The story that led to this TV Movie is long, twisted, and rambling, and at the end there’s precious little payoff to make it all worthwhile, but perhaps there’s a lesson in that. It was originally conceived of as two separate projects back around 1967, when the Dean Martin Matt Helm franchise was going strong and the unexpectedly-well-received Frank Sinatra Tony Rome movies were just getting off the ground. In a nutshell, the great minds behind these pictures thought “Hey, let’s do a crossover picture where Helm meets Rome! Putting these two geriatric rat-packers in the same film is money in the bank, and it’ll help both franchises! Yeah!”
Of course this is the kind of thing that the suits always think is a great marketing idea, mainly because I’m convinced the suits never watch or read the stuff their companies put out. In fact, crossing over Helm and Rome is a bad idea. A very bad idea indeed, for the same reason that crossovers between the 1980s Justice League Europe and Justice League America was a bad idea: One is hokey jokey parody, and the other is serious as a grave. Indeed, Martin’s boobtacular T&A jokefests, with occasional spying, were never meant to be taken seriously, and it’s hard to think of something that could be more antithetical to Sinatra’s undeniably cool neo-noir detective flicks (though it should be mentioned that they’re rather boobtacular, too). Probably because these two properties were like oil and water, no one ever got around to doing a script for them, though several treatments exist, including - most intriguingly - “The Shadowers,” in which Helm and Rome are actually working against each other as adversaries, each perceiving the other to be the enemy. Nothing ever came of it, though the Suits kept yammering on about it.
Meanwhile, in 1969, the fourth and final Helm came out, part of a three-picture deal to produce more movies at a vastly reduced budget - the ultimately pointless and not-very-funny Wrecking Crew, which I reviewed last week. The movie bombed, and though the second Tony Rome film was positively reviewed, the audience wasn’t really there for it. Work on “The Ravagers” was already underway, but it became increasingly obvious that the project was going to be ankled. Likewise, the never-named third Rome movie languished for want of a director, a script, and it looked like the actor didn’t want to do it, either.
That seemed to be that until Bob Hope broke his big toe getting out of a golf cart in January, and couldn’t really work or stand until it healed. As a result, his NBC Bob Hope Variety Special for spring couldn’t be made, which put a big hole in the network’s schedule. It’s easy to forget what a big deal these Hope specials were nowadays, but at the time they brought in enough revenue to float the entire network (Languishing in third place, ratings wise) for a month. Bob’s inability to perform was a huge problem, and so he asked Dean Martin (His frequent guest, personal friend, and the guy he happened to be golfing with when he broke his toe) to please step in and pinch hit for him.
Dino agreed, of course, but what could they do? Neither he, the network, nor Bob felt it would be right for him to simply replace Hope on his own special, and Helm was still rather famous, and they had that script laying around, so why not? Problematically, however, most of the stars for the variety show had already been booked, and a script had been written for that - fortunately a comedy murder-mystery script - so the only real consideration was that all the stars who’d signed on for the special had to be used in some capacity. Fortunately, Hopes specials were also rather hokey-jokey and boobtacular, so fitting the Helm script and the Hope script together seemed to be a match made in heaven.
The scripts were merged more-or-less by putting them up to a wall and hammering nails through ‘em. Sinatra had been intended to appear in the special, so he was given most of Bob’s ‘detective’ parts, and as the project continued, the script kept changing to make the character more “Rome-like,” ultimately resulting in them just saying “What the hell, let’s make this the Tony Rome-meets-Matt Helm movie” after all. (Because if you talk about something long enough in Hollywood, it eventually happens, even if it’s a very, very bad idea.) The result was a TV movie the network hyped the hell out of for a month prior to airing, and then spent the next forty years denying ever happened. In fact, most people don’t even realize there *Was* a fifth Helm movie, nor that it was a crossover with the Sinatra franchise.
