Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is "Son of Frankenstein" the Best of Universal's Series?

Boris Karloff in Son of Frankenstein.
The general consensus among film critics and classic movie fans is that Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is the high point of Universal's Frankenstein series. It's also widely heralded as one of the finest horror films (TIME Magazine even ranked it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time in 2005). While I'm definitely a Bride fan, I hate that its reputation overshadows the series' next installment, 1939's Son of Frankenstein. I think it's as good--if not better--than Bride of Frankenstein.

The film opens with Wolf von Frankenstein and his family aboard a train heading for the town of Frankenstein as a horrendous thunderstorm rages across the landscape. Although there are local officials and villagers waiting at the train station, the family gets a cold reception (the burgomaster states flatly: "We are here to meet you, not to greet you."). Memories of the Frankenstein Monster's wrath still cast a dark shadow on a village that is "forsaken, desolate, and shunned by every traveler."

Ygor and friend.
Among the documents left by his father, Wolf (Basil Rathbone) finds Henry Frankenstein's records detailing how he discovered the source of life. When exploring his father's laboratory, Wolf finds the Monster--who lives, but in a comatose state. The shepherd Ygor (Bela Lugosi) tells Frankenstein that the Monster (Boris Karloff) survived the explosion at the end of Bride of Frankenstein. He implies that the Monster cannot be destroyed ("Your father made him for always"). However, while "hunting" one night, the Monster was struck by lightning and now lies almost lifeless on a slab. Wolf, who has already become obsessed with his father's work, sees restoring the Monster as a way to vindicate the family name. Of course, Ygor has other plans for the Monster....

The prevalent theme in Son of Frankenstein revolves around family. Wolf's actions are driven in large part by his desire to prove his father was a great scientist, not a mad one. When he finds the words "Maker of Monsters" etched on his father's casket, he changes "Monsters" to "Men." Another familial connection is the one between the Monster and Ygor. This is a carryover from the brief friendship between the Monster and the blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein--only Ygor's motives are far from altruistic. Then, there's Wolf's temporary disinterest in the welfare of his own family, which almost results in his young son's death. And finally, there's the most intriguing family connection of all: Ygor notes that Wolf and the Monster are "brothers" since they shared the same father (but the Monster's "mother" was electricity!).

Bela Lugosi as Ygor.
Willis (aka Wyllis) Cooper, a radio producer, wrote the original screenplay. However, according to many sources, director Rowland V. Lee rewrote much of it during the production. That partially accounted for the film's original budget ballooning from $300,000 to $420,000. Despite the manner in which the script was developed, it contains many juicy bits of dialogue. My favorite may be Ygor's response to Frankenstein on why he was hanged: "Because I stole bodies...they said."

The picture gets a huge boost from a number of outstanding performances. Lionel Atwill's one-armed police inspector has a chilling scene in which he describes his encounter with the Monster as a boy ("One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots."). Atwill would appear in four more Frankenstein films, playing inspectors in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. While Boris Karloff has no dialogue in this outing, he nonethless instills the Monster with very human emotions. While more of a killer than in the previous films, he elicits sympathy in two key scenes: as he stands in front of a mirror, disgusted with his appearance, and compares himself to Wolf and when he lets out a cry of anguish after finding Ygor's body. As for Basil Rathbone, while he has been accused of overacting as Wolf, I thought his manic performance was perfect for the part. He was certainly more subdued than Colin Clive in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

The Monster compares himself to Wolf von Frankenstein.

That leaves Bela Lugosi, who gives the best performance of his career. True, Ygor is a meaty role--but Lugosi attacks it with glee. He can be subtle, too, as in a brilliant scene in which he reminds Wolf that the Monster will do whatever Ygor tells him. Sadly, Lugosi reprised the role to less effect in 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein, which, unlike its predecessors, was strictly a "B" film.

One of Otterson's distorted sets.
From a technical standpoint, Son of Frankenstein reflects the work of highly skilled craftsmen. Jack Otterson's brilliant, warped sets enhance the film's feeling of dread. His set design, combined with director Lee's bold use of light and shadows, pre-dates some of the techniques popularized in later film noirs. Although Otterson didn't receive an Oscar nomination for Son of Frankenstein, he was nominated--every year--from 1937 to 1943. Likewise, composer Frank Skinner was ignored for his memorable score, but was also nominated five times from 1939 to 1944. His Son of Frankenstein score was popular enough to be recycled in numerous other Universal films.

