Monday, September 15, 2014

Boris Karloff--Detective

Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong.
Let me start by addressing the most uncomfortable aspect of the Mr. Wong movies produced by Monogram Pictures from 1938 to 1940. Mr. Wong, who is Chinese, is played by Boris Karloff, a British actor, in five of the six films. This was neither the first nor the last time that a non-Oriental actor starred as an Oriental detective. There are numerous other instances. Swedish actor Warner Oland made a fine Charlie Chan in the 1930s. Hungarian Peter Lorre starred as Japanese detective Mr. Moto in a film series for Twentieth Century-Fox. Decades later, Ross Martin (The Wild, Wild West) and even Peter Sellers also appeared as Charlie Chan.

Karloff as Fu Manchu.
To his credit, Karloff does not try to impersonate a person of Chinese descent. He speaks deliberately, but there is no trace of an accent. His hair is dyed black and slicked down. He sports a mustache (which changes shape slightly from film to film) and sometimes glasses. He looks a little Oriental—if one knows that was the intended effect. It’s a stark contrast to his appearance as the title villain of 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Karloff made his first appearance as James Wong in Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). It’s an average “B” mystery in which the owners of a chemical company are murdered one by one. The prime suspect is a disgruntled inventor, who claims the company stole a valuable formula. However, as witnesses can testify, the inventor was somewhere else when each death occurred. The best part of the film is the ingenious way in which the murders are accomplished. All in all, it’s a decent introduction to Mr. Wong.

A death threat for the sapphire's new owner.
The first sequel, The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), is an upgrade. It’s an entertaining whodunit involving a stolen sapphire (the Eye of the Daughter of Moon—gotta love the name!) and another clever murder. This time, Wong is present when a homicide occurs in front of party guests, who are watching their hosts reenact a scene from a play. When a character is shot in the play—the person playing the character is really shot. The film features a brisk pace and veteran director Williams Nigh achieves some nice visual effects with framing and lighting.

Marjorie Reynolds.
Alas, the second Mr. Wong film is the series highlight. The third entry, Mr. Wong in Chinatown, is a lackluster, sluggish affair. Amazingly, the plot was recycled nine years later for the Charlie Chan film The Chinese Ring starring Roland Winters. In Mr. Wong in Chinatown, Marjorie Reynolds (Holiday Inn) joins Grant Withers as a series regular. Withers’ police Captain Sam Street continues to come across as thickheaded and dull while Reynolds overplays the energetic reporter trying to get a big scoop. Neither one adds any value to this film nor subsequent outings, leaving it up to Karloff to carry the Mr. Wong mysteries by himself.

He’s up to the task, though one wishes that Wong was more interesting. He lacks Charlie Chan’s memorable proverbs and Mr. Moto’s judo. Hugh Wiley created the Yale-educated Chinese sleuth for Collier’s magazine in 1934. James Lee Wong lived in San Francisco and worked on the “federal pay rolls.” He appeared in twelve short stories, which were republished in the 1951 collection Murder By the Dozen.

Keye Luke as Jimmy Wong.
After five Mr. Wong films, Karloff bowed out of the series and was replaced by Keye Luke as Jimmy Wong in Phantom of Chinatown (1940). Although some critics suggest Luke is playing James Wong’s son, the film seems more like a reboot. The affable Key Luke does well enough in his first lead role after playing Charlie Chan’s son opposite Warner Oland. Although Luke was signed for additional Mr. Wong films, the series came to an abrupt end. Still, Phantom of Chinatown was something of a landmark—Keye Luke became the first Chinese actor since the silent film era to headline a Hollywood film.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Seven Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember

I've seen thousands of movies. I remember most of them, but am sure I've forgotten quite a few. Curiously, I can recall some pretty obscure films. For no apparent reason. Most of my classic film friends have never heard of these movies, but they do exist. So today, I wanted to share seven obscure movies that still linger in the windmills..make that cobwebs...of my mind.

1. The 7th Commandment (1961) - This film is so obscure that I incorrectly thought the title was The Tenth Commandment for decades! Anyway, the memorable plot is about a low-life named Ted who believes he has killed a man in a car accident. He wanders away from the crash site and suffers trauma-induced amnesia. Ted is rescued by a traveling evangelist and eventually becomes a famous preacher. That's when his sordid past catches up with him in the form of blackmail.

T-Rex goes for a snack.
2. Dinosaurus! (1960) - Construction workers on a Caribbean island discover a T-Rex, a Brontosaurus, and a caveman encased in ice. A big storm (complete with lightning) melts the ice and revives all three. The image of the T-Rex attacking the excavator has stuck with me over the years. I used to have the Dell comic book, too.

Jock Mahoney in Joe Dakota.
3. Joe Dakota (1957) - In this Western mystery, a stranger who calls himself Joe Dakota visits a small California town and starts asking questions about "the Old Indian." Most of the townsfolk ignore the stranger, but a young woman claims that the Indian was known as...Joe Dakota. Think Bad Day at Black Rock on a modest budget and you'll get a feel for this interesting oater starring likable former stunt man Jock Mahoney (TV's Yancy Derringer).

Dean Jagger and Glenn Ford.
4. The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) - Glenn Ford starred in this creepy made-for-TV film about a college professor who joins a secret society--only to realize the high cost later in life. I've only seen it once, but it reminded me of the early Humphrey Bogart film Black Legion. Written by David Karp, whose teleplay earned an Emmy nomination, an earlier version of The Brotherhood of the Bell was also produced for the classic 1950s TV anthology series Studio One.

