Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Five Best Coronet Blue Episodes

Series star Frank Converse.
A former Cafe contributor wrote about Larry Cohen's cult TV series Coronet Blue back in 2009. The show's premise is brilliantly simple: a young man awakens in New York Harbor with no memory--except for the two words "coronet blue." Taking the name Michael Alden, he spends the next 13 episodes trying to unravel the meaning of that phrase, which holds the key to his identity.

Made in 1965, Coronet Blue sat on the shelf until CBS decided to "burn it off" in the summer of 1967. The network held the show in such little regard that the final two episodes were never aired. Still, it acquired a cult following over the years (as did the catchy title song, where you can hear on our YouTube Channel). Finally, in 2017, Kino Lorber released the entire series on DVD.

It was grand fun to watch it again and to see a very young Frank Converse as Alden. It inspired the Cafe staff to take this opportunity to list our five favorite episodes. By the way, the DVD set includes an interview with series creator Larry Cohen, in which he explains the ultimate meaning of "Coronet Blue" (you can google the answer, too).

1. The Assassins - Michael answers a mysterious classified ad and meets a couple who claim to be his parents. They welcome him lovingly back into the family--and reintroduce him to his fiancee! But are they his parents? And if not, what do they want with him? This absorbing episode reminds me of a later classic episode from Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner called "The Chimes of Big Ben." Actually, there are a lot of similarities between Coronet Blue and The Prisoner.

Frank Converse and Brian Bedford.
2.  A Dozen Demons - Surviving an assassination attempt on his life, Michael awakens in a monastery in New York City. He's befriended by a young man training to become a monk (series semi-regular Brian Bedford). When the men notice Michael's uncanny resemblance to St. Anthony in a stained glass window, they set out to find the artist. The opening scenes in the monastery are the highlight of this episode, which also features Donald Moffat as a rector. Moffat was one of many fine British actors that appeared on the series, along with Susan Hampshire, Denholm Elliott, and Juliet Mills.

Juliet Mills and Converse.
3.  Man Running - After saving a political figure from an assassination attempt, Michael attempts to reunite him with the daughter he hasn't seen in years. Michael finds the daughter (Juliet Mills), but then his house guest suddenly disappears. Like the best Coronet Blue episodes, this one keeps the viewer guessing as to which characters are good and which are bad. Juliet Mills gives a very appealing performance; it's too bad her film career never equaled that of sister Hayley. Juliet is delightful opposite Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972).

4.  Tomoyo - Michael recognizes an Asian woman from his past, but she claims to have never met him. Seeking to learn more about her, Michael enrolls in a karate class and quickly makes an enemy with one of the black belt instructors. Appearing long before Kung Fu or even Longstreet, this episode offers an engrossing look into martial arts. This was one of the episodes never shown on CBS.

Susan Hampshire.
5.  A Time to Be Born - The first episode sets up the premise concisely and provides viewers with the most tangible clues into Michael's real identity. We see him pre-amnesia in the opening scene before he's beaten up and tossed into the harbor. After a long hospital recovery, he assumes the name Michael Alden and sets out to discover what happened to him. A potential clue leads him to a young socialite (Susan Hampshire), whose father may hold the key to Michael's identity.

Here's a two-minute scene from the episode with Juliet Mills from the Cafe's YouTube Channel:



Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Doctor: A Tale of Transformation

William Hurt as Dr. Jack McKee.
Jack McKee (William Hurt) is a highly-skilled surgeon with a loving family, an expensive home, and a Mercedes convertible. He jokes with his buddies at the hospital and keep his patients at a distance because “you need to be detached to be a good surgeon.” His bedside manner certainly needs improvement; when a female patient fears her husband will find her surgery scars unattractive, McKee responds flippantly: “You’ll look like a Playboy centerfold and have the staples to prove it.”

But his world gets turned upside down when an irritating itch in his throat turns out to be a malignant laryngeal tumor. Suddenly, the cavalier doctor has been transformed into a patient—and he doesn’t like it. He gets frustrated with the countless forms he’s required to fill out. His appointments are cancelled at the last minute. He’s placed in a semi-private room, not the private one he expected. He is even administered an enema by mistake. Worst of all, none of the hospital staff seem to care that Jack is a surgeon at the hospital. 

Based on Ed Rosenbaum’s book A Taste of My Own Medicine, The Doctor (1991) reunites William Hurt with his Children of a Lesser God director Randa Haines. Like that earlier film, The Doctor offers a thoughtful, introspective story that unfolds slowly, but effectively. 

Elizabeth Perkins as a fellow patient.
Jack McKee gradually learns that the hardest part of being a cancer patient is coping with the uncertainly of one’s future. This feeling of vulnerability is new to a self-centered man who has internalized his emotions. There is no doubt that Jack loves his wife (Christine Lahti), but he ignores her and turns to a fellow cancer patient (Elizabeth Perkins) for support during his treatment. (This breakdown in communication between the married couple leads to a climatic scene that reminded me very much of Children of a Lesser God.)

