Thursday, August 25, 2016

Project X: A Bit of Mission: Impossible, a Pinch of Forbidden Planet, and a Dash of Jonny Quest

Chris George as Hagan Arnold.
One of William Castle's final films as a director, the seldom-shown Project X is a science fiction film brimming with innovative ideas--perhaps too many.

Set in 2118, it has a team of scientists trying to retrieve a forgotten secret from deep inside the mind of government agent Hagan Arnold (Christopher George). As a safety precaution prior to taking on an important mission, Arnold was injected with a drug that would erase his memory if tortured by the enemy (extreme pain activates it). The problem is that, shortly before he lost his memory, Arnold reported that Sino-Asia had developed a weapon that would destroy "the West" in fourteen days. But only Arnold knows what the weapon is and it's locked away in the bowels of his brain!

Greta Baldwin in the "kinery"--where
they turn milk into pills.
To stimulate him into remembering, the scientists provide Hagan with a "matrix"--a false identity complete with memories. They place him in an "anxious environment" by making him a bank robber in the 1960s hiding out with his cronies at an isolated house in the country. Every night, they affix electrodes to his brain and "watch" his subconscious memories, trying to gain information. Meanwhile, there's a mysterious man (Monte Markham) in the woods who's spying on Hagan and a pretty blonde at the nearby "kinery" that quickly befriends the amnesiac spy.

I originally saw Project X on network TV in the early 1970s. My memories of it turned out to be a little false as well. I recalled solely the portion of the plot in which the scientists create the fictional world for Hagan--a trick employed effectively in multiple episodes of TV's Mission: Impossible as well as the excellent James Garner outing 36 Hours (1964). But, as it progresses, Project X takes several unusual turns, even unleashing a sort of id monster reminiscent of Forbidden Project near the climax. Best of all, the "secret weapon"--when revealed--turns to be a diabolically ingenious one.

A Hanna-Barbera scene.
Unfortunately, a protracted running time, a low budget, and an overabundance of bright ideas keep Project X from standing alongside superior late 1960s sci fi efforts like The Power and The Forbin Project. Certainly, director William Castle deserves kudos for taking an out-of-the-box approach to keeping the production costs reasonable. He employed animation studio Hanna-Barbera to design some of the sequences visualizing Hagan's memories. Thus, in lieu of using miniature models to represent an underwater prison, we get an animated sequence. Sometimes, this works amazingly well and other times...well...it looks like a scene out of Jonny Quest (which it was in one sequence).

Henry Jones admires a brain.
The screenplay was adapted from two novels by Leslie P. Davies: The Artificial Man (1965) and Psychogeist (1966). Another Davies novel, The Alien (1968), served as the basis for the 1972 thriller The Groundstar Conspiracy, which also features a central character with amnesia.

I haven't read Davies' books, but hope his plots are tighter than Project X. Honestly, I can't imagine that any security team would be as inept as the one that guards Hagan. First, they don't re-route the telephone, thereby allowing a potential enemy agent to call Hagan--twice. Then, they let Hagan wander off from the house on his own and interact with a contemporary woman (which should have destroyed the illusion of the 1960s). These are mistakes that the IMF would never make!

Still, despite its flaws, Project X remains a sporadically interesting sci fi feature. And, as mentioned earlier, the enemy's plan to destroy Western Civilization is a decidedly clever one.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Republicans vs. Democrats in a Disney Musical?

Walter Brennan as Grandpa Bower.
You could call it the Mary Poppins Syndrome. That's the "disease" that convinced Walt Disney Studios that it could harvest box office gold with lavish, lengthy family musicals. The result was a trio of flops: The Happiest Millionaire (1967); The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968); Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), the most blatantly Poppinsesque. None of these ambitious endeavors have improved with age, though I know a handful of fans who champion Millionaire and Broomsticks. Perhaps, someone will come to the defense of the film we're reviewing today.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (hence referred to as Family Band) starts out well enough with an introduction to the Bower family, which consists of Calvin, Katie, their nine children, and Calvin's father. Grandpa (Walter Brennan) wants to get the musical family to St. Louis to perform at the Democratic Convention in 1888. In fact, he has even written a song about President Grover Cleveland ("Let's Put It Over with Grover"). 

Lesley Ann sings about love.
Meanwhile, the eldest daughter, Alice (Lesley Ann Warren) is preparing to meet her pen pal boyfriend Joe (John Davidson). Joe is a stout Republican, so he and Grandpa butt heads almost immediately when they meet. Joe sings a rousing song about Dakota (which still awaits statehood) and pretty soon the whole family is moving there. Other than a desire to be near their daughter, I couldn't fathom why Calvin and Katie would want to move their brood.

Once in Dakota, it's a battle royale between the town's Republicans and Democrats--with Alice caught in the middle between Grandpa and Joe. There are more forgettable songs and, after what seems like a very long time, the plot climaxes with the town's residents learning the outcome of the election between Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. (It's actually a fascinating piece of political history, since Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the election because Harrison had more electoral votes. Moreover, Cleveland later became the only U.S. president to return to office for a second term after a defeat.) 

John Davidson at age 27.
I'm not sure why the Disney Studios thought a musical built around politics and a bland romance between two young adults would appeal to children. Brothers Richard and Robert Sherman composed some unforgettable songs during their tenure at Disney. However, their score for Family Band may very well be their worst. The only highlights are a decent solo number by Lesley Ann Warren ("The Happiest Girl Alive") and a pleasant duet between John Davidson and her ("Bout Time"). This was the second teaming of the two, following The Happiest Millionaire.

Janet Blair and Buddy Ebsen.
Walter Brennan, who excelled in supporting roles during his long career, gets thrust into the lead role and struggles to carry the film. Buddy Ebsen and Janet Blair are sadly wasted. If the latter's name doesn't sound familiar, then check out her excellent performance in the creepy 1962 witchcraft classic Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn). She also once played Peter Pan in a local theatre production with Vincent Price as Captain Hook (would have loved to have seen that!).

