Monday, March 1, 2010

Real Fifties Style: Peter Gunn

One day last October I was walking down Madison Avenue wearing a light grey worsted-suit, a white Thom Browne/Brooks oxford button-down shirt, a black Italian-knit silk tie and black cap-toes. I bumped into a young man, a travel agent who used to work on my staff, who remarked how "Mad Men" my "outfit" looked.

It took me a moment to realize that he was referring to the TV show, Mad Men, about a Fifties' era ad agency. Wearing grey, white and black was a perfectly regular thing for me to do. It wasn't my Halloween outfit as he may have thought.

I mention this, because it came to mind as I began watching old episodes of the noir detective show Peter Gunn (1958-1960) on Netflix. If you want to see what the really cool Fifties looked and sounded like, then watch Craig Stevens portraying Blake Edwards's alter-ego private eye and listen to its jazz track.

If you're put off by the idea that Henry Mancini created the soundtrack, you're making a mistake. This isn't the Moon River Mancini; this is the one who listened to a lot of classic jazz and softened it up just a bit for TV, but not much. You can sample it on Peter Gunn/Buddha Records 1990. You should recognize the Peter Gunn opening theme no matter what your age.

If Stevens's Pete and Mancini's jazz are on the cool side, you will find Edie, Gunn's love interest, played by Lola Albright hot. She is hot the old fashioned way, by not trying too hard. Even better, she can sing, as she does at Mother's, Gunn's favorite jazz club hangout. We're still searching for Lola Albright's recordings, but here's a sample:

A lot of ingredients conspire to make this show seem authentic today and not just nostalgia; the principle one being that Gunn's "wardrobe" never looked like one and still doesn't. He's a Cary Grant-type, who might not call his mom every day. The style holds up today as well or even better than it did fifty years ago. He wears suits in varying shades of grey, always with a white shirt and a solid black tie, tucked in at the beltline. His suit coat shows just the white edge of his pocket square. The trousers are rarely held up by a belt; instead, Gunn favors a tab close and wears them high, as if with braces (which he would never be caught shot dead or alive wearing).

If you grew up in the Fifties, the black and white film will add to the show's natural feel. That's how our youth looks to us, at least through the Beatles' It's A Hard Day's Night. Shows like Mad Men simply do not feel right to us. Their washed color looks as if Ted Tuner had gotten hold of it in his colorization lab, or about as real as Beatle Paul's latest hair color. Our kids can tell us a million times that the world had color back then, but, if you're smart, you won't listen to them.

Peter Gunn's plots are simple and somewhat repetitive. There are many killings, but no gore. There is much implicit-only sex between Pete and Edie, yet somehow even it seems more real and better than the current fake steaminess that surrounds us on TV today. Blake Edwards's dialogue is spare and at times borders on the campy, especially when Herschel Bernardi's Lt. Jacoby speaks. It works just fine.

Watching these shows, one is tempted to think that it would be great to have an updated version of the show or, perhaps, a feature film. Upon reflection, however, it would be much better to simply leave it alone. Investing $100million or so in a film, with a track by Jay-Z, starring actors who would only be vague impersonations of Pete and Edie, is a very depressing thought.

Please don't forward this to any Producer friends.

No comments: