Friday, April 18, 2014

Autobiographical Films: People Who Played Themselves in Movie Biographies

Many people have played themselves on film, but few have played themselves in film biographies. The reasons are obvious: the scarcity of motion picture biographies of living persons; the fact that “real” people do not necessarily make believable actors; and the image problem--it can look like you have a big ego if you portray yourself in a favorable light. 

Sports players dominated early film autobiographies, tracing the careers of baseball legend Jackie Robinson (The Jackie Robinson Story), track star Bob Mathias (The Bob Mathias Story), and football players Tom Harmon (Harmon of Michigan) and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (Crazylegs). None of these one-time actors went on to pursue an acting career (though Harmon’s son Mark eventually did). Boxer Joe Louis played a fictitious fighter in Spirit of Youth, although the character was clearly patterned after Louis. Irrepressible boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said: “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” So naturally, he played himself in the modestly-titled biopic The Greatest (1977). 

Actresses Ann Jillian, Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Patty Duke, and Suzanne Somers all played themselves in made-for-TV biographies. MacLaine’s film was adapted from her best-selling autobiography Out on a Limb. Ray Charles also appeared as himself in 1964’s Ballad in BlueTo date, the best autobiographical film remains 1955’s To Hell and Back, in which Audie Murphy traced his own rise from farm boy to the nation’s most decorated soldier in World War II to movie star. 

Although not autobiographical, Will Rogers, Jr., played his father in The Will Rogers Story (1952) and Marie Osmond played her mother in Side by Side: The True Story of the Osmond Family (1982). In the following list, the subject’s name is included in parentheses unless specified in the title: 

Spirit of Youth (1937)  (Joe Louis)
Harmon of Michigan (1941)  (Tom Harmon)
The Fabulous Dorseys (1947)
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Crazylegs (aka Crazylegs, All American) (1953)  (Elroy Hirsch)
The Bob Mathias Story (aka The Flaming Torch) (1954)
To Hell and Back (1955)  (Audie Murphy)
Rock Around the World (aka The Tommy Steele Story) (1957)
Ballad in Blue (aka Blues for Lovers) (1964)  (Ray Charles)
Smash-Up Alley (aka 43: The Petty Story) (1972)  (Richard Petty)
The Greatest (1977)  (Muhammad Ali)
Out on a Limb (1987 TVM)  (Shirley MacLaine)
The Ann Jillian Story (1988 TVM)
Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (1980 TVM)
Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story (1984 TVM)
Call Me Anna (1990 TVM)  (Patty Duke)
Keeping Secrets (1991 TVM) (Suzanne Somers)
Miss America: Behind the Crown (1992 TVM)  (Carolyn Sapp) 
Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story (1994 TVM)
Never Say Never: The Deidre Hall Story (1995 TVM)
Private Parts (1997)  (Howard Stern)

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The James Stewart Blogathon

The Classic Film & TV Café hosted a James Stewart Blogathon on April 14-17, 2014. Twenty six movie bloggers participated and wrote about the popular actor's films and personal life.

It's hard to think of an actor more versatile than James Stewart, whose impressive filmography includes comedies (Harvey), dramas (Rear Window), musicals (Born to Dance), Westerns (Bend of the River), and biographies (The Glenn Miller Story).

He worked multiple times with great directors such as Anthony Mann (eight films), Alfred Hitchcock (four), Frank Capra (three), and John Ford (two).

James Stewart starred in the best film ever made (that'd be Vertigo according to the latest Sight & Sound poll among film critics). He also starred in one of the most beloved films of all time (that'd be It's a Wonderful Life). His leading ladies included Grace Kelly, Carole Lombard, Janet Leigh, June Allyson (three times), Jean Arthur (twice), Marlene Dietrich (also twice), and Kim Novak (twice again!).

In short, James Stewart was one of the greatest stars to grace the silver screen. To learn more about the man and his movies, be sure to check out the posts below:

April 14
Bend of the River - Caftan Woman
Destry Rides Again - Virtual Virago
The FBI Story - Kevin's Movie Corner
James Stewart's World War II Service - Wide Screen World
Rear Window - Twenty Four Frames
Vivacious Lady - Immortal Ephemera
Winchester '73 - Classic Film & TV Cafe

April 15
Bell, Book and Candle - A Person in the Dark
Flight of the Phoenix - Outspoken & Freckled
The Glenn Miller Story - Old Movies Nostalgia
The Jackpot - They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - Girls Do Film
The Shopworn Angel - Motion Picture Gems

April 16
Born to Dance - The Vintage Cameo
Harvey - The Old Movie House
The Musical Side of Jimmy Stewart - A Trip Down Memory Lane
Magic Town - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
No Highway in the Sky - Silver Scenes
Thunder Bay - The Stalking Moon
The Shop Around the Corner - ImagineMDD
The Spirit of St. Louis - The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog

April 17
It's a Wonderful World - Tales of the Easily Distracted
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation - Once Upon a Screen
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - Ramblings of a Cinephile
The Naked Spur - Lindsay's Movie Musings
The Shootist - portraitsbyjenni

Monday, April 14, 2014

James Stewart and Anthony Mann Team Up for Winchester '73

I think it's fair to say that Winchester '73 ushered in the "adult Western" of the 1950s. Although there were earlier Westerns with flawed heroes, hard-edged films like Winchester '73 reinvented the genre. Their protagonists were rugged men--often with a dark past--focused on revenge (Rancho Notorious), redemption (Bend of the River), or complex "family" relationships (Man of the West). Visually, these films often surrounded their characters with sweeping vistas that seemed to overwhelm the human element. Yet, for all the scenic splendor, this was a grittier West with cowboy hats stained with sweat and rundown desert bars populated by opportunists. One could almost say that these "adult Westerns" reflects the influence of film noir on the traditional oater.

