Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bob Hope Ain't Afraid of No Ghosts

Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard.
One of Bob Hope's best films, The Ghost Breakers is a first-rate haunted house comedy that benefits from a funny script and a strong cast. Made in 1941, it reteams Hope and Paulette Goddard from the similar The Cat and the Canary (1939). Both movies features spooky settings and were adapted from stage plays. However, while The Cat and the Canary comes off as a bit creaky, The Ghost Breakers holds up nicely.

Bob plays a radio broadcaster named Lawrence (Larry) Lawrence (his middle name is Lawrence, too--"My parents had no imagination"). He has a radio show on which he's billed as "the man who knows all the rackets and all the racketeers." While visiting a hotel to see a disgruntled gangster, Larry accidentally fires a gun at the same time another man is fatally shot. Thinking he has committed a homicide, Larry hides in the hotel room of Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard).

Mary (Goddard) encounters a zombie
played by Noble Johnson.
Mary has recently inherited a Cuban castle called Castillo Maldito, located on the ominous-sounding Black Island. For 20 years, no one has been able to spend a night in the castle and survive until morning. Additionally, an anonymous individual offered to buy the estate for $50,000, although Mary refused to sell. She helps Larry evade the police and, in return, he agrees to accompany her to the eerie castle. He keeps his promise even after he's cleared of the murder rap--and Mary receives a note stating: "Death waits for you on Black Island." By that point, it's clear that Larry has become smitten with Mary.

Unlike The Cat and the Canary, much of the plot takes place outside the haunted house. That's not a bad thing, with Hope delivering some of his most memorable wisecracks. My favorite is this exchange with Richard Carlson, in which the latter describes the island's undead:

CARLSON: It's worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.

HOPE: You mean like Democrats?

Bob Hope and Willie Best.
Willie Best, who worked with many of the best comedians in Hollywood, has perhaps his most substantial role as Larry's valet. He and Hope form a funny team and, as Thomas Cripps points out in his book Slow Fade to Black, they even subtly poke fun at racial stereotyping: "As he (Best) fumbles with oars, Hope says, 'I thought you rowed for Harlem Tech'...(Later) they reverse the old humor when they see an apparition and Hope panics while Best says, "I know better.'"

It's funny to count the number of
scenes that emphasize Paulette's legs.
Paulette Goddard is in top form as the plucky heroine and genuinely seems to be having fun. The same could be said for the rest of the cast, which includes Noble Johnson as a zombie, Paul Lukas as an untrustworthy solicitor, and Anthony Quinn playing twins. Look fast and you might even spot Robert Ryan in his film debut as an ambulance driver.

The Ghost Breakers was loosely based on the 1913 Broadway play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard. It was adapted twice previously as silent films. Additionally, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis starred in a 1953 remake called Scared Stiff. It's one of their better comedies and features Lizabeth Scott as Mary. It was directed by George Marshall, who already knew the plot pretty well--he also helmed The Ghost Breakers.

Bob and Paulette in their earlier film.
After recently watching The Ghost Breakers again, I sought out the Hope-Goddard version of The Cat and the Canary (1939). Although the mist-filled Louisiana Bayou seems promising in the opening frames, the film quickly dissolves into a straightforward haunted house comedy. It's mildly amusing, with Goddard holding most of the plot together (the delightful Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco are sadly underutilized). Bob Hope still seems to be getting comfortable playing a lead role. It's amazing how much more assured he would be just one year later in The Ghost Breakers.

My recommendation is that--if you just see one of these two spooky comedies--your best bet is The Ghost Breakers. It's not scary, but if you're a 'fraidy cat, please note Bob's confession: "I'm so scared, even my goose pimples have goose pimples."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Leopard Man features "one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed"

The accolade in the title of this review comes from director William Friedkin, who knows a little about creating horror (The Exorcist) and suspense (the chase scene in The French Connection). Of course, I didn't need Mr. Friedkin to tell me what I already knew. I saw The Leopard Man as a kid and that specific scene etched itself into my brain. Among classic film buffs, it holds its own against more famous sequences of implied horror like the rolling ball in Fritz Lang's M.

Are the screams behind the door a
childish ploy or a frightening reality?
The Leopard Man, though, is more than a one-tricky pony. It's a fascinating suspense film set in a small New Mexico town (atmospherically created on an RKO backlot). The catalyst for the plot is a black leopard that escapes during a foolish publicity stunt. When a young girl is found clawed to death, the leopard is blamed--but was it the killer?

Some critics have complained that The Leopard Man lacks the psychological complexity of Val Lewton's other RKO thrillers, such as The Cat People and The Seventh Victim. There may be some truth to that, but it makes up for any thematic deficiencies with an intriguing structure and three visually chilling sequences.

Clo-Clo cloaked in shadows.
Screenwriters Ardel Wray and Edward Dein break conventional narrative structure by shifting the story focus when characters interact. For example, after being introduced to castanets dancer Clo-Clo (Margo), we follow her as she walks down a shadow-filled street. She talks with the fortune-teller, playfully waves her hand through a ring of cigarette smoke, and smiles at lovers kissing. Then, as Clo-Clo walks past a young girl looking out the window, the plot shifts to that girl. Later, when Clo-Clo stops at a street florist, we follow another customer to the house where she works and, again, the plot shifts to follow different characters. In both instances, the new characters become murder victims. (Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock used a slight variation of this same narrative device 17 years later in Psycho).

