Thursday, April 23, 2015

Two Classic Shows, Two Unusual Takes on Jack the Ripper

Numerous TV series and films have offered imaginative twists on the mysterious murderer that terrorized the Whitechapel district of London in the late 1880s. Two of my favorite big screen versions are the time travel fantasy Time After Time (1979), which pits H.G. Wells against the Ripper and A Study in Terror (1965), which has Sherlock Holmes facing off against Jack (a premise borrowed by the later Murder By Decree). Two of the most intriguing small-screen Ripper tales appeared as episodes of Thriller and the original Star Trek. Interestingly, Robert Bloch--best known for writing the novel that became Psycho--had a hand in both TV series.

John Williams in Thriller.
The Thriller episode "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" starred John Williams (a Hitchcock semi-regular) as an expert engaged by the Washington, D.C. police to help apprehend a modern day Ripper-like murderer. As the gruesome killings mount, a fantastic theory emerges: Is the murderer actually Jack the Ripper himself, who has used black magic rituals to defy ageing? It’s a clever premise and the big twist at the end works pretty well (even though you’ll guess it). Although Bloch wrote several episodes of Thriller, this teleplay was written was Barré Lyndon and based on a Bloch short story. Published in 1947, the story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” originally appeared in Weird Tales. It was the first of several literary works in which Robert Bloch incorporated Jack the Ripper.

This episode also features several Hitchcockian connections. First, it was directed by Ray Milland, who played the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. The police inspector in that film? That would be John Williams. Decades earlier, Hitchcock also tackled Jack the Ripper with his 1927 silent film The Lodger, which was adapted from a short story and play by Marie Belloc Lowndes. And, for one final connection, the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” boasts some Ripper overtones with its plot about a strangler running amok in a very foggy London.

John Fiedler in Star Trek.
Star Trek seems like an unlikely destination for Jack the Ripper, which is precisely what makes “Wolf in the Fold” a compelling season two episode. While on shore leave on the planet Argelius II, a bewildered Scotty is  found—bloody knife in hand—standing over the corpse of a nightclub dancer. He has no recollection of what happened, but the evidence is damning and chief administrator Hengist (John Fiedler) seems convinced that Scotty is guilty.

For many years, I listed this as one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. I viewed it recently, though, and while still good, it hasn’t aged as well as others. Still, Fiedler is very good (he’s perhaps best remembered as Piglet in Disney Winnie the Pooh movies and TV shows). This time around, Bloch wrote an original teleplay and borrowed the central premise of “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” There are some nice touches, too, such as the foggy streets on Argelius substituting for London and Kirk’s use of the ship’s computer in revealing the murderer’s identity.

Television continues to sporadically visit the Jack the Ripper murders, with season one of the 2009-2013 British TV series Whitechapel focusing on a copycat  killer.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2015)

How are Gary Cooper and Robert Reed
In this edition of the connection game, you will once again 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. Deborah Kerr and Juliet Mills.

2. Alan Hale, Jr. and Charles Laughton.

3. Joel McCrea and Richard Chamberlain.

4. Fredric March and James Stewart.

5. Gary Cooper and Robert Reed.

6. Stewart Granger and Christopher Lee.

7. Richard Basehart and Walter Pidgeon.

8. Glynis Johns and Ann Blyth.

9. Jon Provost and Nigel Bruce.

10. Bela Lugosi and Acquanetta.

11. Elliott Gould and Robert Montgomery.

12. Fredric March and Bill Bixby.

13. Robin Williams and Mary Martin.

14. Peter Lawford and Jim Hutton.

15. Arthur Hill and George Maharis.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

An Interview with "In the Company of Legends" Authors Joan Kramer and David Heeley

In their new book, In the Company of Legends, Joan Kramer and David Heeley chronicle their experiences while producing documentaries about some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. Beginning with Fred Astaire: Puttin’ on His Top Hat, Kramer and Heeley have profiled iconic performers such as Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, John Garfield, and Errol Flynn. They also produced documentaries celebrating the 80th anniversary of Universal Pictures and the 75th anniversary of Columbia Pictures. Their prestigious work has been recognized by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Directors Guild of America, and the CableACE Awards voters. Joan Kramer and David Heeley recently appeared on TCM, which screened their programs, and were interviewed in Newsweek. Amazingly, they still had time to sit down with the Café for an interview.

Café:  Your first Fred Astaire documentary opened a lot of doors for future productions. What were the keys to getting that first one produced?

Joan Kramer & David Heely:  Persistence and luck. Astaire did not want a show produced about him, and made that clear. Because he was a public figure, we proceeded anyway, not knowing that he controlled the usage of excerpts from his earlier (RKO) films.  Had we known, we likely would have given up the first time he said “No”. This was where it paid to be (partially) ignorant. In the end he gave us his permission “because of your tenacity”.

Café:  Other than securing some very elusive interviews, what were some of the greatest challenges in making your specials?

Kramer & Heeley:  It’s a boring answer, but financing was always the first hurdle to overcome. With that in place, and the interviewees lined up, we had to secure rights to all the materials we needed to illustrate our subject’s career. This was a big challenge in the Astaire shows, because MGM did not want to license any clips that were in their highly successful, and lucrative, series of That’s Entertainment movies. When we came to doing profiles about or with Katharine Hepburn, we used her to twist some arms for us.  Editing was never an easy task, as we were trying to tell a person’s life story in a limited amount of time – sometimes under an hour. Decisions about what to leave out could be excruciatingly difficult.

Café:  You convinced a lot of reluctant celebrities to give interviews. Which one was the most satisfying from that perspective?

Kramer & Heeley:  Persuading Katharine Hepburn to let us do a show about her in 1980--even though she would not appear in it -  was perhaps the most significant “Yes” of all, because that opened the door to many other shows, as well as to a rewarding friendship that lasted many years.

The authors with Robert Osborne on TCM.
Café:  What criteria do you consider when selecting an individual to profile?

