Thursday, November 26, 2015

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Classic Film and TV Fan (2015 Edition)

For the past six years, the Cafe's staff has provided a list of recommended gifts for your favorite classic film and/or TV fan. It's one of our most popular features. This year's choices run the gamut from classic musicals to Bogey as Marlowe to a sci fi TV series with marionettes.

Best of Warner Bros. 20 Films Collection: Musicals. I usually steer clear of the mega boxed sets because DVD quality is often sacrificed for quantity. However, this set was released by a major studio and each disc contains only one movie. Warners has done a great job in compiling classic musicals from its early days (The Jazz Singer) through the Busby Berkeley years (42nd Street) and the colorful 1950s (Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides) and 1960s (The Music Man). Even the choices from the 1980s are engaging, tune-filled romps like Victor/Victoria and Little Shop of Horrors. While the list price is $99, you can find this mammoth set at discounts of 60%--that $2 a movie and that ain't bad.

The puppet "star" was inspired
by James Garner.
Stingray: The Complete Series - 50th Anniversary Collection. The young and the young-at-heart will enjoy Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's fanciful 1964-65 British sci fi series about a futuristic submarine called Stingray. The characters are all "played" by marionettes, with the action taking place on some of the most incredible miniature sets you will ever see. Plus, for adults, there's even a love triangle between the sub commander (Troy Tempest), his boss's daughter (Atlanta Shore), and a mute young woman from an undersea civilization (Marina). The five-DVD boxed set includes all 39 half-hour episodes, plus an interview with Gerry Anderson, a making-of featurette, and audio commentaries on several episodes.

TCM Greatest Classic Films: Murder Mysteries. The TCM Greatest Classic Films and Greatest Classic Legends are value-priced DVD sets that typically contain four movies featuring a common theme or star. The movies in this particular set have a pretty weak connection--they're all murder mysteries! However, this collection contains three legitimate classics and one underrated feature by a great director. The iconic films are: The Maltese FalconThe Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Big Sleep. The fourth feature, Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder may not be in the same class, but every time I watch it, I always seem to end up pleasantly surprised.

Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries: Harriet Vane Collection. The title of this three-DVD set is a little misleading, as it's actually comprised of a trio of Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Made in 1987, this series starred Edward Petherbridge as Ms. Sayers' British gentleman detective and Harriet Walter as his love interest Harriet Vane. Being a big fan of Ian Carmichael's earlier Lord Peter Wimsey TV series, I approached this one with trepidation. However, Petherbridge is an excellent Lord Peter and he and Harriet Walter generate plenty of romantic sparks when they're not solving murders (or proving her innocence).

Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters Collection. This four-movie set include one bona fide classic--Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein--and three funny follow-ups in which Bud & Lou confront the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and Mr. Hyde. Even the weakest film in the set, A&C Meet the Mummy, features a hilarious routine in which Bud and Lou try to slip one another a dangerous medallion...and Lou winds up eating it in his hamburger.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rocky: The Underdog That Won an Oscar

Sylvester Stallone in the original Rocky.
The Rocky saga continues on November 25th with the release of Creed. This latest installment in Sylvester Stallone's long-running series about a blue-collar boxer is a reboot. This time, Rocky Balboa takes a backseat in a story that focuses on Apollo Creed's son Adonis.

Creed is the first film in the series since Rocky Balboa in 2006. That year, I watched all six of the Rocky pics and was struck by the enduring popularity of the character. The credit belongs to Sylvester Stallone, whose talents as a filmmaker and actor have certainly been questioned. For every good movie he’s made (e.g., Cliffhanger), there are two or three humdrum ones (e.g., The Specialist, Judge Dredd, and Oscar). Heck, maybe the good-to-bad ratio is even higher. But Stallone’s poor career choices don’t negate the fact that the original Rocky is a remarkably entertaining and—yes—even inspirational tale of an underdog that beats all odds.

The deceptively simple plot has Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), a flamboyant heavyweight boxing champion whose popularity is waning, generating publicity by giving an unknown fighter a shot at the title. Stallone, who wrote a draft of the Rocky script in three days, derived his premise from the real-life boxing bout between heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and unknown challenger Chuck Wepner. Expected to suffer a quick defeat, Wepner went 15 rounds with Ali before losing in a technical knockout.

Adrian looked more glamorous in
later Rocky films.
In Stallone’s script, the champ Creed picks Rocky Balboa, a local Philadelphia fighter nicknamed The Italian Stallion. A has-been with a mediocre won-loss record, Rocky makes ends meet by collecting money for a loan shark. But from the moment that he accepts the challenge, Rocky’s life—and the lives of those around him—begins to change. He finds love with Adrian (Talia Shire, a wonderfully nuanced performance), the shy girl who works at the neighborhood pet store. He convinces Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the grizzled owner of a second-rate gym, that maybe they can both make something of their lives. He lifts the spirits of an entire neighborhood, as they watch him running through the streets daily as he trains for the big fight.

