Tonight’s episode was the last of the seven Hardy Boys installments in the first season, and the last appearance of Lisa Eilbacher as their friend Callie. The episode is also notable as an early credit for Rosalind Chao, who’s been in several dozen films and TV shows over the last forty years, and may be best known for her recurring role as Keiko in a couple of the ’90s Star Trek series.
The story is about a stolen jade statue that’s very important to the Chinese-American community in Bayport that climaxes with a big chase during a nighttime parade. They mixed the parade footage filmed on the Universal backlot with some very well-selected footage from the library, and they did an impressive job pulling it off, with only a couple of differences in film stock betraying the joins. Some of the earlier uses of “Chinatown” footage during the day are actually far less convincing, because we’re kind of given to understand that Bayport isn’t a particularly large city. (This article at Stratemeyer.org suggests its population is about 50,000.) But the “Chinatown” buildings and streets that we see in establishing shots is all quite clearly film footage from a major metropolis.
But it’s during the parade that our son, who was already enjoying this one a great deal, really sprang to life. He thought this was completely wonderful, and loved Frank and Joe hiding from the criminals under the skirts of a Chinese dragon. The episode climaxes with a dumb joke, as they often do, but this joke’s unlikely punch line involves breakfast cereal, and he just collapsed onto the floor in giggles.
Well, I knew this would be a show with its ups and downs, but after five incredibly implausible but entertaining and cute installments, man, did we ever hit a turkey. “The Mystery of the Ghostwriters’ Cruise” is terrible. Characters don’t know things about their own pasts they should definitely remember, other characters have utterly astonishing technical skills that border on the supernatural, and other characters are just plain annoying. The direction and editing are unbelievably clumsy, too. In order to keep conveying a sense of mystery and keep everybody a suspect, the camera lingers on everybody way too long. It’s a very annoying hour of television.
A couple of interesting cast notes, though. David Wayne plays the famous mystery writer John Addams, who is retiring and taking a cruise, but somebody plans to kill him, and TV’s first Captain America, Reb Brown, is one of about six people set up as suspects. Les Lannom, who had been so entertaining as Lester Hodges in several episodes of Harry O, gets to play the ship’s entertainment director, who is pretty much the only man on the ship who doesn’t seem to want to kill Addams. Sadly, he’s so incredibly creepy and pushy and touchy in that seventies way that he’s more troubling than a potential murderer.
Also, the wannabe killer misspells “you’re” as “your” in the first threatening note. I thought that Nancy would say something about that. I’m not sure what prison sentence awaits the would-be assassin, but because of that note, I hope they threw away the key.
This one’s notable for completely losing our son. He didn’t understand what was happening at all! Joe and Frank head to Hawaii, rent a Volkswagen Thing, do some surfing, get interviewed by Fred Hemmings for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, hang out with some cute girls (one of whom is played by Debra Clinger, who was Superchick in Kaptain Kool and the Kongs), and Joe sings “Surfing USA.” Then their room gets burgled and they’re matching wits with a ring of thieves.
The problem is that the audience is deliberately kept in the dark with a chunk of what happens next. We’re not initially told that Frank and Joe have volunteered to go undercover as a rival pair of hotel thieves; we just see them turning into criminals and getting in the gang’s sights. We later learn that the nice couple that our heroes ripped off are actually undercover cops themselves. Perfectly understandable, but just a shade too complex a narrative choice for our seven year-old critic. When Frank and Joe later work a job with the gang’s main heavies, he was absolutely baffled. He liked the surfing, anyway!
The previous episode of Nancy Drew was full of established Hollywood stars making guest appearances, but this morning’s story was full of up-and-comers. Cast as four motorcycle-riding carnival workers who have a job on the side heisting appliances from fancy houses, there are two of the stars of Jason of Star Command, which would begin production a little more than a year later: Craig Littler and Susan O’Hanlon. Perhaps better known are the other two members of the gang: Jamie Lee Curtis and Robert Englund. Beverly Garland also has a major role in this story, but she was no up-and-comer; she probably had more than two hundred credits by the time she’d made this.
Also appearing, the Universal backlot. Well, it gets used in most of these episodes, but I don’t remember ever seeing it from this angle before. The carnival sets up on the other side of the studio pond, so the cameras are facing the “quaint coastal western” buildings and the riverboat, leading any viewer paying attention to ask the not unreasonable question where on Earth, other than a studio backlot, this carnival could possibly be. The actual story was just a bit of harmless fluff, but our son really enjoyed all the motorcycle stuff, including a big chase at the end that saw one or two of the “try your luck” stands destroyed by runaway bikes.
