Give credit to the Archives for standing pat with a losing hand. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Maverick: The Complete Fifth Season, a three-disc, thirteen-episode collection of the ABC Western's final 1961-1962 round-up. With Warners finally giving up on slotting someone new into the series to replace James Garner, they did the next best thing by dredging up his ghost this season, alternating re-runs of previous Garner-headlined episodes with new outings featuring smooth Jack Kelly. It didn't work with audiences, who were already over the whole Maverick mystique at this point, anyway...but quite a few fun Kelly episodes were generated in the run-off (particularly when almost co-star Peter Breck shows up as the delightfully expressive Doc Holliday). No extras for these good-looking black and white fullscreen transfers.
For those who haven't seen Maverick, its set-up is as elusive as Bart Maverick himself. In post-Civil War America, handsome, rootless gambler Bart Maverick (Jack Kelly)--his former prominently displayed brothers Brett and Brent, and cousin Beau nowhere to be seen now--travels from saloon to river boat, from California to Texas to New Orleans to Mexico, looking for the next poker game and his next buck. Flush one minute and skint the next, adventurer Bart keeps a $1000 dollar bill safety-pinned to the inside of his coat for insurance (just like his Pappy always told him to do), while wearing a sardonic, often bemused countenance that masks a heart of gold. Bart, an expert card sharp and bluffer ("fair" with a pistol, too), never cons anyone who isn't trying to con him first, and any ill-gotten gains he receives from his various ploys, he usually distributes to the swindlers' victims...after taking his cut to cover expenses, of course. Female attention is certainly welcomed by Bart, but he doesn't trust it, and he's usually proven right when the various gorgeous ladies that fall for the handsome Bart turn out to be cheats, liars, or virtuous women forced to fib to get Maverick's help in their schemes. And so Bart lives with one eye on the cards and another on the exit door when a lovely temptress figures to pull a fast one on him.
I'll try not to cover the same ground that was trod in my previous Maverick reviews, but as I wrote before, TV audiences back in 1957 (Maverick's first season) responded immediately to Maverick's relatively complex scripting, its delightfully off-center characters, and its almost indescribable atmosphere of "something new" in a particular genre--if not "new" in storylines, for many were borrowed and adapted, then "new" in approach--that low, buzzing, electric excitement a viewer feels when they realize they're watching something..."other" than what they've watched before. That buzz, though, must necessarily wear off if a show fails to continue to evolve and to surprise (trend-setters also invariably burn-out quicker), and by this fifth, aborted season of Maverick, there are no surprises left. You can have Bart romance yet another pretty lady who turns out to be a crook, or have him execute the Maverick-patented quadruple-cross flim-flam scam, only so many times, before the audience gets out ahead of the show, enjoying what the producers are doing less and less as they begin anticipating more and more where an average Maverick episode is going to predictably wind up. Add to that inevitable erosion Maverick's famed production troubles, with Garner famously quitting the show (and suing Warners), and Warners' unsuccessful attempts to first replace him with Roger Moore and then Robert Colbert (remember: audiences liked continuity back then in their TV shows), and it's not difficult to see that audiences by this fifth go-around wouldn't accept years-old re-runs of James Garner plugged inbetween new Jack Kelly episodes. Besides...audiences had started to leave Maverick way before Garner left, anyway; what Maverick needed at this point (if not cancellation), wasn't more Garner re-runs, but rather new ideas, or a new approach to the already familiar material--both of which are absent from this season's still mostly enjoyable outings.
The season opener, Dade City Dodge, from regular Maverick scripter George F. Slavin, is a perfectly acceptable Maverick puzzler with a complicated set-up: Bart is tricked by con artist Pearly Gates (Mike Road) and his girl, Marla (Kathleen Crowley), so he's off to Dade City in pursuit...where the seemingly milquetoast townspeople are even more crooked than Gates and Marla. As fun as Road is as the oily, shifty Pearly Gates, it's clear he's just a knock-off of better-remembered foils Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s Dandy Jim Buckley and Richard Long's Gentleman Jim Darby, from previous seasons. And what Maverick doesn't need at this point are carbon copies of anything...speaking of which; perhaps the producers, no matter how much they enjoyed having her on the show, shouldn't have kept recycling Crowley into multiple-but-similar characters. It doesn't help with the sense of deja vu, so why not just keep her name the same...since she's basically playing the same character, season after season? Scripter Peter B. Germano comes up with a winner in The Art Lovers, where guest star Jack Cassidy (amusingly arch and silly and weak, all at the same time) involves Bart in an art scam featuring multiple copies of the Mona Lisa (they really should have exploited more the promising set-up of work-shy Bart acting as a maid/butler, to pay off a debt). Charles B. Smith pens the fun, intricate The Golden Fleecing (wonderful title), where Bart learns the hard way that the ultimate flim-flam scams are committed at on the Stock Exchange floor (familiar character actor J. Edward McKinley has a field day here as a crooked big wheel). Spoofs of other (and more popular) TV shows are always iffy propositions for series on the decline (they can often come off as unfunny sour grapes), but Maverick scores with Three Queens Full, a broad, clever take-off on Bonanza (that season's second most-watched show on television) from William Bruckner. Bart gets in the middle of Jim Backus'--of the vast Subrosa ranch--efforts to marry off his three grown sons: Moose, Small Paul, and Henry. Plenty of funny set pieces here, including Bart's efforts to teach gentility to the rowdy, gorgeous chorus girls Merry Anders, Kasey Rogers, and Allyson Ames, and a big, knockabout saloon brawl at episode's end (clever writing here, but nobody was tuning into Maverick to see what the show was saying about Bonanza...they were just tuning into Bonanza).
