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Lee Marvin wasn't created with Cat Ballou: everything he appeared in up to that point played a part in his whiskey-soaked evolution into the bitter, hard badass we all know and love.

John Cribbs got to thinking about how amazing it would be if there were a channel that you could flip to any time of the day and see Marvin in some long-forgotten TV serial. Since nobody's had the inspiration to create such a glorious shrine, he decided to program his own personal Lee Marvin Network by unearthing some examples from the first leg of Lee's filmography and make them part of a series called "LeeTV."

{ LeeTV index }

"the parcel"

robert stevens, 1950.

~ by john cribbs ~

Feeling overwhelmed from editing on our exhaustive 2014 Year in Review a few weeks ago, I decided a half hour break was in order. So I slumped down on the couch, flipped on the tv and started skimming through channels, in the mood for nothing in particular. I stopped at what looked to be an old black & white program from the 50's. A nervous man pacing back and forth in a hotel room. There's a knock at the door, he tenses up - who is it? That messenger service you rang for, mister. Sure enough, it's some flippant, gum-chewing, 20-something delivery boy, his hat with the unambiguous label "MESSENGER" askew atop an Arch Hall Jr.-style bedhead hairdo. Slipping him a sawbuck to keep the delivery off the books and promising another upon receipt, the nervous guy instructs the kid to transport a package to a location uptown at 5:00. The man himself will be there at that time to receive it. No sooner has he sent away the messenger, somewhat befuddled but ten bucks richer, the man has two more visitors: sinister-looking brutes in suits who let themselves in and take position on either side of the room's suddenly petrified occupant. The lead goon gestures to his partner, who slips a shiny blade from his inside pocket and advances on his victim. No wonder this self-addressed parcel sender is sweating bullets - his killer is Lee fucking Marvin!

I check the listing - could it be? Yes, the LEE TV channel is back! It had been seemingly dropped from my new cable package when the service had changed about a year ago, replaced by another channel called "Lee TV" that only showed Lee Daniels movies. That was fine for like a day, but honestly how many times can you watch Shadowboxer? Twice a month, tops. While seeing Cuba Gooding, Jr. shoot a cancer-ridden Helen Mirren to death mid-coitous admittedly never gets old, I'd rather be pleasantly surprised with a 60-year old episode of Rebound or General Electric Theater featuring a pre-fame Lee Marvin. What we've got here is a show called, simply, Suspense, a CBS anthology series that broadcast live from New York in the early 50's (re-recorded on kinescope, so the quality is pretty awful). Adapted from a long-running radio program that managed to outlive the TV show by nearly a decade, it has an unmistakable serial-type narrative, diived up into three separate acts with an overlong word from the sponser squeezed into the middle. Relying heavily on the star power of Boris Karloff (who appeared in three episodes of the first season), Suspense featured early roles for such future A-listers as Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Jack Palance and Anne Bancroft. This particular episode, "The Parcel", is considered a "lost episode"...which makes me glad the programmers of Lee TV found it, I guess!

The episode aired in March 1950, just after Marvin moved to Hollywood, a full year before his film debut as "radio man" in Henry Hathaway's You're in the Navy Now. So it's not surprising that he has only a few lines and is largely relegated to the background (he'd appear on the program again in 1953, the year of his first significant film roles in The Big Heat and The Wild One, in the episode "Needle in a Haystack"). Still, "The Parcel" is notable for marking the beginning of Marvin's Bully Period, during which he'd menace dozens of TV co-stars from Whitney Blake to Lee J. Cobb, not to mention big screen boy scouts like Spencer Tracy's John J. Macreedy and Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard. This period ended in 1965, when Marvin literally gunned down his own sadistic side in Cat Ballou and switched to lead heroic roles, although you could argue the bully half was always in evidence whether he whipped it out to taunt Clint Walker in The Dirty Dozen or took it upon himself to spank the evil out of a pint-sized German sniper in The Big Red One. Just before Ballou, he'd make his final bid as the aggressive half of a pair of hitmen in Don Siegel's The Killers, satisfyingly bringing things full circle considering his appearance here.

Marvin plays Barrow, a thug employed by crime boss Harry "Mac" MacIntosh to recover twenty large from an armored car heist that went AWOL along with co-jacker Gunner, the sweaty man in the hotel room. He and partner Eagle Moran - played by Harold J. Stone, a character actor who worked mostly in television but appeared in supporting roles for Hitchcock (The Wrong Man), Kubrick (Spartacus) and Russ Meyer (The Seven Minutes) - took part in the caper and are understandably irked by Gunner's abscondment. Having hunted him down to his hotel room, blind rage apparently seizes both men: instead of grilling Gunner into revealing the location of the stolen dough, Marvin forces the victim into the bathroom and introduces flesh to stiletto after about ten seconds of interrogation. It quickly establishes that Barrow and Moran mean business, but it also leaves them high and dry once a thorough tossing of the room fails to turn up the twenty grand that just vacated the premises via parcel on its way to be delivered to a dead man.

