After demonstrating how well it could tell a story over two episodes, Lou Grant went back to single episode mode and showed just how good it could be in its basic style. The show gave itself a stylistic twist, with voiceovers from Lou himself, and stylish, if somewhat overmixed soundtrack combining to create an atmospheric story that went back thirty years, leading to an ending that left you still caught in the haze of the past, without a glib response.
It began with an old, abandoned Mexican food restaurant, Baby Duarte’s Cantina. Lou discovers it by chance, doing a favour, taking a Diner meal across to its owner, the reclusive Mrs Polk (Nina Foch). She never leaves the place, she never sees anybody. Inside, the Cantina is exactly as it was when it was shut, just dust.
Baby Duarte used to be an LA name, a Filipino boxer, a local success and, afterwards, such a sweet guy. His place was popular with the Hollywood crowd until, one night, Baby was murdered, in a back booth. The murder was never solved, though the suspects were Hollywood folk, racey actress Laura Sinclair, her two agents (and reputed lovers) Lee Wittenberg and Ken Holmes, and Director ‘Wild Man’ Moran.
Laura. who reputedly also had a mobster lover, kissed Baby in front of her two Agents.moran, already drunk, was refused a drink by Baby, who he provoked into beating his down. Mrs Polk, widow of Baby’s co-owner, discovered him at 3.45am, shot dead.
It’s an old murder of a forgotten name. At first, the Trib does a picture series on the Cantina. Then the team get involved in the old story. They interview the surviving players, Holmes and Moran. They interview Thea Kaft (Margaret Hamilton), the hard-boiled reporter who covered the story in the Forties, who supplies cuttings. Slowly, the story enlarges. Animal befriends Mrs Polk, a lonely woman trapped in a past that has captured her and refuses to let her leave. She’s a woman of her times, of her raising, a note the show slips in unobtrusively.
Can Billie or Rossi or Lou solve the crime after all these years? Billie discovers that Laura Sinclair, who supposedly cracked up a few months later and died in a Sanatorium in Indiana, is neither dead nor insane: she got out of the business, gew her hair. put on her glasses annd married a Doctor, becoming a fat, placid, contented mother.
I was beginning to think this was going to stay unsolved, because the atmosphere, the sense of times past and irrecoverable, so gracefully captured, was the main point of this episode, but there was a sting to the tale, a sting that left you sad and helpless to its pointlessness.
Animal interviewed Mrs Polk, softly, gently, sympathetic. And out of that sympathy he understood what had happened. Mrs Polk had loved Baby, been in love with him. To us, and to him, there seemed no obstacle: he was single, she was widowed. But there was an obstacle, an insuperable obstacle. Baby was ‘coloured’. He came from Manilla, he wasn’t white. Mrs Polk wasn’t raised that way. It was against the Law (the look in her eyeswhen Animal told her, very gently, that that Law was changed, twenty-five years ago versus her soft comment that it was a good Law). Baby had a dream, of owning a chicken farm. he wanted a wife, he wanted to go back to the Phillipines. Mrs Polk loved him so much.
There was no heat to it, not now, not thirty years later. Just a hopeless sweetness, and the human heart in conflict with itself. Good Law? No. Yet it was not the Law but Mrs Polk’s upbringing that killed Baby Duarte, forgotten name of Los Angeles.
It waas, after all, so long ago. but without leaving 1979, the episode had spent its life there, and it was hard to emerge from it.