Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #24

Series Title: Honey West | Years: 1965-1966, ABC | Starring: Anne Francis, John Ericson | Theme Music: Joseph Mullendore

“I first thought of Marilyn Monroe, and then I thought of the fictional detective Mike Hammer and decided to put the two together. We thought the most-used name for someone you really like is Honey. And she lives in the West, so there was her name.”

That quote comes from sportswriter-turned-novelist Forrest E. “Skip” Fickling, who with his wife, Gloria, invented the glamorous and kick-ass female private eye Honey West. Under the joint pseudonym “G.G. Fickling,” this Southern California couple produced 11 West novels, beginning with This Girl for Hire in 1957 and concluding 14 years later with Stiff as a Broad. In between, the books inspired a short-lived TV series.

Replete with humor and plenty of risqué innuendos, the novels made Honey out as “the nerviest, curviest P.I. in Los Angeles--or anywhere else for that matter,” to repeat one description. She was also an important precursor to some of today’s best-known distaff dicks, including V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. “Of course, these days nobody would dare call her a feminist icon,” wrote Kevin Burton Smith in a 2004 profile of Gloria Fickling for Mystery Scene magazine, “but in her time she was a rarity--an independent woman calling her own shots. She may have been prone to frequent ‘wardrobe malfunctions,’ but she was out there knocking on doors, taking down names, and answering to nobody but herself.”

Hoping to win the sort of fiction-writing success that their friend Richard S. Prather had with his Shell Scott gumshoe novels, the Ficklings gave their books similarly screwballish but captivating qualities. Ms. West spent much more time in her late 20s than most women would be able to do, was markedly clothes conscious (Gloria Fickling having once been a fashion writer), and had a tendency to ... er, lose her stylish garments on a fairly consistent basis during her investigations. Confident and sexually liberated, she was at least as much a male fantasy as a female one. But the Ficklings also peppered her past with a few darker elements. As part of his excellent reassessment of the Honey West books for Mystery*File, Gary Warren Niebuhr summed up the character thusly:
Honey West was born in Bellflower, California. Her mother was a dancer at The Casino on Catalina Island who acted in B-movies. Honey’s mother died at Honey’s birth. Honey’s father, Hank West, a private detective, was murdered six years prior to [book] #1 ... when he was shot in the back of his head in an alley behind the Paramount Theater. In #9, Honey reveals that she was a witness to his death. This is the most pivotal event in Honey’s life, and what sets her down the path to be a private investigator like her father. At times in the novels she toys with the idea of finding her father’s killer, but any attempts to really plumb the depths of her emotional soul is lost by the authors. ...

When Honey decides her destiny is to replicate her father, she moves right into his office and sits at her father’s roll top desk. Honey’s office is on the third floor, room #304, of the Wilks Building on Anaheim Street and Third in Long Beach. She has a view of the alley. It says, “H. West, Private Investigator,” (“Investigations” in #8) on the frosted glass of her door, a holdover from her father’s day. Honey carries a .32 revolver (#1) and has a pearl handled Hi-standard .22 revolver in her garter in #3. She knows judo. ...

The obvious major attribute for this character is her good looks. Everyone notices, everyone comments, and everyone desires her. Honey is 38-22-36, 5’ 5” tall, 120 lbs., blue eyes, with taffy colored hair. She has a heart-shaped birthmark on the inside of her right thigh and a small mole on her left cheek above her mouth.
Whatever popularity the Ficklings’ novels accrued, it was the mid-’60s ABC-TV series based on their work that finally made Honey West a household name. Executive-produced by Aaron Spelling (who would later go on to develop The Mod Squad, Charlie’s Angels, and Hart to Hart) the show was headlined by Anne Francis, a then 30-something actress with an already long film and TV career. Curvaceous and blond, with a delicate mole on the right side of her lips, she exuded sensuality--a perfect fit for the Honey role. Her first appearance as the Ficklings’ “private eyeful” was in an April 1965 episode of the Gene Barry cop series Burke’s Law (another Spelling project) titled “Who Killed the Jackpot?” The spin-off series Honey West began running on Friday nights at 9 p.m. the following fall.