5. Night Monster (1942) - Various people converge at the isolated, fog-enshrouded, swampy estate of rich crippled recluse Curt Ingston (Ralph Morgan). Three of the visitors--physicians who may have played a part in Ingston's paralysis--are murdered. This whodunit has achieved minor cult status due to its cast (Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi), the eerie atmosphere achieved by director Ford Beebe, and the bizarre climax. I don't know why it's not shown more often.

Rosemarie Bowe Stack.
6. The Golden Mistress (1954) - John Agar and Rosemarie Bowe team up as Caribbean treasure hunters in this lively low-budget adventure that features a miniature gold skeleton, voodoo, and a secret underwater passage. Never heard of the stunning Ms. Bowe? The former model only made a handful of films before marrying Robert Stack in 1956 and retiring (for the most part) from show business. They remained married until his death in 2003.

Shatner in Impulse.
7. Impulse (1974) - Honestly, there's no way I could write a better plot summary than this one from the IMDb: "A paranoid, leisure-suit-wearing conman/gigolo named Matt Stone seduces lonely women, bilks them of their savings via an investment scam, then kills them." Now, imagine that Matt is played by a scenery-chewing William Shatner! Actually, what I remember most about this film is that Impulse co-star Harold Sakata--who played Oddjob in Goldfinger--appeared at a local cinema promoting the film. I didn't get see Sakata, but I remember the film and Shatner's fake headaches to this day.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Get Ready for the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention!

Angela Cartwright will be there!
The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention--or MANC as its fans call it--will be held September 18-20 in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Now in its ninth year, the MANC attracts thousands of fans of classic films, television, and radio. This year's impressive line-up of celebrity guests includes: Connie Stevens, Piper Laurie, Angela Cartwright, Veronica Cartwright, George Lazenby, and Lana Wood. Like other fan conventions, attendees can get autographed photos from the stars (usually for a price) and buy memorabilia from vendors. However, MANC also features seminars, panel interviews, a banquet, and special screenings of rarely-seen movies and TV series. A highlight of the three-day event is a celebrity auction with all proceeds going to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Martin Grams, the event coordinator for MANC, was nice enough to talk with us about this month's MANC.

Café: What inspired the very first MANC back in 2006?

Martin Grams: As an attendee and vendor at more than 26 conventions a year, I observed over time what I thought was the best and worst of ideas. Every convention has its own flavor. After seeing the handwriting on the wall at a few of these events, I felt it was more important to help carry on the tradition with the best of ideas. So friends of mine and I put together MANC, applying the best of what we observed at other events. This turned out to be a recipe for success because the crowd has consistently grown about 200 to 300 people in attendance every year. People keep referring to our show as a throwback to the way conventions used to be. And that is a good thing. 

Café: Some of our favorite stars will be at this year's MANC. How do you determine who to invite? 

Margaret O'Brien at the 2013 MANC.
MG: There are multiple factors that we take into consideration when determining which celebrities attend MANC. Draw appeal and popularity is one factor. We have a working budget but we have to be careful not to go into the red. The rising cost of airfare has not been helping. Celebrities who attend other events are scrutinized. If they develop bad reputations among attendees at those shows, we look in another direction. If they win over the attendees, we take them into consideration. If they are celebrities requested by frequent attendees, we also take that into consideration. The age and health condition of the celebrity is another factor. But the decision is based on educated and practical reasons. Of course, a sponsor for MANC can also wave our decision in a specific direction.

Café: Your screening schedule includes a plethora of hard-to-see movies (e.g., four Danny Kaye shorts, the Ritz Brothers' Straight, Place and Show) and TV series' episodes (e.g., Casablanca, the Playhouse 90 teleplay of The Days of Wine and Roses). Which ones were the hardest to track down?

MG: We pride ourselves on screening rare films that you won't see anywhere else. While our event is not a film festival per say, the selection of films makes our event qualified as a film festival. Especially if the films are not available on DVD through the commercial market or the "grey" market. This year we are screening the lost 1955 I Love a Mystery television pilot with Howard Duff. The film was discovered a year ago and transferred to digital exclusively for us for the convention. You won't see that available anywhere else. We never seek out rare films. We have access to hundreds of rare films and when one strikes our fancy, or there's a connection with a celebrity we have at the show, it's a natural selection.

Café: The MANC web site lists all the interview panels, screenings, and seminars--but are there any events that you'd like to highlight? 

Rocky Lane played Red Ryder--
and was the voice of Mister Ed.
MG: There are so many events at the show that it is difficult to highlight one above the other. Authors, historians, museum curators, film preservationists, and other notables host panels and slide show seminars. We encourage slide show seminars rather than have a guest speaker stand up on stage and talk. The attendees enjoy visuals during presentations. In the past, we had some top-notch lectures such as the history of Dick Tracy in comics by author Garyn Roberts and a history of Buck Rogers by Maury Cagle. This year the most anticipated event is probably the Allan "Rocky" Lane slide show. Linda Alexander, author of the new Allan "Rocky" Lane book, contacted Lane's family and had access to the family photos. Her presentation will no doubt impress even the most die-hard of cowboy fans. I heard more queries from attendees about that presentation than any other this year. 

Café: What can attendees expect at the dinner banquet?

