Saturday, July 31, 2010

Duck Soup...It's More Than an Appetizer

DuckSoupPeople have many reasons why they either like or dislike the Marx Brothers. I would not classify myself as one of their biggest fans. Yet, of all their films, this 1933 classic is most probably my favorite. Perhaps it has something to do with my being a historian—the film is a political satire of fascism. Thinking the film was a personal attack on his leadership, Mussolini banned it in Italy. But if you push the historical aside for a moment, there is one other reason why this zeppo02-1might be my favorite Marx Bros. picture: it was the last one in which Zeppo appeared. No, he wasn’t the funniest of the four—that would be Chico, in my opinion. Yet, he had one thing the other three did not possess: he was good looking. Call me shallow, but every picture needs a little man-candy and Zeppo provided it. Somehow their pictures just weren’t the same after he went straight into retirement (there’s a pun in there, you figure it out).

This was the last film the brothers made for Paramount. It was a a box-office disaster and Paramount decided not to re-sign them. And, so off they went to MGM, where they made their two most successful films: A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. I suppose Paramount didn’t know what it had until it was gone…or so the cliché goes.

Ernst Lubitsch was originally slated to direct, but in the end the task fell to Leo McCarey. Good thing, too. Yes, Lubitsch was one of the greatest directors ever (see Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be…no, I mean really see them), but had he 24oct03c directed there would have never been the famous mirror pantomime, which was McCarey’s idea (not an original one, since it was from an old vaudeville act and a Chaplin film, but still…). And, of course, McCarey also came up with (or recycled if you like) the title. He’d used it in an earlier Laurel & Hardy short. Today most people don’t know what duck soup is—both the film and the expression. I have more sympathy for those who aren’t familiar with old American idioms (see Ziva on N.C.I.S…really, see her on CBS Tuesdays) than I do with people who have no idea who the Marx Bros. are. For the Ziva’s out there, it’s an unaffectionate term for a sucker---just to clarify, not the type you put in your mouth, either.

The screenplay, written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, incorporates three good musical numbers that fit seamlessly into the plot: “The Country’s Goin’ to War”, “When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten” (sung by Zeppo), and “Just Wait ‘Til I Get Through With It”. The story is simple enough: the fictional Balkan kingdom of Freedonia is ducksoup189 bankrupt and on the verge of revolution when Mrs. Teasdale (the always wonderful Margaret Dumont) offers to support the country with a $20 million loan. The catch? The country must be placed under new leadership—namely Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). When the ruler of neighboring Sylvania (who I imagine is played by Jeanette MacDonald even though we never see her) sends Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) to the coronation he sets his sights on Mrs. Teasdale, hoping to gain control of Freedonia for himself. His initial weapon of choice is a sultry dancer, Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres), whom he wants to use to distract Firefly from matters of state…and Mrs. Teasdale.

Firefly’s political cabinet consists of his personal secretary du jour, Lt. Bob Rolland (Zeppo Marx); his silent chauffeur, Pinkie (Harpo Marx)—don’t worry, he wears a horn—; and, his Cabinet of War, Chicolini (Chico Marx). The problem is program_img_marx01 Chicolini and Pinkie are spies for Trentino—however, they are mostly a problem for Trentino as they are total incompetents. Trentino should have had Rolland as his spy, since he is the one who does the most damage to Freedonia by suggesting to Firefly that he insult Trentino to get him to retaliate and be thrown out of the country. After an exchange of insults between the two men ends with Trentino calling Firefly an “upstart” and Trentino being glove-slapped by the president, war is declared between the two countries. This sets up the best sequence of the film: the classic mirror pantomime scene.

Dispatched by Trentino to steal Freedonia’s war plans, Chicolini and Pinkie (disguised as Firefly) break into Mrs. Teasdale’s mansion and all hell breaks loose. When Pinkie tries to break into the safe “Stars and Stripes Forever” blasts through the house and brings Firefly in search of the culprit. Trying to escape detection by Firefly, Pinkie runs into a wall mirror and smashes it to pieces. What follows is a silent cat-and-mouse game between Firefly and Pinkie, as Pinkie attempts to mimic everything Firefly does at the precise same moment that he’s doing it. Highlights of this scene include the Charleston and white Panama hat—which Firefly returns to Pinkie when he drops his. The scene doesn’t end until Chicolini wanders into the “mirror” and Firefly captures him. Chicolini is promptly tried for treason, and amazingly enough, Firefly takes on the role of defense attorney.

asjff_01_img0155 There is only one thing that rivals the mirror pantomime scene, and that is when the four brothers perform (the only time all four appear in the same musical number) “The Country’s Going to War”. The song is a mixture of musical styles (negro spiritual, patriotic, and whatever genre you would put “Comin’ Round the Mountain” in). It is a hilarious parody of the absurdity of war. The war that follows it is also hilarious, but not as classic as the song that leads into it.

When the film came out in 1933 a lot of people were offended by the way the Marx brothers satirized government and its leaders. The Depression was engaged in a full-court press. And, two very different men had just become leaders of their respective nations: FDR and Hitler. To be American and mock democratic political leadership in the face of the rise of authoritarian governments in Germany and Italy seemed too disrespectful to some. I think if the economy hadn’t been in ruins and there weren’t crazy Fascists running around, the film’s reception might have been warmer. Alas, to use yet another cliché, Duck Soup was a victim of circumstance. Thirty years later, when yet another tumultuous event was transpiring (Vietnam), another, more appreciative, audience emerged on college campuses and in art houses. Today, Duck Soup is regarded by many as the greatest Marx Bros. film ever…and, alas, the last one with Zeppo.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ace in the Hole (aka "The Big Carnival") - 1951


Ace in the Hole (1951). Cast: Kirk Douglas. This film marked a series of firsts for Billy Wilder: it was the first time he was involved in a project as a writer, producer, and director; his first film following his breakup with writing partner Charles Brackett, with whom he had worked on The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard.