The end result of the film's unusual narrative is that it keeps the viewer in a state of unease by casting aside expectations. Director Jacques Tourneur plays with viewer expectations in other ways as well. In one scene, we follow Clo-Clo down a darkened street. We expect something bad to happen, but then she reaches the safety of her home. Tourneur gives the viewer a few seconds to exhale a sigh of relief before Clo-Clo realizes she dropped something valuable on the street and goes back out into the threatening shadows.

In addition to the almost constant state of unease, Tourneur tosses in the three chilling sequences mentioned earlier. The first--and the one mentioned by Friedkin--involves a girl sent by her irritated mother to buy flour. To say more would be spoil the impact...although the scene has been copied to the point that it may not be as disturbing to new viewers as it once was.

The second of the three scenes is classic Lewton, with a young woman trapped in a spooky cemetery at sunset. She hears a man outside the cemetery wall and asks for help. He leaves to get a ladder, giving us false expectations (again) that nothing bad will happen.

The final scene, during the climax, isn't really suspenseful. It is, though, visually unhinging with a contingent of hooded figures leading a column of men with candles as they march against a gray textured sky (again, amazingly, on the RKO backlot).


Everytime I watch Val Lewton's horror films, I seem have a new favorite. Last year, after watching The Seventh Victim, it moved into my top spot...replacing The Cat People. That said, the one that keeps coming back to haunt me is The Leopard Man. It's a unique, one-of-a-kind thriller and it does indeed feature one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed. Plus, I just watched it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Get Ready for Halloween with "House of Dark Shadows"

Barnabas Collins (with Carolyn
Collins in background).
The intended audience for House of Dark Shadows was undoubtedly fans of the popular 1966-71 ABC gothic daytime drama. If you watched the TV series dutifully (like me), you will enjoy this faithful big screen adaptation. For other viewers, though, House of Dark Shadows is a respectable 1970s vampire film with modest production values and a low-wattage, though quite capable, cast.

The film opens with unemployed handyman Willie Loomis, a modern-day Renfield, inadvertently unleashing vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid). Freed from decades of captivity in his coffin, Barnabas makes a house call on the wealthy Collins family, introducing himself as a cousin from England. The family welcomes the charming Barnabas, who presents matriarch Elizabeth (Joan Bennett) with a thought-to-be-lost, emerald-encrusted heirloom. Yet, while everyone else is enamored with the newly-discovered, gift-giving cousin, Professor Eliot Stokes (Thayer David) becomes immediately suspicious when the vampire avoids some pointed questions.

Kathryn Leigh Scott has written
several Dark Shadows books.
At a costume party, Barnabas meets Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the apparent reincarnation of his lover Josette. While he woos Maggie, he has to deal with two jealous rivals for his affection: Carolyn Collins--who has become a vampire courtesy of a casual Barnabas biting--and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), who has fallen in love with the vampire while developing a cure for his affliction. Not unexpectedly, things go badly for Barnabas, especially when Julia substitutes the anti-vampire serum with a drug with some unpleasant side effects.

Fans of the TV series will quickly recognize that the first 75 minutes of House of Dark Shadows condenses the TV show's familiar plot. However, to create an acceptable climax (and perhaps reward fans with some new material), producer-director Dan Curtis opts for a dramatic--and surprisingly bloody--ending. The truncated storyline also means that several popular characters only get a few minutes of screen time. Still, the focus on Barnabas works to the film's advantage, since Frid's nuanced performance is what made the show a hit in the first place.

Grayson Hall received an Oscar nom
for Night of the Iguana.
House of Dark Shadows also rewards fans by incorporating many of the TV series' familiar elements, from Robert Cobert's haunting music to the shadowy photography and atmospheric settings. Personally, I wish the film had been shot in black-and-white like the first year of the TV series (which looks much better than the later color years). However, mainstream black-and-white films were no longer in vogue by 1970, so that wasn't a realistic option.

For non-fans, House of Dark Shadows is a straightforward horror film released in the same year as another contemporary vampire outing, Count Yorga, Vampire. The Dark Shadows script has some bite (sorry!), such as when Carolyn (soon to be a vampire) tells Barnabas: "There's so much about you that I'm dying to know." One must also admire how the film avoids the whole "there are no such thing as vampires" discussion. Once Professor Stokes proclaims a vampire is to blame, everyone seems to accept that theory. (Of course, the townsfolk--except for Stokes--are slow to connect Barnabas's arrival with the sudden appearance of the bloodsucker).

Jonathan Frid in Dick Smith make-up
as the aged Barnabas.
After House of Dark Shadows turned into a solid box office hit, Curtis set out to make a sequel. However, the TV series had ended by then and Jonathan Frid had moved on to other roles. Therefore, Night of Dark Shadows focused on other characters played by David Selby, Kate Jackson, and Lara Parker. It was a modest hit, but no further sequels appeared.

That was not the end of Dark Shadows, of course, which has been released on video, revived multiple times for television, and recently turned into a campy motion picture by Tim Burton. The simple fact is that you can't keep a great vampire like Barnabas Collins down for long.