MG: We always have a musical performance from a gifted singer. Sometimes a magician or Abbott and Costello impersonators entertain. Donald and Mary Ramlow direct a "lost" radio re-enactment on stage complete with microphones, sound effects and scripts. This year's highlight is the very first Dragnet radio broadcast from 1949, which does not exist in recorded form. The first two or three radio episodes never had the familiar theme song and to ensure accuracy, we will include that theme song. We also have an awards ceremony.

Café: This year, you're doing something very unique by streaming the MANC over the Internet. How will that work?

Piper Laurie--another 2014 guest.
MG: As easy as it sounds. We will set up a camera with a computer, connected to the internet, and people from all over the globe can, with the push of a few buttons, watch the events live as it happens during the weekend. All of the seminars, panels and presentations are streamed. There is a small fee to pay for the service, but it costs money to upload the video to the internet and the nominal service fee people pay is usually a lot cheaper than flying to Maryland to attend the show. Especially if they live in Alaska, Hawaii, California, Canada, you get the idea. But if potential attendees live within a couple hours drive of the hotel, they might as well make the trek since the cost of admission is the same as paying to watch the events live on their computer. 

Café: We're going to put you on the spot here: Who are some of your favorite celebrities from previous MANCs?

Roy Thinnes of The Invaders.
MG: Well... since this interview will be made public, that does put me on the spot. I wouldn't want celebrities from past events to discover their names were omitted. Let's just say the three celebs that left me with a big impression were Roy Thinnes, Ron Ely, and Jeff Connors (son of Chuck Connors). Educated and well-spoken, you could have an intelligent conversation with them and long for more. But celebrities who attended past MANC events have all been wonderful and hospitable. Our priority is to have attendees having fun all weekend and the celebrities make good on that policy.

Café: The celebrity auction to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital sounds like a great event. What are some of the items donated by celebrities this year? 

MG: In the past, we have had autographed items donated by Elizabeth Taylor, Casey Kasem, Alan Young, and other celebrities. This year, we have autographed items from David Hedison, Peter Fonda and two more just came in this morning. We have original television scripts donated by actor Jim Rosin. Attendees always bring vintage merchandise to donate to the auction and I am constantly impressed with some of the items people are willing to part with--great stuff that helps support children with treatable cancer.

Café: Finally, what advice can you give someone coming to their first MANC? 

The autograph and vendor room.
MG: This is a large venue so attendees have to expect the usual handicaps that result from large events. What might be considered the best seating in the panel/seminar room will fill quickly so people need to get in the room 10 to 20 minutes early if they want the best seats. Don't book your hotel room the night before the convention. The hotel sells out quickly. This is the first year we sold out of dinner tickets in advance, so anyone who usually shows up at the door and buys dinner tickets at the show will probably be disappointed when they discover that the dinner tickets are all sold out. The Saturday night dinner banquet is certainly a highlight of the weekend. 

Café: Well, we do have one last question: Any hints about what stars may be attending in 2015? 

1960s pop singer Lesley Gore
on TV's Batman.
MG: We have a cast reunion for My Three Sons, Donna Douglas, Jon Provost and Lesley Gore slated. There are two big surprises I am forced to withhold until contracts are signed, but I can tease they are very huge names. The best way to keep informed of the latest news is to subscribe to our email newsletter or "like" our Facebook page. Even if they do not live close enough to consider traveling to the show, they should still subscribe to our email newsletter because we offer free surprises throughout the year, giveaways, informative articles and much more.

You can learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention on its website or its Facebook page

Thursday, September 4, 2014

An Interview with Hammer Films Star Veronica Carlson

The only female lead to play opposite Christopher Lee's Count Dracula and Peter Cushing's Dr. Frankenstein, Veronica Carlson is a true Hammer Films icon. She made her Hammer debut in 1968 with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, one of the studio's best vampire films. The talented, blonde-haired actress followed it with the equally-impressive Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and the dark comedy Horror of Frankenstein (1970). Today, the still radiant Ms. Carlson lives in the U.S. and remains in high demand for film convention appearances. She also paints portraits, several of which have been auctioned for charity.

Café: How did you go from modeling to acting?

Veronica Carlson: I had a photograph of me coming out of the waves in a white bikini on the front page of a tabloid newspaper. Jimmy Carreras (a Hammer executive) saw that photograph and said he wanted me in his next Hammer movie. So, I went for an audition and I ended up with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. 

Café: Had you seen any Hammer films before that movie?

VC: I was a great fan of Hammer. When I went to college--which I did at 16--and before I went to college, I loved Hammer movies. My friends in college loved them, too. There was one occasion when we knew there was a new Hammer film coming out and two or three of us just decided to skip class that day and go see it. We couldn't wait for the evening show, because we also had evening classes. We decided the better class to skip was the afternoon one, so we did. In those days, there were two films and, prior to the second one coming up, we looked around the theater and half the class was there--and unfortunately, so was the professor. He stood up and said: "I shall expect all of you back in class later when you've watched the film. But don't forget, that I've already passed my exams. You've still got yours to go." He let us off with a rather stern warning. But that's how popular Hammer films were and how much we enjoyed them.

Café: Who came up with the idea for the marvelous rooftop sequences in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave?

On the rooftops in Dracula Has Risen
from the Grave
VC: I think it was in the script and the sets were absolutely extraordinary. Of course, the only way my character could get from her house to see her boyfriend was to go across the rooftops, so people wouldn't see her as they walked through the street. The sets didn't look very high. As you're on the ground looking up, you think: "Oh, that's not bad. " But then when you were up there, looking down, it seemed an awful lot higher--but I enjoyed doing those scenes.

