Monday, February 19, 2024

Jeff Chandler Plays a Make-Believe Parent in The Toy Tiger

Jeff Chandler as Rick.
Had a bad day at work? Relatives causing undue stress? If so, then perhaps you need to sit down and watch a mindless 1950s comedy. You know the kind. It's entertaining enough while you're watching it, but it won't linger in your brain. It's like cotton candy--light and tasty, but not filling and quickly forgotten. If that's what you're looking for, then The Toy Tiger (1956)--a remake of the earlier Mad About Music--is the movie for you.

Laraine Day plays Gwen Harkinson, a widowed advertising executive who has shuffled her son off to a private boarding school. Gwen's plan is to work hard, make a lot of money, and then "retire" to spend time raising son Timmy (Tim Hovey). She has no time for romance, which is a bummer for Rick Todd (Jeff Chandler), an art director at the agency who loves her. Rick is fed up with advertising, but agrees to go to a small upstate New York town to convince an ex-colleague to work on a new ad campaign. He is completely unaware that the town is also the home of Timmy's boarding school: The Meadows.

Meanwhile, Timmy is dealing with a bully at school, who suspects (quite rightly) that Timmy has created an imaginary father: a world-famous explorer who sends him letters about his quests. In reality, Timmy is writing the letters and mailing them to himself. When pressured by the bully, Timmy states his father is arriving in town that day on a bus. The other boys become excited to meet Timmy's dad and go to meet the bus. When Rick gets off the bus, Timmy identifies him as his father!

Laraine Day, Tim Hovey, and Jeff Chandler
in a publicity still from The Toy Tiger.
It's a lightweight premise that functions surprisingly well for most of the movie. As expected, Rick eventually decides to go along--not realizing Timmy is Gwen's son--and play the part of Timmy's "famous" father (good thing the Internet didn't exist back then). Jeff Chandler seems to be having a good time as Timmy's make-believe dad and he and young Tim Hovey create a believable father-son relationship. It also helps to have a couple of old pros, Cecil Kellaway and Richard Haydn, playing the brothers that run the boarding school. (Both deserve more screen time!)

The Toy Tiger gets bogged down, though, when Gwen shows up. She is just not a likable character. Granted, Laraine Day and the writers faced a tough challenge: the film hinges on peeling back the layers of Gwen's business-focused persona to reveal a caring mother and a woman who wants to be in a loving relationship. Laraine Day never quite gets there. Perhaps, a more accomplished actress like Doris Day could have pulled it off. Or the writers could have opted for a more realistic ending, in which Gwen finds a way to spend more time with her son, but rejects a relationship with Rick.

Of course, that would be a different movie altogether. And we've already established that you just want to watch The Toy Tiger and enjoy it for what is. There's nothing wrong with that. You'll be pleasantly amused for 88 minutes and then you'll forget it.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Seven Things to Know About Linda Cristal

1. Linda Cristal was born on February 23, 1931, in Rosario, Argentina, as Marta Victoria Moya Burges. In addition to her native language of Spanish, she became fluent in Italian, French, and English. She got her acting break in 1952 when she appeared as a school girl in the Mexican film When the Fog Lifts (Cuando Levanta la Niebla). It was then that she changed her name professionally to Linda Cristal.

2. She had made several Mexican films when she heard that United Artists wanted to cast a Latina female lead opposite Dana Andrews in Comanche (1956). She got the part and was billed in the opening credits as "And Miss Linda Cristal as Magarita."

3. Linda Cristal won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer in 1959 for her performance in the Tony Curtis-Janet Leigh comedy The Perfect Furlough. She plays a movie sex symbol--the Argentine Bombshell--who accompanies Tony's Army corporal on the "perfect furlough" to Paris.

4. Linda worked with John Ford in Two Rode Together and The Alamo (where he was the uncredited second unit director). She said in an interview: "It was such a wonderful thing to say that I worked under the direction of John Ford. If I never do anything else ever again, I'd die happy." In both films, she played the love interest of men much older than her: James Stewart (23 years her senior) in Two Rode Together and John Wayne (24 years older) in The Alamo.

Linda Cristal as Victoria Cannon.
5. Linda Cristal gained international recognition for her role as Victoria Cannon in the popular Western television series The High Chaparral, which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1971. In a 2015 interview, Cristal's High Chaparral co-star Henry Darrow told me: "The High Chaparral was the first time in a series that a Latino family was on an equal level with an Anglo family." For her performance as Victoria, Linda Cristal was nominated for two Prime Time Emmy Awards and won a Golden Globe in 1970 as Best Actress in a Drama Series.

6. After her 1966 divorce from actor-producer Yale Wexler, Linda Cristal dated celebrities such as Bobby Darin, Adam West, and Christopher George. One Hollywood gossip magazine even published an article about Linda coming between Bobby Darin and ex-wife Sandra Dee (whom fans hoped would reconcile).

Linda Cristal as Cleopatra.
7. Linda Cristal's autobiography A Life Unexpected: The Linda Cristal Story, co-written with her son Jordan Wexler, was published in 2019. Among her many acting credits in film and TV are two unusual ones: Legions of the Nile (1959) and Mr. Majestyk (1974). In the former, an Italian production also known as The Legions of Cleopatra, she plays the title role four years before Elizabeth Taylor. According to one source, 20th Century-Fox bought the rights to Cristal's film so as to limit its distribution in the U.S. prior to the release of Taylor's big-budgeted Cleopatra (1963). Mr. Majestyk, one of her last theatrical films, paired her with Charles Bronson as a migrant worker and union activist. It gave her an opportunity to show what she could do in an action picture. Today, Mr. Majestyk is recognized as one of Bronson's best-reviewed 1970s films.

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Alternate Movie Title (January 2024)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. Flex Martian--Bodybuilder.

2. The Pin Is a Mighty Sword. (Note that all spelling is correct!)

3. Will Kane Stands Alone.

4. The Watch of Colonel Mortimer.

5. The Christmas Angel.

6. The Singing Cricket.

7. Masquerade for Money.

8. The Wrong Man Wins the Cake.

9. Love, Love, Love in Rome.

10. Barn Burner!

11. The Red-Haired Pirate and The Spy.

12. Law, Jazz, and Hardboiled Eggs.

13. The Hit Man Who Liked Cats.

14. And the Waves Washed Over Them.

15. Homer's Chapel.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Working Girl and The Verdict

Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford.
Working Girl (1988). Mike Nichol's R-rated update of a familiar comedy formula, Working Girl earned six Oscar nominations, made a star (albeit briefly) of Melanie Griffith, and transformed Harrison Ford into a romantic lead. Griffith plays Tess McGill, a hard-working, ambitious young woman who thinks she has landed the perfect job when she becomes the personal assistant to business executive Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver). Katherine listens to Tess's ideas. It turns out that she also steals one of them, which Tess discovers while Katherine is in the hospital recovering from a skiing accident. Rather than confronting her boss, Tess passes herself off as one of Katherine's fellow executives. She uses her smarts to set up a big business deal, but will she be able to pull it off before Katherine discovers the charade? Kevin Wade's script offers no surprises, so Working Girl relies heavily on Griffith, Ford, and Weaver. Fortunately, they deliver whatever is required: Griffith's plucky heroine is vulnerable yet tough; Ford provides a charming romantic foil; and Weaver delivers a deliciously funny performance as the film's villain. Director Mike Nichols makes fine use of the New York City locations. However, his inclusion of three brief nude scenes (including two of Griffith) seems unwarranted in a film about female empowerment. Carly Simon's song "Let the River Run" earned Working Girl its only Oscar despite those six nominations. (Personally, I think a more deserving Carly Simon song was "Coming Around Again" from Mike Nichols' 1986 movie Heartburn.) 

Paul Newman as Frank Galvin.
The Verdict (1982). Paul Newman earned the seventh of his nine Best Actor Oscar nominations as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic, washed-up Boston lawyer. When a friend tosses a medical malpractice case his way, Galvin chooses not to settle it out of court. Instead, he ignores his clients' wishes and takes the case to trial. The reasons for his decision are unclear. Has Frank rediscovered his passion for law? Is he trying to prove to himself that he can still be a successful attorney? Is he solely concerned with justice for the comatose victim? David Mamet provides no clear answers. In his original draft of the screenplay, the verdict was never even revealed (the movie does include it). While I admire Mamet's intent, I find the The Verdict to be ambitious without being fully successful. There's a twist involving Charlotte Rampling's character that's obvious from the moment she is introduced. James Mason, a fine actor, struggles to find any nuance in his high-powered defense attorney who will do anything to win. On the plus side, Paul Newman breathes life into Galvin and convinces the audience to root for this self-pitying attorney--who may or may not have found his self-respect at the film's conclusion. I know many fans of The Verdict and I encourage them to make their case in the comments below or on Twitter (I'm @classic_film). I have made my final summation.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Top Ten Posts of 2023

A canine friend visits the Classic Film & TV Cafe.
As the year draws to a close, the Classic Film & TV Café traditionally ends it with a countdown of our ten most viewed posts. Naturally, the countdown is a little skewed, since those posts that came out at the start of the year typically have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2023. We also omitted our monthly quizzes. To build a little suspense, we'll begin at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

But before we get started, we want to thank each of you who visited this blog this year and send some extra love to those who took the time to leave comments.

10. Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass.

9. Of Vampire Bats and Manitous!

8. A Study in Terror and The Detective.

7. Lon Chaney, Jr. Makes a Strange Confession.

6. Seven Things to Know About The Jimmy Stewart Show.

5. Seven Classic Made-for-TV Movies...that you can watch for free!

4. Rod Serling Saddles the Wind.

3. Seven Things to Know About Walt Disney's Zorro TV Series,

2. The Deadly Affair and Harper.

1. John Wayne in Hondo 3D!

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Laughing Policeman and Warning Shot

The Laughing Policeman (1973). Walter Matthau starred in two of the finest crime dramas of the 1970s: Charley Varrick (1973) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Sandwiched between those classics, he made The Laughing Policeman, a solid crime picture steeped in urban grittiness. Matthau plays Jake Martin, a San Francisco police detective investigating the brutal murders of a bus driver and his passengers. The case becomes personal quickly when one of the victims turns out to be Jake's partner, who was looking into one of Jake’s old unsolved cases on his own. While the police department mounts a large scale effort to find the killer, Jake follows his own leads--while also dealing with his meddling new partner Larsen (Bruce Dern). The Laughing Policeman differs from most Matthau movies in that its protagonist is something of an enigma. He ignores his wife and teenage son, sleeps in a separate room in his home, and has no close friends at work. He wasn't even close to his dead partner. He definitely doesn't want a bigoted, violent, loud-mouthed new partner--but his evolving relationship with Larsen is the best part of The Laughing Policeman. Bruce Dern injects life into every frame and counterbalances Matthau's low-key performance. Director Stuart Rosenberg, perhaps best known for Cool Hand Luke, effectively contrasts the colorful neon lights of the city with its dour underside. The Laughing Policeman was based on a 1968 Swedish novel written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It was one of ten books featuring detective police detective Martin Beck, who was renamed for the film adaptation. 

