Honey West (Anne Francis) is a lithe, blonde and fabulous dame with a beauty mark at the corner of her mouth and a derringer in her hand. When not driving around Los Angeles in her sporty little white roadster, she slinks about in a variety of designer clothes (courtesy of Nolan Miller), often with cat-motif furs. She might don a simple catsuit for climbing ropes or dropping through skylights.
She runs a private detective agency, formerly her late father’s, and behind her office she lives in a swanky pad so modern it doesn’t even have doorknobs, only sliding panels. She has enough cash to supply herself with a battery of James-Bondian gadgets, from two-way radios in her lipsticks, compacts, and sunglasses to teargas earrings and any number of little cameras, which are monitored from her van for H.W. Bolt & Co. TV Repair. These cameras are the type that exist only in shows like this, that manage to follow people around the room and even cut to new angles.
Living in the pad is her Aunt Meg (Irene Hervey), a middle-aged woman who’s game for anything and seems always to be on the town. There’s also a pet ocelot named Bruce (played by himself), who is transparently a symbol for Honey herself. He’s a kind of totem or anima, if not what novelist Philip Pullman would call a daemon. Aunt Meg and Bruce only show up in about half the episodes.
There’s also a pet partner named Sam Bolt (John Ericson), of the loud voice and tight trousers, who usually monitors things from the van, argues with Honey as if he thinks she’s daffy, and now and then punches somebody out. Honey and Sam go out to dinner and stuff, but it’s pretty clear they’re not an item. Unlike Remington Steele or Moonlighting, where a woman owned the agency and had a male partner, any sexual tension between these two bits of eye candy is kept ambiguous, which is refreshing. Honey seems to spend a lot of evenings cuddling Bruce.
Here’s a typical episode. Some bit of violence catches our attention in the pre-credits sequence, leading to brassy music by Joseph Mullendore for the snazzy credits: a portfolio of photos of Honey and Sam posing for action, and multiple headshots of Honey reflected in a honey comb. Then comes the plot in which she investigates something for some people and finds out some bad guys are smuggling or stealing something, or whatever, but she dispatches all comers by disarming them with karate or judo chops, flipping them head over heels, and giving them one final chop at the back of the neck. She and Sam stroll nonchalantly away with a quip while everyone else lies about unconscious or restrained.
Honey does this judo act once or twice an episode, and frankly it’s what the whole show is for. On series about male heroes, the fights are endless filler that bring the proceedings to a halt, but the pleasure of watching Honey flip various dudes never wears thin.
Honey West was introduced on an episode of Burke’s Law, another private eye show. She was spun off into her own one-season wonder of 1965-66 from executive producer Aaron Spelling and producer Richard Newton. The plots are really nothing, but they have two virtues. The first is the visual spectacle of Honey taking care of herself with often minimal or no help from Sam, though he proves handy often enough.
The second is that since they’re only half an hour, they get in and get out without a lot of wasted time on chases and false escapes and delayed rescues. In fact, she and Sam so handily dispatch anyone who gets the drop of them, you begin to feel sorry for any poor bastard who tries to menace them with firearms and say “Not so fast” or “Get over there”. They’re down before they know what hits them. One exception is an extended fight between Honey and bad guy Kevin McCarthy (best known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers), since it turns out he knows martial arts, too.
Honey West is noteworthy as the first show to star a female private detective, although not technically the first crime show to star a woman. (There’s the unfortunately obscure Decoy with Beverly Garland as an undercover cop, and an even more fascinatingly obscure crime show, The Gallery of Mme. Lui-Tsong with Anna May Wong, but she seems to have been an amateur sleuth.) It’s breathtaking to see a woman so insouciant and self-defensive, even today. American viewers hadn’t seen such a thing yet, since the Honor Blackman episodes of The Avengers never showed in the US and the Diana Rigg episodes were yet to begin airing in March 1966. Granted, Rigg’s Emma Peel proved even sleeker and more casually terrifying than Francis’ Honey West (Peel would slam car trunks on guys’ heads), but Honey was far from a slouch.
The IMDB entry for the series claims without source that Spelling was influenced by having seen The Avengers in England, and that he even wanted Blackman to play Honey. However, it also claims the show was cancelled despite good ratings because ABC didn’t want two series about lethal women, when the truth is that this series was back-flipped in the ratings by Gomer Pyle.
The show’s wacky, winking sense of humor isn’t a sign that Honey herself shouldn’t be taken seriously so much as a symptom of American TV in the 1960s, the most surreal decade in prime time history. The lightness of Burke’s Law and similarly “stylish” shows was leading to the full-blown campy larks of which such male-heroics as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman would prove capable.
Honey was on that all-in-fun bandwagon, and the producers clearly made a decision at mid-season to go for broke, because the latter half of the season throws away any pretense of realism for increasingly whimsical characters and bizarre situations. This becomes official as of “It’s Earlier Than You Think”, which begins with Abraham Lincoln crashing out a window, jumping onto a horse, and racing through downtown Los Angeles to drop dead in Honey’s office muttering something about Ford’s Theatre. The plot’s McGuffin is a device that can prematurely age people and things, as invented by two guys who spend part of the episode in kilts.
Another cute episode in “The Perfect Un-Crime”, in which mousy accountant Byron Foulger hires Honey and Sam to return the money he’s embezzled from his company. As his face twists with shame, he confesses that he’s discovered he’s honest. “There, there, it could happen to anyone,” Honey reassures him.
The stupidest episode involves Gypsies and a gorilla. As for other bits of wackiness, there’s the guy who thinks he’s Robin Hood, and did we mention the robot? Oh yeah, don’t forget the show where Francis does double duty as a criminal lookalike named Pandora. These ridiculous shows are more interesting than the more or less straightforward ones. One episode finishes the plot early and goes a nightclub to introduce a new dance called the Honey West Walk (it had a shorter life than the Batusi, which is a shame). Another episode, in which she goes undercover as a movie stuntwoman, pauses for a lengthy surreal dream in which she imagines herself a silent film star.
Aside from Francis, what do women contribute to the show? Well, the primary writers are the married team of Gwen Bagni & Paul Dubov, who get credit for developing the series from novels by another couple, Skip & Gloria Fickling. Lila Garrett co-wrote one episode about a pop artist who literally paints a soup can (instead of a canvas).
Other writers include Tony Barrett, Ken Kolb, William Bast, Marc Brandel, and George Clayton Johnson, with three episodes by Richard Levinson & William Link. They wrote the final episode, “An Eerie, Airy, Thing”, which we can now recognize as the type of elaborate alibi they would specialize in when creating Columbo and Murder She Wrote. It’s one of Honey’s few murder plots and perhaps her most “serious” episode.
Exactly one episode is directed by a woman, but what a woman: Ida Lupino, basically Hollywood’s only regular female director of this era and prolific in TV. Other directors include Paul Wendkos, James Goldstone, Walter Grauman, Tom Gries, Sidney Miller, James H. Brown, Murray Golden, and John Florea, but nobody injects what you’d call visual style into the proceedings. A signature trick used in most episodes is to cut from one scene to another in the middle of dialogue that begins in one scene and finishes in the next, often giving a different meaning to the line. It’s whadaya-call sophisticated.
Any significant female guests? Little Maureen McCormick (future Marcia Brady) plays a brat being shuttled from one divorced parent to the other and whose luggage gets mixed up with smugglers. Ellen Corby (future Grandma Walton) plays a sweet old bunco artist who does tumbles and trampoline flips and describes herself as “queen of the serials” (which would be a reference to Pearl White). British character actress Eleanor Audley plays a dowager whose jewels are stolen by Robin Hood (Edd Byrnes). Mimsy Farmer is threatened in an episode about a fake mystic (Nehemiah Persoff) who tries to make his predictions come true. There are a few episodes where the main villain is a woman, and she gets flipped and chopped, too.
Other very familiar character faces include Ray Danton, Lloyd Bochner, Henry Jones, Leon Askin, James Best, Michael J. Pollard, Bobby Sherman (briefly a teen idol), Everett Sloane, J. Pat O’Malley, Percy Helton, Cesare Danova, Bert Parks (as himself), Wayne Rogers, Joe Don Baker, Marjorie Bennett, Howard McNear, John McGiver, Richard Kiel, Marvin Kaplan, Severn Darden, Dick Clark, Phil Ober, Nancy Kovack, James B. Sikking, Len Lesser, David Opatoshu, Dennis Patrick, Charles Lane, Woodrow Parfrey, Sarah Selby, Henry Beckman, Leonid Kinskey, Michael Pate, Henry Brandon, John Hoyt and Anthony Eisley.
Ken Lynch (as Lt. Barney or Lt. Keller or Lt. Wyman), Bill Quinn (Lt. Curtis) and Peter Leeds (Lt. Sherman) make a handful of appearances as dyspeptic police liaisons, although it’s not always clear if they’re playing the same character they did before, nor is the one they call Lt. Barney always listed in the credits by that name, and it clearly doesn’t matter. Dan Gazzaniga must have been a regular stuntman on the show, because he shows up in several episodes as various goons who literally flip for Honey.
These 30 episodes are digitally restored to sharp, sparkling shape, and so are the many period commercials included as a bonus. Like the series, they’re in black and white, even when advertising other shows that were in color, like The FBI (with Robert Duvall blowing up a gas truck). Most of these products are for brands we still have, such as Crest, Sucrets, Chiffon and Chanel No. 5, not to mention cigarettes like Pall Mall and Lucky Strike. Is this a reassuring continuity? Note that women who sell Tide look like frowzy moms with glasses, but not the women who sell Maybelline. None of this seems to have changed.
We see women worry about their beauty (hair spray, skin cream) and men about theirs (after shave, razors). We see cigars hawked by George Burns and Edie Adams. We also see public service announcements (write to this address for info on what the United Nations does for you). We see Honey herself telling viewers about the exciting ABC line-up, reminding us that her show in on after The Addams Family on Friday nights. She looks thrilled, addressing viewers in Dallas on what is obviously a long day of locally targeted spots.