Judge Christopher Kulik would get his kicks on old historic Route 66, though he is currently getting them in Sydney, Australia.
If you ever plan to motor west…
Traveling cross country is a true adventure. Imagine having the open road to yourself. Nothing is stopping you, and nothing is pushing you. You are free to explore America, and why not do so on Route 66? Of course, it would be difficult now as this road technically doesn't exist anymore (it was decommissioned in 1985 after almost sixty years of use). However, for decades it was traveled by millions of people, and parts of it still exist, though much of the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway has been taken up by Interstate 40.
When I drove cross country for the first time only a year ago, I saw several signs that would say "old historic Route 66" and never really thought about it. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until I met my uncle in Florida earlier this year that I was introduced to an early 1960s series called Route 66. It was his favorite show, so I decided to give it a chance and was surprised, very surprised.
Here is a show that was filmed entirely on location at many places all over the country. Aside from the opening theme music, the rest of the score was different for every episode. Even more so, the show featured a cornucopia of actors who later went on to bigger things in the industry. The writing was superb, the acting was superlative, and the direction was impeccable. What I was stunned by was the quality of the stories themselves, meaning they were deliberately paced, endlessly intriguing, and thoroughly unpredictable.
I would rate Route 66 with some of the best shows of the time (particularly The Twilight Zone), though there is something special and unusual about this series. Since the show's cancellation, there has never been anything like it made. Perhaps it was because it was too daring and radical, even for its time. So, how does it hold up after almost 50 years? We shall see, as Route 66: Series One, Volume One parks into your DVD player courtesy of Roxbury Entertainment and the Infinity Entertainment Group.
Facts of the Case
Years before Billy and Wyatt jumped on their motorcycles to journey across America, there were Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock. Tod (Martin Milner, Adam-12) is a laid-back, easy going graduate from Yale, and Buz (George Maharis, The Satan Bug) is a survivor of the violent Hell's Kitchen who found work with Stiles' father. When Tod's dad dies unexpectedly, however, he leaves to his son only one thing: a 1960 powder-blue Chevrolet Corvette. (Evidently, the fortune that Mr. Stiles made vanished quickly.) With nothing to lose or gain, Tod and Buz decide to take the ultimate road trip on Route 66. They work various odd jobs to keep them financially moving during their travels. They both discover adventure, romance, fun, and danger along the way, while at the same time meeting a variety of people who have hopes and dreams just like them. This DVD set includes half of the first season, which debuted in October 1960; without commercials, most of them play for 51 minutes each.
• Episode 1: "Black November"—While driving to Biloxi, Mississippi to get work, Tod and Buz have an accident on a backwoods road, which alarms a fisherman who wonders why people are driving there. As it turns out, the locals of the little town of Garth are quiet, and intimidated by the arrival of these strangers. The town sheriff, Mr. Dixon, deals out more threats and promises—and orders them to leave before something happens. Dixon's son Paul (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey and a shopkeeper's daughter (Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed) seem to be the only two normal people living in a town buried by secrets.
• Episode 2: "A Lance of Straw"—After their problems in Garth, the duo finally arrives in Biloxi, hoping to get work on Tod's friend's fishing trawler. However, to their surprise, the friend sold his boat to a sexy Spanish girl named Charlotte; she reluctantly hires them, though a local roughhouse who is obsessed with her is determined not to let Tod and Buz set sail with her. Needless to say, he doesn't reckon with Buz's street-smart ability to defend himself.
• Episode 3: "The Swan Bed"—While in New Orleans, Tod and Buz take a liking to a reserved girl named Carrie (Betty Field), whose domineering mother who is so restrictive that she has never allowed her to go out with anyone before. As Tod and Carrie get to know each other better, Buz hooks up with a stripper—though all of their lives will be on the line when they get involved with both robbers and an epidemic known as "parrot fever" that is being investigated by a prestigious doctor (Murray Hamilton, The Graduate). This is one of the best episodes of the set, as it manages to follow multiple story threads while at the same time being quite exciting.
• Episode 4: "The Man on the Monkey Board"—Tod and Buz decide to return to Los Angeles, where they become oil drillers on an off-shore facility. Also working with them is an older man who seems past his prime for such heavy work. As a matter of fact, his reasons for working there are brought into question when he plants a picture of dead soldiers in the clothes of another driller and has a letter written in German which he safeguards. When he falls off the "monkey board" and falls into the water, Tod and Buz begin to wonder if it was intentional or not.
• Episode 5: "The Strengthening Angels"—One night in very heavy rain, a young girl named Lotte (Suzanne Pleshette, The Bob Newhart Show) is running frantically from a religious meeting and begs Tod and Buz to take her away. Before they are able to get out of a neighboring town, however, the local sheriff stops them and arrests Lotte for manslaughter. Feeling the need to help her somehow, the guys enlist the help of a local lawyer; they may be in over the heads because the case is much more complex than it appears. Riveting episode benefits from direction by a young Arthur Hiller, who later did Silver Streak and Outrageous Fortune.
