Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thelma Ritter Shines in The Mating Season

Within days of meeting under unusual circumstances, Val McNulty (John Lund) and Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney) decide to get married. Val is a working-class junior executive who believes Maggie's family is affluent. Yet, while Maggie's mother has hobnobbed with royalty as an ambassador's wife, the family has little money of its own. Mother and daughter may look like socialites, but they lack the means to maintain that lifestyle.

Thelma Ritter as Ellen.
Still, when Val's down-to-earth mother Ellen (Thelma Ritter) arrives unexpectedly, her son becomes concerned that she'll look and feel out of place. A hard-working woman, Ellen has finally sold the diner that she kept alive after her husband's death. She doesn't even have time to explain her situation before Val gives her money to buy a new dress for the wedding. Concerned that her son is ashamed of her, Ellen skips the nuptials.

However, instead of returning home, she stays in Ohio and--through an unusual turn of events--winds up as the live-in cook in the home of the married Val and Maggie. By this point, Val can't begin to explain his mother's presence--and he doesn't even try. He and his mother conspire to keep her true identity a secret...even after Maggie's mother decides to move into the crowded apartment for an extended stay.

Gene Tierney as Maggie.
Despite a far-fetched premise, the oddly-titled The Mating Season (1952) generates a satisfying amount of situational humor. It's one of those comedies where you can easily guess the outcome, but don't mind because the road there is a pleasant drive. Still, considering that Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett had a hand in adapting the original stage play, it's hard not to imagine that The Mating Season could have been better. 

The film's cast is both its strength and weakness. It's pretty much a showcase for Thelma Ritter, who had earned her first Oscar nomination for the previous year's All About Eve. She is in top form in The Mating Season; she wisely chooses to play her role as drama and allows the comedy situations to generate the laughs. She makes Ellen a character that's easy to root for--a tough cookie with plenty of common sense who's willing to do anything for her son. Her performance earned Ritter her second consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She would eventually receive a total of six nominations in that category--and yet somehow never register a win. 

The rest of the cast is a mixed blessing. Gene Tierney exudes radiance and charm as Maggie. Thus, the audience doesn't blame her when her expectations lead her husband to live beyond his means (until his Mom comes to the rescue). As Maggie's mater, Miriam Hopkins is amusing in a one-note fashion. 

John Lund as Val.
That leaves John Lund as the film's chief liability. Lund comes across as a lightweight version of Van Johnson, but with none of Johnson's celluloid appeal. Yes, the screenwriters share the blame, too, but the bottom line is that it's difficult to fathom what attracted Maggie to Val (beyond a physical attracton). And worse, Val rarely seems to fully appreciate all that his mother has done for him.

As a final assessment, The Mating Season is an amusing showcase that reminds one just how good Thelma Ritter could be. That may not be a glowing critique, but it'll do for Ritter fans.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Movie-TV Connection Quiz (August 2014 Edition)

How are Astaire and De Niro connected?
In this edition of the connection game, you will once again be given be 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. Henry Fonda and George Gobel. 

2. Ida Lupino and Jodie Foster. 

3. Maureen O'Sullivan and Sean Connery. 

4. Lana Turner and Ursula Andress. 

5. Danny Kaye and Gary Cooper. 

6. Marta Kristen from Lost in Space and Glynis Johns from The Court Jester. 

7. Charles Laughton and Gene Hackman. 

8. Fred Astaire and Robert De Niro. 

9. Fred MacMurray and Dick Powell (think occupation). 

10. Brian De Palma's Carrie and David Lynch's Twin Peaks. 

11. The Birds and My Cousin Rachel. 

12. Marlon Brando and Peter Fonda (an easy one!). 

13. Earthquake, Midway, and Rollercoaster. 

14. Bob Hope and Charles Laughton. 

15. Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kirsten Dunst.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Actor-Author-Scriptwriter Jim Rosin Discusses Jack Klugman, His Books,and Playing an Alien in "Buckaroo Banzai"

One of the highlights of my attendance at the 2014 Western Film Fair was meeting Jim Rosin. He started in show business as a supporting actor in TV series such as Mannix, Cannon, T.J. Hooker, and Quincy, M.E. He subsequently wrote several teleplays for Quincy and later penned a number of informative and entertaining nonfiction books on classic TV series. During the convention, Jim took a break from autographing his books and talked with me about his career and books.

Café:  One of your most interesting acting credits is in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, which became a big cult film. When you were making it, did you think it would ultimately become as popular as it did?

The closing credits of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Jim Rosin: Not really. When I was filming my scenes, it was a very hot day. We were shooting at a power plant in south L.A. and I had to wear a mask because I played an alien, a Lectroid. It took them about an hour to put the mask on me. I remember being very hot and it was claustrophobic. When I did the scene as John Yaya, where I didn't have to wear the mask--boy, that was a joy. That's what I remember most about the filming. It was really an interesting movie. I think they shot it in about 60 days for a budget of about $18 million. It really became a cult movie when I was living in New York. Every Saturday, for years after, theaters would show The Rocky Horror Picture Show followed by The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. Peter Weller, a very dear friend who later played Robocop, was Buckaroo Banzai. The cast also featured Chris Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, and Robert Ito who played Jack Klugman's lab assistant Sam on Quincy, M.E. Jamie Lee Curtis was Buckaroo's mother, but I think her scene with Buckaroo as a boy was deleted from the opening. The film was a combination of action-adventure and sci fi...with a hero who was also a musician with a band. It was unique and different. They were going to do a sequel, but perhaps the boxoffice receipts didn't warrant it because they never came out with a second film. But, at the end of the first, you see the name of the second Buckaroo Banzai film. I have fond memories of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

Café:  You appeared on three classic TV series: Banacek, Mannix, and Quincy, M.E. Who was the best detective of those three?

