Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Town of Midwich Becomes the Village of the Damned

There’s nothing to distinguish Midwich from any other rural English village—except that one day, every living inhabitant passes out for four hours. A man slumps over the steering wheel of a tractor as its runs in circles. An unconscious telephone operator doesn’t hear the constant ringing of incoming calls. Water overflows bathtubs, irons scorch clothes, and a stuck phonograph record repeats the same musical notes over and over. Then suddenly, everyone wakes up and all seems normal again.

Except it isn’t, of course. A month later, every woman capable of bearing a child is pregnant. Twelve perfectly healthy children are eventually born, each with blonde hair, “arresting” eyes, and narrow nails. At the age of 12 months, one of them opens a Chinese puzzle box. And what one learns, they all do—immediately—as if they share the same consciousness.

Few films can match Village of the Damned for its eerie opening and original premise. Much of the credit belongs to John Wyndham, who wrote the source novel The Midwich Cuckoos (as well as The Day of the Triffids). However, director Wolf Rilla builds on Wyndham’s ideas by giving the film an otherworldly quality. Some of his images are disturbingly hypnotic, such as the sight of the Aryan-like children, walking like a pack, through the quaint village. Likewise, his use of natural sound—even the opening credits roll over church bells instead of music—gives the film a different aural quality.

George Sanders portrays the only sympathetic father (as you can imagine, the “fathers” have difficulty accepting the children). Sanders’ character, though, appreciates the children’s tremendous intellectual potential. He and his son, David, may not love each other in a conventional sense, but they admire and respect one another. In contrast, David has little need for his coddling mother, though he is always polite to her.

As David, young Martin Stephens gives a fine performance. One of the best child actors of the 1960s, Stephens had enough screen presence to hold his own against Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961). He had the unique ability to act like an adult trapped in a child’s body.

Village of the Damned is an unconventional science fiction film, so don’t expect answers to the questions it poses. A 1964 sequel, Children of the Damned, expanded on the notion that the children are feared mainly because they’re different (a theme also explored in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive movies). John Carpenter directed a lifeless remake of Village of the Damned in 1995.

(Incidentally, co-writer Stirling Silliphant had an interesting career. He created the TV series Route 66 with Herbert B. Leonard and wrote most of the episodes. He later won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, had a boxoffice smash with The Poseidon Adventure, and became a martial arts student and friend to Bruce Lee. Silliphant, Lee, and James Coburn conceived a martial film called The Silver Flute. It was eventually made as Circle of Iron with David Carradine in the role intended for Bruce Lee.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Help Celebrate the First National Classic Movie Day on May 16, 2015!

Did you know that there is no nationwide day dedicated to celebrating classic movies? My goal is to change that in 2015 by introducing the first National Classic Movie Day on May 16th.

I recently realized that classic movies have been totally ignored when it comes to large-scale, single day tributes. After all, hot dogs, aardvarks, and even ugly Christmas sweaters have "national days" on July 23rd, March 19th, and December 12th. The closest anyone has gotten to celebrating movies is with National Drive-in Day (June 6th) and National I Love Lucy Day on October 15th.

I aim to change that--with your help--by starting a grassroots social media campaign. I selected May 16th because it was the date of the first Academy Awards ceremony. When trying to define a "birth date" for classic cinema, that seemed as good as any.

As for a slogan, I came up for with the following: "Celebrate Classic Films from the Silents to the Seventies." That offers a definition of "classic film" which ranges from Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to The Godfather and Stars Wars (which turns 38 next year).

How will National Classic Movie Day be celebrated? That's entirely up to you! You could host a blogathon, show a classic film at your local library, watch a DVD with friends, tweet about it, conduct a poll on classic favorites, etc.

If you want to promote National Classic Movie Day, you can use the poster above or create your own. You can "like" the National Classic Movie Day on its Facebook page and describe how you plan to celebrate it. You can also follow it on Twitter as @ClassicMovieDay. For tweeting purposes, please use #NationalClassicMovieDay.

With your help, this could become an annual event that reminds everyone about the wonders of classic cinema.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Movie Connection Game (Halloween 2014 Edition)

How are I Walked With a Zombie and
Jane Eyre connected?
In this edition of the connection game, you will once again 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. I have a feeling this quiz may be too easy!

1. The Undying Monster and House of Dracula.

2. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Return of the Vampire.

3. Mark of the Vampire and London After Midnight

4. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (other than they're both Hammer films).

5. I Walked With a Zombie and Jane Eyre.

6. The Day of the Triffids and Werewolf of London

7. The film House of Frankenstein and the TV series Gunsmoke.  

8. Donald Sutherland and Kevin McCarthy. 

9. Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher and Professor Moriarty. 

10. The Dunwich Horror and Die, Monster, Die

11. Ray Milland and Vincent Price. 

12. Once Upon a Time in the West and Suspiria.  

13. Bela Lugosi and Charles Laughton. 

14. Christopher Lee, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Boris Karloff....and Tom Tyler. 

15. Vincent Price, Dennis Weaver, and Jane Seymour. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why the 1950s Is Classic Cinema's Most Important Decade

What is classic cinema's most important decade? I suppose the answer depends on one's criteria. I'd argue that I could make a strong case for almost any decade prior to 1980. However, my personal pick is the most transitional period in movie history. I'm not talking the transition from silent films to talkies, but rather the decade that introduced a new generation of classic stars while the existing ones were still writing their legends. For those reasons--and eight more--I aim to convince you that the 1950s were the most important years for classic cinema.

