Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Paper Man: Is the Nonexistent Henry Norman a Murderer?

The poster reminds me of the
later film "The Wicker Man."
When a financially-strapped college student mistakenly receives a credit card in the mail, he and his friends hatch a devious plan. They will create a fictitous identify for the cardholder "Henry Norman" and charge their hearts away. They rationalize their actions by telling each other they will make the payment in full at the end of the month. However, when they receive a large monthy bill, they choose a different route. They convince computer science grad student Avery Jensen (Dean Stockwell) to hack into various databases and "create" a more robust Henry Norman, complete with Social Security number, driver's license, employment history, etc.

The deceit starts to unravel quickly. One of the students ill-advisely confides in a faculty advisor. Avery also starts having second thoughts about his role in the scam. But those troubles are nothing in comparison to the sudden death of one of the students. After being admitted to a hospital for hypoglycemia, he dies after being administered the wrong medication based on his computerized medical records. An unfortunate accident or a murder engineered by the computer-created Henry Norman?

Originally broadcast on CBS in 1971, Paper Man was made during what I consider the "Golden Age" of made-for-TV movies in the U.S. Bolstered by the success of the ABC Movie of the Week, all three major networks financed dozens of made-for-TV movies in all kinds of genres. There were comedies (The Girl Who Came Gift-Wrapped ), horror (Gargoyles), drama (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys), Westerns (Yuma), and action films (The Birdmen). The most popular genre, though, was suspense and Paper Man was an above-average entry with an ingenius premise and a cast featuring Stockwell, James Stacy, and Stefanie Powers.

In 1971, Dean Stockwell was in the midst of a career tailspin, sandwiching Paper Man between lackluster efforts such as The Dunwich Horror and The Werewolf of Washington. He wouldn't get his once-promising career back on track until 1986 with a memorable supporting performance in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

James Stacy had just completed a two-year run on the CBS Western series Lancer. A motorcycle accident, in which he lost an arm and a leg, stalled his career. Still, he gave an impressive performance in Kirk Douglas's political Western Posse (1975) and earned two Emmy nominations for his later work. In 1995, he was charged with child molestation and eventually served a sentence in prison.

Stefanie Powers had gained fame in 1966 as The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. She carved out a very successful career as a guest star in TV series and as the lead in made-in-TV films and occasional theatrical films. In 1979, she teamed with Robert Wagner for the hit TV series Hart to Hart. Powers has remained popular thoughout the years, touring with plays and even recording an album.

As for Paper Man, it's not an underrated gem--merely an above-average TV film with a great premise that's only partially developed. The lack of suspects certainly hurts. In the end, the only question is whether the murderer will turn out to be a "technological killer" or a human murderer. Still, the film has its fans--enough to warrant a videotape release--and, if you're feeling nostalgic about those memorable 1970s made-for-TV films, then you should definitely check out Paper Man.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 64

I hope everyone has enjoyed the holidays so far!

Here are the answers to the left-over questions from TT63:

2. Along with John Ridley, this future TV star had an uncredited part in The Fighting 69th.

Answer: George Reeves, aka "Superman"!

3. This 1985 film could be called the unofficial film of this academic institution; part of it was actually shot there. You could call it a real "popcorn" flick. Name the film, the star, and the REAL university.

Answer: Real Genius, Val Kilmer, The California Institute of Technology

8. Bette Davis was not the first, second, or even third choice for Now, Voyager, due to the fact that the studio assigned three different directors to the film before it was finally made. Name all directors and the other choices for the lead female role; bonus points for correct order.

Answer: Edmund Goulding, who wanted Irene Dunne, was first. Then Michael Curtiz, who wanted either Norma Shearer or Ginger Rogers. Irving Rapper actually directed Bette Davis in the film, of course.

9. This Oscar-winning sci-fi film was supposed to be a Frank Capra project, but Capra couldn't shoot it on the lousy 3-million-dollar budget that the studio was willing to give him, so he passed. It wound up being made for 8 million dollars by someone else. Name the film and the director.

Answer: Marooned, John Sturges

10. Name the stars of the movie in #9.

Answer: Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, Lee Grant, James Franciscus

As a belated Christmas present to Becks, here is a picture of Errol Flynn! Becks, this does not necessarily have ANYTHING to do with any of the questions; JoAnn just thought you'd like it!! LOL!

Have fun with TT64!

Who Am I? My career has thus far spanned over 50 years. I was one of the major leading men in the world of film. One of my earliest roles was uncredited; I played a deckhand on the Titanic in A Night To Remember. Who Am I?

Who Are We? To the delight of our many fans, we worked together in several films from the mid '30s to the early '40s. During the filming of one of these movies, one of us told the other that our partnership was over; there would be NO MORE pictures together. Eventually we did make one more, but only one. Who Are We and Which Films Are These?

1. Director Joe Dante and screenwriter Chris Columbus have a lot of fun with inside jokes in the movie Gremlins. Four of the best take place in the first half of the film. For a free pass for the month of January, name them in order and be specific.

2. Speaking of inside jokes, there's a running gag throughout the entire first Muppet Movie. In fact, Kermit even looks at the camera and says, "Oh no! It's a running gag!". What is the running gag? Be specific.

3. This '70s movie was based on a song of the same name, sung by a character in a series of acclaimed commercials for a bakery in the Mid-West. Name the character in the commercials, the film and the lead star.

4. The very last time this early-Hollywood on-screen couple saw each other was at a public event; rumor has it that as she entered the room (running fashionably late), he kissed her lightly on the back of the neck. He was unprepared for her response; she whirled around and slapped his face, asking, "Do I know you?", as she failed to recognize him at first. Name the couple.

5. Along with Tron, which other film was a major early pioneer in computer-generated special effects? Name the stars and the director as well.

6. In addition to the special effects, why is the movie in #5 important in the history of Hollywood?

7. This '70s Western seemed to star every brother act working in Hollywood. Name the film, the director, and the brothers.

8. Which actress once played a queen from whom she was actually descended? Name the actress and the film.

9. In the late '50s and early '60s, these two music groups did soft drink commercials for TV. Name the groups and the soft drinks.

10. Name the actor who played Sgt. Preston of the Yukon in the TV series and give the name of his dog as well.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Turning Back the Clock: A Tribute to the Best Time Travel Movies

I have always been intrigued by the concept of time travel, so I thought it'd be fun to list what I consider the best time travel films and then learn what Cafe readers have to say about the subject. Starting from the top:

1. Time After Time. This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer first gained recognition with his best-selling mystery The Seven Per Cent Solution, which teamed up Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Meyer serves up a second unique pairing in Time After Time--only with two nifty differences. Instead of working together, the pair are friends-turned-adversaries in the form of H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) . And instead of setting the plot in the past, it involves time travel from the past to the future. The usual time travel conumdrums are explored here, but they never get in the way of a delightful love story and clever social satire. In short, an underrated gem.

2. The Terminator. Given the blockbuster status of its sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Terminator was a sleeper hit by unknown director named James Cameron. Although Terminator 2 is a near-perfect action film, the first Terminator is grounded by a solid love story and gets kudos for setting the concept in motion. I imagine most of you have seen it, but those who haven't I won't spoil the "nested loop" that makes the head-scratching plot so memorable. By the way, I've often wondered if Cameron borrowed parts of his premise from the 1966 Michael Rennie B-film Cyborg 2087.

