Sunday, January 21, 2018

Do You Remember When? (Classic Movies Edition)

OK, classic film lovers, do you remember when...

1. Classic movies were on local TV stations all the time under umbrella titles such as: The Big Movie, The Morning Matinee, The 4:30 Movie, The Sunday Afternoon Movie, Million Dollar Movie, Night Owl Theatre, and The Big Action Movie (I watched that one on Channel 2 in Greensboro, NC).

2. AMC actually showed classic movies and TNT was the TCM of cable TV (before TCM existed).

3. You could stay to watch a theatrical movie as many times as you wanted; no one booted you out of the theater.

4. Drive-in theaters were plentiful and admission for a carload was $5.00 or less. You had to use the portable speakers, too--none of that fancy FM radio stuff.

5. A kid under age 12 could see a theatrical film for 35¢.

6. You could watch family-friendly movies (e.g., Friendly Persuasion) around the holidays on thesyndicated SFM Holiday Network. (It featured the same theme music as Monday Night Football.)

An RCA VideoDisc player.
7. Videophiles insisted that laser discs were the only way to watch a movie at home.

8. The broadcast networks featured "world television premieres" of theatrical films as part of their regular schedules. In the 1960s, you might see anything from Vertigo to The Day the Earth Stood Still on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies. Later, the networks spotlighted movies released theatrically within the last one to three years.

9. There was no theatrical movie rating system, so even a 10-year-old could see Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. In the U.S., films such as Bonnie and Clyde only carried the warning: "Suggested for mature audiences." (Obviously, my parents considered me mature for my age.)

10. There were bars that showed classic movies. My wife and I saw movies such as Goldfinger and The Fearless Vampire Killers at the Video Saloon in Bloomington, IN, in the early 1980s.

11. Local TV stations gave away money during the "Dialing for Dollars" movie. If you were in the phone directory, that meant you could be a winner--along with thousands of other people. Of course, every time the host made a phone call, it was another interruption to the movie.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Robby Benson Takes on Collegiate Sports Corruption

Robby Benson in One on One.
It's conceivable that One on One was originally intended as a serious expose of corruption in collegiate athletics...a topic as timely today as it was in 1977. But, like so many other star vehicles, it was ultimately tailored for its lead actor's target demo--which in the case of Robby Benson was comprised largely of teenage girls.

It's easy to forget that, for the better part of a decade, Robby Benson was one of Hollywood's most reliable stars. Originally, he specialized in playing sensitive youths in films like Jeremy (1973), Death Be Not Proud (1975), and Ode to Billy Joe (1976). He later expanded his repertoire by playing romantic leads (Ice Castles), estranged sons (Tribute), and, in perhaps his best performance, a Hasidic Jew in The Chosen (1981).

In One on One, he is typecast as Henry Steele, a gawky lad from rural Colorado who happens to play a mean game of basketball. A big-time coach recruits him to play for Western University, a nationally-ranked basketball power located in L.A. Henry is so naive that he's conned by a young hitchhiker (Melanie Griffith) before he even reaches campus.

Once enrolled, Henry enjoys the many perks of being a basketball scholarship player. He receives a stipend from the alumni, gets two tickets per home game which can be sold for $300 each, and is hired for a campus job that requires him to simply turn the football field sprinklers on and off (by the way, it turns out they're on a timer). He also has a car, which his basketball-obsessive father bought for him with money provided by his coach.

Seals & Crofts sing on the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, things aren't going as well on the basketball court. No longer a star player, he struggles to keep up with his teammates and loses his confidence. It continues to worsen to the point that his demanding coach (G.D. Spradlin) "asks" Henry to renounce his scholarship. To his coach's surprise, Henry refuses to quit and the rest of the film becomes a test of wills between coach and player. Stripped of all his perks, the young man becomes physically tougher, emotionally stronger, and more responsible (he even gets a job as a night clerk on his own).

Annette O'Toole.
Benson, who co-wrote the script, is likable enough as Henry. My main problem with One on One is that Henry is either too naive or a hypocrite. He appears to have no ethical problems with accepting the perks, which are obvious rule violations. Assuming Henry couldn't grasp this key point, one would think that his father, his high school coach, or his intelligent girlfriend (a winning Annette O'Toole) might have explained it to him.