Christine Lahti and Hurt.
In the lead role, William Hurt evolves effortlessly from confident surgeon to baffled patient to a man with a new outlook on his career and life. His character's journey may seem a little too measured at times (e.g., we don't see the physical impacts of his treatment). Yet, The Doctor is still a powerful tale of how positive change and hope can be forged from a life-threatening disease.

Elizabeth Perkins and Christine Lahti are the standouts in the the supporting cast, though it's fun to see Mandy Patinkin and Adam Arkin play hospital surgeons three years before their TV series Chicago Hope.

The Doctor garnered good reviews and made a decent profit on its initial release. However, unlike Children of a Lesser God, it was forgotten at awards time and faded quickly into obscurity. It's one of those movies, though, that has always stuck with me. So, I was eager to see it again when recently given the opportunity after a 25-year gap. I'm glad to say that it still resonates and may have improved with age.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Five Best Bob Hope Films

John Greco, the classic movie blogger behind the delightful Twenty Four Frames, recently listed his favorite comedies of the 1940s. Not surprisingly, two of Bob Hope's best efforts made the list. That got the Cafe staff thinking about our favorite movies starring Mr. Hope. So, here goes!

Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope.
1. The Ghost Breakers (1941) - This first-rate haunted house comedy benefits from a funny script and a strong cast. It reteams Hope and Paulette Goddard from the similar The Cat and the Canary (1939). Both movies feature spooky settings and were adapted from stage plays. However, while The Cat and the Canary comes off as a bit creaky, The Ghost Breakers holds up nicely. Willie Best, a fine comedian in his own right, has his share of great lines, too, as Hope's valet. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis remade The Ghost Breakers as Scared Stiff in 1953. Both original and remake were directed by George Marshall.

2. Son of Paleface (1952) - This is the rare case where the sequel is better than the original--and that's saying a lot because The Paleface (1948) is pretty funny. Bob plays Junior, an Eastern dandy who heads out West because his father--Paleface Potter--supposedly left behind a fortune in gold. Instead, he finds that Dad pretty much owed money to everyone in town. Jane Russell, Hope's Paleface co-star, plays a saloon owner with a secret identity and Roy Rogers is an undercover government agent with a rifle hidden in his guitar case. This is classic Hope, with lines like: "Why, I'm so mean, I hate myself."

Crosby and Hope.
3. Road to Utopia (1945) - The best Road movie casts Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as a a pair of vaudeville performers who stowaway on a ship to Alaska. Their plan is to cash in on the gold rush, but they end up impersonating a couple of killers named Sperry and McGurk. Naturally, Dorothy Lamour is on hand, as well as a talking fish, a cameo by the Paramount mountain, and Bing playing the adult offspring of Bob and Dorothy. (Yes, this is one road Road movie where Bob got the girl...sort of.)

4. My Favorite Brunette (1947) - I'm a fan of all three of Bob Hope's My Favorite... films. In this outing, he plays a baby photographer with aspirations of becoming a private detective. He explains in voiceover that he knew what it took to become a detective: "Brains, courage, and a gun. And I had the gun." When Dorothy Lamour's exotic client mistakes him for a real private eye, Bob tackles a case involving a kidnapped uncle, mineral rights, and plutonium. Peter Lorre plays a knife-throwing henchman and Lon Chaney, Jr. is a delight as his oafish assistant. I also love the "keyhole camera."

Bob with Madeleine Carroll.
5. My Favorite Blonde (1942) - There were a lot of candidates for this final spot, but you can't go wrong with this comic variation of a Hitchcock espionage film. Bob plays a vaudeville entertainer (with a roller-skating penguin, no less) who encounters a mysterious, beautiful blonde on a train ("Is that your real hair or did you scalp an angel?"). She turns out to be a secret agent who needs Bob's help to elude her pursuers. Bob and Madeleine make a fine duo; it's too bad they didn't make any more movies together. Actually, Ms. Carroll took a five year break from acting after My Favorite Blonde, devoting herself to caring for the wounded and orphans during World War II.

Honorable Mentions:  The Paleface; The Lemon Drop Kid; and Casanova's Big Night.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Alternate TV Series Title Game

Happy Independence Day! Today, we thought it'd be fun to try a new game. We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic TV series and ask you to name the actual show. Most of these are pretty easy. Keep in mind that they're older series (all pre-1989), so #5 isn't Castle! Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. Good luck!

1. Governess and College Teacher.

2. A Large Piece of Artillery.

3. Big Texas City.

4. The Colorful Flower from a Big State.

5. Chess move.

6. Rodent Reconnaissance Team.

7. Dusk Area.

8. Female That Marvels.

9. That Which Requires a Criminal.

10. Military Officer Who is Agreeable and Pleasant.

11. Sweet Toes.

12. Steak Restaurant Franchise (be careful with one!).

13. Intelligent Male Human.

14. Alphabet Letter Military Unit.

15. Now Obsolete Ford Compact Car.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Vengeance of She

Olinka Berova as Carol/Ayesha.
I've been a Hammer Films aficionado since my youth and I've seen almost all its movies. One which eluded me for decades was The Vengeance of She, the 1968 sequel to She (1965). The latter film shows up on television frequently, probably due to Ursula Andress' appearance in the title role. The lesser-known sequel has become an oddity--but one which I recently found on eBay for $4.00.