Kramer & Heeley:  We were looking first for someone who was a legend in the world of movies, someone from that magical era when all the stars seemed to be just out of reach. The second criterion was that the person had not been profiled before, or if they had, the profile was less than comprehensive. We were lucky that, at the time we were making these shows, there was still a relatively large number of people who filled the bill.

Café:  Just doing the research for the interviews must have been time-consuming. From inception to final cut, how long on average did it take to make one of your documentaries?

Kramer & Heeley:  Research was definitely time consuming, because we knew we had to get everything right. The odds were that these shows would be around for a long time, and could well become the definitive biographies of their subjects. That said, the research period could be immensely satisfying, especially when we were able to dig up long lost material, or something that no-one had ever seen before, or find that established “facts” were not what happened after all.  A year of production was not unusual, though often we had much less than that.

Café:  I know it'd be putting you on the spot to ask which show was your favorite one...but which show was your favorite and why?

Kramer & Heeley:  Ask a parent who is their favorite child. Fred Astaire would never say who was his favorite partner. Hedging when that question is asked is not just to avoid having favorites, it’s because each show was in its own way special. We hope that comes across in the book. Many people choose Katharine Hepburn: All About Me. That is understandable, because it had a unique format (no-one on the show except Hepburn herself) and was the culmination of many years working with her. It’s certainly near the top of the list. But we’d prefer you to make that choice for us.

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

Kramer & Heeley:  Making those shows was very satisfying, but also very hard work. They required the sort of energy output on a daily basis for months at a time that neither of us has anymore. We’ve retired from the movie and television production business, but we have enjoyed writing this book. Let’s see how it is received.

This post originated on the Classic Film & TV Cafe. If you are reading it on World Cinema Blog or another site that scraped this content, please go to the legal web site.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Joe 90

After the dark Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson launched the youth-oriented Joe 90 TV series in 1968. Joe 90 replicates the lifelike puppets, elaborate miniature sets, and--to a lesser extent--the espionage themes from Captain Scarlet. However, the similarities end there, with Joe 90 centering on a nine-year-old lead character--sort of the British answer to Jonny Quest. Like Jonny, Joe's father, Dr. Ian McClaine, is a genius scientist.

Joe in the BIG RAT.
Unlike Jonny, Joe becomes the subject of one of his father's experiments! With Joe sitting inside a device called the Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record and Transfer (BIG RAT), his father transfers his brain patterns to his son. For a limited time, Joe can recall and apply Dad's knowledge (e.g., Joe can answer any physics question). The amount of time that Joe can retain another person's knowledge can be extended with a pair of specially-equipped glasses.

When "Uncle" Sam Loover of the World Intelligence Network (WIN) witnesses this experiment, he immediately sees the potential for using Joe to perform intelligence missions. Dr. McClaine protests initally, but eventually allows Joe to become a WIN agent.

Joe wearing his special glasses.
On the surface, Joe 90 works nicely as an imaginative Jonny Quest variation. However, on closer examination, it presents a very different view of childhood. Joe has no friends his own age, he lives in an isolated house with his father, and he's often placed in harm's way by a trusted family friend. In one episode, a mission requires him to hide inside a box of armaments being hijacked. Sam even issues Joe his own handgun (one designed for his small friends). Joe not only engages in shoot-outs with the bad guys, but he's also willing to use a hand grenade to kill one (we don't see the Mafia-like kingpin die, but it's obvious no one could have survived the explosion). Hey, Jonny Quest never killed anyone!

Angela watching another agent die.
Action set pieces are a staple of the Andersons' Supermarionation productions and Joe 90 does't disappoint in that area. However, the series places a greater emphasis on human relationships (perhaps in response to criticism directed at the action-oriented Captain Scarlet). In the episode "Three's a Crowd," Joe learns that his father's new girlfriend, reporter Angela Davies, is an enemy spy. After Joe confronts her, Angela breaks up with Dr. McClaine, as Joe watches silently from the shadows. From his expression, it's unclear whether Joe feels sad for his father or perhaps relief that the person who came between father and son is no longer a threat.

On 14 April 2015, Timeless Media Group will release a DVD boxed set of all 30 episodes of Joe 90. Bonus features includes a Gerry Anderson interview and two commentaries, one by series director Ken Turner and the other by designer Mike Trim. As with Timeless Media's previous Gerry Anderson releases, the picture quality is excellent. You can view our unofficial trailer for Joe 90 and the other Supermarionation boxed set by clicking here.

Timeless Media Group provided a review copy of Joe 90.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Five Best Jean Renoir Films

My movie blogger friend Richard Finch recently started a Facebook Group on Foreign Film Classics. That inspired me to come up with a "Five List" list for my favorite foreign-language film director.

1. The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) - Best described as a "comic tragedy," Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece focuses on three themes: the relationship between and among the frivolous upper-class and their servants; the complex emotions between men and women; and the boundaries and expectations of society (the "rules of the game"). I first saw it in a college film class in the 1970s and it left a lasting impression. Although some contemporary audiences may find parts of it dated, it’s easy to see why critics often rank Rules alongside Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films ever made.

2. A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) - Renoir began shooting this film in 1936, but bad weather delayed the production to the point that the director abandoned it. Ten years later, his film editor and lover, Marguerite Houllé-Renoir, edited the remaining footage into a 40-minute film. I'm not sure of Jean Renoir's original intentions, but I can't imagine how a longer running time could have improved this lyrical ode to fleeting love. It's probably the closest he came to capturing his father Auguste's Impressionist paintings on celluloid. The simple plot follows a working-class family's outing to the country. While the father and son fish, the mother has a carefree fling and the daughter experiences deeper emotions that will linger through the years. My only regret is that it wasn't shot in color.

3. The Crime of Monsieur Lange - When a ruthless publisher fakes his death and disappears, the company's remaining employees form a cooperative to carry on the business. A meek clerk, Amédée Lange, encounters great success with his Western pulp novels about Arizona Jim. He and the publisher's former mistress also fall in love. Life is wonderful--until then the "dead man" unexpectedly reappears. A deceptively complex film, The Crime of Monsieur Lange was considered controversial at the time because of its politics (the cooperative representing Communistism) and the ending (no spoilers here). However, my fondess for the film owes more to its charm, Renoir's use of the courtyard setting (foreshadowing Rear Window?), and the cinematography (highlighted by a stunning, for the time, camera shot at the climax).

