Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Stairs (yes, stairs!) in Movies

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, was also the master of memorable staircase sequences. James Stewart’s inability to climb the stairs of a Spanish mission proved integral to the plot of Vertigo (1958). Cary Grant carried a glowing glass of milk up the stairs in Suspicion (1941), then carried an ailing Ingrid Bergman down the stairs in the tense climax to Notorious (1946). Martin Balsam encountered a knife-wielding killer at the top of the stairs in the Bates house in Psycho (1960). Ironically, Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps (1935) omitted the elaborate stairs to the beach described in John Buchan’s spy novel.

Despite Hitchcock’s impressive use of stairs, none of his sequences has achieved the fame of Sergei Einsenstein’s “Odessa Steps” scene in the classic Russian silent film Potemkin (1925). Considered by many critics as one of the famous sequences ever put on film, it starts with Czarist soldiers marching down a long flight of steps and firing on fleeing citizens. In the midst of this massive carnage, a mother is killed and the baby carriage containing her child tumbles down the many steps. Brian De Palma paid homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in the exciting train station shootout in The Untouchables (1987)—a scene that was spoofed seven years later in Naked Gun 33 1/3:  The Final Insult.
The baby carriage rolling down the stairs in Eisenstein's classic.
While the Odessa Steps may be more famous, the most visually stunning staircase was the moving one that transported souls from the Earthly world to the celestial one in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's classic 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven).

Powell and Pressberger's stairway to heaven.

Boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) trained for his heavyweight championship bout in Rocky (1976) by running up and down the steep stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In a greater athletic endeavor, the tiny hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) tried to climb the stairs out of his basement using a thread and a straight pin as a rope and grappling hook.

Several musical numbers have taken place on stairs, though few can compare to the classic routine performed by Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in The Little Colonel (1935).

On the darker side, stairs have also been used for homicidal purposes. In Kiss of Death (1947), Richard Widmark’s psychotic killer gleefully pushed a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs. Nasty cop Edmund O’Brien murdered a blind man in a similar manner in Shield for Murder (1954). Neither of those cold-blooded killers can compare with Gene Tierney’s obsessive wife portrayal in Leave Her to Heaven (1946). Unwilling to share husband Cornel Wilde with anyone, she hurled herself down the stairs upon learning of her pregnancy. People have fallen or been pushed down staircases in many other films such as Before Dawn (1931), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), and Deadly Friend (1986). A homicidal psychopath met his fate when Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy McGuire, and George Brent converged on the title structure in the climax of The Spiral Staircase (1946). Chow Yun Fat proved adept at sliding down stairs with both revolvers blazing in both A Better Tomorrow II (1988) and Hard-Boiled (1992). Al Pacino used an escalator for his shootout in Carlito’s Way (1993).

Finally, in the fact-based 1998 TV-movie The Staircase, William Petersen played a carpenter who built a one-of-a-kind church staircase for nun Barbara Hershey. The following is a list of films in which stairs play an important part:

Potemkin (aka Battleship Potemkin) (1925)
Before Dawn (1931)
The Little Colonel (1935)
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)
Suspicion (1941)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Notorious (1946)
A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (1946)
Kiss of Death (1947)
Shield for Murder (1954)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Vertigo (1958)
Psycho (1960)
Barefoot in the Park (1967)
Staircase (1969)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973 TVM)
The Spiral Staircase (1975)
Rocky (1976)
High Anxiety (1977)
Deadly Friend (1986)
The Untouchables (1987)
A Better Tomorrow II (1988)
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Hard-Boiled (1992)
Carlito’s Way (1993)
Naked Gun 33 1/3:  The Final Insult (1994)
The Staircase (1998 TVM)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Monster Zero...or Why Ghidorah is the Rodney Dangerfield of Japanese Monsters

Poor Ghidorah. He's got three heads, two tails, can fly, and spew "magnetic force beams." This modern-day "dragon" should have been one of the most feared and respected Japanese monsters of the 1960s. And yet, consider this: His name was misspelled as "Ghidrah" when his debut film--Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster--was released in the U.S. in 1964. In the sequel, which didn't appear in the U.S. until five years after it was shown in Japan, he was called Monster Zero in the title. And, unlike Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, he never got his own stand-alone movie.

All of which brings us to Monster Zero, which appears on TCM tonight. The original title is Kaijū Daisensō, which translates as Great Monster War. It's also known as Invasion of Astro-Monster and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. But I'm calling it Monster Zero, because that was the title when I saw it as a kid in 1970 on a double-feature with War of the Gargantuas.

The Xiliens remind me of the rock group Devo.
The plot gets off to a quick start when Japanese scientists discover a new planet beyond Jupiter. When two astronauts (Nick Adams and Akira Takarada) are sent to Planet X, they discover an alien race called the Xiliens. They reveal that their planet's inhabitants are under constant attack from Ghidorah. They want to "borrow" (my words) Godzilla and Rodan to defeat Ghidorah. In exchange, they will provide Earth with a cure for all diseases. If this deal sounds too good to be true, then you are a wise and astute negotiator. The Xiliens' real plan is to gain control of all three monsters and turn the Earth into a Planet X colony.

Gozdilla in "blue bubble."
Monster Zero is a surprisingly entertaining monsterama that features colorful special effects from Japanese legend Eiji Tsuburaya. I thought the highlight was the scene in which Godzilla and Rodan were encased in blue bubbles--not unlike Glinda's pink bubble in The Wizard of Oz. But you can also marvel at Godzilla's "victory dance" when he thinks he has beaten Ghidorah and admire how Godzilla and Rodan team up creatively to get an upper hand against their three-headed opponent. (Let's be realistic: Other than causing damaging winds by flapping his wings, Rodan's fighting skills are pretty limited.)

