Monday, March 19, 2018

Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog

Fred MacMurray and his shaggy, car-driving co-star.
In hindsight, The Shaggy Dog (1959) was a landmark Disney film. After all, this amusing comedy perfected the formula for the contemporary live-action family films produced by the studio for the next twenty years. It was also the first of Fred MacMurray's five Disney films--and, according to some sources, it inspired his long-running TV sitcom My Three Sons. Pretty impressive for a comedy about a teenager that periodically transforms into a sheepdog!

Tommy Kirk stars as Wilby Daniels, the kind of teen inventor that accidentally launches a missile interceptor through the roof of his family's house. That doesn't sit well with his grumpy father (MacMurray), a postal carrier who hates dogs--even though his younger son Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) badly wants one.

Wilby in the bathroom.
Moochie gets his wish, more or less, when Wilby accidentally comes into possession of a ring owned by Lucrezia Borgia. When he tries on the cursed ring, he transforms into a sheepdog owned by his pretty, new French neighbor (Roberta Shore, whom we interviewed in 2016).

Later, Wilby transforms back into his human self, but continues to turn into into a shaggy sheepdog at the most inopportune moments. He seeks help from Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), who informs Wilby that he has invoked a curse that can only be broken by a heroic act. Thank goodness, while in his canine form, he discovers a spy ring in the neighborhood!

Kevin Corcoran was a Disney mainstay.
Although it was loosely inspired by a 1923 novel called The House Florence, The Shaggy Dog owes much to Old Yeller. That family drama, made two years earlier, teamed Kirk and Corcoran as brothers for the first time. And it was about a dog, too! Of course, Old Yeller is a very different film (Tommy Kirk's big scene near the end always gets to me).

Still, it's apparent that Walt Disney recognized the natural brotherly connection between the teenager Kirk and ten-year-old Corcoran. The two got along well and appeared together in a total of five Disney pictures, portraying siblings again in Swiss Family Robinson, Savage Sam (a sequel to Old Yeller), and Bon Voyage!--which also featured Fred MacMurray as their father.

Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk.
However, it was another Shaggy Dog star, Tim Considine, who would become one of Fred's sons when My Three Sons debuted in 1960. Considine only has a small role in Shaggy Dog, playing Wilby's rival for Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore. Earlier in his career, he played Frank Hardy opposite Tommy Kirk's Joe Hardy in two serials about the sleuthing Hardy Boys.

The Shaggy Dog also introduced the "absent-minded inventor" theme that provided the plots of numerous Disney comedies. Kirk played a college student with a passion for a wild experiments in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and its sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965). His Shaggy Dog co-star Annette Funicello played his college sweetheart. Meanwhile, MacMurray had one of his biggest hits in the title role of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel Son of Flubber (1963).

As for the original Shaggy Dog, it was a big hit that resulted in a belated sequel The Shaggy D.A. (1976), with Dean Jones as the adult Wilby. It also spawned several additional sequels and remakes. That's a pretty impressive legacy for a movie about a teen were-dog.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Michael Caine Attends a Funeral in Berlin

In this 1966 follow-up to the previous year's Ipcress File, Michael Caine returns as Cockney thief-turned-spy Harry Palmer. The bespectacled Palmer still works for British intelligence and he's gotten a promotion. The bad news is that he remains on a suspended prison sentence and needs an interest-free loan to buy a car.

Palmer's latest assignment sends him to East Berlin to interview Colonel Stok, a potential KGB defector. Stok, who is in charge of Berlin Wall security, claims he wants to retire to the English countryside to raise roses. Palmer doesn't buy it, but his superiors view Stok's defection as a major coup. They agree to all of the Russian colonel's demands, which include having his escape planned by Otto Kreutzman--who has been a thorn in Stok's side.

Eva Renzi as Samantha.
Meanwhile, Palmer starts a relationship with a pretty Israeli model named Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi). While there's an undeniable mutual attraction between the two, each is suspicious enough to have the other's apartment searched for information. That proves invaluable when Palmer later discovers a connection between Samantha and Kreutzman involving a mysterious man named Paul Louis Broum.

Funeral in Berlin is one of those rare sequels that matches--or possibly surpasses--the original film. Caine is in top form as the insolent Palmer and injects his own sense of wry humor into the proceedings. One of my favorite scenes has Palmer complaining about his cover name of Edmund Dorf. When the forger explains that "all the best Englishmen have foreign names," Palmer replies: "Can I be Rock Hunter?"

Oscar Homolka as Colonel Stok.
Caine gets fine support from the rest of the cast, especially Oscar Homolka and Guy Doleman, who reprises his Ipcress File role as Palmer's cold-hearted superior. Homolka and Caine have such great rapport that the two appeared together again in the third Harry Palmer film, 1967's Billion Dollar Brain.

Like the best spy pictures, Funeral in Berlin interweaves multiple plots to create a tapestry of espionage. The recurring theme is one of duty--just how far will one go to accomplish the mission? At the climax, Palmer proves that there are limits to what he will do. That doesn't hold true for another character.

Funeral in Berlin was based on the third of author Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels--though the character remains famously nameless in the books. On playing Palmer, Michael Caine wrote in his 2010 biography The Elephant to Hollywood: "I really enjoyed playing Harry Palmer in the three movies. In some ways I felt a certain affinity with the way his character develops during the course of them. In The Ipcress File, he was a complete innocent, just as I had been in the film business. By Funeral in Berlin, we had both learned a lot more. And by the time we got to Billion Dollar Brain I felt that both Harry and I had become hardened by our experiences."

Palmer confronts Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman).
Twenty-eight years after Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Caine reprised Harry Palmer for two HBO made-for-TV films shot back-to-back: Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg. He described making these movies as his "worst professional experience ever."

It's interesting to note that while Harry Palmer was envisioned as the antithesis of James Bond, the first three movies had a strong Bond connection. They were all produced by Harry Saltzman, who co-produced many of the 007 films with Albert Broccoli. Saltzman employed many of his Bond film colleagues: director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger), production designer Ken Adam, and composer John Barry (who composed the Ipcress File score).

This post of part of the Michael Caine Blogathon hosted by Reelweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out the other fabulous posts in this blogathon. Finally, you can view a clip from Funeral in Berlin, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel, by clicking on the image below.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Disney's The Island at the Top of the World

In London 1907, businessman Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) convinces Professor Ivarsson (David Hartman) from the University of Minnesota to accompany him on an expedition to the Arctic. Sir Anthony's mission is to find his son, David, who was lost somewhere near the legendary Graveyard of the Whales.
The colorful, exciting poster lured me to the movie as a kid.

David Hartman and Donald Sinden.
Accompanied by a French pilot and a poodle named Josephine, Sir Anthony and Ivarsson travel by dirigible to ice-bound Fort Conger, David's last known location. They gather more details about David's disappearance and trick his Eskimo guide, Oomiak (Mako), into joining their quest.

The journey to The Island at the Top of the World is the best part of this 1974 Disney adventure. The London scenes and the dirigible flight evoke a nice sense of period. And while David Hartman is his usual sincere, if somewhat dull, self, Donald Sinden propels the plot forward, capturing Sir Anthony's almost manic drive to find his lost son.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens with this type of film, the payoff is a letdown. I won't spoil the plot, but suffice to say that it gets bogged down once Sir Anthony and Ivarrson reach their destination. The film is almost saved by a modestly entertaining extended chase sequence packed with special effects. By then, though, it's too little too late--plus the special effects range from the good (the inevitable dirigible explosion) to the bad (man-eating killer whales).

The Hyperion, the film's dirigible.
Clearly, Walt Disney Productions was hoping that The Island at the Top of the World would recapture the magic of its earlier fanciful adventures, such as the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The studio entrusted the project to its "A" team, with veteran director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Absent-Minded Professor) at the reins and Hal Gausman (Son of Flubber, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) designing the elaborate sets. Both craftsmen had experience working with effects-laden films. In addition to its in-house technicians, Disney got Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) to compose the score, which is lovely without being particularly memorable.

Agneta Eckemyr.
Veteran Japanese character actor Mako, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Sand Pebbles (1967), heads the supporting cast. It also includes French actor Jacques Marin (Charade, Marathon Man) and David Gwillim, who became best known for his British television appearances (e.g., the excellent miniseries of The Citadel with Ben Cross). Swedish actress Agneta Eckemyr, a former model and future pin-up girl, plays the female lead (which is a small part in a male-dominated film).

The Island at the Top of the World was based on the 1961 novel The Lost Ones, written by Ian Cameron (a pseudonym for James Vance Marshall, best known for Walkabout). Walt Disney Productions planned to make a sequel based on another Cameron book, The Mountains at the Bottom of the World. However, those plans were quashed when The Island at the Top of the World earned only modest boxoffice returns.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Steve McQueen Makes Use of the Honeymoon Machine

Steve McQueen as Fergie.
Before he played a sailor in The Sand Pebbles and gambled for high stakes in The Cincinnati Kid, Steve McQueen starred as a Naval officer gambling for big bucks in The Honeymoon Machine (1961). But whereas the later films were "A" list dramas, The Honeymoon Machine is a modest comedy intended as a showcase for its up-and-coming stars.

McQueen plays Lieutenant Fergie Howard, who hatches a scheme to take advantage of a state-of-the-art computer--the Magnetic Analyzer Computer Synchrotron--on board his ship. With the help of a scientific genius pal (Jim Hutton) and a gullible fellow officer (Jack Mullaney), Fergie plans to make a fortune playing the roulette wheel at a Venice casino.

Paula Prentiss as a wiener heiress.
Based on the outcomes of hundreds of roulette wheel spins, the computer can predict the three most likely winning numbers based on the result of the previous spin. Pretty soon, Fergie and his pals are rolling in cash. Their plan gets more complicated, though, when Fergie falls for an admiral's daughter (Brigid Bazlen) and his scientist pal encounters an old flame (Paula Prentiss). Even worse, the admiral intercepts the ship-to-shore communications with the computer and thinks that high-level espionage is being plotted.

The screenplay for The Honeymoon Machine was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and George Wells. It was based on Semple's 1959 Broadway play The Golden Fleecing, which starred Tom Poston as Fergie. Constance Ford and (Poston's future wife) Suzanne Pleshette played the female leads. The film version was Semple's first big screen credit. He would go on to write major films such as Papillon (1973) and Three Days of the Condor (1975)--though he is best known for creating the original Batman TV series.

Steve McQueen was not the first choice to play Lt. Fergie Howard. MGM wanted Cary Grant for the part (yes, for a role originated by Tom Poston!). When Grant passed, the studio cast McQueen, who had just been signed to a three-picture deal. According to several sources, McQueen didn't like The Honeymoon Machine and walked out of a screening of it. He certainly doesn't put forth much effort on the screen. It's not a bad performance, but clearly McQueen seems to be relying on little more than his natural charisma.

Jack Weston as Signalman Taylor.
On the other hand, The Honeymoon Machine affords Jim Hutton, Paula Prentiss, and Jack Weston an opportunity to shine. Prentiss steals all her scenes as an heiress who dislikes wearing her glasses--though clearly she can see very little without them. Weston has a field day as a bourbon-loving sailor who imagines seeing Martians.

The always affable Hutton was paired with Paula Prentiss in five films. Their height had something to do with the casting--Hutton was 6'5" and Prentiss 5'11"--but they also displayed an effective on-screen chemistry. They make The Honeymoon Machine an entertaining endeavor--though it's one of those frothy 1960s comedies that once consumed is easily forgotten.

The irrelevant title is a reference to "Operation Honeymoon," a missile project involving the computer in the opening scene of the movie. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Walt Disney's Pollyanna

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna.
Impeccably produced and exceedingly well cast, Pollyanna ranks as Walt Disney's finest live-action children's film. Set in 1913, it tells the story of 12-old-year Pollyanna Whittier, an eternally-optimistic orphan who comes to live with her stern aunt in the picturesque small town of Harrington.

Pollyanna's Aunt Polly is a wealthy spinster who pretty much runs the town (which was named after her family). Polly even provides notes and Bible quotations to the local minister, whose fiery sermons leave the local residents with sour stomachs every Sunday. The town is in need of some cheer and that's what young Pollyanna provides. She finds something to be thankful for even in the bleakest situations. When folks complain that the Sunday sermon ruins their fried chicken dinner, Pollyanna quickly notes that they can be glad it's six days until the next Sunday!

Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow.
She also looks for the best in people, a trait that eventually endears her to an elderly recluse (Adolphe Menjou), a cantankerous hypochondriac (Agnes Moorehead), and even the minister (Karl Malden) who has lost his congregation. Pollyanna's "gladness" spreads throughout Harrington and results in the townsfolk defying Aunt Polly by holding a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage. Polly appears to be the lone hold-out, but a climatic tragedy changes her outlook on life as well.

Based on Eleanor H. Porter's 1913 novel, Pollyanna could have been a sticky-sweet maudlin mess. Instead, it's a bright, energetic film that seems much shorter than than its 134-minute running time. Over 360 young actresses were considered for the title role before British newcomer Hayley Mills was chosen. Walt Disney's wife Lilly was partly responsible for Mills' casting, having seen Hayley in her film debut Tiger Bay (1959).

Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly.
Disney surrounded Mills with an exceptional cast, pairing her with Jane Wyman and some of Hollywood's best supporting performers (e.g., Malden, Menjou, Moorehead, and Donald Crisp). He then added promising newcomer James Drury (The Virginian), the always reliable Nancy Olson, and another Disney child star, Kevin Corcoran (who had earlier appeared in Old Yeller). As if that's not enough, TV fans can rejoice in the presence of familiar faces such as Edward Platt (Get Smart), Reta Shaw (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and Mary Grace Canfield (Green Acres).

The central performance, though, is what holds Pollyanna together and Hayley Mills shoulders the responsibility with ease. I'm hard-pressed to think of another child star who seemed as natural on the screen. Mills' acting earned her a BAFTA nomination (the "British Oscar") and she was awarded a special Academy Award in 1961 for "most outstanding juvenile performance."

Hayley Mills and Karl Malden.
Her best scene in Pollyanna is also my favorite in the film: Pollyanna encounters Reverend Ford (Malden) in a field where he is practicing one of his stern sermons.  She recounts how her father, a missionary, struggled to reach his congregation until he focused on finding the good in people. It's a simple point made with childhood innocence, but it strikes home with the minister. It's a lovely scene and reminded me once again that Karl Malden was one of the great actors of his generation.

I was surprised to read recently that Pollyanna was not a boxoffice success. Walt Disney blamed the film's title, which he thought may not have appealed to boys. That may be true, but Pollyanna is truly a film for all ages. In fact, I didn't realize just how good it was until I watched it as an adult.  I have seen Pollyanna many times over the years now and it never fails to entertain and deliver its message of good cheer and faith in one another.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

My Favorite Movie Theaters (What Are Yours?)

As I compiled this list of my favorite movie theaters, I realized my choices were driven largely by what I saw where and with whom. Naturally, the emphasis is on cinemas located in cities where I lived (or visited often). Perhaps, you have been to some of these theaters or ones like them. More importantly, I'd love to hear about some of your favorite cinemas!

Vogue Theatre (Louisville, KY) - The Vogue was the pride of Louisville movie-goers for decades, mixing art films with revivals and the occasional first-run film. I always looked forward to the monthly calendar that showed what would be playing. You could also request movies by writing their titles in a notebook in the lobby. I put Curse of the Demon on the list for several years--and it was eventually shown. The Vogue is also where I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on the big screen in glorious color--plus of dozens of offbeat films like Walkabout and Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Princess Theatre (Bloomington, IN) - The Princess was built in 1913 and eventually became the home to vaudeville shows and movies. I suspect it was the largest theater in Bloomington and located on the town square. My fondest memories of it date to the late 1970s and early 1980s when it became a "dollar movie house." For a guy (or later, young married couple) on a budget, it was a great place to see films. Plus, it had the best popcorn in town. I saw Halloween there multiple times, plus offbeat unusual selections such as David Cronenberg's Brood. A dear friend wrote about the Princess on this blog in 2011. The building is now on the National Register of Historic Places, though it has long ceased to show movies.

Club Haven Cinema (Winston-Salem, NC) - It was undoubtedly the smallest movie theater I ever visited. The boxoffice window opened directly to the concession area so that one person could sell tickets and popcorn without moving. The screen was small, too, but it made you feel like the movie was being projected just for you and your friends. It couldn't compete with the larger theaters in town, of course, so the Club Haven featured offbeat fare such as O Lucky Man! (which I saw several years later), the Italian thriller Torso, and the memorable It's Alive. The Club Haven was only open for four years and closed in 1978. I couldn't even find a photo of it.

Von Lee Cinema (Bloomington, IN) - This was the first "art house" I frequented and was where I was introduced to foreign-language classics like Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, the Von Lee had to show more mainstream movies to stay in business--surely the fate of many one-time art houses. Still, for many years, it epitomized what a "college town" movie theater ought to be.

Reynolda Cinema (Winston-Salem, NC) - There was nothing unique about the Reynolda Cinema, except it was the movie theater located closest to where I lived as a youth. My sister and I probably saw more movies there than anywhere else. It was one of the first suburban cinemas in Winston-Salem, located across from the Reynolda Manor Shopping Center. It was the first theater in the city to be split into a twin and eventually a triple cinema. When it closed, a branch library (located next door) took over the building.

Carolina Theatre (Winston-Salem, NC) - Built in 1929, the Carolina Theatre was the oldest and most elegant cinema in Winston-Salem. It was located downtown near the Carolina Hotel. Occasionally, live acts played there--such as Elvis Presley in 1956 (you could see him for less than a $1!). The Carolina had "kiddie shows" on Saturday mornings and, for a while, late night monster and cult movies like Reefer Madness. By the early 1970s, though, it had fallen into a state of disrepair and specialized in Blaxploitation and kung fu movies (hence, I still went there!). It has a happy ending, though, as it closed and was renovated years later as an upscale performing arts center.

Winston Theatre (Winston-Salem, NC) - The Winston was located down the street from the Carolina and was nowhere near as decorative. But hey, it did run The Sound of Music for almost a year. More importantly, my sister worked there for a couple of summers and I got to see all the movies for free! That's where I first saw favorites such as The Day of the Jackal and Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection).

Triple Gold Cinema (Radcliff, KY) - The Triple Gold was so named because it was located in the city adjacent to Fort Knox--home of the U.S. Gold Depository. The interiors of the theaters were supposed to be gold as well (but looked more like a deep beige). The Triple Gold made this list because of its $2 Tuesday nights, a bargain price in mid-1980s. It's where my wife and I saw dozens of 1980s classics like The Road Warrior and The Breakfast Club.

Village 8 (Louisville, KY) - This delightful multiplex offered a wonderful mix of lesser-known movies and second runs for a very reasonable price. It's where you could watch anything from The Grey Fox to Babette's Feast to Vertigo to an unusual double-feature of The Trouble With Harry and Educating Rita. It remained open long after the Vogue closed in Louisville, but, tragically, a Louisville friend recently told us it was due to shut its doors this year.

Kon-Tiki Theatre (Dayton, OH) - The Kon-Tiki was a Polynesian-themed cinema located in a Dayton suburb from 1968 to 1999. It sported wonderfully outrageous decor and the most entertaining restroom I've ever used in a movie theater. We only went there a couple of times while visiting a childhood chum in Ohio, but I recall listening to Sly Stallone making his "why can't we be friends" speech at the end of Rocky IV.

You'll note that I didn't list any drive-in theaters because they deserve their own post. Louisville natives may wonder why The Louisville Palace was omitted. That's because I never saw a film there. By the time I lived in the area, it only showed the occasional movie and specialized mostly in live events. (I did see Johnny Mathis in concert at the Louisville Palace and it was a gorgeous facility.)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Rio Lobo--Howard Hawks' Sad Farewell

Howard Hawks' last film gets off to a rip-roaring start with a small band of Confederate soldiers hijacking a Union train carrying a gold shipment. Cord McNally (John Wayne), a Yankee colonel, takes off in pursuit of the Rebels, but is quickly captured. Surprisingly, he bonds with two of his captors, Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivera) and Sergeant Tuscarora Phillips (Christopher Mitchum). McNally escapes easily enough, but the trio meet up again at the end of the Civil War.

McNally harbors no ill feeling toward Cordona and Tuscarora, even though his protege, a young Yankee officer, died during the train robbery. Instead, McNally wants revenge on the Union traitor that tipped off the Rebels about the gold. Cordona and Tuscarora can't provide a name, but agree to contact McNally should they encounter the traitor again.

Scene-stealer Jack Elam shows up late.
It's not long before McNally, Cordona, and Tuscarora meet up for a third time...this time to fight some bad men in the town of Rio Lobo. And you can bet there's going to be some shootin' and some fisticuffs.

Ten of John Wayne's final twelve films were Westerns. These dozen pictures include a couple of gems (True Grit, The Shootist), some moderately entertaining oaters (Big Jake, The Cowboys), and a couple of genuine duds. Unfortunately, Rio Lobo is one of the duds, which is a shame considering it was director Howard Hawks' last film.

Jennifer O'Neill and Jorge Rivera.
The opening train robbery is the film's highlight and it's all downhill from there. The plot lacks interest, the dialogue teeters on risible, and there are two dreadful supporting performances. One of those belongs to Wayne's co-star Jorge Rivera. A major star in Mexico, Rivera never seems comfortable as the kind of young sidekick played effortlessly by James Caan in the earlier Hawks-Wayne Western El Dorado (1967).

It doesn't help that Rivera shares several of his scenes with Jennifer O'Neill. It was the former model's first major film role and she struggles just to speak a line of dialogue naturally. O'Neill's acting challenges led to Hawks' decision to cut her character from the film's ending. She just disappears with about 15 minutes left in the movie. In the book Howard Hawks: Interviews, the director said of Jennifer O'Neill: "She just couldn't take direction of any kind and didn't want to. But she thought she was good, she wanted to do things her way."

Future studio executive Sherry Lansing.
Yet, if Rio Lobo is a depressing final film for its famous director, there are a couple of bright spots. Jerry Goldsmith's rousing music underscores the action nicely. Sherry Lansing, who would later gain fame as a powerful studio executive, exudes charm and sex appeal as a Mexican girl. And, best of all, journalist George Plimpton pops up as a minor bad guy.

Plimpton documented the experience in one of his TV specials. I recommend watching it instead of Rio Lobo--it's a lot more entertaining.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Movie-TV Connection Game (February 2018)

Take a break from the Winter Olympics and test your movie and TV knowledge!

What do Ava and Vanna have in common?
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. George Hamilton and Amy Irving.

2. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (in addition to Charade).

3. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and Nightmare Alley.

4. Ava Gardner and Vanna White.

5. Charles Bronson and Mickey Rooney.

6. Robert Duvall and George Hamilton.

7. Warren Beatty and Charlton Heston.

8. Dial M for Murder and House of Wax.

9. James Mason and Walter Pidgeon.

10. Sherlock, Jr. and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

11. Tom Selleck and Chuck Connors.

12. Margaret Hamilton and Lou Ferrigno.

13. Tom Tryon and Jeff Bridges.

14. Diana Rigg and Marlene Dietrich.

15. Jean-Claude Killy and George Lazenby (sorta).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Dr. Miguelito Loveless from "The Wild Wild West"

1. Michael Dunn appeared as the diabolical genius Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless in ten episodes of The Wild Wild West. His first appearance was in the third episode, "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth," which was shown in October 1965. That same year, Michael Dunn appeared in Ship of Fools and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His last appearance as Dr. Loveless was in "The Night of Miguelito's Revenge," which aired during the show's fourth and final season in 1968.

2. Dr. Loveless's original scheme (in "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth") was to take back land (well, the state of California) which had been stolen from his mother. He planned to use the land to "build a kingdom where children can grow, be strong and happy...a world without pain." As the series progressed, though, Loveless became a megalomaniacal genius who wanted revenge on society as a whole.

Phoebe Dorin and Michael Dunn.
3. Dr. Loveless was assisted by the lovely Antoinette (Phoebe Dorin) in six episodes and the giant Voltaire (Richard Kiel) in three episodes. Michael Dunn and Phoebe Dorin had performed a nightclub act together prior to The Wild Wild West. When series creator Michael Garrison saw their act, he thought Michael Dunn would be a fabulous villain and signed both performers to be guest stars. Dunn and Dorin frequently performed musical duets on The Wild Wild West.

4. Dr. Loveless's beverage of choice was Cognac La Grande Marque, as revealed in the season four episode "The Night of Miguelito's Revenge." That should come as no surprise since Napoleon--another height-challenged "villain"--was also a connoisseur of brandy.

Loveless as Robin Hood.
5. When Dr. Loveless meets James T. West for the first time, he comments to one of his colleagues (Leslie Parrish): "Ah, Greta, you've done what I was unable to do. You've brought Mr. West--but with one serious oversight. You've brought him alive."

6. The highly-intelligent Dr. Loveless created many clever gadgets, but his most devious invention was a drug planted in Jim West's shaving cream. It apparently caused Jim to go bonkers and fatally shoot Artemus in cold blood. Fortunately, the incident turned out to be a hallucination caused by the drug!

