Monday, May 3, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Burgess Meredith

1. In So Far, So Good: A Memoir, Burgess Meredith wrote: "Well, everybody was taking parts in Batman — from Frank Sinatra to Otto Preminger, everyone. It was the trendy thing to do back then. The Penguin stuck to me because the character was vivid." Actually, Sinatra never played a Batman villain. He reportedly wanted to play The Joker...but Cesar Romero was already signed for the role. 

2. Surprisingly, Meredith's most memorable TV role was not as The Penguin. He played bank teller and book lover Henry Bemis in "Time Enough to Last," one of the most beloved episodes of Twilight Zone. He once said: "I've heard...more about it than anything else I've done on television. I think it must have had a great impact on people. I don't suppose there's a month goes by, even to this day, that people don't come up and remind me of that episode."

3. In an 2016 interview with Empire Online, Rocky director John Avildsen said: "A lot of people came in to audition for the role of Mickey, the trainer. I wouldn’t hire anybody unless they auditioned and I liked them. Lee J. Cobb came in and he wouldn’t audition. We got Lee Strasberg to audition. Then Burgess [Meredith] came in and they read the scene where Rocky is told that he has to get out of his locker. He read the scene a few times and then I said, 'Why don’t you guys go through the scene and do it in your own words?' So they did, and at the end Rocky is walking away, dejected, and Burgess yells, 'Hey, did you ever think about retiring?' Stallone doesn’t know what to say to him, so he says, 'No,' and Burgess says, 'Well, start thinking about it.' That was just perfect, and that’s how he got the job."

Meredith as Mickey in Rocky.
4. Burgess Meredith was highly respected among his acting peers. He received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for The Day of the Locust (1975) and Rocky (1976). He won an Emmy as attorney Joseph Welch in Tail Gunner Joe, a 1977 TV movie about Joseph McCarthy. (Interestingly, the real Joseph Welch played the judge in Anatomy of a Murder.) He received another Emmy nomination that same year for a TV version of The Last Hurrah. Finally, he was nominated for a Tony for directing the Broadway play Ulysses in Nighttown (1974) and received a Special Tony for directing A Thurber Carnival in 1960.

5. Director Otto Preminger was a big Burgess Meredith fan and cast the actor in 1962's Advise and Consent (one of my personal favorites), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971).

6. In addition to directing for the stage, Meredith helmed two theatrical films. The first was The Man in the Eiffel Tower (1949), a mystery starring Charles Laughton as Inspector Jules Maigret. The second was the 1970 oddity The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go with James Mason and Jack MacGowran. Its poster claims: "It'll make you think of Dr. No!" Honestly, I don't believe you will. Meredith's most accomplished directing job was on the Playhouse 90 live TV drama The Days of Wine and Roses, which starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. (She discussed it with us in 2014.)

7. Burgess Meredith was married four times. His third wife was Paulette Goddard; their marriage lasted five years. He stayed married to fourth wife, Kaja Sundsten, from 1950 until his death. They had two children. Burgess Meredith died in 1997 at age 89.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Peter Falk Channels Bogie in Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective

A befuddled Lou Peckinpah.
Following the success of his romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl (1977), Neil Simon returned to the zany spoof formula of Murder By Death (1976). Indeed, The Cheap Detective could have been a sequel to Murder By Death with Peter Falk reprising his role of Sam Diamond--a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade. Instead, Falk plays Lou Peckinpah, a 1930s hardboiled detective--who is still a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade.

Set in San Francisco, the movie kicks off with the discovery of six corpses in a seedy hotel. One of the victims is Floyd Merkle, the partner of private eye Lou Peckinpah. The police target Lou as their primary suspect since he had been having a nine-year affair with Floyd's wife. That prompts Lou to tackle the case and prove his innocence. 

Madeline Kahn.
He receives a visit from a mysterious woman (Madeline Kahn) who claims to have knowledge of Floyd's death. However, she will help Lou only if he can recover twelve stolen diamonds, each valued at over $250,000. Meanwhile, Lou encounters his former flame, Marlene DuChard (Louise Fletcher), whose war hero husband wants to establish a French restaurant in Oakland against the Nazis' wishes.

Yes, The Cheap Detective is essentially a spoof of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Its plot is serviceable, but Simon clearly didn't put much effort into it. Instead, he chose to focus on "the funny"--packing his comedy with one-liners, wacky situations, and relying on an engaging cast. An example is the scene in which Floyd's widow (Marsha Mason) comes to see Lou after her husband's murder. Lou asks her: "Are you sure the police didn't follow you here?" She replies: "I'm positive. They came with me." Three police detectives then emerge from two doors behind her. It's the kind of silly--but funny--gag that would be employed two years later in Airplane! (1980).

DeLuise channeling Lorre.
The cast has grand fun playing parodies of famous movie characters from The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. John Houseman channels Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman as Jasper Blubber and Fernando Lamas does a fine Paul Henreid impersonation as Marlene's husband. However, the standout performances belong to Madeline Kahn as a Mary Astor-like femme fatale and Dom DeLuise imitating Peter Lorre. Peter Falk serves as the film's straight man, typically setting up the funny scenes for his co-stars.