Monster Zero also features an unintentionally amusing performance from Nick Adams (fortunately, the rest of the cast plays it straight). Unlike the original Godzilla (Gojira), in which Raymond Burr's scenes were filmed later and inserted into the movie, Nick Adams appears alongside the Japanese performers. While it's true that he has some ridiculous dialogue (spouting "You stinkin' rats!" like Cagney), Adams doesn't even seem to be trying.

Adams in The Rebel.
Perhaps, he had all but given up on his once promising career by this point. He began acting in the 1950s and eventually earned supporting roles in prestigious films like Mister Roberts and Picnic. His work led to a well-received TV series called The Rebel, in which he played a former Confederate soldier who had various adventures in the West. After a two-year run, he returned to movies and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as a murder defendant in Twilight of Honor (1963). His career sputtered after that, however, and he went to Japan to star in Frankenstein Conquers the World (1964) and Monster Zero. Nick Adams died in 1968 at age 36 of drug-related causes. His death has been called a suicide, an accident, and even a possible murder.

For more on Japanese monster films, better known as Kaijueiga cinema, check out our interview with Miguel Rodriguez.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Case of the Perry Mason Substitutes

With 271 cases over nine seasons, it’s safe to say that Perry Mason was television’s most successful attorney. I’m not even counting Perry’s court appearances in the “revival” made-for-TV movies nor the 1973-74  New Perry Mason TV series (with Monte Markham taking over for Raymond Burr). Yet, out of those 271 cases on the original series, six of them were won by lawyers other than Perry!

Raymond Burr did not appear in four consecutive episodes in the 1962-63 season and was missing in two more during the 1964-65 season. (Note that some of these episodes included brief scenes of Perry talking with other lawyers from his hospital bed—scenes that Burr filmed before his hiatus.) The reason given for his first absence was “minor surgery.” Some sources, such as Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio, and Television Biography, state that the surgery was to remove intestinal polyps. Other sources (e.g., Encyclopedia of Television Law Shows) maintain that this explanation has never been confirmed. Burr’s absences during the 1964-65 season were attributed to infected teeth (according to Associated Press columnist Cynthia Lowry) and an unspecified illness. Fatigue may have played a role as well, since Burr averaged almost 30 episodes during each of the show’s nine years. A full season order these days for a prime time series is 24 episodes.

Here are the six Perry Mason episodes without Raymond Burr:

Bette Davis visits a client.
The Case of Constant Doyle (Season 6 Episode 16)– Bette Davis plays Constant (not Constance) Doyle, a recently widowed attorney who defends a young man (Michael Parks) accused of breaking into a factory and assaulting a night watchman.

The Case of the Libelous Locket (S6 E17) – Law school professor Edward Lindley (Michael Rennie) takes on the case of student Janie Norland (Patricia Manning), who thinks she killed someone, gets blackmailed, and then is arrested for a real murder. Professor Lindley’s attitude toward trial attorneys must have amused Perry: “Someone once said, if you could cross a parrot with a jackass, you’d have the perfect trial lawyer.” This episode also guest-starred Patrice Wymore, Errol Flynn’s widow.

Hugh O'Brian knew about the law...
from his days as TV's Wyatt Earp.
The Case of the Two-Faced Turn-a-bout (S6 E18)- Hugh O'Brian stars as playboy lawyer Bruce Jason, who defends a political refugee in a homicide case brimming with international intrigue. Interestingly, O’Brien also plays another character in this episode (no spoilers here!).

The Case of the Surplus Suitor (S6 E19) – Corporate lawyer Sherman Hatfield (Walter Pidgeon) defends an indecisive young woman (Joyce Bulifant), who is accused of murdering her wealthy uncle. Alas, this subpar outing wastes Pidgeon’s talents.

Mike Connors a few years later as Mannix.
The Case of the Bullied Bowler (S8 E7)- Paul Drake takes a (well-earned) vacation and visits the town of Tesoro with attorney friend Joe Kelly (Mike Connors). A powerful woman tries to close the bowling alley owned by Paul’s friend Bill Jaris. When a health inspector is murdered, Bill becomes the prime suspect. The Perry Mason producers were impressed with Connors. When Raymond Burr hesitated on returning for season 9, Connors was allegedly considered as a replacement attorney. Of course, he later found TV fame in his own long-running private eye series Mannix (1967-75).

The Case of the Thermal Thief (S8 E16) -  Only recently returning to law practice, Ken Kramer (Barry Sullivan) gets involved in a complex case involving a stolen necklace and the death of a wealthy yachtsman four years earlier. Sullivan does a fine job in an above-average episode—he should have gotten his own lawyer show! It’s interesting to note that Kramer doesn't get a courtroom confession at the episode’s climax; it takes place offscreen.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2015)

What's the connection between
Charles Bronson and Bing Crosby?
Welcome to a new edition! We're trying to get back on a regular schedule after a busy May, so here's the second quiz of the month. As usual, 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. Laurence Harvey and Danny Kaye.

2. Charles Bronson and Bing Crosby (a bit of a stretch).

3. Rod Taylor and Vincent Price.

4. Ann Blyth and Glynis Johns.

5. Peter Graves and Alan Young.

6. Little Shop of Horrors and Werewolf of London

7. Fredric March and Brad Pitt.

8. Have Gun--Will Travel and The Thomas Crown Affair (another stretch).

9. Robert Lansing and Gregory Peck. 

10. The movie Calling Bulldog Drummond and the TV series Green Acres.

11. Errol Flynn and Richard Thomas.

12. Maureen O'Hara and Geena Davis.

13. Laurence Olivier and Colin Firth,

14. Russ Tamblyn and Grant Williams.

15. Basil Rathbone and Charlton Heston.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Poldark Primer: Getting Ready for the New Masterpiece Classic

Cafe contributing author TerryB provides all you need to know about the latest Masterpiece miniseries on PBS. You can follow Terry on Twitter as @IUPUITerry.