4. French Cancan - Renoir's celebration of show business is rightfully noted for the director's brilliant use of color. The vivid images seem to burst from the screen or, as Francois Truffaut wrote more concisely: "Each shot in French Cancan is a popular poster...with beautiful blacks, marooons, and beiges." As for the story, it follows a music hall impressario named Danglard (Jean Gabin) who creates Moulin Rouge. Danglard uses people to create his vision, particularly the young impressionable women that he molds into stars. He could have been an unsavory character, but veteran actor Gabin applies his extensive charm to the part. He convinces us that Danglard loves the theater above all else and that, in the end, his motives are justified for the sake of art.

A colorful set from French Cancan (1955).
5. La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) - Film noir had yet to defined in 1938, but Renoir's dark tale of a disturbed railway worker manipulated by a femme fatale into a murder plot certainly meets the genre's criteria. In fact, the source novel by Emile Zola also formed the basis for Fritz Lang's classic 1954 noir Human Desire. Renoir's original stars Simone Simon as Séverine, who is seduced by her godfather, forced by her husband to participate in homicide, and then sleeps with the railway worker (Gabin). It's a tour de force performance for the actress known to American audiences mostly for Cat People. However, it's the film's fatalism that makes La Bête Humaine so haunting.

Honorable Mentions:  Grand Illusion (which ranks #1 or #2 on most Renior lists); Boudu Saved from Drowning (remade in the U.S. as Down and Out in Beverly Hills); and The River.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Longstreet: The Way of the Intercepting Fist

In the 1971 made-for-TV movie Longstreet, James Franciscus played a insurance investigator who lost his wife and sight during an explosion intended to kill him. Determined to find the criminals responsible, Mike Longstreet has to learn first how to live with his blindness. He gets ample support from his assistant Nikki (Martine Beswick), best friend Duke (Bradford Dillman), and Pax, a white German Shepherd that becomes his seeing-eye dog.

Marilyn Mason and Franciscus.
As was often ABC's practice, the movie doubled as a pilot for a prospective TV show. The regular series debuted that fall with Marilyn Mason replacing Martine Beswick and Peter Mark Richman taking over as Duke. Set in New Orleans, the premise had Longstreet investigating various cases, often for the Great Pacific Insurance Company (where Duke worked). Stirling Silliphant created the series, which was loosely inspired by a series of novels by Baynard Kendrick about a blind private detective.

A prolific script writer, Silliphant's best television work was on Route 66, which he co-created with Herbert B. Leonard. Silliphant's teleplays on that show featured some of the elegant (but far from realistic) prose ever written for the small screen. For the most part, Longstreet seems far too straightforward for a Silliphant series, but some episodes were exceptions and the best example is the first one: "The Way of the Intercepting Fist."

James Franciscus and Bruce Lee.
It opens with Longstreet being assaulted in an alleyway by a crooked longshoreman and his cronies. A young Asian man named Li Tsung (Bruce Lee) fends off the attackers with an impressive display of martial arts. Later, Longstreet seeks out Li, an antiques dealer, and asks to become his martial arts student. Initially, Li refuses by saying: "The usefulness of a cup is its emptiness." However, he eventually relents and not only teaches Longstreet how to defend himself, but also about himself. The episode ends with Longstreet confronting and defeating the longshoreman. That act, we're led to believe, will end the villain's influence and lead the police to the businessman behind a large-scale hijacking scheme.

As with many of Silliphant's Route 66 episodes, the plot is secondary to the characters. It affords Lee the opportunity to describe jeet kune do, his "system" of martial arts and philosophy. In 1973's Enter the Dragon, Lee describes it succinctly as "the art of fighting without fighting." Still, it's this episode of Longstreet that includes perhaps Lee's best analogy: "Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, if you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend."

Lee in Marlowe (1969).
If there is much of Bruce Lee in "The Way of the Intercepting Fist," that's no surprise as he worked on the script with Silliphant. The two had becomne friends after Silliphant sought out Lee in the late 1960s to learn martial arts. In fact, it was Silliphant who had Lee hired as fight choreographer and henchman in 1969's Marlowe. (Lee isn't in much of the movie, but has a most memorable encounter with James Garner.)

Lee earned strong reviews for his guest appearance on Longstreet and reprised his role in three more episodes. Yet, despite a likable cast and interesting setting (though the show was not shot on location like Route 66), Longstreet only lasted one season. Television audiences just didn't seem that interested in insurance investigators. (Despite that, George Peppard played one the following year in Banacek, though it only lasted for two seasons totaling 17 episodes.)

Meanwhile, Bruce Lee--who had previously rejected offers to make Asian "kung fu" movies--signed a contract with Raymond Chow to make two films. The first one, The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury), was released the same year as his Longstreet appearances. It became an unexpected worldwide smash and made Bruce Lee an international star.

James Franciscus starred in two subsequent short-lived TV series: Doc Elliot (1973-74) and Hunter (1976-77). Interestingly, he later played a crooked politician in Good Guys Wear Black (1978), one of Chuck Norris' first martial arts films. Franciscus worked steadily in film and television until his death in 1991 at age 57 due to emphysema.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Cult Movie Theatre: The Girl in Black Stockings

Let's clarify one point upfront: There is no girl in black stockings in this 1957 low-budget thriller about a serial killer. Instead, you get Anne Bancroft and Mamie Van Doren before they became stars--plus an eclectic supporting cast, some nifty black-and-white photography, and the famous Parry Lodge (more on that later).

