Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: MAGNUM P.I. AND THE LEGEND OF THE LOST ART (1988)

MAGNUM P.I. was one of the defining shows on the 1980s. Before Crockett, Tubbs, Hunter, Matt Houston or your boys Simon & Simon were solving crimes in the land of neon and shoulder pads, Thomas Magnum was busting bad guys in Hawaii. No doubt Dog the Bounty Hunter tuned in every week. MAGNUM P.I. debuted on CBS in December 1980 and was an immediate top 20 ratings hit thanks to a perfect combination of action, exotic locales and personable (and mega 80s hunk to the ladies) lead Tom Selleck. The popularity grew over the ensuing 8 seasons and everybody in the U.S. was sporting a Magnum mustache. It was truly a Magnumnetic time.

“But what the hell does this have to do with Indiana Jones,” you ask. Well, in one of the more well known casting stories, Tom Selleck was originally George Lucas’ top choice to play his archeologist hero. But, in the kind of fate that only happens in Hollywood, then relatively unknown Selleck landed the MAGNUM P.I. gig that conflicted with the shooting schedule of RAIDERS. To make matters worse, there was a TV strike that suddenly opened up Selleck’s schedule, but by that time Harrison Ford had been cast in the role. The rest, as they say, is history. Or so you think. While Selleck did eventually do a Jones-esque turn in the highly enjoyable HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983), he did get the rare chance to show fans his whip wielding adventurer skills in “Legend of the Lost Art,” a RAIDERS send up that aired in MAGNUM P.I.’s eighth and final season.

The episode opens with Magnum, completely decked out in an Indiana outfit, exploring a skeleton strewn cave to look for a scroll. After surviving the requisite spiders and booby traps, Magnum gets the spool only to have boss Higgins (Jonathan Hillerman) tell him it is a fake. Higgins explains that the scroll tells features some ancient unknown writing that can be translated by using the Hannoli prism. Doggedly pursing these items is Peter Riddley-Smythe (Anthony Newley), a nefarious double agent and film buff who loves to pattern elaborate schemes and traps after his favorite movies. The owner of the prism is Connie Northrup (Margaret Colin), a historian who has written about the Lost Art and, of course, has a romantic history with Magnum. From this point on it is 47 minutes of rip roaring action as Magnum gathers his associates, Rick (Larry Manetti) and TC (Roger E. Mosley), and tries to figure out the villain’s stolen film plot twists before they get killed.

This is pretty damn entertaining stuff and reminded me of why I liked MAGNUM P.I. so much the few times I was able to catch it. Lots of action and Selleck is an absolute blast with some really funny delivery. It is easy to see why he was one of the most popular TV stars of the 1980s. He has a great bit where he tells Connie, who he left 7 years earlier, that he missed her several time and even “drove by your house a few times but your car wasn’t there.” Of course, the reason it is here is the RAIDERS copying and the in-jokes and references come fast and furious in this. Fans have always wondered what a Selleck starring RAIDERS would have been like and, while he is jokey here, he definitely could have filled the fedora (he insists he has to wear this outfit to fulfill the villain’s cinematic fantasies). The introduction of Connie has a subtle reference to Marion Ravenwood’s RAIDERS intro with Connie making guys pass out during a dancing contest and the teleplay even works in the “we’re not thirsty” retort when the villains show up. There is a running joke where everyone refers to the “lost art” as the “lost ark” and Higgins always corrects them. Finally, when they find the lost art, Higgins exclaims, “We have found the lost ark!” Magnum corrects him and Higgins says, “No, the lost art is inside that lost ark.” D’oh! For the action scenes, they copy the famous truck bit from RAIDERS and Selleck gets to use the trademark whip. And in the finale our two lovers find themselves trapped in a pit full of snakes. “By the time you figure out what movie this is from, you’ll be dead,” says the giddy villain.

And finding out what movies various bits are from is what makes this episode so enjoyable. There is a great bit where Magnum is rambling off a list of movies while trying to figure out what Riddley-Smythe is stealing from. He mentions NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) before deciding they are copying KING SOLOMON’S MINES (“the Stewart Granger version, not Richard Chamberlain!”). Total movie geek dialogue we love here at Video Junkie. Other movies mentioned throughout the episode include THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) , PERILS OF NYOKA (1942), THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) and the oft filmed THE PERILS OF PAULINE. The only thing more surprising is that Herr Lucas didn’t sue the pants off them for copying his property. I guess even he has a sense of humor sometimes. Or he missed the episode because he was taking his nightly bath in money. The episode ends with a pretty introspective shot as Magnum hangs the fedora and jacket on the wall and puts on his trademark baseball cap. It is a perfect and satisfying visual metaphor for the legendary casting “what coulda been” scenario that has shadowed Selleck’s career since that fateful year of 1980.

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