3. Repeat Performance. Decidedly offbeat 1948 B-film stars Joan Leslie as a popular stage actress who kills her husband on December 31st--and then gets the chance to live the year over again. Knowing the outcome, can she change the events that lead up to her murderous act? This atmospheric film benefits from a surprisingly good cast with Richard Basehart, Tom Conway, and Natalie Schaefer. It was remade for TV in the late 1990s as Turn Back the Clock with Connie Selleca. Repeat Performance is not shown often on TV; I haven't seen it in years.

4. The Time Machine. George Pal's 1960 adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel is still the best version. The once state-of-the-art special effects hold up pretty well and Rod Taylor makes an appealing hero (Alan Young, from TV's Mister Ed, is even better as a friend). Taylor's romance with Yvette Mimieux (as Weena of the Eloi race) lack a certain magic for me, but Wells' ideas remain fresh and the time machine itself looks way cool. Click here to read ClassicBecky's fine review, posted at the Cafe earlier this year.

5. Somewhere in Time. There are people that loathe this film and those that love it. I naturally fall into the latter group. I must admit, though, that my perceptions are clouded...I first saw this romance with my future wife when we were young and very much smitten with one another (we still are). The plot, which Richard Matheson adapted from his cult novel Bid Time Return, stars Christopher Reeve as a playwright who falls in love with a photograph of an actress (Jane Seymour) and wills himself back in time to be with her. The leads are photogenic and likable, the location filming at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is breathtaking, and the music score by John Barry (who weaves in Rachmaninoff) is one of my all-time favorites. By the way, for many years, Somewhere in Time was the top-grossing film in Japan...though it flopped in the U.S. until rediscovered years later on video.

6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy devised the entertaing premise which sent the original Enterprise crew back in time to rescue some humpback whales (who are needed to save Earth in the future). Nicolas Meyer, who already explored time travel in the aforementioned Time After Time, did the directing honors. Although some of the social humor is now dated, this is one of the best of the Star Trek film series and, accounting for inflation, is probably the biggest box office hit of the Trek pictures.

7. Back to the Future. Speaking of blockbusters, this family smash about a teenager who goes back in time and meets his parents in high school is undoubtedly the best known time travel movie with contemporary audiences. The performances are engaging and the story gets a lot of laughs out of its unlikely situations (Mom, as a teenager, is attracted to her son). The sequels, which were shot back to back, are not as good. Back to the Future 2 gets mired in its plot entanglements by sending its heroes to multiple time periods. Back to the Future 3 is set primarily in the Old West and at least restores some charm to the series.

8. 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits. Although these movies are very different, I list them together because they both sprang from the fertile imagination of Terry Gilliam. For me, Time Bandits is an adult fantasy masquerading as a family film; its visual images (e.g., a knight on horseback bursting into a child's room) are what I remember most. 12 Monkeys is a richly layered time travel film, in which once again a person from the future is sent back in time to alter future events. I have several friends who will cringe to see 12 Monkeys listed way down in the No. 8 spot. I admit, I haven't seen it in awhile, so I may be offbase on my ranking of this one...but if so, not by much for me.

Honorable mentions: Berekley Square and its remake I'll Never Forget You, the influential French short film La jetee, Planet of the Apes, and 1964's The Time Travelers (which may feature the most bizarre ending of all time travel movies).
OK, so there are my choices. What have I left out and how would you rank the best time travel pics?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bond Is Forever: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

After James Bond (George Lazenby) saves a mysterious and beautiful woman (Diana Rigg) from an apparent suicide (a beach side stroll into the vast ocean), the two are surprised by armed men. The MI6 agent dispatches the thugs, but the lady speeds away before he has a chance to speak with her. Bond encounters the woman a second time at a casino, and 007 and Tracy, a young countess (from a previous marriage), share a hotel room for the night. The next day, Bond meets Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), head of a crime syndicate and father to Tracy, and he seems interested in Bond courting and possibly wedding his daughter. Believing that Bond would tame the apparently wild Tracy, Draco is so desperate for Bond as a potential son-in-law that he offers to exchange information pertaining to Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who heads the evil conglomerate known as SPECTRE.

Having been relieved from Operation Bedlam, a mission whose ultimate goal is the assassination of Blofeld (Telly Savalas), Bond resigns from MI6. M, however, only approves a two-week leave, during which time the spy tracks a lawyer connected to Blofeld to a mountaintop resort. Posing as a genealogist, Bond soon realizes that, although the retreat is harmless on the surface (dominated by a number of ladies of varying ethnic backgrounds), there is a fiendish plan behind it all. And the man responsible for the plot, which includes unleashing a deadly virus across the globe, is Blofeld, and Bond vows to put a stop to the SPECTRE ringleader.

Although On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) performed well at the box office and was one of top grossing U.S. films of the year, it was unfairly dismissed (as was its star) in the James Bond series. George Lazenby was the first actor to portray the cinematic Bond other than Sean Connery, who had decided to leave the series following You Only Live Twice in 1967. Producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli had spotted Lazenby, who was working as a model, in a television commercial. Considering that this was the Australian actor’s debut in a leading role, Lazenby does moderately well. He’s most likely the least popular actor to portray Bond, and though he is considerably less charismatic than the other men, it was Lazenby who passed on the opportunity to find his footing as 007 and make the character his own. On the advice of his agent, he refused a seven-movie contract to play Bond, believing that the series would fall out of touch in the upcoming decade. Unfortunately, not only did the series continue to thrive, Lazenby also was unable to secure the short-lived popularity he’d garnered during the production and release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Though some people have suggested that the film would have been superior with Connery, this is not necessarily true. One of the reasons is that Lazenby almost becomes a supporting player in the movie, as he is outshone by actors and the settings around him. If Sean Connery had the lead, neither the producers nor the actor himself would have allowed the spotlight to turn away for so much of the film’s running time. There is also the fact that, to a certain extent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a love story, one that focuses a great deal on the burgeoning relationship between Bond and Tracy. A spy such as 007, who shares his bed more often than sleeps alone, choosing to be with just one woman is much easier to accept with an actor like Lazenby, who comes across as exposed and vulnerable. Audiences would have shunned the idea of an already established Connery giving up his philandering ways.

It seems as if Lazenby takes a backseat when sharing screen time with the movie’s villain and the leading lady. Diana Rigg, fresh from her role as Emma Peel on the hugely successful British TV series, The Avengers, is nothing short of hypnotic in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Tracy is an enigma, seemingly callous at the film’s beginning but sweet and bright as the romance between her and Bond grows. By the end, she’s fully engaged in the action with the men. It’s not so much that the MI6 agent was wooing her (as Tracy’s father had wanted), but more like Bond was spellbound from the minute he met Tracy. There’s also the fact that Rigg is one of the world’s most beautiful women, every movement graceful and seething with untold seduction. Similarly, Telly Salavas as Blofeld proves much more charming than the film’s hero. In one of their scenes together, Blofeld is holding his cigarette in an unusual manner (almost like a knife), such that it’s difficult to take your eyes away from him. It’s telling that the movie’s most interesting scene is the one with Blofeld and Tracy, as he holds the woman captive. The villain is cordial, not cruel, and the “damsel in distress” is decidedly playful, not frightened. It’s a scene that almost makes a viewer hope that Bond waits a few more minutes before saving Tracy.