Beth screams as she sees the victim.
The opening is the film's highlight: a Hitchcockian sequence in which two would-be lovers, Beth (Bancroft) and David (Lex Barker), discover a mutilated corpse by a lake when David lights a cigarette. The scene is set up perfectly with the couple discussing their relationship in a secluded area not far from an ongoing outdoor dance. You can view the full 2:48 scene on the Cafe's YouTube Channel by clicking here or, depending on your browser, just click the link in our sidebar).

We're soon told that "they don't stop with just one" and, sure enough, other murders follow. There is no shortage of suspects, including Beth (whose apparent vulnerability could easily hide a deranged mind) or David (allegedly a lawyer who got into his car and drove from L.A. until he felt like stopping--in Kanab, Utah).

He hates women!
Then, there's Edmund Parry (Ron Randell), who owns the local lodge with his care-giver sister Julia (Marie Windsor). Parry  can't walk due to psychological paralysis that started when his wife left him 10-12 years earlier. As a result, he hates all women and makes sure everyone knows about it. (Randell's off-the-wall performance has only enhanced the film's cult reputation.)

Indeed, the only character I ruled out as a suspect was the alcoholic Indian trapper that's initially arrested. That's part of the fun of The Girl in Black Stockings. It helps, too, that the possible killers are played by familiar faces such as John Dehner, Stuart Whitman, and Dan Blocker.

A young Anne Bancroft.
Anne Bancroft gives a credible performance in the title role. She would win a Tony the following year for Two for the Seesaw, directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde). She followed that with a Tony for Best Actress for The Miracle Worker in 1960. It proved to be her ticket to film stardom when she repeated her performance as Helen Keller's teacher for the 1962 movie version. That earned Bancroft her only Oscar (though she would later be nominated for The Pumpkin Eater, The Graduate, The Turning Point, and Agnes of God).

Mamie Van Doren.
As for Mamie Van Doren, she has little to do in a small role in The Girl in the Black Stockings. Not surprisingly, though, she is featured prominently on the poster.

William Margulies' crisp black-and-white photography gives this low-budget thriller a nice noirish edge. He had a long Hollywood career as a camera operator and later cinematographer. He worked almost exclusively in television from 1958 to 1974. He earned four Emmy nominations for his cinematography (two of those being for Have Gun--Will Travel).

Finally, we come to the Parry Lodge, the real-life hotel that figures prominently in The Girl in Black Stockings. Brothers Whit, Chauncey, and Gronway Parry opened the lodge in 1931 in Kanab, Utah, to provide housing for film crews and casts shooting in the area. Over the years, numerous movies (mostly Westerns) have been partially filmed near Kanab, to include Western Union, My Friend Flicka, Westward the Women, Duel at Diablo, and even Planet of the Apes. The lodge has different owners today, but is still open to business.

You can even visit the Parry Lodge website. I did--though I admit I was disappointed. It includes a list of movies made in the area...but doesn't mention The Girl in Black Stockings.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Danny Kaye Gets Up in Arms

Danny Kaye's feature-length film debut is a serviceable musical comedy intended as a showcase for its star and radio singing sensation Dinah Shore. In that regard, Up in Arms (1944) works well enough, though Kaye became a more controlled--and more effective--entertainer in later films such as the comedy classic The Court Jester (1955) and perennial favorite White Christmas (1954).

Dinah singing "Now I Know."
Kaye plays Danny Weems, a hypochondriac who works as an elevator operator so he can be near the many physicians working in his building. He fancies himself in love with a nurse named Mary (Constance Dowling), although he'd be better matched with Mary's friend Virgina (Dinah Shore). To complicate matters, it's instant love for Mary when she meets Danny's pal Joe (Dana Andrews). Before these romantic entanglements can be worked out, all four friends wind up in the Army--with Danny accidentally smuggling Mary aboard the ship carrying his unit into action.

In character for the "Theater Lobby"
number written by his wife Sylvia Fine.
Kaye seems determined to carry this flimsy plot by himself if required. He employs physical comedy, uses a wide variety of different voices, and sings nonsensical songs at breakneck speed. Most of his routines are very funny, but he could have benefited from more structure and a better supporting cast. Dana Andrews has little to do and seems out of place. Constance Dowling has one funny scene with Danny. The only other performer to stand out is Dinah Shore, who shows why she was successful enough to get her own radio show, Call to Music, in 1943.

Indeed, Danny and Dinah provide three good reasons to watch Up in Arms: her rendition of the Oscar-nominated ballad "Now I Know"; Danny's appropriately-titled "Theater Lobby Number," which is a musical "summary" of a made-up movie with Kaye playing all the characters; and, best of all, Danny and Dinah combining for "Tess's Torch Song." The last number is a hoot, with Goldwyn Girls sprouting from giant vases in the background and the two stars repeating each other's nonsensical lyrics with perfection. In fact, it's so good that--instead of a closing scene--there's a short reprise of "Tess's Torch Song" just prior to the closing credits.

Danny, Dinah, and Goldwyn Girls in giant vases!

Virgina Mayo.
Speaking of the Goldwyn Girls, one of them is played by Virgina Mayo (in fact, she has a brief speaking part as a WAC named Joanna). While she and Kaye never share a scene together, the two subsequently teamed up for Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and A Song Is Born (1948).

Dinah Shore appeared in only a handful of films and never achieved silver screen stardom. That probably didn't bother her much, since she remained a recording star through the 1950s and also achieved success on television. After a career lull during the 1960s, she made a comeback as a popular daytime talk show host in the 1970s.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Classic Film Art from the Cafe's Collection: Lillian Gish

While going through some old files recently, I found a still of Lillian Gish. I used it as the basis for the digitally-created sketch below.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Visit to the Williamsburg Film Festival

With its big star lineup and restoration premieres, the TCM Classic Film Festival has become the annual convention for many classic film fans. However, if you prefer a more intimate setting, a smaller crowd, and the chance to chat with the stars, there are better choices! Last year, I attended the Western Film Fair and Nostalgia Convention in Winston-Salem, NC, where I spent an afternoon interviewing Piper Laurie as she signed autographs. Earlier this month, I attended my first Williamsburg Film Festival in the historic Virginia town.