JR:  I don't know. George Peppard was very good as Banacek. He was cool, able to deduce things, and came up with all those Polish proverbs. It was a well-written show. Jack Klugman as Quincy was also very methodical, unique, and very determined to find out the answer to any problem. Mike Connors (Mannix) was a very nice man; I liked working with him. All three of those characters had a tenacity to get to the truth to find out who the guilty party was. It's hard to delineate who was the best. They were all great and I enjoyed working with all three actors.

Café:  You wrote three episodes of Quincy, M.E. Which one was your favorite and what was the inspiration for it?

JR:  I have a soft spot for "A Test for Living," which is about an autistic child. Jack (Klugman) had done a telethon to raise funds to care for autistic children. When we talked about doing a show, we chose that subject and worked on it together. It was a very worthwhile story line that required a lot of research. Jack sent me out to UCLA to talk with doctors and read books, so I had a huge investment in coming up with the script for that episode. Also, Jack's participation in it was meaningful. Lloyd Nolan, who played the psychiatrist, had a son who was autistic. We did another telethon after the show aired. So, all those things put together made for a very memorable experience for me.

Rosin, Klugman, and Henry Beckman in the 1983 episode "On Dying High."

Café:  What was Jack Klugman like?

JR:  Jack was a very good-hearted man. Very intense. He had a great work ethic. He was very demanding. He had high standards of excellence. You had to be on your toes when you worked with him. As a young actor and writer, I learned a great deal from him and he was very good to me. I was very fortunate to have an association with Quincy, six episodes as an actor and three as a writer. I'll never forget it. The fact it was on for seven years was a testament to him. He fought the studio and the network to do socially relevant material and ultimately he was right, because people responded to it. He really was a very diligent, hardworking, top-flight professional who would involve himself in every facet of the show. The end result is that it was on for 148 episodes.

Café:  You were that rare dual threat--an actor and a writer. Which came first?

With Piper Laurie at the Western Film Fair.
JR:  I started out acting first and then I wrote a play in L.A. In between acting jobs, I was first a bartender in Beverly Hills and then a cab driver. I wrote a play about an actor who drives a cab in Beverly Hills. It was a comedy-drama that Jack read and that ultimately brought me to Quincy. It ran at a theater in Hollywood for about six weeks. That's how I got started writing. I subsequently did some Quincy shows and some soap opera episodes. And I recently completed a screenplay. But I always loved being an actor. The more things you can do in the business, the better off you are because the competition is so keen. If you have a talent for directing or writing, it's very good to explore them because it's harder to depend upon one area because of all the people trying to do the same thing as you.

Café:  You have also written a number of books about classic TV series such as Naked City, Adventures in Paradise, Wagon Train, and Route 66. How did you get into doing that?

JR:  Well, I started doing some books on sports and Philly music. Then, I started thinking about writing about classic TV shows that I grew up with, ones that were popular and enjoyed by millions of people. The first one I did was Route 66, because, to me, that was a wonderful show. It had a great premise of two young men driving in a Corvette convertible all over the country, never knowing what was down the road or around the bend. I knew Marty (Martin Milner), who I worked with on Adam-12 several times. He was great and George Maharis was outstanding. There was a chemistry between them and a contrast. So, I felt I had to do a book on that show. When you combine the aura that they projected on TV, the Corvette, the sense of adventure, the different town every week, the people stories, the backdrop of America--it was just a tremendous show.

Café:  What about some of your other books?

JR:  Herbert B. Leonard, who produced Route 66, also did Naked City. It featured the same approach; it was filmed in New York with a stark look. It was not about police procedure, but more about the ordinary denizens of New York. After the book on Naked City, I wrote one on Wagon Train because I wanted to do a Western. Ward Bond and Robert Horton were great together. Again, it was a series about people. In fact, The title of every episode was a person's name--"The Horace Best Story," "The Malachi Hobart Story," and so on. It had wonderful actors and was about their characters' experience along the prairie from Missouri to California. I loved Adventures in Paradise because it was pure escapism. It took us to a part of the world where we never went. James Michener said it best that we all go to work, wake up, go to work, wake up, we drive the same route back and forth--then we turn on the TV and see Gardner McKay on the Tiki in Tahiti in this exotic part of the world. It was a great source of entertainment and Gardner McKay was very good on the show. He was an expert sailor who had sailed across the Atlantic. The other two books I did were two Quinn Martin shows because I had worked on some of his series. The Invaders starred my dear friend Roy Thinnes, who gave a very believable, honest, edgy portrayal as David Vincent, trying to prove to a disbelieving world that aliens were among us. Quinn Martin wanted to do a show about paranoia. It ran for only two seasons, but everyone loved the show and it was different for the time. The other Quinn Martin series, The Streets of San Francisco featured one of the prettiest cities in the country as a backdrop. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas were a fine team. I think Karl saw Michael as his son, because he and Kirk Douglas were close friends. Michael grew immensely on the show and was very willing to learn. He really put his feet to the ground and absorbed all these things about acting and production. After the fourth season, he produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and became an Academy Award-winning producer. John Wilder, another friend of mine, produced it for three years and wrote some of the episodes. Quinn Martin just had a great organization. When you put everything together--the backdrop of San Francisco, the chemistry of Karl Malden and Michael Douglas, the writing, the guest stars, the breezy music score--it was just an excellent series.