According to some sources, the original cut of Family Band was 156 minutes. It was edited to 110 minutes for its theatrical release. Songs by Buddy Ebsen and Janet Blair were left on the cutting room floor.

Goldie with John Davidson.
It's interesting to note that Family Band co-stars Kurt Russell as one of the Bower kids and Goldie Jeanne Hawn (as she was billed) as another girl romanced by Davidson. Sixteen years later, Russell and Hawn reconnected when they starred in Swing Shift. They have been together ever since and have a son named Wyatt.

Finally, in July 2015, I interviewed Pamelyn Ferdin--who played little Laura Bower. I should have asked her about Family Band, but instead I focused on her more notable roles in the Peanuts specials (as Lucy), the Clint Eastwood Western The Beguiled (1971), and on the original Star Trek TV series.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Big Clock: Man Against Time

What would you do if you were asked to track down a suspected murderer and your quarry was...you?

That's the dandy premise behind The Big Clock, a smart 1948 suspense film sometimes misclassified as a film noir. Ray Milland stars as the protagonist, who explains his predicament via voiceover in the opening scene and then flashes back to 36 hours earlier.

Ray Milland as George Stroud.
George Stroud (Milland) works at Crimeways, one of many magazines published by ruthless media magnate Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). Stroud, who specializes in finding criminals on the run, is looking forward to his honeymoon. It's a bit overdue considering he and his wife (Maureen O'Sullivan) have a five-year-old son. When Janoth directs him to cancel his vacation plans and personally cover a story, Stroud quits his high-pressure job. That evening he meets Pauline, a pretty blonde (Rita Johnson) who turns out to be one of Janoth's disenchanted mistresses.

Instead of meeting his family at the train depot, Stroud commiserates with Pauline. They visit several bars, stop at an antique shop, and wind up at her apartment. She nudges a tipsy Stroud out the side door when Janoth arrives unexpectedly. When Pauline berates Janoth during an argument, he flies into a rage and kills her.

Janoth turns to Steve Hagen (George Macready), his second-in-command, who covers up the crime. The only problem is that Janoth saw a man standing in the shadows outside Pauline's apartment door. He and Macready decide to pin the murder on the mysterious stranger...assuming they can find him. And who better to track down a suspected killer than George Stroud?

Laughton and mustache.
While there is much to like in The Big Clock, uneven performances and a lack of attention to detail hamper it to some extent. Charles Laughton, who can be a very fine actor, makes Janoth into a one-dimensional monster. When he strokes his mustache with one finger, it's oddly reminiscent of an intentionally overplayed vaudeville villain. Ray Milland fares better as the hero, but I'd expect a crime journalist to show more intelligence when it comes to investigating a murder scene. When Stroud returns to Pauline's apartment, he picks up a clock--thereby marking it with his fingerprints (and yes, fingerprints were admissible as evidence in U.S. courts as early as 1911).

The standouts in the cast are Rita Johnson as Janoth's mistress and Harry Morgan as a masseuse who doubles as a killer. Morgan doesn't have a line of dialogue, but lurks creepily in the background as Stroud and his team conduct inquiries. I was expecting an exciting confrontation when he encounters Stroud inside the "clock room" of the Janoth building. Alas, one punch knocks Morgan's character down some stairs and he never appears again.
Note Harry Morgan lurking between Macready and Milland.

Ray Milland and Rita Johnson.
As for Rita Johnson, she appeared in many classic films (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Major and the Minor), but usually in secondary roles. She turns Pauline into a bright, likable character who flirts sweetly with Stroud and then verbally attacks Janoth aggressively. In real life, Rita Johnson suffered a brain injury in 1948 that caused lapses of memory and partial paralysis. The official story was that a large hair dryer had fallen on her in her apartment. However, she had other bruises on her body that led to speculation that she may have been beaten. After her brain surgery, she only appeared in a handful of films. She died in 1965 at age 52. Click here to read an article about her alleged accident.

Milland inside the big clock.
Director John Farrow, husband of Maureen O'Sullivan, directs with a sure hand and emphasizes the importance of time, but he adds little stylistically. His opening tracking shot from the outside to the inside of the Janoth building recalls Roy William Neill's earlier Black Angel (1946). The interior of the big clock, the film's most interesting set, is barely used. John Seitz's black-and-white cinematography is crisp as always. He worked on several famous noirs (e.g., Double Indemnity, This Gun for Hire), which I assume is why some critics consider The Big Clock to be a film noir. Thematically, though, it doesn't fit in that genre (now it might be different if Stroud had been unfaithful to his wife).

Sean Young and Kevin Costner.
Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman starred in an above-average 1987 remake called No Way Out. Costner played an unmarried Naval officer who began an affair with an attractive young woman (Sean Young), who was also mistress to the Secretary of Defense (Hackman). After Hackman's politician murders his mistress, he accuses her "other lover" and recruits Costner to find the alleged killer.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Five Swimming Pools in Classic Movies

Even by day, it's a creepy pool.
1.  Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear) - The creepiest swimming pool on film is not the one from Cat People (see below). No, it gets edged out by the dark, dank pool in this excellent 1961 Hammer suspense film. Susan Strasberg plays the film's wheelchair-bound protagonist, who seems obsessed with the murky waters after returning home following a ten-year absence. In one of the best scenes, she imagines seeing her father's corpse in a room opposite the pool and, consumed with fright, falls helplessly into the shadowy water.