• Episode 6: "Ten Drops of Water"—Another gem of an episode in which Tod and Buz feel sympathy for a poor Arizona boy named Homer who must sell his beloved mule. They buy the mule and bring it back to the boy, but discover the serious situation the Paige family is dealing with: their water supply has dwindled to only ten drops an hour. This is an unusually moving entry, with an important message on standing up to strict tradition.
• Episode 7: "Three Sides"—Next stop is Oregon, where the guys get a job growing hops for a dysfunctional family, where the jackass of a son makes a fool of himself trying to protect his sexy sister, and a father must come to terms with his own mistakes about how he raised his son. The standout here is a great performance by the late E.G. Marshall as the father.
• Episode 8: "Legacy for Lucia"—This episode is a bit disappointing, as there isn't much of a payoff to a truly intriguing story. An Italian woman named Lucia travels all the way to Oregon to claim some land that a soldier had given her as he lay dying during World War II. The father of the lost soldier is now a gruff hermit who hates strangers, even if they are connected to his family; Buz and Tod want to ensure that he listens to reason.
• Episode 9: "Layout at Glen Canyon"—How is this for an odd scenario? Tod and Buz get a job at a dam pumping station, though their first assignment is chaperoning some New York models, who are coming into this little Arizona village to do photo spreads in the middle of the desert! Part of their responsibility is to ensure that their co-workers don't come around and mess with the girls. Of course, there is something more going on in terms of both businesses.
• Episode 10: "The Beryllium Eater"—An old prospector who strikes it rich in Arizona asks Tod and Buz to pick him and take him into town to celebrate. As the guys are leaving, however, they discover that the prospector had been jumped after they left him at the bar, and now some greedy individuals want to get his hands on his fortune. Some fine stunt work and fistfights in this one, though the story is thin as a wafer.
• Episode 11: "A Fury Slinging Flame"—One of the season's best episodes by far, this one was originally released the day before New Year's Eve in 1960. A brilliant atomic scientist named Mark Christopher (Leslie Nielsen, The Naked Gun) believes that a meteor shower is coming and will destroy the Earth, and so he takes some family and friends down deep into Carlsbad Caverns. A shady female reporter wants the story for her magazine at any cost—-even if it means using Tod and Buz.
• Episode 12: "Sheba"—The title character's real name is actually Maura Church, who supposedly stole money for a criminal sheepherder named Woody Boggs (played with relish by Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen). She is released from prison and tries to get back to her job and life—but Woody still intends on making her carrying out his plans. Meanwhile, Tod and Buz are staying at a Hilton Inn to relax before taking another job. When they meet the estranged Maura they are determined to protect her. Final showdown between Buz and Woody is a knockout.
• Episode 13: "The Quick and the Dead"—A leisurely paced episode has Tod stopping to watch the U.S. Grand Prix in Riverside, California. Meanwhile, an aging driver is pressured on retiring by his wife, though the daughter is determined to keep him in for her own reasons—and she gets pissed when Tod tries out and takes her father's place on the racetrack. Look carefully for Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles) in the bit part of Len.
• Episode 14: "Play It Glissando"—While most of the episodes open up with Tod and Buz driving the Corvette on Route 66, this entry takes a U-turn: Tod is unconscious in an ambulance while Buz worries about his condition. Supposedly the cause was a hunting accident gone awry, though when Buz tells his story to the police it goes into something more convoluted than that. Anne Francis and Jack Lord co-star in this outing.
• Episode 15: "The Clover Throne"—Unfortunately, the first volume does not end on a high note with this unaffecting episode where a town is on its toes about a man named Mr. Darcy (Jack Warden, Used Cars) and his super-hot "companion" known only as Sweet Thing. There is money involved, and Tod and Buz, once again, want to help out and get things under control. It's great to see underrated character actor DeForest Kelley (Star Trek) in a key role.
Route 66 seems to be one of those shows that many people fondly remember, and it may have been ahead of its time, although the main reason it was cancelled was because George Maharis left early due to illness. Think about it: it would be a real departure to go to places all over the United States and film on location rather than shoot on sets. Sure, some of the indoor scenes (particularly the offices) could have easily been on a stage, but much of the series was filmed outdoors. Modern-day viewers may not be interested simply because of the fact the show is dated, though if you want to see what the early 1960s looked like all across the country, then Route 66 is highly recommended. Just imagine what it was like for the location manager and his scouts for this series.
Even though Martin Milner and George Maharis were the "stars" of the show, much of the focus was actually on the townspeople they visited over the course of their journey. Character study was a major element of the scripts, many of which were written by series creator Sterling Silliphant, who later won an Oscar writing In The Heat of the Night. To be honest, we know very little about Tod and Buz, aside from a few background details and observations about how they interact with people. They are, in many ways, merely observers, and the audience is an observer along with them in each episode as they leave the highway and enter a town. Certainly they are both cinematic versions of people in the 1960s who were searching for something, anything.
