Friday, February 27, 2015

Snack-sized Film Reviews: "Horror at 37,000 Feet" and "Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You"

Hey, something's wrong with this plane!
The Horror at 37,000 Feet. What can you say about a movie in which William Shatner gives the most credible performance? That’s the challenge with The Horror at 37,000 Feet, a 1973 made-for-TV film with a better reputation than it deserves. It makes one wonder if the film’s admirers have actually sat through all 73 minutes. The premise shows promise: An airplane departs London with a handful of passengers and cargo consisting of remnants from an abbey used by Druids for sacrificial rituals. It’s not long before the plane comes to a standstill mid-flight, the cabin temperature drops to icy depths, and possessed passengers start spewing Latin. The cast consists of TV veterans Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen, Roy Thinnes, Paul Winfield, and Shatner. They struggle with poorly-developed characters, bad dialogue, and inane plotting. At one point, Connors’ pilot copes with the situation by telling the stewardesses to offer free alcoholic beverages! Only Shatner rises above these ruins as a defrocked priest who ultimately takes matters into his own hands. My advice is to steer clear of The Horror at 37,000 Feet and seek out three other nifty made-for-TV terror tales:  Gargoyles (1972), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and Spectre (1977).

I don't think a single strand of
Lawford's hair moves during the film.
Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You. Before NBC launched the popular Ellery Queen series with Jim Hutton in 1975, it made an earlier TV movie with Peter Lawford as the literary detective. Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You (1971) was intended as a pilot for a prospective series that never materialized. It’s easy to see why, although it’s not a total disaster. Based on the 1949 Ellery Queen novel Cat of Many Tails, the plot revolves around a series of apparently unrelated NYC murders committed by a killer dubbed “The Hydra” by the press. The connection between the crimes is a clever one, but it’s revealed with almost half the running time remaining. Even worse, it doesn't take much deduction to figure out the killer’s identity (there are only two viable suspects and one is much too obvious). Unlike Hutton’s 1940s-set series, Don’t Look Behind You is a contemporary mystery and Ellery has been transformed into a ladies man. In lieu of his father, Inspector Queen (wonderfully played by David Wayne in Hutton’s show), Harry Morgan plays an uncle that works for the police department. Lawford and Morgan don’t really click and Stefanie Powers is wasted as a suspect that gets involved with Ellery. Although the teleplay is credited to Ted Leighton, Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson may have penned an earlier draft. In an interview on the Ellery Queen TV series DVD boxed set, William Link mentions working on an Ellery Queen movie. However, the script was rewritten while he and Levinson were vacationing in Europe. They had their names removed from it. Given the timing, I suspect he was referring to Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Five Best Ellery Queen TV Series Episodes

Jim Hutton as Ellery.
A unique literary creation, Ellery Queen is famous as both a fictional detective and a best-selling “author” (as a pseudonym for cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee). Prior to Jim Hutton's well-regarded 1975-76 Ellery Queen TV series, the sleuth did not fare well in film and television.

Donald Cook and comedian Eddie Quillan each made one EQ movie in the 1930s. In 1940, Columbia launched a modestly-budgeted film series with Ralph Bellamy as Ellery Queen. He starred in four entries before being replaced by sturdy William Gargan for the final three films. On television, Lee Bowman, Hugh Marlowe, and George Nader each starred in three different TV series in the 1950s. NBC tried to launch a new series in 1971 with Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, which featured a miscast Peter Lawford as a writer-detective with an eye for the ladies (we'll review this movie later this week).

David Wayne as Inspector Queen.
Four years later, Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson created Ellery Queen, a one-hour TV mystery with Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as his father, Inspector Richard Queen. Levinson and Link borrowed an entertaining element from the early novels, in which--just prior to the climax--the reader was informed that he or she possessed all the clues required to solve the mystery. In the TV series, this was accomplished by having Hutton break "the fourth wall" and talk directly to viewers.