If I haven't convinced you yet of the virtues of Son of Frankenstein, let me leave you with this assessment from Universal Horrors: "Grandiose in scope, magnificent in design, it supplanted the quaint romanticism and delicate fantasy flavoring of Bride of Frankenstein with a stark, grimly expressionistic approach to horror." Well said.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Movie Connection Game (January 2015 Edition)

How are Karloff and Pacino related?
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. The film Ski Party and the TV series Batman.

2. Cary Grant and David Niven.

3. Disney's Alice in Wonderland and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

4. Claudia Cardinale and Elke Sommer.

5. The films Soylent Green and Idaho Transfer.  

6. Rod Taylor and James Brolin.

7. Barbara Shelley and Tony Randall. 

8. To Kill a Mockingbird and Saturday Night Fever

9. Charles Bronson and Ray Milland.

10. Sean Connery and Errol Flynn.

11. Bonita Granville and Parker Stevenson.

12. George C. Scott and Orson Welles.

13. Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and Forbidden Planet.

14. Al Pacino and Boris Karloff. 

15. Michael Rennie and Harrison Ford.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

To Sir, With Love: The Feel-Good Side of the Sixties

During my formative teenage years, I developed a fondness for the British cinema of the mid-to-late 1960s. These films spanned several genres: the serious spy film (The Deadly Affair); social satire (Nothing But the Best); quirky thriller (Bunny Lake Is Missing); and pop culture comedy (Georgy Girl). The only thing they shared was a healthy dose of cynicism and impeccable British casts. So, it seems ironic that one of my favorite films of this period is an upbeat, almost sentimental, tale starring a mainstream American actor: To Sir, With Love.

Sidney Poitier as Mr. Thackeray.
In a role seemingly tailored for him, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a young engineer looking for a job. Unable to find one in his chosen profession, he accepts temporary employment as a teacher in an inner-city London school. It’s a bleak situation—the students are out of control, most of the teachers are burned out, and the school reflects the poverty of the surrounding neighborhood. Thackeray’s initial attempts to reach his students fail miserably. He finally concludes that the teens act childish because they’re treated as children. He starts showing them respect and demands the same of them. He tosses out the curriculum and teaches his students about life. In the end, Thackeray becomes a teacher and his students become adults.

Judy Geeson as Pamela Dare.
Cynics will no doubt criticize To Sir, With Love as simple-minded and obvious. Perhaps, it is, but the story is put across with such conviction and professionalism that it’s impossible to ignore its many charms. In particular, a subplot involving an attractive student (Judy Geeson) who develops a crush on Thackeray is handled impeccably. Its only flaw is that Poitier and Geeson have such a natural chemistry that one almost wishes a romance could work out between them (but then, To Sir, With Love would have been a very different film).

Lulu--she was once married to Bee Gee
Maurice Gibb.
The film’s theme, sung by Lulu (who plays one of the students), became a huge hit. Director James Clavell must have recognized the song’s potential—it’s heard multiple times throughout the picture. In one scene, it’s played over a montage of Thackeray taking his students to a museum. The scene looks very much like one of the world’s first music videos.

Sidney Poitier stands out as one of my favorite actors of the 1960s, with memorable performances in A Patch of Blue, Lilies of the Field, and In the Heat of the Night. Judy Geeson went on to play a major role in the vastly entertaining British miniseries Poldark and Poldark II. When my wife and I were in London in 1987, we saw Lulu in a production of the stage musical Peter Pan. She played Peter and still sounded great.


Sidney Poitier reprised his role as Mark Thackeray in the 1996 made-for-TV movie To Sir With Love II, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The plot has Mr. Thackeray retiring from teaching in England, only to start anew at a Chicago inner-city school. It's pleasant enough, thanks to Poitier, but my recommendation is to stick with the original.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Classic TV Comic Book Tie-ins

Merchandise tie-ins and other licensing deals have been an essential marketing tool for decades. For movies, it dates back at least to Walt Disney, who made a licensing deal with a Switzerland company for Mickey and Minnie Mouse handkerchiefs in the late 1920s. Another example is William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy films, which began in the 1930s and led to dozens of tie-in products such as kids’ lunch boxes.