As with the later Airplane! and Naked Gun movies, the gags are plentiful with more hits than misses. For this reason, I found The Cheap Detective to be funnier than the slower-paced Murder By Death. I suspect I'm in the minority, though, as Murder By Death seems to be fondly remembered by movie fans whereas The Cheap Detective has been sadly neglected. If you've never seen it--or if it's just been awhile--Neil Simon's 1978 comedy is definitely worth a look.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Five Easy Pieces: When Good Performances Aren't Enough

Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea.
The years have not been kind to Five Easy Pieces (1970), which earned four major Oscar nominations and was hailed by Roger Ebert as a "masterpiece of heartbreaking intensity." In retrospect, it's a meandering film that boasts two stellar performances and an iconic scene. That's not enough, though, to justify the bloated running time and the "so what" of it all.

Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a disgruntled young man from an affluent family of classical musicians, who works in the California oil fields. Bobby lives with Rayette (Karen Black), a pretty but none-too-bright diner waitress who aspires to sing country music. He cheats on Rayette, berates her in front of friends, and is too embarrassed to introduce her to his family. He also gets her pregnant.

Susan Anspach as Catherine.
When visiting his sister Partita, Bobby learns that his father has suffered two strokes. Partita (Lois Smith) encourages Bobby to resolve his differences with his estranged father before it's too late. Bobby's reunion with his family bores him until he meets Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is studying music with his brother Carl. As Bobby pursues the reluctant Catherine, Rayette waits for him at a motel a few miles from the Dupea house.

As a character study, one can forgive the wandering plot of Five Easy Pieces. However, director Bob Rafelson allows his film to lose focus by indulging in extraneous scenes. There are lingering shots of Bobby working in the oil fields. A hitchhiker prattles endlessly about how the world is filled with filth. Bobby gets irate about a highway traffic jam (one of Ebert's favorite scenes).

Karen Black as Rayette.
The film perks up whenever there's a scene with Karen Black as Rayette. The actress keeps the character from being nothing more than Bobby's victim. Yes, Rayette can be irritating, but she sincerely loves Bobby, forgives him for everything, and finds joy in her simple life. In one of the best scenes, Rayette interrupts a ridiculous pseudo-intellectual discussion by asking: "Is there a TV in the house?"

Jack Nicholson is wonderfully convincing as the disillusioned Bobby--who isn't quite sure what he's disillusioned about other than his life in general. One doesn't have to like the character to admire Nicholson's performance or appreciate the tiny details that make Bobby seem real. There's the justifiably famous scene of Bobby trying to reason with a diner waitress who refuses to make any substitutions on his breakfast. However, Nicholson's best scene is saved for what functions as the film's climax--a "conversation" with Bobby's father that's essentially a monologue of self-reflection.

The film's screenplay, Rafelson, Nicholson, and Black all earned Oscar nominations in 1970. If Nicholson first garnered serious critical acclaim in Easy Rider (1969), then Five Easy Pieces was the movie that made him a star. He would make three of his best films over the next five years--The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--receiving three more Oscar nominations and winning Best Actor for Cuckoo's Nest.

All of those films are better than Five Easy Pieces, a promising character study that gets lost in its own pompousness.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Olivia de Havilland Edition)

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

1. Funerals with Footwear. 

2. No Room for a Quartet.

3. Vipers' Den.

4. Charlotte & Emily.

5. The Evil Sister.

6. Elevator!

7. What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?

8. The Mysterious Past of  Mark Sebastian.

9. Rejection.

10. Mother Without a Son.

11. Outlaw Town.

12. The Brothers Vickers.

13. Voice from the Grave.

14. A Wedding in Florence.

15. Trapped Underwater!

Monday, April 5, 2021

Hoosiers: A Tale of Inspiration and Second Chances

Gene Hackman as Coach Norman.
Second chances, the popularity of small town sports, and teamwork are the themes that underlie Hoosiers, a surprise 1986 boxoffice hit.

Gene Hackman stars as Dale Norman, a formerly disgraced college basketball coach hired at Hickory High School. The team has only seven players...and that includes the equipment manager who plays in practice only. Jimmy Chitwood, the town's best player, left the team following the death of the former coach, a father figure to the lad.

Coach Norman clashes with the townsfolk almost immediately, starting with a teacher (Barbara Hershey) who questions his education qualifications. The players' parents don't condone his pass-first basketball approach (four passes before a shot!) and his closed practices. It's not long with there's a petition to remove Norman from his job--although there are those who come to admire his emphasis on teamwork and discipline.

Barbara Hershey.
Hoosiers is a sports movie and a very good one. Set in the 1950s, it captures the importance of basketball in a small town devoid of other forms of entertainment. Heck, the school is too small to field a football or a baseball team, so basketball is everything. As Hershey's teacher says: "You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god...I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old."

Dale Norman loves the game of basketball and recognizes a great player when he sees one. But for him, there are no individual heroes, only teams where the players work together to achieve the victory. I think this is what make Hoosiers a favorite among many real-life basketball players. When the 2002 Indiana University Hoosiers made an unlikely run to the NCAA championship game (ultimately losing to Maryland), the players watched Hoosiers before each tournament game.

Dennis Hopper as Shooter.
Yet, Hoosiers is also a movie about giving second chances and making the most of those opportunities. Coach Norman gets his chance to coach again because the high school principal, an old friend, believes in him. Norman pays it forward by taking on Shooter (Dennis Hopper), an alcoholic former high school star who happens to be the father of one of Norman's players. In one of the film's most amusing scenes, Norman gets intentionally thrown out of a game so that Shooter has to step up and coach the team. Hopper isn't in much of Hoosiers, but he brings out his character's love of the game and his desire to fight the demons that separated him from his family. It's a performance that earned Hopper a Best Supporting Actor nomination (though his best performance of 1986 was in David Lynch's riveting Blue Velvet).