Poldark. Until recently, the name resonated with folks-of-a-certain age that viewed--and generally loved--the 29-episode series that appeared on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre in the mid-1970s. Or, with fans of the 13-book series by Winston Graham, which the author began in 1945 and concluded in 2002 with his final novel Bella Poldark

This weekend marks the beginning, for American viewers, of the newest incarnation of Poldark: an eight-part series starring Aiden Turner (The Hobbit trilogy, the TV series Being Human) as Ross Poldark. Its broadcast earlier this year in Great Britain was received so enthusiastically that the BBC has already renewed it for a second season. This overview of the show's setting and characters will help you get ready for the first episode on Masterpiece this Sunday, June 21st.

The scenic Cornish coast.
The Setting: The Poldark saga takes place almost entirely in England’s Cornwall. Life is hard, the weather is often unforgiving, and the land is rocky and barren in most parts. Life in the southwest corner of the British Isles is, however, undergoing slow and dramatic changes. Political power and influence belongs to rich landowners and the nobility. Newly-rich merchants and bankers struggle to join the upper class. Below them are the great mass of the population--miners, farmers, fishermen, and smugglers. Class distinctions are still in force, but in flux as nearby France is tearing itself apart as the poor rise up against the government and the upper class. Change in industry, including the use of steam engines and manufacturing advances, is finding a place in the Empire. John Wesley’s Methodism and Catholicism are challenging the Church of England among the lower classes. Revolution of some sort is everywhere.

Ross Poldark – son of a landowner; member of the gentry class. Owns a small estate on the Cornish coast with mines and farmland. In the U.S., the title of the first Poldark novel was The Renegade, which suits our hero’s nature. Our story begins with Ross returning to Cornwall from the war in America to find his father dead, his fortune and house in ruins, and his fiancée about to marry another man.

Elizabeth Chenoweth – Ross left for America with the law on his heels, leaving his intended bride--one of the most beautiful women in England--with a vague promise of return. When rumors spread that Ross had been killed in America, Elizabeth (and her class-conscious mother) cast about for a new love, settling on Ross’ cousin Francis.



Francis Poldark – Ross and his cousin grew up nearly side-by-side, albeit a prickly relationship. Francis is heir to the main Poldark estate with a huge copper mine, a large income, and a large manor house. He is destined to be an important man in the county. A bit of a fop with an interest in gambling and wenching, his future begins to change when he marries his cousin’s bride-to-be.

Verity Poldark – Francis’ sister. A dowdy young woman with no marriage prospects. She has a close, sisterly relationship with her cousin Ross. Verity is resigned to managing the Poldark home, Trenwith, for her father and brother until she meets a seafaring man with a troubled past.

Charles Poldark – the elder brother of Ross’ father. A bulldog of a man, Charles takes his position as family patriarch very seriously and rules his children and estate with an iron fist.

George Warleggan – childhood classmate of the Poldark cousins and the son of merchants in Cornwall. His family has become one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the area. George is ruthless in his quest for acceptance by the aristocracy and the accumulation of money. He also covets Elizabeth.


Jud and Prudie Paynter – servants and friends of Ross’ father. Fond of drink and regularly drunk, the pair are best-suited to finding excuses not to work. Ross allows them to stay because of their relationship with his family. Jud also works part-time as a smuggler and generally finds trouble at every turn.

Demelza Carne – the daughter of an abusive, impoverished miner from a nearby village. At a local fair, she meets Ross, who hires her as a kitchen maid. Under his roof, she grows into a woman--meddlesome, impulsive, independent--with a thirst for knowledge and a strong feeling of loyalty to her employer. Demelza has a major impact on nearly everyone’s life.


For more Poldark at the Cafe, check out our review of the original Poldark series and our interview with its star Robin Ellis.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

DVD Spotlight Review: Hal Holbrook as "The Senator"

Hal Holbrook's critically-acclaimed TV series finally gets its long-awaited DVD release when Timeless Media Group releases The Bold Ones: The Senator (The Complete Series) today. Originally broadcast on NBC in 1970-71, The Senator was nominated for 11 Emmys and won five, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series. (If you're unfamiliar with this classic series, check our our tribute to it on the Cafe's YouTube Channel.)

The pilot film A Clear and Present Danger aired in March 1970. The TV series The Senator debuted the following September as part of the already established umbrella TV series The Bold Ones. During the 1970-71 season, The Bold Ones consisted of three separate TV series which rotated from week to week: The New Doctors, The Lawyers, and The Senator. As a result, only eight episodes of The Senator were produced.

Hal Holbrook as Hays Stowe.
In A Clear and Present Danger, Holbrook plays Hays Stowe, a lawyer in the Attorney General's office who starts a crusade against air pollution when he learns it contributed to the death of a former Yale Law School professor. It's clear from the beginning that Stowe comes from an affluent family; his father is an incumbent U.S. Senator who has announced plans to retire. The media stalk Stowe in the hope of learning about his political aspirations, but the lawyer just wants to discuss air pollution. His interest in his cause reaches new heights when a college professor warns the public that environmental conditions are perfect for a repeat of the Donora "killing smog." This real-life 1948 incident resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people in a Pennsylvania mill town.

Sharon Acker as Erin/Ellen.
Hal Holbrook's portrayal of Hays Stowe is fully developed from the beginning. Although his party affiliation is never stated, Stowe comes across as an intelligent, energetic liberal who, despite his upper-class background, connects with the "common people." (While some critics have speculated that Stowe was based on Robert Kennedy, Holbrook has never publicly revealed his inspiration.) The pilot film efficiently establishes the relationships among Stowe and his father, his wife Erin (Sharon Acker), and his staff (especially assistant Jordan Boyle, played by Joseph Campanella). Still, it's a leisurely film with too many scenes of Stowe walking around and thinking. We don't need to see Stowe think; Holbrook conveys that through his actions.