As reporter Chuck's car is being towed through Albuquerque, New Mexico, he passes by the Sun Bulletin newspaper office and decides to apply for a job. Boot, the editor, offers him a job on condition he stay clean and sober. Chuck accepts Boot's terms, believing his next big break will soon come. A year later, Chuck is still working at the Bulletin when Boot assigns him and Herbie Cook to cover a rattlesnake hunt. Herbie and Chuck stop for gas at a trading post and learn that Leo Minosa, while looking for Indian artifacts, became trapped in a cave in a nearby Indian cliff dwelling. Chuck thinks that this maybe the BIG story he is looking for. When he arrives, Chuck goes into the cave and finds Leo, trapped under a heavy plank. While Chuck tries to comfort Leo, he also takes a photo of him. He returns to the trading post and calls Boot and says that he has a front page story. Chuck then arranges an interview with Leo's wife Lorraine. He finds out she is planning on leaving Leo. Chuck, thinking that her leaving will hurt his story, talks her into staying.

The next day, after Chuck's first story appears in the Bulletin , the trading post is over run by visitors. After hearing from Dr. Hilton that Leo can survive a week in the cave, Chuck convinces the Sheriff to use his position to prolong the rescue.

As the rescue team begins drilling the next day, the area is flooded with reporters and tourists. Chuck tells Herbie that he is quitting the Bulletin. When other reporters complain about Chuck's position, the sheriff tells them that he has deputized Chuck and will not allow anyone else inside the cave for safety reasons.

The hardest part of the movie for me is when Chuck goes in to reassure Leo and he calls him his best friend. At the trading post, Chuck runs into Boot, who says that he is on to him.. Will Chuck do the right thing before it is too late?

Kirk Douglas delivers a wonderful performance as the reporter manipulating events at the expense of the victim. His character seems inhuman, but Douglas' performance makes it believable. This movie might be considered a film noir, even though it takes place under the hot, Arizona sun.



Fun Facts:
The studio constructed a replica cliff dwelling at a cost of $30,000. The set was located behind the Lookout Point Trading Post on U.S. Route 66, west of Gallup, New Mexico. After filming was completed, the set was left intact and the owner of the trading post used it to draw tourists to his store.

Residents of Gallup, New Mexico were hired as extras. They were paid 75 cents an hour for a ten-hour day. Extras earned an additional three dollars if they could bring an automobile to the set.

Jan Sterling made her film: Tycoon billed as Jane Darian. Ruth Gordon insisted she change her stage name to Jan Sterling. Her next film was Johnny Belinda (1948). Alternating between films and television, Sterling performed in television series during the 1950s, and played film roles in Caged (1950), Mystery Street (1950), The Mating Season (1951), Ace in the Hole (1951), Flesh and Fury (1952), The Human Jungle (1954), and Female on the Beach (1955). Often cast as harden characters, she played a more sympathetic character in Sky Full of Moon (1952). In 1950, she was cast as Ruth in the western series The Marshal of Gunsight Pass. In 1954 Sterling was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The High and the Mighty. Later that year, she traveled to England to play the role of Julia in the first film version of George Orwell's 1984. During the following years, she performed in movies, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Kathy O, and The Female Animal. In 1963, she guest starred as Nurse Murdoch in the episode "Millions of Faces", Breaking Point. In 1967, she and Tisha Sterling performed in the episode "Eleven Miles to Eden" a western series, The Road West. In late 1968, she began portraying the role of 'Miss Foss' in the soap opera, The Guiding Light. She retired from films for the stage in 1969 and returned to television in 1979 in the miniseries Backstairs at the White House.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bond Is Forever: “Goldfinger”

At a beautiful resort in Miami, British secret agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is relayed a message from MI6 head, M (Bernard Lee). Bond’s friend and occasional confidante, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Cec Linder), informs 007 that he is to watch a man named Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), who the spy catches cheating at a game of gin rummy. However, Bond’s true assignment is to learn how Goldinger, who by all intents and purposes is a legitimate jeweler, is moving his shipments of gold bullion. As 007 is told, since gold can be melted down, tracing any of the precious metal that has been stolen is nearly impossible. The superspy trails Goldfinger, always accompanied by his mute henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), from London to Switzerland, eventually uncovering Goldfinger’s plan known as Operation Grand Slam. Bond, with the help of a fully loaded Aston Martin DB5 and shaken, not stirred, martinis, must halt an attack on Fort Knox.

Goldfinger has become the “go-to” Bond film since its release in September 1964. It popularized a number of 007 elements, most notably, perhaps, the title song performed by a famous singer, in this case Shirley Bassey. Bassey would also be the only musician to perform a Bond title song more than once, having the honor again in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and even a third time, as a last-minute replacement for Johnny Mathis in Moonraker (1979). A title song performed by a well known singer would become a staple in the Bond series, with 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being the sole exception.