Rocky’s transition from “nobody” (how he defined himself) to “somebody” becomes complete at the climax of the now-famous training montage. It starts with an out-of-breath Rocky struggling to run up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But by the time it’s complete, a jubilant Rocky races up the steps to the strains of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” and, upon reaching the top, raises his arms in triumph. It’s certainly one of the most indelible images in 1970s cinema.

Still, despite the film’s strong performances (Stallone, Shire, Meredith, and Burt Young all received Oscar nominations), Rocky was considered a long shot for the Academy Award in 1976. Amazingly, despite stiff competition from the likes of Taxi Driver and Network, Rocky beat the odds and stunned everyone with its Oscar win—thus cementing its place in film history.

Meredith has one of the best scenes.
The rest of the story is a familiar one: Rocky propelled Stallone to superstar status and inspired five direct sequels. In Rocky II (1979), we get the Creed-Balboa rematch while Adrian gives birth to their son. Rocky III (1982), the best of the sequels, finds Rocky becoming complacent while a new ruthless challenger (Mr. T as Clubber Lang) fights his way into contention. Rocky IV (1985), the weakest series entry, pits Rocky against a Russian steroid-enhanced fighting machine. Rocky’s climatic speech, a ridiculous slice of glasnost, has to be heard to be believed. Still, the film was a bona fide hit whereas Rocky V (1990) tanked at the boxoffice.

Despite many flaws, the fifth installment at least tried for something different—it ends with a brawl in the street, not the ring. That brings us to Rocky Balboa, which was intended at the time to be the last film in the series. Perhaps, it tries too hard to tie up all the loose ends and provide a fitting bookend to the first Rocky. And yet, this quiet film manages to capture the grittiness and heart of the original. It’s a fitting tribute to a character that endured for over three decades and brought joy to millions of movie-goers.

It will be interesting to see whether Creed can reignite interest in Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. I just hope that Stallone doesn't regret not ending his film series on a high note--as he did with Rocky Balboa.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Seven Things to Know About Sydney Greenstreet

1. Sydney Greenstreet did not appear in a movie until he was 62. His film debut was pretty memorable, though—he played Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon.

2. Despite a number of popular supporting performances (e.g., Casablanca, Christmas in Connecticut, Devotion), etc., he received only one Oscar nomination. That was for The Maltese Falcon and he lost in the Best Supporting Actor category in 1941 to Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley). It was a strong field that year, with the other nominees being James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Walter Brennan (Sergeant York), and Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones).

3. Greenstreet’s screen career consisted of just 23 films made between 1941 and 1949. Warner Bros. paired him with his Maltese Falcon co-star Peter Lorre nine times.

With Peter Lorre in Three Strangers.
4. Peter Lorre said of Sydney Greenstreet: “He was not only one of the nicest men and gentlemen I’ve ever known, I think he was one of the truly great, great actors of our time.” According to the biography The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen Youngkin, Lorre referred to Greenstreet as “the old man,” while Greenstreet called Lorre “Puck.”

5. Tennessee Williams dedicated his 1946 one-act play The Last of the Solid Gold Watches to Sydney Greenstreet. Williams conceived the role of an “old-time traveling salesman” with Greenstreet in mind for the lead (Vincent Price played the part in 1947 at a small theatre in Los Angeles.)

6. Greenstreet provided the voice of Rex Stout’s portly sleuth Nero Wolfe in a half-hour 1950-51 NBC radio program (you can easily find episodes on the Internet). Fans of Stout’s books often criticize the series for taking too many liberties (e.g., Wolfe rarely mentions his orchids and, though reclusive, he's willing to leave his beloved brownstone on occasion).

Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
7. Sydney Greenstreet, who battled kidney disease and diabetes, died in 1954 at age 74. Despite a brief acting career, he created a pantheon of memorable characters. My favorite may still be Kasper Gutman, so I leave you with this quote from The Maltese Falcon (imagine it delivered by Mr. Greenstreet—as only he could): “I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.”

This post is part of the What a Character! blogathon co-hosted by Once Upon a Screen. It was delayed from last week and now technically starts on November 21st. Click here for the full schedule.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Eve Plumb Guest Stars on a Poignant "Family Affair" Christmas Episode

It's easy to forget that Family Affair was one of the most successful series on American television in the 1960s. During its five-year run that started in 1966, it finished in the Top 5 in the Nielsen ratings for three consecutive seasons. It was nominated for an Emmy twice as Outstanding Comedy Series, with stars Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot also receiving Emmy nominations. Although best described as a family-oriented sitcom, Family Affair occasionally tackled serious themes--and that brings us to the fondly-remembered season 3 episode "Christmas Came a Little Early."