Much like Lazenby’s co-stars, the action scenes jump into the foreground, sometimes overshadowing Bond (like when he’s literally covered under an avalanche). Director Peter R. Hunt had worked as an editor on previous Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963), in which Hunt helped establish a basic formula for the series, with a pre-credit sequence and perceptibly tight editing. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was Hunt’s directorial debut, a rousing, action-packed Bond entry that more than holds its own with the films of today. There are several strong sequences of hand-to-hand combat throughout the narrative, but the final 50 minutes are amazing, including a 15-minute chase sequence with Bond on skis, on foot, and in a car (and Tracy driving), a second ski pursuit, a full-on assault littered with bullets, bodies and multiple explosives, and the most exciting bobsled sequence audiences are likely to see.


Hunt’s action sequences are so impressive that it’s easy to forget that the film was made over 40 years ago. Action films of recent, including The Bourne Identity (2002) and its sequels, and even the most recent Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), are defined by rapid-fire editing. Hunt’s film is of a similar style, to the point where it’s interchangeable with today’s movies (the credited editor of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is John Glen, who, like Hunt, would eventually move to the director’s chair). Hunt keeps everything moving at a stupefying momentum. Simple techniques such as limiting the use of rear projection in the skiing and bobsled scenes and including explosions in the tightly edited structure (as opposed to focusing on them with multiple camera angles) is a way to drop the audience into the action. Just like the characters, viewers do not have the time to concentrate on a singular occurrence, let alone take a breath. This method actually makes, as a for instance, both ski chases more exciting than the one in a later Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Hunt’s film is even a precursor to Hong Kong action films of the 1980s, popularized by such directors as John Woo and Tsui Hark or a star such as Jackie Chan. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, like the Hong Kong films, includes stylized action (Bond sliding across ice as he repeatedly fires his weapon), females who are more than capable in fighting men, and a person using whatever means available as a weapon (Tracy throws bottles, uses her fingernails, and even works a decorative wall to her advantage). Additionally, Hunt incorporates the action scenes so well that he actually foreshadows them. During Bond’s trek to the retreat, viewers can clearly see the slopes and bobsled track. There’s also Tracy behind the wheel early in the film (before she expertly outmaneuvers the baddies while driving through a car race in progress), and the ladies at the retreat in a game of curling, near the place where Bond slides and fires. In one scene, there is an ongoing Portuguese-style bullfight. Hunt focuses not on the bull being dominated but rather the bull charging the forcados, a group of eight men who confront and attempt to subdue the bull. Not to compare Tracy to a bull, but in the movie, two men, both of whom are bigger than her, try to overpower her. But, like the forcados, they underestimate their target and fail to subdue a strong opponent.

In the pre-credit sequence, after Tracy quickly leaves without a word of thanks, Bond says, “This never happened to the other fellow,” while Lazenby violates the fourth wall and eyes the camera and the audience. As the credits roll, characters from preceding Bond films are shown (mostly the women), and following Bond’s resignation, he goes to pack his things, including gadgets from earlier films (such as the breathing apparatus from 1965’s Thunderball). These moments superfluously acknowledge the fact that Connery is not present. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is at its best when it becomes its own film: a strong and beautiful leading lady, a charming villain, incredible and breathtaking action sequences, all leading to an ending that lingers for days. The end result explains the likely point to hiring an unknown actor to portray James Bond: though the man playing 007 may become a celebrity, it is not he who makes the series a success. It’s a collaborative effort, a film defined by the team.

This is the second film of what has come to be known as the “Blofeld Trilogy,” beginning with You Only Live Twice and ending with Diamonds are Forever (1971). Although Blofeld is a character in films preceding You Only Live Twice, his face is never shown. The Blofeld Trilogy are the three films in which the villain is entirely revealed and is a much more active character.

Rigg is not the only connection to The Avengers. Joanna Lumley appears as one of the ladies at the retreat (most clearly at a dinner scene), and she went on to star as Purdy on The New Avengers. Lois Maxwell, who plays Moneypenny, starred in an episode of The Avengers during the season with Honor Blackman, who played Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964). And, for another Bond-Avengers link, Patrick Macnee, who was John Steed throughout the Avengers series (as well as The New Avengers), would make an appearance alongside Roger Moore in 1985’s A View to a Kill.

Apparently finding it too difficult to work “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” into lyrics, the film’s opening credits run only with John Barry’s score. In the movie, the audience witnesses Bond’s family crest, adorned with the motto, “Orbis Non Sufficit,” which is Latin for “The world is not enough.” This would be the title of a Pierce Brosnan Bond film (and is next month’s “Bond Is Forever” selection) in 1999.

This film has grown on me, and it seems to improve every time I watch it. I would definitely recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen it, but I would likewise implore that someone who didn’t like it gives it a repeat viewing. What does everyone think of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Any fans of the film? Any George Lazenby advocates?

Bond is Forever will return next month with The World is Not Enough (1999).

Monday, December 20, 2010

You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch -- But We Love You

From it's debut on television in 1966 to the present day, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has become a staple as a special Christmas movie for many of us.  It has everything -- the great Boris Karloff lending his smooth, deep voice to the narration as well as the voice of the Grinch; the great Chuck Jones as producer and director (Jones created Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Pepe le Pew, and his unforgettable cartoons What's Opera, Doc, Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening were accepted by the U.S. National Film Registry); and of course the great Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel), whose books reflect the genius and incredible creativity of this one-of-a-kind writer.  How could you go wrong?

Dr. Seuss was not enthusiastic about his book being animated and made into a television story, but he and Chuck Jones had been friends for years, and, fortunately for us, Jones convinced Seuss to agree. Dr. Seuss worried that the voice of Boris Karloff would be too scary for children, but again was reassured by Jones.  Actress June Foray provided the voice of Cindy Lou Who, and singer Thurl Ravenscroft sang the the famous title song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."  Ravenscroft was not given credit for his work in the original showing, but Jones went to great lengths to correct that omission.  Ravenscroft is also known as the voice of Tony the Tiger in commercials for Frosted Flakes cereal.


The story of the Grinch is well known.  He is a bitter and hateful creature who lives in a cave high up on a mountain above Whoville.  The Whos are a peace-loving happy people who look forward to Christmas.  The Grinch hates Christmas.  Actually, he hates everything.  He conceives a dastardly plot to ruin Christmas for the Whos.  He creates a travesty of a Santa Claus suit and decides to go down the mountain as Santa.  He takes with him his dog, Max, the character that for me just about stole the show.  Max is a happy little dog who accepts his bad treatment at the hands of the Grinch and hopes for better things.  When the Grinch decides to make Max look like a reindeer, he puts antlers on his head which are too heavy for the little dog.  The Grinch removes antlers one by one until finally Max is able to stand, with only one antler left tied to the top of his head.  

The Grinch and Max make their way down the mountain in a sleigh with large sacks -- the Grinch intends to steal all of the decorations, trees, everything that the Whos have put up to celebrate Christmas.  He even steals their food, including roast beast (I always loved that one).  Little Cindy Lou Who interrupts the Grinch as he stuffs her Christmas tree up the chimney.  With his usual slick slyness, the Grinch convinces Cindy Lou that he is taking the tree to fix it.  The little girl believes what Santa Claus says, and goes back to bed.  The Grinch smiles his evil smile and finishes clearing Cindy Lou's house of all the decorations.  He and Max make their way up the mountain, poor Max trying his best to pull the heavy sleigh and not having much luck with it.  The scenes of Max and the sleigh are some of the best in the show.  But just as the Grinch positions the loaded sleigh over the peak of a cliff to destroy the Christmas trinkets, he hears the Whos singing their Christmas song, full of joy.  The Grinch marvels that even without their decorations and toys, the Whos still know the meaning of Christmas and give thanks for the day.  The Grinch finds himself changed as well.  


