Thursday, April 28, 2016

Seven (More) Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember

Karkoff or Karkov?
1. Terror in the Wax Museum (1973) - Listen to this cast: Ray Milland, Elsa Lanchester, Louis Hayward, Broderick Crawford, John Carradine, and Patric Knowles. I know that veteran stars sometimes get stuck in bad movies, but what a shame that this combination of Jack the Ripper and a wax museum setting is...well...lifeless. Did I mention it includes a hunchback billed as Karkov in the credits, but Karkoff on the poster?

2. Little Fugitive (1953) - A six-year-old boy, believing that he has shot and killed his older brother, runs away to Coney Island. This independent feature boasts no major stars, but features an incredibly natural performance from Richard Brewster as little Lennie. This sweet, wholesome film plays like a home movie from the 1950s--you can almost taste the boardwalk hotdogs. It pops up occasionally on television, so it's less obscure than others on this list. I highly recommend it.

3. Outlaw Blues (1977) - Peter Fonda plays a ex-con who writes a catchy country song that's stolen by a famous singer. When he confronts the singer, the latter is accidentally shot and Fonda becomes an outlaw. Outlaw Blues reminds me of one of those entertaining drive-in pics that eventually made Burt Reynolds a star (e.g., W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings). Fonda and Susan St. James make an appealing pair. The title tune was written by John Oates of Hall & Oates.

Judy as the white Mewsette.
4.  Gay Purr-ee (1962) - Judy Garland and Robert Goulet provide the voice of the feline lovers in this colorful, non-Disney animated musical. The songs were composed by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who worked with Judy on another musical you may know (that'd be The Wizard of Oz). The script was written by Dorothy Webster Jones and her husband, celebrated Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones. According to some sources, Warners terminated Chuck for his involvement since Gay Purr-ee was made by rival studio UPA. Rhino Records re-released the soundtrack in 2003 with several never-before-heard demos. (To my surprise, I saw Gay Purr-ee was on TCM's schedule for this Friday, April 29th, at 4:30 AM EDT.)

5. Love That Brute (1950) - Paul Douglas stars a lovable gangster that falls for a charming governess (Jean Peters). He tells her that he is a widower with a son--which means he has to find a son! I'm a fan of comedies in which a simple lie (is there such a thing?) cascades into an elaborate deception that's certain to come crumbling down. Given the popularity of Peters and Douglas, you'd think this would be shown much more often than it is. It's supposed to be a remake of Tall, Dark and Hamdsome (1940), which I have not seen.

That's Dr. Lauren Bacall!
6. Shock Treatment (1964) - A writer (Stuart Whitman) goes undercover in an insane asylum to discover the whereabouts of $1 million in stolen loot. If this sounds like a bad idea, you're right. Whitman heads a fine cast consisting of Lauren Bacall, Carol Lynley, and Roddy McDowell. It's a lurid tale at times, but better than Samuel Fuller's more celebrated Shock Corridor.

7. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Director Fritz Lang's last U.S. film (and one of the last of his career) stars Dana Andrews as a novelist who frames himself in order to make a statement on capital punishment. Neither Lang nor Andrews are in top form here, but Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is an absorbing "B" picture with a twist that genuinely surprised me when I saw it as a teenager.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Dark, Rainy Streets of "Phantom Lady"

An example of Siodmak's lighting.
If you've read this blog recently, you know we've been on a film noir kick since the start of the new year. We started by revisiting The Blue Dahlia and then moving on to This Gun For Hire and Black Angel. Our latest noir is Robert Siodmak's 1944 "B" mystery Phantom Lady, which--like Black Angel--features an amateur female sleuth.

The film opens with civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meeting a mysterious, distraught woman (Fay Helm) at an empty bar on a hot Saturday night in New York City. Scott, who has been stood up by his wife, asks the dark-haired stranger if she wants to see a musical revue with him. She initially refuses, but then reluctantly agrees on one condition: They exchange no names, no addresses, and never meet again. Scott agrees.

Later that night, Scott goes home to find the police at his apartment. His wife has been strangled with one of his ties ("A knot so tight it had to be cut with a knife," says one of the detectives). Scott's alibi falls apart when he can't identify his mysterious date. Even worse, the bartender, a taxi driver, and a drummer at the theatre all act as if they had never seen him.

Scott is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die. It's up to his office co-worker Carol (Ella Raines) to find the real murderer. It's obvious to everyone--except Scott--that Carol is mad about the civil engineer.

Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Ella Raines in a telling scene.
This premise is similar to the later--and better--Black Angel, in which a man's wife must prove his innocence while he awaits his fate on death row. Black Angel provides more complexity and more nuance. The only element separating Phantom Lady from a dozen other mysteries is that the key witness--the mysterious woman from the bar--appears to have vanished without a trace. Well, there is another distinguishing trait: the killer, played by the biggest star in the picture--doesn't show up until the film is half over.

A passer-by (far right) likely saves Ella's life at the train platform.
Yet, if Phantom Lady lacks a creative spark plotwise, it benefits mightily from Robert Siodmak's moody direction and Ella Raine's determined detective. Siodmak creates some knockout visuals once Carol takes to roaming the city's darkened streets to find the killer. The scene in which she follows the suspicious bartender is a tour-de-force as the two move through rainy streets, a shadow-filled train platform, and partially lit arches. It as good as the famous sequence in Cat People (1942) in which Jane Randolph is followed by something after leaving the swimming pool.

I'm curious as to whether the decision to have the murderer wring his hands compulsively was the screenwriter's or Siodmak's. Regardless, it provides the director with the opportunity to provide some disconcerting close-ups of the hands of the strangler.

