Monday, February 18, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (February 2019)

Carroll Baker and Carol Lynley.
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. Vincent Price and Will Smith.

2. Bela Lugosi and Anne Bancroft.

3. Michael Gough and Jessica Lange.

4. The Men from Shiloh TV series and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

5. Rita Hayworth and Bruce Lee.

6. Shirley Jones and Katharine Hepburn.

7. Ronald Colman and Doug McClure.

8. Dick Gautier and Richard Greene.

9. Richard Burton and Jean Simmons (other than The Robe).

10. William Powell and William Conrad.

11. Richard Conte and Kris Kristofferson.

12. The movie Duel and the TV series Twilight Zone.

13. Clint Walker, Doris Day, and Errol Flynn.

14. Bob Hope, David Niven, and Vincent Price.

15. Carol Lynley and Carroll Baker.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Is "The Court Jester" the Best Classic Movie Comedy?

I recently watched The Court Jester (1955) for perhaps the tenth time--and laughed just as much as the first time. I realize comedy is very subjective as some folks prefer broad laughs and others opt for dark humor. But I'm hard pressed to think of a classic film comedy that's as nearly perfect as The Court Jester.

For the uninitiated, it's a medieval tale in which the Black Fox (a sort of Robin Hood) plots to restore the rightful heir to the throne: a royal baby with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his posterior. Danny Kaye plays Hawkins, a minor member of the Black Fox's gang, who is given the mission of smuggling the baby into the palace and getting the key to a secret passageway to the Black Fox. Of course, Hawkins is not entrusted with this mission alone; he is accompanied by Jean (Glynis Johns), one of the Black Fox's senior officers.

En route to the palace, Hawkins and Jean encounter the new royal jester Giacomo ("King of jesters and jester of kings"). Learning that no one in the king's court has ever seen Giacomo, they hatch a quick scheme that has Hawkins assuming the identity of the jester.

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone: "Get it? Got it. Good!"
They don't know, of course, that the villainous Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) has hired Giacomo to assassinate three of the king's advisors. Nor could they anticipate that Princess Gwendolyn's lady-in-waiting, Griselda, has promised that a handsome stranger will rescue the princess from an undesirable marriage. To ensure that Hawkins/Giacomo meets the princess's expectations, Griselda (Mildred Natwick) hypnotizes him into thinking he's the medieval version of Rudolph Valentino.

Cecil Parker and Angela Lansbury.
Written and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, The Court Jester is a textbook example of how to tailor a film to fit its star's skills. Danny Kaye's physicality, quick delivery of dialogue, and exaggerated facial expressions are masterfully exploited in at least five classic comic routines. The most famous, of course, is the "Chalice from the Palace", but almost equally as funny are: Hawkins portraying an old man who is hard of hearing; the romancing of Princess Gwendolyn as Hawkins snaps in and out of his hypnotic trance; Hawkins' "get it, got it, good" exchanges with Ravenhurst, and the climatic sword fight. Simply put, it's the best part ever for the multi-talented Kaye.

Glynis Johns as Jean.
When I think of movies in which every role is ideally cast, three films come to mind: The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood...and The Court Jester. It should come as no surprise that marvelous actors such as Lansbury, Rathbone, Natwick, and Johns possess impeccable comic timing. But it's also apparent that care was put into casting even the smaller parts. Cecil Parker is a delight as the king whose principal focus is on selecting wenches for a feast. Even Robert Middleton, who played his share of villains, generates laughs as Sir Griswold as he tries to remember which goblet contains the pellet with the poison.

Danny Kaye and Mildred Natwick.
Naturally, even the best comedians can falter without a funny script, so it's fortunate that The Court Jester was written (and directed) by Frank and Panama. Their greatest accomplishment is with how they incorporate the aforementioned laugh-out-loud gags into a carefully crafted spoof of costume adventures such as Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. The two writers, who met while students at the University of Chicago, worked together for three decades and penned the scripts for films such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Road to Utopia (the finest Road picture), and White Christmas (Danny Kaye's second-best film).

It's not all perfect. The opening musical number, while clever and lively, goes on too long. (Still, it serves the purpose of introducing Hawkins' acrobatic friends, which become important later.) Once Hawkins assumes the guise of Giacomo, The Court Jester rolls along at a frolicking pace. From that point on, it may produce the most laughs per minute of any comedy (only A Shot in the Dark comes close). And I must say that my wife and I have never shown The Court Jester to anyone who didn't have a grand time.

So is it the best classic movie comedy? I honestly can't think of a better one, so I'll say yes! Get it? Got it. Good!

This review is part of the Adoring Angela Lansbury Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews.

Below is the scene where a hypnotized Hawkins is sent to woo Princess Gwendolyn. It's the fourth most-watched clip (out of over 100) on the Cafe's YouTube channel.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Interview with Jerry Mathers: Working with Hitch, Playing the Beaver, and How Bob Hope Saved His Life

Young Jerry Mathers.
Born on June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, Iowa, Jerry Mathers' acting career began at the age of two when he appeared in a Pet Condensed Milk commercial with Ed Wynn on The Colgate Comedy Hour. He graduated to film roles later in the 1950s, acting alongside Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine, and Alan Ladd. He achieved lasting fame in 1957 when he was cast as young Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver. The classic sitcom's original run was for six years and 234 episodes. Today, it's still shown twice daily on MeTV and throughout the world. In 1982, Jerry Mathers reunited with most of the original cast for a highly-rated reunion movie called Still the Beaver. Its success led to a popular revival TV series known as Still the Beaver and later The New Leave It to Beaver. Jerry Mathers has also appeared as a guest star on numerous TV series, such as My Three Sons, The Love Boat, and Diagnosis: Murder. He made his Broadway debut in 2007 as Wilbur Turnblad in the Tony-winning musical Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theater. Diagnosed with Type II diabetes in the mid-1990s, Jerry Mathers has appeared before the Congressional Caucus on Diabetes and has spoken at numerous events about the importance of early diagnosis, diet and exercise, and the proper treatment for diabetes.