Café:  I'm a huge Route 66 fan and have read varied accounts as to why George Maharis left the show. Based on your research for your book, what was the reason?

George Maharis and Martin Milner.
JR:  I know why he left and in my book, he talks about it. There's a misconception that he left because he wanted out of the show, was getting movie offers, and wanted to be a movie star. That wasn't true. Geroge Maharis left because he contracted hepatitis. He missed four episodes at the end of the second year. He came back for the third season because Herbert Leonard said: "If you don't come back, we might not get renewed." The show could not stand alone with Marty. George Maharis was a very vital part of Route 66. And when he left, he proved to be irreplaceable. The show only lasted another season. His replacement, Glenn Corbett, was a competent actor and a handsome guy, but he was too much like Marty Milner. He didn't have the edge that George had. There was a stark contrast between George and Marty. Their characters were sometimes at each other, which heightened the drama of the show. They didn't always see eye to eye. Yet, there was a bond and chemistry. George was not someone you could replace. Unfortunately, when he came back for the third year, he was promised he would only work so many hours a day because the doctor said to take it easy. He came back in three weeks after having hepatitis. He had a relapse midway through the third season. He went to the doctor, who told him he needed to walk away from the show. He didn't work for a year. It took him that long to recuperate. There was acrimony between Bert Leonard and him. The press made something out of it that wasn't there. George regretted leaving the show because he enjoyed it. He and Marty had a great relationship--it's another misconception that they didn't get along. They were two different individuals, but there was never a bad word between them.

Café:  Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects or appearances that you want to share with our readers?

JR:  I did a book on Philly music history, Philly Pop, Rock, Rhythm & Blues. It's dear to my heart because I'm a Philadelphian. It covers the rock'n'roll and R&B eras of Philly from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s--with all the great performers from the golden years of the rock'n'roll and the doo-wop era, then the R&B era that came after. I have a lot of commentary from the performing artists. I have some discographies and biographies. I've got Hall & Oates on the cover and Gamble & Huff on the back. I love the book and thought I owed it to Philly because it's got such a wonderful music history. I scratch my head as to why the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland and not in Philadelphia--with no disrespect to Cleveland, which is a nice town. There are so many performers both nationally known, as well as local and regionally known, that came out of Philadelphia, South Philadelphia in particular.

Café:  It's been great talking with you, Jim.

JR:  Thanks, Rick.

You can order Jim Rosin's books at his website: He will be appearing at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland, September 18-20, 2014.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Hallmark Hall of Fame: 63 Years and Counting

In terms of television ratings, 2014 has not been a good year for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. As the industry publication Variety recently noted, the venerable "franchise remains a shadow of its former self." Ironically, the decline of of the Hallmark Hall of Fame comes as the Hallmark Channel thrives on cable. In fact, the success of the latter may have diluted the greeting card company's long-running series of television specials.

One could argue that a presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame is no longer special--you can view similar movies any time on the Hallmark Channel. It wasn't always that way, though. For decades, the Hallmark Hall of Fame meant first-rate entertainment for the whole family. It was "event programming," too, with only three or four specials per year.

Amahl was broadcast on NBC, Hallmark
Hall of Fame
's home for 27 years.
Hallmark launched the series on NBC in 1951 with the broadcast of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (the first original opera commissioned for television). Hallmark has shown the opera seven times, with its last appearance being in 1964. Since then, there have been an incredible 252 Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcasts through April 2014.

Chamberlain as Hamlet.
Hallmark introduced Shakespeare to millions of families with adaptations of: Hamlet (Maurice Evans); Richard II; Macbeth (Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson); The Taming of the Shrew (Evans and Lilli Palmer); Twelfth Night; Kiss Me Kate; The Tempest (Evans and Richard Burton); and a second Hamlet (Richard Chamberlain).

For its first three decades, the Hallmark Hall of Fame relied on classic literature and, most prominently, stage plays for its program content. The plays ranged from A Doll's House (Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer) to Inherit the Wind (Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley) to Harvey (with James Stewart reprising his role 22 years after the 1950 film version). The classic literature adaptations included The Master of Ballantrae, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Anthony Hopkins), and The Secret Garden.

