Judge Christopher Kulik got more kicks out of watching Volume Two of this classic show than all the Karate Kid films combined.
There is more trouble along the highway…
Just in case you didn't read my review of Route 66: Season One, Volume One, here is a quick recap of what this show is all about. Tod Stiles (Martin Milner, Adam-12) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis, The Satan Bug) are two buddies in their mid-20s who are cruising across America. They drive a powder-blue Chevrolet Corvette, which was the only item that Tod inherited from his father after his death. Buz, who worked for Stiles' father, is now out of work, and so the two decide to explore the country, taking various odd jobs to financially support each other. As they travel to a new town in every episode, they meet a variety of people from different walks of life who are going through their own trials and tribulations. Created by Stirling Silliphant (Oscar-winner for In The Heat of the Night), the show mixes equal parts adventure and anthology, with healthy doses of suspense, romance, and drama sprinkled in the scripts—-most of which were written or co-written by Silliphant himself. Half of the first season was released in October of 2007, and now Route 66: Season One, Volume Two cruises into your DVD player courtesy of Roxbury Entertainment and the Infinity Entertainment Group.
Facts of the Case
This second volume consists of 15 episodes spread out over four discs:
Episode 16: "Fly Away Home, Part One"—Tod and Buz decide to meet an acquaintance of Stiles' father named Mrs. Windus, a widow who is now the owner of a crop-dusting business. While their only inquiry is to get a job to help out her failing business, there is a wild card cropduster named Summers (Michael Rennie, The Day the Earth Stood Still) who has been accused of killing Mr. Windus by the latter's daughter. Meanwhile, Summer's ex-wife Christine (Dorothy Malone, Oscar-winner for Written on the Wind) still loves him, though he demands that he stays away from her. Summers has this conviction that everyone who flies with him dies because of bad luck, though Tod is determined to prove otherwise.
Episode 17: "Fly Away Home, Part Two"—Mrs. Windus gets an offer she cannot refuse to save her fledging business, so Summers agrees to train Tod on flying before doing a massive job. In the meantime, Buz gets romantically involved with Mrs. Summers, while Tod romances the Windus' 20-year-old daughter. As for Mrs. Windus, she is seriously concerned that something will go wrong with the job she assigned to Summers…particularly when it involves using sulfur. This two-part episode was directed by Arthur Hiller, who later did the hilarious chase comedies Silver Streak and Outrageous Fortune; while he only directed one episode in the first volume, he does several more in this set.
Episode 18: "Sleep on Four Pillows"—While Tod is taking computer courses at a local California college, Buz decides to sell cosmetics (!?). Before Buz can enter a supermarket, a man carrying a suitcase slams into him; without apology, he smacks Buz and runs off. Buz is determined to catch him and find out what's going on, though he is stopped by a teenage girl named Jan (Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed) who demands that Buz not pursue him. Jan confesses that she is actually the daughter of a Mafia Don, though Buz thinks she is a total kook. Nevertheless, she begs Tod and Buz to let her stay with them at a local men's club (in male disguise, of course), so that she isn't hunted down by the Syndicate.
Episode 19: "An Absence of Tears"—One of the series' best episodes focuses on a young woman named Donna (Martha Hyer, Oscar nominee for Some Came Running) who is blind…and just lost her husband in a shootout in front of a gas station! Determined to catch the killers at all costs, she makes inquires with a gambler friend and also befriends Tod and Buz…who she requests to get her a gun. Excellent performance by the unknown Hyer as the blind widow, and the music by Nelson Riddle in this episode is especially good.
Episode 20: "Like A Motherless Child"—Tod & Buz pick up a young boy who is hitchhiking along a desert highway in Nevada. When they both discover that the boy actually ran away from the Carson City orphanage, Tod insists on taking him back. Buz, on the other hand, doesn't think it's a wise idea, because he grew up in asylums and now how poorly he was treated. Tod ignores him however, so his friend decides to get his stuff and leave. Buz eventually finds a job auctioning off livestock, as well as befriending an older woman, movingly played by Sylvia Sidney (Beetlejuice). Co-stars include Jack Weston (Dirty Dancing) and Oscar-winner Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show).
Episode 21: "Effigy in Snow"—Creepy entry opens up with a female skier skidding and breaking her leg while coming down a mountain. Another skier—whose face is hidden under a knit mask—comes down to the fallen girl and sees her as someone else: a girl in a wedding dress. Without words, he chokes the girl to death, and we find out soon afterward that he is a Norweigian skier who may be clinically insane. At about the same time, Tod and Buz show up to get a job at the resort ski shop, with Buz once again falling for an older woman…who happens to be the Norweigian's next target.