Eve Plumb as Buffy's friend Eve.
The episode guest stars Eve Plumb as a sickly young girl who participates in Buffy and Jody's school class via a telephone speaker (Buffy describes Eve as "just a funny electric box to us..and a voice"). Buffy's teacher asks her to deliver a book to Eve, who lives just around the corner from Uncle Bill's apartment. The two young girls hit off immediately and quickly become good friends. When Buffy learns that Eve can barely leave her bed, she confides to her new friend that Uncle Bill can fix anything.

Bill calls a physician friend and sets up (and pays for) a battery of tests to determine the extent of Eve's illness. The result is that he and Eve's parents learn that the girl will likely die within months. With the parents' blessing, Bill comes up with an excuse to celebrate Christmas early with Eve's family.

Anissa Jones as Buffy.
In researching this episode, I was surprised to learn of its impact on young viewers who watched it when it aired for the first time. These viewers, now adults, describe it as a "water cooler" episode that they discussed as kids with their classmates the next day. Why? Because it was the first TV series they saw in which a child died. (Actually, Eve doesn't die in the episode, but it's clear that she will and the closing scene shows Uncle Bill comforting a crying Buffy.)

The episode focuses on Buffy and Uncle Bill, with Cissy, Jody, and Mr. French limited to just a handful of short scenes. That works well, since Brian Keith (Bill) and Anissa Jones (Buffy) seem to bring out the best in each other. When Buffy asks her uncle to help Eve get well, it's touching to see the look of worry on Brian Keith's face. He skilfully conveys the feeling experienced by many parents who fear that day when their children realize parents are just normal people.

Uncle Bill and Buffy.
It's interesting to note, though, that Uncle Bill tells two significant lies during the episode. First, he tells Eve's parents that a foundation is paying for their daughter's medical tests (the parents figure out it was Bill). Later, he tells Buffy, Jody, and Cissy that he may have to work in Venezuela over Christmas--hence the reason to celebrate it early. Yes, his intentions are good in both cases, but, hey, it caused to me to question Uncle Bill as a role model!

As the terminally-ill Eve, ten-year-old Eve Plumb gives a natural, restrained performance. She had already made guest star appearances in shows like The Big Valley, It Takes a Thief, and The Virginian. The year after her Family Affair appearance, she would snag the role that made her famous--Jan Brady in The Brady Bunch.

To learn more about Family Affair, check out our exclusive July 2015 interview with one of its stars: Kathy Garver (shown on right).

MeTV is airing "Christmas Came a Little Early" tonight (Monday, Nov. 16th). This post is part of  A Very Merry MeTV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to view the entire blogathon schedule.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Very Merry MeTV Blogathon of Holiday Favorites

The Classic TV Blog Association and MeTV are collaborating on a another classic TV blogathon--this time with a holiday theme!

Starting on Monday, November 16th and continuing through Christmas night, MeTV will air holiday episodes of classic television series every weeknight from 9:00 to 10:00 pm ET/PT. Concurrently, members of the Classic TV Blog Association will write about their favorite episodes. The Cafe's staff will be writing about Christmas-themed episodes of Family Affair and The Love Boat (and maybe more). Click here to check out the complete blogathon schedule.

If you want to participate, you need to be a member of the Classic TV Blog Association. That's not hard...and you'll meet some great TV bloggers, too. Just send an e-mail to:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Cary Grant Occupation Quiz

Each occupation below was performed by Cary Grant in one of his movies. Your mission is to identify the movie! No references are must use your own brain! As always, please don't answer more than three questions per day, so others can play, too.

1. A businessman in Japan.

2. Mill worker.

3. Plantation owner.

4. Angel.

5. Governmental agent (by occupation...not happenstance).

6. "Retired" jewel thief.

7. Brain surgeon.

8. Songwriter.

9. Artist.

10. Advertising executive (who's married).

11. Research chemist.

12. Airplane pilot.

13. Royal Navy captain.

14. Advertising executive (who's unmarried).

15. Paleontologist.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Cult Movie Theatre: I Bury the Living

This review is by guest blogger ClassicBecky from ClassicBecky's Brain Food.

Richard Boone in IBTL.
Have you ever been digging through a big barrel full of DVDs at Walmart and thought you found a gem...and the gem turns out to be cheap glass? A few years ago, I found a collection of DVDs with 85 science fiction movies. Frankly, I had forgotten my glasses that day, so I couldn’t read the tiny type required to list all 85 titles on the back of the DVD set. I figured, what could go wrong? Surely there would be a bunch of good ones in the group. That’s how I found the 1958 film I Bury The Living (IBTL), starring Richard Boone. It was one of three movies that even seemed like they might be good, the others being White Zombie, which I do like, and The Crawling Eye, which I thought sounded fun. The rest had names like Hercules vs. the Amazon Women and Clowns on Mars.  Pretty sad.

