Thursday, October 18, 2018

George C. Scott Unravels the Mystery of "The Changeling"

George C. Scott as John Russell.
When we recently asked our Twitter followers to name their favorite scary movie, several responded with an unexpected choice: The Changeling (1980). Since October evenings are a fine time for ghost stories, we took an opportunity to watch this atmospheric tale about buried secrets and restless souls (which we found on YouTube).

George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a composer whose world has been shattered by the accidental deaths of his wife and young daughter. Russell accept a position to teach music at his alma mater in Seattle, where he rents a large historic home. The house has been vacant for twelve years (which is never a good sign in a horror movie).

A house of secrets, nestled in the woods.
Almost immediately, John begins to hear unusual pounding sounds and fleeting whispers. But it's the sudden shattering of a fourth floor window that leads him to a closet that conceals a shuttered door. Behind the door is a staircase to a small child's room, where John finds a manuscript from 1909 and a still-functioning music box. The music box's melody is the same as John's latest composition.

Like all good ghost movies, The Changeling is essentially a mystery in which John tries to learn the identity of the house's resident spirit and what it wants. The former question is answered in the film's finest scene: a seance in which the medium (well played by Roberta Maxwell) asks questions in an emotionless voice while madly scribbling the ghost's answers on paper.

Trish Van Devere.
Much of the film's effectiveness is derived by its atmospheric settings: the isolated snowy highway where John loses his family; the rainy NYC streets and his empty apartment; and, of course, the haunted estate and its muted-green woods. The house itself is almost a character, with director Peter Medak embracing the long staircase, the overly spacious chambers, and the dark, dreary child's room. Medak employs frequent high-angle shots to give the impression of a child hiding on the stairs, watching and listening to the adults below.

George C. Scott, looking older than his 53 years, is quietly effective as the "detective" that unravels the house's mystery and, in doing so, digs himself out of his own depression. I love that the script pairs John with an attractive history society volunteer (played by Trish Van Devere, aka Mrs. Scott), but never muddies the story with a romance. That would have detracted from the central stories of an ultimate deception and coping with grief.

Henry Treat Rogers house in Denver.
Russell Hunter, who wrote the screen story for The Changeling, claims the plot was inspired by his real-life experiences while living in the Henry Treat Rogers house in Denver in the 1960s. In a 1980 article in Denver Magazine, Russell writes about unusual sounds, a stairway leading to the house's third floor where he found a child’s trunk, and a seance. While others have debunked parts of Hunter's tale, it still makes for a memorable backstory.

When Martin Scorsese named his picks for the 11 Scariest Movies of All Time, The Changeling came in at No. 6. Personally, I wouldn't rank it in my Top 25--I just didn't find it all that scary. Still, it's a well-directed, well-acted film that unravels effectively as it reveals what the title really means (hint: it's not a supernatural creature). And The Changeling turned out to be a perfect choice for an October evening as we count down to Halloween.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Neil Simon

1. In a 1979 interview in Playboy, Neil Simon noted: "There are two million interesting people in New York and only seventy-eight in Los Angeles."

2. Simon and Stephen Sondheim once considered collaborating on a musical version of The Front Page. Simon wrote in his memoir The Play Goes On: "The one thing you look for in a musical is why people actually sing songs, a piece of advice that Stephen Sondheim had given me years earlier when I suggested that he and I do a musical version of The Front Page...'(It's) a great play, said Stephen, but why do they sing?' I looked him right in the eye and said, 'I haven't the slightest idea--except that you write such incredible songs.' 'Not without good reason,' said Stephen wisely, and instead of writing with him, I decided to enjoy just listening to everything he wrote without me getting in his way."

Marsha Mason and Neil Simon.
3. One of Neil Simon's least successful plays was The Gingerbread Lady (1970), which starred Maureen Stapleton as an alcoholic actress. Although Stapleton won a Tony for Best Actress, the play's original run was just over five months. Ten years later, Simon adapted it for the screen as Only When I Laugh, which earned Oscar nominations for his then-wife Marsha Mason (Best Actress), James Coco (Best Supporting Actor), and Joan Hackett (Best Supporting Actress).