Cary Grant in North By Northwest.
1. Hollywood's biggest stars were still going strong. Need some evidence? How about the following representive list of classic stars and some of their most famous 1950s films: Cary Grant and North By Northwest; James Stewart and Harvey; Bing Crosby and The Country Girl; John Wayne and The Searchers; Bette Davis and All About Eve; Marlene Dietrich and Witness for the Prosecution; Joan Crawford and Johnny Guitar; Alan Ladd and Shane; and Lana Turner and Imitation of Life. There are many others that could be listed, too. Even stars who were past their peaks had solid hits, such as Errol Flynn in Against All Flags.  

Jack Lemmon became a star in the 1950s.
2 . A whole new generation of classic stars emerged in the 1950s. It's a huge list that includes: Jack Lemmon; Marilyn Monroe; Grace Kelly; Paul Newman; Joanne Woodward; Rock Hudson; Kim Novak; Richard Burton; Sophia Loren; Marlon Brando; Dirk Bogarde; James Dean; and Steve McQueen. Except for a few careers cut tragically short, these stars would grace the silver screen for years to come. 

A theatre of 3D movie watchers.
3. Technology advances reached new heights. Fearing that television would reduce box office receipts, studio executives sought new ways to attract moviegoers. Experimental technology, such as 3D and widescreen, were brought into the mainstream. The popularity of 3D was brief, but significant--even Hitchcock made a 3D pic (Dial M for Murder). While 3D didn't last, widescreen processes--such as Cinemascope and VistaVision--would became the standard for all theatrical films. 

4. Epics made a comeback. You can credit the threat of television for this one, too. The modest-sized television screens of the 1950s worked well for intimate dramas--but not for the sweeping grandeur of historical epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Samson and Delilah. It was a trend that would continue well into the 1960s. 

Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
5. International cinema Prior to the 1950s, there were a handful of foreign-language films that crossed the Atlantic, such as 1939 Oscar nominee Grand Illusion. However, that changed dramatically after World War II as Rosselini, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and other foreign directors gained worldwide acclaim. 

Novak and Stewart in Vertigo.
6. Hitchcock regained his crown as Master of Suspense. The 1940s were a mixed bag for Hitch, with his successes (Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious) countered by boxoffice duds like The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, and Rope. In contrast, his 1950s output included three of his most acclaimed films: Rear Window; Vertigo; and North By Northwest. Even some of his lesser 1950s films became popular successes (To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much) or eventual cult classics (The Trouble With Harry). 

7. The drive-in theater was born. Well, technically, there were drive-in theaters long before 1950, but their popularity began to soar during the decade. Cinema purists may scoff at the idea of watching movies outdoors, but the drive-ins provided an inexpensive way for families and teens to enjoy a double (or even triple) feature. 

8. The studio system died and the stars become more powerful. Yes, some studios still signed young talent and groomed them for stardom (as Universal did with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis). However, the days where big stars were bound to their studio had ended. When James Stewart agreed to star in Winchester '73, he took a percentage of the profits and became rich. Suddenly, much of the clout in Hollywood shifted from the moguls to the stars.  

Richard Widmark in Night
and the City.
9. New genres flourished. The "docudrama" that started in the late 1940s with The Naked City paved the way for gritty, shot-on-location dramas like Call Northside 777, The Sweet Smell of Success, Night and the City, and The Set-Up. Western heroes gained psychological baggage as the "adult Western" was born with flawed protagonists played by James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Glenn Ford, and John Wayne. Space travel and the atomic bomb inspired imaginative science fiction films about alien beings (good and bad) and giant monsters (always bad). Britain's Hammer Films revived Gothic horror in bloody color and made stars of Frankenstein and Dracula again.

10.  The studios learned that TV was a good thing after all. In 1957, Universal Pictures released 52 of its classic horror films to TV stations in its Shock! syndication package. No one anticipated the massive appeal those films would have with a whole new generation of viewers. The Shock package also popularized the numerous late-night weekend horror movies hosted by the likes of Vampira. Soon, a sequel set of films called Son of Shock was released. By then, the studios had grasped the importance of television.

Monday, October 13, 2014

An Interview with Dark Shadows' Kathryn Leigh Scott--Actress, Author, and Publisher

Best known for her roles on the classic TV series Dark Shadows, Kathryn Leigh Scott continues to find success in both the entertainment and publishing industries. She has remained in demand as an actress since she made her television debut as Maggie Evans in Dark Shadows in 1966. Over the next five decades, she appeared in numerous films and TV series--to include the theatrical film House of Dark Shadows, acting opposite John Wayne in Brannigan, and making memorable guest appearances in TV shows such as DallasStar Trek: The Next Generation, and Police Squad. She continues to be in demand today with a recurring role as George Segal's girlfriend on the hit sitcom The Goldbergs. In 1986, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Dark Shadows, she wrote the book Dark Shadows Memories. Its success inspired her to launch Pomegranate Press that same year. Pomegranate Press has published books about Dark Shadows, other TV series (e.g., The Fugitive Recaptured), a biography of Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Coya Knutson, and Ms. Scott's 2011 novel Dark Passages

Café:  In 1965, after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York City, you were acting on stage and working at a Playboy Bunny Club. How did you get the role of Maggie Evans on Dark Shadows 

Kathryn Leigh Scott: Richard Bauman, a theatrical agent who had seen me in an AADA production, sent me to audition for Dark Shadows. I was brought back several times to read for Dan Curtis and the director, Lela Swift...but it was while I was in Hollywood for a screen test that I got word I was wanted for a camera test in New York. I took a red-eye back, found the script on my doorstep and managed to get to the camera test by 9 A.M. I think by then I already had the role because I auditioned with several different actors up for the role of Burke Devlin, including the wonderful Mitch Ryan, who was cast. Afterward, we went to Joe Allen (a NYC restaurant) to celebrate with breakfast! 