Link and Levinson also made one significant change from the novels. They expanded on Ellery's rather dry personality by making him occasionally absent-minded (about routine things) and a bit of a bumbler. Even if their Ellery Queen wasn't a straightforward adaptation of the novels, it still captured their spirit and also wisely set the mysteries in the 1940s. Here are my picks for the five best episodes:

Edward Andrews and Larry Hagman.
1. The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party - The only regular episode based on an Ellery Queen novel or story sends Ellery to a country estate to discuss turning one of his literary works into a play. When wealthy impresario Spencer Lockridge (Edward Andrews) disappears, Ellery suspects foul play. What's not to like with suspects dressed like characters from Alice in Wonderland, mysterious packages being delivered, and a key clue involving a reflection in the mirror? Rhonda Fleming, Jim Backus, and Larry Hagman form a first-rate cast of guest stars. The only downside is that the always likable Inspector Queen (well played by David Wayne) only plays a small part.

Swofford as Frank Flanagan.
2. The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader - Ellery clashes with a publisher who wants to turn his fictional detective into a comic book action hero. When the unpopular publisher is found shot, Ellery becomes one of the suspects. Another good cast, headed by Donald O'Connor and Lynda Day George, enhances a mystery with Agatha Christie overtones.This episode marked Ken Swofford's first appearance as larger-than-life, headline-seeking columnist Frank Flanagan. He appeared in four other episodes and later played a police detective on another Levinson-Link series: Murder, She Wrote.

3. The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument - After winning the prestigious Blunt Instrument Award for best mystery fiction, author Edgar Manning is found dead--with the trophy for his award apparently used as the weapon. Yes, there's some amusing humor in this outing, with much of it coming from people who suggest various remedies for Ellery's head cold. Many episodes incorporate clever 1946-47 references and this one has one of the best: one suspect's alibi is that he was attending a double-feature of She-Wolf of London and The Spider Woman Strikes Back, two films actually released in 1946.

A nice shot of father and son.
4. The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep - Inspector Queen is assigned to protect a star witness prior to a mobster's trial. With two reliable policeman stationed in an adjacent room in a hotel suite, the witness is murdered...but how? This outing features the most ingenious murder method of the 22 episodes and also squeezes in a strong subplot involving political pressure and an ambitious district attorney (Stuart Whitman). Inspector Queen solves the crime, which is a nice change-of-pace. Look quickly for Timothy Carey as a hired killer...yes, that's South Dakota Slim from Beach Blanket Bingo!

5. The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express - The publisher of the Daily Examiner arrives at work, steps into the executive elevator, pushes the button for the 12th floor, and is found shot dead on another floor. Like some of the best mysteries, the solution to this murder is a simple one--but that's the beauty of it. Ken Swofford is back as Frank Flanagan and the plot makes excellent use of the newspaper building setting. This episode was one of three directed by Jack Arnold, who is best-known for the 1950s science fiction classics The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, and The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Honorable Mention:  The Adventure of the Sunday Punch, a strong, well-written teleplay set in the world of boxing. Please don't make anything of the absence of episodes featuring John Hillerman as radio detective Simon Brimmer. Indeed, I thought Hillerman was a delight in all eight episodes in which he appeared.

This post is part of the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out the other posts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Seven Things to Know About Thelma Ritter

1. Thelma was nominated six times in the Best Supporting Actress category--and somehow never won an Oscar. The nominations were for her performances in: All About Eve (1951); The Mating Season (1952); With a Song in My Heart (1953); Pickup on South Street (1954); Pillow Talk (1960); and Birdman of Alcatraz (1963).

2. She won a Tony Award for Best Actress (Musical) for New Girl in Town in 1958. She actually tied for the award with her co-star Gwen Verdon--the first time that ever happened. The play, a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, is about a former prostitute (Verdon) hiding her past from her father. Dad's resentful lover Marthy (Ritter) quickly realizes the truth--which is bad news for Anna. Marie Dressler played the Marthy role opposite Greta Garbo in the 1931 film version of Anna Christie.

In Pillow Talk (1959).
3. Thelma Ritter had a gap of 27 years between her Broadway appearances in In Times Square (1931) and New Girl in Town (1958).

4. She attended the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City in the early 1920s. Although economic realities prevented her from graduating, she received the first AADA Alumni Award according to Axel Nixon's book Actresses of a Certain Character. By the way, her fellow AADA students included a young Spencer Tracy and Sterling Holloway.