Warning Shot 
(1967).
Released during the final season of The Fugitive, Warning Shot features David Jansen as L.A. police detective Tom Valens, who kills a burglar in self-defense outside an apartment complex. The problem is that the “thief” was actually a prominent physician and no one can find the gun that Valens claims he saw. When a politically ambitious D.A. charges Valens with manslaughter, the veteran detective sets out to clear his name. Although released theatrically, Warning Shot looks and feels like an above-average made-for-TV movie. Many of the supporting players were working mostly in television at the time. Some of their appearances amount to little more than cameos, such as Walter Pidgeon as a lawyer, Eleanor Parker as the victim’s non-grieving widow, and Joan Collins as Valens’ estranged wife. Janssen is fine as the world-weary detective, but it's the kind of the role he played often in his career. George Grizzard nearly steals the film as a self-proclaimed ladies man who may be involved in shady dealings and Stefanie Powers has some good scenes with Janssen. At its best, Warning Shot has a late 1960s L.A. vibe reminiscent of Harper. It's reasonably engrossing, but the cast is the best reason to see it. 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Tubi or Not Tubi?

It's never been a better time to watch classic movies--even if you don't have TCM.

I know classic film buffs who still bemoan the demise of FilmStruck, TCM's streaming service, which folded in 2018 after two brief years. I was equally sad to see the Warner Archive Instant streaming service be discontinued, as it offered classic TV shows as well as movies. Fortunately, if you want to pay for a subscription service, there's still The Criterion Channel, though I think it's pricey ($99.99 annually in 2023) for what you get.

The fact is there are plenty of free options. I always encourage classic movie fans to scour YouTube and the Internet Archive for their favorites. You never know what someone has uploaded--or how long it will be there before it's removed. My Twitter pal @CED_LD_Guy still has an eclectic collection of movies that you can watch for free on his Rumble channels (Rumble is a YouTube-like streaming service).

If you don't mind occasional commercials, then I recommend you check out Tubi. It was launched in 2014 and bought by the Fox Corporation in 2020. You can access Tubi online, through a smart TV, or through an app on a streaming device like a Roku. You don't have to register for a free account to watch Tubi content. However, you may want to do so if you watch your movies on multiple devices, as Tubi will save your place if you stop watching a film on one device and want to finish it later on another.

Gregory Peck in one of Tubi's offerings.
I'm not to going to review everything on Tubi. It offers "live" TV channels, sports, news, documentaries, programs from networks like Lifetime, original movies, and much more. My interest lies solely with the on-demand movies and, to my delight, Tubi offers a decent selection of pre-1990 titles. I find that the quickest way to view what's available is to browse the website on my computer or tablet. Under Genres, there's a link to a "Classics" collection that currently includes movies such as:

12 Angry Men
2001: A Space Odyssey
Bell, Book and Candle
The Big Country
The Bells of St. Mary's
Big Jake
Exodus
The Gallant Hours
The Great Escape
In the Heat of the Night
The Mysterious Island
Notorious
Rio Lobo

If you're willing to dig around using the "search" function, you can find many more classic movies, such as:

The Alamo
Arrowsmith
Baby, the Rain Must Fall
Birdman of Alcatraz
The Bishop's Wife
Death on the Nile (1978)
The Devil at 4 O'Clock
5 Against the House
Fools' Parade
The Great Train Robbery
A Hole in the Head
In the Wake of Bounty (Errol Flynn's first film)
Inherit the Wind (1960)
It Should Happen to You
Judgment at Nuremberg
Lady of Burlesque
The Last Hurrah
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Manchurian Candidate
On Golden Pond
Paths of Glory
Phffft!
Separate Tables
Vera Cruz
Walk on the Wild Side
The War Lover
Witness to Murder

Bad mother Angela Lansbury.
What's the catch, you ask? Well, there are those pesky commercials, which can pop up at any time during the movie--even in the middle of an emotional scene. For the most part, the commercials seem to be shorter compared to other commercial-supported streaming services like FreeVee and Cracker. Some last as little as ten seconds and I don't recall one being longer than thirty seconds. The number of commercials during a break can range from one to seven. I've watched three movies on Tubi during the last week and had to endure only three total breaks with more than five commercials in a row.

The only other caveat is the quality of the prints. Most of the movies I've watched on Tubi have looked very good, but there were some exceptions. I was enthused about watching the big screen soap Where Love Has Gone, but gave up on it because the visual quality was poor. (It was like watching a movie without my glasses--I could see the image, but it looked out of focus.)

New movies are added and current ones dropped from time to time. That doesn't happen as often with the older film titles, but it's still something to remember. When a movie is about to be dropped, Tubi will let you know how much longer it will be there. I recently finished Executive Decision with Kurt Russell one day before it disappeared from Tubi!

Do I recommend Tubi? Definitely. It has a decent selection of classic movies, the commercials aren't obnoxious, the print quality is usually acceptable, and it's free. Let me repeat the last point there: It's free!

Monday, November 27, 2023

The V.I.P.s and The Fog

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The V.I.P.s
(1963).  A fogged-in London airport provides the setting—and serves as the catalyst—in playwright Terence Rattigan’s The V.I.P.s. This collage of mini-dramas shares the same structure as films such as Grand Hotel and Rattigan’s own Separate Tables. The principal characters include: an emotionally-withdrawn tycoon (Richard Burton); his ignored wife (Elizabeth Taylor), who plans to leave him; her lover (Louis Jourdan); a businessman (Rod Taylor) fighting a hostile takeover of his company; his secretary (Maggie Smith) who secretly loves him; an elderly, financially-strapped dowager (Margaret Rutherford); and a blustery filmmaker (Orson Welles), who stands to pay a hefty tax bill if he can’t leave the country by midnight. As expected, some subplots are engrossing (Rod Taylor’s dilemma), while others are filler (the plight of Welles’ filmmaker). The standout performances come from Richard Burton and Maggie Smith. Burton’s initially one-dimensional character gains depth as the film progresses, while Maggie Smith shines brightly from start to finish. A scene between Burton and Smith toward the end is a master class in acting. Dame Margaret Rutherford won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the befuddled dowager. She’s good, delivering a more reserved portrayal than usual. However, I would have given that award to the luminous Maggie Smith. 