How the Grinch Stole Christmas must be seen to be truly enjoyed and appreciated.  It is a wonderful story of Christmas and the real meaning behind it.  It is also just hilarious.  For me, no Christmas would be complete without watching the Grinch.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 63

Merry Christmas! Everyone did very well with TT62 last week; only two questions left unanswered!

3. As a classical music fan, I hate it when producers get the wrong people for movies dealing with classical music. But these two films got it right: Amadeus (1984) and Mahler (1974). Name the music supervisors for each film.

Answer: Sir Neville Marriner (Amadeus) and Bernard Haitink (Mahler)

4. Comment: "They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day." Response: "I know. I'm the one who said it." Name the film and the stars.

Answer: The Electric Horseman, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford

And here is TT63! This week I took it pretty easy on you guys....it's my Christmas gift to you! (Yeah, right Paul!)

Who Are We? We both fit our respective studios' definitions of matinee idols in the '30s and '40s. We both had long careers ending in the '50s, and we even made one movie together. In that film, many movie critics said that one of us was "playing himself". Who Are We?

Who Are We and Which Films Are These? Before WWII, the three of us (two males and a female) made two films together; both stories were set in Europe. Each of the men actually made more than two films with the lady in question (she made three with one and four with the other). Who Are We and Which Films Are These?

1. Name one thing these films have in common: Now Voyager, Hitler's Children, The Mortal Storm, and Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble.

2. Along with John Ridley, this future TV star had an uncredited part in The Fighting 69th.

3. This 1985 film could be called the unofficial film of this academic institution; part of it was actually shot there. You could call it a real "popcorn" flick. Name the film, the star, and the REAL university.

4. Believe it or not, Errol Flynn was not the first, second, or even third choice/suggestion for Dodge City. Name the other stars considered before Flynn; bonus points for the correct order.

5. Name the Oscar-nominated post-WWII picture with a Christmas theme that features three future TV stars and a veteran character actor whose last movie was a Marilyn Monroe classic.

6. Name the three future TV stars from #5.

7. Name the Monroe film and veteran character actor from #5.

8. Bette Davis was not the first, second, or even third choice for Now, Voyager, due to the fact that the studio assigned three different directors to the film before it was finally made. Name all directors and the other choices for the lead female role; bonus points for correct order.

9. This Oscar-winning sci-fi film was supposed to be a Frank Capra project, but Capra couldn't shoot it on the lousy 3-million-dollar budget that the studio was willing to give him, so he passed. It wound up being made for 8 million dollars by someone else. Name the film and the director.

10. Name the stars of the movie in #9.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)...a Lubitsch Christmas

The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch’s timeless 1940 romantic comedy, has grown old with grace over its 70 years; occasionally a great film will age like a rare bottle of Tokaji…

Balta St., Budapest
Director Lubitsch, known for his mythical “touch” and at the height of his artistry in 1940, seems to have taken special care with The Shop Around the Corner. It was one of his favorites of own films and he wrote, “Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer…” The atmosphere is unmistakable...from the first strains of “Ochi Tchornya” heard over Leo the Lion’s roar, to the dreamlike locale near Budapest’s historic Andrassy Street, to each of the film’s distinctive characters, the spirit of old Europe is alive on screen.

Set during Christmastime in the snow-sprinkled capital, the story follows a series of mix-ups and missteps among employees of a picturesque gift shop in the heart of the city. Two clerks carry on a battle-of-the-sexes while romantically pursuing anonymous pen pals; the genial store owner suspects betrayal at home and at work; a duplicitous clerk is into ugly mischief and a wisecracking errand boy aspires to move up in the world…

Matuschek's gift shop
Samson Raphaelson (Suspicion, Green Dolphin Street) penned a screenplay based on Nikolaus (Miklós) László’s play; William H. Daniels (The Naked City, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) was cinematographer and Werner Heymann (Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be) wrote the score.

The ensemble cast includes several of MGM’s top supporting players. Among them is Frank Morgan in one of his most interesting roles as Mr. Matuschek, the colorful charmer who owns the gift shop. A dark turn in the subplot concerning Matuschek gives Morgan an opportunity to portray affecting pathos.

Venerable Felix Bressart plays the meek/endearing clerk, Pirovich (shown in the scene below). Versatile Joseph Schildkraut defines ‘loathsome’ as Vadas. Also in the featured cast are Sara Haden, William Tracy and Inez Courtney.



The stars, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, shared a legendary chemistry on film and it is never more apparent than in The Shop Around the Corner. Stewart is at his most appealing as Mr. Kralik, head clerk and right hand man to Mr. Matuschek. In this role, Stewart's broad signature mannerisms are tempered by the sensitivity with which he plays Kralik's romantic yearnings. But it is Sullavan's performance that astonishes. Her Klara Novak, an idealistic but difficult shop girl blinded by lofty dreams, exudes breathless eagerness, brittle fragility, willfulness and so much more. Sullavan’s amazing voice, her eyes, her facial expressions and physical movements - all are musical.

Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Sullavan was discovered on Broadway by director John M. Stahl (Leave Her to Heaven) who brought her to Hollywood to star in Only Yesterday (1933) with John Boles. By this time Sullavan had already married and divorced Henry Fonda and would soon marry director William Wyler. By 1936 the actress was married to agent/producer Leland Hayward and about to make her best films: Three Comrades (1938), which garnered Sullavan a Best Actress Oscar nomination, The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and The Mortal Storm (1940). In the last three she co-starred with James Stewart. The pair had first worked together on Next Time We Love (1936), a result of Sullavan suggesting her old friend Stewart for the part. In The Shop Around the Corner, the third of the their four collaborations, the co-stars seem to practically dance their scenes together, such is the rhythm between them.

With the closing sequences of The Shop Around the Corner, Lubitsch demonstrates his consummate finesse…

Frank Morgan and Charles Smith
Mr. Matuschek returns to his store on Christmas Eve to total the day’s receipts, thank his staff and hand out bonuses. It is closing time and as the wistful shopkeeper departs, he says goodnight to, and we have a last glimpse of, most of the others as they leave to celebrate the holidays.

When new young employee Rudy (Charles Smith) emerges, Matuschek takes him under his wing and out to a glorious Christmas dinner of roast goose, potatoes in butter…and “a double order of apple strudel in vanilla sauce.” The two, no longer alone on Christmas Eve, strike up a joyful camaraderie.

Inside the darkened shop, Stewart and Sullavan move in perfect harmony as Kralik and Klara finally connect with each other. This last scene, one of the most deeply romantic and witty ever confected, contains the distilled essence of Lubitsch’s “touch.”



Friday, December 17, 2010

The Bridge on the the River Kwai Comes to Blu-ray

It’s not often that a jaunty military tune is whistled loudly by British prisoners of war on their way to their new camp in the jungles, which were the killing fields of the war in the Pacific. The Bridge on the River Kwai, however, essentially launched a military barroom ditty to new heights of popularity, whistled and hummed by children and adults around the world: Colonel Bogie’s March. The unlikely entrance of these potential Japanese slave laborers is an amazing introduction to a film that’s not really about bridge building. Oh yes, the bridge gets built and destroyed, but the clash of wills between different ideologies and the very complex nature of the characters themselves is at the core of this stunning Academy award-winning film.

The legendary producer Sam Spiegel was determined to film this story since he first read about it in a French newspaper review of the novel by Pierre Boulle.  He read it like an Evelyn Wood graduate and immediately bought the rights to the film from the author and the publisher. Over the next three years, in order to achieve perfection of detail and authenticity of locale and  events, Spiegel traveled the world looking for locations, finding the right actors, writers, director, cinematographer and the vast company of craftsmen who were essential to the look and feel of the film. 

By 1956, director David Lean had helmed several of the better British movies of the late 1940s, including Brief Encounter, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations.  He had guided Katharine Hepburn, for her role in Summertime, filmed on location in Venice, in 1955.  Sam Spiegel was about to give him the job that would make him a world-famous and even more respected filmmaker.

To adapt Boulle’s book, Spiegel chose Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman; unfortunately, both had been hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee in its witch hunt for Communists in Hollywood.  At its initial release, the writing credits were attributed to Pierre Boulle. Eventually, Wilson and Foreman were reinstated in the opening credits as the actual writers. 

The lead roles in the film were a British Colonel, a British commando, and an American who had escaped from the prisoner of war camp. Spiegel had no problems signing on Jack Hawkins and William Holden, but Alec Guinness was adamant about not wishing to appear in the film.  Spiegel made one last attempt to convince Guinness and invited him out to dinner, and by dessert Guinness was on board.  To round out the major casting, he chose Japanese silent film star Sessue Hayakawa for the pivotal role of the camp commandant given the task of getting the bridge completed. 

Hating the British, Hayakawa's Colonel Saito relishes the idea of breaking their spirit and humiliating their officers by requiring them to construct the bridge. Initially, Guinness's Colonel Nicholson refuses to cooperate and is punished severely. He changes course, though, with the horrible irony of the story being that he finds salvation for his troop’s morale by building a bridge that will last "600 years."  Nicholson doesn’t know that a group of commandos is on their way to destroy the bridge to cripple the Japanese supply line from Singapore to India.  A war film by genre, The Bridge on the River Kwai offers the audience more than it expects, a thought-provoking examination of bravery and heroism and the lessons to be learned.  

Columbia pictures is to be congratulated for putting this film in the collector’s edition which includes the original DVD and an new amazing Blu-ray disc. The DVD set is in the shape of a book, which contains the old DVD at the beginning and the Blu-ray at the end.  In between, there are photographs of posters, reproduced actual lobby cards, an excerpt from the original so
uvenir book in 1957, candid and publicity photographs from the set and very brief mini-profiles of the actors and director.  The older disc has interesting extras, including a short film on the making of the movie with comments from some of the associates who worked with David Lean.  There is also a chronological depiction of the actual building of the bridge; a student film about the real bridge narrated by William Holden, and comments by filmmaker John Milius.

This review was written by Cafe film critic Sazball.
Columbia Classics provided a review copy of this DVD to the Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Veritable Feast of Talent in Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut is a sparkling Christmas comedy starring Dennis Morgan, Barbara Stanwyck, Reginald Gardiner, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, Una O'Connor, Frank Jenks, and Robert Shayne.

Perhaps one of Barbara Stanwyck's best and most under-rated performances, this is a different type of comedic role for her, a departure from the strong, self-assured characters she played in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire.

Although she plays a single career woman and thus by definition should be "in control", she manages to get into quite a tangle by constructing a Martha-Stewart-ish fantasy life as a marvelous cook named Elizabeth Lane, living on a farm with her husband and baby while she writes her popular cooking column in the magazine, Smart Housekeeping.

In reality she lives in a small urban apartment from which she writes the recipes for her column with the help of "Uncle" Felix Bassenak, played by the wonderful S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall, who is a professional chef and restaurateur.

This film is as much about food as it is about anything, and putting together the brilliant cast must have been very much like whipping up a culinary masterpiece. Each carefully selected ingredient (or in this case, actor) lends a unique flavor to the mix.

The opening shots show a German U-Boat blowing an American ship out of the water, then two sailors on a life raft: Dennis Morgan and Frank Jenks. The Dennis Morgan character, Jefferson Jones, is dreaming about food, something with bearnaise sauce and a good wine.

Jenks is a veteran character actor you may have seen before, but you probably never knew his name. One of his earliest notable roles was "Red", the mischievous rogue who steals Fred Astaire's pants just before his wedding at the beginning of the Fred-and-Ginger classic, Swing Time.

He plays a smiling rogue in this movie too, a sailor named Sinkewicz who tries to explain to Dennis Morgan how to use the "old Magoo" on his nurse to get better chow in the hospital after their rescue.

The "old Magoo" works a bit too well, with Jones becoming engaged to his nurse Mary. Mary gets an idea that her Jeffie-boy needs to spend Christmas in a real "homey" home so that he will know how wonderful marriage can be. She writes to Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet), the publisher of Smart Housekeeping, to ask him if Elizabeth Lane will consider hosting her fiance for Christmas.

Just as Lane has reconciled herself to losing her job when Yardley finds out she has no farm, no husband, and no baby, Reginald Gardiner's character, John Sloane, proposes to her again and she remembers that he has a farm in Connecticut.

We won't spoil the movie for you by telling too much, but many of the best lines are spoken by Felix. This is the role in which he said "Everything is hunky-dunky!". Cuddles is really the glue that holds this film together, or perhaps he's more like the binding agent that helps to "set" this cinematic soufflé.

Sydney Greenstreet is a revelation; watching him do a comedic prat-fall in the snow, or go one-on-one with Cuddles or Reginald Gardiner is worth the price of admission.

The great Una O'Connor is in her prime, playing the flustered and frequently shocked housekeeper to the Sloane character. There are a number of wonderful, brief encounters between she and Cuddles...they had WAY too much fun in the kitchen when he "fixed" her Irish stew!

Stanwyck has an interesting time trying to hold her own with this crew of scene-stealers, but of course we know she's up to the challenge. One of our favorite scenes occurs when she's asked to flip a flapjack by Sydney Greenstreet in front of the entire household. You can see Cuddles praying in the background, and miraculously Stanwyck succeeds in flipping the flapjack.

Watching her face and body language in that scene as she goes from trepidation to panic to beaming with accomplishment in a matter of seconds is one of the highlights of the film.

Jefferson Jones and Elizabeth Lane try to resist one another but it's pretty hopeless. Of course he thinks she's married and she doesn't know about the nurse, Mary, so the plot thickens, and then thickens again.

If you've never seen this one, you owe it to yourself to rent the DVD, or to catch it next time it's on TCM.

But please avoid the terrible, made-for-TNT, 1992 remake (directed by Arnold the Governator) at all costs!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Avengers: Steed Has a Nightmare with "Too Many Christmas Trees"

Steed awakes from a Christmas nightmare.
Originally telecast in 1965, during Diana Rigg's first season, this Christmas episode of The Avengers opens with John Steed (Patrick Macnee) dreaming about a friend's murder at the hands of an unpleasant Santa Claus. When Steed later tells Mrs. Peel (Rigg) about his nightmare, she shows him a newspaper article about his friend--who died under mysterious circumstances in a hotel room.

On an apparent whim, Mrs. Peel invites Steed to accompany her to a weekend holiday gathering at the country estate of publisher Brandon Storey. As they approach the isolated mansion, Steed gets a strong feeling of deja vu. Once inside, he recognizes the sleigh full of presents in the hall, his outfit for the costume party, and even a guest he has never met--it's as if Steed's nightmare was coming true.

Although its plot doesn't rank with the best Avengers episodes, Too Many Christmas features all the elements that made this unique series a favorite among its many fans. Macnee and Rigg have tremendous chemistry, which is amazing considering that they had only filmed a few epsiodes at that point in their two-year run together. Their witty banter and knowing winks are Avengers trademarks. For example, when Mrs. Peel is opening Steed's Christmas cards, there's one signed: "Best wishes for the future, Cathy."

"Mrs. Gale...how nice of her to remember me," muses Steed, adding "What can she be doing in Fort Knox?"

Fans of the show know that Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman, was Steed's previous partner. Blackman had just starred in Goldfinger as Pussy Galore--who was involved in a scheme to devalue the gold stored at Fort Knox.

Steed tells Emma about his deja vu.
Perhaps unintentionally, the casting also features an inside joke. When Steed experiences deja vu as he and Mrs. Peel approach Brandon Storey's mansion, the scene is very reminiscent of the opening of the 1946 ghostly anthology Dead of Night. One of the stars of that British classic was Mervyn Johns, who plays Storey in Too Many Christmas Trees.

The Avengers often recycled its guest stars and Too Many Christmas Trees features several actors who appeared in other episodes: Robert James, Alex Scott, Barry Warren, and Edwin Richfield. Interestingly, many of these performers also appeared in horror pictures made by Hammer Films (for instance, Barry Warren was an aristocratic bloodsucker in the excellent Kiss of the Vampire). Director Roy Ward Baker, who helmed eight Avengers episodes in all, also worked for Hammer. Finally, Brian Clemens, who produced and wrote some of the finest Avengers outings, later wrote and directed Hammer's Kronos (aka Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter).

Another Avengers trademark was its offbeat sense of fashion. Rigg started out in black leather, but graduated to colorful jump suits in her second year. The show's costume designers also loved to put her in fanciful garb--in a Robin Hood outfit in A Sense of History, a spiked choker in A Touch of Brimstone, and playful Oliver Twist attire in Too Many Christmas Trees.

Of course, the two leads and the clever scripts are what make The Avengers a must-see series (especially during the Diana Rigg years). That alone makes this holiday episode a delightful hour for any classic TV fan.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 62

Here's this week's Trivia Time....last week's questions were ALL answered! This week's questions are both a bit tougher and a bit easier, and Becks will have to figure out if there's a Flynn question or not, LOL!

Who Are We? In the 60s, we made three films together, two with the same director. One of us received an Oscar for one of these films. Who Are We?

Who Are We? We've appeared together 3 times, twice in the '60s and once in the '70s. In our first film together we worked with a legendary actress from the '30s, '40s, and '50s: Miriam Hopkins. Who Are We?

Who Am I? My film career began in my own country in 1920 and continued until my death in the late '70s. I came to America in the '30s and became an American citizen during World War II. My personal favorite of all of my movies was remade three times, the last time by a film company in India. Who Am I?

1. Name the two directors of the films mentioned by Who Are We? #1.

2. Name the 3 films and the co-stars mentioned by Who Are We #1.

3. As a classical music fan, I hate it when producers get the wrong people for movies dealing with classical music. But these two films got it right: Amadeus (1984) and Mahler (1974). Name the music supervisors for each film.

4. Comment: "They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day." Response: "I know. I'm the one who said it." Name the film and the stars.

5. How did Who Am I? die? Be specific.

6. This film starred two of Bette Davis's least favorite people. The cast also included Frank McHugh and Alan Hale. Name the film and the stars.

7. Name the favorite film referred to by Who Am I? and the first remake.

8. This "Christmas opera" was first run on NBC and became a yearly ritual for more than a decade. It was the first opera ever written for television in America. Name the opera, the composer, and the year it was first broadcast in color.

9. Name a Christmas classic which has Gladys Cooper and James Gleason in the supporting cast. Name the stars as well.

10. Jack Nicholson was given the script to this Christmas film and was very interested in it, but the director didn't learn that fact until later and the studio couldn't afford him anyway. The film was released just before Thanksgiving and became a surprise hit. By Christmas, the movie had been pulled from most theaters because it was thought to be "played out". After complaints were lodged, the film was brought back to play on select screens until after the first of the following year. Name the film and the director.

I'll Be Seeing You (1945)

I'll Be Seeing You (1945). Cast: Ginger Rogers, Joseph Cotton, Tom Tully, Shirley Temple and Spring Byington.

Background: After the death of her parents, Mary supports herself by working as a secretary. One night, her boss invites her to dinner at his apartment, Mary accepts, believing that he is inviting her to a party--only to discover that she is the only guest.She is attacked by her drunken boss. While fighting off his advances, Mary accidentally pushes him to his death through an open window. After being convicted of manslaughter, she is sentenced to six years in prison.

The story begins when Mary Marshall, who is half way through her prison sentence, is given an eight-day leave pass for the Christmas holidays. Travelling by train, she meets Zachary Morgan. The two quickly become friends. Zachary has just been released from the hospital as he has been suffering from shell shock and has become a prisoner of his own mind. In hope to speed up his recovery, he prepares himself to getting back to his life. Attracted to Mary, he follows her to her stop and pretends that he is visiting his sister in the same town of Pine Hill. Mary invites Zachary to visit her at the home of her aunt and uncle. Romance soon develops for the two as they spend Christmas Day together and attend a dance on New Year's Eve. Both however have the problem of having to tell the other of their past. On their last day together, Mary's cousin Barbara unintentionally tells Zachary about Mary's situation and, in his is anger, he boards the train without saying goodbye to her. After telling her family goodbye, Mary travels back to prison to continue with her sentence. Will Zachary have enough confidence to overcome his disappointment?

I've always enjoyed the wonderful performance of both Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton. I hope you have the opportunity to view this wonderful romantic journey back to a different time.

Ginger Rogers (July 16, 1911 – April 25, 1995) was an actress, dancer, and singer who performed in film, and on stage, radio, and television throughout much of the 20th century. During her career, she made a total of 73 films, and is best known for her role as Fred Astaire's romantic interest and dancing partner, in a series of ten Hollywood musical films that revolutionized the genre. She also achieved great success in a variety of film roles, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940).

Joseph Cheshire Cotten (May 15, 1905 – February 6, 1994), was an actor of stage and film. Cotten achieved prominence on Broadway, starring in the original productions of The Philadelphia Story and Sabrina Fair. He is associated with Orson Welles, leading to appearances in Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Journey into Fear (1943), for which Cotten was also credited with the screenplay, and The Third Man (1949). He was a star in his own right with films such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Love Letters (1945) and Portrait of Jennie (1948).

Friday, December 10, 2010

What are your holiday movie or TV traditions?

Like me, I suspect that many classic film and TV fans have holiday traditions linked to watching certain films and/or TV specials. When I was a teenager, a local TV station would broadcast Holiday Inn on Christmas morning. So, after my family opened presents, Mom would bake blueberry muffins and we'd all settle down for our annual "visit" with Bing and Fred.

When my wife and I were dating, we watched White Christmas on TV together. Though we had seen it separately many times, it really clicked with us that night. It has since become a Christmas Eve tradition (by the way, the White Christmas DVD features glorious color and comes highly recommended). Christmas Eve just wouldn't be the same without watching White Christmas...though, honestly, if we couldn't see it for some reason, I think we could almost reenact it scene for scene.

We also try to squeeze in The Bishop's Wife and Chrsitmas in Connecticut each December. That old reliable favorite, It's a Wonderful Life, has been been overexposed. But I still remember the emotional impact of my first viewing and if I'm channel-surfing when it's on, I often end up watching the rest of the movie.

Sometimes, a movie with no holiday connections, can become a seasonal tradition. For many years, my wife and I watched The Ghost and Mrs. Muir on New Year's Eve. There's nothing about New Year in the movie, but there is a magical, timeless quality which somehow made it a perfect way to close out the old year.

So, what are your holiday movie or TV traditions?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dragonslayer: A Different Kind of Disney

Note the similarity to the Star Wars poster.
Dragonslayer is one of those films that disappointed me when I first saw it, but grew on me over the years. Perhaps, I expected a lighthearted fantasy (it was co-produced by Disney) and was totally unprepared for the grim, dark, medieval setting. If so, then that seems ironic now, for the film’s oppressive atmosphere has become one of its most endearing qualities for me.

The film opens with villagers from a faraway kingdom pleading with the great wizard Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) to destroy a disagreeable dragon. An unpleasant knight interrupts the proceedings and, questioning the old wizard’s skills, demands a test of magic. Surprisingly, Ulrich agrees and, in the process, dies unexpectedly. Galin (Peter MacNichol), his still-in-training apprentice, accepts the challenge of defeating the dragon.

Peter MacNichol as Galin
Galin’s confidence, and apparent initial success against the dragon, soon give way to doubt. In fact, doubt and change are the two prevalent themes in Dragonslayer. The king has so little confidence in his ability to defeat the dragon that he holds lotteries at the spring and autumn equinoxes to select virgin maids for sacrifice. Even some of the villagers who seek Ulrich’s aid doubt if he can truly help them.

Ulrich doesn’t doubt the power of magic, but he knows that times are changing. His wizardly contemporaries are gone and he feels his time is near. As one character says: “Magic, magicians…it’s all fading from the world.” There is a new age of enlightenment on the way (symbolized at the end by the sun’s emergence from behind the moon during an eclipse). Even then, though, as we learn in the final shot, there will be a place for magic.

I’ve probably made Dragonslayer sounds like a heavyhanded, symbolic film. In contrast, it’s a fantasy adventure at heart; Galin’s trek into the dragon’s lair is a tense, exciting sequence. The climax, with the winged fire-breathing creature swooping through the air, is enthralling if a bit brief. Indeed, the dragon in Dragonslayer remains an impressive creation (its horns reminding me somewhat of the demon in Night of the Demon).

Dragonslayer is by no means a great film, but it improves with repeated viewings—or has so for me anyway. It was among the first of many fantasy adventures made in the 1980s (e.g., Conan the Barbarian, Krull, Beastmaster, Red Sonja, etc.). I happen to think it’s the best.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 61

Answers to the unanswered questions from TT 60:

3. Name at least two things these films have in common: Plymouth Adventure, Holiday Inn, and Miracle on 34th Street.

Answer: Each film had a "Thanksgiving" turkey dinner, and each had at least one Oscar win.

7. Name at least one thing the following films have in common: It Happened One Night, Devil Dogs of the Air, The Mortal Storm, and It's a Wonderful Life.

Answer: Ward Bond

Note: you all did very well last week! Gilby, remember you have a free pass this week!

Again we would like to thank Becks for the lovely "Flynn-in-drag" visual she provided last week (NOT)!

And on that note, ready or not, here is TT 61:

Who Am I? You might say I'm the most successful "female impersonator" in Hollywood history. I made seven feature films at MGM alone, and had a long-running TV series. I've worked with (among others) Donald Crisp, Jimmy Stewart, Peter Lawford, and Cloris Leachman. Who Am I?

Who Are We? A director and a famous actor, we worked together on a dozen films. One of us played a huge role in the other's monumental success. Yet our relationship became so rocky that at the end one of us quite literally had to have his hands pried off the other's throat before he killed him. Who Are We?

Who Am I? I was once quoted as saying, "I can whistle through my fingers, bulldog a steer, light a fire with two sticks, shoot a pistol with fair accuracy, set type, and teach school." I worked with Judith Anderson, Bette Davis, George Brent, and Raoul Walsh, among many others. Who Am !?

1. This film stars Tommy Rettig and Peter Lind Hayes. Name the film, the author of the screenplay, and the actor who played the title role.

2. In this film directed by Sidney Pollack, the lead actor says, "I don't remember yesterday. Today it rained." Pollack appeared in a couple of brief cameo roles, one of which was a cab driver who nearly runs the star down. Name the film and the star who speaks the quoted line.

3. As of 2008, which film maker held the record for most Oscar nominations?

4. Who Are We? and Who Am I? #2 once made a film together. Name the film.

5. Jimmie Rodgers sang the theme song for this film of the 1950s which was eventually spun off into a TV series in the 1960s. Name the film, and the star of the 1960s series.

6. Name the stars of the 1985 TV movie of the same name as the film in #5.

7. Which real California town was the basis for the fictional town in The Wild Ones?

8. In this 1970s film, the opening sequence contains a reference to John F. Kennedy. The real "bad guy" upon whom the film villain was based was found dead approximately three years after the film's release, supposedly "bumped off" in order to put an end to the interest in him and the clandestine organization to which he belonged that had been sparked by the film. Name the film and the stars.

9. In this British TV series, the main character referred to his wife as "She Who Must Be Obeyed". Name the series, the character, and the actor who played him.

10. The actor in #9 also appeared in a movie with a rock group. Name the film and the group. (Boy, is this one easy!)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Day in the Country with Jean Renoir

partie3
Well, maybe not an entire day—more like 40 minutes—but time, like age, is a matter of attitude anyway.

This 1936 French short film was directed by Jean Renoir about a year before his The Rules of the Game (http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/2010/11/rules-of-game-everyone-has-their.html) made him a top tier director. This was supposed to be a full-length film, but Renoir encountered some sort of mental block that led him to leave the film unfinished for ten years. In 1946, he turned the surviving footage into a short film. Full-length or short, as per usual, Renoir employs poetic realism to tell a simple but poignant tale (based on a Guy de Maupassant story) about illicit love and lust.

Again picking on the bourgeoisie, Renoir Partie_de_campagne_1has a Parisian industrialist (Andre Gabriello) take his family to the country for a Sunday afternoon of mingling with provincial types and communing with nature. Evidently this happens a lot, because two male adventurers, Rodolphe (Jacques Borel) and Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) eagerly await the acquaintance of the industrialist’s daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) and his wife Juliette (Jeanne Marken). What transpires is an interesting study of age and class.

day3On the one hand, you have Juliette and Rodolphe. He is witty and outright blatant about his intentions, while she is keenly aware of the situation and quite happy to be the object of his affection for this one afternoon. To her, it is a nice day in the country with a man who is the total opposite of her husband. Plus, she can have her lustful afternoon adventure and return to her Parisian lifestyle without any regret. On the opposite hand, you have Henriette and Henri.  She is betrothed to the idiotic Anatole (Paul Temps), but has a romantic streak that leads her into the arms of a poor man. While Juliette and Rodolphe are quite content with their fun ending at the end of the day, Henriette and Henri have the soul-crushing knowledge that what could have been a deep, abiding love for the rest of their lives must come to an end with the setting sun.

When I watched this film I remembered what I had read in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book partie2about the ending. Adrian Martin writes, “So what started, in Henriette’s words, as ‘a sort of vague desire’ that calls forth both the beauty and harshness of nature, ends badly, as the ‘years pass, with Sundays as melancholy as Monday.’” While it is a short film, it conveys a powerful message about class expectations and the stupidity of youth. Renoir knowingly uses a beautiful setting to tell us a very a harsh-ending story. 

Just 40 minutes long, and usually found on YouTube, A Day in the Country (Une Partie de Campagne) is a good introduction of Renoir’s style and manner of storytelling.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ted Ashley...Warner Brothers...and "the New Hollywood"


I’d never heard of studio exec Ted Ashley until I became engrossed in the life and career of silent film star John Gilbert earlier this year. When I spoke with her in August, the actor’s daughter Leatrice mentioned that in the 1970s she had been invited to visit the storied home her father had built in the 1920s by its current owner, Ted Ashley. Leatrice was in the process of researching her biography of her father then, and Ashley had graciously welcomed her into his home.

Ted Ashley, Jack Warner, Jack Valenti
Leatrice’s memories of the 1400 Tower Grove Road property intrigued me and inspired me to look further into its history (click here to learn more about “The House That Jack Built”). I learned that the Gilbert estate had been home to industry names for 55 years. Among its noteworthy owners, Ted Ashley, in residence from 1969 – 1977, had been Chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. from 1969 to 1980.

I soon discovered that Ashley's regime dramatically rejuvenated Warner Bros. when he took over – and this prompted me to find out more about him…

The Brooklyn-born son of a tailor, Ted Ashley entered the world on August 2, 1922 as Theodore Assofsky. At age 15, young Ted went to work in the offices of New York’s famed William Morris Agency, the premier talent agency in the U.S. During this time he attended City College of New York and studied accounting. Deeply ambitious, Ashley was running his own talent firm while still in his 20s. The Ashley-Steiner agency represented artists in the fields of literature, theater, films and, later, TV.

To understand a bit more about Ted Ashley's ascent in the movie industry, I took a quick look into the business of talent…

The William Morris Agency began in 1898 when a young man by that name became a vaudeville agent.
In 1918 the company incorporated in New York and, as silent films emerged, Morris encouraged its clients to work in the new medium while most competitors stuck with vaudeville. The company began to dominate the agency business with a client list that included Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers and Mae West. As radio developed, Morris clients were urged to work in this new medium as well. By 1930, the agency had opened an office in Los Angeles where movies, by this time talking films, were booming. William Morris died in the early 1930s, but his agency carried on under his son in the west coast office and long-time partner, Abe Lastfogel, in New York. 

MCA (Music Corporation of America) began in the 1920s in Chicago packaging band performances for hotels and radio broadcasts and arrived in Hollywood in the late '30s. In 1946, company founder Jules Stein named 33-year old Lew Wasserman president of the company. By this time MCA was reputed to represent about half the industry’s stars and had become known as "the octopus," an agency with its tentacles everywhere in the industry.

In 1962, MCA acquired Universal Pictures and merged with Decca Records and was forced, under anti-trust laws, to divest itself of its talent interests. As a result, the William Morris agency regained its eminence and other agencies made significant inroads as well. CMA (Creative Management Associates), founded in 1960 by Freddie Fields and David Begelman, became a boutique agency for major stars of the day like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.

With MCA’s divestiture, Ted Ashley’s Ashley-Steiner signed some of MCA’s foremost clients. Merging with Famous Artists, it became the Ashley-Famous agency. Among many things, Ashley-Famous was noted for packaging and selling TV shows such as “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” “Mission Impossible” and quite a few others.

Together with Lew Wasserman of MCA and David Begelman and Freddie Fields of CMA, Ted Ashley was part of an elite group widely considered Hollywood’s first generation of “super-agents.”

One of Ted Ashley’s long-time friends was business czar Steve Ross whose Kinney Corp. acquired Ashley’s agency in 1967. In 1969, Ashley helped Kinney acquire Warner Bros. (Jack Warner retired the following year). Ashley was made Chairman and CEO; his talent agency was sold to avoid a conflict of interest; the agency ultimately evolved into ICM (International Creative Management) through a merger with CMA in 1975.

At the time Ted Ashley took the helm at Warner’s, the ailing studio had some recent groundbreaking films to its  credit but was financially unstable and had made negligible profit during the year prior to his arrival. After its first year under Ashley, the revitalized studio made tens of millions.

What had happened to Warner Brothers? By the end of the 1940s, the post-war decline of the movie industry had hit the studio hard and it continued to struggle through the next decade. One contract player, James Dean, became a star but  was killed in 1955, just as his films were being released.  That same year the studio entered into a TV deal with ABC Television. It had a hit with the western series, “Cheyenne,” and this led to a run of successful western and detective shows over the next several years, including classics like “Maverick,” “77 Sunset Strip,” and “The Untouchables.”

Films remained a hit-and-miss proposition for Warner's into the 1960s, and in 1967 Jack Warner sold his
company stock to Seven Arts. A market slump in 1969 led to the deal with Kinney and Ashley’s ascendancy.

Committing to the kind of films that reflected contemporary themes and tastes, starred popular and emerging stars and featured auteur directors like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, Warner's proved itself willing to take chances and set trends. And it was Ashley who gave the green light on all Warner's projects of the day as well as those of First Artists, Orion and the Ladd Company.

A selection of films made during Ted Ashley’s tenure includes a slew of Oscar winners and nominees as well as blockbusters, trendsetters and niche films: Woodstock (1970), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Klute (1971), Summer of ’42 (1971), Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Deliverance (1972), Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), the studio’s first blockbuster of the era, The Exorcist (1973), Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), the Mel Brooks sensation, Blazing Saddles (1974), disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974), Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Superman (1978) and Chariots of Fire (1981).

Box office smashes like Dirty Harry and Superman spawned lucrative film franchises.

Ashley also oversaw production of several popular TV series, including “Alice,” “Wonder Woman,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and “Chico and the Man.” In the mid-‘70s he hired David L. Wolper to develop a new form of TV programming, the mini-series. In 1977 Wolper produced the historic series “Roots” for Warner Bros., a powerful launch of the genre and winner of nine Emmy Awards.

Some have referred to the Ashley years as “the silver age” or “the second great age of Warner Bros.” When he departed as chairman/CEO in 1980,  the stage had been set for modern filmmaking and marketing.

After leaving his post at Warner Bros., Ashley became Vice Chairman of Warner Communications, the studio’s holding company, which also owned the Atari video game company and the Six Flags theme parks. Ashley retired from WC in 1988 and the following year Warner merged with Time, Inc., becoming Time Warner.

Ted Ashley’s retirement years were devoted to his impressive art collection which included paintings by Leger, Gris, Miro and Rothko as well as sculptures by Brancusi, Matisse and Degas.

He died on August 24, 2002 in New York at age 80 of leukemia.

John Calley, who had been hired as production chief when Ashley took over Warner Bros., recalled, “He was one of the smartest men I’ve known. The studio had been losing money year after year. The first year we got there, the studio made $35 million...”  Others remembered Ashley as a caring as well as shrewd, knowledgeable and successful Hollywood studio executive.