Monday, March 1, 2021

Ray Harryhausen's Valley of Gwangi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Bogie Edition)

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

1.  Everybody Comes to Rick's.

2.  Charlie & Rose.

3.  The Outlaw John Murrell.

4.  Quest for Blood!

5.  A Snake Called Adolphe.

6.  The Chauffeur's Daughter.

7.  Black Tunnel.

8.  The 8666th M*A*S*H.

9.  The Impending Storm.

10. The Lulu Belle.

11. Badges.

12. Trees of Stones.

13. Slim.

14. Court Martial!

15. Glove on the Canvas.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Seven Things to Know About William Hopper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 8, 2021

How the West Was Won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 1, 2021

Third Man on the Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Five Best Inspirational Sports Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

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

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

1. Three Scary Stories.

2. Road Rage.

3. Man vs. Dogs.

4. The Hippy Marine. 

5. The Brampton Witches.

6. The Killer Physician.  

7. The Imitation Spaceman. 

8. Buried Alive.

9. Subway!  

10. The Deadly Buzz.

11. Loup Garou.

12. Lady Assassin.

13. Apes in the Arctic.

14. The Killer Beneath Seattle.

15. Phone Calls from the Dead.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Five Best Episodes of "Banacek"

Banacek with his trademark cigar.
George Peppard starred as free-lance, Boston-based insurance investigator Thomas Banacek in a pilot movie and 16 episodes of Banacek. The series aired as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie in 1972-74. He was assisted in each episode by his friend, bookstore owner (and researcher) Felix (Murray Matheson) and chauffeur Jay (Ralph Manza). The episodes were typically 75 minutes (without commercials) and focused on elaborate thefts. Here are our picks for the five best episodes:

Stefanie Powers.
1. Let's Hear It for a Living Legend  - A professional football player disappears from the field during a nationally televised game. An ingenious, yet deceptively simple, crime highlights this episode that also features Stefanie Powers as a guest star. She and series star George Peppard have great chemistry; it's a shame she couldn't return for a second outing. An added bonus for NFL fans is the brief appearances from real-life former players John Brodie, Ben Davidson, and Deacon Jones.

2. No Stone Unturned - A massive three-ton piece of modern art is stolen from a museum. We're talking an object so large that the museum's glass front had to be removed so the artwork could be emplaced by a crane. So how was it nabbed during an opening night party without anyone knowing? I admit that my enjoyment of this episode was enhanced by the fact that I figured out how the basics of how the theft was accomplished!

Margot Kidder.
3. A Million the Hard Way - A Las Vegas casino has one million dollars stolen from a tamper-proof display case in the middle of a busy room with an armed guard on duty. This may be the most complex caper in the Banacek series. Plus, Margot Kidder is on hand as a part-time photographer, displaying the kind of spunk that would earn her the role of Lois Lane in Superman (1978).

4. Fly Me — If You Can Find Me - A jet has to make an emergency landing at a small desert airport. One pilot stays with the aircraft while the other crew members spend the night in a nearby motel. The next morning, the airplane and the pilot are gone! This is another crime which is clever despite its simplicity. If you think about it, there's really only one way the plane could have been stolen. But, in this case, another question is why was the plane stolen? The above-average guest star cast features Sterling Hayden and a pre-Dallas Victoria Principal.

5. Now You See Me, Now You Don't - An amateur magician, wanted for embezzling, disappears from a theatre surrounded by the police. This caper employs a trick featured prominently in one of Agatha Christie's mystery novels. It works effectively here, though there's a secondary impact that's pretty hard to swallow (no plot spoilers!).

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Top Ten Posts of 2020

As the year draws to a close, the Classic Film & TV Cafe traditionally ends it with a countdown of our ten most viewed posts. We published a total of 78 in 2020. Naturally, the countdown is a little skewed, since those posts that came out at the start of the year will have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2020. We also omitted our monthly quizzes. To build a little suspense, we'll begin at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

But before we get started, we want to thank each of you who visited this blog this year and send some extra love to those who took the time to leave comments.