When the regular series debuted several months after the pilot, several key changes occurred. Hays Stowe was now a junior senator, his wife's name had changed from Erin to Ellen (still played by Sharon Acker), and Michael Tolan took over the role of Jordan Boyle (since Campanella was a regular on the The Lawyers segment of The Bold Ones). The one-hour running time tightened the focus on the issues, several which seem as relevant today as they were in 1970. In an interview included in the new boxed set, Holbrook reflected: "(The Senator) was saying something important. I wasn't interested in politics. I was interested in America."

The highlight of the show's only season was a two-part episode called "A Continual Roar of Musketry." It's a fictional reworking of the May 1970 Kent State shootings, in which four college students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a campus protest. In the Senator episode, Stowe is appointed to head a commission tasked with looking into a campus shooting by National Guardsmen. This well-written episode captures all viewpoints (in Rashomon-like style) leading up to and including the shootings. The committee's deliberations and Stowe's report of its findings make for exceptional television drama. Not surprisingly, Universal Studios, which produced The Senator, and NBC considered pulling this hot-button episode. But after the real President's Commission on Campus Unrest issued its findings in September 1970, NBC broadcast "A Continual Roar of Musketry" the following November.

Michael Tolan as Jordan Boyle.
Other episodes of The Senator revolve around the influence of the Mob, the rights of Native Americans, personal privacy, and political infighting at the state level. Senator Stowe deals with these issues with honesty and resolve, but his flaws come through as well. His aide, Jordan Boyle (the excellent Tolan), often serves as his confidante and conscience ("Every senator has days when he wants to be President").  And yet, as much as Stowe trusts and relies on Boyle, he is willing to sever ties with him when he learns that Boyle has been used unwittingly to promote Mob-financed construction.

Guest star Burgess Meredith.
The reason behind the cancellation of The Senator remains a mystery. Certainly, The Bold Ones was not a big ratings hit; it didn't crack the Top 30 for the 1970-71 season despite following No. 9 Bonanza on NBC on Sunday nights (The ABC Sunday Night Movie won the 10:00-11:00 P.M. time slot). Still, NBC renewed The Bold Ones--just not The Senator. In the Hal Holbrook interview, the actor hints that the cancellation may have been "politically inspired." Timing may have been a factor, too. The Senator was cancelled before it won all those Emmys.

Timeless Media Group's 3-disk DVD set includes: the pilot film A Clear and Present Danger; all eight regular season episodes; a new 34-minute interview with Hal Holbrook on the series; a 3-minute interview with Holbrook from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; and an anti-drug PSA with Holbrook. Picture quality is acceptable for a 1970-71 TV series; the series has not been digitally remastered. For those of us who fondly remember this quality TV series, The Bold Ones: The Senator (The Complete Series) is a must-have. It is also strongly recommended for anyone who appreciates classic television that remains as timely today as it was 45 years ago.

Timeless Media provided a review copy of this DVD set.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ice Station Zebra: The (Seasonal) Comfort Movie

Most film buffs have one or more "comfort movies" that they enjoy revisiting on a frequent basis. For Howard Hughes, that movie was apparently Ice Station Zebra, the 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean's 1963 adventure novel. Back in the days prior to VCRs, Hughes would call up a TV station that he owned in Las Vegas and request that Ice Station Zebra be broadcast. The film's frequent airings must have baffled local Vegas TV watchers!

Rock Hudson as Capt. Ferraday.
Rock Hudson stars as stoic hero Captain James Ferraday, who commands the atomic-powered submarine USS Tigerfish. High-ranking officials send Ferraday and crew to the Arctic Circle in response to a distress signal sent out by the inhabitants of a meteorologic research station. Ferraday knows there is more to his mission--he's just not privy to the details. His civilian passenger, who calls himself Jones (Patrick McGoohan), refuses to satistfy the submarine commander's curiosity: "You'll know all you need to know as the need arises." Later, Jones does reveal the nature of his occupation: "I know how to lie, steal, kidnap, counterfeit, suborn, and kill. That's my job. I do it with great pride."

Brown and Borgnine.
By the time the Tigerfish reaches Ice Station Zebra, it has picked up two more passengers: a Russian defector (Ernest Borgnine) and a Marine captain (Jim Brown) with experience in special operations. The Tigerfish has also dealt with attempted sabotage that killed one crew member and injured others. Who is the saboteur? What is Jones trying to recover at Ice Station Zebra? And why are Russian paratroopers making their way to the research station?

Ice Station Zebra lacks the exciting exploits of the best Alastair MacLean adapatations, specifically The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (which was also released in 1968). It's really more of a suspense film despite the sabotage sequence and a shoot-out between the Americans and Russians. I suspect the intent was to keep viewers guessing about the identity of the saboteur, with Jones, his Russian friend, and the Marine captain being the suspects. However, it's rather obvious who's to blame--you can probably guess it from this review alone.

Patrick McGoohan.
The movie works best when it focuses on the natural conflict between Ferraday and Jones, two "type A personalities" that clash from the beginning. For the film's first half, they trade barbs and eye each other suspiciously, which makes them a rather engaging odd couple for viewers. Hudson and McGoohan are well cast, though Rock does seem a bit grim at times and Patrick gets the script's best dialogue ("The Russians put our camera made by our German scientists and your film made by your German scientists into their satellite made by their German scientists").

Ice Station Zebra received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Special Effects. Those accomplishments are all the more impressive when one considers that the film was shot inside a studio. (Note that you can't see the characters' breath. Not to go off on a tangent, but I always liked that Orson Welles shot a snowy sequence for The Magnificent Ambersons inside an icehouse so it would look more realistic.)