This is the first film of the series that 007 orders a martini “shaken, not stirred” (although in 1962’s Dr. No, the titular baddie serves the secret agent a martini, knowing how he likes it mixed). This is actually taken from Ian Fleming’s novels and would become such a celebrated trait of the films that it was sometimes parodied, such as You Only Live Twice (1967), when he accepts a martini inaccurately stirred, and Casino Royale (2006), when an irate, preoccupied Bond refuses to specify a mix. According to actor Desmond Llewelyn, who plays Q, director Guy Hamilton instructed Llewelyn to play his character as if he disliked 007, since he has no respect for his gadgets. This method led to numerous sarcastic remarks from a perpetually exasperated Q, as well as one of his best known lines spoken in Goldfinger: “I never joke about my work, 007.” Although Bond was given a gadget-laden briefcase in the previous year’s From Russia with Love, Goldfinger popularized Bond’s visit to the Q-Branch, as Q explains to him his latest gadgets (as well as the audience treated to various additional gadgets in the testing phase).

Editor Peter Hunt, who worked on Goldfinger, had reconstructed From Russia with Love into a nicely paced action feature. His most noteworthy contribution was creating a pre-credit sequence. With Goldfinger, Hamilton and screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn turned the pre-credit scene into a movie all its own, with Bond in the midst of an assignment that has nothing to do with the forthcoming mission. Most of the subsequent movies adopted this format.

Goldfinger is likely the most popular of the Bond films. In addition to the distinctively mixed drinks and Q berating Bond, there are a number of things viewers tend to remember about this film: the golden fate of Jill Masterson, the introduction of the Aston Martin, the movie’s theme song (I personally cannot speak the title, choosing instead to sing it). But one of the most memorable components of Goldfinger is Goldfinger himself. Bond’s chief antagonist is a charming, brilliant man, and he’s an impressive and fascinating figure to watch onscreen. One reason for this is an outstanding performance from Fröbe, a German actor who could not speak English and was consequently dubbed for the film. He plays Goldfinger with a style that can easily be equated to 007. But more than anything, the manner in which the villain transports gold and his plan that he ultimately reveals to Bond are ingenious, and even if he is a self-centered, egotistical, malicious person, it is difficult not to respect him for his methods.

Honor Blackman as the provocatively-named Pussy Galore gi
ves a strong showing in Goldfinger. Before being cast in the film, Blackman had just ended her contract on the successful British series, The Avengers. Her co-star, Patrick Macnee, would star in another Bond film, A View to a Kill (1985), and her replacement, Diana Rigg, would catch Bond’s wandering eyes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. To round out the Bond-Avengers connections, Joanna Lumley, who would be featured in The New Avengers with Macnee, had a small role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Prior to Goldfinger, both Blackman and Shirley Eaton, who played Jill Masterson, had made appearances in another popular British TV show, The Saint, starring future 007, Roger Moore. Following the film’s 1964 release, Lois Maxwell, who played Moneypenny in numerous Bond films, and one-time Felix Leiter, Cec Linder, both starred in episodes of The Saint.


Toshiyuki “Harold” Sakata, of Japanese descent and born in Hawaii, was a professional wrestler, wrestling under the name Tosh Togo. Although he has no lines, his portrayal of Oddjob would make the character one of the best of the 007 series. The weaponized bowler hat was Fleming’s creation, but it is Sakata who flashes a wicked grin when Bond’s attempts to subdue him prove futile. Reportedly, Milton Reid, who’d previously had a small role as a guard in
Dr. No, was up for the part of Oddjob and challenged Sakata to a wrestling match (to determine who would play the henchman) that never materialized. Reid would have a significant villainous role in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Linder is a standout among the many actors who would play Felix Leiter, pleasant and a worthy counterpart to Bond.


Goldfinger was a huge international success, breaking box office records and earning back its three-million dollar budget in just two weeks. Just a little more than a month before the premiere of Goldfinger, Bond creator/novelist Ian Fleming died of a heart attack.

Goldfinger
is one of my favorite Bond films and is typically the one that I will recommend to potential 007 fans. Connery is terrific, of course, and there are many significant aspects of the film: a great villain, plenty of action, and excellent music.


Bond Is Forever
will return next month with The Living Daylights (1987).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Tag Line Game

OK, it's really not a game, because there's no winner. But theTag Line Game can be a diverting challenge for creatvely-minded film buffs. The goal of the game is to make up a tag line for an actual movie. This week's spotlight film is The Wizard of Oz. One of its original tag lines was the "biggest sensation since Snow White." Another was "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Technicolor Triumph!"

Now, here are couple of new ones courtesy of yours truly:

"Who needs Narnia? The Wizard of Oz has a lion, a witch, and a whole house of furniture!"

"Before Powell and Pressberger...watch the movie with the original Red Shoes!"

Yikes, I just heard some virtual groans. I'm sure you can do better than me, so please add your own tag lines as comments. Also, you don't have to limit yourself to this week's spotlight film. If you think of a tag line for another film, feel free to list the movie and your own creative tag line.

The only rules are to keep it clean and have fun!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 44

Who Am I? My career spanned more than 60 years; I've appeared in more than a hundred movies and television episodes, and I've worked with almost everyone in Hollywood. I made 5 movies with Glenn Ford, 4 with Doris Day, 3 with Bette Davis, 2 with the Andrews Sisters, and one with Frank Sinatra. However, I never made a movie with Marilyn Monroe. Who Am I?

