Monday, September 24, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Robert Goulet

With Julie Andrews in Camelot.
1. Robert Goulet was a virtual unknown when he auditioned for the role of Lancelot in the 1960 Broadway stage musical Camelot. Yet, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe cast him opposite Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. Goulet held his own and crooned one of the showstoppers "If Ever I Would Love You"--which became his signature song.

2. Goulet didn't even get a Tony nomination for Camelot, while Burton won Best Actor and Andrews was nominated for Best Actress. Six years later, though, Robert Goulet won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for The Happy Time with music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb. Stage producer David Merrick originally planned to cast Yves Montand in the role. Interestingly, the play was set in Canada, which is where the U.S.-born Goulet was raised.

3. Although Robert Goulet recorded several successful albums, he only scored one pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "My Love, Forgive Me" peaked at #16 in 1964. The original version of the song enjoyed immense popularity in Italy, where it was known as "Amore scusami."

4. In the 1966 TV series Blue Light, Robert Goulet played a double agent posing as an American journalist in Nazi Germany. French actress Christine Carere portrayed another spy, the only person who knows about Goulet's true identity. The series lasted just seventeen episodes. Four of them were written by Larry Cohen (The Invaders, Coronet Blue) edited together and released as the theatrical film I Deal in Danger.

5. Goulet played a cat...or rather, he provided the voice for the animated cat Jaune-Tom in the movie musical Gay Purr-ee (1962). His leading lady was Judy Garland. The songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who worked with Garland on an earlier musical: The Wizard of Oz.

6. You can still hear Robert Goulet singing on television five nights a week. He croons the opening song to Jimmy Kimmel Live! The tune was composed by Les Pierce, Jonathan Kimmel and Cleto Escobedo III.

7. Robert Goulet was married three times to: Louise Longmore; singer-actress Carol Lawrence; and the former Vera Chochorovska. After escaping with her mother from Yugoslavia, Vera eventually relocated to the U.S. in 1980, where she became Goulet's manager. She and Robert Goulet married in 1982. Robert Goulet died from pulmonary fibrosis on October 30, 2007.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (September 2018)

What do Gene and Robin have in common?
With autumn just around the corner, that means, well, it's time for another edition of our most popular game. As always, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is 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. Bert Lahr and Gale Sondergaard.

2. Robin Williams and Gene Hackman,

3. James Darren and Scott Bakula.

4. Pam Grier and Fred Astaire. (Hope you know your Pam Grier movies!)

5. Steve McQueen and Steve Martin.

6. Monte Markham and Raymond Burr. (An easy one!)

7. Jack Palance and Frank Langella.

8. Helen Reddy and Ralph Richardson.

9. Jack Lemmon and Dean Martin. (Similar to a recent question!)

10. Dudley Moore and David Hedison.

11. George Peppard and Richard Boone.

12. The Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled and the TV series The Odd Couple.

13. Dirk Bogarde and Amy Irving. (Maybe the hardest one?)

14. Die, Monster, Die and The Haunted Palace.

15. Tony Curtis and Alan Ladd.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Classic Film Stars--Not Terror--in the Wax Museum

Wax Jack the Ripper and Ray Milland.
Ray Milland, Elsa Lanchester, Louis Hayward, Broderick Crawford, John Carradine, Maurice Evans, and Patric Knowles...that would have been an impressive cast for a film made in the 1940s or 1950s. Alas, by the 1970s, these classic-era actors were at the twilight of their careers and found themselves appearing together in the low-budget horror picture Terror in the Wax Museum (1973).

Elsa Lanchester.
Set in turn-of-the-century London, it stars Carradine as Claude Dupree, the co-owner and lead sculptor of a wax museum that specializes in horrific subjects such as Lizzy Borden and Jack the Ripper. Dupree is contemplating closing the museum and selling the wax figures to a brash American businessman (Crawford). It's a tough decision, especially since Dupree thinks of his wax figures as family and doesn't want his hunch-backed assistant Karkov to lose his job.

Louis Hayward.
Of course, it becomes a moot point when Dupree is murdered by someone dressed as the wax Jack the Ripper. There are plenty of suspects, to include Dupree's business partner (Milland), his niece (Nicole Shelby) and her guardian (Lanchester), a nearby pub owner (Hayward), the American businessman, and, of course, the sensitive Karkov (Steven Marlo).

Alas, Terror in the Wax Museum is not much of a mystery, relying on cliché plot points such as a missing will and hidden treasure. It was also an oddity when I first saw it during its theatrical run. At a time when horror films were becoming more bloody--even Hammer's period-set pictures--Terror in the Wax Museum was extremely mild. It's not even as intense as the 1966 wax museum movie Chamber of Horrors, which was originally made for television.

It's Karkov...not Karkoff.
Still, the cast alone makes Terror in the Wax Museum worth a one-time viewing. In addition to the aforementioned stars, there's also Shani Wallis (who played Nancy in Oliver!) and Lisa Lu (The Joy Luck Club). According to the AFI Catalog, the wax figures were played by "twelve members of the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts Pageant of the Masters, a popular southern California 'Living Picture' troupe."

