Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (October 2017 Edition)

What do Gary and Doris have in common?
Welcome to the latest edition of the Cafe's most popular game. You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers, your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Gary Busey and Doris Day.

2. Mickey Rooney and Charles Bronson.

3. Donald O'Connor and Mickey Rooney.

4. Valentino (1977) and White Nights (1985).

5. Bette Davis and Shirley Jones.

6. Beau Bridges and Marjoe Gortner.

7. Jack Benny and Anne Bancroft.

8. Ronald Reagan and Johnny Weissmuller.

9. Marshall Thompson and Sigourney Weaver.

10. James Garner and Ronald Colman.

11. James MacArthur and Spencer Tracy.

12. Bill Bixby and Tony Curtis.

13. Marshall Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

14. Gregory Peck and Disney's Pinocchio.

15. Steve McQueen and James Caan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A War Wagon Loaded With Gold!

John Wayne as ex-con Taw Jackson.
After being "shot, framed, and sent to prison" for three years, Taw Jackson (John Wayne) intends to gain revenge on the goldmine baron responsible. Taw's plan is to rob the Pierce Mining Company when it transports $500,000 of gold ore across 43 miles of treacherous terrain.

It won't be easy. Twenty-eight men, armed with repeating rifles and pistols with 200 rounds of ammo, guard the outside of the gold-carrying wagon. Five more men guard the safe inside the wagon. As if that's not bad enough, the wagon is plated in iron and was recently retrofitted with a turret housing a gatling gun. Folks call it the "war wagon" for a good reason.

Kirk Douglas as Lomax.
Taw assembles a motley crew to assist him with this heist. Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn) is a disgruntled Pierce employee tasked with transporting the stolen gold in flour barrels. The shady Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel) has the responsibility to negotiate with a Kiowa Indian tribe to stage an attack as a diversion. Young Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker, Jr.) is a drunk with a talent for using nitroglycerin. Finally, there's a hired gun named Lomax (Kirk Douglas), who has also been offered $12,000 to kill Taw. Quite the band of merry men!

Made in 1967, The War Wagon is a breezy Western with plenty of action and humor. Among John Wayne's later Westerns, it doesn't rank with the best (True Grit, The Shootist), but I'll take it any day over run-of-the-mill oaters like Rio Lobo and Cahill U.S. Marshal. Plus, it's interesting to see the Duke as--technically--a criminal.

Valora Nolan not playing Animal!
The supporting cast alone makes it required viewing for fans of 1960s cinema and television. It includes Wagon Train TV series regulars Terry Wilson (Bill Hawks) and Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster). Keenan Wynn's "wife" is played by Valora Nolan, best known for her roles in Beach Party (as "Animal") and Muscle Beach Party. One of the bad guys is future High Chaparral regular Don Collier (whom we interviewed in 2016) and another is stuntman and future director Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit).

Although John Wayne receives top billing, Kirk Douglas dominates The War Wagon as the fun-loving gunfighter Lomax. In addition to delivering most of the best lines, the athletic Douglas even steals scenes with his acrobatic approaches to mounting his horse. I do question his character's wardrobe choice, however, as that leather shirt looks like it'd be mighty hot for the Western Plains.

The scene I always remember best about The War Wagon is where a log suspended by ropes swings down and knocks off the top of the wagon. For some reason, it's one of those iconic scenes that seems to stick in one's memory long after plot details are forgotten.

The swinging log heads toward a collision with the war wagon!
By the way, one would expect that co-star Howard Keel would sing the opening "Ballad of the War Wagon," written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington. Instead, that's Ed Ames warbling it on the soundtrack.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

As a boy growing in the Great Depression, my father loved to read pulp magazines. His favorites were The Shadow and Doc Savage. I also became a fan when, beginning in the late 1960s, Bantam Books released paperbacks featuring these heroes. Thus, my Dad and I had high expectations when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was released in 1975. Yes, we had our reservations when we learned it starred Ron Ely, best known as TV's Tarzan. But it was produced by George Pal (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds) and I knew he wouldn't let me down.

We hated Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. It took our beloved hero and turned him into a camp figure with a (literal) twinkle in his eye. Thanks to Warner Archive's streaming service, I recently watched this movie for the first time in 42 years. Perhaps it was my tempered expectations, but I found it to be reasonably entertaining tale of derring-do this time around.

For those unfamiliar with Clark "Doc" Savage, Jr., he is a physically-gifted genius who might one well qualify as one of the first superheroes. He lives in a metropolitan skyscraper, but spends most of his time roaming the world on his various exploits. When he needs to do some serious thinking, he retreats to his Arctic Fortress of Solitude (which pre-dates Superman's same-named abode).

