Monday, September 21, 2020

Tony Curtis as The Great Impostor

Young Ferdinand Demara, Jr. isn't one to take "no" for an answer, even after well-intentioned Father Devlin (Karl Malden) explains that sometimes you just have to accept your limitations.

Years later, Demara  (Tony Curtis) encounters a major career obstacle when his application for Officer Candidate School is rejected by the Army because he lacks a high school diploma. After mulling over the situation, he forges college transcripts and is accepted as an officer by the Marines. That plan goes quickly awry, though, when he learns he must undergo a security check by the F.B.I.

Tony Curtis and Raymond Massey.
Demara promptly fakes his suicide and embarks on a career of creating false identities. He spends time as a Trappist monk, a deputy prison warden, a military ship's physician, and a teacher. His ability to learn quickly serves him well--especially when performing surgical operations after reading a few pages of Gray's Anatomy! Not all goes according to plan since he's captured by the Army and spends 18 months in prison. But he even turns that into a positive and later becomes a leader for prison reform in a maximum security facility.

Incredibly, The Great Impostor is based on the life the Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. While some of the film is fictitious, the real Demara did pose as a monk, assistant prison warden, naval surgeon, and teacher. His life was the subject of the biography The Great Impostor, written by Robert Crichton.

Tony Curtis with Sue Ane Langdon.
If you're looking for insight into Demara's extraordinary life, you won't find it in The Great Impostor. The lead character's rationale is he's doing these fantastic things because he can--and because the thrill of potential capture is exciting. It doesn't help that the film has been shaped as a breezy Tony Curtis vehicle for the most part. One almost expects a cheerful Curtis to break the fourth wall and start talking to the audience long before he smiles at us in the final shot.

There are couple of serious segments, such as when Demara tries to reach a hardened convict and later performs emergency surgeries on 18 Korean combat casualties. In these scenes, it becomes apparent that Demara wants to do good--even if his actions put innocent people at life-threatening risks. (Imagine being operated on by a man with no medical experience whatsoever!)

Tony Curtis's fans are sure to enjoy The Great Impostor. Coming off the most impressive stretch of his career (1957-60), the actor seems to be having fun and lays on the charm. He is surrounded by a bunch of veteran actors (Edmund O'Brien, Raymond Massey, Arthur O'Connell) and attractive co-stars (Joan Blackman and Sue Ane Langdon, who steals all her scenes). However, in the end, it's just a shame that Tony didn't get the opportunity to play Demara in a more serious film, something along the lines of Steven Spielberg's more compelling Catch Me If You Can (2002).

Monday, September 14, 2020

Arabesque: Stanley Donen's Follow-up to Charade

Sophia Loren as Yasmin.
Oxford University professor David Pollack (Gregory Peck) is ill-prepared for spies, murder, and abduction when he agrees to translate a hieroglyphic message. On the plus side, he rather enjoys spending time with an exotic beauty named Yasmin (Sophia Loren), who may be working for the good guys...or the bad guys. Frankly, for much of Arabesque, David doesn't know who to trust.

Made in 1966, Arabesque is a breezy entertainment in which the plot is purely secondary. For the record, it has something to do with a Middle East country whose prime minister is about to sign an agreement that will devalue an oil baron's (Alan Badel) empire. The key to everything is a piece of paper with the aforementioned hieroglyphics (which in Hitchcockian terms is the film's MacGuffin).

Gregory Peck as the professor.
Style takes precedence over narrative in Arabesque, which was clearly-intended as a follow-up to the more successful Charade (1963). Both films were directed by Stanley Donen with music by Henry Mancini and with two big stars in the lead roles. More specifically, both films featured male stars who were much older than their female co-stars. A key difference, though, is that the roles have been reversed. In Charade, Audrey Hepburn's character is the innocent who gets caught up in the intrigue. In Arabesque, Gregory Peck plays the naive college professor who soon finds himself mixed up with villains and double agents.

Unsurprisingly, Donen wanted Charade star Cary Grant to play Pollack opposite Sophia Loren. However, Grant allegedly didn't like the screenplay, although the dialogue was written with him in mind. While Gregory Peck is a fine actor, it's strange to hear him spout Cary Grant one-liners--which seem to fall flat most of the time.

Loren being zipped into Christian Dior.
In contrast, Sophia Loren appears much more comfortable in the role of the mischievous Yasmin, whose willingness to use Pollack eventually gives way to caring for him. She also gets to wear a lot of fabulous Christian Dior dresses and hats. I've read that she wears twenty different pairs of shoes in Arabesque, though I didn't stop to count them.

With its colorful locations and Donen's nimble direction, Arabesque works as a satisfactory way to spend 105 minutes. Still, those hoping for a repeat of the Charade magic will be sadly disappointed.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Karen Valentine

1. A California resident, Karen Valentine competed in the 1964 Miss Teenage America pageant. She won the talent competition with "a pantomime take-off of a bossa nova song" (according to Life Magazine). Her performance caught the attention of Ed Sullivan, who invited her to appear on his weekly variety show.

2. In 1969, Karen landed her most famous role, as young energetic high school teacher Alice Johnson in Room 222. The following year, she earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy. She was nominated a second time in 1971 and remained with the show throughout its five-year run.

As Alice Johnson in Room 222.
3. In a 2013 interview with Mark Voger, Karen Valentine said about Room 222: "It was the first show, I think, that showed blacks and whites interacting so well together, and role models in teachers and counselors. It was so well accepted that in certain parts of the country, Room 222 was required viewing by some of the teachers and principals and administrative staffs around different schools."