Monday, October 27, 2014

You Can't Keep a Good Mummy Down

As monsters go, I've never been a big Mummy fan. After all, the Mummy basically follows orders, kills people, and walks...very...slowly. For some reason, people tend to fall down a lot when he's stalking them. Otherwise, I'm not sure the Mummy would be very effective at accomplishing his deadly tasks.

Still, I am a fan of Hammer Films' The Mummy (1959), which features an imposing Christopher Lee as possibly cinema's most fleet-footed mummified monster. This version is not a remake of the interesting, but plodding, 1932 Boris Karloff original. It does borrow some elements, but Jimmy Sangster's script also gleefully dips into other Universal Mummy movies. In the end, it's sort of a "Best of the Mummy" and that works surprisingly well.

The plot begins in 1895 with three British archaeologists discovering the tomb of Princess Ananka. When left alone in the tomb, elderly Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) reads the scroll of life and inadvertently revives a mummy called Kharis. Banning suffers a stroke and winds up back in England in the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered. He never says a word to anyone for three years. 

An atmospheric shot of the Mummy
emerging from a bog.
Hence, his son John (Peter Cushing) is surprised when he learns his father wants to see him. Dad tells John that there's a mummy roaming the English countryside. John doesn't believe him until the elderly Banning is found strangled in his room at the nursing home--the bars to his window bent like putty.

As mentioned earlier, many familiar plot elements are interwoven into Hammer's The Mummy. There's the sinister Egyptian scholar who wants to punish the men who desecrated Princess Ananka's tomb. There's the expected reincarnation subplot, this time involving Banning's wife (French actress Yvonne Furneau).  And there's a lengthy flashback that explains how Kharis, a high priest to Ananka, became a vengeful mummy.

Apparently, Mummies don't knock.
However, director Terence Fisher freshens up The Mummy with two marvelous set-pieces and some atmospheric visuals of the formidable monster traipsing through the English countryside. The film's best scene has Kharis bursting through the double doors of Banning's stately manor and killing a relative as Banning fires bullets into the impervious creature. A similar later scene is just as effective when Kharis plunges through a floor-length glass window and shrugs off two blasts from a shotgun. 

The reliable Peter Cushing.
As he did in Hammer's Dracula films, Cushing brings intelligence and physicality to his role as a monster adversary. But more than that, he brings conviction to the point that his character can discuss a living mummy committing murders and not sound silly. As the Mummy, 6' 5" Christopher Lee makes a pretty scary monster, assisted by effective make-up and those penetrating eyes. He gets some face time, too, as Kharis in the flashback sequence.

It's a shame that the budget prevented on-location filming for the Egypt footage. It's woefully apparent that these scenes were shot indoors. On the other hand, set designer Bernard Robinson creates some highly effective sets for the scenes taking place in England.

Valerie Leon--she's no mummy!
The Mummy doesn't belong in Hammer's top tier of films (which includes the likes of Brides of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and The Devil Rides Out). That said, it's a very satisfying take on the Mummy pantheon and recommended for horror fans. Hammer made three sequels (of sorts). Skip The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) and The Mummy's Shroud (1967) and go straight to Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971). In lieu of a mummy, you get the stunning Valerie Leon in an intriguing adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bela Lugosi Meets the East Side Kids in "Spooks Run Wild"

As a youngster, I loved the juvenile antics of the Bowery Boys and must have seen all their movies on a local TV station. Even the silliest films reflected an appreciation for classic vaudeville comedy with a duo comprised of a wisecracking straight man and a not-so-bright funny guy. I don't think Leo Gorcey (as Slip) and Huntz Hall (as Sach) will ever be considered comic geniuses--but they could be pretty funny.

Bobby Jordan, Gorcey, and Hall.
Still, their act evolved over the years from "straight roles" in Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) to a string of "B" films. In the early 1940s, producer Sam Katzman signed the principal Boys to a contract with Monogram and billed them as the East Side Kids in a series of films. These pictures initially included dramatic elements, but gradually transitioned to straight comedies. By then, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall had emerged as the stars--and, in 1946, they revamped the series as the Bowery Boys.

This prelude brings us to Spooks Run Wild (1941), one of the better East Side Kids comedies. The somewhat jarring opening scene shows the gang in handcuffs. Yet, instead of being shipped off to a reform school, these "underprivileged youths" are sent to a two-week camp in the rural community of Hillside. It's a tense time in the small town, for a "monster killer"--who has committed "three inhuman murders"--is on the loose.

A publicity still with Lugosi, Angelo
Rossitto, and the guys.
The killer is almost certain to be one of two strangers that stops at the local gas station: a mysterious man (Bela Lugosi) with a dwarf assistant (Angelo Rossitto) and a kindly gentleman that introduces himself as Dr. Von Grosch (Dennis Moore). I bet you can guess which one is the killer!

The boys get involved when Muggs (Gorcey), Glimpy (Hall), and Danny (Bobby Jordan) sneak out of their cabin to visit the pretty blonde at the sweet shop. En route to town, they encounter an overzealous cemetery attendant who shoots Pee Wee (David Gorcey, Leo's younger brother). The guys seek help at the mysterious house on the hill. What follows is a traditional haunted house comedy with familiar gags such as Muggs and Glimpy donning suits of armor (with each thinking the other is a ghost or the killer). 

