Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man

Ernest Hemingway wrote two dozen stories about his alter ego, Nick Adams, throughout his literary career. Playwright and novelist A.E. Hotchner, a Hemingway friend who later penned the biography Papa Hemingway, combined several of the Nick Adams stories into the 1962 film Adventures of a Young Man. Hemingway liked the idea and wrote the movie's opening and closing narration. It was his intent to record it, but he died in 1961.

The film opens in a small northern Michigan town in 1916 with Nick (Richard Beymer) feeling frustrated with a life already laid out for him by his parents. He loves his father (Arthur Kennedy), the town's physician, but can't cope with his domineering mother (Jessica Tandy). Nick sets out on "the road" to discover his place in the world and perhaps become a writer. On his odyssey, he encounters a punch-drunk former boxer (Paul Newman) and his caring friend, an alcoholic small-time promoter (Dan Dailey), and a newspaperman who admires Nick's spunk--just not enough to give the inexperienced young man a job.

Richard Beymer.
Nick ends up working in a restaurant in New York City, where he volunteers for the Italian Army (despite not being able to speak Italian). Once he joins his unit overseas, he is assigned to the medical corps where he befriends a fellow American (Eli Wallach) and an Italian officer (Ricardo Montalban). The horrors of war, a serious injury, and the death of two loved ones change Nick's outlook on life--leaving him more experienced, perhaps sadder, but also better prepared for the challenges that await him.

The idea behind Adventures of a Young Man is both interesting and worthy. The opening scenes, set during a colorful autumn and accented by Franz Waxman's score, have an almost lyrical quality. It's a shame that the rest of the film--which clocks in at almost 2 1/2 hours--can't sustain it. Instead, it tries to mask its obvious flaws: a bland protagonist, miscasting, and a lack of cohesion.

Having never read the Nick Adams stories, I can only comment on the character presented on screen. He's a self-centered, incredibly naïve, and uninteresting young man until much too late in the movie. Even in his final scenes, when he's supposed to have undergone a transformation, Nick's focus seems to be on his own needs. It would have been nice to see him show some interest in what became of his jilted girlfriend (Diane Baker) and loyal friend (Michael J. Pollard).

Paul Newman in makeup.
It doesn't help that Nick is played by Richard Beymer, best known for starring as Tony in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. Beymer's All-American looks may work to his advantage as Nick, but his limited acting range becomes more apparent as the movie progresses. His later scenes opposite seasoned pros Eli Wallach and Ricardo Montalban are almost painful to watch. (Surprisingly, though, Paul Newman gives the film's worst performance as "The Battler," a former boxer who mumbles incoherently and stares open-mouthed into space. It just goes to show that anyone can have a bad day--but when A-list actors do, it's captured on celluloid for posterity.)

Other than sequencing Hemingway's stories, screenwriter Hotchner makes no attempt to connect them. As a result, Adventures of a Young Man unfolds like a string of disjointed TV episodes featuring a single continuing character.

Still, I suspect that Hemingway fans will want to see Adventures of a Young Man. For those readers who admire the Nick Adams stories, here are some of the titles interwoven into the plot: The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife, Indian Camp, The End of Something, The Three-Day Blow, The Battler, and Now I Lay Me.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The African Queen Rides Into Adventure with Bogart and Hepburn

Guest blogger Chris Cummins from MovieFanFare pays tribute to a Bogey-Hepburn classic:

Released on December 23, 1951, The African Queen (based on the C.S. Forester novel of the same name) is a cinematic masterpiece that is highlighted by unforgettable lead performances from Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by John Huston, this classic blend of drama, action, and romance stars Humphrey Bogart (who won his only Oscar for this role) as a hard-drinking boat captain who takes aboard prim British missionary Katharine Hepburn in WWI-era Africa. Determined to travel down a treacherous river to sink a German gunboat, the unlikely couple is drawn together as they set their seemingly impossible plan in motion. 

The African Queen features romantic tension, a supporting cast that includes Robert Morley and Theodore Bikel, and a stunning third act. It regularly makes top ten lists of the best films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. We’ve included the film’s original theatrical trailer below. If you’ve somehow missed seeing this film event over the years, we encourage you taking a voyage aboard The African Queen. It’s a trip that is always worth taking.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Celebrate National Classic Movie Day with the Five Stars Blogathon!

For the third consecutive year, the Classic Film & TV Cafe is celebrating National Classic Movie Day on May 16th by hosting a blogathon. This year, we're shining the spotlight on those actors and actresses that made the Golden Days of Hollywood glitter brightly.

The Five Stars Blogathon invites bloggers to list their five favorite movie stars and explain why they love them. It's that simple. In the schedule below, we have included links to over forty participant across the blogosphere. We encourage you to visit each one and learn about the stars they love.