Adrienne Barbeau in the lighthouse.
The Fog
(1980). In his theatrical follow-up to Halloween (1978), John Carpenter opts to create a different kind of horror film with a supernatural tale set in an atmospheric Northern California coastal community. The premise is set up with a nifty recounting of a local story in which a clipper ship’s crew of six died in a crash against the rocks after mistaking a campfire for the lighthouse on a foggy night. A hundred year later, as Antonio Bay prepares to celebrate its centennial, a glowing fog engulfs the town—and brings forth the vengeful ghosts of the ship’s crew. But why are the murderous spirits seeking the lives of six town residents? The answer is somewhat interesting, but therein lies the problem with The Fog. It’s a middle-of-the-road effort that rarely lives up to its potential. The ghosts aren’t frightening, the characters lack interest, and Carpenter fails to generate adequate suspense (a surprise coming on the heels of his superbly-crafted Halloween). The cast—which includes real-life mother and daughter Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis—is game, but just doesn’t have enough quality material. One suspects Carpenter recognized these flaws as he shot additional footage after viewing the rough cut. The director certainly rebounded, with his next two movies, Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982), ranking among his best.

Monday, November 13, 2023

The Movie Quote Game (John Ford Edition)

This month, we're focusing on quotes from John Ford films. We will list a quote from one of his movies and ask you to name it. Try to answer these questions on your own without resorting to Google searches. As always, please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play.  If you have a response other than the intended one, just be able to defend it.

1. "Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father, and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday."

2. "A fine soft day in the spring, it was, when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off."

3. "I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems."

4. "Seems like the government's got more interest in a dead man than a live one."

5. "Well, I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week."

6. "Oh, Uncle Guns, please don't fight, don't spoil our party."

7. "I don't believe in surrenders. Nope, I've still got my saber, Reverend. Didn't beat it into no plowshare, neither."

8. "The fact that the city is no longer yours. It's ours. You have this musty shrine to your bluenose ancestors, but my people have the City Hall and that's what sticks in your craw."

9. "That appendix of yours certainly gets around, Reber. Now it's on the wrong side. Two aspirin, marked for duty. Next."

10. "Gentlemen, I did not seek this command, but since it's been assigned me, I intend to make this regiment the finest on the frontier."

11. "I've heard a lot about you, too, Doc. You left your mark around in Deadwood, Denver and places. In fact, a man could almost follow your trail goin' from graveyard to graveyard."

12. "The only lions I ever want to see again are the two in front of the public library."

13. "And now the British think I'm with the Irish, and the Irish think I'm with the British."

14. "Even a dog can go where he likes... but not a Cheyenne."

15. "Private Winkie it is. A full-fledged soldier of the Queen!"


Sunday, October 29, 2023

Of Vampire Bats and Manitous!

Nick Mancuso as the hero.
The late 1970s saw the release of two horror films based on popular novels that featured Native American protagonists: The Manitou (1978) and Nightwing (1979).

The latter movie stars Nick Mancuso as Youngman Duran, the only law enforcement officer on a tribal reservation in New Mexico. Duran is coping with a lot of stuff: his physician girlfriend is pondering a move to Texas; a energy company has acquired oil rights from a neighboring tribe; an old medicine man, who raised Duran, is dying; and something is draining the blood from cattle--and eventually tourists.

David Warner hunts bats.
Enter British scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner), who announces grimly that the bloodless victims were attacked by vampire bats. Payne has dedicated his life to tracking and killing the night-bound creatures. He now believes they are living in the local mountain caves and--brace yourself for more bad news--are carrying the bubonic plague!

Nightwing is a film filled with unrealized potential. Its strongest element is its desert setting, which typically works well in the horror genre (see Gargoyles). However, Arthur Hiller, a director best known for romances and comedies, can't capitalize on the visual splendor of the dark dunes and the isolated mountains.

Deputy Duran could have been an interesting character, but Mancuso, saddled with a lackluster script, comes across as angst-ridden and befuddled. The screenplay also tosses in heaping helpings of mysticism in the hope of making some kind of profound statement about the destruction of the environment.

David Warner lends some gravitas to Nightwing in spite of portraying an under-developed character. Sadly, the movie wastes the talents of the legendary character actor Strother Martin. He appears briefly as a supply store owner, then vanishes from the movie. That just isn't right.

Susan Strasberg as Karen.
The Manitou may be no better than Nightwing, but it sure is more fun. Susan Strasberg stars as Karen Tandy, a woman who seeks medical help when a large lump starts growing on the back of her neck. After examining her X-rays, her perplexed surgeon comments that the growth looks like a fetus! 

He's right. It turns out to be the fetus of a "manitou"...the spirit of an ancient, evil, dwarf-sized medicine man. Once Karen gives birth, she will die and the manitou will grow in power until it can destroy the human race. Karen's on-and-off-again lover Harry (Tony Curtis), a fake medium, eventually learns what's happening. He journeys to South Dakota to find a contemporary medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), to battle the formidable manitou. 

Tony Curtis as Harry.
The premise of The Manitou might have worked in Graham Masterton's novel. But seeing it on the big  screen is something else and I suspect most of the cast recognized that when they read the screenplay. Tony Curtis can't keep a straight face and the same applies to a trio of screen veterans featured in brief parts: Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith, and Stella Stevens (who appears to stifle a laugh after a séance scene). However, to their credit, the cast goes with the flow and somehow keeps The Manitou from transforming into a parody--despite having to speak mystical chants like "pana witchy salatoo" or coming face-to-face with the little manitou guy in a dark hospital room.