I really like Richard Boone, having suffered a huge crush on him when he played Paladin, the gentlemanly, very moral gunman on Have Gun--Will Travel on TV. That black and silver ensemble – what girl child could resist it? It was strange to see him in ordinary street clothes in IBTL, and he didn’t seem as tall without his black cowboy hat. However, he was still masculine, appealing, and a good actor. The movie also starred Theodore Bikel, a well-respected actor, and Robert Anderson,  a well-known character actor and Dad to Dennis the Menace.

Boone plays Robert Kraft, a businessman who has to take his turn amongst the big boys in town to run Immortal Hills, the town cemetery.  Bikel is Andy McKee, a Scottish cemetery groundsman who has 40 years in the business and is creepily attached to his graveyard. Anderson is Jess Jessup (his parents must have had no imagination), the town newspaperman who must be frantically looking for some kind of story…he is always at the cemetery.  Other members of the cast include recognizable character actors and a woman who plays Boone’s love interest. She is actress Peggy Maurer, whose only other claim to fame is the two-minute part of grown-up Wendy in 1960’s Peter Pan.

The real star of the show is The Map. I capitalize The Map because it is the centerpiece of the movie.  isual effects man Edward Vorkapich (who never did anything much else in the movie biz) designed The Map, and it is fairly creepy. It’s really big, and shows the topography of the cemetery. Big black lines, which are never explained as far as what they represent, are scrawled across the map, and look like weird Picasso-ish eyes. Throughout the movie, the map changes perspective, becomes brighter and the black lines bolder. It does so as Kraft goes quietly crazy. 

Bikel and Boone in front of The Map.
In his capacity as manager of the cemetery, it is Kraft’s job to keep track of the dead who are already buried there, and the pre-planners who are yet to come. Black pins are used to mark the already-present dead, and white pins to mark customers who have not yet arrived. The tension begins when Kraft, who apparently can’t tell black from white, keeps using black pins to mark the living. When he accidentally does this, the people die, like right away, pretty much dropping in their tracks from auto accidents, heart attacks and the like. Kraft begins to believe that he is causing the deaths. He becomes hyper-aware of McKee’s annoying singing and the sound of the chisel chipping away at the gravestones McKee is making. McKee, in the meantime, is of little help to Kraft’s mental state, and is just generally strange. The story, which has holes like swiss cheese, finally wraps up with a barely believable ending.

IBTL is directed by Albert Band, known for extremely B movies (my favorite title of his is Dracula’s Dog). The music, which is OK but not particularly good, was done by music editor Eve Newman, also known for her work on Roger Corman’s Poe movies. She also composed the score for TV’s Sky King, one of my favorites when I was a kid (“Out of the blue of the western sky comes … Sky King!”)  According to IMDb, most of the people involved in IBTL appear to be best known for this movie, which apparently wasn’t much of an asset to their curriculum vitae.

Turner Classic Movies did show IBTL on its underground movie schedule in 2007. Otherwise, I don’t know where you would find it except in the big barrel at Walmart. By the way, it didn’t really have 85 movies–just 30. Still, three good movies out of 30 is not a good bargain!

The poster is great, but whoever designed it must not have actually seen the movie.  A great “cry”?  Maybe from the audience who paid money to see it.  Otherwise, I didn’t hear a thing.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Second Sight: A Love Story

When Bewitched ended its successful run, Elizabeth Montgomery opted to concentrate on made-for-TV films instead of another television series. It was a smart decision that allowed her to flex her dramatic talents. She also became one of the form's most popular stars, appearing in highly-rated TV movies (The Legend of Lizzie Borden) as well as socially relevant ones (the then-groundbreaking A Case of Rape).

One of my personal favorites is Second Sight: A Love Story (1984). Montgomery plays Alax McKay, a fiercely independent woman who lost her sight at age 16 as a result of congenital cataracts. She briskly brushes aside any attempts to assist her, though she confides to her brother: "There isn't a moment in my life when I feel completely safe."

Two separate events turn Alax's life upside down. First, she meets a man that cuts through her self-defenses and pursues her romantically. As if coping with the challenge of a new relationship wasn't hard enough, she discovers a burglar in her apartment. Her confidence shaken, she makes a life-altering decision to get a seeing-eye dog.

Second Sight is a compelling movie, especially when it focuses on Alax's daily experiences with Emma, her yellow Labrador Retriever. She spends four weeks living at the International Guiding Eyes school, learning that humans need just as much as training as their assistance dogs--maybe more. Her trust in Emma grows, especially after the Labrador proves her mettle by keeping Alax from colliding with a bicycle rider.

Second Sight eventually evolves into a more conventional drama when the story shifts to Alax's romantic relationship. It's done well enough and the normally intense Barry Newman seems almost subdued as Alax's encouraging boyfriend. However, I kept wishing the film would get back to the story of Alax and Emma.

