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COLONEL HUMPHREY FLACK:
THE DUMONT NETWORK’S FABULOUS FRAUD
Audiences love a light-hearted con story. The enormous popularity of big screen productions like The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven paved the way for such recent television successes as Leverage, Hustle, and their like. And these series had predecessors on the small screen, from ABC’s quintessential western sharpster Maverick to NBC’s criminally short-lived The Rogues. But ushering these series onto television’s airwaves was the grand-daddy of all comedic con artist shows, the DuMont Network’s 1953 production Colonel Humphrey Flack.
Colonel Flack, a loveable scoundrel who inhabited DuMont’s Wednesday night line-up, was a genial fraud who lived by his wits. Possessed of an air of quality and a taste for the finer things in life, he frequented the best clubs and hotels, typically with only a few cents to his name. Flack never let the nuisance of poverty stand in the way of his comforts, much to the consternation of his less polished – but more practical – confederate, Uthas Garvey. But in spite of his penchant for living beyond his means, Colonel Flack was more an opportunist than a criminal. He was gifted with an unerring knack of turning any situation to his own advantage, and the insight to realize that there was money to be had whenever others were cheating the system. He had a professed dislike of “beastly chiselers,” whom he took every opportunity to fleece in Robin Hood fashion (pocketing a modest percentage to cover expenses).
Despite television’s relative infancy in 1953, Flack and Garvey were old hands at the confidence game by the time they stole onto DuMont’s schedule. The colonel was the brainchild of magazine writer Everett Rhodes Castle, who chronicled Flack’s exploits in a dozen issues of The Saturday Evening Post between 1936 and 1946. Castle’s yarns proved popular, and as early as the summer of 1937 his creation had already leapt from the page to the airwaves. Newspapers announced radio broadcasts of Col. Humphrey Flack on Milwaukee’s station WTMJ (1). Little is known about this early production, but it was likely a syndicated series, as there is no indication it ever had a sustaining run on a network. But the show wasn’t just a fleeting blip in broadcast history, as advertisements confirm it was on the air in various markets at least as late as the autumn of 1944 (2).
Some years before the demise of his first incarnation on radio, Colonel Flack made the transition to the fledgling medium of television. While a weekly Flack TV series was still decades away, on April 13, 1939 the Colonel was the protagonist of NBC Television’s one-shot production A Spot of Philanthropy. Loosely based on Everett Rhodes Castle’s 1938 short story of the same name, the program starred George Taylor as Colonel Flack and Michael Drake as the long-suffering Garvey (3).
Despite his early foray into television, radio was far from finished with Colonel Humphrey Flack. He was next heard on NBC Blue, in their program Listening Post’s June 22, 1945 dramatization of the Saturday Evening Post story “Colonel Flack and the Tender Ethic” (4). Flack fans must have been delighted, as the story hit the airwaves the same week the magazine version debuted in print. Three years later, the colonel finally snared a sustaining series on network radio when the Wilbur Stark/Jerry Layton company Program Productions sold NBC a twelve-episode run of Colonel Humphrey Flack. Premiering at 8:00 PM EST on Thursday July 3, 1947, the series was a summer replacement for either The Aldrich Family or A Day in the Life of Dennis Day (announcements from the era disagree). Directed by Ed King, the series starred Wendell Holmes as Flack and Frank Maxwell as Garvey, in scripts written by Tom Dougall and Sheldon Stark (5). At the close of the summer season, NBC declined to contract for further episodes, and the series folded with its September 18, 1947 broadcast.
Also in 1947, mystery luminary Ellery Queen chose Colonel Flack for inclusion in the hardcover anthology Rogues’ Gallery: The Great Criminals of Modern Fiction. Published under the London imprint Faber and Faber, the collection Included Everett Rhodes Castle’s 1943 tale “The Colonel Gives a Party.” The story’s publication in Queen’s anthology marks the colonel’s only appearance between the covers of a book. As of this writing some 70 years later, the remainder of Colonel Flack’s literary escapades remain uncollected and unreprinted.
Undeterred by the failure of their 1947 radio production to gain traction, Stark-Layton Productions redoubled their efforts to further develop the Flack franchise. In 1953, they sold pilots for both a proposed television series and another radio adaptation to ABC. The television production aired under the title “Colonel Humphrey J. Flack” as the May 31, 1953 installment of Plymouth Playhouse (a.k.a. ABC Album Playhouse). This time around, British actor Alan Mowbray stepped into the role of the colonel and Frank McHugh played Garvey, in a story about the impoverished pair embarking on an ocean cruise courtesy of tickets won in a raffle (6). The production was rebroadcast on the West Coast two weeks later, on June 16, 1953 (7).
The radio pilot brought the Mowbray/McHugh pairing before the microphones of ABC Playhouse for that series’ June 11, 1953 broadcast, also titled “Colonel Humphrey J. Flack.” The episode related Flack and Garvey’s plan to aid a young medical student in recovering his life savings (8). In selling ABC pilots for both radio and television, Stark-Layton Productions probably felt they had all bases covered for the launch of a new Flack series. But in the end, the network declined to move forward with either.
However, the failure of the ABC television pilot had a silver lining. Rather than throwing in the towel on the project, Stark-Layton switched gears and pitched it to the DuMont Television Network. The gamble scored success and, under the sponsorship of the American Chicle Company, Colonel Humphrey Flack joined DuMont’s weekly line-up on Wednesday October 7, 1953. Alan Mowbray returned in the role of Colonel Flack, but Frank McHugh did not make the transition from the pilot. Instead, the part of Garvey was taken up ably by veteran character actor Frank Jenks (9). The series was well-received, with Billboard praising its “smart scripting” and the “smooth teamwork” of its principal performers. “Here’s one show that continues to provide us with welcome relief from mayhem, cops and robbers,” was the sentiment from the television critic of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (10).
Perhaps most pleased with Colonel Humphrey Flack was the star himself, Alan Mowbray. Though he had portrayed a wide range of characters in hundreds of films, Mowbray feared he was best remembered for the handful of times he had played a butler. Landing the lead in DuMont’s series changed that. “Now I’m called ‘Colonel’ as much as I’m called Mowbray,” he confided to reporters in 1954 (11). Even more satisfying was the remark from Flack creator Everett Rhodes Castle, who commented that he couldn’t tell where Alan Mowbray left off and Colonel Flack began (12). “I always try to be the complete rogue,” Mowbray expounded upon his affinity for the character, “but always keep within the law. The colonel never commits an overt act of any sort. That’s important because so many children are watching” (13).
Children and adults alike tuned in to make Colonel Humphrey Flack a mainstay on DuMont. The network chronicled Flack and Garvey’s escapades through 39 live weekly telecasts, eventually drawing the season to a close on July 2, 1954. With the Colonel’s departure from the airwaves during the summer months, newspapers reported that the series was likely to move to CBS (14). In the end, however, autumn was not to see Colonel Flack’s return to any network. DuMont had some limited success in syndicating their kinescopes of the original 39 broadcasts to regional markets, but no further episodes of the series were put into production. Alan Mowbray later attributed the unexpected cancellation of the show to the rise in popularity of westerns. “We were crowded off by cowboys,” was his glib assessment (15).
With his prolonged absence from network schedules, things looked bleak for Colonel Flack’s television career. But you can’t keep a good rogue down, and in 1958 Flack was back, when CBS Films approached Stark-Layton Productions about a revival to be marketed in first run syndication. Sporting the almost imperceptibly tweaked title of Colonel Humphrey J. Flack, the new series went into production in the autumn of 1958, bringing Alan Mowbray and Frank Jenks back in the principal roles. Mowbray was heartened by the fact that this revival would be shot on film, unlike the series’ earlier live incarnation on DuMont. “Every time I went in front of those live cameras I wished I wasn’t there,” he remarked to The Detroit Free Press. “Why I didn’t collapse at the end of the season I don’t know.” He was happy for the chance to portray Flack in a more polished filmed production -- and the prospect of residuals for subsequent reruns was also enticing.
Colonel Humphrey J. Flack hit the airwaves at the close of 1958, and was sold to major markets across the U.S. Attracting sponsors ranging from Standard Oil to Budweiser, the 39-episode package garnered praise from Variety as “the only fresh comedy series in syndication.” However, critical acclaim did not prevent some misconceptions from arising about the new series’ content. Few of the filmed episodes were remakes of installments from DuMont’s earlier live production, but returning fans who tuned in to episodes such as “Saddle Sore” or “Back to the Coal Mines” may have gotten the mistaken impression that the revival series was simply an attempt to re-shoot the original 39 scripts.
Certainly, multiple sources over the years have cited this as fact, but the idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A comparison of the titles between both series reveals very few similarities, and Alan Mowbray himself drove the final nail in this misconception’s coffin. In a 1959 interview, he reflected on Flack’s filmed exploits in relation to the earlier live telecasts. “We used … new stories this season, so we [still have the] old ones to dip into if our … writers can’t come up with anything. They are our insurance policy” (16). So Mowbray believed the DuMont scripts could be used as the basis of a subsequent season for 1959–60.
Unfortunately, even having a few dozen scripts in reserve couldn’t ensure a second season for Colonel Humphrey J. Flack, and CBS Films commissioned no further episodes after their run wrapped production in the spring of 1959. Given that low ratings were the primary factor behind the series’ demise, fan response to the cancellation was surprisingly vocal. When Michigan broadcaster WWJ-TV removed the show from its schedule in December 1959, a local civic group published a protest on the front page of The Detroit News and organized a letter-writing campaign to CBS Films (17). In the end, Flack fans could take comfort in the fact that the filmed series remained available in syndication for years, but no new episodes would be produced.
Today Colonel Flack persists primarily as a footnote in entertainment history. His radio adventures are lost, and his print appearances languish in the yellowed pages of vintage periodicals. A handful of kinescopes of his DuMont exploits are held by the UCLA Film Archive in California and the Paley Center for Media in New York, while his syndicated television series is now a part of the Viacom film library. Aside from one or two isolated broadcasts, he has been absent from the airwaves for decades. Yet despite being all but forgotten today, he blazed a trail for series ranging from It Takes a Thief to Tenspeed and Brownshoe. And for that, God bless Colonel Humphrey Flack!