10. Seven Things to Know About Robert Lansing.

9.  Seven Things to Know About Karen Valentine.

8.  Walt Disney's The Swamp Fox

7.  Scott Eyman Discusses His New Biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise.

6.  Classic Movies and Television on Peacock TV.

5.  Author-Movie Blogger John Greco Discusses His New Book The Late Show.

4.  Seven Things to Know About Eva Gabor.

3.  Seven Things to Know About Angie Dickinson.

2.  6 from the '60s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day.

1.  Roald Dahl's The Witches.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Even Elsa's Cute Cubs Can't Redeem an Unnecessary Sequel

Elsa and Joy (Susan Hampshire)
Although Joy Adamson's book Born Free topped the bestseller charts in 1960, no one anticipated that the 1966 film adaptation would become a huge hit. With a British cast mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, the movie captured the hearts of moviegoers worldwide with its true-life tale of how Adamson and her husband raised a female lion cub and set her free. Adamson followed her book with several sequels about Elsa the Lioness and her cubs--so it was inevitable that a follow-up film would be made, too.

Released in 1972, Living Free opens with a lengthy recap of what happened in the first film (and even incorporates snippets of John Barry's Oscar-winning score). Born Free ended with the Adamsons successfully releasing the domesticated Elsa into the wilds of Africa. A year later, when they returned to the spot where they last saw Elsa, she introduced them to her three cubs.

Two of Elsa's cubs.
That happy ending, though, gives way to sadness in Living Free when Elsa dies unexpectedly due to an illness. Her hungry orphaned cubs--Jespah, Gop, and Little Elsa--start killing livestock belonging to the local tribes. George finds an animal preserve willing to take the cubs, but first he and Joy have to capture them. Their efforts to do that comprise the strongest scenes in Living Free.

As a sequel to Born Free, Living Free leaves a lot to be desired. Elsa's frisky cubs are adorable, but one never gets to know them. In the first film, we see Elsa grow up, bond with the Adamsons, and struggle to adapt to the wild. She was a full-fledged character whereas Jespah, Gop, and Little Elsa are just cute animals.

I can only think of one reason for the lengthy recap of Born Free at the beginning of Living Free: Without it, the 90-minute running time would not have been sufficient for a feature film. It adds nothing to the narrative and I think it's safe to assume that the majority of people who went to see Living Free knew the story of Elsa.

Composer John Barry won Oscars for his score for Born Free and for the title song with lyrics by Don Black. Apparently, he was too expensive or unavailable for the sequel. As a result, viewers have to listen to the cringe-worthy Living Free title song performed by Julie Budd. I had never hear of her, but she is still performing live shows as of 2018; here's a link to her web site.

Susan Hampshire as Joy Adamson.
The two human stars of Living Free, Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport, do what they can with their underwritten parts. I became a Susan Hampshire admirer fan after watching her fierce performances in the miniseries The Pallisers and The First Churchills. Alas, she seems miscast as Joy Adamson, whose steely determination to do right by Elsa dominated the original film.

Incidentally, the plot to Living Free is not from Adamson's book of the same name, but rather her third book Forever Free. There have been several other films about the Adamsons, to include To Walk With Lions (1999), starring Richard Harris as George. Diana Muldaur and Gary Collins played the Adamsons in a short-lived Born Free TV series in 1974.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Movie-TV Connection Game (December 2020)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tony Curtis.
The rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films, TV series, 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. Yes, that's means we're looking for something in particular!

1. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tony Curtis.

2. John Cleese and Janet Leigh (the answer is not Jamie Lee Curtis!).

3. Katharine Ross and Elizabeth Montgomery.

4. Yvette Mimieux and Michael Caine (this might be hard).

5. Deborah Kerr and Elsa Lanchester.

6. Ronald Colman and Rod Taylor.

7. The Sound of Music film and the original Lost in Space TV series.

8. Lost in Space TV series and the film Alien.

9. Raymond Burr, Nick Adams, and Russ Tamblyn.

10. The Fog (1980) and The Day of the Triffids (1962).

11. The TV series Wagon Train and the movie The Green Slime.

12. Rex Harrison and Lou Costello.

13. Judy Garland and Sean Connery (another potential tough one!).

14. The TV daytime drama All My Children and Citizen Kane.

15. The classic film noir Laura and the TV series S.W.A.T.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Seven Things to Know About George Peppard

Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
1. George Peppard didn't get along with either of his female co-stars on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). According to Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion, he and Patricia Neal were friends when they attended the Actors Studio in the 1950s. However, her opinion of him had changed by the time they made Tiffany's: "Boy, he'd gotten rotten. At the Actors Studio, I'd adored him." As for Audrey Hepburn, she and Peppard seemed unable to overcome their different personalities. He sometimes referred to her as the "Happy Nun" on the set (she had made The Nun's Story two years earlier).

2. George Peppard was married five times. His second wife was actress Elizabeth Ashley, who commented  in a 2015 interview: "I married a movie star 11 years older than me because I was looking for a father. Big mistake! Granted, he was gorgeous. Maybe too gorgeous! And good for breeding. But I believe it was doomed from the start." Peppard and Ashley had met on the set of The Carpetbaggers (1964) and they shared top billing the following year in The Third Day. Their marriage lasted six years and they had a son, Christian (also an actor).

George Peppard as Banacek.
3. After Peppard's film career hit a lull, he starred in Banacek, one of the rotating series that aired as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie in 1972. Thomas Banacek was a very successful free-lance insurance investigator who lived in a plush house on Boston's Beacon Hill and had a chauffeur. In the first season episode "Project Phoenix," Banacek mentioned that he learned "combat judo" in the Marine Corps. Peppard actually served in the Marines from 1946-48 and rose to the rank of corporal.

4. At the 2004 SF Ball X, A-Team regular Dwight Schultz talked about working with George Peppard. On Schultz's first day on the set, Peppard walked up to him and said: "Hello, I’m George Peppard. I’m not a very nice man. I used to be a drunk. I tell everybody that. I’m not a drunk anymore." Schultz also said that both Peppard and Mr. T considered themselves to be the star the show. So, when Peppard started leaving the set at 5:00 pm each day, so did Mr. T. The shooting schedule had to be rearranged so that Schultz and Dirk Benedict could stay late to complete any scenes without the show's "stars."

5. Although known for his film and TV roles, Peppard also performed on stage. He made his Broadway debut in 1956 opposite Shelley Winters and Pat Hingle in Girls of Summer. A young Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the title song, was uncredited in the play's original program.

Peppard and Linda Evans on Banacek.
6. According to TV Guide, George Peppard was the original choice to play Blake Carrington on the TV series Dynasty. He was replaced by John Forsyte due to "creative differences" with the show's producers (interestingly, Linda Evans had been a guest star on Banacek). Peppard did star in another TV series between Banacek and The A-Team. He portrayed a neurosurgeon in Doctors' Hospital, which lasted 16 episodes on NBC in 1975-76. The show co-starred Zohra Lampert and John Larroquette.

7. George Peppard was married five times. In addition to Ashley, his fourth wife Sherry Boucher was an actress. He had three children, one with Ashley and two with his first wife Helen Davies. George Peppard died in 1994 at age 65 from pneumonia. A former smoker for many years, he had been battling lung cancer.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Billy Wilder's The Front Page

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) has decided to give up his career as the star reporter for the Chicago Examiner after proposing to the love of his life (Susan Sarandon). His publisher, Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), doesn't plan to let Hildy quit without a fight. He needs his best newspaper man to cover the hanging of Earl Williams, who has been convicted of killing a cop. Walter will do pretty much anything to retain Hildy. However, his efforts may prove unnecessary, as Hildy finds it exceedingly difficult to walk away from one last big story.

Made in 1974, The Front Page is the third film version of the 1928 Broadway play written by former journalist Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was first adapted for the screen in 1931 with Pat O'Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Burns. Howard Hawks remade it in 1940 as His Girl Friday with Cary Grant as the editor and Rosalind Russell as his ace reporter. There have also been other versions produced for radio, television, and the screen (e.g., 1988's Switching Channels).