Television made a huge splash in the merchandising game in the 1950s with Superman, The Lone Ranger, and Fess Parker as Davy Crockett on the Disneyland TV series. Not surprisingly, savvy television producers were quick to partner with comic book publishers. Dell Comics and later Gold Key Comics led the way with tie-ins of popular shows. Many of them were based on youth-oriented TV series (e.g., Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), but there were also comic book tie-ins with adult fare like Dr. Kildare, Mission: Impossible, and Burke’s Law.

In fact, a recent Café post on Burke’s Law inspired my sister to look for some of the classic TV comic books she bought as a youth. I had a blast looking at these covers and wanted to share them with Café readers.

You can enlarge any of the covers by clicking on them. Note the German officer pictured next to Chris George in The Rat Patrol cover is Hans Gudegast. He later changed his name to Eric Braeden and gained fame as Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless.



































Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Greatest Stars of the 1940s Revealed! (Part 2)

Where does he rank in the Top 10?
Last week, we started the countdown of the 25 top vote-getters in our Greatest Stars of the 1940s poll. Today, we will unveil the Top 10.

But before doing that, I want to highlight two important statistics. First, the star that received the most votes appeared on 56% of the ballots. That shows how dispersed the votes were among all the stars on the ballot. Second, the top five stars were significantly more popular than all the rest. In other words, the number of votes separating #5 from #6 was substantial. However, the number of votes separating #6 from #10 was just a handful.

Polls like this are, by nature, a popularity contest. However, one could make a pretty convincing argument that most of these performers are indeed the Greatest Stars of the 1940s.

9.  (tie) Ann Sheridan and Gary Cooper.
8.  Judy Garland.
7.  Katharine Hepburn.
6.  Clark Gable.
5.  James Stewart.
4.  Barbara Stanwyck.
3.  Bette Davis.
2.  Humphrey Bogart.

And, at #1, it's Cary Grant!

By the way, if you missed the post on the rest of the Top 25, click here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Stingray--Submarines, Marionettes, and a Love Triangle

Imagine a science fiction TV series about an organization called the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), which battles underwater threats from its West Coast headquarters in the year 2065. Commander Samuel Shore, who travels via a "hoverchair" due to paralysis, runs WASP with assistance from his daughter Atlanta. She's in love with Captain Troy Tempest, the handsome pilot of the super submarine Stingray. Troy returns her affections to a degree--but he's also attracted to Marina, a mute young woman from an underwater civilization. In fact, each episode ends with a love song about Marina ("What are these strange enchantments that start whenever you’re near?").

Now, imagine that all the characters are "played" by marionettes on miniature sets. That's Stingray, a fanciful 1964-65 British series created by innovative television producer Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia. On January 13th, Timeless Media Group will released a 50th anniversary edition of Stingray: The Complete Series. This five-DVD boxed set includes all 39 half-hour episodes, plus an interview with Gerry Anderson, a making-of featurette, and audio commentaries on several episodes from the Andersons and others.

Troy Tempest and his co-pilot Phones.
By the 1960s, Gerry Anderson was well-known in his homeland for unique children's shows that incorporated an ingenious marionette process dubbed "Supermarionation." A key element in this process was the use of a solenoid motor located in a puppet's head that was synchronized to an audio filter. Thus, each puppet's mouth moved in response to dialogue on a pre-recorded tape. The size of the motor required the puppet's head to be disproportionately larger than the rest of its body. The puppets averaged 22 inches in height. Their movements were controlled by thin wires operated by puppeteers--one per character--working on a bridge eight feet over the miniature set.

Sylvia and Gerry Anderson with Troy.
Gerry Anderson's early juvenile hits included Supercar and Fireball XL5 (which NBC broadcast in the U.S. on Saturday mornings). With Fireball XL5 taking place in outer space, it only seemed logical for Gerry and Sylvia to create a show about a super sub.

Stingray was their first color series and also their most sophisticated one to date. The marionettes had interchangeable heads that were used to convey different emotions. The biggest challenge, though, was that much of Stingray took place underwater. On one of the commentary tracks, Gerry Anderson explains how the illusion of filming underwater was achieved and the dangers it created:

We used to film through a specially constructed aquarium in which we had different-sized fish. In order to give the illusion that Stingray was traveling underwater, we ordered the aquariums to be made by the same people who made aquariums for the London Zoo and so naturally, we thought the thing would be done properly and everything would be safe. When they arrived, we spent the first morning filming through the aquarium and everything seemed to work perfectly. Then fortunately, the crew broke for lunch. As they walked through the studio door in the corridor, there's this enormous bang as the aquarium exploded through the pressure of water and, of course, jagged pieces of glass blew out in all directions and the fish landed on the floor and all died. We were very lucky, because had the crew been there, I think there could have been a very, very serious accident. It's something I always think of when I see Stingray traveling, seemingly underwater.

