Monday, November 24, 2014

The Slipper and the Rose: A Different Musical Take on Cinderella

Richard Chamberlain as the Prince.
Pleasant, but only modestly successful, The Slipper and the Rose (1976) follows in the footsteps of two better-known musical versions of Cinderella: Walt Disney's 1950 animated classic and the Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical that starred, at various times, Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren, and Brandy Norwood. There are numerous other musical adaptations as well, to include 1955's The Glass Slipper with Leslie Caron. Thus, it seems odd that if one was going to produce a lavish musical fairy tale that one would pick Cinderella.

That said, The Slipper and the Rose takes an unique approach by focusing much of the plot on the Prince and emphasizing class distinctions in the monarchy of Euphrania. Richard Chamberlain plays Edward, a dashing prince being pressured into marriage to ensure the sovereignty of his tiny country. Edward rejects several potential brides on the basis that he wants to marry for love. The royal chamberlain (Kenneth More) convinces the king to throw a ball to find an acceptable spouse for his son.

Gemma Craven as Cinderella.
Meanwhile, following her father's death, Cinderella (Gemma Craven) has learned that her stepmother (a delightful Margaret Lockwood) inherited the estate. The disagreeable lady gives Cinderella two choices: become a servant (indeed, the only one) in her own home or go live in an orphanage. Cinderella's outlook is bleak until her fairy godmother (Annette Crosbie) arrives and magically arranges for her to attend the ball. When she makes her grand entrance, it's loveat first sight for Cinderella and Prince Edward. However, in this version of the fairy tale, it takes awhile before they can live happily ever after.

Brother Richard and Robert Sherman, who composed the songs, were Disney veterans known for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Their score for The Slipper and the Rose is agreeable without being especially memorable. The clever lyrics (as evidenced by the song title "Protocoligorically Correct") outshine the music. The exception is the lovely Oscar-nominated "The Slipper and the Rose Waltz (He Danced with Me/She Danced with Me)," which lost the gold statuette to "You Light Up My Life." (If your browser prevents you from viewing the embedded clip below, click here to view it on YouTube.)

Gemma Craven is a sweet Cinderella, but she doesn't get much screen time until the film's second half. She does have a strong scene near the climax in which she shows her character's inner strength singing the dramatic "Tell Him Anything (But Not That I Love Him)." Chamberlain does well as the prince and proves that he can carry a tune (he had a trio of Top 20 Billboard hits during in the 1960s while his Dr. Kildare TV series was popular). However, it's the veteran supporting cast that carries the film: Crosbie, More, Michael Hordern as the King, and Dame Edith Evans as the Dowager Queen. As mentioned above, Margaret Lockwood is a perfect wicked stepmother and deserved more screen time.

Margaret Lockwood's evil stepmother.
When I watch a film like The Slipper and the Rose, I sometimes wonder who was the intended audience. At a length of 143 minutes and with 13 songs, I can't imagine many kids sitting through it from start to finish. So, I can only assume it was intended as a fairy tale for adults. However, even they might get restless when it continues for a half-hour after Edward discovers the left-behind glass slipper fits Cinderella. It's an interesting idea to split up the lovebirds because of their class distinctions, but, in the end, the resolution is much too tidy with everyone getting what they want.

I suppose that's all right in this case, though, because The Slipper and the Rose is a fairy tale.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Double Dog Daring with MGM's Lassie

Given the public's embrace of 1943's Lassie Come Home, it was inevitable that MGM would launch a film series featuring the lovable, clever canine. Most of the pictures were connected only in that the lead character was a collie named Lassie. However, Son of Lassie (1945) was a direct sequel starring Peter Lawford as Joe Carraclough, who was played by Roddy McDowall as a lad in Lassie Come Home.

Joe still lives on the Duke of Rudling's (Nigel Bruce) estate, where his father (Donald Crisp) tends to the kennels. The Duke's granddaughter Priscilla (June Lockhart) is obviously smitten with Joe, but by the time he gets around to confirming his affection for her, he's off to fly planes for the RAF.
June Lockhart, an unknown actor as Laddie, and Peter Lawford.

Meanwhile, Joe's dog Laddie, one of Lassie's pups, joins the military too when Joe's father agrees to train a canine corps. Missing his owner, Laddie runs away and eventually stows away on an airplane piloted by Joe. When their plane is shot down over Nazi-infested Norway, Joe and Laddie must find each other and then find their way back home.

The bulk of Son of Lassie is a solid World War II adventure that reminded me of Powell and Pressberger's more impressive One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. Both films highlight the resilience of the inhabitants of occupied territories, who take great personal risks to aid the escape of Allied troops.

Peter Lawford and Pal as Laddie.
Lawford, in his first lead role, is a likable hero and assisted by a first-rate supporting cast. Unfortunately, there aren't enough scenes of him with June Lockhart and therefore their climatic reunion generates little emotion. On the other hand, the bond between man and dog is captured nicely and Pal, the canine star, is convincing as both the adult Laddie and his mother Lassie. (Lockhart, of course, would later forge her own relationship with her collie co-star, playing Timmy's mother on the Lassie TV series).