Poor Jane Randolph!
2.  Cat People - The most famous swimming pool scene is undoubtedly Jane Randolph's nearly fatal dip in Jacques Tourneur's chilling 1942 classic. She plays Alice, a young woman who goes for a late night dip in the basement of her apartment building. Alas, she is unaware that she has been followed by a jealous wife who can transform into a panther. As Alice treads alone in the water, dark shadows drift across the walls, followed by a panther's growls and a fleeting silhouette of a large stalking cat. Good stuff!

Burt Lancaster looks concerned.
3.  The Swimmer - On an afternoon in suburban Connecticut, middle-aged Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), still looking fit in swimming trunks, decides to "swim his way home" by navigating through a series of neighbors' pools. There were plenty of unusual films in the late 1960s, but The Swimmer is one of the oddest--a sort of esoteric version of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries courtesy of Frank and Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa). Still, it's critically praised in some quarters and can count film critics Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby among its fans.

4.  The Dragon Murder Case - The best adaptation of a Philo Vance detective novel, this 1934 mystery begins with a wealthy playboy disappearing after a night-time dive into a natural lake called the Dragon Pool. When he fails to turn up after a day, the police drain the pool and discover claw marks on the sandy bottom. Later, Philo Vance discovers the dead body in a "glacial pot-hole" on another part of the estate. The victim's mangled body is covered with large claw marks--as if he had been ripped open by a dragon.

Esther Williams in a flaming pool.
5.  Bathing Beauty - There had to be an Esther Williams movie on this list, right? We opted for one of her first major roles in this 1944 musical comedy with Red Skelton. The huge swimming pool is pretty impressive, with white steps and backlit columns in the background and a barrage of ladies dressed in pink, yellow, purple, black, and shimmering white (that'd be Esther!).

5.  The Thrill of It All - Yes, there is a tie for the last spot because we felt compelled to include this sparkling 1963 Doris Day-James Garner comedy. Doris plays a housewife who unexpectedly becomes the TV spokesperson for the Happy Soap Company. Inevitably, several boxes of the product are kicked into the pool and eventually transform into a giant cloud of foamy bubbles--leading to one of the film's best known scenes.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

George Plimpton: Acting with The Duke, Swinging on a Trapeze, and Playing Quarterback!

Plimpton and Joe Schmidt.
It’s embarrassing now to admit that I didn’t know much about George Plimpton when I started watching his TV specials at age 14. I knew he had written the nonfiction book Paper Lion, in which he went “undercover” as a rookie quarterback on the Detroit Lions football team. And I knew a 1968 movie had been made from Paper Lion starring Alan Alda as Plimpton. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge about him when I watched the first of his six TV specials.

The premise of the Plimpton! TV specials was the same one the writer had explored in Paper Lion (and even earlier in his career): How would an average person fare in a “glamorous” profession? His first special premiered on ABC in 1970 and was subtitled “Shoot-out at Rio Lobo.” It traces Plimpton’s experience as an extra (billed as the “4th Gunman”) in the Howard Hawks Western Rio Lobo, which starred John Wayne.

Plimpton with John Wayne.
There’s a lot of humor in this behind-the-scenes documentary of life on a movie set as George spends much of the episode rehearsing his only line of dialogue. As he stands behind Wayne, he points his rifle at a lawman and utters: “This here’s your warrant, mister.” However, when it’s time to shoot the scene, director Howard Hawks walks over to Plimpton and tells him to change the line to: “I got a warrant right here, Sheriff.” The befuddled actor jokes that he spent a week rehearsing his line--but he still manages to speak the new one with appropriate menace. He then reacts convincingly when John Wayne “pops” him in the head with a rifle.

His big scene, though, is supposed to be when John Wayne shoots him. In preparation, Plimpton seeks advice from the stunt men on the set (one of them recommends that he die with his eyes open). However, when the time comes for his death scene, Plimpton is rigged to a harness that will pull him back into the saloon wall. He also learns that Jorge Rivero’s character will kill him instead of Wayne. When Henry fires, Plimpton is jerked back against the wall. It's a great effect—but, alas, leaves George no time for any acting during his “big death scene.”

In the other Plimpton! specials produced by David L. Wolper, George photographs elephants in Africa, tries his hand as a stand-up comic, and drives a race car. My two favorites, though, have George return as a quarterback (this time with the Colts) and train as a trapeze artist. The latter special is a fascinating examination of the strength and agility required to work on the trapeze. Plimpton prepares for weeks to perform what most of us would consider a simple trapeze move--“simple” only in comparison to the amazing feats we see high-wire artists routinely perform with ease.

In “The Great Quarterback Sneak,” Plimpton goes back to the football field. The difference this time is that everyone knows who he is. In Paper Lion, only the coaches knew that Plimpton was a journalist. Plimpton’s one regret from that experience was that the National Football League did not allow him to play in a pre-season game. In his TV special, Plimpton gets the opportunity to get on the field—even if it is during halftime—and run a few plays against his “former” team: the Detroit Lions. I don’t remember how Plimpton fared, but I suspect his success, if any, was modest.

George Plimpton--everyman.
In his obituary on George Plimpton, Bill Curry, who was the Colts center when Plimpton played, recalls some details not in the TV special: “(On) day one, he shocked us by requesting to get into the ‘nutcracker’ drill as a ball carrier. Now, the ‘nutcracker’ is one blocker, one tackler, and one runner. It is the most primitive, violent one-on-one drill in football. Well, when (linebacker) Ray May planted George head first in the dirt on his first carry, the ball went one way and George's right thumb went the other. "Dear Gawd, look at this!" he exclaimed as the injured digit dangled uselessly. We all assumed our little television experiment was over. We did not know George Plimpton. That afternoon, he was back in pads, taking snaps with the other quarterbacks.”