Café:  You were six-years-old when you appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955). What are some of your memories of working with Hitchcock?

Jerry Mathers with Shirley MacLaine.
Jerry Mathers:  I had worked as an actor since I was two years old, so this wasn't like it was my first part. I just found Alfred Hitchcock to be a very, very nice person. As I grew older as an actor, I found out that a lot of people found him to be very intimidating. I had a great time with him. I used to sit on his lap and run over lines with him. We went to Stowe, Vermont, to film The Trouble With Harry, so it's a little bit different when you're on location with the film crew. The local people in the area would make lunch for the whole crew and I remember the ladies used to make us blueberry muffins. Each woman would have three or four dozen muffins and Mr. Hitchcock, who was a gourmet, would go up and down the aisle and make his picks. And those were always the best ones because he really knew how to choose them. I got to know him a little better, though I was still a child, when he was doing Alfred Hitchcock Presents because that was filmed on some of the sets from Leave It to Beaver. Some people have said that a particular set looks just like the Beaver entry hall or library. I'd see him on the lots because he'd come in and do some of the intros and outros for his TV series

Café:  What do you remember about working with Bob Hope as the young Bryan Lincoln Foy in The Seven Little Foys (1955)?

Jerry Mathers:  I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Bob Hope. In The Seven Little Foys, there was a true-life scene in which there was a fire in a vaudevillian theater and Eddie Foy saved a lot of people's lives. In those days, they didn't have fire prevention systems and sprinklers. The vaudevillians used candles to light the stage. When they caught on fire, which wasn't often, people would get trampled on trying to get out. When we went to do that scene, I was at the side of a stage sitting in this catwalk and Bob Hope knew that I was up there. When he saw that they put too much gasoline on the curtain, he knew that I was in danger. Everyone else panicked and ran out like they were supposed to, but Bob Hope noticed that I could't get out. He threw a blanket over himself and ran through the flames and got me out. So, he actually saved my life.

Café:  You and Barbara Billingsley were the only cast members retained from the original Leave It to Beaver pilot. What led to the roles of Ward Cleaver (played by Max Showalter) and Wally (Paul Sullivan) being recast?

Beaver and the original Wally.
Jerry Mathers:  I know that the boy that was to play Wally had a growth spurt. When they brought him back several months later, he had gotten really big--and really looked like a big brother. He was almost as tall as Hugh Beaumont, who was 6' 1". Tony Dow hadn't really worked as an actor. He was an AAU diver training for the Olympics. He had been in a pilot for another series called Johnny Wild Life because of his swimming and diving abilities. It was kind of a take-off on Tarzan. His mother took him on the second interview for Leave It to Beaver and he got the part of Wally. The producers were looking for someone very athletic and that was definitely Tony Dow. As for the part of Ward, the producers did several screenings. They'd bring in people from the outside as well as people working in other shows on the lot. They'd administer a questionnaire asking how you liked each character. For some reason, they decided to replace both of the actors who played Wally and Ward in the pilot.

Café: Didn’t your mother play a part in Hugh Beaumont getting the role of your TV father?

Jerry Mathers and his mother Marilyn.
Jerry Mathers:  My mother Marilyn is 91 and she is amazing. She has always been and continues to be so supportive of my career. Yes, she did play a big part in Hugh Beaumont getting the role of Ward. I worked with Hugh before Leave it to Beaver when we filmed a promotional commercial for Rose Hills Memorial Park. My mom liked Hugh very much and told him at that time the producers of a television series that I had just been hired for, Leave it to Beaver, were looking to cast the father. She thought Hugh would be perfect for the part and encouraged him to audition. And as they say, the rest is history! What many people don't know is that Hugh Beaumont wasn't really an actor, he was a Methodist minister. Before Leave It to Beaver, his most famous role was as private detective Michael Shayne in a series of "B" movies that played before feature-length films. Michael Shayne was a very mean character. To get people to talk, he would pound them against a wall. He was a very aggressive private detective. That wasn't really what Hugh Beaumont's personality was. So when he got to Leave It to Beaver and would take Beaver into the library or den and tell Beaver that he shouldn't have done something--that was much more Hugh Beaumont reverting to the preacher that he really was.

Café: How would you describe a typical day on the set of Leave It to Beaver?

Jerry Mathers:  It was 39 weeks a year and we'd go out after that for a few weeks of promoting and meeting with advertisers in New York and Chicago. We'd come back for a short vacation and then start filming the new season. We did that for six years and 234 shows. A typical week started on Monday. We'd go in and read the script. For the first few years when I wasn't that good a reader, they would have someone read my lines and I'd listen to them. It was a very good time and everyone was very nice.

Café: I know this is a difficult question since there were over 200 episodes of Leave It to Beaver, but what are your two or three favorite episodes?

Beaver in the giant soup bowl.
Jerry Mathers:  I like the one where I climb up into the soup bowl. That was fun. They actually built a billboard on the backlot of Universal. So for the outdoor shots, I was up there for about half a day. I got to miss a lot of school for that one. Of course, I had to make it up the next week by doing more hours. The show was just a grand adventure with a lot of adults around and we just had a really good time. After I'd do my schoolwork, I'd work on models that kids were building at the time. We'd play catch during lunch. It was just always a fun place to be every day.