As for Phantom Lady's star, Ella Raines makes Carol so likable that it's easy to see why Inspector Burgess decides to help her. (Sure, he makes up an excuse for doing so, but I think it's clear that he admires Carol.) She also gets to display her first-rate acting chops when slipping in a disguise as a trampy lady who takes a liking to a manic drummer (and key witness) played by Elisha Cook, Jr.

Raines had a solid, if unspectacular, acting career. She starred in a handful of "A" pictures opposite leading such men as John Wayne (Tall in the Saddle), Randolph Scott (Corvette K-225), and Eddie Bracken (Hail the Conquering Hero). She later headlined the 1954-55 TV series Janet Dean, Registered Nurse.

Ella Raines also reteamed with director Robert Siodmak in another film noir, The Suspect (1944), which starred Charles Laughton. A year later, Siodmak would make The Spiral Staircase, one of my favorite mysteries, and follow it with his noir masterpiece The Killers (1944). I suspect we will reviewing that one in the near future, too.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Something's Abuzz in "The Deadly Bees"

While lip-synching one of her hits on a television show, pop singer Vicki Robbins collapses from exhaustion. Her physician prescribes some rest and relaxation at a friend's quiet farm on Seagull Island. This is not necessarily a good thing. In an earlier scene, Whitehall government officials discuss a series of letters from "some fruitcake" on Seagull Island who has threatened to release his new species of killer bees.

Once on the perpetually gloomy island, Vicki (Suzanna Leigh) discovers that there are two rival bee farmers: her host, Ralph Hargrove, a rather unpleasant sort, and Mr. Manfred, his kindly neighbor who welcomes Vicki warmly. Despite the friction between the neighbors, Vicki finds herself enjoying the island life until Mrs. Hargrove's dog--and later Mrs. Hargrove--are killed by swarms of bees. Hargrove and Manfred accuse each other of not controlling their bee hives. However, the coroner rules that the lethal attack on Mrs. Hargrove was "death by misadventure."

A publicity still with Suzanna Leigh.
Yet, if that were the case, then how could one explain why Vicki appears to be the pestilent pests' next victim?

While it's never surprising, The Deadly Bees (1966) is the best of the "killer bee" movies that appeared in the late 1960s and 1970s. That lot includes Irwin Allen's big-budgeted The Swarm (1978), The Bees (1978) starring John Saxon, and the made-for-TV movies Killer Bees (1974), The Savage Bees (1976), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978).

It's hard to see the bees here as they buzz by.
Much of the film's effectiveness can be attributed to director Freddie Francis and co-screenwriter Robert Bloch (Psycho). Francis, who was better known as an acclaimed cinematographer (e.g., The Innocents), turns Seagull Island into a gray, uninviting vacation spot. The bee attacks, while never looking real, are just convincing enough. My only complaint with his direction is a tendency to have his camera linger too long on important objects. ("Why are we looking at Vicki's red coat...oh, there must be something on it!").

The screenplay lacks Bloch's usual flair, making me suspect that he served only as script doctor. While the dialogue is flat, there are some nice touches: Hargrove is an unappealing hero, there's no hint of romance between Vicki and him, and one character--who would have died in most movies--survives a bee attack.

Like director Francis, star Suzanna Leigh and several other cast members (Michael Ripper, Michael Gwynn) were Hammer Film veterans. Yet, while The Deadly Bees may look like a Hammer product, it was made by studio rival Amicus. The pretty Ms. Leigh was a busy actress in the 1960s, appearing opposite Elvis Presley in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) and as one of the stewardesses in the Tony Curtis-Jerry Lewis comedy Boeing, Boeing (1965). In real life, she was romantically linked to Richard Harris, Steve McQueen, and Michael Caine (who also battled bees in The Swarm).

Ron Wood as a member of The Birds.
By the way, the opening scene in The Deadly Bees features a musical performance by The Birds (that's not a typo, it's not The Byrds). This British group never scored a hit in the U.S., but gained some popularity in its native country. When The Birds disbanded, guitarist Ronnie Wood went on to join Faces, The Jeff Beck Group, and The Rolling Stones.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The B.I.G. Bugs of "Empire of the Ants"

Bert I. Gordon isn't known as Mr. B.I.G. just because of his initials. This low-budget director established his reputation by specializing in movies about giant people (Village of the Giants), big rats (Food of the Gods), and over-sized spiders (The Spider). But today, we are focusing on ginormous ants, which are on prominent display in Gordon's 1977 cult opus Empire of the Ants.

Let me be clear that we're not talking about Them-sized ants nor a movie that can be compared in any way to that 1954 sci fi classic. Still, this is the kind of movie I would have watched at a movie theater as a college student in 1977. To my credit, I did see Food of the Gods, but, hey, it had Marjoe Gortner and Ida Lupino fighting the kind of people-eating rats that would put Willard and Ben to shame. Yet, somehow I missed Empire of the Ants on its original release and never caught it on television.

Jacqueline Scott and Robert Lansing.
Thus, I was pleased to find it on the movie schedule at the 2016 Williamsburg Film Festival. Even better, the showing included an introduction by Jacqueline Scott, who co-starred with Joan Collins and a bearded, almost unrecognizable Robert Lansing (who, of course, could still be identified because of his distinctive eyes...which really deserved to be the subject of a pop song).

Jacqueline Scott introduced Empire of the Ants by telling a funny story about Joan Collins crying over something in her trailer. Jacqueline overheard it, walked over to Robert Lansing's dressing room, and suggested that maybe he check on Joan. Lansing disappeared for a moment. He reappeared and handed Jacqueline a box of candy. "Give this to her," he said...and closed his trailer door.

Joan Collins looking very 1970s-ish.
Joan stars in Empire of the Ants as a real estate developer trying to induce unsuspecting folks into buying a lot in Dreamland Shores, which is apparently located in isolated Florida "swamp land." She takes her potential clients on a tour of the properties--completely unaware that nearby ants are munching on radioactive waste that has washed ashore.

