Saturday, September 17, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley"

The Ellery Queen series of novels began in 1929 and ended in 1971, with all the books being set in or at least near their year of publication. Even assuming a desire to stay somewhere in the timeline of the books, that gives would-be adapters a pretty wide range of choices. Levinson and Link opted for the late 1940s. It's an interesting era for them to choose, because this was a transitional period in so many way. World War II had just ended, giving the United States unprecedented power on the international stage. The Cold War, which the show only alludes to in a couple of episodes, was just getting off the ground. In matters social, political, and technological this period can give you a view on the end of some old ways and the beginning of the new.

One prime example is the medium of radio. Before the war radio had of course beamed comedy and drama and witty panel discussions into countless American homes, a function that would soon largely be ceded to television.
The presentation of music changed as well. In the interbellum era orchestras and big bands had been king, bandleaders kingmakers, and DJs rose and fell on their chumminess with them. In the fifties there would be a definite shift, the disc jockey becoming a newly bred hybrid of pitchman and librarian. This was especially true of rock'n'roll radio, where big city radio personalities sifted through records that often came from Southern regional labels, but also with stations playing more anodyne pop music. Of course DJs would still maintain power until as Chris O'Leary puts it, "Time, consolidation and technology did the rest, turning the DJ into an interchangeable cog, then an archaism."

So "The Adventure of the Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley" takes place at what may be seen as the last hurrah of old time radio. At its center is Alvin Winer, a Grand Old Eminence of American songwriting seemingly modeled on Irving Berlin. Berlin, though, didn't seem to make many people want to kill him, and thus wound up being a centenarian. Winer, by contrast, is a classic murder mystery villain/victim, who seems to have been screwing over people left and right, starting at home. On the radio show, he and his wife make a hilariously stiff and unconvincing attempt to appear as part of a happy family. Then the wife's daughter from a previous marriage sinks the whole act by revealing that he spends a lot of time away from home and comes back bearing guilt jewelry. Simon Brimmer eats it up from his front row seat, of course.

Rudy Vallee is something of a casting coup as Winer. A saxophonist, singer, and bandleader as well as an actor, he made his film debut in 1929 in a musical called The Vagabond Lover, which indicates the kind of figure he cut in the music world of the day. With his decadently teased hair, proto-hipster glasses, and Gallic surname, Vallee was a Byronic bad boy in the context of Depression era popular music, a foil to Bing Crosby's Tacoma boy next door. Bing was the guy you could bring home to mother and marry seven months before having a baby who looked like Rudy.

 I guess that composers, like actors and dancers, take whatever jobs they can to get by while working toward their big break. So it is that while Ellery is unwinding at a handy diner, one of the counter help hums the melody from a song he's been writing. As it happens, the broadcast of the interview with Winer is playing live on the diner's radio. And as it happens, Winer begins to play a song on the piano that's identical with the one counter man Dan Murphy is recounting to Ellery. This plagiarism will not stand, and Dan storms out of the eatery with rash words about killing Winer on his tongue. Soon he's at the radio station, accusing Winer and shoving him. Winer is murdered in the station's record library soon after, clutching a recording of "Danny Boy." Not good.

Of course never has a herring been so red. A classic mystery presents a problem that only a great detective can solve. That means that the crime should be a result of cunning and calculation. Kind of militates against some young hothead being the culprit. But Dan doesn't help his cause later, either, when he breaks into the widow's bedroom and rushes off, leaving her hysterical.

Brimmer sees Dan as the most obvious suspect at first, but he soon seems to conclude that he's too obvious and digs around with the help of a contact at the Treasury Department. While the solution he arrives at in the show's climax is the wrong one, it does have a certain seductive logic.

Ellery, for his part, never put much stock in Danny's guilt. Thus he launches his own investigation. In a recording studio where a busty comedienne is doing her best Jimmy Durante, he finds another one of the suspects with his agent (who acts just like a defense attorney) and learns a little something about payola. Ellery, smart guy though he is, isn't familiar with the word, which is about right. It was still a few years from becoming a household word. But yes, payola will turn out to be a crucial part of the story of Alvin Winer's murder, and the solution causes at least one position to open up at the radio station.

This is one of the most enjoyable episodes for me. Late in what would turn out to be the show's only season, everybody is still giving it their all, and the dialogue comes off with a lot of zip. Some credit must go to episode director Seymour Robbie as well. He was almost exclusively a TV guy, although he did direct CC & Company a biker movie starring Joe Namath. (Haven't had the pleasure.) But he makes the most out of the pivotal scenes. The partially obscured scene in which Winer is killed actually brings to mind Hitchcock's Rope.


susan said...

You know I never could take Rudy Vallee's popularity as a heartthrob for teenage girls very seriously, but then again all I have to do is think of the effect Paul McCartney likely has on young women now to realize that once that time has passed it's gone forever. I think of the two of them Bing Crosby has the more lasting attraction for the simple reason he always did seem to be a genuinely nice guy while Rudy Vallee appeared to become somewhat seedy as he aged. From what I've read about him he did have a tendency to be very bad tempered on occasion too so his casting as the mean spirited composer/band leader was very apt.

We both wondered if we were remembering this program better than some of the others since we noticed the reading glasses clue as well as the significance of the mismatched socks. Naturally enough those two items allowed us to relax and see how the mystery was resolved. I couldn't help but notice they used the same house, including Mrs Winer's bedroom, in this one as in Lover's Leap where Ida Lupino had supposedly fallen to her death from the port-cochere. Seeing Polly Bergen is always a treat and she was good in this too. About the last time we saw her was when we watched Cape Fear when she played Gregory Peck's wife and a prime (potential) victim of Robert Mitchum.

With its tight plot, excellent characters, and good pacing this was one of the very best episodes of Ellery Queen. Simon Brimmer was such an excellent foil for Ellery, always so sure of himself he retained his composure no matter what happened. At the end when he was left alone in the studio with four hours left to fill and he began his telling his memoirs with the story of his childhood stuffed bear was ingenious.

You've provided another excellent review and your droll comments haven't gone unnoticed. Just three more to go now and I wonder if you'll choose to do something similar once these are done. I guess time will tell, eh? We agree it would have been wonderful had the series been allowed to continue for a few more years.

Ben said...

I suppose time and fleeting fame are pretty merciless in that regard. But yes, Vallee's temperament seems to have put him in a very different category by the time he did this show. People still definitely did remember Crosby. It was about a year after this that he did the Christmas special that climaxed with him dueting with Bowie.

Good catch on them reusing the house from "The Lover's Leap". I'm sure that's a fairly common practice in TV, even to this day. My theory as to why anthology shows were most popular before color TV came in is that settings and costumes are easier to reuse without getting caught when you don't have color to deal with.

I remember Cape Fear as being a great, tight little thriller. Better in a lot of ways than the 1991 remake. Martin Scorsese is a remarkable filmmaker but I was never sure why he wanted to do that picture. ($$$?)

This is Brimmer's last appearance on the show. If there'd been a second season pickup I assume they would have brought him back, because they'd be crazy not to. (Incidentally, before this I think Hillerman's best known role was the mayor in Blazing Saddles.) The great thing about that ending is that everyone leaves him alone in the studio and he's not chagrined in the slightest.

I don't know. I've thought about doing something similar down the road. If it feels right. I'm glad you've been enjoying these.