Luckily for them, every character in this episode frequents the same hot dog stand. In the case of Conrad Janis' errand boy Tommy, it's more than once a day: the episode opens with him hunched over the counter like a downtrodden drunk in a dive bar, whining about his sad existence over a jumbo frankfurter. Tired of receiving lousy gratuities for spending all day delievering mail to Staten Island, he pours out his desire to set off solo and start his own messenger company into the unsympathetic ear of sausage shiller Sally. After picking up the package, he returns to invest 15 cents of his $10 tip in another footlong (too bad he eats it - do you realize the appreciated value of a 1950 footlong today?), then tries to get Sally to store the package for him until 5:00. She refuses to aid this irresponsible would-be entrepreneur, not realizing that he's just tried to hand her the very package she's been looking for: apparently, the hot dog stand is a front for MacIntosh's crime syndicate (what a coincidence!), with Sally relaying messages from Mac to Barrow & Moran between rotating wienies on the rotisserie.

It's a funny idea to make a hot dog stand sinister in any way, and the highlight of the episode comes right before the commercial break when the two killers have learned Tommy is carrying the stash. They vow to track him down and do something terrible to him and his companions along the lines of what becomes of a roasted wiener. To punctuate the threat, Sally glances down and the camera ominously pushes in on three hot dogs sitting atop the counter, serving as a greasy portent for the danger that awaits our hero at the hands of Marvin and his partner, as well as a subtle plug for French's Mustard.

Following the ad (not for mustard but for Auto-Lite spark plugs, wasted opportunity there since I was already getting pretty hungry), the action switches to Ebbets Field. Which explains Lee TV's choice to air this episode on February 19th, not only Lee Marvin's birthday but opening day for MLB spring training - that worked out pretty well. Having nothing to do until his delivery at 5:00, Tommy (at the behest of Sally, who really must be kicking herself) heads off to a Dodgers game with another pair of crooks, Herbie the Hook and Marvin the Rush, two lefthanded pickpockets played by Ray Walston (misspelled "Wallston" in the credits; this series was the theatre star's first television gig) and Royal Dano. The two luckless dippers score the tickets from a wallet they've swiped and decide to attend the game, despite the obvious fact that doing so would make it easy for their victim to track them down (which is exactly what happens, although it ultimately works out to their benefit). Sadly there's no location shooting at the real Ebbets Field: the set looks as much like a ballpark as my front porch, and the game itself is represented by famous stock footage of Jackie Robinson that, needless to say, does not match the footage of the characters in the stands (and causes some continuity issues, since we see Robinson tagging home plate, then coming up to bat again, when it's been established it's the end of the game with two outs left). But what this New York-shot show fails to deliver in terms of authentic New York settings is somewhat redeemed by the characters' shared enthusiasm for the sport itself - another highlight is when Barrow & Moran phone Sally from the ballpark and she orders them to get that money, then inquires about the score of the game. An old-fashioned American love of baseball brings cutthroats, pickpockets, corrupt hot dog dealers and scatterbrained messengers together.

The two killers, having previously incorporated a wiener-based analogy into their nefarious scheme at the hot dog stand, cozy up behind Tommy and his two new buddies at the game and openly discuss their plans to murder their three targets using baseball terminology - apparently, they cull their tough-guy banter from whatever location they happen to find themselves. I can't recall Marvin's Charlie Strom making setting-specific threats in The Killers despite the interesting venues visited in the film; maybe it just seemed too easy to mock John Cassavetes by telling him he'll "never see anything again" at the school for the blind, or to threaten Claude Akins with a metaphorical checkered flag at the race track (or telling him he'll end up as a grease stain, whatever the guy who created the Klingons could have cooked up). At any rate, Barrow & Moran's promise that Tommy will "strike out" at the same time as the last batter are, I don't know, called on account of rain or something when the man whose tickets Walston and Dano pinched shows up with Brooklyn's finest to confront the thieves. With the fuzz on their tail, the two hitmen flee into the stands faster than Sandy Koufax's four-seam fastball.

This baseball-themed second half of the episode made me hope Lee TV would follow it up with 1955's TV Reader's Digest episode "How Charlie Faust Won a Pennant for the Giants," in which Marvin plays Charlie Faust and Lee Van Cleef co-stars. Or maybe Ship of Fools, with Marvin as a former ballplayer who abandons his job in Veracruz teaching the game to "them greasers" for Germany, enthralling "sawed-off intellectuals" on the boat with tales of being plagued by Montezuma's revenge over dinner. They could have at least aired the 30 Rock episode "Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter" (not sure what the station's budget is, maybe they can't afford the rights to such a newly-syndicated series). Sadly it wasn't a double header (next up was Gorky Park - again!) but as a stand-alone this one wasn't too bad. It even came with a li'l Walter Lance "cartune" during the Auto-Lite break, featuring an animated gorilla whose fate as a caged beast on a circus caravan is somehow correlated to the average American's miseducation re: the quality of their spark plugs. Somehow, superior sealed beams satisfy the confinement blues of Colossal Carl, "the most grandoise gorilla in captivity" (who shares his name, interestingly enough, with a 9-inch vibrator that features a "suction mount base" and has fairly decent reviews on Amazon* even without the benefit of a simian mascot). Four years later, Marvin (playing a cop) would run afoul of another surly ape in the guise of Goliath, the infamous Gorilla at Large - in that movie, the killer was none other than Marvin's fellow Suspense veteran Anne Bancroft.