Café: You appeared in the very first episode of Dark Shadows, but Barnabas isn't mentioned until the 202nd episode. Was it always Dan Curtis' intention to bring a vampire to Collinsport? 

Jonathan Frid and Kathryn Leigh Scott.
KLS:  We started out as a Gothic romance "bodice ripper" that was contemporary but had the feeling of Jane Eyre and quite a departure from the usual soap opera fare of the time. There were paranormal elements from the beginning because Dan Curtis conceived of the story in a dream he had about the ghost of a young girl inhabiting a country home. Our first "ghosts" were a sea captain and young Sarah, who later was identified as the sister of Barnabas. The story goes that our ratings were down and to avoid cancellation, Dan pulled out the stops by introducing a vampire...the rest is history. I worked the first day Jonathan appeared on set in his Barnabas regalia and I remember that as charming as he was the cast members all thought we were going from Chekov to Boris Karloff. But, believe me, Barnabas was entirely the inspiration of Jonathan Frid...his charisma made Barnabas Collins into an iconic character. 

Café:  During your five years on Dark Shadows, you played four roles: waitress and later governess Maggie Evans; Barnabas's lover Josette DuPres; Rachel Drummond, another governess; and Lady Kitty Hampshire. Which was your favorite role and why? 

KLS:  I'm drawn to Maggie Evans because there was so much of myself in the role. I drew on a Carl Sandburg poem that begins "Maggie beat her hands against the bars of a small Indiana town . .. " that I completely understood. I'd met Carl Sandburg when I was 16 and knew his poetry and that particular poem had such resonance. I had my own dreams and catapulted out of Robbinsdale, Minnesota for New York City. Maggie came from the wrong side of the tracks, raised by a dissolute artist...she grew up without a mother and ached to make something of herself. My favorite scene in Dark Shadows is my very first encounter with Barnabas Collins in the Collinsport Diner. It's such a defining scene: two outsiders drawn to each other, reaching out. If Maggie was looking for her knight in shining armor, she found him in a 200-year-old vampire! I think Dan Curtis saw that scene and created the relationship between Josette and Barnabas. Of course, I loved playing Josette...such a romantic, tragic character. I was newly out of drama school and there I was utilizing all I'd learned doing the classics. 

Café:  You seem to have kept in touch with several other Dark Shadows cast members (e.g., you've published several books written by Lara Parker). What was it like working with the other "residents" of Collinsport on the Dark Shadows set? 

KLS:  I love writing and have thoroughly enjoyed running Pomegranate Press. I've encouraged all my colleagues on Dark Shadows to write books and many have: Lara, David Selby, Chris Pennock, Marie Wallace, Sy Tomashoff, among others, and they've all found their own publishers. Needless to say, we're all still close friends. I see Lara, David, Jerry Lacy and many of the others when we record the Big Finish original dramas on CD and when we attend the annual festivals. We became a close-knit family working in our own little studio on West 54th Street, isolated from the other soaps...honestly, it felt like we were hanging out together in Collinsport! 

Café:  It's a tribute to the immense popularity of Dark Shadows that a big screen version (and a sequel) were made while it was still on the air. How did making the movie differ from doing the TV series? And given the TV series' tight production schedule, how was a movie made concurrently

With Frid on the set of House
of Dark Shadows
KLS:  Filming House of Dark Shadows on location while continuing to tape the series in New York City was a logistical nightmare. Jonathan and I were put on hiatus from the series because we were required on set almost every day, but several of the other actors were doing both. For Joan Bennett, a legendary Hollywood movie star, and Grayson Hall, an Academy Award nominee, filming a feature version of Dark Shadows was an easy transition, but for me and the other younger actors, it was a new process, a different sort of intimacy with the big screen. We were accustomed to doing a “live” show with one take, mistakes and all...learning to do a master shot and closeups with a lot of time in between for setups took some getting used to. You have to remember that when we did the series live, it never occurred to us that anyone would see an episode a second time. All of it was new to me. In fact, I didn't realize until I watched the film many years later that I had a starring role in it! 

Café:  It sounds like writing has always been a part of your life. What inspired you to start a dual professional career as an author with Dark Shadows Memories

KLS:  Sixteen is a magical certainly was a huge transitional time for me. At sixteen, I met and interviewed Carl Sandburg and I wrote a newspaper article that won a state journalism award. In that same year, I won a state drama award and it made me realize that acting and writing were twin pursuits that complemented each other in my life. I then applied to a Northwestern University summer program in both journalism and drama and got a scholarship to their drama program, which really opened me up to the possibilities of pursuing both. I later got a drama scholarship to the American Academy in New York, which meant acting was the dominant career path for a while...but throughout my life I've pursued both. I also love business and launched Pomegranate Press, a book publishing company, 29 years ago that specializes in nonfiction entertainment subjects, a perfect blending of both writing and acting. 

Café:  How did you go from author to publisher when you co-founded Pomegranate Press? 