Café: Were there any particular challenges for the actors?

VC: The only setting I was really nervous about was when I was being carried up to the castle on that mountain. It was in the studio. Christopher's (Lee) stunt double, Eddie Powell, carried me and my head was hanging over the precipice. I was very well aware of this and I was trying not to stiffen up in Eddie's arms to make it difficult. That one did make me nervous. Another thing that made me nervous was careening through the woods at the top of that carriage trying not to fall off. I gripped the bar on the coach tightly with my hands. None of it was perilous, of course. They didn't put us in any danger.

Café: You co-starred with Hammer's two biggest stars: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. What was it like working with them?

The scene where Christopher Lee
provided the "eye line."
VC: It was a joy. You make assumptions about people and I found how wrong I was. I expected Christopher to be a very aristocratic, rather aloof, dignified man. I was a bit afraid to approach him, but I found him to be the exact opposite. He was very approachable. He was not aloof. He is very dignified. He's got such an aristocratic air and look about him, but he was so kind and so thoughtful in every thing that we did together. He discussed things with me. He asked if I liked the thought of doing something a certain way. I must have thought he was very nice, because I asked him if he would sit for a portrait and he agreed to do so. In thirty-five minutes, I did a sketch of him. He has a lovely, dignified face. That shows you how relaxed I was around him. He gave me an eye line, too, during the filming of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and I'll never forget that. I was supposed to be looking up, having been thrown to the ground and kidnapped by the lady in the pub. I was to look up and see Dracula and (director) Freddie Francis held up his hand behind the camera and said: "This is your eye line." And then this beautiful voice said: "No, Freddie, I will be her eye line." And Christopher stood right there and he acted off camera as if he was on camera. He gave me all the impetus and input into my reaction. I've never forgotten that. I have always been so very grateful. That moment, I felt true fear. You can't act to a hand. That shows the kind, thoughtful man that Christopher Lee really is.

Café: What about Peter Cushing? I know you're a big fan of his.

Veronica with Peter Cushing.
VC: Everybody is. Every convention I go to, I'm asked about Peter. People wish they could have met him or they were lucky to have once met him. Peter was a sweet, lovely man to work with. I even introduced him to my parents. It's impossible not to love Peter. He was one of the kindest, most sensitive people I have ever met in my life. He got me through that awful rape scene that was thrown into Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. We worked on that together and he resolved the problems as best he possibly could. Anyway, that's another story.

Café: One of the best sequences in any Hammer film is in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, when the water pipe bursts in the garden and exposes a corpse. How did you prepare for this scene?

Drenched in water for perhaps
the second time.
VC:  I didn't really. I knew what was going to happen. The fire department was there. I had to run in completely dressed and dry and just go through it. And, of course, when the force of that water hits you, it takes your breath away and you just take it from there. But George Pravda (Dr. Brandt) had to be put on a board with ropes to help me pull him. I didn't have the strength to pull him out of that mud. I had gotten so cold that I had to go to Roger Moore's dressing room. His dressing room had the deepest bath in it. He was away filming so I was allowed to soak in the bath to get my my body temperature back up because I was so very cold. I thought my teeth were going to break, they were shattering so hard. When I had to do the scene where I was screaming at my poor neighbor, they had to water me down with a watering can. I said: "Well, I hope you've made it warm water." "No, that's not a good idea," they said. "It has to be cold, because otherwise you'd just get even colder." I thought they were lying...that is so not true. Anyway, the water was just as cold the second time. You just have to laugh at these things.

Café: You starred in films directed by Hammer's two best-known directors: Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis. How would you compare the two of them?

Veronica and Peter Cushing in a
publicity still for Fisher's film.
VC: I had each director at the right time. My first real role was in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Freddie Francis was endlessly kind and patient. He was a gentle director with no bossing and no shouting. He would give me my morning hug. He would talk about the scene that we were going to do and made me feel totally relaxed and comfortable. He did do a reshoot of a scene with me if he didn't like the result in the rushes the next day, like when I had to walk and see my boyfriend drinking that beer on the stem in the cafe. He didn't want me to go to the rushes because he said I was too critical of myself. So, I didn't go to the daily rushes. I was lucky then because I gained confidence. When I went into my next film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Terry Fisher was a sterner director with me. He expected me to know more than perhaps I actually did. He was the right guy at the right time. I think if I'd had Terry first, I would have been very, very nervous. He got on so well with Peter (Cushing). They just chatted about. I remember the first day's shooting, I was sitting down on some steps and Peter was alongside me. Terry was there, with his foot on one step, leaning and saying: "How do you want to kill her, Peter?" And Peter was saying: "I've given that a lot of thought, Terry." And then he proceeded to tell Terry how he wanted to kill me. I kept trying to interject with: "Wouldn't this be a good..." They'd say: "No, that wouldn't be a good idea." It was like I wasn't there. It was like listening to a bedtime story of how they were going to kill me. That's how it was decided best to do it. I even asked Terry if I could die with my eyes open and he said: "Certainly not, darling, that would never get past the censors." So, I had to die with my eyes closed.

Café: How would you describe the working atmosphere on a Hammer movie set?

