Thursday, June 22, 2017

Love It or Shove It: Classic Movie Edition

In this new occasional feature, we'll make a statement about classic cinema and then ask our panel of movie experts to "love it" (they agree) or "shove it" (they disagree). It should be a fun way to get some different perspectives. This month, our expert panel is comprised of: Connie Metzinger from Silver Scenes, John Greco from Twenty Four Frames, and Cafe staff member Toto.

So, let's get started!

Is Nicholson's film a classic?
1.  The best films of the 1970s--such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Godfather Part II--are classic films in every sense of the term.

Connie:  Shove it. I appreciate 1970s films as much as 1940s films, but no matter how stellar the picture may be, it's not a classic in my book.

Toto:  Love it. An important element of classic films is that they hold up over time as evidenced by the powerful performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Classic films also impact us socially. Though personally not a fan of The Godfather saga, it continues to influence culture as evidenced by The Sopranos and parodies on MADtv.

John:  Love it. For me, the classic film did not end with the demise of the studio system.  It continued with many of the 1970s filmmakers, who grew up during the studio heydays and fell in love with Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films are brilliant cinema. They embody the visual technique of old Hollywood with a modern touch. Coppola and his films are just one example. Others include Brian DePalma, who mixed Hitchcock suspense with modern day visual cinematic techniques (Sisters, Carrie). Martin Scorsese's love of classic Hollywood is well known, and it comes through in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York. Woody Allen's comedies of the 70s are revisionist takes of Hollywood’s classic romantic and slapstick comedies. Finally, Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, Nickelodeon and What’s Up Doc? all pay tribute to Hollywood’s golden years. The filmmakers of the 70s embraced the old Hollywood as much as they rebelled and changed it.

2.  Alfred Hitchcock's best decade was the 1950s, which included Rear Window, Vertigo, and North By Northwest.

Connie:  Love it. It took the master of suspense twenty years to perfect his craft and he reached his directorial prime in the 1950s.

Toto:  Love it. I like every Hitchcock film from the 1950s and that isn't a statement I can say for all directors.

John:  Love it. Alfred Hitchcock made brilliant films in every decade, but few filmmakers, if any, had a run of four masterpieces in a ten year period with Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. Any other filmmaker would find this hard to beat.  In addition, during that same decade of the 1950s, Hitch made lesser, but still fascinating, films like Stage Fright, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much and two underrated gems The Trouble with Harry and I Confess. Even Hitchcock’s own 1930s period which is filled with some brilliant work does not match his 1950s output.

Cary Grant at age 62.
3.  Cary Grant retired too soon. He was 62 when he made his last film, Walk Don't Run, in 1966.

Connie:  Shove it. Cary Grant didn't have outstanding acting abilities and if he were to have continued to perform into his 70s and 80s he would have had to rely solely on his talent and not his debonair charm or good looks. Besides, it would have been too sad to see him end his career in a cheap horror film as so many actors did.

Toto:  Shove it. I love Cary Grant! He entertained people all of his life. Retirement at 62, when he became a father for the first time, was well deserved.

John:  Hate it. Retirement was a personal choice on Cary Grant’s part, so it’s hard to argue. He didn't like the limelight. After retirement, he kept himself busy with family and various business dealings (he was on a couple of corporate boards.) As a fan, I don't like it that Grant left the screen so early; that's where the "hate it'" comes from. I felt we were cheated. However, I can understand it on a personal level that he wanted out. He was still a big star, and he left it all behind. That in itself takes some guts.
Sisters Olivia and Joan.

4. Based on the body of her work, Olivia de Havilland was a better actress than her sister Joan Fontaine.

Connie:  Love it. Joan Fontaine was an extremely talented actress, but unlike her sister she didn't have the skill in selecting noteworthy parts that showcased her talent, and that's an important part of being an actress. Joan would often follow a marvelous performance in a great movie by a mediocre role in a mediocre comedy.

Toto:  Love it. From Captain Blood through They Died With Their Boots On, I really enjoyed the eight pairings of Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn. She was enchanting in Gone With the Wind and left us guessing in My Cousin Rachel.

John:  Love it. At first, I was jumping back and forth on who I thought was better. However, while Joan Fontaine was excellent in both Suspicion and Rebecca, I am not sure she ever did anything as challenging as sister Olivia's work in The Snake Pit and The Heiress. During her career, Olivia de Havilland either went after more difficult roles than Fontaine or was fortunate enough have them handed to her by the studio. Either way, I ended up leaning toward the older sister.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Case of the Unlikeliest Charlie Chan

Ross Martin as Charlie Chan.
Mystery TV series were on the rise again in 1970 with NBC preparing to launch its NBC Mystery Movie franchise. That umbrella series would feature sleuths who were rumpled and sly (Columbo), married to mischievous spouses (McMillan & Wife), and transported from the West to the East (McCloud). All of which may explain why NBC was interested in a potential TV series about an Asian American police detective--and a famous one at that.

Produced in 1970, the made-for-TV movie The Return of Charlie Chan (aka Happiness Is a Warm Clue) was intended to introduce Earl Derr Biggers' venerable detective to a new generation. However, it appears to have encountered trouble from the outset with the unlikely casting of Ross Martin in the title role. The actor had amassed a reasonable amount of popularity as Robert Conrad's sidekick (and master of disguises) Artemus Gordon in The Wild Wild West (1965-69). He seemed poised for a series of his own.

It wasn't the first time a non-Asian actor had played Charlie Chan. Warner Oland, arguably the screen's most well-known Chan, was born in Sweden and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. However, Oland's films were made in a different era. There's no evidence that NBC shelved The Return of Charlie Chan due to concerns over a casting backlash. However, the network did promote the film in 1971 and then mysteriously decided not to broadcast it. It was eventually shown in Great Britain in 1973, but didn't make its U.S. premiere until 1979.

Suspect Richard Haydn and Martin.
For the record, Ross Martin isn't a bad Charlie Chan once one realizes he's not playing Artemus in another disguise. And The Return of Charlie Chan is a decent mystery about a Greek business tycoon, married to a younger woman, who narrowly survives a murder attempt. (I'm assuming any resemblance to Aristotle Onassis was intentional!) He convinces the "incorruptible, infallible, and unfortunately retired" Charlie Chan to take on the task of protecting him during his family's pleasure cruise off the coast of Vancouver. Charlie, accompanied by his daughter Doreen and No. 8 son Peter, makes little headway toward unmasking the culprit...until one of the tycoon's employees is found murdered in his stateroom.

There is no shortage of suspects, to include a physician, a winegrower, and an international playboy who may be a thief. All of their alibis eventually crumple under the power of Charlie's deductive reasoning, which still seems sharp despite ten years as a pineapple farmer. And, yes, Mr. Chan still offers wise sayings, such as: "Even a hair casts a shadow."

Leslie Nielsen as a Greek tycoon.
The film's "special guest star" is Leslie Nielsen, who has a grand time overplaying the role of the "richest man in the world." It's interesting that most people today think of Nielsen as a comedian because of his success in Airplane! and The Naked Gun  movies. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of the busiest actors on television and in films. He played everything from a police detective in The Bold Ones to the captain in The Poseidon Adventure to the voice of a powerful, but never seen, movie executive in the TV series Bracken's World.

Ross Martin never got his own TV series, though he remained in demand as an actor in the 1970s. He guest-starred on shows like The Love Boat, Hawaii Five-O, and Vega$. He provided voices for several cartoon series and even reprised Artemus Gordon for two made-for-TV movies. Ross Martin died in 1981 after suffering a heart attack following a game of tennis.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Billy Wilder's Game of Deception...and the Wonderment of Jack Lemmon

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
It can be a challenge to review a classic like Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, because so much has been written about it. So, instead of a traditional review, I want to focus on Wilder's theme of deception and also pay tribute to that marvelous actor known as Jack Lemmon.

For those who have never seen Some Like It Hot (and you should truly rectify that immediately), here's a plot synopsis. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, a couple of speakeasy musicians in Chicago in 1929. After losing their jobs when police raid the joint, they struggle to find employment. They become so desperate that Jerry suggests they pose as women for an available gig in sunny Florida with an all-girls band. When Joe and Jerry inadvertently witness a gangland killing, they need to go on the lam--and what better place than Florida disguised as women in an all-girls band?

Marilyn Monroe as Sugar.
The theme of deception is a favorite for Billy Wilder, who used it for comic effect earlier in The Major and the Minor. That 1942 comedy starred Ginger Rogers as a young woman who poses as a 12-year-old to save on train fare. With Some Like It Hot, Wilder ups the ante by adding several layers of deception. The most obvious one, of course, is Joe and Jerry posing as female musicians Josephine and Daphne. But Wilder delves deeper into deception when Joe decides to woo Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band's attractive blonde singer.

Junior explains the Shell Oil name.
Joe, in the guise of Josephine, befriends Sugar and learns about her perfect man: a gentle, sweet, helpless millionaire with a yacht or train who wears glasses ("they get those weak eyes from reading those long tiny little columns in The Wall Street Journal").  Possessing that knowledge, Joe transforms himself into Junior, the sensitive, glasses-wearing, Wall Street Journal-reading heir to the Shell Oil fortune. It's no wonder that Sugar falls for him immediately.

