In the autumn of 1958, NBC began airing a half-hour television show about a private eye named Peter Gunn. The series was created by Blake Edwards and featured the music of Henry Mancini. My first experience with those two names was the Pink Panther series of movies. I’ve seen twenty of Edwards’ movies, and I think nineteen of them were comedies. I knew Peter Gunn wasn’t a comedy, but that’s all I knew about it (other than the theme music) when I started watching.
Peter Gunn is a noir. Noirs were shot in black and white, typically featured hard-boiled detectives, and tended to emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. This is a fair description of the series, particularly the first season. Peter Gunn lived in an unnamed and gloomy riverside city that remained unnamed and in a location never mentioned.
Gunn operated out of a jazz club on the river called Mother’s. The club featured live music, cool jazz. The bartender answered a payphone on the wall, and most of the calls were for Pete. The singer was Edie Hart, who was Gunn’s girlfriend. Dialog between Pete and Edie in the first season was racy for the period, with a fair amount of innuendo. By the third season, Edie opened her own place (called Edie’s, naturally) and Pete moved his operation there. Instead of the bartender a payphone, it was the house phone and the maitre d’.
Whether it was Mother’s or Edie’s, the band was pretty much the same. Pete and Edie had some steamy chemistry, but if I’d have been watching this as it was broadcast, I’d have wanted to tell Pete to keep his eye on Emmett, the piano player. He had chemistry with Edie, too. The guy who played the piano player soon married Lola Albright, who played Edie.
Pete’s best friend, if you could call him that, was Lt. Jacoby of the police. Few warm words were spoken by either of them. Jacoby was always complaining that Pete spent so much time in his office but it was obvious he didn’t mean it.
Peter Gunn, as I said, wasn’t a comedy. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have a sense of humor. Jacoby was a regular source of subtle comedy. Not so subtle were many of Pete’s network of informers. Several of them could best be described as absurd: the speech coach with a heavy Spanish accent who kept trying to correct his parrot’s pronunciation; an artist who “paints” using sounds; the ballet teacher who doesn’t even watch his student but continuously barks out commands; and so on. Many of them wear pop bottle bottom glasses. I give those actors credit as with those specs on, they probably couldn’t see a thing. Most of these characters show up for a single episode. Billy Barty has a recurring role as Babby the pool shark. He stands on a wooden box which he drags around the table with a rope.
One of my favorite episodes was “Let’s Kill Timothy”. Timothy is a seal. Timothy was fed the gems from a robbery. One of the robbers brings the seal to Mother’s for Pete to take care of. Pete takes the seal everywhere, including Jacoby’s office. Mother sings songs to the staff after closing, and Pete’s informant this time is the artist who paints with sound: “My art is not for sale! Exhibition only!” Very humorous. Top rate Blake Edwards.
One show that didn’t work for me was “Pecos Pete”. Peter gets hired by a Texas rancher. We learn that Pete can saddle and ride a horse. But he looks ridiculous in his spotless western garb and cowboy hat.
Pete often pays his informants for information. The typical currency is a $10 bill. Sometimes the informant is reluctant to talk: “If the bad guy finds out, I’m dead!” “Does this change your mind?” Pete offers the sawbuck. “Okay, I’ll talk!” Ten dollars seems a small reward for risking one’s life. To put somewhat in perspective, ten dollars in 1960 would get you 40 gallons of gasoline or a dozen Reubens sandwiches. Today, it’s more like four or five gallons of gas and somewhere between half and one-and-a-half Reubens.
It’s a very violent show. In the first season, there weren’t too many fist fights. There were regular beatings, but they weren’t fights. I found this realistic. The guy being assaulted (often two on one) never gets a punch in, and is pretty quickly on the ground, motionless. By season two, they fell into the generic television fist fight trope. Our hero gets jumped, often out numbered and without a weapon but prevails in the end, sometimes resulting in every stick of furniture in the room getting destroyed. Mother’s gets remodeled after one of these, and Edie’s gets taken apart on opening night.
Fisticuffs aren’t the only violence. Murder is commonplace in our unnamed river city. Nearly every episode features one before the opening theme. The bad guys always get it in the end, and very few of them survive to see a courtroom. Pete guns down dozens of criminals over the course of the run, and Jacoby isn’t far behind. If an episode has fewer than three deaths, it’s a slow night.
Life is cheap. In “A Bullet In Escrow”, Pete takes a hoodlum to the Downtown Athletic Club, which has hotel rooms. The desk clerk, a chap who goes by the name Specs, asks Pete if he’s going to take the guy up to a room to kill him and makes a couple of offers. “We got a new deal here. Health Plan – room, breakfast and we knock him off. $68.75 and you still got a rub-down coming! … Why don’t you try our introductory offer? Sun lamps, swimming pool, and we lock him in the steam room until he disappears. Only $37.50!”
Life may have been cheap, but Pete wasn’t. He charges a high price for his services: commonly $1000 or $2000 for what ends up being the work of a day or two. One woman notes that he wears a $200 suit and carries a “solid gold” lighter. Median income in the US in 1960 was $5,600, so he was doing quite well.
Music is an essential part of the show. Most everybody is familiar with the main theme. And, as I said, both Mother’s and Edie’s feature cool jazz. We don’t necessarily hear the whole song when Edie is singing, but if a client approaches Pete when she’s singing, he makes them wait until she’s done. Many of the songs she sings were big hits of the day, or at least big enough that many of them were at least vaguely familiar to me.
Then there’s the incidental music. Every episode’s cold open starts with the same simple drum and bass line. After a few bars, it changes up and is unique to the show. Sometimes it’s very short and simple, sometimes it goes on for a while. A piano comes in, or xylophone. It’s specific to the action, coming to a crescendo with the action on screen. I really enjoyed the music
I also got a big kick out of the cars. In the first few episodes, Pete drove Desoto. That didn’t last long; he quickly replaced it with a convertible Plymouth Fury. I don’t think I’ve seen one of these in real life. It took me a while to notice that the steering wheel isn’t round. It’s sort of squared off. Very peculiar.
Most of the cars in the show were Chrysler products, 1960-1962 model years. There were a few nice New Yorkers, a couple of Imperials, and I’m pretty sure all the police cars were Plymouths. There was the occasional Cadillac, of course. The oddest car I saw was a 1950 Nash Airflyte, which looks like an inverted bathtub and features front fender skirts. Pete intentionally totals this car in a roll-over accident. He walks away, but the guy holding a gun on him is killed. The same car (undamaged) shows up in a later episode in a garage. None of these cars had seatbelts, they all ran on bias ply tires and had drum brakes. They were all deathtraps compared to today’s cars and I can’t imagine crashing one on purpose. Walking away from such a crash is, shall we say, not exactly realistic.
As with the other old shows I’ve watched recently, alcohol and cigarettes are a big thing here, too. In the early episodes, sometimes the smoke is so think in Mother’s it’s hard to see the other side of the room. Everybody smokes, and nobody asks permission from anybody else. Pete doesn’t drink as much as Simon Templar or John Drake. Everybody else drinks, though. Often they offer Pete a drink but he declines.
The show was only a half-hour. Accounting for opening and closing credits, we’re down to twenty three minutes or so. Take away a few more for Edie’s songs and the writers only have about twenty minutes to tell the story. That doesn’t leave much time for plot twists, and there are few. Somebody gets killed in the cold open, somebody hire’s Pete, Pete talks to Jacoby for some background, then finds one of his informants. He questions two or three possible suspects. He tricks the bad guy into coming clean and there’s often a shootout where the bad guy is killed.
There’s not much room for character development, either. We never really learn much about Gunn, other than he served in World War II. An old friend once says, “It’s been a long time since Saipan.” Edie’s only function is to wait for Pete. They exchange sweet nothings, Pete is called to the phone or meets a client in the club. Edie complains that he’s always working. And she sings. She doesn’t feature in the plot, except the three times she’s kidnapped in attempts to get at Pete. And I’m pretty sure we never learn Jacoby’s first name.
I got a kick out of it, though. I thought it was well done. Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini made a good combination. The quality was fairly consistent: there weren’t that many outstanding episodes, but there were very few duds. Many of these old television series had some truly cringeworthy moments dealing with race or gender. I’m sure viewers more sensitive than I am may be able to point them out for me, but none come immediately to mind.
Next up is Mr. Lucky. I don’t think I’ve heard of it and am pretty certain I’ve never seen an episode. It’s another Blake Edwards/Henry Mancini vehicle, so I already have certain expectations.