VC: Happy, very happy. It was a very convivial, lighthearted atmosphere, though very serious when we were working. The crew was so obliging. It was just a happy family. There was no dissent. There were no problems. There was no grumbling.

Café: Do you think Horror of Frankenstein would have fared better if it had been marketed as the dark comedy it was?

A publicity still with Ralph Bates
and Kate O'Mara.
VC: I was so upset about that situation because I took Hammer seriously. I felt that very keenly. Jimmy (Sangster) knew that. It was a sort of "laughing at Hammer" reaction. I didn't want that to be that way. You always get people that sneer at horror films anyway. But this was sort of sitting up and begging for it. Jimmy was a lighthearted, serious man--an adorable man--but he just had to have this nudge-nudge, wink-wink humor in the film. I thought it was so degrading to Hammer and he knew I felt this way. He was a fine director, but he just got the message wrong as far as I was concerned. He and Ralph (Bates) got on like a house on fire. They were like two kids together when they got together, super senses of humor really. I'd sit there at lunch time sometimes and just have to walk away. Either the jokes were a bit bawdy or my stomach was hurting from laughing so much because they were so funny. As soon as Jimmy hit the set, he was a serious director. I just thought the film's innuendos mocked Hammer rather than celebrated it.

Café: Many of your American fans are unfamiliar with your 1972 TV series Spyder's Web. What can you tell us about it?

VC: I don't know really. Patricia Cutts, who played the lead, had some weight issues and the directors would get cross with her. It became an unhappy situation in so many ways. I was not particularly happy on that one. What I did like was rehearsing for two weeks and then we'd do the shoot on Saturday. That was fun. I worked with some wonderful actors and actresses in that series, so that was educational and I learned a lot. I think Patricia died not long after that. I don't know why. She did a play in Coventry once and because I lived in Coventry at the time, I went to see her. She came back to our home and we entertained her. She was a very sad lady. She'd had a huge tragedy happen in her life, which I won't discuss. It took her will to live away eventually. That's how it seemed to me.

Café: Is it true that you were almost cast in a James Bond film?

VC: Yes, but I was then under contract to Hammer for the final film I agreed to do. I was not unhappy about that. I walked into Saltzman and Broccoli (the Bond producers) to be interviewed and they said: "Oh, we've got our blonde girl." But that all fell through because I wasn't going to walk away from my happy family, not at all. I don't remember which Bond film it was. I was very torn at the time and I didn't want to think about it. It was whichever Bond film was being made when the Horror of Frankenstein was being made. I don't dwell on things I can't change.

Café: How did you become interested in painting?

This portrait was auctioned for the
Peter Cushing Memorial Window.
VC: I always have been, since I was a very little girl. My first school report was: "Veronica loves to draw." I've always wanted to paint. I went to art school when I was 16, then to college and got a bachelor's degree. I do portraits. I've got a portrait I've just completed of Peter and Vincent (Price) together and had it made into prints. I've done many portraits throughout the time I've been with Hammer. I did several of the ladies that have worked for Hammer that were commissioned by a gentleman from Switzerland. I donated a portrait of Peter Cushing to Whitsable, to his secretary so she could auction it. They wanted to put a window in the church to remember Peter by. There was one portrait, sold at Bray Studios, of Ralph Bates after he passed away. His widow, Virginia Wetherell, was there. I donated that portrait and it went for a very nice sum to raise money for pancreatic cancer research. I've found I can do good things with this gift I have. I just love to work at my easel when life permits me to.

Café: Do you still stay in touch with other Hammer performers and, if so, whom?

A photo from Veronica's Facebook page.
VC: I see Caroline Munro and Martine Beswick. I've met some of the other Hammer girls at a function a couple of years ago in London. All the Hammer girls were there: Stephanie Beacham, Valerie Leon...I'm trying to think of them all now. It was a wonderful time and it was for charity as well--Our Disappearing Planet. There is supposed to be another Hammer reunion this November 8th in London, but I haven't gotten the details on that yet. They've been in touch with me twice, asking if I was going to attend. They're going to try to get all the people that have ever worked for or with Hammer together at one huge function. Sadly, we've lost performers like Kate O'Mara. She passed away not long ago. Yvonne Monlaur is a dear friend of mine. She lives in Paris and I'm hoping she will be coming over for the Monster Bash with Caroline Munro and me. I used to know Ingrid Pitt very well. I miss her very badly. She was a lovely, vibrant woman. Simon Ward has passed away as well. Dear, oh dear, this is becoming a sad interview.

A resin model kit of Veronica will be
unveiled at Resintopia.
Café: Do you have any upcoming appearances that you'd like to share with our readers?

VC: The Hammer day at the London Film Convention on November 8th, which is supposed to be a very, very big to-do. I'm doing the Resintopia Plastic Model Kit and Statue Expo on September 12-14 in Fairfield, New Jersey. Then next month, I will be at Cinema Wasteland Movie & Memorabilia Expo on October 3-5 in Strongsville, Ohio (near Cleveland) and at Monster Bash on October 10-12 in Pittsburgh.

To learn more about Veronica Carlson, you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@VCarlsonOffic).