Instead, the climatic confrontation between Henry and his college coach is all about what's best for Henry. It would have made for a harder-hitting film had Henry reported his coach and the university for being cheaters. I also think Henry could have sounded a little more beastly.

He mastered that a few years later, though, when he voiced the Beast (and showed off his singing voice) in Disney's charming, Oscar-nominated 1991 musical The Beauty and the Beast.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Movie-TV Connection Game (January 2018)

Helen Hayes and Tony Randall.
Happy 2018! May your knowledge of movie and TV trivia be even more impressive this year!

For those who have never played this game, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Jessica Tandy and Burt Lancaster.

2. Richard Basehart and Stewart Granger. (This one could be difficult!)

3. Fredric March and Michael Rennie.

4. Geroge C. Scott and Chuck Connors.

5. Judy Garland and Red Buttons.

6. Sylvester Stallone and Gregory's Girl.

7. Ray Milland and Vincent Price.

8. Tony Randall and Helen Hayes.

9. James Stewart and Ronald Reagan.

10. Shari Belafonte and Bill Dana.

11. Clint Eastwood and William Devane.

12. The Omen (1976) and the Dr. Kildare  TV series.

13. The Batman TV series and the film King Kong (1976).

14. The series Mission: Impossible and The Rat Patrol.

15. William Daniels and Ann Sothern.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Five Biggest Stars of the 1940s

After previously listing our picks for the Five Biggest Stars of the 1950s and the Five Biggest Stars of the 1960s, we turn our attention to the 1940s. The major Hollywood studios were still at their peak, though Olivia de Havilland's 1944 legal victory against Warner Bros. planted the seeds of change. World War II made a major impact, too, as some of cinema's biggest stars joined the Armed Forces.  As with our other Biggest Stars posts, our criteria focused on boxoffice power, critical acclaim, and enduring popularity.

1. Humphrey BogartHigh Sierra cemented Bogart's stardom in 1941 and he followed it with one of the most successful decades of any actor. His filmography for the 1940s includes: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1949). Note that this list includes Bogie's two most iconic roles, as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Rick Blaine in Casablanca.

2. Olivia de Havilland - Ms. de Havilland started the decade with her final two pairings with Errol Flynn (Santa Fe Trail and They Died With Their Boots) and ended it with Best Actress Oscars in 1947 (To Each His Own) and 1949 (The Heiress--likely her most popular role among classic film fans). In between, she earned critical acclaim for films like Devotion (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948).

3. Cary Grant - Cary was an established star at the start of the decade and maintained that status with a string of popular films: The Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), and The Bishop's Wife (1947). His career would continue to thrive in the 1950s as well.

4. John Wayne - The Duke's most significant contribution to the decade may have been his Cavalry Trilogy with director John Ford: She Wore a Yellow RibbonFort Apache, and Rio Grande. But he also scored other critical successes (Red River) and boxoffice hits (Sands of Iwo Jima). It's interesting to note that neither Wayne nor Grant served in the Armed Forces during World War II. (Bogart had a stint in the Navy at the end of World War I.)

5. Bette Davis - Although she was perhaps a bigger star during the previous decade, Bette Davis still forged a glittering career in the 1940s with films such as The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), and The Corn Is Green (1945).

Honorable Mentions:  Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Doctor X: Colorful and Funky as Ever

The "Moon Killer."
A recent viewing of Doctor X reconfirmed that this 1932 horror classic has lost none of its quirkiness. Indeed, with a moonlight killer, a medical academy perched atop a cliff, and "synthetic flesh", it remains a unique viewing experience. And, as if that weren't enough, it's historically significant as one of the first talking pictures filmed in color.

Lionel Atwill stars as the title character, Dr. Jerry Xavier, the head of the aforementioned academy. It has attracted unwanted attention due to a string of murders in the vicinity. The killings take place only on nights when the moon is full. The victims, who die by strangulation, all have a small surgical incision at the bottom of their brains.

Lionel Atwill as Dr. Xavier.
While the police--as well as a fast-talking reporter-- investigate, Dr. Xavier conducts an experiment to rule out members of his staff. That's a good idea because they're a suspicious group whose fields of study include cannibalism and the effects of moonlight. The experiment goes horribly wrong during a blackout and one of the scientists is murdered with a scalpel. The good news, though, is that Dr. Xavier now knows that someone from the academy is the "Moon Killer."

