Friday, September 6, 2013

Friday Favorites - Peter Gunn (sometimes style IS substance)

I've been watching a lot of Peter Gunn lately,s a very stylish series from the late 1950's, created by Blake Edwards (he of The Pink Panther).

It only lasted three seasons, but was a critical hit, and I think an Emmy winner (certainly a Grammy winner), and is currently available on Hulu for free watching: Peter Gunn on Hulu.

It starred Craig Stevens as an ultra-cool private detective, with Lola Albright as his ultra-cool jazz singer girlfriend.  The other major characters were Hope Emmerson who played "Mother" the owner of the little nightclub/cafe where Gunn met clients and listened his girlfriend sing, and Hershel Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby, his long suffering cop friend.

Oh, and there was another star of his show, though you never saw him: Henry Mancini.  Jazz was as much a part of this show as crime and cool banter. It was only a half hour show, but they made room for jazz in most episodes.

Every short episode of this also had quite a lot of cool banter -- between Gunn and his girlfriend, Gunn and his cop friend, and of course, all his quirky, cool and sometimes strange informants in the underworld. They even, usually, managed a plot somewhere in the episode.

Of course, with all that time for coolness, the stories had to be pretty simple and straight forward. Not much room for more than one twists.  Or maybe a twist and a half.

But the show was very efficient.  Almost distilled. They made great use of every moment.

One way they did this was by use of a "cold open" or teaser: the little scene before the credits.  This show, especially in the first two seasons, turned the cold open into an art form.  It always started with a jazz rhythm riff -- drums and bass -- which played under something that seemed kind of quiet and ordinary.  A car pulling into a driveway.  A pair of crooks efficiently breaking into a safe.  A woman coming home from shopping.  But the scene would quickly complicate, along with the music, until suddenly there would be a twist to set the story off.

And then BAM, loud and fast, we'd get the very very fast credit sequence.

This opening sequence was more than just a stylish way to tempt the audience.  It also set the story up -- took it to a deeper level so that we already know something of what's behind the case that will fall in Gunn's lap.

As a writer, I find this show really fascinating, because of this efficiency.  TV shows, especially of that time, often used a formula to make the stories work, and this one certainly did too.  But it was so short, that they often had to mix 'n match the elements -- move them around -- to keep it interesting.

There were two acts in a half hour show (aside from the cold open).  First act, Peter Gunn meets the client (usually at Mother's) listens to Lola Albright sing, and then has some clever, sexy banter with her.  Then he would visit Lt. Jacoby to find out what the police know, and have some clever banter with him.  Then he'd follow up the lead and something exciting would happen before the ad break.  (Often, Gunn would get hit over the head, or captured by the bad guys.)  In the second half, he might meet with one of his colorful underworld informants to get another lead, and end up in a confrontation (usually a fight scene) with the bad guy.  These elements would be re-blended -- sometimes happening in a different order, sometimes an element would be dropped altogether -- but we always got lots of jazz and lots of clever character banter, no matter what the story.

The other thing that fascinates me as a writer is, because the stories are SO short, they're great idea starters.  Whatever idea they are built on, they don't get to explore it very far.  They might take it in a weird direction, but not far.  I find, often, my mind is inspired to take the trope and twist it further and build something out of it.  (I usually keep a notepad at hand when I watch it.)

But what you really watch Peter Gunn for is the style.  Craig Stevens is an interesting actor.  He's appropriately reserved, and understated, but he has a lot of fun with subtle actions.  He reminds me a bit of an American version of Cary Grant (when Grant is being subtle).  While he often seemed to be a straight man to all the other characters, who also got to be more outrageous, nobody in this show ever really played a straight man.  The humor is dry and Gunn never lets himself be the butt of a joke.  He and everyone in these clever scripts, play humor like they're playing a game of tennis, lobbing lines back and forth at one another, keeping the ball in play, rather than landing a point.

I think, so often these days we forget that the tension in great dialog doesn't have to be in real conflict.  Playful banter can be extremely dynamic.  Give this show a look sometime.

(NOTE: I haven't actually started watching the third season yet.  I was familiar with the first two seasons, and the show did evolve over that time, so it is possible that the third season shifted in style.  But I doubt it.)

See you in the funny papers.

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