If you don't have a blog, you can still participate by listing your five favorite stars on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or another social media platform.

And since May 16th is all about our love of classic movies, it's a great day to introduce a friend to the wonderful films from the silents to the 1970s!

Here is the Five Stars Blogathon schedule:

Another Old Movie Blog
Anybody Got a Match?
B Noir Detour
Caftan Woman
Carole & Co.
Cary Grant Won't Eat You
Champagne for Lunch
CineMaven's Essays from the Couch
Classic Film & TV Café
Classic Movie Digest
Classic Movie Treasures
Critica Retro
The Flapper Dame
Hometowns to Hollywood
Journeys in Classic Film
Little Bits of Classics
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
Musings of a Classic Film Addict
Old Hollywood Films
Once Upon a Screen
A Person in the Dark
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies
Pure Entertainment Preservation Society
Realweegiemidget Reviews
Shadows and Satin
A Shroud of Thoughts
Silver Scenes
Silver Screenings
Silver Screen Modes
Story Enthusiast
Taking Up Room
Thoughts All Sorts
Twenty Four Frames
Unknown Hollywood
Whimsically Classic

Five Stars Blogathon: Cary Grant Tops My List of Favorite Stars

This is my contribution to the Five Stars Blogathon in support of National Classic Movie Day. I encourage you to check out all the posts to this wonderful blogathon. When my fellow contributor Rick asked me to write about my five favorite film stars, I came up with four of them quickly. It was a challenge, though, to determine who to place in that last slot!

1. Cary Grant - Debonair and dashingly handsome, I most admire Cary Grant for his versatility. He can play zany roles in comedies like Holiday, charming heroes in escapist fare such as To Catch a Thief, or serious roles like the bitter government agent in Notorious. My favorite Cary Grant movies: Bringing Up Baby, North By Northwest, and The Bishop's Wife.

2.  Deborah Kerr - This gracious, understated actress lights up the silver screen with her compelling presence. She can play a lonely woman whose passion erupts on a sandy beach (From Here to Eternity) or an elegant governess in which a dance is the only way to convey her feelings (The King and I). She can even convincingly play three women in the same film (the under-appreciated Life and Times of Colonel Blimp). My favorite Deborah Kerr films must include Black Narcissus and The Chalk Garden.

3.  David Niven - This classy performer has a unique gift: He makes any movie better when he's in it. Although he became a Hollywood star, it's surprising how many supporting roles he had throughout his career. He flew alongside Errol Flynn in The Dawn Patrol, eluded Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, and was one of the hotel residents in Separate Tables. He was also an entertaining writer, as evidenced by his delightful books Bring On the Empty Horses and The Moon's a Balloon. Some of my favorite films with this multifaceted actor: A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), The Birds and the Bees, and The Guns of Navarone.

4.  Danny Kaye - I always thought this gifted actor/dancer/singer should have been a bigger star. He was an absolute master of comic timing, as evidenced by the hilarious "Chalice in the Palace" and "Get it? Got it. Good!" routines in The Court Jester. He was also incredibly graceful on the dance floor, as he wonderfully displayed with Vera-Ellen in the lovely White Christmas number "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing." These two also happen to be my favorite Danny Kaye movies.

5.  Katharine Hepburn - I am sure this strong-willed, intelligent actress will show up on many lists in this blogathon--and rightfully so. Like Cary Grant, she was equally at home in comedy and drama. She also managed to remain a star for an incredible five decades (six if you count a trio of made-for-TV movies and a small role in Love Affair). My favorite Katharine Hepburn films include Holiday, Desk Set, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Honorable Mentions:  Charles Laughton, Alec Guinness, Alastair Sim, Vincent Price, and Gene Tierney.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

When Sherlock Holmes Was Young

Nicholas Rowe as a teenage Sherlock.
Holmes purists may quibble that Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) is an insult to the classic mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After all, Holmes and Watson certainly didn’t meet as schoolboys, as this movie implies. But let those hardcore fans quibble all they want. Young Sherlock Homes is a fanciful “What if?” movie which--though it doesn't always succeed--might have pleased Doyle.

The gripping opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the lively mystery. A Victorian gentleman is shot with a blow dart just before entering a restaurant. When he starts to eat his favorite roasted poultry, his dinner suddenly comes to life and attacks him. As he fends off the snapping bird, we see what the other restaurant patrons see: a raving lunatic screaming and flinging his arms at the air. When the same gentleman's coat tries to strangle him later that evening, he jumps out a two-story window to his death. Thus, the mystery is afoot.

Watson finds a key clue.
Behind this cloak of crime is the story of teenagers Holmes and Watson, who meet when the bookish Watson transfers to a London boarding school. When Watson first encounters him, Holmes is frustrated that he has not yet mastered the violin--after all, he’s been playing it for three days. Considered egotistical by his peers and teachers, Holmes is bored until he, his girlfriend Elizabeth, and Watson become involved in murder.