Before long, giant ants (I'd estimate them at five feet in height) are eliminating extraneous characters like the elderly couple and the coward who left his wife behind during a bug attack. But the ants don't kill everyone and Robert Lansing, who pays the boat captain, wryly observes: "My god, they're herding us like cattle."

A giant ant confronts Joan.
Sure enough, the final third of Empire of the Ants evolves from a big bug movie into a variation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was an unexpected plot development and, for that reason alone, I'd classify Empire of the Ants as one of Bert I. Gordon's best movies (that's not saying a whole lot...but, honestly, it was kinda interesting).

The screenplay was loosely based on a 1905 short story by H. G. Wells. In Wells' tale, a gunboat captain discovers species of large (but only five centimeters), intelligent ants in the Amazon. He tries to destroy them, but fails. At the end of the story, the narrator speculates that the ants will reach Europe by 1950 or 1960.

Bert I. Gordon's Empire of the Ants was one of many later 1970s movies about nature taking revenge on humankind. Other films in this mini-genre included Grizzly, Day of the Animals, Squirm, and--the best of the bunch--John Frankenheimer's Prophecy.

Of course, Empire of the Ants had one thing none of these other movies had. It has an ant coordinator. Really. I saw it in the closing credits!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Insects in Classic Movies

A giant ant in Them!
Be they little specks or large enough to crush a man, insects have long been a big screen pest. A plague of locusts stripped the wheat fields in the climax to The Good Earth (an effect achieved by superimposing coffee grounds over oil-covered wheat). An army of soldier ants destroyed a South American plantation in 1954’s The Naked Jungle, although the crisis served to mend Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker’s shaky marriage.

That same year introduced a colony of 12-foot-high ants in Them!, the finest giant insect picture ever made. It was also the first to imply that nature was rebelling against man’s misuse of radiation. Imitations quickly followed, featuring giant grasshoppers (The Beginning of the End) and a preying mantis (The Deadly Mantis).

A publicity still from
Return of the Fly.
A single, regular-sized fly proved the culprit in 1958’s The Fly when it interrupted an experiment and merged atomic particles with an affable scientist. Nine years later, The Deadly Bees started an insect film subgenre with its lively shock scenes of swarming bees stinging nice people to death. The number of bee films increased over the next decade, amid real-life reports of killer bees flying up from South America. A popular TV-movie, The Savage Bees, was followed by The Bees, Irwin Allen’s big-budget bust The Swarm, and Terror Out of the Sky.

While bees have been portrayed as dangerous killers, filmmakers have taken a more lenient view of ants. Certainly, the destructive side of ants was displayed in The Naked Jungle, It Happened at Lakewood Manor, Empire of the Ants, and Legion of Fire: Killer Ants. But there have also been cute computer-animated ants (A Bug’s Life and Antz) and intelligent ants seeking to breed humans to create a new super race in Phase IV.

Disney's famous cricket.
In other notable insect-related features: The Devil (Peter Cook) turned Dudley Moore into a fly in one of the episodes of Bedazzled; the Academy Award-winning pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle explored the premise that insects will inherit the Earth one day; a government device designed to kill insects raised dead humans in Don’t Open the Window and turned them into flesh-eating ghouls; the moon’s inhabitants were discovered to be the insect-like Selenites in First Men in the Moon; and a nice wholesome family turned out to be roaches in disguise in Meet The Applegates. Burgess Meredith provided the voice for a talking horsefly in Hot to Trot (1988).

The best six-legged singing insect was undoubtedly Jiminy Cricket of Pinocchio fame. Below is a representative sample of pre-2000 films with prominent roles for insects:

The Good Earth (1937)
Pinocchio (1940)
Hoppity Goes to Town (aka Mr. Bug Goes to Town) (1941)
Once Upon a Time (1944)
Them! (1954)
The Naked Jungle (1954)
The Deadly Mantis (1957)
The Cosmic Monster (aka The Strange World of Planet X) (1957)
Secrets of Life (1957)
The Beginning of the End (1957)
The Fly (1958)
The Wasp Woman (1960)
Mysterious Island (1961)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
The Deadly Bees (1967)
Bedazzled (1967)
The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)
Phase IV (1974)
Don’t Open the Window (aka Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue) (1974)
Killer Bees (1974 TV movie)
Locusts (1974 TVM)
Bug (1975)
The Savage Bees (1976 TVM)
Empire of the Ants (1977)
Damnation Alley (1977)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
It Happened at Lakewood Manor (aka Panic at Lakewood Manor; Ants) (1977 TVM)
The Exorcist II:  The Heretic (1977)
Terror Out of the Sky (1978 TVM)
The Bees (1978)
The Swarm (1978)
The Beast Within (1982)
Creepshow (1982)
Phenomenon (aka Creepers) (1985)
The Nest (1988)
Hot to Trot (1988)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Meet The Applegates (aka The Applegates) (1990)
Whispers (1990)
Popcorn (1991)  (the movie-within-a-movie “Mosquito”)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Matinee (1993)  (the movie-within-a-movie “Mant!”)
Skeeter (1994)
Ticks (1994)
Jumanji (1995)
Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects (1995 TVM)
Angels and Insects (1996)
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Microcosmos (1996)
Joe's Apartment (1996)
Ulee’s Gold (1997)
Mimic (1997)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Legion of Fire: Killer Ants (1998 TVM)
Antz (1998)
A Bug’s Life (1998)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2016)

What do Redford and Milland have in common?
'Tis spring and time to find connections! For those new to this game, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Dean Martin, Robert Culp, and Marcello Mastroianni.