1. Name the western Who Am I made with a young actor who appeared in both Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Westside Story.

2. How many movies did the Andrews Sisters make with Abbott and Costello? Name them.

3. Which actor played Clark Gable's "kid" brother in MGM's 1942 movie, Somewhere I'll Find You?

4. What was the name of his (#3) 1950's TV show?

5. Who were his (#3) co-stars on the TV show?

6. Which two future male MGM stars had uncredited roles in Somewhere I'll Find You?

7. In which film did James Cagney show his martial arts "chops"?

8. Name the director of the "noir" film The Hitchhiker.

9. Name the leads from Port of New York.

10. Which film inspired Jack Webb to create the TV series "Dragnet"?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Mysterious Killer Stalks Turn-of-the-Century San Francisco in "Dark Intruder"

I first read about Dark Intruder in Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies when I was around 12. Leonard described it as a “one-of-a-kind” supernatural thriller, which intrigued me to no end. Little did I know that it would take 33 years for me to finally catch up with Dark Intruder. After all that time, I was frankly prepared for a letdown. But, to my delight, I found this offbeat mystery to be quite entertaining, though not fully deserving of Leonard’s lavish praise.

Set in 1890, Dark Intruder opens with a woman being slain on the foggy streets of San Francisco. Her murder turns out to be one in a series of killings that have baffled the police. The case has also caught the eye of Brett Kingsford (Leslie Nielsen), a “chronic dabbler” who had aided the authorities in previous cases. Brett, a rich dapper gentleman with an eye for the ladies, has developed an interest in the occult. His family’s crest reads: “Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium”…or “Everything ends in mystery.”

As Brett delves into the case, he learns that the killings are ritualistic ones tied to a Sumerian god representing the essence of evil. To give away any more of the surprisingly complex (and, at times Lovecraftian) plot would be to spoil the fun.

Dark Intruder was originally made for television and intended as the pilot for a prospective TV series called Dark Cloak. However, it was released to theaters instead and a television series never materialized. One suspects that the tale was a little too gruesome for network television in the 1960s. It may also be that Nielsen, though he tries hard, was a little lightweight to to take on the role on a weekly basis.

The supporting cast, with the exception of Judi Meredith (irritating as the female lead), delivers sharp performances. Charles Bolander stands out as Nikola, Brett’s reliable dwarf assistant. Mark Richman (sometimes billed as Peter Mark Richman), who had a long successful career in television, co-starred with Nielsen again in 1991's The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear.

I suspect that Dark Intruder would have faded quickly a TV series. Its formula could have grown stale on a weekly basis, as it did for The Night Stalker in the 1970s. But, as a limited film series, it could have been most diverting as evidenced by this closing exchange:

BRETT: Ah, Nicola, if only the rest of the world knew what we know.

NICOLA: If they did, sir, nobody would get a decent night’s sleep.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Discovering “The Lost Continent”

Hammer Films’ The Lost Continent (1968), directed by Michael Carreras, has almost become a lost film. Even among fans of the famed British studio, this hidden gem is not a popular feature.

Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), along with his crew and a motley assortment of passengers are traveling aboard the Corita, bound for Caracas. The captain is set on sailing straight to the destination and avoiding any stops and/or possible inspections. Unknown to the passengers and most of the crew, the ship is transporting dangerous material that will explode if it has contact with water. When a freak accident causes the anchor to punch holes in the side of the ship (and in the very same room storing barrels of the aforementioned material), there is a mutiny from most of the crew, and everyone must abandon ship. Things only get worse, as the survivors drift to an apparently deserted land of strange creatures, killer seaweed, and Spanish soldiers who answer to El Supremo (Darryl Read), a leader who appears to be no more than a child -- and “hardly old enough to wipe his own bottom,” as according to the Chief (James Cossins).

One great aspect of The Lost Continent is that it seems to embrace the idea of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Once the people aboard the Corita learn that it might explode, they are quickly burdened by the crew’s mutiny. Safely on the lifeboat, the people then must cope with flesh-eating seawood, and eluding that merely takes them to a foreign land of new, unheard of dangers. The plot moves at a frantic pace, and it tends to feel as if the characters are running away from something. In fact, the film establishes that the passengers are traveling on the ship to escape: a doctor with legal troubles, an alcoholic, etc. When they are informed of a forthcoming storm, none of the passengers want the captain to turn the ship around.

For all of its quirks and peculiarities, The Lost Continent presents everything with the utmost sincerity. This is the type of plot that many directors would handle tongue-in-cheek, to show an awareness of the film’s campy qualities. But Carreras’ approach is refreshing, and it lifts the movie above camp. He offers a believable set of people forced into unbelievable circumstances.

The Lost Continent
is full of Hammer alumni. Director Carreras, who also produced and wrote the screenplay (under the pseudonym Michael Nash), had worked on a number of Hammer films in the capacity of producer and director. He was also the son of Hammer co-founder James Carreras. Porter was the star of the terrific and vastly underrated Hammer production,
Hands of the Ripper (1971), and the same year, Suzanna Leigh, playing one of the passengers in The Lost Continent, appeared in Lust for a Vampire. Even author Dennis Wheatley, whose novel, Uncharted Seas, provided the basis for the adaptation, had other books made into films by Hammer studios, such as The Devil Rides Out (1968) and To the Devil a Daughter (1976). (Another of the passengers, played by Nigel Stock, is reading Uncharted Seas while on the ship.)