The Plimpton! TV specials are entertaining, insightful, and funny. Yes, it’s amusing to watch an “ordinary guy” try to do the things that only extraordinary people can do. But these shows also serve as a testament to a tough-minded journalist that was willing to take some risks to satisfy his own curiosity—and who was modest enough to share his experiences with the world. George Plimpton didn’t mind if we chuckled at his experiences even if he took them seriously.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (August 2016)

The rules are simple: 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. The films Trapped (1973) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

2. Humphrey Bogart and Elliott Gould.

3. The films Blue Thunder and Cross Creek.

4. Dr. Strangelove and Blazing Saddles.

5. Paper Lion and Rio Lobo.

6. Creepers (1985) and Phenomena (1985).

7. The TV series Mr. Ed and the film The Fountainhead.

8. Rosalind Russell and Jack Lemon.

9. The film Macon County Line and the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies.

10. The TV series Captain Kangaroo and Bette Davis (this one may be tough!).

11. The TV series The Beverly Hillbillies and the Abbott & Costello movie Jack and the Beanstalk.

12. Hayley Mills and Bette Davis.

13. Frank Langella and Bill Murray (another potential toughie).

14. Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Sarandon.

15. Jeff Goldblum and Michael Rennie.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Olympics in Classic Movies

Jesse Owens in Olympia.
Documentaries, fact-based dramas, and fictitious tales of inspiring athletic feats have revolved around the greatest event in international sports. 

Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial Olympia (1936), a vivid record of the 1936 Berlin games, remains a powerful tribute to the athletes and the spirit of the games--all this despite an underlying theme praising Nazism. Kon Ichikawa’s mesmerizing Tokyo Olympiad (1966) was trimmed from 170 minutes to 93 for its U.S. release, though the shortened version still included the dynamic volleyball match between the women of Japan and the Soviet Union. Visions of Eight (1973) featured segments by eight international directors (including Ichikawa again). Most critics found it disappointing, except for John Schlesinger’s dramatic feature on the grueling marathon. 

Film biographies of inspirational Olympians have been devoted to athletes such as: decathlete Bob Mathias (The Bob Mathias Story); track star Wilma Rudolph (Wilma); the 1980 U.S. hockey team (Miracle on Ice and Miracle); gymnast Nadia Comaneci (Nadia); ice skater Oksana Baiul (A Promise Kept: The Oksana Baiul Story); and runners Billy Mills (Running Brave), Jesse Owens (The Jesse Owens Story), and Gail Devers (Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story).  

The 1976 TV-movie 21 Hours at Munich recreated the tragic terrorist killings that cast a dark cloud over the 1972 Olympics. Another TV-movie, The First Olympics : Athens 1896 (1984), chronicled the events that led up to the first modern-day games. It Happened in Athens (1962) offered a fictitious view of the same events, placing special emphasis on Jayne Mansfield as an actress who agrees to marry the winner of the marathon. 

Jim Hutton and Cary Grant.
Earl Derr Bigger’s proverb-quoting detective Charlie Chan uncovered a murder plot at the Berlin Games in 1937’s Charlie Chan at the Olympics. Charlie’s No. 1 son (Keye Luke) was even a member of the U.S. swimming team. Jim Hutton played an Olympic walker in the 1966 romantic comedy Walk, Don’t Run, which found him in overcrowded Tokyo sharing an apartment with Samantha Eggar and matchmaker Cary Grant. A 90-pound weakling sent off for a weight-lifting program and grew up to be a muscular Olympic hammer-thrower in 1956’s charming British film Wee GeordieThe Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story (1980) found an American decathlete (David Keith) falling in love with a Russian gymnast (Stephanie Zimbalist) at the 1980 Moscow Games , which the U.S. boycotted after this TV-movie was made. The 1978 Special Oylmpics was a heartwarming story of a mentally retarded youngster who finds fulfillment playing sports and enters the Special Olympics.  

Here's a list of films about the Olympics (or which feature the Games prominently in the plots):

Million Dollar Legs (1932)
Olympia (1936)
One in a Million (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)
Jim Thorpe: All American (aka Man of Bronze) (1951)
The Bob Mathias Story (aka The Flaming Torch) (1954)
Wee Geordie (aka Geordie) (1956)
It Happened in Athens (1962)
Tokyo Olympiad (1966)
Walk, Don’t Run (1966)
Downhill Racer (1969
The Games (1970)
Visions of Eight (1973)
21 Hours at Munich (1976 TVM)
The Loneliest Runner (1976 TVM)
Wilma (1977)
Special Olympics (aka A Special Kind of Love) (1978 TVM)
Animalympics (1979)
The Top of the Hill (1980 TVM)
On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story (1990 TVM)
Swan Song (1980 TVM)
The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story (1980)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Miracle on Ice (1981 TVM)
Personal Best (1982)
Running Brave (1983)
Nadia (1984 TVM)
The Jesse Owens Story (1984 TVM)
The First Olympics: Athens 1896 (1984 TVM)
Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story (1985 TVM)
16 Days of Glory (1986)
Reach for the Sky (1991)
Alex (1993)
A Promise Kept: The Oksana Baiul Story (1994 TVM)
A Brother's Promise: The Dan Jansen Story (1996 TVM)
Run for the Dream:  The Gail Devers Story (1996 TVM)
Prefontaine (1997)
Without Limits (1998)

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Gene Rayburn and "The Match Game"

Gene Rayburn and his telescoping mike.
The latest revival of The Match Game--this time as a summer TV series hosted by Alec Baldwin--comes 54 years after the debut of the original. Frank Wayne, who later executive produced The Price Is Right for many years, created The Match Game for Mark Goodson/Bill Todman Productions. It premiered on NBC as a daytime quiz show in 1962 (it aired at 4:00 where I lived).

The show's format was simple. There were two teams, each consisting of two celebrities and one contestant. Teammates tried to match each other's answers to a fill-in-the-blank statement like: "John gave Mary a shiny new ____ for her birthday." A team earned 25 points if two teammates had a match and 50 points if all three had the same answer. The first team to score 100 points won the game.