KLS:  I was asked to do a magazine article on Joel Crothers, who had played my boyfriend, Joe Haskell, on Dark Shadows. He was a dear friend and his death in 1985 was a profound shock. I wrote the article, reminiscing about our days on the series, and then just kept on writing until I realized I’d written a behind-the-scenes book about Dark Shadows, the show kids “ran home from school to watch.” Ben Martin, a Time magazine photographer I’d dated while doing the show, had become my husband and we had stacks of photos he’d taken on the set that had never been published...a gold mine! Rather than send my manuscript off to a New York book publisher, I decided to start my own company. My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows sold 35,000 copies in both hardcover and tradepaper, earning enough for me to publish four books the following year, including a coffee table book and a Hollywood guide book. Pomegranate Press was launched. Today, my entire backlist is available as ebooks and everything is available on Amazon. All are also available on my website: 

Café:  As a publisher, what do you look for when you decide to publish a book? 

KLS:  Books become children that you conceive, nurture and watch grow to adulthood...yes, a long process! To carry the analogy further, you do not want to get into bed with just anyone without considering the consequences! If I like a manuscript but it doesn't suit my catalog, I've often helped an author find another publisher. But if I do take a book on, I want to work with an author who is cooperative and wants to be part of the process from editing through marketing. I certainly wouldn't want an adversarial book is worth the trouble and I like working closely and collaboratively with my authors. Frankly, I publish what I want to read. 

Café:  In your book The Bunny Years, you interviewed over 250 women who worked at Playboy Bunny Clubs, to include Lauren Hutton and Deborah Harry. Did the majority of your ex-colleagues feel it was a positive or negative experience? And if you could go back in time, would you work there again? 

KLS:  The joy of writing The Bunny Years was re-connecting with the amazing women I worked with at the New York Playboy Club when I was a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was in Bunny Training with Gloria Steinem, who wrote about me in her magazine article, a negative, misrepresentative piece compared to my own experiences and those of the other young women working at the club at the time. My book was a direct response to her article. I wanted to give voice to the many women who worked as Bunnies during the 25-year history of the Clubs. Read the book, which was also the basis for the A&E documentary The Bunny Years, and make up your own mind.  Lauren Hutton and I were hired as Bunnies at the same time...and Susan Sullivan and I became lifelong best friends after working as Bunnies. For me, it was a wholly great experience and I would do it again were I to go back to that wonderful period of time. 

Café:  You've hinted that you're working on a sequel to your 2013 novel Down and Out in Beverly Heels. You continue to appear at conventions and we assume you'll be back on The Goldbergs this season. That's a packed schedule! Are there any events or projects you'd like to highlight for Cafe readers? 

KLS:  I adore working with George Segal, playing his girlfriend Miriam on The Goldbergs and hope I’ll be invited back again and again. I've also completed Take Two, the sequel to Down and Out in Beverly Heels, and Last Dance at the Savoy: A Caregivers Journey, a memoir about my husband’s long bout with PSP, a neurological disease that claimed his life in 2011. I’m also completing another novel, May to September. I hope to keep doing what I’ve always done: writing and acting. I’m thrilled that I will be joining my other Dark Shadows castmates on a January 2015 cruise (January 10-17) in the Caribbean . . . please come along! Call (800) 828-4813 to book the cruise. Lara Parker and I will be visiting Martinique, the birthplaces of Josette and Angelique!

You can learn more about Kathryn Leigh Scott on her website: You can also follow her on Twitter as @kathleighscott.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Piper Laurie Elevates "Smoke Signal"

By her own admission, Piper Laurie didn't get a lot of good roles as a contract player at Universal in the 1950s. However, one of the exceptions was the blandly-titled Smoke Signal, an above-average Western that avoids the genre's most common cliches.

The action gets off to a quick start when a small Cavalry unit discovers a dead scout with an arrow in his back. It doesn't take long to realize that the previously-peaceful Utes are on the warpath. When they attack the soldiers, the Cavalry troop seeks refuge in a nearby fort. The situation there isn't much better. It turns out the fort has been surrounded for days and the scout sent to seek reinforcement--well, we know that he didn't get very far.

Dana Andrews and William Talman.
The newly-arrived Captain Harper (William Talman) discovers an old acquaintance, Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), tied to a hitching post. A former Cavalry officer, Halliday deserted long ago and joined the Utes' tribe. Harper believes the Indians want to free Halliday, but the latter claims his life is in danger, too. He urges Harper to transport two boats to a nearby canyon river and seek escape by navigating the rapids.

Augmented with stunning scenery, Smoke Signal zips along efficiently, mixing character-driven scenes with action sequences involving Indian attacks or the perils of the river. Although Dana Andrews--who was on the downside of his career--is billed as the lead, it's Piper Laurie who holds the film together.

Piper Laurie and Andrews.
She portrays the daughter of the fort's commanding officer, who died at the hands of the Utes. In many Westerns, Laurie's character would have been a bitter daughter intent on revenge. However, in Smoke Signal, she's a strong, but quiet character intrigued with Halliday and why he forfeited his Army career. Some of her best scenes are simply intent looks--filled with curiosity--directed toward Halliday when she believes others are not watching.

Smoke Signal is peppered with familiar faces, to include Talman (Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason), William Schallert (the father on The Patty Duke Show), and Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke). However, the other cast standout is Douglas Spencer as a trapper that joins the soldiers. Surprisingly, the likable Spencer spent most of his Hollywood career as Ray Milland's stand-in. His best-known performance as a supporting player was as the reporter Scotty in 1951's The Thing.

Dana Andrews, who was still struggling with alcoholism at that time, gives an acceptable performance. Unfortunately, his character's eventual romance with Laurie doesn't work at all. First, at age 46, he was almost twice the age of his co-star. More importantly, the script doesn't give the two characters enough time together before they're smitten with each other. There are other flaws in Smoke Signal, too, starting with the unlikely reason that there just happens to be two boats in the fort.

