Thursday, June 20, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2019)

Ronald Colman and Elke Sommer.
Never played before? Here are the rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to 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.  The Satan Bug and Homicidal.

2.  Shirley Eaton and Christopher Lee (other than James Bond).

3.  Patrick O'Neal and Vincent Price.

4.  Dean Jones and Lon Chaney, Jr.

5.  The Day of the Triffids and Thunder Rock.

6.  Cary Grant and Tom Hanks.

7.  Debbie Reynolds and Robert Wagner.

8.  Raquel Welch and Kathryn Grant (aka Mrs. Bing Crosby).

9.  Where Eagles Dare and the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

10. Warren Beatty and Robin Williams.

11. Ronald Colman and Peter Finch.

12. Ronald Colman and Elke Sommer.

13.  Riding High and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

14.  Ray Danton and James Coburn.

15.  Cuban Rebel Girls and The Big Boodle (an easy one!).

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Quatermass 2 (Enemy from Space)

While returning to his observatory in rural England, physicist Bernard Quatermass narrowly avoids a car accident. The other vehicle stops and a delirious man emerges...with an unusual wound on his face. His wife claims he was burned by a falling piece of stone. After assisting the couple, Quatermass arrives at his science complex.

His staff is anxious to tell him about weird meteor-like objects falling throughout the countryside. Quatermass is in no mood to listen to anyone. He's deeply bitter after learning that his moon colony project has been unfunded. The next day, Quatermass connects the two incidents involving the falling rocks and decides to investigate with a colleague.

Discovering the dome city.
The duo discover that a nearby village has disappeared. In its place, they find a city of metallic domes that looks mighty similar to Quatermass's moon colony model. The landscape is also littered with the unusual rocks. When Quatermass's colleague picks one up, he suffers a facial burn. Within seconds, security personnel in gas masks appear and take away the injured man amid Quatermass's feeble protests.

It's difficult to describe the plot to Quatermass 2 (aka Enemy from Space), the superior 1957 sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). As Quatermass probes deeper into mysterious activities at the dome city, he uncovers a tangled conspiracy that involves members of the British government. (I love that government officials explain that the facility will end world hunger by manufacturing synthetic food--when its real mission threatens to end mankind's existence.)

Like the first Quatermass film and the later Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Quatermass 2 was based on a TV serial written by the brilliant Nigel Kneale. The TV version consisted of six 30-minute episodes, which provided more time to explore Kneale's central theme of an "invisible" enemy indistinguishable from the human race. (Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass 2 is considered by some critics to be a Cold War metaphor.)

A lingering image....
If the screenplay, penned by Kneale and director Val Guest, rushes the plot, Guest compensates by including some marvelous visuals. The Shell Haven Refinery in Essex was used as the setting for the mysterious plant. With its cold metallic structures, it provides a chilling, bleak backdrop to the action. And one scene, in which a dying man staggers down a metal staircase covered in a burning, black goo...let's just say it's a genuinely disturbing image that lingers long after the movie is over.

The miscast Donlevy.
The only thing preventing Quatermass 2 from taking its place among the best sci fi films of the 1950s is its star. Brian Donlevy, who played the lead in The Quatermass Xperiment reprises the role--and he reminded me of one of those emotionless pod people in Body Snatchers. He recites dialogue like a robot and never convinces the audience--not for a nanosecond--that he is a rocket scientist. In contrast, Quatermass and the Pit is the best Quatermass movie largely because of Andrew Keir's performance in the lead role (well, it also features a highly imaginative plot that mixes sci fi and horror).

Hammer horror fans will instantly recognize the music in the opening scene. It's a variation of James Bernard's Horror of Dracula score (which was reused in several other Hammer pictures).

This post is part of the 2nd Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Cinema Catharsis and and Reelweegiemidget Reviews. Please check out the full blogathon schedule by searching for #HammerAmicusBlogathon on Twitter.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Capricorn One: Peter Hyams' Conspiracy Thriller

Moments before the launch of a manned mission to Mars, Capricorn One's three astronauts are secretly pulled from the rocket. Hidden from view, they are whisked away to a remote desert facility. As the empty rocket blasts off, the project director explains to the bewildered astronauts that he learned of a critical fault in their life support systems three weeks earlier.

The Capricorn One studio set.
With Congress already concerned about the Mars program's $24 billion price tag, certain individuals feared that a rocket launch cancellation could mean the end of federal funding. They made the decision to fake the mission. A recording of an earlier simulation would give the illusion that the astronauts were still on-board the rocket. However, it would be necessary for the three men to "act out" certain scenes, such as the Mars landing. That would be accomplished in a TV studio complete  with a Mars set and a replica of the landing module.

James Brolin's astronaut learns the truth.
When the astronauts refuse to go along with the massive deception, the project director expresses concern about the safety of their families: "There are people out there--forces out there--with a lot to lose." In other words, the three astronauts do not have a choice.

Made in 1977, Capricorn One is an entertaining thriller inspired by moon landing conspiracy theories. Writer-director Peter Hyams' central premise is that most people believe real-life events viewed through the lens of the news media. Therefore, if you could manipulate that media, then you could deceive the world. Hyams provides just enough detail to make his story work, such as the ingenious plan to send the space capsule off-course as it lands back on earth--thereby providing enough time to insert the astronauts into the capsule before the recovery team's arrival.

Elliott Gould trying to control his car.
Hyams propels the plot by cutting back-and-forth between the astronauts and a news reporter (Elliott Gould) who learns that something isn't right about the Mars mission. The latter storyline implies that the shadowy people behind the deception have limitless power and will stop at nothing--even murder. That leads to the film's two best scenes:  a nerve-racking sequence in which Gould can't stop his car as it speeds through crowded metropolitan streets and an aerial chase between a crop-dusting biplane and two military helicopters. (Parts of the car scene were later recycled in the TV series The Fall Guy.)

Capricorn One is what Hollywood moguls now call a high-concept film. As such, it doesn't require big stars and so the cast features actors like Gould (who worked with Hyams earlier in the comedy Busting), Hal Holbrook (the project leader), James Brolin (who heads the astronauts' team), Brenda Vaccaro (Brolin's wife), and O.J. Simpson (another astronaut). With the exception of Simpson, they all do solid work, which is all the script requires. It's worth noting that the cast includes both of Barbra Streisand's husbands: She was married to Gould from 1963-71 and has been married to Brolin since 1998.

The real star of Capricorn One is writer-director Hyams, who takes an outrageous premise and makes you believe--if only for a moment--that it could happen. Incidentally, in regard to the cast, Hyams said in a 2014 interview in Empire: "O.J. Simpson was in it, and Robert Blake was in Busting. I’ve said many times: some people have AFI Lifetime Achievement awards; some people have multiple Oscars; my bit of trivia is that I’ve made films with two leading men who were subsequently tried for the first degree murder of their wives."