Café: My wife and I loved Beaver’s friendship with Gus, the fireman. Burt Mustin, who played Gus, appeared in 14 episodes. Why do you think his friendship with Beaver resonates so strongly?

Jerry Mathers:  What many people don't know is that Burt Mustin's acting career actually started at the age of 67 after film director William Wyler cast him in the 1951 film Detective Story. Burt spent most of his early working years as an insurance salesman and he also had a degree in Engineering. As for Gus, I think he's kind of like a grandfather figure or the wise old man. He may be right or may be wrong--the kind of a sage that a lot of people wish they had. I had several of them on the set. Hugh Beaumont was a Methodist minister. A lot of people say he was such a good father figure. He was used to doing things like that.

Café: After Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) ended, did you stay in contact with any of the actors who played Beaver’s friends?

Richard Correll and Jerry Mathers.
Jerry Mathers:  Richard Correll, who played Beaver's school friend Richard Rickover, and I are lifelong friends and often see each other at family gatherings. Rich is a very accomplished television director and producer and has directed over 700 shows. I would see some of the others sometimes, but not as often as when we were doing the show. A lot of people don't realize that Los Angeles is very, very spread out. I couldn't drive at the time, so when Leave It to Beaver ended, we all went back to our homes. When we were teenagers, we all became close friends. Richard was friends with Harold Lloyd, the great silent film star. He had a daughter and we'd go over there and he would show us movies. It was a really good time for me. I had a wonderful childhood.

Café: The New Leave It to Beaver (1983-89) had a very successful run with 102 episodes. How would you compare it to the original Leave It to Beaver?

Jerry Mathers.
Jerry Mathers: It was really fun to be able to go back and see people like Barbara Billingsley. Sadly, Hugh Beaumont had passed. We hired several people who were in the original show and even the crew, who were still in the business. It was interesting to accept the role of the father in the show in place of Hugh Beaumont. Those were very big shoes to fill and try to play the same part. But it was interesting to move from the part of the boy to the part of the father.

Café: Since you were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in the mid-1990s, you have been actively involved in diabetes awareness and education. What kind of information do you share with people living with diabetes?

Jerry Mathers:  I try to share with them that it's something a lot of people have. There's Type 1, which you're born with. Type 2 is the kind I had and I had it because I was overweight. At the time, I had invested in several businesses, one of which did catering so that I put on a lot of weight. That contributed to my diabetes. I was lucky enough to catch it early and when I took off the weight, I was prediabetic. I never had to take insulin. But I'm prediabetic for life so I always have to watch my weight.

Café:  You stay pretty busy! Do you have any other upcoming events you’d like to share with our readers?

Jerry Mathers:   I do a lot of personal appearances all over the country. You can go to my web page, which is and that's the best way to see what I'll be doing. And you can also check my Facebook page: The Jerry Mathers. That's the best way to find out if I'm going to be in your area.

In addition to his web site and Facebook page, you can also follow Jerry Mathers on Twitter and Instagram.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

George C. Scott Is the Flim-Flam Man

George C. Scott and Michael Sarrazin.
George C. Scott had a pretty impressive career in the 1960s with Dr. Strangelove, The Hustler, and The List of Adrian Messenger. If you stretch things a bit, you could also count Patton in 1970 and Anatomy of a Murder in 1959. Lost amid these excellent films, though, is one of his finest performances: his portrayal of Mordecai Jones in The Flim-Flam Man (1967).

Army deserter Curley Treadaway (Michael Sarrazin) first encounters the elderly con artist when Mordecai is hurled from a moving train in the rural South. The two men become unlikely partners with Curley serving as the shill for Mordecai's various con games. While Curley has ethical misgivings, his new partner ensures him that he only takes advantage of greedy people.

That's not entirely true, as shown when they "borrow" a red convertible from a nice family whose attractive daughter Bonnie Lee (Sue Lyon) catches Curley's eye. During a police pursuit, the car is destroyed--along with much of a small Carolina town. Curley sneaks back to apologize to Bonnie Lee and discovers they share a mutual attraction. He continues his secret romance with Bonnie Lee while working scams with Mordecai--but she wants Curley to turn himself into the police.

What I haven't mentioned is that George C. Scott was 40 when he played the elderly, gray-haired con artist. It could have easily become a gimmick, but Scott's performance is so masterful that one quickly forgets the age difference between actor and character. His make-up is adequate (though Mordecai's gray hair never moves), but it's Scott's voice and physical gestures that allow him to transform into an old man.

He owns the character, balancing Mordecai's enthusiasm over successfully pulling off a con with his paternal friendship with Curley. He boasts of holding the degree M.B.S., C.S., D.D. in one scene (that's for "Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing and Dirty-Dealing"). Then, in another, he reflects, with a tinge of remorse, about how he became bitter toward the human race.

Michael Sarrazin and Sue Lyon.
Michael Sarrazin, in his feature film debut, is appealing as the naive Curley. The rest of the cast is peppered with marvelous veteran character actors, such as: Harry Morgan (the sheriff), Jack Albertson (Bonnie Lee's father), Alice Ghostley (her mother), Albert Salmi (the deputy), and Strother Martin and Slim Pickens as two greedy victims of Mordecai's cons.

Filmed in eastern Kentucky, The Flim-Flam Man is the rare Hollywood film that captures the atmosphere of rural Southern towns and backroads. It's all there on the screen from the signs on the barns to the fields of corn, the trains, the moonshiner's still in the woods, and a small town A&P.