Lugosi and Rossitto.
The proceedings get a lift from the presence of Bela Lugosi. He's not in a lot of the movie, but--as he did later in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein--he's not afraid to have a little fun at his own expense. His short-statured co-star Angelo Rossitto had a very long screen career, ranging from John Barrymore's The Beloved Rogue (1927) to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

In 1954, Gorcey and Hall returned to the haunted house setting with The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters. I haven't seen it in ages, but recall it being a funnier film. It boasts a pretty good supporting cast with John Dehner, Ellen Corby, and Lloyd Corrigan--but there's no Bela Lugosi.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Town of Midwich Becomes the Village of the Damned

There’s nothing to distinguish Midwich from any other rural English village—except that one day, every living inhabitant passes out for four hours. A man slumps over the steering wheel of a tractor as its runs in circles. An unconscious telephone operator doesn’t hear the constant ringing of incoming calls. Water overflows bathtubs, irons scorch clothes, and a stuck phonograph record repeats the same musical notes over and over. Then suddenly, everyone wakes up and all seems normal again.

Except it isn’t, of course. A month later, every woman capable of bearing a child is pregnant. Twelve perfectly healthy children are eventually born, each with blonde hair, “arresting” eyes, and narrow nails. At the age of 12 months, one of them opens a Chinese puzzle box. And what one learns, they all do—immediately—as if they share the same consciousness.

Few films can match Village of the Damned for its eerie opening and original premise. Much of the credit belongs to John Wyndham, who wrote the source novel The Midwich Cuckoos (as well as The Day of the Triffids). However, director Wolf Rilla builds on Wyndham’s ideas by giving the film an otherworldly quality. Some of his images are disturbingly hypnotic, such as the sight of the Aryan-like children, walking like a pack, through the quaint village. Likewise, his use of natural sound—even the opening credits roll over church bells instead of music—gives the film a different aural quality.

George Sanders portrays the only sympathetic father (as you can imagine, the “fathers” have difficulty accepting the children). Sanders’ character, though, appreciates the children’s tremendous intellectual potential. He and his son, David, may not love each other in a conventional sense, but they admire and respect one another. In contrast, David has little need for his coddling mother, though he is always polite to her.

As David, young Martin Stephens gives a fine performance. One of the best child actors of the 1960s, Stephens had enough screen presence to hold his own against Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961). He had the unique ability to act like an adult trapped in a child’s body.

Village of the Damned is an unconventional science fiction film, so don’t expect answers to the questions it poses. A 1964 sequel, Children of the Damned, expanded on the notion that the children are feared mainly because they’re different (a theme also explored in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive movies). John Carpenter directed a lifeless remake of Village of the Damned in 1995.

(Incidentally, co-writer Stirling Silliphant had an interesting career. He created the TV series Route 66 with Herbert B. Leonard and wrote most of the episodes. He later won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, had a boxoffice smash with The Poseidon Adventure, and became a martial arts student and friend to Bruce Lee. Silliphant, Lee, and James Coburn conceived a martial film called The Silver Flute. It was eventually made as Circle of Iron with David Carradine in the role intended for Bruce Lee.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Help Celebrate the First National Classic Movie Day on May 16, 2015!

Did you know that there is no nationwide day dedicated to celebrating classic movies? My goal is to change that in 2015 by introducing the first National Classic Movie Day on May 16th.

I recently realized that classic movies have been totally ignored when it comes to large-scale, single day tributes. After all, hot dogs, aardvarks, and even ugly Christmas sweaters have "national days" on July 23rd, March 19th, and December 12th. The closest anyone has gotten to celebrating movies is with National Drive-in Day (June 6th) and National I Love Lucy Day on October 15th.

I aim to change that--with your help--by starting a grassroots social media campaign. I selected May 16th because it was the date of the first Academy Awards ceremony. When trying to define a "birth date" for classic cinema, that seemed as good as any.

As for a slogan, I came up for with the following: "Celebrate Classic Films from the Silents to the Seventies." That offers a definition of "classic film" which ranges from Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to The Godfather and Stars Wars (which turns 38 next year).

How will National Classic Movie Day be celebrated? That's entirely up to you! You could host a blogathon, show a classic film at your local library, watch a DVD with friends, tweet about it, conduct a poll on classic favorites, etc.

If you want to promote National Classic Movie Day, you can use the poster above or create your own. You can "like" the National Classic Movie Day on its Facebook page and describe how you plan to celebrate it. You can also follow it on Twitter as @ClassicMovieDay. For tweeting purposes, please use #NationalClassicMovieDay.

With your help, this could become an annual event that reminds everyone about the wonders of classic cinema.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Movie Connection Game (Halloween 2014 Edition)

How are I Walked With a Zombie and
Jane Eyre connected?
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. I have a feeling this quiz may be too easy!

1. The Undying Monster and House of Dracula.

2. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Return of the Vampire.

3. Mark of the Vampire and London After Midnight

4. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (other than they're both Hammer films).

5. I Walked With a Zombie and Jane Eyre.

6. The Day of the Triffids and Werewolf of London

7. The film House of Frankenstein and the TV series Gunsmoke.  

8. Donald Sutherland and Kevin McCarthy. 

9. Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher and Professor Moriarty. 