2. Planet of the Apes (1968) and the TV series The Loner.

3. Creature from the Black Lagoon and Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder.

4. Burt Reynolds and Christopher George.

5. Charlton Heston and Tony Curtis.

6. Carol Lynley and Mia Farrow.

7. Michel Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins.

8. Ray Milland and Robert Redford.

9. John Cleese and Kirk Douglas.

10. Citizen Kane and This Gun for Hire.

11. Psycho (1960) and the original Outer Limits.

12. Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring and Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left.

13. Alien and The Sound of Music.

14. The original Day of the Triffids and singer Mel Torme.

15. Sylvester Stallone and Errol Flynn (and it's not boxing movies).

Monday, April 11, 2016

CMBA Blogathon: "The Prize" and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella"

Paul Newman as a cynical novelist.
The Prize (1963). Ernest Lehman adapted this mixture of North By Northwest and Grand Hotel from Irving Wallace's 1963 novel. If Lehman's name sounds familiar, it's because he also penned North By Northwest. Lehman keeps the basic structure of Wallace's multi-character story about a gathering of Nobel Prize winners in Stockholm. However, he gives the film a definite Hitchcock treatment.

Newman and Elke Sommer.
Paul Newman stars as Andrew Craig, a hard-drinking, cynical, but charming author who has won the Nobel Prize for his little-known, critically-acclaimed novels. He considers turning down the honor, but decides that $50,000 "ain't hay." While he is checking into the hotel, he meets an atomic scientist (Edward G. Robinson) who politely chastises him for his unpatriotic attitude. The following day, Andrew meets the scientist again, but the elderly gentleman doesn't recognize him--and makes disparaging remarks about the free world to the press. It's almost as if he's a completely different person. And, of course, he is!

Edward G. Robinson and Diane Baker.
The Prize will never be mistaken for a Hitchcock classic, but it's still satisfying escapist fare headed by a game cast. The subplots involving the other Nobel Prize winners--a scientist who thinks a rival stole his discovery, a wife who wants to make her cheating husband jealous, etc.--provide some humor and, in one case, are tied into the kidnapping. Elke Sommer adds glamour and sass as Newman's eventual ally. Diane Baker keeps the viewer guessing whether she's actually good or bad. And Hitch favorite Leo G. Carroll adds the perfect touch as the fretful head of the awards ceremony.

Journeyman director Mark Robson knows how to keep the plot rolling along. He lacks the Hitchcock touch, but let's reflect for a moment. The Prize is a superior film to Torn Curtain, a European-set thriller about a physicist involved with spies, which was made the following year and starred Paul Newman. That misfire was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Stuart Damon and Lesley Ann Warren.
Cinderella (1965). Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II originally adapted the famous fairy tale as a television musical in 1957. That version was broadcast live on the East Coast and earned Julie Andrews an Emmy nomination. However, we baby boomers harbor fond memories of the 1965 version starring Lesley Ann Warren as Cinderella and Stuart Damon as the Prince.

Shot on studio sets, it's essentially a filmed play, though that never detracts from its charms. Running just 77 minutes, Cinderella features a lovely score comprised of catchy tunes like "In My Own Little Corner," "Impossible," "Ten Minutes Ago," and the incandescent "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?"

Eighteen-year-old Lesley Ann Warren got the lead role after she was turned down as the oldest Von Trapp daughter in The Sound of Music (1965). Her clear, melodious voice and youthful innocence led to a contract with Disney and plum parts in The Happiest Millionaire (1967) and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968). She had a long career on television and film, eventually receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Victor, Victoria (1982).

Her co-star, Stuart Damon, had appeared on Broadway in Irma La Douce in 1960. Despite a fine singing voice, he spent most of his career in non-musical roles. He starred in the 1968-69 British television series The Champions as a government agent with extrasensory powers. In 1977, he was cast as Dr. Alan Quartermaine on the daytime drama General Hospital. He played the role for 30 years, earning nine Emmy nominations and two wins along the way.

Ginger Rogers and Walter Pigeon.
The supporting cast in Cinderella consists of screen veterans Walter Pigeon (the King), Ginger Rogers (the Queen), Celeste Holm (the fairy godmother), and Jo Van Fleet (the stepmother). Alas, Ginger doesn't get a big dance scene!

There have been several other versions of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The most notable ones are a 1997 television version with Brandy and Whitney Houston and a big budget 2013 Broadway adaptation. Both of these musicals added songs that expanded the show's running time. For me, though, I'll just stick with the original...well, the original remake with Lesley Ann and Stuart.


This post is part of the Words, Words, Words! Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Be sure to check out all the outstanding posts by clicking here.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Interview with Roberta Shore: From Disney to The Virginian

Fifty years after she put her acting career on hiatus, Roberta Shore still draws crowds at fan conventions. That will happen when your most famous role was playing Lee J. Cobb's daughter on an iconic television series. It helps, too, if you starred with Annette Funicello in classic Disney fare such as The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Mickey Mouse Club serial "Annette." I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Shore at the 2016 Williamsburg Film Festival.

Café:  How did you get the part of Betsy Garth in The Virginian?

Roberta Shore at the 2016
Williamsburg Film Festival.
Roberta Shore:  I was under contract to Universal Studios. They used to hire a bunch of young actors and actresses in case they needed a small part. I was originally hired for a new TV series that Bob Cummings was making. It was horrible and only lasted about two weeks. From there, they put me in The Virginian.

Café:  Did you know it was going to be a regular part?

RS:  I did. But I wasn't very good with horses. I had one lesson on a horse before we started the series. They had to get me a double because I was not a good horsewoman.

Café:  Were there unique challenges to filming a 90-minute weekly series consisting of 30 episodes a year?