Plotwise, Winchester '73 is a revenge tale about Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a sharpshooter obsessed with tracking down and killing a man that calls himself Dutch Henry Brown. Although it quickly becomes apparent that Dutch Henry is a bad man, Lin's reason for revenge isn't revealed until near the film's conclusion (a plot device used later in Once Upon a Time in the West). It's important to note that Lin is not a lawman and he doesn't want to capture Dutch Henry for a reward. He wants to kill the man.

Stewart at his most intense.
This premise could have backfired if not for the casting of the always likable James Stewart as Lin. It was a decision that benefited both the film and the actor. For Stewart, his intense performance was a stark contrast to most of his pre-World War II roles (though it was a natural extension of his performances in films like Rope and even the darker parts of It's a Wonderful Life). It opened a whole new career arc for the actor, who starred in a number of successful Westerns throughout the 1950s and 1960s--including four more helmed by Winchester '73 director Anthony Mann.

A touch of noir from director Mann.
Prior to 1950, Mann had carved out a career making what are now regarded as classic "B" film noirs (e.g., Raw Deal and T-Men). His first Western, Devil's Doorway starring Robert Taylor, was made prior to Winchester '73. However, it was temporarily shelved after a poor press screening and released--with little fanfare--later in 1950. Still, Universal and Stewart had seen a print of Devil's Doorway and decided that Mann was...their man. Stewart once said that Mann, like John Ford, knew that "a Western has to be a visual thing."

Stewart and Mann regular Jay C. Flippen.
Ironically, James Stewart initially agreed to a two-picture deal at Universal only so that he could star in Harvey. Stewart was keen to play the role of Elwood P. Dowd after substituting briefly for Frank Fay in the original Broadway stage production. In the DVD commentary for Winchester '73, Stewart credits his agent Lew Wasserman for suggesting the Western, noting that the script had been rejected by other studios. To keep the budget down, Stewart accept a percentage of the film's profit--a wise financial move that quickly became the standard for big stars.

Shelley Winters as Lola.
While Mann's directorial flourishes (e.g., the mountain shoot-out) dominate much of Winchester '73, the film's narrative style has always fascinated me. The script, penned by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase, weaves three interconnecting storylines: Lin's pursuit of Dutch Henry; the former dance hall girl Lola (Shelley Winters) who plans to marry a rancher (Charles Drake); and Dutch Henry teaming up with the gleefully bad Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) for a robbery. In the film's opening scenes, Lin meets Lola briefly and has a confrontation with Dutch Henry. Then, we follow separate subplots until Lin and Lola reunite during an Indian attack. They separate again, with Lin still looking for Dutch Henry and Lola eventually meeting Waco Johnny Dean, whose gang includes her fiance Steve. As the film ramps up to its conclusion, Lin's search leads him to the same town where Dutch Henry and Waco plan to rob the bank.

In addition to Rock Hudson, Anthony
(Tony) Curtis has a small role.
To add to this rich narrative structure, Lin's Winchester rifle--which he wins during a centennial celebration--changes hands seven times: from Lin to Dutch Henry to an Indian trader (John McIntire) to an Indian leader (Rock Hudson) to Steve to Waco to Dutch Henry to Lin. Whew!

Although it's an exceptional, highly influential film, Winchester '73 is not my favorite James Stewart-Anthony Mann Western. That would be The Far Country or Bend of the River. Those films offer more thematic depth, exploring the importance of family and the power of redemption. They are also in color, which provides Mann with another tool for visual expression. But the fact remains that those Westerns might never have been made if not for the success of Winchester '73.

The same could be said of a lot of other Westerns that followed in its wake.

This post is part of The James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. We strongly encourage you to check out all the great posts in this blogathon by clicking here for the complete schedule.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hatari! (Swahili for "Danger"...English for "Howard Hawks on Vacation in Africa")

In Todd McCarthy's Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, a quote from the famous director describes his 1962 action film Hatari! as: "It's what happens when a bunch of guys get together to can't sit in your office and describe what a rhino is going to do." This is true and it's how Hawks rationalized the flimsy plot that comprises Hatari!. 

John Wayne plays Sean Mercer, who heads a "bunch of guys" that capture wild animals in Africa for zoos. Sean's comrades have colorful nicknames like Pockets (Red Buttons), The Indian (Bruce Cabot), and Chips (Gerard Blain). In between roping giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, and--yes--rhinos, the once-burned Sean falls in love with a female photographer (Elsa Martinelli). Meanwhile, the other men begin to notice that their co-worker Brandy (Michele Girardon), who owns Momella Game, Ltd., has grown into an attractive young woman. That's all that happens during the film's running time of two hours and 37 minutes.

