when he walks around the office set as a guest. But Mallory was miscast in the part, as even his oft-cuckolded widow is quick to admit. Within the context of the show the movie whose production is halted repeatedly is a copy of the "real" thing, a copy that doesn't come off.

Richard Queen isn't happy about the actor playing him, either, calling him a "sawed-off old geezer." This is rather comical since Noah Beery, Jr. (Rocky from The Rockford Files) actually appears to be a few inches taller than David Wayne. You have to feel for him, as he's trying so hard an getting so little respect.

Jim Hutton hums along nicely here. He's got a couple of fine moments. One's his moment of "eureka" in which he figures it all out. As the scene is shot he looks like he was staring at the opposite wall and suddenly noticed the viewer. A scene later he gets a chance to bluff the murderer into confessing, something he turns out to be quite good at.


susan said...

Ah yes, the Hollywood mystery that has two other actors playing Ellery and his dad was, overall, pretty entertaining. Naturally enough, after that opening scene where Troy Donahue delivered his lines in such a wooden manner that even an oak tree would shake its branches in disgust, you couldn't help but look around with longing for our hero. You're right that things only got worse when he bawled out Vincent Prince and went on to rebuff the handshakes offered by gentle, unassuming Ellery and his stalwart father. What a jerk. Witnessing his demise couldn't come soon enough for me.

It's weird to recollect that back in the early 60s Troy Donahue was packaged and sold by Hollywood as a major chick magnet when I hardly remember him at all. Of course, I hadn't forgotten him completely or Barbara Rush either (from When Worlds Collide and It Came From Outer Space - never mind Peyton Place). Probably one of those least said the better things now I think of it. I know I don't have to remind you of anything about Vincent Price as he's a longtime family favorite. Wallace Beery was equally as charming as David Wayne making their brief interactions charmingly amusing especially when the real Richard Queen started getting upset about 'his lines' being cut.

The funniest parts of this program were Richard Queen's attempts to go out and look for Hollywood stars ie, Carole Lombard beating a rug! Then he returned from a visit to Grauman's Chinese where he'd discovered his feet were the same size as Barry Fitzgerald's. A hot dog lunch in the back lot of the movie studio was quite a letdown for a guy who'd been looking forward to seeing celebrities in the commissary and the garden party breakfast at the director's place wasn't much better.

Once again you've made some very astute references in this one, including one I hadn't heard before namely, "Ford to City: Drop Dead". Wikipedia says this statement, one likely misquoted by The Daily News, cost him re-election. It's the chief time period when I visited New York most often and I agree with you it was a very interesting city. Do you remember when we went there in 78 and stayed with Chris, Susan, Teddy and their parrot in their loft? Best fireworks I ever saw.

Your idea that actors doing cameo roles often owed favors seems very likely to be true. Also, your Guy Lombardo remark was very pointed. Good one all around.

We'll look forward to the next entertaining review whenever you get around to producing one.

Ben said...

Vincent Price played a finicky director, but he wasn't in villain mode. If he was I still would have probably sympathized with him over Mallory. I loved your line about how "an oak tree would shake its branches in disgust." Yeah, while he was apparently a big deal as an actor, and an even bigger deal in his head, he didn't have a lot to back it up.

The same isn't necessarily true of Troy Donahue himself. The being primed as the next best thing and not quite getting there thing had been a blow to him, I guess. A couple of years before this he had something of a break when he appeared as the fiance in The Godfather Part II. Barbara Rush I'd seen before in The Magnificent Obsession and I think some TV. She was a villain on Batman in an episode that must have been written when the producer was going through a bad divorce.

Because their personalities and relationship is so well established it's easy to miss the fact that Ellery and his father have something of a role reversal here. Where usually Ellery is on crime scenes because of his father - although he's very good at detection - here Richard Queen is on the set because of Ellery. The garden party was quite a scene. When the actress asked Vincent Price to show off his collection I thought for a moment he might present a shelf full of Ancient Greek ceramic dildoes.

It does seem to be true that Ford was misquoted, as tends to happen when there's a juicy headline to be had. Not sure if it cost him the election. Not if it came down to New York, which was kind of fed up all around. But yeah, I do remember it as an impressive city.

It just kind of struck me as funny that Guy Lombardo was playing himself in that episode - albeit more as a bandleader than an actor as such - even though he was 27 years older than he'd been when it was set. I'm sure he'd had to replace a few musicians.

Queen Watch is taking a temporary break because of other things I'm doing, but will return before too long.