Sunday, November 05, 2023

World of Giants: Off Beat

Mel Hunter might be tiny, but his ears are still big. In fact, the miniaturized secret agent’s ability to identify musicians by ear will help him foil another plot in “Off Beat,” the 13th and final episode of World of Giants. Little seen since it originally aired in 1959, the restored series releases Tuesday on DVD.

The femme fatale wife of a museum curator has smuggled a shipment of contraband antiquities out of Egypt, most likely stashing them in the jazz club Hunter and his full-sized partner, Bill Winters, tracked her to. Naturally, Winters and their Della Street-like assistant, Miss Brown, take Hunter to the club in his special carrying-kennel valise, so he can check out the scene.

While listening to Chick Crescent, Hunter cannot help noticing the jazz pianist just does not sound like himself. He does not swing like he always has and he thinks he recognizes solos and licks from his old records. Hunter cannot say for sure, but he knows someone who can. That would be Crescent’s former mentor from New Orleans, Daddy Dean, whom Hunter used to jam with, before shrinking down to action figure size.

The series might have crashed and burned, but it is cool to see this episode, written by (then) married TV scribes Kay Lenard and Jess Carneol, treating jazz with respect. It is sort of like a fusion of spy-sci-fi (in the tradition of
The Invisible Man) with the Downbeat blindfold test. It would be interesting to know who was the uncredited musician dubbing the piano. Presumably, it was someone like Steve Allen, who could imitate various styles, but never really played with much passion.

Produced by William Alland (who played the reporter investigating “Rosebud” in
Citizen Kane) for Ziv TV (which also syndicated I Led 3 Lives), World of Giants had a reputation for impressive effects, at least by the TV standards of its day. Unfortunately, it has been hard to tell from the grainy prints that circulated prior to the new restoration. This episode also makes it look like Gretsch or Pearl custom built a Tom Thumb-sized drum kit, which would be really cool.

Harry Horner’s direction is competent, but the best work comes from guest-star Bill Walker, who plays Dean with dignity and soul. Viewers can believe he might be contemporary of Louis Armstrong or George Lewis (the first one). Of course, doing one jazz episode was enough to get
World of Giants cancelled, but given its short run, that sort of makes the “Off Beat” episode a curiosity piece, two times over. Recommended for the hip and inquisitive, “Off Beat” is part of the World of Giant: Complete Series collection, which releases Tuesday (11/7).