Curtiz's use of silhouettes.
Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X three years before Captain Blood (1935) would establish him as one of Hollywood's top directors. Curtiz, who was impressed by German Impressionism early in his career, imbues Doctor X with extreme lighting, silhouettes, and disturbing camera angles. He shot the film in two-strip Technicolor (not the later, more vibrant three-strip process). The print I watched, which was restored by the UCLA Film Archive, looked like a combination of sepia and an eerie dark green. While it was muted color by later standards, it gives the film an effective semi-noir appearance.

Fay Wray as Joanne Xavier.
Based on a stage play called The Terror, Doctor X benefits from a trio of effective performances. Lionel Atwill, who evolved into one of Hollywood's best supporting actors, is wonderfully off-kilter as the enigmatic Xavier. As his on-screen daughter, Fay Wray has one of her best roles and, for once, is required to do more than look frightened. Then there's Lee Tracy, who memorably played the U.S. president in The Best Man (1964), one of my favorite political dramas. Tracy almost transforms the stereotypical wisecracking reporter into a believable character. That's no small feat.

Doctor X will never rank with Universal's best horror films of the 1930s (e.g., The Invisible Man). Still, it's certainly original and made with panache by a gifted filmmaker. It was a big moneymaker for Warner Bros. and led to another Technicolor horror film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which reunited Curtiz, Atwill, and Wray. The later "B" picture The Return of Doctor X (1939) has nothing to do with Doctor X, but is notable for featuring star Humphrey Bogart and director Vincent Sherman before they went on to bigger things.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Five Movie Props I'd Like to Own (Volume I)

1. Larry Talbot's Cane from The Wolf Man. My interest in this prop isn't because I'm a huge fan of the movie. Don't get me wrong...I like The Wolf Man, but it wouldn't rank among my top 5 Universal horror classics. However, Larry's wolf-head silver cane--which ultimately becomes the weapon used to kill him--is just so cool. The actual prop was made of cast rubber and painted silver. Bob Burns, who has amassed a treasure trove of movie props, owns the original. Universal make-up artist and prop master Ellis Berman gave him the cane in 1948 when Bob was 13. You can buy replicas of it now.

2. Charles Foster Kane's Snow Globe from Citizen Kane. Yes, the Rosebud sled is the most famous prop from the movie, but let's be honest, I don't know where I'd store a sled. The globe, with its little snow-covered house, figures into one of the film's most iconic scenes as it falls from Kane's hand to the floor and smashes. You can buy a replica of it, too, for under $40.

3. The Portrait from Laura. Who wouldn't want the famous painting of Gene Tierney hanging over their fireplace? Actually, it's not technically a painting. Director Otto Preminger didn't think portraits photographed well, so he had a photo of Gene Tierney "smeared with oil paint to soften the outlines." The "portrait" was used in two other films as well: On the Riviera (1951) (in which you can see it in color) and Woman's World (1954)--which doesn't even star Gene Tierney.

4. The Maltese Falcon sculpture. It may be the second most famous prop in movie history (topped only by the ruby slippers). A Las Vegas hotel magnate bought the original Falcon at auction in 2013 for $4.1 million. That put it way out of my price range! However, Vanity Fair later published an interesting article about other supposedly real Falcons used in the movie, too. It's all very mysterious. I'd like one, but, heck, even a solid resin knockoff on Amazon runs around $119. That's not what my dreams are made of.

5. The Hourglass from The Wizard of OzNaturally, I thought about the ruby slippers and I even considered the big crystal globe in which the Witch spies on Dorothy. In the end, though, I opted for the hourglass because it scared the crap out of me as a kid when the Witch turned it over and told Dorothy: "Do you see that? That's how much longer you've got to be alive. And it isn't long, my pretty. It isn't long."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Ten Posts of 2017

As the year draws to a close, the Classic Film & TV Cafe traditionally ends it with a countdown of our ten most viewed posts. We published a total of 104 in 2017. Naturally, the countdown is a little skewed, since those posts that came out at the start of the year will have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2017. If we had not, The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes would have crushed the competition (as always). We also omitted our monthly quizzes. To build a little suspense, we'll begin at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

But before we get started, we want to thank each of you who visited this blog this year and send some extra love to those who took the time to leave comments.

