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» Wednesday, August 12, 2009Foreign Champs
If the reviews on Amazon.co.uk are correct, there's an entire generation of English children that remember a 1950s American children's television show better than I do, which I find bizarre.
Deep Discount (neè Deep Discount DVD) had a sale a few months ago (of which I was tipped off by Ivan Shreve). For $5 each, I got a box set of the BBC Narnia movies (originally shown on Wonderworks on PBS), six episodes of Shirley Temple's Storybook (these are from the early 60s, when Temple had a series that dramatized fairy tales and children's books--the episodes I received included Pippi Longstocking, Kim, and Madeleine), and two box sets each of 10 episodes of Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion and The Adventures of Champion.
Captain Gallant I remember from childhood. In the case of most 1950s series, I can return to the wonder in which I watched the frequently creaky plots and cliched characters and enjoy the heck out of them anyway. I watched all of the 1950s/1960s animal series and most of the Western ones: Lassie, Fury, My Friend Flicka, National Velvet, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, The Littlest Hobo, The Roy Rogers Show, Annie Oakley, The Gene Autry Show, even stuff like The Adventures of Robin Hood from England, and the more adult shows like Jim Bowie, Sea Hunt, and Judge Roy Bean, and I still enjoy watching them now.
Captain Gallant, frankly, was a disappointment after all these years. The show makes a big deal in the credits of mentioning that it was filmed with the cooperation of the French Foreign Legion and in the camps, and actual Foreign Legion soldiers are shown in some of the clips, but the show is not only pretty standard, but for a kids' show of the time it turned out to be downright boring. Lots of static bits with people talking. Buster Crabbe might have been a good Flash Gordon, Olympic swimmer, and even Tarzan, but as Captain Gallant he was pretty dull. His son Cullen played "Cuffy," the little orphan boy Gallant was guardian to, and this kid had to be the blandest kid ever on film. Evidently Crabbe had something in his contract that said he would be the hero of the episodes, so Cuffy has little to do, unlike Timmy Martin or Jeff Miller, or Joey Newton, or even Ricky North (see below).
Ironically, the shows in the set are edited, so they had five minutes clipped out of each episode and were still overlong. Now that's sad.
With all the animal series I watched, I do not remember Champion at all. Amazon.co.uk is filled with about a dozen delighted reviews of this 26-episode series (which was replaced by My Friend Flicka) from now-adults who remember watching "Champ" on Saturdays during the summers well into the 1970s. A spin-off, of sorts, of Gene Autry's 1950-1955 television series, his horse Champion starred as a wild stallion who, nevertheless along with the responsibilities of guarding his own herd of wild mares, was friends with 12-year-old orphan Ricky North, who lived with his uncle Sandy and his German Shepherd dog Rebel in the American Southwest (lots of scenes apparently filmed at Vasquez Rocks, where Lassie and Timmy later hung out). Ricky is the only one Champ will allow to ride him and comes at Ricky's whistle. Talk about a kids' dream come true!
Of course Champion helps Ricky and Rebel and Uncle Sandy foil rustlers, robbers, and the like. The animals were coollike Fury, Champ could outrun the outlaws and rear and slash his forefeet with good effect, and like Lassie and Rinty, Rebel was always good for leaping out of nowhere to get the villain's gun handbut Barry Curtis as Ricky was a pretty dull child actor (I guess because Champ and Rebel were the real stars of the series). Uncle Sandy, incidentally, was played by Jim Bannon of radio's I Love a Mystery fame, the father of Jack Bannon who played Art Donovan on Lou Grant.
The first episode of the series had lots of ties to Lassie"Beulah" the traveling saddle-tramp's donkey was "Lucky" in three episodes, the episode was directed by frequent Lassie director George Archainbaud, and Robert Schaeffer and Eric Freiwald, Lassie's most prolific writers along with Sumner Long, were the writers.
There's also an unintentionally funny scene where the old saddle-tramp is telling Ricky a story about his "ambush" by Indians. He does something that "stops them in their tracks" and the film freeze-frames a clip of attacking Indians evidently culled from some old Western film!