It's not Norway!
For what is essentially a "B" film, Son of Lassie reflects the typical high MGM production values. The breathtaking, colorful landscapes of  British Columbia and Wyoming substitute effectively for Norway.

After another war-themed series entry, the fine Courage of Lassie, MGM cast its canine star in Hills of Home (1948). This heartfelt story of a rural Scottish doctor reunited Pal and Edmund Gwenn from Lassie Come Home. The pair would appear together again the following year in Challenge to Lassie.

Gwenn's character was inspired by Ian
Maclaren's Doctor of the Old School.
In Hills of Home, the aging Dr. MacLure worries about what will happen in Glen Urtach when age forces him to eventually retire. His plan is to send bright young Tammas Milton (Tom Drake) to medical school in Edinburgh, but Tammas's family and sweetheart (Janet Leigh) aren't sold on the idea.

A lonely bachelor, MacLure accepts a collie in trade for medical services. What he doesn't know is that the dog is afraid to cross running water. Over time, MacLure's frustrations with his bonnie collie give way to love--and when it comes time for Lass to prove her worth, she comes through admirably.

Janet Leigh and Tom Drake.
Still, this is an intimate portrait of a country doctor told through a series of sketches and performed admirably by Gwenn, Donald Crisp as his best friend, and Tom Drake in one of his best performances. Many of the cast and crew appeared in previous and future Lassie films, to include: Gwenn; Crisp (Lassie Come Home, Son of Lassie, Challenge to Lassie); Drake (Courage of Lassie); Reginald Owen (Challenge to Lassie); and director Fred M. Wilcox (Lassie Come Home, Courage of Lassie).

MGM went on to make three more Lassie films. The Sun Comes Up (1948) starred Jeanette MacDonald in her last movie role. The aforementioned Challenge to Lassie (1949) was based on the true story of Greyfriars Bobby (a Skye Terrier). The film series ended with The Painted Hills (1951)--although the long-running Lassie TV series would debut in 1954 and rack up 352 half-hour episodes over the next 19 years. One of its stars, Jon Provost, recently shared his Lassie memories with us.

As an added bonus to promote the Cafe's new YouTube Channel, here's the opening scene from Son of Lassie (if your mobile device blocks embedded YouTube videos, click here to view it):

Monday, November 17, 2014

Witness for the Prosecution: It's Billy Wilder--Not Hitch!

A dear friend of mine has referred to Witness for the Prosecution as an Alfred Hitchcock movie on more than one occasion. That's understandable--it looks, smells, and feels like a Hitch pic. The fact that it was directed by Billy Wilder is a testament to Mr. Wilder's versatility as a filmmaker. The Austrian-born writer-director was adept at making screwball comedies (One, Two, Three), film noir (Double Indemnity), satire (The Apartment), sophisticated comedy (Sabrina), drama (The Lost Weekend), and romance (Avanti!). In Witness for the Prosecution, he expertly blends courtroom drama and humor--in the best Hitchcockian tradition.

Tyrone Power as the defendant.
Charles Laughton stars as Sir Wilfred Robarts, a grumpy but shrewd London barrister who was recently released from the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Against the advice of his physicians, Sir Wilfred takes on a murder case (his specialty). His client is an affable chap named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) accused of killing an elderly lady. Vole's alleged motive is that the murder victim left him a substantial amount of money in her will. His alibi rests on the testimony of his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who leaves a decidedly cold impression with Sir Wilfred.

Based on a short story and stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is justly famous for its twist ending--which is flawlessly executed. It was probably one of the first films that marketed its climatic twist. Indeed, a voiceover prior to the closing credits asked moviegoers not to reveal the ending to their friends. However, like Hitchcock's Psycho, Witness is a strong film that's enhanced by its famous plot device. It certainly doesn't rely on a clever trick to be entertaining.

The film's success can be attributed to those old basics of good acting and good script writing. Laughton, who had a tendency to ham up some of his later roles, finds the perfect blend of seriousness and humor. He is matched by Dietrich and his wife Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, a nurse charged with the unenviable task of caring for Sir Wilfred. Lanchester and Laughton make a delightful comic team, one savvy enough to generate laughs out of the contents of a thermos. Dietrich has a more difficult role, especially since her character is a conundrum for much of the film. However, when it comes to her big scenes, she exceeds all expectations.

Nurse Plimsoll and Sir Wilfred.
There was a time when I considered Tyrone Power to be the film's weak link. I still don't believe his performance ranks with the ones delivered by his co-stars. However, I have gradually come to the realization that Power is portraying a character playing a character. That's got to be a challenge, so, on that level, he does a solid job as the smarmy Vole.

Marlene Dietrich in the witness box.
In adapting Christie's play, Wilder and co-writers Larry Marcus and Harry Kurnitz made two significant additions. First, they added scenes showing how Leonard met Christine and later befriended the murder victim. The latter doesn't add much to the plot, but the scenes of Christine soften her character and help justify actions taken later in the film. Dietrich's nightclub number was reportedly based on a scene cut from Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), which starred Dietrich, Jean Arthur, and John Lund. The cabaret set cost over $75,000 to build.

