Friday, January 29, 2010

JDM on Television, Part 4

Finishing it up, until something new comes along...


Broadcast in April 1980 on HBO, then broadcast in two parts as a mini-series by NBC on November 1 and 3. Based on the novel of the same name, published in March 1977. Adapted by Steve Hayes. Running time: 200 minutes

Starring Dan Haggerty, Barbara Eden, Steve Forrest, Richard Anderson, Ralph Bellamy, Macdonald Carry, Dane Clark, Linda Cristal, Elinor Donohue, Don Galloway, Pamela Hensley, Arte Johnson, Jack Jones, Dorothy Malone, Nehemiah Persoff and Stuart Whitman.

John D MacDonald's sprawling novel about retirees moving to Florida and living in a cheaply-made high rise building was a huge hit and remained on the best seller list for 97 weeks (hardcover and paperback combined). The film rights were purchased before the book was even published, and it was obvious to anyone who read it that it would have to be done on television -- there were just too many characters and interlocking stories. I saw it back when NBC showed it and never again since. It was a disappointment, with the meat of the novel glossed over and the characterizations poorly translated. The special effects -- a huge tidal wave taking out the high-rise -- I recall as laughable. Walter Shine excoriated it back in BIB 26, citing its "wretched casting... ridiculous cameo[s]... poor direction... soporific pace [and]...fair special effects" He concluded "JDM's powerful natural crescendo simply was not translated to the screen." In 1986 JDM recalled "... the relationship between the book and the movie is like unto horse and horsefly... the movie was a mildly entertaining simplification, with special effects that didn't quite work."

Never officially made available for video or DVD, unauthorized copies can be had.


Broadcast on May 17, 1980 as part of Operation Prime Time. Based on the novel of the same name, published in December 1962. Adapted by George Zateslo. Running time: 100 minutes.

Starring Robert Hays as Kirby, Pam Dawber as Bonny Lee Beaumont, Ed Nelson as Joseph Locordolos, Zohra Lampert as Wilma and Macdonald Cary as Mr. Grumby.

JDM's novel is a favorite of many of his fans. It's a delightful farce about a man who inherits a watch that can temporarily stop time, and is one of JDM's few outright comic novels, as well as being his third and final science fiction effort. The film rights were purchased soon after the novel's publication and at one point there were announcements that a theatrical adaptation was being prepared for Jack Lemmon. When the film finally appeared as a made-for-TV movie, expectations were low, which may account for how well the film was received by JDM fans. The novel is faithfully adapted, with some of the opening scenes taken nearly word-for-word from its source. Robert Hays and, especially, Pam Dawber were very good in the lead roles and the ratings were high enough to spawn a sequel -- The Girl, The Gold Watch and Dynamite -- which had nothing to do with JDM outside of the premise and characters (Hays and Dawber did not repeat their roles). The film was offered to member stations in two formats: a single show for a two-hour timeslot, or five half-hour episodes of a "mini-series."

MacDonald grudgingly referred to it as "a reasonably entertaining movie," an opinion that was not shared by his wife Dorothy, who felt most of the film took place in cars. I haven't seen it since it was first broadcast, but I liked it at the time. As far as I can tell the film was never released on tape or DVD, but is easily obtainable in bootleg editions.


Broadcast on May 18, 1983 as an ABC Movie Special. Based on the novel The Empty Copper Sea, published in September 1978. Adapted by Stirling Silliphant. Running time: 100 minutes.

Starring Sam Elliott as Travis McGee, Gene Evans as Meyer, Katharine Ross as Gretel, Vera Miles as Julie Lawless, Amy Madigan as Billy Jean Bailey and Richard Farnsworth as Van Harder.

After the film version of Darker Than Amber failed at the box-office, MacDonald told Clarence Petersen of the Chicago Tribune "If I had to do it over again I would never let Mr. McGee out of my hand. Not for a movie, not for television. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't even sell stereopticon rights to McGee."

It's always those kinds of unequivocal statements that get you in trouble...

In 1979 MacDonald's accountant informed him that when he died his estate faced a huge tax problem: the value of the estate would be increased by the amount of money he received for the film rights to Amber, plus the same amount for every other McGee novel that was not filmed! It basically forced him to re-sell the rights to raise cash, but he tried to do it in a manner that would make it too expensive for Hollywood to even try. "Times change," he wrote to a friend, "and inflation screws with the currency, and what was too expensive five years ago is apparently okay now."

Universal Studios decided to do a Travis McGee TV series and, at least in the beginning, they seemed to be trying. They were in touch with Ed Hirshberg, the editor of the JDM Bibliophile and requested much information, which they said was being put to good use. They had cast Sam Elliott as McGee, which for those of us who had seen the film Lifeguard, seemed like an OK choice. But then the shoes started dropping: The location was changed from Florida to California, the rationale given that there was no Intercoastal Waterway near LA, because -- you know -- it would be impossible for Hollywood to fake a Florida location. Then The Busted Flush was changed from a houseboat to a sailboat, although it would retain that name, because Elliott liked sailboats. The actor's then-girlfriend Katharine Ross was cast as Gretel, even though she was the physical opposite of the character described in the novel. Yikes! Still, the producers had high hopes that the effort would be "one of television's better efforts."

A year later BIB readers were informed that the production team that had been working on the series was gone, and Ernest Tidyman at Warner Brothers had taken over. The sailboat and California locale were dropped and everything would go back to normal. Sam Elliott, however, was still cast as McGee. Tidyman requested the same sort of background info the previous producers had requested, which was supplied, and then some.