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

#5FaveSciFiFilms - Your 5 Favorite Science Fiction Films Tweetathon

What are your five favorite science fiction films?

That's the topic for our first tweetathon, which is sort of a blogathon for Twitter. If you would like to participate, just go to Twitter and send a tweet with your five film picks and the hashtag #5FaveSciFiFilms.

If you'll include our Twitter name @classic_film, we'll share your selections with over 13,000 other movie fans.

Of course, you don't need a Twitter account to participate. You can also join the fun by listing your picks on Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media platform. Or, you can just leave a comment below with your five favorite science fictions films.

To get this event jump-started, here are our #5FaveSciFiFilms:

1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
2. Quatermass and the Pit (Five Million Years to Earth) (1967)
3. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
4. The Power (1968)
5. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Inspector Morse: The Remorseful Day

John Thaw as Morse.
This review contains spoilers!

When it debuted on the PBS anthology series Mystery! in 1987, Inspector Morse offered something different for American audiences: a grumpy, cynical detective who investigated homicides in contemporary Oxford, England. Morse was only the second "present-day" detective featured on Mystery! (preceded only by Dalgleish). Based on Colin Dexter's novels, the British-made Inspector Morse TV series consisted of 33 episodes produced between 1987 and 2000.

Morse (John Thaw) is a highly-intelligent, middle-aged bachelor who shares few interests with his colleagues. While they're passionate about soccer, he prefers opera, literature, crossword puzzles, and zipping around in his red Jaguar Mark 2. Granted, he does like his beer...but only the good stuff. Morse isn't above flirting with the opposite sex (including suspects), but he doesn't have much luck with enduring relationships.

Kevin Whately as Lewis.
His partner, Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately), is his antithesis--public school-educated, a family man, and interested in sports. (In one episode, Morse has Lewis go undercover as a cricket team player.) Yet, while they share few common interests, the duo respect and remain loyal to each other--even when Morse belittles Lewis for not knowing the name of a Wagner opera.

The series' last episode The Remorseful Day (2000) finds Morse on the verge of retirement as he copes with ulcers and an ailing heart. Lewis has graduated from "Inspector School" and is awaiting a vacancy so he can be promoted. Chief Superintendent Strange assigns Lewis to tail a recently-paroled burglar who may know something about an unsolved murder case from the previous year.

Morse, who turns out to have a personal interest in the case, starts his own investigation--much to Lewis's dismay. However, the two detectives team up when the former burglar and a taxi driver, also connected to the murder, are found dead.

Lewis and Morse watching birds.
The Remorseful Day is a typically complex Morse mystery, but it also has grander ambitions. It serves as the final curtain call for a memorable TV detective. It's apparent early in the episode that Morse is ill-prepared for retirement. He tries his hand at bird-watching only to discover that Lewis knows more about the featured creatures than he does. (That said, his limited ornithological knowledge helps solve the murder case!)

Morse doesn't realize the identity of the killer until moments before he crumples to the ground from a heart attack. By the time Lewis arrests the murderer at the airport, Morse is already dead. His final words are not spoken to his partner, but to his sometime-nemesis Superintendent Strange: "Thank Lewis for me."

Morse and his beloved Jaguar.
Inspector Morse doesn't rank among my favorite British detective shows. Actually, I much prefer the spin-offs Inspector Lewis and Endeavor. But it was an influential series with superb performances from John Thaw and Kevin Whately. The former's nuanced acting subtly reveals a romantic buried behind Morse's grumpy, bitter façade. His relationship with Lewis is what makes the show work. Morse may criticize Lewis for his lack of culture, but the two detectives bring out the best in each other.

The Remorseful Day is a fitting goodbye--and one made with the show's fans in mind. Author Colin Dexter, who made cameos in almost all the episodes, can be glimpsed as a wheelchair-bound tourist. Barrington Pheloung, who composed the memorable music (also used for Endeavor), appears as a church choir conductor.

Here's the bird-watching scene referenced earlier, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Three-Word TV Series Game (May 2019)

The concept is the same here as with the Three-Word Movie Game. We will describe a TV series in three words and ask you to name it. Most of the questions below are pretty easy, but there are a few that might pose a challenge. Please answer only three per day so other people can play.

1. Nerd, pill, superhero.

2. Africa, veterinarian, lion.

3. Hotel, card, black.

4. Accountant, spy, lookalike.

5. Magazine, daydreams, cartoonist.

6. Nephew, butcher, architect.

7. Apartment, newlyweds, architect.

8. Gun, riverboat, gambler.

9. Jaguar, detective, opera.

10. Senator, physicians, attorneys.

11. Rich, poor, IRS.

12. Marineville, submarine, Phones.

13. Variety, Crosby, theatre.

14. Games, cars, Kennedy.

15. Songs, McCoo, dancers.

16. Trio, Himalayas, powers.

17. Father, lawyers, son.

18. Cone, shoes, robot.

19. Phone, butler, car.

20. Aliens, architect, finger.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce

Irma and her dog Coquette.
After ill-advisedly arresting eighteen Parisian prostitutes, the well-meaning Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is fired from his job as a policeman. He takes an interest in one of the streetwalkers, Irma la Douce (Shirley MacLaine), and defends her honor when her "manager" starts to get too rough. To everyone's surprise--including Nestor's--he wins a brawl against Irma's bad-mannered pimp.

Impressed with Nestor defending her honor, she takes him to her apartment and they become lovers. She also convinces Nestor to become her new manager. He's uncomfortable with the arrangement and considers getting a job, but Irma won't have it. She explains: "You don't want the other girls to think I can't support my man."

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.
Determined to find a way to keep Irma off the streets, Nestor and a friend hatch a scheme. Nestor disguises himself as a wealthy British client, known as Lord X, who pays Irma $500 to play cards with him for two nights a week. She is thrilled with the arrangement! Nestor is pleased with the outcome, but now has to work secretly to earn the money to pay Irma. As his friend tells him, this is not a "sustainable economic model."

Irma la Douce (1963) and The Apartment (1960) share the same stars (Lemmon and MacLaine), director (Billy Wilder), and screenwriters (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). Although Irma was based on a French play and a successful Broadway musical, Wilder no doubt saw it as a likely extension of The Apartment. In his earlier film, Jack Lemmon's insurance worker loans out his apartment to his business colleagues in hopes of getting a promotion. That's not the same as a pimp, but he indirectly uses sex for financial gain. He becomes displeased with the arrangement only after learning that a woman he likes (played by Shirley MacLaine) is having an affair with one of the executives using his apartment.