Still, Wilder's most significant contribution to the script was the creation of the delightful Nurse Plimsoll. Many of the film's best lines are delivered by her or directed at her by the gruff barrister (Miss Plimsoll: "Sir Wilfred, we mustn't forget that we've had a teeny weeny heart attack."). Plus, Wilder gets a lot of mileage out of Sir Wilfred's amusing attempts to hide his vices (e.g., cigars and brandy) from Miss Plimsoll's watchful eyes.

Witness for the Prosecution earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Wilder, Best Actor for Laughton, and Best Supporting Actress for Lanchester. It was remade for television in 1982 with another impressive cast: Ralph Richardson as Sir Wilfred, Deborah Kerr as Miss Plimsoll, and Diana Rigg as Christine. I haven't seen that version since it's original broadcast, but recall it being very well done.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Break-up With Manhattan

For most of my adult life, I've listed Manhattan as possibly my favorite Woody Allen film. It made that much of an impression when I saw it in 1980. Hence, I was enthused about a recent opportunity to view it again. But now having seen it after 34 years, I am stunned that I ever thought so highly of it. It is not a dreadful film, but neither is it a very good one.

Allen as the often befuddled Isaac.
Allen plays Isaac, a 42-year-old New York City television writer who aspires to write the Great American Novel. Like most Allen characters, he is flush with insecurities about his talent (he abruptly quits his job) and the opposite sex (an ex-wife leaves him for a woman). His girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), is a 17-year-old high school student. His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is a pseudo-intellectual snob who is cheating on his wife. Yale's mistress Mary (Diane Keaton) initially irritates Isaac, but--as both characters search for something missing in their lives--he finds himself falling for her. 

Diane Keaton as Mary.
Manhattan is often described as a bookend to Annie Hall, with the general perception that both films were inspired by the real-life romance between Allen and Keaton. By the time the two stars made Manhattan, they had broken up. Their friendship remained intact, though, and perhaps their natural byplay is what attracted me to Manhattan. Keaton remains the perfect Ying to Allen's Yang. Their scenes seem real, but it's when they're apart that the film falls apart. 

Individually, it's hard to root for these people. Isaac is sometimes amusing, but he's also incredibly selfish. He dumps Tracy when he thinks he loves Mary. When that doesn't work out, he wants Tracy to forget her dreams and take him back. Mary rejects Yale because he doesn't have time for her. Later, she dumps Isaac because she thinks she still loves Yale. Enough already! Those characters come across as confused, self-centered intellectuals with few redeeming qualities (well, we do see Isaac in one scene with his son). 

Mariel Hemingway and Allen.
The most appealing character is Tracy, who, despite her youth, displays more maturity than any of the principals. Yet, it's sad to watch her waste her life with Isaac--even if he does educate her on classic cinema. She seems to have lost her zest for life at an early age.

Frankly, I also find their relationship disturbing, for Isaac is clearly having sex with a teenager. Of course, there are now obvious parallels to Woody's real life marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, who was supposedly a slightly older 19, when she and the 56-year-old Allen began their relationship. (For the record, Allen also allegedly had a fling in the late 1970s with 17-year-old actress Stacey Nelkin, who served as the basis for Tracy). 

The cast standouts are Mariel Hemingway as Tracy and Meryl Streep as one of Allen's ex-wives. Hemingway received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but lost the award to Streep, who won for Kramer vs. Kramer

In retrospect, Manhattan works best as an ode to the city. Lovingly captured in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, the city comes to life--the skyscraper landscapes, the neon signs, the historic landmarks. Willis captures all of these breathtaking imagines with a gray pallette that somehow transforms Manhattan into a magical place. Amazingly, Willis did not even receive an Oscar nomination for his work. In fact, Willis never won an Academy Award, though he was given an honorary one in 2010 for "unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color, and motion." Three of those four elements are wonderfully on display in Manhattan
Keaton and Allen as silhouettes in a planetarium.

I realize that my revised assessment of Manhattan contradicts the one held by most critics and film buffs. I don't mind being in the minority and, if you disagree adamantly, please leave a comment below. What I found most interesting, as I reflected on this film again, is that I rarely change my mind about a movie I've seen. And when I do, it's almost always a case of increasing admiration. That makes Manhattan a rarity--and, for me, not in a good way.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Movie-TV Connection Quiz (November 2014 Edition)

What's the connection between Alan
Ladd and David Carradine?
Greetings, film and TV trivia gurus! In this game, you will once again be given be a pair of films, TV series, performers, or any combination thereof. Your task is to find the common connection between the pair. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, a film that inspired a TV series, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. The James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever and John Ford's The Searchers.