Well, before the next issue of the BIB would be released (six months later) the project had changed. Tidyman was out, the series was now a made-for-TV movie pilot, and the sailboat was back in California. Even The Busted Flush name was gone, replaced by Bequia. I watched it when it was first broadcast, then forced myself to watch it again on videotape, then erased the tape. I recall it as possibly the worst attempt of adapting JDM to the screen, ever. Elliott apparently couldn't be bothered to shave his bushy mustache, so he looked nothing like Travis. He spoke in his characteristic twang, dropping his g's and sounding more like a rodeo clown than MacDonald's melancholy, intelligent hero. The feel of the thing was all wrong, so that even the sections of dialogue and voice-over that were taken directly from the book sounded trite and worn. Writing in The Washington Post, Tom Shales called Elliott "not so much a craggy actor as one great crag; his voice comes up straight from Middle Earth and his countenance is rangy and dry to the point of characterature."

JDM was not happy with the result either. He called Elliott "an OK actor, but he was swimming upstream." He was especially angry at the changing of the title. "What did they expect to call the sequel?" he fumed, and labeled the whole project a "mishmash."

The ratings, however, were apparently good enough to get Warners to green-light a series, but the producers diddled, and by the time they had made up their minds to go forward, Elliott was committed to other projects and unavailable. "They must really be congenital incompetents," rued MacDonald. "I should never have peddled McGee."

No official DVD of this film is currently available, but bootleg copies are.

19. "Ring Around the Redhead"

Broadcast on October 13, 1985 as an episode of the anthology series Tales From the Darkside. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the November 1948 issue of Startling Stories. Adapted by Theodore Gershuny. 30 minutes.

Starring John Heard as Billy Malone and Penelope Ann Miller as Keena.

Tales From the Darkside was an attempt at reviving a horror/science fiction anthology show, and it ran for four seasons, from 1983 to 1988. "Ring Around the Redhead" was the third episode of the second season. I have written a blog posting about both the story and its television adaptation here.

The entire series has been released on DVD.

Broadcast on October 8, 1993 as a USA Network made-for-cable movie. Based on the novella of the same name, published in the 1956 book Border Town Girl, and later in the March 1959 issue of Climax. Adapted by Nevin Schreiner. Running time: 86 minutes.

Starring Virginia Madsen as Linda, Richard Thomas as Paul and Ted McGinley as Jeff.

Known in the UK as Lust for Murder, this second adaptation of "Linda" is inferior but not completely worthless. Virginia Madsen is no Stella Stevens, but she does manage to evoke a kind of soulless evil. Richard Thomas, as her husband, essays the role far better than Ed Nelson did in the original, perhaps helped by the use of voice over, which the original eschewed. The locale is back in Florida where the novella took place (the other version moved the setting to Carmel, California), but the look of the film is cheap and doesn't approach the stunning Technicolor in the first version. Outside of a few tweaks here and there, this is still a faithful adaptation, with some lines from MacDonald's story added at the end.

Released on VHS, used copies are circulating.

As far as I can determine, that's everything. If anyone is aware of of anything I've missed, please let me know.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Dance of a New World"

"Dance of a New World" was John D MacDonald's fifth published science fiction story, his third to appear in an s-f pulp magazine. Included in the September 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, it's a 5,800-word tale that is s-f in setting only, a story that MacDonald could have written taking place anywhere on Twentieth Century Earth. Plot notwithstanding, the piece is filled with beautifully drawn detail, remarkably prescient in places, that transport the reader thanks to MacDonald's characteristic skill.

Shane Brent is a young man working for the Investigative Section of Central Assignment, a government organization in charge of managing space travel from Earth. He is sitting in the offices of Solaray Plantations on Venus, trying to convince Hiram Lee, a retired space pilot, take on a seven year trip to a newly-discovered planet and to colonize it. At first Shane obfuscates, pretending to plead with Lee to go back to shuttle flights to and from Earth, a job Lee quit doing after the boredom of it nearly drove him crazy. He's trying to determine if Lee still has the psych profile to carry off such a long, possibly dangerous mission. After he reports back to his superiors with his findings, he makes an offer to Lee, who enthusiastically accepts.

Lee has been spending the past few years as a plantation overseer on Venus, where plant life grows with amazing speed, and where the enslaved native race -- called Harid -- do the harvesting. This strange, ant-like people are controlled electronically, but every once in a while one goes berserk, requiring immediate killing, usually at the end of a knife. This is the kind of work that Lee has grown to love, the danger and unpredictability of it keeping him emotionally alive. He will be accompanied on his long-distance trip by a woman, for companionship and eventual mating on the new colony, and it can be someone of his choosing, assuming she passes muster with Central. Lee has a particular young lady in mind, a beautiful blonde dancer who performs nightly at a local club. He's been after her for months, but she won't give him the time of day. He invites Shane to see her perform and to make her the offer.

Shane agrees, and is astounded when he sees the beautiful and mesmerizing Caren Ames perform a strange, dangerous dance before the rough and tumble crowd of human plantation workers. He manages to get her to come to their table after the act, only by then Lee is dead drunk, asleep with his head on the table. Which, actually, is okay with Shane...

The story's fairly predictable, and the characters are stock MacDonald-types: blonde, angular, gray-eyed Shane, and blonde, graceful, beautiful, embittered-but-reformable Caren. It's the future MacDonald creates with its little recognizable details that make "Dance of a New World" such a joy to read.

The Harid are described dispassionately, their fate at the hands of human oppressors told matter-of-factly. Without any effort or drawing attention to itself, MacDonald's prose illustrates a mankind that hasn't changed a bit:

"The Harids, with their ant culture, had put up a suicidal defense until General Brayton had discovered the wave length of the beamed thought waves which directed the thought waves of each colony. Science had devised stronger sending devices than the colony waves and suddenly the Harid were servants. Each foreman carried one of the wave boxes and directed his crew. Central Economics had proven that the use of Harids in the culture -- picking and drying of the herbs -- was cheaper than any mechanical devices which could be set up."

At his hotel, Shane listens to the news from home, a device MacDonald used often in his science fiction to make wry, often deadly accurate predictions:

"Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out, said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of 'Synthetics' would have to be made."

After pushing a couple of buttons in his room to have a fresh Martini poured into his glass (gin button pushed three times, vermouth once):

"Down in the lobby the centralized accounting circuit buzzed and the price of the Martini was neatly stamped on his bill."