4. Of his first play Come Blow Your Horn, Simon recalled: "(It) took the equivalent of the combined hours, months, and years I put in writing The Red Buttons Show, the Sgt. Bilko Show, Caesar's Hour, and finally The Garry Moore Show, a weekly variety program on CBS which featured a bright new and dazzingly funny comedienne, Carol Burnett. I would come in at eight o'clock in the morning and work on my play for two hours, typing on Garry Moore's stationery, before tackling the Carol Burnett sketches at ten o'clock. Not only was Garry unknowingly subsidizing me while I worked for him, but he eventually became one of the first investors in Come Blow Your Horn, so he eventually got the money back for the typing paper I "borrowed" from him, and then some."

Diane Lander, Simon, and daughter Bryn.
5. Neil Simon was married five times. He met his first wife, Joan Baim, when she was a children's counselor at a Poconos resort; Simon and his brother contributed to weekly revue shows at the same resort. Joan died in 1973 following a long battle with cancer. Simon met his second wife, actress Marsha Mason, when she auditioned for his play The Good Doctor in 1973. They divorced ten years later, but remained friends. His third and fourth marriages were to actress-model Diane Lander, who was 24 years younger than him. Knowing Simon's propensity to write about his own life, one of the conditions of their pre-nuptial agreement was that Neil not write about her or her daughter during her lifetime. Neil married Elaine Joyce in 1999; they were together until his recent death.

6. Simon's brother Danny, who was eight years older, brought Neil (whose nickname was Doc) into show business. Danny also inspired one of Neil's most successful plays when he divorced his wife and moved into an apartment with another divorced man. Recognize the premise of The Odd Couple?

7. Neil Simon has won three Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize (Lost in Yonkers), and the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He earned four Oscar nominations for Best Writing (The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, and California Suite. He also received four Emmy nominations (two for Caesar's Hour and one each for TV adaptations of Broadway Bound and Laughter on the 23rd Floor).

This post is part of The Neil Simon Blogathon hosted by Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Blacula Is "One Strange Dude"

William Marshall as Blacula.
Based on Count Dracula's reputation alone, I question the rationale in seeking his support to abolish slavery. But that's what Prince Mamuwadle and his wife Luva attempt in the prologue of 1972's Blacula. Not surprisingly, the Count comments that "slavery has merit" and offers to buy Luva. Mamuwadle becomes incensed and, following a scuffle with Dracula's henchman, he becomes the famous vampire's latest victim.

Dracula locks Mamuwalde in a coffin, curses him to thirst for blood forever, and dubs him the Black Dracula--or Blacula. He then seals the room with the coffin, forcing Luva to watch over her husband until the "flesh rots off her bones."

Vonetta McGee as Tina.
More than a century later, a couple of antique buyers purchase all the furniture in Castle Dracula and ship it to California. Once there, one of them unlocks Blacula's casket, unleashing the vampire on contemporary Los Angeles. Blacula barely has to time to claim his first two victims before he spots Tina, who--as you have guessed--appears to be the reincarnation of Luva.

Blacula was one of several contemporary-set vampire films produced following the surprise success of Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Even Hammer Films abandoned its Gothic chic to make Dracula A.D. 1972. Yet, Blacula stands out among these modern vampire tales because it was the first notable blaxploitation horror movie. Its detractors claim that Blacula offered nothing new other than trying to appeal to an African American audience (more on that later). But even if that were true, one cannot ignore its historical significance in inspiring other 1970s blackploitation fright films such as Abby, Blackenstein, Ruby, and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde.

Marshall looking more refined.
Although most of Blacula is pretty predictable, it takes a different approach with its protagonist. Blacula is an intelligent gentleman, who has enough style to pull off wearing a cape in the early 1970s (though no one comments that his clothes could use a cleaning). It helps that the vampire is portrayed by 6' 4" William Marshall, who earned great acclaim for his stage portrayal of Othello in the early 1960s. With his deep voice and air of sophistication, it's no wonder that Tina (Vonetta McGee) becomes attracted to the handsome vampire...even as a friend notes Blacula is "one strange dude."

Blacula is at heart a love story and, befittingly, it ends with a sacrifice worthy of Shakespeare. Of course, along the way, there's a lot of killing and a nifty fight in a warehouse in which the good guys fling oil lamps at a horde of vampires like molotov cocktails. (Be sure to note that the lamps are not lit...even though they burst into flames.)