Wayne and Martinelli.
Before you totally write off Hatari!, please note that the action scenes are impressive and the cast is charming. It took me awhile to warm up to Elsa Martinelli, but she and Wayne develop a sweet rapport. There's no romantic chemistry between them--he was twice her age when the film was made. In fact, young actresses were cast opposite Wayne in several of his 1960s films: Martha Hyer in The Sons of Katie Elder; Elizabeth Allen in Donovan's Reef; and Charlene Holt in El Dorado. Personally, I always thought the middle-aged Wayne seemed more at ease playing opposite veteran actresses (Rita Hayworth in Circus World, Maureen O'Hara in McLintock!) or as a father figure (True Grit).

Girardon, who committed suicide
in 1975, and Kruger.
Howard Hawks originally intended Hatari! as a serious vehicle starring Clark Gable and John Wayne as hunters vying for the same woman. However, Gable's salary demands were too steep, so the script was rewritten. Hardy Kruger, three years before his terrific performance in Flight of the Phoenix, was cast as Wayne's chum. The part was rewritten so that Kruger and Buttons competed for Girardon's affections (although this subplot inexplicably peters out).

There are several interesting trivia facts regarding the film's production:
  • All the animals captured in Africa (in what is now Tanzania) were transported to California for additional scenes. When the movie was finished, the animals were donated to the San Diego Zoo.
  • You can spend your vacation at the Hatari Lodge in Tanzania. The lodge used to be Hardy Kruger's farmhouse. The actor fell in love with Africa during the filming of Hatari! and bought a farm with a scenic view of Mount Kilimanjaro.
  • Henry Mancini, who composed the film's score, wrote a snippet of music for the baby elephants. The playful tune became known as the "Baby Elephant Walk" and its fame far exceeded the rest of the film's soundtrack.
Finally, Hawks' fans will surely want to see Hatari! despite its limitations. In McCarthy's book, the author points out similarities between Hatari! and the director's other films. Martinelli befriends a leopard named Sonia and rescues an orphaned elephant who becomes her pet; Katharine Hepburn has a pet leopard in the Hawks' Bringing Up Baby. Sean and his friends engage in a dangerous occupation like Hawks' heroes in Ceiling Zero, Only Angels Have Wings, and Rio Bravo.

McCarthy even mentions that the famous French film critic and director Francois Truffaut once described Hatari! as a reflection on the filmmaking process. I think that's a stretch, but, really, who am I to argue with Truffaut?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Walt Disney's The Sword and the Rose

Mary Tudor, the younger sister of England's King Henry VIII, gets the Disney treatment in 1953's The Sword and the Rose. Glynis Johns stars as the spunky Princess Mary, who falls in love with Charles Brandon (Richard Todd), the dashing captain of the palace guards. When her romance with Brandon threatens the King's plan to marry her off to King Louis XII of France, Mary runs away to join Brandon on a voyage to America. Unfortunately, the young lovers are captured and a displeased Henry VIII accuses Brandon of high treason and imprisons him in the Tower of London. As Brandon awaits his execution, Mary must decide how to save the man she loves.

Richard Todd as Charles Brandon.
The Sword and the Rose was one of four Disney costume adventures produced in Great Britain in the 1950s. The others were Disney's first all live-action film Treasure Island (1950), The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (1953). The latter two films also starred The Sword and the Rose's Richard Todd and James Robertson Justice, while Glynis Johns reunited with her co-stars for Rob Roy. Walt Disney's decision to shoot the films in Great Britain was a financial one. British treasury restrictions prevented him from moving profits from his cartoons to the U.S. He used those funds to establish a British studio that produced live action films through the 1960s.

Johns "disguised" as a boy.
The Sword and the Rose's strongest virtue is its first-rate British cast. Johns is delightful as the mischievous Princess Mary, who knows just how to manipulate her royal brother to get what she wants. She also looks fetching when dressed as Brandon's page. Indeed, her performance and appearance in The Sword and the Rose surely led to her casting as another spunky heroine opposite Danny Kaye in 1955's comedy classic The Court Jester. As for Todd and Justice, they are well-suited to the kind of roles that made them famous: Todd as the swashbuckling hero and Justice as a blustery, but good-hearted, father figure. Michael Gough is also on hand as the de facto villain, a nobleman who wants to be more than friends with the lovely princess.

Robertson as King Henry VIII.
However, despite its acting pedigree, The Sword and the Rose lacks the flair of the decade's best swashbucklers. Until the climax, there's much more rose (an emphasis on Mary and Brandon's romance) than sword (any kind of derring do). Granted, the plot is partially constrained by historical events--though even there, The Sword and the Rose takes liberties. In real life, Brandon was a duke and not the captain of the palace guards; he had already been married two previous times and had two daughters. Plus, Michael Gough's Duke of Buckingham had no interest in Mary. 

The screenplay was based on Charles Major's 1898 novel When Knighthood Was in Flower and filmed previously in 1922 with Marion Davies as Mary Tudor. The Sword and the Rose was retitled When Knighthood Was in Flower when it was broadcast in 1956 in two parts on the Disneyland TV series (later known as Walt Disney Presents and other titles).