In his Afterward to Other Times, Other Worlds, MacDonald claimed that setting this story on Venus "strike[s] a false and strident note" with today's readers, because "we have since learned facts which make the setting impossible." Nonsense. The story is no less enjoyable because its setting is Venus than it is because mankind would never enslave another race (probably!), or that pilots would become bored with monotonous long journeys through space, or that MacDonald's heroes almost always have pale gray eyes. Readers -- at least this reader -- don't care about such things, as long as the writing is good and the author doesn't play any cheap tricks with the narrative. If MacDonald had ever been able to get over such mistaken notions, he might have gone on writing science fiction well into the later periods of his career.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Funny the Way Things Work Out"

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" was published in the April 1963 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Of all the purely fiction-based magazines where John D MacDonald's stories were published, EQMM is one of only three still extant (the other two are The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction & Fact). Begun all the way back in 1941, the mystery digest is the longest running such periodical in existence.

Ellery Queen is, of course, the pseudonym of two writers, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who began writing mystery fiction together in 1929. Dannay served as editor of the magazine, which was created to publish mystery fiction of a more traditional nature, as opposed to the hardboiled variety so popular in the pulps of the day . It was also differentiated by its smaller digest size and far more sedate cover art (when they used cover art). MacDonald published only four original stories in the digest, but permitted reprints of seven older tales, culled from magazines as varied as Black Mask, Collier's and This Week. EQMM also published several foreign language editions and, as such, provided JDM a readership in countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain.

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" was one of only three short stories JDM had published in 1963. It's an expertly told and entirely unpredictable tale of an old man who reaches his tipping point and gives up on years of subterfuge, with unexpected results. Will Garlan is "a big mild man in his middle sixties, his body thickened and slow, his face deeply tanned." He lives in what is probably Florida (it's never made clear), having moved down there from up north after his first wife died twenty-four years ago. Retired (at age 40) he built a house and married 20-year old Sue Purdley, a hot young thing who had already seen her share of trouble. Now Sue is anything but hot. Will is out trimming the hedges when he hears Sue's shrill voice, a sound that can only mean bad news.

Sue, as described by the author, sounds like a mess:

"He watch[ed] his wife striding toward him, her thin face dull-red with anger, her features pinched into an ugliness of hate. She was a lean woman... [and] wore frayed yellow shorts, too large for her, and a grimy white halter. She had fierce gray eyes and a sallowness the sun never touched. Her black hair looked lifeless in the morning sunlight."

Will has committed the unpardonable sin of leaving his pipe in the bedroom. As he tries to apologize, Sue "drew her wiry arm back and hurled the pipe at him with startling force," hitting him under the eye before storming back toward the house. It is then that "the thing that he had to do came back into his mind."

But this is not the typical perfect-murder-by-henpecked-husband story. Will gets in the car and nearly runs Sue over as he heads into town and into the Palm County Court House. There he hunts down Sheriff Wade Illigan and asks if he can bend his ear for an hour or so. He confesses to thinking about killing Sue, which Illigan assures him is not a crime, and then begins to tell the sheriff about his very interesting past, and about things he did before moving down to Palm County. He also mentions some very valuable items hidden in his house, things Sue would love to get her hands on.

I can almost guarantee you you'll never guess how the story ends.

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" contains some characteristically beautiful writing, none more so than the paragraph that follows the pipe-throwing incident:

"Suddenly he imagined himself grasping the handles of the wooden clippers, hurling it at her, saw it turn once, slowly, glinting in the sun, and chunk into her naked sallow back, points first, exactly between the bony ridges of her shoulder blades... He felt sweaty and cold in the sunlight. The screen door slammed."

By 1963 MacDonald was putting together words such as these in his sleep. This was the year he was struggling to come up with a workable series character who eventually became Travis McGee, writing three versions of The Deep Blue Good-By before arriving at a hero he was satisfied with. It was also the year he wrote the sublime short story "End of the Tiger."

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine was similar to the mystery fiction pulps in one respect: they didn't like MacDonald's titles. He originally called this story "No Heart For the Law." EQMM even changed the titles of the previously published stories they reprinted. Thus we have a story MacDonald called "Secret Stain" changed in 1949 by Black Mask to "Heritage of Hate," reprinted by EQMM in 1954 as "Triple Cross." No wonder no one can say with any precision exactly how many short stories John D MacDonald wrote!

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" was anthologized at least twice, originally in Ellery Queen's Double Dozen (1964) and again in Joan Kahn's Hanging By a Thread in 1969.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Too Young to Marry"

"Too Young to Marry" was published in the September 25, 1955 issue of This Week. A typically brief (for This Week) story of 1,900 words, it reads today like a document from another world. In the 55 years since it was published, so much has changed in American society, especially in its manners and morality, that "Too Young to Marry" would probably seem incomprehensible to young people reading it today. The thought of "waiting until marriage" is likely akin to healing with leeches in the minds of most modern readers.

Jud Harrison and Nancy Rawlings, both 17-years old and about to start their senior year in high school, are deeply in love. "Flushed, level-eyed and deeply serious," the two gravely make their intentions of marriage known to both sets of parents: they want to get married. Now. Jud's father Walt is shocked and doesn't quite know what to say. Nancy's father Jim does: "In white anger, he made some comments to Jud that Jud did not care to repeat to his father." Sensing a possible elopement if he tries to put his foot down, Walt meets with Jim to talk it over.

Jim's solution is limited to ordering Nancy to avoid seeing Jud any more. Walt senses the kids' "spirit of rebellion" and proposes a stalling tactic. Eventually getting Jim to agree, the two sets of parents present the proposal to Jud and Nancy. Walt does the talking:

"We think you're both too young. We think you ought to wait. At least a year. But we know we can't pin you down that way without creating resentment. Jim and I have decided we can do this. We know you're both practical kids. You've both had spare-time jobs and summer jobs. Jim and I will each set aside one hundred dollars a month in a special account for you two... we figure we can do it. Each month you'll be saving two hundred dollars for your future... we would both have preferred to spend that money on your education, but that will be your choice. We've all agreed to it and we want you to think it's fair."

