Every once in a while, we look back at some old TV and – even though “old TV” is mainly what we watch – we’re surprised by the changes in society over the last forty years. In the second season finale, one of Joe’s old girlfriends, played by Valerie Bertinelli taking a break from the successful sitcom One Day at a Time, phones our heroes for help because three girls have been abducted from the small college she attends over the course of a week. This college doesn’t even have a computer in the registrar’s office to provide a printout of the current roster of students and professors; there’s one behavioral scientist who’s got a room-filling machine that can do that.
So how weirdly dated is this? These kidnappings are not the biggest news story on the planet, which they sure would be today. There’s not even a single reporter in sight. Obviously a similar story made today would have to do things radically differently. But what blew my mind was the way everybody treats this as no big deal. Students are still walking alone on campus at night, and classrooms that were crime scenes the night before are cleaned up for lab work the next day. Then Frank and Joe find some evidence and withhold it from the police so they can confront somebody themselves. Good grief!
A weird coincidence: one month before this aired, NBC showed an episode of Columbo called “How to Dial a Murder,” which was also made by Universal and which also had some Dobermans trained by a behavioral scientist. I wonder whether they were the same dogs.
That’s all from The Hardy Boys for now! But stick around, because we’ll check out the third season in November. Stay tuned!
Credit where it’s due: I’ve occasionally teased the producers and paymasters of this show for cutting some corners to save a little cash. But whatever they saved, they put onscreen in tonight’s hour, which put a Hardy spin on a couple of seventies obsessions: The Towering Inferno and Howard Hughes. Joseph Cotten has a breathtakingly thankless role in this episode, a character who’s both insane and evil. Rathbone is a recluse who hasn’t left his penthouse for twenty-two years, and he’s started embezzling money from his companies. Then Nancy Drew – who’s the spitting image of the “Jane Russell” in Rathbone’s past – starts investigating, and he has her kidnapped.
Six months later – and when you think about it, it’s pretty surprising that any series from the period would leave one of its characters in a villain’s clutches anywhere near that long – the Hardys finally get a lead on Nancy’s investigation, just in time for a serial arsonist, who turns out to have a pretty reasonable motive, to target Rathbone’s building. This story required a lot of extras, a lot of stuntmen, and a lot of fires on the set. Sadly, our son was really excited by the clips from the show before the titles, what with all the explosions and blazes, but the story left him cold, confused, and really unsatisfied. He did enjoy Joe Hardy saving a little kid from the building with a jump from the fourth floor to the fire department’s trampoline.
I think it’s a shame that the center of the story is Nancy being a helpless prisoner for half a year, because Nancy shouldn’t be a damsel in distress in the first place, and certainly not for such a long time. Without this chasm in the plot, it’s otherwise a very entertaining production, and features a fine cast including Jack Kelly and Pernell Roberts. And being a victim for half a year is no way for Nancy Drew to exit the show. This was the final appearance of Nancy and her dad. Janet Louise Johnson and William Schallert wouldn’t be part of the next season. I wish that the characters’ final outing would have been a more positive one.
Frank and Joe are back in Hawaii this week. That is, they’re in Southern California pretending to be Hawaii. They rented a yellow VW Thing like they did when they were really in Hawaii, but they’re staying at the same hotel that they stayed at when they were next door to Universal Studios.
Our son enjoyed some of the underwater scenes in this episode, but none of us enjoyed the deeply drippy dirge of a love song that Maren Jensen croons. Our kid’s favorite moment of the story, he told us, was when she stopped singing.
We were watching the pre-credits clips from the show we were about to see and he lit up at some stock footage of an avalanche in the Rockies or the Alps or someplace. The episode is set in Hungary and Austria, but perhaps filmed in Aspen or someplace a little closer. I would like to know where they went for the train station scene. They were at that location forever and it was full of extras.
Anyway, our son said “Finally! The Hardy Boys have to fight a natural disaster!” I can’t help but think that our heroes are ideally suited for all sorts of threats, but not volcanoes or earthquakes or avalanches. When the avalanche does come, the train makes it into a tunnel in the nick of time. I confirmed later that our son was mildly disappointed. Apart from wanting to see a train get wrecked by a hundred thousand tons of snow and ice, abandoning this episode’s spy plot to have Nancy and the Hardys rescue everybody might have satisfied him more. He’s possibly also remembering a classic installment of Ro-Busters in 2000 AD.
