Could the world have had Dark Justice without the trail blazed by Craig Kennedy: Criminologist? Appellate Judge James A. Stewart ponders this pressing question.
"The Original Crime Scene Investigation"
The name Craig Kennedy doesn't mean much to contemporary viewers, but the detective character created by Arthur B. Reeve had been featured in novels and short stories from 1910 onward, and his film career began with The Exploits of Elaine in 1915 (although the focus of that silent serial was on leading lady Pearl White, who'd previously endured The Perils of Pauline). Famous Craig Kennedy fans included presidents Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt.
In 1944, Weiss Productions bought all rights to the Craig Kennedy character, who had been featured in a 1936 Weiss serial, The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand. When the new medium of television took off and needed product after the end of World War II, the Weiss family business was ready with Craig Kennedy: Criminologist.
The text features with the DVD of the show bill it as the first syndicated prime-time drama, but if it came along in 1951 as indicated, The Cisco Kid most likely beat it to the punch, at least in a few markets. Most likely, they meant the first syndicated drama aimed squarely at grown-up viewers. Either way, it set the stage for later syndicated ventures that are better known to today's audiences, such as Sea Hunt, The Saint, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The budget averaged $9,019 ($72,000 when adjusted for inflation) for a half-hour episode, according to the accompanying text. Heck, most American sitcom producers today would be overjoyed to get away with half a million for a half-hour, let alone $72,000.
Facts of the Case
Weiss Productions made 26 half-hour episodes, 13 of which are included in this Kit Parker Films collection of Craig Kennedy: Criminologist:
"The Strange Destiny"—Reporter Walter Jamison (Lewis Wilson, The Batman) gets conked in the head and wakes up in the room with the body of the dancer he was assigned to interview. The plaster cast that was on her leg has been broken, and pieces are missing.
"The Big Shakedown"—Walter asks Craig to help a politician debunk a faked photo of himself with gambling racketeers. Craig gets conked on the head while investigating.
"Formula for Murder"—Was Dr. Everett Armstrong murdered because he was juggling two would-be fiancees or was the motive the formula for a concentrated food pill he was working on? Walt gets punched and knocked cold.
"The Amateur Ghost"—Can Craig and a concerned butler keep a wealthy woman from being conned by two fake psychics? This one opens with a gun on Craig and Walt, and the concerned butler ends up tied up by the baddies.
"The Lonely Hearts Club"—A matchmaker gets a special order from a mobster seeking a groom for his girlfriend. Craig fills the bill to see what's going on. The guy who recognizes Craig gets conked on the head.
"The Case of Fleming Lewis"—Fleming Lewis opens a cupboard door and gets blasted by a torpedo bomb filled with glass. And then poison shows up in the autopsy. No one gets conked on the head but there's an attempt on Craig's life.
"The Late Corpse"—The man at Craig's door says he's Curtis Parker, but Curtis has been declared dead by his partner in a jewel-hunting expedition. Two sets of flashbacks tell two different versions of an ill-fated expedition. Can Craig tell which is true? No conking, but someone tries to push Craig off a balcony.
"Fugitive Money"—Edith Mills wants Craig to find her missing fiance, who may have been involved in a crime. Sure enough, the serial numbers on the cash she gives Craig for a retainer link the money to a robbery. Craig actually thwarts a guy who tries to conk him on the head.
"Murder Preferred"—As Frank Trend calls from a pay phone, he's shot. It seems that Frank owed some money to a big-time gambler and was going to make a $100,000 payment. No money was found on his body, however. No conking in this one.
"The Indian Giver"—A wealthy woman gives a pair of old shoes to her maid. Someone wants them back for the microfilm hidden inside. Craig gets conked on the head and, as a special added treat, two bad guys get conked, too.
"1616 Hidden Lane Road"—Mrs. Fielding asks Craig to step in when her son plans to get married over her objections. Craig goes up to the family summer place to talk to the son, and gets conked on the head. Could be a mystery here.
