Movie Man: Fast-taking reporters and slow-witted cops
The focus falls on a couple of oldies but goodies this week: a TV show from the early 1960s and a movie from way back in the early 1930s.
‘Clear All Wires’
“All the President’s Men” (1976) is a great film about some great journalism, and “The Paper” (1994) is a lot of fun, but for the real golden age of newspaper movies, you need to go back to the early 1930s, when both sound film and the modern media were both revving up for action.
Take “Clear All Wires,” a 1933 journalism comedy now available from Warner Archives (warnerarchive.com). It stars Lee Tracy, arguably the fastest talker of a very fast-talking era, as Buckley Joyce Thomas, arguably the least ethical newsman of a very unethical era. How loose are our hero’s ethics? Well, the entire plot of the movie revolves around him faking an assassination in the Soviet Union to keep his job, so I’d argue that, ethically speaking, he’s on somewhat shaky ground.
“Clear All Wires” is based on a play, and that becomes obvious early on, with most of the action taking place in Buckley’s hotel room and a variety of oddballs — the last surviving Romanoff, the chief of the secret police, various love interests — coming and going in rapid succession. It never hits the crazy, scandalous heights of “Blessed Event,” a 1932 Lee Tracy comedy I reviewed recently, but it is a lot of fun — and a fascinating look at how crazy newspaper movies could be before they settled down and got serious.
‘Car 54, Where Are You’
The second (and final) season of “Car 54, Where Are You” has just arrived on DVD, so all I should have to do is let you know that the set is available and wait for you to place your order. But, in case you need a bit more convincing ...
“Car 54, Where Are You” is generally considered one of the all-time classic sitcoms, but until recently, it was hard to actually watch. It originally aired from 1961 to 1963, but aside from some long-ago seasons of Nick at Nite, it hadn’t been seen since. I’d heard great things but remained skeptical, having been burned before on “classic” shows that turned out to be clunkers.
But, as I discovered with the Season 1 set that arrived last year, “Car 54” was — and is — genuinely funny. It’s a very simple show. Each week, some cops in the Bronx cope with a lighthearted crisis that is solved in less than a half-hour. Nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary. But thanks to sharp writing (by creator Nat Hiken) and a great cast (see below), it’s always at least amusing — and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious.
That cast includes Fred Gwynne as Muldoon and Al Lewis as Schnauzer (both actors later on “The Munsters”) and, as dimwitted officer Toody, comedian Joe E. Ross, one of the oddest guys ever to land a role on national TV. Making occasional appearances were Nippsy Russell and Ossie Davis, two black actors who added a layer of racial realism to the show you didn’t see much of in the early 1960s. Thankfully, the show never made a big deal about it. It was a Bronx precinct house, and some of the cops were black. What more needed to be said?
The plots of “Car 54” will seem astonishing primitive to modern eyes, with just one story playing out over the half-hour. President Kennedy needs an escort. Toody buys his wife a wig. And, of course, that old sitcom classic, everyone thinks a new officer is a jinx.
Admittedly, those plots aren’t going to win any awards, but it’s what Hiken and company do with them that counts — and within the limits of a half-hour sitcom, they do a lot. Enough, in fact, to still provoke laughter 50 years later.
Read Will Pfeifer’s Movie Man blog at rrstar.com/blogs/willpfeifer/ or email him at email@example.com.