I’ve been giving Ray Milland a hard time for as long as I can remember, which may not be fair, but when you look at anything the actor did in the seventies, I don’t think you can blame me too much. At one time an Oscar-winning cinema icon, he spent the decade sleepwalking through projects, whether classy or not, speaking in precisely the same clipped, grouchy monotone. Absolutely none of his characters – and I don’t care whether you’re talking about a guest star role in a decent show like Ellery Queen or Columbo or The Hardy Boys, or a villain in Escape to Witch Mountain or Love Story, or in Elvira-level D-movie schlock like Frogs or The Thing With Two Heads – seem like characters at all. They seem like Ray Milland being pissed off that his agent can’t get him better work.
So I’ve often pretended to be incredibly impressed by Milland and acted like his biggest champion – he has a nickname that I won’t use in this family-oriented blog – and sung his praises, very loudly and very unconvincingly. To be fair, I think I’ve seen only one of his roles from his cinema heyday – Dial M For Murder, of course – and he’s not bad in that, but for being blustery and bored in everything else I’ve seen him in, I just think the guy was pure ham, and nothing in “Voodoo Doll” suggests I’m being unfair or unkind. Man, he’s annoying.
There wasn’t much about this one that I liked, apart from a genuinely weird moment where the Hardy Boys get the clerk of the nice hotel to unlock the missing Nancy Drew’s room to find the crazy, dirty, old fortune telling lady camped out on her bed and cackling. Everything wraps up in a predictably Scooby Doo way, but the villains’ motivation was so nebulous and odd that our son didn’t understand a lick of it, and his mother had to spend about five minutes trying to make sense of it.
Speaking of Elvira-level D-movie schlock, come back by in a few hours. I’m about to show our son something wonderful…
I continue to be more impressed by the complex production of The Hardy Boys than by the complex schemes devised by the show’s villains. “Voodoo Doll” recreates a big New Orleans Mardi Gras on the Universal backlot, with dozens and dozens of costumed extras and floats engaged for both daytime and night filming. This must have been a huge undertaking. But the villainous plot is downright idiotic.
I bet that it’s all going to eventually boil down to this: a criminal, posing as a stage magician, needs the fleabag hotel room where our heroes are staying in order to plant an assassin. But instead of just getting them another room in a nicer hotel, he arranges to have their wallets stolen and then tries spooking them out of town with voodoo and black magic. Dominating the screen as the magician, it’s Julius Smith, with Kim Cattrall as his not-entirely-willing accomplice, and Ray Milland as a British professor who tells our heroes very sternly that voodoo is nothing to laugh at, young man, I assure you.
Also in town, probably working the potential-assassination-of-the-ambassador angle, it’s Nancy Drew, now played by Janet Louise Johnson. Johnson only appeared in three storylines before the character was written out, and I hope that she has more to do in this story’s second half, because she doesn’t have anything of note to do in the first. She’s onscreen for so little time here that she barely has time to register as a new actress in the part at all. I wonder whether that was deliberate.
There’s a pretty good chase in this story that our son really liked. Joe and guest star Jean Marie Hon are hiding from a villain in a huge storeroom full of mannequins and disembodied plastic arms. “That would be pretty creepy,” I said, in my foreshadowingly dopey Dad way. “I know,” our son replied, and then he leaned over and hissed in my ear, “Especially if they were Autons!” None of you rats told him, did you?
So the villains this evening – some East German spies operating in Hong Kong and hoping to snatch a defector, who include James Hong and a not-evil-enough Diana Muldaur – have convinced Joe that he’s been in a coma for almost a year and that Frank and their dad were killed. Joe figures out their scheme pretty quickly, and of course the dopes spoiled it all in the pre-titles clips anyway, but it’s an entertainingly complex and only-on-TV scheme, with the bad guys going to an insane amount of extra work to convince Joe that a year has passed, even faking the handwriting of his friends and family on some “letters from home.”
My favorite part of their plot: a hidden VCR that plays the spies’ news from the far-flung future of 1979. Among the current events being reported in Hong Kong that January: the collapse of the Ugandan government following the death of Idi Amin, and the surprise marriage of Prince Charles to Princess Caroline. Those East Germans were having far too much fun making this stuff up.
If I’d thought about this a little longer, we probably should have watched a Hardy Boys segment called “The House on Possessed Hill” after sundown for maximum creepiness effect instead of in the early evening before supper. But perhaps this was for the best. Michael Sloan’s story is a delightfully classic haunted house adventure, using the facade of the Bates House from Psycho on the Universal lot, and even with the sun baking our living room and counteracting the attempts of the air conditioner to keep us cool, our kid still stayed very creeped out and hid. “If we had watched that after dark, I’d have stayed behind the sofa all night,” he protested.
I haven’t seen Psycho since I was in college, but of course I recognized the house immediately in the pre-credits scenes from the episode. However, I didn’t recognize Melanie Griffith, who plays the main guest star, until her name popped on screen. Lloyd Bochner is also in this one, playing her character’s doctor. I’ve seen Melanie Griffith in a dozen or more movies, and only seen Psycho and one of its sequels maybe twice. I guess sometimes houses are even more iconic than people!