Troy Tempest and James Garner.
The 20-minute documentary "The Thing About Stingray..." is a special treat for the show's fans. Director John Read, art director Bob Bell, special effects technicians, and puppeteers provide fascinating details about Stingray's creation and production. For example, the appearance of hero Troy Tempest was modeled after actor James Garner. The fine wires used to manipulate the puppets created some logistical challenges, such as Troy and his fellow cast members couldn't walk through a doorway--the door frame would have interfered with the wires. Anderson thought the puppet's walking movements looked awkward, so the crew employed some creative ways to minimize walking shots (e.g., puppets walk behind furniture, use of the hoverchair).

Atlanta was voiced by Lois Maxwell
(Miss Moneypenny to Connery's 007).
The Stingray TV series lasted for 39 episodes and was sadly eclipsed by the Andersons' next two endeavors: Thunderbirds (1965-66), the biggest hit of the Supermarionation shows, and Captain Scarlett and the Mysterons (1967-68). Still, in my opinion, they didn't top Stingray, which mixed lively adventures with witty comedy (e.g., in the last episode, Troy wins "Aquanaut of the Year" and reminiscences about his greatest escapades). And, of course, let's not forget about the Atlanta-Troy-Marina love triangle!

The mysterious Marina.
Despite the success of his marionette TV series, Gerry Anderson wanted to move into "live action" films and television. He almost got his big break when Harry Saltzman, who owned the James Bond film rights with Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, asked Anderson if he'd be interested in producing Moonraker in 1969. Nothing came of the discussions, though. According to some sources, Anderson later settled a lawsuit against Broccoli, claiming some elements of his Moonraker treatment were used.

Still, Gerry Anderson got his wish when he made the intriguing theatrical film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in 1969. From there, he produced the cult TV series UFO (a personal fave), Space: 1999 with Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, and The Protectors starring Robert Vaughn.

Incidentally, the pretty closing song "Aqua Marina" was performed by Gary Miller. He had previously scored six hits on the UK record chart, with his biggest song being the theme from Richard Greene's Robin Hood TV series. Sadly, "Aqua Marina" wasn't a hit--though perhaps that was a good thing for Atlanta, who didn't have a song at all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Greatest Stars of the 1940s Revealed! (Part 1)

The Duke just missed the Top 10!
Last month, over 195 classic movie fans participated in our online poll to determine the greatest movie stars of the 1940s. The ballot included 105 actors and actresses who were active during that decade, ranging from Fred Astaire to Orson Welles. Over the next week, we will reveal the top 25 vote-getters, starting with 11-25 today.

Amazingly, all but five performers received at least one vote. That group included some fine performers, too: Robert Young, Barry Fitzgerald, Celeste Holm, Donald Crisp, and Judith Anderson.

The poll also allowed participants to submit write-in votes and 40 people took the opportunity to add their favorites. The Priscilla Lane Fan Club mounted a campaign on that actress's behalf and she led all write-in candidates with 8 votes. British film fans noted the exclusion of Michael Redgrave, Alastair Sim, Margaret Lockwood, and Joan Greenwood. Some of the Hollywood stars that received write-in votes were Linda Darnell, Jean Arthur, Lon Chaney, Jr., Norma Shearer, and Audrey Hepburn. While a couple of these performers should have been on the ballot (e.g., Linda Darnell, Jean Arthur), most of them made only a few appearances during the 1940s. For example, Norma Shearer starred in just three movies and Audrey Hepburn's film debut was in 1951!

Without further ado, we'll start at #25 and work our way to #11. Then next week, we will unveil the Top 10!

25.  Bing Crosby.
24.  Gregory Peck.
23.  Gene Tierney.
22.  Myrna Loy.
21.  Tyrone Power.
20.  Claude Rains.
19.  Bob Hope.
18.  Ingrid Bergman,
17.  Errol Flynn.
16.  William Powell.
15.  Spencer Tracy.
14.  Fred Astaire.
13.  Rita Hayworth.
12.  James Cagney.
11.  John Wayne.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Frankie and Annette as Murder Suspects? It's Burke's Law!