4. Following the cancellation of Room 222, Karen Valentine got her own TV series in 1975. In Karen, she played a single, independent woman working for Open America, a citizens' advocate organization. Charles Lane co-starred as the organization's curmudgeonly founder (replacing Denver Pyle, who played the role in the pilot). Despite being co-created by Larry Gelbert (M*A*S*H), Karen was cancelled at mid-season.

5. Karen Valentine remained in high demand throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Her unsold television pilots include: A Girl's Life (1983) with Fred Dryer as her boyfriend and Joan Hackett as her mom; Adam's House (1983), in which she played a Chicago social worker; and a proposed 1980 series based on The Goodbye Girl.

6. Karen also appeared in a number of made-for-TV movies, most notably: the title role in Gidget Grows Up (1969); one of  Buddy Edsen's "daughters" in The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972); a stewardess with multiple husbands in different cities in Coffee, Tea or Me? (1973); and a "birthday present" for Richard Long in The Girl Who Came Gift Wrapped (1974). Her last movie/TV acting credit is the 2004 Hallmark Channel movie Wedding Daze, with John Larroquette.

7. Karen Valentine was married to Carl MacLaughlin, Jr. for almost four years. His profession is sometimes listed as actor, though his only credit in the IMDb is an appearance with Karen on a Merv Griffin Show about celebrity married couples. Since 1977, Karen has been wed to musician Gary Verna. He won an Daytime Creative Arts Emmy for an original song he co-wrote for The Young and the Restless.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Sharpe's World: Love, Courage, and Respect

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.
In 1993, ITV launched a series of television movies based on Bernard Cornwell's novels about a British officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Sean Bean starred as Richard Sharpe, a sergeant who is promoted to lieutenant after he saves the life of the Duke of Wellington. During the series, which consisted of sixteen films, Sharpe rises to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In Sharpe's Rifles (1993), though, he struggles with being accepted as an officer. He is put in charge of a small unit of riflemen and clashes immediately with Corporal Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley). Harper considers himself the equal of Sharpe and butts heads often with the newly-minted lieutenant. It culminates in Sharpe charging Harper with mutiny--a charge he later drops when Harper saves their mission.

Sharpe also grapples frequently with his fellow officers. Unlike most officers, who bought their commissions, he does not hail from a well-to-do family and lacks a formal education. However, Sharpe possesses more battlefield experience than most of his superiors--and seldom refrains from expressing his opinions.

As the series progresses, Sharpe becomes accepted by his subordinates, who admire his courage and intelligence. However, he forms few friendships with fellow officers, preferring to fraternize with his soldiers. Put another way, he favors a hearty mug of ale over a glass of fine wine.

Daragh O'Malley as Harper.
The ruggedly handsome Sharpe has several romantic relationships throughout the series and eventually marries (one of the most interesting storylines). However, his strongest relationships are with two men: Patrick Harper and the Duke of Wellington. Indeed, Sean Bean and Daragh O'Malley (as Harper) are the only two actors to appear in every film. Their characters' mutual respect is the one constant during the chaos of war. Wellington (played initially by  David Troughton and then Hugh Fraser) also admires and trusts Sharpe. Still, he occasionally takes advantage of the younger officer--though he bales out Sharpe on several occasions.

Sean Bean perfectly captures the blue-collar ethic of the titular hero. An ongoing joke during the series is that the enemy and rival officers expect Sharpe to fight like a gentleman--while Sharpe fights to win. The beauty of Bean's performance, though, is that he also conveys Sharpe's innate kindness toward women and his insecurity in regard to his education.

Abigail Cruttenden as Jane.
The supporting cast includes several actors who appear in multiple episodes. The standouts include Pete Postlethwaite as a psychotic sergeant and Abigail Cruttenden as Sharpe's wife. If the chemistry between Bean and Cruttenden seems real, then that's because it was--they were married for two years.

The majority of the Sharpe films are above-average, though the plots start to get a little repetitious toward the end. There are also lots of battle scenes. Still, the strong characters carry the day with the only truly bad episode (Sharpe's Justice) being one that's not based on a Cornwell novel. All of the films except the last two revolve around the Napoleonic Wars and were produced during 1993-97. Sharpe's Challenge (2006) and Sharpe's Peril (2008) shift the action to India.

John Tams, who plays Rifleman Daniel Hagman, also sings occasionally on the show. Most episodes end with the traditional folk song "Over the Hill and Far Away" with additional lyrics written by Tams. In fact, the music was popular enough to result in an album, Over the Hills and Far Away: The Music of Sharpe, featuring Tams and others.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High

Clint Eastwood's first American film after achieving international stardom in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy was predictably a Western. What is surprising is that Eastwood chose to ignore the qualities that made Leone's Western pictures unique. I wouldn't call Hang 'Em High (1968) conventional--it's a downright odd mix of revenge drama, political statement, and uncomfortable romance. And yet, it's all Hollywood--no Spaghetti.

Eastwood plays Jed Cooper, a rancher on the trail with his small herd of cattle. He is confronted by an unofficial posse who suspects him of murder and theft. Despite producing a bill of sale, Jed cannot convince the posse of his innocence and he is hanged and left for dead. Jed doesn't die, though, and is rescued by a federal marshal who takes him to Fort Grant. 

Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton.
Judge Adam Fenton (Pat Hingle) aims to enforce law and order over the entire Oklahoma Territory with a small team of marshals. Learning that Jed was once a lawman, the judge convinces him to pin on the tin star again. Jed's motive is driven by revenge--he wants to track down the nine men that hanged him. In the meantime, he also takes note of a young attractive woman named Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens). Strangely, she is given the opportunity to view every new prisoner brought to Fort Grant. As Jed later learns, her motives are also driven by revenge.