Friday, April 4, 2014

We Describe the Movie...You Name It!

Here are the rules to this quiz: Name each film below based on our vague description. Be sure to include the question number with your response. Please don't answer more than three questions daily so others can play, too. There is one film that is the single best answer to each description.

1. Two real-life brothers play detective brothers.

2. A guy has a crush on a girl and names a plant after her.

3. The answer can be found in the connection between a baby and an old man.

4. A wealthy man with a reckless past becomes a brain surgeon.

5. A woman pays $630 to put her name on a billboard for three months.

6. A man is murdered at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel and the house detective and bellboy try to find the culprit.

7. It's Going My Way except it's about doctors instead of priests.

8. A famous actress starred in this film about a trogolodyte. (Bet you learned a new word today! Who said the Cafe isn't educational?)

9. A man dances with a mouse and a cat.

10. Unfortunately, a man who has just consumed a huge meal relents when his waiter insists on a small after-dinner mint.

11. A fight ensues over a soda pop bottle--well, the fight isn't really about the bottle. But if it wasn't for the soda pop bottle, there wouldn't have been a fight that day.

12. The title of the film has nothing to do with an insect nor the devil.

13. His best friend is a skunk.

14. His best friend is a rat.

15. The president is kidnapped on a golf course.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Five Best Fred MacMurray Performances

A versatile performer in film and television for five decades, Fred MacMurray deserved more opportunities to display his acting talents. Still, when he got the chance to bite into a good role, he did so convincingly--whether it was in a Billy Wilder film noir or a Walt Disney family comedy. Below are our picks for his six best performances--yes, there's a tie for the fifth spot. Do you agree? Disagree? As always, all feedback is welcomed.

1. Double Indemnity - Fred gave a career-defining performance as the cynical protagonist of Billy Wilder's classic film noir. His insurance salesman is no fool; he realizes that Barbara Stanwyck's femme fatale is up to no good from their first meeting. However, he also knows that he can't resist her and thus is pulled into a web of deceit and murder. Amazingly, MacMurray keeps the audience from despising his character. His genuine friendship with nice guy Edward G. Robinson helps, as does the feeling that he knows he's doing wrong, but is powerless to do anything about it.

2. The Apartment - There is nothing redeeming about Jeff Sheldrake, a corporate executive that uses his position for personal gain, cheats on his wife, and lies to his mistress. MacMurray, reteaming with Billy Wilder, plays Sheldrake with a hard edge. The only time he displays what appears to be genuine emotion is when he tells his mistress that he's leaving his wife--and, of course, that turns out to be a ploy, too. Sheldrake is a jerk and Fred plays him beautifully.

3. Murder, He Says - I'm surprised this cult comedy hasn't gained a more mainstream reputation over the years. Fred plays a pollster trying to find a missing co-worker who was sent to interview the backwoods Fleagle clan (headed by matriarch Marjorie Main). MacMurray grounds the film as the bewildered hero plopped into a plot about hidden gold, murder, assumed identities, and a seemingly nonsensical song. He and Marjorie Main play off each other extremely well. They later appeared together in the more popular The Egg and I, which led to the Ma and Pa Kettle film series.

4. Remember the Night - Prior to Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck starred in this charming romance about a prosecutor and a shoplifter who fall in love over the Christmas holidays as she awaits trial. It's an unlikely premise, of course, but the two stars pull it off nicely and Preston Sturges' script carefully navigates through the film's more sentimental scenes. Though some people find the ending disappointing, I love it--primarily because it's true to MacMurray's character.

5. Quantez - The best of MacMurray's 1950s Westerns is a nifty character drama about an outlaw gang hiding out in a ghost town en route to Mexico. MacMurray's bandit, while the toughest and most rugged of the lot, is also the one least prone to condone violence. It's no surprise that he's harboring a secret past, but the way in which it's revealed is the highlight of this intriguing little picture.

5. The Absent-Minded Professor - Fred is perfectly cast as an (what else?) absent-minded college professor who gets so caught up with his experiments that he forgets his own wedding. Fortunately, his latest invention, Flubber, eventually saves the day. During the latter part of his career, Fred specialized in family films, often playing occasionally befuddled fathers in comedies like The Shaggy Dog and The Happiest Millionaire and on TV in My Three Sons. It's fascinating to watch him playing those parts with such ease after a recent viewing of Double Indemnity or The Apartment.

Honorable Mentions: The Caine Mutiny; Take a Letter, Darling; and Alice Adams.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Five Hunks Who Coulda Been Stars!

Earlier this week, we profiled five lovely actresses who certainly had the looks to become major stars (click here to read that post). While some of them had solid careers, stardom eluded them. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of timing in the film business. Today, we turn our sights to five handsome actors who seemed destined for bigger things, but never quite made it.