Could Annette be a murderer?
I've recently rediscovered Burke's Law, the 1963-65 TV series starring Gene Barry as the head of the LAPD homicide division--who also happens to be a millionaire. Last Friday, I randomly selected the episode "Who Killed the Strangler?", which opens with a wrestler (called the Strangler, of course) abruptly dropping dead in the ring.

As the camera panned the inevitable murder suspects in the crowd, a young man with glasses and a pretty brunette looked familiar. The show's title credits soon confirmed that those guest stars were indeed Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. As those of you who visit the Cafe regularly know, we love us some Beach Party movies. Thus, this episode of Burke's Law turned out to be an unexpected delight--even if it wasn't one of the series' better efforts. 

Barry as Amos Burke.
For the uninitiated, each episode of Burke's Law follows a similar structure. Typically, it begins with a homicide that interrupts Amos Burke, who almost always spends his leisure time in the company of an attractive woman. Captain Burke and his two subordinates, seasoned detective Les Hart (Regis Toomey) and the less experienced Tim Tilson (Gary Conway), then interview the suspects. These potential murderers are played by the guest stars, many of whom are veterans of classic Hollywood cinema (e.g., William Bendix, Joan Blondell, Elsa Lanchester, Dorothy Lamour, Walter Pidgeon, Ann Blyth, Jane Greer, etc.). At the climax, Amos comes to a startling conclusion that exposes the culprit. Oh, and I forgot to mention that every female in the cast swoons over Amos (to include Annette).

In addition to Frankie and Annette, "Who Killed the Strangler?" also featured Jeanne Crain (still radiant at 40), Una Merkel (who fought Marlene in Destry Rides Again), and Robert Middleton. Each guest star has about ten minutes of screen time--except for the murderer who gets unmasked in the climax (I guessed the culprit).

Annette, in fringe, with Gene Barry.
For the record, Annette plays an aspiring ballerina who moonlights as a go-go dancer because her brother, the Strangler, refused to give her any money. Beach Party fans are certain to enjoy watching Annette shake her fringe dress in the best Candy Johnson tradition (but let's admit it, Candy was in a class by herself). It's also fun listening to Annette spout "hip" dialogue about topics such as Squaresville!

Frankie looks suspicious in glasses!
Frankie doesn't fare as well as a sports journalist who uses a "method" technique (you know, like method acting) to write about horse racing, tennis, and wrestling. It may sound clever, but the idea wears thin quickly and Frankie tries too hard to make his scene funny.

Still, it's a fairly entertaining episode and par for the series. An added bonus for Beach Party fans is that Quinn O'Hara has a small role; she would go on to star in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. On the downside, I wish that Jeanne Crain had been given more screen time and a more interesting character.

My sister's Burke's
Law
 comic book.
The history of Burke's Law has always intrigued me. Playwright Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses) created the the character of Amos Burke for the first episode of The Dick Powell Theatre in 1961. Titled "Who Killed Julie Greer?", it starred Dick Powell as the wealthy detective and featured a supporting cast comprised of Nick Adams, Ralph Bellamy, Ronald Reagan, Jack Carson, Edgar Bergen, Lloyd Bridges, Mickey Rooney, and Carolyn Jones (as the murder victim). Dean Jones and Edward Platt (Chief on Get Smart) played detectives.

Gene with Peter Barton in the
1994-95 revival.
It premiered as a regular TV series on ABC in 1963 with Gene Barry. Burke's Law was a solid ratings performer and even spun off the 1965-66 TV series Honey West; Anne Francis first appeared as Honey in the Burke's Law episode "Who Killed the Jackpot?" However, in 1965, at the height of the spy movie craze, the series was unwisely revamped as Amos Burke, Secret Agent. The new show was cancelled after 17 episodes. It went out with a bang, though, with a nifty two-parter called "Terror in a Tiny Town" which places Amos in a community filled with residents that inexplicably want to kill him.

In 1994, CBS revived Burke's Law with a new series about Amos (still played by Gene Barry) and his son Peter (Peter Barton). It maintained the lighthearted approach of the original series, but never captured much of an audience. It was cancelled after a single season.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Turning Back the Clock: A Tribute to the Best Time Travel Movies

This is a reprint of one of our most popular posts (originally published in 2010). It seemed like an appropriate choice for New Year's Day.