5. Thelma's husband, Joseph Moran, was an actor, too. However, he turned to advertising in the 1930s and eventually became vice president of the ad firm Young & Rubicam. He appeared briefly with Thelma in The Proud and the Profane (1956), billed as "Marine Saying Goodbye." They were married for 38 years until her death in 1969. Her daughter Monica Moran became an actress and had a brief film career. Her son, Joseph A. Moran, was a Marine and testified in a court-martial in 1956 related to the Ribbon Creek Incident in which six Marines died in a South Carolina swamp.

With James Stewart in Rear Window.
6. On working with Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window, Thelma once said: "You knew whether you were OK or not. If he liked what you did, he said nothing. If he didn't, he looked as though he was going to throw up."

7. Thelma Ritter was born on Valentine's Day in 1902. She was 45 when she made her film debut in an uncredited role in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). She died of a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 66.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Bewitched Continuum: An Interview with Author Adam-Michael James

There are episode guides to popular television series--and then there's The Bewitched Continuum. Adam-Michael James' new book contains plot summaries and entertaining trivia about each of the 254 episodes of Bewitched--but James doesn't stop there. He explores the "world" of Bewitched, uncovering intriguing connections and inconsistencies among the episodes. For example, in episode #190, Super Arthur, "Samantha suggests that Uncle Arthur brush up on his driving in case he’s grounded – but forgets that he was already made earthbound on her behalf in Samantha’s Power Failure (#165)." Author James also acts, wrote the book for the musical The Nine Lives of L.M. Montgomery, and pens a column on The Bold and the Beautiful for Amazingly, he still found time to stop by the Cafe to discuss The Bewitched Continuum: The Ultimate Linear Guide to the Classic TV Series.

Café:  You've been a Bewitched fan since age 8. What drew you to the show as a youngster and what continues to attract you as an adult?

Author Adam-Michael James.
Adam-Michael James:  Well, it’s funny--it was 1977; I can remember sitting in the den that afternoon, what it looked like, and what episode I saw [it was “I Confess” (#135)], but not why I was in front of the TV in the first place. All I remember is seeing this lady making a bucket of water appear over a man’s head and dumping it on him. From there, I was hooked. I’m sure as a child it was the people popping in and out and the spells and the sound effects that captured my imagination. I’ve only recently been able to articulate it as an adult: it’s still the magic, but not the fictional kind. I guess I saw extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, and it made me feel like I had a magic of my own, which the show clued me in to. I don’t mean witchcraft magic, but an “I can do anything” kind of magic. I guess it spoke to me and still speaks to me, living in this very rational, practical world of ours that imposes limits on us. Of course, the appeal of the show today is also a certain nostalgia, remembering deep down how the show made me feel as a kid. But that “magic within” message is still there--and, since the show was written for adults, I pick up on many more things from that perspective than I did as a child watching people disappear.

Café:  Watching, documenting, and comparing 254 episodes must have been a massive undertaking. How long did it take you to write The Bewitched Continuum? What were some of your biggest challenges?

Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha.
AMJ:  I tend not to do creative projects unless they’re massive undertakings. (laughs) At least with Bewitched, I already had an intimate knowledge of the show from childhood, so it’s not like I had to discover every episode from scratch. I mean, my Dad showed me how to record the show on cassette by the time I was 10--and how to fix tapes, since I was always coming to him to fix them. So I had that heightened familiarity going in. I would watch an episode, write down anything I observed, and then go back and watch a second time to write the synopsis. Then I split the continuity and story issues into four categories: “Good!”, “Well?”, “Oh, My Stars!” and “Son of a Gun!” which are all pretty self-explanatory and of course catchphrases from the show. Deciding what to include and what to cut had its challenges. I’d say it took me about eight months to do the first draft. Then I did a two-month round of proofreading and editing before taking on Herbie J. Pilato as my editor. Herbie, as you know, started it all in terms of books about the show with The Bewitched Book. The guidance he gave me was more about changing the tone of some of my observations, because in my soap columns I’m free to be snarky, but that wasn’t something that was necessary with this project. And from there, I spent another month or so changing and cutting and moving quotation marks and making sure commas were where they were supposed to be. I would call that the most challenging. The creative process is often glorious, but editing and proofreading can get very laborious and tedious before it becomes liberating.

Café:  You've come up with some fabulous lists, such as all 31 relatives of Tabitha that appear on Bewitched (to include cousins once removed such as Miranda). Which of your lists were the most fun to compile?