While it's not one of my comfort movies, I enjoy Ice Station Zebra and often pop it into the VCR (yes, I still have one) on snowy days--when I'm nice and cozy inside. Heck, maybe it is one of my comfort movies if one factors in seasonal preferences.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Beach Party Series Comes to a Sad End with "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini"

This was not the film's original title.
As visitors to this blog know, we are Beach Party proponents, Annette admirers, and Frankie aficionados. Yes, we like our BP movies, but what is one to make of the last--and least--entry in American International's seven-film series? Frankie and Annette are nowhere to be seen. Other prominent series regulars that are also missing include Candy Johnson, Donna Loren, John Ashley, and, most notably, Jody McCrea (Bonehead/Deadhead). Even William Asher, who directed five of the series' entries, opted to avoid this outing (he had shifted his focus to his then-wife's TV series Bewitched).

In the closing credits of 1965's Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, AIP announced that Annette Funicello, Deborah Walley, Harvey Lembeck, and Aron Kinkaid "would soon appear in The Girl in the Glass Bikini" (we'll address the title change later). However, by the time production commenced, Annette was no longer attached to the project. Deborah Walley became the female lead and Tommy Kirk, who had previously appeared in Pajama Party, was cast as her co-star.

Kirk and Walley hold hands for a seance.
The plot sends Chuck Philips (Kirk), Lili Morton (Walley), and the older Myrtle Forbush (Patsy Kelly) to the recently-deceased Hiram Stokely's creepy mansion. The trio are the rightful heirs to Hiram's estate, which includes a large sum of money hidden in the house. The dead man's lawyer, Reginald Ripper (Basil Rathbone), wants to swindle them out of their inheritance. Meanwhile, Myrtle's partying nephew Bobby (Kinkaid) shows up at the estate--as does motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper (accompanied by the Ratz and Mice) and J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White reprising his role from Pajama Party).

Karloff was too ill to stand.
When the completed film, now titled Bikini Party in a Haunted House, was screened for AIP heads James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, they deemed it a disaster. Nicholson came up with the idea to add a subplot in which Hiram's ghost (Boris Karloff) has to perform a good deed to get into heaven. A bikini-clad Susan Hart (who had recently married James Nicholson) was also inserted in the proceedings and the movie was retitled The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Unfortunately, the title change meant a big production number called "Bikini Party in a Haunted House"--featuring Aron Kinkaid and Danny Thomas protegee Piccolo Pupa on lead vocals--had to be jettisoned.

Still, the remaining songs penned by Beach Party veterans Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner are quite listenable. Nancy Sinatra does an energetic poolside rendition of "Geronimo" while the Bobby Fuller Four serves as the film's "house band." Piccolo Pupa (that was not her real name) sings lead on "Stand Up and Fight." The Italian performer never achieved success in the U.S. despite three appearances on The Danny Thomas Show and a gig on Shindig! 
Nancy Sinatra sings "Geronimo" and Piccolo Pupa dances.
The saddest part of The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini is watching a fine cast being wasted. Karloff, Rathbone, and Francis X. Bushman were all in the twilight of their careers (and Boris was quite ill). It's painful to watch these classic era stars struggle with horrible material. Just two years earlier, Karloff and Rathbone had an opportunity to show off their comedic skills in Richard Matheson's funny The Comedy of Terrors.

Quinn O'Hara as Sinistra.
It's equally frustrating to see Beach Party veterans like Harvey  Lembeck and Bobbi Shaw forced to recycle old gags. Indeed, the only cast member that escapes unscathed is Quinn O'Hara. She's pretty funny as Sinistra, Rathbone's statuesque, but blind-without-her-glasses, daughter who keeps trying to kill Kinkaid's character.

After The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini crashed at the boxoffice, American  International Pictures concentrated on biker and horror flicks (the latter was always one of the company's staples). The Beach Party series, which had started off with such promise in 1963, had lasted just four years and produced only seven films (if you don't count Ski Party). It would take a few decades for their simple nostalgia and memorable music to become fully appreciated. But these days, I can safely say I am not alone in my affection for such drive-in classics as Beach Blanket Bingo and Muscle Beach Party.


This review is part of the Beach Party Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. Click here to view the full schedule of awesome beachy posts!

Monday, June 8, 2015

DVD Review: Thunderbirds (on Blu-ray) Are Go!

On June 9th, Timeless Media Group will release Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's classic TV series Thunderbirds on Blu-ray for the first time. The most popular of the Andersons' Supermarionation TV shows has led to at least three theatrical films, a revival TV series, and hundreds of toys and games. However, the series' dedicated fans have been eagerly anticipating a Blu-ray set that captures--in exquisite detail--the colorful, imaginative world of International Rescue, its fantastic Thunderbird machines, and, of course Lady Penelope and Parker.

Gerry Anderson with two fan favorites.
In 1964, following the success of the Andersons' submarine series Stingray, Gerry Anderson approached British television mogul Lew Grade with an idea for his next venture. In the 45-minute documentary "Launching Thunderbirds" (included as a bonus in the set), Anderson explains that he wasn't sure Grade would want to finance an expensive show about a family that executes elaborate rescues. Grade's reaction was to grab Anderson by the scruff of the neck, drag him into a room with a light bulb, point at it, and state he'd finance a show about a light bulb if that's what Anderson wanted to make.

The house on Tracy Island.
In a departure from their previous outings which focused on a single principal male hero, the Andersons made Thunderbirds an ensemble series. Widower Jeff Tracy lived on his own South Pacific island with his five sons, each of whom was named after an American astronaut: Scott (named after Scott Carpenter), John (John Glenn), Virgil (Virgil Grissom), Gordon (Gordon Cooper), and Alan (Alan Shepard). Jeff and his sons comprise International Rescue, an independent team that uses high-tech vehicles and equipment to rescue anyone in need. One of the sons, usually John or Alan, monitors radio distress signals from a space station called Thunderbird 5 (it's a tough job since the T5 rotation lasts for a month at a time).