10. Cloris Leachman Channels Garfield; Peter Graves Arm Wrestles Clint Walker

9.  Seven Things to Know About Raymond Burr

8.  Working with Steve McQueen on "Le Mans": An Interview with Don Nunley

7.  Seven Things to Know About Lloyd Bridges

6.  Logan's Run: What Lies Beyond the Dome

5.  The Five Best Jack Lemmon Performances

4.  The Case of the Color "Perry Mason" Episode

3.  Nighthawks Made Me a Winner!

2.  Celebrate National Classic Movie Day with the Five Stars Blogathon!

1.  Seven Things to Know About William Smith--Actor, Bodybuilder, Poet (and more!)

Heather Menzies Urich & Dick Gautier.
Finally, we want to pay homage to two very special celebrities who passed away in 2017. Dick Gautier and Heather Menzies Urich were kind enough to share their time with us and discuss their amazing careers in television and film (click on their names to read the interviews). They helped make Get Smart and The Sound of Music, respectively, the classics that they are!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Jane Powell and Howard Keel (But No Seven Brothers)

Jane Powell and Vic Damone.
Big, splashy Broadway-style musicals had peaked in popularity when MGM released Hit the Deck in 1955. So, kudos to the studio for putting together an incredibly talented cast headlined by Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, and Ann Miller. Their male co-stars, though not as well as known on the silver screen, were famous in their right. Crooners Tony Martin and Vic Damone produced records that sold millions and Russ Tamblyn had a key role in the previous year's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Debbie Reynolds and Russ Tamblyn.
Martin, Damone, and Tamblyn play three sailors on leave for two days in San Francisco. Martin hopes to reunite with his fiancée, showgirl Ann Miller. She gives him the cold shoulder, though, after a six-year engagement with no marriage proposal in sight. Meanwhile, Tamblyn learns that his sister (Jane Powell) is involved with a womanizing musical star. He and his chums "rescue" her, but then face disciplinary actions for unacceptable conduct. They spend most of the movie trying to avoid capture by the Navy's shore patrol.

Ann Miller.
Loosely based on a 1927 stage musical with the same title, Hit the Deck is a thinly-plotted excuse for some great musical numbers. Ann Miller dances up a storm in "Keepin' Myself for You" and in the reprise of "Hallelujah" in the finale. Jane Powell warbles the funny "Lucky Bird" to a toy penguin. The three male leads harmonize nicely on "Why, Oh Why?" (my favorite song in the score) and later the ladies reprise it. Finally, Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds perform some nifty acrobatic feats in an elaborate funhouse sequence.

With its colorful costumes, bright sets, and catchy tunes, Hit the Deck is a pleasant diversion for those who enjoy Broadway musicals. It will also make you wonder why Ann Miller didn't become a bigger film star.

Along with Tamblyn, Jane Powell also appeared in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which brings us to their Brides co-star Howard Keel. We recently watched him in Callaway Went Thataway (1951), a non-musical comedy that spoofs the popularity of Hopalong Cassidy in the early 1950s.

Dorothy McGuire and Fred MacMurray.
Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire star as Mike and Debbie, a pair of marketing executives who get caught in a bind when cowboy star Smoky Calloway suddenly becomes popular with the nation's kiddies. A food company wants to launch a cereal (Calla-Cracklys) and invest $10 million in a new series of Smoky television films. That's a big problem because Calloway's "B" Westerns were made ten years earlier and Smoky was "a washed-up, beat-up drunk" when last seen--and no one knows where he is now.

Not long after Mike and Debbie launch a desperate search for Smoky, they receive a letter from Stretch Barnes (Howard Keel), a real-life cowboy who is mighty tired of people mistaking him for Smoky Calloway. Sure enough, Stretch is the splitting image of the cowboy star and it's not long before Mike and Debbie convince him to "become" Smoky. Their plan seems to going pretty well when--you guessed it--the real Smoky Calloway is found.