By the film’s conclusion, one might wonder what exactly is the titular “lost continent.” A somewhat literal interpretation might see it as the land that the people “discover” and the strangers who have created their unique society. But another way of looking at it is that the lost continent was not the foggy collection of giant killer crabs, irate kelp, and a puerile ruler claiming to be a descendant of some Spanish guy (thereby allowing him to be an authoritarian figure). It was the ship, with people who needed to get away, people looking for hope and who refused to abandon ship. Having to take refuge on a small lifeboat and enter a vast ocean of the unknown, Capt. Lansen and the others were then in search of a new place. They are the ones who are lost, not the place where they may ultimately rest.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dial "H" for Hitchcock: "Blackmail" on the big screen



A special screening of the original silent version...with the Alloy Orchestra

The era of talking pictures arrived while Alfred Hitchcock was working on his crime thriller, Blackmail, in 1929. The film had already been shot as a silent feature but during post-production the studio asked the director to convert it to partial sound so it could be marketed as a talking picture. Hitchcock, as was his way, had his own ideas. He began to tinker; scenes were reshot with dialogue, additional scenes with dialogue were added. In the end, Hitchcock had two films - his and Britain's much touted "first full length all talkie film" - and the original silent version. In 1929, most theaters in Britain were not equipped for sound, so it was the silent Blackmail that was for a long time the most widely seen and popular of the two films.

On Monday night, July 19, the California Film Institute presented a special screening of a 35 mm British Film Institute archive print of the silent version of Blackmail in Theater 1 at the Rafael Theater in San Rafael, California. Accompanying the film with an original score was the Alloy Orchestra, one of the world's foremost silent film orchestras. In attendance was an enthusiastic sold-out crowd.

Blackmail was Hitchcock's second film of the thriller genre; the first was The Lodger (1927), the picture that first brought him widespread acclaim. Blackmail, a film that critic and Hitchcock author/scholar David Sterritt declared "has a strong claim to being his first masterpiece," is a clear forerunner of Hitchcock's later work. Visually sophisticated and gimlet-eyed in its observation of human nature and motives, it includes a delicately lovely blonde in grave danger (who spends much of the film in a dazed fugue state) and a grisly murder; the climactic chase scene at a landmark location, the British Museum, is the first of such Hitchcock signature set-pieces...and there is no shortage of moral ambiguity.

The story, which Hitchcock conceived as a conflict between love and duty, centers on a middle-class young woman of London, Alice White. Alice lives with her parents, helps out at their neighborhood tobacconist's shop and is dating a dedicated Scotland Yard detective. After a tiff with him over dinner, she recklessly goes out with an artist/Casanova and ends up involved in a killing; as a result her straight-arrow beau is drawn into a blackmail plot.

Blackmail stars Anny Ondra as Alice, John Longden as her detective boyfriend, Cyril Ritchard as the artist and Donald Calthrop as Tracy, the not-so-innocent innocent man. The plot is well constructed, the action is tight and Hitchcock's early mastery of suspense is unmistakable.

Though clever and fast-paced, Blackmail is a film of depth and darkness. Ultimately, the integrity of both central characters is permanently compromised and the ending is bleak (closer to Vertigo than Shadow of a Doubt, to which Blackmail, with its depiction of bourgeois life, has been compared). Though a messy situation is conveniently resolved, the truth comes out between the girl and her man and the film's ending implies an unsettled future for the two who now share a terrible knowledge and guilt.

The performance of the Alloy Orchestra artfully accented Blackmail's action and moods with inventive virtuosity. The Orchestra was in the Bay Area not only for this performance but also for the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival which ran July 15 - 18. The Alloy Orchestra is a group of three musicians whose instruments include keyboards, accordion, clarinet, musical saw and a famous "rack of junk." A combination of percussion and electronics allows them to create an array of sounds and effects. The Orchestra has performed worldwide - for major film festivals, AMPAS and even at the Louvre.

The Art Moderne Rafael Theater, a 1938 renovation of the fire-damaged 1918 Orpheus Theater, was closed after being heavily damaged in Northern California's 1989 earthquake. It was renovated, largely rebuilt and reopened in 1999 by the California Film Institute. It now houses three screens and specializes in independent and foreign films; it is one of the few non-profit theaters in the United States.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Name Game: Last Call












Kim identified mystery man George Clooney(#5, the last photo) and Sark recognized Rita Hayworth, photo #2...Beef named #3, James Dean and #4, Ruth Gordon...JoAnn recognized #1, James Stewart. Great work everyone and thanks for playing: Kim, Sark, Beef, JoAnn and Paul. The Name Game is going on sabbatical and may resurface as a monthly or occasional pastime. Thanks to all who have joined in over the past several months...TLE
This boy grew up to be one of the biggest most beloved stars of the Golden Age...he made his first film in the '30s and went on to have a decades-long, award-winning career...

An icon, he was an Oscar-winner known for playing honorable everyman types...tho a role he played in a Hitchcock film was a departure and one of his best roles. James Stewart!


This young lady was given the Hollywood treatment and became a ravishing pin-up star who hit the heights of fame in the 1940s...Rita Hayworth!






This kid became legendary in the 1950s...he didn't make many films but each one remains a classic today. James Dean!







This actress came into prominence winning a major award in the late '60s
...she worked into the '70s and '80s...