10. The Dunwich Horror and Die, Monster, Die

11. Ray Milland and Vincent Price. 

12. Once Upon a Time in the West and Suspiria.  

13. Bela Lugosi and Charles Laughton. 

14. Christopher Lee, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Boris Karloff....and Tom Tyler. 

15. Vincent Price, Dennis Weaver, and Jane Seymour. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why the 1950s Is Classic Cinema's Most Important Decade

What is classic cinema's most important decade? I suppose the answer depends on one's criteria. I'd argue that I could make a strong case for almost any decade prior to 1980. However, my personal pick is the most transitional period in movie history. I'm not talking the transition from silent films to talkies, but rather the decade that introduced a new generation of classic stars while the existing ones were still writing their legends. For those reasons--and eight more--I aim to convince you that the 1950s were the most important years for classic cinema.

Cary Grant in North By Northwest.
1. Hollywood's biggest stars were still going strong. Need some evidence? How about the following representive list of classic stars and some of their most famous 1950s films: Cary Grant and North By Northwest; James Stewart and Harvey; Bing Crosby and The Country Girl; John Wayne and The Searchers; Bette Davis and All About Eve; Marlene Dietrich and Witness for the Prosecution; Joan Crawford and Johnny Guitar; Alan Ladd and Shane; and Lana Turner and Imitation of Life. There are many others that could be listed, too. Even stars who were past their peaks had solid hits, such as Errol Flynn in Against All Flags.  

Jack Lemmon became a star in the 1950s.
2 . A whole new generation of classic stars emerged in the 1950s. It's a huge list that includes: Jack Lemmon; Marilyn Monroe; Grace Kelly; Paul Newman; Joanne Woodward; Rock Hudson; Kim Novak; Richard Burton; Sophia Loren; Marlon Brando; Dirk Bogarde; James Dean; and Steve McQueen. Except for a few careers cut tragically short, these stars would grace the silver screen for years to come. 

A theatre of 3D movie watchers.
3. Technology advances reached new heights. Fearing that television would reduce box office receipts, studio executives sought new ways to attract moviegoers. Experimental technology, such as 3D and widescreen, were brought into the mainstream. The popularity of 3D was brief, but significant--even Hitchcock made a 3D pic (Dial M for Murder). While 3D didn't last, widescreen processes--such as Cinemascope and VistaVision--would became the standard for all theatrical films. 

4. Epics made a comeback. You can credit the threat of television for this one, too. The modest-sized television screens of the 1950s worked well for intimate dramas--but not for the sweeping grandeur of historical epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Samson and Delilah. It was a trend that would continue well into the 1960s. 

Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
5. International cinema became...well...international. Prior to the 1950s, there were a handful of foreign-language films that crossed the Atlantic, such as 1939 Oscar nominee Grand Illusion. However, that changed dramatically after World War II as Rosselini, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and other foreign directors gained worldwide acclaim. 

Novak and Stewart in Vertigo.
6. Hitchcock regained his crown as Master of Suspense. The 1940s were a mixed bag for Hitch, with his successes (Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious) countered by boxoffice duds like The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, and Rope. In contrast, his 1950s output included three of his most acclaimed films: Rear Window; Vertigo; and North By Northwest. Even some of his lesser 1950s films became popular successes (To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much) or eventual cult classics (The Trouble With Harry). 

7. The drive-in theater was born. Well, technically, there were drive-in theaters long before 1950, but their popularity began to soar during the decade. Cinema purists may scoff at the idea of watching movies outdoors, but the drive-ins provided an inexpensive way for families and teens to enjoy a double (or even triple) feature. 

8. The studio system died and the stars become more powerful. Yes, some studios still signed young talent and groomed them for stardom (as Universal did with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis). However, the days where big stars were bound to their studio had ended. When James Stewart agreed to star in Winchester '73, he took a percentage of the profits and became rich. Suddenly, much of the clout in Hollywood shifted from the moguls to the stars.  

Richard Widmark in Night
and the City.
9. New genres flourished. The "docudrama" that started in the late 1940s with The Naked City paved the way for gritty, shot-on-location dramas like Call Northside 777, The Sweet Smell of Success, Night and the City, and The Set-Up. Western heroes gained psychological baggage as the "adult Western" was born with flawed protagonists played by James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford, and John Wayne. Space travel and the atomic bomb inspired imaginative science fiction films about alien beings (good and bad) and giant monsters (always bad). Britain's Hammer Films revived Gothic horror in bloody color and made stars of Frankenstein and Dracula again.

10.  The studios learned that TV was a good thing after all. In 1957, Universal Pictures released 52 of its classic horror films to TV stations in its Shock! syndication package. No one anticipated the massive appeal those films would have with a whole new generation of viewers. The Shock package also popularized the numerous late-night weekend horror movies hosted by the likes of Vampira. Soon, a sequel set of films called Son of Shock was released. By then, the studios had grasped the importance of television.