After determining that they could end the arrangement any time prior to the full year and still collect what had accumulated to that point, the kids agree. Jim is convinced that before the year is out the two will have tired of each other. "A year is a very long time to them," he tells his wife Mary. "These things end quickly. They'll break up. We're just buying time."

The story opens at the end of that year, as the two sets of parents meet to hear the decision of their still-in-love children.

Jud and Nancy are peripheral characters in this short tale, as the third person narration focuses on father Walt. And it all works out in a nice, logical, sensible Fifties way, as it only could in This Week. MacDonald's lesson here is that given the proper regard, kids will make the right decisions. True in that long-ago decade, and probably true today.

The story was included in an anthology published in 1963 titled Time of Understanding: Stories of Girls Learning to Get Along with Their Parents, edited by Helen Ferris. "Too Young to Marry" was an interesting selection, since at no point in the story are we allowed to share any interaction between Nancy and her parents.

Monday, January 25, 2010

JDM on Television, Part 3

More of my attempt to set the JDM-on-TV record straight...

11. "The Deep End"

Broadcast on January 2, 1964 as an episode of the anthology series Kraft Suspense Theatre. Based on the novel The Drowner, published in June 1963. Adapted by Jonathan Hughes.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (billed as Ellen McRae) as Barbara Sherwood/Lucille Benton, Aldo Ray as Sam Kimber, Clu Gulager as Dan Walsh, and Tina Lousie as Angela Powell.

Kraft Suspense Theatre was a filmed anthology series that ran two seasons, from 1963 to 1965. "The Deep End" appeared in the middle of the first season. The episodes were an hour long and shot in black and white. The Drowner was one of JDM's rare attempts at straight private eye fiction, although it appears from the credits above that the PI's name has been changed from Paul Staniel to Sam Kimber.

Never officially released on video or DVD, unauthorized copies of the show's complete run are easily obtainable.

12. "The Trap of Solid Gold"

Broadcast on January 4, 1967 as an episode of the anthology series ABC Stage 67. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the April 1960 issue of Ladies' Home Journal. Adapted by Ellen M, Voilett.

Starring Cliff Robertson as Ben Weldon, Dina Merrill as Ginny Weldon, John Baragrey as Ed Bartlett, Dustin Hoffman as J.J. Semmins and Bernard Hughes as Lathrop Hyde.

ABC Stage 67 ran a single season, from 1966 to 1967. The shows were an hour in length and shot on a combination of video tape and film. This was the first JDM adaptation to be done in color. A good, if muted, adaptation, the acting is excellent and the teleplay faithful. I've written extensively on it both here and here.

Never officially released on video or DVD, copies are out there.

13. "Cry Hard, Cry Fast"

Broadcast in two parts on November 22 and November 29, 1967 as episodes of the series Run For Your Life. Based on the novel of the same name, published in July 1955. Adapted by Luther Davis, John D MacDonald and Robert Hamner.

Starring Ben Gazzara, Jack Albertson, James Farentino, Charles Aidman, Diana Muldaur and Joan Van Ark.

Run For Your Life ran for three seasons, from 1965 to 1968. Begun as an episode of Kraft Suspense Theatre, the show follows Ben Gazzara as Paul Bryan, a successful lawyer who is told by his doctor that he will die in one to two years. He decides to do all of the things he has never had time to do. The show was, for all intents, an anthology series, albeit with a reoccurring character, a format that was used in other series of the era such as Route 66 and The Fugitive. "Cry Hard, Cry Fast" was part of the series' last season and is one of three two-part episodes done during the run (one each season).

The Bibliography reports that JDM received credit for co-authoring the teleplay which, if correct, would be his only such credit. In an item that appeared in his JDM Bibliophile column ten years later, Walter Shine contradicted what he had written earlier, by quoting JDM's thoughts on the adaptation:

"I never visited the set for this one, never had anything to do with it once I signed the contract. But I was satisfied with the results. Much of my dialogue remained intact, and the material made a successful transition from the story form to television. And the character and the action seemed well suited to Gazzara, so all in all I was happy with it."

After viewing a rerun on television, Shine reported that "on the whole, the spirit of the novel is maintained," even though major characters -- like truck driver Stanley Cherrik -- were omitted.

The series has yet to be released on DVD, but bootleg copies circulate.


Broadcast in May 1968 as a CBS Television Movie. Based on an extensive outline by JDM. Screenplay by Gil Ralston.

Starring Richard Boone, Vera Miles, Joan Blondell and Duane Eddy(!)

In the mid-sixties JDM was approached by producers at Seven Arts and asked to come up with an idea for a dramatic television series. He responded with something he called Bimini Gal. In JDM Bibliophile 9 (1968) he explained a bit of the background:

"The only thing I have ever done which could be classed as a 'screenwork' was to do a so-called styling of a possible television show. About fifty pages, I think, which included six outlines of sequences. I put the locale in the Bahamas, and called it 'Bimini Gal,' and hoped they could get Mitchum to do it. (They being Seven Arts.) Well, that was a couple of years ago, and Seven Arts bought Warner Brothers, and they got Richard Boone to do it, and changed the locale to Hawaii, and changed the title to 'Kona Coast,' and changed it from a series to a movie for first showing on CBS television."