A better title?
Still, it's an interesting Western and deserves credit for not turning the Indians into nameless villains. Halliday speaks of them sympathetically and the film's true bad guy turns out not to be one of the Utes. For the record, there are some smoke signals in the movie. Of course, that's just one more reason why I don't like the film's title. If the studio was going to go in that smokey direction, then--for the sake of accuracy--they should have called the movie Smoke Signals. Or better yet, why not go with the film's French title: The River of Last Chance?

The Five Best Hayley Mills Performances

1. Pollyanna. The penultimate Hayley Mills film features her as a young orphaned girl—an optimist if there ever was one—coming to live with her wealthy, spinster aunt circa 1913. Pollyanna pretty much shakes up the whole town, bringing lonely people together and reminding everyone that there are unexpected joys to be found in the most unlikely places. It’s a charming, uplifting tale, surprisingly devoid of schmaltz--and I think that's the secret to Hayley's appeal in the title role. Unlike many other child stars, she never tries to "play cute." Instead, she finds the appeal in her character and lets it come out naturally.

Hayley Mills and Deborah Kerr.
2. The Chalk Garden. Deborah Kerr headlines this offbeat, poignant tale about a governess hired by a dowager to care for the elderly lady’s out-of-control teenage granddaughter (Hayley Mills). The girl has a fondness for setting fires and delights in threatening to burn down the gloomy mansion set among the isolated cliffs. Hayley combines brattiness with vulnerability and repressed anger with youthful innocence. Best of all, she's content to concede the film's big scenes to the marvelous Deborah Kerr and deliver a first-rate supporting performance.

Hayley with Alan Bates.
3. Whistle Down the Wind. In rural England, three children discover a fugitive in their barn and come to believe that he is Jesus. This unique film works as both a religious allegory and an intelligent look into the world of children. Hayley Mills (as the children's leader) and Alan Bates (as the convict) give powerful performances. It was based on the novel by Hayley's mother, Mary Hayley Bell, who also wrote the screenplay. Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed it into a stage musical that never made it to Broadway.

Hayley playing twins.
4. The Parent Trap. In one of her most famous films, Hayley plays 13-year-olds Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick, who meet at camp and discover they’re twins separated at an early age when their parents divorced. It's a ridiculous premise when you think about it, but that doesn't stop The Parent Trap from being one of my favorite Disney movies. Hayley differentiates between the twins nicely, sings a duet, and once again defers to the grown-up stars (Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara) when the plot shifts to their renewed romance.

In Sky West and Crooked.
5. Sky West and Crooked and The Trouble With Angels. Yes, it's a tie for the final spot so we can squeeze in a sixth film. The little-seen Sky West and Crooked (1965) casts Hayley as Brydie White, a seventeen-year-old girl who has mentally blocked out a childhood tragedy. Her widowed, alcoholic mother possesses no parenting skills--leaving Brydie to fend for herself. The townsfolk think the girl is a bit daft (the meaning of the title), but she still finds romance with a gypsy lad (Ian McShane). In the the popular 1966 comedy, The Trouble With Angels, Hayley plays a rebellious girl who clashes with the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) at a boarding school run by nuns. It's an amusing film, with Hayley's character constantly getting into trouble for her "scathingly brilliant ideas." However, Hayley brings depth to her character as she quietly watches the nuns and tries to understand their faith and dedication. It's a serious final scene that gives this frothy film its depth--and makes it stand out from similar confections (including its Hayley-less sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows).

Honorable Mentions: The Truth About Spring (if I was listing my five favorite HM movies, this would be one of them); Tiger Bay (I recall Hayley being very good in this, but I haven't seen it in ages); and The Moon-Spinners (sort of a juvenile Hitchcock film--just not as good).

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cult Movie Theatre: The Atomic City

Having recently enjoyed Gene Barry portraying a meticulous murderer, I decided to check out other films made by the star of Bat Masterson and Burke's Law. That's how I stumbled upon his film debut, The Atomic City, a taut 1952 suspense film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Story and Screenplay.

Barry and Lydia Clarke as the parents.
Barry plays Dr. Frank Addison,  a nuclear scientist who lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with his wife Martha (Lydia Clarke) and seven-year-old son Tommy (Lee Aaker). Dr. Addison is one of the top scientists at a top-secret government facility dedicated to creating the atomic bomb. When Tommy is kidnapped, it quickly becomes apparent that the culprits don't want money for the ransom--they want what's inside Dr. Addison's head.

When the FBI gets involved, they explain to Addison their priorities are to keep our enemies from getting the bomb, apprehend the people responsible, and return Tommy safely to his family. Addison, realizing what this means, confirms to himself: "That's the order of their importance. One. Two. Three. Tommy's number three."

The Addison clinch as the camera
moves in on the kidnappers' note.
The Atomic City seems like the kind of film that would have attracted Hitchcock. In fact, there's one scene that rivals Hitch at his best and it's set up beautifully. Tommy spends the morning talking about bicycles because he hopes to win one during a school field trip to the Santa Fe Fiesta. After the children watch a puppet show, the big moment comes and Tommy's ticket number is called. But there are no shouts of joy, only silence. When his teacher turns around to look for Tommy, his seat is empty. Tommy's teacher searches frantically for Tommy, but cannot find him at the festival. When she calls the Addisons, Tommy's father says that his mother picked up their son. Only after Dr. Addison hangs up do we see the printed message delivered to the parents: "Tommy is our guest. You will get details about it tonight at the dance."