Ron Ely as Doc Savage.
Doc is assisted by the Fabulous Five, which consist of: Ham Brooks, a Harvard-educated lawyer; Monk Mayfair, a renowned chemist who also possesses great strength; Renny Renwick, a construction engineer; William "Johnny" Littlejohn, a geologist and archaeologist; and "Long Tom" Roberts, an electrical engineer.

At the start of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, Doc (Ron Ely) learns of his father's sudden death from a South American tropical disease. The elder Savage's possessions included some important documents, but before Doc can read them, they are destroyed...and Doc nearly gets assassinated by a mysterious native with a green snake painted on his chest.

Doc and the Fabulous Five head to the Republic of Hidalgo in South America, where they encounter the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler). It turns out that the Captain murdered Doc's father to prevent him from telling others about a "lake of gold" and a tribe called the Quetzamals that disappeared 500 years ago. But Captain Seas and his cronies turn out to be no match for Doc, of course!

Doc fends of the "Green Death."
It's a pretty straightforward yarn and anyone expecting a typical George Pal movie will be disappointed. The only special effects are some nifty green "air serpents" that kill their victims with electric nibbles. Veteran director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days) keeps the action moving and that disguises a lot of the film's weaknesses. 

Indeed, the only boring scenes are when Doc delivers an overly-sincere pep talk to the Fab Five and any scene featuring the ridiculous "Doc Savage" song (which is set to John Philip Sousa music). One assumes that these elements were intended to be camp. (Let's be honest, it's hard to intentionally make a camp film...Buckaroo Banzai being an exception).

Pamela Hensley.
Ron Ely does what he can in the title role, though one suspects he wanted to play the part straight. Supporting acting honors go to Pamela Hensley as a plucky young woman who helps Doc find the "lost" ancient civilization. Doc Savage could have benefited mightily from a villain more threatening than than the one played by the chunky Wexler. His climactic fight scene with Ely is absurd and not in a funny, campy way. 

Although the closing credits announce a sequel (The Arch Enemy of Evil), that production was scrapped when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze flopped at the boxoffice. There have been numerous attempts to mount new Doc Savage films, the latest being an announcement in 2016 that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would play Doc.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Kirk Douglas is a Man Without a Star

Kirk Douglas as Dempsey.
Borden Chase penned some of the most important Westerns in film history, to include: Howard Hawks' Red River plus the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country. He co-wrote the screenplay for Man Without a Star (1955), an engrossing Western that may not rank with the aforementioned films, but still remains a compelling "adult Western."

Kirk Douglas plays Dempsey Rae, a cowhand that keeps drifting further north as large ranches with their fences begin to dominate the Western landscapes. While stowing away on a train, he meets a young greenhorn (William Campbell), whom he later dubs the Texas Kid. After Dempsey rescues Texas from a probable hanging, the young man clings to the veteran cowboy. Dempsey eventually takes Texas under his wing and gets both of them a job at the Triangle Ranch.

Jeanne Crain as the new owner.
They settle in nicely until two events trigger a series of conflicts. First, one of the smaller ranchers decides to use barbed wire to preserve fresh grass for his herd. The mention of "barbed wire" gets Dempsey fired up (we learn why later) and he decides it's time to move on. His plans change, though, when he meets the Triangle's new owner: the beautiful Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Although Man Without a Star was based on a 1952 novel by Dee Linford, it shares many similarities with Borden Chase's other Westerns. As in The Far Country, there are two strong female characters: Crain as the ambitious rancher and Claire Trevor as a brothel madam. However, the film's central relationship is between two men: Dempsey and Texas. That's a recurring element in all of the previously-mentioned Borden Chase Westerns (e.g., John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the River, James Stewart and Walter Brennan in The Far Country, etc.).

Richard Boone, as a baddie, with Crain.
Indeed, one of the challenges in Man Without a Star is its brief 89 minute length leaves little time to explore relationships and themes. For example, once Reed Bowman shows up, the Texas Kid vanishes into the background for a large chunk of the film. Similarly, Reed is nowhere to be found in the film's closing scenes. Thematically, Chase and his fellow writers use the barbed wire fences as an analogy for the impending civilization of the West (much as Sergio Leone would later use trains in Once Upon a Time in the West). However, again, there is insufficient running time to explore this theme in any depth.

Claire Trevor and Kirk Douglas.
Screen veteran King Vidor directs with a sure hand and adds some nice humorous touches. My favorite is when Dempsey and the Triangle's foreman (Jay C. Flippen) are engaging in a pleasant breakfast conversation as Texas fights another ranch hand outside the bunkhouse. The camera never leaves the breakfast table as we hear the punches and grunts from the fisticuffs. Another funny scene is when Dempsey asks to see the new bathroom installed in the ranch house...imagine that...a bathroom in the house!