The resulting made-for-television movie ran 93 minutes and was shot in color. Some reports indicate that it was filmed as a pilot for a possible series, but I can't confirm that. The new title was originally changed to Hula Gal, but Producer/Director Lamont Johnson eventually settled on KONA COAST. I saw it once on television, many years ago, and recall it as a supremely boring and uneventful film, and a total waste of the talents of such great actors as Boone, Miles and Blondell. Boone played Sam Moran, the ex-thief-now-captain of a tramp steamer, whose daughter is found murdered at a millionaire's party. The character Blondell played -- a crusty old dame named Kittibell Lightfoot -- seemed to be the inspiration for Lottie Hatfield, the part she would essay in the television series Here Come the Brides. Rock 'n' Roll icon Duane Eddy had a small part as Tiger Cat, one of his few dramatic acting roles, likely due to his association with Boone and Johnson: he had acted in a couple of episodes of Boone's early-sixties television series Have Gun Will Travel, where Johnson had directed.

MacDonald, despite being rather ill-served by Hollywood once again, apparently was well paid for the effort but not happy with the result. According to biographer Hugh Merrill, MacDonald once said "The few people who have seen that pilot on the tube -- in random places, usually very late at night -- have thrown up."


Broadcast on November 3, 1973 as an ABC Saturday Suspense Movie of the Week. Based on the novella of the same name, published in the 1956 book Border Town Girl, and later in the March 1959 issue of Climax. Adapted by Merwin Gerard.

Starring Stella Stevens as Linda Reston, John McIntire as Marshall Journeyman, Ed Nelson as Paul Reston and John Saxon as Jeff Braden.

Shot in beautiful Technicolor, LINDA was a fairly faithful adaptation of the MacDonald novella and ran a tight 73 minutes (the ABC Saturday Suspense Movie of the Week was shown in a 90-minute timeslot). I saw this many years ago and again recently. Taken on its own terms (a relatively cheap made-for-TV movie) the filmmakers did a good job of bringing MacDonald to the screen, with Stella Stevens laying down a particularly fine performance in the title role. Ed Nelson does less-well in the first third of the film, looking as if he's acting in a high school play, but improves greatly from the recollection scene on. That's when MacDonald's dialogue begins to be used to a greater extent and the entire sound of the film changes. The plot involves two friendly couples who vacation together at the beach, and where the husband of one couple is having an affair with the wife of the other (Linda). Linda shoots and kills her lover's spouse and frames her own husband for the crime. Told in first person by MacDonald, the film contains a couple of jarring third person omniscient POV scenes that are basically unnecessary. The film was directed by Jack Smight, who spent years working in television before graduating to feature films (he directed the adaptation of author Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target, titled Harper).

There's never been an official video release of this film, although there are bootleg copies around. LINDA was both Stella Stevens' and John McIntire's second JDM adaptation, as she was previously in MAN TRAP and McIntire was in the Studio 57 version of "The Homesick Buick," called "Getaway Car". LINDA was remade in 1993 as yet another made-for-TV movie, starring Virginia Madsen and Richard Thomas, a version that was inferior to this production.

Friday, January 22, 2010

JDM on Television, Part 2

My "definitive" list of JDM on television, continued...

6. "In a Small Motel"

Broadcast on May 4, 1956 as an episode of the anthology series Chevron Hall of Stars. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the July 1955 issue of Justice. Adapted by ?

Starring Marilyn Erskine as Ginny Mallory, Adam Kennedy as Johnny Benton, Jerry Paris as Don Ferris and Gordon Mills as J. L. Brown.

Chevron Halls of Stars was an obscure anthology series that ran a half a season in 1956. The show was syndicated to 14 West Coast stations, which makes it nearly impossible to learn any production details, outside of its notoriety for producing Gene Roddenberry's first science fiction script, "The Secret Weapon of 117" on March 6 of that year. According to the New York Times, Chevron Halls of Stars was produced for Screen Gems, was shot on film and the episodes ran 60-minutes. The episodes were later repackaged and aired on the East Coast as Stage 7, and then in the Midwest as Don Ameche Presents the Drewry’s Play of the Week. Confused yet? Some interesting research on the series was done by the Television Obscurities website, but it is unclear if the MacDonald episode ran as part of either of the other repackaged series. It seems safe to assume that it did. It does not seem that any episodes of the show have survived, which is a shame, for "In a Small Motel" is one of MacDonald's best short stories.

7. "First Prize for Murder"

Broadcast on September 16, 1957 as an episode of the anthology series Studio One. Based on an idea by MacDonald, adapted by Phil Reisman, Jr.

Starring Darren McGavin, Philip Coolidge, Barbara O'Neil, Ross Martin, Colleen Dewhurst, Jonathan Harris, Larry Hagman and Peter Falk. Featuring (as themselves) mystery writers Rex Stout, Brett Halliday, Frances & Richard Lockridge, George Simon and George Harmon Coxe.

One of the most famous of the Golden Age of Television anthology series, Studio One was the creation of Fletcher Markle and it ran from 1947 to 1958. The live show spawned some of the most famous broadcasts in TV history, including the original version of "Twelve Angry Men," and the famous actors who appeared on the show before they became "names" are too numerous to go into. Take a look at the cast above to get an idea. "First Prize for Murder" was, according to Walter Shine, "produced with the cooperation and assistance of the Mystery Writers of America," which was probably responsible for getting all the big-name authors to appear. MacDonald was asked to write the teleplay but admitted he had no talent or experience to do so and provided the basic idea for Phil Reisman, Jr to flesh out. The plot was described in a newspaper listing of the time: "A prize-winning mystery novelist fails to appear at an award dinner and police become interested in the book and an unsolved murder." This was actress Colleen Dewhurst's first television appearance, and Larry Hagman, Ross Martin and Peter Falk (as a drunk in jail) all appeared in minor roles.

An excellent collection of Studio One episodes was released on DVD last year, but this episode was not on it. It is likely "First Prize for Murder" exists somewhere, but I am unable to find a copy.

8. "Getaway Car"

Broadcast on March 29, 1958 as an episode of the anthology series Studio 57. Based on the short story "The Homesick Buick," published the September 1950 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Adapted by Frederick Brady.

Starring Mike Connors, Wallace Ford, John McIntire, Olan Soule and Ken Christy.