Lemmon as Lord X.
Yet, while The Apartment was a superb sophisticated comedy-drama, Irma la Douce is a broad comedy that works reasonably well. Lemmon and MacLaine are still magical together and the best scenes--such as when Irma casually invites Nestor to share her bed--are the ones in which they share the screen. She earned an Oscar nomination as the streetwalker with a penchant for green (even her underwear is green) and who considers her job a profession. (Amazingly, she was Wilder's third choice after Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor dropped out). As in Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon essentially gives two performances, as Nestor and as Lord X (he is virtually unrecognizable, in appearance and voice).

James Caan as a client.
Lou Jacobi headlines the supporting cast as Nestor's unlikely friend, a bartender with experiences in pretty much every field of work. Look quickly and you can also spot a number of now-familiar faces: Bill Bixby, James Caan, Howard McNear (Floyd on The Andy Griffith Show), and Grace Lee Whitney (Janet Rand on the original Star Trek TV series).

If the great Billy Wilder had a flaw as a director, it was editing his own screenplays. Like several of his later movies, Irma la Douce is inflated at a whopping 143 minutes. Wilder could have easily trimmed a half-hour without losing any plot or characterization.  It's also puzzling that he chose not to include the musical numbers from the Broadway hit--especially once the multitalented MacLaine was cast as the lead.

Of course, Shirley MacLaine did get a chance to show her singing and dancing chops six years later in Sweet Charity (1969). Although she played a dancer-for-hire (or taxi dancer), her character was based on the titular heroine of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria--who was a prostitute.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, we are hosting the 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon. Per its title, the goal is for each participant to list his or her five favorite films of the 1950s and explain why they deserve such an honor!

The 1950s is a decade filled with outstanding movies in a wide array of genres: epics (Ben-Hur), science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Westerns (3:10 to Yuma), colorful musicals (Singin' in the Rain), intimate dramas (Marty), and laugh-out-loud comedies (The Court Jester).

It featured masterpieces from the world's greatest directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman, William Wyler, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Elia Kazan, Federico Fellini, and others.

If you don't have a blog and still want to participate, you can list your five favorite 1950s films on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media on National Classic Movie Day on May 16th.

The participants are listed below. Please check out each of their five favorite films of the 1950s. We guarantee that you'll enjoy reading the lists!

(Note: Due a last minute technical glitch, we may have omitted a couple of participating blogs. If you don't see your blog, please leave a comment and we will add it promptly!)

Another Old Movie Blog
Caftan Woman
Cinema Essentials
Classic Film & TV Cafe
Classic Film Obsessions
Critica Retro
4 Star Films
The Flapper Dame
Hometowns to Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
Love Letters to Old Hollywood
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
Movie FanFare
Old Hollywood Films
Once Upon a Screen
A Person in the Dark
Realweegiemidget Reviews
Shadows and Satin
A Shroud of Thoughts
Silver Scenes
Silver Screen Classics
Silver Screenings
The Stop Button
The Story Enthusiast
Taking Up Room
Totally Filmi
Twenty Four Frames
Various Ramblings of a Nostalgic Italian
Whimsically Classic
The Wonderful World of Cinema

Five Favorite Films of the 1950s--Toughest Blogathon Ever!

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day 2019, we're hosting the Five Favorite Films of the 1950s blogathon. Naturally, the Cafe staff is participating, too--but who knew it would be so brutal to whittle our favorite 1950s films down to a Top 5?

Sadly, we've been forced to omit many film faves! The fact is that the 1950s was a banner decade for cinema around the world. Alfred Hitchcock was at the peak of his career. Otto Preminger was breaking film censorship barriers. The wonders of real-life science inspired a number of science fiction movie classics. Colorful big screen musicals introduced new stars and provided worthy vehicles for existing ones. Great filmmakers in Europe and Japan emerged from the ashes of a world war.

Our selections below are our personal favorites, but we'd argue that one ranks with the greatest films of all time and the other four are iconic pictures that have withstood the test of time.

Kim Novak and James Stewart.
1. Vertigo (1958) – This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. I think it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart and Kim Novak), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Herrmann, and nifty Saul Bass titles. Like all great films, I glean something new from it or appreciate another facet every time I watch it. My last viewing reminded me just how brilliant James Stewart is in the lead. In a career filled with fine performances, I think Stewart does his best work as a typical Stewart “nice guy” who evolves into a man obsessed with an illusion. Contrast Scotty’s (Stewart) playful banter early on with Midge with his climactic confrontation with Judy—his eyes ablaze with confusion, hate, and something akin to love. It’s a brilliant and chilling transition.

Stewart as the defense attorney.
2. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Gort--Hollywood's coolest robot.
3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – If there were a Hall of Fame for Timeless Movies, then one of its founding members would be The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've probably watched it at least once every decade since I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960s. When I was a youngster, the film's fantastic elements--and Gort, the coolest robot in the history of cinema--appealed to me. When I was a teen, its stern warning about the perils of nuclear war resonated with me. With each subsequent viewing, The Day the Earth Stood Still has revealed something new: presenting itself as a Biblical analogy, an editorial on the influence of media on public opinion, a portrait of fear of the unknown, etc. Its themes never fail to thrill me…making it much more exciting than any action-oriented sci fi film.

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone.
4. The Court Jester (1956) – My favorite comedy is a spot-on, delightful spoof of swashbuckling films. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor). The supporting players are all at the top of their game, too. Basil Rathbone has a grand time parodying past roles such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Angela Lansbury displays a deft comedic touch, while Cecil Parker steals his scenes as the bored king whose only interest appears to be “wenches.” The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle which has the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in movie history?

Crosby and Kaye performing "Sisters."
5. White Christmas (1954) – There was a time when I grumbled because White Christmas was shown every Yuletide season while Holiday Inn (1942) only made sporadic appearances. Most critics consider the latter film, in which the song “White Christmas” was introduced, to be the superior musical. It was only after my wife and I acquired both films on video that I recognized the virtues of White Christmas. It’s a near-perfect blend of music and comedy, with the cast and crew at, or near, the peak of their careers. The dance numbers are staged energetically, with the highlight being Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing outside a nightclub to the melodic “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney generate a more subdued, but no less effective, chemistry. Their duet “Count Your Blessings” was the big hit song from the film. The most effective pairing in the film, though, is the one between Crosby and Kaye. They’re a sensational team, whether doing musical numbers or comedy (their version of “Sisters”, done originally as a joke on the set, is hysterically funny).

Be sure to check out the 1950s film favorites from all the other blogs in this blogathon by clicking here to view the full schedule.