Journeyman director Jerry Hopper makes excellent use of the setting. The camera lingers on the "restricted" and "contaminated" signs in Los Alamos as the children skip playfully past them. Mrs. Addison, Tommy, and Tommy's friend are oblivious when a "routine" bomb test shakes their house--though it greatly alarms a TV delivery man. Outside the city, the southwestern architecture, the mountains, and caves give the film a unique look.

For the most part, the script effectively captures the detailed procedures required to track down a spy network responsible for a kidnapping. For example, having filmed the enemy's pickup man interacting with other people at a baseball game, the FBI shows the footage to a group of undercover "party members." They sit in a darkened room in separate booths that prevent each one from seeing the individuals surrounding them. Precautions must be taken--even within the safe confines of the FBI headquarters.

Perhaps because of this methodical approach, the occasional gaffes tend to stand out. For example, Martha Addison complains about the FBI providing security every time the family ventures outside Los Alamos. So, why weren't security personnel covering the school children's field trip? And since the Addisons receive a second kidnapping note at the dance, it's apparent that there's a spy within the confines of the "Atomic City," a critical point that's forgotten as the plot focuses on capturing Tommy's kidnappers.

Bert Freed later played Columbo.
Still, these are minor quibbles with a modest film that far exceeds expectations. The ensemble cast is convincing and contains many familiar faces in addition to Barry. It includes: Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke); Frank Cady (Sam Drucker on Green Acres); and Lee Aaker (Rusty on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin). Bert Freed plays one of the bad guys. As discussed in a post earlier this year, Freed originated the role of Lt. Columbo in an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show with Richard Carlson as a murderous psychiatrist. Years later, that episode was revamped as the Columbo TV-movie Prescription: Murder--with Gene Barry in the Carlson role.

Sydney Boehm, who earned that Oscar nomination for writing The Atomic City, is probably best remembered for Fritz Lang's classic film noir The Big Heat. His other credits include When Worlds Collide, Union Station, and Violent Saturday.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

See What Bogart Sees in "Dark Passage"

Bogart--after we finally see his face.
As regular Cafe readers know, I'm a big fan of writer-director Delmer Daves. My definition of "filmmaker" is one who both writes and directs a film. Frankly, it always irks me when a director--who shoots another person's script--uses the credit "A John Smith Film." Daves wrote or co-wrote almost all of the thirty movies he directed. Ironically, one of the few that he didn't author was To the Victor (1948), which was penned by Richard Brooks--who later became another acclaimed writer-director.

Parry escapes in a barrel; one of the
few opening shots not in first-person.
This lengthy introduction brings us is to one of Daves' best directed films, the 1947 film noir Dark Passage. It opens mid-plot with convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) having just escaped from San Quentin prison. Parry eludes the police by hitching a ride with an inquisitive man who quickly figures out the identity of his passenger. When the driver unwisely stops the car, Parry beats the man unconscious and drags the body from the car to hide it. He is spotted by an attractive young woman (Lauren Bacall), who recognizes Parry instantly--and then offers to provide him with safe passage to San Francisco. The perplexed Parry agrees.

Lauren Bacall as Irene.
The escaped convict's mysterious benefactor, Irene Jansen, lets him stay in her luxurious hilltop apartment, buys him new clothes, and gives him $1000. We later learn that she attended his trial everyday (he was accused of killing his wife) and wrote a letter to the newspaper proclaiming his innocence. Is Irene's interest driven solely by the fact that her father was once wrongly accused, too? Has she somehow developed legitimate feelings for Parry? Or does she have an ulterior motive for helping him?

One of the film's few flaws is that its plot, based on David Goodis' novel, depends on a series of happenstances. Irene happens to be driving by when Parry escapes from prison. She happens to be a friend of Madge (Agnes Moorehead) who knew Parry and his wife. A police detective happens to be in the same cafe where Parry stops for breakfast. And the cab driver conveniently knows an unlicensed plastic surgeon that performs operations at 3 a.m. Still, Daves unwinds the plot slowly, so that its unlikely connections somehow seem more believable. 

Bogart in bandages.
Daves' greatest contribution, though, is his direction--and his brilliant idea to show the first hour through Parry's eyes. A key plot element--Perry's decision to change his looks through surgery--left Daves with few options. Bogart could have played the pre-surgery scenes in make-up to look different. With his distinctive facial features, I can't imagine that working. Daves' other option was to have another actor play Parry and dub Bogart's voice (or have Parry "change" his voice, too). Either of those choices would have been ridiculous. So, there's a clever practicality to Daves' approach.

From a literary standpoint, the first-person perspective limits us to experience only what Parry sees and hears. We harbor the same suspicions about Irene's extreme generosity, even while the camera lingers on her face (Lauren Bacall has never looked lovelier). We also "hear" Parry's thoughts, so we know things that could be conveyed no other way (e.g., that he is undoubtedly innocent of murdering his wife). Other directors have used the first-person perspective to great effect in individual scenes, such as Rouben Mamoulian in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And, of course, Robert Montgomery famously shot all of The Lady in the Lake (1947) in first-person (though it eventually comes off as a mere gimmick). However, I can think of no director that employed it to greater effect than Delmer Daves in Dark Passage.
Stevenson as the plastic surgeon.