RS:  Sometimes, we would be doing two or three shows at a time because we were only allowed five or six days to shoot them and that didn't include the weekends. There were times when I would run onto one set and say "Hello, Daddy" and then go to the next stage, change shirts, and do another scene. It was very challenging. We put in a lot of long, long hours.

Roberta with Lee J. Cobb.
Café:  What was it like working with Lee J. Cobb?

RS:  I loved him. He was my favorite. He was professional, kind, and witty. He could just look at me and make me laugh. I really loved him as a father image.

Café:  How well did the cast get along off screen?

RS:  Everybody got along just fine. I was the youngest. I was 18 or 19. So, they teased me a lot because they thought I was very naive. I wasn't as naive as they thought I was (laughs). But I played along that I was.

Café:  Do you have a favorite episode?

RS:  Probably the Robert Redford episode that I did ("The Evil That Men Do"). He was right out of Broadway and I think it was one of the first TV shows he had done. He was just really nice. Betsy had a crush on his character, but he was an ex-con. He was a bad boy, so it didn't work out.

Roberta and Annette.
Café:  What was it like playing the "mean girl" opposite Annette Funicello in  The Mickey Mouse Club serial "Annette"?

RS:  It was kind of fun, but I really got a lot of nasty fan mail for a couple of years following the series. I was really known as a snob.

Café:  You also appeared with Annette in The Shaggy Dog. How well did the two of you get along?

RS:  We got along fine. Everybody did.

Café:  In addition to The Virginian, you also appeared in TV series such as Wagon Train, Maverick, and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. Which of those was the most rewarding experience for a young actress?

Ricky Nelson and Roberta Shore.
RS:  Probably Ozzie & Harriet, because Ricky Nelson was the most gorgeous human being on Earth (laughs). And nice, really nice. The Nelsons were a nice family and it was a fun show.

Café:  Why did you decide to retire from acting after you left The Virginian?

RS:  I decided to get married. I moved from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and never wanted to come back. I had a couple of children and I have five grandchildren. Having grandchildren and children is the best part of my life.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to share with our readers?

RS:  On the 22nd of April, we're doing Cowboy Up for Vets in Swanton, Ohio. The whole Virginian cast is going to be there. There's Jim (Drury), Gary (Clarke), Randy (Boone), Clu Gulager, Sara (Lane), Diane (Roter), Don Quine, and L.Q. Jones. It will be a really fun festival. From what I understand, I believe it will be Jim Drury's last festival. We're all getting old (laughs).

Café:  Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me.

RS:  You're welcome.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Five Best Doris Day Performances

Carol learns the truth about "Linus."
1. Lover Come Back (1961) - Doris Day wasn't just a fine comedienne--she was an outstanding comic actress. Yes, she generates plenty of laughs in Lover Come Back, but she also makes her character believable. That's why it's so funny to see aggressive advertising executive Carol Templeton turn into mush when she thinks she has found an intelligent, sensitive, male virgin that looks like Rock Hudson. She earned her only Oscar nomination for Pillow Talk (1960), but I think she's even better in Lover Come Back (which is also a better film...functioning as a satiric look at the world of advertising).

2. Calamity Jane (1953) - Considering her success as a singer, it's surprisingly that Doris didn't make more musicals than she did. This one is her best, allowing her to strut around as a sharpshooting tomboy and then find her sensitive side with a sublime rendition of "Secret Love." She also teams wonderfully with Howard Keel (from an acting and musical standpoint).

3. Pillow Talk (1960) - Speaking of movie teams, who was the genius that paired Doris Day and Rock Hudson? Granted, the wonderfully written Pillow Talk provides them with tailor-made roles as an early feminist and a swinging playboy. However, the duo have an incredibly natural rapport and I don't think it's a stretch to say that Doris Day helped Rock Hudson become a first-rate comic performer. (To be honest, his non-Doris comedies, such as Come September and A Very Special Favor, just don't compare).

4. The Thrill of It (1963) - James Garner essentially played the straight man (and did so very well) in his comedies with Doris Day. That allowed Doris to shoulder more of the comic load, which she does effortlessly in another comedy about advertising. This time, though, she plays a mother who unexpectedly becomes spokesperson for the Happy Soap company. This movie also features my favorite Doris Day quote when her character inadvertently states on camera: "Hello. I'm... I'm Beverly Boyer and I'm a pig."

5. Love Me or Leave Me (1955) - I have mixed feelings about this fictionalized biography of jazz singer Ruth Etting which co-stars James Cagney. However, it features Doris' best dramatic performance...and allows her to sing some classic tunes, too.
A publicity still with Cameron Mitchell and James Cagney.

Honorable Mentions: That Touch of Mink; Move Over, Darling; and By the Light of the Silvery Moon.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Interview with Jacqueline Scott: The Classic TV Actress Discusses Raymond Burr, Walter Matthau, and Curly Hair

Jacqueline Scott and David Janssen in The Fugitive..
With over 100 credits, actress Jacqueline Scott has forged a remarkable career in film and television. She has worked with legendary directors such as Steven Spielberg, Don Siegel (multiple times), and William Castle. She made her biggest impact, though, with her guest appearances in many of the finest television series of the 1960s and 1970s. Here's a small sample, to include the number of episodes per series if more than one: Perry Mason (3 episodes), Have Gun--Will Travel (5), The Outer Limits (2), Bonanza (3), Gunsmoke (8), The F.B.I. (4); The Untouchables, Twilight Zone, Mission: Impossible, Route 66, The Virginian, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Her most famous role may be as Donna Kimble Taft, the sister of Richard Kimble, on five episodes of The Fugitive.We spoke with the delightful Jacqueline Scott recently at the Williamsburg Film Festival.

Jacqueline Scott in 2016.
Café:  What was it like playing Richard Kimble's sister in five episodes of The Fugitive?