Episode 22: "Eleven, the Hard Way"—The tiny town of Broken Knee, Nevada is in serious trouble: the local gold mine has been picked clean, and now the town is financial jeopardy. Their one hope lies with an expert gambler named Sam Keep (played by a pre-Odd Couple Walter Matthau), who is requested to turn the citizens' contribution of $2700 into $35,000 to make the town into a tourist trap. While making the trip up to Reno with the town mayor Francis Oliver (Edward Andrews, Gremlins), they are saved from a mugging by Tod & Buz, who both eventually decide to help them.
Episode 23: "Most Venemous, Most Victorious"—Exceptionally well-written, nail-biting episode has Tod & Buz arriving to a small town somewhere in Northern California to visit the former's aunt. Tod discovers immediately upon arrival that his Aunt Kitty (Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight, Network) is rapidly dying and has an unusual request for him: track down and bring to her her 20-year-old daughter Carol. Along the way, the duo must confront a crippled man, a strip club owner, and a leather-jacketed street gang called the Las Ratas to find the missing Carol, while her mother has less than 24 hours to live.
Episode 24: "Don't Count Stars"—One of the few weak episodes in this volume has Tod & Buz going water skiiing with two girls in San Diego…and eventually save the life of an alcoholic man who can't even swim. After befriending the man's cute little niece, they discover that she is an heiress to a family fortune…and that her drunken uncle may be not her uncle at all.
Episode 25: "The Newborn"—Tod & Buz are determined to help out a pregnant Pueblo woman who is about to give birth, though they must deal with a roughhouse with a grudge named Roman (a 30-year-old Robert Duvall in one of his first screen appearances). The fact is that they are also stuck in the Arizona desert were no doctors are, so they are forced to delivering a baby themselves.
Episode 26: "A Skill for Hunting"—The duo alarm—literally—an Arizona hunter attempting to kill a deer. Thouroughly pissed, the hunter shoots at Tod & Buz and manages to deflate one of tires on Tod's corvette. Retaliations, arguments, and fights ensue, with Tod & Buz ultimately framed as poachers!
Episode 27: "Trap at Cordova"—A Hispanic family is trying to trick motorists to answer questions asked by a young boy, but thinking they are trying to save his life from an overturned wagon. Tod, being a Yale graduate, actually does answer the questions, though it turns out to be a "trap" instigated by the citizens of a New Mexico village called Cordova…where they sentence Tod to work as their educator for an entire year!
Episode 28: "The Opponent"—Buz is itching to see an acquitance that he hasn't seen a long time who was, and still is more or less, a winning boxer. The fighter Johnny Copa (Darren McGavin, A Christmas Story) is convinced he's out of element and probably not going back into the ring. This worries Tod & Buz, who just put up every penny they had for Copa to win. Look for Al Lewis (The Munsters) in a bit role as a gym trainer.
Episode 29: "Welcome to Amity"—Another terrific episode episode that features characters making unusual decisions, this time its a young woman from Chicago named Joan Maszlo (Susan Oliver, Peyton Place) who is planning to move her mother's grave ten years after she died. Most of the town doesn't approve of this, but she is not listening and decides to turn to Tod & Buz—who are about to quit their job at a local plant and leave Amity—to carry on the difficult task of moving the grave.
Episode 30: "Incident on a Bridge"—Murder mystery in which Tod & Buz attempt to explain to the police how a man named Dvorovai (Nehemiah Persoff, An American Tail) didn't jump off a bridge to his death. Also features Lois Smith (Hollywoodland) in her first of several appearances on the show.
Now that I have reviewed all of Season One of Route 66 of DVD Verdict, I must admit that I'm now a die-hard fan of the show. The stories themselves continue to get richer and more compelling, as we also get to know a bit more about the characters of Tod & Buz, who largely acted like observers in the first half of the season. Granted, the characters still act like observers, though we are beginning to get more insight into their backgrounds which, in turn, exploses their idiosyncrasies at the same time. The episode "Like a Motherless Child" exemplifies the fact that while Tod & Buz are very good friends, they are complete opposites in terms of their personalities. Having an episode like this earlier in the season would have been creatively dangerous, but now that we have gotten comfortable with them, it makes their split all the more touching. We understand Buz's feelings about Tod bringing back the young boy to the orphanage because while growing up in the area of N.Y.C. known as Hell's Kitchen he attended several of those institutions where he recieved no love or the slightest attention. Tod grew up in a rich family, but Buz has grown up with no family and learned to survive on the streets to support himself. It's a clever contradiction that works supremely well as they deal with various people on their travels.