On top of devloping a busy late career as a character actress, this Oscar-winner was also nominated for three screenwriting Oscars with her husband. Ruth Gordon!



This tyke had his first shot at fame in the '80s, but time passed before he got his break out role...today he's at the top of the A list...George Clooney!




Monday, July 19, 2010

Streets of Fire: A Rock 'n' Roll Fable

Walter Hill’s self-proclaimed “rock n’roll fable” clanked at the boxoffice when originally released in 1984. But my wife and I enjoyed it immensely and, over the years, Streets of Fire has gained in stature. Some critics now praise its unique look, terrific music, and skillful blending of genres. The plot seems lifted from a 1950s biker film, but the sometimes corny dialogue recalls “B” Westerns of the same period. Hill avoids specifying a setting; it’s just “another place, another time.”

A high-octane concert performance by Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and the Attackers kicks off the film. But before she even finishes her song, Ellen is “stolen” by the motorcycle gang, the Bombers. With the hapless police unable to take on the Bombers, diner owner Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) looks elsewhere. She writes her brother Tom Cody (Michael Paré), Ellen’s former flame, and asks him to come home.

Tom, still embittered by his breakup with Ellen, initially refuses to rescue the kidnapped singer. He changes his mind when Ellen’s current boyfriend and manager (Rick Moranis) agrees to pay $10,000. As he explains to his sister: “They always hire bums like me for jobs like this.” With newfound crony McCoy (Amy Madigan) and Ellen’s manager in tow, Tom ventures into Bomber territory to free Ellen.

Hill’s fast-paced direction keeps the film moving at a speedy clip, especially during the rescue scene. I love the remarkably concise six-shot sequence in which Tom rescues Ellen, with each shot lasting no longer than a second or two: (1) Tom kicks open the door; (2) Ellen looks at him from the bed she’s tied to; (3) Tom snaps open his knife; (4) we see a close-up of Ellen’s hand tied to a bedpost; (5) Tom cuts the rope; and (6) Tom and Ellen run through the doorway.

Visually, Hill fills the screen with contrasts, dressing up drabness with eye-candy. With the exception of Ellen, the main characters are costumed in muted earth-tone colors and live in dreary, rundown buildings. But, during the frequent night scenes, the town sparkles playfully with bright neon signs of blue, yellow, orange, and pink.

Complementing the bright lights are glittering music performances by Fire, Inc. (with Lane lip-syncing), the Blasters, and others. Hill’s affection for the music is apparent—the film closes with two energetic stage performances which almost play like music videos. The terrific closing song, songwriter Jim Steinman’s grandiose “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” sadly flopped when released to radio. However, the other closing song, “I Can Dream About You,” turned into a surprise Top 10 Billboard hit for its writer Dan Hartman.

The cast of Streets of Fire features many memorable faces. Lane and Willem Dafoe (as gang leader Raven) would each enjoy long acting careers. Rick Moranis established himself as a dependable supporting actor in comedies such as My Blue Heaven and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Bill Paxton, featured in a small role as a bartender, made the biggest leap. Over a decade later, he finally snagged leading roles in “A” films like Twister and A Simple Plan.

Unfortunately, such good fortune did not await Michael Paré. A good-looking, brooding performer, Paré did not fulfill the promise of Streets of Fire and the earlier Eddie and the Cruisers. He would make one more minor hit, The Philadelphia Experiment, then be relegated to low-budget action films that often went straight-to-video. One can almost imagine him saying: “They always hire actors like me for films like that.”

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 43

Who Am I? I had a long career in both movies and television, beginning with an uncredited part in Love Finds Andy Hardy. The following year I appeared (credited this time) in a small part in a movie that was nominated for 13 Oscars and won 8. A few of my many uncredited movie roles included parts in Northwest Passage, Air Force and the Harvey Girls. I had a lot of credited movie parts too, including one in the movie in which Marilyn Monroe had her first major role. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s I appeared in diverse parts in various TV programs, ranging from Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger to My Three Sons and the Munsters. Who am I?

Who am I? Even though I was an actor (heck, I was one of the red-headed brothers in GWTW), I'm probably best known for my voice, being a long-standing DJ at LA's former classical radio station, KFAC. Who am I?

1. What was the name of the movie in which Marilyn Monroe had her first major role?

2. Which role did Who am I #1 play in in the film in the previous question?

3. Who played the conductor in the remake that Alfred Hitchcock did of one of his own films?

4. Which piece did he (#3) conduct in that film?

5. What do Max Showalter and Casey Adams have in common?

6. Who was the side-kick on the second Gale Storm show and what was the name of the show?

7. What was the profession of the Gale Storm character in the show in the previous question?

8. Who played the coffee-house "manager" in the Jimmy Stewart-Sandra Dee film Take Her She's Mine?

9. In time order, which are Bruce Brown's two best-known films?

10. Who was the "star" of the second film in the previous question?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

She Done Him Wrong…so says the Production Code

1_-She-Done-Him-Wrong-1933_imagelarge

“Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” When this now-famous line fell from Mae West’s heavily lined lips in this 1933 film, she and Hollywood (specifically Paramount) had no idea what and whom they were inviting into their world. Laced with double entendres galore, and supported (both figuratively and literally) with overt sexuality (not to mention white slavery), this was the film that just went too far in the eyes of Catholics and the Hays Production Code. Widely ignored for the first years of its existence, the Production Code would start to be strictly enforced starting in 1934. This is why many film historians like to look at the films of 1933 to see just how far Hollywood pushed the envelope before the strict enforcement of the Code a year later (which lasted until 1968 with the MPAA ratings). This film in particular is the reason why this is the only film starring Mae West to be nominated for an Academy Award—at least it was for Best Picture.