The real Emma.
That is the focus of Emma and I, Sheila Hocken's 1978 autobiography which served as the basis for Second Sight. In real life, Emma was a chocolate Lab and Hocken's story took place in England in the 1960s. The book's ending is also different from the film's closing scene (no spoilers here!). Emma and I was the first of four books that Hocken wrote about her beloved canine companion. A fifth book, After Emma, is about Hocken's six other dogs (most of which are Labs!).

Second Sight: A Love Story was a personal project for Elizabeth Montgomery, who wanted to show Alax's flaws. She gives a heartfelt performance and--like Alax--the film succeeds despite its flaws in the second half. During the shoot, Elizabeth Montgomery and Emma became so attached that the actress adopted the dog in real life.

Monday, November 2, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Danny Kaye - Legends (six episodes from The Danny Kaye Show)

With TV variety series near the peak of their popularity in 1963, CBS offered a new show to one of Hollywood's most versatile performers: Danny Kaye. The comedian-singer-dancer had already hosted several successful television specials, so he was an obvious choice. The Danny Kaye Show ran for four years and 120 episodes, earning an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series in 1966. MVD Entertainment Group recently released a two-disc DVD set called Danny Kaye - Legends, which contains the following six episodes of The Danny Kaye Show.

November 4, 1964 (S2 E7): Lucille Ball and John Gary,

December 9, 1964 (S2 E12): Tony Bennett, Imogene Coca, and the Clinger Sisters (there were four of them).

September 25, 1965 (S3, E3): Shirley Jones and the Righteous Brothers.

January 4, 1967 (S4, E16): Louis Armstrong and the Kessler Twins (singer-dancers Alice and Ellen).

January 11, 1967 (S4, E17): Liberace and Vikki Carr.

March 1, 1967 (S4, E24): George Burns and French singer Mirelle Mathieu.

The first two episodes are in B&W, but the other four show off the colorful costumes and sets. As indicated above, Kaye mixed well-known guest stars with promising young talent, such as Mirelle Mathieu. The French songstress was just 18 when she sang on the show--in her native language, no less. (Although she never gained fame in the U.S., she forged a long, successful career in France.)

George Burns and Danny Kaye.
Series regulars included Harvey Korman, Joyce Van Patten, orchestra leader Paul Weston, and youngster Victoria Meyerink (a semi-regular starting in 1965). Predictably, Korman shines in the numerous comedy skits, but he also proves to be a capable singer. Weston was already an acclaimed composer and arranger, who had worked with some of the biggest names in music (e.g., Johnny Mercer, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, etc.).

Satchmo on his trumpet.
The format of The Danny Kaye Show adhered to the standard variety series formula. Kaye usually opened with a musical number, sometimes being joined by a guest star. Comedy sketches followed, featuring Kaye and his guests or perhaps just the star by himself. There would be two or three songs performed by that week's musical headliner. Kaye typically closed the show by talking with the audience, sometimes inviting one of his fans to join him on stage. (Interestingly, though he was still a fluid dancer, Kaye didn't dance all that much.)

Lucy and Danny as the Scottish butler.
My favorite episodes among the ones included on Danny Kaye - Legends feature Lucille Ball and Shirley Jones. Lucy's episode ends with a brilliant sketch in which the two actors play six parts in a stage production called "Love Has Nine Lives." These marvelous comedians seem to be having as much as the audience as they enter and exit scenes portraying different characters (at various times in the play, each of them plays the same character).

Kaye and the lovely Ms. Jones.
Shirley Jones' episode is a delight from start to finish as she displays her first-rate singing and comedic talents. The Righteous Brothers are also on hand to sing their #1 hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." The show ends with an extravagant "man vs. woman" trial--performed totally in song--with Harvey Korman as the judge, the Righteous Brothers as the attorneys, and Danny and Shirley as their clients.

The DVDs are packaged nicely, but there are no extras. There is a series of separate menus that conveniently list all the song performances separately. Visual quality is fine for a 50-year-old television series.

Classic television fans, and especially Danny Kaye admirers, will enjoy this two-disk set. The only downside is that Danny Kaye - Legends will leave you wishing there was a larger set featuring other guests such as Gene Kelly, Mary Tyler Moore, Glynnis Johns, Nat King Cole, Dick Van Dyke, and Harry Belafonte.