In this early iteration of his "killer" persona, Marvin comes out swinging: he gets to murder somebody, ruffle the feathers of some tough guy posers and even ends the episode on his feet, which is more than you can say for the last four Lee TV entries (or The Killers for that matter). The best moment of his peripheral role is ingeniously low-key: while Harold Stone is voicing concern over finding the dough now that they've killed their backstabbing partner in the hotel, Marvin answers the door and accepts a drink Gunner had ordered just as his executioners entered the room, then casually knocks it back. This kind of "pennies off a dead man's eyes" gesture is pure "bully Marvin" - cold, arrogant and thoroughly without class. Although his scenes here aren't in danger of showing up on any Lee Marvin highlight reels, it's essential in the tracking of his evolution from stand-by punk contributing such throwaway lines as "Mac ain't gonna like it!" to hitman anti-hero who rubs out the good guy in the first scene and the bad guy in the last scene of The Killers.

By then he'd own this kind of part, and even here in his first year of professional tv & movie acting he comes off comparatively subtle. Though he's perpetually chewing gum and holding up his shoulders in the standard "imitating thug" posture, Marvin's heavy is far less theatrical than the two pickpockets in their boaters, bowties and pinstriped coats like they just escaped from a barbershop quartet (somehow their outfits manage to be too loud, even in black & white - they look like they belong in the circus with Colossal Carl). Marvin's gum-chewing is particularly understated next to Dano's Ed Norton impression and Walton mimicking Katharine Hepburn's "Swingin' Door Susie" guise from Bringing Up Baby. The two notable Marvin qualities still dormant and underdeveloped at this stage are his registered "cool" attitude - Barrow hightails it at first sign of cops after roughing up Tommy outside the stadium and again at the end of the game - and his sadistic viciousness. Even though he ices Gunner without hesitation, Stone gets the spookiest moment in the episode, seemingly breaking the fourth wall Funny Games-style to ghoulishly grin at the audience as Marvin dispatches their former partner:

It's hard not to look back on this expression in retrospect and not read it as Stone winking at the folks at home: "Hey kids, Lee Marvin's doing his early career thing, knifing some poor bastard in a cheap hotel bathroom, pretty neat huh?" But what's interesting about it is Stone's playfulness in the violent act, an aspect Marvin would integrate pretty quickly into his most famous bullies. Here Marvin goes in for the kill without taunting his victim, he's all business, there's no marked hint of jubilant malice. That kind of hard professionalism in his bad guys would get buried under a giddy pleasure in the cat-like tormenting of his intended targets for years...right up until The Killers. So in a way, his last role as a hired goon harks back to his earliest, the difference being that, instead of standing in for a standard part that's one step above "background player," by The Killers his seriousness marked maturity: he'd grown out of being a bully, and played a character who for once wanted to understand the reason behind and consequences of his cruelty.

We never find out what happens to Barrow & Moran by the end of the episode (the cops are called to Ebbets Field to apprehend some pickpockets, do they even know anything about the armored car heist?) but things work out for Tommy: it's implied that he'll receive a reward for recovering the money. Uh - hooray? I'm not sure if this show expects me to have been rooting for the kid simply based on him being in danger (sorta?) for half the episode. He does nothing heroic or commendable. He sucks at his job: not only does he try to dump the package on some waitress and then take it to a fucking baseball game (does he routinely average one package delivery per day?) His ethics as a courier are certainly in question. He basically goes from pissing his pants being threatened by Walton & Dano (who are about as intimidating as circus clowns) to pissing his pants along with Walton & Dano being threatened by Marvin & Stone, yet seems full of himself when the unlikely hand of fate intervenes to save his skin. It makes sense that he frequents a hot dog stand, he's such a hotdogger himself. He intends to use the reward money to start his own messenger service - but who would work for this doofus? He can't even successfully deliver a single package on his own! But then I guess that's on Gunner - terrible plan to have it transported via parcel.

~ 2015 ~
* Makes me wonder what a sex tool named after a Lee Marvin character would be called. The Jimmy Cobb? The American Pilot? The A No. 1? The Harry Spikes? No - it would clearly be The Jigger. Hell, I'd buy a dildo with a picture of Lee Marvin on the box next to a tagline taken from Tully Crow in The Comancheros: "I got one rule: never go to bed without makin' a profit." (Or from Liberty Valance: "Stand and deliver!")