Mae-West A recreation of Mae West’s extremely popular (but scandalous) Broadway play, Diamond Lil, this was the film that catapulted West to Hollywood stardom and made her a household name. Credited with a screenwriting credit (along with John Bright and Harvey Thaw), West plays Lady Diamond Lou, a woman with a penchant for bling and handsome men—even if they are wearing Salvation Army uniforms. Director Lowell Sherman got one helluva leading dame in West—no one was better at dropping saucy one-liners and singing songs dripping with innuendo (“A Guy What Takes His Time”, “I Wonder Where My Easy Riders Gone”, and “Frankie and Johnny”).

The film takes place in the New York City Bowery in the 1890s—primarily in a rowdy saloon run by Gus Jordan (Noah Beery, Sr.). Lady Lou is the saloon’s top entertainer and Gus’s mistress. She gets her nickname Diamond Lou from all of the jewels MV5BMTMwNjk1NzI0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTQ4MDI2__V1__SX450_SY326_he (and many others) bestows upon her. How can a saloon owner afford to bedeck his paramour in such glittering jewels? He’s a sleazy criminal, who runs a counterfeit ring and a white slavery racket. We are led to believe that Diamond Lou has no idea about these other industries.

Next door to the saloon is a city mission headed by Captain Cummings (Cary Grant). Strangely enough Captain Cummings isn’t really a missionary but an undercover FBI agent trying to get the goods on Gus. He uses his cover as a way to get inside the saloon—he’s there to help the sinners repent—especially Lou. Of course, Gus doesn’t like this because he doesn’t want the good captain to scare off any customers. In addition, Lou and Captain Cummings have a strange flirtation that Gus finds irritating.

The story gets set in motion after a young girl named Sally (Rochelle Hudson) tries to commit suicide, but is stopped and sent up to Diamond Lou’s room for a good talking to. Things had went wrong between Sally and a man, and thinking no man would want her anymore, she tried to off herself. When Lou tells Rita (Rafaela Ottiano), a criminal associate of Gus, about the situation Rita says she can help the girl. Of course, Lou has no idea this means Sally is going to be sold into white slavery in the Barbary Coast.

Meanwhile, we learn that Lou has more pressing issues than wronged young girls: her insanely jealous boyfriend who is in the clink. Chick Clark (Owen Moore) had to take a trip to Sing-Sing after being caught trying to steal diamonds for Lou. He likes to make sweet promises to Lou, like he’ll kill her if she cheats on him while he’s in jail. These promises become a little less sweet when he escapes from jail. In addition to this little problem, Lou’s next door eye-candy is about to be evicted for not paying rent. Her solution? One diamond bracelet for a building. And, finally, if she doesn’t already have enough on her plate, she learns from Dan Flynn (David Landau), another one of her admirers, that the law is about to come down on Gus and that the she might be implicated as well. Enough problems, yet?

She Done Him Wrong (1933) 1 Some things do work out in Lou’s favor, though. When Captain Cummings inquires about the whereabouts of Sally, he is pleased to learn that she has no idea what depravity Gus and Rita are involved in. This endears Lou to him even more, as it is obvious that he has feelings for the sultry singer. Too bad more bad things are on the way, though…

First, Lou is surprised to find Chick hiding out in her bedroom. Crazed with jealousy, not to mention fearful of the cops searching for him down in the saloon, Chick threatens to kill Lou if she doesn’t accompany him in his escape. She promises to meet him after her show.

Second, after receiving another diamond from yet another admirer, Rita’s boyfriend Serge (Gilbert Roland), Lou finds herself in a whole lot of trouble when Rita comes in. She Done Him Wrong (1933) 2 When the two women struggle, Lou accidentally stabs Rita to death and has to have her bodyguard get rid of the body.

When Lou doesn’t show up to go away with Chick, he returns to the saloon and kills Dan Flynn. This event leads to Gus, Serge, and Chick being arrested by Cummings. Lou is not pleased to learn that her missionary man is a G-Man. Oh, well, he has to “arrest” her, too. While riding to her awaiting “prison”, Lou has to give all of her diamonds to Cummings. In exchange, she gets a new diamond ring from her new jailer…Mr. Cummings. Her prison’s name: Matrimony. Interesting ending--not plausible, but still interesting.

1933_Mae_Cary_She-Done-Him-Wr No one will ever accuse Mae West of being a great actress. Yet, she is strangely entertaining as every mother’s worst nightmare for her son. Voluptuous and brassy, she delivers some great lines in this picture. For example, when a woman remarks to her son that Lou is a fine woman, Lou says, “one of the finest women who ever walked the streets.” Another favorite, said to Sally after her attempted suicide, “When women go wrong, men go right after them.” Because of the way she looked and sounded, West was never really given enough credit for just how clever she was. Yet, you cannot write lines like these (and countless others) and not be a bright person. I think this is what made West so dangerous to the morality police: she was just too sexually charged and intellectually bright for her time.

Without a doubt, West and the classic one-liners are the best things about this movie. Cary Grant does a passable job as Captain Cummings, but I would not call this a standout performance. This may have had something to do with the sheer force of West’s personality overpowering his screen presence. Still, it is always nice to see just how handsome he was in his late 20s.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sssssss…What a Great Snake Movie!!!