A trend toward recent "feel good" novels in the 1990s ignited with Sarah, Plain and Tall, an adaptation of Patricia MacLachlan's 1986 Newberry Medal-winning novel. Glenn Close starred as the mail order bride who moved to Kansas in 1910 to care for a widower (Christopher Walken) and his children. The telefilm was nominated for nine Emmys, but only won one for Best Editing for a Miniseries or Special. Still, its popular success spawned an encore showing and two sequels with Close and Walken: Skylark (1993) and Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter's End (1999).

The "feel good" formula found ratings success and the Hallmark Hall of Fame thrived for most of the next 20 years. As recently as 2010, it pulled in over 13 million viewers with November Christmas, the story of an optimistic young girl with cancer. However, a network switch from CBS to ABC proved disastrous and 2011's Have a Little Faith, adapted from Mitch Albom's bestseller, attracted less than 7 million viewers. Subsequent Hallmark Hall of Fame specials have performed about the same--a far cry from the days when they were ratings blockbusters.

Hopefully, it's not the end of the line for the long-running series, which has amassed an impressive 81 Emmys. I suspect that even if ABC drops it, the greeting card company may retain the franchise on its Hallmark Channel. If the Hallmark Hall of Fame continues, I'd love to see a return to its stage and literary adaptations which starred the likes of Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson, Bette Davis, Basil Rathbone, Ossie Davis, Faye Dunaway, Alec Guinness, and Deborah Kerr.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Pleasure of Fred Astaire's Company

The importance of casting cannot be overestimated. To substantiate this remark, I offer as evidence the 1961 comedy The Pleasure of His Company.

Fred Astaire stars as Biddeford “Pogo” Ford, a globetrotting playboy who has returned to San Francisco to attend his daughter Jessica’s wedding. The catch is that Pogo has only seen Jessica (Debbie Reynolds) three times in the last 15 years and not since she became a young woman. That hasn't dissuaded Jessica from asking her father to give her away at the wedding. Indeed, she is thrilled to see her father—although nobody else is.

As for Pogo, he has a hidden agenda and that’s to whisk away his daughter prior to the nuptials. He charms Jessica while skillfully humiliating her cattle rancher fiancé (Tab Hunter). In fact, he can scarcely hide his satisfaction when he causes a heated argument between the young couple.

Fred dances a little...with Lilli Palmer.
When not interfering in his daughter’s life, Pogo works hard to woo back his ex-wife Kate (Lilli Palmer) and irritate her husband Jim (Gary Merrill). He moves into Jim’s study and rearranges the furniture. He tries to fill Kate’s head with wonderful—but made-up—memories of their married life. He steals a portrait of Jessica. He changes the champagne order for the wedding. In short, Pogo is a self-centered nuisance who wants whatever he doesn't have. He is not a nice person, which is why the casting of Fred Astaire works so wonderfully.

He effortlessly displays Pogo’s irresistible charm. There’s a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes even as Pogo tries to destroy his daughter’s future happiness. He portrays the rascally playboy as a kid who knows he’s being bad, but can’t seem to help it. And because it’s Fred Astaire, the audience tends to cut Pogo some slack, too.

Debbie Reynolds (and Fred's hands).
Of course, the script often works in Pogo’s favor. Jessica’s fiancé may be a nice guy, but he is incredibly boring and the couple hardly seems compatible. Likewise, Jim comes across as an affable but dull spouse, though—after experiencing “a common case of Pogo Poole”—Kate seems content with her life with Jim. She is also the one who knows Pogo best, telling her daughter that her father “needs to have someone to give him substance.”

Lovely Lilli Palmer.
Indeed, one of the film’s greatest assets is Lilli Palmer’s performance as Kate. Looking radiant at age 47, she makes it easy to see why Pogo questions why he divorced her. The elegant German actress was married to Rex Harrison from 1943 to 1957. After starring in Hollywood productions such as Body and Soul and Cloak and Dagger, she moved back to Europe where she worked steadily until her death at age 71 in 1986.

The Pleasure of His Company was adapted from Samuel Taylor’s 1958 Broadway play that starred Cyril Ritchard as Pogo, Dolores Hart (Where the Boys Are) as Jessica, and a young George Peppard as Jessica’s fiancé. The only actor to appear in both play and film was Charles Ruggles as Kate’s father. He won a Tony for his stage performance, although he sadly gets little screen time in the film version.

Cinematographer Robert Burks (a Hitchcock favorite) lovingly captures the sights and sounds of San Francisco. Unfortunately, the dialogue-driven plot takes place mostly indoors. The result is that The Pleasure of His Company becomes a talky affair and, despite delightful performances from the cast (particularly Astaire and Palmer), it wears out its welcome. Just like Pogo Poole.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Jubal: Shakespeare and Male Bonding in the Old West

This post is part of the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. To view the full blogathon schedule, click here.

Rod Steiger and Glenn Ford in Jubal.
Glenn Ford and director Delmer Daves collaborated on three Westerns made between 1956 and 1958. A common theme connecting this unofficial trilogy is the formation of mutual respect and trust among men. In 3:10 to Yuma (1957), an outlaw (Ford) grows to respect the rancher (Van Heflin) guarding him as they await a train and a likely deadly shoot-out. In Cowboy (1958), a veteran trail boss (Ford) begrudgingly takes on a tenderfoot (Jack Lemmon) during a hard cattle drive. During the arduous trek, the two men grow to admire each other and an unlikely friendship forms. That brings us to the first Ford-Daves Western Jubal (1956), which may be the most complex of their collaborations.

