US / 30 minutes / bw / Paisano, CBS Dir: Jacques Tourneur Pr & Scr: Edmund Hartmann Characters: Erle Stanley Gardner Cine: Lucien Andriot Cast: Billy Pearson, Benay Venuta, Maurice Manson, Maggy Mahoney (i.e., Margaret Field), Judith Bess Jones, Sheila Bromley, Don Megowan, Movita, Alison Hayes, John Mitchum, Tristram Coffin, Alex Sharpe, Erle Stanley Gardner.
Erle Stanley Gardner, under his A.A. Fair pseudonym, wrote thirty books in his Donald Lam & Bertha Cool series. According to the immensely useful Fantastic Fiction site these were:
- The Bigger They Come (1939; vt Lam to the Slaughter)
- Gold Comes in Bricks (1940)
- Turn on the Heat (1940)
- Double or Quits (1941)
- Spill the Jackpot (1941)
- Bats Fly at Dusk (1942)
- Owls Don’t Blink (1942)
- Cats Prowl at Night (1943)
- Give ‘em the Ax (1944 vt An Axe to Grind)
- Crows Can’t Count (1946)
- Fools Die on Friday (1947)
- Bedrooms Have Windows (1949)
- Top of the Heap (1952)
- Some Women Won’t Wait (1953)
- Beware the Curves (1956)
- Some Slips Don’t Show (1957)
- You Can Die Laughing (1957)
- The Count of Nine (1958)
- Pass the Gravy (1959)
- Kept Women Can’t Quit (1960)
- Bachelors Get Lonely (1961)
- Shills Can’t Cash Chips (1961 vt Stop at the Red Light)
- Try Anything Once (1962)
- Fish or Cut Bait (1963)
- Up for Grabs (1964)
- Cut Thin to Win (1965)
- Widows Wear Weeds (1966)
- Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967)
- All Grass Isn’t Green (1970)
- The Knife Slipped (2016)
By all accounts the books were successful, even if today they’re largely forgotten in favor of those featuring one of Gardner’s other series characters, Perry Mason. Even so, back in the 1950s they were well known, so it’s surprising the proposed TV series adaptation of which this is the pilot didn’t get off the ground—particularly since, in its modest way, there’s nothing at all wrong with the pilot. Well, you wouldn’t expect there to be anything wrong with it, bearing in mind its director.
Erle Stanley Gardner introduces the piece.
Cool & Lam is a detective agency in Los Angeles. Pint-sized Donald Lam (Pearson) does most of the actual detectiving while buxom, matronly Mrs. Bertha Cool (Venuta) holds the purse strings and bleats about expenses.
One day a new client arrives, calling himself “Mr. Smith”—a thunderingly obvious attempt at subterfuge. He wants the pair to find out what happened to a Mrs. Amelia Lintig, who vanished from the small town of Oakview, California, twenty years after separating from her husband; in particular, has she remarried? It takes the detectives about half a picosecond to realize “Mr. Smith” is in reality Dr. James Lintig (Manson), the missing woman’s estranged husband.
Margaret Field as Marion Dunton.
Off goes Donald to Oakview, where local cub reporter Marion Dunton (Mahoney/Field) insists on helping him. He also meets Evaline Dell (Hayes), a hostess at the Blue Cave niterie in LA but working as a detective rival; a woman called Flo Mortonson (Bromley) posing as the long-lost Amelia Lintig; and a giant of a man called John Harbet (Megowan), who beats Donald up. After a murder, an attempted suicide, a confession note and the revelation of a crooked political scheme to use fake news (plus ça change) to smear a reform-minded mayoral candidate, Cool & Lam are able to wrap up the case, with Donald deciding Marion isn’t such a pest after all.
Maurice Manson as Dr. James Lintig.
In the extant version of the pilot, Erle Stanley Gardner himself (after a humorous teaser) offers a spoken introduction, puffing the cast and giving us fragments of the background to what he obviously hoped would take off as a series.
Although the two main characters are treated humorously, this isn’t quite as lighthearted a piece as it might seem. The themes it tackles—political corruption, abuse of power, public smearing, hypocrisy, bullying and of course murder—are fairly dark, and they’re what one tends to remember after the other stuff has faded from the mind.
Alison Hayes as Evaline Dell.
Sheila Bromley as Flo Mortonson.
Don Megowan as Sergeant John Harbet of the Santa Carlotta Vice Squad.
Pearson is excellent as the tiny but perfectly formed—and intelligent, and resourceful—Donald Lam. Maggy Mahoney/Margaret Field is fresh-faced and charming as his newfound romantic interest, and Benay Venuta does all the right things as the penny-pinching Bertha Cool. As I say, it’s a surprise the series never took off.
The characters had earlier appeared on TV in a 1955 episode of the series Climax! (1954–8), called The Bigger They Come and based on the novel of that title; Art Carney played Donald and Jane Darwell played Bertha. There was also a radio adaptation, in 1946, of the novel Turn On the Heat, with Donald played by none other than Frank Sinatra.