It helps that director William Girdler had previous experience in the horror genre, having helmed Abby (1974), Grizzly (1976), and the wacky The Day of the Animals (1977). He knows that showing less is better and keeps the blood-soaked manitou bathed in shadows after its birth. The climax, set in a hospital on emergency power as a thunderstorm rages in the background, works well in spite of the cheap special effects. Sadly, Girdler died in a helicopter crash shortly after he completed The Manitou.

You can watch The Manitou and Nightwing for free! Click here to watch Nightwing on the Creatures Features channel on Rumble (a YouTube-like streaming service). Click here to watch The Manitou on the Internet Archive

Monday, October 16, 2023

A Study in Terror and The Detective

A Study in Terror (1965).  Murder By Decree (1979) may be the best known pairing of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper--but it wasn't the first. That distinction belongs to the mostly forgotten A Study in Terror. Produced with the cooperation of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, A Study in Terror boasts an original screenplay that finds Holmes investigating a series of brutal murders in London's Whitehall area. His interest is peaked when he receives a case of surgical instruments that is missing the scalpel, the type of instrument that Scotland Yard believes was used in the murders. Holmes quickly discovers that the case belonged to Michael Osborne, the older son of Lord Carfax. Osborne vanished two years earlier, but could he have resurfaced as Jack the Ripper? Made on a modest budget, A Study in Terror recreates Victorian London convincingly and features a splendid performance by John Neville as the Baker Street detective. In fact, I'd rate Neville's portrayal as the fourth best, topped only by Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Cushing. Donald Huston makes an acceptable Dr. Watson, though he gushes over Holmes's deductions a bit too much. While the plot holds interest and moves swiftly, the fiery climax rushes to a conventional conclusion. Mostly disappointingly, the killer's motivation feels like an afterthought. Still, the primary reason to watch A Study in Terror is to see John Neville's Holmes. Fans of 1950s teen horror films might recognize one of the producers. Yes, that's the Herman Cohen, who made unforgettable drive-in classics such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. You can currently watch A Study in Terror for free on Rumble by clicking here.

The Detective
 (1968). 
Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is a no-nonsense NYC police detective who stands up defiantly to meddling politicians, cop corruption, and his superiors. His investigations into the brutal murder of a gay socialite and the mysterious suicide of an accountant take their toll on Joe--professionally and personally. His marriage is crumbling, in part because his wife Karen (Lee Remick) copes with her emotional insecurities by sleeping with other men. Used to bottling up his own emotions, the middle-aged Joe can't connect fully with Karen except on a physical level. Made in the turbulent late 1960s, The Detective is an ambitious, but shaky attempt to merge a Chandleresque crime drama with a character study. The former works better than the latter, with the flashbacks detailing Joe and Karen's relationship interspersed with Joe's investigations. It's a clunky structure that distracts the viewer from the best part of the movie. It also hampers Lee Remick's performance by relegating most of her scenes to poorly-written vignettes with Sinatra. The screenplay saddles some fine supporting actors with stereotyped characters: Ralph Meeker as a cop on the take, Robert Duvall as a bigoted detective, and Al Freeman, Jr. as a young Black officer who suddenly transforms from a naïve newcomer to a ruthless, overly ambitious detective. As a mystery, The Detective works well, though it's certainly not a surprise when Leland learns his two cases are connected. The NYC locations and Jack Klugman, in a small but pivotal part, are nice bonuses. Ultimately, The Detective doesn't compare favorably with Sinatra's best 1960s films (The Manchurian Candidate, Von Ryan's Express), but it is a worth a watch. You can view it for free on Hoopla if your local public library subscribes to that streaming service.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass

Nigel Davenport as John Custance.
Actor Cornel Wilde directed eight films, beginning with 1955's Storm Fear. His best picture is The Naked Prey (1965), in which he also stars as a safari guide being hunted down by African tribesmen. It's a lean, gripping adventure that showcased Wilde's promising future as a first-rate filmmaker. Unfortunately, Wilde never realized that potential as a director, as evidenced by his bizarre 1970 science fiction opus No Blade of Blade.

The film opens with a five-minute montage showing man's pollution of the environment, accompanied by the melancholy title song performed by Roger Whittaker. The story then picks up with the London-based Custance family, which has been warned to evacuate the city by their friend Roger Burnham. In flashback, we learn that a grass disease, created by pollution, has caused worldwide famine. Food has been rationed. Martial law has been declared in large cities. There are rumors of government-directed mass killings in some countries.

John Custance (Nigel Davenport) plans to take his wife, daughter, and Roger to his brother's rural farm in the north. They barely make it out of London, though, as rioters and looters attack their cars. They stop at a hardware store to buy guns and ammunition, but the elderly store owner refuses to sell to them without a firearms license. An argument ensues and a store employee named Pirrie kills the old man. John allows Pirrie and his wife to join their caravan. It's the first of many questionable decisions made for the sake of survival.

As the travelers make their way north, they encounter violent gangs, desperate families, and soldiers who have turned on their superiors. It's a bleak look at humanity. When the Custances are ambushed and robbed of their supplies, a shocked Ann Custance asks: "What kind of people are you?" The reply: "The same kind of people you are, ma'am." In a handful of scenes like this, director Wilde drives his points home effectively. 

Lynne Frederick and Anthony May.
Unfortunately, his heavy-handed approach dilutes the overall effectiveness with flash forwards, too many pollution montages, and an overreliance on news broadcasts to substantiate the events (a technique George Romero used effectively in Night of the Living Dead). The treatment of the Custances' teenage daughter, Mary (Lynne Frederick), is also disturbing. In the film's opening scenes, she is apparently in a nonsexual relationship with Roger, who must be twice her age. She and her mother are later raped by the biker gang, in a scene that is unnecessarily explicit. Even worse, the trauma surrounding that event is never addressed in the film, almost as if it never happened. Finally, after the borderline psycho Pirrie "disposes" of his wife, he expresses his interest in Mary. She agrees to go with him because she feels safe--a decision that her parents accept all too quickly.