The writing team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama was responsible for some of the funniest films of the 1940s and 1950s (e.g., The Court Jester, Road to Utopia, White Christmas, etc.). Callaway Went Thataway doesn't rank with their best work, but it's still a reasonably amusing farce with some pointed jabs at corporate America. My favorite is when the "host" of Smoky's films reminds his young audience: "Have your Mom stock up on crispy, crunchy, Crackly Corkies." (Actually, it reminded me of a similar scene in Disney's 101 Dalmatians in which the puppies are watching TV.)
Howard Keel and Howard Keel.
Despite the presence of bigger stars, Howard Keel steals the film with his dual performance as the sincere, naive Stretch and the hard-drinking disreputable Smoky. Esther Williams, Clark Gable, and Elizabeth Taylor have cameos as themselves. Plus, look quickly and you'll see Hugh Beaumont pass Fred MacMurray in a hotel hallway. By 1960, they would be two of the best-known fathers on American television.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Clu Gulager as a Detective in the Old West

Star Clu Gulager.
Charlie Cobb's business card states that he's the Operational Vice President, Western Territory, for Chicago-based Hearthside Security, Inc. In reality, he's a poorly-paid private detective stationed in the Old West. He augments his salary by padding his expense account at every opportunity. While that may seem ethically questionable, Charlie feels it's fully justified. He claims that a man named J.J. Gideon tricked him into signing a contract with Hearthside after framing him for a crime.

Gideon (whom we never meet) assigns Charlie to protect a woman who alleges to be Charity McVea, an heiress kidnapped as a young girl. Five previous women have claimed to be Charity, but all were exposed as impostors. The stakes are high as the real Charity will inherit a $2.5 million ranch from her father.

But what initially seems like a routine job becomes more complex when there are two attempts on Charity's life. Who is trying to kill her? Is she truly the rightful heiress or just another impostor? And why is there a Pinkerton detective disguised as an upscale brothel madam?

Pernell Roberts as the sheriff.
Made in 1977, Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging was a made-for-television movie that doubled as a TV series pilot for Clu Gulager. It boasts a strong pedigree both behind and in front of the camera. The screenplay was written by Peter Fischer, whose name may be unfamiliar. However, he was a prolific writer on some of the best TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s, to include Columbo, Ellery Queen, and Marcus Welby, M.D. His claim to fame, though, is that he later created Murder, She Wrote for Angela Lansbury in 1984.

Charlie Cobb was produced by Richard Levinson and William Link, who also contributed to the story (they worked with Fischer on several earlier shows). Levinson and Link may be best remembered for creating Columbo, but they were famous long before that. The duo met in junior high school and went on to write for classic TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Fugitive before becoming producers.

Blair Brown and her radiant smile.
Although Charlie Cobb boasts an impressive cast for a made-for-TV movie, veteran performers like Stella Stevens, Ralph Bellamy, and Pernell Roberts have little to do. The script relies on Clu Gulager as Charlie and a young Blair Brown as Charity to carry the load. They're up to the task, with Brown exhibiting the vitality that catapulted her to brief theatrical stardom in films like Altered States and One Trick Pony (both 1980). She later garnered critical praise for her TV series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1987-91).

Clu Gulager (right) as Charlie Cobb.
Clu Gulager began working in television in the mid-1950s. He co-starred as Billy the Kid opposite Barry Sullivan's Pat Garrett in The Tall Man (1960-62). In 1964, Gulager joined The Virginian during its third season for a four-year run as Deputy Emmett Ryker (he later became sheriff). Always an ingratiating performer, Gulager is a perfect choice as the snappily-dressed Charlie Cobb, who can turn on the charm but is tougher than he looks. (The character's background is that he was a "Waco boy" in Texas before moving to Chicago and getting a taste of high-class living.)

If made in the early 1970s, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid briefly sparked interest in lighthearted Westerns, I think Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging would have resulted in a TV series. It's still an entertaining diversion and, surprisingly, it recently popped up on Movieplex--which is good news for Clu Gulager fans.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Kirk Douglas Discovers a Lovely Way to Die

Italian actress Sylva Koscina.
Beautiful Italian actresses hit the peak of their popularity in Hollywood in the 1960s. Call it the "Sophia Loren effect," since it was spurred largely by her boxoffice hits in the 1950s opposite the likes of Cary Grant and William Holden. Thus, Hollywood studios welcomed Claudia Cardinale, Luciana Paluzzi, and--one of my favorites--Sylva Koscina.

