I'm late to this party, having seen only scattered episodes of route 66 (1960-64) prior to writing this review, and despite the fact that it's been trickling out onto DVD for the past six years or so. However, The Complete Fourth Season, previously available only as part of a 2012 release of the complete series, turned up in DVD Talk's unloved screener bin and I thought I'd take a chance. This set sticks all twenty-three 50-odd-minute episodes onto five single-sided discs with no extra features.
Not having seen any episodes of route 66 at all in many years, I was impressed by its stronger episodes (and found several others entertainingly silly) while the video transfers are solidly good.
For the uninitiated, Martin Milner and Glenn Corbett star as Tod Stiles and Lincoln Case, two men travelling cross-country in their (this season) 1964 saddle tan Corvette Sting Ray convertible, though rarely along Route 66 itself. The program was a semi-anthology similar to shows like Naked City and especially the later The Fugitive in that stories usually revolved around the problems of people Tod and Linc encounter rather than Tod and Linc themselves. Sometimes one or both characters become entangled in that week's plot, sometimes as strangers exposing closeted emotional issues, at other times a catalyst for change and often one of the two becomes romantically involved with a young woman figuring into the plot. (Despite a traveling arrangement that might raise eyebrows today, Tod and Linc are resolutely straight. That said, it would be interesting to see route 66 brought back as a series with two gay men who aren't necessarily a couple.)*
This format, with, in this case, two continuing characters inhabiting what otherwise is an anthology series with new characters and plots each week, seems to have been the result of the pressures of trying to produce as many as 39 one-hour episodes per season, and the toll it was taking on casts and crews. Maverick, to cite one famous example, ended up alternating its stars, while on a show like route 66 the pressure on Milner and Corbett is considerably lessened as they're not onscreen all the time, and in some shows hardly at all.
The series had an unusually tumultuous run. George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, was Tod's original traveling companion, but the actor contracted infectious hepatitis near the end of season two, missing several episodes. He came back for season three, but then missed a lot more shows during the first-half of the season. After a final January 1963 appearance, Maharis left route 66 for good. Milner carried on without a partner in 13 Season Two and Three episodes before Corbett's introduction in a March 1963 episode.
route 66 was also unusual in that it was filmed entirely on location, on the road. Season four begins in Florida then continues into Maine, Minnesota, Vermont, Colorado, Georgia, New York, and Toronto, Ontario. Regrettably, episodes are obviously broadcast out of sequence from when they were filmed, as the characters bounce around the country like Ping-Pong balls, sometimes returning to locations visited only weeks before.
However, the location filming and its immense historical value is part of route 66's appeal. Though locals rarely are given large speaking roles - professional actors from New York and Hollywood are always shipped off to the location - the series captures a bygone era when America was far less homogenous than it is now. When my wife and I finally drove Route 66 ourselves from Southern California to Chicago, we were struck by the contrast between the culturally vacuous Interstate 40 running alongside it much of the way, with its limited, identical fast food restaurants at every exit, and the decaying but endlessly interesting "Mother Road." Watching these Season Four episodes I found myself constantly Google-Mapping the locations to see what they look like today (and hoping they hadn't changed too much).
Stirling Silliphant co-created route 66 and was to the show much as Rod Serling was to Twilight Zone. Like Serling, Silliphant wrote the lion's share of the teleplays, fourteen in season four alone. And like Serling by 1963 Silliphant was obviously totally burnt out. He'd written hundreds of hours of television by this point and just as Serling's later scripts tend to sound like two Rod Serlings having a pompous, pseudo-intellectual conversation with one another, Silliphant's scripts tend to be over-stylized in the extreme and even flowery. I kept imagining Hans Conried staging a reading of these overripe scripts. This stylization, in no way resembling how real people talk, can actually work when it's done well, but as Silliphant's later, hilariously awful screenplays for producer Irwin Allen (The Swarm, When Time Ran Out...) attest, when done badly they fail spectacularly.
That's what happens in a few of these, perhaps most notably in "Same Picture, Different Frame." Then again, with scripts like these, getting middle-aged Joan Crawford to guest star is probably a good idea. The results aren't good, especially the alarming concept of 57-year-old Joan and (barely) 30-year-old Linc in a romantic clinch, or casting scenery-chewer Patrick O'Neal as a one-eyed villain. But the results are entertaining in a campy sort of way.
Better, at least this season, are shows like "I Wouldn't Start from Here," an Ernest Kinoy teleplay that has Linc trying to help an old Vermont farmer (Parker Fennelly) avoid bankruptcy and the repossession of his house. Linc sees unresolved issues from his own farming past in the isolated widower and his prized team of horses.
The season's guest stars include Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Warden, Anthony Zerbe, Diane Baker, Lon Chaney Jr., Alex Cord, Tammy Grimes, Horace McMahon, Pat Hingle, William Shatner, Audra Lindley, J. Carrol Naish, Alfred Ryder, Lou Antonio, Michael J. Pollard, Jo Van Fleet, Harold Gould, Rosemary Forsyth, Dan Duryea, Stefanie Powers, Jessica Walter, Lynda Day George, Al Lewis, Tammy Grimes, Chad Everett, Bruce Glover, Albert Salmi, Jean Stapleton, Sylvia Sidney, Chester Morris, Herschel Bernardi, Daniel J. Travanti, Joanna Pettet, Geoffrey Horne, Collin Wilcox Paxton, Larry Blyden, Eugene Roche, James Coburn, Michael Parks, James Farentino, Lee Philips, Lois Smith, Elizabeth MacRae, Soupy Sales (yes), Roland Winters, Lee Meriwether, Robert Loggia, Tina Louise, Roger C. Carmel, Nina Foch, Chill Wills, Barbara Eden, and Louis Zorich.
Video & Audio
route 66 - The Complete Fourth Season looks quite good, with a sharp full-frame image, and strong blacks on these black-and-white episodes, which appear uncut and unaltered. Episodes and their disc number are listed on the back, but no airdates, plot synopses, etc., which is a bit of a loss. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. No Extra Features.
Though variable, route 66 - The Complete Fourth Season has its share of good and/or interesting episodes and the transfers are excellent, so this comes Recommended.
* Reader Sergei Hasenecz takes me to task, arguing, "You are falling into that awful film reviewers' cliche which defines any scene with two men in it as 'homoerotic,' not to mention that most idiotic of terms, 'bromance.' It's now almost a PC apology that you call them 'resolutely straight.' Why can't two guys simply be friends?" The point I was trying to make is that while in 1963 few would have given the notion a second thought, in 2013 it's almost unavoidable. Just as, to cite another example, Laurel & Hardy frequently shared the same bed, the very idea of them having a homosexual relationship never once occurred to me (nor, in fact, is one implied as they are childlike adults). But I don't blame those who wonder about that relationship, seeing their films for the first time now.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.