Monday, October 13, 2014

An Interview with Dark Shadows' Kathryn Leigh Scott--Actress, Author, and Publisher

Best known for her roles on the classic TV series Dark Shadows, Kathryn Leigh Scott continues to find success in both the entertainment and publishing industries. She has remained in demand as an actress since she made her television debut as Maggie Evans in Dark Shadows in 1966. Over the next five decades, she appeared in numerous films and TV series--to include the theatrical film House of Dark Shadows, acting opposite John Wayne in Brannigan, and making memorable guest appearances in TV shows such as DallasStar Trek: The Next Generation, and Police Squad. She continues to be in demand today with a recurring role as George Segal's girlfriend on the hit sitcom The Goldbergs. In 1986, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Dark Shadows, she wrote the book Dark Shadows Memories. Its success inspired her to launch Pomegranate Press that same year. Pomegranate Press has published books about Dark Shadows, other TV series (e.g., The Fugitive Recaptured), a biography of Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Coya Knutson, and Ms. Scott's 2011 novel Dark Passages

Café:  In 1965, after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City, you were acting on stage and working at a Playboy Bunny Club. How did you get the role of Maggie Evans on Dark Shadows 

Kathryn Leigh Scott: Richard Bauman, a theatrical agent who had seen me in an AADA production, sent me to audition for Dark Shadows. I was brought back several times to read for Dan Curtis and the director, Lela Swift...but it was while I was in Hollywood for a screen test that I got word I was wanted for a camera test in New York. I took a red-eye back, found the script on my doorstep and managed to get to the camera test by 9 A.M. I think by then I already had the role because I auditioned with several different actors up for the role of Burke Devlin, including the wonderful Mitch Ryan, who was cast. Afterward, we went to Joe Allen (a NYC restaurant) to celebrate with breakfast! 

Café: You appeared in the very first episode of Dark Shadows, but Barnabas isn't mentioned until the 202nd episode. Was it always Dan Curtis' intention to bring a vampire to Collinsport? 

Jonathan Frid and Kathryn Leigh Scott.
KLS:  We started out as a Gothic romance "bodice ripper" that was contemporary but had the feeling of Jane Eyre and quite a departure from the usual soap opera fare of the time. There were paranormal elements from the beginning because Dan Curtis conceived of the story in a dream he had about the ghost of a young girl inhabiting a country home. Our first "ghosts" were a sea captain and young Sarah, who later was identified as the sister of Barnabas. The story goes that our ratings were down and to avoid cancellation, Dan pulled out the stops by introducing a vampire...the rest is history. I worked the first day Jonathan appeared on set in his Barnabas regalia and I remember that as charming as he was the cast members all thought we were going from Chekov to Boris Karloff. But, believe me, Barnabas was entirely the inspiration of Jonathan Frid...his charisma made Barnabas Collins into an iconic character. 

Café:  During your five years on Dark Shadows, you played four roles: waitress and later governess Maggie Evans; Barnabas's lover Josette DuPres; Rachel Drummond, another governess; and Lady Kitty Hampshire. Which was your favorite role and why? 

KLS:  I'm drawn to Maggie Evans because there was so much of myself in the role. I drew on a Carl Sandburg poem that begins "Maggie beat her hands against the bars of a small Indiana town . .. " that I completely understood. I'd met Carl Sandburg when I was 16 and knew his poetry and that particular poem had such resonance. I had my own dreams and catapulted out of Robbinsdale, Minnesota for New York City. Maggie came from the wrong side of the tracks, raised by a dissolute artist...she grew up without a mother and ached to make something of herself. My favorite scene in Dark Shadows is my very first encounter with Barnabas Collins in the Collinsport Diner. It's such a defining scene: two outsiders drawn to each other, reaching out. If Maggie was looking for her knight in shining armor, she found him in a 200-year-old vampire! I think Dan Curtis saw that scene and created the relationship between Josette and Barnabas. Of course, I loved playing Josette...such a romantic, tragic character. I was newly out of drama school and there I was utilizing all I'd learned doing the classics. 

Café:  You seem to have kept in touch with several other Dark Shadows cast members (e.g., you've published several books written by Lara Parker). What was it like working with the other "residents" of Collinsport on the Dark Shadows set? 

KLS:  I love writing and have thoroughly enjoyed running Pomegranate Press. I've encouraged all my colleagues on Dark Shadows to write books and many have: Lara, David Selby, Chris Pennock, Marie Wallace, Sy Tomashoff, among others, and they've all found their own publishers. Needless to say, we're all still close friends. I see Lara, David, Jerry Lacy and many of the others when we record the Big Finish original dramas on CD and when we attend the annual festivals. We became a close-knit family working in our own little studio on West 54th Street, isolated from the other soaps...honestly, it felt like we were hanging out together in Collinsport! 

Café:  It's a tribute to the immense popularity of Dark Shadows that a big screen version (and a sequel) were made while it was still on the air. How did making the movie differ from doing the TV series? And given the TV series' tight production schedule, how was a movie made concurrently

With Frid on the set of House
of Dark Shadows
.
KLS:  Filming House of Dark Shadows on location while continuing to tape the series in New York City was a logistical nightmare. Jonathan and I were put on hiatus from the series because we were required on set almost every day, but several of the other actors were doing both. For Joan Bennett, a legendary Hollywood movie star, and Grayson Hall, an Academy Award nominee, filming a feature version of Dark Shadows was an easy transition, but for me and the other younger actors, it was a new process, a different sort of intimacy with the big screen. We were accustomed to doing a “live” show with one take, mistakes and all...learning to do a master shot and closeups with a lot of time in between for setups took some getting used to. You have to remember that when we did the series live, it never occurred to us that anyone would see an episode a second time. All of it was new to me. In fact, I didn't realize until I watched the film many years later that I had a starring role in it! 