Despite its intriguing opening, the mystery falters halfway through the film. The lack of viable suspects makes the villain obvious. And Holmes doesn't even have to use his famous deductive reasoning to solve the puzzle. One of the would-be victims tells him all the details. There are also a few too many special effects and a Steven Spielberg-inspired flying sequence (he was an executive producer).

The fact that the movie still entertains is a tribute to director Barry Levinson and his fine young cast. Levinson (“The Natural”) has lovingly created an atmospheric, snowy Victorian London. Filled with fleeting shadows and eccentric characters, the film unfolds like an amber-tinted postcard from the past. It’s rare when a film can be enjoyed for its sheer visual elegance.

As Holmes, Nicholas Rowe delivers a crisp, slightly aloof performance that is perfectly balanced by Alan Cox’s charming, awkward Watson. There is a strong rapport between the two that keeps the movie moving even when the plot is not.

Screenwriter Chris Columbus has fun explaining the origins of such famous Holmesian objects as the deerstalker cap, the briar pipe, and the Inverness coat. It's intriguing to note several similarities to the Harry Potter books which J.K. Rowling would write 12 years later. The first films, of course, were directed by Chris Columbus.

Be sure to stick around for the post-credits sequence.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Seven Things to Know About Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder and "friends."
1. Billy Wilder only directed 26 feature-length films and three of those were released in 1957 (The Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon, and Witness for the Prosecution). In contrast, Alfred Hitchcock directed over 50 movies.

2. He was one of the first "script doctors." Wilder allegedly worked "uncredited" on the scripts for The Bishop's Wife, That Certain Age, Mutiny on the Bounty (1960), Casino Royale (1967), and others.

The Apartment won six Oscars.
3. Billy Wilder collaborated with I.A.L. Diamond on 12 screenplays and with Charles Brackett on 11 more. He and Diamond received Best Screenplay nominations for Some Like It Hot and The Fortune Cookie; they won an Oscar for The Apartment. Wilder and Brackett received Oscar nominations for Ninotchka, Hold Back the Dawn, and A Foreign Affair. They won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard.

4. Neither Diamond nor Brackett worked with Billy Wilder on Witness for the Prosecution. In adapting Agatha Christie's popular stage play, Wilder and co-writers Harry Kurnitz and Larry Marcus thought the story needed some humor. They added Nurse Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), who cares for the recovering Sir Wilfrid during the trial. Lanchester earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. Incidentally, Kurnitz described his collaboration with Billy Wilder as "working with Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde."

Liam Neeson as Schindler.
5. In his Steven Spielberg biography, author Joseph McBride notes that Billy Wilder was interested in directing Schindler's List. Wilder lost his mother, grandmother, and stepfather in the Holocaust. When he saw Steven Spielberg's finished film, he said: "The movie is absolutely perfection."

6. Wilder compiled an impressive collection of modern art, which featured the works of acclaimed artists such as Pablo Picasso. When Christie's auctioned off some of his collection in 1989, Wilder earned $32.6 million.

7. Billy Wilder is responsible for a number of famous quotes, but my favorite is this one about filmmaking: "I have ten commandants. The first nine are: Thou shalt not bore. The tenth is: Thou shalt have right of final cut."

Thursday, May 4, 2017

James Garner Makes a Fine Marlowe

Garner as Chandler's detective.
Having consumed the Philip Marlowe novels as a teenager, I'm typically hard on the film adaptations of Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective. The only one that truly captures Chandler's cynical protagonist and his unflattering portrait of L.A. is Murder, My Sweet. That 1944 version of the novel Farewell, My Lovely holds up well thanks to Dick Powell's sharp performance and Edward Dmytryk's moody direction. My choice for runner-up, Marlowe (1969), may be a surprise, certainly for fans that prefer the more conventional Big Sleep (1946).

At first blush, James Garner may not seem like the ideal Philip Marlowe. But in screenwriter Stirling Silliphant's update of Chandler's The Little Sister (1949), Garner channels his dry wit into an enjoyable, effective performance. It's just a shame that the producers selected one of the lesser Marlowe novels for their movie.

Marlowe's client is Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), a naive young woman from rural Kansas who is searching for her missing brother Orrin. Marlowe tracks the latter to a seedy seaside hotel, but learns his quarry has departed--and the desk clerk has been murdered with an ice pick. When Marlowe later follows up on another lead, he discovers a second body stabbed with an ice pick. Before the police appear on the scene, the detective searches the room and finds a film processing ticket under the dead man's toupee.