2. The Absent-Minded Professor and Hoosiers.

3. The Man With the Golden Gun (another 007 pic!) and the TV series Fantasy Island.

4. The TV series Get Smart and The Love Boat.

5. The TV series Mission: Impossible and The Rat Patrol.

6. The films Francis in the Haunted House and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

7. The TV series Maverick and the movie Live and Let Die.

8. Dorothy Malone and Lana Turner.

9. The films Stalag 17 and The Thing from Another World (1951).

10. Alan Ladd and David Carradine.

11. Steve McQueen and Alan Ladd.

12. Chuck Connors and Oliver Reed.

13. David Niven and Harrison Ford.

14. The original TV series Dallas and the film The Day of the Triffids (1963).

15. The Three Stooges and The Seven Dwarfs.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Alias Smith and Jones: A Look at the Show's Origin and Untimely Fate

Alias Smith and Jones stars Pete Duel
and Roger Davis.
Tragedy and irony surround the evolution, success, and cancellation of Alias Smith and Jones, the breezy Western-comedy that ran on ABC from 1971 to 1973.

Producer Roy Huggins initially came up with the idea for a TV series loosely inspired by 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That’s no surprise since Huggins pretty much invented television’s Western-comedy genre when he introduced Maverick in 1958. For his new series, Huggins envisioned a lighthearted show about two young men—one straight and narrow and the other a hustler—who travel the Old West together.

Roger Davis in The Young Country.
That concept came to fruition as The Young Country, a 1970 made-for-TV movie that doubled as the pilot for a new series. It starred Roger Davis as Stephen Foster Moody, an honest young man, and Pete Duel as Honest John Smith…who was the dishonest one. The female lead was played by Joan Hackett, who co-starred in the previous year’s Support Your Local Sheriff. That theatrical film headlined James Garner in a role very similar to Bret Maverick. If you think that’s a coincidence, well, we’re just getting started.

In The Young Country, Stephen Foster Moody comes into possession of a large stash of money when he comes to the aid of a meek businessman (Wally Cox), who is killed. He subsequently tries to find the dead man’s family so he can give them the money. In reality, the loot was embezzled as part of a con masterminded by Clementine Hale (Hackett) and Honest John. The Young Country is a pleasant but slight movie and--not surprisingly--ABC passed on the weekly TV series.

A year later, Glen A. Larson, who had worked closely with Huggins in the television industry, made Alias Smith and Jones. Like The High Country, it was a lighthearted Western and again starred Pete Duel. This time, he was paired with newcomer Ben Murphy as a couple of outlaws trying to earn their amnesty. There were numerous similarities to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:  the playful banter between the friends; the tongue-in-cheek tone; Ben Murphy’s resemblance to Paul Newman; and even the names of their gangs (Hole in the Wall Gang and Devil’s Hole Gang). According to producer Jo Swerling, Jr., quoted in Paul Green’s book Roy Huggins, 20th Century-Fox unsuccessfully sued Universal over those similarities.

Paul Newman and Ben Murphy: Do you think they look alike?
The Alias Smith and Jones telefilm starts with Hannibal Heyes (Duel) and Kid Currie (Murphy) having a bad day. After successfully robbing the passengers on a train, they can’t get the safe—their primary target—opened. After observing their frustration, an elderly lady (Jeanette Nolan) politely suggests they get out of the outlaw business. She gives them a handbill about how lawbreakers, under certain circumstances, can gain amnesty from the governor.

Eventually, Heyes and Currie decide to pursue that amnesty. However, the governor decides not to grant it outright to two such notorious outlaws. His deal is that they must stay out of trouble and not break the law until they “earned” amnesty. That turns out to be a tough challenge when Heyes winds up working as a bank teller…in the very bank that his former gang plans to rob.

Duel (and Murphy) were popular with
female viewers.
With a running time of 74 minutes, the Alias Smith and Jones pilot movie loses steam before its conclusion. Still, the two leads are engaging, especially Duel who lights up the screen as a good guy with a twinkle of larceny. ABC gave the TV series the greenlight and it debuted in January 1971.

While never a big hit in the ratings, the regular series attracted a faithful following. Many of the best episodes featured recurring guest stars Sally Field and J.D. Cannon. Field played Clementine Hale (yes, that character is from The Young Country), a childhood friend of Heyes and Currie, in two first-rate episodes. J. D. Cannon was even better as a bumbling Pinkerton detective named Harry Briscoe in five episodes.

Roger Davis and Ben Murphy.
As Alias Smith and Jones celebrated its first year on the air, tragedy struck on New Year’s Eve 1971. Pete Duel fatally shot himself in his Hollywood home. With the show in mid-production, the role of Hannibal Heyes had to be recast quickly. The part went to Roger Davis, who—in addition to his Young Country connection—had narrated the show’s opening each week.

I can’t imagine a better replacement than Davis, who slipped into the role effortlessly. Yet, while he and Murphy still had chemistry as Heyes and Currie, the shadow of Duel’s death hung over the series. Still, it was attracting a respectable viewing audience when ABC canceled it after the third season. By then, Roger Davis had appeared in 17 episodes as Heyes (compared to 33 by Duel).