I have always been intrigued by the concept of time travel, so I thought it'd be fun to list what I consider the best time travel films and then learn what Cafe readers have to say about the subject. Starting from the top:

1. Time After Time. This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer first gained recognition with his best-selling mystery The Seven Per Cent Solution, which teamed up Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Meyer serves up a second unique pairing in Time After Time--only with two nifty differences. Instead of working together, the pair are friends-turned-adversaries in the form of H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) . And instead of setting the plot in the past, it involves time travel from the past to the future. The usual time travel conumdrums are explored here, but they never get in the way of a delightful love story and clever social satire. In short, an underrated gem.

2. The Terminator. Given the blockbuster status of its sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Terminator was a sleeper hit by unknown director named James Cameron. Although Terminator 2 is a near-perfect action film, the first Terminator is grounded by a solid love story and gets kudos for setting the concept in motion. I imagine most of you have seen it, but those who haven't I won't spoil the "nested loop" that makes the head-scratching plot so memorable. By the way, I've often wondered if Cameron borrowed parts of his premise from the 1966 Michael Rennie B-film Cyborg 2087.

3. Repeat Performance. Decidedly offbeat 1948 B-film stars Joan Leslie as a popular stage actress who kills her husband on December 31st--and then gets the chance to live the year over again. Knowing the outcome, can she change the events that lead up to her murderous act? This atmospheric film benefits from a surprisingly good cast with Richard Basehart, Tom Conway, and Natalie Schaefer. It was remade for TV in the late 1990s as Turn Back the Clock with Connie Selleca. Repeat Performance is not shown often on TV; I haven't seen it in years.

4. The Time Machine. George Pal's 1960 adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel is still the best version. The once state-of-the-art special effects hold up pretty well and Rod Taylor makes an appealing hero (Alan Young, from TV's Mister Ed, is even better as a friend). Taylor's romance with Yvette Mimieux (as Weena of the Eloi race) lack a certain magic for me, but Wells' ideas remain fresh and the time machine itself looks way cool. Click here to read ClassicBecky's fine review, posted at the Cafe earlier this year.

5. Somewhere in Time. There are people that loathe this film and those that love it. I naturally fall into the latter group. I must admit, though, that my perceptions are clouded...I first saw this romance with my future wife when we were young and very much smitten with one another (we still are). The plot, which Richard Matheson adapted from his cult novel Bid Time Return, stars Christopher Reeve as a playwright who falls in love with a photograph of an actress (Jane Seymour) and wills himself back in time to be with her. The leads are photogenic and likable, the location filming at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is breathtaking, and the music score by John Barry (who weaves in Rachmaninoff) is one of my all-time favorites. By the way, for many years, Somewhere in Time was the top-grossing film in Japan...though it flopped in the U.S. until rediscovered years later on video.

6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy devised the entertaing premise which sent the original Enterprise crew back in time to rescue some humpback whales (who are needed to save Earth in the future). Nicolas Meyer, who already explored time travel in the aforementioned Time After Time, contributed to the screenplay. Although some of the social humor is now dated, this is one of the best of the Star Trek film series and, accounting for inflation, is probably the biggest box office hit of the original Trek pictures.

7. Back to the Future. Speaking of blockbusters, this family smash about a teenager who goes back in time and meets his parents in high school is undoubtedly the best known time travel movie with contemporary audiences. The performances are engaging and the story gets a lot of laughs out of its unlikely situations (Mom, as a teenager, is attracted to her son). The sequels, which were shot back to back, are not as good. Back to the Future 2 gets mired in its plot entanglements by sending its heroes to multiple time periods. Back to the Future 3 is set primarily in the Old West and at least restores some charm to the series.

8. 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits. Although these movies are very different, I list them together because they both sprang from the fertile imagination of Terry Gilliam. For me, Time Bandits is an adult fantasy masquerading as a family film; its visual images (e.g., a knight on horseback bursting into a child's room) are what I remember most. 12 Monkeys is a richly layered time travel film, in which once again a person from the future is sent back in time to alter future events. I have several friends who will cringe to see 12 Monkeys listed way down in the No. 8 spot. I admit, I haven't seen it in awhile, so I may be off base on my ranking of this one...but if so, not by much for me.