However, as I said in my review of Route 66: Season One: Volume One the stories are more centered around the supporting characters, and how Tod & Buz—usually through chance and circumstance—get involved with their troubled situations. Once again, head writer Stirling Silliphant and co-producer Herbert B. Leonard come up with stories that grab you within minutes, and they never lose their grip in the span of 51 minutes for each episode. "An Effigy in Snow" is a perfect example, as it opens up with a jaw-dropping sequence involving a murder with a teased motive, and "Most Vanquised, Most Victorious," which find our heroes on a mission that gets more complex with each person they approach. Recall that this is the early 1960s, so the writers had no way of depending on technological breakthroughs to help tell the stories, which remain solid because of the multi-dimensional characters, their motives, and the endless obstacles they face. Tourists Tod & Buz are not merely used as obstacles to the character's, but also as outsiders that could either end up saviors or nuisances. Aside from touching different genres such as romance and mystery, there are also important themes utilized, whether they be vengeance in "An Absence of Tears," motherly love in "Like a Motherless Child," or addictive gambling in "Eleven, the Hard Way."
By this time, Martin Milner and George Maharis—as Tod and Buz, respectively—had their characters perfectly down to a tee, and they make their friendship believable despite their different acting styles. While Buz is the one that is usually more than prepared to have some exercise (i.e. fighting and/or defending himself), Tod actually gets physical more often than not in the second half of the first season. Check out the pulse-pounding (and suprisingly violent) climactic sequence in "Most Vanquished, Most Victorious" and you will see what I mean. However, Route 66 is more known for its impressive roster of character actors, many of whom achieved A-list status in later years, some of them even winning Oscars. In Volume Two, we have Patty McCormack (who had perviously appeared in the very first episode "Black November"), British star Michael Rennie, Walter Matthau (who actually looks young), Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight, Ben Johnson, Darren McGavin and Sylvia Sydney, just to mention (or, ok, repeat) a few. However, an honorable mention must go out to Rin-Tin-Tin (not the original, but who cares?), who played Rex, the sight dog to Donna in "An Absence of Tears."
As with the entire series, Nelson Riddle provides a different score for each and every episode, unlike his equally fine work on the later Batman series starring Adam West. Whether the scene is melancholy or melodramatic, involves action or comedy, Riddle is on-hand to fit the right mood and tone with his notes. The only thing that is recognizable is his wonderful piano piece that served as the closing music. However, this is also a rare show where the quiet moments remain just as effective even without background music. I couldn't tell if Dorothy Malone's singing was dubbed while performing several ditties in the two-part episode of "Fly Away Home," though they were certainly a pleasure to listen to…even if there was one too many, I thought.
One of the problems I had with the October release of Route 66: Season One, Volume One was the episodes' quality. While I did believe the back of the DVD case—which stated that the episodes were digitally remastered for the best quality possible—I believed them, even though a number of the episodes suffered from too-strong blacks and too-weak whites…not to mention many instances of grain and specks. While Volume Two does have of the same distractions, the prints are now available in 1.77:1 Widescreen when before they were full frame. While watching Volume One, I was confused as to why Roxbury & Infinity drew upon several source prints, which were indicated with some episodes having the ' 60s Screen Gems logo (a television subsidary of Columbia Pictures, which is now owned by Sony) and others having the Columbia television moniker of the 1980s. However, according to an internet article—which can be viewed in the Accomplices section—it states that Kirk Hallam, President of Roxbury Entertainment acquired the rights to the show from producer Herbert B. Leonard before he passed, and then the distribution rights from Sony a couple of years ago. However, the episodes on Volume One looked as if they were not remastered from the original 35mm prints; according to the back of the Volume Two set, they now are! That more or less explains why the presentation of these episodes are much sharper than the previous set.
Once again, the audio is provided in Dolby Digital Mono, which is true to its source, though I did find a break in the sound every now and then. One episode, "A Skill for Hunting" had significant issues with hisses and pops, even though the picture quality was top-notch. Special features are slimmer with the second volume, however, with only cast and crew biographies as well as more television commericals that CBS no doubt played during the series' run. Those who are Chevy buffs will especially enjoy them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of things that annoyed me while watching Volume One was the continuity. However, as most of these particular episodes are set in either Nevada, California, or Arizona, they all seem plausible in terms of keeping track of Tod and Buz's travels—despite the fact they still remain off the actual Route 66 more often than not. In the end, however, there are no other complaints for me from this second volume, aside from the lack of proper special features, though it's clear that Roxbury & Infinity are least trying to add more stuff. Maharis did an interview (which is available online) shortly after Volume One's release, which pretty much debunks the claim made that he is in "fragile health." At 80 years old, he says he is still kickin' and doing well, so it would be nice to see him contribute something to later seasons.
Roxbury & Infinity have made dramatic improvements over the Volume One release in terms of the picture and sound quality, and they are to be commended for thier efforts. It seems like Route 66 found its voice during the second half of its initial season, and it shows with the written stories and performances. In short, the series has improved upon itself in Volume Two, and the show still holds up incredibly well after 50 years. This sophomore set of Route 66 is highly recommended!
Route 66 is guilty of delivering solid stories, along with pleasing performances and a fine music score by Riddle. Roxbury & Infinity are hereby acquitted of all charges, and Tod & Buz are free to go to get more kicks on Route 66. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Infinity Entertainment
• Classic Original TV Commericals
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