Of course, the Western genre was also fading on television. Occasional Westerns would continue to pop up on TV, but the days of dominance were long gone. Even long-running stalwarts Gunsmoke and Bonanza had headed to Boot Hill by 1975.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Seven Things to Know About Ross Martin

Martin and Robert Conrad.
1. Ross Martin is best remembered, of course, for playing Secret Service agent Artemus Gordon in the Western TV series The Wild Wild West (1965-69). During the show's fourth season, he broke his leg on the set while filming the episode "The Night of the Avaricious Actuary." While he recovered, Charles Aidman and William Schallert portrayed partners to Robert Conrad's James T. West.

2. Later during the show's fourth and final season, Ross Martin suffered a heart attack. Despite his limited appearances that season, he was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.

Martin as Artemus in disguise.
3. Since Artemus Gordon was a master of disguises, Ross Martin donned make-up to portray dozens of different "characters" in the series. In the book, A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde: Interviews with 62 Filmmakers, make-up artist Kenneth Chase recalls that Martin frequently spent two hours in the make-up chair for one disguise (and hated waiting for his scenes to be filmed).

Martin in Experiment in Terror.
4. The Wild, Wild West wasn't the first time that Ross Martin played a character who employed disguises. He portrayed a killer who impersonates a woman in Blake Edwards' Experiment in Terror (1962).

5. In Edwards' TV series Mr. Lucky (1959-60), he starred as Andamo, the charismatic "business associate" to the title gambler played by John Vivyan. Indeed, Ross was a Blake Edwards' favorite; he also appeared in The Great Race as Baron Rolfe Von Stuppe. One of Martin's fellow actors in that film was Peter Falk; they later played adversaries in "Suitable for Framing," the best episode in the the first season of Columbo.

Martin as Charlie Chan.
6. Interestingly, Martin starred as the title character in the made-for-TV movie The Return of Charlie Chan (aka Happiness Is a Warm Clue). The pilot for a TV series, it was an ill-fated project from the start. Made in 1973, it was shelved due to complaints about a Caucasian actor playing Earl Derr Biggers' detective. (For the record, Charlie Chan was a Hawaiian detective and was played most famously by Swedish actor Warner Oland). Martin's Chan movie was eventually broadcast in 1978.

7. Ross Martin suffered a fatal heart attack after a game of tennis in 1981. He was 61. He and Robert Conrad had recently starred in two Wild Wild West "reunion movies": The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980). According to some sources, there was discussion about reviving the TV series, but that ended with Martin's untimely death.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Night of the Demon: If Hitchcock Had Made a Horror Movie...

Although made in the late 1950s, Night of the Demon (US: Curse of the Demon) owes its inspiration to producer Val Lew-ton's 1940s “B” horror films. Constrained by a low budget, Lewton knew he couldn’t afford to show a scary monster, so he made psychological thrillers like The Leopard Man in which the film’s menace was implied. One of Lewton’s directors was Jacques Tourneur, who would later helm the film noir classic Out of the Past and, of course, Night of the Demon.

According to legend, Tourneur’s original cut of Night of the Demon never showed the title creature. The producers felt it wasn’t creepy enough, though, and inserted two scenes with a gruesome two-horned, fanged demonic creature created by Wally Veevers. Whether the tale is true or not, the decision to show the demon works to the film’s advantage. The creature’s rare appearances make quite an impact and Veevers’ work is quite impressive.

The real star of the film, though, is Niall McGinnis, who plays devil cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell. At the beginning of the film, Karswell receives a visit from Professor Harrington, who has been investigating the cult. A frightened Harrington tells Karswell that he will stop the investigation and pleads with Karswell to “call it off.” Karswell notes that “some things are more easily started than stopped.” Later that night, a hideous demon kills Harrington.

John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American psychologist, and Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the professor’s niece, pick up the investigation. Holden, who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, pays a call on Karswell at the latter’s country estate. Karswell, sporting clown make-up, is giving a Halloween magic show for the local children. It’s my favorite scene and features such great dialogue as:

Holden: I see you practice white magic as well as black.

Karswell: I don’t think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from Hell for them. Or for myself for that matter. As we’re not protected by the magic circle, we’d both of us be torn to shreds.

Holden: And you’d spoil the party.

Karswell: You’re so right…but how to make the point.

To do just that, Karswell summons up a wind storm (a medieval witch’s specialty, he explains later) that sends screaming children running inside the house—a scene that foreshadows a similar children’s party gone awry in Hitchcock's The Birds.

The film's most famous sequence, though, is probably Holden's late night trek through the woods. After an encounter at Karswell's country estate, Holden makes for a quick exit out the study door. Karswell politely advises him not to take the path through the woods, but the defiant Holden does just that--setting the stage for a chase very reminiscent of those in Lewton pictures like The Cat People.