The films' sucess spawned a hastily-made sequel Scream Blacula Scream starring Marshall and Pam Grier. When my sister and I went to see it at the theater, we were asked to leave after one of the projectors broke. We didn't have to worry about a refund because my sister was an employee of the theater chain. Still, I've never seen this sequel--which I will rectify this month. Starz has both Blacula films available on demand.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Hardy Boys, Disney, and Pieces of Eight

Tommy Kirk and Tim Considine.
I was probably too old to fully appreciate The Mickey Mouse Club by the time it was syndicated in my home town. Honestly, I don't think the Mouseketeers' musical numbers would have appealed to me at any age. And, in regard to the cartoons, I'm a Warner Bros. kind of guy. The serials, though, were another matter. Even the girl-centric Annette held my interest...because I'm an Annette Funicello fan. And then there were the Hardy Boys, which brings us to today's review.

Edward Stratemeyer created teenage amateur detectives Joe and Frank Hardy in 1927. The boys lived in the small coastal town of Bayport with their parents. Their interest in solving mysteries was apparently inherited from their father, Fenton, who worked as a detective.

For the initial books, Stratemeyer and his daughters Edith and Harriet wrote the plot outlines. The juvenile novels would then be completed by ghostwriters, who all used the name Franklin W. Dixon. Grosset & Dunlap published a total of 58 Hardy Boys mysteries between 1927 and 1979. These are considered the original novels, though the characters continued to appear in dozen of books after that (which featured changes in format, style, and settings).

Frank, father Fenton, and Joe.
The Hardy Boys mysteries were still immensely popular in 1956 when Walt Disney produced The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure, a 19-episode serial for The Mickey Mouse Club. It was loosely based on the first Hardy Boys book, The Tower Treasure (1929). Each installment of the serial was about 12 minutes long. For this adaptation, Frank and Joe were made younger and their mother was replaced by Aunt Gertrude. Their father worked in "the city," which accounted for his absence during most of the episodes.

The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure opens with Iola, Joe's "girlfriend", spilling her purse after bumping into a new boy in town named Perry. That same day, someone steals Iola's purse. Joe recovers it and nothing appears to be missing. Perry turns out to be on parole (of sorts) from a reform school and is working for Old Man Applegate. He also lives in a shack on Applegate's estate.

Sarah Selby as Aunt Gertrude.
When some tools go missing, a plumber, who is doing work for Applegate, suggests that Perry is a thief. That night, Joe and Frank search Perry's room and find the missing tools. The police arrest Perry--but not before he asks for Joe's help and gives him a gold doubloon found on Applegate's estate. Later, Mr. Applegate recounts to Joe and Frank the story of how his "treasure" was stolen ten years earlier. Could someone be searching for the missing treasure...and trying to frame Perry? Or is the treasure just a figment of an elderly gentleman's imagination?

The central premise of The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure is a promising one--hey, what kid wouldn't want to find a box of gold doubloons and pieces of eight? And the solution to the mystery, when it's finally revealed, turns out to be worthy of Agatha Christie. However, at three-and-half hours in total length, the serial is awfully leisurely at times. There are a few episodes in which nothing much seems to happen.

Still, the cast is energetic and enthusiastic, with Tommy Kirk and Tim Considine leading the way as Joe and Frank Hardy. Kirk would become one of Disney's most reliable stars after appearing in Old Yeller the following year. Considine was already a teen star, having appeared as Spin in the Spin and Marty serials on The Mickey Mouse Club. The original Spin and Marty serial was so successful that it spawned two sequels. Considine went on, of course, to play Mike Douglas on My Three Sons from 1960-65.

Carole Ann Campbell.
My favorite cast member, though, was Carole Ann Campbell, who played Iola. The incredibility sweet Campbell had only seven acting credits during her career. She played Lillian Roth as a child in the movie biography I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955) with Susan Hayward. Campbell recorded some songs on Kangaroo Records, but never pursued an acting career after a couple of TV guest star stints in the 1960s.

The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure was successful enough to warrant a sequel, The Mystery of the Ghost Farm. It reunited Kirk, Considine, and Campbell, but was shorter (14 episodes) and not as popular as the first Hardy Boys serial. It has never been released on DVD.

By the way, the opening credits to The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure feature an awesome pirate song warbled by Thurl Ravenscroft (the one-time voice of Tony the Tiger). The film footage was borrowed from Disney's own Treasure Island (1950).