Garner and Gayle Hunnicut.
The photographs show television sitcom star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicut) in a compromising position with gangster Sonny Steelgrave. Marlowe suspects blackmail and soon finds himself immersed in a web of deceit, greed, and jealousy.

Raymond Chandler's intricate plotting is one of his trademarks. In fact, in the Marlowe novels, he often integrated the plots of some of his earlier short stories. Personally, I find Chandler's complex mysteries easier to follow in print than on film. In Marlowe, Silliphant remains faithful to Chandler novel, but has trouble tying up all the loose ends. The conclusion, in particular, is messy, though male fans can at least find solace in a tasteful Rita Moreno striptease.

Bruce Lee destroys Marlowe's office.
Still, there's much to like in Marlowe, from Garner's strong performance to the ease with which Silliphant has transplanted the character to the late 1960s. One of the film's highlights is Bruce Lee's supporting turn as one of Steelgrave's henchman. He first visits Marlowe's office to offer the private eye money to back off from Mavis. When Marlowe refuses, Lee's baddie displays his impressive martial arts skills by smashing up the detective's office. Later, the two have another entertaining (though too short) encounter on a rooftop.

It's a shame that Garner wasn't cast in additional Marlowe movies. I would have especially liked to have see him in an adaptation of The Lady in the Lake, my favorite Marlowe novel, which has only been filmed once (as Robert Montgomery's gimmicky first-person Lady in the Lake). Of course, Garner later channeled some of his Marlowe persona into a TV detective named Jim Rockford. That turned out pretty well for him.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Classic Movies About Horse Racing and Equitation

Mickey Rooney in National Velvet.
With the Kentucky Derby just around the corner, we thought it was a perfect time to reprint this entry on classic horse racing movies from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series (reprinted with the authors' permission). Since we're talking "classic" movies, don't expect to see a film released later than the 1980s in the list (sorry, Seabiscuit!).

Mickey Rooney is the undisputed champ of horse racing sagas with a track career spanning half a century. He played the son of a disgraced jockey in Down the Stretch (1936), Wallace Beery’s jockey protegé in Stablemates (1938), a young jockey involved with crooks (and teamed with Judy Garland for the first time) in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), Elizabeth Taylor’s young mentor in National Velvet (1944), the trainer of The Black Stallion (1979), and a horse owner in Lightning, the White Stallion (1986). 

Surprisingly, Rooney never made a race track comedy. However, horse racing hijinks seem to be a requirement for most comedians. The Marx Brothers produced the most memorable, 1937’s A Day at the Races, which featured Groucho at his best as horse doctor Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Abbott and Costello raced a steed named Tea Biscuit in It Ain’t Hay (1943). It was called Money for Jam in Great Britain, which one shouldn’t confuse with Money from Home (1953), another stateside horse race comedy with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. 

Donald O'Connor with Francis.
Hope and Crosby never raced horses in the Road movies, but Bob gambled on them in Sorrowful Jones (1949) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), while Bing backed one in Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950). Donald O’Connor and his talking mule sidekick Francis could have made a fortune in Francis Goes to the Races (1951), since the race horses told Francis that they always determined the winner before the race even began. 

A little boy’s ability to predict horse race results with amazing accuracy ended in tragedy in The Rocking Horse Winner, a 1949 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence short story. 

Phar Lap with Tom Burlinson.
Filmmakers have deemed few real-life horse racing champions worthy of film biographies. The exceptions include a pair of exceptional horses in The Story of Seabiscuit (1949), The Great Dan Patch (1949), and Phar Lap (1983), the latter being Australia’s most famous racing champ. 

Although most horse races are of the thoroughbred variety, a handful have explored other horse racing events: Elizabeth Taylor entered “The Pie” in the Grand National Steeplechase in National Velvet; father and daughter Charles Coburn and Peggy Cummins raced trotting horses in The Green Grass of Wyoming (1948); Tatum O’Neal and Melissa Gilbert set their sights on equestrian championships in, respectively, International Velvet (1978) and Sylvester (1985); and Gene Hackman and James Coburn were two of the riders in the grueling cross-country horse race in Bite the Bullet (1975). 

Non-horse racing films with memorable sequences include My Fair Lady (1964) and the carousel horse race in Mary Poppins (1964). Film critics have pondered for years whether the title of Million Dollar Legs (1939) refers to the film’s race horse or its star Betty Grable. 