(Editor: The James Bond film in question was probably Diamonds Are Forever. It was released in 1971 and Horror of Frankenstein came out in 1970.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Five Best John Barry Film Scores

It's fortunate that John Barry had a modest career as a British pop star with his band, the John Barry Seven. Otherwise, he might never have become one of the most successful film composers in the history of cinema. Despite writing some of the screen's most memorable scores, he won only five Oscars: Best Song for Born Free and Best Original Score for Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves. Today, we rank our picks for the five best John Barry scores:

1. Body Heat. Barry's haunting, sax-infused music sets the perfect tone for Lawrence Kasdan's stylish 1981 film noir. In his book Neo-Noir, Ronald Schwartz calls Barry's score " belongs in the canon of great noir and neo-noir film music. Barry's score punctuated the visuals with lyrical sensuality." Interestingly, the initial soundtrack album was remixed without Barry's approval. His original soundtrack recording was unavailable until Film Score Monthly released a deluxe two-disc set in 2012.

 2. Out of Africa. John Barry won the fourth of his five Oscars with this sweeping, romantic score. The American Film Institute ranked it No. 15 on its 2005 list of the top 25 film scores (AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores). Incredibly, it's the only Barry soundtrack on the list, although all five scores on this list were included as AFI nominees. As a stand-alone musical composition, Out of Africa may be my favorite among Barry's works.

3. Somewhere in Time. I've been a fan of this time travel romance since I saw it theatrically in 1980. Although it was neither a critical nor boxoffice hit in the U.S., Somewhere in Time has become a cult favorite (and a huge success in Japan). Much of the film's impact can be attributed to Barry's score which incorporates the 18th variation of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," performed as a piano solo by Chet Swiatkowski with a string accompaniment. Barry's enchanting title theme is equally beautiful. In fact, the only reasonable explanation for this score being ignored at the Oscars is that perhaps it wasn't deemed "original" based on Barry's use of the Rachmaninoff piece.

4.  Born Free. The title song won a 1966 Oscar (beating Alfie and Georgy Girl) and pianist Roger Williams' recording went to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That makes it John Barry's most successful song. However, the lovely title tune (with lyrics by Don Black) was part of a superb soundtrack that's alternately playful and majestic. Like Body Heat, the music plays an integral role in this fact-based tale of a couple in Africa who raised a lion cub and later set her free.

5. Goldfinger. Shirley Bassey's bold, brassy live rendition of "Goldfinger" was the highlight of the 2013 Oscars, which is a tribute to both the song and Ms. Bassey. It was the biggest hit from a Sean Connery 007 film, peaking at No. 8 in Billboard. John Barry composed the scores for twelve James Bond movies from Dr. No (1962) to The Living Daylights (1987). In 1997, the Sunday Times published an article alleging that John Barry also composed the famous "James Bond Theme," which is credited to Monty Norman in the closing credits of each film. Norman subsequently won a libel suit against the Times.

Honorable Mentions:  Dances With Wolves; The Lion in Winter; and Midnight Cowboy.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tyrone Power Goes Gambling on the Mississippi

Mark:  Since you spare me only a moment, I'll tell you very bluntly: You and I are in love with each other and we always will be. We've known it since that first moment in St. Louis. 

Angelique:  I could have you run out of town for speaking to me like this!

Mark:  No need to run me out. I'll be leaving tomorrow. You're not ready yet for marriage. And I won't be ready until you come to me. 

Angelique:  Why, you completely egotistical...

Mark:  Yes, it does sounds that way when put into words. But it's the only way a woman can be truly happy with a man. 

Tyrone Power plays a good hand.
For those who have never seen The Mississippi Gambler (1953), I don't think I'm giving away the end by saying that Angelique does indeed go to Mark en route to true happiness. Of course, along the way, three people die from a duel, an accidental death, and a suicide. Two women fall in love with the same man and the brother of one of them falls in love with the other. Plus, two men build and lose a fortune.

Yes, a whole lot happens in The Mississippi Gambler, which boasts a plot structured like a crooked river filled with unexpected bends. That's part of the film's charm, along with an appealing cast consisting of Tyrone Power (Mark), Piper Laurie (Angelique), John McIntire, Julie Adams, and Paul Cavanagh.

The film opens with Mark Fallon, the son of a New York fencing master, setting out to become a professional gambler on the Mississippi riverboats. He quickly befriends a con man (McIntire, in one of his best roles) and falls in love at first sight with Angelique, a stunning aristocratic woman. In fact, he rescues the latter from a runaway carriage, but negates his chivalry when he quips: "Sometimes, beautiful women and horses are upset by whistles."

Piper Laurie looking serious.
The film's central conflict arises when Mark beats Angelique's wimpy brother, Laurent, in a poker game. Mark gives Laurent a chance to walk away with minimal losses, but the hot-headed young man insists on continuing and loses his sister's diamond necklace, a family heirloom. None of this is Mark's fault, of course, but the stubborn Angelique refuses to acknowledge her brother's many weaknesses. That keeps her and Mark apart for almost the entire movie.

In spite of occasionally hokey dialogue, The Mississippi Gambler is a lively, entertaining yarn, Though shot on Universal-International's backlot, it looks fabulous (especially the interiors). Along with the colorful costumes, one would think that it was a costly film. However, given the studio's then-thrifty reputation, I suspect most of the budget went to pay Tyrone Power's salary. Actually, he made The Mississippi Gambler while on hiatus from his 20th Century-Fox contract and wisely took a percentage of the film's profits. It turned out to be one of 1953's biggest hits.