The winning team then played "audience match," in which they won money for matching answers given by the studio audience in an earlier survey. This part of The Match Game was very similar to the later (even more successful) game show, The Family Feud.

The original version with Gene flanked by two celebrities.
Gene Rayburn hosted The Match Game and it was his personality, along the humorous and later risque questions, that made the quiz show a hit. Rayburn had worked in radio, television, and theater since the 1940s. He began as a page at NBC and attended its "announcer's school" before serving in the Army as a pilot during World War II. After the war, he found success on WNEW radio in New York City, teaming with Dee Finch on the show Rayburn and Finch. During this time, Rayburn popularized the novelty hit The Hop Scotch Polka and even received a co-composer credit with Carl Sigman and William Whitlock (the origin of this song could be the subject of an entire post.)

When The Tonight Show was launched with Steve Allen as the host in 1954, Gene Rayburn became the announcer and Allen's second banana (even appearing in skits). Rayburn's national exposure sealed his fame in the entertainment business and he subsequently guest-starred in TV series (Robert Montgomery Presents, The Love Boat), hosted several games shows, and even replaced Dick Van Dyke in Bye, Bye Birdie on Broadway.

Yet, Gene Rayburn is best remembered for The Match Game. The popular quiz show had a good run on NBC from 1962 to 1969. However, it might have been forgotten if not for the CBS revival, intially dubbed Match Game '73, that first appeared in--you guessed it--1973. The number of celebrities was expanded to six and the format was tweaked so that two contestants competed against each other by trying to match answers with the six-member panel. In addition to more celebrities, the naughtiness also increased, with questions such as: "You could tell by the way she was dressed that she was a ________" (the most common celebrity answers were "swinger" and "hooker").

Gene joking with Joan Collins, Richard Dawson, and _____.

Regular panelists on the new Match Game included Richard Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Brett Somers (who was recommended by her husband Jack Klugman). Other celebrities that appeared frequently were: Betty White, Dick Martin, MacLean Stevenson, Elaine Joyce, Marcia Wallace, Fannie Flagg, Gary Burghoff, Bert Convy, and Joyce Bulifant.

A syndicated nighttime version called March Game PM, also hosted by Rayburn, aired from 1975-1981. And when CBS canceled the daytime version in 1978, it continued in syndication for another three years. There have been various revivals over the years. The format has also been exported to other countries under the title Blankety Blanks (in Australia, for example, it was called Graham Kennedy's Blankety Blanks).

When TV Guide ranked the Top 60 Game Shows of All Time in 2013, The Match Game came in at No. 4, right behind Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, and Family Feud. And when TIME Magazine listed the 15 Best Game Show Hosts, who was it in the No. 4 slot following Bob Barker, Groucho Marx, and Gary Moore? That's an easy match: Gene Rayburn.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Christopher Lee as Rasputin, the Mad Monk

Christopher Lee as Rasputin.
Hammer Films and historical drama may sound like strange bedfellows. And yet, the British studio produced much more than just horror films, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Its output also included suspense pictures, costume swashbucklers, comedies, and science fiction films. Still, even by Hammer's standards, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is something of an oddity.

The film opens with Rasputin (Christopher Lee) using his healing powers to cure the critically-ill wife of a tavern owner. In the ensuing celebration, Rasputin tries to rape the innkeeper's daughter and chops off the hand of her boyfriend--though the latter act was in self-defense. The monk leaves the monastery and shows up in St. Petersburg, where he pairs up with a drunken physician.

He also makes the acquaintance of Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina. Though he's far from handsome (except for those Dracula-like eyes), she cannot resist Rasputin and becomes his lover. He later hypnotizes Sonia and compels her to injure the young prince, so Rasputin can heal the boy and became a member of the royal family's inner circle.

The real Rasputin.
This plot is loosely based on real-life events involving the faith healer Grigori Rasputin, who became an influential friend to Tsar Nicholas II. Screenwriter Anthony Hinds was no doubt aware of MGM's legal troubles when it mounted its lavish Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. That film, which featured all three Barrymore siblings, was the subject of a libel lawsuit by Prince Yusupov (who allegedly participated in the assassination of Rasputin). Yusupov was still alive when Hammer made its version. Incidentally, the MGM lawsuit is largely credited with the following verbiage appearing in the credits of most movies: "This motion picture is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental."

On its own terms, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is a modest success. It was shot back-to-back with Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness and features several of the same cast members (Lee, Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer), plus some of the same sets (the frozen lake plays a key role in both films). Hammer lacked the budget to provide Rasputin with the necessary scope. In fact, for the longest time, I wasn't sure where the movie was supposed to take place because it sure didn't look like Russia (eventually, a character mentioned traveling to St. Petersburg). The ending is a definite letdown, apparently because a longer fight scene was cut from the final print.

Christopher Lee gives a convincing portrayal as the title character. In a 1974 interview for Nightmare magazine, he said: "Probably one of the best performances I've ever given was as Rasputin in a Hammer film. If it had been made by another company as a serious picture, I think it might have helped me considerably, but it was made once again in the sort of Hammer-horror-mold and as such didn’t really benefit me very much." Interestingly, when Lee was a child, he met Prince Yusupov and as an adult, he met the real-life Rasputin's daughter.

Barbara Shelley.
The other reason to see Rasputin, the Mad Monk is for Barbara Shelley's performance. The lovely red-haired actress rarely got roles worthy of her talent. She makes the most of her screen time as Sonia and convinces the audience that this intelligent woman could so easily fall under Rasputin's influence.

For Hammer aficionados, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is required viewing. For others, though, it depends on whether you're in the mood for a malicious monk movie.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Lost in Space: The First Episode

The series ran on CBS from 1965-68.
When a friend recently updated his Lost in Space collection to Blu ray, he kindly gave me his DVD set. Although I've watched several Lost in Space reruns on the telly over the years, it had been a long time since I watched the first episode. I was astonished at the difference between the series' debut and the TV series that evolved from it.

But before reviewing it, I want to discuss producer Irwin Allen's original concept. He envisioned a space-age version of Johann Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson about a family of explorers who survive a crash landing on a desert planet. This was not a new idea; indeed, Gold Key Comics published a comic book series called Space Family Robinson beginning in 1962.

In Allen's original Lost in Space pilot, an episode called "No Place to Hide," the Robinsons' spacecraft Gemini XII is thrown off course when meteors crash into it. After landing on an uncharted planet, the Robinsons make a new home--and encounter a giant cyclops.Will Robinson even sings "Greensleeves," accompanying himself on guitar. Speaking of music, the theme for the pilot episode was borrowed from Bernard Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

CBS liked the $600,000 pilot and ordered a series--but also wanted changes that resulted in the addition of a villain and a robot. According to Lost in Space historian Mark Phillips, Irwin Allen wanted a villain like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon and story editor Anthony Wilson wanted a Long John Silver-type. Their compromise was Dr. Zachary Smith.

Guy Williams and June Lockhart were
top-billed.
"The Reluctant Stowaway," the first official Lost in Space episode, takes place on October 16, 1997. It initially unfolds in semi-documentary fashion, describing how the Robinsons were chosen from more than two million volunteers to navigate the Jupiter 2 to the planet Alpha Centauri. The five-year journey will require the family and pilot Major Don West to remain in suspended animation. Amid all the preparations for the spaceship's launch, Dr. Smith sneaks aboard the Jupiter 2. A spy for an unnamed nation, Smith reprograms the robot to destroy the spaceship eight hours into its maiden voyage. Unfortunately, Smith gets trapped aboard, hence becoming the "reluctant stowaway."

Dr. Smith threatening Major West.
As in the pilot episode, a meteor storm throws the spacecraft off course and its passengers are rudely awakened from their suspended animation. Needless to say, they're surprised to find Dr. Smith aboard. He's absorbed with trying to stop the robot from destroying the cabin pressure system and radio--thus killing all the passengers.

This Dr. Smith is slightly different from the one who would become--with Will and the robot--the eventual stars of Lost in Space. Smith is a villain, though a none-too-bright one, although we're led to believe that he was the grand master of the Oxford chess club. One enduring trait is clearly established: Dr. Smith is a big liar!

John and Maureen Robinson (Guy Williams and June Lockhart) play a much larger role. They have the episode's juiciest scene when they engage in a heated disagreement over whether to continue with the mission or try to return to Earth. The episode ends with John floating helplessly into space after his safety cord breaks while repairing the Jupiter 2's exterior systems. It's quite a cliffhanger, leading to the now familiar:

Billy Mumy as Will.
The first half-dozen episodes provide ample screen time for all the characters (and includes Angela Cartwright's favorite episode "My Friend, Mr. Nobody"). However, starting with "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension," Smith, Will, and the robot began to player larger roles--at the insistence of CBS executives. By midway through the first season, it's clear that the aforementioned trio have become the show's focal point. The other characters would occasionally get meaningful screen time, but Lost in Space had become the show we know today.

Incidentally, most of the footage from the original pilot was included in the series' first five episodes. That pilot eventually aired on the SyFy network and was included in a video release of Lost in Space from Columbia House. By the way, the now-familiar Lost in Space theme was written by a young composer named Johnny Williams--yes, that's John Williams, the man that went on to become the most nominated composer in the history of the Academy Awards.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Panel Discussion on Acclaimed Filmmaker and Critic Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut (1932-1984).
After a long hiatus, we're reviving our "3 on 3 panel" this month. The concept is that we ask three experts to answer three questions on a single classic film topic. This week, the Cafe poses three questions about French film critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Our panel of three Truffaut experts consists of: Richard Finch, co-founder of the Facebook group Foreign Film Classics; Ray Keebaugh, a frequent contributor to the Foreign Film Classics group; and Sam Juliano, who writes about classic movies at his blog Wonders in the Dark.

1. What Francois Truffaut film would you recommend as an introduction to someone who has never seen any of his works?

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows.
Richard Finch: The Truffaut film I would recommend as a starting point is his very first one, The 400 Blows. It’s about a lonely and alienated boy, about 14 years old, growing up in Paris and finding solace in books and movies. If you read a biography of Truffaut, the film is clearly autobiographical and like most such first films (and novels, for that matter) heartfelt and moving. It clearly has the feeling of lived experience to it. It has one of the most haunting and enigmatic final shots in all cinema, Truffaut’s version of the last shot of Garbo in Queen Christina. In a poll at the excellent film blog site Wonders in the Dark last year for the top films about childhood (79 made the cut), it was chosen #1.

Ray Keebaugh:  If someone had never seen a movie by Truffaut, he is not likely to be acquainted with foreign films nor with movies beyond those made in America. I’d recommend The Story of Adele H., then Shoot the Piano Player or Jules and Jim. If his/her appetite was not stimulated enough to seek more Truffaut after those extremes, there's not much else I can do.

Sam Juliano: The venerated critic-director's very first film--The 400 Blows--would be my choice for the newbie approaching his work. My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 1970s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director. I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discovering critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time. In the beginning--as should be expected for one so green behind the ears--it was actor Jean-Pierre Léaud's familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin, and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased. It sent shivers down my spine and still does today. There is a universality in The 400 Blows that, while not exclusive in Truffaut's canon, is perhaps most accessible in this, a film that is easy to connect with and executed with the director's trademark aching lyricism. 

2. What do you believe was Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema?
Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock.