Curley and Mordecai swindle Slim Pickens' tobacco farmer.
I'm not sure why The Flim-Flam Man is little more than a footnote in George C. Scott's filmography. It's well directed by Irvin Kershner (The Empires Strikes Back) and features another perfect Jerry Goldsmith score. Most importantly, it's a great opportunity to see one of the best actors of his generation at the peak of his acting prowess. Scott made some pretty humdrum movies later in his career--but this one is among his best.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Snubbed By the Oscars Awards - Your Vote Counts!

Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
With the Academy Awards just around the corner, the Cafe's staff thought it'd be a good time to recognize some of the finest classic movie performers who never won an Oscar.

It's hard to believe that acclaimed actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, Deborah Kerr, and Greta Garbo were nominated multiple times--and yet never won a competitive Academy Award (we're excluding honorary Oscars). It's even more amazing that Vincent Price, Marilyn Monroe, Eli Wallach, and Margaret Hamilton were never nominated.

Vincent Price in Laura.
So, we've taken twenty performers snubbed by the Oscars and placed them in categories based on one of their most famous performances. Yes, we could have easily chosen other worthy stars or selected performances from other films. But, hey, these are our Snubbed By the Oscars Awards!

But you get the chance to determine the winner in each category. We'd love to read any comments, but please visit our on-line poll to cast your official votes.

Click here to cast your votes (one for each of the four categories). Feel feel to share the poll's link. We will reveal the winners on February 24th.

Best Actress
Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
Deborah Kerr, The Innocents
Marilyn Monroe, Some Like It Hot
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity
Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven

Best Actor
Richard Burton, Becket
Kirk Douglas, Ace in the Hole
Cary Grant, Notorious
Robert Mitchum, Night of the Hunter
Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia

Best Supporting Actress
Margaret Hamilton, The Wizard of Oz
Elsa Lanchester, Witness for the Prosecution
Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate
Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons
Thelma Ritter, Rear Window

Best Supporting Actor
Sydney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon
Vincent Price, Laura
Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity
Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove
Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Five Best Western Directors

Stewart in Winchester '73.
1. Anthony Mann - Mann helped define the "Adult Western" of the 1950s with his seminal work Winchester '73. His output included five outstanding Westerns with James Stewart and classics with Gary Cooper (Man of the West) and Henry Fonda (The Tin Star). His heroes were often hard men with a questionable past seeking redemption (e.g., Bend of the River). He painted his tales against a backdrop of an American West in transition, in which budding towns would compete with the cattle empires.

2.  John Ford - Ford was a dominant figure in the Western genre for four decades. He brought prominence to the Western with Stagecoach, paved the way for Adult Westerns with his Cavalry Trilogy, and directed two iconic films late in his career (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Ford's incorporation of Western landscapes (he shot several masterpieces in Monument Valley in Arizona) became his trademark. In fact, a popular lookout was named after him: John Ford Point. I suspect many film fans would have Ford at No. 1.

Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More.
3.  Sergio Leone -With Mann, Ford, and Hawks in the twilight of their careers in the '60s, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone reinvented the Western genre visually and thematically. His protagonists were morally questionable men who usually did the right thing, even while portraying themselves as profiteers (e.g., Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More). He showed the big towns, but also the decrepit shacks amid the dusty, windswept plains--where a bounty hunter or an outlaw could buy a shot of cheap whiskey. Like Mann and later Peckinpah, Leone was intrigued with the last days of the Old West and the men who didn't want to tame it.

4.  Sam Peckinpah - An uneven director, Peckinpah was at his best when working in the Western genre. While his films also took place in the dying days of the Old West, they focused on the relationships among the characters:  two old friends in Ride the High Country, a band of outlaws in The Wild Bunch; and an unlikely businessman, a prostitute, and a would-be preacher in his masterpiece The Ballad of Cable Hogue. In the former two films, most of the characters are unwilling to adapt to the coming of civilization. However, the hero of Cable Hogue embraces it and finds happiness in doing so (though the ending is bittersweet).

Delmer Daves' The Hanging Tree.
5.  Howard Hawks and Delmer Daves (tie) - A tie may be a bit of a cheat, but it was impossible to omit either of these two from our list. Neither director specialized in Westerns, but they made important contributions to the genre. Hawks' Red River (1948) paved the way for Mann's dark Westerns. His Rio Bravo is one of the most fondly remembered Westerns of the 1950s. And after other Western directors had hung up their spurs, Hawks continued to make Westerns with John Wayne up until 1970. Delmer Daves, another versatile director, dabbled in the Western genre often, his films ranging from intriguing (the Shakespearean Jubal) to unique (Cowboy with Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford). He secured his place on this list, though, with two beautifully-crafted classics: the thriller-like 3:10 to Yuma and The Hanging Tree, a tale of redemption and love.

Honorable Mentions:  Budd Boetticher, John Sturges, Clint Eastwood, and Henry Hathaway.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Omega Man: Charlton Heston as the Last (Uninfected) Human on Earth

Charlton Heston fires at a window.
The Cafe staff recently conducted a poll on Twitter asking film fans to select their favorite adaptation of Richard Matheson’s sci fi-horror novel I Am Legend. To our surprise, the overwhelming choice was The Omega Man (1971), which starred Charlton Heston as the last man on Earth.

Heston plays scientist Robert Neville, the only survivor of a biological war between Russia and China. Neville injected himself with an experimental serum while the rest of mankind was infected with a plague that turned them into light-intolerant albinos. Even worse, some of the survivors in L.A. formed a cult called "the family" that's dedicated to reinventing humanity—and killing Neville. For his part, the former scientist methodically hunts down the plague-infected creatures and destroys them, earning him the nickname of "Angel of Death."