The film's publicity materials are a lot of fun, too. First, the character Karkov was sometimes listed as Karkoff (perhaps to make viewers think Boris Karloff was in the cast). A lobby card misidentified Lizzie Borden as Lucrezia Borgia and vice versa. I have also seen a poster showing Terror on a double-feature with Ted V. Mikels' The Doll Squad. Now, there's a twin bill!

Finally, producer Andrew J. Fenady and his brother, director Georg Fenady, shot Terror in the Wax Museum back-to-back with the oddball comedy Arnold (1973). That film starred Stella Stevens and Roddy McDowall, but also featured Terror troupers Elsa Lanchester, Patric Knowles, and Steven Marlo.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thieves' Highway: Dark Streets and Rolling Apples

Who would have thought a movie about transporting and selling apples could be so engrossing? Yet, director Jules Dassin has crafted an atmospheric, cynical film noir about just that--and somehow still manages to deliver a message of hope.

In Thieves' Highway, Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, a World War II Navy veteran who buys two trucks of California golden delicious apples. With his newfound partner Ed (Millard Mitchell), he plans to drive four hours to San Francisco to sell the apples for a quick profit.

Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte.
Arriving in the city well ahead of Ed, Nick seeks out produce merchant Mike Figlia--whom he blames for the truck accident that crippled his father. The crooked Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) plans to swindle Nick and hires a prostitute to distract the weary trucker. Meanwhile, Ed has his own problems as he struggles with a decrepit truck loaded with the rest of the apple shipment.

Conte and Valentina Cortese.
Taking place over two days and one night, there's a lot going on in Thieves' Highway. I love how screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides peels away the facades that some characters use for protection. The stereotypically tough prostitute Rica (Valentina Cortese) gambles with her male cronies and accepts money from Figlia to help cheat Nick. When she first meets Nick, there's an immediate physical attraction  (the scene where she caresses his bare chest must have raised eyebrows at the time). However, it's Nick's honesty and hardened vulnerability that makes her want to take care of him. When she meets his shallow, ambitious girlfriend Polly, Rica knows immediately that Polly is not the girl for Nick. And that gets her thinking that...just perhaps...she could find love and life beyond the dark, dirty streets of the city.

Nick and Slob.
Likewise, the rival trucker Slob (wonderfully played by Jack Oakie) initially appears to be the kind of hustler who will do anything to make a buck. He and his chum follow Ed, jeering him at every opportunity, in the hope of getting his cargo. It's not until Slob witnesses a tragic accident that he reveals his true colors. He proves that hustlers have ethics, too, and he takes an unlikely stand against Figlia.

One of the most vivid characters in Thieves' Highway is the bustling inner city with its neon lights, shadow-filled streets, and earthy characters. It's almost as if director Dassin had placed his camera in the middle of the San Francisco produce market at night. I can only think of a handful of films--The Set-Up and Sweet Smell of Success are two that spring in mind--which evoke a comparable urban atmosphere.

Ironically, the film's most iconic scene takes place during daylight and away from the city. Near the film's climax, a truck careens off the road and crashes, emptying dozens of golden apples onto a hillside.  As the apples careen down the downhill, going helter skelter in different directions, I was suddenly reminded of the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's silent classic Battleship Potemkin.

There are critics who think that the end of Thieves' Highway is a bitter joke. Its promise of a happy life for two of its characters is tainted by who they are and what they have done. In that context, perhaps the apples represent happiness slipping away. Personally, I prefer to believe that Dassin's ending is a hopeful one.

Melina Mercouri and Jules Dassin.
Although he was not one of the Hollywood Ten, Jules Dassin was blacklisted in 1950 after he finished his follow-up film Night and the City. He subsequently went to Europe and made a number of memorable films, to include the heist pictures Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964). He eventually married his frequent leading lady, Greek actress Melina Mercouri. Because of his name and the location of his later movies, Dassin is often mistakenly labeled a European filmmaker. In reality, he was born in Connecticut and raised in Harlem.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Five Best Giant Squid/Octopus Movies

1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) - Walt Disney provided the giant squid with its best role when it attacked the submarine Nautilus during a ferocious storm at sea. As a huge tentacle grabs Captain Nemo (James Mason) and threatens to crush him to death, harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) arrives just in time to save the day. Director Richard Fleischer initially filmed this fondly-remembered scene at sunset, but was concerned that the wires operating the squid would be visible. Thus, it was shot again, this time during the storm at night. That version appears as an extra on the newest 20,000 Leagues DVD (and it's also on YouTube).
The giant squid attacks the Nautilus in torrential rain.

Bad news for Golden Gate Bridge!
2. It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) - Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen introduced the most destructive giant octopus to date with this stop-action animated creature. Due to cost constraints, the title creature had only six tentacles. In his Film Fantasy Scrapbook, Harryhausen noted: "I sometimes wonder if the budget had been cut anymore if we might not have ended up with an undulating tripod." It's not Harryhausen's best work, although the annihilation of the Golden Gate Bridge is memorable. Ray also animated another tentacled underwater creature in 1961's Mysterious Island.

3. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) - Although it rarely gets good reviews, I always enjoy this theatrical prelude to Irwin Allen's TV series. It features a giant squid and a giant octopus. The latter was a live creature and special effects expert L.B. Abbott said that a major challenge was keeping the octopus attached to the cone of the submarine Seaview. It kept letting go and falling to the bottom of the water tank. Apparently, live octopi don't follow directions well!
The Seaview gives this octopus a charge!
4. Reap the Wild Wind (1942) - This rubbery squid may not look very real; indeed, there are times when Ray Milland's character seems to be intentionally wrapping a tentacle around his body. That said, it's pretty impressive when a giant squid gets a plum supporting role in a Cecil D. DeMille movie alongside stars like John Wayne and Milland. Also, with the exception of the 1937 "B" movie Sh! The Octopus, it was the biggest part to date for a squid or octopus.

5. Dangerous When Wet (1953) - Sure, the former musical is famous for Esther Williams' animated underwater number with cat Tom and mouse Jerry. However, the same scene also features a singing purple octopus that serenades Esther in "In My Wildest Dreams." (Fernando Lamas provides the voice.)

Honorable MentionsThe Little Mermaid (1989), which boasts a sea witch who is part octopus and Tentacles, an awful 1977 Italian film that gets a mention because its cast includes Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, and John Huston.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Fred MacMurray and a Double Dose of Flubber

MacMurray in the lab.
Following the success of 1959's The Shaggy Dog, Walt Disney re-teamed Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk for The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). This time around, Fred got most of the screen time with Tommy in a supporting role as the villain's son.

Fred plays Ned Brainard, a brilliant professor at Medfield University, who tends to forget everything when conducting his experiments. Having missed his wedding to fiancee Betsy two times, Ned relies on his housekeeper to get him to his latest scheduled nuptials. That turns out to be a poor plan when Ned leaves Betsy waiting for the third time!

Nancy Olson as Betsy.
To make matters worse, his current experiment literally blows up--but in the aftermath, Ned discovers a strange gooey substance. He rolls it into a ball and discovers that it gains energy with every bounce. It's like flying rubber, so Ned dubs his invention "flubber." Unfortunately, no one takes Ned and flubber seriously until the despicable Alonzo P. Hawks (Keenan Wynn) learns of the new invention's potential.

The Absent-Minded Professor is a first-rate family film bolstered by a bevy of wonderful supporting players. In addition to the aforementioned stars, the cast includes: Nancy Olson (Sunset Boulevard) as Betsy, Leon Ames (Mr. Ed) as the college president, Elliott Reid (Inherit the Wind) as a rival for Betsy's affections, Edward Andrews as a government bureaucrat, David Lewis as a general, Ed Wynn as a fire chief, and many others. My wife and I think we recognized almost everyone in the movie.

What a way to score!
Almost as important as the cast is Disney's special effects department, which earned an Oscar nomination for its work. The film's highlight is a basketball game in which Medfield is being crushed by its nemesis Rutland University.With the score 46-3 at halftime, Ned hatches onto a scheme to help Medfield and demonstrate flubber. He irons the gooey substance on the soles of the Medfield players' shoes. He then encourages them to bounce! The result is one of the most memorable basketball games in the history of cinema!

The Absent-Minded Professor was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1961 (Disney's 101 Dalmatians and The Parent Trap were also in the Top Ten). Thus, Walt Disney, who allegedly abhorred sequels, agreed to make Son of Flubber in 1963. It returns most of the original film's cast, although Tommy Kirk, still playing the same character, has now become Professor Brainard's assistant.

Joanna Moore as Desiree.
Having sold flubber to the government, newlyweds Ned and Betsy have yet to see any money from Ned's promising invention. That doesn't matter to the IRS, which wants them to pay over $600,000 in taxes due to projected earnings. Things get rockier when Ned's old flame, the vivacious Desiree de la Roche (Joanna Moore) returns to Medfield. Meanwhile, Ned has harnessed flubber gas, which he plans to use to control the weather.

Son of Flubber is a spotty follow-up that feels hastily put together. The highlights are an educational film on the commercial uses of flubber in the home and a football game with Paul Lynde as the announcer. In the latter, Biff employs flubber gas to give Medfield an edge against an undefeated Rutland team. However, since flubber gas can become unstable, it's not used to inflate the football--but rather a running back who is then thrown by his teammates!
A Medfield player--with ball--is hurled through the air.
Although Son of Flubber was a big hit, too, no further sequels were made. Medfield College popped up later, though, as the setting for the Dexter Riley film trilogy starring Kurt Russell: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969); Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972); and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). The Disney Studios remade The Absent-Minded Professor twice, first as a 1988 made-for-TV movie with Harry Anderson and then as the 1997 theatrical film Flubber with Robin Williams.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Classic Movies on Amazon Prime in August 2018

Amazon Prime may not have a reputation for featuring classic movies, but it boasts a stellar line-up this month. Here are the highlights:

Poitier as detective Virgil Tibbs.
In the Heat of Night (1968) won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rod Steiger. Watch it, though, for Sidney Poitier's dynamic performance as a Philadelphia detective coping with racism and murder in the Deep South.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is one of the 1970s finest suspense films, with stunning sequences featuring a runaway subway and a race against time through the crowded streets of New York to deliver ransom money. It also boasts a witty script and Walter Matthau at his best as a New York transit authority officer who becomes a hostage negotiator.