Jacqueline Scott:  It was fabulous. It was wonderful. I finally had a brother!

Café:  Didn't you star with David Janssen earlier as a guest star on Richard Diamond?

JS: Yes, but he didn't remember me and I didn't remind him. I don't why I didn't. David Janssen was very sweet and friendly. He probably would have been happy to know that.

In "The Case of the Daring
Decoy" on Perry Mason.
Café:  You guest-starred on Perry Mason--another terrific series--three times. Between scenes, did you spend much time with series regulars Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, or William Hopper?

JS:  Primarily Raymond. I also worked with Raymond on Ironside. He was a very special man. We shot court scenes on Perry Mason for two days. And on those days, he would have someone there to cue him the day before or else they worked at night. When he shot his scenes, he never used a script or a teleprompter. He knew his lines like the back of his hand...every single episode.

Café:  One of your first film roles was in William Castle's Macabre.

JS:  I was brought to California from New York for that role. It was my first part in film. The producers had seen me on live television. I had lived in New York for about six years. I'm originally from Missouri.

Café:  What were some of the live television series you did?

JS:  Armstrong Circle Theatre, Omnibus with Geraldine Page, and several others.

Café:  When I interviewed Piper Laurie, she said she loved live television because there was no margin for error. She thought it was exciting.

JS:  It was exciting. You had about three or four days for rehearsal. On filmed television, you rarely have any rehearsal at all. When you do the script all the way through for the first time, it's the last shot of the show. On television, they generally shoot for the weather, not the script. Anything that has to be done outside is done quickly before it rains (laughs). So, it's shot out of sequence and you have to put your scenes in context as you go along. It's a challenge. I loved the rehearsals for the live shows.

Looking concerned in Castle's Macabre.
Café:  Back to Macabre, didn't you meet your husband Gene Lesser on the set?

JS:  Yes, we met on that film and we have been married for 58 years.

Café:  Did you think he was good-looking?

JS:  Oh, yes! He has naturally curly hair and they had pumped water and mud onto the Macabre set. The water made his hair curl even more and I thought I was going to have a heart attack! (laughs) Fortunately, I lived through it. He thought I was cute, too.

Café:  You've appeared in some movies which have become very famous over the years, such as Charley Varrick and Duel. What is your favorite film role?

JS:  I've enjoyed them all, but I loved working with Walter Matthau on Charley Varrick. I had admired his work for years. Don Siegel was the director. Charley Varrick was the first time I worked for him. I think I did about three or four movies with him and then he retired. He was a wonderful director and a funny and kind man. One day, he told me: "I don't know what your husband thinks about you working with these two crazy, old men"--referring to Walter Matthau and himself. They were both just nuts (laughs), but a wonderful actor and a wonderful director.

With a disguised Walter Matthau in Charley Varrick.
Café:  You're introducing one of your films at a screening tonight: Empire of the Ants with Joan Collins and Robert Lansing. Any special memories of that film?

JS:  It was filmed in Florida, so when I was offered the role, my first response was: "I'm not getting in the water with any alligators!" The director (Bert I. Gordon) was odd. He would get us up at 5 a.m. for a casting call and then not start filming until 4 p.m. It rained during some scenes, so they had to spray us with hoses in later shots so everything would match. Of course, the real star of the movie were the giant mechanical ants.

Café:  You appeared in some of the truly great TV series of the 1960s. How would you compare television today with what it was like in the 1960s?

With Brad Dexter on Have Gun--
Will Travel
.
JS:  I just think that too many people are getting their fingers into the soup these days. You see these credits with six producers and I don't think it's good for the scripts. I don't think the writers are any less good than they used to be. I think all the producers have the option of changing a couple of lines and that's not good for the script. I can remember when scripts, like for Gunsmoke, were "white." Everybody didn't get their own opinion in the script.*

Café:  Did you ever turn down a role you wished you'd taken?

JS:  No. I wanted to do The Waltons. I tested for the mother. Other than that, I never wanted to be a regular on a TV series and I don't think that was too smart.

Café:  Were you offered a series?

Cliff Robertson and Scott in "The Galaxy
Being" on The Outer Limits.
JS:  Yes, but not necessarily anything great. I wanted to play all different characters. And I got to do that. Once I'd be the good girl and once I'd be the bad girl. You wouldn't want to hear: "While she's a good actress, she isn't able to do this kind of role." One director, Leo Penn--who is Sean Penn's father--would call me for anything. We had worked together when we were kids in New York and he was fabulous. Sometimes, there would be a part that people didn't think I could do. And Leo would say: "Well, it's the last minute and I don't have time to mess around meeting actors I don't know. I want Jacqueline." He'd push me for the part--and the producers would be happy he did.

Café:  What did you think of the young Steven Spielberg when he was directing Duel?

JS:  He was a youngster. He looked like he weighed about 150 pounds dripping wet. (laughs) But he sure knew what he was doing.

Café:  Thanks so much for taking time to do this interview.

JS:  It was terrific talking with you, Rick.


* It's a common practice in film production to use color pages to indicate new pages added to scripts. Hence, a "white script" is one with no changes.

Monday, March 28, 2016

DVD Spotlight: Death Valley Days (Season 1)

With 453 episodes spanning 18 seasons, Death Valley Days ranks as the most successful anthology series in the history of television. Amazingly, it has never been released on DVD--but that will change when Timeless Media Group releases the first season on March 29th. For a series that debuted in 1952, the quality of this 18-episode DVD set is stunning. The prints are pristine and the sound strong and clear. Watching this classic black & white series is like stepping into a time capsule and traveling back to an era when a half-hour TV series was almost a half-hour long (without commercials, current shows might last 20 minutes!).

Jock Mahoney in "Swamp Ike,"
looking very Tarzan-like.
While many future stars appeared on Death Valley Days (e.g., Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley), the first season spotlights veteran supporting players like Denver Pyle, Lyle Talbot, Robert Hutton (Barbara's son), Hank Patterson (Mr. Ziffel on Green Acres), and Sheila Ryan (from Anthony Mann's film noir Railroaded). The biggest star may be Jock Mahoney, who would gain fame later as TV's Yancy Derringer (1958-59) and as one of the better big screen Tarzans (e.g., Tarzan's Three Challenges). (For the record, Mahoney also starred in one of my favorite "B" Westerns, the mystery-tinged Joe Dakota).

Supposedly, many of the Death Valley Days episodes were based on actual events. The plots range from serious ("How Death Valley Got Its Name") to comedy ("The Little Bullfrog Nugget," which concerns a woman with an affinity for eggs). An enduring theme, however, is the harshness of frontier life, in which finding food, water, and shelter was the difference between survival and death.

Donna Martell as Rosie.
One of the best first season episodes is "She Burns Green," in which Rosie (Donna Martell), a young refined woman, marries a prospector and moves to the edge of the desert. Though Rosie believes she's strong, she quickly finds herself ill-equipped to live without family, friends, and luxuries like scented water. Rosie loves her husband, but his failure to find gold leads to her having second thoughts about her marriage. Yet, she perseveres and, while her husband never find golds, he discovers a lode of borax...that will make them rich. (If you've forgotten the many uses of borax, check the Wikipedia like I did.) The episodes's title is a reference to how one confirms the discovery of borax: If you burn it, the flame turns green.

One of the many Borax products.
If you remember the original broadcasts of Death Valley Days, you will notice the irony with this episode. The syndicated TV series was created and sponsored by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which sold borax under its 20 Mule Team Borax brand (which was later sold to the Dial Corporation). Death Valley Days  began as a radio series in 1930 when Pacific Coast Borax hired Ruth Woodman, a British-born Vassar graduate, to be head writer. The company specified that the radio scripts be steeped in the history of Death Valley, so Woodman made numerous trips to the region for many years. In 1944, the radio series title was changed to Death Valley Sheriff and later simply The Sheriff until it ended in 1951.

The following year, Pacific Coast Borax launched the Death Valley Days TV series. For its first five years, Woodman wrote all the scripts before graduating to script editor. She earned numerous honors from governors and historical societies during her Death Valley Days career. The University of Oregon is now the repository for the Ruth Cornwall Woodman Collection, which consists of letters and scripts.

Stanley Andrews as the Old Ranger.
From 1952 until 1963, Stanley Andrews introduced each episode as the "Old Ranger." He began the episodes by telling viewers: "Many's the tale of adventure I'm going to tell you about the Death Valley country. True stories, mind you. I can vouch for that." Andrews was succeeded by Ronald Reagan for the 1964-65 season (with Rosemary DeCamp filling in after Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California). Robert Taylor took over hosting duties from 1966-69 until poor health caused him to step down. Dale Robertson hosted the final year. During their tenures as hosts, Reagan, Taylor, and Robertson also starred in some of the episodes.

Sheila Ryan in "The Bandits
of Panamin."
The first season of Death Valley Days is a great introduction to this classic TV series. It's an effective reminder that the anthology series format deserves a major comeback. Without the confines of regular characters or a continuing story, an anthology series can explore any storyline within its scope or setting. And Death Valley Days offers a unique setting with its scorching sands, jagged peaks, and, yes, beds of borax.

Timeless Media Group's "Collector's Edition" of the Death Valley Days' first season comes on three discs. As mentioned earlier, the visual quality is exceptional. There are no extras.


Timeless Media provided a copy of the DVD set for this review.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Interview with Don Collier: "The High Chaparral" Star Talks About John Wayne and His Classic TV Westerns

One of the most recognizable TV cowboys of the 1960s, Don Collier carved out a highly-successful career playing ranch foremen, lawmen, and bad guys. In addition to starring in his own TV series Outlaws (1960-62), he guest starred on Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Branded, Wagon Train, Death Valley Days, and Hondo. He achieved his greatest fame as Sam Butler, the foreman on The High Chaparral (1967-71). In addition to his many TV appearances, he also starred in big-screen Westerns such as The War Wagon (1967), 5 Card Stud (1968), and The Undefeated (1969). We talked with this fine storyteller recently at the Williamsburg Film Festival.

Café:  You've appeared in Westerns directed by two of the genre's most famous directors: John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Don Collier:  I was just an extra in Fort Apache and had no dialogue. I met John Ford, but didn't get a chance to know him. I did get to work with Victor McLaglen and what a treat that was. Victor was dear to my heart. I watched him as a kid in the 1930s and I still remember him in that movie where he grabs the machine gun (The Lost Patrol). I loved him in The Quiet Man, too.

Don Collier at the 2016
Williamsburg Film Festival.
Café:  How about working with Howard Hawks?

DC:  It was quick. I did one little scene with John Wayne in El Dorado. My part was shot in the Paramount studios, while John Wayne was in Tucson. Jimmy Caan climbed up on a ladder in the studio and delivered the Duke's lines to me. Duke filmed his lines down in Arizona. We were 500 miles apart. That was my experience with Howard Hawks.

Café:  What was it like working with John Wayne on The Undefeated, and The War Wagon?