Danny Kaye - Legends is available from the MVD Entertainment Group and retail outlets. Jonas PR provided a copy of this DVD set for this review.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Universal's Mummy Movies of the 1940s

Jack Pierce's make-up, shown in
shadows here, is impressive.
The Mummy's Hand (1940) - Perhaps surprisingly, this reboot of Universal's Mummy franchise may be the most influential of all movies about the cloth-wrapped creature. It reinvents the ancient Egyptian backstory from the 1932 original, with Prince Kharis stealing tana leaves to restore life to his beloved, deceased Princess Ananka. When his plans go awry, he is arrested, mummified, and buried alive. Centuries later, when American archaeologists discover Ananka's tomb, a high priest revives Kharis to protect her. Strictly a "B" film, The Mummy's Hand has a running time of just 67 minutes--though it takes 38 of those minutes for the Mummy to make his first appearance! Dick Foran stars as the bland hero and Wallace Ford provides unnecessary comic relief. Still, there are a couple of old pros around to lend some credibility to the proceedings: George Zucco as the high priest and Cecil Kellaway as a magician who finances the expedition (his name is misspelled as "Kelloway" in the credits). Former cowboy star Tom Tyler makes an impressive Mummy; it's just too bad he wasn't in more of the film. The Mummy's Hand was a big hit for Universal and a new 1940s franchise was born. Incidentally, the effective music score was borrowed from 1939's Son of Frankenstein.

Elyse Knox.
The Mummy's Tomb (1942) - Thirty years after the incidents of The Mummy's Hand, Kharis (now played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) and a young high priest (Turhan Bey) seek revenge on the Banning family in a New England town. Despite an unnecessary eight-minute recap of the preceding film, I found this sequel entertaining thanks to an exciting, fiery climax and the atmospheric shots of Kharis trudging alongside white picket fences and across lonely nighttime landscapes. Alas, the blaze at the end of The Mummy's Hand has left Kharis with a blind eye to go along with his pronounced limp and bad left arm. He moves so slowly that it's hard to fathom why his victims just don't run away. On the plus side, Elyse Knox--who became Mark Harmon's mother--makes a fetching heroine. It's easy to see why Turhan Bey's character puts Kharis on the back-burner and shifts his interest to her. The aforementioned climax, featuring a posse with torches setting fire to the Bannings' mansion, oddly recalls the ending of 1931's Frankenstein. Finally, if this took place 30 years after The Mummy's Hand, that would make the year 1970--an interesting thought.

Lon Chaney, Jr. as Kharis.
The Mummy's Ghost (1944) - Amina, a young Egyptian woman who works at the Scripps Museum in Mapleton, gets "jittery" whenever someone mentions Egypt. The reason becomes clear when Kharis and another high priest (John Carradine) try to retrieve Ananka's mummified corpse from the museum. Just as Kharis reaches into the casket for his loved one, Ananka turns into dust and her soul is transferred into Amina. While the whole town searches for Kharis, the Mummy sets his sight on Amina, who has developed a white stripe in her hair (similar to the one sported by the Bride of Frankenstein). A lackluster entry in the series, The Mummy's Ghost limps along until it's almost redeemed by a nifty climax that's truly unique for the horror genre in the 1940s. Robert Lowery, who plays the dull over-aged collegiate hero, later became the second actor to play Batman in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin. He later had a lengthy career on television.

Virginia Christine as Ananka.
The Mummy's Curse (1944) - Following his swampy demise in the previous film, Kharis reappears when a bulldozer unearths him in the Louisiana Bayou. Yes, somehow the nearby town of Mapleton has been magically relocated from New England! Another young high priest and his unsavory assistant revive Kharis with the hope of reuniting him with Princess Ananka and transporting both back to Egypt. Meanwhile, Ananka--who is not quite a mummy yet--digs herself out of the swamp and reverts back to a beautiful, but very confused, young woman. The Mummy's Curse is the weakest of the four post-Karloff Mummy movies. It's a very repetitious outing (did we really need another flashback of Kharis' origin?). The Louisiana setting and a deserted monastery add a little atmosphere, but that's all this chapter in the Mummy saga has to offer. The only cast member of note is Virginia Christine, who played Ananka. She had a long career in supporting roles on films and in television, but may be best remembered as the Swedish Mrs. Olson in a series of Folgers coffee commercials in the 1960s.

This post of part of the Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by our friends at Silver Scenes. Click here to view the entire blogathon schedule!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Hammer's Dracula Films Ranked from Best to Worst

David Peel as Baron Meinster.
1. The Brides of Dracula (1960). This should be no surprise to readers of this blog. Indeed, I recently ranked Brides among my top five choices for the greatest horror films of all time. It's a first-rate affair from start to finish with strong performances, interesting themes, and an exciting, inventive climax. The only thing it's missing is Count Dracula--but David Peel's Baron Meinster is a worthy substitute. Less physically threatening than Christopher Lee's vampire, the charming, handsome Meinster may be a more dangerous adversary. One of the film's best scenes is when the sweet Marianne introduces her paternal friend Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to her new boyfriend.