Grant Williams. Best known for his first-rate performance in the sci fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Williams seemed to be on the cusp of stardom in the 1950s. He signed with Warner Bros. in 1960 and became relegated to supporting roles in films like Susan Slade (he played Susan's mountain-climbing lover Conn White). Even worse, he was cast in the 1959-63 TV series Hawaiian Eye midway through its run. The overexposure did not help his screen career; his last major film role was in PT 109, in which he was listed fifth in the cast. Through the rest of the 1960s, he guest starred in TV series such as Perry Mason and Bonanza. His last screen appearance was in the low-budget sci fi film Brain of Blood. Williams, who had studied acting with Lee Strasberg, subsequently opened a drama school. He died at age 53 of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen wall.

Tom Conway. With a debonair disposition and distinctive voice, Tom Conway seemed poised to follow his brother's path from "B" films to major motion pictures. But whereas his sibling, George Sanders, crafted a memorable career as a supporting player and occasional lead, Conway languished in low-budget mysteries and horror films. Some of his 1940s "B" films were first-rate, specifically The Falcon and the Co-eds and his three Val Lewton movies. Unfortunately, good roles became scarce in the 1950s and his career took a downturn. Alcholism took its toll in the 1960s and a newspaper article revealed that Conway was practically broke and living in a cheap flophouse. He died in 1967, at age 62, from cirrhosis of the liver.

Gardner McKay. After a short stint in a TV Western called Boots and Saddles, Gardner McKay was cast in Adventures in Paradise, a 1959-62 television series based on the works of James A Michener. He became an instant TV heartthrob and was sought after for film roles when the series ended. He turned down a chance to star opposite Marilyn Monroe in Something's Got to Give. Indeed, post-Paradise, McKay appeared in only two movies before retiring from acting. One of those films was The Pleasure Seekers, a pleasant remake of Three Coins in the Fountain, which highlighted his easygoing charm. McKay became a sculptor, novelist, and playwright. His art work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and he won the L.A. Drama Critics' Circle Award for his play Sea Marks. He died of prostate cancer at age 69.

John Dall. He earned an Oscar nomination opposite Bette Davis for The Corn Is Green, had a major role in Hitchcock's Rope, and starred in a famous cult film (Gun Crazy). And yet, John Dall never achieved stardom and, in fact, appeared in only eight films during a 15-year acting career. That would lead one to assume that he focused on a stage career, but he only appeared in four Broadway plays. His biggest stage success was in Dear Ruth. He played the role of Lieutenant William Seawright in the original 1944 production for 680 performances--only to see the 1947 film role go to William Holden.

George Maharis. For those that question the handsome Maharis' acting ability, I recommend that you watch the first two seasons of Route 66. Maharis had the best role of his career as the street-smart, passionate Buz Murdock and shined in episodes like "Birdcage on My Foot" (which co-starred Robert Duvall as a drug addict trying to go "cold turkey"). Maharis abruptly left Route 66 during its third season, with the reasons varying as to why. Except for the tense thriller The Satan Bug (1965), his film choices were poor and he returned to television for the short-lived 1970 TV series The Most Deadly Game. He was arrested for "sexual perversion" in 1974, though he continued to act on television after that. His last film appearance was in 1993. He lives in Beverly Hills and New York City and creates impressionist paintings.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Five Babes Who Coulda Been Stars!

Timing and looks are almost as important as talent when it comes to becoming a star of the silver screen. Editing room floors have been littered for years with actors that may have had the talent--and definitely had the looks--to earn star status. But alas, their timing was wrong for one reason or another. Today, we pay tribute to five beautiful actresses who never achieved headline status. Some of them had solid careers; others made just a handful of films. And, yes, we will devote a similar post to five handsome hunks later this week.

Helen Gilbert. Except for an early lead role opposite Robert Young and Charles Coburn in the horse film Florian, this blonde beauty spent her career in "B" films. She logged appearances in the Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, and Falcon series. Her most memorable role was as the femme fatale in The Falcon Takes Over, a solid revamped version of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe mystery Farewell, My Lovely. She acted sporadically in the 1940s before moving to television in the 1950s. She was married six times! Johnny Stompanato was one of her husbands--if only for six months. A bodyguard for gangster Mickey Cohen, Stompanato later dated Lana Turner, whose daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed and killed him after she claimed Stompanato had attacked her mother.

Susan Hart. American International Pictures was grooming this stunning brunette for bigger roles--until she retired from acting a few years after marrying the company's co-founder. Susan Hart appeared in several Beach Party movies as one of "the gang" and played the title character in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. None of these films did much for her career. She fared better as Tab Hunter's love interest in Ride the Wild Surf, a Beach Party-like flick released by Columbia Pictures. She also showed her comedy chops as a robot created by mad scientist Vincent Price in the wacky Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. In 1964, she married producer James H. Nicholson; she was 24, he was 49. When he died in 1972, she helped complete his films Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and The Legend of Hell House. Susan Hart spent her later years helping to raise funds for the UCLA Medical Center. She owns the rights to several of her husband's films, which have never been released on video--much to the dismay of many "B" movie fans.