The well-named Brains.
The island's other residents include: Brains, the nerdish genius that created the high-tech wizardry; Jeff's mother; the family manservant Kyrano; and Kyrano's daughter Tin-Tin, who is Alan's girlfriend. The final members of the team are International Rescue's "London agent" Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her butler/chauffeur "Nosey" Parker, a former Cockney thief. As others have pointed out, the initial premise recalls the Western TV classic Bonanza, with the strong-willed widower interacting with his sons. However, as the series progressed, the other characters started playing large roles in the plots, especially Lady Penelope. Brains participated in some rescue missions like the one in "Lord Parker's 'Oliday" and Tin-Tin even played a key role in the espionage episode "The Cham-Cham."

Unlike the other Supermarionation series, Thunderbirds was one-hour long. It was originally conceived as a half-hour show, but when Lew Grade saw the pilot episode, he was so enthusiastic that he told Gerry Anderson to expand it into an hour. Grade, who always had his eye on the international markets, thought Thunderbirds might sell better overseas in the longer format. The challenge for the Andersons was that ten episodes had already been completed or were deep into production based on the half-hour format. Therefore, they had to go back and revise the scripts and shoot additional footage. As a result, some of the early episodes seem padded with subplots that don't propel the action with the same urgency as the earlier Stingray or the later Captain Scarlet. However, given the show's large cast of characters, the longer running time eventually works to Thunderbirds' advantage.

Thunderbird 2 lowering a pod.
Of course, for many fans, the "stars" of Thunderbirds are the five "crafts," which are each piloted by one of the Tracy sons. Thunderbird 1 is a rocket-like plane, typically flown by Scott, used for quick response missions. It is stored beneath the family's swimming pool, which slides open as Scott takes off. Virgil flies Thunderbird 2, a large storage craft that can transport pods containing various vehicles and equipment required for rescue missions. As it emerges from the side of a mountain to launch, fake palm trees fall to the side so the massively wide craft can pass. Thunderbird 3 is a space rocket piloted by Alan or John. Gordon navigates the submersible Thunderbird 4, which is small enough to be stored in one of the pods. Finally, there's the aforementioned space station Thunderbird 5.

Sylvia Anderson and Lady Penelope.
Among the the human characters, the breakout "star" was Lady Penelope. Although there had been strong female characters in other Anderson shows (e.g., Marina in Stingray), Lady Penelope--with a major assist from Parker--seemed to grab the viewers' attention. She was feminine, but decidedly tough, just like her pink Rolls Royce with the FAB 1 license plate. Her famous car, which was modified by Brains, featured two pop-out machine guns, a turbo-charged engine, hydrofoils for traveling on water, skis for traveling on snow, and bullet-proof tires. As for Lady Penelope, she was modeled after Sylvia Anderson, who provided her voice.

Although there are some strong rescue episodes (the pilot "Trapped in the Sky" is a humdinger), my favorites expand the typical rescue formula with Lady Penelope often playing a key role. "The Perils of Penelope" has Penny (as Jeff calls her) trying to find a kidnapped professor aboard a monorail. In "The Cham-Cham," she masquerades as a singer at a ski resort called Paradise Peaks and winds up channeling Marlene Dietrich as she warbles an original Barry Gray tune. And, in a non-Lady Penelope episode, giant 'gators attacked a swampy mansion in "Attack of the Alligators," which was inspired by the Bob Hope comedy The Cat and the Canary.

All 32 episodes of Thunderbirds are available from Timeless Media in a set of six Blu-ray discs or eight DVDs. I reviewed the Blu-ray set, which features pristine prints with vibrant colors. In addition to the documentary mentioned above, the bonus features include a vintage publicity brochure.

Timeless Media Group provided a copy of Thunderbirds for review.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Is There Really a She-Wolf of London?

Is June Lockhart a werewolf?
Made at the end of Universal's horror film cycle (1931-1948), She-Wolf  of London is a game attempt to try something different. It has inexplicably generated lukewarm interest over the years. Even the authors of the highly-regarded reference book Universal Horrors dismiss it as "the type of thriller horror fans love to hate." Well, this horror fan rather enjoyed it, even though She-Wolf clearly lacks the Lewton-like psychological complexity and chilling set pieces required of a genuine horror classic.

Set at the turn of the century, She-Wolf  of London stars June Lockhart as Phyllis Allenby, an heiress about to marry a prominent barrister (Don Porter). This news prompts Phyllis's "Aunt" Martha (Sara Haden), who resides at the Allenby estate, to make a startling revelation to her daughter Carol (Jan Wiley). Martha is not Phyllis's aunt, but rather a housekeeper who became the girl's de facto guardian when Phyllis's parents died. Thus, Martha has become concerned about her and Carol's future after the nuptials.

A cloaked figure leaves the mansion.
Meanwhile, a series of murders have taken place at the London park near the Allenby house--with the newspapers suggesting the bloodthirsty killer is a werewolf. It's no wonder that Phyllis turns into a wreck after discovering dried blood on her hands and mud on her shoes the morning following a child's murder. It doesn't help there's a legend about the Allenby family being cursed by wolves (an interesting plot point that deserves more than a fleeting mention).

The central premise is a good one: Are the murders being committed by a werewolf or someone that just wants it to look that way? Twentieth Century-Fox explored the same premise--with better results--in the moody, underrated The Undying Monster (1942). It's superior to She-Wolf, but Universal's effort still holds interest for its 61-minute running time.

Sara Haden as "Aunt" Martha.
Much of the credit goes to Sara Haden and Jan Wiley, who kept me guessing as to which one was the culprit. (I'm not giving anything away here...we see a female cloaked figure in the woods when the murders take place.) I couldn't decide if Aunt Martha was trying to drive Phyllis crazy or protecting her daughter who was either a maniac killer or actually a werewolf.

The supporting cast includes Dennis Hoey as a Scotland Yard inspector, though one that's smarter than the Inspector Lestrade he portrayed in Universal's Sherlock Holmes series. As for Ms. Lockhart, she comes across as a timid lead, lacking much of the warmth she displayed in her later maternal roles on television (e.g., LassieLost in Space).