A creature worth showing!
Night of the Demon was loosely based on M.R. James' short story "Casting the Runes." The witty screenplay was co-authored by Charles Bennett, who worked on early Hitchcock classics like The 39 Steps. He gives McGinnis almost all the good lines. When Karswell finds the skeptical Holden searching his study, the cult leader remarks about Joanna: “At least, she doesn’t have her head in the sand. She believes she can see. She can. She believes that she’s alive. She is. She believes that you will die tomorrow night. You will.”

Indeed, the film’s only weakness may be that Karsell is so much more interesting than Holden. It doesn’t help that Dana Andrews gives a bland performance as the disbelieving hero and the talented Peggy Cummins has very little to do. The film's second best performance is given by screen veteran Athene Seyler, who plays Karswell's mother. Their mother-son relationship is straight out of Hitchcock (who seemed to have a soft spot for his villains' mothers).

Sadly, Night of the Demon would be the last significant film for director Jacques Tourneur. He worked mostly in television in the 1960s, directing episodes of shows like Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and T.H.E. Cat. Still, his final two films weren't without interest: War Gods of the Deep (1965) was a bizarre, entertaining adventure film about an underwater city and The Comedy of Terrors was an amusing trifle written by Richard Matheson and starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone.

As Tourneur's swansong in the horror genre, he couldn't have done better than Night of the Demon. I've often thought that if Hitch had made a horror film, it might have looked something like Night of the Demon. He probably would have wanted to avoid showing the title creature, too. I’d have to disagree, though, because, in close-up especially, that disagreeable demon is quite chillingly memorable.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bob Hope Ain't Afraid of No Ghosts

Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard.
One of Bob Hope's best films, The Ghost Breakers is a first-rate haunted house comedy that benefits from a funny script and a strong cast. Made in 1941, it reteams Hope and Paulette Goddard from the similar The Cat and the Canary (1939). Both movies features spooky settings and were adapted from stage plays. However, while The Cat and the Canary comes off as a bit creaky, The Ghost Breakers holds up nicely.

Bob plays a radio broadcaster named Lawrence (Larry) Lawrence (his middle name is Lawrence, too--"My parents had no imagination"). He has a radio show on which he's billed as "the man who knows all the rackets and all the racketeers." While visiting a hotel to see a disgruntled gangster, Larry accidentally fires a gun at the same time another man is fatally shot. Thinking he has committed a homicide, Larry hides in the hotel room of Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard).

Mary (Goddard) encounters a zombie
played by Noble Johnson.
Mary has recently inherited a Cuban castle called Castillo Maldito, located on the ominous-sounding Black Island. For 20 years, no one has been able to spend a night in the castle and survive until morning. Additionally, an anonymous individual offered to buy the estate for $50,000, although Mary refused to sell. She helps Larry evade the police and, in return, he agrees to accompany her to the eerie castle. He keeps his promise even after he's cleared of the murder rap--and Mary receives a note stating: "Death waits for you on Black Island." By that point, it's clear that Larry has become smitten with Mary.

Unlike The Cat and the Canary, much of the plot takes place outside the haunted house. That's not a bad thing, with Hope delivering some of his most memorable wisecracks. My favorite is this exchange with Richard Carlson, in which the latter describes the island's undead:

CARLSON: It's worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.

HOPE: You mean like Democrats?

Bob Hope and Willie Best.
Willie Best, who worked with many of the best comedians in Hollywood, has perhaps his most substantial role as Larry's valet. He and Hope form a funny team and, as Thomas Cripps points out in his book Slow Fade to Black, they even subtly poke fun at racial stereotyping: "As he (Best) fumbles with oars, Hope says, 'I thought you rowed for Harlem Tech'...(Later) they reverse the old humor when they see an apparition and Hope panics while Best says, "I know better.'"

It's funny to count the number of
scenes that emphasize Paulette's legs.
Paulette Goddard is in top form as the plucky heroine and genuinely seems to be having fun. The same could be said for the rest of the cast, which includes Noble Johnson as a zombie, Paul Lukas as an untrustworthy solicitor, and Anthony Quinn playing twins. Look fast and you might even spot Robert Ryan in his film debut as an ambulance driver.

The Ghost Breakers was loosely based on the 1913 Broadway play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard. It was adapted twice previously as silent films. Additionally, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis starred in a 1953 remake called Scared Stiff. It's one of their better comedies and features Lizabeth Scott as Mary. It was directed by George Marshall, who already knew the plot pretty well--he also helmed The Ghost Breakers.

Bob and Paulette in their earlier film.
After recently watching The Ghost Breakers again, I sought out the Hope-Goddard version of The Cat and the Canary (1939). Although the mist-filled Louisiana Bayou seems promising in the opening frames, the film quickly dissolves into a straightforward haunted house comedy. It's mildly amusing, with Goddard holding most of the plot together (the delightful Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco are sadly underutilized). Bob Hope still seems to be getting comfortable playing a lead role. It's amazing how much more assured he would be just one year later in The Ghost Breakers.