Café:  It sounds like writing has always been a part of your life. What inspired you to start a dual professional career as an author with Dark Shadows Memories

KLS:  Sixteen is a magical age...it certainly was a huge transitional time for me. At sixteen, I met and interviewed Carl Sandburg and I wrote a newspaper article that won a state journalism award. In that same year, I won a state drama award and it made me realize that acting and writing were twin pursuits that complemented each other in my life. I then applied to a Northwestern University summer program in both journalism and drama and got a scholarship to their drama program, which really opened me up to the possibilities of pursuing both. I later got a drama scholarship to the American Academy in New York, which meant acting was the dominant career path for a while...but throughout my life I've pursued both. I also love business and launched Pomegranate Press, a book publishing company, 29 years ago that specializes in nonfiction entertainment subjects, a perfect blending of both writing and acting. 

Café:  How did you go from author to publisher when you co-founded Pomegranate Press? 

KLS:  I was asked to do a magazine article on Joel Crothers, who had played my boyfriend, Joe Haskell, on Dark Shadows. He was a dear friend and his death in 1985 was a profound shock. I wrote the article, reminiscing about our days on the series, and then just kept on writing until I realized I’d written a behind-the-scenes book about Dark Shadows, the show kids “ran home from school to watch.” Ben Martin, a Time magazine photographer I’d dated while doing the show, had become my husband and we had stacks of photos he’d taken on the set that had never been published...a gold mine! Rather than send my manuscript off to a New York book publisher, I decided to start my own company. My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows sold 35,000 copies in both hardcover and tradepaper, earning enough for me to publish four books the following year, including a coffee table book and a Hollywood guide book. Pomegranate Press was launched. Today, my entire backlist is available as ebooks and everything is available on Amazon. All are also available on my website: www.kathrynleighscott.com. 

Café:  As a publisher, what do you look for when you decide to publish a book? 

KLS:  Books become children that you conceive, nurture and watch grow to adulthood...yes, a long process! To carry the analogy further, you do not want to get into bed with just anyone without considering the consequences! If I like a manuscript but it doesn't suit my catalog, I've often helped an author find another publisher. But if I do take a book on, I want to work with an author who is cooperative and wants to be part of the process from editing through marketing. I certainly wouldn't want an adversarial relationship...no book is worth the trouble and I like working closely and collaboratively with my authors. Frankly, I publish what I want to read. 

Café:  In your book The Bunny Years, you interviewed over 250 women who worked at Playboy Bunny Clubs, to include Lauren Hutton and Deborah Harry. Did the majority of your ex-colleagues feel it was a positive or negative experience? And if you could go back in time, would you work there again? 

KLS:  The joy of writing The Bunny Years was re-connecting with the amazing women I worked with at the New York Playboy Club when I was a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was in Bunny Training with Gloria Steinem, who wrote about me in her magazine article, a negative, misrepresentative piece compared to my own experiences and those of the other young women working at the club at the time. My book was a direct response to her article. I wanted to give voice to the many women who worked as Bunnies during the 25-year history of the Clubs. Read the book, which was also the basis for the A&E documentary The Bunny Years, and make up your own mind.  Lauren Hutton and I were hired as Bunnies at the same time...and Susan Sullivan and I became lifelong best friends after working as Bunnies. For me, it was a wholly great experience and I would do it again were I to go back to that wonderful period of time. 

Café:  You've hinted that you're working on a sequel to your 2013 novel Down and Out in Beverly Heels. You continue to appear at conventions and we assume you'll be back on The Goldbergs this season. That's a packed schedule! Are there any events or projects you'd like to highlight for Cafe readers? 

KLS:  I adore working with George Segal, playing his girlfriend Miriam on The Goldbergs and hope I’ll be invited back again and again. I've also completed Take Two, the sequel to Down and Out in Beverly Heels, and Last Dance at the Savoy: A Caregivers Journey, a memoir about my husband’s long bout with PSP, a neurological disease that claimed his life in 2011. I’m also completing another novel, May to September. I hope to keep doing what I’ve always done: writing and acting. I’m thrilled that I will be joining my other Dark Shadows castmates on a January 2015 cruise (January 10-17) in the Caribbean . . . please come along! Call (800) 828-4813 to book the cruise. Lara Parker and I will be visiting Martinique, the birthplaces of Josette and Angelique!


You can learn more about Kathryn Leigh Scott on her website: www.kathrynleighscott.com. You can also follow her on Twitter as @kathleighscott.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Piper Laurie Elevates "Smoke Signal"

By her own admission, Piper Laurie didn't get a lot of good roles as a contract player at Universal in the 1950s. However, one of the exceptions was the blandly-titled Smoke Signal, an above-average Western that avoids the genre's most common cliches.

The action gets off to a quick start when a small Cavalry unit discovers a dead scout with an arrow in his back. It doesn't take long to realize that the previously-peaceful Utes are on the warpath. When they attack the soldiers, the Cavalry troop seeks refuge in a nearby fort. The situation there isn't much better. It turns out the fort has been surrounded for days and the scout sent to seek reinforcement--well, we know that he didn't get very far.

Dana Andrews and William Talman.
The newly-arrived Captain Harper (William Talman) discovers an old acquaintance, Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), tied to a hitching post. A former Cavalry officer, Halliday deserted long ago and joined the Utes' tribe. Harper believes the Indians want to free Halliday, but the latter claims his life is in danger, too. He urges Harper to transport two boats to a nearby canyon river and seek escape by navigating the rapids.