Director Jean Yarbrough uses Universal's "hacienda set" (originally built for the studio's Westerns) to substitute nicely for the Allenby mansion. Some outdoor footage makes the production look more expensive, though the California scenery can't pass for a London park. Yarbrough employs some cant shots (i.e., a tilted camera) to make the climax more disturbing (which always reminds me of the Expressionistic photography in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).

As pointed out in several sources, Edgar G. Ulmer's Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) is basically a remake of She-Wolf of London. If imitation is indeed a form of flattery, then She-Wolf of London must have other admirers in addition to me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Movie-TV Connection Quiz (May 2015)

How are Barbara and Frank connected?
Hey, this is June--so how can this be the May 2015 edition? Well, things got busy at the Cafe last month because of a couple of blogathons. We got a little behind schedule!

For those who have never played this game, you will be given a pair of films, TV series, 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. Barbara Eden and Frank Morgan.

2. Barbara Stanwyck and Dyan Cannon.

3. Cary Grant and Robert Loggia.

4. Sean Connery and Tyrone Power.

5. Janet Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor.

6. Rod Taylor and Malcolm McDowell.

7. Fred Astaire and Peter O'Toole.

8. The TV series Gunsmoke and the movie House of Dracula (1945).

9. Rod Taylor and Peter Lorre.

10. Anita Ekberg and Jean Peters.

11. Barry Fitzgerald and Bill Bixby.

12. Penny Singleton and Robin Williams.

13. Toshiro Mifune and Yul Brynner.

14. Will Smith and Vincent Price.

15. Albert Finney and Thunderball (this one is a stretch).

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon: Let's Go on a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea!

What was the longest-running science fiction TV series of the 1960s? If you answered Star Trek, Lost in Space, or even The Outer Limits, you'd be wrong. That distinction belongs to producer Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which debuted in 1964 and ran for four years.

Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson.
The show's "star" was the Seaview, a futuristic, atomic-powered submarine designed by Admiral Harriman Nelson. Although Nelson essentially lived aboard his super sub, the vessel's commander was the younger Captain Lee Crane. The relationship between these two men--paternal, respectful, and occasionally at conflict--formed the central core of the series throughout its run. It was enhanced by the casting: film veteran Richard Basehart played Nelson while handsome, likable David Hedison was Crane. The two actors became lifelong friends off-screen.

The episodes from Voyage's first season featured a canny mix of suspense, espionage, and science fiction plots. In “Hotline,” the Seaview’s crew has to disarm a nuclear reactor aboard a Soviet satellite that crashed into the ocean. “No Way Out” finds Nelson and Crane trying to provide safe passage for an uncooperative Communist defector. In “The Sky Is Falling,” Nelson tries to negotiate with apparently-friendly aliens (this was the first of many episodes about extraterrestrials).

Captain Crane looks concerned.
It’s a strong season that benefitted from quality guest stars such as Robert Duvall, George Sanders, Carroll O’Connor, Hurd Hatfield, Everett Sloane, and June Lockhart. Additionally, three episodes were penned by notable film and television scribes: Charles Bennett (Foreign Correspondent, Curse of the Demon); John McGreevey (The Waltons); and the amusingly-named Cordwainer Bird--which was a pseudonym for acclaimed science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

The colorful Flying Sub.
A modest ratings hit, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was renewed for a second season—but one that brought changes. Gruff but lovable Chief Curley Jones was nowhere to be seen, because actor Henry Kulky had died from a heart attack at age 55. Terry Becker joined the cast as Chief Sharkey. The realistic mini-sub was replaced by a spiffy, colorful “flying sub.” And most notably, there was a shift toward more science fiction plots, starting with the first episode. Titled “Jonah and the Whale,” it found Nelson and a female Russian scientist literally inside a gigantic whale after the beast swallows their diving bell. (The elaborate, colorful sets for this episode was the subject of a TV Guide article.)

By the third season, the Seaview had become a popular place for strange creatures to visit. The crew had to battle a werewolf (Admiral Nelson no less!), a mummy, a “heat monster,” some “fossil men,” a deadly cloud, a mean mermaid, “wax men,” and Nazis revived from suspended animation. This monster-of-the-week approach wore thin, although Basehart and Hedison still kept the show watchable. Despite placing #63 in the Nielsen ratings for the season, Voyage was renewed for a fourth and final season.

A dinosaur borrowed from The Lost World.
I've chosen not to dwell much on Irwin Allen’s entertaining theatrical film, 1961’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which served as the basis for the series. However, it warrants a mention for two reasons. First, the budget-minded Allen was always looking to get the most out of existing sets and stock footage. So, the TV series’ season 2 episode “The Sky’s on Fire” ripped off the movie’s plot about the Van Allen radiation belt “catching fire” and threatening to scorch the Earth. Likewise, the season 1 episode “Turn Back the Clock” recycled footage from Allen’s 1960 theatrical film The Lost World—which conveniently starred David Hedison. The dinosaur scenes (actually, they were live lizards on miniature sets) from that movie also cropped up in other episodes.

The movie’s other contribution to the TV series was its special effects wizard L.B. Abbott. The head of 20th Century-Fox’s special effects department from 1957-70, Abbott won Academy Awards for Doctor Doolittle (1967), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Logan’s Run (1976). He also earned three Emmys for his special effects, one for Allen’s Time Tunnel and two for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. They were the only Emmys won by Voyage.

A blueprint of the Seaview.
As a youth, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was my first “favorite TV show.” It also inspired me to write my first fan letter, which yielded a black & white photo of the Seaview and a copy of its blueprint (I wrote about this in an earlier post). I had a model of the Flying Sub and a toy Seaview propelled across my bathtub waters courtesy of a wound-up rubber band. I am not alone in my affection for this show either. You can find all kinds of cool stuff about Voyage at the Irwin Allen News Network and my 2013 interview with David Hedison ranks as one of the Café’s most popular posts.