My recommendation is that--if you just see one of these two spooky comedies--your best bet is The Ghost Breakers. It's not scary, but if you're a 'fraidy cat, please note Bob's confession: "I'm so scared, even my goose pimples have goose pimples."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Leopard Man features "one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed"

The accolade in the title of this review comes from director William Friedkin, who knows a little about creating horror (The Exorcist) and suspense (the chase scene in The French Connection). Of course, I didn't need Mr. Friedkin to tell me what I already knew. I saw The Leopard Man as a kid and that specific scene etched itself into my brain. Among classic film buffs, it holds its own against more famous sequences of implied horror like the rolling ball in Fritz Lang's M.

Are the screams behind the door a
childish ploy or a frightening reality?
The Leopard Man, though, is more than a one-tricky pony. It's a fascinating suspense film set in a small New Mexico town (atmospherically created on an RKO backlot). The catalyst for the plot is a black leopard that escapes during a foolish publicity stunt. When a young girl is found clawed to death, the leopard is blamed--but was it the killer?

Some critics have complained that The Leopard Man lacks the psychological complexity of Val Lewton's other RKO thrillers, such as The Cat People and The Seventh Victim. There may be some truth to that, but it makes up for any thematic deficiencies with an intriguing structure and three visually chilling sequences.

Clo-Clo cloaked in shadows.
Screenwriters Ardel Wray and Edward Dein break conventional narrative structure by shifting the story focus when characters interact. For example, after being introduced to castanets dancer Clo-Clo (Margo), we follow her as she walks down a shadow-filled street. She talks with the fortune-teller, playfully waves her hand through a ring of cigarette smoke, and smiles at lovers kissing. Then, as Clo-Clo walks past a young girl looking out the window, the plot shifts to that girl. Later, when Clo-Clo stops at a street florist, we follow another customer to the house where she works and, again, the plot shifts to follow different characters. In both instances, the new characters become murder victims. (Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock used a slight variation of this same narrative device 17 years later in Psycho).

The end result of the film's unusual narrative is that it keeps the viewer in a state of unease by casting aside expectations. Director Jacques Tourneur plays with viewer expectations in other ways as well. In one scene, we follow Clo-Clo down a darkened street. We expect something bad to happen, but then she reaches the safety of her home. Tourneur gives the viewer a few seconds to exhale a sigh of relief before Clo-Clo realizes she dropped something valuable on the street and goes back out into the threatening shadows.

In addition to the almost constant state of unease, Tourneur tosses in the three chilling sequences mentioned earlier. The first--and the one mentioned by Friedkin--involves a girl sent by her irritated mother to buy flour. To say more would be spoil the impact...although the scene has been copied to the point that it may not be as disturbing to new viewers as it once was.

The second of the three scenes is classic Lewton, with a young woman trapped in a spooky cemetery at sunset. She hears a man outside the cemetery wall and asks for help. He leaves to get a ladder, giving us false expectations (again) that nothing bad will happen.

The final scene, during the climax, isn't really suspenseful. It is, though, visually unhinging with a contingent of hooded figures leading a column of men with candles as they march against a gray textured sky (again, amazingly, on the RKO backlot).

Everytime I watch Val Lewton's horror films, I seem have a new favorite. Last year, after watching The Seventh Victim, it moved into my top spot...replacing The Cat People. That said, the one that keeps coming back to haunt me is The Leopard Man. It's a unique, one-of-a-kind thriller and it does indeed feature one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed. Plus, I just watched it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Get Ready for Halloween with "House of Dark Shadows"

Barnabas Collins (with Carolyn
Collins in background).
The intended audience for House of Dark Shadows was undoubtedly fans of the popular 1966-71 ABC gothic daytime drama. If you watched the TV series dutifully (like me), you will enjoy this faithful big screen adaptation. For other viewers, though, House of Dark Shadows is a respectable 1970s vampire film with modest production values and a low-wattage, though quite capable, cast.

The film opens with unemployed handyman Willie Loomis, a modern-day Renfield, inadvertently unleashing vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid). Freed from decades of captivity in his coffin, Barnabas makes a house call on the wealthy Collins family, introducing himself as a cousin from England. The family welcomes the charming Barnabas, who presents matriarch Elizabeth (Joan Bennett) with a thought-to-be-lost, emerald-encrusted heirloom. Yet, while everyone else is enamored with the newly-discovered, gift-giving cousin, Professor Eliot Stokes (Thayer David) becomes immediately suspicious when the vampire avoids some pointed questions.

Kathryn Leigh Scott has written
several Dark Shadows books.
At a costume party, Barnabas meets Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the apparent reincarnation of his lover Josette. While he woos Maggie, he has to deal with two jealous rivals for his affection: Carolyn Collins--who has become a vampire courtesy of a casual Barnabas biting--and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), who has fallen in love with the vampire while developing a cure for his affliction. Not unexpectedly, things go badly for Barnabas, especially when Julia substitutes the anti-vampire serum with a drug with some unpleasant side effects.

Fans of the TV series will quickly recognize that the first 75 minutes of House of Dark Shadows condenses the TV show's familiar plot. However, to create an acceptable climax (and perhaps reward fans with some new material), producer-director Dan Curtis opts for a dramatic--and surprisingly bloody--ending. The truncated storyline also means that several popular characters only get a few minutes of screen time. Still, the focus on Barnabas works to the film's advantage, since Frid's nuanced performance is what made the show a hit in the first place.