Man Without a Star was remade just 13 years later as A Man Called Gannon with Tony Franciosa in the Kirk Douglas role and Michael Sarrazin as his protege. It's a respectable Western, but lacks the verve and cast that makes Man Without a Star required viewing despite its limitations. It also doesn't have a catchy title song sung by Frankie Laine!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Holmes on a Train in "Terror By Night"

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
There are better entries in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series. In fact, when I ranked all twelve films from best to worst in 2009, Terror By Night came in #6--and, after viewing it again recently, that still feels right. But it has one thing the other SH films don't have...and that's a train. I've always had a weakness for movies set aboard trains.

Terror By Night opens with Holmes and Watson about to board the Scotch Express for business, not pleasure. Holmes has agreed to guard a 423-karat diamond known as the Star of Rhodesia. Legend has it that the stone resulted in "violent and sudden death" to all who possessed it. The current owner, Lady Margaret, is headed to Edinburgh with her son Roland.

The train has barely left the station when Roland is found dead in his compartment and the Star of Rhodesia is missing. Although there are no signs of foul play, Holmes remains convinced that Roland was murdered. (By the way, when Lady Margaret asks about the whereabouts of her son, Holmes simply nods towards the corpse on the floor...with Roland's eyes creepily open. It may be the detective's most callous act in the entire series, though he does apologize promptly.)

Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade, Bruce, and Rathbone.
There is no shortage of suspects among the passengers, which include: a mathematician and his wife, a mysterious young woman, Lady Margaret, and even Dr. Watson's friend Major Duncan-Bleek. Could one of them be in league with the notorious criminal Colonel Sebastian Moran?

Renee Godfrey as a suspect.
It's not hard to guess the identity of the villain, but there's a nice little twist at the climax and some bright dialogue along the way. Roy William Neill, who directed all but one of Universal's Holmes films, keeps the plot speeding along. The entire film clocks in at under an hour. He also injects some much-needed action with a near-fatal clash between Holmes and the killer.

Sadly, Neill would only make two more films before dying of a heart attack in 1946. His last film, the noir Black Angel, would turn out to be one of his best.

As for Rathbone and Bruce, they would team up as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous duo for one last film: Dressed to Kill (1946). It's only a so-so entry, but that doesn't diminish one of the most entertaining "B" mystery film series of the 1940s.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cult Movie Theatre: Q--The Winged Serpent

It's Quetzalcoatl!
A window washer is beheaded. A half-naked sunbather is snatched from a skyscraper's rooftop. Yes, there's a giant winged serpent on the loose in New York City. Well, technically, it's an Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl and it's also indirectly responsible for a recent spate of human sacrifices.

While the police try to solve these grisly crimes, a small-time crook named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) tries to avoid getting killed by more conventional means. During a botched diamond robbery, Jimmy winds up with all the jewels...only to promptly lose them when a car hits him while crossing the street. Now, he has a bum leg and a gang of angry criminals on his trail.

Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn.
Jimmy eventually seeks safety inside the Chrysler Building, hiding among the steel beams under the spire. To his amazement, he finds a giant nest with a humongous egg. Initially, Jimmy doesn't understand the significance of his discovery. But when he does, he decides that he can turn his knowledge into a tidy profit. City authorities want to stop Quetzalcoatl before it kills again, So, why not sell that information to them...and get his criminal record wiped clean in the bargain?

Candy Clark as Jimmy's girlfriend.
Independent film auteur Larry Cohen made a number of clever, low-budget, socially-conscious movies in the 1970s and 1980s. His most famous is probably It's Alive (1974), which somehow succeeds as both a horror tale about a killer baby and the story of an innocent child trying to survive in a scary world of "normal" people. In Q, Cohen's traditional would-be heroes are the cops played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. Not only are they boring characters, they are also ineffectual when it comes to finding Quetzalcoatl.

The survival of the city's denizens is left to a hustler with limited smarts who can play a little piano. Jimmy Quinn doesn't have much going for him beyond a very tolerant girlfriend (wonderfully played by Candy Clark). Of course, even she decides she's had enough when she learns of Jimmy's extortion plan.

It can be difficult to cast anti-heroes, but Cohen was fortunate to get Michael Moriarty to play Jimmy. The actor was in high demand for much of the 1970s, appearing in prestigious roles in Bang the Drum Slowly, The Glass Menagerie (for which he won an Emmy), and Who'll Stop the Rain. His performance works inbecause he doesn't try to make Jimmy a likable rascal. Moriarty's protagonist is greedy, selfish, and dense. And that is what separates Q from dozens of other big monster movies.

Battling the winged serpent.
Due to budget reasons, Cohen limits the appearances of Quetzalcoatl, saving most of the winged serpent footage for the climax. While the serpent looks somewhat rubbery, the stop-motion animation is pretty impressive. David Allen, one of the lead animators, became an acclaimed special effects wizard. He worked on big budget films like Willow (1988) as well as TV commercials (his most famous one featured King Kong and a Volkswagen).