There's a lot--indeed, too much--going on in Hang 'Em High. Jed's quest for revenge is overshadowed by Judge Fenton's relentless pursuit for justice. The judge resides over so many trials that there's just no time to get into the details of every case. That gets under Jed's skin when a teenage boy is hanged instead of given an opportunity to reform. Likewise, Jed can't tolerate how the mass hangings are turned into entertainment spectacles that attract almost every resident of the community.

Inger Stevens as Rachel.
There are the makings of an interesting political Western here, perhaps along the lines of Kirk Douglas's clever Posse (1975). However, just as it gets interesting, Hang 'Em High changes direction and focuses on the awkward romance between Jed and Rachel. Their relationship allows her to overcome her need for vengeance, but Jed still jumps at the chance to capture or kill the men who wronged him. I'm sure the screenwriters intended to make some major statement on this plot development, but I totally missed it.

The cast is adequate, with Pat Hingle taking over the film by the sheer force of his personality. Clint  grimaces and looks irritated, but lacks the humor that made his Westerns with Sergio Leone so entertaining. As Clint's love interest, Inger Stevens has a better-developed role than her usual ones. The Swedish-born actress with the compelling eyes was wasted in many films during her short career. She died at age 35 of an apparent suicide.

In fact, my recommendation is to skip Hang 'Em High and opt for any of Clint's Spaghetti Westerns or later quality efforts like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Doris and Rock Engage in Pillow Talk

Doris Day as Jan.
Interior designer Jan Morrow shares a party line with composer Brad Allen--and that's a problem. You see, Brad (Rock Hudson) is a lothario who uses the telephone to woo his admirers. When Jan (Doris Day) complains to the telephone company, it sends a female representative, who immediately succumbs to the handsome Brad's charms.

Brad is equally frustrated with Jan until he sees the pretty professional at a nightclub. Knowing that she would never give him the time of day, Brad invents a new persona: a naive Texan named Rex Stetson, who is visiting New York City. Sparks fly between Jan and "Rex." She believes she may have found the perfect gentleman. Brad thinks he can make Jan one of his conquests within five days (at most).

Rock Hudson as Brad.
Made in 1959, Pillow Talk is a smart, well-written comedy that benefits from brilliant casting. It was the first of three films made with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The two were already big stars, but their on-screen chemistry is far greater than the sum of its parts. Hudson, who had made over a dozen dramas during the previous five years, was not known for his comedic skills. However, his funny side blossoms alongside Doris Day. That works to her advantage because she doesn't have to carry the comedy all by herself, as she did in later films with Rod Taylor (The Glass Bottom Boat) and Richard Harris (Caprice).

Brad goes drinking with Alma.
It helps, of course, to have Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter in the supporting cast. The typically delightful Ritter actually has a small role, but it includes a wonderful scene in which Brad unwisely tries to get her drunk. Randall has a field day as a quirky millionaire pursuing Jan while trying to mount a Broadway musical with his good friend Brad. He also gets many of the best one-liners. Upon learning that Brad has been rejected by Jan, he quips: "The great Brad Allen, chopped down to size, floating down the river with the rest of us logs."

Director Michael Gordon injects Pillow Talk with a playful sense of humor. He uses split screens periodically throughout the film to show Jan and Brad talking on the party line. The technique is especially effective in the opening scene in which we see Jan, Brad, and one of Brad's girlfriends all at different locations talking on the phone. In a later split scene, Jan and "Rex" seem to touch feet romantically as they talk on the phone. However, an even more effective technique is allowing the audience to hear the thoughts of Jan and Brad as voiceovers (check out the clip at the end of this review).
Interestingly, Michael Gordon specialized in serious dramas early in his career (e.g., An Act of MurderCyrano de Bergerac). His career was interrupted when he was blacklisted in the early 1950s. Pillow Talk (1959) was his first feature film in eight years. He directed Doris Day again in Move Over, Darling (1963). He was the grandfather of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun, 500 Days of Summer).

Pillow Talk earned five Oscar nominations, with its writers winning the award for Best Screenplay. Doris Day was nominated for Best Actress and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress. Doris, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall reteamed for two more comedies: Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). The best of their three films is the sparkling classic Lover Come Back. But if it's their #1 film, then Pillow Talk is #1a!

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (1950s Sci Fi Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie 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. Alien Nuptials.

2. Don't Go to Sleep!

3. When the Elevator Stopped.

4. Escape to Zyra.

5. Hooray for Bacteria!

6. Help Me! Help Me!

7. Infinitesimal.

8. Swimming With Kay.

9. Alien Desert Crash.

10. Don't Water the Rocks.

11. Carrot Creature.

12. Id Monster.

13. They Live in the Storm Drain!

14. Big Grasshoppers.

15. Gertrud (or Gertrude) the Duck.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Les Diaboliques: Murder with a Twist

Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret.
Michel Delassalle, the headmaster at a second-rate French boarding school, is not a nice person. He treats his frail wife Christina with disdain, openly engages in an affair with fellow teacher Nicole, and buys bad fish because it’s cheap. He even waters down the wine served to the staff at dinner!

The strong-willed Nicole, who wears sunglasses to hide her recent black eye, is fed up with her abusive lover. She convinces Christina that murder is the only way to get rid of Michel permanently. The two women devise a seemingly foolproof scheme that provides them with solid alibis. And everything works according to plan—except, of course, that Michel’s corpse disappears.

Made in 1955, Les Diaboliques is the forerunner to the twisty psychological thrillers, like Psycho and Homicidal, that became prevalent in the 1960s. Even Hitchcock was interested in adapting the novel She Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac. However, filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot purchased the rights after his wife Vera recommended the book.

Simone Signoret as Nicole.
Vera Clouzot also stars as Christina, infusing the role with vulnerability and timidity. Even the boys in her classes recognize her fragility (though she is easily the most popular teacher). Filled with doubt from the outset, Christina needs a strong conspirator and finds one in Nicole. Simone Signoret plays the role with authority and an almost masculine flavor. While her fellow teachers struggle with unruly boys, Nicole’s students march out of their classroom in single file. (The very nature of Nicole’s personality provides a clue to the twist ending.)

Paul Meurisse as Michel.
Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose previous film was the acclaimed Wages of Fear, directs with a sure hand. He fills his frames with shadows and furtive looks. He builds tension effectively, especially in a scene in which a frightened Christina watches from her classroom as a swimming pool—which should contain Michel’s corpse—is drained. Clouzot also adds a touch of dark humor, such as when some upstairs neighbors complain about the noise in Nicole’s apartment, not realizing that a bath tub is being filled to drown a drugged Michel. 

Les Diaboliques has been remade multiple times. Curtis Harrington’s Games is a loose variation starring Simone Signoret again. Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett, and Sam Waterston appeared in a 1974 TV adaptation called Reflections of Murder. Another notable version was the 1996 theatrical film Diabolique with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.

We recommend just sticking with the original, though. Clouzot's taut direction, combined with strong acting by the lead actresses, make Les Diaboliques an influential thriller that has stood the test of time. That said, if you're a fan of twist endings, don't expect to be blown away. It's really not that surprising by today's standards, but that's only because the format has been replicated so many times since its release.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Black Hole Sinks into Itself

In the wake of the massive success of Star Wars (1977), Walt Disney Productions mounted its own science fiction adventure in 1979 with The Black Hole. The concept must have looked promising on paper: A 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea set in outer space for a new generation of young people. However, The Black Hole teeters on the brink of a total disaster with its uneven mixture of seriousness and silliness.

It opens with the crew of the the spaceship Palomino discovering a black hole and a nearby ship capable of defying its gravitational pull. The mysterious spaceship turns out to be the Cygnus, which was assumed to have been destroyed 20 years earlier. After getting too close to the black hole and suffering damage, the Palomino docks inside the much larger Cygnus. The latter ship turns out to still be functional and occupied by its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and a crew of robots.

Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt.
Reinhardt claims that meteors disabled the Cygnus, causing him to evacuate almost the entire crew. He assumed that their escape ship had reached Earth. Reinhardt remained behind with a handful of others--all now dead--and repaired the spaceship with the goal of entering into the black hole.

While some of the Palomino crew believe Reinhardt, others remain skeptical. Their suspicions are reinforced by an unusual robot funeral, a robot that limps, and a garden much larger than required for one human. Could it be that Reinhardt's silent "robots" are actually what's left of his human crew?

As evidenced from above, The Black Hole is not a sci fi romp along the lines of Star Wars. It's a picture devoid of any fun and lacking any action until its final half-hour. The only character with any heft is Reinhardt, who is played with passion and menace by Maximilian Schell. Good actors like Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine flail about trying to make sense of their parts. Borgnine eventually resorts to playing the stereotypical crew member concerned most with self-preservation--but at least he becomes relevant.

Vincent the robot, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine.
Apparently because this is a Disney film, the writers plop two cute robots into the proceedings. They don't belong in the movie and it's awkward when one of the robots banters with Timothy Bottoms when the crew should be focusing on avoiding its demise. Still, the robots are voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, which makes it almost impossible to criticize them.

The Black Hole was Disney's most expensive production to date and most of the budget went toward the special effects. Instead of farming out the effects (which is now the norm), Disney relied on its in-house technicians. The results are sometimes spectacular and sometimes surprisingly shoddy. The entrance into Reinhardt's control room and a sequence with a meteor hurling toward our heroes are jaw-dropping. On the other hand, you can see wires attached to the actors in some of the scenes where they're supposed to be in zero gravity. And some of the matte shots don't match, so it looks like live actors were placed into a cartoon.
The massive control room inside the Cygnus.
In my opinion, John Barry is one of the all-time great film composers. However, his score for The Black Hole rates as one of his weakest efforts. The opening theme is simply disturbing--perhaps indicative of the screenwriters' confusion over whether The Black Hole should be a sci fi adventure or a watered-down version of 2001. Even worse, the background music seems incongruent with the action scenes in the climax.

To be sure, there are some interesting ideas in The Black Hole, such as one character's ability to communicate with a robot through ESP. However, the film is mostly just a jumbled mess. I'm still not sure what to make of the scenes inside the black hole which show what appears to be hell and includes an angel  floating swiftly through the air. Maybe Stanley Kubrick could have made some sense of it.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Movie-TV Connection Game (July 2020)

Rex Harrison and Marc Singer.
The rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question. Yes, that's means we're looking for something in particular!

1. Bob Denver and Ray Milland.

2. Ray Milland and Leslie Howard.

3. Leslie Howard and Bruce Campbell.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Man With the Golden Gun.

5. Rex Harrison and Marc Singer.

6. Charlotte's Web (1973) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).

7. Honeymoon in Vegas and Beach Blanket Bingo.

8. Jennifer (1978) and Stanley (1972).

9. Jane Eyre (1944) and Peter Pan (1953).

10. The Wolf Man and The List of Adrian Messenger.

11. The Bishop's Wife and For Your Eyes Only.

12. James Mason and Claude Rains.

13. Barbra Streisand and Ginger Rogers.

14. Born Losers (1967) and Beach Party.

15. The Sound of Music and Bedazzled (1967).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Classic Movies and Television on Peacock TV

This month, NBCUniversal launched a new streaming service called Peacock TV. It offers two tiers: a limited version that's free and a more robust one that costs $4.99 monthly (though it may be free with your cable service). Both tiers include commercials; it costs $9.99 to go commercial-free. We spent the last two months watching Peacock TV on Comcast Xfinity cable--which equates to the $4.99 monthly tier with commercials. Here's our review!

Let's start with the big question: With all the streaming services available, is Peacock TV a worthwhile investment for the classic film and TV fan? The answer is "maybe." 

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo.
If you're hoping for a plethora of classic TV shows, you'll be disappointed. Most of the television series are either new ones developed for Peacock or recent shows that aired on NBC or the USA network. The most notable exceptions are ColumboAlfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Rockford Files, The Munsters, and Murder, She Wrote. Granted, you can currently watch some of these for free (e.g., The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on MeTV), but Peacock lets you binge the shows at your own speed. My wife and I recently finished season one of AHP (which I reviewed here earlier).

Peacock TV offers "hundreds of movies," which is substantially fewer than the big streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Yet, while its quantity is limited, its quality is pretty impressive in terms of classic movies. There are a lot of Hitchcock films, including Saboteur, Shadow of a DoubtRope, Rear Window, and every film he made from The Trouble With Harry (1955) to Family Plot (1976). 

If you're a fan of Universal's classic horror movies, then you'll love exploring Peacock's collection of Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Invisible Man movies. Even the Abbott and Costello comedies featuring the Universal monsters are included (though I was disappointed that Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer was missing). 

Sophia Loren in Arabesque.
There are a few notable pre-1950s films, such as Beau Geste (Gary Cooper), Shanghai Express, Death Takes a Holiday (Fredric March), Horse Feathers, The Lady Eve, and Double Indemnity. However, Peacock fares better with an impressive sample of movies from the 1950s through the 1970s. There are Hitchcock imitations (Charade, Arabesque, Midnight Lace), Doris Day comedies (The Thrill of It All, Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back), Westerns (Bend of the River, The Far Country), science fiction (It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man), Douglas Sirk soaps (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life), and thrillers (The Day of the Jackal).

The movies I watched included about three minutes of commercials upfront and then were shown without any interruptions. The TV shows, though, seem to have one to three commercials, though the breaks are usually pretty brief. 

It remains to be seen how often Peacock plans to freshen its classic film and TV content. If the movies and shows change on a regular basis, then the Peacock TV $4.99 tier might be a worthwhile investment. Of course, that assumes you don't already own a lot of these classics on DVD and don't want to wait for them to pop up on TCM.

Here's a current sample of classic films (note that these titles are subject to change at any time):

All that Heavens Allows
Beau Geste (1939 and 1966 versions)
A Foreign Affair
Bend of the River
Black Horse Canyon
Blonde Venus
Border River
Bride of Frankenstein 
Cape Fear
The Curse of the Werewolf
The Day of the Jackal
Death Takes a Holiday
Death of a Gunfighter
Destry Rides Again
Double Indemnity
Dracula (1931)
Duck Soup
The Eiger Sanction
The Far Country
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Frankenstein (1931)
Going My Way
The Great Impostor
Horse Feathers
Imitation of Life (both versions)
The Incredible Shrinking Man
It Came From Outer Space
King King (1933)
Lady Godiva
Lady On a Train
Lover Come Back
The Major and the Minor
Man of a Thousand Faces
McHale’s Navy
Midnight Lace
My Favorite Blonde
No Man of Her Own
Pillow Talk
Play Misty for Me
Rear Window
Remember the Night
Road to Morocco (and Utopia and Zanzibar)
Shadow of a Doubt
Shanghai Express
Tammy Tell Me True
Tammy and the Doctor
Texas Across the River
The Sting
Three Smart Girls
The Trouble with Harry

Monday, July 13, 2020

Seven Things to Know About I.A.L. Diamond

1. Beginning with Love in the Afternoon (1957), I.A.L. Diamond wrote twelve movies with Billy Wilder over a period of 25 years. Their biggest hits included Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1961), and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Diamond and Wilder won an Academy Award for original screenplay for The Apartment and were Oscar-nominated for Some Like It Hot and The Fortune Cookie.

2. In a Vanity Fair interview with Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder talked of his collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond: "It’s always very difficult for me to say, 'This is mine and this is his,' always, except of course I have to give him credit for 'Nobody’s perfect' (the closing line in Some Like It Hot). Because that’s the thing they jump on, and I say, 'That was a temporary line, suggested by Mr. Diamond.' And it wound up to be our funniest last line."

3. Diamond was born Itek Domneci and immigrated from what's now Moldova to the U.S. when he was nine. His father changed the family's last name to Diamond.  However, it was Itek who legally changed his first name to I.A.L.--allegedly because it sounded more literary. Another story is that the I.A.L. stood for Interscholastic Algebra League; the young Diamond was a math wiz who was the league's champion. In Hollywood, Diamond became known simply as Iz.

Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.
4. Although Diamond was known mostly for writing with Wilder, he also wrote or co-wrote films such as:  Never Say Goodbye (1946) with Errol Flynn; Monkey Business (1952) with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers; Merry Andrew (1958) with Danny Kaye; and Cactus Flower (1969) with Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress).

5. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were widely admired by their fellow screenwriters. They were nominated for the Writer Guild Association (WGA) award ten times and won three (Love in the Afternoon, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment). The WGA honored Diamond with its honorary Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement in 1980.

6. I.A.L. Diamond married Barbara Ann Bentley in 1945. They remained together until his death in 1988, at age 67, of multiple myeloma. They had two children, son Paul and daughter Ann. Paul became a screenwriter and penned scripts for TV series such as Miami Vice Married...With Children, and Knight Rider.

I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder.
7. In the Vanity Fair interview, Billy Wilder also described his highly successful working relationship with Diamond: "We never talked about personal things. That was the beauty of it. I came in the morning; he came in the morning. He gets The Hollywood Reporter and I get Variety. Then we exchanged the trade papers, and then we said, 'Now, where are we?' 'Oh, yes . . .' And then it goes on. He was a unique man, so unique. It was not a collaboration like with (Charles) Brackett, where he told me who his dentist is, kind of things that don’t belong, you know. But Iz Diamond was a very taciturn guy, my partner. It was wonderful to talk about dialogue, or about structure. He was always on the set with me."

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Perry Mason Primer

Warren William as Perry.
Raymond Burr will always be Perry Mason for millions of mystery fans, but Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer hit the big screen twenty years before the long-running TV series.

Warren William was a sharp-witted, gourmet-minded Mason in four Warner Bros. films, beginning with 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog. William seemed a natural for the part, having already played that urbane sleuth Philo Vance and destined to play the Lone Wolf, a jewel thief and detective. In fact, William’s Mason did so much detection that it was easy to forget he was a lawyer and some entries were devoid of courtroom scenes. Two of William’s films are of special interest. The Case of the Curious Bride featured superstar-to-be Errol Flynn as a murder victim and Donald Woods, a future Perry Mason, in another supporting role. Meanwhile, The Case of the Velvet Claws found Mason and secretary Della Street (Claire Dodd) married and trying to take a honeymoon! Comic actor Allen Jenkins played Perry’s detective assistant Spudsy (not Paul) Drake in some of the films.

In 1936, former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez replaced William in The Case of the Black Cat and Donald Woods finished the Warner series with 1937’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.

Raymond Burr.
The Perry Mason TV series debuted in 1957 and enjoyed a nine-year run on CBS. Burr played the lead, of course, with Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as detective Paul Drake, William Talman as prosecuting attorney Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg (Collins died prior to the 1965-66 season). Interestingly, William Hopper also auditioned for the part of Perry (you can probably find his screen test on YouTube).

In 1973, CBS revived the show as The New Perry Mason starring Monte Markham, but it folded after half a season. It co-starred Sharon Acker as Della, Albert Stratton as Paul, Dane Clark as Tragg, and Harry Guardino as Burger. It has never been released on video, but you still might find a few episodes on the video website Daily Motion.

Burr's return as Perry.
Then, in 1985, NBC brought back Raymond Burr in the TV-movie Perry Mason Returns, reuniting him with Hale and introducing William Katt (Hale’s real-life son) as Paul Drake’s son. The premise had a bearded Perry resigning as appellate court judge to defend Della when she is accused of murder. The film’s ratings went through the roof and a series of equally high-rated made-for-TV movies quickly evolved. NBC showed two to four Mason films annually for the next eight years. William Katt bowed out after the 1988 season, with William R. Moses coming aboard as new private eye Ken Malansky. Following Burr’s death from kidney cancer in 1993, NBC produced four Perry Mason Mysteries that starred either Paul Sorvino or Hal Holbrook as Mason-like lawyers.  Barbara Hale and William R. Moses continued as series regulars. With a total of 29 films, the NBC Perry Mason films reign as the longest TV-movie series in broadcast history.

Finally, HBO revived Gardner's sleuth for television in 2020--but with some substantial changes. This new Perry Mason takes place in 1932 with Perry (Matthew Rhys) as a small-time private investigator. Intended as a "origin" series--but with no relation to the books--it also features Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) as a beat cop and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) as the legal secretary to Perry's mentor. The first season earned generally positive reviews.

Here's a list of Perry Mason movies:

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)  (Warren William)
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)  (William)
The Case of the Black Cat (1936)  (Ricardo Cortez)
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937)  (Donald Woods)

Raymond Burr TV-Movies:
Perry Mason Returns (1985)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star (1986)
Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Poison Pen (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of Skin Deep Scandal (1993)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Tell-Tale Talk Show Host (1993)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993)  (Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994)  (Hal Holbrook as “Wild Bill” McKenzie)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1995)  (Holbrook)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995)  (Holbrook)

Monday, July 6, 2020

A Black Sheep and a Young Burl Ives

Bobby Driscoll as Jeremiah.
Young Jeremiah Kincaid lives in a small Indiana town at the turn of the century--the kind of place where the train passing through is the highlight of the day for a youngster. One of those trains changes Jeremiah's life when it stops so that Dan Patch, the champion race horse, can stretch his legs. Jeremiah feeds an apple to the dark-brown horse, who quickly becomes the most prominent subject in the young boy's scrapbook.

When a little black lamb is born, and rejected by its mother, Jeremiah adopts it. His goal is raise Danny, named after Dan Patch (of course), into a prize-winning ram. Jeremiah's pragmatic grandmother, who cares for the boy, has reservations. She knows that black wool has little value. It doesn't help that Danny is a rascal, who runs rampant one day and almost destroys the farm.

Made in 1948, So Dear to My Heart is a heartwarming Disney picture that combines live action with animated sequences. To be honest, the animation doesn't add much to the film except a splash of color and some modestly entertaining songs sung by cowboy star Ken Carson. Still, if one subtracts the animated scenes, the 79-minute film would barely be long enough for a theatrical release.
Ever notice that large animated animals have deeper voices?
It's interesting to watch So Dear to My Heart knowing the trajectory of Disney family films over the next two decades. The studio would gradually abandon endearing family fare like this and Old Yellow (1957) in favor of comedies starring the likes of Fred MacMurray, Dean Jones, and Kurt Russell. 

A young-ish Burl Ives.
Burl Ives had only appeared in three films when he took the role of Uncle Hiram, the town's blacksmith and a father figure for Jeremiah. At age 39, he looks relatively trim, but still possesses the engaging smile and twinkle in the eyes that would serve him well in movies like this one. (It's also why he was so very effective in different roles, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) 

Ives also gets a chance to warble a couple of tunes, including the English folk song "Lavender Blue." It became one of his signature songs and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song (which is odd because it was not an original song).

Danny the black sheep.
 As Jeremiah and his grandmother, Bobby Driscoll and Beulah Bondi give appealing, natural performances. It's nice to see Bondi, a talented supporting actress, in a lead role and you can feel her character's angst as she struggles with how to raise her grandson. 

As for Driscoll, he earned a special juvenile Oscar in 1949 for his performances in So Dear to My Heart and The Window. Driscoll also appeared in other Disney fare such as Song of the South and Treasure Island. Unfortunately, his acting career fizzled as he grew older and, in 1961, he was sentenced to a rehab center for drug addiction.

So Dear to My Heart isn't shown as often as other Disney films. It used to be available on Hoopla, a free streaming service available through many public libraries. That ended, though, with the launch of Disney+. The film may not be one of Disney's best, but it nicely evokes a time when state fairs were a big deal and a small town could rally around the dreams of a young boy.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One

The new streaming app Peacock TV officially launches on July 15, 2020. However, it's available now for customers of Comcast's Xfinity cable service. Most of the TV shows on Peacock are recent ones from NBC. A wonderful exception is Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the classic anthology series that aired for seven seasons starting in 1955. (Incidentally, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is also available.)

While not as consistently good as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was an above-average series comprised of twisty tales. Each episode also featured a wryly amusing prologue and epilogue starring Alfred Hitchcock. Occasionally, these were better than the stories that they book-ended!

The actors that appeared on AHP were a mix of big-name stars (Claude Rains, Joseph Cotten, Barry Fitzgerald, Thelma Ritter, Claire Trevor), promising newcomers (Vera Miles, Joanne Woodward, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson), and Hitchcock movie regulars (John Williams, Pat Hitchcock). The Master of Suspense directed four of the 39 episodes.

Here are our picks for the best episodes from the first season:

Vera Miles in "Revenge."
Revenge - The first episode of the series is one of its finest! Vera Miles stars as a woman, recovering from a nervous breakdown, who claims she was assaulted in her mobile home. Later, she identifies the assailant to her husband. The twist ending is downright chilling. Hitchcock directed.

Premonition - A man (John Forsyte) returns to his hometown from Paris, packing only his toothbrush. He wants to make up with his estranged father, but everyone keeps putting obstacles in his way. Forsyte is excellent, but the outcome becomes apparent just before the climax.

Salvage - An ex-con (Gene Barry) seeks revenge on the woman who caused his brother's death. Yet, instead of killing her, he has a change of heart at the last minute--and then proceeds to help her become successful and content. A devious plot that works quite well.

Joseph Cotten in "Breakdown."
Breakdown - Hitchcock directed this tale in which style takes precedence over content. A ruthless businessman (Joseph Cotten) becomes completely paralyzed in a car accident and cannot communicate that he is alive. But we, the audience, can hear his thoughts as he becomes more and more desperate. An unique and satisfying episode.

The Case of Mr. Pelham - Another Hitchcock-directed episode in which a man (Tom Ewell) discovers that a lookalike is taking over his life. Genuinely bizarre, but still fascinating until the ending which I found somewhat lacking.

Marissa Paven and John Cassavetes.
You Got to Have Luck - A killer (John Cassavetes) breaks out of prison and hides out in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a young wife (Marissa Paven). Well-acted and featuring one of the best twists of the season.

The Creeper - A serial killer is murdering blonde-haired women in New York City during a hot spell. Blonde-haired Ellen Grant (Constance Ford), whose husband works at night, suspects everyone. A taut tale that benefits mightily from Ford's excellent performance and an atmospheric setting that captures the discomfort and unease experienced by the characters.

Interested in more Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Check out our picks for the series' five best episodes!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Doris Day in Hitchcock and Hitchcock-Lite

In regard to his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped: "Let's just say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." These days, it's fashionable to prefer the earlier film, though I firmly believe the 1956 version is the stronger of the two.
Doris Day and James Stewart as the McKennas.
James Stewart and Doris Day star as Ben and Jo McKenna, American tourists spending three days in Marrakesh with their young son Hank. They encounter a mysterious man named Louis Bernard as well as Lucy and Edward Drayton, a friendly British couple. In the middle of a bazaar, an Arab--who has been stabbed--approaches Ben. As the dying man staggers to the ground, Ben realizes it's Bernard in disguise. He whispers to Ben that there will be an assassination in London and that Ben must tell the authorities about "Ambrose Chapel."

Later, at the police station, Ben receives a phone call that his son has been kidnapped and will remain safe as long as he says nothing to the authorities. When they return to their hotel, Ben and Jo realize that the Draytons kidnapped Hank. They follow them to London, determined to find their son.

Brenda De Banzie as Mrs. Drayton.
The opening scenes in Marrakesh set up the plot nicely (though Hitch's use of rear screen projection is distracting at times). However, once the action shifts to London, the tension unexpectedly lets up, punctuated by a goose chase in search of Ambrose Chapel that seems like filler material. Still, The Man Who Knew Too Much ends on a high note with a suspenseful extended climax at Albert Hall and a foreign embassy.

There are still sequences featuring Hitchcock at his best, such as when the face of the disguised Bernard slides through Ben's hands, leaving brown make-up on his fingers. The Albert Hall scene, in which an assassin's shot must be timed with the crash of cymbals, shows Hitchcock at the height of his craft. It also features composer and frequent Hitch collaborator Bernard Herrmann as the orchestra's conductor.

James Stewart and Doris Day are fine as the determined parents and Doris even gets to sing the Oscar-winning "Que Sera, Sera," which would become her signature song. Acting honors, though, go to the marvelous Brenda De Banzie as a reluctant kidnapper.

Doris walking in the fog.
Made four years later Midnight Lace (1960) is a Hitchcock wannabe starring Doris Day as heiress Kit Preston, an American newlywed in London. Even before the credits roll, she hears an eerie voice threatening her during a heavy night fog. Her husband, financier Tony (Rex Harrison), tries to convince her it was just a practical joke. However, when she starts to receive similar phone calls, Kit and Tony go to Scotland Yard.

Kit's problem is that no one else hears the disturbing phone calls. Is she delusional and imagining the voice? Or is someone really planning to kill her? There are certainly plenty of suspects: the housekeeper's creepy son (Roddy McDowell); the handsome construction chief (John Gavin) working on a nearby building; the strange man hanging around the neighborhood; or even her husband Tony.

Doris Day and Rex Harrison.
Unfortunately, the outcome becomes apparent early on in Midnight Lace. That doesn't keep it from being moderately entertaining. The supporting cast, which includes Myrna Loy as Kit's aunt and John Williams as (what else?) a police inspector, is first-rate. The London setting is both atmospheric and contributes to Kit's uneasiness (until the arrival of her aunt, she has no real friends in town).

Unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace is a "Doris Day vehicle" and she's in almost every scene. For the most part, she carries the picture, although her histrionics in the later scenes verge on overacting. Director David Miller compensates by keeping the narrative to a crisp 103 minutes.

Midnight Lace was remade for television in 1981 with Mary Crosby in the lead role. Carolyn Jones has a supporting role in that version, just as she did in The Man Who Knew Too Much!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Five Best Greer Garson Performances

As Paula in Random Harvest.
1. Random Harvest - At the end of World War I, an entertainer named Paula (Greer Gardson) falls in love with a amnesiac known only as Smithy (Ronald Colman). They marry, have a child, and live blissfully in the English countryside. Then one day, Smithy journeys alone to Liverpool and is struck by a taxi. When he awakes, he remembers his life as the affluent Charles Rainer--but he has forgotten his life as Smithy. Years later, he hires Paula--still not knowing who she is--to work for him. Greer Garson is brilliant as a woman who spends every day with the love of her life, but never reveals her identity. It's a poignant performance made all the more powerful because Garson makes Paula a strong, independent woman. The impact of the final scene rests solely on Garson's shoulders and she pulls it off with aplomb.

2. Pride and Prejudice - Greer Garson was 36-years-old when she played Jane Austen's plucky 20-year-old heroine Elizabeth Bennett. It's something I notice during the opening frames of Pride and Prejudice (1940)--and then totally forget. That's because Garson finds the strength, intelligence, and playful wit in Elizabeth, making this adaptation one of my favorite ones of Austen's classic. It helps, too, that she develops such delightful chemistry with Laurence Olivier's exceptionally brooding Mr. Darcy.

Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon.
3. Mrs. Miniver - I suspect if you polled classic movie fans about Greer Garson's best performances, the number one answer would be her portrayal of Kay Miniver. There is no doubt that she shines as the mother that holds a British family together as World War II brings danger, damage, and death into their lives. Her efforts earned her the Best Actress Oscar in 1943 (her only one to go along with six other nominations). She reprised the role of Kay Miniver in The Miniver Story in 1950.

4. Goodbye, Mr. Chips - In her first role on the big screen, Greer Garson received an Oscar nomination opposite Robert Donat in this adaptation of James Hilton's bestseller. She plays the effervescent Kathy, who transforms a shy schoolmaster into a beloved institution at a British boys' school. Amazingly, Garson had difficulty transitioning from the stage to film, finding the process of shooting scenes out of order disorienting. She relied on co-stars Robert Donat and Paul Henreid for support and advice. Her lack of confidence is not apparent on the screen and her performance transformed her into a star overnight.

Greer Garson and Errol Flynn.
5. That Forsyte Woman - This screen adaptation of John Galsworthy's The Man of Property, the first book in his Forsyte Saga, may seem like an odd choice. The film is not remembered fondly nor admired by Galsworthy's readers. Even Greer Garson noted that it "wasn't much," but was a lot of fun for the cast and crew. However, I think she underestimates her performance as Irene Heron, a Victorian woman who marries a "man of property" whom she does not love. When she later falls in love with an architect, her affair sets off a series of dramatic, and tragic, events. The role of Irene is a difficult one since initially the character elicits little audience sympathy. However, the beauty of Garson's performance is that she finds the "truth" in Irene--and brings out the best in Errol Flynn, who is quite effective in a rare serious role as her possessive husband. She was impressed enough with Flynn to write the foreward to a book about his films.

Honorable Mentions:  Mrs. Parkington, Sunrise at Campobello (as Eleanor Roosevelt); and Blossoms in the Dust.