Donald Sutherland.
This first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is almost as good--perhaps better--than the the 1956 original. The closing scene with Donald Sutherland is a stunner. (In our interview with actress Veronica Cartwright, she contrasts Body Snatchers with her other sci fi classic Alien).

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote and directed Crime Without Passion (1934), which stars Claude Rains as a coldhearted attorney whose jealousy gets him into a major jam. The opening scene shows three Furies rising from a pool of blood to fly over New York City. It'll make your jaw drop!

The Magnificent Seven (1960) pops up regularly on TV, but I never get tired of it...nor Elmer Bernstein's incredible score. Plus, Amazon Prime also has the not-as-good sequels Return of the Seven (at least, it's got Yul) and Guns of the Magnificent Seven. Wait, there's can watch the Denzel Washington remake, too, but it kinda pales next to the original.

Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
All That Heaven Allows (1955) is the best of Douglas Sirk's lush, colorful sudsers with Jane Wyman as a lonely widow who falls in love with a younger plaid-shirted Rock Hudson. Her crappy kids--and a conventional society--stand in the way of the couple's happiness.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) may be a lesser Billy Wilder picture, but it's still an interesting take on Conan Doyle's famous sleuth. Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond never quite find the right tone, but they have a grand time debunking some of Holmes' famous traits and Robert Stephens makes a memorable Sherlock.

Also playing:  Support Your Local Sheriff, an amusing Western with James Garner; Gary Cooper in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell; Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in the Army comedy Caught in the Draft; Kim Novak and Brian Keith in the heist caper 5 Against the House; and the violent (and very sad) Hammer film Hands of the Ripper, starring Angharad Rees (Demelza in the first Poldark miniseries).

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Cult Movie Theatre: Race With the Devil

I miss drive-in movies. Sure, you can still watch a movie at a drive-in, but no one shows drive-in movies anymore. I'm referring to the teen musicals, biker flicks, chase pictures, and fright fests that dominated the outdoor theatres of the late 1950s through the 1970s. These low-budget exploitation films are largely forgotten today, but some have acquired small loyal followings over the years. One such example is Race With the Devil (1975), which combines the thrills of a road race drama with the creepiness of Rosemary's Baby.

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as Roger and Frank, two hardworking friends who decide to take a long-deserved vacation to Aspen, Colorado with their wives (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit). Their plan is to drive a new $36,000 RV across Texas to reach their destination.

Warren Oates in the driver's seat.
On their first night, they park their van in a secluded meadow far off the highway. As their wives huddle inside the RV, Roger and Frank share booze and conversation under the stars. Their peaceful interlude is interrupted when they see what appears to be an orgy in the woods. As they move closer to investigate, they're stunned to witness a young woman being sacrificed. At the same time, Roger's wife Alice (Swit) calls out to her husband...and the noise attracts the attention of the Satanic cult. A chase ensues in which the two couples barely escape with their lives--but that's just the beginning of their problems.

Race With the Devil is probably best-remembered for its two action set pieces: the race through the woods at night and the high-speed pursuit climax. Indeed, the former scene is a tense nail-biter that reminded me of a similar night attack in the made-for-TV classic Gargoyles.

Loretta Swit and Lara Parker.
However, on the whole, Race With the Devil works best as a paranoid thriller. Lara Parker (Dark Shadows TV series) gives a nicely nuanced performance as Fonda's wife Kelly. Although her initial fear subsides, Kelly gradually begins to suspect that everyone she meets may be a member of the cult. Even in the apparent safety of a large commercial RV park, she sees people "watching" her. Is Kelly starting to lose her grip on reality or she the only one who realizes how much trouble they're really in?

Peter Fonda takes aim.
Race With the Devil was the second of three films that Fonda and Oates made together. It was sandwiched between The Hired Hand (1971) and 92 in the Shade (1975). The actors' careers, though, were going in different directions. With his appearances in Sam Peckinpah films and critical acclaim for Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Oates was near his career peak. In contrast, Fonda was stuck in 1970s drive-in fodder like Fighting MadFutureworld, and High-Ballin'. Of course, to his credit, he also made one of the best chase movies with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and the comedy Outlaw Blues (with Susan Saint James) is a lot of fun.

Race With the Devil isn't an undiscovered gem, but it's a well-made, exciting drive-in movie. It's the kind of picture that will have you shouting advice at the TV screen. I mean, I kept telling them to drive about 400 miles before reporting what they saw in the woods. But no...they stop at the little nearby town the next day and R.G. Armstrong appears as one of those condescending sheriffs that you just can't trust. No one listens to me in these movies....

Monday, August 27, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (August 2018)

Tanya Roberts and Cloris Leachman.
Welcome to the August 2018 edition of our most popular regular feature! You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers, your task is 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.  Cate Blanchett and Bette Davis.