I love how director Daves visually conveys
 the divide between Pinky and Jubal.
Ford plays Jubal Troop, a drifter rescued on a mountain road by kind-hearted rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine). Shep offers Jubal a job as one of his ranch hands. That doesn’t sit well with disgruntled employee "Pinky" Pinkum (Rod Steiger), who tells Jubal: “Let’s get this straight, mister. As far as I’m concerned, you still stink.”

Pinky isn’t Jubal’s only problem. Shep’s beautiful wife Mae (Valerie French) takes an immediate interest in the drifter. When she confronts him during a moment alone, Jubal informs her that “we’re ending this before it begins.” She replies provocatively: “Are we?”

Pinky's dislike of Jubal turns into hatred when Shep selects the newcomer to be his new foreman. Rejected by Shep and Mae--who both prefer Jubal--Pinky seeks revenge by suggesting to Shep that Jubal and Mae are sleeping together. That lie festers into an ugly situation that eventually results in three deaths.

Jubal is loosely based on Paul I. Wellman's 1939 novel Jubal Troop. Described in The Saturday Review as "Anthony Adverse all over again," Wellman's sprawling tale traces the exploits of a man who killed his mistress' husband at age 18, romanced many women, sold stolen cattle, and made and lost a fortune in Oklahoma oil. 

Borgnine as Othello...I mean, Shep.
Drawing on a plot thread involving Shep and Mae, Daves and co-screenwriter Russell S. Hughes transform the film version into a Western variation of Othello. Shep represents the Moor general Othello, who promotes Cassio (Jubal) over Iago (Pinky). The angry Iago retaliates by suggesting to Othello that Cassio slept with Othello's new bride Desdemona (Mae). This lie leads to tragedy, just as it does in Jubal. There are significant differences, of course. Mae wants to be unfaithful with Jubal, Pinky has previously slept with Mae, and Shep doesn't kill Mae. Still, the basic elements of Othello are clearly present in Jubal--a fact which has contributed to the film's cult status among the adult Westerns of the 1950s.

Although Jubal falls in love with Naomi (Felicia Farr), a young pioneer woman, the key relationship in the film is between Jubal and Shep. As Jubal confides to Naomi, Shep is the first person since his father to show him any kindness. Shep, for his part, admires Jubal for his intelligence, but values most his trustworthiness. Indeed, when explaining why he chose Jubal over the more experienced Pinky, Shep states flatly it was because he could trust Jubal. The extent of Shep's trust becomes evident when he reveals to Jubal that he senses Mae has become distant. This is a topic the rancher would never broach with any of his other employees (least of all Pinky). So, it's no wonder that Shep goes into a blind rage when he believes that Jubal--the one person he trusted--betrayed him. 

Valerie French looking seductive as Mae.
Of course, when given the opportunity, Mae chooses not to contradict Pinky's lie. Early in the film, she confesses to Jubal that she married Shep only because she thought he was rich and lived in a "castle." In reality, the "castle" is an impressive ranch and her husband spares no extravagance on his wife. However, Mae's ambivalence toward Shep has grown into disgust fueled by self-pity. She complains to Jubal that the ranch is "ten thousand acres of nothing, ten thousand acres of loneliness." Shep doesn't help matters either. When Mae complains that her husband treats her like property, it's hard to disagree. He playfully calls her his "Canadian heifer" and clearly likes showing her off.

Charles Bronson as Reb.
The standout in the fine cast is Ernest Borgnine, who earned a Best Actor Oscar for the previous year's Marty. His multi-layered portrait of Shep shows all sides of the character: Shep's generosity, his sexist attitude toward women, his insight into the men that work for him, and his rage when he believes he has been betrayed. Glenn Ford is fine as the conflicted hero and Valerie French sizzles as Mae. Charles Bronson lends solid support in one his first major roles as another drifter that befriends Jubal.

Surprisingly, Rod Steiger seems content to repeat his performance as Jud from Oklahoma! (1955). In the biography Glenn Ford: A Life, written by the actor's son, Ford downplays the "method school of acting" made famous by Steiger, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others. Ford said: "'Doing nothing well' is my definition of a good actor. One of the great misconceptions about this business is that you get in front of a camera and 'act.' That's the very thing you should not do. Be yourself--people need to identify with you. If they're not able to, you're in trouble."

Jubal is not the best of the Glenn Ford-Delmer Daves Westerns. That distinction belongs to the thoughtful, tense 3:10 to Yuma, which is universally recognized as one of the best Westerns of the 1950s. However, with its Shakespearean slant and its focus on the frailty of human relationships, Jubal justly deserves reevaluation and greater recognition.