I have to give all credit to Universal on a couple of points here. First, as anybody who’s followed this category has realized by now, they were insanely good at picking future Hollywood superstars for guest star parts in this series. And second, we all know that house is an empty facade on a backlot that can only be shot from a couple of positions without spoiling the illusion, but their dressers did an amazing job making it look like the creepiest, most lonely and isolated old haunted house for ten miles.
Griffith plays a girl with psychic powers. Frank’s able to find rational explanations for just about everything that happens in the episode, but not quite all of them, and once again, Joe sees something supernatural and bizarre right at the end that his brother misses. I enjoy the reverse symmetry with Universal’s Six Million Dollar Man, where all the ghosts and witches were hoaxes and the aliens and UFOs were genuine, while here it’s the flying saucers that are fake but the vampires and parapsychology are real.
Hooray, it’s Debra Clinger again! She had played a different character in season one’s “Wipe Out” and this time she’s the singer of a small rock group that plays small towns in, unfortunately, the same circuit as a drug ring is suspected to travel. Clinger had played Superchick in Kaptain Kool and the Kongs, and I had such a crush on her when I was about our son’s age. Ours did allow that he really enjoyed the first song her band played in tonight’s episode.
This was a much, much better episode than the last couple. It does kind of deteriorate toward the end, once our heroes figure out who the villains are, and the bad guys get a scene to talk in “television evil” while nobody’s watching. But before that, it’s a pretty good little mystery, with several suspects, lots of clues, and a couple of perfectly fine seventies bubblegum songs. And if we’re completely honest, I really do enjoy the running gag about how Frank invariably finds an important plot point that needs his attention just as soon as Joe starts singing.
I’d like nothing better than to say that the Nancy Drew episodes were the best of this series, but that simply isn’t the case. The Hardy Boys segments this season, without the character, have been far better every time, and while some have been pretty dopey, a couple of them have been surprisingly intelligent and entertaining. So I honestly won’t be sorry to see Nancy go. The only stories of hers that I liked were in the first season. And so tonight’s show was the final solo outing for the character, and the last appearance of Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy, as she declined to continue as a guest star in what had been sold as a show that was one-half hers.
Marie wondered whether ABC and Universal decided to cancel her solo outings because they were of such remarkably lower quality than the Hardy Boys segments. My gut tells me – without any genuine black and white evidence – that the predominantly tween girls in the audience wanted to see Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson first and foremost, and weren’t interested when they weren’t on. I can’t even protest that surely some girls were tuning in for a positive female role model, because the Nancy of year two is not one. She’s unlikeable, illogical, muleheaded, and the way she destroys evidence at crime scenes is pretty amazing. So maybe the girls of 1978 were being superficial in only wanting to watch the dreamy guys, but who can blame them?
Guest starring in this last solo case of Nancy’s, there’s Nicholas Hammond and Simon Oakland, pretending to be policemen when they’re really criminals, and Los Angeles, pretending to be Manhattan when it is most emphatically Los Angeles. Television producers spent a lot of time in the seventies and eighties pretending that southern California was anyplace else, and I have spent a lot of time giggling about it when they fumbled, but…
…the episode begins with Nancy driving through Times Square at night, and she’s hopelessly lost, so every time she comes to a red light, she consults what appears to be a road map of Passaic County, probably because that’s the best the props department could do. You can make out Wanaque and Oakland on it. And it continues the following day, through palm trees and giant open skies and an ornately-designed police precinct that Barney Miller and Kojak couldn’t have dreamed they’d ever have worked from. The Hardy Boys were more successful in convincing me that they were in Egypt and Kenya this season. I look forward to seeing more from that show. It may be a kids’ show, but that crew was trying harder.
A couple of things to note about tonight’s Christmas episode. First, there’s a tip of the hat to the immortal Twilight Zone story “The Night of the Meek”. This story introduces us, briefly, to an alcoholic department store Santa who is barely able to sit up straight. I think that was cute. I also think that “The Night of the Meek” is about sixty million times more entertaining than this thing, but that’s neither here nor there.
Also, in this show’s first season, actor George O’Hanlon Jr. had played Ned Nickerson, who was a dreamboat all-American football type in the original books and a nervous assistant to Carson Drew in season one. While they had recast Nancy’s best friend George with another actress, they did a complete retool of Ned, and introduced him in this story as a brand new character played by heartthrob-to-be Rick Springfield. This Ned works for the Boston DA and is an obnoxious creep with downright hideous taste in clothes.
Finally, our son is now singing “Deck the Halls.” Hot freaking dog.