AMJ:  I wasn’t even going to do lists at first, but as I was going along there was such a treasure trove of biographical information and trivia, I had to include them. “Square Green Spots and Sick Headaches,” where I chronicle both mortal and witch diseases, was fun because it was fairly simple. But I think “By the Numbers” was fulfilling in addition to being fun. I really was curious to count up how many episodes Samantha *didn’t* use her powers, how many times Larry fired Darrin, how many times Endora called Darrin “Durwood,” and all that. I knew I was going to tackle that list early on, so I wrote its info in the corners of my episode notes to make the counting easier. I double- and triple-counted everything, so it’s accurate to the best of my mortal knowledge. (laughs) I found the character bios, which you mentioned, particularly fascinating as well. They were all taken from random information revealed during the show. I compile bios for characters on, too, so that’s where I got the idea.

Café:  “Sisters at Heart” (#213) tops your list of the best Bewitched episodes. But what is your personal favorite and why?

A scene from "Sisters at Heart"
AMJ:  My best and worst lists are a pretty accurate reflection of my personal favorites. Of course, that’s not to say my pick for number one worst is a horrible episode; I just felt it didn’t fit the overall tone of the show. Conversely, “Sisters At Heart” (#213) does--it tackles racism and tolerance and acceptance, which was really the central message of Bewitched. Any time a show or a movie or a song can entertain, then educate without hitting me over the head, I’m all for it. Plus, I just can’t resist a Tabitha episode. Another really good episode is “Samantha’s Good News” (#168), which I suspect was intended to be that season’s finale because Samantha reveals she’s pregnant. What’s really cool about that episode is that there’s not a single mortal to be found in it! It’s the first and only time that happened. It was just a neat look into the witch world--which I think, in a lot of ways, is what intrigues fans most about the show.

Café:  Who was the better Darrin:  Dick York or Dick Sargent? You gotta pick one!

Dick York and Dick Sargent.
AMJ:  Ooh, I always get asked this! (laughs) It’s kind of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t question because no matter which one I pick, the other fan base will be annoyed. To be honest, it’s not a particularly fair question, because Dick Sargent gets such a bum rap for replacing Dick York, when he was just doing his job as an actor, and Dick York had no choice but to give up the role because of his back injury (which he sustained making the 1959 film, They Came to Cordura). I guess given my own personal history, if I really have to pick one, I will say Dick Sargent, but only by a hair. Perhaps I sensed a kindred spirit in him at a young age, and he took over in 1969, which was the year I was born, so his Darrin’s world is more familiar to me. But that’s not to take anything away from Dick York. In fact, doing The Bewitched Continuum made me appreciate what he brought to the role even more. So maybe in the Battle of the Darrins, it would be Dick Sargent, 50.1%, Dick York, 49.9%.

Café:  You mention that many TV series today have "bibles" that serve as a reference document used for information on a series' characters, settings, and plot points. Do you have a tendency now to notice more continuity errors despite the writers' efforts to prevent them?

AMJ:  I think television dramas with continuing storylines always had those bibles; it’s just that they weren’t really necessary for sitcoms when Bewitched was on the air. It’s pretty obvious that today’s sitcoms use them: look at Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. Their episodes are self-contained, but they constantly refer to other episodes and bring back recurring characters and other elements. There’s definitely a forward motion and a sense of things being tied together. Actually, I started noticing continuity errors long before now. My book was largely inspired by Phil Farrand’s The Nitpicker’s Guide for Next Generation Trekkers, which started me on continuity in the first place. And then doing script coverage for Hollywood studios heightened my awareness of continuity, as has dissecting The Bold and the Beautiful in my columns. I’m terrible to go to the movies or watch TV with! I’m always like, “Wait a minute…” (laughs) Though I do realize shows and films have deadlines and scenes get cut, so inevitably things are going to slip through the cracks.

Café:  What do you think about NBC's announcement to produce a Bewitched pilot about Samantha's granddaughter Daphne?