Larry Cohen and Michael Mortiarty teamed up for three additional movies. The most interesting one was The Stuff, a satire about a delicious gooey substance that turns people to zombies that crave more stuff.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Maureen O'Hara and Delmer Daves Team Up for Spencer's Mountain and Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara.
In the twilight of his career, talented writer-director Delmer Daves teamed up with Maureen O’Hara for Spencer’s Mountain (1963) and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965). These two very different films surprisingly share a common theme: the relationship between children and their parents.

The more conventional of the two is Spencer’s Mountain, a family drama set in a rural community in the mountains of Wyoming. Henry Fonda stars as Clay Spencer, the hard-working patriarch who shares a modest home with his practical wife Olivia (Maureen O’Hara), their nine children, and his old-fashioned parents.

MacArthur amid the mountains.
When not laboring at the local quarry, Clay works on the “dream house” he’s been building for years. Finances are always a worry, though, and become more so when a college scholarship falls through for Clay-boy (James MacArthur), the eldest son. Wanting their son to have the education they never did, both parents struggle to figure out how to pay for Clay-boy’s tuition.

If elements of Spencer’s Mountain sound familiar, that’s because it was based on a book written by Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of The Waltons TV series. A key difference is that Maureen O’Hara’s mother is relegated to the background, while Michael Learned figured much more prominently in the TV series. The show also restored the book’s original setting of rural Virginia.

Back when TBS showed older films (and TCM was but a dream), Spencer's Mountain was shown on the latter station two or three times a year (or so it seemed). It’s a well-intentioned movie, but tries too hard to be a heart-warming family drama. When a fired-up Clay goes to see the college dean about Clay-boy’s scholarship, you just know that the dean will be impressed enough with Clay’s gumption to bend the rules a little. It’s that kind of movie.
Rossano Brazzi and Maureen O'Hara as hopeless lovers.
Maureen O’Hara has a much juicer role in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, in which she plays a middle-aged British woman who falls madly in love with an Italian composer (Rossano Brazzi). The only problem is that she’s married and has two teenage children (who attend boarding schools). The lovers, Moira and Lorenzo, cannot stay apart from one another, so Moira decides to leave her husband. He is shocked, but does not stand in his wife’s way.

Elizabeth Dear as Debby.
However, Moira’s daughter Debby (Elizabeth Dear) and son Michael (Martin Stephens) are displeased with the situation and trek to Italy to “fetch” their mother back. While this may sound like the premise for a comedy, it is not. (Your big clue should be that it was based on a novel by Black Narcissus author Rumer Godden). Moira’s children eventually conspire with Lorenzo’s twelve-year-old daughter (Olivia Hussey) to break up their parents.

Director Daves, who also explored middle-aged love in A Summer Place, opens the film with an inventive sequence in which we “hear” Moira and Lorenzo thinking about how they met. However, the sequence where the kids travel to Italy plays out like a boring travelogue (reminiscent of Daves’ pedestrian Rome Adventure). Fortunately, Battle regains its footing when Debby and Michael meet Lorenzo for the first time.

Olivia Hussey as Donna.
There are no villains in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, only people with good intentions who make bad decisions. Lorenzo’s initial instincts are good—he wants to send the children home. But that plan goes awry when Michael falls ill and Debby appeals to his paternal emotions. Lorenzo only makes matters worse when he decides to bring the “new family” together by inviting his daughter—whom he barely knows—to visit. It’s easy to paint the children as the bad guys, but their motives are sincere if brutally selfish.

The child actors steal the film from the adults, though Martin Stephens—so good in The Innocents and Village of the Damned—is somewhat wasted. In contrast, Olivia Hussey, in her first film role, and Elizabeth Dear convey both childhood innocence and deviousness in equal measure.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita was Delmer Daves’ final film. Maureen O’Hara appeared sporadically in a handful of films over the next 35 years. She retired for good after appearing in the 2000 made-for-TV movie The Last Dance.

Seven Things to Know About William Smith--Actor, Bodybuilder, Poet (and more!)

A few months ago, we reviewed the Laredo TV series and were surprised by the number of William Smith comments. That inspired us to do some more research on one of the most intriguing actors of his era. Did you know...

1. William Smith began his acting career as a child appearing in films such as The Ghost of Frankenstein (1940), Song of Bernadette (1943), and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945).

2. His fight scene with Rod Taylor in Darker Than Amber (1970) is justly famous for its realism. Taylor broke three of Smith's ribs and Smith broke Taylor's nose. In Tales from the Cult Film Trenches, Smith said: "Rod Taylor is a tough guy. It's the best fight scene I ever worked on."