Diane McBain. Signed by Warner Bros. while still a teen, Diane McBain appeared to be on the fast track to stardom in 1960-61. First, she got a plum supporting role in the big-budget Richard Burton-Robert Ryan film Ice Palace. She followed that with a juicy part as a "bad girl" in Parrish and as the "poor white trash" heroine of Claudelle Inglish (both 1961). Concurrently, Warners cast her as a blonde-haired socialite opposite Troy Donahue (his Parrish co-star) in the lighthearted detective TV series Surfside 6. Although the TV series provided steady work, it may also have overexposed her. The once-promising actress soon became typecast as the flighty socialite or bad girl. She worked steadily as a television guest star for the next few decades and in occasional movies--but never appeared in another "A" picture.

Ilaria Occhini. Unless you've seen 1962's Damon and Pythias, you've probably never heard of Ms. Occhini. She was one of several Italian beauties to appear opposite English-language co-stars in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, while some of these actresses became international stars--such as Claudia Cardinale and Sylva Koscina--Ilaria Occhini did not. That's not to say she didn't have a successful film and television career in her own country, racking up 52 acting credits through 2012. Undoubtedly, the dubbing in Damon and Pythias made it hard for U.S. audiences to judge her thespian skills, but the camera certainly seemed to love her.

Joanna Frank. Her career started with a splash with memorable appearances as Vartuhi  in Elia Kazan's America, America (1963) and as the "bee woman" in the classic Outer Limits episode "Zzzzz." However, after a guest spot on The Fugitive, Joanna Frank limited her screen appearances and eventually left Hollywood in the late 1960s. She appeared in occasional guest roles over the next two decades. Then, she returned to Tinseltown in 1986 to play a recurring role as Sheila Brackman on the hit TV series L.A. Law. Of course, L.A. Law was a family affair: her younger brother Steven Bochco co-created the show while she played the wife of Douglas Brackman--who was portrayed by real-life husband Alan Rachins. Still, many TV fans will always remember her as the dark-haired beauty from The Outer Limits. In a documentary on that show, Frank says the producers wanted the bee-turned-woman to be a strawberry blonde--but Frank insisted on the stylish dark-hair look.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Errol Flynn Theatre

By 1956, Errol Flynn was no longer in demand in Hollywood. He had already moved to Europe to star in international productions such as the Italian-made Crossed Swords (with Gina Lollobrigida) and the British-lensed King's Rhapsody and The Dark Avenger (aka The Warriors). He had also dabbled in U.S. television by playing the title role in The Sword of Villon, an episode of the half-hour anthology series Screen Directors Playhouse. (Ronald Colman had played French poet and rogue Francois Villon years earlier in the movie If I Were King.)

So, it made sense for Flynn to follow in the footsteps of former screen stars like Dick Powell and Loretta Young and host his own anthology series. The Errol Flynn Theatre debuted in 1956 and ran for a single season consisting of 27 half-hour episodes. The first episode, The Evil Thought, starring Christopher Lee, was actually produced three years earlier as a pilot for a failed series. England's Bray Studios, which later became home to Hammer Films, provided production facilities for Flynn's show. However, its target audience was American television viewers. Unlike the aforementioned anthology series, Errol's show played in syndication only and was not shown on network television.

Patrice Wymore.
Flynn introduced each episode and appeared in every fourth one. His most frequent co-star was his wife, Patrice Wymore, but the anthology series featured several well-known stars: Paulette Goddard, Christopher Lee, Glynis Johns, Herbert Lom, June Havoc, Mai Zetterling, and Brian Aherne. According to some sources, eighteen of the episodes have been lost. The visual and sound quality of the surviving episodes is iffy at best, which isn't unusual for a 1950s television series.

Errol and son Sean in "Strange Auction."
In 1990, a video company called TV Gold released a VHS tape containing three episodes of The Errol Flynn Theatre: "The Duel" (with Flynn); "The Sealed Room" (starring Glynis Johns and Herbert Lom); and Strange Auction" (with Flynn, his wife Patrice Wymore, and son Sean Flynn). I watched all three episodes recently and, sadly, none of them are very good. The best is probably "The Sealed Room," a tale of a woman who begins to remember events that occurred hundreds of years earlier. Still, it's fun to watch Errol go all out as a despicable villain in "The Duel" and portray a lovable rake in "Strange Auction" (though his Irish accent comes and goes). The latter also provides a rare opportunity to see Errol play opposite his wife Patrice and son Sean (whose real-life mother was actress Lili Damita).

Errol Flynn's career perked up briefly after the demise of The Errol Flynn Theatre. A supporting role in 1957's The Sun Also Rises earned him his best reviews in years and there was even talk about a possible Oscar nomination. That never happened, of course, but it led to other roles in major motion pictures like Too Much, Too Soon and The Roots of Heaven (both 1958). Errol Flynn died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 50.

This post is part of the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon hosted by our friend Aurora at How Sweet It Was. Click here for more information on this blogathon.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Family Business: Actors with a Classic Film Star Parent

I recently watched Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which co-starred the adult children of John Wayne and Tyrone Power. So, I thought it'd be fun to write about actors that were the children of classic film stars. The challenge with this kind of post is narrowing the topic to a manageable size. You could write a book on it (and there probably is one). Also, many movie star children became famous in their own right (e.g., Michael Douglas, Lon Chaney, Jr., Carrie Fisher, the Barrymores, the Carradines, etc.). For this post, I just want to focus on a handful of lesser-known--but still interesting--classic film star offspring.

