26 August 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Lou Costello's dramatic role
"General Electric Theater" was one of the many excellent anthology series during the Golden Age of American television. It's easy to see why corporate sponsors often inserted their names into the titles of these series: the episodes were often of a high standard, catering for an intelligent audience.
"G.E. Theater" was hosted by Ronald Reagan, at a time when his acting career had hit a slump and he was mulling a career change. More than any other acting role, Reagan's stint as host of "G.E. Theater" (and corporate spokesman for General Electric) was instrumental in his political career. While this series was in production, General Electric sent Reagan to make personal appearances at G.E. factories all over the United States. Reagan met the factory employees and listened to their concerns, getting to meet the public (and taking an interest in their problems) as he never was able to do during his years as a second-string leading man at Warner Brothers. These experiences inspired him to run for public office.
This posting relates specifically to "Blaze of Glory", an above-average episode of "General Electric Theater" which aired in 1958, starring Lou Costello in a rare dramatic role, following his break-up with Bud Abbott. The split-up of Abbott & Costello had been one of the most vicious and acrimonious split-ups in show-biz history (which is saying a great deal), and Costello was now making a creditable effort to continue his career in a different direction. Unfortunately, he was a difficult type to cast in dramatic roles ... but he gives an excellent performance here.
"Blaze of Glory" stars Lou Costello as a bumbling plumber (slightly more intelligent than his usual comedy roles) who is sent to a hotel suite to repair a leaky pipe. But the suite is now occupied by a gang of crooks planning their latest robbery. The leader of the crooks (with a poncy foreign name) is played by Jonathan Harris: this was a few years before Harris played Dr Zachary Smith on "Lost in Space", yet Harris's performance here is almost exactly the same as his Dr Smith. Harris is meant to be playing a Moriarty-style criminal genius, but he's not very believable. Even less believable are the no-talent actors who play his deeze-dem-doze henchmen.
Harris and his henchmen are planning their next caper. When plumber Costello accidentally overhears their plans, he tries to slip out ... but clumsily makes his presence known. Harris and the other crooks capture Costello, planning to kill him. In a fairly implausible climax, Costello manages to outwit Harris and turn the tables on him, capturing all the crooks single-handed.
The script is pretty bad, far below the usual high standard for "General Electric Theater". But Lou Costello turns in an excellent performance with this poor material, and almost single-handedly elevates it to excellence. It's a shame that he got so few chances to play dramatic roles. On the strength of Costello's performance, I highly recommend "Blaze of Glory" ... not just to Abbott & Costello fans, but to everyone interested in drama from the Golden Age of television.