PLAY BY PLAY
We start out with some stock footage of a nuclear submarine at sea, cruising along under the surface. Inside we see what is obviously the Control Room set from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with a few large “BIG-O” Logos plastered around. The Captain of the sub (Bob Crane, speaking with an outrageously bad Russian accent) gets a message on the video phone from the head of the terrorist organization, telling him to test out their new weapon, then meet him at Location X. The leader’s identity is deliberately obscured and his voice distorted, but he’s a skinny guy, that we can tell. Then we get some stock footage of the Bikini Atoll tests, and Crane smiles and says “I think that should convince the president that this was no idle threat!”
Cut to the opening sequence, which is basically go-go dancers dancing around a stage set on risers with weird lighting, intercut with scenes of Helm walking through them looking smug and lustful while scenes from the previous movies are rear-projected on the wall behind them. (These are the dancers from Laugh In, by the way, which was an NBC show) Then Frank Sinatra walks in with a drink in each hand, and gives one to Dean, and the titles say “Matt Helm meets Tony Rome in…The Ravagers.“ We get about another minute of this, while they stand around ogling the girls and a crappy Boyce And Hart song plays in the background. I can’t find it online, but here’s what I could make out and remember of the insipid lyrics:
“The Ravagers/ooooh oooh oooh/The Ravagers/yeah yeah yeah/time and tide wait for no man/because they are The Ravagers//The Ravagers/ooooh oooh oooh/The Ravagers/yeah yeah yeah/I’ll make up my mind / no one else can/and wait for The Ravagers”
Once the ‘movie’ actually starts, we find Helm back at his home out west somewhere (Same set as the first two movies, I *knew* it was actually someone’s house!) daydreaming about making out with models yet again. As seems standard for these scenes, he makes out with three of ‘em while singing parody versions of his own songs (“Everybody love somebody sometime/and if you’re lucky/two or three times”) and then his personal assistant wakes him up. It’s not Lovey Kravzit like in the first three movies, she’s still conspicuously absent, but curiously it’s Janice Rule, reprising her role as Sheila Sommers from the third movie. He won’t wake up, so she kisses him until he does, then tells him that Mac is on the phone.
Mac is once again played by James Gregory (Good to have him back), and he informs Helm that there’s been a Big-O super weapon tested out at sea off the coast of Florida, and Helm is needed in action ASAP. “Have your assistant Miss Sommers pick up plane tickets.” Helm downs a martini, and makes a lame “Only way to fly” joke, and one cut later he’s walking along the beach while Diahann Carroll in a bikini sings an entirely-too-appropriate rendition of “Too much fun in the sun” (Dino’s looking haggard in this, but Diahann was staring in a short-lived sitcom called “Julia” at the timem and I guess that was one of the things the Hope special had been intended to plug.) Sheila goes to get a hotel room, and then suddenly, jarringly, we switch from film to video, on an obvious casino set, shot before a live audience. Helm walks in, and there’s a lot of applause, and Mac walks over. They do a walk-and-talk while a big banner says “Welcome NBC Stars,” and we’re told that there’s a reason to believe (Never explained) that the head of BIG-O is here, but that they’ll have to lay low since there’s a TV Star Convention in town. (Whaaaaat?) Sinatra comes in, and introduces himself as Tony Rome, Private Detective, and says he’s helping run security for this shindig. They trade ratpack banter for a bit, and then Lucile Ball screams. Helm, Mac, Rome, Sheila, and Lucy run across the set just in time to see an actor - Link from The Mod Squad - stumble in with a very theatrical knife in his back and fall down dead. “The thin man in the chair…” he gasps.
“He’s dead, Mister Helm!” Sheila says
“Oh, honey,” says Lucy, “I’ve been deader than him for years, and I still get to do these specials.” I have no idea what the hell that’s supposed to mean, but there it is. The crowd goes wild, though. Mac and Sheila pick up the body, and say they’ll inspect it and get back to them later on, but that’s the last we see of them in the special.