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Our YouTube Channel Reaches a Milestone

This past week, we uploaded the 100th video to our YouTube channel, which was established in October 2014. Today, we have over 2,600 subscribers (thank you!) and our videos have been viewed over 1.4 million times. (By the way, click on the titles to view any of the videos mentioned below.)

Ava Gardner as Venus.
What can you find on the Classic Film & TV Cafe YouTube Channel? Well, there are lots of clips from classic movies such as: Ronald Colman as a quiz show contestant in Champagne for Caesar, Ava Gardner as a statue come to life in One Touch of Venus, Michael Caine as a reluctant spy in Funeral in Berlin, and Danny Kaye trying to box in The Kid from Brooklyn.

We've also had a grand time posting scenes from intriguing lesser-know films. So, you can see Mel Torme as a gunfighter in Walk Like a Dragon, Dirk Bogarde and Olivia de Havilland in the engrossing courtroom drama Libel, and Glynis Johns diving 80 feet a into a "lake of flames" in Encore.

Lloyd Bridges in The Loner.
What about classic television? It's well represented with memorable scenes such as: Martin Milner and Lee Marvin slugging it out on Route 66, Jack Klugman as a DA on The Defenders, and Lloyd Bridges in Rod Serling's Western series The Loner.

The Cafe staff has created some original content, too, with a mix of quizzes, original trailers, photo tributes to stars like Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, video reviews, and even a snippet from our audio interview with Hammer actress Veronica Carlson.

What are our most popular videos? Well, if you count the percentage of "like" vs. "dislike"--and require a minimum of 30 "likes"--the most popular are a clip from Hammer's The Mummy and a tribute to Roger Moore's leading ladies on The Saint TV series. If you measure popularity by the number of comments left by videos, then the most popular are The Slipper and the Rose, Horror of Dracula, and My Bodyguard.

The most common measurement of popularity, though, is the number of times a video has been viewed. So, we'll close this post with scenes from our Top Five videos and the number of times each has been viewed (just click on the image to watch these scenes without leaving the Cafe):

The Slipper and the Rose (633,262 views)

Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat (136,182 views)

Horror of Dracula (104,406)

Danny Kaye and Angela Lansbury in The Court Jester (62,740)

Petula Clark and Peter O'Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (56,388)

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Longest Yard: "It's just a game."

I'm sure many critics would opt for Deliverance, but I'd rate Burt Reynolds' performance in The Longest Yard as his best. That opinion was just confirmed when I watched that 1974 football-in-prison film for probably the fifth time. It still holds up remarkably well despite running just over two hours and with a climatic game that takes up an amazing 42 minutes of the running time.

Burt plays Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, a washed-up pro football quarterback wasting away his life and living off a wealthy lady who has no interest in his mind. When he suddenly decides to rebel, she tries to stop him--only to be slapped and thrown to the floor (a scene that still shocks in its unexpected violence). He steals an expensive sports car, eludes the cops in a high-speed chase, and dumps the car in a river. When confronted by two police officers, he makes jokes at their expense and ends up in a fight. It's no surprise that he winds up in the Citrus State Prison for 2-5 years (18 months with good behavior).

A mean Eddie Albert.
Warden Rudolph Hazen (Eddie Albert) wants Crewe to help coach his semi-pro football team, consisting of prison guards, to a national title. For his own safety. Crewe declines. However, he makes a deal with Hazen later by agreeing to assemble a team comprised of prisoners as a "warm up" for the prison guards. Along the way, the self-centered, cocky Crewe learns a lot about his fellow inmates and, of course, even more about himself.

As some of you may know, I'm a sucker for a "let's form a team" plot and The Longest Yard doesn't disappoint on that front as Crewe and newfound friend Caretaker (James Hampton) try to form a ragtag football team. Most of their recruits just want to inflict some reciprocal pain on the cruel prison guards. But for others, it's an opportunity to regain self-respect or even recapture some sports glory from the past. Initially, Crewe considers it "just a game," but it becomes much more--especially after an inmate is viciously murdered.

Burt Reynolds displays plenty of his megawatt bad boy charm in The Longest Yard, but there's an edge here, a toughness, that's missing from later performances. He seems fully committed to his role, which is best captured in the prison scene where his trademark 1970s mustache is shaved off by a sneering guard.

