Remembering Mancini on the Little Tube

Well, hot women’s groups attract Lex, but here’s a cool note: V. 1, first 8 episodes of Peter Gunn. (Netflix) For those of you of a certain age or a certain temperament, this may reverberate.
In 1989, Blake Edwards tried to revive the series (with Pearl Bailey as “Mother”!); apparently it wasn’t bad, but film noir only worked in a kind of postmodernist way by then. Tonight I forced my youngest daughter to watch episodes from the old series (1958-1961) and she found herself captivated (as I knew she would be) by the music and the poetry reading in smoky bars. This seems like a foreign world to her. I try to convince her that we were cool, then – but she doesn’t believe me. Of course, we weren’t. I was younger than she is now. And she laughs at much of it – the smoking, for instance, seemed so cool and now seems so absurd.

Still, this captures how the fifties and early sixties saw itself – not as suburban station wagons packed with kids on the way to lessons, not as repressed sexuality and tuna casseroles. Not as patriarchal. Instead, I suspect the fifties to those in the midst of them seemed an era in which men were clothed with the texture and drape of Craig Stevens’ suits, fitting into them with effortless grace. The women saw themselves in Lola Albright, with a smoky voice and a soft heart, nurturing and provocative, sweet & sophisticated – all with that wonderful old pointy-bra look and simple lines – whether in a shirtwaist or a slinky gown.

Sure that was no more the way they looked than were their evenings spent in the relaxed hip of coffeehouses & late night jazz, smoky rooms and foggy docks. Fortunately, of course, all the local blues joints didn’t provide a murder a week. Actually, of course, the adults from those years were dutiful, were home, watching television, making wise cracks, getting the kids ready for bed. Still, that was the style – and aiming at it lent a certain cool to fashions, gestures, laconic wit.
Watching it, we also remember how much pleasure that combination – Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini – gave us in the following years. As far as we’ve gotten in these episodes, Gunn is saved by someone else – generally the laconic Jacoby but sometimes others; the storylines, often written by Edwards, seem a practice run for those great Peter Sellers roles. Gunn may have a style reminiscent of Cary Grant but his success is not unlike Clouseau’s. That has a charm, too. His self-irony, so characteristic of both the fifties and the film noir tradition, keeps us watching the sketchy plots, if only to hear another song.

And that music was important. Here’s the IMBD description:

This was one of the first television shows to have its own original score and it was the first to feature modern jazz for a soundtrack. Previously, producers used generic music scores that were used in many television productions. RCA released an album of music from “Peter Gunn” featuring the title song and other pieces. It reached #1 on Billboard’s chart, stayed there ten weeks, and stayed on the list for the next two years. It was so successful that RCA put together a sequel. Henry Mancini received an Emmy nomination for the theme and won two Grammys for the album.

Of course, it has come down to us in peculiar forms on Youtube – a pretty good middle school gives it a try; perhaps the weirdest is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern set to Peter Gunn music. And here’s the original, if at only 22 seconds & with 2 1/2 stars.

1 thought on “Remembering Mancini on the Little Tube”

  1. Another that well repays watching is Have Gun, Will Travel. Several were written by Gene Roddenberry and reflect the quality he brought to things. Netflix is wonderful. Tomorrow is Saturday. Rocky & Bullwinkle.

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