Lemmon as Hildy Johnson.
While it's hard to imagine Billy Wilder doing a remake, it's easy to see why the source material appealed to him: Wilder was a reporter in Berlin in the 1920s. He also thought that previous film versions of Hecht and MacArthur's play were hampered by the censors. In the book Billy Wilder: Interviews, the famous filmmaker noted: "I've yet to meet a newspaper man who said 'Oh, heck' or 'Oh, gosh.'" His screenplay, co-written with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, is peppered with profanity and restores the final famous line from the stage play.

As he did with his frantic 1961 comedy One, Two, Three, Wilder pushes the pace and stops just shy of overlapping the dialogue. It's not until the closing credits roll that one realizes that most of the action has taken place in the press room at the state penitentiary.

Matthau as Walter Burns.
Lemmon and Matthau are in fine form as the leads, but The Front Page is almost an ensemble piece. Vincent Gardenia shines as a corrupt sheriff clearly out of his depth. Charles Durning, David Wayne, and Herb Edelman sparkle as Hildy's rivals at other newspapers; Wayne is especially entertaining as a fussbudget that brings his own (pink) toilet paper to the prison. Finally, there's Austin Pendleton as Earl, the milquetoast killer who somehow manages to escape during his pre-execution psychological evaluation.

If there's a criticism to be leveled at The Front Page, it's the quality of the female roles. As Hildy's fiancée, Susan Sarandon has little to do but look flustered as Hildy constantly delays their train departure out of Chicago. Carol Burnett has a better part as a prostitute who takes pity on Earl--only to be skewered in the newspapers. The scene in which she faces her "accusers"--the cynical newspaper men in the press room--could have been powerful. However, Burnett isn't up to the task and one has to wonder why such a gifted comedienne was cast in the film's truly serious role.

The Front Page isn't top-drawer Billy Wilder, but it's still a funny, biting view of the world of journalism--and just as relevant today as it was in 1974 and in 1928. Maybe it wasn't called "fake news" back then, but the manipulation of headlines and news stories is nothing new. It's just that most of today's Hildy Johnsons and Walter Burns are on cable television instead of in the newspaper business.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer

The first murder victim and Lou.
Following the huge success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Universal Pictures was anxious to make another horror-comedy with its top stars. The studio purchased the rights to a screenplay titled Easy Does It, which was originally intended for Bob Hope. It then cast Boris Karloff as one of the heavies and bestowed the film with the awkward title of Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. The on-screen title, though, is just Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, with Karloff's name listed under the title as one of the film's stars.

Karloff as a suspect.
Abbott plays Casey, the house detective at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel. It's a pretty easy job until a famous attorney registers as a guest and winds up murdered before he can unpack. The chief suspect is Casey's bellboy pal Freddie (Costello), who lost his job because of the attorney. There are plenty of other more likely killers, to include a hypnotist (Karloff) and a femme fatale named Angela (Lenore Aubert). To make matters worse, additional hotel guests start turning up as a corpses--which keep disappearing and reappearing in the most unlikely places.

There aren't a lot of new comic routines in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, but that hardly matters. Lou Costello was a comedy genius in terms of his timing, facial expressions, and voices. As for Bud Abbott, he was a perfect set-up man, always willing to let Lou get the laughs. Many comedy teams have performed the "moving body" gag, but A&C do it with a precision that deserves praise. They were--and are--truly underrated as comedians. 

Lou Costello and Lenore Aubert.
The duo's best films--which include Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer--feature solid plots with a bevy of one-liners. The scene with the most zingers is the one where Angela tries to convince Freddie to sign a confession.

Freddie (to Angela): Gee, you're pretty!

Angela: I bet you say that to all the girls.

Freddie: Yes, it don't go over so well with the boys.

Later, Angela pleads with Freddie to take a sip of champagne--which may be poisoned:

Angela: Just one teeny weeny sip...for little Angela.

Freddie:  I wouldn't drink it for big Angela.