It's hard to imagine a better supporting cast for a film like this. Eddie Albert puts aside his good guy image to play the unpleasant warden. Bernadette Peters has two brief, but delightful scenes, as an amorous secretary with Bride of Frankenstein hair. James Hampton, known for playing bugler Dobbs on F Troop, gives a career-best performance as Caretaker, a crafty sort who can smuggle anything into the prison. And 7' 2" Richard Kiel (Jaws in two Bond films) is hilarious as a surprisingly sensitive thug and gets one of the film's best remembered lines (though we won't reprint the colorful language here).

Bernadette Peters and hair.
There are plenty of former real-life pro football stars, too, to include: Mike Henry, Joe Kapp, Ray Nitschke, Pervis Atkins, Ernie Wheelwright, and Sonny Sixkiller. Henry, who played Tarzan in three 1960s pictures, would co-star with Reynolds again in the first two Smokey and the Bandit movies (and in the third one without Burt).

Sometimes crude and violent, The Longest Yard may not appeal to all viewers, but it's a well-crafted gritty sports film peppered with humor. It reminded me how good Burt Reynolds could be when he made the effort. It also made me realize that Robert Aldrich must have been one of the underappreciated directors of the 1950s through 1970s. His filmography includes such classics as Kiss Me Deadly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen, and The Flight of the Phoenix.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Walter Matthau Makes House Calls With Glenda Jackson

Walter Matthau as a widower.
Relationship comedies were all the rage in the late 1970s. Jill Clayburgh played a woman who becomes suddenly single when her husband of 16 years leaves her in An Unmarried Woman (1978). Burt Reynolds was a divorced man struggling to get over his ex-wife in Starting Over (1979). And in the film we're discussing today, Walter Matthau starred as a recently-widowed surgeon in House Calls (1978).

He plays middle-aged Charley Nichols, who returns to work after three months to find that women suddenly find him irresistible. Initially, the newly-single Charley embraces his situation, even though the one-night stands seem to be based on physical attraction only (at least, from his side). That changes when he meets Ann Atkinson (Glenda Jackson), a bright, opinionated divorcee.

Glenda Jackson as Ann.
He first encounters her in the hospital when he suspects her condition has been misdiagnosed by Dr. Willoughby, the senile chief of staff. Charley takes over her case--though it proves costly. To avoid an ethics charge, Willoughby forces Charley to nominate him for another five-year term as chief of staff.

A few weeks later, Charley and Ann meet again on a public television panel show about healthcare. Sparks fly between them and they soon enter into a trial relationship--but Charley isn't sure he wants to make a long-term commitment.

There's nothing surprising about House Calls, a predictable romantic comedy from start to finish. Thus, it's up to the stars to make it entertaining and, in this case, the unlikely casting of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson is pure genius. Matthau made a career of playing slobs, con artists, and villains in the 1960s, but he was not a novice as a romantic lead. He proved in Cactus Flower (1969) and Pete 'n' Tillie (1972) that he could appeal to the opposite sex as a gruff, but likable and decent guy.

Matthau and Jackson have chemistry.
Glenda Jackson also dabbled in romantic comedy prior to House Calls (e.g., A Touch of Class with George Segal). Still, her career was noted for dramatic performances in challenging films like Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) and Women in Love (1969). A great actress defies genres, though, and Glenda Jackson could have made a career as a comedienne. One of the best scenes in House Calls is a delightful display of physical comedy as Ann and Charley try to prove--after watching an old movie--that a couple can make love on a bed with each partner keeping one foot on the floor.

Carney as Dr. Willoughby.
House Calls is basically a four-character picture, with Art Carney and Richard Benjamin in the other two roles. Carney has fun as the aforementioned Dr. Willoughby, whose fading memory causes him to get almost everyone's name wrong. Benjamin plays Matthau's chum, delivering an understated (for him), effective performance.

Of course, the reason to see House Calls is to watch Matthau and Jackson together. They paired up again two years later in Hopscotch, which I recall liking quite well (I plan to watch it again soon). Incidentally, the politically active Jackson quit acting in 1992 and was elected to Britain's Parliament. I once e-mailed her about a possible interview about her film career. One of her staffers sent a polite response, stating that she doesn't discuss her movies any more.

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 Leave 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.