Friday, September 30, 2011

The Court of Last Resort (TV, 1957-58)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually got to run the first of six episodes I’d downloaded from of an intriguing true-crime TV show from 1957-58 called The Court of Last Resort, which appears to have been a 1950’s version of the Innocence Project. It was actually formed by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason and himself an attorney in the 1910’s before he gave up practicing law in favor of writing about it. The members of the “Board of Investigators” of the Court of Last Resort were Gardner (listed in the credits as “lawyer, noted author”), Sam Larsen (who appears to have been the Court’s principal investigator — essentially Paul Drake to Gardner’s Perry Mason — and was portrayed on the program by Lyle Bettger, the series’ recurring star), Harry Steeger (publisher), Dr. LeMoyne Snyder (lawyer, doctor of medicine, medicolegal expert), Raymond Schindler (celebrated private detective), Alex Gregory (lie-detector expert), Marshall Houts (professor of law, formerly with the FBI), and Park Street, Jr. (trial lawyer and chair of the Texas Law Enforcement Foundation), and though the show was a complete dramatization — all members of the Court of Last Resort appearing in the main story (as opposed to the tag scene at the end, in which they played themselves) were portrayed by actors.

This particular episode was called “The George Zaccho Case,” was originally aired November 1, 1957 and directed by our old friend Reginald LeBorg, who like a lot of other “B” movie directors grabbed jobs in TV when work in the “B”’s started to dry up. It’s about a Greek-American fisherman, George Zaccho (John Verros), who is accused and convicted of poisoning his wife Rose (Fintan Meyler) with arsenic when she collapses and dies in his living room with a witness — a neighbor who had urged George to call it in as an emergency (the 911 number didn’t exist yet when this was made) and was baffled when George refused — watching the whole thing and eventually testifying against him. Zaccho is convicted largely on circumstantial evidence and motive — his motive being that he’d started an affair with a Latina dancer, Margarite Velez (Lilyan Chauvin) in a beach town he frequently docked at, and he’d supposedly promised to marry her as soon as he could get rid of his current wife, legally or otherwise. (Just how they sustained an affair when they couldn’t communicate is a bit of a mystery — George Zaccho spoke almost nothing but Greek; indeed, when Larsen interviews him the priest of the local Orthodox church has to sit in and interpret — while Velez’s only languages are presumably Spanish and the fractured Spanish-accented English we actually hear from her.)

The Court takes his case largely at the instigation of Zaccho’s adult children, including his son Alex (Nico Minardos), who took over his fishing boat after dad was arrested. The Court gets hold of Mrs. Zaccho’s medical records and discovers that Mrs. Zaccho had been admitted to hospital for arsenic poisoning three times already, including at least one treatment before her husband met the Other Woman, and it turns out that she became an arsenic eater (a plot gimmick also used in one of the Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes radio show, in which a former British music-hall entertainer who married an East Indian potentate, who died and left her his fortune, was about to be poisoned with arsenic despite her having a food taster — who, as part of the plot, had been immunized against it by being fed small doses regularly) because a Gypsy fortune teller named Vera (Irene Tedrow) had told her eating arsenic would clear up her skin rashes and make her skin bright and smooth.

It wasn’t that exciting a program, and our download from suffered from an odd form of distortion — black bars appeared across the screen whenever any rapid movement occurred (I sampled one of the other Court of Last Resort episodes I downloaded and it didn’t seem to suffer from the same problem, which since it also showed up on my computer file of the Zaccho episode seemed to stem from the upload rather than any limitation in the DVD encoding or disc burn on my computer) — but it was certainly worth watching. As a rather hyperbolic reviewer on the site noted about one of the other five Court of Last Resort episodes they have up (I say “hyperbolic” because there are groups like the Innocence Project doing similar work today — and with the advantage of DNA testing, a form of potentially exculpatory evidence that didn’t exist in the 1950’s but which has since freed hundreds of unjustly convicted criminals), “It’s hard to imagine a society where people actually cared that an innocent man would be wrongfully executed. Now we lust for executions. In Mormon Utah they die by firing squad, and we feast on the spectacle.” — 8/4/11