Jean Wallace, aka Mrs. Wilde.
The standouts in the cast are Nigel Davenport as John Custance and Anthony May as Pirrie (the most interesting character). This was the last film made by Jean Wallace, who was Wilde's spouse at the time. It marked the film debut of Lynne Frederick, who married Peter Sellers at age 22 (she was the last of his four wives).

Adapted from John Christopher's 1956 novel The Death of Grass, No Blade of Grass was hard to see for many years. You can now view it for free on the Rumble channel Silver Age Science Fiction Classics 1965-90 by clicking here

For an interesting comparison, you may want to seek out Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero (1962), a similar--but more effective--examination on the potential end of civilization through the eyes of one family.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Seven Things to Know About Walt Disney's Zorro TV Series

Guy Williams as Zorro.
1. Walt Disney launched his Zorro TV series on ABC in October 1957. Despite airing on Thursday nights against the Top 10 show You Bet Your Life, Zorro was an immediate hit. The first season's 39 episodes were divided into three 13-episode story arcs. In effect, each story played out like a 13-episode serial. That structure was retained for the second season, but the length of the story arcs was shortened. Zorro's ratings dipped that season, but ABC was still interested in renewing the show on a limited basis. Unfortunately, a legal dispute between Disney and ABC resulted in Zorro being cancelled (for more info on the legal issues, check out Bill Cotter's article). In 1960, four hour-long "special" episodes of Zorro were shown on the anthology series Walt Disney Presents--which, ironically, was still being shown on ABC.

Jonathan Harris as Don Carlos.
2. Jonathan Harris guest-starred in Zorro several years before he was cast as Dr. Smith alongside Guy Williams on Lost in Space. He played villainous landowner Don Carlos Fernandez in three second season episodes: "Zorro and the Mountain Man," "The Hound of the Sierras," and "Manhunt." Harris's agent told the Zorro producers that his client could ride a horse. In fact, Harris had a fear of horses and a stunt double had to be used. Of his future Lost in Space co-star, Jonathan Harris said in a Television Academy Foundation interview: "I don't think we got very friendly."

3. The title song to Zorro was written by Norman Foster and George Bruns and performed by The Mellomen. Bruns earned four Academy Award nominations for his work on Disney films over a span of several decades. He also co-wrote "The Ballad of Davy Crocket," which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 as recorded by Bill Hayes. The Zorro song was released as single, too, but peaked at #17. That version was recorded by the female quartet The Chordettes. Their biggest chart hits were "Mr. Sandman" and "Lollipop."

Annette Funicello.
4. Annette Funicello was a huge Zorro fan, so Walt Disney gave her a unique present for her 16th birthday: a three-episode story arc on Zorro. She played Anita Cabrillo, a young woman who arrived from Spain in search of her father. The three episodes, which aired during season 2, were: "The Missing Father," "Please Believe Me," and "The Brooch." Annette later guest-starred as another character in "The Postponed Wedding," one of the hour-long episodes.

5. The international popularity of the Zorro character led Walt Disney to release two theatrical films consisting of edited episodes of the TV series. The Sign of Zorro (1958) was edited from eight season one episodes. Zorro the Avenger (1959) has Zorro taking on The Eagle (Charles Korvin), who appeared in six episodes, also from the first season. Disney re-released The Sign of Zorro to theaters in 1978 and in 1982. In the latter instance, its running time was shortened and it was paired with Disney's animated Robin Hood (1973).

6. Walt Disney Television revived Zorro in 1983 with the CBS TV series Zorro and Son. Set 20 years after the original show, it introduced Don Carlos de Vega as Zorro's offspring, who naturally follows in his father's footsteps. Guy Williams considered returning as Zorro, Sr., and even flew from his Argentine estate to meet with the producers. However, when he discovered the show would have a comical slant, he turned down the role and Henry Darrow (whom I interviewed in 2015) was cast as Zorro. Despite the presence of veteran comedians Bill Dana and Dick Gautier, Zorro and Son was cancelled after five episodes.

7. Following the cancellation of the original Zorro, Guy Williams starred in a couple of European films (including Damon and Pythias) in the early 1960s. He was then cast as Ben Cartwright's nephew Will on Bonanza. The intent was for him to "replace" Pernell Roberts, who had decided to leave the popular series. When Roberts was retained for the following season, Will Cartwright was written out of Bonanza after just five episodes. Still, Guy Williams didn't stay unemployed for long as he was cast as family patriarch Dr. John Robinson in Irwin Allen's sci fi series Lost in Space. Unfortunately, Dr. Robinson faded into the background of most episodes when Jonathan Harris's Dr. Smith became the show's unexpected breakout star. Guy Williams retired from acting in 1968. He eventually moved to Argentina in the 1970s, where he was immensely popular because of his Zorro portrayal. He died in 1989 of a brain aneurysm.

Click here to read all the entries in Silver Scenes' The 100 Years of Disney Blogathon!

Monday, September 4, 2023

The Killers (1964) and Tenebrae

Clu Gulager and Lee Marvin.
The Killers (1964). Don Siegel's adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's 1946 short story "The Killers" is sadly overshadowed by the 1946 film version that made stars of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Siegel's The Killers is a lean, fast-paced drama that borrows elements from the 1946 movie, but alters the narrative path. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play contract killers Charlie and Lee, who are hired to murder former race car driver Johnny North. The job goes off without a hitch, but Charlie (Marvin), the more experienced hit man, is bothered by the fact that Johnny knew they were coming to kill him--but chose not to flee. Charlie becomes obsessed with finding out why and, as the killers interview people who knew their victim, Johnny's story unfolds in flashbacks. John Cassavetes turns in one of his most likable performances as Johnny, whose once-promising career goes off the rails when he falls for a mobster's mistress (Angie Dickinson). The flashbacks are well done, but The Killers works best when it focuses on the contrasting title characters: the quiet, perceptive Charlie and his younger, more action-minded partner Lee. Marvin's performance foreshadows his ruthless role in the better-known Point Blank (1967), while Gulager is a revelation. It's a shame that his career was mostly limited to TV series such as The Tall Man and The Virginian. The Killers was originally intended as one of the first made-for-TV movies, but its content was deemed too violent and it received a theatrical release. A scene in which Ronald Reagan, as a ruthless criminal, slaps Angie Dickinson is often cited for its violence. However, it pales in comparison to a later scene in which Marvin's hit man brutally slugs her. You can currently stream The Killers on Rumble for free by clicking here.