Dracula is staked--but not for long.
2. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). Vastly underrated, this lively tale has a revived Dracula (Lee) seeking revenge against a Monsignor who has "desecrated" his ancestral home by performing an exorcism. The theme of religion combating the evil of vampirism is not an uncommon one, but rarely has it received such a rich treatment. The film also benefits from director Freddie Francis' brilliant cinematography, some fabulous rooftop sets, and a solid cast. Veronica Carlson may be the most fetching of all Hammer heroines (well, let's call it a tie with Caroline Munro..and Valerie Leon).

Van Helsing's makeshift crucifix.
3. Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula) (1958). The one that started it all is an effective adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. The opening scenes with Jonathan Harker at Castle Dracula and the climatic confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing are marvelous. My only complaint is that the pacing drags in the middle when the action shifts to England. Still, it set the standard not only for the rest of the Dracula series, but for all the Hammer vampire films that followed it. James Bernard's exceptional score would become very familiar to Hammer fans.

John Forbes Robertson as Dracula.
4. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Who would have thought that a mashup of vampires, kung fu, and The Seven Samurai would be so much fun? When Dracula and some unconventional vampires take over a small Chinese village, its residents send for visiting lecturer Van Helsing (Cushing). The journey to the village, punctuated by some well-staged fight scenes, sets the table for an all-out climax that ends with another Dracula-Van Helsing face-off. Be sure to skip the heavily re-edited version called The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula.

Barbara Shelley as a vampire.
5. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1964). Although well-made and sporting an impressive cast, the direct sequel to Horror of Dracula lacks inspiration. Christopher Lee seldom has much dialogue in the Dracula films, but, in this one, he has none! The premise, which injects attractive English tourists into the Transylvanian landscape, seems recycled from the previous year's superior Kiss of the Vampire. Still, there are some nice touches, such as how Barbara Shelley goes from a dull lass to a smoking-hot vampire.

Lee strikes an imposing pose.
6. Scars of Dracula (1970). An improvement over the same year's Taste the Blood of Dracula, the sixth film in the series offers little of interest other than a flashy finale and a creepy shot of Dracula climbing down a castle wall, face first, as he did in Bram Stoker's novel. In The Films of Christopher Lee, the actor said: "Instead of writing a story around the character (Dracula), they wrote a story and fit the character into it."

Count Dracula--corporate CEO.
7. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). As modern-day variations go, I like the idea of Count Dracula as a businessman who recruits four influential blokes to help him take over the world. I don't like the idea of Drac releasing a strain of bubonic plague as some kind of revenge on mankind. The resulting film reminds me of a lesser episode of The Avengers that sorely needs Steed and Mrs. Peel.

Cushing as a Van Helsing descendant.
8. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). My main problem with this entry is that it came two years too late. The 1970 Count Yorga, Vampire had already mixed vampires and contemporary youths. Hence, there was nothing jarring about seeing Count Dracula in modern-day London. The film does get credit for pairing Lee's Dracula and Cushing's Van Helsing (a Van Helsing descendant actually) for the first time since the 1958 original.

Dracula on the verge of being destroyed.
9. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). There was no Dracula in the original film treatment for this fifth series installment. The intention was for Ralph Bates' character to be killed and then resurrected as a vampire to avenge his death. However, when Christopher Lee agreed to appear in the film, the script was rewritten and Bates' character stayed dead--with Dracula avenging him. The premise, which revolves around a sort of Hellfire Club, is initially interesting. However, it soon evolves into a straight revenge tale and ties Satanic Rites for the worst climax in the series.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Move Over Kolchak for "The Norliss Tapes"

A more serious version of The Night Stalker (1972), The Norliss Tapes (1973) featured Roy Thinnes as an author who becomes an investigator of supernatural phenomena. In the film's opening scenes, David Norliss (Thinnes) confides to his publisher that his book debunking fake spiritualists has taken a different turn. When Norliss suddenly disappears, his publisher discovers a set of tapes in the writer's home. The plot unfolds as Norliss' publisher listens to his tapes.

On advice from her sister, Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson) seeks out Norliss when her recently-deceased husband shows up in his art studio, takes a blast from a shotgun, and vanishes. Ellen reveals that her husband, sculptor James Raymond Cort, died from Pick's Disease (a brain disorder). Shortly before his death, he became obsessed with the occult and befriended an antiques shop owner who gave him a scarab ring symbolizing the Egyptian god Osiris. With ashen skin and glowing eyes, Cort is definitely dead--but that hasn't stopped him from working on an unusual statue molded from red clay.

The creepy dead husband.
Producer-director Dan Curtis follows the same general premise as his earlier made-for-TV films The Night Stalker (1972) and its sequel The Night Strangler (1973). The difference is that Darren McGavin played Kolchak, the investigate journalist in those films, with a dash of humor--thus balancing the chills with levity. With The Norliss Tapes, Curtis clearly intended to make a straightforward fright film--and he largely succeeds. His film evokes an eerie atmosphere, enhanced by the scenic Carmel coastline with its winding roads. There are some genuine shocks, too, such as when Cort's creepy face pops up at a window when the curtain is brushed aside.

