Of all the long-unseen TV shows of the 1960s, few were as desired as Honey West (1965-66), an unusual private eye/quasi-spy series starring innocently sexy Anne Francis as G.G. Fickling's (i.e., Gloria and Forest Fickling) judo-flipping, cat-suit wearing detective. Executive producer Aaron Spelling deliberately patterned the character after Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale on The Avengers and, ironically, when ABC decided to import that British series for the 1966-67 season (by which time Diana Rigg had replaced Blackman) they promptly cancelled the American show, despite (reportedly) healthy ratings. The story goes that the network didn't want two independent women detective shows, though that assertion seems questionable.
Long-regarded as a breakthrough, proto-feminist series - featuring TV's first ass-kicking female private eye - Honey West may never have been syndicated; there were only one season's worth of episodes, 30 half-hours, and so this DVD release marks the first time a large audience has had a chance to look at it in more than 40 years.
Though Francis is, expectedly, great fun to watch and the series is interesting in other ways, it's also something of a disappointment. VCI's region-free DVD is a perfectly adequate if unspectacular presentation of the complete series, on four single-sided, double-layered DVDs. Included are a lot of vintage television commercials and network promos in excellent condition, among other things, though alas no participation from Anne Francis herself.
Set in Los Angeles, this Four Star Television production - Can you name its four star founders? They were: Dick Powell, David Niven, Ida Lupino, and Charles Boyer - features John Ericson (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) as Honey's partner, Sam. In the show at least, the two have archly never-addressed relationship; are they at all attracted to one another? Just friends? Boss and employee? The overloaded series also gives Honey an exotic pet, an ocelot named Bruce, often founded purring away in the back of her white Cobra convertible. And if that weren't enough, most episodes find just enough time to squeeze in an appearance by Irene Hervey as Aunt Meg, an Aunt Harriet/Madge Blake type, though Hervey's just barely predates that character.
One of the problems with the series, one this reviewer was unaware of until I watched the first episode, is that Honey West was a 30-minute, and not a 60-minute, show. (The character first appeared on an episode of Burke's Law, which was an hour series. VCI is also releasing that program, but didn't think to include Honey's debut as an extra feature here.) There's an attempt to be hip and cool like The Avengers, but the leisurely pace of that series is just about unobtainable in the half-hour Honey West. It's almost like each week they're trying to cram 52-page scripts into a 26-minute shows, though sometimes Honey West also plays like we're seeing highlights from a longer series. There's just no time for any mystery, any methodical gathering of clues.
The series is a mix of good and not-so-good ideas, starting with the jazzy/calypso opening titles that incorporate a series of artful photographs of Francis, one cleverly playing up her famous mole, just off the right corner of her mouth. But the title design also looks rather old-fashioned, something more along the lines of a late-'50s series than a mid-'60s one; actually, it's pretty similar to the inapt one used for the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show. The end title music is reminiscent of the song "Thanks a Lot, but No Thanks" sung in It's Always Fair Weather by Cyd Charrise, who could have played Honey had the show been produced a few years earlier.
Episodes themselves have the same rushed appearance as the scripts. Most exteriors used real L.A. locations - making the series a treat for Angelenos - but many of these scenes have crude lighting, lackluster photography, and sloppy editing. The cutting especially hurts the show's fight scenes: it's patently obvious whenever Francis is doubled. The stuntwoman (or -women) assigned the show don't have her build or hair and the cutting only makes it worse.
Attempts at giving Honey West some style mostly don't work. A greatly overused device on the series has a character start a line of dialogue that's interrupted and continued, usually ironically, in the next scene. For instance Sam, aghast at Honey's latest plan, starts to say, "Not on your life!" However, on the word "life," he begins the next scene: "Not on your Life, that's what we'll get if we're caught up here!" It's moderately clever the first time, grating by the fifth.
James Bond mania was sweeping the world in the fall of 1965, and Honey West was not immune. Though ostensibly a private eye series, Honey has credulity-straining high-tech gadgets worthy of Q Branch, including that staple of the genre, the surveillance camera that follows its subjects around the room, panning, zooming, and even cutting to close-ups whenever needed.
Now that the legendary show is available, some argue that Honey West wasn't nearly as proto-feminist as its reputation suggested, that because John Ericson's Sam often ends up having to rescue Honey in many of the shows, at best the writing is inconsistent. True enough, but there's no disputing that Anne Francis was great as Honey West and that her assertiveness, both through the writing and her performance, was unusual by mid-'60s TV standards.
The series was much less racy than the novels apparently, but Francis had a way of suggesting much more than might actually say through the subtle gestures of her performance. (Contemporaries Arlene Martel and Nita Talbot were likewise good at circumventing Standards & Practices through mere suggestion.) Francis is sexy but girl-next-door sexy, glamorous with little makeup and in jeans and baseball cap (as she was throughout much of Bad Day at Black Rock). She never quite became the big star she deserved to be; she is a good actress but also possesses a big movie star's charisma, and like the great movie stars, she's irreplaceable - there's no one else quite like her.
Francis stayed busy until only very recently, aging hardly at all after more than 50 years of films and TV work. She's had a cancer scare recently but seems to have recovered, updating fans via her official website.
Video & Audio
Honey West looks okay but not great. Episodes seemed derived from archival masters rather than, as the disc itself suggests, meaninglessly, "This Special Edition motion picture (sic) has been digitally restored to its present condition." Generally, the black and white series is in decent shape, but the image is a tad soft and contrast is muddy. It's about on par with Fox's black and white Lost in Space episodes, to cite another series from the same 1965-66 season. The 30 half-hour shows are on four single-sided, region-free discs that fit in a standard DVD case. A small insert/episode guide accompanies the discs. Episodes appear complete and are not time-compressed, and most include promos for "next week's show."
The Dolby Digital mono is fine; there are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
Supplements include a smattering of behind-the-scenes and (mostly) publicity photos, but the really neat extra are the vintage commercials from that season: Sucrets lozenges (so smooth you'll want to keep smoking through that sore throat!), Carnation Instant Breakfast (which includes footage of Disneyland for no clear reason), Coffee-mate, Pall Mall and Tareyton smokes, and even network promos for concurrent ABC shows. Unlike most extras like this, the commercials are all in excellent condition.
After all these years, Honey West turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. It's okay, and its star delivers the goods, but it's not as innovative or racy as its reputation long-suggested. Still, it's a reasonable fun series on its own terms, and it's great to see its long-undervalued star front-and-center for a change. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.