3. Smith appeared in eleven (!) biker films. In the memorably-titled Chrome and Hot Leather, he appeared alongside his Laredo TV series co-star Peter Brown...and soul singer Marvin Gaye. His favorite biker pic may have been C.C. & Company (1970) because he enjoyed working with Joe Namath and Ann-Margret.

4. He graduated cum laude with a Master's degree from UCLA. He later taught Russian language studies at the university.

5. The 6' 2" Smith is also well-known for his athletic endeavors as a bodybuilder, amateur boxer, discus thrower, martial artist, and skier.

6. In 2009, Smith published The Poetic Works of William Smith. You can read some of his poems at his web site by clicking here.

7. During his lengthy career, William Smith amassed over 270 film and television credits. Some of his most famous roles were in the television miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and the films Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian, and Any Which Way You Can. The last film pitted Smith against Clint Eastwood in a climatic fist fight--one of the longest in movie history.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (September 2017)

Peter Cushing and Harry Hamlin.
Welcome, big-brained game players! As always, you'll be given a pair or trio of films or performers, your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. George C. Scott and Chuck Connors.

2. Grant Williams and Raquel Welch.

3. Tyrone Power and Sean Connery.

4. Robert Loggia and Robert Wagner.

5. Peter Cushing and Harry Hamlin.

6. Slaughter and Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows.

7. The Absent-Minded Professor and Hobson's Choice.

8. Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson.

9. Keir Dullea and Eric Braeden.

10. Lee Majors and Glenn Corbett.

11. Edmund O'Brien and Tom Tryon.

12. The Happiest Millionaire and Peter Pan (1953).

13. Clifton Webb and Alec Guinness.

14. Petula Clark and Clint Eastwood.

15. Christopher Lee and Christopher Walken.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

James Caan and Michael Mann Team Up for "Thief"

James Cann as Frank.
Michael Mann makes a remarkably self-assured debut as feature film director with his sleek 1981 drama Thief. After graduating from the London Film School in the 1960s, Mann gained experienced on television, working on crime dramas such as Starsky and Hutch and Joseph Wambaugh's Police Story. He won an an Emmy for writing and a DGA award for directing the made-for-TV film The Jericho Mile. Thus, Mann already had an impressive pedigree when he turned his sights on writing and directing Thief, an adaptation of a book written by real-life jewel thief John Seybold.

Caan and Tuesday Weld.
James Caan stars as Frank, an ex-convict who, by day, runs Rocket Motor Sales and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. By night, though, Frank stages elaborate heists with the help of a couple of cronies. Frank's dream is for a normal life with a loving wife, a baby boy, and a home in the suburbs. Anxious to make it a reality--especially after meeting a pretty cashier (Tuesday Weld)--Frank agrees to work for a mob boss named Leo (Robert Prosky). Frank's plan is to complete one last big job and then retire to the idyllic life. Unfortunately, Leo has other plans for the thief.

Thief provides James Caan with a rare juicy role, one which highlights the actor's likability and his explosiveness. In the film's best scene, Frank recounts the horrors of prison life to his girlfriend over a cup of coffee in a restaurant. It's a revealing conversation that explains his paternal feelings toward an old master thief (Willie Nelson), who is dying in prison. More importantly, Frank explains that he survived by learning not to feel anymore. He stores his dreams on a postcard-size photo collage in his wallet, thus making them dreams that he can literally tear up and cast aside if necessary.

Yet, while Frank exhibits a handful of redeeming qualities, there is raw violence always simmering just beneath the surface. He doesn't hesitate to threaten innocent people or yell abusively at a social worker because he can't understand why an ex-con isn't considered a suitable parent for an adopted child.

Robert Prosky as Leo.
The supporting cast includes a number of effective performances, some of them delivered by first-time performers. John Santucci, a former jewel thief initially hired as a technical consultant, is pitch-perfect as a dirty cop. Dennis Farina, a real-life former cop, also made his film debut in Thief (as a villain). However, supporting acting honors go to Robert Prosky, who got his first major film role in Thief  at the age of 51. Prosky plays a mob kingpin who admires Frank's work and wants to make him part of his "family"--not understanding Frank's obsession with individualism.

While Thief is visually interesting, especially Mann's use of bold colors mixed with black, it lacks the style of the director's later work, such as Manhunter (1986) and the Miami Vice TV series. While the heist scenes are compelling, don't expect dripping suspense along the lines of Rififi (1955). The big safe-cracking sequence lasts a mere ten minutes.

Thief works best as an engrossing character study. And while it's clear from the outset that Frank will fail to achieve his unrealistic dream of a perfect family life, the closing shot is surprisingly optimistic--in its own downbeat kind of way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Greengage Summer

Susannah York as Joss.
Knowing my affinity for 1960s British cinema, my blogger friend Connie from Silver Scenes recently recommended The Greengage Summer (aka Loss of Innocence). Currently available on YouTube, it turned out to be an ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Set 15 years after World War II, The Greengage Summer opens with a train arriving in the "Green and Gold Champagne Country of France." Mrs. Grey, a mother of four, exits the train on a stretcher. She has blood poisoning and must be transported directly to a hospital. She puts her oldest daughter, 16-year-old Joss (Susannah York), in charge of her siblings. 

