Riverboat, ring your bell,
Fare thee well, Annabel.
Luck is the lady that he loves the best.
Natchez to New Orleans
Livin' on jacks and queens
Maverick is a legend of the West.
Inexplicably late to the party, the popular, even cult Western seriocomic series Maverick (1957-62) seemed to take forever to get released to DVD. Warner Home Video issued a piddly three-episode "Best of" set in 2005, but didn't get around to The Complete First Season until just last year. Now comes Maverick - The Complete Second Season, the best and most interesting of the program's extraordinarily bumpy five-years.
I must preface this review by stating up front that James Garner's other hit/cult TV series, The Rockford Files (1974-80, plus later TV movies) remains one of my all-time personal favorites. That series crystalized Garner's unique, irreplaceable charm as well as his usual screen persona, a character whose origins trace directly back to Maverick. Though a very fine actor in other kinds of parts - consider The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix, Hour of the Gun, Murphy's Romance, the TV-movie Promise, and the excellent miniseries Streets of Loredo, for instance - Garner's genial, glib, cardsharp-con artist with an amusing aversion to violence truly is a thing of beauty. On Maverick and Rockford, and subtly varied in movies like The Great Escape, Support Your Local Sheriff!, the underrated Skin Game and elsewhere, watching Garner at work is like watching Houdini or Muhammad Ali or Oscar Peterson or Fred Astaire work their particular brands of magic. Audiences love that "James Garner character" like no other.
As a series, Maverick is both revolutionary and highly entertaining yet also somewhat less than it might have been because of the insane demands of television production during that time, particularly Warner Bros.' sausage factory-like, corner-cutting methods, all of which eventually caused Garner to leave the series at the height of its popularity.
Maverick - The Complete Second Season presents all 26 second-season episodes uncut and across six DVDs with a total running time of more than 21 hours. The video transfers are just so-so and probably 20 years old at least, judging by their appearance. No extras per se, but the set does include a useful booklet with plot synopses, airdates, etc.
For a series as airily amusing as Maverick, from the start the program was besieged with convoluted production problems, and more than a half-century before The Office, Maverick died a slow, agonizing death. Back in the 1950s, TV Westerns were shot on film in much the same manner as the theatrical B-Westerns that had preceded them. But where Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd filmed maybe eight one-hour Westerns per year, television networks demanded nearly four times as many shows, upwards of 30 one-hour episodes per season.
Even working non-stop this proved impossible. Eventually, networks made more reasonable demands, reducing the number of new episodes of hour and 30-minute programs per season. James Garner, as Bret Maverick, the Texas-born cardsharp who'd travel the Old West looking for easy money, was Maverick's lone star at first, but the production schedule proved so utterly grueling that after just eight episodes the radical decision was made to add Jack Kelly to the cast as Bret's younger brother, Bart. For the rest of the first season and all of the second, episodes alternated between Bret and Bart. A Bret-featured episode would usually make some passing reference to Bart and vice versa, though only rarely were both brothers featured prominently in the same episode. Bart was a virtual clone of Bret and their characters interchangeable. Everyone, however, quickly recognized Garner as the far more graceful comic actor and so he almost always got the best and funniest scripts. Jack Kelly - who played a Maverick-like character in the movie Forbidden Planet immediately before this, a role which may have helped win him this part - developed a fan following all his own, but was significantly less popular overall, though it was Kelly, not Garner, who stayed all five seasons. The addition of Kelly angered the show's sponsor, who renegotiated their deal with Warner Bros., and Garner was brought in to introduce the Kelly-only shows.
Maverick - The Complete Second Season is the best of the show's five years. Partly this is because Garner himself wasn't around much longer. He left at the end of the third season and was replaced in season four by Roger Moore as Bret and Bart's English-accented cousin, Beau Maverick. Later still, Robert Colbert (The Time Tunnel) was added to the cast as yet another Maverick brother, Brent. Unhappy with the scripts Moore returned to England and Colbert was unceremoniously dumped after a just a few shows (Warner Bros. didn't bother telling Colbert, however). For Maverick's fifth and final season, the depressing but unique decision was made to alternate new Bart-Jack Kelly episodes with old Bret-James Garner reruns. (It couldn't have boosted Kelly's ego if the reruns fared better in the ratings than the new episodes. I wonder.)
Back in '58-'59 though, Maverick was riding high. The year contains many of the best and most interesting shows, and also features an intriguing array of guest stars, including Roger Moore, who in a pre-Beau episode, appears in "The Rivals." That episode, like a number of Mavericks, freely adapts preexisting material, in this case Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy of manners in which Moore's character assumes Bret's identity, turning it effectively into a Maverick screen test for Moore, though no one knew it at the time.
Similarly, season two's second episode, "The Lonesome Reunion," adapted an old radio episode The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, while other Maverick scripts were, in turn, recycled into other Warner Bros. shows. For instance, prior to playing Beau Maverick, Moore starred on The Alaskans and, at least once, played Bret Maverick's part in a retooled Maverick script. This plus the obvious extensive use of stock footage from Warner Bros.' Westerns for establishing shots and some action sequences at times gives Maverick (and other WB shows from this era) a real cobbled-together feel.
Even so, there are some real gems here. "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," written by series creator Roy Huggins from Douglas Heyes's story, is probably the most famous Maverick of them all, partly because it teamed Bret and Bart memorably but mainly because it was more or less remade into the first-half of the hugely successful Paul Newman-Robert Redford movie The Sting (1973), so Huggins contended.
Also excellent is "Gun Shy," a hilarious spoof of Gunsmoke with Bret searching for buried Confederate gold in Elwood, Kansas, where he quickly runs afoul of Marshal Mort Dooley (Ben Gage), his game-legged deputy, Clyde Diefendorfer (Walker Edmiston), saloon owner Miss Amy (Kathleen O'Malley) and Doc Stucke (Marshall Kent). From its graveyard prologue to its climatic gunfight (shot low-angle under the Marshal's legs, like Gunsmoke's opening titles), "Gun Shy" is a hoot.
Other Season Two episodes worth noting include "The Saga of Waco Williams," co-starring Wayde Preston and Louise Fletcher, that was Maverick's highest-rated episode; "Duel at Sundown," featuring Clint Eastwood as the heavy; and "Two Beggars on Horseback," a memorable Bret-and-Bart episode.
Garner stars in 16 of the season's 26 episodes while Kelly stars in 15, four of which also co-star Garner. Other notable guest stars include John Russell, Richard Long, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Martin Landau, Dan Blocker, John Dehner, Leo Gordon, Patricia Barry, Robert Conrad, Connie Stevens, and Adam West.
Video & Audio
In its original full-frame, 1.37:1 format Maverick looks just okay, not great. Episodes appeared to be derived from old video masters, from their appearance I'd guess from about 20 years ago. They're certainly watchable, just far below their full potential, which is especially obvious on larger monitors. But the episodes appear to be complete, unedited and unaltered, most running over 52 minutes. The season is spread across six single-sided DVDs, with four to five episodes per dual-layered disc. The region 1-encoded DVDs feature Dolby Digital mono audio, English only with optional English SDH subtitles.
No supplements to speak of, but the set does include a booklet with episode titles, writer and director credits, airdates and a brief plot summary for each episode.
A seminal television Western at its peak, Maverick - The Complete Second Season, despite less than perfect video transfers, is still Highly Recommended.
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.