Collier in The War Wagon.
DC:  It was great working with him. In The War Wagon, I worked the whole 13 weeks. In one scene, I get out of the war wagon with two of the stunt guys. Duke's character has an argument with us and he decks the two stunt guys. He slams the coach door in my face. Before we shot the scene, he says: "Don, do you want us to get a stunt guy to do your part?" I said: "Oh, hell no, go ahead and slam the door and I'll catch it with one arm." He said: "Are you sure about that? I don't want to hit you in the face." I was still calling him "Mr. Wayne" then and he tells me to call him Duke. I said: "Duke, you slam the door and I'll make it look like you knocked me out." So, we did the scene and he slams the door on me and I catch it with my arm. No big deal...but he remembered that. About two-and-a-half years later, we're filming The High Chaparral at Paramount studios and he was working on the sound stage next door. So, I went over to see him. He says: "Collier, good to see you. Are you going with us to Mexico on The Undefeated?" I said I hadn't even heard about it. He said: "Get your butt over to Fox and talk to Andy McLaglen. I'll call him and tell him you're coming over." I talked with Andy and he hired me for the job. See, Duke liked the fact I took that stagecoach door in the face. I'd like to think that the John Wayne "school of acting" consists of three things: (1) Be on time for your call. (2) Know your dialogue; and (3) Don't leave the camera, even if you're not in the shot. So many times, especially if you're working with younger actors, the director says "cut" and, boom, they scatter like quail. They've got to go make a phone call or leave for a date. Duke usually ends up directing a picture about halfway into it and he wants his actors on the set. He doesn't want to have to look around for them at the honey wagon or in their trailer. He wants them there around the camera. If you remember those three things, you could work with John Wayne. He'd like you. Working with him was almost like going to school and learning the finer points working in the film business.

Café:  What was the premise of your 1960-62 Western TV series Outlaws?

DC:  The stories were supposed to be from the outlaws' point of view. It was a good show. The second season, the producers brought in Slim Pickens and he made it a lot better. The first year has Barton MacLane. I remember when he was a lead heavy at Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a pleasure just to meet the guy. He played the marshal and there were two deputies. Jock Gaynor was one of them. He couldn't do the job and they fired him. He wore his hat rolled up on one side, like Australians sometimes do. They hired another guy and he never worked out. So, the second year, they brought in Slim Pickens and Bruce Yarnell, who was about 6' 7". He was a singer NBC had hired, hoping to put him on a variety show. They had no place for him, so they gave him to us because we needed a deputy. I tell some stories about Bruce in my one-man show. We did Outlaws for two years. NBC "owed" producer Ralph Edwards (This Is Your Life) an hour of prime time. So, in 1963, he wanted NBC to show his TV series The Wide Country (about rodeo competitors). NBC only owned two series: Bonanza and Outlaws. Bonanza was pretty well rated, so NBC decided to cancel our show for the Ralph Edwards one. The Wide Country was bad. I think it lasted one year. After Outlaws, I did several other TV Westerns like Wagon Train, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke. I did The War Wagon and then I joined The High Chaparral in 1967.

Leif Erickson, Collier, and Cameron
Mitchell in The High Chaparral.
Café:  Speaking of The High Chaparral, when I interviewed Henry Darrow last year, he noted it was a challenge acting with Cameron Mitchell because he rarely knew his lines.

DC:  That is absolutely true. I never cared for Cam too much. He was good at what he did and he could improvise, but he was always trying to steal scenes from you. I never thought that was right. You don't tread on somebody else's feet. He was kind of a loud mouth and a slob. Of course, a lot of us were slobs. He accused me of wanting his part (Buck Cannon). Physically, I would have made a better brother to Leif Erickson than Cam did. But I was tickled to death with the part I had (ranch foreman Sam Butler). I didn't have too much dialogue and could spend more time in the bar. We had good times on that show.

Café:  I've read where it was a pretty hard shoot because of the Arizona temperatures.

DC:  There's a remedy for that heat. It happens every Friday and it's called payday. If the heat wasn't tolerable, you could quit. So, even if it was 120 degrees, we smiled and kept going.

Café:  The High Chaparral was a different Western in that it featured a multi-ethnic family.

Pernell Roberts and Collier on Bonanza.
DC:  It was one of the first shows that explored that thoroughly. We had a lot of fine Hispanic actors. The show did well dealing with the problems within the family and with the Indians. It was a good show and I can't think of another like it on TV at that time. Gunsmoke had its good points and bad points. Bonanza was ridiculous sometimes. I might be a little prejudiced, but I thought ours was the best ranch show.

Café:  How did you come to join the cast of The High Chaparral?

DC:  I had done Outlaws and several Bonanza episodes on NBC. I knew all the guys there. A lot of the crew from Outlaws went with Bonanza after we folded, including our production manager Kent McCray. So, when they got around to casting The High Chaparral, Kent suggested me for Sam Butler. They asked me if I wanted to do the part and I said: "You bet."

Café:  Other than The High Chaparral, what were some of your favorite roles?

DC:  The ones I did with John Wayne on The Undefeated and The War Wagon. That was the top of the heap right there. Once you climbed that mountain, you knew you were as high as you could go. He was a real icon in the business.

Café:  You starred with Robert Mitchum in a couple of movies like Five Card Stud. What was he like?

DC:  Robert Mitchum was a great actor. I have a lot of respect for that man. He was one of those guys who had a photographic memory. He could look at the script and then throw it away. He knew it. He seldom had to do two takes. He was kind of a loner. He'd socialize with his driver--they'd go out and drink. But he wouldn't join the groups.

Café:  Can you tell us about your one-man show?

DC:  The one-man show that Penny McQueen convinced me to do is a lot of these stories about all these shows and how I got into the picture business. I'm not going to tell you much about it--because you've got to come and see the show. It's a pretty good hour-and-a-half and audiences get a lot of laughs out of it. There's some serious stuff, too. It's a lot of fun doing it.

Café:  What are some of your upcoming appearances?

DC:  The High Chaparral reunion is March 17-20. I've got several more shows this years, which are listed on my website (doncollier.com).

Café:  Thanks so much for doing this interview.

DC:  It was a pleasure, Rick.