Honorable mentions: Berekley Square and its remake I'll Never Forget You, the influential French short film La jetee, Planet of the Apes, and 1964's The Time Travelers (which may feature the most bizarre ending of all time travel movies).

OK, so there are my choices. What have I left out and how would you rank the best time travel pics?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Best of the Cafe for 2014

With 2015 just around the corner, the Cafe's staff looked back over 2014 and selected our favorite posts of the year (you know, just in case you missed them!). It was a great year and we thank everyone who has visited this blog and especially those that left a comment. By the way, the posts below are listed in no particular order.

Elke Sommer got the year off to a fine start.
1. Our interview with the delightful Elke Sommer. (January 15)

2. The Five Best Cult Films of the 1960s. (April 28)

3. A review of My Cousin Rachel, which was part of the CMBA's Fabulous Films of the 1950s Blogathon. (May 22)

4. Our interview with author, actor, and grand storyteller Jim Rosin (whom Rick met at the Western Film Fair). (August 14)

5. A review of Delmer Daves' noir classic Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (October 2)

6. British Classic Television A to Z, one of the most popular installments in our series of "A to Z" posts.

7. A tribute to the Boris Karloff-hosted classic TV series Thriller, posted as part of the Summer of Me TV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. (June 2)

8. Our James Stewart Blogathon, which featured many wonderful reviews of Mr. Stewart's films. (April 17)

9. Our interview with Deanna Brandenberger, exeuctive director of the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina. (September 29)

10. Our interview with the fascinating Piper Laurie, which Rick conducted during the Western Film Fair. (August 25)

We wish you all a happy New Year! See you in 2015.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Arthur Hailey's "Hotel"

I always think of Hotel as a follow-up to Arthur Hailey's Airport--when, in reality, the former film came out first. Made in 1967, it was based on Hailey's novel of the same title. Of course, the movie's structure--different stories set in a grand hotel--harkens back to...well...Grand Hotel (1932). Still, it's a serviceable plot device; the key is to wrap the framing story around interesting ones involving the guests. In that aspect, one could call Hotel a reasonable success.

The central story revolves arond the future of the St. Gregory, a posh but aging and debt-ridden hotel in New Orleans. Its elderly owner, Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas), has a standing offer from developers who want the real estate, but not the hotel. The other option is to sell to hotel magnate Curtis O'Keefe (Kevin McCarthy), who wants to transform the St. Gregory from an upscale hotel into a very commercial one. Neither choice appeals to Trent, so his general manager Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) tries to put together his own deal.

Merle Oberon as the Duchess.
Meanwhile, a visiting British dignitary (Michael Rennie) and his wife (Merle Oberon) find themselves in a quandry when he accidentally kills a child while driving drunk and flees the scene. While he struggles with his conscience, his wife tries to strike a bargain with the blackmailing house detective (Richard Conte). Other hotel guests fall prey to a clever thief (Karl Malden), who steals room keys and then robs the occupants while they sleep. Finally, Peter can't help but notice O'Keefe's lovely companion (Catherine Spaak) and she apparently has eyes for him.

Screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, Von Ryan's Express) simplifies and downsizes Hailey's novel. In the book, Peter has a checkered past and is interested in Trent's secretary (who's missing from the movie). Mayes jettisons a major subplot involving an attempted rape, adds the romance between Peter and O'Keefe's girlfriend, and alters the climax. Undoubtedly, major alterations were required to keep the running time at two hours. Still, too much time is spent on Malden's key thief, whose every appearance is accompanied by a playful jazz theme that becomes unbearable.

Rod Taylor as the hotel's manager.
Just as the unflappable, efficient McDermott keeps the St. Gregory operating smoothy, Rod Taylor keeps Hotel moving along from subplot to subplot. A reliable leading man, Taylor got pigeon-holed as a likable hero, which sadly limited his big screen appearances after the 1960s. Lame pictures like Trader Horn didn't help either. Still, he shifted his focus to television in the 1970s, where he thrived for the next two decades in series such as Bearcats! and Falcon Crest.

French actress Catherine Spaak.
While it's entertaining to see classic-era stars such as Ms. Oberon, Conte, and Douglas, they have relatively little screen time. In contrast, too much time is devoted to Kevin McCarthy's one-note "villain" and Catherine Spaak's tedious love interest for Taylor. To the latter's defense, the French beauty is saddled with the film's worst dialogue. When Taylor discovers her wearing only her slip in his apartment, she tells him seductively: "Take off your jacket. You interest me."