Sporting Blood (1931)
Broadway Bill (aka Strictly Confidential) (1934) 
Little Miss Marker (aka The Girl in Pawn) (1934) 
Down the Stretch (1936) 
Three Men on a Horse (1936) 
Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936) 
A Day at the Races (1937) 
Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) 
Racing Lady (1937) 
Saratoga (1937) 
Sing You Sinners (1938) 
Stablemates (1938) 
Come on George (1939) 
Million Dollar Legs (1939) 
The Lady’s from Kentucky (1939) 
It Ain’t Hay (aka Money for Jam(1943) 
National Velvet (1944) 
Home in Indiana (1944) 
The Great Mike (1944) 
She Went to the Races (1945) 
My Brother Talks to Horses (1946) 
The Homestretch (1947) 
Black Gold (1947) 
The Green Grass of Wyoming (1948) 
The Story of Seabiscuit (aka Pride of Kentucky) (1949) 
The Great Dan Patch (1949) 
Sorrowful Jones (1949) 
Under My Skin (1949) 
The Rocking Horse Winner (1949) 
Boy from Indiana (1950) 
The Pride of Maryland (1950) 
Blue Grass of Kentucky (1950) 
Riding High (1950) 
Francis Goes to the Races (1951) 
Blue Blood (1951) 
The Galloping Major (1951) 
The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) 
The Rainbow Jacket (1951) 
Boots Malone (1952) 
Four Against Fate (aka Derby Day(1952) 
A Girl in Every Port (1952) 
Money from Home (1953) 
Fast Company (1953) 
Pride of the Blue Grass (1954) 
The Fighting Chance (1955) 
Dry Rot (1956) 
Glory (1956) 
The Killing (1956) 
Photo Finish (1957) 
Just My Luck (1957) 
The Sad Horse (1959) 
Mary Poppins (1964) 
My Fair Lady (1964) 
The Reivers (aka The Yellow Winton Flyer) (1969) 
Bite the Bullet (1975) 
International Velvet (1978) 
Casey’s Shadow (1978) 
Run for the Roses (aka Thoroughbred) (1978) 
My Old Man (1979 TVM) 
The Black Stallion (1979) 
Little Miss Marker (1980) 
On the Right Track (1981) 
Phar Lap (1983) 
Sylvester (1985) 
The Longshot (1986) 
Lightning, the White Stallion (1986) 
Hot to Trot (1988) 
Let It Ride (1989)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You

Subtitled The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s, Charles Taylor's new book contains sharply-written essays on fourteen "B" classics from what he calls "the third--and, to date, last--great period in American movies." I'll just say upfront that any book that praises Walter Hill's under-appreciated Depressive-era drama Hard Times is going to get a good review from me.

In his introduction to these films, Taylor points out that, unlike the blockbusters that dominate today's screens, these 1970s pictures captured the "small towns, gas stations, and two-lane highways" (e.g., Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop) and the "seamy views of American cities" (e.g., Prime Cut, Hickey & Boggs). There's a genuine grittiness in these pictures, almost as if one can feel the grain on the film stock.

Lee Marvin in Prime Cut.
Taylor's best essays focus on movies featuring two of the most iconic stars of their era: Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. In Prime Cut (1972), Marvin plays a Chicago mobster sent to the Midwest to settle a debt. The joke, notes Taylor, is that a "big-city mob enforcer is in much more danger in the Kansas City heartland than any Kansan would be in Chicago." The film's real villain is a slaughterhouse owner named "Mary Ann" (Gene Hackman), who sells women and makes sausage out of his enemies. Yet, these atrocities are performed against a backdrop of "county fairs...amber waves of grain, (and) white clapboard houses in the beautiful countryside." Prime Cut is not an easy film to watch, but Taylor makes a convincing case that it's a film true to its convictions and characters.

Bronson in Hard Times.
In Hard Times (1975), Charles Bronson plays a Depression-era drifter in New Orleans who earns money by participating in bareknuckle fights arranged by small-time hustler James Coburn. Taylor not only recognizes Hard Times as a quietly efficient "beautifully directed film," he also sings the praises of the underrated Charles Bronson. He notes: "Throughout his film career, Bronson was most at home in the realm of the stoic and the taciturn. But at least until the success of Death Wish trapped him in one vigilante role after another, he possessed an instinctive sense of how the camera magnifies gestures and changes of expression."

It's these insights that make Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You a quick, absorbing read. Some of the other films reviewed include: Foxy Brown and Coffy (a Pam Grier double-feature!), American Hot Wax, Ulzana's Raid, Winter Kills, and Eyes of Laura Mars.

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s is 199 pages and contains no photos. It was published by Bloomsbury USA, which provided a courtesy copy for this review.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2017)

Patrick & Ray: What's their connection?
Along with April showers comes a new edition of one of our most popular features! You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers, your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1.  Patrick McGoohan and Ray Bolger.