Olinka Berova stars as Carol, a young woman who may or may not be the reincarnation of Ayesha, the once-immortal queen of a desert civilization. Carol experiences intense headaches, bad dreams, and memory loss. That may explain why she awakes on a French Riviera beach one morning, strips down to her underwear, and swims out to a millionaire's yacht. She can offer no explanation for her actions, but all the males on the boat are in favor of her remaining a passenger. (Well, the captain does make one of those ominous remarks about her bringing bad luck.)

The yacht's owner dies of a heart attack shortly after rescuing Carol from an inexplicable dive into the ocean. That should have been the cue to cut ties with her. Instead, one of the yacht's passengers, psychiatrist Philip Smith offers to accompany Carol on a desert journey to the lost city of Kuma. After some mishaps along the way, she and Philip reach Kuma, where Carol is hailed as its ruler. Things don't fare as well as for Philip, who is imprisoned by a high priest hoping to gain immortality for himself.

The Vengeance of She is an initially promising follow-up to She. The opening scene of Carol walking down a mountain road in a white fur and high heels is certainly unexpected. Ditto for the song over the credits with lyrics like" "Oh, who is She?" The sudden demise of a lecherous trucker and Carol's uncanny silence add to the intrigue. But once the yacht lands in North Africa, it becomes clear that The Vengeance of She is a role-reversal rehash of the original. This time around, Ayesha is being summoned to Kuma while her immortal lover Killikrates awaits her.

Edward Judd as Philip.
While the cast isn't as strong as the one in She (e.g., no Peter Cushing), it makes the most of the mediocre material. Edward Judd, who was excellent in the earlier sci fi classic The Day the Earth the Caught Fire, makes for a serviceable hero. Derek Godfrey is appropriately despicable as the nasty high priest. And, as Killikrates, handsome John Richardson provides the link back to She. I have always found him to be an exceptionally dull leading man, although he gets one of the film's most memorable lines. Speaking of Ayesha, he notes: "She is mine and I have need of her."

As the replacement for Ms. Andress, Olinka Berova certainly looked the part even if her thespian skills were suspect. The Czechoslovakian beauty's real name was Olga Schoberova (I don't know why Hammer thought Olinka was an improvement over Olga). She spent most of her acting career in European films. Her second husband, from 1972-92, was Warner Bros. executive John Calley, who received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award during the 2009 Oscars ceremony.

Actually, Hammer intended for Ursula Andress to star in the sequel, which was originally titled Ayesha--Daughter of She and then later The Return of She. However, Andress' contract expired before production could begin. Susan Denberg, another blonde beauty who later starred in Frankenstein Created Woman, was also considered for the title role.

The Vengeance of She is nowhere near as bad as some critics claim. It ultimately lacks originality, but one can say that about most sequels. It's certainly watchable, though the poster promises a lot more. It features Ms. Berova in a short, skimpy tunic wielding a whip with the tag line: "Kneel before She. The ultimate female who used her beauty to bring kingdoms to their downfall...and men to their knees."

Here's a clip from our YouTube channel showing Ayesha's big entrance:

Thursday, June 28, 2018

William Powell as Philo Vance: The Benson Murder Case

William Powell as Vance.
William Powell made his third appearance as erudite detective Philo Vance in this loose adaptation of S.S. Van Dine's 1926 novel. 

The opening scene takes place at Anthony Benson & Co. Stocks and Bonds with Benson’s clients learning that he has “sold everyone out.” The unfazed Benson leaves town with friend Harry Gray and goes to his lodge “up the river.” His guests, all victims of Benson’s financial schemes, include: rich socialite Mrs. Paul Banning; her paramour Adolph Mohler; the flamboyant Fanny Del Roy; and Gray, a prominent bootlegger.

During a thunderstorm, District Attorney John F.-X. Markham, who owns an adjacent estate, stops by with his friend Philo Vance. While Vance and Gray discuss their theories on crime, Benson goes upstairs. A few minutes later, a loud shot rings out and Benson’s dead body tumbles down the stairs.

Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath.
Sergeant Heath takes the formal lead on the investigation, though Vance always seems one step ahead of him. Mrs. Banning confesses to the crime, but Vance recognizes it as a weak attempt to shield Mohler (Paul Lukas). Markham focuses his suspicions on Fanny, but Vance ensures him that she is innocent. Having a motive is not enough, he maintains, explaining that “everybody has a motive for murdering somebody.” 

Although poorly paced and static, The Benson Murder Case (1930) is a reasonably entertaining mystery. The killer’s identity is never in doubt. Like the previous Vance films, it plays up the humorous conflict between Vance and Heath, played again by the gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette. When the police detective hears that Vance will be arriving, he confides to another officer: “I’ll try to arrange it so I’ll be just gone by the time he gets here.”