Coincidentally, Spaak and Karl Malden appeared in another movie together six years later: Dario Argento's suspense film Cat O'Nine Tails. As pointed out in other sources, there's another bit of trivia involving Malden. After his thief discovers a stolen wallet only contains a few dollars, he blames his bad luck on the growing popularity of credit cards. Years later, Malden would make a famous series of commercials for American Express, advising consumers not to leave home without their credit card.

Eighteen years after the release of Hotel, Aaron Spelling--already flourishing with the similar series The Love Boat and Fantasy Island--produced a TV series based on Hailey's novel. James Brolin played the manager of the St. Gregory, which was now located in San Francisco. Other series regulars during the show's five-year run included Connie Selleca, Shari Belafonte, and Anne Baxter.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Seven Things to Know About Walter Matthau

Carol Grace and Walter Matthau.
1. Walter Matthau met his second wife, Carol Grace, when they both appeared in the 1955-56 Broadway hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? She was previously married--twice--to playwright and author William Saroyan (The Human Comedy). In her 1992 memoir, Among The Porcupines, she wrote: "I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn't believe how terrible it was the first time. I married Walter because I love to sleep with him."

2. In 1961, Matthau played an investigator for the Florida Sheriff's Bureau in the half-hour syndicated TV series Tallahassee 7000. It was produced by Herbert B. Leonard, who co-created Route 66 with Stirling Silliphant. Like Route 66Tallahassee 7000 was shot on location. Matthau later claimed that he starred in the show only to pay off gambling debts.

Matthau as Oscar in the film version.
3. Walter Matthau made his Broadway debut in 1948, playing a servant in Anne of the Thousand Days. He was nominated for a Tony as Featured Actor in a Play for Once More With Feeling (1959) and then won that same award for A Shot in the Dark (1962). However, his career as a leading man took off after his Tony win for Male Comedy Performance in The Odd Couple in 1965. Matthau played slob Oscar to Art Carney's neat freak Felix. Years later, Matthau told Time Magazine: "Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality. The Odd Couple was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that."

4. Walter Matthau directed himself and his wife, Carol, in 1959's Gangster Story. He played a criminal on the run who inadvertently infringes on mob territory (the plot bears a slight resemblance to one his best 1970s films, Charley Varrick). Matthau never directed again, although his son Charlie became a director. Charlie directed his father and Jack Lemmon in The Grass Harp.

5. Matthau and Lemmon appeared in ten movies together, starting with Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (1966), which earned Matthau a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He was nominated twice as Best Actor, for The Sunshine Boys (1975) and Kotch (1971). The latter film was directed by Jack Lemmon.

6. Lemmon and Matthau became great friends. Matthau told People Magazine in 1998: "The main thing I like about Jack is that he bathes every day, so I don't have to worry about being assaulted odoriferously."

7. He and Barbra Streisand clashed famously on the set of 1969's Hello, Dolly! I'll skip Walter's best-known insult about his co-star (just Google the film's title, Matthau, and butterfly) and close with this quip: "I would like to work with Barbra again on something more suitable to her talents--like Macbeth."

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Free Gift for Cafe Readers!

This holiday season, we want to show our appreciation to all the classic film and TV fans that have visited this blog over the last five years. As our gift to you, we are offering the free e-book Eat, Drink, and Watch Movies. This 446-page volume consists of 200 film reviews and essays written by the major contributors to the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Most of these reviews have appeared on our blog site, but there is also some never-before-published material.

Eat, Drink, and Watch Movies is available at absolutely no cost. You don't even have to register your e-mail to download it. Just click on the following secure link: https://copy.com/cwyWOtL97YuAhxlu

This link will take you to the Cafe's folder at Copy.com. Click on the book cover to browse the file. When you are ready to download it to your computer or mobile device, click the blue arrow download icon (shown on right). You can then save it to our PC or mobile device.

The e-book was published as an Adobe Acrobat file, so you should be able to view it on any device. The table of contents contains hyperlinks to each review so that you can go to them quickly.

If you have any trouble downloading the e-book, just send an e-mail to me (rick@classicfilmtvcafe.com). Like our blog, this was a nonprofit venture and no one at the Cafe will make any money off it, either directly or indirectly. In other words, we did it for the love of cinema!