In 1968, Universal tried to turn Ms. Koscina into a big star by pairing her with two popular leading men: Paul Newman in The Secret War of Harry Frigg and Kirk Douglas in A Lovely Way to Die. The latter is one of those movies I saw in the 1970s on television, but seemed to have disappeared. To my delight, it showed up in a 2016 boxed set called Kirk Douglas: The Centennial Collection.

Kirk Douglas looking concerned.
Kirk plays Jim Schuyler, a tough detective who quits the force after getting too aggressive with some bad guys. He has barely turned in his badge when he receives a call from attorney Tennessee Fredericks (Eli Wallach), who wants him to provide protection for his latest client. That client is Rena Westabrook (Sylva Koscina), who is accused with her lover of murdering her wealthy husband. Schuyler has no interest in the gig until he meets Mrs. Westabrook, whose stunning beauty sets his hormones racing.

Rena's innocence is based solely on one key witness, who has unfortunately gone missing. As Jim delves into the mystery surrounding the death of Rena's husband, he can't decide if she's a falsely accused victim or a cold, calculating killer. Either way, he can't overcome his attraction to her, especially since it appears to be reciprocated.

From its peppy title song warbled by Jackie Wilson, it's apparent that A Lovely Way to Die isn't intended as a serious film. Indeed, once the plot is unraveled, it turns out to be pretty simplistic. The film's appeal comes down to its stars and, in this case, they come through.

Kirk Douglas employs his boyish charm to great effect, especially in scenes like the one where he greets Rena's house staff cheerfully after exiting from an overnight stay in the lady's bedroom. He also gets the bulk of the script's one-liners. For example, when Rena asks Jim why he's trying to make love to her, he quips: "I think it had something to do with Mama delivering a boy child." (Later, Rena reverses this line, but it doesn't work as well.)

Eli Wallach as Tennessee.
Still, Eli Wallach practically steals the film--as he often did during his lengthy acting career. It's an impressive feat considering that his role is that of a stereotypical, homespun Southern lawyer. But hey, it worked for Andy Griffith for years on the Matlock TV series. One of my favorite lines in A Lovely Way to Die is when Jim reminds his friend Tennessee that, despite the carefully honed Southern drawl, the attorney hadn't been to Tennessee for decades.

As for Sylva Koscina, she doesn't fare as well as her American co-stars. Despite her jaw-dropping looks, she comes up surprisingly short in terms of allure. Part of the problem may be a lack of chemistry with Kirk Douglas, fueled by an age difference of seventeen years. I also think the costume designers could have created a better wardrobe for her. When Rena asks her maid to pick out "something sexy" to wear, the result is a dress that covers her completely.

Sylva Koscina returned to Italian cinema after A Lovely Way to Die and worked steadily through most of the 1970s. She appeared opposite another Hollywood icon when she co-starred with Rock Hudson in the 1970 Italian-made World War II actioner Hornets' Nest. She died in 1994 at age 61 from breast cancer. She is probably best-remembered by American audiences for her performances as Steve Reeves' love interest in the sword-and-sandal hits Hercules (1958) and its sequel Hercules Unchained (1959).

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (December 2017)

Ronald Reagan and Kurt Russell.
Seasons greeting to all! For those who have never played this game, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Donald Sutherland and Nicole Kidman.

2. Kurt Russell and Ronald Reagan.

3. Richard Boone and Karl Malden (might be a toughie!).

4. Tom Tryon and Jeff Bridges.

5. Steve McQueen and James Garner.

6. Raquel Welch and Lily Tomlin.

7. Kenneth More and Barbara Stanwyck.

8. Robert Horton and Frank Converse.

9. Charles Bronson and Frank Sinatra.

10. Glenn Ford and Karen Valentine.

11. James Stewart and Richard Roundtree.

12. James Stewart and The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

13. Dick Van Dyke and Frankie Avalon.

14. John Wayne and Fess Parker.

15. Jack Lemmon and Paul Lynde.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Playing The Pajama Game

John Raitt & Doris Day.
New superintendent Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) has his hands full at the Sleeptite pajama factory. The company's disgruntled employees want a 7½ cents raise and the company's stingy owner isn't about to give in. Sid's life becomes even more complicated when he meets Babe Williams (Doris Day), the head of the union's grievance committee.

