Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Death Challenge" - Quincy, M.E. - 1979

“The Death Challenge” brings together Ann Blyth and Don Ameche as a show-biz couple on whom the glare of the spotlight is focused after a long period of being ignored—but they also attract the attention of the police and our intrepid medical examiner, Quincy, played by Jack Klugman, when a stunt goes terribly wrong.

It’s the first of two episodes of the TV program Quincy, M.E. on which Ann Blyth appeared.  We’ll discuss the second one next week.  One of the sublime joys of episodic television in the 1970s and 1980s, for lovers of classic films at least, is that a huge roster of players from Hollywood’s heyday took their final curtain calls as guests on these shows.  

 “The Death Challenge,” from season 4 of the series, was broadcast March 24, 1979.  In the seventies, Ann played only one other role on television, a guest appearance on another detective show, Switch, starring Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert as an ex-conman and an ex-cop, respectively, joining forces.  Sharon Gless, who later starred in her own cop series Cagney and Lacey, played their girl Friday.  The episode was called “Mistresses, Murderers, and Millions,” broadcast December 23, 1975.  I haven’t seen this episode yet, but I hope to in the months ahead, and if so, I’ll include a more detailed discussion of Ann’s role on this show in the book next year.

Both Switch and Quincy, M.E. were Universal television productions, filmed on the Universal lot.  It gave Ann a chance to return to her old studio.  A 1976 interview shares her perspective on returning after first entering those gates in 1943:

“It was a beautiful place then, full of lawns, trees, and cottages.  I thought of it as sort of a college campus.  Now it’s huge, busy, and full of modern buildings.  They bulldozed the old schoolhouse eight or nine years ago.”
Ann isn’t sentimental about the studio.  She’s a clear-eyed pragmatist.

Ann had spent the better part of the 1970s on stage in musical theatre, as we discussed in this previous post, but when a reporter asked her if she would like to do another musical film, she responded, “I would rather have a good dramatic role instead.”  At the time of this 1976 interview, she had hoped to star in a “Movie of the Week” for TV, “although admitting it has been difficult to come up with a good story.”

The “Movie of the Week” never happened, but the decade ended with a gig on Quincy, M.E., where she was reunited with star Jack Klugman, who had earlier guest appeared with her on the TV show Name of the Game in 1969, which we discussed in this previous post.

Ann Blyth, throughout her film career, was starred with some of the greats of Hollywood’s leading men, including Charles Boyer, Frederic March, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Bing Crosby, Robert Taylor, William Powell…and we can see by the list that most of the leading men were much older than she.  “The Death Challenge” gives her one more opportunity to star with a handsome, and older, leading man, Don Ameche.

Mr. Ameche is in fine form here, trim and fit at 70 years old to Ann’s 50 years old in this pairing.  They are a longtime couple devoted to each other.  He is a former magician, and one of the delights of this show brings us to some real-life Los Angeles locations—here the Magic Castle on Franklin Street, a private club and fraternal organization for magicians.  The other is the TAV Celebrity Theater on Vine Street, where the Merv Griffin Show used to be filmed.

Ameche, no longer a headliner, is reduced to being a kind of maître d' in the restaurant of The Magic Castle.  He is as dapper as ever in his evening clothes.  Ann works at the front desk, and together they manage as best they can, with their glory days behind them.

As the episode begins, Ameche appears on television introducing a new young magician—his protégé—performing the dangerous stunt known as The Death Challenge.  The protégé is tied up, locked in a chest, and submerged in a tank of water.  He is supposed to escape before he dies.

He doesn’t.  He dies.

Jack Klugman soon has a new corpse in his autopsy room and he suspects, guess what, that the drowning wasn’t accidental.  The protégé was murdered.

Our suspects include Bobbi Jordan, who is good in this episode as the not-so-bereaved widow.  She was abused by her no-good budding magician husband, and she has a new relationship with the stage manager, played by Martin Kove, who leaves his shirt unbuttoned down to his navel, just so we don’t forget it’s the 1970s and he’s macho.  The not-so-bereaved widow had assisted her husband with the stunt on stage, and later actually attempts to step into his shoes and perform the stunt herself—hoping to take some of the glory and all of the money.

Martin Kove could have bumped him off, hating him and wanting his wife.  Then, too, we have the down-and-out, but dignified couple Don Ameche and Ann Blyth.  Don, a former student of the great Houdini, taught the protégé everything he knew, but then was cut out of the act and humiliated.  Ameche, furious, threatened him.  I love Don Ameche in this role.  Listen to that wonderful speaking voice, so measured and well modulated.  I wish newscasters would speak that way instead talking too fast, too loud, and too much as they do.  They might be worth listening to if they spoke well.

Ann stays in the wings during the act, adoring her husband, concerned and yet, enigmatic.  There is an archness, a fey expression of wonder on her face, a mask of heavy makeup and insecurity behind the pose of serenity.  We are compelled to look for cracks in the brittle brave façade.

Or Rufus, the surly growling co-worker at The Magic Castle?  Or Ron Masak as the smarmy TV host who’ll do anything for ratings, whose insurance rates must be sky high with so many accidents on his show.  Dependable Mr. Masak is like the Lou Gehrig of TV, he’s been on everything.

 The horrified studio audience reaction three times during three different performances of this dangerous stunt makes me wonder if they just had the same people move to different seats, or if they bothered with costume changes?

Toward the end of the episode, our Don Ameche steps into the tank himself to prove he can still do it.  A nice scene where, in his dressing room before the act, Mr. Ameche sits before the well-lighted mirror while Ann lovingly touches up his stage makeup.  She proudly fastens his magician’s cape on him.  She is dressed in the gown she wore when they were presented to the queen on a long-ago English tour.  They have kept their figures even if their faces are lined.  They are young again even while entering their golden years, the magic of love creating a double image for us as they share the promising kiss of devotion of a bride and groom before he heads for the stage.

Jack Klugman figures out who the murderer is, of course, being very clever about math and chemicals and stuff.  I normally don’t give away the endings on mysteries, but I’m going to this time.  After the break of lines below, I’m going to talk about the ending, so if you are allergic to spoilers, run away now.
Ready?  Here we go…


Okay.  If you’re still here, the guilty person is….


I’m not going to explain the whys and wherefores, I’ll leave that to you to watch the episode, but there’s a final scene, where, confronted by Quincy and the detectives who come to arrest her husband for the crime, she breaks down and admits she did it.  She couldn’t stand seeing her adored Don Ameche treated so shabbily and just wanted to see him be the star one last time.  Tears flood her eyes in an instant, she sobs uncontrollably, and we are reminded, who may not have seen her in recent years on stage and remember only her film roles of long ago, how deep she dives in character to bring up emotions on that still lovely face, and uses her whole lithe body to purge them.

For somebody who was tagged with a good girl image that, in some respects I think hamstringed her career (despite, as we’ve discussed before, her several “bad girl” roles), one must smile at the thought that Ann, presented with this script must have relished being the murderer.  ("Hurray!  I get to bump somebody off!  Where do I sign?”)

Ameche is natural and understated, quietly commands every scene he’s in, and it’s no wonder his film career revived for a brief, if glowing, few years in the 1980s.  The younger cast members seem ersatz, unfinished and underdeveloped compared to these two finely polished actors.

Come back next Thursday when we discuss Ann Blyth’s second appearance on Quincy, M.E., from 1983, where several friends and colleagues—all played by stars from Hollywood’s heyday—are trapped in a snowbound cabin.  Also present are Quincy and his new bride.  And a murderer.

Milwaukee Journal, January 27, 2976, syndicated article by Vernon Scott, p. G1.

Springfield (Mass.) Daily News, September 1, 1976, article by Sam Hoffman, p. 25.

As  most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.

Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.

Have a look here for the rest of the schedule and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.

I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going,  I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career.  I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears.  Thanks.
 THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.

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