It is unclear why the filmmakers veered from the novel’s superior plot. While the book’s detailed mystery would have required trimming for any film adaptation, its characters and setting are much more interesting than what appears on screen. Furthermore, some of the alterations make little sense, such as changing the name of Vance’s valet from Currie to Sam. Still, a handful of plot elements were retained from the book, including a subplot about stolen jewels, the distance that the lethal bullet was fired from (six feet), Benson’s toupee, and the revelation of one suspect's "secret."

William Powell's likeness on a dust jacket.
Author S.S. Van Dine (a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright) based The Benson Murder Case on the real-life murder of New York socialite Joseph Elwell. The victim's claim to fame was a how-to-play-bridge book called appropriately Elwell on Bridge. As for Van Dine's novel, it was an instant bestseller and spawned a series of Philo Vance mysteries. The Benson Murder Case has been adapted for the screen three times: William Powell's version, El Cuerpo del Delito (a Spanish language version filmed concurrently), and La Strana Morte del Signor Benson (1974), an Italian made-for-TV movie. 

Powell, who would play Vance once more in Michael Curtiz's The Kennel Murder Case, projects the proper urgency, but still fails to capture the detective's cynicism (though the script deserves equal blame). Paul Lukas, appropriately wimpy as Mohler, would make an unlikely Vance five years later in The Casino Murder Case. Having consumed all the Vance novels, I always thought that Warren William made the best Philo, with The Dragon Murder Case being his strongest film.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Seven Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember (Volume 5)

The guy at the top doesn't look like Caine.
1.  The Destructors (1974) - As a teenager, I watched this French-British crime thriller at the tiny Club Haven Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC. (How small was it? One person could sell tickets and then swivel around to serve popcorn.) I assume the film's attraction was its cast of Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn, and James Mason. Made in the wake of The French Connection, Quinn plays an intelligence agent who hires an assassin (Caine) to kill a drug kingpin (Mason). It was originally titled The Marseille Contract--which is much less exciting than The Destructors. I don't recall it being anywhere as good as Burt Lancaster's international thriller Scorpio (1973).

Alan Bates as the "hero."
2.  Nothing But the Best (1964) - This black comedy stars Alan Bates as a young man willing to do anything to climb the corporate ladder--and that includes murder. It's a darker, funnier version of Room at the Top. Despite playing on network television in the 1970s, I don't think it has ever been released on video in the U.S. I keep waiting for someone to post the complete movie on YouTube.

3. Trader Horn (1973) - I'm not sure what inspired MGM to remake W.S. Van Dyke's 1931 African adventure as a low-budget programmer. All I can say is that I felt sorry for poor Rod Taylor, who deserved so much better than to be engulfed in cliches and mismatched stock footage. In the opening scene, we see Rod guiding some amateur hunters in what looks like a park in California. He points at a tribe of elephants--which turns out to be much lighter (stock?) footage of some pachyderms. It only gets worse from there!

Sultry Cleo Moore.
4. Bait (1954) - We've written about "B" movie auteur Hugo Haas in this blog before. Bait is one of his better efforts, featuring director Haas as a conniving prospector who tries to force his beautiful younger wife (Haas regular Cleo Moore) into the arms of his partner (John Agar). He figures that adultery will be sufficient justification for a little homicide! You would think this movie would be in the public domain on YouTube, but, no, it'll cost you $2.99 to watch it.

5. Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1969) - When a young woman (Carol Lynley) realizes her lover is a psycho, she dumps him and aborts their unborn child. Years later, she marries a nice guy and has a baby--naturally, that's when the ex-boyfriend shows up again. I haven't seen this one since its theatrical release and was surprised to learn it was written by old pros Larry Cohen (It's Alive) and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (the Batman TV series).

Peter Lorre as the title character.
6. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) - This film noir isn't as obscure as it used to be. In fact, it probably doesn't belong on this list anymore after being "rediscovered" by noir fans a few years back. John McGuire stars as a reporter whose testimony helps convict a potentially innocent man. When he tries to find the real killer, the reporter is arrested for a second murder and his girlfriend must track down the real culprit.

7. Killdozer (1974) - So there's this evil spirit or something that takes over a bulldozer on a island and starts killing the construction crew. Hey, what's not to like about this wacky made-for-TV movie co-written by acclaimed sci fi author Theodore Sturgeon and starring Clint Walker, Carl Betz, Neville Brand, and Robert Urich? Plus, don't you just love that title?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Hayley and Horst in Tiger Bay

Horst Buccholz and Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay.
It's taken me over 40 years to finally see Tiger Bay, the 1959 film debut of Hayley Mills. I first saw a preview of it on The CBS Late Movie in the 1970s, but missed the movie for reasons I can't remember. It then eluded me over the following decades until I recently discovered it on YouTube--a quality print no less.

Horst Buccholz stars as Korchinsky, a young Polish man who has returned to Wales after working many months on a freighter. Planning to propose to his girlfriend Anya, he is thus taken aback to learn that she has moved without telling him. Even worse, it appears Anya has kept the rent money that Korchinsky sent and shacked up with another man. The angry young sailor sets out to find her.