We ran the second in sequence of my downloads of the TV series The Court of Last Resort, “The Clarence Redding Case,” which was about a rather elderly drifter (John Bliefer) accused of raping (the word in the script was “assault” because the writer, James Goldstone, had to tread lightly around the Standards and Practices department of NBC, but it was unmistakable what was really going on) a woman inside a barn — we didn’t see the crime take place, but a 10-year-old boy walked in on it while in progress in an intriguing anticipation of the “guest body-finder” device frequently used on Law and Order and its spinoffs. Redding was arrested and, when the woman died of her injuries, tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to death, and the Court of Last Resort got involved just three weeks before he was scheduled to be executed.

It turns out all this happened in a New England village whose economy had gone so far down that there were only 27 people still left in town — too small to sustain their own police force, so members of the citizenry investigated crimes on a volunteer basis (I’d heard of volunteer fire departments before, but a volunteer police department was a new one on me), and when Harry Steeger (Carleton Young), Erle Stanley Gardner’s publisher, hears of the case and assigns investigator Sam Larsen (Lyle Bettger) — as I noted in my comments on the last episode we saw, Larsen, who wasn’t formally a member of the governing board of the Court of Last Resort, was essentially Paul Drake to Gardner’s real-life Perry Mason — to go to the town and start looking into the case, he runs into three people in the town’s general store, of which one was the dead girl’s father, who’s naturally convinced that justice has been done and the man who’s about to be executed for murdering his daughter is in fact guilty. Eventually Larsen digs up the key piece of evidence he needed — the boy witnessed the attacker wearing a red jacket, and Redding’s jacket is white — and Larsen eventually learns that there have been similar assaults in other towns, also committed by a man in a red jacket, so Redding gets freed.

The parallels between the Court of Last Resort and the modern-day Innocence Project are obvious — one reviewer (“jnskjackson”) noted the similarities as well as the key difference: the Innocence Project has had access to DNA testing, a tool that didn’t exist in the late 1950’s — and though the Court members were played by actors (except in a final tag scene in which the real ones, including Gardner, appeared as themselves) the cases were actual ones and Goldstone’s writing and Reginald LeBorg’s direction (as I’ve noted before, Universal did LeBorg no favors assigning him to horror films; he’s far better as a director of physically possible suspense stories than anything science-fictional or supernatural) get the stories on and off the screen effectively in the 26 minutes available to them in the half-hour drama format. I miss the half-hour drama format; the explosion in the time commercial TV devotes to commercials has meant that an “hour” show in the 1950’s was 52 minutes compared to the 42 minutes common today, but even with only 16 rather than 26 additional minutes to fill, a lot of hour-long dramas, especially crime dramas, seem padded out to fill the length, either with the cutesy-poo scenes attempting to “humanize” the protagonists (though the USA Network has made these so much of a trademark they’ve even based their promotional slogan for the entire channel, “Characters Wanted,” on them) or with the insane melodramatic complications that have weighted down otherwise good episodes of Law and Order and shows like it. Like the “B” movie, the half-hour TV crime drama encouraged an economy of storytelling a lot of modern-day shows could definitely benefit from! — 8/6/11


I ran us instead the next episode in sequence of the interesting TV series The Court of Last Resort, a sort of 1950’s precursor to the Innocence Project established in 1948 by, of all people, mystery author Erle Stanley Gardner, whose name was big box-office on TV just then since his character Perry Mason had just been adapted and was a huge ratings hit. Alas, The Court of Last Resort only lasted one season — and that on the chronically weakly rated ABC — because the premise was certainly compelling: a half-hour drama (I miss half-hour dramas; shows like this and both the 1950’s and 1960’s iterations of Dragnet prove that you could do exciting, intense crime stories in half an hour without the dreadful sense of padding that afflicts some longer crime tales being done these days at the now-obligatory hour-long time slot; as I noted in my journal in one of my first comments on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, “The time constraints of the original [Dragnet and its half-hour slot] had forced them to write about relatively simple crimes, ones the viewer could readily imagine actually happening; the new one had to stretch its plotlines over the obligatory hour and therefore had to resort to the kinds of complications that are found almost exclusively in crime fiction rather than crime reality.”