For absolutely idiotic reasons, Helm and Rome suspect the other of doing it, even though both were in the room right next to each other when the guy stumbled in and died. We then get some filmed segments intercut with live-before-a-studio-audience sequences, while Helm and Rome run parallel investigations. Both of them make out with chicks at random, inappropriate intervals, and of course both of them “Walk in” on performances “Already in progress” (Debbie Reynolds dancing, the mom from the Brady Bunch singing, etc), which just slows the whole proceedings to a crawl. We have to sit through three minutes of more or less pointless performances to get to some stilted dialog between our twin protagonists and the ‘stars’ that allegedly contain clues, but mostly are red herrings. (In fact, Sinatra’s entire exchange with Marlow Thomas takes place in a restaurant that repeatedly mentions ‘red herrings’ are the special of the day. We also get Helm and Rome meeting fictional characters from other shows. These are mostly on the same level of embarrassing as the Star Wars episode of The Muppet Show, but the Mary Tyler Moore one is actually kind of a funny running gag, culminating in one or the other smooching around with her, and then her saying “Ohhhh Mister Helm” or “Ohhh Mister Rome” in that on-the-verge-of-tears “Oh, Mister Grant” tone of voice she used to use.
Of course the stars are being bumped off one by one, ten-little-Indians style, and we’re ultimately told that whoever’s killing these people must be the head of BIG-O, though absolutely no reason is given to believe that. Lucy gets a memorable death scene, Bill Cosby gets a really funny one that mostly revolves around him not realizing he’s dead. Leonard Nimoy - currently on the cast of Mission: Impossible when this was filmed - gets a surprisingly dramatic one that doesn’t fit the goofy hijinks at all, but is undeniably moving. Barbara Feldon gets bumped off in mid-torch song by Don Adams. “I’m not the killer or anything, I was just sick of her singing all the time.” Then he gets an arrow in the back, and Adams is dead, too. It’s funnier than it sounds.
Ultimately, the evil Bob Crane konks Helm on the head, and he goes unconscious where we’re treated to an extended dream sequence in which meet up with Elke Sommer and Stella Stevens, who sing “My love ain’t comin’ back” and talk about what a drag it is to have died in Helm’s previous adventures. “Wait a minute, you didn’t die!” he says to Stella. “Yeah, but my career did!” They have a looooooooooooooong dance off, which still somehow manages to be shorter than the Ann Margret dance sequence from Murderer’s row, and then Helm wakes up in the bar. The Bartender is Art Carney doing his Crazy Guggenheim character, but actually, surprisingly, this is probably the comedic highlight of the show, capping off when Martin accuses him of being drunk, and Carney says “I’m not drunk, I took a baseball to the head as a kid.” It’s a cruel, completely inappropriate joke, but I didn’t see it coming, and damn but it’s funny.
Working together, they quickly deduce that the evil Bob Crane is the guy doing the killing, but not the one pulling the strings, they decide that by following him it’ll lead ‘em to “Mister Big.” They sit back and let the rest of the murders happen. That’s right, folks, Rome and Helm just *let* the murder happen to thin the herd. Yikes! There’ a rather confusing “Sorry about Mac” line in here from Rome, which makes me think that there was a death scene for him that was filmed, but didn’t get used. Anyway, the final star sets, and we get a pointless ten-minute chase scene - pointless because it leads from the hotel back to the hotel - with Helm and Rome both driving separate cars, trying to catch Crane, and it’s agonizing to watch. It’s like a dry run for “Cannonball Run II.”
Ultimately, Crane races through the parking lot (Film) through the ‘casino’ set (Video) and up to a hotel room (Film again) where Mister Big, his identity still obscured, strangles him for “Leading them back to me.”
Helm and Rome run in to the lobby just as Mister Big is coming down the elevator. The doors open, and all four of their eyes go wide.
“You!” they say in unison, as in rolls….Bob Hope in a wheelchair! He’s being pushed by Mary Tyler Moore, who we’d thought died earlier alongside Paul Lynde (“Well at least I‘m not dying carrying that purse. Tack-kee, Mary, Tack-kee.”), but evidently didn’t.
“Of course it’s me, who else did you think it was gonna’ be, it’s my special, geez, get a load of these two,” Bob smirks at the audience, “Man, Shields and Yarnell ain’t got nothing’ on you boys - you’re the best mimes I’ve ever seen, say something!” The audience laughs a lot.
“Why’d you do it, Bob” Rome asks.
“Whad’ya’mean ‘why’d I do it?’ Same reason any actor kills people: less competition. I’m the only star left, now, it’s just me. Have you seen the NBC schedule for next year? It’s all me!”