Danielle Darrieux and Kenneth More.
When the children arrive at their hotel, the manager nor the owner want to accept the motherless children as guests. However, a gentleman "friend" of the owner, Eliot (Kenneth More), intercedes on the children's behalf. They are allowed to stay at the Hotel Oeillets, and as the days pass, they bond closely with the fortyish Eliot. Hester, the second oldest daughter, notices that Eliot has begun to look at Joss differently. Joss has noticed this as well and likes the attention, though she carefully avoids being alone with Eliot on a country outing.

Screenwriter Rumer Godden based The Greengage Summer on her own 1958 novel. As with Godden's earlier Black Narcissus, there's an emotional intensity suppressed within most of the characters. The hotel's owner, Madame Zisi, is hopelessy in love with Eliot, even though she knows very little about him. She does, however, quickly realize that Joss has become a rival for Eliot's affections. The hotel manager, Madame Corbet, is in love with Zisi (though this subplot is never explored). Paul, a young man who works at the hotel, playfully banters with Hester--but he, too, is attracted to Joss. Emotions begin to overflow near the climax when Zisi, unable to contain her pent-up jealousy any longer, flings a glass of champagne at Joss in front of Eliot and other guests.

Susannah York and Kenneth More.
The most intriguing character is Joss, who is an instigator as well as a victim. Once she realizes her youthful beauty gives her power over men, she uses it to her advantage. She convinces Eliot to save Paul from being dismissed. She makes a grand entrance at a party after Madame Zisi specifically told her to stay in her room and then dances with practically every man. Yet, she is still a teenager, and when she overhears Eliot referring to her as a child, she becomes angry and strikes back at him in a very hurtful way.

The Greengage Summer is well acted by almost the entire cast. Susannah York makes it easy to believe that men would swoon over her (though she looks much older than sixteen). Kenneth More finds the right tone as a middle-aged man infatuated with a teenage girl. It would be easy to make Eliot a creepy character, but More deftly avoids that with his sincerity. (Some fans have suggested Dirk Bogarde would have been a better Eliot, but I disagree).

Jane Asher and Paul McCartney.
However, the standout in the cast is Jane Asher as Hester. Asher later gained celebrity status in the 1960s as Paul McCartney's girlfriend and eventual fiancee. They never married, supposedly due to Paul's infidelities. However, many Fab Four critics think that she was the subject of several Beatles' songs such as "And I Love Her" and "Here, There and Everywhere."

While The Greengage Summer lacks the thematic complexity of Black Narcissus, I quite enjoyed it. In fact, it sent me looking for other films based on Rumer Godden's works. Next up on my watchlist: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965) starring Maureen O'Hara.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The TV Characters Quiz

In a variation of our Movie-TV Connection Game, the questions in this new quiz provide three or more characters from a classic TV series and challenge you to name the show. So it's not too easy, we provide first names or last--but not both. As always, please don't answer more than three questions per day so others can play, too.

1. Troy, Hitchcock, and Tully.

2. Sam, Howard, and Emmett.

3. Sam, Hank, Fred, and Ralph.

4. April, Mark, and Waverly.

5. Tara, Mother, and John.

6. Roy, Candy, and Jamie.

7. Saunders, Hanley, and Caje.

8. Mary Beth, Christine, and Bert.

9. Chip, Lee, and Harriman.

10. Erskine, Ward, and Colby.

11. Jimmy, Witchiepoo, and Freddy.

12. Stone, Keller, and Tanner.

13. Tate, MacKenzie, and Trampas (be specific on this one!).

14. Pete, Julie, and Linc (an easy one!).

15. Larry, Clarence, and Gilbert.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sandy Dennis Goes Up the Down Staircase

I confess that I have never been a Sandy Dennis fan. Perhaps, it was her choice of roles, but her characters always came across as a contrived combination of exaggerated emotions. But after recently watching Up the Down Staircase (1967), maybe Ms. Dennis deserves a reassessment. Her incredibly natural performance as a dedicated young teacher is the highlight of this slightly more realistic variation of the same year's more popular To Sir, With Love.

She plays Sylvia Barrett, a fresh out-of-college teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School in an impoverished New York City neighborhood. It's the kind of school where one of the routine announcements is: "All assaults and attempted assaults suffered by teachers in connection with their employment must be reported at once."

Sylvia has no illusions about her new job, but she's still surprised to find limited supplies (one piece of chalk), broken glass on the classroom floor, and a lack of textbooks. Her complaints are ignored, as the head administrator is consumed with disciplining students and ensuring that the school's myriad forms are completed. Undeterred, Sylvia buys her own supplies, cleans up the broken glass, and sets out to teach literature to her unruly students.