Rosalind Cash as Lisa.
Neville's mundane existence receives a jolt when he discovers a hip, leather-clad African American woman named Lisa (Rosalind Cash). She appears to be healthy, but Neville later learns that she and a group of others are infected. They just haven't "turned" yet. Taking an active interest in Lisa and her ill brother Richie, Neville dedicates himself to creating a serum from his blood.

The striking opening scene of The Omega Man has Neville driving his red convertible down the empty streets of L.A. as he listens to "A Summer Place" on an eight-track player. Suddenly, he slams on his brakes and empties his automatic rifle at a figure in a window. After the film's credits, a chilling montage reveals the banality of Neville's existence. He selects a new car...and drives it out the showroom window. He watches Woodstock in an empty movie theater as he mouths the dialogue with the people on the screen. He prepares for the nightly onslaught of "the family." There is no joy, no excitement, no feeling in any of these actions.

If this part of The Omega Man sounds familiar, then you have probably read Matheson's 1954 novel or have seen the first adaptation, 1964's The Last Man on Earth. Although the latter is a low-budget effort starring Vincent Price, it's more faithful to the source book in which the creatures are vampires created by a plague. Written by Matheson under a pseudonym, it's also a far better film than The Omega Man.

Anthony Zerbe as the cult's leader.
However, the decision to make the plague creatures disease-riddled cultists, instead of zombie-like vampires, is not what dooms The Omega Man. Although I personally like the vampire concept better, the albino creatures are interesting in that they are more human-like. We can empathize with their plight and understand why they want to destroy Neville and all that he stands for.

The Omega Man falters when the plots shifts to Neville and Lisa. Their interracial romance is no longer as daring as it may have been in '71 and there is zero chemistry between Heston and co-star Cash (her overly hip attitude also seemed dated).  The screenplay turns sloppy as well with characters making boneheaded decisions:  Lisa goes shopping on her own, her brother tries to reason with the family, and Neville forgets to turn on his generators at nightfall. Finally, there's some heavy-handed symbolism in one of the closing shots that seems terribly out of place.

Not surprising, Richard Matheson was not a fan of The Omega Man, but then the same could be said of The Last Man on Earth and Will Smith's 2007 film I Am Legend. Matheson adapted his novel for Hammer Films in the 1960s, but it ran into censorship problems before the production even started. Matheson sold his script, but it was altered and produced as Last Man. It may be flawed, but--as mentioned earlier--it remains the best version of  I Am Legend.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Joan Crawford in a Strait-Jacket

Before the credits even roll in Strait-Jacket (1964), a narrated flashback provides all the background information we need to know. It starts with Frank Harbin hooking up with ex-girlfriend Stella while his wife Lucy is out of town. Frank takes Stella back to the farm for some hanky-panky, even though his daughter Carol is there (and not asleep). Lucy returns early, of course, and peeks through a window to see Frank and Stella asleep in bed. So, she picks up the ax planted in a nearby stump, enters the house, and slaughters the couple while daughter Lucy looks on.

Twenty years later, an adult Carol (Diane Baker) greets her mother Lucy (Joan Crawford), who has been released from an asylum. Carol, a sculptor, lives with her aunt and uncle who have raised her. She is "almost engaged" to nice guy Michael. She realizes her mother faces a difficult transition to "normal" life. As Lucy peers into the chicken coop, she remarks: "I hate to see anything caged."

Still, things seems to be working out except for the two severed heads Lucy claims appeared in her bed. Lucy also hears a nursery rhyme in which her name has replaced Lizzie Borden's. And did I mention two new ax murders....

Joan Crawford as Lucy.
Written by Robert Bloch, who penned the novel Psycho, Strait-Jacket is one of the many B-suspense films produced in the 1960s--mostly by William Castle or Hammer Pictures. This one is a Castle production and, while it pales next to his classic Homicidal (1961), it provides a juicy role for Joan Crawford. She is quite effective as the unbalanced Lucy, who shifts from withdrawn former patient to protective parent to confident, flamboyant woman (who awkwardly comes on to Michael in front of Carol).

One suspects that Crawford was surprised when bigger roles didn't come her way after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? scored big at the boxoffice. She began filming Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, but was replaced with Olivia de Havilland (read this Vanity Fair article for more details). She subsequently signed with William Castle to do two pictures: Strait-Jacket and I Saw What You Did (1965).

William Castle is probably best-known as a prolific B-movie producer and for introducing gimmicks such as the life insurance policy given to viewers of the "frightening" Macabre. However, he was also an above-average director, as evidenced by Strait-Jacket. His scene transition from sculptor knife to carving knife shows some Hitchcockian style. The dark slaughterhouse, where two victims meet their ends, provides a stark contrast to the brightly-lit farm. An unhinged Lucy casually striking a match on a record on the turntable is a brilliant touch (it has been clipped for YouTube...more than once).

Diane Baker as Carol.
Naturally, Strait-Jacket features a twist ending, though I doubt if it will surprise many viewers. I must say, though, that it leads to a great scene for one cast member.

Incidentally, Joan Crawford and Diane Baker also played mother and daughter in the same year's Della. They were also guest stars (separately) in back-to-back episodes in the fourth season of Route 66. In Joan's episode, "Same Picture, Different Frame," her character was stalked by a homicidal ex-husband just released from an asylum!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Walter Matthau Plays Hopscotch

When CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) lets a Soviet spy get away, his new boss is most displeased. Kendig explains the logic behind his actions, but his explanation is abruptly dismissed. He is banished to a desk job until his retirement. The veteran spy has no intention of complying with that directive, so he shreds his personnel file and heads to Europe.

Kendig links up with Isobel von Schmidt (Glenda Jackson), a retired agent and former lover, who lives comfortably in Salzburg. He is unsure about his next move until a meeting with his Soviet counterpart gives him an idea. Kendig decides to write his memoirs, providing details on botched espionage plots and inept colleagues. After he finishes his first chapter, he mails copies to intelligence agencies in Peking, Bonn, Moscow, London, and, of course, Washington, DC.