Although the entire cast is first-rate, the supporting players (many of whom I was unfamiliar with) deserve to be highlighted. Journeyman actor Tom D'Andrea has a terrific extended conversation with Bogart in a taxi cab, the latter's face hidden in shadows. As the craggy plastic surgeon, Houseley Stevenson does nothing to initially instill confidence (he confides to Parry: "I perfected my own special technique twelve years ago before I was kicked out of the medical profession."). Finally, there's Rory Mallinson, who hits all the right notes as Parry's none-too-bright, trumpet-playing friend. One could also argue that the city of San Francisco plays a supporting roles as well, as Daves' camera lovingly captures its architecture and streets.

Surprisingly, Dark Passage was not a hit for its two stars. Allegedly, Jack Warner was displeased with it because Bogart's face wasn't shown until an hour into the 106-minute film. Yet, that very "limitation" has contributed significantly to its reputation, Indeed, Dark Passage has aged well and taken its place as one of the finest film noirs and a testament to Delmer Daves' innovative qualities as a filmmaker.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Discovering the Ava Gardner Museum: An Interview with Its Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger

The Ava Gardner Museum opened its doors at its permanent location officially in October 2000 in downtown Smithfield, North Carolina--which is eight miles west of Ava's birthplace. However, the idea for it was conceived much earlier by Thomas M. Banks, who met Ava when he was 12 and she was 18 in Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, NC. When Ava went to Hollywood to pursue acting, Tom became fascinated by her career. He went on to work as a publicist briefly for Columbia Pictures and later earned a Ph.D. in psychology. He married his wife, Lorraine, in 1960 and the couple started collecting Ava Gardner memorabilia. They visited Ava Gardner in 1978 and discussed donating their collection to a university. Ava, however, suggested that they display the memorabilia in her home state. In 1980, Tom and Lorraine bought The Brogden Teacherage where Ava had lived as a child. They operated a museum in the summer months for several years. When Tom died in 1989, Lorraine donated their Ava Gardner collection to the Town of Smithfield. The Ava Gardner Museum Foundation was incorporated in 1996 and the 6,400 square foot museum opened four years later. It now houses over 20,000 pieces of memorabilia and is visited by 10,000 Ava Gardner fans annually.

Deanna Brandenberger, Museum Executive Director of the Ava Gardner Museum, recently spoke with us about the museum and the Ava Gardner Festival that starts this week.

Café: What are some of the most popular items in the museum? Any unique ones that warrant a special mention?

The dress from The Great Sinner.
Deanna Brandenberger: The most popular items are the black velvet dress she wore in the film The Great Sinner, as well as the Bert Pfeiffer paintings. The dress is a sheer work of art and very opulent despite the design’s simplicity. One thing it prompts people to comment upon is how small Ava’s waist was. She actually had an 18-20 inch waist despite having a hearty appetite for down-home Southern cuisine. The Bert Pfeiffer paintings are unique because of his admiration displayed in innovative ways. Despite never meeting her, he certainly seemed to capture various aspects of her personality and visage. He often incorporated oddities (such as a mouse running up her arm or tables without legs) and guests love to browse the gallery to see if they can spot anything whimsical that he may have painted. Even Ava approved of the art. She owned three herself that hung in her London apartment till her death. Those particular three are on display in the theater.

Café: What can you tell us about your upcoming Ava Gardner Festival on October 3-5?

DB: The festival is our 14th annual celebration of the museum’s opening in this location and is also our main fundraiser. As a non-profit, we rely solely upon the income of our visitors and the generous donations to help provide the funding necessary to operate and maintain our facility. Each festival has its own theme; this year’s is “Ava’s Closet: Her Personal Fashion and Style.” On Friday evening, we have a Fashion Fling party which will feature the unveiling of the Ava’s Closet exhibit with never-before-seen wardrobes of her glamor--her everyday--and her intimate-wear; the Sinatra-style entertainment of The Carolina Crooner; and hors d’ouevres and local wines and beers provided by the new downtown restaurant Serendipity Road. Saturday, we will feature a talk by our celebrity guest, Season 12 Project Runway fashion designer and upcoming All-Star Justin LeBlanc, followed by a meet and greet, all from 9-11am. Heritage Tours of significant spots in Ava’s childhood and her gravesite will take place throughout the day. With admission, there will also be free movie screenings of The Killers and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Saturday evening, the festivities will move to the Clayton Center as we team up with the Clayton Piano Festival in their special tribute to Ava in Show Boat and her love of flamenco followed by a meet-and-greet with the artist, and a dessert and coffee reception. On Sunday, the museum will host extended hours from 1-5pm and will show a screening of The African Queen (directed by Ava’s friend John Huston; and following on the Raleigh film festival’s tribute series to him), which is free with admission. Prices and packaging information can be found on our website, or by calling us directly at (919) 934-5830.

Café: Back to Bert Pfeiffer, who was he and why did he add such offbeat embellishments as a mouse on Ava's sleeve?

DB: Bert Pfeiffer was a Dutch artist who saw Ava in One Touch of Venus in 1948 and was captivated by her beauty. Every year for the next 50 years, he painted a different painting of Ava, despite never meeting her. Some of Ava’s traveling friends happened upon his gallery and asked if she would like one of his paintings. She replied that she would purchase three; they are now displayed in the theater.  Pfeiffer’s family donated his collection to the museum after his death in accordance with his wishes. No one is really certain why Pfeiffer chose to display these different embellishments in many of the paintings; although they don’t appear in every one. It is usually chalked up to artist expression. The museum gift shop is honoring Pfeiffer by releasing a limited edition postcard of one of Pfeiffer’s paintings every year, beginning in 2014.

Café: How did Gregory Peck get involved with the Ava Gardner Museum?