2.  Tom Conway and Joan Fontaine.

3.  The TV series The Outer Limits and the movie Psycho.

4.  Gary Cooper and Marty Robbins.

5.  William Conrad and Timothy Hutton.

6.  Tanya Roberts and Cloris Leachman.

7.  Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon.

8.  The film Mary Poppins and the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies.

9.  Burt Lancaster and Lloyd Bridges.

10. Gene Barry and Patrick Macnee.

11.  Kris Kristofferson and Clint Eastwood.

12. George Peppard and Helen Hayes.

13. Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. (There are multiple correct answers!)

14. Perry Mason and Death Takes a Holiday.  (This one is a bit tricky!)

15. James Stewart and Van Johnson.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Tina Louise

1. In his book Inside Gilligan's Island, series creator Sherwood Schwartz wrote: "Actually, we were fortunate to sign Tina Louise in that role (of Ginger). I had remembered her from God's Little Acre. She had a face and figure that were hard to forget. But she was in a Broadway musical at that moment, Fade Out, Fade In, with Carol Burnett. In order for her to play Ginger, we had to buy out her contract for the balance of her guarantee to the play."

2. At the age of 18, Tina Louise appeared in the 1952 Broadway musical revue Two's Company. The show was conceived to showcase Bette Davis, who was finding quality film roles scarce even after her Oscar nomination for All About Eve (1950). The revue was plagued with problems, including Davis collapsing from fatigue during a tryout performance, but it still played on Broadway for 90 performances.

Tina in L'il Abner.
3. In the 1950s, Tina Louise worked mostly on stage and in television. In 1956, she gained attention as Appassionata Von Climax in the original Broadway production of L'il Abner (a role that Stella Stevens would play in the movie version). Hollywood came calling and she was cast as Robert Ryan's sexy daughter-in-law in the then-racy God's Little Acre (1958).

4. After film roles opposite leading men such as Richard Widmark (The Trap), Robert Taylor (The Hangman), and Robert Ryan (Day of the Outlaw), Tina Louise appeared in a handful of Italian movies and then transitioned to television. She also appeared in a 1959 issue of Playboy; her photos were a little provocative, but nothing too scandalous.

5. In 1957, she also released a album called It's Time for Tina. It includes covers of classic tunes like "Embraceable You" and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." The album was reissued in 1998 and you can still buy it on Amazon.

6. Tina Louise was married to talk show host Les Crane from 1966-71; they had a daughter named Caprice. After Gilligan's Island ended in 1967, Tina tried to distance herself from the role of Ginger Grant. She turned down lucrative paydays by refusing to appear in any of the Gilligan's Island made-for-TV movies. She wouldn't even provide the voice for Ginger in the Saturday morning animated series. To her castmates' surprise, she did join them for a Gilligan's Island reunion on Good Morning, America in 1982.

7. Tina Louise has written two books: When I Grow Up (2007) and Sunday: A Memoir (1998). The former is a children's book, while the latter autobiography focuses on her own childhood. The dust jacket includes this description: "When Tina Louise was around six years old, she was shunted off to boarding school by her parents, who were divorcing. Sunday is her moving memoir of growing up in an uncaring world of strangers... A blue stone, the color of her mother's eyes, becomes her link to the world that left her behind; a childhood prank has adult repercussions; and Sunday, the day when parents visit, becomes a day of hope and dreams of reconciliation."

Monday, August 20, 2018

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Author Paula Finn Discusses Her Interviews with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Others

In her new book, Sitcom Writers Talk Shop, Paula Finn provides a fascinating look behind the scenes of a beloved American TV genre: the situation comedy or sitcom. Her in-depth interviews feature fifteen sitcom writers, who discuss classic comedies from the 1950s to today. Her subjects include many of the genre's heavyweights, such as Norman Lear (All in the Family), James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show). However, she also talks with lesser-known writers who are widely recognized by their peers for their excellent writing, creating indelible characters, and breaking barriers. A UCLA graduate with a degree in anthropology, Paula Finn is no stranger to the world of TV sitcoms--her father Herbert Finn wrote episodes of The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, Gilligan's Island, and other classic sitcoms. Recently, Ms. Finn was kind enough to let us be the interviewer and ask her some questions.

Café:  What was it like having a sitcom writer for a parent?

Author Paula Finn.
Paula Finn:  One of the best things about it was that my dad could always get me in to see my favorite TV shows filmed. These were closed sets, meaning you had to know someone at the studio, give your name to security at the gate, etc., to gain access. To say it was a thrill is an understatement. Also, the bookshelves in my dad's office were filled with TV scripts. Dennis the Menace and The Flintstones made for great summer reading. Perks he brought home from work included a personally-autographed photo of Jay North, (when Jay was my favorite!), the Flintstones cels (I didn’t keep mine, but some of them are worth thousands of dollars today!), or record albums of performers on The Garry Moore Show.

Café:  Have you ever watched a sitcom episode written by your father and realized it was based on something that happened in your family?