This episode was called “The Case of John Smith” and deals with an attempt to prove the innocence of a man who’d been convicted — actually pushed by a court-appointed attorney into copping a plea to murdering a shopowner during a robbery after a police officer intimidated and beat (literally!) him into a confession (something actually quite common in those pre-Miranda days; it’s hard these days for police to get away with a physical assault on a suspect in custody but they still use coercive interrogation techniques) — 22 years earlier, though surprisingly it doesn’t really go into the difficulties of reconstructing events that occurred so long ago and it seems as if all the principals except the man “John Smith” (it’s not his real name; he was orphaned as a child, apparently left on the streets when his parents died, and he speaks with a thick foreign accent — probably the normal one of Than Wyenn, the actor who plays him) supposedly murdered seem to be alive and within reach of the investigation of private eye Raymond Schindler (Robert H. Harris), who eventually uncovers Smith’s alibi witness. It turns out that on the night of the murder he bought bread and beans for a fellow homeless person, Carl Halsted (Karl Swenson), and Halsted not only remembered but eventually got off the street and became a successful businessperson in California, but never forgot Smith’s kindness to him because the date it all happened was his birthday.

This is the sort of story that’s a bit hard to believe without the assurances of the narrator (Lyle Bettger in his role as Sam Larsen, principal researcher and leg man for the Court of Last Resort) that it’s all true, but it’s a well done tale, incisively written by Ken Kolb and powerfully directed by Reginald LeBorg, who on the strength of both these TV shows and his film credits was a quite good suspense director Universal unwisely pushed into horror films when they had him under contract in the 1940’s. — 8/12/11


This Court of Last Resort episode was called “The Frank Clark Case” and dealt with a murder from 1956 (the show aired in early 1958 so it was a relatively fresh crime, not one from 22 years earlier like “The John Smith Case”) in which a man named Frank Clark (Dan Barton) was accused of knifing a middle-aged man, Peter Lucenic (Gene Roth), in his home, leaping out of his open window and being seen by his next-door neighbor, Eleanor Stacy (a marvelously twitchy performance by Virginia Vincent), as he fled through the clotheslines full of laundry she’d hung to dry in her backyard. At first Clark, whom we see only from behind, looks like your stereotypical movie/TV “juvenile delinquent” from the period, but later we’re told that he’s 30 (and the real Dan Barton was even older than that, born September 20, 1921, which would have made him 36 when the episode was filmed) even though he’s still living with his older sister Roberta (played by Marian Seldes, who in fact was seven years younger than Barton — born August 23, 1928 — and who’s still alive and working!) and her husband Paul Farrell (Stanley Adams), who’s lamenting the sheer amount of money and time Roberta has already spent on various lawyers and investigators futilely promising to exonerate Frank.

The Court of Last Resort’s investigator, Sam Farrell (Lyle Bettger), takes up the case and talks to the police captain who led the official investigation, Captain Cunningham (Harold J. Stone) — and no, we don’t ever find out his first name — and eventually he finds that the $200 Lucenic had lying around in his room but which wasn’t found either on him or on Frank was in fact stolen by Eleanor Stacy, who used it to keep her car from being repossessed. But she picked it up off the street where Lucenic’s killer had dropped it — and in a quite surprising twist given that the series, and the Court of Last Resort itself, were both products of the work of novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the character of Perry Mason, it turns out that Frank Clark really did commit the murder: Eleanor saved the money clip which was holding the bills together when she found them, and it turns out to match exactly one Paul Farrell had: a gift from Frank Clark, who made one for his brother-in-law and an identical one for himself in the machine shop where he worked. Roberta had been convinced Frank couldn’t have committed the crime because he’d been home with her the entire afternoon — except that she wasn’t feeling well that day, Frank gave her some medicine, the medicine made her sleepy and she dozed off, she thought for only a minute or two but in fact for longer than that, long enough for Frank to slip out to steal Lucenic’s cash, only Lucenic was home unexpectedly, surprised Frank and Frank killed him by stabbing him with a screwdriver he had in his tool box and he’d taken along to jimmy Lucenic’s window open to burglarize him.