The fine music score in Jubal was composed by David Raskin, who is best known for his theme from Laura. Mr. Raskin is the connection to the next film in this blogathon: The Bad and the Beautiful, which is reviewed by one of our favorite classic movie bloggers at The Lady Eve's Reel Life.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

An Interview with Jon Provost from "Lassie"

One of the most popular child actors of the 1960s, Jon Provost recently appeared as one of the guest stars at the 2014 Western Film Fair. In between signing autographs and chatting with his many fans, Jon agreed to do an interview. Still as charming as when he played Timmy, Mr. Provost talked about his career before, during, and after Lassie.

Café: Your 1957 film All Mine to Give is an extremely moving tale about a frontier family in which both parents die. You played one of the sons at age 6. Realizing that you were about the same age, do you have any memories of making this film?

With Anita Ekberg and Phyllis Kirk
in Back from Eternity (1956).
Jon Provost:  All Mine to Give was the third movie that I made, so I was probably age 5 which would make it 1955. The very first two movies that I made, So Big with Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, and The Country Girl with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, I have no recollection at all. But starting with All Mine to GiveBack from Eternity, and Toward the Unknown, I remember all of those. 

Café:  How did you break into show business at age 2?

JP:  My parents weren't Hollywood people. My father is from Alabama and my mother is from Texas. They met in Hollywood and got married in the 1940s. Growing up on the farm, my Mother's idol was Jane Wyman. Well, we were living in Pasadena and Mom read in the L.A. Times that Warner Bros. was looking for a two to three-year-old boy to be in this movie with Jane Wyman. My Mom thought if she took me on the interview, she would meet Jane Wyman and get her autograph. That was the only reason she took me. There were over 200 kids trying out for the part and I ended up getting the job. I'm a real big believer in being at the right place at the right time. 

Café:  In your autobiography, Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story, you recall an amusing anecdote on how Lola Moore became your agent. Can you share that with our readers?

Jon Provost at the Western Film Fair
in July 2014.
JP:  That was for So Big. I had been trying out all day and they were telling the other kids to go home, but they kept telling me to stay. Toward the end of the day, this very flamboyant woman comes up to my mother and says: "I think your son is going to get this job." And my Mom says: "Great, but I haven't met Jane Wyman yet." Then, the woman says: "Don't worry. You'll meet Jane Wyman, but I need to know who your agent is." Thinking she met a real estate agent, Mom said that we owned a home and didn't need an agent. The woman said: "Oh, no, you don't understand. I'm talking about a theatrical agent to represent your son." Mom said she didn't know where to find one of those. The woman said: "My name is Lola Moore and I'm the number one child agent in Hollywood." Mom asked if we had to pay her. Lola said: "No, I just take 10% of whatever your son makes." Mom said: "Okay, I can live with that." So, at my first audition, I got the job and I got an agent--and Mom got a lot more than her autograph from Jane Wyman. 

Café Tommy Rettig preceded you as Jeff on Lassie. The two of you also played the same character at different ages in the 1952 film So Big and later guest-starred together on The New Lassie. Did you know him very well?

JP:  Yes, Tommy and I kept in touch over the years after the series. It was really neat on The New Lassie series to have him do an episode. He was a great guy. Unfortunately, he died very young.

Café Cloris Leachman played your mother on the first season of Lassie and then was replaced by June Lockhart for the next six years. What was it like working with the two of them?

Jon with Hugh Reilly, Baby, and
June Lockhart.
JP:  If you look at the demeanor between Cloris Leachman and June Lockhart, they're pretty opposite. That's why Cloris wanted out of the contract. She figured she wasn't baking cookies for six years. She treated me nicely. The same with June. June and I have kept in touch over the years. She just turned 89 years old in on June 5th and she's still working and in great shape.

Café Rudd Weatherwax owned and trained Pal, the original collie in the MGM movies. During your seven seasons on Lassie, you worked with three of Pal's descendants: his son Lassie Jr. and grandsonSpook and Baby. Which collie was your favorite and why?

JP:  I worked with Baby for five years straight. Obviously, he and I really bonded. He was my favorite and I also thought he was the most intelligent of the ones I worked with. They were all great dogs. 

Café Didn't Rudd Weatherwax give you one of the Lassie pups for a birthday present?

JP:  Yes, when I started the series at age 7, Rudd told me: "If you don't bug Lassie for the first year, don't pull his tail, don't ride him, and don't sit on him, I'll give you a Lassie puppy the next year." So, the next year, I got a Lassie puppy for my birthday. It was a male and I named him Rudd after Rudd Weatherwax.

Café What was it like being a child star in the 1960s?

A lunchbox with Lassie, June, and Jon.
JP:  It was totally different than the way it is today. I would get tons of fan mail sent to the studio--and to our home, because my mother would put our return address on the fan mail. If someone wanted a photograph, she would tell people that if they were ever in the neighborhood to stop by and say hi. And people did! Well, you sure can't do that today.

Café What led you to leave Lassie in 1964 at age 14?

JP:  I was really just tired of playing Timmy. I was growing up, I was going through puberty, I was getting interested in girls, and everybody thought of me as little Timmy. The studio wanted to go for three more years for a total of ten. But the option was ours and my parents asked me if I wanted to do Lassie for three more years or if I wanted to quit and do other stuff. I wanted to do other acting. I was just tired of being Timmy. It was time to move on. 

Café Do you have a favorite episode of Lassie and, if so, what was it?