Studio 57 began life in 1954 as Heinz 57 Playhouse and changed its name in 1955. The show lasted until 1958 and "Getaway Car" was one of the very last episodes broadcast. The shows were 30-minutes long and done on film. Based on one of JDM's very best "howdunnits," the brand name in the original title virtually guaranteed a change for the teleplay. It is uncertain if a copy of this episode has survived.

9. "The Fatal Impulse"

Broadcast on November 29, 1960 as an episode of the anthology series Thriller. Based on the short story "The Impulse," published in the June 1955 issue of Cosmopolitan. Adapted by Phillip MacDonald.

Starring Robert Lansing, Elisha Cook, Jr., Conrad Nagel, Whitney Blake, Steve Brodie, Ed Nelson and Mary Tyler Moore.

Writer (and JDM pal) Stephen King, in his authoritative work on the horror genre Danse Macabre, called Thriller "the best horror series ever put on TV". The show ran from 1960 to 1962 and featured icon Boris Karloff as the host. Early in the run the show featured several straight mystery and suspense stories, which is why a JDM work could appear. Here's the plot synopsis from the IMDb: "A man fleeing from an attempt to assassinate a political candidate puts a small bomb in the bag of a woman in an elevator. The police spend the evening looking for the mystery girl and the bomb." I've never read the story or seen the episode (or if I did it was long, long ago), but I've read that Karloff, in his introduction to the episode, refers to it by its original title, "The Impulse," which probably means it was changed at the last minute. Elisha Cook, Jr., who played Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, is the mad bomber, and a pre-Dick Van Dyke Show Mary Tyler Moore has a bit as an elevator operator.

Episodes of the show have been released sporadically over the years, on VHS and Laserdisc, but a full official release has yet to occur. According to some chatter I've read on the Internet, the release is forthcoming sometime this year. As for unauthorized copies, just turn over a rock...

10. "Hangover"

Broadcast on December 6, 1962 as an episode of the anthology series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Based on both the JDM story of the same name, published in the July 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan, and the short story "Hangover" by Charles Runyon, published in a 1960 issue of Manhunt. Adapted by Lou Rambeau.

Starring Tony Randall as Hadley Purvis, Dody Heath as Sandra Purvis, and Jayne Mansfield as Marion.

Infamous among JDM fans, this botched attempt at adaptation combined MacDonald's story with an identically-titled, and nearly-identically plotted story by another writer. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was the longer version of the long-running Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and "Hangover" was one of the early episodes of the first hour-long season. I've written an extensive blog posting on it here, and the episode can be purchased on DVD or be seen for free here.

To be continued...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"In a Small Motel"

If you ever feel the need for a lesson in the quality of John D MacDonald's early short fiction, go right to "In a Small Motel." Published in the July 1955 issue of a short-lived and utterly forgotten mystery digest called Justice, the longish (9,500 words) short story is a virtual classroom course on writing. The plot is well done, but it is the finely-drawn characters and evocative, realistic location that are the standouts in this tale of happenstance, danger, and hidden motives.

MacDonald's characters here are average, working-class stiffs, people too busy with the grind of their daily lives to spend much time with introspection. They are people who are just getting by, who live with crushing loss, who harbor secret hopes and desires and who nurture indecision as a way of either avoiding finding out something they don't wish to know or to avoid making a decision at all. At the same time, the place these characters live their lives, the locale, is so expertly crafted as to make you almost smell the mildew from the underside of an old motel mattress. MacDonald brings the reader there, and never once is there a false note in the writing that would belie this realism. Finally, the plot is character-driven. These real people in this real place make and act on motivations that are entirely believable, because the author possesses the art to make us believe in them in the first place.

Ginny Mallory owns and operates the Belle View Courts, a roadside motel in southern Georgia on the highway to Florida. Belle View was the dream of Scott, Ginny's husband, who was killed in a traffic accident seven months earlier, leaving Ginny alone to run the place and to wonder why she's still there. She's a strong, capable young woman who is run ragged at the end of a long, busy summer, living under the crushing weight of a mortgage she can barely keep up with. Her first full summer alone has been wearing: "Thick October heat lay heavily over south Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead."

Ginny's one permanent client is Johnny Benton, who owns a gas station across the road and who lives in one of the cabins. Johnny -- tall, broad-shouldered and deeply tanned -- has been helping Ginny with small repairs around the motel and feels guilty for the low rent he pays for his living quarters. All his attempts to pay more are abruptly dismissed by Ginny as "charity."

It's the end of a long, hot day and the motel has nearly filled. Between wheeling rollaway beds into rooms and chasing ice for shouting patrons, Ginny checks in a "tall, white-faced man" from Boston who speaks in a "flat and toneless" voice, and who insists on parking his car in the back. Once he's registered, she takes advantage of a lull to enjoy a cigarette with Johnny, which is interrupted by the arrival of Don Ferris, a one-time suitor of Ginny's who has begun courting her again. Don, an attorney from Jacksonville, has driven up unannounced and asks her out to dinner. Since Ginny can't leave the motel unattended, they compromise on carry-out in the back of her office.

Don begins his umpteenth pitch to get Ginny to sell the motel and come back to Jacksonville with him. He goes into all of the monetary and emotional benefits and -- to be "one hundred percent honest" -- admits that the small profit she would realize on the sale could be used by him to make a killing on a much larger deal, one that could provide them with enough money for the rest of their lives. She fights a strong temptation to give in, ultimately telling him that she'll think about it. At that moment they are interrupted by the guest from Boston, who asks a strangely belligerent question: "What are you telling this man about me?"

I won't reveal more, other than to say that this is a crime story and to leave it at that. The suspense the author creates in the second half of the story comes from the individual morality of the four characters, traits MacDonald has painstakingly revealed in the beginning pages. Those different moralities lead to different decisions being made, decisions that are the real drivers in the plot, not some arbitrary happenstance. MacDonald gives clues along the way as to how things will turn out, but clouds them enough so that the reader is left guessing until the end.