AMJ:  I’d heard about potential reboots for years, where a new Samantha and Darrin would be cast, and I just cringed, because reboots tend to be awful as a general rule. With Bewitched, I always thought a continuation would be better, so I find it encouraging that that’s the direction this pilot is going. The big thing is, they have to bring Bewitched into the 21st century while being true to its roots. That’s why the Tabitha spinoff failed in the ‘70s--that show just threw out the rules set by Bewitched and did its own thing. This continuation will have to find that balance. If they need someone who knows a thing or two about the original series’ continuity, I’m available. (laughs)

Café:  Do you have any plans for future TV- or film-related books?

AMJ:  Well, I’m not thinking too far ahead at the moment, because now that The Bewitched Continuum is out, I have to focus on doing PR for it, which is pretty well a full-time job by itself. Some people say this book is only for hardcore fans, but I hope that new fans will use it as well, to get to know Bewitched better. I only know a few other shows as intimately anyway--Dynasty and V in particular--so writing about another one would be on-the-job training. Besides, I do want to get The Nine Lives of L.M. Montgomery back on the stage, and there’s more acting and music and videos I want to do. But you never know. I never planned to write The Bewitched Continuum until about two years ago. I think projects pick us, not the other way around. If a similar project picks me, I will be ready for it!

The Bewitched Continuum is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brannigan--The Duke in London

My wife and I have remarkably similar tastes in films and television. That will happen when two television production majors spend 33 years watching movies and TV series together. However, our tastes in cinema still show the influence of our pre-marriage years. Hence, I found myself recenly watching Brannigan alone. My sweetheart's lack of interest in viewing John Wayne's 1975 cop picture is based solely on the fact that it's not very good. My desire to see it was driven by nostalgia and curiosity as much as anything. I think the last time I saw it was at the movie theatre during its original release.

The plot follows police Lieutenant Jim Brannigan's pursuit of a Chicago mobster named Larkin (John Vernon). When Brannigan (John Wayne) learns that Scotland Yard has arrested Larkin, he heads to London to bring the gangster back to the States. Unfortunately, the Brits allow Larkin to be kidnapped and held for ransom. Meanwhile, a professional hitman, hired by Larkin for $25,000, has set his sights on eliminating pesky Brannigan.

An uncomfortable Richard Attenborough
in a supporting role.
Brannigan was John Wayne's second contemporary urban crime picture of the 1970s. The first, McQ, had been a modest boxoffice hit in 1974. Both films took aim at replicating the success of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies and its clones such as Charles Bronson's The Stone Killer. Like Harry Callahan, Brannigan carries a big gun, tosses off wisecracks, and challenges authority figures. Even the opening credits sequence of Brannigan, which features Jim's .38 caliber Colt Diamondback prominently, borrows liberally from Magnum Force.

Alas, from the outset, Brannigan has several factors working against it. At age 68, Wayne still convinces us he's a tough guy, but he lacks the rough edges that Eastwood and Bronson brought to their urban "heroes." The script doesn't help him either. The film's big twist is blatantly obvious from the beginning. It's also the kind of movie where the professional killer tries to run down Brannigan in a car instead of just shooting him and collecting a paycheck. 

Judy Geeson.
Furthermore, the whole "fish out of water" angle--a tough Chicago cop paired with those well-mannered British detectives--just doesn't work as executed by the cast. Richard Attenborough looks downright uncomfortable as Brannigan's Scotland Yard superior, playing the part with one of those "what am I doing doing here?" expressions. Judy Geeson, who sparkled in To Sir With Love, has little do as Brannigan's temporary partner. Her scenes are pretty much limited to admiring Brannigan (in  a fatherly way) and waiting to be rescued when the hitman finally makes his move.

Yet, despite its many flaws, I think Brannigan had the potential to be a mindless, entertaining urban thriller. One would just have to beef up the plot, recast Eastwood in the lead and Tyne Daly as his partner, and get Don Siegel to direct it. It'd probably need a different title, too--something like Dirty Harry Goes to London.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

The most visually impressive of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Supermarionation TV series comes to video on February 10th when Timeless Media Group releases a boxed set containing all 32 episodes of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Originally broadcast in Great Britain in 1967-68, Captain Scarlet is also dramatically different from predecessors such as Stingray and Thunderbirds. The Andersons' earlier efforts were action-oriented children's shows, peppered with some semi-dramatic elements for parents who watched with their kids (e.g., the love triangle in Stingray). In contrast, world leaders are assassinated in Captain Scarlet and even the hero is killed--multiples times (click here or on the sidebar to view our unofficial trailer).