Presented by the Williamsburg Classic Film Guild, the Williamburg Film Festival has been an annual tradition since 1997. Like the Western Film Fair, it was started by fans of old cowboy films. Although the festival's scope has expanded, those passionate Western film buffs still make their presence known. On the day I attended, there was a theater devoted for much of the day to "B" Westerns featuring favorites such as Tex Ritter and Allan Lane. There were also a number of attendees dressed in elaborate Western gear, to include six-shooters danging on their hips.

Despite icy weather, the vendor room
was a popular place.
The festival's format follows the same formula as the Western Film Fair, Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Conventions, and similar events. Movies play in multiple theaters throughout most of the day. Each star participates on an interview panel (usually following a showing of one of their films or a TV series episode) and answers questions from the audience. And there's a banquet on the last evening. However, the highlight for most festival attendees is the "vendor room," where the stars sell personally autographed photos and other memorabilia and vendors offer everything from comic books to collector plates featuring famous stars.

The best-known guests for this year's Williamsburg Film Festival included:

Lana Wood.
Lana Wood. Natalie Wood's sister never achieved major stardom, but remains a favorite among James Bond fans for her appearance as Plenty O'Toole opposite Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever. She also played the "Younger Debbie" in The Searchers (Natalie played the older Debbie) and was a regular for two years on the Peyton Place TV series. Lana was one of the reasons I wanted to attend the festival and she kindly agreed to do an interview with me.

Johnny Crawford. The actor who played Chuck Connors' son on The Rifleman is always a popular attraction. He headlines the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra these days and will autograph a copy of one of his CDs. He loves to chat with fans, but be prepared to wait in line for awhile if you see him at another nostalgia convention.

Michael McGreevey.
Michael McGreevey. A Disney regular in TV and film during the 1960s and early 1970s, McGreevey is a fine storyteller. He started his career on the TV series Riverboat with Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds. He eventually became a writer-director and penned episodes of TVs series such as The Waltons and Fame. He recently participated in a documentary about Waltons creator Earl Hamner, which was shown at the festival. Needless to say, he gave a great interview.

Belinda Montgomery and friend.
Belinda Montgomery. One of the busiest actresses on American television in the 1970s and 1980s, Montgomery was a regular in three prime time series: Aaron's Way, Doogie Howser, M.D. (she played Neil Patrick Harris' mother), and Man from Atlantis (with Patrick Duffy). She also appeared intermittently on Miami Vice as Sonny Crockett's first wife (and later ex). On the big screen, Belinda Montgomery co-starred as real-life skier Audra Jo Nickolson in The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) and its sequel.

Sharon Farrell.
Sharon Farrell. A familiar face to film and TV fans for three decades, she starred alongside major stars such as Steve McQueen (The Reivers), James Garner (Marlowe), and Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die). It seems like she guest-starred in almost every hit TV series that aired in the 1960s and 1970s, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (three appearances) to Love, American Style. She also starred in Larry Cohen's cult classic It's Alive.

If you're interested in learning more about the Williamsburg Film Festival, click here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Interview with Michael McGreevey: The Actor-Writer Discusses Riverboat, Disney, the Fame TV Series, and The Waltons

Michael McGreevy and Sally Field in The Way West.
Michael McGreevey made his film debut at age of 7 in the 1958 Jane Powell musical The Girl Most Likely. He would soon become one of the most in-demand child actors of the 1960s. He appeared as a regular on the TV series Riverboat (1959-60) and starred in several multi-part episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. He also guest-starred in classic TV series such as Route 66, Naked City, and Bonanza. On the big screen, he made films like The Way West (1967) with Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, and Robert Mitchum. Michael also continued to work for Disney, playing Kurt Russell's best friend in the three Dexter Riley movies (e.g., The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes). In the 1970s, he moved behind the camera and became a successful writer for TV series such as The Waltons, Fame, and Quincey, M.E. Michael McGreevey recently appeared at the Williamsburg Film Festival and kindly agreed to an interview.

Café: You were around 11 when you starred in Riverboat. In addition to stars Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds, it featured a huge number of then-current and future stars. Are there any that you remember fondly?

As Chip Kessler in Riverboat.
Michael McGreevey:  That's the show I met Doug McClure on. It was one of the first things Doug ever did. He was a great guy and became a lifelong friend. Of course, he went on to do The Virginian. Mary Tyler Moore was on the show. I remember her because she was really cute (laughs) and very nice to me. There was Suzanne Pleshette, who went on to do a ton of stuff. Then, there were people on the show that I became very close to: Jack Lambert, who was a great character actor and a regular; John Mitchum, Robert Mitchum's brother; and, of course, Darren (McGavin) and Burt (Reynolds).

Café:  I've read where Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds didn't get along. Is that true?

MM:  Oh, yeah. They were just two very different personalities. I think that Burt was insecure. It was his first job in Hollywood and Darren was a very polished actor. It was Darren's show really--he was Captain Holden. I think Burt was a little jealous of Darren and they clashed quite a bit. What finally happened was that Burt left the show. But I loved them both. Darren was very much a father figure for me and Burt was like a big brother. He had been a football player at Florida State and I was impressed with that because I was into football. The first football I ever got--in fact, I've still got it--he got me. We used to play catch. I still see Burt every once in awhile. He still says: "Don't tell people you were only 11 years old when we were on Riverboat."

Café: How did you get cast in Texas John Slaughter, your first episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color?

MM:   I had done a small part in a thing called Toby Tyler, which was just a one-day shoot. My agent had said: "It's only one day, but you should do it because you might get in over at Disney and become one of the Disney kids." I thought, OK, I'll do it. After that, they called and I did the Texas John Slaughter episode. Then, I did Sammy, the Way-Out Seal, which was a big deal. I remember going for several interviews with director Norman Tokar. Bill Mumy and I got the parts. I showed up on the set and Ann Jillian was my girlfriend on the show. She became my girlfriend in real life later on, which was sort of neat. That was the beginning of the Disney run.