Of course, Sugar isn't above a few lies herself. When she first meets Junior, she implies that she comes from a wealthy family and even introduces Daphne as a "Vassar girl." Earlier in the film, we also learn that Sugar deceives the band's manager by swearing off her fondness for alcoholic beverages--while keeping a handy flask hidden under her garter belt.

It's no plot spoiler to reveal that, even after the truth comes out, Joe and Sugar wind up together. Still, one has to wonder about the success of a relationship built on deception. Fortunately, this is reel life--not real life--and so a likable cast and a well-written script make us forget about the realities of the situation (just as we do at the end of The Graduate).

Daphne dancing with Osgood.
Reality has nothing to do with the other romantic relationship in Some Like It Hot: Daphne's wooing by a real millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). After a night of dancing, Osgood proposes marriage and Daphne, or rather Jerry, actually considers it because Osgood is a nice guy and provides security. When Joe tries to point out the obvious challenges, Jerry replies: "I'm not stupid. I know there's a problem. His mother. We need her approval. But I'm not worried, because I don't smoke."

Jack Lemmon gives a tour-de-force performance as Jerry/Daphne, transforming from a man who sees women as sex objects to one who can see them as friends. Joe's first remark when he sees Sugar is: "That's just like jello on springs." But later when a man pinches him as Daphne, he's not amused. His growing friendship with Sugar, even though it's in the guise of Daphne, is probably the strongest relationship in the film.

Daphne on the train.
Lemmon has the best scenes in the movie, including my personal favorite. After he covers up for Sugar's drinking on the train ride to Florida, she joins Jerry (as Daphne) in his upper berth. The scantily-clad Sugar snuggles up close to him and, upon discovering his cold feet, begins to rubs them with her feet. Jerry turns away briefly and mutters a reminder to himself: "I'm a girl. I'm a girl."

It's a great line, a classic Wilder situation, and features one of the finest actors of his generation. Who could ask for more?


Sunday, June 11, 2017

James Garner Wheels and Deals as "Cash McCall"

The title character in Cash McCall does not make an appearance until eighteen minutes into the film. Still, he dominates the opening scenes. Little girls sing about him as they jump rope. Business executives describe him as a "jackal," a ruthless corporate raider. We hear about his nine-room penthouse on the tenth floor (and some of the ninth) at the Hotel Ivanhoe in Philadelphia. We even see an illustration of him, apparently dressed as Robin Hood.

When we finally meet Cash, he's handsome and charming (which isn't surprisingly since he's played by James Garner). It turns out that Cash is not an unethical, greedy dealmaker--although he does like to make money. He buys broken businesses, fixes them, and sells them for a profit.

Natalie Wood as Lory.
His latest target is Austen Plastics, which produces cabinets and parts for television sets manufactured by the larger Schofield Instrument Corporation. The company's founder, Grant Austen (Dean Jagger), wants $2 million and is surprised when Cash agrees to the price with no haggling. It turns out that Cash has ulterior motives, which are linked to Austen's daughter Lory (Natalie Wood).

Screen veteran Henry Jones.
Made in 1960, Cash McCall is an immensely likable picture with a delicious cast. If you're familiar with the films and TV shows of the 1960s, you will recognize almost everyone in it. E.G. Marshall plays an attorney (just as he did on The Defenders). Otto Kruger is Cash's banker, Roland Winters plays a blowhard business rival, and Nina Foch moons over Cash as the assistant hotel manager. Best of all, veteran character Henry Jones gets the meatiest role of his movie career as a business consultant who becomes Cash's right-hand man.

Cash McCall was only James Garner's third film as a leading man, though he had some box office clout thanks to his starring role in TV's Maverick. He's ideally cast as the self-made millionaire and even gets to show a glimpse of his soft side in his scenes with Natalie Wood. This was the last film on his Warner Bros. contract and he would follow it with a key supporting performance in The Children's Hour (1961).

As for Cash McCall, the film has some shortcomings, namely it relegates Natalie Wood to a role not worthy of her talents. And the business conflicts are wrapped up too quickly in the climax (I think the similarly-themed 1991 film Other People's Money has a better ending). Still, this is the movie that re-introduced me to James Garner and played a key role in making me a Garner fan. He will have you rooting for Cash every step of the way as the wheeler-dealer tries to pull off his biggest challenge.