Monday, May 13, 2019

David Niven Says Bonjour Tristesse to Deborah Kerr

Jean Seberg and David Niven.
Seventeen-year-old Cecile and her wealthy, widower father split their time between Paris and the French Riveria. Their goal in life is to have fun. The middle-aged Raymond (David Niven) woos young attractive women, keeps them around for a few months, and then discards them. Cecile (Jean Seberg) likes the company of handsome, young men, but she also has no intent of fostering a relationship. Why should she? She has her father and that is all she needs.

Their world gets turned upside down when Raymond invites Anne, a friend of Cecile's deceased mother, for an extended visit at their coastal summer home. Anne (Deborah Kerr) is a strong, self-assured woman with a successful career as a fashion designer. She resists Raymond's obvious charms, which only makes her more attractive to him. Cecile quickly develops a love-hate relationship with Anne, who provides stability in the midst of the "fun first" chaos.

Jean Seberg as Cecile.
Everything changes again when Raymond falls in love with Anne and proposes marriage. Cecile decides that the nuptials cannot take place and develops an elaborate scheme to break up Raymond and Anne. Her actions set into motion an inevitable tragedy.

Author Francoise Sagan was nineteen-years-old when she wrote the then-scandalous novel Bonjour Tristesse in 1954. It quickly became a bestseller and attracted the attention of Otto Preminger. The famed director had completed Saint Joan, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play about Joan of Arc, in 1957. The picture and its star, an unknown named Jean Seberg, had been skewered by the critics.

One suspects that the controversial subject matter of Bonjour 
Tristesse--the film vaguely hints at an incestuous father-daughter relationship--drew Preminger's interest. After all, he never shied away from controversy in films like The Moon Is Blue, The Man With the Golden Arm, and the later Anatomy of a Murder. The challenge with the film version of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is that, despite two classy leads, a beautiful setting, and plenty of style, the story and characters are simply too shallow.

David Niven as Raymond.
As played by Jean Seberg, Cecile is a petulant brat and her father lacks any parenting skills. When Anne tells Cecile to study for her exams, the latter pouts and appeals to her father. He takes the easy way out by siding with Anne. From that point on, Cecile spends all her time plotting an exit for Anne.

Preminger frames the film so that Cecile tells the story in flashback as she reflects on the emptiness of her and Raymond's lives. To emphasize the impending tragedy, the "current day" scenes are shown in harsh black & white while the flashbacks with Anne are in color, apparently signaling happier times.

Deborah Ker as Anne.
Deborah Kerr gives the best performance by virtue of having the most interesting role. Anne is a character to be admired for being practical while surrounded by a sea of frivolity. However, at the same time, she is not wholly likable and is quick to jump at conclusions. When she sees Cecile and her boyfriend passionately kissing, her reaction is to ban Cecile from seeing the young man.

While Bonjour Tristesse flopped at the box office, all the principals recovered nicely. Preminger made Anatomy of a Murder--arguably his best film--in 1959. David Niven won an Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables that same year. Deborah Kerr co-starred with Cary Grant in one of her most famous pictures, An Affair to Remember, in 1957. And Jean Seberg became a French icon with her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave masterpiece Breathless in 1960.

For the record, Bonjour Tristesse translates to "hello sadness." Juliette Greco warbles a woeful, depressing song of the same title during one of the opening scenes.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Albert Finney Hunts Wolfen in NYC

Albert Finney and friend.
For years, I felt an irresistible impulse to indulge in Albert Finney's two 1980 horror/sci fi films whenever they were available. I finally got over the urge to watch Looker after reviewing it for this blog a few years ago. It's a terrible movie and I think that documenting that in writing "cured" me. That brings us to Finney's other 1980 film, Wolfen, which I recently discovered on Vudu...and ended up watching, of course.

The film opens with the vicious early morning murders of a rich industrialist, his wife, and their chauffeur in a New York City park. A high tech security firm and the police suspect that it's the work of a terrorist group. However, detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is puzzled by the nature of the savage wounds, missing body organs, and a hair from an unidentified animal. When a similar hair is found on the body of a dead bum in the slums, Dewey concludes that the two crimes must somehow be related.

A rundown church is the setting for one of the best scenes.
Wolfen unravels effectively for most of its 113 minute running time as Dewey gradually connects the pieces of the puzzle. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, including a group of Native Americans suggesting that shape-shifters may be at work. But make no mistake, Wolfen is not about werewolves. To its credit, it has loftier ambitions--even if it ultimately fails to achieve them.

The film's biggest challenge is its gaps in narrative structure. This is not surprising considering that director Michael Wadleigh delivered a 4 1/2 hour cut of Wolfen and was promptly removed from the post-production process. It may explain why we never learn the destiny of a dog that accompanied the couple in the opening scene or why Dewey goes to a bar to have Edward James Olmos painstakingly explain the film's premise to him. The latter is especially awkward; I felt ripped off being given the answer after spending so much of Wolfen trying to figure out what was going on. Still, things like that are bound happen when you leave over two hours of edited footage on the cutting room floor.

Gregory Hines.
Finney and his co-star Diane Venora never flesh out their characters and their one-night stand is superfluous to the plot. Perhaps, the blame can once again be attributed to the lost footage and not the actors. Gregory Hines, on the other hand, is excellent as a potato chip-eating medical examiner whose decision to help Finney's detective results in more bloodshed. Incidentally, one of the first victims is played by Anne Marie Pohtamo, who won the the Miss Universe title in 1975 (she was Miss Finland). She only appeared in one other film role.

Director Wadleigh avoids showing the Wolfen for most of the film. Instead, he relies on the old trick of showing us what the creatures see. To inject some additional visual interest, he uses a process similar to thermal imaging. It's an effective technique at first, but wears thin about the fifth time he employs it. To Wadleigh's credit, though, when we finally see the Wolfen (after about 80 minutes), it's a tense scene and the creatures are impressive-looking.

Anne Marie Pohtamo.
The screenplay was loosely based on Whitley Streiber's 1978 debut novel The Wolfen. Streiber's story is more streamlined (no terrorist plot) and I suspect it works better than the ambitious, but flawed, film adaptation.

Wolfen is the the only fictional film directed by Michael Wadleigh. His other films are documentaries, though one is pretty famous. It's called Woodstock.

Monday, April 29, 2019

In Defense of the Musical Lost Horizon

A glimpse of Shangri-La.
It was a boxoffice bomb and savaged by critics. It barely recouped 25% of its budget, leading the movie industry to label it "The Lost Investment." Time hasn't been kind to it. Rather than becoming a cult film, it has been lambasted in books such as The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. And, sadly, it's sometimes listed as a key reason for the breakup of the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

But don't listen to all the naysayers about the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon. Granted, it's not a good movie, but it's not a horrible one either.