During the filming of Hoosiers, Gene Hackman clashed almost daily with rookie director David Anspaugh and was convinced the film would flop. But after seeing the rough cut, Hackman knew that Hoosiers was special. The story is inspirational and the acting good, but it's the little touches that make it memorable: the autumn colors, the wind blowing through the fields, Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score.

The plot of Hoosiers was inspired by the 1954 Milan high school basketball team. Milan, Indiana, boasted a population of just over a 1,000 residents. And yet its high school basketball team played toe-to-toe with the biggest and best Indiana schools for two years. They almost won the state championship in 1953 and then accomplished the feat in 1954 in what has been dubbed The Milan Miracle.

Monday, March 29, 2021

6 Films--6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, we are hosting the 6 Films--6 Decades Blogathon. Per its title, each participating blogger is invited to list one favorite film from each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s. (If you prefer, you could also list one film per decade from the 1930s through the 1980s). Our goal is to highlight the incredible movies that were made during cinema's classic era.

If you want to participate, please make sure your blog complies with our blogathon guidelines. Then, leave a comment below with your blog's web address or e-mail it to rick@classicfilmtvcafe.com. When you publish your article on May 16th, please include a link back to this post.

If you don't have a blog, you can still participate by listing your six films on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or another social media platform. All we ask is that you wait until May 16th to do so.

Finally, since National Classic Movie Day is all about our love of classic movies, it's a great day to introduce a friend to the wonderful films from the silents to the 1970s!

Here are the 6 Films--6 Decades Blogathon participants so far:

Box Office Poisons

Caftan Woman

Cinema Essentials

Cinema Then and Now

Classic Film Obsessions

Classic Film & TV Cafe

Critica Retro

dbmoviesblog

The Everyday Cinephile 

Four Star Films

goosepimply all over

The Lady Eve's Reel Life

The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film

Old Books and Movies

Once Upon a Screen

Outspoken and Freckled

A Person in the Dark

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies

Realweegiemidget Reviews

Reel Charlie

Shadows and Satin

Silver Scenes

Silver Screenings

the Story Enthusiast

Taking Up Room

Thoughts All Sorts

Twenty Four Frames

Whimsically Classic

Monday, March 22, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Julie Newmar

1. Born as Julia Chalene Newmeyer in 1933, she was billed as Julie Newmeyer in her first major screen role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). She played Dorcas and was paired with Jeff Richards as one of the seven Pontipee brothers. Richards, a former professional baseball player, was 6' 2", which made him just three inches taller than the 5' 11" Julie Newmar.

2. Julie Newmar won a Tony award as Featured Actress in the 1958 Broadway comedy The Marriage-Go-Round, which starred Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. She played a Swedish bombshell who wanted the married Boyer, a college professor, to father her baby so the child would have brains and beauty. Newmar repeated the role in the 1961 film version with Susan Hayward and James Mason.

Julie Newmar with Jack Mullaney in My Living Doll.
3. Newmar's first TV series was the 1964-65 sitcom My Living Doll. She plays an android called Rhoda  that becomes the responsibility of an Air Force psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings. Most of the humor is derived from Cummings' character trying to keep Rhoda's android identity a secret. In an interview with Starlog Magazine (issue 148), Newmar stated that CBS considered Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. before casting Cummings. "(The show) needed a different kind of actor...It was not a flip part--it needed a straight actor who could play opposite this bizarre creature so the comedy would come off."

Catwoman with Adam West as Batman.
4. The Batman TV series was already a hit in 1966 when Julie Newmar was offered the role of Catwoman. She had never heard of the show, but her brother had--and told her she had to take the part. Newmar portrayed Catwoman in thirteen episodes during the first two seasons of Batman. Due to a scheduling conflict, she was replaced by Lee Meriwether in the 1966 Batman theatrical film. Also, Eartha Kitt replaced her as Catwoman during Batman's third and final season. Long after the show ended, Newmar acquired her form-fitting Catwoman costume and donated it to the Smithsonian Institution where it's displayed on the third floor of the Museum of American History in Washington, as one of the "National Treasures of Popular Culture."

As Vicki Russell on Route 66.
5. Julie Newmar appeared as Vicki Russell, a free-spirited, motorcycle-riding heiress in two episodes of Route 66. Her first appearance was in the second season episode "How Much a Pound is Albatross?". She returned as Vicki in the following season's "Give an Old Cat a Tender Mouse" (George Maharis had left the series by then). Thus, Julie Newmar is the only guest star to play the same character in two nonconcurrent episodes of Route 66

6. She holds a patent for panty hose! According the patent's abstract: "An elastic shaping band is attached to the rear panty portion and is connected from the vicinity of the crotch to the vicinity of the waist band and fits between the wearer's buttocks to delineate the wearer's derriere in cheeky relief."

7. Julie Newmar was married to J. Holt Smith, an attorney, from 1977 to 1984. They had one child, John Jewl Smith, who has Down's syndrome and lives with his mother. You can learn more about Julie Newmar at her website julienewmar.com

Monday, March 15, 2021

Lemmon and Ford: Life as a Cowboy Through the Eyes of a Tenderfoot

Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford.
The incredibly versatile Delmer Daves directed three of my favorite Westerns from the 1950s, a decade in which the genre flourished. Each film is decidedly different from the other. The Hanging Tree (1959) is a tale about self-forgiveness and the power of love. 3:10 to Yuma shows how a family-oriented rancher and a bitter outlaw can develop respect for one another. The third film--the one we're reviewing today--is another tale of mutual respect. However, Cowboy is also a gritty, colorful portrait of life on the trail in the Old West.

Lemmon as a hotel clerk.
Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) is a clerk at a posh Chicago hotel who has fallen in love with Maria, the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher. Maria's father dismisses Frank's marriage proposal and decides his family will return home to Guadalupe. Frank is heartbroken, but finds a glimmer of hope when cattleman Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) checks into the hotel. Reese knows Maria's father and discusses buying cattle from him. Frank seizes on a plan: If he can convince Reese to hire him as a cowhand on the trail, perhaps Frank can still pursue Maria.

Reese has no interest in taking a tenderfoot on a cattle drive. However, when he loses a large amount of money in a poker game, Frank offers to reimburse Reese's losses. There is one condition: Reese and Frank will become partners on the next cattle drive. Reese, who has been drinking too much, agrees and he wins back most of his money. When he tries to pay off Frank, the latter refuses the cash and insists on joining the cattle drive.

It's a grueling journey in which the two men learn a lot about each other. Frank becomes tougher and more realistic, while the hardened Reese becomes more compassionate about his fellow man.

Lemmon as a cowboy.
Made in 1958, Cowboy was based on the 1930 novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy by Frank Harris. John Huston originally secured the rights as a vehicle for his father and himself. In the early 1950s, there were plans to adapt it for the screen with Spencer Tracy as Reese and Montgomery Clift as Frank. However, when those plans eventually fell through, Delmer Daves expressed interest in making it with Glenn Ford as Reese. Ford agreed on the condition that Jack Lemmon to be cast as Frank.

According to Peter Ford's biography Glenn Ford: A Life, Lemmon was initially hesitant because of his inexperience with riding a horse. Glenn Ford invited him to cocktails and, during a long evening of drinking, convinced Lemmon to accept the role. Lemmon spent the entire first day of filming on horseback and was so sore that three stuntmen had to lift him down from the saddle. In Peter Ford's book, he recalled: "I had to wear a Kotex every day for two months while I was on that friggin' horse. I was never off the damn thing long enough for (the wounds) to heal."

Richard Jaeckel and Ford.
As a film about Frank's experiences, Cowboy is understandingly episodic. Each subplot is designed to show Frank's evolution from tenderfoot to full-fledged cowboy. He watches a stupid campfire prank result in the death of one of his colleagues (Strother Martin). His rendezvous with Maria ends badly. He watches Reese and the other hands turn their back on a friend (Dick York) who's in trouble. In short, it's not an easy trek for Frank Harris, but one which does indeed toughen and transform him. Reese undergoes a transformation, too, even if it's a far more subtle one.

The two stars are fabulous together, with Ford at his gritty best and Lemmon at his most appealing in one of his first serious film roles. The latter makes it heartbreaking to watch Frank lose his initial joy as his perceptions are shattered one by one by the reality of the dusty trail. My only complaint is that Cowboy does them a disservice by rushing to its conclusion. After the script works hard to drive a wedge between the two men, it throws them into a dangerous situation and suddenly they bond together as the film ends.

Jack Lemmon never made another Western. Delmer Daves directed the excellent The Hanging Tree before transitioning to big screen soap operas. Glenn Ford, though, continued to forge a solid career in the genre, appearing in movies like Cimarron (1960), The Rounders (1965), and Day of the Evil Gun (1968).

Monday, March 8, 2021

Rodgers & Hammerstein Films: Ranked Best to Worst

Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
1. The King and I (1956) - Yul Brynner's Oscar-winning per-formance as King Mongkut of Siam anchors this clash of cultures (a popular R&H theme) and unlikely, ever-so-subtle love story. Deborah Kerr provides strong support as Anna Leonowens, a British widow who accepts the position of teacher to some of the king's many children. The king's efforts to propel his country into the 19th century make him a fascinating figure and Brynner portrays his inner struggles beautifully. The many songs includes some of R&H's most melodic compositions: Hello Young Lovers, We Kiss in the Shadows, Something Wonderful, and Shall We Dance. My only complaints: The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet is too long and Anna's son disappears for most of the film. The King and I won Oscars for Best Actor, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Recording, and Music Score.

Julie Andrews as Maria.
2. The Sound of Music (1965) - R&H's biggest box office hit played theatrically for over a year in my hometown. Julie Andrews, who snagged a Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins the previous year, earned another Oscar nomination. She plays Maria, a novice nun in a abbey near Saltzburg in the late 1930s, who is sent to serve as temporary governess to widower Captain von Trapp's seven children. In the hands of veteran musical director Robert Wise (West Side Story), The Sound of Music bursts with lively production numbers, often filmed against visually stunning on-location backgrounds. Julie Andrews is effervescent in the lead and well matched with Christopher Plummer's stern von Trapp. The score includes many of R&H's most famous songs: the title tune, My Favorite Things, Do-Re-MiEdelweiss, and Climb Ev'ry Mountain. The Sound of Music won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Editing.

Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.
3. Oklahoma! (1955) - R&H's first stage musical was hailed as innovative when it debuted in 1943. However, by the time it was adapted for film, Hollywood had already copied its formula. There's still much to enjoy with its elaborate musical numbers and director Fred Zinneman's dazzling use of outdoor locations (with Arizona substituting for Oklahoma). However, the narrative compares unfavorably to The King and I and The Sound of Music. The plot essentially revolves around farm girl Laurey's unwillingness to acknowledge her love for confident cowboy Curly. Its popular score includes: Oh What a Beautiful Mornin', The Surrey With the Fringe On Top, People Will Say We're In Love, and the title song. As with the later King and I, there's a lengthy ballet (presented as a dream sequence) that probably worked better on stage. It was surprisingly ignored at the Oscars, only earning wins for Best Sound and Best Music Score.

4. Flower Drum Song (1961) - R&H return to their favorite theme of contrasting cultures, only this time it's a clash between the old and the young among the Chinese-Americans living in San Francisco. The older residents wants to retain many of their culture's traditions while the younger folks want to embrace their new freedoms. The first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast, Flower Drum Song is an ensemble piece filmed almost entirely on studio sets. While it boasts its share of clever songs (I Enjoy Being a Girl) and pretty ballads (You Are Beautiful), there were no breakout hits. Flower Drum Song was also a box office disappointment and didn't win any Oscars. It's a more intimate film than its predecessors and the cast imbues it with charm and warmth.

Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie.
5. South Pacific (1958) - Racial prejudice is the dominant theme in this musical drama set on a South Pacific island during World War II. The plot follows two romances: the first is between a U.S. Navy nurse (Mitzi Gaynor) and a French plantation owner; the second is between a Navy lieutenant and a young Polynesian woman. The problem is that the first romance is joined in progress and the second one is never fully developed. Star Mitzi Gaynor shines throughout, delivering her uptempo songs with energy and her passionate ones with subtlety. However, Joshua Logan's decision to shoot the musical numbers through color filters is a major distraction. (To his defense, his intent was to use softer colors, but the processing was muffed.) Musical highlights include: I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, and Some Enchanted Evening. Happy Talk, though, may be the worst R&H song in any of their movies.

Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain.
6. State Fair (1945) and (1962) - This musical is the only one that R&H wrote expressly for the silver screen. The basic plot is the same in both versions: The Frakes, a farming family, spend several days at the state fair. Father Frake aims to win a blue ribbon with his prize hog Blue Boy. Mother wants to win the mincemeat competition. Their kids Margy and Wayne fall in love with, respectively, a journalist and a carnival show singer. I've lumped the original and the remake together because the quality is about the same. Margy's romance works better in the 1945 film with Jeanne Crain while Wayne's relationship is better developed in the 1962 remake with Pat Boone. State Fair is a lighthearted affair compared to the other, more ambitious R&H musicals. However, since it featured songs written expressly for the film, it earned its composers an Oscar for the bittersweet It Might as Well Be Spring.

7. Carousel (1956) - It was a bold risk to build a musical around an unlikable character: a handsome, self-centered carnival barker named Billy Bigelow who marries an naïve young woman. It was also intriguing to have Billy tell his story in flashback, while taking a break from polishing stars in what appears to be Heaven. Unfortunately, it's extremely hard to root for Billy, who constantly makes poor decisions and only redeems himself (somewhat) in the final three minutes of the movie. Oklahoma! star Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones sing beautifully and, for musical die-hards, the June Is Bustin' Out All Over number is pretty elaborate. The big hits were If I Loved You and the inspirational I'll Never Walk Alone.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Ray Harryhausen's Valley of Gwangi

Gwangi: The star of the movie!
Made in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi is one of those movies that seems to improve with age. Its far-out “cowboys vs. dinosaur” premise has always held a certain appeal. However, repeat viewings have allowed me to truly appreciate the little touches that made special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the greatest stop-motion animator in motion picture history.

Set in Mexico at the turn of the century, Gwangi stars James Franciscus as Tuck Kirby, a hustler always eager to make a quick buck. He arrives in town to convince his former girlfriend T.J. (Gila Golan) to sell her “diving horse” to Wild Bill Hickok. Tuck thinks T.J. needs the money to save her Wild West show. However, T.J. eventually reveals that she has a new money-making attraction: a miniature horse dubbed El Diablo. The creature was found in the secret Forbidden Valley—one of those places that warrants warnings from wise old gypsy women.

Tuck befriends a paleontologist (Laurence Naismith), who reveals that El Diablo is an eohippus, a prehistoric ancestor of horses. While he and Tuck argue on El Diablo’s future, the gypsies kidnap the little horse and return him to the Forbidden Valley with T.J.’s men in pursuit. When everyone arrives in the now no-longer-secret valley, they discover a prehistoric world that has defied time. It’s “ruled” by a ferocious T-Rex dubbed Gwangi. When the carnivorous creature is injured following a cave collapse, Tuck decides to capture it. After all, Gwangi could be the biggest show attraction in the world!
A wire was used for the rope when animating the lasso.
If a connection between The Valley of Gwangi and King Kong seems obvious, that’s because the former was originally conceived by Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator that brought Kong to life. O’Brien, who later became Harryhausen’s mentor, did a significant amount of pre-production work on the project, then titled The Valley of Mists, in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, RKO shelved the project, allegedly because its executives thought the public was no longer interested in dinosaurs. O’Brien’s premise did serve as a basis for a low-budget American-Mexican production called The Beast of Hollow Mountain in 1956, which was quickly forgotten. A decade later, when Harryhausen and his production partner Charles Schneer were exploring ideas for a new film, Ray remembered the abandoned Valley of Mists.