The guest from Boston is the deus ex machina that propels the plot, and he is less-finely drawn than the other characters, but that is because he doesn't need to be. Still, he is an individual in MacDonald's world, and it is his decision based on his own sense of morality that has brought him here, not a random event. Ultimately the story comes down to the decisions one makes.

MacDonald's sense of place -- in the words of editor Ed Gorman, his "apt and unforgiving social eye" -- bring this story alive with passages that ring like music. Some examples:

"Out on the highway directly in front if the Belle View Courts the big diesel rigs thundered by. The sun was far enough down to give the world an orange look. There was a hint in the shadows of the blue dusk that would bring the mosquitoes out of the lowland. And this, she thought, was the slack season."

"She went outside and leaned against the front of the office, her hands shoved deep into the wide front pockets of the sun suit. She felt sticky and weary. The sun was entirely gone and the world was blue. Peepers were beginning to chant over in the patch of swamp beyond the gas station. Cars had turned on their lights. The big rigs were aglow like Christmas trees."

"She sat in the metal chair. The night air was getting cooler. For the first time in many days she was completely relaxed, comfortable. It was a strong temptation to let Don go ahead with it. And so much easier to be Don's wife than -- Scott's widow. Don would get them a nice little beach house. Long lazy days in the sun. Just a few rooms to take care of. And sleep, sleep, sleep. Thousands of hours of it. It would be so blessedly simple. And he was nice. Quick and funny and nice. It would be cheating him, in a way."

Or this line, so descriptively vivid as to be transporting:

"The truck roared by, the motor sound changing to a minor key
as it rushed south down the dark road."

"In a Small Motel" might have remained just another obscure MacDonald work from his early period had it not been for its revival by a couple of anthologies. In 1985 Black Mask was revived as a quarterly digest and called The New Black Mask. It ran for only a couple of years before losing the rights to the magazine's name, but published some very good stories while it was around. The editors approached MacDonald and asked him for a contribution, whereupon JDM dug into his voluminous files of not-printed or rejected works and pulled out something called "Night Ride." "I wondered why it had not been published," MacDonald was quoted as saying in an interview in issue #8, where the story appeared. "Night Ride" seemed vaguely familiar to JDM bibliographer Walter Shine after he read it and he began to do some research. Sure enough, MacDonald had mistakenly pulled out the manuscript of "In a Small Motel" and submitted it to The New Black Mask. Whether "Night Ride" was the author's original title or a new one created by The New Black Mask editors is unclear. I'm sure future bibliographers will be forever confused.

Then, in 1997 the editorial team of Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg included the story -- bearing it's proper title -- in their terrific anthology culled from America's mystery digests called American Pulp. It's out of print but easy to find.

Finally, someone in Hollywood read the story when it was originally published and purchased the rights. It was adapted for television as an episode of an obscure syndicated anthology show called Chevron Hall of Stars, which was only broadcast on the west coast. It starred Marilyn Erskine as Ginny and featured Dick Van Dyke's brother Jerry Paris as Don Ferris. Unfortunately, like much of early television, any surviving traces of the episode seem to have vanished into the ether, like a diesel heading "south down a dark road."

Update (4/9/2015):

This terrific story is now available from Amazon as a Kindle eStory for only 99-cents. 

Update (3/26/2020):

I finally got around to reading "Night Ride" in The New Black Mask and discovered that, while it was a previously published short story, it was not "In a Small Motel" but another tale published in Justice, "Scared Money". It appeared in the October 1955 issue of the magazine. It was "polished" by the author, but the changes were minimal.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"My Mission is Murder" ("Death for Sale")

More than one observer of John D MacDonald's short story output has made note of a recurrent theme in his very early work. Many of those now-obscure and hard-to-find efforts revolve around a recently-discharged World War II veteran who is having difficulty fitting back into society and resuming a normal life. As Francis M. Nevins, Jr. pointed out in a piece submitted to the John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction in 1978, "Although in a general sense MacDonald was no doubt influenced by Hammett and Chandler, the strongest debt in these early stories is owed to that haunted man, Cornell Woolrich, echoes of whose tales of loneliness and despair are heard here again and again."

"My Mission is Murder" certainly reads like a Woolrich piece, and is unusual in the MacDonald oeuvre in that the protagonist and the villain are both French nationals; the only thing American in the story is the location and the girl. Published in the November 1947 issue of Dime Detective, it remained unread again until 1984 when it was included in the Pulp anthology More Good Old Stuff.

"On the way to the hotel he sat in the back of the taxi, a broad, sullen-looking man, searching inside of himself for the sense of satisfaction that should be his. There was nothing there but weariness -- a dejection compounded of the solid year of search." Thus begins the tale of Jan Dalquist, a paid assassin who is hunting for Jean Charlebois, a Frenchman responsible for the deaths of a large band of French Underground immediately after the Allied invasion in World War II. One of the murdered Maquis was the son of a wealthy industrialist, and it was he who hired Dalquist to find and kill Charlebois and his two accomplices. Those accomplices have already been taken care of, leaving only Charlebois, who is now hiding out in New Orleans.

Lest one think MacDonald has given us an amoral protagonist, that thought is addressed and put to rest early in the story: "Had they asked him a bit earlier, or a bit later, he would have refused -- for he recognized that he was a man with a profound distaste for taking the tools of justice in his own hands, for acting as judge, jury and executioner." But his memories of "the basement room in Gestapo headquarters" still burned bright, and he was in the process of having reconstructive surgery done on his hands and feet, the handiwork of the German torturers, when he said yes. His hands were repaired but remained ugly and scarred, and only somewhat useful.

He tracks Charlebois to a restaurant in the French Quarter, where the fugitive has been working as a waiter. At the bar he meets a young woman, "a pretty girl ... [with] a wide face [and] with something secretive and sensitive about the mouth." It occurs to him that a couple would cause less suspicion than a single male, so he strikes up a conversation and manages to get her to agree to have dinner with him. He is seated at a table served by Charlebois, and gets the waiter to agree to show Dalquist and "his girl" around the city after work. They will come back after closing, when Dalquist will complete his plan and eliminate his prey. But things don't work out that easily...