Richard:  Truffaut made several important contributions to world cinema. First, he was one of the original theorists and practitioners of the French New Wave, a movement that has had immense influence on subsequent filmmakers. He and others like Jean-Luc Godard first proposed what is called the auteur theory, the concept that the director of a film is its author, the same as the writer of a book is its author. They developed an informal manifesto of a new type of film typified by freedom of style and and an emphasis on personal expression. Second, because for inspiration they looked to the Hollywood directors who, even though working in the studio system, consistently left their own stamp on their films. They brought serious attention to American directors like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray. These directors had been dismissed by American critics as mere purveyors of entertainment. Third, as Truffaut’s style and choice of subject changed over his 30-year career, he made it acceptable that directors can grow and develop--not just stick with their youthful dogma and keep making the same movie again and again. In many ways, his earliest films can be quite different from those of his maturity.

Ray:  It’s something to be argued among critics and “serious” film students. A cinematographer would not provide the same answer as, say, an editor. Different directors would not necessarily agree among themselves, and you may be certain critics wouldn’t. For me, choosing e pluribus unum, I love the eerie ease with which he draws us quickly into stories--often about destroyed lovers--like an unselfconscious poet. Narrative was not something to be sacrificed for his "art." It was what his art served. How he did it so entertainingly reflects the director's youthful love for movies, which, unlike some of his characters, did not come to a shocking, destructive end (except that it was so early). Truffaut also restored dignity to adolescence by weeding out all that false Hollywood Blue Denim crap. 

The Wild Child (1970).
Sam:  Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema was his mastery of humanism, ranging from childhood to old age, and embracing various time periods and settings. His intoxicating cinematic lyricism was his manner and his foray into psychological realism. He was understandably celebrated for his ability to investigate the childhood experience. When movie fans are asked to identify the prime proponents of the cinema of childhood, the names of Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut invariably dominate the discussion. In the case of the former, the label seems more than justified all things considered, but of the Frenchman Truffaut’s twenty-one films, only three could reasonably be framed as films dealing with and populated by kids. The reason for the misrepresentation is undoubtedly the fact that the New Wave master’s debut feature, The 400 Blows, is one of the most celebrated and influential films of all-time, and the one most often named as the ultimate work on adolescent alienation. To be sure, Truffaut did chronicle the aging process of his Antoine Doniel character a series of films like Bed and Board and The Soft Skin, but at that point the youthful parameter had expired. In 1969, he explored the true-life story of a deaf and dumb boy raised in the outdoors--The Wild Child--and then seven years later, he wrote and directed what was to be his final foray into the pains and wonders of childhood with his magical Small Change. 

3. What do you think is Truffaunt's masterpiece and what is your personal favorite? Explain your choices.

Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim.
Richard:  My personal favorite of Truffaut’s films and what I consider his masterpiece is one and the same: Jules and Jim. It’s one of those films that just grab you and never leave your mind. Its centerpiece is the puzzling but hypnotic character Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau, one of the greatest of all screen actresses, in what I think is her greatest performance. She plays a woman who has an affair with two best friends at the same time--a bona fide ménage à trois, quite a daring subject for its time, even for the French! Its influence can be seen in American films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For me, it’s one of those films of which I can say without equivocation: “Once seen, never forgotten.”

Ray:  I love this question because it separates moviegoers from critics.  A critic has to regard a director's masterpiece as his favorite because what would it say about a critic's "taste" if he/she didn't? I'd say The 400 Blows is the "masterpiece." My favorite Truffaut movie would be (since I have to choose) Jules and Jim.

Sam:  The 400 Blows would also be my choice for the director's absolute masterpiece. No matter what you opt for, the landmark 1959 film remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films. Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement, it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians. Yet, the film’s preeminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood. Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing. Truffaut's legacy and contribution to world cinema doesn't only rest with his profound studies of childhood, but with the human condition, where he sits with the most renowned practitioners in the art.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Movie Object Game

The amulet mentioned in question #9.
The Movie-TV Connection Game is taking the month off (vacation time!), but will return in August. In its place, we're trying a new game in which we list an object featured prominently in a movie and ask you to identify the film. There may be multiple correct answers--which is bound to be interesting. As always, please answer no more than three questions a day so others can play, too. Good luck!

1. An hourglass.

2. A child's sled.

3. A letter with a misspelled word.

4. A jewel-encrusted glove.

5. A 1904 French motor vehicle.

6. A drinking vessel with the figure of a dragon.

7. A wrist watch that also functions as a super magnet.

8. A sword that cuts through iron--but only for one person.

9. A mysterious amulet that wields power when a unique word is spoken.

10. A monogrammed lighter.

11. A piece of paper with runic symbols.

12. A bust of Napoleon (actually several of them).

13. Flash bulbs.

14. A rare postage stamp.

15. An airplane and a beer truck.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Seven (More) Obscure TV Series That I Curiously Remember

Kevin McCarthy, Lana Turner, and George Hamilton.
1.  Harold Robbins' The Survivors (1969-70). Novelist Harold Robbins was still churning out lurid bestsellers when he was approached to create a prime-time series. The result was this nighttime soap about the jet set starring Lana Turner, George Hamilton, Ralph Bellamy, Kevin McCarthy, and even Mrs. Howell (or rather, Natalie Schaefer). My family watched it because Dad was a Robbins' fan (some of the early novels, like A Stone for Danny Fisher, are pretty good). The Survivors, on the other hand, wasn't very good and ABC axed it after 15 episodes. It did resolve its major storylines in the final episode, leading some folks to claim it was American television's first miniseries.

2.  The Most Deadly Game (1970-71).  Speaking of Ralph Bellamy, he returned to prime time the next fall as Mr. Arkane, the senior member of a team of criminologists specializing in high profile murder cases. His colleagues included his former ward, Vanessa (Yvette Mimieux), a college-educated expert in criminology, and former military man Jonathan Croft (George Maharis). Originally, the series was to be titled Zig Zag and feature Inger Stevens as the female lead. She died in 1970, though, and the role was recast.