The Valley of Gwangi gets off to a leisurely start before transitioning to 45 minutes of almost non-stop cowboys vs. dinosaurs action. The film's highlight is the sequence where Tuck and the gang try to lasso the T-Rex. It took Harryhausen five months to animate the scene, carefully matching footage of the actors throwing ropes at a pole mounted in a jeep with the stop-motion movements of his dinosaur model. To "animate" the rope, Harryhausen used wire--again synchronizing it to match the actual lassos being thrown in the live footage.
The T-Rex takes on a Styracosaurus while cowboys watch.
For a scene where Gwangi confronts an elephant, Harryhausen originally intended to use real footage of an elephant. When the filmmakers were unable to procure a pachyderm on location (the film was shot in Spain), Harryhausen went ahead and animated the elephant, too.

While it's true that Gwangi lacks the expressive emotions that made King Kong special, one must realize that the T-Rex wasn't known for sensitivity. On the other hand, Harryhausen adds the little details that make the dinosaur seem real. My favorite is a quick shot in which Gwangi, seen in the distance, pauses to swipe at his nose with one of his little "arms."

Gila Golan and James Franciscus.
In an special effects-driven movie like Gwangi, the human actors are there to basically move the story. James Franciscus is an unlikely choice for a Western; his well-groomed looks just don't seem to fit (at least he looked scruffier in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Still, he's a capable actor and thus pulls off the part of the hustler who eventually realizes he's taken on more than he can handle. Laurence Naismith adds some class to the film, playing the kind of British gentlemen that he specialized in. It's hard to judge Gila Golan's thespian skills as the Israeli actress was dubbed after the producers determined her accent was too strong.

The film's star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen. The Valley of Gwangi doesn't rank with his best work (e.g., Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), but it's a diverting little picture with some incredible stop-motion special effects.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Bogie Edition)

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

1.  Everybody Comes to Rick's.

2.  Charlie & Rose.

3.  The Outlaw John Murrell.

4.  Quest for Blood!

5.  A Snake Called Adolphe.

6.  The Chauffeur's Daughter.

7.  Black Tunnel.

8.  The 8666th M*A*S*H.

9.  The Impending Storm.

10. The Lulu Belle.

11. Badges.

12. Trees of Stones.

13. Slim.

14. Court Martial!

15. Glove on the Canvas.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Seven Things to Know About William Hopper

1. William Hopper auditioned for the TV series Perry Mason--for the role of Perry! You can view his screen test opposite Ray Collins as Lieutenant Tragg on YouTube. The part went to Raymond Burr, of course, and Hopper was cast as private investigator Paul Drake. He was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series in 1959.

2. William DeWolf Hopper Jr. was born in 1915 to actors DeWolf and Hedda Hopper. His father became a theatre producer and his mother became a famous Hollywood gossip columnist. For William's film roles in the 1930s and 1940s, he was listed as DeWolf Hopper--if he got a credit at all.

3. In her 1962 book The Whole Truth and Nothing But, Hedda Hopper wrote about her son: "When he went off to war, he'd already attained stature as an actor. On his return--with a medal for valor which I've never seen--not one soul in the motion picture industry offered him a job. Hell would have frozen over before I'd have asked anyone for help for a member of my family. So Bill went to work selling automobiles for "Madman" Muntz. One day he woke up to the fact that he was an actor, got himself a part with Bill Wellman in The High and the Mighty--and asked Wellman not to tell anybody who his mother was."

4. William Hopper acted in over 100 films prior to joining the Navy during World War II. His appearances consisted of bit parts, though often in A-pictures with stars like John Garfield, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. He was in six Errol Flynn films: Virginia City, They Died With Their Boots On, Dive Bomber, Footsteps in the Dark, Desperate Journey, and Gentleman Jim.

5. William Hopper and Raymond Burr each acted in films opposite Natalie Wood prior to Perry Mason. Hopper played Natalie Wood's father in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Burr starred as a psychopath who held Wood's character captive in A Cry in the Night (1956). 

With Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed.
6. Hopper's other notable pre-Perry Mason film roles were in The Bad Seed (1956) as little Rhoda's father and in the science fiction movies The Deadly Mantis and 20 Million Miles to Earth (both 1957). He appeared earlier in Conquest of Space (1955), co-starring two other future TV stars: Eric Fleming (Rawhide) and Ross Martin (The Wild Wild West).

7. William Hopper retired from acting after Perry Mason ended its run--though he had a small unbilled part as a judge in Myra Breckinridge (1970). He died of pneumonia after experiencing a stroke in 1970; he was 55. He was survived by his second wife Jeanette Ward and daughter Joan from his first marriage. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

How the West Was Won

James Stewart and Carroll Baker.
The words “epic” and “”sprawling” are typically used to describe MGM’s 164-minute, 1962 all-star Western. At the risk of sounding mundane, that’s still an apt description. Filmed in the widescreen process Cinerama, How the West Was Won explores the settling of the Old West through the eyes of the Prescott family. A key theme is the evolution of transportation from the rivers to the wagon trains to the railroad.

Debbie Reynolds and Thelma Ritter.
The story is divided into five segments that cover two generations of Prescotts. The opening tale focuses on young Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker), who falls in love with a beaver trapper (James Stewart) and eventually settles in Ohio. The second segment takes place several years later with Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) traveling via wagon train to California to claim a gold mine. The remaining stories revolve around Eve’s oldest son Zeb and his experiences in the Civil War, working for a railroad, and serving as a federal marshal. His last segment features an elderly Lilith, who has now retired to a ranch in Arizona. 

The most fully developed segment is the first, in which Stewart’s grizzled trapper finds himself smitten with Eve—although he can’t fathom the idea of settling down. Both characters are appealing, with their age difference of 23 years being realistic given the era. This segment also includes an exciting encounter with river pirates and a thrilling raft ride through treacherous rapids. It sets a high mark that the remainder of the film can’t match. 

Young and older George Peppard.
A recurring problem is that the other stories aren’t long enough. Each features a handful of dialogue scenes coupled with a large-scale action sequence. Certainly, those set pieces are impressive, especially a train robbery filled with amazing stunts and crashes. However, the end result is a disjointed film and the superfluous narration by Spencer Tracy doesn’t help connect the pieces. Surprisingly, James R. Webb’s screenplay won an Oscar.

On the plus side, How the West Was Won is a visually enthralling experience. Directors Henry Hathaway (who did three segments), John Ford, and George Marshall clearly understand the Western genre and incorporate the landscapes seamlessly into the drama. The film was one of only a handful of dramas shot in Cinerama, a widescreen process that incorporated three cameras to create a slightly-curved image. When How the West Was Won was later shown in non-Cinerama theaters and on television, the three images had to be “stitched” together. If you look closely at the sky in some scenes, you can see the two “seams,” which appeared as light columns.






The standouts in the all-star cast are Carroll Baker and James Stewart. Debbie Reynolds gets to perform some lively musical numbers and does a very creditable job of capturing her character as a young woman and an elderly widow. George Peppard isn't as effective in repeating that trick, though he still delivers a capable performance. Some of the stars, such as John Wayne and Henry Fonda, have what amount to cameo appearances.

The decision to focus on one family inadvertently omits the contributions of Native Americans in the taming of the Old West. In the wagon train segment, an Indian attack is played strictly for thrills. However, the railroad company's broken agreement with the Arapaho tribe gets a storyline later in the film (although one could argue the subplot is more about George Peppard's character).

Considering its length of almost three hours, How the West Was Won moves along at a nice pace. Yet, as previously mentioned, some of the stories are abbreviated. It might have worked better as a two-part film (which was not a practice in the 1960s) or a television miniseries (also not a format at the time). Ironically, a made-for-TV movie and subsequent TV series based on the movie aired in the late 1970s. They starred James Arness and Eva Marie Saint as members of the Macahan family.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Third Man on the Mountain

James MacArthur as Rudi.
I'm hoping that Disney+ will eventually provide an outlet for some of the studio's lesser-known live action films, such as The Sword and the Rose, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, and Third Man on the the Mountain. The subject of this review, Third Man on the Mountain (1959), chronicles the fictitious exploits of young Rudi Matt, whose father died while trying to reach the peak of a Swiss mountain known as The Citadel in the mid-1800s.

Rudi (James MacArthur) daydreams of scaling the treacherous rocks while working as a dishwasher. In his spare time, he seizes every opportunity to climb the smaller mountains surrounding his village. One day, he hears a distress call and rescues Captain John Winter--a famous mountain climber--who has become trapped in a crevasse. Winter wants to find an experienced guide to help him scale The Citadel. Rudi realizes this may be an opportunity to realize his dream, but first he must convince others that he's worthy of the climb.

Michael Rennie as Captain Winter.
Walt Disney, who enjoyed skiing vacations in Switzerland, acquired the screen rights to James Ramsey Ullman's 1955 novel Banner in the Sky. A winner of the prestigious Newbery Honor, Banner in the Sky was inspired by Edward Whymper's first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.

The film adaptation was shot in 1958 in the Swiss village of Zermatt, with the Matterhorn standing in for the fictitious mountain The Citadel. Allegedly, it was during his visits to the set that Disney came up with the idea for the famous Matterhorn attraction at his Disneyland theme park.

In the lead role of Rudi, Walt Disney casts James MacArthur, the adopted son of actress Helen Hayes and author Charles MacArthur (The Front Page). MacArthur had previously starred in Disney's The Light in the Forest (1958) and would go on to appear in classics such as Swiss Family Robinson and Kidnapped (both 1960).

Janet Munro as Lizbeth.
A likable, enthusiastic actor, MacArthur lacked the screen presence to carry a film on his own. Thus, Disney surrounded him with a bevy of talented performers, such as: James Donald (Quatermass and the Pit); Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Laurence Naismith (Greyfriars Bobby); and Herbert Lom (A Shot in the Dark). For Rudi's chaste love interest, Disney cast the talented Janet Munro, who had signed a five-picture deal with the studio (though she'd only complete four films). She and MacArthur would team up again in Swiss Family Robinson.

Third Man on the Mountain is shock full of thrilling mountain climbing sequences and jaw-dropping scenery. In fact, there's almost too much footage of Rudi and company scaling up the rocky walls and rappelling down them. The movie could have trimmed 15 minutes easily and told the story just as effectively. Still, the mountaineers obviously fascinated Walt, who devoted an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney to a behind-the-scenes look of the on-location shooting (which doubled as great "free" advertising, too).

While it doesn't rank with the top tier of Disney's live action adventures (e.g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson), Third Man on the Mountain is a worthy juvenile tale of a young man achieving his dream. However, I am curious to find out whether mountain climbers back then actually wore the coats and ties depicted in the movie. I would have thought they'd opt for warmer clothing. So, if you're reading this and you're a mountain climber, please let me know in the comment section below!

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Five Best Inspirational Sports Movies

As you peruse our list, note that these are our picks for the five best inspirational sports movies. There are many other fine movies about sports (A League of Their Own), sports figures (Brian's SongThe Pride of the Yankees), and sports-related stories (Field of Dreams). The aim of the movies below are to leave you in a feel-good, uplifting mood!

Sylvester Stallone.
1. Rocky (1976) - Sylvester Stallone's quintessential underdog tale has a simple plot: a journeyman boxer gets a shot at the world heavyweight title as part of a publicity stunt. The film's "secret sauce" is how it traces the transformation of its protagonist and the people around him. Rocky comes to believe in himself--as do his grizzled trainer, his shy girlfriend, and most of the residents of Philadelphia. It's not a movie about winning, but rather one about "going the distance" and giving one's all.

2. Rudy (1993) - In the late 1960s, the son of a Pittsburgh steel worker sets off to off to achieve his lifelong dream: playing football for Notre Dame. Unfortunately, Rudy Ruettiger lacks the physique and talent to become an elite football player. He also lacks the grades to get enrolled into Notre Dame. None of that is enough to stop Rudy. As the titular hero, Sean Astin makes it impossible not to root for his underdog character. He attacks every obstacle methodically, so it's impossible for one not to admire his tenacity and cheer for Rudy every step of the way. Based on the true life story of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger.

Dennis Hopper and Gene Hackman.
3. Hoosiers (1986) -  Screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh--the same team responsible for Rudy--made this earlier winning film about a small town high school basketball team. Gene Hackman stars as a disgraced college coach who gets one last chance at Hickory High School. Hoosiers is a tale of redemption and the importance of teamwork. However, it works best as an examination of the importance of sports in small town life in the days prior to the explosion of sports on television. The story was based on Milan High School's basketball team, which won the Indiana state championship in 1954.

4. Remember the Titans (2000) - Inspired by real-life coach Herman Boone, Remember the Titans tells the story of a racially-integrated Virginia high school football team in 1971. I was in ninth grade that year and attended a newly integrated high school in North Carolina. While our conflicts weren't as exaggerated as those in Remember the Titans, much of the film still rings true. This is a sports movie about overcoming barriers and coming together as a team. Told in flashback, Remember the Titans also stands as a testament to how positive, powerful experiences can change our lives forever and shape who we become.

Stallone and Michael Caine.
5. Victory (aka Escape to Victory) - The least known film on this list is actually a remake of a 1961 Hungarian film called Two Half-Times in Hell. During World War II, a British officer agrees to coach a team of fellow prisoners in a soccer match against a German team. Concurrently, an American prisoner plots to escape from the POW camp. Victory is a solid, engrossing movie that doesn't really gel until the ending. But it's the climax that makes this film and puts Victory at No. 5 in our list.

Honorable MentionsBreaking Away, The Longest Yard, Miracle, and We Are Marshall.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Movie of the Week Edition)

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

1. Three Scary Stories.

2. Road Rage.

3. Man vs. Dogs.

4. The Hippy Marine. 

5. The Brampton Witches.

6. The Killer Physician.  

7. The Imitation Spaceman. 

8. Buried Alive.

9. Subway!  

10. The Deadly Buzz.

11. Loup Garou.

12. Lady Assassin.

13. Apes in the Arctic.

14. The Killer Beneath Seattle.

15. Phone Calls from the Dead.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version

Michael Redgrave as Crocker-Harris.
After 18 years at a prestigious English boys' school, Andrew Crocker-Harris has accepted a less-stressful position teaching at an institution for "backward boys." Once a promising scholar, Crocker-Harris's career stalled many years ago and he's now plagued by ill health. He won't leave as a beloved teacher. The boys refer to him unaffectionately as "The Crock" and privately call him Himmler, a cruel reference to his disciplinary ways.

Terence Rattigan's film adaptation of his 1948 stage play The Browning Version traces Crocker-Harris's final days at his old school. It's a character study--an engrossing one--and the opening scenes paint a portrait of Crocker-Harris through the eyes of a colleague, his replacement, and a student. Later, Crocker-Harris reveals personal insights to each of those characters. He confides to his new colleague that he's well aware of his wife's infidelity, but partially blames himself for their disastrous marriage. He also reveals his failure as a teacher and that he gave up trying to reach his students long ago. Finally, he inadvertently shows his inner emotions to a student who unexpectedly gives him a thoughtful farewell gift.

Nigel Patrick as a colleague.
Rattigan's one-act play ended with Crocker-Harris receiving the gift. For the film version, Rattigan expands the story, providing the audience with a more complete look at the schoolmaster's likely future. The film ends with Crocker-Harris addressing a school assembly and departing from his prepared speech.

Acclaimed British film and stage actor Eric Portman played Crocker-Harris when the play opened in the West End. However, he turned down the opportunity to do the film in 1951. Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith then turned to Michael Redgrave, who was just 43 years old. It was a brilliant decision, for Redgrave breathes life into the ageing schoolmaster. He captures the "look" of a man that considers his life a failure as well as little idiosyncrasies such as Crocker-Harris's obsession with punctuality and following rules.

Brian Smith as the student Taplow.
Redgrave's supporting cast includes nice turns from Nigel Patrick, as Crocker-Harris's colleague and his wife's lover, and Brian Smith as the student Taplow. Jean Kent has a difficult role as Millie Crocker-Harris. First, her character is unlikable from the beginning, but she also comes across as too blatantly dismissive of her husband. A more subtle approach might have come across as more believable. Frankly, it's difficult to see what Millie's lover could ever have seen in such a cruel, self-centered woman.

Terence Rattigan's plays also served as the basis for two other strongly-recommended films: The Winslow Boy (1948) and Separate Tables (1958).

Incidentally, The Browning Version has been remade multiple times with stars such as Albert Finney, Peter Cushing, and John Gielgud. These are fine actors, but it's hard to imagine anyone being better than Michael Redgrave in the lead role.