I recently watched The Mississippi Gambler at a film festival screening attended by star Piper Laurie. She said Power was also one of the film's producers, although not credited as such, adding:

I was in a competition for the part with Linda Christian, his wife. We both made screen tests. That was a frightening moment. I had never met with Power, although I had seen he and his wife walk into the commissary, dressed in white, looking like gods. I did my best (with the audition) and she did, too. They made us both wait for about a week and then I found out I had the job.

Piper's co-star and friend
Julie Adams.
It's hard to imagine any actress other than Piper Laurie as Angelique. Radiant, pouty, and charming, she makes it easy to believe that any man could fall instantly in love with her. That's no easy task when Julie Adams is also in the movie. Incidentally, the two actresses became friends during their days as contract players at Universal--and remain so today. They toured Korea together in the early 1950s, performing musical numbers for servicemen.

As for Linda Christian, she eventually got to play Angelique--in a Lux Radio Theater production with her husband. She and Tyrone Power would divorce three years later.

Monday, August 25, 2014

An Interview with Piper Laurie: The Three-Time Oscar Nominee Discusses Her Career in Film, Live Television, and the Stage

Piper's inscription reads: "To Rick from the
Classic Film & TV Cafe."
The highlight of last July's Western Film Fair was--for me--the opportunity to spend 45 minutes sitting next to actress Piper Laurie. While she signed photos for charity, she graciously and thoughtfully answered all my questions about her 64 years in show business. It's an impressive career that netted her Oscar nominations for The Hustler, Carrie, and Children of a Lesser God.

Café:  When you first started in movies, you signed a seven-year contract with Universal, which you later described as a "prison that shielded...creativity." If you could go back, knowing what you know now, would you sign it again?

Piper Laurie:  No, I wouldn't. But, you know, I learned something from all my mistakes and it has made me who I am. That's part of life. I got to work more than most of the contract players. If I had been a different sort of person that could really speak up and fight for myself, I might have gotten--might have gotten--better parts. I doubt it, because they just didn't have those kinds of scripts.

Café:  Early in your career, you were paired multiple times with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. What were they like on and off the screen?

In The Golden Blade.
PL:  Well, Tony and I were good friends early on before we were put under contract. I met him when I was about 15. He came to my acting class and joined it. He flirted with me and we had some movie dates. He was a lot of fun. I liked him and he liked me. And then something very weird happened after I was signed at his studio. There seemed to be something going on, even though we were put together in lots of movies. It was never quite the same comfortable camaraderie that we had originally. Rock Hudson, on the other hand, was just a delight. Just a big laugh for a big eater. He was always broke, so he'd come to my mother's kitchen and get fed. He was a lovely man and I think he became a really accomplished actor. He got by early on, but I think he became very good later on in light comedy.

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson.
Café:  There's a great photo in your book of the two of you at a costume ball.

PL:  We were at some charity benefit. I went as the Greek goddess Circe and carried a live baby pig with me. Rock Hudson was my date and he was dressed as one of my conquerors in dark make-up. He did look bizarre. 

Café:  You starred in several live TV dramas like the Playhouse 90 production of The Days of Wine and Roses with Cliff Robertson. How did live television compare to being on the stage?

PL:  It's similar, but live television is much more extreme. It's really walking on the high wire. I don't think people today understand that when you did the show, not only could you not do it again, but it was going out on the air at that moment to everyone in the country. And whatever mistakes you made, that was it. You would live with it for the rest of your career. It was really chancy. It was a daredevil act. I was terrified and forced myself to do it, because I thought I should and thought I could. And it was very rewarding.

Piper and Paul Newman in The Hustler.
Café:  You wrote in your autobiography that you were "too close" to appreciate The Hustler after you made it, but realized years later that it was a great movie. Have you felt that way about any other of your movies?

PL:  Yes, I recently saw Tim that I made in Australia.

Café:  It's a very good film.

PL:  Well, I liked it, too. I saw it and I was better than I thought I was. I either think I'm worse or I'm better. I'm a little out of my mind when I actually finish a project and my perspective is just not accurate. 

Café:  Both you and your co-star Mel Gibson give fine performances in TimDid you see his potential then as a big star and future director?

Mel Gibson and Piper in Tim.
PL:  Absolutely. I knew he would be a big star. I begged him not to come to America. I knew that once the movie was seen that people would want him to come. I said please stay here for another year or two and continue to work in the theater, which he had been doing. And he didn't pay any attention to me (laughs). It took several years before Tim was released. In the meantime, he made the Mad Max movies and became a big star. As a result of that, Tim was finally released. It's still rarely seen. 

Café:  In your autobiography, you credit Carrie with giving you a "third career." It's a compelling film that has aged wonderfully. How did you come to be cast in it?

Piper as Sissy Spacek's terrifying
mother in Carrie.
PL:  I was living in the country in Woodstock, New York, and they had been looking for someone to play the mother. I hadn't worked in fifteen years in a movie and some people I knew mentioned my name to Brian De Palma. An old agent sent me the script. I read the script and I thought it was just not very good. My husband (film critic Joe Morgenstern) said that Brian De Palma has a comedic approach to what he does. I thought, oh, I misread the whole's satiric. It's going to be a comedy. On that basis, I took the train into New York City and met De Palma, whom I liked enormously. I guess he liked me. By the time I got back to Woodstock, I heard he wanted me to do the movie. Weeks later, when I went out to rehearse, I had comedic things I had worked out. During rehearsals, De Palma said: "Piper, if you do that, you're going to get a laugh." That really floored me. So, I changed my interpretation slightly. At any rate, that's how I got the part.