Peter Finch as Conway.
The plot adheres pretty closely to the classic 1937 adaptation of James Hilton's popular novel. En route to Hong Kong, a plane carrying five passengers is hijacked and crash lands in the Himalayas. The pilot dies, but the others survive and are rescued by a mysterious man named Chang. He escorts them to Shangri-La, a paradise sheltered on all four sides by the mountains.

The passengers include: a diplomat named Conway (Peter Finch), his journalist brother George (Michael York), a businessman (George Kennedy), a comedian (Bobby Van), and a photo journalist (Sally Kellerman). Except for George, each one finds meaning to his or her life in the tranquil city and choose not to return to civilization. Unfortunately, George is desperate to leave Shangri-La with a "young" woman named Maria. He refuses to listen to his brother, who warns him of the consequences of his actions.

Liv Ullmann.
Most of the songs are integrated naturally into the plot. Maria sings the haunting "Share the Joy" as entertainment for the new guests. "The World Is a Circle" is performed by teacher Liv Ullmann and her class of children as part of a lesson (the number looks like an homage to The Sound of Music, so it's no surprise that Julie Andrews was first offered Ullmann's role). "Living Together, Growing Together" is presented as part of a ceremony (and unfortunately wastes the singing talents of James Shigeta).

The producer of Lost Horizon, Ross Hunter, is one of many who has disparaged the score. Personally, I thought there were a handful of strong songs: the title tune, "Share the Joy," and "The Things I Will Not Miss." Yes, I cringed during "The World Is a Circle" and "Question Me an Answer," though Bobby Van at least delivers the latter with his usual showmanship. While Van and Sally Kellerman actually performed their vocals, the singing voices were dubbed for Finch, Ullmann, and Olivia Hussey. Finally, it's worth noting that The Fifth Dimension recorded "Living Together, Growing Together" and turned it into a Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman.
The dancing is another matter, as it's uniformly dreadful except for Van's number. There is a reason why Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman did not become dancers!

Lost Horizon was originally conceived as a roadshow presentation, meaning that its extended running time meant that theaters could only show it two or three times daily. However, the studio mandated that it be shortened and 23 minutes, including three songs, were cut from the film (it's still over two hours long).

Burt Bacharach was displeased with the treatment of the score during the editing of Lost Horizon. Some sources claim that Hal David didn't support Bacharach and that led to their breakup. However, in a 2013 interview with The Telegraph, Bacharach says that he wanted to split their profits 60-40 and David refused to accept the lower number, leading to their split and years of legal disputes.

Charles Boyer as the High Lama.
Music aside, Lost Horizon is a by-the-numbers remake of Frank Capra's 1937 version. Peter Finch makes an adequate lead. The film's best scene is the first encounter between him and an unrecognizable and surprisingly good Charles Boyer as the High Lama. Sally Kellerman brings some pathos to her character and Van does what he can with an underwritten role. The rest of the cast looks pretty lost, especially Liv Ullmann, who no doubt hoped to move out of Ingmar Bergman's shadow.

Don't ignore the chance to see Lost Horizon just because it's become vogue to trash it. Watch it and make up your own mind, especially if you're a fan of Burt Bacharach's music. There are better ways to spend two hours...but then I could say that about a lot of other movies, too.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Five Best Shirley MacLaine Performances

1. The Apartment (1960) - While Shirley MacLaine often played strong, independent women later in her career, her finest performance was as the vulnerable, lonely, and borderline-desperate Fran Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s classic comedy-drama. Fran is smart enough to guess that the slimy business executive, played by Fred MacMurray, has no intention of leaving his wife. Yet, the scene where she admits this to herself is poignant and tragic. It helps, too, that MacLaine and Jack Lemmon make a near-perfect onscreen couple, with her cynicism evenly balanced by his earnestness.

2. Terms of Endearment (1983) - After four previous Best Actress nominations, Shirley MacLaine won the Oscar for playing an independent-minded mother opposite an equally feisty daughter (Debra Winger) in James L. Brooks' popular hit. MacLaine has called Terms a "singularly difficult experience" in which "maybe the shooting circumstances contributed to its artistic success." She is referring, of course, to her on-set friction with Debra Winger. The on-screen result is an incredibly natural mother-daughter relationship that allows MacLaine to show the full range of her acting talent as a dramatic actress and (especially in her scenes with Jack Nicholson) as a comedienne.

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
3. The Children's Hour (1961) - William Wyler's underrated drama stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as two teachers who are accused of being in a lesbian relationship by a student. While it is untrue, MacLaine's character harbors unspoken love for her colleague and friend. The scene is which she openly admits her feelings for the first time is the most emotionally-wrenching scene in MacLaine's career.

4. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) - I suspect many readers consider this is an odd choice. The reality, though, is that Shirley MacLaine may have been Clint Eastwood's best female co-star. She is certainly tough enough to go toe to toe with him and their interplay is the highlight of the film. Director Don Siegel once said that Shirley was "a hard, hard woman." Although she now speaks highly of Eastwood, MacLaine and Siegel routinely clashed on the set. Perhaps, this is another case of off-screen friction leading to on-screen success.

In one of her "roles" in Gambit.
5. Gambit (1966) - This may seem like another offbeat selection, but hear me out. It makes the list because it features what amounts to two delightful Shirley MacLaine performances. In the first half of the film, con man Michael Caine imagines a heist that features Shirley as an accomplice who doesn't have a word of dialogue. MacLaine's acting consists solely of facial expressions and gestures--and she's marvelous. In the film's second half, she plays a talkative accomplice who's much smarter than Caine's character. Her performances are masterful examples of light comedy and serve as a reminder she could have been a much bigger star if that was her goal.

Honorable Mentions: The Turning Point, Irma La Douce, Some Came Running, and Steel Magnolias.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2019)

If you're new to this game, here are the rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to 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.  James Mitchum, Frankie Avalon, and Patrick Swayze.

2.  Guy Williams and George Hamilton.

3.  Kirk Douglas and Robert Redford.

4.  Deborah Walley and Raquel Welch.

5.  Burt Lancaster and Maud Adams.

6.  Red Skelton and Robert De Niro.

7.  James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Barbara Stanwyck.

8.  Myrna Loy and Jo Ann Pflug.

9.  Celeste Holm and Farley Granger.

10. Barbara Stanwyck and David McCallum.

11. Warren Beatty and Boris Karloff.

12. Frank Sinatra and Gene Wilder.

13. Ginger Rogers and Red Skelton.

14. Richard Conte and Patrick Swayze.

15. William Holden and John Garfield.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Gun Crazy: Lovers That Go Together Like Guns and Ammunition

Peggy Cummins takes aim!
A film noir with a tragic love story involving the femme fatale and a gun-obsessed guy?