Silliphant had already established himself with another anthology series called Naked City, and Route 66 was also developed through Screen Gems, the television subsidiary for Columbia Pictures. While it may have seemed inevitable at the time for Silliphant to use Bobby Troup's famous ditty "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," they didn't want to spend the money on the royalties (then again, it's not hard to believe since much of the show's budget went for location shooting and rights). So he hired Nelson Riddle, who had just come off of the Rat Pack classic Ocean's Eleven. Even though his piano theme was a big pop hit at the time (so much that it went on to become part of the hit parade of 1962), his scores were almost always different for every episode, giving each its own mood and tone, whether it be emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic.
While the performances by Milner and Maharis were not groundbreaking, they were not meant to be, either; they were just likeable and ordinary guys, plain and simple. There are many scenes in which they are required only to listen to what other characters are doing and saying; plus, courtesy of Silliphant and a few other contributing writers, they are given hip dialogue. For example, in "Black November," after seeing four local men just staring at them, Buz says with a smirk, "Maybe it's because they don't like how we dress." However, they are always honest with themselves and others, too, like when Tod responds to a rancher what Oregon is like; he just says, "You don't know until you go up there!" What's also beneficial is that they never attempt to overact or steal scenes away from their co-stars; that is real collaborative acting.
Roxbury Entertainment and the Infinity Entertainment Group present Route 66: Season One, Volume One in a nicely packaged four-disc set, though caution must be used when opening the inside plastic disc-holders, as they could break easily. The back of the DVD says that they digitally mastered the episodes for the "highest quality and audio possible," and I believe them. However, the quality ranges from solid to good to dirty; the first two episodes are the worst offenders, as the black levels are too strong and the whites too weak. While I don't think the quality will taint your enjoyment of the show, there are several instances that I noticed lines on the screen, as well as several specks and scratches.
I would imagine that the age and source material presented a challenge to the DVD producers, and I found it interesting that they borrowed from a number of different prints, and you can tell by the difference in the Columbia logos at the end of each episode: some of them are the Screen Gems image with CBS logo from the early 1960s, though others were the Columbia television moniker of the 1980s, presumably when they were played as reruns on Nick at Nite. While few episodes are exceptionally sharp in terms of the transfers, many of them are palatable.
All the episodes were remastered in Dolby Digital Stereo, though the sound is kept (wisely) in its original mono and full-frame TV format. The special features leave a lot to be desired, though there are some goodies to be found here, particularly in the vintage television commercials. The Bayer Aspirin ones are hilarious, and you will get a treat when watching a Chevrolet (you should have known already they were a sponsor) commercial with William Frawley…yes, the same William Frawley who played overweight, balding landlord Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. Also included are filmographies for all the guest stars, along with Milner and Maharis, although all they do is list the film credits. On the fourth disc with the commercials, there is also a bonus section which provides a visual history on the Chevy Corvette. Considering the fact that Twilight Zone DVD sets were able to get commentaries and other good stuff from the surviving cast members, I don't know why Roxbury & Infinity didn't contact Milner and Maharis, who have both done interviews in the past about Route 66. On top of all that, Dullea, Neilson, Korman, Pleshette, and McCormack are all still with us, so what about them? (Tips for next time!!!)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My one problem with this great show is that the continuity is sorely lacking. While this may not upset others as much as I do, what irks me about some shows is the dysfunction of going off course for no rhyme and reason. As a matter of fact, the title of Route 66 is in many ways a misnomer, because half the time Buz and Tod are not on the famed highway, and they arrive in cities that are nowhere near what is supposed to be their preferred route. Granted, with these type of anthology shows, there is really not supposed to be any continuity. However, I would have preferred that they stop in cities and towns while on a specific track (whether it be Route 66 or not), even though they have no final destination.
Despite my few nitpicks with the special features and some of the episodes' quality, Route 66 emerges as one of the most underrated and brilliant series in all of television. However, I hope that it isn't re-invented as part of a new show or a film even, because that is what happened in 1993, when NBC decided to take a crack at a modernization of the show, but with 1960s ideals and costumes. Needless to say, it was a massive failure, and didn't even last three episodes. The big debate is whether or not Route 66 will indeed appeal to a 21st century audience. Despite the fact that the show was filmed in black-and-white (typical of the time), as well as showing an optimistic America that doesn't really exist anymore, I think it will. There is something really fresh and fascinating about this show even after fifty years. While credit has been given to Silliphant's writing, Riddle's music, Milner, Maharis, the guest stars and others, it stands as a picture-postcard view of an America ingrained in Kennedy idealism, tapping at the door of revolutions, and always changing.
Tod and Buz are free to go to get their kicks on Route 66. Safe driving! Case dismissed.
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