Sean Flynn - Errol Flynn's son with Lili Damita made his acting debut at age 15 opposite his father and stepmother Patrice Wymore in an episode of The Errol Flynn Theatre. His first film was 1960's Where the Boys Are, though he was uncredited and you'll miss him if you blink. He spent the rest of the decade starring in European films, the most famous being The Son of Captain Blood. He left acting in 1966 and became a respected photojournalist. He was under contract to Time Magazine when he disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. It's now believed that he and fellow photojournalist Dana Stone were captured by guerillas and later killed. Sean Flynn was declared legally dead by his mother in 1984.

Taryn Power - The daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian was born in 1953 and was only five when her father died of a heart attack. She appeared in just eight movies, with the most notable ones being The Count of Monte Cristo (1975) with Richard Chamberlain and the Ray Harryhausen fantasy Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). The latter film also starred Patrick Wayne, the son of John Wayne.

Jody McCrea - Best known as a regular in the Beach Party films, Joel Dee McCrea's parents were Joel McCrea and Frances Dee. After a stint in the Army, he had small parts in several 1950s films and co-starred with his father in the short-lived TV Western Wichita Town. He appeared in six of the seven Beach Party movies playing the same dull-witted character who was known as Deadhead (Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party), Bonehead (Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), or Big Lunk (Pajama Party). He even recorded a novelty song in support of Bikini Beach. Jody retired from acting in 1970 and became a rancher. He died in 2009 at the age of 74.

Christopher Mitchum - The second son of Robert and Dorothy Mitchum appeared in over 60 films from the 1970s through the 1990s, including three John Wayne Westerns: Chism, Rio Lobo, and Big Jake. He served on the Board of Directors for the Screen Actors Guild in the 1980s. A political conservative, he ran for a Congressional seat in 2012 and plans to run again later this year. He and his wife Cindy have been married since 1964 and have four children.

James Mitchum - Robert and Dorothy Mitchum's oldest son made his first credited appearance in his father's moonshine drive-in classic Thunder Road (1958). He played his father's younger brother! He carved out a niche as a supporting player, sometimes playing unsavory characters (he's the de facto villain in Ride the Wild Surf, one of my favorite sand-and-surf pictures). His only "A" picture was the all-star In Harm's Way (1965).

Patrick Wayne - Born Patrick John Morrison in 1939, the Duke's son appeared in nine movies with his father and had significant roles in McLintock!, The Green Berets, and Big Jake. He performed admirably as the dashing lead in two modest 1977 fantasy films: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and The People That Time Forgot. Alas, major stardom eluded him, though he continued to appear regularly in films and on television throughout the 1980s.

Mary Crosby - The daughter of Bing Crosby and Kathryn Grant is best known for playing Sue Ellen's sister, Kristin Shepard, on the TV series Dallas. The devious Kristin secured her place in the annals of TV history when it was revealed that she shot J.R. in one of the highest-rated TV episodes of all time. Mary Crosby has appeared in numerous TV series and miniseries. She had little success on the big screen, though she made a spunky heroine in the action-fantasy The Ice Pirates. It's interesting to note that Mary's mother was the female lead in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which sorta connects Mary to Patrick Wayne and Taryn Power.

Friday, March 14, 2014

From the Cafe's Bookshelf: "Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies"

Fans of the Beach Party movies and other 1960s surfing flicks will find no better spring break reading than Thomas Lisanti's Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969. Originally published in 2005 and reprinted as a paperback in 2012, Lisanti's book provides a comprehensive look at the genre from Gidget (1959) to The Sweet Ride (1969). While other books have covered these films in the context of 1960s pop culture, Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies goes behind the scenes with production details provided by veteran stars such as Shelley Fabares and Jody McCrea.

Sandra Dee and Cliff Robertson
in Gidget.
Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies is divided into three parts: an introduction; entries on each of the 32 films covered; and biographical sketches of selected performers. The introduction provides an historical overview, starting with Frederick Kohner's novel Gidget, which was based on his teenage daughter Kathy's obsession with surfing. Beginning the film version of Gidget, Lisanti traces the evolution of the beach movie genre and the influence of films such as Where the Boys AreBeach Party, and The Endless Summer.While the author states that his "book does not contain in-depth analyses about the films in terms of their cultural importance," his introduction nonetheless offers insight into what made them popular and why they faded by the end of the decade.

Still, the focus of Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies is on the individual movies. For each film, Lisanti lists the complete credits, describes the plot, provides quotes from reviews, and--best of all--takes the reader behind the scenes for fascinating trivia, such as:
  • The Beach Party series almost starred Fabian and Sandra Dee instead of Frankie and Annette.
  • American International Pictures originally intended Bikini Beach for the Beatles--until the band's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show made their salaries too costly.
  • Nancy Sinatra was first offered the role of Sugar Kane (played by Linda Evans) in Beach Blanket Bingo.
  • Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield wrote two title songs for Where the Boys Are. The version they and Connie Francis preferred was not the one selected by producer Joe Pasternak. The Pasternak-preferred song became a huge hit, of course, and Connie's signature song.
Lisanti quotes frequently from many of the performers who appeared in these movies, particularly Jody McCrea, Aron Kincaid, and Luree Nicholson (daughter of AIP co-founder James H. Nicholson). Although the genre's biggest stars--Frankie and Annette--did not participate in interviews for the book, they are liberally quoted from other sources. McCrea offers an interesting perspective on his co-stars: "I got along very well with Frankie and Annette because I left them alone. They always had many lines to memorize or songs to sing. I just concentrated on my part and didn't fraternize with either of them at all."