That's the unlikely premise of Gun Crazy, a 1950 "B" picture selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1998. Although it made little noise when first released, it developed a quick cult reputation. By the 1960s, Gun Crazy was being hailed by noted critics and filmmakers, such as Francois Truffaut who famously recommended that Robert Benton and David Newman watch it. That duo was working on a script that would become Bonnie and Clyde--another landmark film often compared to Gun Crazy.

The opening scene is a stunner as fourteen-year-old Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn) stands in the pouring rain on a neon-lit street and looks longingly at a handgun in a store window. He breaks the window with a brick and steals the gun and some ammunition. As he's running away, Bart falls down in a puddle and drops the gun, which slides over in front of the sheriff's feet.

John Dall as the adult Bart.
Bart's older sister tries to convince a judge that Bart is a good boy. She explains that he has always been fascinated by guns, but has killed nothing since he shot a chick at age 7 with a BB rifle. Despite her pleadings, the judge expresses concern with Bart's obsession with guns and sentences him to reform school.

When we next meet Bart (John Dall), he has returned home from serving as a marksmanship instructor in the Army. His pals take him to the carnival, where he witnesses a sharp-shooting display from Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), one of the sideshow acts. Their "meet cute" sizzles with an undercurrent of sexual attraction, so rather than describe it, here's the scene (courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel):

Bart joins the carnival at Laurie's suggestion, though the situation creates a rivalry with Packett, the carny manager and Laurie's jealous boyfriend. Packett eventually confronts Laurie and threatens to tell Bart about the man she killed in St. Louis. Her response provides the first glimpse of her true nature: "You're going to hold that over my head for the rest of my life, aren't you?" Packett fires Annie and Bart, who hit the road and get married.

Post-honeymoon problems.
They live blissfully until Bart's savings run out. When Bart suggests that he get a job at Remington for $40 a week, Laurie confides that "she wants to do a little living" and "wants things...a lot of things." Threatening to leave him, Laurie convinces Bart to participate in an armed robbery--which signals the start of their fatalistic downfall.

Gun Crazy is an impeccably crafted film that benefits from two dazzling performances, deft direction, and a razor-sharp screenplay. John Dall, whom we have profiled in this blog, was an underrated actor who deserved better roles. He certainly got a juicy one in Gun Crazy and delivers as the reluctant robber who loves only two things in life: Laurie and guns.

The more surprising portrayal comes from Peggy Cummins, who is best remembered for romantic comedies (Always a Bride) and for playing the vanilla heroine in the later Curse of the Demon (1958). She exudes sexual energy with Dall while coming across as a cold, manipulative killer. But here's the beauty of her performance: Despite Laurie's bad girl persona and many faults, Cummins convinces the audience that her character truly loves Bart. It's a blessing that director Joseph H. Lewis was unsuccessful in casting his first choice for the role: Veronica Lake.

Laurie provides a distraction for the robbery.
Lewis was a journeyman director with a resume that included some interesting "B" movies (My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night). But none of his work comes close to the innovative style employed in Gun Crazy. The film's highlight is a three-and-half minute bank robbery shot in a single take from the inside of the getaway car. The climax is almost as mesmerizing with Laurie and Bart hiding out in a fog-enshrouded swamp as they listen to their pursuers' footsteps in the water. Finally, I love how Lewis subtlety pushes the bounds of the production code by finding provocative ways to photograph Laurie (e.g., when she does a trick shot by bending down and shooting between her legs).

The lovers surrounded by fog.
As for the screenplay, it was credited to MacKinlay Kantor, whose original story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and Millard Kaufman. In the 1990s, Kaufman, who penned such classics as Bad Day at Black Rock, admitted he did not co-write Gun Crazy. He acted as a "front" for Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Personally, I think the screenplay for Gun Crazy is one of the most quotable in all film noir, as evidenced by this passage delivered by Laurie prior to her wedding: "Bart, I've never been much good, at least up until now I haven't. You aren't getting any bargain. But I have a funny feeling I want to be good. I don't know...maybe I can't. But I'm going to try. I'll try hard, Bart. I'll try."

Laurie wants to be good.
Still, it's not just the dialogue that makes the Gun Crazy screenplay so compelling. The main characters, each destined for tragedy from the beginning, are what drive the film. Bart's love for Laurie is just as obsessive as his love for guns. As a youth, he couldn't stop himself from stealing the gun in the store window. As an adult, he can't stop himself from doing whatever is required to keep Laurie. In both instances, though, Bart overcomes his obsession when it comes to killing. It's the one thing he won't do for her. In the end, that's what separates Bart from her. Having been "kicked around," Laurie is willing to do anything--even commit murder--to get the things she thinks she deserves.

Gun Crazy is required viewing for any film noir fan. Film noir expert Eddie Mueller ranks it #18 on his list of the Top 25 Noir Films and calls it "the most exciting, dynamic and influential Noir movie ever made." The British Film Institute published a 96-page book devoted solely to it. Even the original movie poster, now valued at up to $2800, has its passionate admirers. So if you haven't seen Gun Crazy, what are you waiting for?

This review is part of the Femme Fatales of Film Noir Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. We encourage you to check out the other films in this blogathon by clicking here.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

An Interview with Ruta Lee: A Lively Conversation about Seven Brides, Marlene Dietrich, Perry Mason, Khrushchev...and More!

Ruta Lee made her big screen acting debut in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1953 at the age of eighteen. She has been performing ever since! Her film roles have run the gamut from portraying Tyrone Power's girlfriend in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) to starring opposite the whole Rat Pack in Sergeants 3 (1962). She has guest-starred in dozens of television shows, including multiple appearances in classics such as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and The Andy Griffith Show. She has also gained acclaim as a stage actress with credits ranging from Hello, Dolly to Steel Magnolias.  Ruta Lee is a great believer in volunteerism and serves as the Chairman of the Board Emeritus for The Thalians, a non-profit organization that "raises funds to educate and enlighten the world about mental illness." She recently returned from Lithuania where she was the keynote speaker at a women's conference.

Café:  Your first movie role was as one of the brides in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. What are some of your memories from making that classic musical?

Ruta Lee:  There are so many memories that it would probably take four weeks of us sitting down and talking about them. I think the best part was my mother, who took me to the audition, going into the church across from casting at MGM and getting on her knees and praying. I, on the other hand, went into the audition in my little ballet tights and shoes and danced for the choreographer. He told me to do a little ballet and do a little a jazz. Then, he said: "How about a little something folksy?" Well, I'm of Lithuanian descent and if there's one thing I know, it's a good Lithuanian polka. So, I did my polka for him. I'm not sure if it was my polka or my mother's prayers, but I got the job.

Café:  In Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, you played Tyrone Power's girlfriend. What was it like working with Wilder, Power, Charles Laughton, and Marlene Dietrich?