Tenebrae (1982). After a detour into supernatural horror with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), filmmaker Dario Argent returned to the giallo genre where he experienced great success in the 1970s (e.g., Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). Tony Franciosa stars as American writer Peter Neal, who travels to Rome to promote his latest mystery, a grisly thriller titled Tenebrae. Following the death of a young woman, Peter receives a letter from the killer who claims to have been inspired by Peter's violent novels. As more murders occur, the author closes in on the identity of the murderer--but all is not what it seems. Stylish and thematically complex, Tenebrae suffers from Argento's desire to pull out all the stops--no matter the costs. There's an incredible tracking shot in which the camera crawls along the side of a building, then up and over it and down the other side. It's an amazing technical feat, but adds little to the scene's suspense. There are also anonymous flashbacks, blood-splattered killings (you've been warned!), and a doozy of a climatic twist. I'm still not sure if the latter plays fair with the audience, but it will grab your attention. Tenebrae is a a moderately-successful return to Argento's roots, but it could have been so much more. Despite starring a well-known American actor, Tenebrae received a limited release in the U.S. two years after its European premiere; it was heavily edited and retitled Unsane

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Alternate Movie Title Game - Greatest Hits (Vol. 1)

This month, we're doing something a little different for the Alternate Movie Title Game. The "titles" below have been compiled from some of our previous games--so this is sort of a greatest hits edition! The rules are the same: We will provide an "alternate title" for a famous movie and ask you to name the film. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. The Lying--But Likable--Magazine Columnist's Holiday in New England.

2. Hole of Vipers.

3. Incident at the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q.

4. Alien Nuptials.

5. Octopus in the House.

6. Battlin' Buckboard.

7.  A Snake Called Adolphe.

8. The Secret Agent That Got Nice and Toasty.

9. The Ugly Bug Ball.

10. Red Beard and the Boy Spy.

11, Queen of Neewollah.

12. Avalanche in Echo Pass!

13. I'm Beverly Boyer and I'm a Pig.

14. General Sternwood's Daughter.

15. Robur the Conqueror.

Monday, August 7, 2023

The Deadly Affair and Harper

James Mason as Charles Dobbs.
The Deadly Affair (1967). James Mason stars as Charles Dobbs--a renamed George Smiley--in Sidney Lumet's moderately successful adaptation of John Le Carre's novel Call for the Dead. The plot is more mystery than espionage as Dobbs tries to discover whether a diplomat (recently cleared of spying) committed suicide or was murdered. While the authorities are content with an explanation of suicide, Dobbs can't rationalize why the dead man requested a wake-up call the night of his death. Director Lumet creates a visually compelling tapestry filled with dark rainy days and shadowy characters. Mason makes a respectable Dobbs/Smiley, but Harry Andrews almost steals the film as a recently retired police detective concerned only with the facts (he falls asleep whenever Dobbs starts to speculate). Simone Signoret is also fabulous as the dead man's widow, a Holocaust survivor whose political allegiances are less murky than they appear. A subplot involving Dobbs' serially unfaithful wife Ann was added for the film. Interestingly, it foreshadows a critical plotline in Le Carre's later Smiley novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You can currently stream The Deadly Affair on Rumble for free by clicking here.

Newman as Lew Harper.
Harper (1966).  George Smiley wasn't the only 1960s protagonist to undergo a name change en route from novel to film. Ross Macdonald's private eye Lew Archer became Lew Harper when Paul Newman agreed to star in an adaptation of the novel The Moving Target. Allegedly, Newman requested the name change because of his previous success in films with titles starting with "h" (e.g., The Hustler, Hud). Harper is a slick, star-infused mystery that finds the titular detective searching for a missing millionaire at the bequest of the man's bitter wife (Lauren Bacall). The case quickly turns into a kidnapping and pretty soon dead bodies start appearing. Newman is well-cast as the cynical, gum-chewing private eye intent on pursuing every possible lead. Screenwriter William Goldman provides Harper with an estranged wife (Janet Leigh), perhaps in an attempt to give Harper a backstory. It doesn't add much, though, as Lew Harper serves mainly to guide the audience through the labyrinthian plot. What elevates Harper are the splashy locales in and around sun-drenched Los Angeles and the star-packed supporting cast that includes Bacall, Leigh, Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Pamela Tiffin, Arthur Hill, and Strother Martin. Newman reprised the role of Lew Harper in the inferior 1975 sequel The Drowning Pool. If you enjoy Harper, I recommend checking out James Garner's turn as Philip Marlowe in Marlowe (1969). You can currently stream Harper on Rumble for free by clicking here.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Lon Chaney, Jr. Makes a Strange Confession

Chaney Jr. and the black bag.
The most incongruent entry in Universal's six-film Inner Sanctum series is also one of the best. Whereas its brethren are psychological suspense tales, Strange Confession (1945) is a straight drama with a subtly gruesome conclusion.

Series regular Lon Chaney, Jr. stars as Jeff Carter, a chemist who wants to make a difference for humanity. As he often says, Jeff doesn't care about money nor glory. His attitude and work ethic are exploited by his employer (J. Carrol Naish), the unscrupulous head of a pharmaceutical company. When Jeff refuses to rush a new drug to market, his boss promptly fires him and prevents him from working at any other lab.