Paul Williams as Junior.
7. Michael Dunn died in 1973 at age 38. Thus, in the 1979 made-for-TV reunion movie The Wild Wild West Revisited, it's revealed that Dr. Loveless had died. The new villain is his son Miguelito Loveless, Jr., played by Paul Williams. Kenneth Branagh played Dr. Arliss Loveless in the 1999 theatrical film Wild Wild West, but the less said about that, the better. By the way, when The Wild Wild West reruns first debuted on TNT, they began with a marathon of all ten Dr. Loveless episodes; Robert Conrad served as host.

This post is part of the Classic TV Villain Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Be sure to click here to view the schedule featuring other fabulous classic TV villains!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Five Biggest Stars of the 1930s

In earlier posts, we listed our picks for the five biggest stars of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The stars of the 1930s faced a decade of transition as the movie industry moved from silent films to almost exclusively talkies. The big change didn't matter for a handful of stars (e.g., Greta Garbo), but for others it may have contributed to their decline. As always, new stars emerged and they dominate our list below. As with our other Biggest Stars posts, our criteria focused on boxoffice power, critical acclaim, and enduring popularity.

1. Greta Garbo - In 1930, at the age of 25, Garbo was already a huge boxoffice attraction. Her first talking film Anna Christie was the highest grossing film of 1930. Her popular and critical successes continued throughout the decade with Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Ninotchka (1939). She earned four Oscar nominations during the decade, but never won. At the height of her popularity, she was earning $300,000 per film.

2. Clark Gable - Starting in 1932, the International Motion Picture Almanac ranked the top ten stars at the boxoffice annually. Clark Gable made the Top 10 every year of the 1930s and was the runner-up to Shirley Temple for the top spot three times. He also received his only Oscar nominations for It Happened One Night (which he won as Best Actor), Mutiny on the Bounty, and Gone With the Wind. Yes, Mr. Gable had a very good decade.

3. Bette Davis - She arrived in Hollywood in 1930 and had appeared in over 20 films before garnering critical acclaim for Of Human Bondage (1934). Who forget how she spewed out her classic line to Leslie Howard: "And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!"  Her performance earned Bette Davis her first Academy Award nomination. By the time the decade ended, she has won Oscars for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938). She also appeared in popular films such as The Petrified Forest (1936), Dark Victory (1939), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

4. Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers - They made their debut as a team in supporting roles in 1932's Flying Down to Rio. By the end of the decade, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the most famous dancing duo in the history of film. Nine of their ten collaborations were made in the 1930s, including Top HatSwing Time, and Shall We Dance. Their popularity was so great that Astaire earned a percentage of the profits on some of their movies--a rare practice in Hollywood at the time. Alas, Rogers made considerably less than her co-star, but she also branched out to serious roles and earned an Oscar in 1940 for Kitty Foyle.

5. Shirley Temple - In retrospect, it's hard to appreciate Shirley Temple's immense popularity in the 1930s. But she was the biggest draw in the U.S. for four years in a row (1935-38) and ranked in the Top 10 for another two years (1934 and 1939). But the movie-going public can be fickle and, following the commercial failure of The Blue Bird in 1940, Shirley Temple's career was never the same. She had peaked at age 12!

Honorable Mentions: Katharine Hepburn, Luise Rainer, Paul Muni, Myrna Loy, and Errol Flynn.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cult Movie Theatre: Michael Mann's "The Keep"

Evil lurks within the walls of The Keep.
It's always fun to speculate on "what might have been" for a film that was tampered with after it was completed. The classic example is The Magnificent Ambersons, in which RKO trimmed 50 minutes and reshot the ending after Orson Welles turned in his final cut. Even in its current version, Ambersons is a fine film. One can't say that about Michael Mann's The Keep (1983). Still, Mann's picture has acquired a legion of devoted fans over the years and that was enough to convince me to watch it again.

Prochnow starred in 1981's Das Boot.
The premise is certainly intriguing. In 1941, a German army unit arrives in a small town in the Carpathian Alps in Romania. Its mission is to guard a tactically significant mountain pass. Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) discovers an old keep near the village, which seems ideal for basing his unit's camp. An elderly man and his sons, who serve as the keep's caretakers ("We do what needs doing"), warns the captain ominously: "You cannot stay here."

Of course, that doesn't dissuade the Germans, who take over the keep. That night, two guards ignore orders and try to steal one of the 108 silver crosses embedded in the stone walls. This act awakens a demon named Molasar and all hell breaks loose. The Germans free a Jewish scholar (Ian McKellen) from a concentration camp, hoping that he can deal with Molasar. Concurrently, the demon's sudden appearance is "sensed" by a mysterious stranger (Scott Glenn) whose eyes glow eerily.

The creepy Molasar.
Director Michael Mann's original cut of The Keep ran 210 minutes, hardly a realistic running time for a horror film in the 1980s. He subsequently re-edited the movie to a more reasonable two hours. Unfortunately, after unenthusiastic audience screenings, Paramount trimmed an additional 24 minutes. The result is a choppy film with a handful of effective sequences negated by long, talky passages and an over-the-top, special effects-filled climax. To the film's defense, the final showdown with Molasar was surely impacted by the death of special effects wizard Wally Veevers (Curse of the Demon) during the production. 