Concurrently, we follow the story of 11-year-old Gillie (Hayley Mills), a lonely girl shunned by the other children. Gillie is a deceptive child--she pockets the leftover change when her aunt sends her to buy sausages. Her aunt seems nice enough, but thinks nothing of young Gillie staying out alone late at night.

Gillie sees what happened.
Korchinsky finally tracks down Anya to the low-rent apartment house where Gillie lives. He confronts his girlfriend and strikes her. Anya grabs Korchinsky's gun from a drawer, there's a struggle, and Anya is accidentally shot. Gillie watches everything from the hallway and Korchinsky spots her as he hastily departs. Gillie then promptly snatches the gun and hides it in her aunt's apartment.

Tiger Bay is a reasonably compelling film from the outset, but doesn't gel until circumstances pair up Korchinsky and Gillie. That's when its true nature is revealed: This is a study of two lonely people who form an unlikely bond even though they both know it will be short-lived.

Hayley and John Mills.
It's quite a change-of-pace for director J. Lee Thompson, who later became best known for his action films with Charles Bronson. In Tiger Bay, Thompson captures the dark, shabby neighborhoods, which give way to grassy pastures in a scene where Korchinsky and Gillie dream briefly of a better life.

Hayley Mills gives an astonishingly natural performance for a first-time actor. She once said: "Acting is just a natural thing in my family. Other boys and girls go into the family business. So do we." In fact, her finest scene in Tiger Bay is when a Scotland Yard inspector grills her on Korchinsky's whereabouts. That inspector just happens to be played by Hayley's father, the wonderful John Mills.

After gaining popularity in his native Germany, Horst Buccholz made his English-language debut in Tiger Bay. His good looks and sensitive portrayal--especially his natural rapport with the young Mills--likely led to his casting in the following year's boxoffice smash The Magnificent Seven. Buccholz continued to have success with roles in Fanny (1961) and One, Two, Three (1961). He's very funny in the latter, though apparently he and Billy Wilder did not get along.

So, did Tiger Bay live up to my expectations after waiting so long to see it? I would say yes, for the most part. But the moral here is to never give up looking for that movie that you've always wanted to see. And do check YouTube occasionally, because you never known what you might find.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2018)

Walter Matthau and Steve Martin.
Welcome to the latest edition of the Cafe's most popular game. As always, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and challenged 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.

1. Strother Martin, David Warner, and Stella Stevens.

2. Patric Knowles, Oliva de Havilland, and Rosalind Russell.

3. Clint Walker, Elizabeth Taylor, and Johnny Weismuller.

4. Rod Taylor, Boris Karloff, and Ronald Colman.

5. Jean Arthur and Jill Ireland.

6. David Niven, Dick Powell, and Charles Boyer.

7. Walter Matthau and Steve Martin.

8. Alec Guinness and Clifton Webb.

9. Donald Crisp and Jeanette MacDonald.

10. David Niven, Joseph Cotten, and James Mason.

11. Joan Bennett and Celeste Holm. (This might be a toughie!)

12. Rod Steiger, Spencer Tracy, and Tony Curtis.

13. Clu Gulager and Paul Newman.

14. Jerry Lewis and Fredric March.

15. Hayley Mills and Jeremy Irons.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Anne Baxter

Anne in The Ten Commandments.
1. Producer David Selznick considered Anne Baxter for the title role in Rebecca. He allegedly deemed her too young for the part and it went to Joan Fontaine. Other actresses considered for the role were Loretta Young and Vivien Leigh.

2. Anne Baxter famously played Eve to Bette Davis' Margo in All About Eve (1950). In 1971, she played Margo in Applause, the Broadway musical version of All About Eve. She replaced Lauren Bacall.

3. Here's a more unusual All About Eve connection: In the 1983 pilot for the TV series Hotel, Bette Davis played Laura Trent, the St. Gregory's wealthy owner. When a stroke prevented Ms. Davis from becoming a regular in the Hotel TV series, she was replaced by Anne Baxter. She played Trent's sister-in-law for three seasons until her death.

4. In the book Conversations with Classic Movie Stars, Anne Baxter recalls reading for the part of Sophie in The Razor's Edge with director Edmund Goulding: "I read a scene and the world-weary Goulding said I sounded fine. He told me he'd get me an Oscar. He said, 'I did for Mary Astor and The Great Lie was junk. This is great literature.'" It did indeed earn her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

5. Anne Baxter was the granddaughter of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. She and first husband John Hodiak owned a unique home in the Hollywood Hills. It was remodeled by John Launter, a well-known architect in his own right, in 1951. The residence is now known as the Baxter-Hodiak Home.

As Zelda the Great.
6. Anne Baxter played two villains on the 1966-68 Batman TV series: Zelda the Great and Olga, Queen of the Cossacks. In the latter role, she teamed up with Vincent Price's Egghead.

7. On the subject of retirement, Anne Baxter once said: "I want to go on until they have to shoot me." She died after suffering a stroke at the age of 62 in 1985.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Search: The Curious TV Series That Should Have Been Named Probe

Burgess Meredith and Hugh O'Brien.
It was like Time Tunnel without the tunnel and the time travel. That's one way to describe Search, a 1972-73 TV series that combined science fiction elements, international settings, and handsome private eyes.

Burgess Meredith plays V.C.R. Cameron, a project director that provides intelligence data to three field operatives for the World Securities Corporation. Each operative is outfitted with high-tech devices that allow two-way communication with Cameron and his staff, one-way video surveillance, and the monitoring of health vitals. By accessing a powerful computer loaded with useful data, Cameron can provide any information the operatives may need--from a street address to a biography of someone they just met.

TV Guide cover with the stars.
It's an intriguing premise that sadly grew old within a few episodes. It didn't help that the show's structure--which focused on a single operative each week--made it difficult for viewers to identify with the hero. One week, the star was Hugh O'Brien as the cynical Hugh Lockwood. The next week, it was Tony Franciosa as tough guy Nick Bianco. And lastly, there was Doug McClure, who looked like he should still be playing Trampas on The Virginian. Of course, there have been popular shows with rotating stars, such as Maverick and The Name of the Game, but they also featured better-written characters.

DVD cover for Probe.
Leslie Stevens, who created The Outer Limits, wrote the pilot for Search, which aired as a made-for-TV called Probe in 1972. It was a cut above other telefilms of the era, thanks in part to guest stars Elke Sommer and John Gielgud. It also featured Angel Tompkins as one of Meredith's assistants, who bantered playfully with O'Brien (a more lighthearted version of Lee Meriwether;s character in The Time Tunnel). Tompkins remained for the first episode of Search, but then disappeared from the series after a second appearance. (Incidentally, the original plan was to call the TV series Probe, but that idea was scrapped to avoid confusion with a public television series).

While Search may be remembered mostly for what it could have been, its catchy theme by Dominic Frontiere still has its fans--including me. Here's a clip from Warner Archive featuring the opening credits to the first episode:



Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Gordon Liu.
Even film buffs who don’t normally watch martial arts movies may enjoy this 1978 classic that made a star of Gordon Liu (aka  Chia-Hui Liu).

He stars as Liu Yude, a student who joins rebel forces to fight against the tyranny of the Manchus in 17th century China. When his family and friends are killed, a wounded Liu escapes and finds his way to a Shaolin temple. Liu’s hope is that he can train with the Shaolin monks—who are renowned for their martial arts skills—and teach their techniques to his fellow rebels and defeat the Manchus.

The chief abbot rules in Liu's favor.
Liu is almost rejected at the outset, but the temple’s chief abbot overrules his brothers and grants the young man sanctuary because of his strength of spirit. For the first year, Liu—who is given the new name of San Te—does nothing but menial tasks like sweeping the temple. When he finally inquires about learning martial arts, he’s told that he must master 35 “chambers,” that doing so requires many years, and that most of the monks never complete this training regimen.

Undeterred, San Te starts with the 35th chamber, the most difficult one…and fails miserably. As he undertakes the other chambers, he gradually comprehends the importance of speed, balance, vision, strength, and humility. He goes from the weakest student to the best and rapidly works his way through the first 34 chambers (although it still requires several years). When the chief abbot offers him the opportunity to become the master of any chamber, San Te asks if he can create a 36th chamber—which sets into motion the final third of the film.
San Te (on right) defending a lethal blow.
There have been dozens of kung fu films where the protagonist mastered a “special technique” in order to defeat his enemy. However, I can think of no other genre movie with such extensive and engrossing training scenes. Part of the attraction lies in the training events. To learn balance, San Te must jump from floating log to floating log to cross a body of water. To strengthen his wrists, he must repeatedly strike a bell with a large stone attached to a flexible rod. I especially love the details in the scenes. As Liu tries various positions to strike the bell, we see other students waiting behind him, blue and deep red bruises covering their wrists.
San Te striking the bell using only his wrist,
Gordon Liu conveys intensity and determination as San Te. As he tries to figure out how to defeat one of the abbots in a fight, one can almost “see” him thinking. It’s no wonder his strong performance catapulted him to martial arts stardom. (Casual moviegoers may remember Gordon Liu best from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, where he played two roles. One of them was as the kung fu master who trains Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, Volume II…a sequence likely inspired by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.)

My only complaint about The 36th Chamber is that the training sequences are so good that the final third of the film is a bit of a letdown. It still includes some amazing fight scenes; the choreography is so intricate that I felt like I was watching a ballet. Director Lau Kar-Leung had extensive experience as a fight choreographer and actor. He and Gordon Liu were brothers (the latter was adopted).

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was produced by the Shaw Brothers, the studio home of many kung fu classics (but not Bruce Lee’s films). I remember watching a 60 Minutes segment in which studio co-owner and producer Run Run Shaw was interviewed. At that time, his studio was the largest in the world and almost all their films were shot there. Run Run Shaw died in 2014 at the age of 107.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Five Shaw Brothers Films (for People That Typically Don't Watch Kung Fu Movies)

Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber.
Last year, Amazon Prime added a number of high-quality prints of Shaw Brothers films to its catalog. If you're unfamiliar with the Shaw Brothers Studio (and subscribe to Amazon Prime), this is a great opportunity to sample some of their best movies.

Founded in 1925 (under a different name), the studio grew into the world's largest privately-owned film production company by the 1960s. During that decade, Sir Run Run Shaw popularized action films featuring swordplay and martial arts. Action pictures like Come Drink With Me and The One-Armed Swordsman shattered box office records in Asia.

In the 1970s, the Shaw Brothers took advantage of the international interest in martial arts and produced many of their best known classics. Every fan has his or her favorites, but I tried to pick five that might appeal to film fans not familiar with the genre. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Heroes of the East, in particular, are less bloody than the other films on this list. All of these films feature impressive athletic feats and fights choreographed with balletic precision.

1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin - Martial arts superstar Gordon Liu plays a student who joins rebel forces to fight against the tyranny of the Manchus in 17th century China. When his family and friends are killed, he escapes and finds his way to a Shaolin temple. His hope is that he can train with the Shaolin monks—who are renowned for their martial arts skills—and teach their techniques to his fellow rebels and defeat the Manchus. This classic is famous for its spellbinding training sequences, but its theme of perseverance and dedication resonates strongly, too.

Liu again, this time fighting with knives.
2. Heroes of the East - The arranged marriage of a Chinese businessman's son and a Japanese friend's daughter turns out much better than anyone could have hoped. Indeed, the couple's happiness is marred only by the wife's insistence that her Japanese martials arts are superior to her husband's Chinese boxing. The couple try to find common ground, but she eventually returns to Japan. To get her back, the husband (Gordon Liu again) ends up challenging seven Japanese masters, each highly skilled in a particular style of fighting. Clever and funny, Heroes of the East also features some of the best fights you'll ever see in a movie--plus no one dies!

Jimmy Wang Yu in a snowy scene.
3. The One-Armed Swordsman - An aging teacher plans to turn over his school of sword fighting to his best pupil, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu). Kang doesn't know that and plans to leave the school because he doesn't fit in with his fellow students. The teacher's impetuous daughter challenges Kang on the night of his departure. When he refuses to fight her with a sword...she chops his right arm off! Miraculously, a young woman finds his bloody body and nurses him to health. Meanwhile, the teacher's villainous old adversary plans to kill everyone in the school. Stylish and graphically violent, The One-Armed Swordsman is an engrossing tale of transformation and determination.

4. Master of the Flying Guillotine - An old evil kung fu master--armed with the title weapon--seeks revenge in a town hosting a martial arts tournament. One of the funkiest and most popular films to emerge from the kung fu craze of the 1970s, Master of the Flying Guillotine has become a cult classic championed by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. Part of its popularity can be attributed to the tournament scenes featuring participants from different countries and with different fighting styles. Plus, we get Jimmy Wang Yu again...this time as a one-armed boxer!

5. The Avenging Eagle - An outlaw, being pursued by his former gang, encounters a mysterious stranger in the desert. As the two men travel together and fend off periodic gang attacks, their pasts--and their unique connection--are revealed through flashbacks. The best scenes in this intriguing action yarn show how a Fagin-like father figure manipulates his loyal followers, transforming them from innocent children into young men that have become ruthless criminals.
Two is better than one when our heroes confront the villain!

Other popular Shaw Brothers films include:  Clan of the White Lotus, Crippled Avengers, The One-Armed Boxer, Golden Swallow, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, and Five Deadly Venoms.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Billie: A Missed Opportunity to Promote Girl Power

Made between the second and third seasons of The Patty Duke Show, the teen comedy Billie (1965) is a best-forgotten stain on the resumes of its star and her veteran supporting cast. Indeed, the only reason to watch this ill-conceived adaptation of the 1952 Broadway play Time Out for Ginger is to see the cast. In addition to Ms. Duke, there's Jim Backus as her father, Jane Greer as her mother, Susan Seaforth Hayes (Days of Our Lives) as her sister, plus Ted Bessell (That Girl), Dick Sargent (Betwitched), Warren Berlinger, and Richard Deacon.

Jim Backus as Billie's father.
Patty--sporting a disconcerting blonde wig--plays a high school teen who can out-run, out-jump, and out-pole vault any of the boys at Harding High School. Naturally, that earns her a spot on Coach Jones' (Charles Lane) track team. Her father, a male chauvinist pig who is running for mayor, initially rejects Billie's dreams. He's not exactly sensitive to his daughter's teen problems either. When she comments in frustration that she wishes she were a boy, he mutters: "So do I."

However, Dad eventually comes around and supports his youngest daughter. He remains, however, in the dark as to why his oldest daughter Jean has decided to take a break from college. (For the record, I turned to my wife immediately and said: "I bet Jean is married and pregnant.") After some mild misunderstandings, all conflicts are neatly resolved as befits this kind of 1960s comedy.

Billie and her stuffed Wolf.
It's a shame really. Billie could have made an important statement about empowering teenage girls to pursue their dreams and break stereotypical gender molds. I thought Billie might still make that point, but the ending reverses the theme entirely and all that remains is a harmless comedy with a handful of forgettable songs.