Sparks fly between the two, even though Babe tries to feign a lack of interest in Sid (while the other female employees gush about him). However, it's not long before loves blossoms. But can a company executive and a labor leader find middle ground on the road to marital bliss?

This 1957 adaptation of the Tony Award-winning 1954 stage musical features some good songs, energetic dancing, and a rare opportunity to see famed Broadway choreographer Carol Haney in a featured role. However, it's also one of those movies where the parts never gel into a cohesive whole.

Part of the problem can be attributed to the producers' decision to trim a stage musical running over two hours to a 101-minute film. The result plays like a highlight reel with one musical number leading to another with little exposition. For example, Sid and Babe exchange a little dialogue, duet on some songs, and--presto!--they're in love. A little more story development would have done wonders.

Likewise, two of the film's most famous musical numbers--"Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway"--don't seem integrated into the plot. Its easier to justify the latter because at least it's a song about a nightclub where a scene takes place. But "Steam Heat" is presented as part of the entertainment at a union event that seems irrelevant to the rest of the movie.

Haney, in the middle, for "Steam Heat."
That's not to say that "Steam Heat" isn't a fabulous musical number, because it's a showstopper featuring the incredible choreography of Bob Fosse and Haney's precision dancing. Haney, like much of the cast, appeared in the original stage production. She first met Fosse when the two danced together in the 1953 film version of Kiss Me, Kate (click here to watch their brief, but impressive routine on YouTube). Although Carol Haney won a Tony Award for The Pajama Game, she preferred to work behind the scenes. She later received three Tony nominations as a choreographer. Her only other major film role was in Gene Kelly's Invitation to the Dance (1956).

The Pajama Game was also John Raitt's only significant film appearance. Though his strong baritone voice serves him well, his on-screen acting is wooden and he and Doris Day exhibit little chemistry. Still, he continued to have great success on the stage and as a recording artist. And, yes, he is the father of singer Bonnie Raitt.

Doris Day was cast in the lead to provide the film with some star power. At one time, Frank Sinatra was attached to play the male lead with Janis Paige reprising her performance as Babe from the Broadway show. When Sinatra dropped out, John Raitt got the part and the female lead shifted to Doris.

Carol Haney.
By the way, Carol Haney's understudy in the Broadway play was a young Shirley MacLaine. When Haney injured her ankle, MacLaine replaced her for several performances--and was subsequently signed to a movie contract. Still, I'm glad she wasn't in the film version. The Pajama Game may not be a great musical film, but it's an opportunity to see Ms. Haney dance and I quite enjoyed that.

Monday, December 11, 2017

George Gently: The Complete Collection

Searching for that perfect gift for the mystery fan in your family? Then look no farther than Acorn TV's boxed set of the superb British detective series George Gently. This show, which concluded earlier this year, consists of twenty-five 90-minute episodes that were broadcast over the last ten years. Yes, it's a stretch to write about it on a classic TV blog, but this is one series that will be a classic--plus its convincing 1960s setting will evoke plenty of nostalgia.

Martin Shaw as George Gently.
Martin Shaw stars as the title character, a veteran detective chief inspector for London's Metropolitan Police circa 1964. A highly-principled man, George Gently has been fighting corrupt senior colleagues--and his actions may have been responsible for his wife Isabella's recent death. When a snitch provides a lead to locating Bella's killer, George postpones his retirement to investigate a murder case in Northumberland.

He is paired with a young, ambitious detective sergeant named John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby). Bacchus knows the locale and its residents, but he's also a copper willing to bend the rules in the line of duty. Yet, Gently recognizes promise in Bacchus, which leads the senior detective to postpone his retirement, transfer to Northumberland, and nix Bacchus' planned reassignment to London. Gently informs his new partner in no uncertain terms at the end of the first episode: "I've told you, Sergeant Bacchus, I'm chopping you down. You're staying here. With me."

Lee Ingleby as John Bacchus.
It's the constantly-evolving relationship between Gently and Bacchus that elevates George Gently above dozens of other British crime shows. The duo ultimately become loyal to one another and form a sort of father-son relationship. But Bacchus struggles to live up to George's expectations, especially when the older detective serves as the younger one's moral compass. The relationship becomes even more complex when a female police constable, Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis), joins the team in season six. Her open admiration and deep respect for Gently immediately puts her at odds with Bacchus.

Lisa McGrillis as Rachel Coles.
Don't go thinking that George Gently is all character study, though. The mysteries are tightly constructed and often integrated into the 1960s backdrop. The Cold War, riots, a holiday camp, and the pop music scene provide the background for some of the best episodes. As the series progresses, it moves from 1964 through the rest of the decade, with the final two episodes taking place in 1970.

Author Alan Hunter introduced George Gently in his 1955 novel Gently Does It. He wrote a total of 46 George Gently mysteries with the last one being published in 1999. In the books, there is no John Bacchus, Gently is single, and he lives in Norfolk.

The boxed set of George Gently includes numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes, interviews, and photos. The best bonus item is a booklet describing key historical events in Great Britain for the years covered by the series. The booklet also contains brief text interviews with Martin Shaw, Lee Ingleby, Lisa McGrillis, and producer Jake Lushington.

Key historical events in 1964--as described in the bonus booklet.

When asked to describe George Gently in one sentence, Lushington states: "I would say that it's a challenging and entertaining detective drama that gives you a realistic snapshot of the 1960s, rather than a rose-tinted memory." I would add that it's marvelously acted, especially by Martin Shaw, and is a worthy edition to any mystery lover's video collection.

Acorn TV provided a review copy of George Gently: The Complete Collection. It retails for $149.99, but you should be able to find it for much less, especially during the holiday season.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Irwin Allen's City Beneath the Sea

Stuart Whitman as Admiral Matthews.
Shortly before The Poseidon Adventure revived his big screen career, producer Irwin Allen made this 1971 made-for-TV film about an underwater city called Pacifica. Set in 2053, it opens with the U.S. President (Richard Basehart) ordering former admiral Michael Matthews (Stuart Whitman) back to the submerged city to oversee the transport of the nation's gold from Fort Knox to Pacifica. Matthews' return is met with open hostility. Everyone blames him for the death of his friend Bill Holmes, especially Bill's bitter widow Lia (Rosemary Forsyth).

Rosemary Forsyth as Lia.
There's little time to cope with such emotions, though, as Matthews learns about a "planetoid" that's heading directly for Pacifica. Unknown to Matthews, his brother Brett (Robert Wagner) has been plotting to steal the nation's gold bullion as well as its supply of H-128, a valuable, radioactive source of highly-efficient energy. Brett sees the impending planetoid disaster as a perfect opportunity to adjust and implement his scheme.

The Flying Sub from Voyage.
Intended as the pilot for a new TV series, City Beneath the Sea borrows liberally from other Irwin Allen projects. The aircraft that Whitman and Robert Colbert use in the opening scenes is the Flying Sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Much of the equipment was recycled from Voyage and Lost in Space. Star Colbert was a regular on Allen's Time Tunnel TV series, as was supporting actor Whit Bissell and "special guest star" James Darren. In addition in Basehart, look quickly and you'll spot Bob Dowdell, who played Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton on Voyage.

Robert Wagner as the bad brother.
I'm not sure if City Beneath the Sea could have sustained itself as a weekly series, but the telefilm moves crisply and features plenty of action. Though Star Trek veteran John Meredyth Lucas wrote the screenplay, there's not a lot of depth to the characters. The most promising is Aguila (Burr DeBenning), a scientist with both gills and lungs. DeBenning later appeared as an underwater-breathing man again--though this time a villain--in Man From Atlantis.

Four-time Oscar winner L.B. Abbott supervised the spotty special effects. His work was no doubt hampered by the modest budget, but still good enough to earn the film a theatrical release in Great Britain.

City Beneath the Sea was Irwin Allen's second attempt to launch a TV series about an underwater city. He made a ten-minute clip in 1967 starring Glenn Corbett, Francine York, Lloyd Bochner, and a young James Brolin as Wild Bill Tyler. You can watch it on YouTube.


Here's a clip from City Beneath the Sea. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.