Showing posts with label Michael Mallory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Mallory. Show all posts

01 August 2023

The Mystery of Hamhock Jones


by Michael Mallory

It is safe to say that most people have never heard of the TV show Hamhock Jones ─ The World’s Most Amazing Detective, even though its inspiration is obvious. While there have been myriad Sherlock Holmes parodies in all media over the past century, this particular iteration has a unique place in television history: in 1948, during television’s infancy, Hamhock Jones was poised to become TV’s very first original cartoon character. 

While Hamhock Jones dressed like Sherlock Holmes, smoked a pipe, carried a magnifying glass, and spoke in an imitation of Ronald Colman, he was more like the big city detective stereotype that was popular in the late 1940s. He lived on the 234th (!) floor of the Greystone Building (alone; he had no “Watson”) and wielded a snub-nosed revolver. His was one segment of a proposed series called The Comic Strips of Television. 

The project was devised by a young San Francisco animator named Alex Anderson ─ the nephew of Paul Terry, founder of Terrytoons, which produced “Mighty Mouse” and “Heckle and Jeckle” cartoons ─ and his longtime friend Jay Ward. The two dubbed their fledgling company Television Arts.

Hamhock’s sole recorded adventure, from the series pilot, was titled “The Case of the Siamese Twins.” It involved a diminutive client named “Professor Soufflé” who told Jones the bizarre story of conjoined brothers, one a world-famous scientist named “Otto,” and the other a bad-to-the-bone criminal named “Blotto.” 

Working with the good twin, Soufflé invented a gas called “Votaine” which can turn Republicans into Democrats and vice versa, and allow campaigning politicians to gas babies instead of kissing them. The problem with Votaine (outside of its off-the-wall absurdity), was that if it were to fall into the wrong hands, the results could be catastrophic. Needless to say, evil twin Blotto fully intends to put Votaine into the wrong hands, chiefly an unnamed foreign power (but in 1948, there was little doubt who it was supposed to be). He kidnaps Otto…not difficult, since they are conjoined…and makes off with the formula. 

What will the World’s Most Amazing Detective do to save the American political system, if not the world? Well, that’s the problem: the pilot segment was nothing more than a teaser for the story, which ends there, so we’ll never know. 

While The Comic Strips of Television is the first attempt by anyone at an animated TV series (and until William Hanna and Joseph Barbera devised the template for successful television animation in 1957, tooning was most frequently seen in commercials), there’s a reason it was not called The Cartoons of Television. It was animated only in the most rudimentary definition of the term. The pilot was little more than a story reel──a series of stationary drawings photographed and edited to present the story visually. Voices were heard without the characters’ lips moving, and except for a couple shots in which quick-cuts between two poses were done to give the illusion of animation, any movement in the show was accomplished by panning or zooming the camera. 

Which one of the four credited voice actors, all Bay Area radio performers, played Hamhock has been lost to time, though it’s safe to assume it was not Lucille Bliss, who decades later earned fame as “Smurfette” on Hanna-Barbera’s The Smurfs. Bliss’s major contribution to the pilot was as the voice of “Crusader Rabbit,” one of the other pilot segments. The third component was a seminal version of “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.” Producer Anderson felt that Hamhock Jones had the best chance of becoming a series, perhaps because of the parody name recognition, but he was wrong. After looking at the pilot with an eye for syndicating it to their affiliate markets, NBC was interested only in Crusader Rabbit. 

The first Crusader Rabbit series suffered from erratic scheduling and did not last long, though it was revived in 1959, with better animation, but without Anderson and Ward. By then Anderson had drifted out of animation altogether and into advertising, while Ward was about to launch a new career as the producer of a string of witty, intelligent cartoon shows beginning with The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. Even though Hanna and Barbera would become the kings of TV animation, Ward would carve a major niche in the medium through such mordantly funny and pun-filled shows as George of the Jungle, Super Chicken, and Hoppity Hooper. With his new partner, writer and actor Bill Scott, he would also successfully repackage Dudley Do-Right. Hamhock Jones, however, was never heard from again.

The Hamhock Jones segment of The Comic Strips of Television can currently be found on Vimeo, and watching it reveals just how far TV tooning has come over the last 75 years. Its most startling revelation, though, is the plot device of a foreign power seeking to influence U.S. elections.

The more things change…

29 March 2023

Keep It Under Your Hat (Your Crimesolving Ability, That Is)

by Michael Mallory
Paget's Original Deerstalker Illustration

Here’s a simple experiment: draw a stick figure, like a “Hangman” victim, and then ask anyone who it is. 