Roy Thinnes, less frantic here than in The Invaders, makes a believable hero. Angie Dickinson lends some class to the proceedings and Vonetta McGee proves once again that she deserved a better career.

The Norliss Tapes also served as a pilot for a TV series, though NBC passed on it. Interestingly, Dan Curtis filmed an earlier pilot, back in 1969, about another investigator who specialized in cases involving the supernatural. Kerwin Matthews starred in In the Dead of the Night, which ABC broadcast as a 60-minute TV movie called Dead of Night: A Darkness in Blaisedon.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dan Curtis was not involved in the original Kolchak TV series. He did serve as an executive producer for the 2005 revival, Night Stalker, starring Stuart Townsend as Kolchak.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Double Case of Murder on the Orient Express

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.
The 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's controversial mystery Murder on the Orient Express spawned a string of theatrical and made-for-TV films based on her works. I recently revisited Orient Express and, for comparison purposes, also watched the 2010 version starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. It was an interesting exercise in which each film boasted certain strengths. In the end, though, it came down to which Poirot was the best and, for me, the choice between Suchet and Albert Finney is a no-contest.

The plots of each version closely mirror Christie's 1934 novel. While aboard the Orient Express en route back to England, Poirot is approached by a wealthy, distasteful man named Ratchett, who fears for his life. Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him, but the Belgian detective refuses. Two nights later, Ratchett's bloody corpse--which features, significantly, twelve knife wounds--is found in his compartment. The obvious solution is that the murderer disposed of Ratchett, then departed the train. However, Poirot quickly makes a connection to the kidnapping and subsequent death of young Daisy Armstrong, which occurred five years earlier (an obvious nod to the real-life Lindbergh case).

The snowbound train.
The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express boasts a running time of 128 minutes, which surprisingly works to the plot's advantage. First, it allows director Sidney Lumet to open the film with a well-constructed montage that encapsulates the Armstrong kidnapping and its aftermath. This sequence not only piques the viewer's interest from the beginning, but its eliminates the need for lengthy flashbacks later or incorporation into Poirot's explanation. The second advantage of the long running time is it affords Poirot time to reveal the mystery's solution in detail (indeed, the "reveal" scene lasts almost 25 minutes).

Wendy Hiller.
The casting of big-name stars as the suspects may be entertaining, but it actually adds little to the mystery. I suppose one could argue that it's easier to tell the suspects apart, because they're played by performers such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, and others. However, with the exception of Wendy Hiller as the elusive and deathly pale Princess Dragomiroff, no one has enough screen time to add any depth to their character.

Ingrid Bergman.
Albert Finney, as Poirot, dominates Murder on the Orient Express and that's unfortunate because he's a poor choice to portray Christie's sleuth. Finney may have mastered Poirot's manners, but there's no passion in his interpretation. I also have no idea what accent he was using--it certainly didn't sound French. Apparently, I hold a minority opinion of Finney's portrayal; he received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Actor. (Incidentally, Ingrid Bergman won those two awards for supporting actress, though I think it was more for her career than for her performance in this picture.)

Eileen Atkins as Princess Dragomiroff.
The 2010 Murder on the Orient Express, made by Britain's ITV network, lacks the grand scale of the 1974 version. Still, it looks expensive for a made-for-TV movie. In lieu of an all-star cast, many of the suspects are played by actors familiar to fans of British drama: Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), and Toby Stephens (Midsomer Murders). Perhaps, the most recognizable face for U.S. audiences is Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), who was still relatively unknown in 2010.

At a zippy 89 minutes, this adaptation moves almost too quickly, making it difficult for viewers to differentiate among the large number of suspects. In lieu of the 1974 film's opening montage, Poirot explains the connection to the Daisy Armstrong case as part of his climatic "reveal." It's a lot of information to absorb at one time and I wonder if individuals unfamiliar with Christie's plot will be able to fully follow Poirot's explanation.

David Suchet as Poirot.
Despite these minor misgivings, I probably prefer this version for one reason alone. David Suchet is--as always--superb as Hercule Poirot. One of Suchet's great gifts was being able to find the humor in the Poirot character, while never mocking the detective nor making him intentionally funny. Thus, we may smile when Suchet's Poirot measures his eggs to ensure they're the same size, but we never laugh at him. (In contrast, when Finney races down a train car to question a suspect, he looks like Charlie Chaplin).

The 2010 version also ends on a stronger note with the religious Poirot pondering the impacts of a personal moral dilemma. Interestingly, the same theme is explored at the conclusion of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, the excellent 2014 film that marked the last of Suchet's 70 appearances as Hercule Poirot.

This review is part of the Trains, Planes, and Automobiles Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here to view the complete schedule of first-rate film reviews.