2.  The TV series The Virginian and Laredo.

3.  David Hedison and William Shatner.

4.  Rachel Ward and Gene Tierney.

5.  Florence Henderson and E.G. Marshall.

6.  Robert Reed and Roy Thinnes.

7.  Chuck Connors and George C. Scott (could be a toughie).

8.  Michael Landson and Alan Hale, Sr.

9.  Cary Grant and Michael Landon.

10. The Thomas Crown Affair and The Thief Who Came to Dinner.

11. The made -for-TV movies Something Evil and Duel.

12. James Garner and the TV series Mission: Impossible.

13. Chill Wills and Rocky Lane.

14.  Humphrey Bogart and Elliott Gould.

15. Gene Barry and Patrick Macnee.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder found his career at the crossroads in the 1960s. Successes such as The Apartment and Irma la Douce were offset by flops like Kiss Me, Stupid and the under-appreciated One, Two, Three. It's almost as if he couldn't quite grasp what appealed to the public. I'm not suggesting that Wilder ever intentionally tried to appeal to mass audiences, but his aesthetic seemed to align with movie audiences for most of his career.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau would become one of the great teams.
Made in 1966, The Fortune Cookie was Billy Wilder's last mainstream hit. It's an uneven dramedy that perfectly encapsulates Wilder's challenges during the decade. It's also notable for pairing Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the first time.

Lemmon doing his wheelchair dance.
Lemmon plays cameraman Henry Hinkle, who suffers a concussion when a Cleveland Browns football player accidentally plows into him during a game. Henry recovers with no side effects, but his brother-in-law--an ambulance-chasing lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie--wants to sue CBS, the Cleveland Browns, and Municipal Stadium for $1 million. Initially, nice guy Henry rejects the idea, but he falters when Willie (Matthau) convinces him it may be a way to win back his ex-wife Sandy.

The Fortune Cookie works best as a comedy, with Matthau's shyster pulling out all stops to keep the scam going. In one scene, Willie has an Oriental lunch delivered to the hospital so the "delivery man" can administer drugs to numb Henry's leg so he can pass tests given by the insurance company's doctors. When Henry asks if the delivery man can administer drugs, Willie confirms that the man is a doctor...a veterinarian who lost his license to practice.

Judi West as the self-centered Sandy. 
The film's other subplots deal with Boom Boom Jackson, the guilt-stricken football player who believes he's paralyzed Henry, and Henry's ambitious ex-wife Sandy (Judi West). In a perfect scene, Wilder tells us all we need to know about Sandy. When she calls Henry, we see her laying in a bed with disheveled hair, smoking a cigarette, in a squalid apartment with a man in the shower behind her. Her compassionate comment to Willie about Henry: "Poor bastard...I just hope he winds up with a little money."

Willie in his cluttered office.
Despite effective turns from Lemmon and West, The Fortune Cookie belongs to Walter Matthau. After years as a supporting player in dramas and comedies, he had perfected his rascally on-screen persona. He won a best-supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Whiplash Willie and would graduate to lead roles beginning with his next film A Guide for the Married Man (967). It helps, of course, to have Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond write your dialogue. And, of course, Willie is a great character, because he's not only devious, he really is a smart attorney.

The Fortune Cookie earned three other Oscar nominations, including one for original screenplay for Wilder and Diamond. It hasn't aged as well as other Wilder films and it's too leisurely at 125 minutes. Still, Matthau, Lemmon, and West (this was sadly her only major role) are three fine reasons to watch it. It was Wilder's last film for four years. He would return to the screen in 1970 with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a different spin on the famous sleuth.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Visual Splendor of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

When originally released in 1959, Sleeping Beauty was a major critical and financial disappointment for Walt Disney. The film cost a then-hefty $6 million and failed to break even on its original release in the U.S. Critics were unkind, too, calling it ponderous and lacking in memorable characters.

Having just watched the digitally remastered 55th anniversary edition of Sleeping Beauty, I think the critics were perhaps a little harsh. While it doesn't rank with Disney's finest, it's still superior to most animated films. The only memorable characters are the three fairies--Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather--who become Princess Aurora's de facto parents. Dressed in bright red, green, and blue outfits, they dominate the story. Aurora, Prince Phillip, and even the evil Maleficent could have been better developed with more time on the screen.

The plot is based on--but also simplifies--French author Charles Perrault's version of the fairy tale. Fairies Flora and Fauna bestow the gifts of beauty and music on the baby princess at a joyous celebration. But before Merryweather can give her gift, Maleficent appears and curses the child. She states that before the sun sets on Princess Aurora's 16th birthday, she will prick her thumb on a spinning wheel and die. Following Maleficent's departure, the King asks if the fairies can reverse the curse. Their magic is not strong enough to do that, but Merryweather changes Aurora's death to a deep sleep from which she can be awakened only by a kiss from her true love.

The strength of Sleeping Beauty lies not with its narrative, but with its visuals. It was Disney's second widescreen animated feature film (after Lady and the Tramp) and the larger frame is filled with detail. Artist Eyvind Earle is generally given credit for the film's overall look. He won a 1953 Oscar for the Disney widescreen animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. However, Sleeping Beauty was undoubtedly the product of many gifted animators given the resources to create a visual masterpiece.