Augmented with stunning scenery, Smoke Signal zips along efficiently, mixing character-driven scenes with action sequences involving Indian attacks or the perils of the river. Although Dana Andrews--who was on the downside of his career--is billed as the lead, it's Piper Laurie who holds the film together.

Piper Laurie and Andrews.
She portrays the daughter of the fort's commanding officer, who died at the hands of the Utes. In many Westerns, Laurie's character would have been a bitter daughter intent on revenge. However, in Smoke Signal, she's a strong, but quiet character intrigued with Halliday and why he forfeited his Army career. Some of her best scenes are simply intent looks--filled with curiosity--directed toward Halliday when she believes others are not watching.

Smoke Signal is peppered with familiar faces, to include Talman (Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason), William Schallert (the father on The Patty Duke Show), and Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke). However, the other cast standout is Douglas Spencer as a trapper that joins the soldiers. Surprisingly, the likable Spencer spent most of his Hollywood career as Ray Milland's stand-in. His best-known performance as a supporting player was as the reporter Scotty in 1951's The Thing.

Dana Andrews, who was still struggling with alcoholism at that time, gives an acceptable performance. Unfortunately, his character's eventual romance with Laurie doesn't work at all. First, at age 46, he was almost twice the age of his co-star. More importantly, the script doesn't give the two characters enough time together before they're smitten with each other. There are other flaws in Smoke Signal, too, starting with the unlikely reason that there just happens to be two boats in the fort.

A better title?
Still, it's an interesting Western and deserves credit for not turning the Indians into nameless villains. Halliday speaks of them sympathetically and the film's true bad guy turns out not to be one of the Utes. For the record, there are some smoke signals in the movie. Of course, that's just one more reason why I don't like the film's title. If the studio was going to go in that smokey direction, then--for the sake of accuracy--they should have called the movie Smoke Signals. Or better yet, why not go with the film's French title: The River of Last Chance?

The Five Best Hayley Mills Performances

1. Pollyanna. The penultimate Hayley Mills film features her as a young orphaned girl—an optimist if there ever was one—coming to live with her wealthy, spinster aunt circa 1913. Pollyanna pretty much shakes up the whole town, bringing lonely people together and reminding everyone that there are unexpected joys to be found in the most unlikely places. It’s a charming, uplifting tale, surprisingly devoid of schmaltz--and I think that's the secret to Hayley's appeal in the title role. Unlike many other child stars, she never tries to "play cute." Instead, she finds the appeal in her character and lets it come out naturally.

Hayley Mills and Deborah Kerr.
2. The Chalk Garden. Deborah Kerr headlines this offbeat, poignant tale about a governess hired by a dowager to care for the elderly lady’s out-of-control teenage granddaughter (Hayley Mills). The girl has a fondness for setting fires and delights in threatening to burn down the gloomy mansion set among the isolated cliffs. Hayley combines brattiness with vulnerability and repressed anger with youthful innocence. Best of all, she's content to concede the film's big scenes to the marvelous Deborah Kerr and deliver a first-rate supporting performance.

Hayley with Alan Bates.
3. Whistle Down the Wind. In rural England, three children discover a fugitive in their barn and come to believe that he is Jesus. This unique film works as both a religious allegory and an intelligent look into the world of children. Hayley Mills (as the children's leader) and Alan Bates (as the convict) give powerful performances. It was based on the novel by Hayley's mother, Mary Hayley Bell, who also wrote the screenplay. Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed it into a stage musical that never made it to Broadway.

Hayley playing twins.
4. The Parent Trap. In one of her most famous films, Hayley plays 13-year-olds Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick, who meet at camp and discover they’re twins separated at an early age when their parents divorced. It's a ridiculous premise when you think about it, but that doesn't stop The Parent Trap from being one of my favorite Disney movies. Hayley differentiates between the twins nicely, sings a duet, and once again defers to the grown-up stars (Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara) when the plot shifts to their renewed romance.

In Sky West and Crooked.
5. Sky West and Crooked and The Trouble With Angels. Yes, it's a tie for the final spot so we can squeeze in a sixth film. The little-seen Sky West and Crooked (1965) casts Hayley as Brydie White, a seventeen-year-old girl who has mentally blocked out a childhood tragedy. Her widowed, alcoholic mother possesses no parenting skills--leaving Brydie to fend for herself. The townsfolk think the girl is a bit daft (the meaning of the title), but she still finds romance with a gypsy lad (Ian McShane). In the the popular 1966 comedy, The Trouble With Angels, Hayley plays a rebellious girl who clashes with the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) at a boarding school run by nuns. It's an amusing film, with Hayley's character constantly getting into trouble for her "scathingly brilliant ideas." However, Hayley brings depth to her character as she quietly watches the nuns and tries to understand their faith and dedication. It's a serious final scene that gives this frothy film its depth--and makes it stand out from similar confections (including its Hayley-less sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows).

Honorable Mentions: The Truth About Spring (if I was listing my five favorite HM movies, this would be one of them); Tiger Bay (I recall Hayley being very good in this, but I haven't seen it in ages); and The Moon-Spinners (sort of a juvenile Hitchcock film--just not as good).