If you read some of those episode descriptions, you'll notice a pattern forming. It's amazing that Craig can still figure out how to make coffee, let alone solve mysteries with his scientific expertise, after getting conked on the head so much. Also, the basic Craig Kennedy story is a murder or crime with an intriguing hook, one that requires his buddy Inspector J.J. Burke (Sydney Mason, Frontier Gun) to seek his expertise. Substitute a couple of names in that last sentence and you've got the basic description of Monk or Psych. Some things never change. Craig even has his own Lt. Disher in the person of reporter Walter Jamison, who eyes the ladies, cracks dumb jokes, bickers with Burke, and generally bumbles around. The typically gruff-but-lovable Burke grumbles to the point where he's called "old sourpuss" by a suspect.
Unlike his modern counterparts, Donald Woods (13 Ghosts) tends to play down the eccentricities of his detective, although his character does use the same skills of observation and methodical examination of crime scenes. He's a typical square-jawed hero of the 1950s, one who twists the arm of a thug who tries to show his strength with an overly aggressive handshake and is always good with his fists.
The humor is heavy-handed, with Burke calling Walt "Bright Boy" or "Junior Criminologist" whenever the reporter actually gets an obvious point, Burke blustering because the Star said police were "baffled," or (perhaps my favorite line) Craig telling a frightened Walt, "Now stand still, please. The lady wants to shoot you." Craig, the sharp criminologist, had already noticed that the gun wasn't a working weapon. No matter how lame the line, you can always count on the three regulars to laugh heartily at their own jokes. Remember that closing scene from Police Squad? This might be where it came from.
The guest actors from one episode tend to turn up in a different role a little bit later on. Among these repertory players in Jack Mulhall, who played Craig Kennedy in the 1936 serial. The guest cast always includes a knockout dame or two as well.
Craig Kennedy: Criminologist doesn't always live up to the intriguing openings, but it does better as it goes along. It looks like the first few episodes were a sort of learning curve, after which the storytelling becomes more complex, adding flashbacks and more leavening with humor to the mix. Gradually, elements like an elevator operator who sounds like a Bowery Boy or a ditzy society dame who talks a mile a minute start to enter the picture for comic relief. Somewhere in there, Craig also becomes a master of disguise, although the audience will always see through his false faces. I was somewhat impressed with "The Late Corpse," despite some irregular pacing that had the murder taking place five minutes before the episode's end.
Mostly, the picture quality is good, but there's some odd flaring, usually with items of clothing such as the polka-dot bowtie a thug sports. The booming music and stage-read dialogue keep the bar low for sound; the mono track easily leaps it.
There's no commentary, but extras here include the first episode of the 1936 serial The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand. It spends a lot of time on setup, so you don't get to see much of how Jack Mulhall played Craig Kennedy, but he has a more eccentric look than Donald Woods. Text background information isn't bad. There's a photo gallery with some interesting magazine and book covers and promotional material for the TV show; it's good but it'll leave you wanting more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For the first 11 epsiodes, the show opens with the same faux Naked City opening over stock footage of a city landscape every time. That was 30 seconds of viewers' lives wasted each week. No wonder it got ditched about halfway through the series.
And it always seems like Inspector Burke turns up out of nowhere in those dramatic, action-packed conclusions. And are there any other reporters around Kennedy's burg besides Walt? There were two or three papers in each town back in 1950.
Considering the meager budget and the lack of earlier examples, the folks who put together Craig Kennedy: Criminologist didn't do a bad job and created a show that's always watchable. Still, there are probably dozens of these forgotten syndicated dramas in a vault somewhere, and the fact that it came first is Craig Kennedy's main distinction. It was decent filler, though, in the days before off-network reruns became commonplace.
Should you buy? I'll admit I was curious about Craig Kennedy: Criminologist myself, but I'll also note that I watched this one right after viewing The Untouchables: Season 1 Volume 1. I didn't hate Craig Kennedy, but it doesn't have the same you've-just-gotta-see-it quality as the exploits of Eliot Ness. I did find it growing on me as I kept watching, though.
Interestingly, I found a press release online that announces a new Craig Kennedy: Criminologist series, described as "the first dramatic TV series expressly for a broadband network." Could an up-to-date version work? Well, it wouldn't be out of place on USA's Friday night lineup.
Craig Kennedy: Criminologist is an average show, but it does have a place in TV history. VCI and Kit Parker Films acquit themselves well with a decent DVD package that shows that place in TV history.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.