Captain Black reminds me of George
Lazenby as 007.
The first episode establishes the premise when a security force from Earth destroys what it believes is a dangerous alien base on Mars. However, the mysterious Mysterons reveal that the base was harmless. In retaliation for this unprovoked aggression, the Mysterons launch a prolonged "attack of nerves" on Earth. The aliens possess the power to reverse matter; they can recreate an object that has been destroyed or a life form that has been killed. The "new" entity is under control of the Mysterons. They use this power to transform people into their agents and killers. Thus, Captain Black--who destroyed their Martian base--becomes one of the Mysteron operatives.

Captain Scarlet and the World President.
So does Captain Scarlet, a member of the world security organization Spectrum. During an assassination attempt on the World President, Scarlet falls 800 feet to his death from the top of an elevated car park. However, inexplicably, Scarlet recovers from his fatal injuries and becomes "indestructible." No longer under control of the Mysterons, he becomes Spectrum's "greatest asset" in its fight against the Mysterons.

Destiny Angel was modeled after Ursula Andress.
As with many of their shows, the Andersons created a richly-detailed futuristic world for Captain Scarlet. Spectrum operates from a huge, airborne craft called Cloudbase, which serves as its control center and launching pad for the "interceptor jets." It has its own acronyms, such as S.I.G., which stands for "Spectrum is green" and means an acknowledgement like "roger" or "10-4." Spectrum's operatives are known by colorful codenames names like Colonel White, Captain Blue, and Lieutenant Green (a color spectrum, get it?). The fighter pilots are all female and known collectively as the Angels. Destiny Angel is their leader and the other pilots are Harmony, Symphony, Melody, and Rhapsody. Of note, Harmony (Japanese), Melody and Lieutenant Green (both African American) were among the first ethnic regular characters in mainstream British television.

From a technological perspective, Captain Scarlet is more visually realistic than its predecessors. In shows like Stingray and Thunderbirds, the puppets had disproportionately large heads because that was the location of the solenoid motors used to sync the voice track and the puppets’ mouths (see Stingray). For Captain Scarlet, the motors were moved to the puppets’ chests. In addition to overhead puppeteers, a floor puppeteer was added for some scenes to make movements look more natural.

An Interceptor jet.
Ironically, despite the emphasis on realism, the characters in Captain Scarlet seem more wooden than in earlier shows. Part of that can be attributed to the darker nature of the series. As mentioned before, Captain Scarlet “dies” on a regular basis and other characters are shot, perish in explosions, etc. In a fast-paced, half-hour show, it just wouldn't work to go from a deadly assassination to a funny scene with Oink the Seal Pup (one of my favorite “characters” from Stingray). Still, it's a less charming series than the previous ones, even though there's no denying that the miniature sets are incredible and there's nary a dull second in any episode.

Captain Blue, voiced by Ed Bishop.
The voice cast features two notable performers: Francis Matthews and Ed Bishop. Matthews was a member of the Hammer Films "repertory," appearing in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1964), and Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966). He provides Captain Scarlet's voice, doing a pretty good imitation of Cary Grant. The voice for Scarlet's sidekick, Captain Blue, belongs to Canadian actor Ed Bishop. He would later find fame as Commander Straker, the head of S.H.A.D.O. in UFO (1970-71), the best of Gerry Anderson's live-action TV series.

Timeless Media's DVD boxed set includes sharp, bright transfers of the original episodes. There are plenty of bonuses, to include: interviews with director Alan Perry, puppeteer Mary Turner, and writer Shane Rimmer; audio commentary from Gerry Anderson on two episodes; and an excerpt from an Anderson interview.

A scene from New Captain Scarlet.
Although Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons ran for just one season, it continued to attract new fans thanks to syndicated repeats. As a result, in 2005, Anderson launched a computer animated series called Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet. It was essentially a reboot of the original and lasted for two seasons of 13 episodes each.

So, are you ready to watch Captain Scarlet and the rest of Spectrum battle the Mysterons? I say: "S.I.G.!"