This post is part of the Classic TV Blog Association’s Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon. Click here to check out the complete blogathon schedule. And don’t forget to set your video recording devices for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which airs weekly on MeTV on Sunday at 1:00 a.m.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Roger Moore as The Saint

Already tired of summer TV offerings from the major networks? Then, you're in luck because the Timeless Media Group will release all six seasons of Roger Moore's The Saint in a deluxe DVD set on May 26th. If you watched one of the 118 episodes each day, that would kept you busy through the summer!

Author Leslie Charteris introduced Simon Templar in his 1928 novel Meet the Tiger, though he considered the short-story collection Enter the Saint (1930) to be Templar's literary introduction. Sometimes labeled the "Robin Hood of modern crime," Templar traveled the globe to deal with gun-runners, corrupt officials, gangsters, and spies. He collected "fees" from the bad guys, keeping some of the money and returning the rest to its owners or donating it to charity. His nickname, The Saint, was derived from his initials S.T. and his calling card featured a stick figure with a halo. Charteris wrotes dozens of Saint short stories and a handful of novels from 1928 to 1964.

George Sanders played The Saint.
The debonair troubleshooter seemed like an ideal candidate for the silver screen and Hollywood came calling in the late 1930s. Louis Hayward became the first actor to play Simon Templar in The Saint in New York (1938), based on a 1935 novel. It's a respectable "B" picture, though I prefer RKO's follow-up Saint films starring the always suave George Sanders. Sanders starred in five Saint films before departing to play a similar detective called The Falcon in another RKO film series. Additional actors who played The Saint on the big screen include Hugh Sinclair (who was quite good), Jean Marais, and Val Kilmer. On the radio, The Saint was voiced by Vincent Price, Tom Conway (Sanders' brother), Brian Aherne, and others.

Roger Moore as Simon Templar.
However, the man that came to own the role was Roger Moore. Surprisingly, Moore was not the first choice for the lead in the 1960s television series The Saint. British TV mogul Lew Grade, who owned the ITV network, originally wanted Patrick McGoohan to play Simon Templar. However, in Burl Barer's comprehensive book The Saint: A Complete History, producer Robert S. Baker said: "We had a talk with Patrick, but we didn't see eye to eye...He 's a marvelous artist, but we thought he didn't have the right sort of panache for The Saint. He didn't have the humor. We wanted to do the show slightly tongue in cheek, we had to have plenty of humor."

Moore as Beau Maverick.
Despite his youthful looks, Roger Moore was a 35-year-old film and TV veteran when he became The Saint. His best-known previous role was as Beau Maverick in the Western TV series Maverick (he essentially replaced James Garner during the show's final year). Prior to that, he had starred in two other TV series: The Alaskans (playing a character called Silky Harris) and Ivanhoe, based on Walter Scott's novel. Moore slipped into the Simon Templar persona effortlessly. Whereas some actors grow into a role, Moore was seemingly born to play The Saint (although his TV character aligned more closely with Charteris' later books as opposed to the earlier ones featuring a tougher Templar).

The first season of The Saint quickly establishes that Simon Templar is both well-known and independently wealthy. In fact, many episodes start with someone recognizing him as "the famous Simon Templar"--at which time a halo appears above his head and the credits roll. The third episode, "The Careful Terrorist," introduces a gruff sidekick named Hoppy (Percy Herbert)--but Hoppy is never seen again. Instead, Simon solves crimes and helps people in need on his own. This meant that Roger Moore was the only series regular for the show's entire run. The only recurring character of note is Templar's nemesis, Inspector Teal (Ivor Dean), who appears in 24 episodes.

Julie Christie in the episode "Judith."
Since Templar was not strictly a detective, the plots could vary widely. Thus, any given episode might find The Saint uncovering a devious scheme to poison a friend ("The Talented Husband"), dealing with kidnappers ("The Latin Touch"), stealing the plans for an invention ("Judith"), or recovering counterfeit plates ("The Work of Art"). By the mid-1960s, The Saint began to reflect the influence of the James Bond movies and The Avengers. In "The Helpful Pirate", British intelligence sends Simon on a mission. And in one of my favorites, "The House on Dragon's Rock," Simon confronts a mad scientist and his creepy creation in Wales (think Them!). There was even an episode about the Loch Ness Monster—which was a popular “guest star” in many 1960s British TV series (e.g., The Avengers, Stingray).

In the U.S., The Saint originally aired as a syndicated TV series, often showing after the local late news. In 1967, with the spy craze fueled by the 007 films, NBC picked up The Saint as a summer replacement series. Its ratings success led to a regular spot on NBC's midseason schedule. The later Saint episodes were filmed in color and shown in over 60 countries. By then, Moore had expanded his role to unofficial co-producer and occasionally director.

When The Saint ended its run, Lew Grade paired Roger Moore with Tony Curtis in a similar series called The Persuaders. Unfortunately, the two actors never clicked and The Persuaders, which only lasted one season, wasn't very good (though it featured a cool John Barry title theme). Moore, of course, went on to play James Bond--a career move that even eclipsed his success as The Saint.

Simon and his Volvo P1800.
Timeless Media's DVD boxed set is nicely packaged in four separate attractive cases. The image quality is excellent (keep in mind that these shows used stock footage for some exteriors, which looked grainy to start with). Roger Moore, with other members of the cast and crew, provides commentary on several episodes. Speaking of guest stars, the lineup is an impressive one and includes Julie Christie, Samantha Eggar, Donald Sutherland, Anthony Quayle, Jean Marsh, and 007 veterans Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton, Walter Gotell, Julian Glover, and Lois Maxwell. (Click here to check out our video tribute to The Saint's leading ladies.)

The guest stars, the plots, and Simon's iconic P1800 Volvo coupe (with the "ST 1" license plate) are all excellent reasons to watch The Saint. However, you really need just one--and that's the likable, charismatic Roger Moore.

Timeless Media Group provided a copy of The Saint  DVD set for review.