It’s a nice little vest-pocket drama and the ending is legitimately surprising without getting into the absurd melodramatics of many recent Law and Order episodes — and, as I’ve written before about the half-hour crime dramas of the 1950’s and 1960’s, not only this one but the original Dragnets as well, they have something of the same economy of storytelling as the “B”-movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the time limit forced the writers (even on shows which were totally fiction and not, like this one, at least ostensibly based on true stories) to focus on crimes that could have happened and not the elaborate, far-fetched and definitely fictional plots of today’s hour-long shows in the genre! — 8/14/11


I dug out the disc of the Court of Last Resort TV shows and played the next-to-last episode of the six I’d been able to find on, and in many ways it was the best of the five we’ve seen so far: “The Jacob Loveless Case,” which aside from its status as a true story is a magnificent tale of injustice, prosecutorial misconduct and the destructiveness of secrets that could well have made a quite good plot for a film noir. It opens in 1936, with a young couple necking (standing up!) in a field in Texas when an assailant comes up and shoots them both. (The young couple don’t look at all like people from 1936 — at least if the movies of the period are accurate touchstones to judge by — they’re dressed in 1950’s clothes and wear their hair in 1950’s styles, but they’re not on long enough for that to matter.) Jacob Loveless (Barry Atwater) is arrested and charged with killing those two nice young people for the $4 and change they were carrying, and since he’s still a teenager himself he isn’t given the death penalty but is sentenced to life in prison. Once in prison the illiterate Loveless not only learns to read but finds solace in books and ultimately gets assigned to run the prison library as his behind-bars job.

He appears before the parole board four times, but the first three times the prosecutor in his case, Edward Kruger (Onslow Stevens), appears before the board and talks them into not paroling him, while the fourth time Loveless applies he finds Kruger actually on the parole board, stubbornly refusing to recuse himself or to allow the other board members to vote to parole Loveless. Though he insists all along he’s been innocent of the original crime, he’s given up on seeking a pardon — in a nicely turned speech (the screenwriter was Sam Rolfe), Loveless says he doesn’t care anymore what it says on his ticket out of prison, as long as it gets him out — but when Court of Last Resort investigator Sam Larsen (Lyle Bettger, the series’ star) starts researching the case in association with Raymond Cole, who replaced Kruger as D.A. when Kruger retired, he finds out that the real killer was Mort Walker (Paul Newlan), owner of the property where the killings took place and a hot-tempered man who eagerly resorts to threats of bodily harm whenever anyone trespasses, no matter how innocently.

Loveless’s alibi witness was Walker’s daughter, who sandbagged his case by changing her story when she realized her dad was the actual killer — and she’s lived as a recluse on the Walker property ever since, never going out and certainly never dating, working or doing anything to establish an existence independent of the dad she lied for. Kruger’s guilt feelings about the case have led him to alcoholism and turned his wife Josephine (Louise Lewis) into a classic long-suffering co-dependent — they haven’t had any children — and Larsen and Cole muse over the irony that Loveless, even though he’s spent 22 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, has actually come through the experience with less emotional scarring than anyone else involved. Though this episode was missing the “tag” scene with real Court of Last Resort members that has enlivened some of the previous ones, it was still quite good, well written by Rolfe and directed by Reginald LeBorg ( credits Peter Godfrey as director, but LeBorg is the name on the original credits), who as I’ve pointed out suffered professionally from the decision of his bosses at Universal in the 1940’s to give him horror films with supernatural or science-fiction premises, when his strength was in suspense stories. — 9/28/11