Café: You appeared in several multi-part Disney episodes. Which one was your favorite and why?

Billy Mumy and McCreevey in Sammy.
MM:   That's hard. Sammy, the Way-Out Seal was the most fun, because we were kids and we got to spend two days in a pool swimming with the seal. My favorite of the TV episodes was later, when I was an adult. It was called Michael O'Hara the Fourth and starred Dan Dailey and a wonderful actress named Jo Ann Harris. It was a two-part detective story, sort of a Nancy Drew thing. I really liked my performance in that one. It was a fun thing to do and very few people know that particular one.

Café: What was it like working on the Disney lot while making those shows?

MM:  It was wonderful, especially in the '60s when Walt was still alive. He'd come every day on the set if you were on the lot. There was a real family feeling on that lot at that point. It wasn't like the other studios. And because so many children worked there, it was a more conducive place for them in general. The crews were used to kids. Mr. Disney--Uncle Walt...I always called him Mr. Disney and he would always correct me--set the tone. It was like going to summer camp. I loved it.

Café:  And did you really beat Walt Disney in ping pong?

MM:  No. Actually, I never beat him. I tried. My mother said you'd better lose. Kurt Russell claims to have waxed him.

Café:  Was he good at ping pong?

Kurt Russell and McGreevey in
The Strongest Man in the World.
MM:  Walt? Yes. I don't know if I ever played Kurt. When we used to compare notes, I said I used to play ping pong with Walt and Kurt said: "So did I." I said I never beat him and Kurt said he beat him all the time.

Café:  You and Kurt Russell made a great team in the three Dexter Riley films. Did you get along off camera?

MM:  Yes, we were roommates for four years. I tell people that I could ruin Kurt Russell (laughs). We roomed together in our twenties. We're still good friends. I talked with him before I came here.

Café:  What are your memories of acting in The Way West with Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Sally Field?

MM:  I think that was the most fun I ever had in a movie. I was a little disappointed in the end product. I thought it could have been a much better movie. In my opinion, they sort of ruined it in the editing room. In terms of the actual shoot and the cast, I adored Sally (Field). Director Andy McLaglen was just a wonderful man. I enjoyed that role. I met (Richard) Widmark on that film, who became my mentor. I did another film with him (Death of a Gunslinger). We spent four months in Oregon, too. I made some lasting friendships. John Mitchum was in it and Bob Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Timothy Scott, who later went on to do a lot of great work. It was just a wonderful experience.

Café:  What led to your decision to enroll in UCLA and to pursue film writing and directing?

Michael McGreevey at the 2015
Williamsburg Film Festival.
MM:  My father (screenwriter John McGreevey) was a writer, so I always had some aspirations to write. UCLA was the best choice, because I could sort of go to class and still work if I had to. I really wanted to be a psychiatrist, but got into chemistry and realized I wouldn't make it through medical school. So, I became a psychology major and then got to statistics and realized I wasn't going to get through that. So, I went and became a film major. I had always been an actor, but I didn't really have any idea about the other side of the camera. I had seen it done as a kid. I became convinced that I could write, produce, and direct. I kept acting for about five more years. The Disney movies, although they were a delightful experience, typecast me. People forgot the other movies and thought I was this comedic actor, though I had never really done comedy until those last two or three Disney movies. I thought, well, great, I can just disappear and start writing. I was lucky enough to have a father that was well established and had a lot of contacts.

Café:  What inspired you to write the 1978 made-for-TV movie Ruby and Oswald, which became a collaborative effort between you and your father?

MM:  I had started on my own to research Jack Ruby. I was fascinated with him. I went to my Dad to get some advice on how to approach the screenplay. He said it might be more interesting to parallel Ruby with Oswald. I said I'll do that. I went back and did some stuff with that and realized there was all this documentary footage with Kennedy. In reality, the movie, although it's called Ruby and Oswald, is a three-way depiction of those four days in Dallas where we cut back and forth between the documentary footage of Kennedy and the recreated story with Ruby and Oswald. Dad and I both knew a man named Alan Landsburg, who had done a lot of documentaries. We went to him with the project first and he knew Mel Stuart, who had done an Academy Award-winning documentary called Four Days in November (1964). So, Mel was attached to direct it and we went into CBS and sold it right away as a three-hour special event movie. I was very proud of that movie; it was very well done.

Café:  You've written episodes for several first-rate TV series such as Fame and The Waltons. What was your favorite series to work on?

MM: Fame, by far. I started as a free-lance on one episode of Fame. I later became the story editor and then became the creative consultant--they kept moving me up. I ended up producing the show the last season. I did a total of four seasons on Fame. My background was in musical theater. It was like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland--let's put on a show every week. And they were paying me all this money to do it. It was fun. I loved The Waltons. I just finished a movie about (Waltons creator) Earl Hamner called Earl Hamner Storyteller. The Waltons were an important part of my life and I really enjoyed working on that show.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming films or appearances that you'd like to share with our readers?

MM:  We just screened Earl Hamner Storyteller, a ninety-minute documentary about Earl Hamner in Lynchburg (Virginia). Tuesday night, we screened it in Richmond for University of Virginia mucky-mucks and the governor of Virginia. It should appear on television in the fall. It will probably be on the Hallmark Channel. Earl is 91 and we got to screen it for him in Los Angeles in February and he got a standing ovation. It made my year.

Café:  He was such a great TV writer. People think of him with The Waltons, but he also wrote episodes of Twilight Zone and created Falcon Crest.

MM:  That's all in the documentary. He has been a family friend, my Dad's best friend. My Dad wrote 20 episodes of The Waltons and I wrote four. So, he's been Uncle Earl my whole life. But doing this movie was really fun, because I got closer to him and found out things I didn't know about Earl.

Café:  Thank you so much for doing this interview, Mr. McGreevey.

You can learn more about Michael McGreevey at his web site and you can "like" his Facebook page.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The "My Favorite Classic Movie" Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

Last year, a grassroots campaign was started to make Saturday, May 16th, the first National Classic Movie Day. The intent is to celebrate classic films from the silents to the seventies. For our part, the Classic Film & TV Cafe will host a one-day My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon. After all, what better way to pay homage to classic cinema than write about one's favorite film?

Any blogger that complies with our blogathon guidelines can participate. The scope of this blogathon is pretty general: you can write a review of your favorite movie, explain why you love it, focus on one aspect (e.g., the costumes, the director, its influence), etc. You can even publish an old post if desired (after all, you may have already written about your all-time fave).

Multiple posts about the same movie will also be allowed.
If you want to participate, please send an e-mail to: Include the name of your blog, its web address, and the title of your favorite movie. The deadline for submission is May 14th.

We will regularly update the schedule below:

2001: A Space Odyssey - It's About TV
The Abominable Dr. Phibes - bare•bones e-zine
Ace in the Hole - Silver Screenings
The Adventures of Robin Hood - Classic Film & TV Cafe
Anne of a Thousand Days - Journeys in Classic Film
Ball of Fire - Cary Grant Won't Eat You
The Best Years of Our Lives - Another Old Movie Blog
The Big Parade - Critica Retro
Breakfast at Tiffany's - Back to Golden Days
Bringing Up Baby - The Wonderful World of Cinema
Casablanca - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Citizen Kane - The Stop Button
City Lights - Citizen Screen
Double Indemnity - Girls Do Film
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Smitten Kitten Vintage
Going My Way - ClassicBecky's Brain Food
The Good Fairy - Bunnybun's Classic Movie Blog
The Heiress - Java's Journey
His Girl Friday - Embarrassing Treasures
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - MovieFanFare (Gary Cahall)
The Innocents - I See a Dark Theater
It's a Wonderful Life - Motion Picture Gems
Lawrence of Arabia - Movies Silently
Lili (1953) - Moon in Gemini
The Major and the Minor - portraitsbyjenni
Meet Me in St. Louis - Vitaphone Dreamer
The More the Merrier - The Blonde at the Film
On the Waterfront - Criterion Blues
The Palm Beach Story - Movie Movie Blog Blog
The Philadelphia Story - Now Voyaging
A Place in the Sun - The Stars are Ageless
Rear Window - Pop Culture Reverie
The Red Shoes - Le Mot du Cinephiliaque
The Shop Around the Corner - Stardust
Singin' in the Rain - The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
The Sound of Music - Classic Reel Girl
The Spiral Staircase - In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
Star Wars - Hitless Wonder Movie Blog
Sunset Boulevard - A Person in the Dark
Sunset Boulevard - Silver Screen Modes
Sweet Smell of Success - Defiant Success
The Thing from Another World - Caftan Woman
The Third Man - the film tank
12 Angry Men - Coogs Film Blog
Vertigo - CineMaven
The Wizard of Oz - Film Fanatic
The Wizard of Oz - Wolffian Classic Movies Digest
Yankee Doodle Dandy - Old Hollywood Films
You Can't Take It With You - Classic Movie Hub

This post originated on the Classic Film & TV Cafe. If you are reading it on another site that scraped this content, please go to the legal web site.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An Interview with Lana Wood

Lana in Diamonds Are Forever.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting actress Lana Wood at the Williamsburg Film Festival. Although best known for playing Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds Are Forever, Ms. Wood has had a long movie and television career, both in front of and behind the camera. Her first credited role was as a young girl in John Ford's The Searchers. As an adult, she became a regular on the popular TV series Peyton Place and guest-starred in shows like The Wild, Wild West and Mission: Impossible. She later worked as a production executive and co-produced a miniseries about her sister, The Mystery of Natalie Wood. She also wrote the biography Natalie: A Memoir About Natalie Wood By Her Sister. In between signing autographs and chatting with fans at the film festival, Lana Wood graciously talked with me about her career.

Café:  In a 2007 interview, you discussed playing the character Debbie as a young girl in The Searchers. You noted Jeffrey Hunter's "incredible kindness." Did you have any interaction with John Wayne?

Lana in The Searchers.
Lana Wood:  John Wayne used to come to me every morning, stand next to me, and pull out a tin of Allenberry black current pastilles, which he doted upon. He'd open them up and I'd take one and he's say: "Take another one." It was an ongoing little jokey thing between us. He was a very sweet and kind man. He cared a great deal about everything.

Café:  How did John Ford treat you as a child actress?

LW:  I don't think John Ford liked me. He never really spoke to me. I think the only thing he ever said to me was in the scene where Chris (the dog) and I run up to the headstone. He said: "Can you bend at the waist?" I couldn't bend at the waist, though I tried very hard to do it.

Café:  Peyton Place was already an established hit when you joined the cast in 1966. What are some of your memories of working with Ryan O'Neal, Mia Farrow, and the other cast members?

A publicity shot from Peyton Place.
LW:  In Peyton Place, we were all very young--and very spirited. I think that's a good way of putting it. There was a great deal of flirtation at all times. Ryan was an adorable, sweet guy, but not the best to work with. Mia was very sweet. All she'd eat for lunch was cottage cheese and spinach. Barbara Parkins absolutely loathed me. She would not speak to me, ever. What I would do was I'd go into the makeup room in the morning and talk to her all the more because I knew she wouldn't answer me. I was kind of poking the bear a bit.

Café:  You made quite an impression as Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds Are Forever and she remains one of the best-remembered "Bond Girls." Why do you think Plenty has remained so popular over the years?

LW:  Hopefully because I wanted her to be very sweet. I didn't want to appear like a hooker. Shill is not really the top category when you list careers you would like to have had. And I was very worried about that. So, I made her very ingenuous and just very nice. That's what came across and I think that's what people identified with.

Café:  I've seen the two deleted scenes with Plenty: the dinner scene with Bond and when she discovers James and Tiffany Case together. Do you know why they were cut from the final film?

Lana and daughter Sherry in Williamsburg.
LW:  They didn't help move along the plot. The studio wanted the film at a certain length back then so it could squeeze in another showing. So, unfortunately, it was Plenty who went.