J. Carrol Naish as the villain.
Jeff is content to work at a drugstore and conduct his experiments in his spare time. However, his wife Mary (Brenda Joyce) understandably wants a better life for their young son and for herself. When Jeff has an opportunity to return to his old job, Mary convinces him to take it. That decision results in personal tragedy as well as affecting the lives of hundreds of others.

Told in flashback, Strange Confession makes it clear from the opening scenes that it will not have a happy ending. Prior to relating his tale in an old college friend, now a prominent attorney, Jeff reveals the contents of a small black bag he has been carrying. The audience doesn't get to see the contents, but the attorney's reaction (and the size of the bag) make it pretty obvious. It's a chilling--but highly effective--way to capture one's attention!

Brenda Joyce as Mary.
While Chaney's do-gooder and Naish's villain are pretty much black-and-white characters, Brenda Joyce gets one of her best roles as Mary Carter. She loves her husband for his noble ideas, but she also realizes that good intentions don't provide a better life for her family. Her motives in regard to Jeff's boss are more complex. When he ships Jeff off to South America and starts paying her attention, it's hard to imagine that Mary is totally blind to his intentions.

It's nice to see Brenda Joyce in a part so different from her most famous one: Jane in the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller and Lex Barker. Her transition from a full-time mother living in a small apartment to a well-dressed suburban resident with a full-time housekeeper is a credit to the actress...and costume designer Vera West. West dresses the actress modestly in the early scenes before shifting to more luxurious outfits following the family's rise in financial status.

If the plot to Strange Confession sounds vaguely familiar, then you may have seen The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) with Claude Rains. Both films were based on the same 1932 stage play by Jean Bart. While the plot is different in Strange Confession, it retains the central premise and Chaney's character even notes that Naish's villain has stolen his ideas and he needs to "reclaim his head."

The Inner Sanctum film series is a cut above other "B" pictures produced by Universal in the 1940s. While not a typical entry, Strange Confession is an engrossing one that will hold your attention from the start to finish. It's also an opportunity to see future TV stars in supporting roles: Lloyd Bridges (shown on right) plays Lon's co-worker and Milburn Stone is Naish's de facto henchman.

Monday, July 10, 2023

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Musicals Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a movie musical and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. Columbia Inn.

2. A Man Named Detroit.

3. I Am Going to Like It Here.

4. Avalanche in Echo Pass!

5. The Think System.

6. The Parish Boy's Progress (this might be a little difficult).

7. Umbrella, Brooms, and Kites.

8. Chance Is a Fool's Name for Fate.

9. A Whole Lot of Young Ladies.

10. Faust: The Musical.

11. The Road to Rome (there may be more than one answer).

12. Dancin' When Wet.

13. Hank and the King (another potentially hard one).

14. Daisy or Melinda?

15. The Student Witch.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Rod Serling Saddles the Wind

John Cassavetes glares.
The opening of notes of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans's title tune--a torch song whispered intimately by Julie London--lets you know that Saddle the Wind (1958) won't be a conventional Western. But if you start to doubt that notion, Rod Serling's credit as screenwriter and the casting of John Cassavetes as an unhinged cowboy will dispel any such notions. 

Robert Taylor stars as Steve Sinclair, a reformed gunfighter who operates a mid-sized ranch in a scenic valley. Steve spends a lot of his time looking out for his younger brother--and surrogate son--Tony (Cassavetes). Steve loves his brother, but recognizes that Tony is a "gun crazy, loco kid." One day, Tony returns from a cattle-selling trip with a saloon singer named Joan (London) and announces his intention to marry her. 

Julie London as Joan.
Steve doesn't exactly welcome Joan into the family and she initially resents his parental treatment of Tony. However, Joan gradually realizes how much Steve cares for his brother. She also learns there is a dark side to Tony--especially after she watches him kill a gunfighter after goading the man into a face-off.

The opening scenes of Saddle the Wind promise to deliver a unique take on the Western genre. Unfortunately, the story goes off the rails when it nudges Julie London to the background and shifts focus to the tired old plot about Eastern settlers building fences on the open range. It's hard to fault screenwriter Serling, who was saddled (pun intended) with a story by Thomas Thompson. 

Saddle the Wind also exhibits signs of studio interference. The sub-90 minute running time is atypical for a star-powered feature and the denouement wraps up the story too quickly. Also, Jeff Alexander's score was replaced by one composed by Elmer Bernstein. (In 2005, Alexander's Saddle the Wind soundtrack was released for the first time.)

Robert Taylor as Steve.
Rod Serling's screenplay still crackles with memorable dialogue. When Steve is trying to make a point to Tony, he asks: "Do I have to crawl inside your head with an iron and burn it there?" The opening scene is pure Serling, a brilliantly-written, three-character "play" in which a grizzled gunfighter barges into a saloon looking for Steve Sinclair. It reminded me of Serling's later, underappreciated Western TV series The Loner, which takes place during the same post-Civil War period.

Robert Taylor and John Cassavetes work well together as the very different brothers. Taylor exudes calm and resilience, while Cassavetes plays Tony like a rubber band that's ready to snap at any given time. Julie London brings an gritty realism to her disenchanted saloon singer. The scene where she sings to Cassavetes could have been a throwaway, but she turns it into a touching moment. I was bummed when London's character was shuffled to the background and relegated to a minor supporting part.

One of the last "adult Westerns" of the 1950s, Saddle the Wind is an odd duck--and I mean that in a good way. It may not always work, but what's left on the screen holds one's interest while leaving the viewer a little sad that didn't turn out to be more.


You can watch Saddle the Wind for free on Rumble.com by clicking here. My Twitter pal @CED_LD_Guy has uploaded lots of interesting films on his Rumble channels.