Ellen O'Mara as a lovesick student.
Three students pose particular challenges for the young teacher: a teenage girl who thinks every plot is a love story (even Macbeth) and who has a crush on a handsome male English teacher; a leather-clad young man with a high IQ who is constantly on probation and in danger of being expelled; and Jose Rodriguez, the boy at the back of the class who never says a word.

Based on Bel Kaufman's autobiographical bestseller, Up the Down Staircase shares many similarities with To Sir, With Love...right down to a feel-good ending. However, its setting--the film's exterior scenes were shot in East Harlem--does a better job of evoking the socioeconomic conditions faced by the students and their families.

In one of the best scenes, a woman asks if she can stay during a teacher meeting even though she is not a student's mother. We learn that the youth in question has drifted from family to family after being abandoned by his prostitute mother. He sleeps on a sofa, works in a garage all night, and falls asleep during class. His "mother" wants Sylvia to pass the young man just so he can graduate.

Sylvia in a moment of frustration.
Sandy Dennis captures Sylvia's determination, frustrations, and love of teaching. When she finally reaches a student--if only momentarily--her face lights up with joy. It's a quiet, lovely performance and, in my opinion, superior to her Oscar-winning turn in the previous year's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Dennis followed Up the Down Staircase with a handful of leading roles in films like Sweet November (1968) and The Out of Towners (1970). Her film work decreased in the 1970s, leaving her to focus again on the stage where she had her greatest successes as an actress. She won two Tonys in the 1960s, as lead actress in Any Wednesday (1964) and as featured actress in A Thousand Clowns (1963). Sandy Dennis died of ovarian cancer in 1992 at age 54.

"Boss Hogg" as an educator?
Her supporting cast includes a handful of familiar faces, such as future Oscar winner Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free) and Jean Stapleton (All in the Family). The scholarly principal Dr. Bester is played by Sorrell Booke--later famous for playing Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. I was surprised to learn that Ellen O'Mara, who gives a very appealing performance as the lovesick Alice, had only three film and TV credits.

Here's a clip from Up the Down Staircase. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.




Thursday, September 7, 2017

Seven Things to Know About Barbara Stanwyck

1. Her real name was Ruby Catherine Stevens. Stanwyck's mother died from complications of a miscarriage, caused when a drunken stranger pushed her off a moving streetcar. Stanwyck's father disappeared while working on the Panama Canal.

2. Barbara's introduction to show business came courtesy of her sister, Mildred, who was nineteen years older. Mildred worked as a showgirl and Barbara followed suit in the early 1920s when she became a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies.

As Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley.
3. Barbara Stanwyck never won an Oscar, despite being nominated for Best Actress for: Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. She did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1982. In contrast, she won three Emmys for her television work in The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Big Valley, and The Thorn Birds.

4. Her only child, Dion Anthony "Tony" Fay, was adopted during her marriage to stage actor Frank Fay. After her divorce, she gained sole custody of Tony. Sadly, mother and son became estranged soon after he enlisted in the Army in 1952. Tony died in 2006 at age 74.

Stanwyck and Robert Taylor.
5. Barbara Stanwyck married Robert Taylor, who was four years younger, in 1939. Although they divorced in 1951, she supposedly claimed that Taylor was the love of her life. They starred together in three films: His Brother's Wife (1936); This Is My Affair (1937), and The Night Walker (1964)--which was made 13 years after their divorce.

6. In regard to acting, she once said: "Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr. Capra taught me that. Sure, it's nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting--watch the eyes!"

7. Barbara Stanwyck died in 1990 at age 82 of natural causes. Per her wishes, she did not have a funeral service and was cremated. Her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California, a popular location for filming Westerns for many years.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Dana Andrews vs. Hot Rods to Hell

A dear friend was recently involved in a car accident en route to the airport for a vacation. Fortunately, no one suffered serious injuries--but a sore back, a banged-up knee, and a two-week vacation delay is no fun. So, he turned to a comfort movie later that day...selecting Hot Rods to Hell.
Gloria and the guys out for some kicks on the highway.
Ironically, this 1967 cult classic starts with a car accident when family man Tom Phillips' car is hit by a drunken driver on Christmas Eve. Tom (Dana Andrews) sustains a severe back injury that ends his career as a regional salesman. His brother Bill convinces Tom to give up his Boston home and buy a hotel in a small California town. Tom resists initially, but eventually makes the big decision with the support of his wife (Jeanne Crain) and young son--but not his teenage daughter Tina.