Charles and I ended up watching the last of the six episodes of the quite interesting 1957-58 TV series The Court of Last Resort we’d been able to download from “The Mary Morales Case,” which in some ways was the most unusual of them all, featuring a surprise opening — instead of a narrator announcing what the prosecution’s theory of the case was, it opened with a sequence showing Juan Morales (Joe De Santis), who’d brought his family — himself, his wife Mary (Marian Seldes, who had previously appeared as Roberta, the older sister of the genuinely guilty Frank Clark, on an earlier Court of Last Resort episode), and their chronically ill young son Miguel, who is talked about a great deal but never shown as an on-screen character — from Laredo, Texas to Arizona in hope of finding work now that an injury to his hand that had idled him for three years had finally healed and he now could work. Joe spots Mary talking to a white trucker in a local diner, leaps to the worst (and wrong) conclusion, goes back to his own truck, gets out his automatic pistol, enters the diner and …

Then the narrator (Lyle Bettger in his role as Sam Larsen, principal investigator for the Court of Last Resort) announces that the charge was murder and the accused was not Juan Morales but his wife Mary and it’s not until quite a bit later in the show that we find out what really happened. Juan waved his gun around and then went up to the diner’s bar and ordered a drink (he’d already been established as at least an incipient alcoholic, his drinking attributed to his troubles at home and his inability either to provide for his wife or pay for medical care for their son) while Mary skulked out in shame, embarrassed at the way her husband had treated her and anxious to get even. She did so by taking the gun herself, first removing its magazine so it (presumably) wouldn’t fire, intending to give her husband “the scare of his life” by holding it on him, only by sheer happenstance she pulled the trigger and the gun went off since Mary hadn’t realized that there would still be one live round in the chamber even though she’d removed all the other bullets. What’s more, the victim was not her husband but a beloved older woman who had just happened to enter the diner at that point.

Larsen investigates the crime and runs into a brick wall composed as much of racism as shame — it seems virtually all the townspeople couldn’t have cared less whether Mary was guilty of murder or manslaughter, and if they didn’t exactly lie on the witness stand they, shall we say, shaded their recollections on the ground that the defendant was a Mexican and “those people” can’t be controlled and need either to go home or be jailed. Given the ferocity of the modern-day Right’s war on so-called “illegal aliens” (and the way Texas Governor Rick Perry’s pursuit of the Republican nomination for President seems to have been derailed by virtually the only compassionate thing he’s ever done in his political career, the granting of in-state college tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants), the racism of the townspeople as depicted by screenwriters Max Ehrlich and Arthur Weiss hits home today. What complicates things even further is that Mary Morales requested a local attorney, and Juan Morales wrote the attorney a letter — but since he’d been jailed himself on a minor (and possibly trumped-up) charge, he gave the letter to a sheriff’s deputy and asked him to deliver it to the attorney, and the deputy instead just tore it up and threw it away, so Mary got stuck with a court-appointed counsel and there was reasonable grounds for a reversal on appeal on the ground that she was denied the counsel of her choice.

Eventually Larsen presents his side of the case and demonstrates what happened by bringing in an identical model of gun, taking out the clip, and then firing it out the window while the original judge and prosecutor are meeting with him (being sure to aim at the ground so the bullet still in the gun will land without hurting anyone) — and the judge is sufficiently moved to order a new trial, though frankly I would rather have seen Mary Morales’ conviction downgraded to manslaughter and her sentence commuted to time served. The Court of Last Resort — founded by defense attorney turned successful mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, whose reputation rests mainly on his series of stories featuring super-defense attorney Perry Mason — anticipates the Innocence Project, though in some ways it’s even more remarkable since they functioned before the availability of DNA evidence and their investigator often had to dredge up the records of cases from two decades earlier, with all the problems attendant thereto, like the deaths of key witnesses and the loss of physical evidence. It’s a real pity the show only lasted one season — some of the stories have been quite compelling dramas as well as true incidents — and even more of a pity that a modern-day version probably wouldn’t last much longer in this hard-line, lock-’em-up, “tough on crime” age. — 9/30/11