I saw Sssssss, a minor cult classic, when it was originally released in 1973. I remember my little brother calling the movie theatre just to make the girl working in the box office say the title (the ad line was: “Don’t say it…hiss it!”). He thought that was so funny. It was the first time I saw Dirk Benedict and I became an instant fan.

The film begins with some creepy “thing” making odd sounds in a wooden box. Dr. Stoner, an ophiologist, is selling the noisy contents in the box to another man. Stoner owns a snake farm where he extracts venom from a variety of poisonous snakes. He even “wrangles” with his King Cobra in front of an audience for money. The doc recruits a young man named David Blake (Benedict) to be his new assistant at the farm. It seems that Dr. Stoner’s former lab assistant just packed up and left him. David is instantly attracted to the doctor’s daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzes). Why David thinks that Kristina is cute is beyond me. She wears large round glasses and has a bad multi-layered hair style!! Considering she posed in Playboy magazine, one would think that she would look better. However, Dirk is really cute!

Soon, we discover that Dr. Stoner is very strange. He and Kristina have a pet python they both talk to like a human best friend. And we know something is amiss when the good old doc starts giving David injections of snake venom. When David asks why he is getting injections that make him sick and cause bizarre dreams, the doc tells him it will protect him from the poisons if he is bitten. It’s not long before David’s skin begins to peel, but the doc says it’s just a normal reaction. David believes him and keeps getting the injections.

Eventually, David and Kristina end up alone in the woods and go skinny dipping. Now you might think that these two will be completely naked. They do take their clothes off, but these silly leaves cover their exposed parts. Considering Menzies’s pose in Playboy, I have often suspected that the viewer might have seen more in this scene. Afterwards, David and Kristina go to a carnival where David gets beaten up by a local bully in front of Kristina. Meanwhile, Dr. Stoner, who is alone in the house, tells Harry the python that snakes are perfect creatures because they don’t make him sick and they don’t complain. He says the world would a better place with just reptiles. Stoner says that snakes can evolve and are God’s perfect creatures. If only man could evolve like the snakes, humanity could survive.

That night, the bully, Steve Randall (Reb Brown), comes to Dr. Stoner’s house and climbs into Kristina’s window. Harry the pet python attacks the intruder. Randall falls out of the window, but survives and kills Harry. Dr. Stoner wants revenge for Harry’s death, so he takes a Black Mamba snake to town and sneaks into the bully’s house. He puts the poisonous Mamba in the shower and Randall dies from its bite. The snake’s venom makes it look like the bully died from a heart attack.

Later, the sheriff comes to Stoner’s house and asks about his former assistant, Tim, who has disappeared. It seems his family has reported him as missing. Stoner tells the sheriff that Tim just left and never came back. Stoner confronts his daughter about having sex with David. She tells him it is none of his business. Her father says it is dangerous if she has sex because of David’s venom inoculations. You can’t help but wonder what is the doc up to?

Stoner sends his daughter to pick up a snake. While she is gone, David begins to transform into “something.” His skin changes in texture and color, his eyes get smaller, and his head becomes more rounded. While Kristina is waiting for the snake to arrive, the postman tells her about a “snake-man” he saw in the carnival in town. He says it looked so real that it gave him the creeps. Kristina tells him it is obviously a fake, but the postman convinces her to go and see it for herself. What will Kristina find at the carnival and what will be David’s fate?

Surprisingly, there are several religious references in Sssssss. When Dr. Stoner talks to Harry the Python, he says how snakes are God’s most perfect species and can even survive an apocalypse. The skinny dipping scene in the forest is reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The make-up used on David’s character is good, as are the special effects for the snake-man. In the scenes where Dr. Stoner milks the snakes, the reptiles were real (except for one part where Martin grabs the King Cobra’s head and a puppet is used). A snake actually bit Strother Martin in the movie. The King Cobras were flown in from Thailand,and the Python was from Singapore. Benedict and Menzies had to handle the real snakes, too. The herpetological library used in the movie is a real one. The Spanish title for this movie was Ssssilbido de muerte which translated in English means “Hiss of Death.” Martin actually used a hypodermic needle and really punctured Benedict’s arm during the injection scenes.

Sssssss was directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, who did many pilots for television shows such as Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957) and NYPD (1967). He was the executive producer for Baretta (1975) and worked on many Mission: Impossible episodes. He started out in movies by playing an extra in two Errol Flynn movies, Dodge City (1939) and Virginia City (1940).

Dirk Benedict is most famous for playing Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978) television series and as Templeton “Face” Peck in The A-Team. Heather Menzies gained modest fame for playing Louisa von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965). She was married to Robert Urich for 27 years until his death in 2002 from cancer. Urich was in the television series Vegas (1978) and Spenser: For Hire (1985).

Strother Martin is best remembered for his role as The Captain in Cool Hand Luke, where he uttered that film’s classic line: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He was also in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1967) and Slap Shot (1977) with Paul Newman. Strother Martin died in 1980.

Yes, Sssssss is a cheesy horror film, but it was scary to me the first time I saw it and has gained a minor cult following over the year. I hadn’t seen it since 1973 before I watched it again recently. It didn’t scare me as much this second time around. Still, Sssssss is an original and effective low-budget picture that’s worth watching—if you aren’t afraid of snakes.