Director Marc Lawrence seems inspired by scripters Irene Winston's and David Lang's intricate, clever A Technical Error; he's full of nimble, funny cuts and camera movements in one of this season's best outings. Perhaps Lawrence was also energized by the re-appearance of Peter Breck as Doc Holliday; Breck is flat-out hilarious as the loose, eccentric, devilish Doc, mugging outrageously for the camera and pulling it off flawlessly (why Warners didn't try Breck out in his own show as Holliday is a mystery). Kelly seems to be having a ball, too, playing off such an inventive performer (the episode's attack on trading stamps--ask your grandparents--leads to some of this season's funniest sight gags). Poker Face, however, is a turgid outing from Fred Eggers, revamping Stagecoach for an obvious, facile message about racial intolerance (I don't watch Maverick for civics lessons...). A series' best outing comes along in Mr. Muldoon's Partner, a deliciously sly, straight-faced Irish fantasy featuring the marvelous Mickey Shaughnessy as...a leprechaun (or is he?). Written by William Bruckner, from a Lee Wells magazine story, Mr. Muldoon's Partner continually delights with its fantasy-tinged storyline--a Maverick fairy tale, if you will--until everything is amusingly explained...or is it (watch for Shaughnessy's wink at the end)? George Slavin's Epitaph for a Gambler is a grim little meller with Robert J. Wilke giving a good account of himself (as always) as a tortured father, a convicted killer, unable to be forgiven by his judgmental son, Fred Beir. Laid-back, fair Bart delivers the episode's moral: "You just can't put people into groups. They're all individuals, all different." Irene Winston delivers up another A-effort with The Maverick Report, a laugh-out-loud episode that turns surprisingly serious when Doc Holliday returns, becoming embroiled in Bart's newest gambling pay-off: a newspaper. Lots of funny jokes and gags here, including a senator with a bad tooth who can't find a dentist...at a dentist convention, and the sight of Peter Breck (better and better as Doc), in long underwear, bowler and garters, trying to row a scull (when hapless, sputtering Doc falls into the water and yells, "Life preserver!" Bart throws him a bottle of whiskey--now that's the old Maverick humor). Breck, giving a hundred percent in the comedy scenes, is equally adept when things turn serious; when he falls for a little crook and realizes that when she'll really need him, he'll have already forgotten about her, it's a sobering little moment of honesty (his throwaway dismissal, "Such a waste of people in this world," caps the scene nicely).
Director Sidney Salkow turns out a memorable outing from James O'Hanlon's and Arnold Belgard's Marshal Maverick, where John Dehner (one of the best character actors working at that time), delivers a beautifully-constructed turn as nobody Archie Walker, who gains confidence and more importantly, meaning for his life, by impersonating Wyatt Earp. A consistently amusing entry, particularly when Peter Breck shows up for a few minutes at the end, with Kelly raising his already considerably skilled game around these pro scene stealers. George Glavin pens another tricky, complicated con in The Troubled Heir when Mike Road and Kathleen Crowley return as Pearly Gates and Marla in this multiple double-cross episode featuring an appropriately confused, angry Alan Hale, Jr. as the guest villain/sucker. As cute as Kathy Bennett is playing Bart's eager, larcenous, and none-too-bright cousin Jackie, she overplays outrageously in The Money Machine, unbalancing Robert Vincent Wright's simple yet entertaining scam outing. Particularly good supporting cast, including Andrew Dugan, Ted de Corsia, and Sig Ruman, help out, and there's an amusing double twist at the end...but Bennett makes it grating. And finally, the Maverick series proper ends on a high note with One of Our Trains is Missing, again from Wright, which finds Bart trapped on a waylaid train, trying to figure out how money from the train's safe keeps getting robbed. Semi-regular by this point Peter Breck, appropriately enough for this season, walks out with Bart (he's wonderful, mugging and camping up his funny lines), but so does Kathleen Crowley, and there's the central problem with Maverick by this final fade-out: she plays not "Marla" nor "Melanie Blake," but "Modesty Blaine," the character Mona Freeman previously eschewed. And yet...it's exactly the same character as the others, with just the name changed. Why? Not only is it nonsensical to do this (particularly when viewers just got used this season to seeing Crowley as Marla), but it further reinforces the feeling that Maverick is just recycling and reusing plots and characters and actors from episodes and seasons' past. How ironic to see charming, talented Jack Kelly walk off down the railroad tracks with Breck's hilarious Doc Holliday sidekick--the direction that might have saved Maverick had the producers regularly featured him alongside Kelly--and with Crowley, essaying her third character for the series...all of whom were written and played exactly the same, signaling the show's creative drought.
Warners and ABC, obviously not having much faith in Maverick by this point, pushed it back an hour and relegated it to the Sunday night "kiddie" slot at 6:30pm. Unfortunately, a weak lead-out, Follow the Sun (ironically, from Maverick creator, Roy Huggins), for a poor night of programming (Lawman, Huggins' other new show this season, Bus Stop, and Adventures in Paradise), didn't help Maverick compete with new "kiddie" show (probably the most "adult" comedy on the networks that season) The Bullwinkle Show, and the first half-hour of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color over on NBC, nor the anchor in CBS' powerhouse Sunday night family viewing: Lassie, which came in 15th for the year in the Nielsen's. With little fanfare, Maverick was finally put down for good in the spring of 1962.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.