They will not know. How could they?

Now cover the round circle head in a cap with a front and back brim and a bow on top, and ask again.

The reply is guaranteed to be “Sherlock Holmes.” 

Once a symbol of country life, the common deerstalker──a tweed cap with ear-flaps worn by hunters in rural areas of England as they (wait for it…) stalk deer──has incongruously become synonymous with one of the most renowned Londoners of all time.

How did this turn of events come about?

Blame it on the illustrator. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentioned a deerstalker by name in any of his 60 Holmes adventures, though in the 1891 short story “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Dr. Watson described Holmes as traveling to a village in Hertfordshire wearing “a close-fitting cloth cap.” That could, of course, just as easily have signified a flat “newsboy” cap. But one year later, when “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” first appeared, Watson got a little more specific in describing Holmes’s headgear, stating he wore “his ear-flapped travelling cap” to Dartmoor. While flat caps of the era sometimes came with ear protectors, the “Silver Blaze” description certainly sounds like a deerstalker, so Strand Magazine illustrator Sidney Paget took the inference and ran with it. 

Paget first depicted Sherlock Holmes wearing a deerstalker for “Boscombe Valley,” and then recreated that illustration nearly verbatim for “Silver Blaze.” As a result, the cap immediately became shorthand for the appearance of Holmes, so much so that he was rarely depicted in any stage or film incarnation without it. This was despite the fact that a deerstalker in London would have looked as out-of-place to a fashionable Victorian as would a Native American war bonnet.

Bernhardt in Fedora

A half-century after Sidney Paget’s iconic drawings of Holmes, another form of headgear started to be identified with a detective, albeit a tougher, harder-boiled one. This was the fedora, whose origins were anything but tough…or even male.

French stage star Sarah Bernhardt wore a unique hat in her starring role in a popular 1882 play by Victorien Sardou: it was a soft felt hat with a narrow brim (narrower than most women’s hats of the time, anyway), and rather lavishly decorated. 

The play was called Fedora and the hat caused a sensation. Parisian women raced to their milliners to request “a Fedora hat,” which is how the name got pasted to the style. In short order the chapeau became unisex, though men’s fedoras tended to be less-showy, except for the one sported by Oscar Wilde. His signature version of the fedora, which was always worn at a dramatic angle, featured a tall, dented crown and a wide, turned-down brim.

Bogart in The Big Sleep

By the 1920s, the fedora was well on its way to becoming the default hat for city men, edging out the derby, the more formal homburg, and the straw boater. By the ‘30s, it was hard to find a man who was not wearing a fedora, either a weather-durable felt one for autumn and winter, or a chic Panama straw fedora for spring and summer. Derbies and boaters were more commonly seen on film comedians of the era than the average man on the street.

How, then, did the fedora become de rigueur for a 20th century gumshoe──usually accompanied by a trench coat? The answer is time plus the march of fashion.

In the period between the two World Wars, fedora hats were so universal that they were not even referred to as such. One could read every novel written between 1930 and 1960, and watch every film produced within that time, and encounter the word “fedora” less than two-dozen times. The lids were referred to simply as “men’s hats” or “soft hats.” As widespread as they had been, though, by the late 1950s, classic fedoras were on the way out.

Andrews in Laura

Many blame President John F. Kennedy for this since he famously chose not to wear hats (he did carry a Cavanagh brand fedora for photo ops, though, since the head of the Cavanagh Hat Company was an old Navy friend of the president’s). But the truth is that fashion sense had been changing for some time prior to Camelot. 

The porkpie hat──not the comically flat one worn by Buster Keaton, but taller ones made of felt or straw that also bore snap brims──had become prevalent. What remained of the fedora morphed into the “trilby,” a hat that was similar in shape but with a shorter, tapered crown and a much narrower brim, and sometimes made of leather.

By the end of the 1960s, most men did not wear hats at all, and those who did often preferred the more casual lids such as fishing hats, bucket hats, or “skipper” hats.

Yet the images from the movies remained. Humphrey Bogart decked out in a fedora and trench coat in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1943), and The Big Sleep (1946), plus Dana Andrews similarly attired in Laura (1944), solidified the connection. Just as “ten-gallon” hats defined the look of the Westerner in people’s eyes (the classic “cowboy hat” being more a product of Hollywood than reality), so did the fedora and trench coat become the de facto uniform for a private eye on screen, though that connection would not really enter into the collective consciousness until a generation after the fact.

Eddie Constantine in Alphaville

As the wartime trench coat gave way to sleeker rain coat, and the classic straight-crowned, wide-brimmed fedora went the way of pocket watches and spats, what was normal daily dress evolved into a costume, one that was resurrected by later filmmakers who wanted to evoke that lost time. 

French director Jean-Luc Godard revived the look in Alphaville (1965), his bizarre, futuristic homage to film noir, while Peter Sellers lampooned it as Inspector Clouseau.

And while some might argue that Indiana Jones rescued the fedora from total association with detectives, it was the kind of rescue that lasted only until the next Indy film. 

Downey in Sherlock Holmes

Through no fault of their own, the humble, practical deerstalker and the once-ubiquitous fedora defined more than a century of fictional sleuths. So iconic have they become to their archetypal characters that the decision to put Robert Downey, Jr. in a Wildean fedora in Sherlock Holmes (2009) seemed somewhere between an anachronism and a sacrilege.

23 January 2023

Dr. Watson Had How Many Wives?


by Michael Mallory

How many wives did Dr. John H. Watson, of Sherlock Holmes fame, actually have? The fact that so many people even care about this is a trait of those devoted Sherlockians who like to purport that Holmes and Watson were real people, not iconic fictional characters. That is the “grand game” as put forth by today’s Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), an organization of devoted Holmesophiles who pretend that Watson actually participated in and recorded the adventures of his singular friend, and that this Arthur Conan Doyle chap was simply his literary agent.

My personal opinion of this mindset is that it rather disrespects a major Victorian author, but for these purposes, that is neither here nor there (other than the acknowledgement that by humbugging the grand game, I will never be invited to join the BSI). My purpose is to speak about how many trips the good Dr. Watson made to the altar and why it is even in question.

For nearly 30 years now I have been turning out stories, novels, and even one full-length play featuring Amelia Pettigrew Watson, whom I call “the Second Mrs. Watson.” There is a sound reason for this, to my way of thinking, but many Sherlockians disagree. I have heard theories that Watson was married a total of six times, and once encountered a Sherlockian who claimed to have evidence that the real number of wives was 13! Since this would paint Watson as either the second coming of Bluebeard or the first coming of Mickey Rooney, I did not take him very seriously. For most faithful Sherlockians, however, the number is three, though we only have details of one of them.

Watson’s only indisputably-documented wife was Mary Morstan, the heroine of the novel The Sign of the Four. Mary is mentioned in another half-dozen short stories, and while her union with Watson appeared to be very happy, it was short; she died “off-stage” during Holmes’s “Great Hiatus,” his multi-year disappearance after presumably being killed by Professor Moriarty.

The only other mention of Watson remarrying comes from the story “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” which was published in The Strand Magazine in 1926 and collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes the next year. In it, Holmes himself writes: “I find from my notebook that it was in January, 1903, just after the conclusion of the Boer War, that I had my visit from Mr. James M. Dodd, a big, fresh, sunburned, upstanding Briton. The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.” One of only two short stories narrated by Holmes himself, “Blanched Soldier” reveals a surprisingly vulnerable detective who, based on the above comment, is hurt and angry over Watson’s abdication for a woman. It also generated one of the biggest mysteries within the Holmesian canon, since this mystery woman was not identified and was never heard from again.

In 1992 I began playing around with the idea of writing a Holmes and Watson pastiche told from a woman’s point of view. Using Irene Adler seemed too obvious, while Mary Watson never seemed to engender such a feeling of replacement in Holmes’s life. Then I remembered the “second,” unknown Mrs. Watson, and from that single reference to her developed Amelia Watson. She is not only Watson’s devoted, slightly younger wife, but I present her as something of a foil to Sherlock, particularly if she believes Holmes is using her husband.

I remain grateful that faithful Sherlockians have enjoyed her adventures, particularly since I have at times treated the legend rather playfully through her POV, the chanciest conceit being that maybe Watson was a better writer than Holmes was an infallible detective, and he fixes his friend’s mistakes in print.  The only point of contention I’ve encountered from the faithful is in presenting Amelia as Watson’s second wife instead of the third. But if Mary Morstan was Watson’s second wife, not his first, and Amelia was his third, not his second, who was the first? The answer to that can be found only outside the canon of 56 short stories and four novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sometime in the late 1940s, author and Sherlockian John Dickson Carr was granted permission to look through Conan Doyle’s private papers in preparation for writing his biography. One thing Carr discovered shocked him. Around 1889, in between the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes adventure A Study in Scarlet (1887) and the second, The Sign of Four (1890), Conan Doyle wrote a three-act play titled Angels of Darkness, which dramatized the American scenes from A Study in Scarlet. Holmes was nowhere to be found in it; instead Watson was the main character. By the play’s end the good doctor was headed toward the altar with a woman named Lucy Ferrier, who was a character from the flashback section of the source novel.

Carr’s dilemma was that this previously unknown work, which Conan Doyle never intended to see the light of day, upended the “facts” of Watson’s life. “Those who have suspected Watson of black perfidy in his relations with women will find their worst suspicions justified,” Carr wrote of his discovery. “Either he had a wife before he married Mary Morstan, or else he heartlessly jilted the poor girl whom he holds in his arms as the curtain falls on Angels in [sic] Darkness.”  

Making the problem even murkier for grand gamers, Lucy Ferrier could not be the first Mrs. Watson since The Sign of the Four has her dying in Utah sometime in the 1860s, when Watson would have still been a schoolboy. In light of this stunning discovery, Carr’s felt he had only one option: keep it to himself. He wrote that revealing the woman’s identity would “would upset the whole saga, and pose a problem which the keenest deductive wits of the Baker Street Irregulars could not unravel.” One man, however, accepted the Gordian challenge.

William S. Baring-Gould (1913-1967) was not only the leading Sherlockian of his time; he became something of the St. Paul of Sherlockania, a writer who fashioned the outer-canonical Gospel of Baker Street which is accepted by the faithful to this day. Realizing that John Dickson Carr was right in his assessment that the Watson-Ferrier match would turn the entire saga on its head, he did what all good authors do: he made things up. Baring-Gould put forth the notion that Watson had traveled to San Francisco in the early 1880s and there met a woman whom he subsequently married, but it was not Lucy Ferrier. It was someone named Constance Adams.


The first mention of Constance Adams appears in Baring-Gould’s 1962 “biography” of Holmes titled Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, and although she exists nowhere in the writings of Conan Doyle ─ not even in Angels of Darkness ─ having the Baring-Gould imprimatur meant that her existence was taken as a given by many.

Even so, I maintain that Mary was Mrs. Watson #1 and Amelia is #2, and for a very simple reason: in crafting Amelia and John’s adventures, I rely on the Holmesian canon rather than later interpolations by others. The same is true when I write a Holmes pastiche that does not feature Amelia. While I take playful liberties here and there, the guidebook for me begins and ends with those 56 stories and four novels, occasional contradictions and all. (For the record, I also ignore Dorothy L. Sayers’s speculation that the “H” in John H. Watson’s name stood for “Hamish,” which is now acknowledged dogma.) In the Amelia universe, she is the Second Mrs. Watson (though in British editions, she is “the OTHER Mrs. Watson,” which I’ve rather come to like as well).

That said, I have not ignored Constance altogether. In a bow to the non-canonical mythology, I included her in my short story “The Adventure of the Japanese Sword,” which is set in San Francisco, and fully explains her youthful association with Watson which is misinterpreted as matrimonial.

You see, two can play the grand revisionist game.

25 December 2022

Murder in Wackyland: "The Frozen Ghost"

 My friend Michael Mallory is the author of 30 books, fiction and nonfiction (including Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror), and 160 short stories, mostly mystery. His most recent mystery novel is Dig That Crazy Sphinx!, part of his Dave Beauchamp Hollywood mystery series. A former actor, he works as an L.A.-based entertainment journalist, and as such has written more than 650 magazine, newspaper, and online articles.  -Robert Lopresti


by Michael Mallory

With the possible exception of the Western, there was no more plentiful motion picture genre in the 1940s than the murder mystery. Literally countless mysteries, crime thrillers, and whodunits were churned out during the decade, ranging from the breezy, and pseudo-romcom puzzlers of the decade’s early years to the hard-hitting noir crime dramas that came to prominence after the war.

Of them all, none was as wild, wacky, and brazenly loony as 1945’s The Frozen Ghost…at least none that was not intended as a vehicle for a comedian. A delirious, almost surreal convolution of a B-movie,

Lon Chaney, Evelyn Ankers, Martin Kosleck, and Elena Verdugo.

The Frozen Ghost was released by Universal Pictures as part of its low-low budget “Inner Sanctum” series, which was inspired by both the eponymous Simon & Schuster book imprint and the then-popular radio show. Their primary purpose was to promote Lon Chaney, Jr., who was usually encrusted in monster make-up, as a romantic leading man.

While most of the Inner Sanctum films tend to be a bit dull, that criticism cannot be leveled at The Frozen Ghost, which speedily blasts through enough plot for three movies in as many genres. Fronting the picture is the series’ trademark opening, a shot of a creepy séance room containing a crystal ball, inside which a disembodied head (played by cadaverous David Hoffman) who lectures us about how anyone can commit murder. For the next hour, the filmmakers try to get away with it.

The story centers on Alex Gregor, a.k.a. “Gregor the Great” (Chaney), a wealthy radio hypnotist whose act consists of placing The Amazing Maura (scream queen Evelyn Ankers) in a state of “telepathic receptivity” from which she reads the minds of the studio audience members. Since neither Gregor nor Maura speak into a microphone, their every move is described by an announcer. Somehow, this less than riveting presentation is judged one of the hottest acts on radio. 

During one fateful broadcast a belligerent drunk from the audience disrupts the act, provoking Gregor to mutter (off mic): “I could kill him!” He then turns his hypnotic gaze on the heckler…and the man falls over dead! 

Gregor confess to murder, but Homicide Inspector Brant (Douglass Dumbrille) isn’t buying it since the coroner ruled the death a heart attack. But Gregor’s overwhelming guilt cannot be assuaged. Unable to face Maura, who is also his girlfriend, or anyone else, he goes into hiding. His business manager George Keane (Milburn Stone) recommends the perfect sanctuary for one with a troubled, guilty mind: a dark, cold, creepy old wax museum!

Gregor promptly seeks asylum (in all senses of the world) there and is accepted with open, hungry arms by the proprietress of the place, Madame Valerie Monet (Viennese actress Tala Birrell). Also living at the place are Valerie’s virginal, teenage niece Nina (Elena Verdugo) and a person no wax museum should ever be without, a wild-eyed, lunatic sculptor named Rudi (German actor Martin Kosleck). When he’s not slavering after Nina, Rudi talks to the figures as though they are alive and throws knives at everyone else.

While ostensibly good for business, having Gregor serve as the museum’s tour guide (so much for hiding) wreaks havoc on the personal lives of the museum staff. Both Valerie and Nina have fallen madly in love with him and when the jilted Maura suddenly shows up to reclaim him for herself, she and Valerie have it out. On top of that, Rudi maliciously lies to Valerie that Gregor has the hots for Nina, which causes her to angrily confront the oblivious mentalist, who in turn levels his “murder gaze” on her. She immediately falls down dead! At least she looks dead. Returning home, guiltier than ever, Gregor tells his manager Keane that he has killed yet another person with his eyes, but Keane scoffs at the idea, going so far as to tell Gregor that he never believed in his abilities (but thanks for the 10%). Returning to the wax museum, the two learn that Valerie Monet has vanished without a trace, and now Inspector Brant does suspect Gregor.

Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, and Lon Chaney 

Things really start rolling at this point. 

Rudi, it turns out, is not just your average artistic, blade-lobbing whack job; he’s a former plastic surgeon who changed careers after making a society matron look like Quasimodo. But his talents don’t stop there: he is also an expert at putting people into a state of suspended animation, making them…frozen ghosts. What’s more, Valerie has not disappeared at all; she’s now a figure in the museum, plainly visible to the audience if not the police. 

There are plenty more plot machinations before The Frozen Ghost’s sixty-one minutes run out, and without spoiling the mystery, the upshot is that it’s all a plot to gaslight Gregor. However, by the time the culprit is finally revealed, any presumption of logic has gone through the shredder (particularly how one goes about staging death-by-staring murders on cue).  

Somehow the cast of The Frozen Ghost gets through it all with straight faces, even though most are playing the wrong roles. Urbane Douglass Dumbrille is better suited for the manager part, while Milburn Stone should have played the detective. A decade before Stone took on the role of crusty Doc Adams on TV’s Gunsmoke, he looked like a detective. Similarly, the roles played by Elena Verdugo and Evelyn Ankers would have made more sense if switched, with the teenager the lovesick assistant and Ankers a more mature niece to the matronly Birrell. As for Lon Chaney (who was stripped of the designation “Jr.” by the studio a couple years earlier), he achieved his goal of proving he could function without being covered in yak hair or mummy wrappings, or incessantly asking about rabbits. But the idea that all women from 15-to-50 take one glance at his craggy face and burly frame and start fighting over him like they might Errol Flynn is simply too much to swallow.   

None of the above should be construed to imply that The Frozen Ghost is unwatchable. On the contrary, it is a howling hoot of a whodunnit/horror film/wax museum thriller whose sheer nonsense makes for fine entertainment. Perhaps not in the way Universal intended, but fine nonetheless.