Café:  What led to your directing of the 2006 short film Property?

Piper at the Western Film Fair in 2014.
PL:  I'd had a trauma in my life. I had been living in my home for many years in the Hollywood Hills. There was a freak accident when a city worker mowed down a fire hydrant up above my house in the hills. And all night long, the water gushed down the street and ran down into my backyard and undermined everything. The whole hill came crashing down on my house. I was in bed at the time. It was nine o'clock in the morning and I was watching Meet the Press. I felt something shoving at my back. I looked out the window and, in the corner of my eye, I saw something moving--it was the hill. The mud was at the window. So, I just moved as fast as I could and got out of the house and drove away. The city promised it would take complete responsibility. I stayed in an apartment for four years while they rebuilt everything. I had to put all the things I created in storage--all my films, my paintings, my sculptures...everything that I valued. So, I was living in this stark apartment  and I just needed something. I started to fill my life again with whatever I could creatively. I realized I was in love with the short story "Property" by James Lasdun and I'd love to see it as a movie. So, I set out to make that happen.

Café:  You seem to be a harsh critic of your own performances. Which ones are you the most proud of?

Piper in A Little Night Music.
PL:  I guess, after all these long years, The Hustler and Carrie. I liked what I did in Tim. I liked what I did in the Playhouse 90 live show The Days of Wine and Roses, which was rough and not as slick as the movie. My interpretation differed from Lee Remick's, who was lovely in the film version--but different. I like my stage work, though I've never had it recorded. I really enjoyed working on stage. I did The Glass Menagerie on Broadway with Maureen Stapleton; that felt like it was good work. I liked the one-person play I did about Zelda Fitzgerald on tour, which William Luce wrote. And I just recently did my first stage musical, A Little Night Music. I played Madame Armfeldt in a production in Santa Barbara that opened a brand new theater there. I had a wonderful time. I'm also proud of the singing and dancing--for me--in Ain't Misbehavin'.

Café:  Did your ex-husband, film critic Joe Morgenstern, ever review any of your movies?

PL:  During the major part of our marriage, I wasn't making movies. I was going to see a lot of them. The first time he decided he would review me was for The Grass Harp (1995). He stated in the review that he had been married to me once and may have been prejudiced. He was very kind to me and I think nice about the movie. 

Café:  And lastly, you've starred with many of the finest actors of the last 60 years. Who were some of your favorites and why?

PL:  George C. Scott, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, and one of my idols, Claude Rains. 

Piper Laurie will appear at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland, September 18-20, 2014. The convention's screening schedule includes the aforementioned Playhouse 90 adaptation of The Days of Wine and Roses.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thelma Ritter Shines in The Mating Season

Within days of meeting under unusual circumstances, Val McNulty (John Lund) and Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney) decide to get married. Val is a working-class junior executive who believes Maggie's family is affluent. Yet, while Maggie's mother has hobnobbed with royalty as an ambassador's wife, the family has little money of its own. Mother and daughter may look like socialites, but they lack the means to maintain that lifestyle.

Thelma Ritter as Ellen.
Still, when Val's down-to-earth mother Ellen (Thelma Ritter) arrives unexpectedly, her son becomes concerned that she'll look and feel out of place. A hard-working woman, Ellen has finally sold the diner that she kept alive after her husband's death. She doesn't even have time to explain her situation before Val gives her money to buy a new dress for the wedding. Concerned that her son is ashamed of her, Ellen skips the nuptials.

However, instead of returning home, she stays in Ohio and--through an unusual turn of events--winds up as the live-in cook in the home of the married Val and Maggie. By this point, Val can't begin to explain his mother's presence--and he doesn't even try. He and his mother conspire to keep her true identity a secret...even after Maggie's mother decides to move into the crowded apartment for an extended stay.

Gene Tierney as Maggie.
Despite a far-fetched premise, the oddly-titled The Mating Season (1952) generates a satisfying amount of situational humor. It's one of those comedies where you can easily guess the outcome, but don't mind because the road there is a pleasant drive. Still, considering that Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett had a hand in adapting the original stage play, it's hard not to imagine that The Mating Season could have been better. 

The film's cast is both its strength and weakness. It's pretty much a showcase for Thelma Ritter, who had earned her first Oscar nomination for the previous year's All About Eve. She is in top form in The Mating Season; she wisely chooses to play her role as drama and allows the comedy situations to generate the laughs. She makes Ellen a character that's easy to root for--a tough cookie with plenty of common sense who's willing to do anything for her son. Her performance earned Ritter her second consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She would eventually receive a total of six nominations in that category--and yet somehow never register a win. 

The rest of the cast is a mixed blessing. Gene Tierney exudes radiance and charm as Maggie. Thus, the audience doesn't blame her when her expectations lead her husband to live beyond his means (until his Mom comes to the rescue). As Maggie's mater, Miriam Hopkins is amusing in a one-note fashion. 

John Lund as Val.
That leaves John Lund as the film's chief liability. Lund comes across as a lightweight version of Van Johnson, but with none of Johnson's celluloid appeal. Yes, the screenwriters share the blame, too, but the bottom line is that it's difficult to fathom what attracted Maggie to Val (beyond a physical attracton). And worse, Val rarely seems to fully appreciate all that his mother has done for him.

As a final assessment, The Mating Season is an amusing showcase that reminds one just how good Thelma Ritter could be. That may not be a glowing critique, but it'll do for Ritter fans.