Timeless Media Group provided a review copy of this DVD set.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Five Toughest Tough Guys of the 1970s

1. Clint Eastwood - He had already appeared as a grimacing, wisecracking detective in 1968's urban action pic Coogan's Bluff. But the 1970s established Eastwood as the decade's definitive tough guy with the first three Dirty Harry films and The Gauntlet (my personal favorite). It helps, of course, when your most famous role comes with a classic quote, as when Harry Callahan quips in Dirty Harry: "I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking: "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Now to tell you the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself a question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

Bronson in Death Wish.
2. Charles Bronson - He didn't play a prototypical tough guy in his best-known film of the decade, 1974's Death Wish. It featured Bronson as a "normal guy" transformed into a vigilante killer by family tragedy. Still, he starred as more conventional tough guys in The Stone Killer, St. Ives,  Mr. Majestyk, and The Mechanic. Indeed, he may have been the decade's busiest tough guy. His best quote is actually delivered as a voiceover when Jan-Michael Vincent finds this note in his car at the end of The Mechanic: "Steve, if you read this, it means I didn't make it back. It also means you've broken a filament controlling a 13-second delay trigger. End of game. Bang! You're dead."

Wayne with a big gun in McQ.
3. John Wayne - The Duke only starred in two urban action films in the 1970s: McQ and Brannigan (which send Wayne to contemporary London to retrieve an American mobster). Neither film was stellar, but it was fun to watch the 68-year-old Duke dealing with urban scum. Plus, Brannigan features the great scene when Wayne kicks in a door and quips dryly: "Knock, knock."

Roundtree as John Shaft.
4. Richard Roundtree - While other African American tough guys also made an impact (e.g., Fred Williamson, Jim Brown), none could match Roundtree as the super cool John Shaft. Roundtree played the macho private eye in three films and a watered-down CBS TV series. The best of the bunch was the second film, Shaft's Big Score. Of course, Roundtree's character had something his contemporaries lacked: Isaacs Hayes' hip, Oscar-winning song. It memorably asked: "Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about?" (The answer is Shaft...can you dig it?)

Burt Reynolds and his trademark
1970s moustache in Shamus.
5. Burt Reynolds - His propensity for lighthearted roles eventually diluted his tough guy image. Yet, for the first half of the 1970s, he played a steady stream of likable, but still macho, types in movies like Deliverance, Shamus, White Lightning, and Hustle. Best tough guy quote (from White Lightning): "Only two things I'm scared of. Women and the police."

Honorable Mention: Roy Scheider (The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, Marathon Man).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Seven Things to Know About Glenda Jackson

1. After a stellar career in film, television, and the stage, Glenda Jackson retired from acting in 1992 and ran for a seat in the British Parliament as a Labor Party candidate. She won the election and is still serving as a Member of Parliament. Click here to visit her official website for constituents.

2. She played Queen Elizabeth in a TV series and a theatrical motion picture in the same year. In 1971, she won an Emmy for her performance in the title role of the critically-acclaimed BBC miniseries Elizabeth R. Later that year, she portrayed Elizabeth again opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots.

3. Actually, 1971 was a pretty impressive year for Glenda Jackson. She also won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Ken Russell's adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love. Ms. Jackson won a second Oscar in 1974 for the romantic comedy A Touch of Class. She also received two Best Actress nominations, for Sunday Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Hedda in 1976.

4. In 1989's The Rainbow, Glenda Jackson played the mother of the character she portrayed in Women in Love. Like the latter film, The Rainbow was an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel by filmmaker Ken Russell.

5. She has portrayed numerous famous people in addition to Queen Elizabeth, to include: actress Sarah Bernhardt in The Incredible Sarah (1976); English poet and novelist Stevie Smith in Stevie (1978); and film actress Patricia Neal for the made-for-TV biography The Patricia Neal Story (1981).

6. Glenda Jackson was nominated for four Tony Awards for her stage performances, once in 1966 and three times in the 1980s. However, she never won! One of those nominations was for Lady Macbeth in a 1988 Broadway production starring Christopher Plummer in the title role.

7. Her only marriage was to theatre director Roy Hodges and it lasted from 1958 to 1976. Her only child, Dan Hodges, is a former Labor Party official and currently a political columnist for The Telegraph.

This post of part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. This week, Kellee from Outspoken and Freckled hosts a tribute the The Actors. Click here to view the full schedule of posts.

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.