Fri 15 Jun 2012
“Gertrude.” An episode of Harry O. ABC/Warner Brothers Television. 12 September 1974 (Season 1, Episode 1). Thursday at 10 pm., 60 minutes. Cast: David Janssen, Julie Sommars, Henry Darrow, Michael McGuire, Les Lannon, Mel Stewart. Written and Created by Howard Rodman. Produced by Robert E. Thompson. Executive Producer and Director: Jerry Thorpe.
Harry O remains high on every TV private eye fan’s DVD wish list, while the second pilot “Smile Jenny, You’re Dead” is available as a Made On Demand DVD from WB Archives Collection, the series shows no signs of ever being released on official DVD.
Harry O was a series that went through many changes over its two-season run, beginning with two separate pilot movies. Rather than review the entire series at once, I plan to randomly return and review single episodes that were important in the series evolution.
Normally, I would start with the pilot but the first pilot “Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On” (73) is difficult to find. The second pilot, “Smile Jenny, You’re Dead” (74), was an average predictable humorless psychological thriller featuring a stalker killing off the men in his victim’s life and a story of Harry reuniting a homeless child and her mother. Certainly nothing like I remember the series.
So I start with the premiere episode, “Gertrude.” Even the theme song and opening changed over time. Here is the opening to “Gertrude” as it appears on YouTube:
“Gertrude” was the Harry O I remember, funny, off beat with an interesting mystery and entertaining interaction between the characters. The episode was not perfect, suffering from an occasional minor plot hole or two, but the story was entertaining enough for such complaints to be quickly forgiven.
No actor on television has been more convincing as a PI than David Janssen. In this episode Janssen is at his best, not only as the television PI he did so well in Richard Diamond, but as a character that is as eccentric as his clients.
Harry Orwell is a former police detective in San Diego who, after one police case left him with a bullet in his back and on full disability, tries to enjoy a simple lifestyle while taking cases as a PI only when he is in the mood.
The Harry in this episode solved the mystery by figuring out the clues and using his experiences as a cop. His humor was playful with non-sequiturs as well as typical PI wisecracks. He is passive, patient, doesn’t talk much, and prefers to travel his own path at his own pace. His methods were as effective as they were odd and a source of irritation to other law enforcement people.
If Harry O must be labeled it should be as ABC’s version of NBC’s The Rockford Files. But there are too many differences between Harry and Rockford for the label to hold up beyond both series being hour-long mysteries that make fun of the clichés of the PI.
For example, Harry enjoys taking the bus. In this episode the government agent (Michael McGuire) has to follow Harry who is riding the bus. The scene where the agent in his car is trying not to be spotted while following a bus certainly is in contrast to and more entertaining than the typical TV PI car chase.
The story opens on the beach in front of Harry’s home. He is working on his broken boat named “The Answer.” The phone begins to ring. Harry ignores it, explaining in his PI narration that he doesn’t want to answer the phone he wants to be in Idaho with the circus. But on the eighteenth ring, Harry answers figuring anyone who would let the phone ring eighteen times must really want to talk to him.
It is a woman named Gertrude (Julie Sommars) who wants Harry to find her missing brother, Harold (Les Lannon), who the Navy says is AWOL. Harold had sent Gertrude a clue, one civilian left shoe. Harry thinks that is an odd thing for a sailor to send, and he likes the sound of Gertrude’s voice, so he takes the case.
Ditzy teetotaler, virgin Gertrude finds the confessed immoral drinker Harry confusing, while Harry tries hard to prove he is in fact a gentleman who does not want her “to cheat the man she marries” either.
Two Shore Patrolmen arrive and demand all of Harold’s property. (Gertrude had all ready sold all the furniture to get the money to pay Harry.) Harry runs them off and realizes they are not from the Shore Patrol.
The first stop on Harry’s search for Harold is the airport, where he uses the baggage scanner to see if there is anything hidden inside the shoe Harold sent his sister (there isn’t).
Neither Harry nor the Navy are too open with the other, so Harry asks his police contact Lt. Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow) to find out the answer to two questions, does Harold play poker and what is Harold’s shoe size. This is where the show plays fair as Harry recaps the clues and what we know up to this point for Manny and the detectives among the viewers.
Howard Rodman received a well deserving Edgar nomination for his witty script. The combination of Rodman’s script, Jerry Thorpe’s quality direction, Janssen’s acting and Billy Goldberg’s soundtrack all came together and rose one scene from its typical filler status to memorable.
When Harry visits the Navy Commander to ask about Harold the missing sailor and brother, he is lead down some corridors. There is a Navy Officer leading the way and a uniformed Shore Patrolman just behind Harry. Meanwhile the soundtrack is playing a military drum march over the theme song. Surprisingly, this usually filler type scene is entertaining and has a story driven reason behind it.
Harry and the Navy finally work together and Harold and the two posing Shore Patrolman are found. But that was not the end of this entertaining mystery, there is still a twist or two left before all is answered.
If you have watched “Smile Jenny, You’re Dead” and wondered why anyone remembers Harry O, it is because of episodes such as “Gertrude.”
Broadcasting (September 23, 1974) ran the ratings of the week as well as excerpts from critic’s reviews around the country of new series such as Harry O.
Critics at the time were divided over the script. Cecil Smith of the LA Times wrote, “…The dialogue is as sharp as a switchblade, the characters solidly drawn…and the mystery itself continually absorbing.” While John J. O’Connor of the NY Times wrote, “The script is third-rate…”
Most found Janssen better than the script with such comments as Kay Gardella of the NY Daily News, who wrote, “…An actor with charisma and a good track record can take a mediocre property and make it look a lot better than it is. That’s what David Janssen does with Harry O.” But John Carmody of the Washington Post worried “…the viewer is never sure whether Janssen is wise-cracking or just proving he’s still awake.”
“Gertrude” aired on premiere week of the 1974-75 fall season. The Thursday lineup on ABC began with The Odd Couple followed by Paper Moon then Streets of San Francisco and Harry O at 10pm. CBS had a two hour Waltons followed by Perry Como Summer of 74 at 10pm. NBC’s lineup began with Sierra followed by Ironside and Movin’ On at 10pm. (Thanks to TVTango.com and David Bushman’s TV Guide.)
Ratings were good as “Gertrude” was one of only three shows ABC had in the top 30 (the movie Fiddler on the Roof and Streets of San Francisco were the other two). For its time slot Harry O finished ranked twenty-fifth with 19.6 and 34 share. Movin’ On’s rating was 19.8 and a 34 share and CBS’s Perry Como finished with a 32 share. In an era when shows often enjoyed 50 shares and higher, and under 30 meant you were in trouble, the most positive ratings news for Harry was how bad the rest of the ABC schedule was doing.
Will future episode maintain the high standards of “Gertrude”? I am looking forward to watching and find out.