DB: Gregory Peck and Ava were lifelong friends after starring together in The Great Sinner (1949). They would go on to star in two other films together and had a wonderful time. After Ava’s death, Peck took in Ava’s housekeeper and friend Carmen Vargas, as well as Ava’s beloved corgi, Morgan. Peck visited the museum before his death while filming in Raleigh. He was a member of the Honorary Advisory Board and held an open position on our Board of Directors to offer his input and support to the museum. His family still maintains ties with us and we are very honored to announce that his daughter Cecilia Peck Voll and Carmen will both continue by sitting on the new Honorary Advisory Board in the future.  

Café: What is the Ava Gardner Heritage Trail?

DB: The Ava Gardner Heritage Trail is a project that was recently finished, thanks to the support of The Winston-Salem Foundation. The trail highlights geographical points of interest regarding Ava’s life and her family history here in Johnston County, North Carolina. The trail map is displayed in the museum and fliers with a brief historical synopsis and directions are provided to guests free of charge.

Café: What are some of your personal favorites of Ava's movies?

Ava in The Barefoot Contessa.
DB: My favorite movie of Ava’s is The Barefoot Contessa. Although the character role was said to be loosely based on Rita Hayworth, I still find many personal parallels to Ava’s own life. There is a beautiful soliloquy where Maria Vargas (Ava’s character) explains to Bogart how she always felt comforted with her feet in the dirt as she grew up in poverty, at least she was grounded by that visceral moment. There is a real-life story of Ava running barefoot through tobacco fields here in Johnston County. Her character went from feet in the dirt to movie star, just like Ava. I love the veracity of Ava’s portrayal. Another favorite film is Mogambo. Ava used to go to the movies here in her hometown and watch Clark Gable in Red Dust. She always thought how wonderful he was and dreamed of starring in a movie with him. Little did she know she would eventually shoot the remake in Mogambo and star opposite Clark Gable. That must have been wonderful kismet for her. I like hearing how dreams come true--she is definitely our country's Cinderella. Ava’s characters were always believable because on some level she could relate to them. That makes her timeless.

Café: Are you working on any new displays for 2015?

DB: We are currently in talks with other institutions who house pieces of Ava memorabilia. Our goal is to get loans for some iconic artifacts which our visitors can see all in one place. There are no specific exhibit plans in place, but we are always brainstorming. Before very long, we will outline something new for the following year. So we will keep you updated!

Café: What advice would you give to an Ava Gardner fan visiting the museum for the first time? 

The entrance to the museum.
DB: Not very long ago, before my dreams of running this museum were realized, I myself was just a visitor. One of the things I was most struck by--and the comment I hear by most of our guests--is how impressive the gallery-style setup is and how professionally the museum is laid out. I honestly expected little more than someone’s living room with a bunch of movie memorabilia tacked on the walls and maybe a dress or two. I was completely blown away by the facility. We have 6400 square feet of space in the building and it houses a diversity of items. Not only do we have items of Ava’s, we have items from family, from husbands (such as Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra), and we even have our own theater and Ava’s personal library. My biggest piece of advice to visitors is to leave enough time to properly see the museum. We recommend no less than an hour. We first introduce you to Ava with an 18-minute biography in the theater and then allow you to peruse the gallery and library. There is so much to see, it is almost impossible without a few hours. But what’s the hurry? Take lunch at a diner, visit our local shops, see a movie at the antique theater where Ava sat, and see what Historical Downtown Smithfield has to offer!

You can learn more about the Ava Gardner Museum by visiting its excellent web site at, "liking" it on Facebook, and following it on Twitter All photos, except for The Barefoot Contessa, are courtesy of the Ava Gardner Museum and the permission to use them is on a project-by-project basis.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Big Bond (James Bond) Quiz

This should be a pretty easy quiz for 007 fans, but it might be more challenging for others. Since we specialize in pre-1985 films at the Cafe, you won't find many questions about the Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig movies. As always, please don't answer more than 3-4 questions daily, so others can play, too.

1. What's the connection between the Bond songs "The Look of Love" (from 1967's Casino Royale) and "The Spy Who Loved Me"?

2. What TV series had three regular cast members appear in Bond films? Name the performers!

3. What's the connection between the Bond pics and a well-known vegetable?

4. What was the first James Bond title song to hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart?

5. What Ian Fleming novel has been adapted three times?

6. According to the title song, how much does The Man With the Golden Gun charge for an assassination?

7. What Bond movie was known during its production history as James Bond of the Secret Service and Warhead?

8. Who was the first actress to star in a Hammer movie and appear in a Bond film?

Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and kitty.
9. What is the breed of Blofeld's cat?

10. What movie featured two Bond girls who were sisters?

11. What was the first Bond film not originally based on an Ian Fleming novel?

12. Name the 007 movies in which James gets married (for real or not).

Lana Wood as Plenty O'Toole.
13. When Plenty O'Toole introduces herself as: "I'm Plenty." in Diamonds Are Forever, what is Bond's response?

14. What was Blofeld's first appearance in the Bond film series?

15. What British actor played a good guy in one Bond film and then a 007 arch-nemesis two films later?

16. Which title songs were warbled by Shirley Bassey?

17. Who was the first singer to appear in the opening credits of a Bond film?

18. In what film is a snippet of the The Magnificent Seven theme played?

He's wearing a hat here.
19. Who was the first actor not to wear a hat during the "gun barrel sequence" that opens every Bond movie?

20. What Bond movie actress is mentioned by name into a famous song popularized in the late 1950s by Bobby Darin?