Ruta, as a brunette, and Tyrone Power.
Ruta Lee:  First of all, Billy Wilder was probably one of the most innately funny people that God put on this Earth. He has a wonderfully wild sense of humor. It showed up in a great deal of his work, like Some Like It Hot. When I first came into Witness for the Prosecution, it was several weeks after production had started. The studio had taken two huge sound stages and built a replica of the Old Bailey courtroom to three-quarters scale, which was incredible. I had been warned by the make-up department, who said: "Listen, Ruta, Charles Laughton is sometimes a nasty old gay who doesn't like young girls, so just do your work, know your lines, and everything will be fine." So, I came onto the set, in my little tight dress and perky hat, and everyone is sitting around in British tea circles. No one is saying hello to me or welcome. For the first time in my life, I wished the floor would open up and swallow me--that kind of a feeling. And, as I'm standing there, somebody walks up behind me, smacks me on my butt, and sends me flying across the stage. I turn around and it's Charles Laughton. He says: "That's the best damn ass I've seen in a long time." And I became his baby doll. He would sulk if I didn't come in to say good morning to him before anybody else. He taught me to play all kinds of games like Perquackey and Scrabble; he was quite the game player. He and his wife Elsa (Lanchester) would sometimes invite me to lunch in their dressing room. She was trying to watch his weight...ha, ha! They helped me with my middle British accent. High English and Cockney are rather easy, but that middle English was tougher. They were the dearest, most wonderful people and I will love Charles Laughton until the day I die. As for handsome Ty Power, I adored him. He was a lovely, lovely man and very sweet. I will never forget telling him that I hadn't seen Blood and Sand, which was a terribly important movie in his career. He arranged a screening of it for me. Then, of course, there was Marlene Dietrich. Marlene is one of the most professional people that I've ever known, but she was not exactly thrilled with young girls. When she saw my screen test for Witness of the Prosecution, she said "nein" when she saw the blonde hair and I was a brunette overnight. She was very cool and had little to do with me. She was a little bit warmer when I saw her in later years. Boy, though, I learned a lot from her. All you had to do was watch her. She knew about cinematography and lighting and what worked for her and what didn't. She'd say to our cinematographer: "I believe I'd like that inky under my chin here because I could use a little more light." He'd say: "Oh, Marlene, you don't need it. You're well lit. I'm taking care of you. We don't even have an inky." And she'd say "I do" and she'd open up a big trunk and there was the inky she needed for a light. I wish all of us had taken lessons from her because she really knew what she was doing.
(Note: An inky, or inky dink, is a small light of 100-250 watts.)

Café:  You were the female lead in Sergeants 3 (1962), which starred Frank Sinatra and the whole Rat Pack. How would you describe that experience?

On the set with Frank Sinatra.
Ruta Lee:  The most fun of my life. We laughed all the way through making that film. Poor (director) John Sturges kept trying to get our attention. I tried to do all my work properly, but you could not help but laugh because Dean Martin is a truly funny man. Frank is a funny guy, Joey Bishop was a funny guy, and Sammy is one of the most delicious people ever. It was one big lark. And, of course, they all treated me like their little, baby sister that had to be taken care of. I thought, oh hell, I could have had an affair with all of them and written books...but I didn't.

Café:  You guest starred in almost every classic TV series in the 1960s (and many beyond that). What were some of your favorite guest star roles?

As a "bad girl" in Twilight Zone.
Ruta Lee:  I think that playing a bitchy, little tramp in The Twilight Zone ("A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain") was one of my favorites. When I got through doing a scene, there came a big round of applause from the crew members up on the catwalk. Later, when I finished work that day, they said the applause was because I was good and reminded the crew of their favorite: Carole Lombard. I thought, wow, what a compliment! I also believe I did a good job in a Bonanza episode ("A Woman Lost"), but it was before everyone's agent nominated them for an Emmy. I could have won one with the right publicity. One of the great learning experiences for me was the stuff I did on Perry Mason. Gail Patrick was a beautiful star from the 1930s and into the 1940s, who became a producer. She would hire me a lot. It was always very interesting to me that there was this exquisitely beautiful woman who was not afraid of young girls and not afraid of the competition. I did at least five Perry Mason episodes and that was almost like going to acting school. Working with that cast was absolutely wonderful. I could also say that about the work I did at Warner Bros. One of the mistakes that I made back then was that I said no when Warner Bros. wanted to put me under contract. The contract would have paid me $300 a week whereas I was doing one to two shows a month for $750 a week. But when you go under contract to a studio, you have a powerful machine behind you. You get lessons in whatever you need. You get a publicity department behind you. You get put into roles without having to audition for them. Still, I was very grateful, because I got to do shows like Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye. I was a fixture at Warner Bros. The house that I'm sitting in now I call the "House that Jack (Warner) Built" because my Warner Bros. salaries and residuals helped make the payments.

Café:  When we interviewed Julie Adams in 2013, she also said how much she enjoyed guest starring on Perry Mason.

Ruta Lee:  I don't know if this happened with Julie, but I would get invited as a guest to dinner parties, not every week, but maybe twice a year at Gail Patrick's home. She was married to a man named Cornwell, or Corny, Jackson. I just felt so honored to be among the elite of Hollywood and listen to their stories. It was a great honor and I will never forget Gail Patrick for that.

Café:  Were there any actors that you particularly enjoyed working with?

Ruta Lee:  I loved working with everybody. I am a very easy person to get along with and I enjoy people and their stories. Needless to say, Frank, Dean, and the boys were just the best. Jimmy Garner was great fun to work with on Maverick.

Café:  You have also appeared in a number of stage plays. What were some of your favorite stage roles and why?

Ruta Lee in Hello, Dolly.
Ruta Lee:  My altogether favorite is one of the hardest roles to play and that's The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I played that role for the first time in Fort Worth, Texas, where I went on to perform it for 40 years. Because of Molly Brown, I became the darling of Fort Worth. The press would write that summer is here and Ruta is here, so everyone can enjoy their summer! It was a great role for me and the best part was the composer of the show, Meredith Wilson, came to see Molly Brown with his wife on opening night. When Meredith was interviewed by the press, he said: "Ruta is the best Molly of them all. If she had played it on Broadway, it would still be running." I also love Anne Get Your Gun, Bells Are RingingHello, Dolly, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is the easiest and still a great role in which to strut your stuff.

Café:  You and your husband, business executive Webb Lowe, Jr., celebrated your 43rd wedding anniversary in February. How did you meet and what is the secret to your long marriage?

Ruta and her husband Webb.
Ruta Lee:  I'll answer the second question first. The secret to our long marriage is having a great sense of humor. My husband taught me something the first year we were married. As a new young bride, I'd get upset and distressed if he didn't hear what I had to say or didn't bring flowers on an occasion. He said to me: "Let me ask you something. At the end of the day, will this be important? At the end of the week? At the end of the month? At the end of the year, will this still be important and will you still be thinking about it?" I realized that nothing in life is worth stressing over. I'm not talking about serious tragedies, but the usual daily routine. If you can't just laugh it off, then you don't need to be married. Now, as to how I met him, that's a fun story. I had promised the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) that I'd be its guest star at an event in Naples, Florida. At the time, I was doing a show in Dallas, which was supposed to close on Sunday and then I'd go to Naples on Monday. The theater owners came to me and asked if I could play another week since my shows were selling out. I agreed to do two shows on Sunday, go to Naples, and return to Dallas. I hadn't been feeling well, but I threw myself together, flew to Miami, and ran across the tarmac to a small plane which took me to Naples. I put on the feather boas and long eyelashes and made my big appearance at the LPGA. The next day, of course, I had to return to Dallas for a show and I had a fluey thing going on. So, I put a babushka on my head, big sunglasses, and not a stitch of make-up. It's hot in Florida, so I carried my fur coat as I ran across the tarmac. I go over to American Airlines and they tell me it's a turnaround flight and that they'll pre-board me as soon as it gets cleaned up. So, I was leaning against the counter, my head in my hands, and looking down at the floor. I see a great pair of Gucci loafers coming towards me. And I look up a little further and see nice slacks with a crease on them. I look up a little higher to see a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons. A little further, there's a great tie. And then I see a shock of silver hair and a face that's a cross between Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. I said: "Be still my heart!" And he kept walking towards me...and then right past my counter and down the hall. I thought, oh shoot, we're just ships that pass in the night. So, the airline pre-boards me and I'm piling all my stuff under my seat and on the seat next to me. And all of a sudden, I look down and the same pair of shoes are standing there. And he said: "Is this seat taken?" And I said--for the last time in my life--no. And he leaned over and said: "Hello, my name is Webb Lowe." And I said: "Hello, my name is Ruta Lee. And we should be married, because then my name would be Ruta Lee Lowe and we could open a Chinese laundry."

Café:  That's a charming story! Now, I've read where you personally contacted Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, when he was the Premier of the Soviet Union, to secure the release of your grandmother from an internment camp. Can you provide the fascinating details?

Ruta and family reunited.
Ruta Lee:  I had been trying for years to get my grandmother out of Siberia where she had been deported. She spent fifteen years there. Most of my family was deported to Siberia. No one knows why. We're not talking about brilliant, educated teachers and writers. These were peasant folk who tilled the land and grew their own vegetables to eat. My grandmother was finally permitted to go back to Lithuania with some of the family and we received word that she was dying. We tried to keep them alive by sending packages. You could only send forty-pound packages and the contents were dictated by the pound of coffee, one pound of lard, one pair of socks...that kind  of thing. I came home from work one day and my mother was in a state of tears. We had received a letter, though much of it was blacked out, and my grandmother was thanking us for sending clothes for her to be buried in. She had been to a doctor and was told she was going to die. I was so distressed. She was my one remaining grandparent and I had never met any of them. I went out with friends that night and the more wine they poured, the more obvious it became that I should pick up the phone and call Khrushchev--so I did. In those days, there was person-to-person calling and you didn't pay for the call if you didn't get your party. If you got your party, you paid maybe twice as much. I kept calling and calling and the American operator would talk to the Russian operator who would talk with the Kremlin operator, who would get back to me and say: "Nyet, nyet, nyet." In the meantime, I called the Russian Embassy in Washington to get permission to go to Lithuania and I'd get "nyet" there, too. Finally, the Kremlin operator called back and said: "Mr. Khrushchev doesn't speak English. You speak to interpreter to Mr. Khrushchev." I remembered a good-looking young man who traveled with Khrushchev when he was here and had translated for him. Anyway, I spoke with the interpreter and he said: "Miss Lee, we would be very happy to have you travel to the Soviet Union. We know you here. We see your films here. Why don't you speak to your congressman about it?" And I said: "Excuse me, sir. What the hell does my congressman have to do with my traveling to your country? This is not a political matter. It is a matter of the heart. What are you going to do about it?" And he said: "In half an hour, present yourself again to the Soviet Embassy in Washington." I thought, oh no, here we go again! I hung up and a half-hour later I called the embassy. This time, I was connected immediately to the first secretary, who was Lithuanian. Of course, he knew me because I was the one doing the Voice of America broadcasts against Communism. It's an absolute miracle that within 48 hours, my parents and I were on a plane headed to Moscow and then to Lithuania. They took us to my grandmother and six months later, I was given permission to bring her and an aunt back to the United States. She lived for two years, two months, and two days.

Café:  That's an amazing story.

Ruta Lee:  I've been writing a book for the last ten years. One of these days, I'll hopefully get it together and finish it. Maybe you'll help me out by telling all your readers to go buy Ruta's book!

Café:  I will certainly do that. Now, I know you're passionate about volunteerism,. You, along with other stars such as Debbie Reynolds, have been deeply involved with a charity called The Thalians for many years. Can you tell about its mission and about how others can help?

Ruta at a Thalians event.
Ruta Lee:  First of all, everyone can go online to and read about us there. It all started in 1955 with a group of young actors who got tired of being called hard-drinking idiots who had nothing to contribute. We'd get together to laugh and play at parties, so we decided we should sell tickets and make a few dollars for a charity. So, we sent Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren to find out what charities were available. They came back a few months later and said that all the big charities were taken. But they had found a doctor who worked with emotionally-disturbed children at Mount Sinai Hospital. At first, we raised funds for the children and then, eighteen years later, we built a clinic and went from pediatric to geriatric care. We were very proud that this small group of Hollywood performers had shone a spotlight down into that dark pit, which is mental illness, and tried to bring it into the light of healing. Many years later, we changed our focus to returning veterans, who came back scarred not only physically but mentally. We joined up with a group at UCLA called Operation Mend. It deals with the broken arms and faces and we deal with the broken spirits through The Thalians. We ask everybody who has $5, $50, or $5 million to please contribute to The Thalians. We have raised millions of dollars by doing huge shows starring the stars of all-stars and they all did it gratis.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming events that you'd like to tell our readers about?

Ruta Lee:  Yes, The Thalians has an event at the Music Center in Los Angeles on the 18th of May. It's a wonderful luncheon and not a terribly expensive one. If you go to our website, you can read about it and call our office for more information.

Café:  Ruta, you've been a highly entertaining and informative interview subject. Thank you for all of your charity work and for all you've brought to classic movie and TV fans throughout the world.

Ruta Lee:  That's very kind of you. Thank you and all of your readers, Rick. God bless you all.