Café:  You were friends with Sean Connery before Diamonds Are Forever. How did the two of you meet?

LW:  My boyfriend at the time was dear friends with Sean. We were invited to dinner at his house. So, I went to his house, we had dinner, and I got to know him.

Café:  What do you think of Daniel Craig as James Bond?

LW:  I adore him. I think, at last, other than Sean, he is James Bond.

Café:  What led you to take a break from acting from the mid-1980s until a few years ago?

LW:  Several things. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I had gone behind the camera at that point as well, so I was producing. I was working at Universal Studios as director of development for television films. I moved my Mom in with me. Lots of things. It was just unfortunate.

Café:  What were some of the made-for-TV films that you were involved with from a production standpoint?

LW:  Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer mystery Murder Me, Murder You. Lynda Carter in Born to Be Sold, which was, at that time, the highest-rated television film. Hotline (also with Lynda Carter) and two Lynda Carter specials. I rewrote six episodes of Bring 'Em Back Alive, a TV series with Bruce Boxleitner. And I produced The Mystery of Natalie Wood, which was an ABC miniseries.

Café:  Of all your films, which one was your personal favorite and why?

LW:  I like different ones for different reasons. I'm so thrilled to have been part of The Searchers. That's something that will go on forever. It meant the world to me to be in a film like that, which is so iconic--with John Wayne, Ken Curtis, Jeffrey Hunter, and Harry Carey. It's a beautiful film that holds up to this day. I'm very proud of it.

Café:  You show a number of adorable dogs and cats on your FB page. Are they all yours?

LW:  (laughs) Oh, yes! I haven't even put the half of them up. I can't get them to sit still.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming films or appearances that you'd like to share with our readers?

LW:  I have two films coming out. One is called Killing Poe, which is a black comedy. Then, I have a thriller coming out called Bestseller.

You can "like" Lana Wood on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day with "Darby O'Gill and the Little People"

In the picturesque Irish village of Rathcullen, old codger Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe) spends more time in the pub talking about leprechauns than tending to the estate of Lord Fitzpatrick. So, it's no surprise when the landowner decides it's time to replace Darby with the younger Michael McBride (Sean Connery). Darby's retirement benefits are generous: half-pay, a house with no rent, and a two-week notice for moving from his current abode. The hardest part for Darby will be breaking the news to his spunky, hard-working daughter Katie (Janet Munro), who has already caught Michael's eye.

As he ponders how to tell Katie, Darby falls down a well on Fairy Mountain and awakes in the home of the leprechauns. It's not his first encounter with King Brian (Jimmy O'Dea), the little people's leader. Several years earlier, the crafty Brian outfoxed Darby by granting a fourth wish that then negated the first three. This time around, Darby turns the tables. He manages to escape from Fairy Mountain, capture King Brian, and earn three wishes. But what to wish for?

A little Disney humor: Walt thanks the
leprechauns in the opening credits.
Made in 1959, this colorful Disney fantasy has aged as well as a 5,000-year-old leprechaun (like King Brian). The film has charm to spare, thanks largely to veteran performers Sharpe and O'Dea. Walt Disney handpicked Sharpe for the lead role after watching the actor in a stage version of Finian's Rainbow a decade earlier. Sharpe only made a handful of films, though his resume included two other engaging fantasies: Brigadoon and You Never Can Tell with Dick Powell. His co-star, Jimmy O'Dea, was an unknown in Hollywood, having spent most of his acting career in the Irish theater where he was known for playing the working-class Mrs. Biddy Mulligan.

Sean Connery as Michael McBride.
The scenes between Sharpe and O'Dea dominate the first hour of Darby O'Gill, with Cleopatra the horse being the only other character to garner significant screen time. As a result, the final half-hour has too much plot: a romance blossoming between Michael and Katie; a lug named Pony causing trouble; and a banshee almost killing Katie. Still, the loose ends are wrapped up nicely; this is a family film after all.

Janet Munro as Katie.
Sean Connery, still three years before his Bond debut, has little to do. He does get to sing a duet with Janet Munro (in a DVD featurette, Connery calls his singing debut "an earth-shattering experience"). Darby O'Gill was the first of three Disney pictures for Munro, the other two being Swiss Family Robinson and Third Man on the Mountain. She oozes sweetness and tones down the sex appeal displayed in her finest film, the first-rate The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Munro's film career was sadly short-lived and she died in 1972 at age 38 of a heart attack. Her career highlight was a 1963 BAFTA (the "British Oscar") Best Actress nomination for Walk in the Shadow, co-starring Patrick McGoohan (another Disney veteran).

The buildings and mountain in the distance were painted on a matte.
While Sharpe and the rest of the cast breathe life into the characters, it's Disney special effects wizard Peter Ellenshaw that makes Darby O'Gill and the Little People a magical visual experience. Ellenshaw gained fame as a matte artist working as an assistant on films such as Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. A matte is a partially-painted piece of glass placed in front of a motion picture camera that inserts new "objects" in the frame. Most of the town of Rathcullen is a painting done by Ellenshaw that blends into the sets built in the backlot of Disney's Hollywood studio (it's so convincing I thought the movie was filmed in Ireland).

To "create" the leprechauns, Ellenshaw used forced perspective, a technique in which two objects--which appear to be adjacent to one another--are actually separated by a significant distance. They are carefully aligned so that when filmed, the near object looks much larger than the far object. The trick is making the different sets, color, and lighting match seamlessly. Special effects master Ray Harryhausen used this same technique in his fantasy The Three Worlds of Gulliver. More recently, forced perspective was used to make the hobbits look smaller in Peter Jackson's films.

Benefiting from a couple of charismatic veteran actors and Peter Ellenshaw's movie magic, Darby O'Gill and the Little People makes for a diverting viewing experience for any occasion. That said, it seems like like a perfect pick for St. Paddy's Day, don't you think?

This post part of The Luck of the Irish Blog o'thon hosted by our good friends at Silver Scenes. Click here to check out the rest of the posts.