JP:  My favorite episode was a three-parter called "The Odyssey." In it, Lassie inadvertently got locked in the back of a big tractor trailer truck, got hauled halfway across the country, and had to find his way home. By the third episode, we had figured that Lassie was never coming home and, in the last scene, Timmy is burying Lassie's toys in a special place. In the background, you hear this bark and then over the hill comes Lassie. I watch it today and I cry.

Café Wasn't one of the multi-part episodes turned into a theatrical film?

JP:  That was Lassie's Great Adventure. That was the only thing we ever did in color. I did over 250 episodes and only that five-parter was in color. It was the last year and those episodes were shot in Technicolor so they could be released as a movie after the series was over. 

Café You appeared on Mister Ed in the 1965 episode "Jon Provost Meets Mister Ed." It has a great scene in which you talk to Ed and note he's almost as smart as your dog. After you leave, Ed mutters: "Almost as smart as his dog? I'd like to see his pooch make a phone call." What was it like working on Mister Ed compared to Lassie?

Jon as a guest star on Mister Ed.
JP:  Let's put it this way: I went from the smartest dog to the smartest horse. Alan Young, Connie Hines, and the horse were all great. The director of that series was Arthur Lubin and he directed me in a movie called Escapade in Japan for RKO in 1956. That movie is what actually got me the part of Timmy on Lassie. So, it was kind of neat to work with Arthur Lubin again that many years later. 

Café You have long been involved with Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides service dogs to the handicapped. What can you tell us about this organization?

JP:  Canine Companions for Independence is a national organization that supplies service dogs totally free of charge to people that have disabilities other than blindness. There are five training centers throughout the United States. I was on the Board of Governors for 25 years. I just resigned last year. We've placed over 3500 dogs totally free of charge to the recipients. If anybody knows someone who has a disability and might need a service dog, they can go to the website: A few years ago, we also implemented a wounded veterans program that provides service dogs for the guys and gals coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who may be missing limbs or with other disabilities. 

Café Do you have a dog today?

JP:  Yes, we have a little rescue. I've always had dogs, but I'd always raised them from puppies and they've always been pure bred. When we lost our last dog, which was a beagle, my wife and I decided to do a rescue. We rescued a senior "special eds" dog, which was a real challenge. We've had him for about five years. He's the best dog we've ever owned. His name is Buddy and he is the total Heinz 57.

No checkered shirt here..but
it's still a great photo.
Café The checkered shirt and jeans you wore on Lassie are on display in The Smithsonian next to Archie Bunker’s chair. And Lassie continues to air throughout the world daily. What do you think is the secret to its enduring appeal?

JP:  It's that bond...that relationship between a boy and his dog. It's a universal thing. I think it's just that. That's why they call dogs man's best friend. 

You can learn more about Jon Provost and check out his upcoming appearances at his web site: You may also be interested in his autobiography Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story, which was co-written with Laurie Jacobson.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pitfall: A Suburban, Middle-Class Film Noir

In a 2006 article for L.A. Weekly, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier called Pitfall (1948) "a film to rank among the best, the sharpest and the most original of noirs." I'm not sure I'd rank Pitfall with the genre's finest, but it's nonetheless a highly-effective drama that breaks free of the typical film noir conventions. There are no femme fatales, no bleak streets, and no hardened criminals.

A family breakfast scene in a film noir?
Instead, the protagonist is a middle-class insurance adjuster who lives in a suburban neighborhood with his loving wife and son. The problem is that John Forbes (Dick Powell) is disenchanted with his idyllic life. He's tired of playing bridge every Thursday. He's tired of going to work at the same time every morning and getting home at the same time every evening. When his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) informs him that his breakfast is on the table, he retorts: "Where else would it be?"

Lizabeth Scott as Mona.
Johnny's life gets turned upside down when he tries to recover property purchased with embezzled money. The recipient of the "gifts" is Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a pretty store model who oozes vulnerability. An afternoon visit turns into an unexpected boat ride, a dinner invitation...and more. Private detective Mac McDonald (Raymond Burr), who is already infatuated with Mona, observes her interest in Forbes. One evening when Forbes arrives home late, Mac emerges from the shadows and administers a beating. Guilt-ridden and sinking in a sea of lies, Forbes decides to end his relationship with Mona. Unfortunately, it's too much too late.

Director Andre de Toth, in an interview in the book de Toth on de Toth, noted that the women dominated the film. For the role of Mona, he said: "I did not want a fashionable Hollywood bambola to cheapen the story...I wanted a warm, sincere, vulnerable human being." Strangely enough, de Toth thought Lizabeth Scott--who played her share of husky-voiced bad girls--was perfect for the part. And he was right. She's excellent as the young woman who seems to specialize in the wrong kind of man: one who commits a crime for her; one that's uncomfortably obsessed with her; and a nice guy that's already married (though she doesn't know that initially).

While Jane Wyatt's wife is a background figure for most of the film, she has two excellent scenes in the final ten minutes. In fact, she's the driving force behind an ending that Tavernier calls "one of the strongest, the iciest and the least complacent in movies of the era."