Glenda Jackson as Isobel.
Not surprisingly, Kendig becomes a hunted man. As he completes his memoirs (again mailing out copies of each chapter), he has to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. Naturally, he still finds time to exact a little revenge on his former boss (Ned Beatty).

Made in 1980, Hopscotch may appear to be a follow-up to House Calls, an earlier teaming of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. However, that was not the intent. Warren Beatty was originally cast as Kendig before production delays caused a shift to Walter Matthau. It's the viewer's good fortune that Matthau became the star because Hopscotch is the perfect vehicle for the actor's unique style of humor.

He makes it grand fun to watch the crafty, opera-humming Kendig outmaneuver the CIA at every turn. It's also entertaining to watch him unveil his grand scheme step by step. (Strangely enough, it reminded me of watching Edward Fox's assassin in The Day of the Jackal develop his plan down to the most minute detail).

Sam Waterston as Kendig's protege.
There's a downside to the structure of Hopscotch, however, and that's relegating Glenda Jackson to what amounts to a supporting role. From her opening "meet cute" with Matthau, she lights up the screen with her sophisticated comic timing and is sorely missed when the plot focuses on Kendig's elaborate scheme.

Hopscotch was co-written and based on the novel by Brian Garfield. The author, who died last month, also penned the novel Death Wish. He was very unhappy with the adaptation of that book into the 1974 Charles Bronson film. It's a key reason why he insisted on being involved with the production of Hopscotch.

Walter Matthau in disguise.
In director Ronald Neame's autobiography Straight from the Horse's Mouth, he describes how he and Garfield transformed Hopscotch once Matthau was cast. The original screenplay's serious tone was discarded in favor of a more lighthearted approach. Even Matthau's real-life fondness for Mozart was incorporated into his character. Neame considered Hopscotch one of his favorite films and Garfield also expressed satisfaction with the end results.

Hopscotch is rarely listed as one of Walter Matthau's best works, but it always generates a lot of positive comments when I mention it on social media. It may be a bit of lark for Matthau and Jackson, but it's also a delightful way to spend 106 minutes.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Walt Disney's Adventures of Spin and Marty

Marty arrives at the Triple R.
Although later Mickey Mouse Club serials may be better remembered today, the most popular one--by far--during its original broadcast was The Adventures of Spin and Marty (1955). No, it wasn't based on a famous children's book series like The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure nor did it feature a future Disney superstar like Annette. Yet, it gripped the attention of young TV viewers across the nation and spawned two sequels, a comic book series, and a 45 RPM record.

The 25-episode serial opens with the arrival of Martin Markham at the Triple R Ranch, a working ranch which doubles as a youth camp in the summer. Martin is quickly nicknamed Marty, but he doesn't fit in with the other boys. Having lost both parents, he lives with an overprotective, wealthy grandmother. In fact, she insists that Perkins, the family manservant, stay with Marty for the duration of his stay at the Triple R.

Tim Considine as Spin.
Marty (David Stollery) expresses his displeasure in being shuttled off to the "dirty old farm." He avoids the other lads and lies about being an experienced polo rider--when in fact he's scared of horses. Marty's attitude doesn't sit well with Spin Evans (Tim Considine), a popular boy who worked two jobs to save enough money for a second summer at the Triple R. The two boys eventually clash and it's their fight that initiates a change in Marty's views and in how the other boys view him.

I was surprised with how quickly Spin and Marty became additive viewing in my household. The episodes, each running about 12 minutes, sped by--meaning that we typically watched two (or occasionally three) per day. It's a show about transformation and the episodes skillfully portray how Marty progresses from a defiant outsider to a young man who has found a "home" at the Triple R. 

David Stollery and Tim Considine give incredibly natural performances as the two leads. It's easy to see why so many young viewers related to their characters. It's an impressive feat for Considine because the script is skewed toward getting folks to root for Marty. Spin could have easily become the de facto "villain," but Considine and the writers avoid that pitfall. At the same time, though, I love the fact that Spin and Marty stop short of becoming best pals at the end. They gradually develop a mutual respect and come to understand one another in a way that the other boys don't. It's the beginnings of what could be a great friendship.

Harry Carey, Jr.
Among the adult cast, the standout is Harry Carey, Jr. as a sympathetic ranch hand who works hard to gain Marty's trust. A veteran character actor, Carey, Jr. was a John Ford favorite and appeared in many of the director's famous Western.

As for Considine and Stollery, their careers took different paths. Considine had lead roles in other Disney serials, spent five years as the eldest son on My Three Sons, and even wrote teleplays for other TV shows. Except for an appearance in a Spin and Marty revival in 2000, Stollery retired from show business in 1960. He became an automobile designer and is responsible for one of the Toyota Celica models. On The Adventures of Spin and Marty DVD, he and Considine revisit the real life ranch (located 90 minutes from the Disney studio) where they filmed Spin and Marty in their youth.

J. Pat O'Malley as Perkins.
Following the success of The Adventures of Spin and Marty, Stollery and Considine reprised their roles in two sequels. In The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty, they vie for the affection of Annette Funicello and get involved in a swimming competition. In The New Adventures of Spin and Marty, they join Annette, Kevin Corcoran, and others to put on a show in the old barn. Sadly, only the first serial is on DVD.

If you've never seen a Mickey Mouse Club serial, then you're in luck. The Adventures of Spin and Marty is currently available on YouTube and it's a great one to start with. By the end, you may find yourself building a campfire in your backyard and singing: "Yippee ya, yippee yi, yippee yo."

Monday, January 14, 2019

25 Greatest Classic TV Series

In 2012, I became one of the founding members of the Classic TV Blog Association (CTVBA), a fabulous group of bloggers who celebrate classic television. This year, the CTVBA embarked on its most ambitious project to date: a list of the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series.

Our definition of "classic" was any prime-time TV series that began broadcasting prior to 1990. Each member applied his or her own criteria in nominating series. My criteria were quality, enduring popularity, and social influence. Over 55 shows were nominated in the first round of voting, but only 29 made it to the second and final round.

Here is the final official list of the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series (for more details, check out the CTVBA web site):

1.    The Twilight Zone
2.    I Love Lucy 
3.    The Mary Tyler Moore Show
4.    Columbo
5.    All in the Family
6.    Dragnet
7.    Monty Python’s Flying Circus
8.    Star Trek
9.    The Prisoner
10.  M*A*S*H
11.  The Dick Van Dyke Show
12.  The Fugitive
13.  Dallas
14.  Doctor Who
15.  The Andy Griffith Show
16.  The Defenders
17.  The Golden Girls
18.  Perry Mason
19.  SCTV
20.  The Honeymooners
21.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents
22.  Hill Street Blues
23.  The Odd Couple
24.  The Outer Limits
25.  The Avengers

Honorable Mentions:  Get Smart, The Ed Sullivan Show, Leave It to Beaver, and WKRP in Cincinnati.

I think it's a pretty strong list overall, but there were some definite surprises. I can't argue with The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy in the top two spots. Both were landmark TV series that are just as good today as when they debuted.

David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble.
However, my choice for #1 spot was The Fugitive. I can think of no other TV series that was as uniformly strong for a three-year period (and the fourth season was also good). This modern-day Les Miserables turned Dr. Kimble and Lieutenant Gerard into iconic characters. The two-part series finale was a national phenomenon, with the last episode earning the highest Nielsen rating of any regular TV series until M*A*S*H eclipsed it.

The Defenders belongs in the Top Five. It boasted superb writing and acting, plus it explored some of the most complex social issues of the 1960s. Indeed, many of its episodes seem just as timely today. I suspect its too-low ranking may have been a case of not enough voters having seen The Defenders.

Beaver and his father.
Leave It to Beaver, which is relegated to an honorable mention, is one of the finest family sitcoms. The dialogue and plots are remarkably realistic and many of my favorite episodes are the ones in which Ward Cleaver admits to one of his shortcomings as a parent. There were many good family sitcoms, but Beaver was one of the best.

While I watched Dragnet (the 1967-70 version mostly), I wouldn't rank it among the greatest classic TV series. Yes, it was one of the first radio hits to make a successful transition to television, the music remains recognizable, and there were some famous quotes. But the repetitious formula caused me to lose interest quickly.

Peter Falk as Columbo.
Likewise, Columbo seems ranked too high. Don't get me wrong, Peter Falk is a fine actor and he makes Lieutenant Columbo one of the great TV characters--but the show's formula also wore thin despite the production of fewer episodes than most series. I suspect I'm in the minority here since Columbo is still in heavy rotation on cable television thanks to Falk and his guest star murderers.

Finally, The Odd Couple was a good show with a funny premise, strong characters, and two terrific actors--but it doesn't belong among the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series.

Of course, any "greatest" list is bound to stir some debate...and that's part of the fun! What do you think of the Classic TV Blog Association's 25 Greatest Classic TV Series list?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Three-Word Movie Game

Today, we're trying out a new game in which we describe a movie in three words and ask you to name it. That sounds pretty simple, doesn't 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. There is a "best answer" for question, but other answers may be possible. Let us you know if you enjoy this game!

1. Inn, Vermont, snow.

2. Holmes, phantom, Canada.

3. Vampire, mother, windmill.

4. Newlywed, housekeeper, mansion.

5. Farmer, gunfighter, boy.

6. Binoculars, camera, cast.

7. Robot, diamonds, elevator.

8. Physician, slave, pirate.

9. Dog, orphans, grave.

10. Murder, South (U.S.), slap.

11. Lighthouse, plants, blindness.

12. Painting, deception, bell.

13. Reindeer, questionnaire, computer.

14. Politician, mask, swordfight (yes, it's usually two words!).

15. Museum, bone, song.

16. Opera, globe, sled.

17. Museum, engineer, youths.

18. Murder, poker, revenge.

19. Mermaid, kidnapping, skydiving.

20. Wig, telephone, pirates.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark

If not for a small band of Norwegian commandos, Adolf Hitler might have had an atomic bomb before the U.S.--leading to a very different outcome for World War II. The Norwegians' exploits form the basis for the fascinating premise of Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark (1965).

The film opens in Oslo, Norway, in 1942 with the Germans manufacturing "heavy water" in a fortified factory surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The lead scientist. who doubles as spy for the Allies, smuggles a microfilm to guerrilla fighter Knut Strand (Richard Harris). Knut convinces a philandering physicist, Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas), to examine the evidence. 

Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas.
Pedersen has his suspicions immediately, but cannot confirm them until consulting with British and American colleagues (to include Albert Einstein). Still, it's no surprise when they all conclude that the Nazis are producing water with a greater than normal amount of hydrogen isotope--a product that is used in creating atomic energy.

The Allies quickly decide that the factory must be destroyed, but its proximity to a nearby village creates the first challenge for Knut and Pedersen. A British bombing of the production facility could be deadly for the town's 6,000 residents. However, the factory's location and high level of security make it an almost impossible task for a ground attack. What will they decide?

Filmed largely in Norway, The Heroes of Telemark benefits mightily from the snowy vistas that frame the action. The scenes of the commandos trudging through snow drifts, with the wind whistling in the background, is enough to make most viewers reach for a hot beverage regardless of the time of year. One of the film's highlights is an exciting ski chase that pre-dates later skiing sequences in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and Jean Claude-Killy's Snow Job (1972).

Douglas and Harris amid the snow-covered backdrop.

While Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris inject some star power into the proceedings, both are saddled with one-dimensional characters. That's odd considering that Anthony Mann's 1950s Westerns are noted for their emphasis on characterization over action. It's also difficult to buy Kirk's sudden transition from a university professor to a gun-carrying commando who kills bad guys without remorse. On the plus side, Mann packs The Heroes of Telemark with exciting set pieces: the hijacking of a ship; the explosive raid on the factory; and the sinking of a ferry carrying the heavy water.

Ulla Jacobsson.
Although partially based on the real-life Knut's 1954 book Skis Against the Atom, the screenplay takes some liberties with the actual events. Numerous attacks on the water production facility over a period of several years have been condensed into two raids, which makes for a more streamlined plot. However, the inclusion of a renewed romance between Douglas's scientist and his ex-wife (played by Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson) adds nothing of value of the story.

Stephen Boyd and Elke Sommer were attached as the stars early in the production planning (when the film was to be called The Unknown Battle). Boyd had appeared the previous year in Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). After several delays, though, Boyd abandoned the project and, according to some sources, he sued Mann for $500,000 because he missed out on other lucrative roles.

There have been other films, books, and documentaries produced about the courageous men who ensured that Nazi Germany never developed an atomic bomb. The Heroes of Telemark may not be the most accurate version, but it's a well-made, atmospheric adventure that serves as a good introduction--and it looks fabulous on Blu-ray. Sadly, it was also Anthony Mann's last completed film. He died while directing the Cold War thriller A Dandy in Aspic in 1967 with star Laurence Harvey completing it.

Allied Vaughn Entertainment provided a review copy of The Heroes of Telemark Blu-ray.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

James Garner Stars in a Disney Duo

After an immensely successful decade in the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions hit a rut in the 1970s. The quality and popularity of its films, as a whole, took a nose dive. Two of its better efforts during this period are now largely forgotten despite the presence of James Garner. Signed to a two-movie deal, Garner appeared opposite young male co-stars in a pair of above-average Westerns.

The first, and best, is One Little Indian (1973), which focuses on the relationship between a U.S. Cavalry deserter (Garner) and a boy who has been raised by the Cheyenne, but captured by soldiers. A grizzled sergeant and a chaplain name the boy Mark and treat him kindly. However, Mark (Clay O'Brien) just wants to return to his Indian mother. He escapes from the fort and eventually encounters Corporal Keyes, who is on the run to avoid a hanging for his desertion. The pair are saddled--literally--with a pair of camels, an adult female named Rosie and her offspring (who comes to be called Thirsty).

Thirsty and Mark.
This unlikely quartet head towards Mexico with a Cavalry patrol in hot pursuit. Along the way, they narrowly avoid capture, inadvertently cause a cattle stampede, and meet a lonely widow (Vera Miles) and her young daughter (Jodie Foster). But, as the bond grows between Keyes and Mark, the former must decide what to do with his young friend.

Films like this depend largely upon the believability of the relationship between the main characters. That's not an issue in One Little Indian, in which Mark's initial distrust of Keyes gradually evolves into a deep friendship. Much of the credit goes to the always likable Garner and his young co-star O'Brien, whose intense eyes convey as much emotion as his dialogue.

Vera Miles and Jodie Foster.
The use of the camels provides a nice offbeat touch--and, of course, the target of a some humorous Garner wisecracks. Keyes alludes briefly to the Camel Corps, which was created by Jefferson Davis when he was Secretary of War. (At this point, I know some of you are probably remembering Hawmps!, a 1976 film about the use of camels in the West...but I have seen Hawmps! so let's not go there.)

Incidentally, young Clay O'Brien also starred opposite John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). Under his real name, Clay O'Brien Cooper, he grew up to become a rodeo star, winning seven world championships and earning almost $3 million.

Garner's second Disney picture, The Castaway Cowboy (1974), also pairs him with a young co-star in Eric Shea. It opens with Booton MacAvoy (Shea) discovering the body of a man floating in a cove near his island home. The visitor recovers and reveals that he's a cowboy from Texas named Costain, who was shanghaied and dumped into the Pacific. Although Booton's widowed mother (Vera Miles again) treats him well, Costain just wants to get back to San Francisco.

James Garner and Eric Shea.
His plans change, though, when he learns there are wild cattle on the island. He and Booton's mother hatch a scheme to capture the cattle and sell them to ships heading back to the U.S. There are numerous obstacles to overcome, such as training the island natives to become cowboys and figuring out how to get the steers on a ship since the island has no dock. There's also a local banker (Robert Culp) who wants the plan to fail because he wants to marry the widow and gain ownership of her 10,000-acre ranch.

Vera Miles.
The Castaway Cowboy is lighter fare than One Little Indian and not as engrossing. There are too many comedic scenes of the islanders learning how to ride and rope. Eric Shea, who played Carol Lynley's irritating little brother in The Poseidon Adventure, overacts here, too.

Still, the island setting is a nice touch and Garner and Vera Miles have more scenes this time, which works to the film's advantage. I was also pleased that we actually saw how the steers were transported from shore to ships (as I had some real concerns about that).

If you only see one of these movies, then I recommend One Little Indian. But if you have some time on a lazy day, then you could do a lot worse than a double-feature comprised of these James Garner Disney pics.