Laurie Mock as Tina.
As they cruise along a desert highway toward their new home, the family runs afoul of a trio of thrill-seeking teens in souped-up cars. The youths harass the Phillips family--almost running them off the road--until Tom seeks sanctuary in a well-populated picnic area. While waiting there, Tina meets one of the trouble-makers, a handsome lad named Duke. That night, she sneaks out of her room at the hotel to look for Duke in a nearby rock 'n' roll joint. She finds him and the sparks fly, but Duke wants more than just a flirtatious dance....

It's easy to dismiss Hot Rods to Hell as a campy melodrama with outdated dialogue. Two of the most overwrought scenes feature Tina, writhing in bed as she thinks of Duke and later frantically clutching her father in the car as Duke and a pal play "chicken" with the Phillips family.

Mimsy Farmer as Gloria.
Yet, she is no match for Gloria--the wildest of the juvenile delinquents, who is aptly described as "way out." That she is, but she's really no different from Marlon Brando's restless biker in The Wild One (1953). Gloria is desperate to do something, noting that: "Everybody's out for kicks. What else is there?" She even makes suggestive promises to slimy hotel owner Lank Dailey, hoping that he will take her to L.A. or Vegas.

In a historical context, Hot Rods to Hell serves as an intriguing transition from the Beach Party films of the early 1960s to the violent biker pictures heralded by the previous year's The Wild Angels (1966). It's almost as if the alienated youth characters from the 1950s had regressed from Brando's gang leader to parodies like Eric Von Zipper and then moved forward again with Duke and Gloria and eventually the Hells' Angels.

Jeanne Crain as Tina's mother.
Originally titled 52 Miles to TerrorHot Rods to Hell was intended as a made-for-TV movie for ABC, but it was deemed too intense and released theatrically. Ironically, it made its television debut a few years later and was shown not only uncut--but with ten additional minutes.

It's an entertaining time-capsule film with a rock score performed by Mickey Rooney, Jr. and his Combo. My only major complaints are that the ending comes across as a cop-out and that Gloria, the film's most vibrant character, disappears well before the climax.

Mimsy Farmer, who played Gloria, and Gene Kirwood, who was Duke's pal Ernie, enjoyed intriguing careers after Hot Rods to Hell. Mimsy Farmer married an Italian screenwriter and forged a solid career in European cinema. Her most famous role may be as the female lead in Dario Argento's 1971 thriller Four Flies on Grey Velvet. As for Gene Kirkwood, he became a producer on films such as Rocky, The Idolmaker, and New York, New York. That's just proof that alienated youths can grow into responsible adults.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Fever in the Blood

Angie Dickinson and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
As a fan of courtroom dramas and films about political intrigue, I was particularly pleased to discover A Fever in the Blood on Warner Archive's streaming service. Co-written by Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Fugitive), this 1961 feature examines the impact of a sensationalistic murder trial on a gubernatorial race. Thus, we get all the usual courtroom theatrics, plus behind-the-scenes political machinations.

The films open with Judge Leland Hoffman asking his friend, District Attorney Dan Callahan, to be his running mate as he seeks his party's nomination for state governor. Callahan declines and we later learn the reason is because he plans to run for the same nomination. Callahan goes to see Senator Alex Simon, a powerful state politician, to gain his endorsement. It turns out that Senator Simon plans to vacate his Senate seat and seek the governor's office, too!

Jack Kelly as Callahan.
Meanwhile, Judge Hoffman and D.A. Callahan become involved in a murder trial, in which a former governor's nephew is accused of suffocating his unfaithful wife. Callahan is convinced that a conviction will seal his bid for the nomination. It's a point that's not lost on Hoffman and Simon, inspiring the senator to suggest that the judge squash Callahan's free publicity by declaring a mistrial.

For most of its running time, A Fever in the Blood is an effective political drama that examines the ethics of its three protagonists. As the plot unfolds, motivations become murky and even the most moral of the trio begins to question his actions. Many of its themes are still timely, such as the effect of press coverage on the trial and, indirectly, the gubernatorial race. In one of my favorite lines, a political strategist notes of D.A. Callahan: "Celebrities write their own tickets."

Still, A Fever in the Blood almost collapses under the weight of its extraneous subplots. The final half-hour includes a hit-and-run accident in which a child is killed, the death of a major character, the capture of the real murderer, and an unbelievable ending at the state convention.

Jesse White as a police detective.
The cast consists of Warner Bros. contract players, including TV stars Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (77 Sunset Strip) as Judge Hoffman and Jack Kelly (Maverick) as Callahan. They turn in acceptable performances, though they're overshadowed by seasoned pros like Don Ameche (as Senator Simon) and Angie Dickinson (his wife). Jesse White also shines as a police detective that works closely with the district attorney. White later gained fame in TV commercials as the Maytag repairman.

Incidentally, the title is a reference to the passion felt by those who seek the power and influence of a major political office.

Here's a clip from A Fever in the Blood. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.