Mac (Burr) ogles Mona as she models.
Yet, while it's the female characters that propel Pitfall, it's Raymond Burr's slimy private eye that provides the film's necessary menace. In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, he visits the fashion store where Mona works and makes her model a slinky evening gown as he leers at her. He also visits the prison to tell Mona's jealous ex-boyfriend about her dalliance with Forbes. Still, he's not responsible for bringing adultery and murder into the Forbes' household.

Wyatt in the uncompromising final scene.
That distinction belongs to no one but John Forbes. With one horrible decision, he puts his family at peril, potentially destroys his marriage, and commits an act that will haunt him forever. Ironically, Forbes complains at the beginning of Pitfall that he's "in a rut six feet deep." By the end of the film, he has placed himself into a far deeper rut, one person is buried six feet deep, and another borders on death. He has allowed the bright cheery life that he took for granted to be invaded by the invisible shadows of film noir.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Parker Stevenson Talks About The Hardy Boys, Probe, and His Passion for Photography

Stevenson as teen detective Frank Hardy.
Parker Stevenson can still make ladies swoon. I recently attended the 2014 Western Film Fair, where the star of the The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-79) was one of the guests. As I rode up the elevator with a mother and daughter, the former was staring off into space. The daughter looked at me, smiled, and said: "Mom is still gooey from meeting Parker Stevenson." As agreeable in real life as he is on the screen, Mr. Stevenson sat down for an interview with yours truly.

Café: How did you go from Princeton University to acting?

Stevenson signing autographs at
the Western Film Fair.
Parker Stevenson: I needed a job (laughs). I graduated from the architecture program at Princeton, but decided I didn't want to keep doing architecture and I really didn't know what to do. I'd been acting since I was 14, doing movies, television, and commercials. Just as I was graduating, I got offered The Hardy Boys, so I made the switch and really committed to acting at that point.

Café: How did you get the role of Frank Hardy?

PS: I got it because the producers has seen me in a couple of the movies I'd done. In fact, I had done one with Pamela Sue Martin a couple of years before (1974's Our Time) and she ended up being Nancy Drew. So, I think that was the connection for them.

Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy.
Café: How did you and Shaun Cassidy get along on the show?

PS: Great. He's really an easygoing guy and his sense of humor is like mine. That's probably why we got cast together, because we just liked each other. Part of what the show was about was two brothers who actually get along and get into trouble together. I'm still in touch with Shaun. He's still a good friend.

Café: Had you read any of The Hardy Boys books or seen the serial from The Micky Mouse Club?

PS:  I hadn't seen the serial. I was familiar with bits and pieces of the books, but I hadn't read them. I was really late getting started on my reading, which now I'm crazy about. But in those years, I wasn't much of a reader. I discovered the books really doing the show.

On Baywatch (of course!).
Café: How did you get cast on Baywatch?

PS: I did a movie called Lifeguard with Sam Elliott and the producers thought I might be okay playing a lifeguard (laughs). Really.

Café:  You've appeared in a number of popular series like Melrose Place and Falcon Crest in addition to The Hardy Boys and Baywatch. Out of all your TV series, which one is your favorite and why? 

With Ashley Crow on Probe.
PS:  My favorite was Probe (1988), which I did for ABC. It ran a year. I loved the show. It was Isaac Asimov's Probe, so it had really trippy interesting stories. It was up against The Cosby Show or something, so it struggled in the ratings. It was the closest to me in terms of how I think and what I'm like in real life.

Café:  I recently came across your photography website How did you become interested in photography?

PS:  I was one of those kids that had a Brownie camera and was always shooting. I'd take pictures of my friends or just doing goofy things in the backyard. By the time I was 14, I was shooting weddings for people, which was really not a good idea (laughs). They liked my pictures. I delivered and was responsible. Then, I hit a point where I didn't want to shoot people anymore. I felt too intimidated. Even if you just walk up and shoot someone, you feel like you're imposing and invading. My photography shifted to architecture, landscapes, and still lifes until about 15 years ago when some friends asked me to shoot them. I shifted all the way back to people again. Portraits are what I shoot the most now.

Parker snapped a selfie of the two of us;
he's the one on the right!
Café:  You recently appeared in an episode of Longmire, so what's the secret to Parker Stevenson's lengthy career?

PS:  I asked Burt Reynolds a similar question years ago. The question was: "Burt, you've been the #1 box office star for ten years now and you have this sort of Cary Grant ease about you. How have you managed to maintain that?" He said: "There are a lot of guys that are better looking or more talented than you or I, but they didn't hang in there." I took that to heart. I always wanted a career where I could keep working and trying new things and working with new people. I wanted a Jimmy Stewart career, not a huge, hot, short career. So, Burt's advice that you've got to hang in there is the answer.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming films, TV roles, or convention appearances that you want to share with our readers?

PS:  I'm doing a play in L.A. in later July called Chasing Smoke, which hopefully will have a long run. I love the script and it's close to my heart. Hopefully, I'll be back on Longmire. It looks like I might be. And I will be at another convention, the Hollywood Show, in Chicago on August 15-17. 

Café:  Thanks so much, Mr. Stevenson.

PS:  It was my pleasure.