Saturday, August 27, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963)

Ever wonder what other networks aired opposite the Ed Sullivan Show episode that debuted the Beatles on American television?

Patrick McGoohan drew that short straw, as the Walt Disney company aired his The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh the night the Liverpudlians caused the Beatlemaniacal shrieking that deafened a studio. The program had two extra chances, though, since it was a three-parter  starring McGoohan as Dr. Christopher Syn, a mild-mannered clergyman in the town of Dymchurch who lived a secret life as the Scarecrow, smuggler and protector of the good folk of Dymchurch.

The program was based on the "Dr. Syn" novels of Russell Thorndike, which were popular reads during the first half of the 20th century. Thorndike's Dr. Syn was a considerably rougher character than the televised version, being inspired to a life of vengeance and piracy when his wife elopes with his best friend. Both versions share the idea of the gentle village cleric leading a band of smugglers trying to help simple village folk elude ruinous royal taxation, and disguising himself with a horrifying scarecrow mask.

Like many of the programs aired on the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, the program later retitled Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow to match its English release was aimed at the younger television audience. The storyline is fairly simple: In the latter decades of the 1700's, the king's taxes are crushing the villagers and his soldiers are bullying them into submission, leaving smuggling goods past the tax man as the only option. Dr. Syn sees the rightness in the cause of Dymchurch's folk and decides to help them, even though he's breaking the law. His cleverness and bold action keep him always one step ahead of the bumbling royal officials, although said bumblers eventually manage to draw the noose tightly enough that the Scarecrow faces a real danger of being found out.

While the outcome is never in doubt, the quick-paced story and McGoohan's dry-witted delivery keep things interesting. His hoarse rasp and demonic laugh as the Scarecrow manage to be pretty frightening -- not to mention his mask as well as those of his lieutenants, Hellspite and Curlew -- so it's doubtful Dr. Syn would get made for a kid audience today. Of the rest of the cast, only George Cole as Mipps the sexton does a little more than the motions require, but the rest hit their marks, say their lines, and sell their parts of the story quite adequately.

Dr. Syn's meandering broadcast history -- it's been in English theaters a couple of times, American ones a couple more, and in two or three different versions on television -- mean it's not particularly easy to find a copy. But those who do will probably enjoy the obvious fun McGoohan is having with the part, and the ease with which he makes his anti-hero heroic and his hero no little bit scary. Someone could have shown it to David Ayer and helped out his most recent work quite a bit.

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