PF:  When I was eight I won a neighborhood beauty/talent contest. For those familiar with the San Fernando Valley, I was crowned “Miss Valleyheart Drive” for a year. My dad later wrote a Flintstones episode where Pebbles won a beauty/talent contest.

Café:  Of all the shows your father worked on, which one was your favorite? And do you have a favorite episode?

PF:  I’d say The Honeymooners. And the episode would be “The Golfer.” After telling his boss he plays golf, Ralph’s under pressure to prove it when his boss invites him to play with him. Norton tries to teach Ralph how to do it, but he doesn’t know anything more about golf than Ralph does. Just when Ralph thinks he lucked out--it turns out he didn’t. If you’re familiar with that episode, Norton’s “Hello, Ball” is a famous line from it.

Café:  Having interviewed writers from the 1950s to today, what do you see as the most significant changes in the American television sitcom?

Alan Alda in M*A*S*H.
PF:  Obviously, the content has changed dramatically. The early shows’ stories were simple, and the subject matter was childish. Characters didn’t cope with serious problems or illness. The scope of what the writers could cover was much more limited, and the episodes had little or nothing to do with real life. As writer Joel Rapp says of Gilligan’s Island: “You could make up any kind of nonsense for that show!”
      The language was clean. Everyone knows--and many complain--about the prevalence of profanity as sitcoms have progressed. Gender roles were different: in early sitcoms, the husband earned the money and the wife/mother was content in the kitchen. With few exceptions, children were raised by their two parents. They were better behaved, and didn’t disrespect their elders. Contrast that to Bart Simpson!
      Most early shows had only one plot per episode, whereas episodes of shows like M*A*S*H, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm had multiple storylines. Former M*A*S*H producer John Rappaport recalls writing one with seven stories. [“No Sweat,” S9E11]
      Racial and sexual diversity was almost absent compared to today. And Cheers writer Ken Estin thinks TV jokes today are more mean-spirited: “Viewers like to laugh at people being obnoxious more than they used to.”
      Writer Bill Persky (That Girl) told me he thinks sitcom humor has changed in that humanity and human behavior are less important than having two people in bed. He elaborates: “I was skipping past something, I guess it was Two and a Half Men, and the two characters were having a conversation that was kind of funny. But they had it in bed, naked. That could have been even funnier if they were doing something, you know? If they were trying to cook a meal together or if there were some other point at the time…but just them being in bed was the provocative thing, and the topic of their conversation was secondary.”
      He adds: “Someone just asked me if I thought The Dick Van Dyke Show would be as good if we were writing it today. I said you can’t separate the times from the shows…You can’t ignore the fact that pornography is available to people on their computer now, and not have somebody be involved in it. Who’s to say half the characters we all loved wouldn’t be in the bedroom watching porn!”

Café:  We're going to put you on the spot here. What three to five sitcoms do you think were most influential in the evolution of the genre?

Carney & Gleason in The Honeymooners.
PF:  As one of the first sitcoms to portray the struggles of the working class, The Honeymooners influenced such shows as The Flintstones, Family Guy, Roseanne, All in the Family, and Married…with Children. The concept of a sensible wife with a bumbling dim-witted husband inspired the dynamics between many subsequent sitcom couples. Writer Al Jean names such characters as Archie Bunker, Fred Flintstone, and Homer Simpson as descendants of Ralph Kramden.
      All in the Family revolutionized the genre with its social relevance, shocking epithets, and controversial, politically-incorrect, real-world topics. No one had ever seen or heard anything quite like it on television before.
      The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the first to star an independent woman with a career other than the traditional women’s occupations of teacher, secretary, or nurse. She was 30--and single. And it was okay. Incidentally, creators Jim Brooks and Allan Burns pitched the show with the character of Mary Richards as a recent divorcee. The networks didn’t think viewers would accept that. They suggested instead that she’d just come from a bad breakup. And they told Grant Tinker, head of the show’s production company: “Get rid of those two clowns!” (referring to Brooks and Burns).
Diane and Sam.
      Cheers is credited with being the first primetime sitcom to have a “serial plotline,” i.e., an ongoing, evolving storyline--in this case, about Diane and Sam’s relationship. According to writer Phoef Sutton: “Believe it or not, that was kind of a new idea: the idea of following a relationship from its inception and them getting together, and them breaking up. And every show has to have that now! The problem with the Sam/Diane relationship was they kept having to break them up to keep the tension alive, but then they had them get back together again to keep the tension alive. So you were always treading that fine line, because Sam and Diane having problems and trying to get through to each other and trying to seduce each other and all that--was fun. But them as a couple wasn’t really all that interesting.”
      The Simpsons ended the more than 20-year long drought of primetime animated sitcoms for grownups, paving the way for such shows as Family Guy, Beavis and Butt-Head, and South Park. Entertainment writers cite the Simpsons’ influence on such shows as Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development, and Scrubs. Simpsons showrunner Al Jean believes live-action shows have tended to incorporate the Simpsons pace and “cut-away” style.               
Café:   Please tell us that you're already writing a "sequel" about cop shows!

PF:  Sorry, no. But that is a great idea. Hmm…

Café:  Given your background as a writer and knowledge of the genre, have you ever considered penning a script for a sitcom?

PF:  You mean, besides the Honeymooners script I wrote when I was eight? No. And considering what I learned from talking with these writers…I can think of few things that are harder! I strongly admire anyone who can do it, especially with the pressure of a deadline.

Café:  Although it's not mentioned in your book, you've got to tell us about being a teenager invited by Sonny and Cher to watch TV at their house.

Sonny and Cher.
PF:  Their home address in Encino had been circulating around my high school. One December night when my parents were out, I called a taxi and got a ride to Sonny and Cher’s house. I rang the bell to their electric gate, and Sonny came out in his bathrobe to see who it was. He welcomed me into their home, where he and Cher were getting ready to go to a Christmas party. While Sonny was taking a shower, Cher and I watched Bewitched in their bedroom. I had brought Cher a box of homemade earrings, and Sonny gave me an autographed 45 of their latest song, “The Beat Goes On.” He also called a taxi for me to go home, and gave me $5 cab fare – which more than covered it. I can’t tell you what their house looked like inside – I was too vain to wear my glasses! I wonder how many of today’s celebrities would treat their young fans as graciously.

Café:  Thanks for the interview, Paula. We love your book. It'll be an easy pick for our Christmas buying guide for classic TV and film fans.

PF:  It’s been a pleasure. Thank you again!

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop will be published on September 15th and can be pre-ordered now. You can learn more about it on its Facebook page. You can follow Paula Finn on Twitter at @Talkingcomedy.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Richard Chamberlain as The Count of Monte-Cristo

Chamberlain as Edmond Dantes.
Between his TV heartthrob status as Dr. Kildare and his reign as "King of the Miniseries," Richard Chamberlain sought to expand his acting versatility. He appeared in Shakespeare plays, worked with unconventional director Ken Russell, and played a different sort of Prince Charming in a musical version of Cinderella. He also starred in four movies based on the works of Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Count of Monte-Cristo.

The last of that quartet was produced for British television and broadcast in the U.S. by NBC in 1975. Chamberlain plays newly promoted Captain Edmond Dantes, whose success in business and love incurs the jealousy of three shipmates. They frame him as one of Napoleon's spies by forging a letter. It's a weak charge, but the prosecutor has a secret he must hide at all costs: his father is a Napoleon loyalist and traitor. So, the prosecutor banishes Edmond to an island prison, where he is forgotten.

Yes, that's Trevor Howard.
After ten years of loneliness, Edmond becomes acquainted with the Abbe Faria (Trevor Howard), a fellow prisoner who has been digging a tunnel to freedom. The Abbe becomes a father figure to Edmond, teaching him about the arts and sharing a map to an alleged long-lost treasure on the island of Monte-Cristo. The Abbe also helps Edmond deduce the identities of the four men responsible for ruining his life.

Although the Abbe dies, Edmond manages to escape from his castle of captivity. His heart, though, is filled with vengeance and he dedicates his life to destroying each of the men that wronged him.

Dumas was a masterful storyteller and The Count of Monte-Cristo is an absorbing tale from start to finish. Chamberlain makes an effective transformation from a naive young man to a bitter, angry one who has aged well beyond his years. His best scenes are those with Trevor Howard as the Abbe in the prison. It was no surprise to learn that Chamberlain and Howard each earned Emmy nominations for their performances.

Nelligan pleads for her son's life.
Louis Jourdan, Kate Nelligan, and Donald Pleasance are convincing in supporting roles. The same can't be said for Tony Curtis, who walks through his villainous part with little conviction. His climatic sword fight with Chamberlain is a snooze thanks to a very obvious body double (though Richard seems to be doing his own dueling). Tyrone Power's daughter Taryn makes her English-language debut in a small part. I remember her best from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which was released two years later.

Sidney Carroll, who co-wrote The Hustler back in 1961, does an admirable job of condensing Dumas' packed plot into a 103-minute movie. A couple of major subplots are jettisoned, but the end results are the same and the streamlined movie undoubtedly moves at a quicker pace. My only beef is that I wanted to know the fate of the likable smugglers who pulled a weary Dantes from the sea after his prison escape.

Three years after The Count of Monte-Cristo, Chamberlain made Centennial, the first of three blockbuster miniseries that would secure his fame in TV history. He followed it with Shogun in 1980 and The Thorn Birds in 1983.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Song Is Born: Fabulous Music But a Waste of Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye as Hobart Frisbee.
A musical remake of Ball of Fire must have been one of the easiest pitches of all time. After all, the original 1941 comedy--penned by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett--was about a bunch of academics writing an encyclopedia about music. Ball of Fire starred Gary Cooper as a naïve musicologist and Barbara Stanwyck as a brash nightclub singer who shakes up his world. The remake, A Song Is Born substitutes Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. It retains the plot, adds songs, and features many of the finest musicians working in the U.S. in 1948. How could it go wrong?

It gets off to a promising start with Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) realizing that music has changed in the seven years that he and his colleagues have sequestered themselves to write their encyclopedia. To gain an appreciation for this "new" music, Frisbee embarks on a tour of New York City nightclubs. This serves as a great excuse for a musical montage featuring Tommy Dorsey, the Golden Gate Quartette, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, and others.

Virginia Mayo as Honey.
Frisbee also encounters Honey Swanson (Mayo), a pretty singer who needs to find a place to lay low when the police close in on her gangster boyfriend. Honey decides that Frisbee's Totten Music Foundation would be the ideal temporary hideout--never mind that she'd be living with seven intellectual bachelors.

Given the source material, music, and Danny Kaye, I expected A Song Is Born to be much better than a middling musical that smolders without catching fire. Except for the opening jungle chant number, Kaye neither sings nor dances. In his Kaye biography Nobody's Fool, author Martin Gottfried notes that the comedian had temporarily split from his wife Sylvia Fine following his affair with Eve Arden. Fine wrote many of her husband's songs and she refused to be involved with A Song Is Born. As a result, Danny Kaye "did not--he would not--find anyone else to write material for him."

Benny Goodman as a professor.
Without the fabulous music and a fully functional Kaye, the second half of A Song Is Born lumbers along toward its obvious climax. To her credit, Virginia Mayo tries her best to keep the film afloat and occasionally succeeds (as in the "yum-yum" scene).

It was Mayo's fourth film with Danny Kaye, having teamed with him previously in Wonder ManThe Kid From Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. She even had a bit part in Kaye's Up in Arms. By the way, Tony Cochran, who played the villain in A Song Is Born, appeared with Mayo six times (including The Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat).

In addition to its plot, A Song Is Born shares other connections with Ball of Fire. Howard Hawks directed both films and Gregg Tolan served as his cinematographer. Mary Field also plays Miss Totten, the benefactor of the music foundation, in both films. Hawks expressed little enthusiasm for A Song Is Born, claiming that he made it only because Sam Goldwyn "pestered" and "annoyed" him into it.

Fortunately for Danny Kaye, his best films--White Christmas and The Court Jester--were still to come. And if A Song Is Born is nothing but a footnote in his long career, it's an still an interesting one that documents some of the great jazz and popular music instrumentalists of its era.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Monster Squad...That's Who You Oughta Call!

Duncan Regehr as Dracula.
When a resurrected Dracula decides to unleash an unspeakable evil on the world, he enlists the aid of the Frankenstein Monster, a werewolf, a mummy, and an amphibious gill-man that looks like the Creature of the Black Lagoon. Who's going to stop such a formidable quintet?

The unlikely answer is the self-proclaimed Monster Squad, which consists of nerdy teenagers Sean, Patrick, and Fat Kid (aka Horace), a James Dean wannabe named Rudy, and Sean's little sister Phoebe. (The boys insist that Phoebe is not a member, but she proves her worth later.)

The Monster and Phoebe.
To complete his plan, Dracula (Duncan Regehr) needs an amulet brought to the United States (Baton Rouge, no less) by Professor Van Helsing's associates. Sean unknowingly gets in the Count's way when his mother gives him Van Helsing's diary--which she found at a garage sale. Since it's written in German, Sean and his buddies seek the aid of the neighborhood's Scary German Guy. His translation reveals the location of the amulet and it becomes a race to see who will find it first.

Made in 1987, The Monster Squad is a juvenile horror film obviously made by folks who grew up on the Universal classics. While it lacks the sharp wit of the same year's The Lost Boys--which featured a couple of nerdy, teenage vampire hunters--it's a good-natured yarn that shows glimpses of what it could have been. One of its best scenes is when the elderly German neighbor mentions that he has seen monsters before--just as he inadvertently reveals numbers tattooed on his arm from his imprisonment at Auschwitz.

Patrick, Fat Kid, and Sean outside a scary house.
Co-writer Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) also displays some of his familiar dark humor in a scene in which the Frankenstein Monster approaches Phoebe near a lake. It's a throwback, of course, to James Whales' Frankenstein (1931), in which the Monster accidentally drowns a little girl who befriends him. This time around, the scene fades to black, and when we next see Phoebe, she is happily holding hands with her new "friend"--much to the shock of the Monster Squad members.

Yet, despite such promising snippets, The Monster Squad can't escape from its adolescent approach. That's not a bad thing--I might have enjoyed The Monster Squad if I saw it as a ten-year-old. However, I suspect the filmmakers wanted to make a teen adventure, along the lines of The Goonies, that also appealed to kids and adults. As its box office failure indicated, The Monster Squad  couldn't achieve that lofty goal.

Jason Hervey as a bully.
Unlike many teen pictures of the 1980s, the cast of The Monster Squad doesn't feature a plethora of future stars. However, I did notice one familiar face: Jason Hervey. He went on to play Kevin Arnold's older brother Wayne on the TV series The Wonder Years.

And if you're curious as to what The Monster Squad's cast looks like today, then seek out Wolfman's Got Nards, a 2018 documentary directed by Andre Gower (who played Sean). It's a love letter to The Monster Squad featuring interviews with many of the cast and crew.