Thursday, March 29, 2012


A few weeks ago, I had a post about some unsuccessful facsimiles or copycats in the media. I was doing some research for an intended writing project, when I thought to myself, "I left out The Lawless Years." On further checking, The Lawless Years didn't meet my criteria.

I decided to dedicate a post to the two most famous 1950's TV shows about prohibition and gangsters. The Untouchables and The Lawless Years were not a Cosby Show/Charlie and Company type of situation, but more of an Addams Family/Munsters type of situation. Basically it was synchronicity at NBC and ABC.

In January of 1959, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse on CBS, began airing a two-part adaptation of Oscar Fraley's book about Eliot Ness entitled The Untouchables. It stared Robert Stack as Ness, Neville Brand as Al Capone and was narrated by radio commentator Walter Winchell. The rating were so good that it was turned into a TV series for ABC in October of 1959.

In the meantime, NBC launched The Lawless Years in April of 1959. It stared James Gregory as Barney Ruditsky, who was a police detective in New York during the Prohibition Era. Ruditsky was later a high profile private investigator in Los Angeles. It manage to have one whole season under its belt before The Untouchables debuted as a regular series. The show was based on Ruditsky's unpublished memoirs entitled Angel's Corner.

There are many similarities in the shows. Besides both taking place during Prohibition Era, there are several real life gangsters that were characters on both shows, such as Legs Diamond, Mad Dog Coll, Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter and Dutch Schultz. Both shows tried to capture the look of the past in clothing, vehicles and even photographic effects. The Untouchables tried for a newspaper photo and newsreel feel, where The Lawless Years appears to be shot in a sepia tone (I say "appears" because this may have been done to preserve the quality of the picture by the DVD companies, since the show is in public domain).

The differences include the fact that The Lawless Years was only 30 minutes long and The Untouchables was an hour long show.  The Untouchables seemed to have more graphic violence and sexual innuendo, while The Lawless Years handled things in a typical 50s TV cop show manner. Death and sex happened off-screen in The Lawless Years, while The Untouchables had people being run-over with cars or machine-gunned, while they made noises like they were gagging on their own blood. Sometimes they would fall over dead on their car's steering wheel, causing their horn blast an eerie drone. That was if someone hadn't thrown their dead body out of a moving car. It could be said that giving information to Eliot Ness was the equivalent of wearing a red shirt on Star Trek.

Character wise, Eliot Ness, as played by Robert Stack (top) is a very stern, self-righteous, superhero/lawman figure, while Gregory's Ruditsky (bottom) is sarcastic and almost as much of a thug as the gangsters he is fighting. Ruditsky enters a room full of suspects and just beats up at random. Ness always announces that to suspects that he is a federal agent.

The music of The Lawless Years was a generic Big Band-influenced TV theme of the 50s by a composer named Raoul Kraushaar (Who?). Like the composer, you wouldn't recognize the song if you heard it. On the other hand, The Untouchables had a great threatening, dirge-like march by Nelson Riddle. The Lawless Years filled the rest of the show with stock music cues, The Untouchables punctuated dramatic scenes with a "DOM-DOM-DA-DOM" music cue. This usually meant someone was about to be killed.

The villains on The Lawless Years were often times had Jewish or Irish names and were played by typical photogenic actors. The Untouchables must have purposely looked for actors with odd-shaped heads, pock-marks, warts, pimples and scars. The other thing about the villains, which later came to be a liability, was the fact that they had Italian names and accents. Italian-Americans complained and launched a boycott of the shows sponsors.

To me, the big difference is the narration. The Untouchables had the rapid-fire delivery of radio commentator Walter Winchell. The Lawless Years was narrated by James Gregory in the character of Barney Ruditsky. He would start off the show by showing slides of the villain's mugshots or old pictures of New York in the 1920's. This might have worked fine when the show first aired in 1959, but now it is unintentionally funny. Why? People of my generation remember actor James Gregory as Inspector Lugar on Barney Miller. He was always wasting Barney or anyone that would listen at the 12th Precinct with rambling stories about his early days as a cop during Prohibition.

The Untouchables ran four season and The Lawless Years ran three seasons. Probably because of the controversial aspects of the show, The Untouchables became a phenomenon spawning two movies, a series of novelty records by Dickie Goodman and spawned homages on two other Desilu produced shows ("Lucy the Gun Moll" on the Lucy Show and "A Piece of the Action" on Star Trek), while The Lawless Years was just an also-ran of 50s.

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