Television took some liberties with Honey. Oh, it did, indeed. Most of the lascivious innuendos were purged for prime time, but in return our girl was given a racy little Cobra sports car to drive, a wardrobe bursting with slinky catsuits and animal-print garments, a collection of Jackie O-style sunglasses, and a pet ocelot named Bruce. Because spies and their high-tech accoutrement were doing well on screens large and small in those years (blame James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Francis’ Honey “also owned an arsenal of weapons filled with ‘scientific’ gadgets including a specially modified lipstick tube and martini olives that camouflaged her radio transmitters,” according to a backgrounder at the Museum of Broadcast Communications Web site. And let’s not forget about the garter-belt gas mask she owned, or the tear-gas earrings, either--fashion accessories essential for any woman liable to get in as much trouble as Honey did on a consistent basis. Fortunately--or not so, depending on your outlook--one of the other things Spelling gave our Ms. West was a male partner, Sam Bolt (John Ericson), who could pull her shapely ass out of the fire whenever necessary. (In the books, Honey had several masculine suitors, chief among them being bounty hunter Johnny “Doom” Dombella, but no partner. “That made Honey look like she couldn’t stand on her own ...,” Gloria Fickling complained to Mystery Scene’s Smith.)

One of the most appealing things about that ABC series was its opening title sequence (above). A succession of black-and-white still shots that captured the drama and danger--and the protagonist’s desirability--integral to every episode, that intro incorporated a bouncy, brassy theme (“Wild Honey”) by composer Joseph Mullendore, who was the arranger on a number of TV projects undertaken by his colleague Herschel Burke Gilbert and contributed his talents as well to Star Trek, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Lost in Space. I particularly like the honeycombing of Anne Francis faces at the start, and the closing fade between shots of a wide-eyed Bruce the ocelot and a wary-eyed Honey sporting a revolver. Such a main title presentation would probably never work today, but it was quite effective in 1965.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications observes that Honey West was “the first woman detective to appear as the central character [in] an American network television series,” and the show “broke ground for other female detective/spy programs to follow, such as The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-67), Get Christie Love! (1974-75) and Police Woman (1974-78).” It adds that Honey West “premiered to reasonably good reviews. Citing the show’s sensual aspects, smooth production values and Honey’s ability to bounce Muscle Beach types off the wall with predictable regularity, Variety’s 1965 evaluation predicted some success ‘as a short subject warm up to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ Season opening Nielsen ratings ranked the show in a tie for nineteenth place but this proved short-lived as her CBS competition, Gomer Pyle [U.S.M.C.], knocked her quickly out of the top forty.” There’s nothing quite so ignominious as being bested by Gomer Pyle. Honey West was canceled after a single season, with only 30 half-hour black-and-white episodes having been shot--all of which are scheduled to be released on DVD this coming September in a four-disc set.

After Honey West disappeared from the air, Skip and Gloria Fickling witnessed the publication of only two more novels featuring their callipygous crime solver, both of which incorporated some of the espionage aspects of Spelling’s adaptation. The latter of those books was the aforementioned Stiff as a Broad, which paired Honey with the Ficklings’ other series character, corporate consultant/investigator Erik March. Skip Fickling died in 1998, but as Mystery Scene reported, his wife continues to live in their Laguna Beach, California, beachfront home.

Meanwhile, Ann Francis--who captured a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Honey--became a fixture of American series television, appearing in Charlie’s Angels, Crazy Like a Fox, Murder She Wrote, Columbo (twice), and more recently, Without a Trace. In 1994, she even reprised her sleuthing role in one episode of a briefly revived Burke’s Law, though for some reason (probably having to do with broadcast rights), the character was called “Honey Best.”

There’s been talk in recent years about a theatrical film being made from the Honey West novels, perhaps with Reese Witherspoon in the starring role (though Gloria Fickling would prefer Charlize Theron). However, when I last checked there are no listings for such a production at the Internet Movie Database. Which may be for the best. After all, it’s hard to imagine someone else filling Anne Francis’ leotards.

READ MORE:A Taste of Honey,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet); “Hollywood Heroine: An Interview with Anne Francis,” by David D. Duncan (Weekly Wire); “New Spy DVDs Out This Week,” by Tanner (Double O Section); “Iconic Women Private Eyes on TV: Honey West,” by Colleen Collins (The Zen Man).


August West said...

I loved the TV series, I loved the books and I have always loved Anne Francis. I have my $40 saved for the DVD release. I hope they do NOT make the movie-some things should be left alone.....

Anonymous said...