Grayson Hall received an Oscar nom
for Night of the Iguana.
House of Dark Shadows also rewards fans by incorporating many of the TV series' familiar elements, from Robert Cobert's haunting music to the shadowy photography and atmospheric settings. Personally, I wish the film had been shot in black-and-white like the first year of the TV series (which looks much better than the later color years). However, mainstream black-and-white films were no longer in vogue by 1970, so that wasn't a realistic option.

For non-fans, House of Dark Shadows is a straightforward horror film released in the same year as another contemporary vampire outing, Count Yorga, Vampire. The Dark Shadows script has some bite (sorry!), such as when Carolyn (soon to be a vampire) tells Barnabas: "There's so much about you that I'm dying to know." One must also admire how the film avoids the whole "there are no such thing as vampires" discussion. Once Professor Stokes proclaims a vampire is to blame, everyone seems to accept that theory. (Of course, the townsfolk--except for Stokes--are slow to connect Barnabas's arrival with the sudden appearance of the bloodsucker).

Jonathan Frid in Dick Smith make-up
as the aged Barnabas.
After House of Dark Shadows turned into a solid box office hit, Curtis set out to make a sequel. However, the TV series had ended by then and Jonathan Frid had moved on to other roles. Therefore, Night of Dark Shadows focused on other characters played by David Selby, Kate Jackson, and Lara Parker. It was a modest hit, but no further sequels appeared.

That was not the end of Dark Shadows, of course, which has been released on video, revived multiple times for television, and recently turned into a campy motion picture by Tim Burton. The simple fact is that you can't keep a great vampire like Barnabas Collins down for long.

Monday, October 27, 2014

You Can't Keep a Good Mummy Down

As monsters go, I've never been a big Mummy fan. After all, the Mummy basically follows orders, kills people, and walks...very...slowly. For some reason, people tend to fall down a lot when he's stalking them. Otherwise, I'm not sure the Mummy would be very effective at accomplishing his deadly tasks.

Still, I am a fan of Hammer Films' The Mummy (1959), which features an imposing Christopher Lee as possibly cinema's most fleet-footed mummified monster. This version is not a remake of the interesting, but plodding, 1932 Boris Karloff original. It does borrow some elements, but Jimmy Sangster's script also gleefully dips into other Universal Mummy movies. In the end, it's sort of a "Best of the Mummy" and that works surprisingly well.

The plot begins in 1895 with three British archaeologists discovering the tomb of Princess Ananka. When left alone in the tomb, elderly Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) reads the scroll of life and inadvertently revives a mummy called Kharis. Banning suffers a stroke and winds up back in England in the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered. He never says a word to anyone for three years. 

An atmospheric shot of the Mummy
emerging from a bog.
Hence, his son John (Peter Cushing) is surprised when he learns his father wants to see him. Dad tells John that there's a mummy roaming the English countryside. John doesn't believe him until the elderly Banning is found strangled in his room at the nursing home--the bars to his window bent like putty.

As mentioned earlier, many familiar plot elements are interwoven into Hammer's The Mummy. There's the sinister Egyptian scholar who wants to punish the men who desecrated Princess Ananka's tomb. There's the expected reincarnation subplot, this time involving Banning's wife (French actress Yvonne Furneau).  And there's a lengthy flashback that explains how Kharis, a high priest to Ananka, became a vengeful mummy.

Apparently, Mummies don't knock.
However, director Terence Fisher freshens up The Mummy with two marvelous set-pieces and some atmospheric visuals of the formidable monster traipsing through the English countryside. The film's best scene has Kharis bursting through the double doors of Banning's stately manor and killing a relative as Banning fires bullets into the impervious creature. A similar later scene is just as effective when Kharis plunges through a floor-length glass window and shrugs off two blasts from a shotgun. 

The reliable Peter Cushing.
As he did in Hammer's Dracula films, Cushing brings intelligence and physicality to his role as a monster adversary. But more than that, he brings conviction to the point that his character can discuss a living mummy committing murders and not sound silly. As the Mummy, 6' 5" Christopher Lee makes a pretty scary monster, assisted by effective make-up and those penetrating eyes. He gets some face time, too, as Kharis in the flashback sequence.

It's a shame that the budget prevented on-location filming for the Egypt footage. It's woefully apparent that these scenes were shot indoors. On the other hand, set designer Bernard Robinson creates some highly effective sets for the scenes taking place in England.

Valerie Leon--she's no mummy!
The Mummy doesn't belong in Hammer's top tier of films (which includes the likes of Brides of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and The Devil Rides Out). That said, it's a very satisfying take on the Mummy pantheon and recommended for horror fans. Hammer made three sequels (of sorts). Skip The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) and The Mummy's Shroud (1967) and go straight to Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971). In lieu of a mummy, you get the stunning Valerie Leon in an intriguing adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars.