MODs of the Week: Jimmy Stewart on TV, Vintage Mysteries and More
Hawkins: The Complete TV Movie Collection (Warner Archives) James Stewart's second effort for television in the 1970s (following the short-lived The Jimmy Stewart Show) featured the screen legend as folksy West Virgina district attorney turned lawyer Billy Jim Hawkins. The series, created by TV vets David Karp (The Defenders) and Robert Hamner (S.W.A.T.), was comprised of eight TV-movies which aired part of the New CBS Tuesday Night Movies in 1973 and 1974, and garnered high praise but failed to generate a substantial audience, despite the presence of Stewart (who earned a Golden Globe for his performance) and quality support from Strother Martin as Hawkins' detective brother and guests like Bonnie Bedelia, Tyne Daly and Sam Elliott. Like the Andy Griffith series Matlock - which adopted the basic premise of this series for its lengthy network run - the key appeal to Hawkins is seeing Stewart wield his considerable charm and talent to gild the occasionally formulaic material.
Warner also has a brace of Depression Era mysteries on deck, including Moonlight Murder (1936), a lightweight thriller with Chester Morris investigating the on-stage slaying of opera star Leo Carrillo that's enlivened by location shooting at the Hollywood Bowl and musical sequences staged by the formidable Wilhelm Von Wymetal. Shadow of Doubt (1936) also has a show biz setting and a bona fide heel (Bradley Page) whose two-timing ways put him on the wrong side of a handgun. His pal and partner Ricardo Cortez gets pinned with the murder rap, which requires the sleuthing services of aunt (!) Constance Collier to find the guilty party. Future Westinghouse pitch-lady Betty Furness plays a socialite squired by Page. Cortez also turns up in The White Cockatoo (1935), a fairly silly screen version of prolific mystery writer Mignon Eberhart's novel about an American heiress (Jean Muir) targeted by nefarious types. For those curious about the titular bird, it provides crucial information to Cortez (who's not the sharpest knife in the drawer here). And The Unguarded Hour (1936) is a whisper-thin courtroom drama highlighted by Loretta Young (in her first film after secretly giving birth to daughter Judy, the result of a fling with Clark Gable during the filming of The Call of the Wild, '35) as the wife of prosecutor Franchot Tone, who has been targeted by villanious blackmailer Henry Daniell. While no classics, these calorie-free cinema apertifs, lightly frosted with Old Hollywood star power, make for fine after-revels holiday screenings.
Meanwhile, Fox Cinema Archives has three top-notch releases - Oscar nominees The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956) and A Hatful of Rain (1957) and the swell 3-D thriller Inferno (1953) - but for reasons known only to them, has decided to release them in full-screen or (even worse) pan and scan editions. Fox MODs have earned brickbats for quality control from buyers online, and these won't do much to change their minds. -- Paul Gaita