Director Don Weis does stage one notable musical number, in which Patty sings "Funny Little Butterflies" to a stuffed wolf in her bedroom. The previous year, Weis directed Annette Funicello warbling Stuffed Animal in her bedroom in Pajama Party. You gotta love coincidences like that! By the way, Weis also helmed several episodes of The Patty Duke Show.

In the original production of the play Time Out for Ginger Melvyn Douglas played the father and Nancy Malone portrayed his daughter Ginger. Her goal was to try out for the boys' football team. I think that might have worked better for Billie. Patty Duke never resembles a track athlete, moving her head back and forth as she hears "the beat" in her head. But, hey, she could have passed for a kicker on the football team. I know...that's nit-picking...but then Billie causes one to start thinking about those kinds of details.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Chase a Crooked Shadow--An Absence of Brotherly Love

Anne Baxter as heiress Kim Prescott.
After a late night engagement, diamond heiress Kimberly Prescott (Anne Baxter) returns to her Spanish villa to be greeted by her brother Ward. Kimberly is stunned...you see, Ward died in a car accident and Kim identified his corpse. Despite her adamant protests, the alleged brother (Richard Todd) won't leave.

When Kim calls the local police inspector (Herbert Lom), Ward calmly provides a passport to prove his identity. Even more compelling, though, is that the photo of Ward in Kim's bedroom is the spitting image of the man claiming to be her sibling.

The next day, Kim awakes to find that Ward is still there. He has been joined by a female friend and a butler, having sent Kim's maid on vacation. What does this impostor want? Could he really be Kim's brother? Is she losing her mind?

Richard Todd...as her brother?
Released in 1958, Chase a Crooked Shadow reminded me very much of the British suspense pictures written by Jimmy Sangster for Hammer Films. Structurally, these films (best represented by 1961's Taste of Fear) build tension slowly before climaxing in an effective twist. In the case of Chase a Crooked Shadow, it's a nice twist but the film tips its hand a little with its opening scene. Producer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. appears just before the final credits to ask viewers not to reveal the film's ending to those who haven't seen it yet.

Anne Baxter, looking smashing in costumes designed by Anthony Mendleson, creates a believable, increasingly perplexed protagonist. As the source of her problems, Richard Todd once again proves his adeptness at playing both heroes and villains (though I'll refrain from saying which one he is in this film!). Todd is one of those actors I didn't fully appreciate until later in my "movie-watching career." (Interestingly, David Niven was once announced as one of the leads, presumably playing Todd's role.)

Capitalizing on its Spanish seaside setting, Chase a Crooked Shadow is an engrossing, well-acted suspense drama that doesn't bear close scrutiny. I rather enjoyed it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Abbott & Costello Try to Find Out Who Done It

In one of their best films, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play Chick and Mervyn, a couple of soda jerks who aspire to be radio mystery writers. They catch a break when they're given tickets to watch a recording of Murder at Midnight, a popular series produced in the General Broadcasting Company (GBC) building across the street. Of course, Mervyn (Costello) loses the tickets in a obvious scam and the boys end up sneaking into the recording studio. Thus, they're practically on the set when the show begins...and the network's president is electrocuted.

Chick and Mervyn start to go for the police, but quickly decide to play detective themselves. They figure that if they can solve the murder, their new-found fame will secure their employment as mystery writers. When Mervyn comes into possession of a vital clue, he and Chick become pursued by the killer. To make matters worse for the boys, the real detectives (William Gargan and William Bendix) show up and they're not happy about being impersonated.

Costello on the payphone.
Who Done It? is notable as the first Abbott and Costello comedy without musical numbers. As a result, it moves faster than their previous films and clocks in at a brisk 76 minutes. It also means more funny routines, including some of the duo's best: Costello trying to make a limburger cheese sandwich; Lou trying to make a call on a payphone; and a gag about volts and watts with wordplay similar to their classic "Who's on First?" routine. (It's also fun to note that "Who's on First" is referenced twice in Who Done It?)

Mary Wickes.
The standouts in the supporting cast are two comic pros: Mary Wickes and William Bendix. The former plays the network president's secretary and the object of Lou's affection. Bendix, as one of the detectives, plays straight man to Costello in most of his scenes. It couldn't have been easy playing second banana to Lou, whose style of comedy demands that the camera focus on him. But Wickes and Bendix were consummate performers who knew how to complement their fellow actors. It was a skill that kept them in demand throughout their careers in film, radio (for Bendix), and television.

Chick and Mervyn at the diner.
My only complaint with Who Done It? is that it doesn't take maximum advantage of its setting and plot. The radio series backdrop contributes to a few laughs, but whole sequences take place outside the GBC building (e.g., a big scene where Mervyn learns he has won $10,000 in a radio contest). Likewise, the central mystery--which involves spies sending secret messages--could have been integrated into the hijinks better. Yes, this is an Abbott and Costello comedy, but consider how the plot contributed to their classic farce Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Still, you don't watch Bud and Lou movies for meaningful stories--you watch them to laugh. And there are more than enough gags in Who Done It? to satisfy the duo's fans...and maybe even convert some new ones.