"My Mission is Murder" is ultimately redemptive, but getting there is a dark ride. This is no typical JDM story of the nuts-and-bolts of how a man is hunted down and murdered. He constantly delves into the thoughts of his protagonist, revealing a regretful loner with an exhausted spirit. His damaged hands and feet are symbolic of his broken soul, and he frequently lapses into a pining revere of a better, simpler life:

"This was the last case. After it was over, he would have to find himself again. There would always be men who would pay him to hunt other men. But that wasn't the answer. He knew that the two and a half years of constant search, of sudden violence, had deadened him, soured him. No, that wasn't the answer. He began to think of himself working with moist earth and growing things, with placid acres on which the sun beat and the rains fell. He could almost smell the rich loam."

Jerry Ellis, the girl at the bar, wasn't part of that dream, at least not until he met her...
It's always enlightening to re-read MacDonald's work from his very early period. What many of the stories may lack in polish and originality, they make up for with the small bits of wonderfully-written prose and insightful, descriptive narrative. And although JDM confesses (in the anthology's Introduction) that he would have changed the "gimmick" and the ending to this story, he still felt it strong enough to be included and read again. MacDonald's "voice" never changed, it simply improved.

JDM's original title for "My Mission is Murder" was "Death for Sale" and, as he did with all of the stories reprinted in the Good Old Stuff anthologies, it was restored for re-publication.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

JDM on Television, Part 1

Trying to put together a definitive listing of all of the John D MacDonald-based television episodes and made-for TV movies is something I began back in 1980 when I first started corresponding with Walter Shine. In those pre-Internet days, I had only my proximity to the Library of Congress and a youthful willingness to spend long hours looking through endless lists of television episodes. I eventually gave up. I suppose a trip to the JDM Collection in Gainesville would be the most authoritative way to finalize this, and I hope to get there one day. Until then, here's what I have. The IMDb contains the most complete listing to date, but is has several errors and omissions that I am attempting to correct.

1. "A Child is Crying"

Broadcast on June 19, 1950 as an episode of the anthology series Lights Out. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the December 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Adapted by Ernest Kinoy.

Starring Leslie Nielsen as John Folmer and David Cole as Billy Massner

Lights Out was, of course, the television version of the iconic dramatic radio show created by Willis Cooper and made famous by Arch Obler. The television series started as a four-episode experiment in 1946, then began a regular run in the summer of 1949, continuing for three full seasons until 1952. Although Lights Out was a horror show -- a field MacDonald rarely, if ever, experimented with -- they did run occasional science fiction episodes, and "A Child is Crying" was one of those. It appeared as the series' 41st episode of its first full season. The show was shot in New York and broadcast live there, but shown via kinescope to the rest of the country. Only a few episodes of this series seem to have survived, and "A Child is Crying," unfortunately, does not appear to be one of them.

2. "A Child is Crying"

Broadcast on August 17, 1951 as an episode of the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow. Based in the short story of the same name, published in the December 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Adapted by Alvin Sapinsley.

Starring Bert Lytell as Dr. Hardensteen and Robin Morgan as Lily Massner

A different adaptation -- the gender of the child was changed -- and one that can still be seen today. Tales of Tomorrow was another early science fiction anthology series that lasted a couple of seasons, from 1951 to 1953. "A Child is Crying" was the show's fourth episode. I wrote about this adaptation in an earlier posting here. It contains a link to a site where the episode can be viewed.

3. "Susceptibility"

Broadcast on November 25, 1951 as an episode of the anthology series Out There. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the January 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Adapted by David Shaw.

Starring Leslie Nielsen as Sean Malloy and Bethel Leslie as Deen Thomason

Out There was a science fiction anthology series that had a brief half-season run before being cancelled. The series began in October 1951 and broadcast its last episode in January of the next year. A list of the episode titles reveal some iconic s-f stories and writers of the era, including Robert Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth" and "Misfit," Ray Bradbury's "The Man," and Theodore Sturgeon's "Mewhu's Jet." It was a live/kinescope production that apparently suffered from its timeslot on Sunday afternoon, and no episodes of the show seem to have survived.

I wonder if actor Leslie Nielsen realized he was starring in his second JDM adaptation...

4. "Betrayed"

Broadcast on March 2, 1953 as an episode of Robert Montgomery Presents. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the March 1952 issue of The American Magazine. Adapted by ?

Starring Joanne Dru as Francie Aintrell and Jane Wyatt as Betty Jackson.

MacDonald's first mystery to be adapted for television, it was also the first hour-long JDM episode. Robert Montgomery Presents was an eclectic dramatic anthology series that ran from 1950 to 1957. They did everything from straight dramatic productions of famous novels ("Arrowsmith," "The Citadel") to popular mysteries ("The Big Sleep" and "Ride the Pink Horse") to musical comedy ("Rio Rita"). The dramatization of "Betrayed" was done as part of the show's fourth season, and I've written a blog posting about the story that can be read here. It does not appear that a copy of this show has survived, and I'm only guessing about the casting above, surmising that the older actress (Wyatt) played the older character.

5. "Who's the Blonde?"

Broadcast on April 26, 1955 as an episode of Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the August 9, 1952 issue of Collier's. Adapted by ?

Starring Don Taylor as Tom Weldon, Maxine Cooper as Helen Weldon, and Joi Lansing as "The Blonde"

Sponsored by the famous beer company, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars lasted eight seasons on television, from 1952 to 1959. Beginning as an hour-long live broadcast, it was cut to 30-minute episodes and done on film by the time "Who's the Blonde?" was broadcast. The show went through a series of different hosts, with James Mason serving in that role in 1955. About 60 episodes of this show have survived, but "Who's the Blonde?" is not one of them.

"Who's the Blonde?" is a neat little story that would have fit perfectly on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

To be continued...