“Why did you work with him?” Helm asks Mary
“Fringe benefits,” she says.
“Ok, enough chitchat, Mary, bump these two off so I can watch you dancing on their graves before it gets dark out.” She does, shoots ‘em both dead on the spot.
“Now gimmie some sugar, baby!” Hope says,
“Ohhhhh, Mister Hope!” she say seductively/excitedly right before she kisses him, and it fades to black.
The lights come back up, all the dead bodies stand, and Hope thanks everyone for being there tonight, and goes on about how wonderful it is that Dino and Frank could fill in for him. The credits roll, and it’s done.
Where to begin? This whole thing is a train wreck from the word ‘go.’ The direction - two directors, one for the filmed sequences, and another for the ‘live’ ones - is wildly uneven. While the filmed bits are more-or-less on par with the previous films (Though cheaper), the live stuff is every bit as stagey as you’d expect. In fact, the whole plot (such as it is) comes across as little more than an extended sketch on Martin’s own variety show. The variety bits are mostly terrible, and half the segues between them are incoherent, and the ending is just a total slap in the face to anyone who was dumb enough to buy in to the premise from the outset.
And yet, you know, it kind of works…in places.
Dino and Frankie have an undeniable chemistry, their timing is great, and their playing off of each other is frequently hysterical even when the material is beyond weak (“So a guy walks in to a bar….” “Yeah? I knew a guy walked in to a bar once.” “Yeah? Wha’d he say, Pally?” “Ouch.”), but they’re undeniably fun, and even though this special represents the absolute gasping death of both the Helm and Rome movies, the two of them, at least, end on a high note.
Poor Bob Crane. Despite the silly Russian accent he labors under, he really was a surprisingly credible bad guy, and it really makes me sad that he spent the last decade of his career doing nothing. Also it was a hoot to see the Seaview sets again. That tracking shot through the control room was brilliant.
I was genuinely surprised when Frank started singing parody versions of his own songs, just like Helm. Aside from the stupid theme song in the beginning, however, the music is entirely re-used from the Helm and Rome movies, including one really fun in-joke when Rome is driving in the chase scene in the end, and “The Silencers” theme is playing: Rome turns it down in disgust saying “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” then we cut to Helm’s car where he’s simultaneously turning it up REALLY LOUD and singing along with it way too emphatically. A cheap gag, but a oh, I can’t do this anymore, I’m sorry, I’m totally lying to you. There was never a Tony Rome Meets Mat Helm TV special, everything I’ve said is a lie, I’ve just been yanking your chain for the last five pages. I have no idea why I did it, other than I’ve been reviewing these movies for a month now, and it’s rotting my brain, rotting my brain, I tells ya! I started to go a little bit crazy during the last two, and something about Contini yammering on about the meticulousness of his plan when it was obvious that he had no plan beyond talking about having a plan caused me to just sort of snap, and I couldn’t take it any more and the next thing you know I’d entered a hallucinatory phantasmagoria where I started working out my own Helm movie, and damn them I’d make it the worst one yet, yeah, see? That’ll teach ‘em, bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!Then I got a bit deeper into the whole ‘crazy’ thing, and could no longer tell right from wrong, good from bad, true from false, and…well, that’s not true. Actually, I just felt I needed a bit of fun after my Herculean labors (Specifically this was kind of close to Hercules cleaning out the stables, if you know what I mean), and so I cooked this up and tacked it on here, and, ah well, it’s kind of pointless and all, but it had to be done. By me. Now. [Cue insane laugh.] It's like it set a little fire in my brain, and made me want to set a few more fires! But seriously, reviewing these movies has all-but killed me. I can bang out your average movie review in like 45 minutes, but daaaaaaaaam, this series was consistently taking two or three hours, my left hand has been hurting as a result of it all, it's killing me. Killing me! And then I started to go a bit nuts and everything went dizzy, and I was tasting metal...
Ok. Got that out of my system. Sorry. We will return you to your regularly-scheduled Republibot articles tomorrow. Thanks for tuning in. Good night, everybody!