Judge Cynthia Boris unwraps a murder mystery (23 of them, actually) wrapped up in silver paper with a perfect silk bow.
"This is my boss, Jonathan Hart, a self-made millionaire, he's quite a guy. This is Mrs. H. She's gorgeous. What a terrific lady. By the way my name is Max. I take care of them, which ain't easy 'cause their hobby is murder!"—Hart to Hart's first season opening narration
"Jonathan, you're doing it to me again," says the perfectly coiffed Jennifer Hart. "Darling," Jonathan replies, "that's all I think about."
Romance, glamour, adventure, and murder—the Harts lived the ultimate fantasy life (okay, so most of us could do without the murder part). They were rich, powerful, beautiful, and in love…and it wasn't their fault that their friends dropped dead on a weekly basis (Better to take a relaxing vacation in Cabot Cove?). Five seasons and five TV movies later, the Harts have proved one of their own TV movie titles, Old Friends Never Die. For 17 years, the Harts have been shot at, poisoned, kidnapped, chased, robbed, and knocked unconscious, and never once was there a hair out of place. So put on your silk lounging pajamas and pour yourself a glass of champagne, we're cracking open Hart to Hart: The Complete First Season.
Facts of the Case
Hart to Hart is a romantic fantasy direct from the pages of a glamorous 1980s romance novel, and why not, since it was created by a man known for writing those books—author Sidney Sheldon. Following in the footsteps of movie legends Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), the Harts are a sophisticated, jet-set couple with more money than they know what to do with.
Jonathan Hart (Robert Wagner, It Takes a Thief, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) runs Hart Industries—a mega-conglomerate that has its hands in a little bit of everything. Jennifer Hart (Stefanie Powers, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) is a writer and not-so-typical housewife, since most of the actual housework is performed by the couple's man Friday, Max (gravely-voiced actor Lionel Stander).
In the TV-movie pilot, the Harts get involved in a blackmail-turned-murder scheme when a close friend inexplicably drives off a cliff (Go to the yellow lights!). Determined to find answers, the Harts check into a health spa undercover and end up becoming targets themselves. From that moment on, the Harts were involved in everybody's illegal business, tracking down murderers on the ski slopes, thieves on a cruise ship, loan sharks in the beauty salon, and plenty of trouble under their own roof.
To get a full sense of Hart to Hart, you only have to look at the DVD cover art—Jonathan and Jennifer in formal dress, standing by a Rolls Royce, both with guns in hand and neither one a cop.
You'll also get a great sense of the series by perusing the first season episode titles!
Like the mythological Phoenix who rose from the fires unscathed,Hart to Hart rose from dismal beginnings to become one of the era's most popular series. The pilot movie was originally written for Robert Wagner and his then wife, Natalie Wood (Gypsy), but Wagner nixed the idea of working with her, saying, "I sell soap. My wife sells tickets." (Referring to the fact that Natalie was a movie star, not a TV star). Wagner agreed to do the show as long as he had co-star approval, and the only co-star he would approve was Stefanie Powers. Stefanie was set to star in a play, but a lucky coincidence made her available to do the pilot. (But watch closely and you will see a charming cameo appearance by Natalie Wood).
The second potential strike against the series was allowing a first-time director to take the reins. Tom Mankiewicz was a screenwriter, mostly known for his work on the James Bond movie, Live and Let Die, but the crew was happy to accept him. On the first day of shooting, they arrived wearing T-shirts that said, "I Have Confidence in Tom Mankiewicz." By the second day, a few of the shirts were changed to read, "I Have SOME Confidence in Tom Mankiewicz," but it wasn't the poor man's fault. His location shoot was blocked by one of the worst fires ever to hit Los Angeles. With the hot Santa Ana winds blowing and the flames licking at the windows of their location—it truly was a trial by fire for the newbie director.
Mankiewicz's saving grace was in casting. The pilot film featured five veteran TV actors, all of whom knew how to work a close-up. Wagner and Powers were joined by Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes), Stella Stevens (The Poseidon Adventure), and Jill St. John (the current Mrs. Robert Wagner). The entire group had been friends for years, so working together on the project was more of a family reunion than a job and it shows.
Odd Trivia: Stefanie Powers, Natalie Wood, and Jill St. John (the past and current Mrs. Robert Wagner) were all in ballet class together as children.
The charm of Hart to Hart is in the fact that the show never took itself too seriously. Not really a comedy, not really a drama, the series found that halfway mark (sometimes called dramedy) that was also hit in shows such as Moonlighting and Remington Steele. Like those shows, Hart to Hart's success was a direct byproduct of dynamic chemistry.
Chemistry is that certain something that all producers hope for when they cast two leads. It's particularly important when there is a romantic element. The audience needs to believe that these two people are in love. And with Hart to Hart, you not only believe, but you're left wondering if that's how married life is really supposed to be. Wagner and Powers do an exceptional job with the flirty looks, the stolen kisses, the lingering gazes—oh, my, it makes me sigh. Watching these two cavort on roller skates, or share an ice cream cone or a picnic in the park is just as interesting as watching them mow down the bad guys with whatever they have handy.
Let us not forget the smallest but most fondly remembered member of the Hart clan, Freeway! Freeway, whose real name was Charlie, was an unclipped Löwchen. (I got that on good authority, but personally I would have said mutt.) He was rescued from the pound just days before shooting began on the pilot and hastily trained by Robert Blair. Freeway became so popular with fans that he even got his own episode, "Which Way, Freeway?," in which he helped expose a plot to steal a million dollars in gems.
Like the Harts, this DVD set is all class and style, with excellent photography on the three plastic cases and the sleeve. The packaging is done in mostly gray, red, and black so it looks as sophisticated as the Rolls Royce on the cover. There are more photos on the discs (love the shot on Disc Six) and even four more fresh photos that can only be seen when the discs are removed.
The menu is easy to work and makes use of the Harts' signature heart motif, but sadly there isn't any music. A shame since the theme song is a great piece. The colors are brilliant (check out Wagner's pretty blue eyes) and the sound is sharp, too.
The extras on this DVD are truly tops. First, Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Wagner, and Stefanie Powers provide a play-by-play of the making of the pilot movie. Now I'm a person who enjoys commentaries and this one was a real delight. There were so many tidbits and details mentioned, and through it all you could hear how much they enjoyed making this pilot. I was truly amazed by their memory! More than 20 years have gone by but Wagner still remembered the actor who "leaned" throughout every one of his scenes.
Second is the featurette, "The Hart of Season One." This piece includes comments by Mankiewicz, Wagner, and Powers, but also adds interviews with creator Sidney Sheldon, and Executive Producer Leonard Goldberg. It's a nice collection of clips interspersed with current interviews (doesn't Stefanie Powers still look wonderful!). For fans, the real bonus here is a pair of short outtakes showing birthday surprises set up by each of the co-stars.
Greedy girl that I am, I would love to have seen a blooper reel and more commentaries, but given the stripped-down state of other DVD series from the era, I'm not complaining about what I got.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only thing bad I can say about Hart to Hart is that it occasionally strayed over the line from humorous to camp. Normally, the show managed with a subtle brand of comedy. In the commentaries, it's mentioned that ABC had trouble understanding the humor, so perhaps the overblown attempts to be funny were put in to please the parent company.
Another complaint that you'll hear (but not from me) is about the sameness of the plots. It seems like at least once every other week, Jennifer is kidnapped or at least threatened, forcing Jonathan to come to her rescue. Since Jennifer is an otherwise very capable and intelligent woman, some gripe that this was a chauvinistic and overused plot point. Personally (as a capable and intelligent woman), I adore it! What better way to show off the deep love between these two than to have Jonathan constantly rescuing his damsel in distress!
ABC complained that there were no women under the age of 30 cast in the Hart to Hart pilot. For this, I say—YEAH! Living now, in an era where 90 percent of the shows on TV are aimed at teenagers and twentysomethings, it's refreshing to watch a series that proves life doesn't stop at age 30 (or once you get married!).
For those who complain about the lack of realism in the series, spare me. It's not Law & Order. Hart to Hart is exactly what it's supposed to be, a romantic murder mystery wrapped up in silver paper with a perfect silk bow.
I find the Harts anything but innocent, but Hart to Hart: The Complete First Season is cleared of all charges.
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