I don't think the images below capture the vivid color and rich facets of the film. So, I encourage you to view a copy of the new Sleeping Beauty "Diamond Edition" DVD. Thus, I'll end this review here and let the pictures do the talking.

The colorful Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.
Aurora walking in the woods. Note how the leaves are used to add depth.

Maleficent--could she have influenced Cruella in 101 Dalmatians?
With the reflection in the water, this looks like a painting.
Aurora cries in her room, thinking she has lost her love. I love the details--
such as how the fire lights part of the tapestry on the wall.
The fairies try to find Aurora before she pricks her thumb. Note the almost
Expressionistic angles, especially the archway.
Maleficent's castle--reminding me a little of the one from The Wizard of Oz
The dragon sequence is breath-taking--always the film's highlight for me.

This shot reminds me of one used many years later for Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

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

The new book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror, which arrives in stores today, chronicles the making of McQueen's 1971 cult classic about the famous international endurance race. It was written by Don Nunley, who worked as the film's property master, and Marshall Terrill, who has written biographies about McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Filled with over 400 fabulous photos, this book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about the making of motion pictures. Co-author Don Nunley--who purchased, acquired, manufactured, and placed props in over 30 motion pictures and television series--took time out of his busy schedule to stop by the Café for an interview. 

Café:  What inspired you to follow in your father's footsteps as a property master? 
Don Nunley on the Le Mans set.
Don Nunley:  My father did not encourage me to follow him into the film business. He knew how hard it was on your personal life. Long hours, and travel away from home and family. And the need to deal with personalities and huge egos on a regular basis. I started in 1960. There was an opening at Universal Studios in the Labor Department. It was to be a summer job until school started again in the fall. I was already enrolled at UCLA. It turned out I liked working at the studio. Later I moved into the prop department and that's where I stayed for my entire career. Call it serendipity. 

Café:  How did you first meet Steve McQueen?
Steve McQueen in 1971.

DN:  I met Steve McQueen on the set of Wanted: Dead or Alive. We weren't formally introduced. It was more of an acknowledgment of each other while I was working as part of the set-dressing crew for the series.

Café:  When production designer Phil Abramson fell ill, you replaced him on Le Mans. What additional duties did that involve? Was any there discussion of you receiving a credit for your production design work?

DN:  When Phil left the picture, we were well into production. Most of the locations had already been chosen since most of the film was shot on the Le Mans circuit itself. There were still a few sets to dress and, of course, the big one was the paddock that had to be re-created after Steve's refusal to be filmed walking through it on the actual day of the race. I never asked, nor did I expect, to take Phil's credit from him. I know the studio appreciated what I did and that was enough.

Café:  What led to the two-week production shutdown on Le Mans and the departure of director John Sturges?

Director John Sturges.
DN:  Nobody could come up with a script that everybody liked. We had been shooting for several weeks without a leading lady or one word of recorded dialogue. Steve did not give John Sturges the respect he deserved. The studio was watching its money evaporate. John Sturges told (executive producer) Bob Relyea he was going home, and Relyea thought John was going back to the hotel. But John got on a plane the next day, flew to LA, and never looked back. That's when the studio took over. Within two weeks they brought in a new director, Lee Katzen, and took away all control from Steve's company, Solar Productions.

Café:  Next to Steve McQueen's erratic behavior, what was your biggest challenge with making Le Mans?

DN:  I would say matching the cars for the particular hour of the race we were shooting each day. The cars changed dramatically from hour one to hour 24. We wouldn't get our marching orders until the night before as to what we would be shooting the next day. This picture had no shooting schedule as a normal picture would have had.

Café:  You mention in your book that one of the Heuer watches worn by Steve McQueen in Le Mans fetched $800,000 at an auction many years later. What was your role in those watches being featured in the film?

The Heuer Monaco.
DN:  One of my duties as a prop master was to supply the personal effects an actor used in the film. Steve wanted to look like one of the top drivers on the circuit. He liked the way (auto racing drivers) Joe Siffert, Derek Bell, and Brian Redman looked. I always needed to offer options. Ray Summers, the costumer on the film, and I put together a variety of choices for Steve to pick to wear on his uniform and on his person. One of the patches Steve choose to wear on his driving suit was the patch for the Heuer watch. He then selected, from the several brands of watches I provided, the Omega Moon watch. I tactfully pointed out to Steve that he wouldn't wear an Omega watch and a Heuer watch patch.  I had several choices of the Heuer chronograph for him to choose from. I thought he would pick one that was more subtle and mainline, but to my astonishment he chose the now famous square, blue-faced Monaco. Now, it's perhaps better known as the Steve McQueen watch.