Phyllis Diller as Phyllis Pruitt.
3. The Pruitts of Southampton (1966-67) - I can still remember the lyrics to the title song of this Phyllis Diller sitcom and they concisely describe the premise: "The Pruitts of Southampton live like the richest folk/But what the folks don't know is/That the Pruitts are flat broke." Yes, the Pruitts were forced to declare bankruptcy after learning they owed millions in back taxes. Other series regulars included Reginald Gardiner as Uncle Ned, Grady Sutton as the butler, and Richard Deacon as the IRS agent. The show was revamped at midseason and renamed The Phyllis Diller Show. The change didn't help Phyllis find a steady viewing audience.

4. The Second Hundred Years (1967-68). A gold prospector (Monte Markham), who was frozen during an Alaskan avalanche in 1900, "thaws out" in 1967. Perfectly preserved, he winds up living with his 33-year-old grandson (Markham in a dual role) and 67-year-old son (Arthur O'Connell). A little confusing, eh? This "high concept" sitcom lasted a year thanks mostly to likable leads Markham and O'Connell.

The Silent Force trio.
5. The Silent Force (1970-71).  Bruce Geller (Mission: Impossible) may have played a role in developing this half-hour series about three Federal agents--played by Ed Nelson, Percy Rodriguez, and Lynda Day George--who go undercover to fight organized crime. It was a well-done show that probably would have worked better as an hour series. ABC cancelled The Silent Force after 15 episodes. Lynda Day George joined the cast of Mission: Impossible in the fall of 1971.

6. T.H.E. Cat (1966-67). We've written about this incredibly cool show before, but it still deserves a spot on this list. Robert Loggia stars as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, a former circus performer and retired cat burglar who now works as a bodyguard. T.H.E. Cat featured one of the best openings of any 1960s show, with a terrific Peter Gunn-inspired theme and a nifty animated sequence (a black cat lunges forward and transforms into a shadowy man). Still, it was Loggia that made this show such a delight.

Michael Nouri as the Count.
7. Cliffhangers (1979). This short-lived, but clever series featured chapters from three different serials each week. The serials were: Stop Susan Williams, starring Susan Anton as a photographer investigating her brother's death; The Secret Empire, a science fiction Western; and The Curse of Dracula with Michael Nouri as a modern-day vampire who teaches history (of course) at South Bay College. Several of the "chapters" were edited into television movies; for example, condensed versions of The Curse of Dracula turned up as World of Dracula and The Loves of Dracula.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Five Best War Films

Who better to select the five best war films than a recently retired U.S. Army colonel? Migs, our guest blogger, was commissioned in 1987 from the United States Military Academy at West Point and held various commands during a distinguished military career. It was not an easy task to pick just five war films, but Migs accepted the mission graciously and we thank him. Here are his choices and his rationales:

1. Saving Private Ryan - What else is there to say. I cry at the end of the movie every time: "Tell me I am a good man, tell me I’ve lived a good life." This movie covers the alpha to omega on emotions. Simply, the best war movie ever.

Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax.
2. Paths of Glory - I started to write my own review about this compelling movie, which has a similar theme to A Few Good Men and another great war movie Apocalypse Now, which both convey the fog and insanity of war. However, I will use the words of an unknown critic: “Paths of Glory is a wonderful film about authority and at times the idiocy and insanity of those that were on top of the pile. It takes place during World War I. Anyone who has studied it or has knowledge of it knows it was a period of war in which traditional methods of warfare clearly failed and millions died over the ignorance and arrogance of a few.” I thought Kirk Douglas was great in the movie. He convincingly played the role of the 701st Regimental Commander, the lead protagonist. The director, Stanley Kubrick, elected to go for an atypical Hollywood ending. I will not spoil it for you. It is a very easy movie to watch at just over 85 minutes and it can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Peter O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence.
3. Lawrence of Arabia is a personal favorite of mine because of my experiences as a military advisor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Before our deployment to Iraq as advisors, we were required to watch this movie. I initially saw little to no value, especially after spending almost four hours watching a movie that by today standards lacks all the good Hollywood stuff. However, six months into my deployment, there was probably no better movie for us to watch in preparation to be an advisor. The cast is superb, an absolute all-star cast. I understand that the movie cost almost ten times more to make compared to other films at that time. However, the authenticity is real and you can feel it as you see the actors actually struggling with the effects of real desert terrain and weather. I find myself watching clips of the movie on YouTube. If you are looking for a good intellectual movie with a classic acting, Larry of Arabia is for you.

Denzel Washington.
4. Glory is a fantastic movie recounting the story of the 54th Massachusetts. The powerful story line lays out the struggles of a nation and culture where racism is deep in both the Confederacy and United States. It features a great cast led by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, Mathew Broderick and Morgan Freeman. My biggest problem with this movie is that the story is told from the perspective of Colonel Shaw (Broderick). I would much rather have seen or at least seen some scenes from the perspective of John Rawlins, the escaped slave. Another thing that still irks me is that, despite a fantastic job by screenwriter Kevin Jarre, I still do not get why the 54th has little or no support while attacking. Still, Glory is, in my opinion, the best Civil War movie.

Gibson as Lieutenant Colonel Moore.
5. We Were Soldiers is a great movie if you do not let Hollywood get in your way. Hollywood takes the great story of Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore’s leadership and fouls it up with sometimes stupid lines that, having served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, distort the challenges in combat and do not give enough credit to the ones left behind at our homes.  If I am saying these things about the movie, why is it on my list?  It is simply a great leadership story and there are some realistic scenes depicting combat and the reality of casualties. Mel Gibson does a fine job and Sam Elliot is OK.  If I were a Company Commander again, I would make all my subordinates watch this movie.