Speaking of Nancy Drew, we genuinely had no idea until yesterday that a new Nancy Drew film was released literally a month ago. I found the DVD at Target yesterday. Has anybody heard of this film? The 2007 movie with Emma Roberts has been on the “maybe” list to watch with our son for a while. Should we look at this one as well?
Tonight’s episode required a pair of pauses. The plot is about pirate LPs being pressed from stolen demo tapes, and how an influential DJ played by Dick Gautier has to do whatever it takes to get his copy of the demo back because the record company has coded the demos to find the leak. Seems like small potatoes stuff, but we can’t have the Russians stealing top secret plans every week, you know? Anyway, our son didn’t understand that at all.
We also paused so I could explain that seasons one and two of this program synched up perfectly with Shaun Cassidy’s brief but enormous success as a teen pop idol, with three top ten hits in 1977 and hundreds of pin-ups in the pages of magazines like Pizazz, Dynamite, and Non-Threatening Teen Boy. Even if the DVD packaging didn’t tell me that we’d be seeing him play “Da Doo Ron Ron,” it was kind of inevitable. Our son wasn’t all that interested in the singing, either.
On the other hand, there’s a bit in a junkyard where a red VW beetle gets flattened, and a silly climactic fight scene in a military-themed disco using sandbags, so he really enjoyed those bits of the show made with the seven year-olds in the audience in mind!
Tonight’s episode is the perhaps inevitable story about somebody in the old theater dropping lights down onto the stage and almost killing somebody and this was no accident, this rope’s been cut, and so on. They brought in a pile of good actors for it, though. Victor Buono, Bob Crane, and Dina Merrill are among the thesps playing thesps, a group who staged a show called Murder in the Fourth Act twenty-two years previously. They’ve all gone on to successful showbiz careers, but when they’re invited to tread the boards in the small town of River Heights one last time before the old theater is torn down to make room for a youth center, they all rush back, hating each other, because they all buried a secret down in the theater’s cellar.
Michael Sloan’s story is lighthearted and fun, and our son enjoyed it a lot, even if some of the jokes were a little over his head. I guess he figures that if his dad gets a good chuckle from a gag about Marcus Welby or Dr. Kildare, it must be funny somehow, whoever they are.
The biggest mystery about tonight’s episode is why it’s called “The Flickering Torch Mystery.” We’ve got no idea.
Actually, this was a pleasant surprise all around. I was totally expecting Universal to go all cheap like they had done a couple of years earlier, when Johnny Cash guest starred as the murderer in Columbo and they paid the performance rights for a single song to be played umpteen times over the course of the story. Here, Ricky Nelson guest stars as a popular country-tinged light rock star called Tony Eagle and we get to hear snippets of about a dozen songs, including a brief bit of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” which it turns out was a top 40 hit for Nelson in 1969.
I genuinely didn’t know anything whatever about Nelson before watching this episode. I didn’t even know that he was sadly killed in a plane crash in 1985, which was the planned fate of his character in this story. It takes the very interesting angle of having the Hardy Boys be completely wrong in their assumption about what the mystery villains are up to, and what looks absolutely like the big race-against-time climax like you get in television is a flop that leaves our heroes looking stupid. They get redeemed once they figure it out the following morning, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised to be mistaken myself. Nice to see a forty year-old kid show pulling one over on at least one grownup.
Marie said, when we finished, that this was a perfect example of Nancy Drew, and I immediately agreed. When I was a kid, I read probably a dozen Nancy Drew books and another dozen Hardy Boys, and I couldn’t tell you a thing about any of them individually, but collectively they are all this episode: Nancy finding secret passages in an old house that lead to old caves that are being used by counterfeiters, while people send mysterious signals to each other for no better reason than to have Nancy spot them.
The most remarkable thing about “The Secret of the Whispering Walls” is the way that this seventies show just casually presents two elderly aunts who share a bed in this enormous old house. They don’t actually suggest any romance between the two, and you’re perfectly at liberty to assume what you like, but they sure do act like an old married couple and as far as I’m concerned, they’re delightful and probably the most queer-positive image that television presented in February 1977.