Café:  Looking back over his career, what is your final assessment of Steve McQueen--both as an actor on the silver screen as well as a person you worked with on the set?

Steve McQueen and Don Nunley (center).
DN:  I was never one to hang around with actors. Steve had a lot of buddies, people who rode motorcycles and raced cars with him. When we started Le Mans, Steve was the number one box office star in the world. He was not the most difficult actor I worked with, but he certainly wasn't the easiest. He was careless with his props and required one of my staff to shadow him to make sure we got back what we gave him each day. He did not demand special treatment, at least not from my department. For me, Steve was always interesting and made the kinds of movies I wanted to see. 

Café:  You were involved in a host of other famous films, including Little Big Man, The Scalphunters, and The List of Adrian Messenger (one of our faves). What was your favorite movie that you worked on and why?

Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man.
DN:  I would have to say Little Big Man. Working with Dustin Hoffman very early in his career, and Arthur Penn, one of the top directors in Hollywood, was both a great challenge and a delight. With Arthur's support, I was able to spend the money, and do things right. I am very proud of my work on the film. In 2014, Little Big Man was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. 

Café:  Finally, your filmography includes one acting credit as "Doctor" in the 1983 Kirk Douglas movie Eddie Macon's Run. There's got to be a story there, right? 

DN:  In Eddie Macon's Run, I became an actor by default. It turned out that the actor chosen to play a doctor could not remember his lines. Out of frustration, the director, Jeff Kanew, turned around, looked at me and asked: "Can you remember the lines?" By then, I think everyone on the set--except for that actor--knew the lines. I put on the doctor's coat, grabbed a prop stethoscope and somehow did a page of dialogue in one take. I still receive about two dollars a year in residuals. So much for my acting career. 

All photos are from the book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror (except for the one from Little Big Man). Don Nunley's book was published by Dalton Watson Fine Books.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

For Love or Money: When Kirk and Mitzi Played Rock and Doris

Mitzi Gaynor and Kirk Douglas.
Made in 1963, For Love or Money is one of those mildly suggestive 1960s romps made famous by the classic comedy team of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. It even features two veterans of the Rock-Doris films: Thelma Ritter and Gig Young. Indeed, the only major difference is that For Love or Money stars Kirk Douglas and Mitzi Gaynor.

Kirk plays Deke Gentry, an attorney hired by wealthy Chloe Brasher (Thelma Ritter) to smooth over the financial difficulties that have arisen between her and her three grown daughters. Deke can also pocket an extra $100,000 if he can match up each daughter with Mom's selected suitor. Considering that Deke spends more than he earns, the extra cash sounds mighty good.

Julie Newmar as Bonnie.
The daughters are an eclectic trio consisting of: Bonnie, a fitness guru (Julie Newmar); Jan, a hippie art enthusiast (Leslie Parrish); and Kate, a motivational researcher (Mitzi Gaynor). Though it requires some elaborate planning, Deke pairs off Bonnie with an IRS agent (Dick Sargent) and Jan with a childhood friend (William Windom) who rehabilitates convicts through art. However, his plans to match up Kate with his wealthy best friend Sonny (Gig Young) keep going awry. In fact, Kate begins to suspect that Sonny is a figment of Deke's imagination.

For Love or Money is an amusing comedy that lacks the sharp wit behind genre classics such as Pillow Talk (1959) or Lover Come Back (1961). Still, it's a better movie than some of the later individual efforts by Rock (e.g., A Very Special Favor) and Doris (e.g., Do Not Disturb). It could have used more of Thema Ritter and, at 108 minutes, it's easily ten minutes too long and lumbers to the expected finish.

Mitzi in a stunning orange Jean
Louis gown with a white coat.
The film's greatest strength is its two stars. Amazingly, Mitzi Gaynor only made seventeen feature films, preferring to concentrate on television specials and her nightclub act (I saw her perform live in a 1990 touring production of Anything Goes). She comes across as a natural comedienne in For Love or Money and generates plenty of sex appeal in some stunning Jean Louis outfits. This would turn out to be her final film appearance.

As for Kirk Douglas, it's easy to forget his versatility as an actor. During his career, he starred in action films (The Vikings), Westerns (Man Without a Star), hard-hitting dramas (The Detective Story), political thrillers (Seven Days in May), and mysteries (The List of Adrian Messenger). So, it should come as no surprise that he seems completely at home in a romantic comedy. Indeed, Douglas often exhibited a playful side even in his serious roles. So, perhaps, it's surprising that he didn't make more straight comedies during his lengthy career.

For Love or Money is one of eight movies featured on the modestly-priced DVD set Kirk Douglas: The Centennial Collection. Some of the others include Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, Man Without a Star, and The List of Adrian Messenger.