Michael Mann, the creative mind behind Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), and the Miami Vice TV series (1984-90), has a reputation as a visual stylist who knows how to fuse images and music. He creates a dark, dense, oppressive atmosphere in The Keep. The opening scenes in the pouring rain establish the mood from the onset. However, I'm not a fan of the electronic score composed by the German group Tangerine Dream. While it was responsible for some memorable music in Risky Business (1984) and Sorcerer (1977), those were contemporary-set films. I found the fusion of contemporary music and a World War II setting in The Keep to be more distracting than interesting.

McKellen as Dr. Cuza.
It's hard to evaluate the film's performances given that so much of the acting was deleted! Judging solely from the 96-minute version, none of the actors make an impression--even the typically excellent McKellen.

There are interesting ideas in The Keep. The way that Molasar masks its evil and manipulates McKellen's character has almost biblical connotations. Still, there's just not enough substance to make it a good movie. Perhaps, one day Mann will put together a "director's cut" and we can assess The Keep as he envisioned it. For now, it's an oddity from a fine filmmaker and nothing more than a cult film.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

How Big of a Classic Movie Buff Are You? Take Our Self-Assessment!

Can you name 10 movies starring each?
Sure, you know way more about classic movies than all your friends. But just how big of a classic movie buff are you? Our brief self-assessment below is designed to measure the depth and scope of your classic film IQ and your passion for watching these movies.

You don't need to list your answers or even your final score (unless you want to brag a bit). There's no scientific basis for our assessment, so don't feel bad if your score is lower than you thought it would be. Blame it on the questions! And, more importantly, remember this is just for fun.

1. Do you own one or more of the following books?  The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz; The Filmgoer's Companion by Leslie Halliwell; Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut; or Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide.

2. Can you name 10 Cary Grant movies and 10 Katharine Hepburn movies (without looking them up...and that goes for all of these questions!)?

3. Have you seen at least one film by each of the following foreign film directors:  Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, and Federico Fellini?

4. Can you name eight Walt Disney movies, five James Bond films, three Tarzan pictures (any Tarzan will do), and two Thin Man entries?

5. Can you name the film that won the first Academy Award for Best Picture?

6. Do you know John Wayne's real name?

7. Do you know what Rosebud was?

8. Can you name all seven dwarfs from Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? (My personal Achilles heel for years!)

9. Can you explain why The Falcon's Brother was unique among "B" movie detective films?

10. Do you know who played third base?

11. Can you name the actor that had "Cuddles" for a nickname--along with at least one of his movies?

12. Can you complete the following phrase: "Klaatu barada __________"?

13. Can you can name one Hammer horror movie?

14. Can you name five Sidney Poitier films, three Charles Chaplin films, and one film directed by Samuel Fuller?

15. Can you name one film score for each of these classic film composers:  Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, John Barry, and Bernard Herrmann?

How did you fare? Tally up your "yes" answers and check our scale below. When grading yourself, note that you must answer all parts of a question to get credit for that question as a whole.

13 - 15:  You are the Beauregard Bottomley of classic movie buffs--the best of the best! Take yourself out to dinner and a movie to celebrate...but try not to brag.

10 - 12:  You are a classic movie guru and your love of all kinds of films indicates a high level of passion.

7 - 9:  You may not be a guru, but you know your stuff and could make a lot of money if every Jeopardy category was about classic cinema.

3 - 6:  Your classic movie interest is probably focused on a specific genre, time period, or group of stars. 

0 - 2:  You may love classic movies, but you're not a bona fide classic film buff yet. Try watching more TCM and peruse some of the books in #1.

Monday, February 5, 2018

For a Few Dollars More

Eastwood in his iconic role.
Sergio Leone's second collaboration with Clint Eastwood sometimes get lost in the pantheon of his Spaghetti Westerns. It wasn't his first notable Western--that'd be A Fistful of Dollars (1964). And it's rarely included in the discussion of which film is his masterpiece; that honor seems to be reserved for either The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It's a shame, really, since For a Few Dollars More is a well-crafted, entertaining, and often humorous take on the Western genre. While it lacks the grandiose themes of Leone's later classics, it lays the foundation that made those movies possible.

The opening scenes cross-cut between two men who are searching for a notorious outlaw called El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè). Monco (Eastwood) is a bounty hunter who wants to collect the $10,000 reward--dead or alive--for El Indio. The well-mannered Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) has more personal reasons for finding the outlaw.

Van Cleef as Colonel Mortimer.
After impressing each other with their marksmanship (the famous "hat shooting" scene), the Colonel proposes a partnership. Monco can keep the reward for El Indio, but Mortimer gets the money for the rest of the gang. The latter then hatches a plan in which Monco will infiltrate the gang, so "there's one on the outside and one on the inside." But just who can trust who?

As in Once Upon a Time in the West, the connection between Mortimer and El Indio isn't revealed until the climatic confrontation between the two men. But Leone provides key information along the way in the form of flashbacks and a pair of gold pocket watches. Each man possesses one of the watches, which play the same disturbing little tune. Leone expands on this objectification of revenge in the later Once Upon a Time, in which Charles Bronson's character wears a harmonica around his neck--an instrument which also carries significant meaning in terms of the narrative.

Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone contributes one of his finest scores, perhaps rivaled only by his work in (again) Once Upon a Time in the West. However, it's Leone's use of Morricone's haunting music that sets it apart from scores which simply enhance a film's atmosphere. Whenever El Indio confronts a man with murderous intentions, he opens his watch and waits until its melody winds down before drawing his gun. Leone uses this to great effect in the big showdown between El Indio and Mortimer. As the music gradually slows down almost to a stop, another iteration of it starts to play again as the camera pulls back to show Monco's hand holding Mortimer's watch. It's one of my favorite scenes in all of Leone's films.

Monco's hand and the watch, with Mortimer and El Indio
in the background.
Casting is key in character-driven films like this and the dry Lee Van Cleef brilliantly complements Eastwood's cynical character. Although Van Cleef was only five years older than Eastwood, Monco constantly refers to the Colonel (almost affectionately) as "Old Man." The mutual respect between the characters is established during the aforementioned scene in which they shoot each other's hats.

Gian Maria Volontè.
Of course, one must have a good villain and For a Dollars More has that in spades with Gian Maria Volontè's hypnotic portrayal of the creepy El Indio. Volontè had worked with Leone and Eastwood previously in A Fist of Dollars. His subsequent films departed from the Western genre and included the critically-lauded 1970 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.

For a Few Dollars More received mixed reviews on its initial release. Roger Ebert found it "delicious" and described it as "a gloriously greasy, sweaty, hairy, bloody and violent Western." It was a huge international hit, establishing Van Cleef as a star and enhancing Eastwood's reputation. It may not be as widely acclaimed as Leone's other Westerns, but I'd rank it as his second best. Yes, Once Upon a Time in the West holds down the top spot for me.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

James Stewart's TV Series "Hawkins"

If you need the best criminal lawyer in the U.S., then place a long-distance phone call to West Virginia. That's because Billy Jim Hawkins is your man! Billy Jim may play the "I'm a simple guy from the country" card, but don't be fooled. He's a crafty fellow who's not above playing some sneaky tricks in the courtroom.

This is the premise to Hawkins, a 1973-74 TV series starring James Stewart as the title character. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the later Matlock and some sources claim that Andy Griffith was first approached to play Billy Jim. There are only eight 90-minute episodes of Hawkins, which appeared as part of the umbrella series The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies. The other "shows" under this banner were Shaft (starring Richard Roundtree) and original made-for-TV movies.

Julie Harris in "Die, Darling, Die."
As a huge fan of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), I was hoping that Stewart would play a variation of attorney Paul Biegler. But as soon as he said "Call me Billy Jim," I knew that Hawkins would be closer to Matlock than Otto Preminger's classic courtroom drama. It doesn't help that Hawkins features some pretty pedestrian plots and a lack of viable suspects (always a sign of lazy writing in a mystery series). Amazingly, series creator David Karp received an Emmy nomination for writing the pilot film Hawkins on Murder, which was recycled under the title "Death and the Maiden" as the series' first episode.

The show's third episode highlights its strengths and weaknesses nicely. Billy Jim is hired to defend a woman (Julie Harris) accused of killing her terminally-ill husband by withholding his medication. An ambitious assistant district attorney (Sam Elliott without moustache) refuses to accept any kind of plea bargain. To make matters worse, the defendant won't talk to Billy Jim.

Sam Elliott as an assistant D.A.
Stewart and an above-average guest star cast deliver some solid performances (especially Harris and Elliott). The plot almost justifies its 73-minute running time, whereas other episodes seem downright leisurely. However, once again, if one assumes that the defendant is innocent, there are only two realistic suspects--and they indeed turn out to be the culprits.

This episode features Mayf Nutter (who reminded me a little of Mac Davis) as Billy Jim's journalist nephew. He was a regular in three of the eight episodes. James Hampton (F Troop) assisted Hawkins in one episode and the others featured Strother Martin as Billy Jim's brother R.J., also an attorney. Martin, who was cast at Stewart's insistence, is hilarious in the role--though I surely wouldn't have hired R.J. to represent me in any kind of legal matter!

Strother Martin as R.J. Hawkins.
Hawkins didn't last a second season, primarily because James Stewart wasn't interested. He once said that he never worked so hard as he did on Hawkins. He did win a 1973 Golden Globe as Best Actor in a TV Drama for his efforts. Honestly, I suspect it was an award more for the body of his film and TV work than it was for his performance as Billy Jim. Strother Martin also received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Even if Stewart had wanted to continue, I don't think CBS would have committed to a second season. The ratings just weren't there. While NBC's Sunday Mystery Movie was #14 in the 1973-74 ratings, The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies didn't even crack the Top 30. Now, if Billy Jim's nine siblings and dozens of cousins had all watched, it might have been a different story!

Here's a clip from Hawkins featuring Stewart, Martin, and guest star Sheree North. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel.