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.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis Take on The Scalphunters

Burt Lanaster as Joe Bass.
When easygoing trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) takes a shortcut through Kiowa land, he is confronted by a party of Indians led by Two Crows. The Kiowa leader wants to trade a black slave for Bass's pelts. The trapper isn't interested in the deal--but he's really doesn't have a choice since he is vastly outnumbered.

The slave, Joseph Winfield Lee, is an educated man who wants to reach Mexico where slavery has been outlawed. Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) is eager to discuss his situation, but Joe Bass is focused solely on retrieving his pelts. His plan is to wait for the Indians to get drunk on stolen rum, then ride into their camp and nab the furs.

Ossie Davis as Joseph Lee.
However, before he can do that, Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) and his scalphunters attack the Indians and massacre all but one (who is assumed to be dead). They take Bass's pelts, too--and that makes him fighting mad. Plus, Joe Bass considers scalphunters--who sell the scalps of murdered Indians for $25 apiece--to be the lowest scum on Earth. He devises a second plan to retrieve his pelts, but things become a little more complicated when Joseph Lee gets captured by Howie's gang.

Made in 1968, The Scalphunters is a good example of Hollywood's attempt to reshape the Western genre in the late 1960s. It is part comedy, part violent Western, and part social satire. However, first and foremost, it's a showcase for African American actor Ossie Davis. Unlike his contemporary, Sidney Poitier, Davis rarely got starring roles. Although he's billed fourth in The Scalphunters, he dominates the screen with his portrayal of Joseph Lee, connecting the other characters played by Lancaster, Savalas, and Shelley Winters.

The film's best scenes are those shared by Davis and Lancaster. Joseph Lee (Davis) is the better educated of the two and lets Joe Bass (Lancaster) know it:

LEE:  I can read, write, and cypher.

BASS:  Don't brag on it.

Shelley Winters as Kate.
Lee also knows how to adapt his persona to the situation. When he learns that Howie plans to sell him to the highest bidder, Lee assumes the role of a caring servant to Howie's mistress Kate (Shelley Winter). She wants to live the high life and Lee wants to make himself invaluable. Remembering everything Bass has told him about his natural surroundings, he uses the juice from a cactus to wash Kate's hair.

In addition to Davis, the other stars make the most of their parts. Burt Lancaster exudes his usual charm as Bass, with his performance reminding me of his lead turn in The Kentuckian thirteen years earlier. Telly Savalas plays a less extreme version of the villainous roles in which he was typecast prior to Kojak. Still, his character's genuine affection for his mistress is a nice touch. And Shelley Winters deserves more scenes as the constantly-complaining, easily-manipulated former prostitute who dreams of a better life.

The influence of The Scalphunters can be seen in later lighthearted Westerns such as Skin Game (1971), which teamed up James Garner and Lou Gossett, Jr., and Buck and the Preacher (1972) with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The latter co-starred Ruby Dee--who just happened to be the real-life wife of Ossie Davis.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Alastair MacLean's The Guns of Navarone

A long movie that doesn't seem long is a carefully-crafted motion picture. Such is the case with The Guns of Navarone (1961), which clocks in at a brisk 158 minutes.

Based on Alastair MacLean's 1957 novel, it tells the story of a small military team tasked with destroying two huge German guns. The artillery are located on the island of  Navarone and prevent Allied battleships from rescuing 2,000 British soldiers marooned on an adjacent isle. Since the guns are housed inside a cave, they cannot be destroyed by aerial bombs. The team's only hope to scale a dangerous mountain on the most lightly guarded side of the island.

David Niven and Gregory Peck.
The team consists of: Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a famous mountain climber who is fluent in German; Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), who hatched the plan; Corporal Miller (David Niven), an explosives genius; "Butcher" Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanic and knife expert; a young soldier (James Darren) born on Navarone, but raised in New York; and Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a Greek officer who blames Mallory for the death of his family. Irene Pappas and Gia Scala co-star as two resistance fighters who live on Navarone.

Richard Harris has a brief cameo.
Each of the stars is perfectly matched with his role, even though Peck, Niven, and Quinn are too old for their characters. That fact becomes immaterial as the action speeds along to the thrilling climax. MacLean's story constantly throws obstacles in the team's path: a curious German patrol, a savage storm at sea, capture by the Nazis, and the presence of a spy. The highlight, though, comes in the film's first half when Peck and Quinn have to climb the treacherous cliff at the rain. On a DVD commentary, director J. Lee Thompson said he thought this nail biting sequence was too long (I disagree!).

The Guns of Navarone is so expertly made--and placed in historical context--that one assumes it was based on fact. Actually, the plot is wholly fictitious, although MacLean's tale was inspired by the Battle of Leros in the Aegean Sea during World War II. The novel was MacLean's second and become a bestseller. Following the box office success of the movie adaptation, other MacLean novels were made into movies, notably The Satan Bug (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Harrison Ford in Force 10.
MacLean wrote a sequel in 1968, Force 10 from Navarone, in which Mallory, Miller, and Stavros are sent on a mission to Yugoslavia. A movie version was planned in the late 1960s with Peck, Niven, and Quinn reprising their roles. However, the production was delayed and didn't reach the screen until 1978. By then, Robert Shaw and Edward had been cast as Mallory and Miller. The plot bore little resemble to MacLean's novel. The supporting cast included Harrison Ford (Stars Wars was released a year earlier) and Barbara Bach (who had just appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me).

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Robert Lansing

1. Robert Lansing was born Robert Howell Brown, but had to change his name when he joined the Actors' Equity Association because another actor was named Robert Brown. According to Allan T. Duffin's The 12 O'Clock High Logbook, he took his last name from Lansing, Michigan, as he was about to board a bus to that city.

2. After studying at the Actors Studio, Lansing made his Broadway debut in 1951 in Stalag 17. He worked on the stage, in live television, and made his film debut in the title role of 4D Man (1959). His next movie was The Pusher (1960), which Harold Robbins adapted from an Ed McBain novel. He played tough Manhattan detective Steve Carella, a role that he would reprise in the TV series 87th Precinct (1961-62). Based on McBain's gritty crime novels, the series is well regarded now, but was cancelled by NBC after a single season. Gena Rowlands portrayed Carella's deaf wife Teddy in four episodes.

Lansing on 12 O'Clock High.
3. Lansing's most successful TV role was probably Brigadier General Frank Savage in 12 O'Clock High, which debuted on ABC in 1964. However, after one season, his character was written out of the show. In a TV Guide article, executive producer Quinn Martin blamed ABC's decision to move the show from Friday at ten o'cock to 7:30 on Monday: "ABC is very high on Lansing, and asked me to find another series for him. They said they want him for a 10 P.M. show. Had we remained at 10 P.M., Bob would have continued." Lansing seemed to take the decision in stride, commenting to TV: "I can't hate ABC. Hating a network would be like hating Dodger Stadium...I can't be mad at Quinn either. He says it was the network's decision, and I have no evidence to make me doubt him."

4.  In 1966, Robert Lansing was back on TV in the half-hour drama The Man Who Never Was. He played spy Peter Murphy, who assumes the identity of murdered millionaire Mark Wainwright. Murphy looks just like Wainwright and his impersonation convinces everyone but the dead man's wife Eva (Dana Wynter). Fortunately for Murphy, Eva is willing to go along with the masquerade--especially since her husband was trying to swindle her. Sadly, ABC cancelled The Man Who Never Was after 21 episodes. Three episodes were edited together and released overseas as the theatrical film as Danger Has Two Faces.

5. According to Alan Schneider's The American Theatre Reader, playwright Edward Albee wanted Robert Lansing for the role of Nick in the original Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, Lansing was never signed due to a disagreement over the billing. The role eventually went to George Grizzard; George Segal played Nick in the 1966 film adaptation.

With feline friend as Gary Seven.
6. During the second season of the original Star Trek, Robert Lansing guest starred as Gary Seven, a human sent by the race of another planet to save Earth from destruction. The episode, which was titled "Assignment: Earth," was a backdoor pilot for a TV series that would have starred Lansing as Gary Seven and Teri Garr as his assistant. The original script by Art Wallace and Gene Roddenberry had nothing to do with the Enterprise and its crew. However, when Roddenberry couldn't get a network interested in the proposed series, he and Wallace rewrote it for Star Trek.

7. Robert Lansing was married three times. His first wife was actress Emily McLaughlin, who played nurse Jessie Brewer on ABC's General Hospital for 28 years. Lansing's second wife was starlet Gari Hardy, whom was once described as "the new Ann-Margret" (though she was blonde). When they married in 1969, Hardy was 21 and Lansing was 41. They had a daughter, but divorced after two years. Lansing married Ann Pivar in 1981 and they remained together until his death in 1994. Incidentally, Gari Hardy married another older man, Jack Ryan, who designed the Barbie doll for Mattel and who was one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's husbands.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Alternate TV Series Title Game (British Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic television series and ask you to name the actual show. 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! Note that the alternate title may be a variation of the original title or plot description. For this month's edition, all the answers will be British TV series.

1.  The Tracy Boys.

2.  Irene and Soames.

3.  The Himalayan Powers.

4.  Nampara.

5.  The Village.

6.  Man With a Halo.

7.  Regan & Carter.

8.  The Noble Detective.

9.  The Man from WASP.

10. 165 Eaton Place.

11.  McGill.

12.  Fiery Plants of Africa.

13.  The Opera-Loving DCI.

14.  Gemstone and Metal.

15.  SHADO.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wee Geordie Throws a Hammer!

Bill Travers as the adult Geordie.
Young Geordie MacTaggert doesn't like to be called "wee' by the other lads in his rural Scottish community. Yet, it's accurate to say that he's decidedly short for his age. It's a sore point, though, and comes to a head when he and childhood playmate Jean visit an eagle's nest. Jean is tall enough to see the baby birds, but Geordie is neither tall enough nor strong enough to view the nest.

That night, he sees a newspaper ad that will change his life. In the advertisement, bodybuilder Henry Samson asks: "Are you undersized? Let me make a different man of you!" Geordie sends off for Samson's exercise program and soon becomes obsessed with physical fitness. He eventually grows into a 6' 6" muscular young man! (As one character notes, the exercises can't have accounted for his growth spurt.)

Unfortunately, Geordie's focus on building his muscles has come with a cost. Jean, now an attractive young woman, feels ignored. The situation doesn't improve when Samson recommends that Geordie take up a sport like hammer throwing--at which he excels. Indeed, his hammer throwing attracts the interest of officials organizing Britain's team for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Norah Gorsen as Jean and Travers.
Made in 1955, Geordie (aka Wee Geordie) is a heartfelt film brimming with Scottish charm. Despite a handful of rear projection shots, it's one of those movies that will make you want to move to the Scottish glen--or at least take a vacation there. In the title role, Bill Travers makes a charming, reluctant hero who has to be convinced to participate in the Olympics. His Geordie has no desire to leave his beloved home and see the rest of the world. Why would he--when everything he loves is right there in the glen?

Indeed, Geordie works best when staying in Scotland and focusing on the Geordie-Jean relationship. One of the best scenes has Geordie floundering in his first hammer throwing competition until he hears Jean calling out to him from a nearby hill. Later, when the plot relocates to Melbourne, it becomes a conventional fish-out-of-water story.

Alastair Sim as the Laird.
Travers gets wonderful support from Norah Gorsen as Jean, Paul Young as the young Geordie, and Alastair Sim as The Laird. While it's true that Sim frequently portrayed quirky British gentlemen, that doesn't take away from his typical amusing performance. Paul Young, who made his film debut in Geordie, had a long television career (that's still ongoing). In contrast, the fresh-faced Norah Gorsen retired from acting in the mid-1960s.

Upon its release in Great Britain, Geordie quickly became a box office hit. Hollywood took notice of the ruggedly handsome Bill Travers and cast him opposite established stars in movies like Footsteps in the Fog (1955) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957). His biggest success, though, didn't come until 1967 when he appeared with his wife Virginia McKenna in Born Free (1966). That film and Ring of Bright Water (about an otter) transformed the couple into animal rights activists. It was a passion that Travers pursued until his death in 1994.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song

Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li.
My elementary school chorus teacher introduced me to the Broadway musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. To be specific, she favored the catchy songs from The Sound of Music and The King and I. Hence, I always experience some built-in nostalgia whenever I watch those movie adaptations. Yet, despite that background, I never sought out the 1961 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song--and it seemed to purposefully elude me. That changed, though, when I recently discovered it on Amazon Prime.

Nancy Kwan as singer Linda Low.
Set in San Francisco, it opens with the arrival of stowaways Dr. Li and his granddaughter Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki). The latter has journeyed to America to fulfill a marriage contract with Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner she has never met. Sammy has no interest in getting hitched, having been romantically involved with singer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) for five years. He hatches a scheme to introduce Mei Li to Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong), who wants his Chinese-American son Ta (James Shigeta) to marry a woman with Old World values. This leads to a series of misunderstandings and deceptions before true love wins out.

Benson Fong's as Ta's father.
Flower Drum Song holds the distinction of being the first Hollywood production with an all-Asian cast. That may explain in large part why it was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant and added to the National Film Registry in 2008. Its critics counter that it promotes cultural stereotypes and casts non-Chinese actors in Chinese roles (e.g., U.S.-born James Shigeta was of Japanese ancestry). One can't argue with the latter complaint, but the "stereotypes" in Flower Drum Song are merely stock movie characters. Who hasn't seen a movie with a feisty father figure who wants to impose his values on his children?

The screenplay has a lot of fun with portraying the differences between American and Chinese culture...and everything in-between. While the elders hold on to their old-fashioned values, the kids embrace everything snazzy and new. And in the middle, there's Ta's aunt, who has merged both worlds and become an American citizen after studying for five years. This central theme is captured playfully in the lyrics to the song "Chop Suey":

Living here is very much like chop suey 
Hula hoops and nuclear war 
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor 
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey 
Chop suey!

Flower Drum Song features a pleasant selection of songs, although the only bona fide hit was the playful "I Enjoy Being a Girl" (lip-synced by Nancy Kwan in a clever number in which she performs with three mirror reflections of herself). Miyoshi Umeki sings the sweet opening song "A Hundred Million Miracles" and duets with Jack Soo on the clever "Don't Marry Me." Of course, there are some forgettable songs as well, including the melodic but empty "Love, Look Away."
Nancy Kwan times three!
Filmed entirely on studio sets, Flower Drum Song bursts with bright colors and the cast provides plenty of high energy. Nancy Kwan may not sing her songs (her vocals are dubbed by B.J. Baker), but she dances up a storm. And while the cast was ignored by the Academy Awards, the film earned Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Score, and Best Sound.

Flower Drum Song may not rank with the best Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals, but even their second-best is better than most. I was happily surprised and recommend checking it out if you haven't done already.

Here's one of the musical numbers, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Connie Stevens

1. Connie Stevens was married and divorced twice by the age of 31. Her first marriage was to actor James Stacy (from the TV series Lancer) from 1963-66. They met while he was filming the Disney movie Summer Magic in Palm Springs. Following their divorce, Connie wed Eddie Fisher in 1967. His marriage to Elizabeth Taylor had ended three years earlier. Although they divorced in 1969, Connie gave birth to two daughters: Joely and Tricia. In his second autobiographical book, Been There, Done That, Fisher wrote: "Connie Stevens remains the nicest ex-wife."

2. Connie was born Concetta Rosalie Ann Ingoglia in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was a jazz drummer who worked under the name Teddy Stevens. Connie adapted "Stevens" as her last name when she became interested in acting and singing. As a teenager, she sang in a quartet called The Fourmost (not to be confused the later British band). That group also included Tony Butala, who would later become a founding member of The Lettermen.

3. After several minor roles in films and TV shows, Connie Stevens landed the part of Cricket Blake on the Warner Bros. television series Hawaiian Eye. The bubbly Cricket was a photographer who helped out private eyes played by Anthony Eisley and Robert Conrad. Cricket also performed at a hotel's shell bar, which gave Stevens plenty of opportunities to sing on the show.

4. In 1959, Connie performed the song "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" with Edd Byrnes, who starred as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip, another Warner Bros. detective show. The novelty song is mostly spoken, but it hit an impressive No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. A year later, Connie Stevens had a #3 hit with the song Sixteen Reasons. It was her only other Top 40 record, although she continued to record for many years.

Troy Donahue and Connie.
5. Concurrent with starring in Hawaiian Eye, Warner Bros. also cast Connie Stevens in movies targeted at young adult audiences. She had a supporting role as one of Troy Donahue's three loves in Parrish (1961), which made a nice profit at the box office. She was teamed with Troy again that same year as the title character in Susan Slade. In 1963, she made a third film with Donahue, the teen comedy Palm Springs Weekend--though her love interest was Ty Hardin and Troy was paired with Stefanie Powers.

6. When Hawaiian Eye was canceled, Connie Stevens starred in the TV sitcom Wendy and Me, in which she and Ron Harper played a young couple living in an apartment building owned by George Burns. In our interview with Ron Harper, he spoke fondly of working with Connie, but was frustrated with Burns' lengthy monologues which opened every episode. The series lasted one season.

7. When her film and TV career slowed down in the 1960s, she began appearing regularly in Las Vegas nightclubs--something that would continue for many years. In her autobiography Growing Up Fisher, daughter Joely Fisher wrote of her mother's Vegas act: "She was ahead of her time in her eclectic choices, which were sometimes met with criticism, because everyone wanted to hear 'Sixteen Reasons' ...It wasn't always what the audience thought they wanted but she wooed them, won them over with her set list, her sensibility, her sexual, sensual performance. It was electric."

Monday, May 25, 2020

Murder Must Advertise

My introduction to Dorothy L. Sayers' aristocratic amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was via the 1972-75 TV series broadcast in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theatre. Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, the series featured adaptations of five Sayers novels. Each mystery comprised four or five episodes and starred Ian Carmichael as the title character. The highlight of the series was The Nine Tailors (1974), which we reviewed on this blog previously. Today's review covers the third adaptation, Murder Must Advertise (1973), which is a faithful version of Sayers' 1933 novel.

Before apparently falling to his death, an employee at Pym Publicity, Ltd., an advertising agency, pens a vague note about suspicious activities taking place at the firm. The owner hires Lord Peter to conduct an inquiry, which he facilitates by hiring the amateur detective--under a false identity--as the new copywriter. It doesn't take long for Lord Peter to discover that his murder investigation is linked to a large-scale dope distribution case being worked by his brother-in-law, Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Parker.

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey.
Murder Must Advertise differs from Carmichael's other four Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. First, Lord Peter's faithful butler Bunter (played three times by Glyn Houston) is missing from the plot. That's a shame since the pragmatic Bunter provided the perfect counterpart to the more intellectual Wimsey. However, Bunter is only mentioned briefly in Sayers' novel, so his absence is a result of remaining faithful to the book. In his stead, Inspector Parker has more scenes with Lord Peter.

Secondly, Murder Must Advertise is not a standard whodunit; it's more of a "how did they do it." There are only a few viable suspects, so it's not hard to guess the culprit. However, the method of the murder is quite clever--as is the criminals' elaborate scheme for distributing cocaine to the upper class.

By the time he starred as Lord Peter, veteran actor Ian Carmichael was 53. That made him at least a decade older than Sayers' detective. The age difference is not a factor in the other adaptations, but it is noticeable in Murder Must Advertise. Part of the plot hinges on the attraction that a young socialite has for Wimsey's "bad boy" alter-ego. As good as Carmichael is, he can't quite pull that off.

Veteran actor Peter Bowles.
The supporting cast includes some familiar faces to fans of British television. One of the Pym employees is played by Christopher Timothy, who charmed audiences for years as veterinarian James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. There's also Peter Bowles, best known in the U.S. for the quirky series The Irish R.M., who is convincing as a retired major eager to exploit drug addiction for profit.

Murder Must Advertise is not as strong as the other four Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations--but don't let that discourage you from watching it. It's still first-rate television and Carmichael makes it grand fun. Some of the best scenes are of Lord Peter writing his first commercial jingles and introducing himself to the staff. He states that his name is Death Bredon--making a point to note that while most people pronounce that name as "Deeth," he prefers to use "Death" (as in rhyming with "breath").

Thursday, May 21, 2020

John Wayne and Kim Darby Show Their True Grit

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.
The year 1969 was a remarkable one for the Western genre. The biggest hit of the year was the revisionist Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sam Peckinpah's violent The Wild Bunch earned critical raves in the U.S., while Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West thrilled European audiences. Thus, it's not surprising that True Grit--a conventional Western compared to the other three--slipped under the radar. However, it gradually became the eighth biggest moneymaker of the year and earned John Wayne his only Oscar.

Kim Darby as Mattie Ross.
Kim Darby stars as determined teenager Mattie Ross, who arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to bury her father. She also wants to know why the sheriff isn't pursuing her father's murderer. When he confides that his jurisdiction doesn't extend into the Indian Nation, Mattie seeks out a federal marshal. She sets her sights on Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) because she hears he has "grit." Cogburn isn't interested until Mattie agrees to a $100 reward--that plus the fact the grizzled lawman also admires the girl's spunk. Mattie and Rooster are joined by a Texas Ranger named Le Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who is seeking the same man for the murder of a Texas senator.

Based on Charles Portis' 1968 novel, True Grit benefits from an exceptional screenplay by Marguerite Roberts (Ziegfeld Girl, Ivanhoe). She imbues the dialogue with natural humor and captures the well-drawn characters from the Portis novel. I especially like how she introduces the outlaw Ned Peppers (Robert Duvall) through other characters' descriptions of him. It's not until late in the film that Peppers finally makes an appearance.

Wayne on stunt horse Twinkle Toes.
Marguerite Roberts was blacklisted in Hollywood for nine years, starting in 1951, for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. John Wayne thought her True Grit script was the best he'd read in years. He was also a fan of the novel and told Roger Ebert in 1969: "I loved that book. Charles Portis has a real Mark Twain feeling, the cynicism and the humor. I tried to buy the book myself. I went up to $300,000, and that's pretty good going for an unpublished galley of a Western story. But (producer) Hal Wallis knew about this other book by Portis, Norwood, and he made an offer for both and outbid me. Then he came back to me to play Rooster."

The strength of True Grit, of course, is the relationship between Mattie and Rooster. He affectionately calls her "little sister" and, in a rare moment of insight, Rooster tells the teenager about his failed attempts at marriage and fatherhood. Wayne thought that scene was the best acting he had ever done, though he was surprised when he won the Oscar for Best Actor (he thought Richard Burton would win for Anne of the Thousand Days). Wayne is highly entertaining in True Grit, but some of the credit belongs to his co-star Kim Darby. Her gritty performance as Mattie provides the perfect counterpoint to the larger-than-life Rooster.

Kim Darby was not the first choice to play Mattie Ross. John Wayne promised the part to his daughter Aissa, who had a small role in McLintock, but Hal Wallis nixed her casting.  Mia Farrow turned down the role of Mattie when Robert Mitchum told her that Henry Hathaway was a difficult director. Wallis cast Darby after seeing her play an unwed mother in the Ben Gazzara TV series Run for Your Life. Darby's post-True Grit career was undistinguished, though she appeared in a pair of interesting telefilms: The People (1972) and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).

Glem Campbell as La Boeuf.
Interestingly, Elvis Presley was among the choices to play La Boeuf before negotiations broke down.  Campbell, who had already scored several hit songs, was signed despite lacking any significant acting experience (he did a guest spot on The F.B.I.). His thespian skills are clearly lacking, though he appears to try hard. He also sings the pretty title song composed by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black, which peaked at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Screenwriter Roberts, Darby, and Campbell teamed up again in 1970 in an adaptation of the Portis novel Norwood. It was about a Vietnam veteran who aspires to be a country singer and co-starred New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath.

Meanwhile, John Wayne followed up True Grit with the 1975 semi-sequel Rooster Cogburn (aka Rooster Cogburn and The Lady). It paired him with Katherine Hepburn in what has often been described as an unsuccessful mash-up of True Grit and The African Queen. Its screenplay was written by actress Martha Hyer under a pseudonym; she was married to producer Hal Wallis.

Warren Oates as Rooster.
In 1978, Warren Oates played Rooster Cogburn in the made-for-TV movie True Grit: A Further Adventure, with Lisa Pelikan as Mattie. And in 2010, Jeff Bridges played Rooster in True Grit, a memorable adaptation of the Portis novel by Joel and Ethan Cohen. It featured an ending closer to the book.

Friday, May 15, 2020

6 from the '60s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, we are hosting the 6 from the '60s Blogathon. Per its title, each participant has listed his or her six favorite films from the 1960s and explained why they deserve such an honor!

The 1960s was a one of the great decades for movies, spanning the transition from the Golden Age of Hollywood to a new era filled with young auteurs (e.g., Kubrick, Frankenheimer, Peckinpah), rising stars (e.g., Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway), and influential international filmmakers (e.g., Truffaut, Godard, Fellini). It featured beloved films like To Kill a Mockingbird, cult movies like Point Blank, blockbusters like The Great Escape, and ground-breaking movies like Bonnie and Clyde. It also marked the debut of James Bond on the big screen and the birth of Spaghetti Westerns.

Join us in celebrating the most beloved films of the 1960s by checking out the posts below!

Caftan Woman
Cinema Essentials
Cinematic Scribblings
Classic Film & TV Cafe
Classic Film Observations & Obsessions
The Classic Movie Muse
Critica Retro
4 Star Films
Hometowns to Hollywood
It's About TV!
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
Love Letters to Old Hollywood
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
Movie Rob
The Midnite Drive-In
Mrs. Charles
Old Hollywood Films
A Person in the Dark
Reel Charlie
Reelweegiemidget Reviews
A Shroud of Thoughts
Sibyl's Scribbles
Shadows and Satin
Silver Scenes
Silver Screenings
The Story Enthusiast
Taking Up Room
Twenty Four Frames
Unknown Hollywood
Whimsically Classic

My Picks for the 6 from the '60s Blogathon

This is our entry for the 6 From the '60s Blogathon in celebration of National Class Movie Day. Since the 1960s was an incredible decade for movies, choosing just six favorites proved to be incredibly difficult. While the half-dozen below are all marvelous films, I might pick a different six movies if faced with the same challenge next week!

Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
Lover Come Back (1961) - After mostly dramatic roles in the 1950s, Rock Hudson developed into a gifted comedian with Pillow Talk (1959) and this delightfully delirious follow-up. Rock stars as Jerry Webster, an unethical Madison Avenue advertising executive who will do anything to beat his rival, Carol Templeton (Doris Day). When Carol mistakes the womanizing Jerry as a nerdish inventor, he plays along--even to the point of emphasizing he's "never been with a woman." This leads to Rock's best scene, as Jerry tries to encourage Carol to seduce him in her apartment--during which a convenient phone call enlightens her about his true identity. While Lover Come Back is sometimes described as a variation of Pillow Talk, it's actually a superior film, with clever jabs at the advertising industry and sparkling supporting performances (especially from Tony Randall and Edie Adams).

Sidney Poitier ad Lilia Skala.
Lilies of the Field (1963) - Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Homer Smith, a drifter who stops to get water for his car at a southwestern farm run by German nuns. What Homer doesn't know is that the nuns believe he is the answer to their prayers--that he will build a chapel for them even though they have no money nor materials for the building. Often described as a feel-good movie, Lilies of the Field far exceeds that simple label with its inspirational message about faith and finding meaning in one's life. Poitier is at his most charming as Homer, a stubborn man who resists building the chapel initially. When he finally relents, he doesn't want anyone to help him. His scenes with the equally firm Mother Maria (beautifully played by Lilia Skala) are not to be missed.

Kirk Douglas in disguise.
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) – John Huston’s mystery is best known for its gimmick: several famous stars make cameos in heavy make-up. While trying to spot the stars is undeniably fun, the gimmick disguises the fact that The List of Adrian Messenger is a highly-entertaining, crafty film that starts as a mystery and evolves into a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game. In the opening scenes, author Adrian Messenger provides a list of ten names to his friend Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), a former MI5 operative, and asks him to quietly find out if the ten people on the list are still alive. Gethryn agrees to undertake the assignment. A few days later, a bomb explodes aboard a plane carrying Adrian as a passenger. Based on a 1959 novel by mystery author and screenwriter Philip MacDonald, The List of Adrian Messenger borrows the killer’s motive from another famous detective novel (no spoilers here!). But the “why” is only part of the fun in The List of Adrian Messenger. It’s the “how” that differentiates it from other mysteries. Among his many skills, the murderer, played delightfully by Kirk Douglas, is also a master of disguises. That provides the opportunity for Douglas to don a number of incredible “looks” designed by make-up master Bud Westmore. Thus, the killer appears as a pointy-chinned priest, a short mousey man, a white-haired elderly villager, and others.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery.
Marnie (1964) – When I first saw Marnie as a teenager, it made no impression at all. I thought Tippi Hedren was miscast and Sean Connery dull. The plot--what there was of one--seemed thin and the characters lacked interest. Decades later, I watched it it again and, to my complete surprise, I loved it! Tippi Hedren's subtle detached performance made Marnie a vulnerable, intriguing character. The progressively complex relationship between Marnie and Sean Connery’s character generated suspense--in its own quiet way--worthy of Hitch’s best man-on-the-run films. I was captivated by Hitch's finest use of color (especially during the opening scenes). And finally, there was Bernard Herrmann's incredible score (which, for me, ranks second only to Vertigo among his Hitchcock soundtracks). I've often wondered how I missed all of this the first time around?

Hayley Mills spying.
The Chalk Garden (1964) – My favorite Deborah Kerr film is this offbeat, poignant tale about secrets and the passing of judgment on people, often without charity. Ms. Kerr stars as a governess (once again), hired by a dowager to care for the elderly lady’s out-of-control teenage granddaughter (Hayley Mills). The girl has a fondness for setting fires and delights in threatening to burn down the gloomy mansion set among the isolated cliffs. As the story progresses, its focus shifts from the young girl to the governess—a mystery woman who paces her room at night “like a caged animal,” has only new possessions, doesn't have a picture of a loved one in her room, and receives no letters or phone calls. This quiet film is content to rely on its carefully-crafted characters and wonderful performances (to include John Mills). They will ensure that The Chalk Garden lingers with you long after its secret is revealed.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – "Epic" and "sprawling" are the words critics frequently used to describe this now-revered 1968 Spaghetti Western. Yet, despite its lengthy running time and visually massive backdrop, Once Upon a Time in the West focuses tightly on the relationships among four people over a relatively short period of time. These characters are: Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless gunfighter who aspires to be a powerful businessman; Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a rascally outlaw with killer instincts; Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a former prostitute in search of a more meaningful life; and a mysterious revenge-minded stranger whom Cheyenne calls Harmonica (Charles Bronson). It took multiple viewings over the span of several years for me to fully appreciate Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. In the end, I was won over by its fascinating characters, overarching theme, Ennio Morricone’s score, and some marvelous set pieces (especially the opening and climactic showdown between Frank and Harmonica).

There are too many honorable mentions to list, but it's just wrong not to include: Bunny Lake Is Missing, Jason and the Argonauts, Von Ryan's Express, Where Eagles Dare, Goldfinger, To Kill a Mockingbird, Splendor in the Grass, Brides of Dracula, Flight of the PhoenixQuatermass and the Pit, 101 Dalmatians, and To Sir, With Love.

Click here to check out all the fabulous entries in this blogathon.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.
A year after her husband's death, widow Lucy Muir has made the bold decision to move to the coastal village of Whitecliff-by-the-Sea with her young daughter and housekeeper. It's a decision that's derided by her sister-in-law and mother-in-law--but Lucy (Gene Tierney) knows her mind and no one is going to change it.

A village realtor learns that same lesson when he tries to talk Lucy out of renting Gull Cottage, an isolated home previously owned by a sea captain. Lucy falls in love with Gull Cottage instantly--despite the rumors that it's haunted by the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). On the family's first night in their new home, Captain Gregg appears before Lucy. Instead of screaming and running away, Lucy talks with the salty sea man and convinces him to let her family stay on a "trial basis."

It's the beginning of a friendship between Lucy and Daniel that develops into something more. But what future can there be in the love between a very human woman and a ghostly man?

Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir.
Based on Josephine Leslie's 1945 novel, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1948) is a grand Hollywood romance made with care and craftsmanship. Set at the turn of the century, it offers a unique mix of quaint charm and haunting imagery. Famed cinematographer Charles Lang earned an Oscar nomination for his striking black-and-white photography. Composer Bernard Herrmann should have been honored as well. His beautiful, expressive score will linger with you long after the movie. The composer considered The Ghost and Mrs. Muir his finest film score. Entire books have been written about it (e.g., Bernard Herrmann's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: A Film Score Guide).

George Sanders as a suitor.
While The Ghost and Mrs. Muir earned mixed reviews on its original release, it has become a bona fide classic over the years. In the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest movie love stories, it ranked #73 (far too low in my opinion). Its enduring popularity has much to do with the natural chemistry between stars Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison and Philip Dunne's masterful screenplay that makes the audience invest fully in this unlikely romance. It helps, too, to have a wonderful supporting cast that features George Sanders as a cad (who writes children's books, no less) and Edna Best as Mrs. Muir's housekeeper and friend.

In hindsight, it's also interesting to note that Lucy Muir is a very strong, independent woman for a Hollywood romance of this period. She takes bold risks, doesn't frighten easily, and isn't afraid to face loneliness. One of the film's best scenes is when she reflects back on her life with her grown daughter near the end.

Hope Lange & Edward Mulhare.
Though The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has never been remade, it was adapted for radio twice: in 1947 with Madeleine Carroll and Charles Boyer and in 1951 with Jane Wyatt and Charles Boyer. It was adapted into a TV sitcom in 1968 with Hope Lange as Carolyn Muir and Edward Mulhare as Captain Gregg. The TV series added another child (as in the novel) and a dog. The show only lasted two years--despite the fact that Hope Lange won two Emmys for playing Mrs. Muir!