And really, how could you not pull for a character played by Jim Garner?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Houses of Frankenstein and Dracula

The trailer promised a lot!
House of Frankenstein (1944). The inevitable follow-up to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1942) adds Count Dracula, a mad scientist, and a lovesick, hunchbacked assistant to the mix. The result is a somewhat clunky affair that still has its minor pleasures.

Boris Karloff stars as Dr. Gustav Niemann, a prison inmate obsessed with replicating Henry Frankenstein's life-creating experiments. When a thunderstorm causes the prison walls to crumble, Niemann and his cell mate, the hunchbacked Daniel, escape.

Carradine's Count Dracula.
They take over a traveling circus of horrors that features the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine). During a fit of anger, Niemann unwisely withdraws a wooden stake from the skeleton and revives Dracula. Alas, the legendary vampire chooses the wrong young woman for a tasty snack and doesn't survive the night.

Niemann and Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) continue on to Visaria (known as Vasaria in the previous film), where they discover the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man encased on ice. Naturally, they thaw out the monsters! Niemann promises to cure Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), although his real interest is in restoring the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) to full power.

J. Carrol Naish and Boris Karloff.
The biggest flaw with House of Frankenstein is that the monsters never interact--each one has its own separate storyline. It's like watching three mini-movies connected only by the presence of Niemann and Daniel. Karloff is fun as the mad scientist, but it's a pretty stereotypical role. Naish, on the other hand, turns in a surprisingly effective performance as the physically deformed assistant who loves a gypsy girl that's smitten with Talbot.

Given its "B" movie budget, House of Frankenstein is visually striking at times. That's not totally surprisingly given the pedigrees of cinematographer George Robinson and director Erle C. Kenton. Robinson also lensed the expressionistic Son of Frankenstein, which has been justly praised elsewhere in this blog. As for Kenton, he was a reliable journeyman director for Universal, specializing in Abbott & Costello comedies and "B" horror efforts. However, his resume also includes one of the most original horror films of the 1930s: Island of Lost Souls (1932).

Glenn Strange as the Monster.
House of Dracula (1944). Film critic Leslie Halliwell counts this immediate sequel among his favorite films in his book Halliwell's Hundred. However, there's a caveat: "It is a gem of ineptitude. Its badness lies in its extremely flat handling and in the fact that the writers were not allowed to transfer to the screen the fun they must have had in cooking up its absurd plot."

Chaney as the Wolf  Man.
Certainly, the story is an upgrade over House of Frankenstein with Count Dracula (Carradine) and Larry Talbot arriving at Dr. Edlemann's seaside castle in search of cures. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), a caring man of science, agrees to help them. Unfortunately, Dracula becomes attracted to the nurse Miliza (Martha O'Driscoll) and can't overcome his vampire urges. During a transfusion with Edlemann, the Count reverses the flow of blood so he can remain a vampire. Unfortunately, that turns the scientist into a Jekyll-Hyde mad man.

Prior to this incident, Edlemann rescues Talbot, who has tried to commit suicide by leaping off a cliff. In a cave on the beach, the two men discover the dormant--but still living--Frankenstein Monster. Anyone one else would just leave the Monster there, but then we couldn't have a climax with torch-carrying villagers, could we?

Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edlemann.
I enjoy House of Dracula more than Mr. Halliwell. It's far from a good movie, but there are some original ideas (e.g., the fate of Talbot). Plus, it provides long-time character actor Onslow Stevens with his best role. He's quite entertaining as the staid man of science who transforms into a wild-eyed killer.

House of Dracula would turn out to be the final "serious" film in Universal's original horror film cycle that started with Dracula in 1931. Its monsters would next appear opposite Bud and Lou in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Shakespeare in Virginia

What’s the connection between Judi Dench and a Shakespearean theater nestled in the scenic Shenandoah Valley in Virginia?

The interior of Blackfriars Playhouse; photo by Lauren D. Rogers.
The answer is that Dame Judi and her late husband, British actor Michael Williams, helped establish the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. The 300-seat theatre is part of the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), an organization that celebrates Shakespeare and the dramatic arts through performance and education programs.  In addition to a repertory company that performs at the playhouse, the ASC has a traveling troupe that goes on tour. It offers two-week summer camps for teens with a thespian interest. It also awards scholarships, provides education programs, and hosts the Blackfriars Conference in odd-numbered years for “scholars and practitioners alike to explore Shakespeare.” Click here to learn more about the ASC.

The exterior of the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA.
Some of the Café’s staff recently trekked to Staunton to experience the Blackfriars Playhouse for the first time. The recently-concluded Actor’s Renaissance Season featured two Shakespeare plays (The Merchant of Venice and Coriolanus), plus The Fair Maid of the Exchange, Shakespeare’s Sister, and The School for Scandal. Feeling a little scandalous, we opted to see Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 drawing-room comedy. It turned out to be a marvelous choice!

There’s not a bad seat in the Blackfriars Playhouse, which seeks to replicate the experience of watching stage plays as they were performed in Shakespeare’s time. There are benches with backs on three sides of the stage, plus stools lined up on either side of it. There are no elaborate scenic backdrops and just a few props (e.g., a couch, a dressing screen). One of the actors announces the scene while fellow cast members rearrange the set. The theatre’s lights are kept on during the performance to replicate the sunlight under which actors performed in olden days. As for the costumes, we thought they looked fabulous.

Creating a festival-like atmosphere, the cast members perform songs before the show and during the intermission. They often accompany each other with guitars, mandolins, and trumpets. Their song selection was wonderfully eclectic, with our favorite performance being a wry rendition of Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London.

Allison Glenzer as Mrs. Candour & Ginna Hoben as Lady Sneerwell.
If you’re unfamiliar with The School for Scandal, it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy about a group of gossip-mongers, a rich uncle, and two brothers. The “good” brother is revealed to be a deceiver while the “bad” brother turns out to have some redeeming qualities. The highlight of the play was a portrait auction in which some of the audience members were handed empty wood frames and “became” the portraits by framing their faces. But heck, even the character names were funny (e.g., Lady Sneerwell, Benjamin Backbite, Mrs. Candour).

With just a couple of exceptions, the cast of professional actors was outstanding. Our favorite had to be Allison Glenzer, who starred as both the giddy gossip Mrs. Candour and the (male) Jewish loan shark Moses. Incidentally, the actors also directed themselves!

Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton.
In short, if School for Scandal represents a typical performance, then we heartily recommend the Blackfriars Theatre. If you choose to spend the night in Staunton (which reminded us of San Francisco with its steep hills), then you might consider the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel. It’s right next door so you can walk to the theatre.

Michael Williams, who died in 2001, never had the opportunity to see the Playhouse. However, Dame Judi visited Staunton in 2004. According to the book Shakespeare in the Theatre: The American Shakespeare Center, she noted: “This beautiful theatre should be in England.” She still serves on the Center’s Board of Advisers.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

In Memory of Roger Moore: The King's Thief

Roger Moore in The King's Thief.
Roger Moore signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1954 at the age of 27. Although he had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Moore didn't consider himself a very good actor. But the truth is that he had already developed the on-screen charisma that would define his stardom--well, that along with his good looks.

Roger Moore is not the star of The King's Thief, a modestly-budgeted 1955 costumer about a plot to overthrow King Charles II. Edmund Purdom has the role lead of Michael Dermott, a former soldier loyal to the king who has resorted to robbing wealthy noblemen. One such target is the Duke of Brampton (David Niven), who seems particularly distraught when Michael steals a little black book in addition to some jewels. The book contains the names of influential landowners who support Charles II. Brampton's plan is to dispose of them one by one, claim their estates, and eventually oust the king.

Ann Blyth as Lady Mary.
Meanwhile, Michael meets beautiful Lady Mary, whose father was one of Brampton's first victims. She seeks revenge and recognizes that Michael could be a valuable ally. So where does Roger Moore fit in all this? He plays Michael's right-hand man.

The King's Thief is something of an oddity. Running a scant 78 minutes, it was clearly not intended to be a lavish historical drama on the scale of MGM's Ivanhoe (1952) or Knights of the Round Table (1953). Some of the backdrops give the film a cheap look, although there's a fairly impressive recreation of a medieval town. The film also boasts rich color and was filmed in Cinemascope at a time when that was a luxury.

David Niven as the villain.
Edmund Purdom, who supposedly took over when Stewart Granger dropped out, makes an adequate hero--but there's nothing exciting about his performance. His career in Hollywood was short-lived and it's not hard to see why. However, the rest of the cast is first-class, with David Niven as the suave villain, Ann Blyth as the plucky Lady Mary, George Sanders as Charles II, and, of course, Roger Moore as Purdom's pal.

Purdom and Moore share the film's best scene, a prison escape in which they climb up through a chimney, cross over into a bell tower filled with whistling winds, and then descend from the tower and rooftops.

Roger Moore followed The King's Thief with Diane (1956), another costume drama in which he was third-billed after Lana Turner and Pedro Armendáriz. Still, big screen stardom eluded him and he found work as a regular in 1950s television shows such as Ivanhoe, The Alaskans, and Maverick. In 1962, he was cast as Simon Templar in The Saint TV series...and the rest, as they say, is history.