Jody McCrea and Mary Hughes.
The comprehensiveness of Lisanti's film coverage is commendable. He does a fine job highlighting lesser-known films of interest such as The Girls on the Beach, A Swingin' Summer, and cult fave Ride the Wild Surf. Indeed, the only obvious omission is the Troy Donahue-Stefanie Powers 1963 romp Palm Springs Weekend. While it doesn't take place at a beach, it certainly fits within the genre. Plus, Lisanti does includes other non-beach efforts like the aforementioned A Swinging' Summer (Lake Arrowhead) and Ski Party (and its imitators).

In the third section of Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies, Lisanti profiles "a select number of actors and actresses who made their marks in...the genre." It would have been helpful to include the criteria for selection, for there are some notable omissions, to include: Harvey Lembeck, Bobbie Shaw, Dwayne Hickman, Timothy Carey, and Donna Loren. These performers are mentioned throughout the book, so it's not as if the author ignores them. It's just that their contributions to beach movies seems as notable as profiled performers Kincaid, Ed Garner, and Peter Brown (who only appeared in one surf movie).

Still, such criticisms amount to mere quibbles. With an exhaustive bibliography, an index, and 96 photos, this 456-page reference volume is highly recommended for fans of the beach movie genre and for libraries with extensive film book collections. So, the next time you head to the beach, be sure to grab your surfboard, your sun tan lotion, some Beach Party DVDs, and a copy of Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies!

McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers provided a review copy of this book.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Beach Boys Harmonize While Kookie Stays in Orbit!

With its Beach Party series thriving at the box office in 1964, American International Pictures (AIP) was anxious to make a movie with surf music's supergroup: The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson, working with songwriting partners Roger Christian and Gary Usher, had already contributed six tunes to Frankie and Annette's Muscle Beach Party (1964). However, according to Marshall Crenshaw's Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'n' Roll in the Movies, the Beach Boys' AIP film deal fell apart when the studio insisted on retaining the soundtrack rights.

The Beach Boys.
While the Beach Boys never headlined their own movie, Paramount did feature them later that year in The Girls on the Beach. The title song, written by Wilson and performed by the Beach Boys, appeared on their sixth studio album All Summer Long. The group also appeared in the movie, but only long enough to sing "Little Honda."

The focus on The Girls on the Beach is the Beatles--and they never appear in the movie! The premise has a trio of girls trying to raise $10,000 to save their sorority house. After several futile fundraising efforts (e.g., a bake sale, a beauty contest), they meet three guys who--trying to sound impressive--claims to know Paul, John, George, and Ringo. The girls decide that a Beatles concert is a surefire way to save the Alpha Beta House!

It's a silly plot, to be sure, but the cast is likable and the music good. In addition to the Beach Boys, Leslie Gore and the Crickets (who continued after Buddy Holly's death) perform jaunty tunes. Carol Connors dubs for actress Noreen Corcoran on a couple of songs, including the marvelously-titled "We Wanna Marry a Beatle." Connors was formerly lead singer of the Teddy Bears, who scored a huge pop hit with "To Know Him Is To Love Him." Years later, she co-wrote "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky.

Kincaid and friends.
Among the cast, the most recognizable performers are Ahna Capri, Lana Wood (Natalie's sister), and Aron Kincaid. Ahna Capri would go to play John Saxon's brief love interest in Enter the Dragon. Lana Wood's most famous film appearance was as Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds Are Forever. Kincaid, a beach movie veteran, would appear in two AIP films, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (with Deborah Walley) and  Ski Party (his best role as a campus heart-throb who falls for Dwayne Hickman dressed as a girl), and Paramount's Beach Ball.

The second half of this "Spring Break" double-feature, Beach Ball stars Edd Byrnes--forever known as Kookie from the TV series 77 Sunset Strip. Less charming than The Girls on the Beach, Beach Ball is best known for its incredible musical line-up: Diana Ross and Supremes, The Four Seasons (who sing "Dawn"), the Righteous Brothers, the Hondells, and the Walker Brothers.

In between the musical numbers, there's a plot about Byrnes trying to get a grant (!) so his band, The Wigglers, won't have to return to their instruments to the music store. The best thing about Beach Ball is that the plot doesn't get in the way of the music. Plus, it's fun watching Byrnes trying to act super cool. When a girl asks him to leave the dance floor so they can chat, he quips: "Don't bug me, baby. I'm in orbit."

Neither of these two Paramount forays into the 1960s surf musicals compares favorably with AIP's Beach Party series (no Annette, no Eric Von Zipper!). Still, they're entertaining in a silly way and, if you're a fan of 1960s rock-and-pop music, it's a rare opportunity to watch some of the decade's biggest acts.