Bud and Lou play bridge with corpses.
There are fine visual gags, too, such as Casey and Freddie (dressed as a hotel maid) playing bridge with a pair of corpses as Percy Helton's character flirts with Freddie. The climax in the caverns and Freddie trapped in a steam machine also generate some laughs. 

However, there are some missed opportunities, especially with Karloff. He only has one significant scene with Costello, in which the Swami tries to hypnotize Freddie into committing suicide. In fact, Boris Karloff is in very little of Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, which is a shame. As he proved on stage in Arsenic and Old Lace and later in films like The Raven (1963), Boris could be very amusing.

As a follow-up to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, A&C Meet the Killer must have seemed disappointing when first released. It still turned a nice profit at the box office, though, and paved the way for additional monsters and mystery pairings with the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (with Karloff again). In hindsight, A&C Meet the Killer is a tidy, above-average comedy-mystery and easily one of Bud and Lou's best films.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Danger: Diabolik

John Phillip Law as Diabolik.
Made in 1968, Danger: Diabolik is both a psychedelic ode to the movie industry's grooviest decade and one of the first big-budget adaptations of a comic book. The title character was the subject of hundreds of popular comic books in Italy, with the first volume being published in 1962. Diabolik was not a superhero, but rather a master thief who typically stole from criminals. When working, he wore a skintight black suit that only exposed his eyes. He drove a black Jaguar, which was housed in an elaborate gadget-filled hideout. And he was assisted by his lover, the beautiful Eva Kant.

Marisa Mell as Eva Kant.
All those elements are on display in Mario Bava's movie version, which stars John Phillip Law as Diabolik. It opens with his ingenious theft of $10 million, which he accomplishes by using a fog machine and stealing the car containing the money on a dockyard pier. After Diabolik snatches an invaluable emerald necklace right out from under police protection, Inspector Ginko takes desperate measures. He applies pressure on underworld kingpin Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) to broker an agreement in which the gangster will deliver Diabolik to the police. Valmont focuses on Diabolik's only weakness:  His love for Eva Kant.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis had to overcome numerous challenges to bring Diabolik to the screen. His first choice for director was Seth Holt, who made two fine suspense films for Hammer: Taste of Fear (1961) and The Nanny (1965). However, De Laurentiis did not like Holt's completed film, which starred French actor Jean Sorel as Diabolik and Gilbert Roland as the villain (he replaced an ailing George Raft). So, he fired Holt, commissioned a new screenplay, and hired Mario Bava as director. He couldn't have made a better choice.

Bava's masterful use of color is on full display in Danger: Diabolik and the supervillain's  elaborate lair inside a mountain is a visual wonder. Bava occasionally goes over the top, as exemplified by a bizarre drug-fueled sequence inside a nightclub. Still, it's a small price to pay for such visual delights as Diabolik and Eva cavorting on a bed covered with $10 million or Diabolik scaling the wall of a castle tower with suction cups.
Diabolik and Eva covered in millions!
In place of Sorel, De Laurentiis cast John Phillip Law as Diabolik. Law was considered an up-and-coming actor, having co-starred with Michael Caine and Jane Fonda in Hurry Sundown (1967). Knowing that only his eyes would be visible in many scenes, due to Diabolik's costume, he practiced conveying emotions using only his peepers. The result is one of his best performances. Personally, I found Law a bit bland in later, better-known roles in Barbarella (1968) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). It's too bad he didn't get a chance to reprise Diabolik for a sequel or two.

Catherine Deneuve was initially cast as Eva Kant opposite Law. However, she and Bava allegedly clashed and she was replaced by Austrian actress Marisa Mell. Looking fabulous in colorful outfits, the blonde-haired Mell projects the required "cool factor"--even if Eva doesn't have much to do in the film. By default, she is the strongest female character in what comes across a chauvinistic film by contemporary standards.
Diabolik scaling the castle wall.
Danger: Diabolik was not a commercial or critical success at the time of its release. It has even been the subject of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Still, it has gained fame over the years and now holds a "fresh rating" on Rotten Tomatoes. We thought it was wacky fun, right down to the Europop theme song composed by--of all people--Ennio Morricone.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (7th Edition)

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

1.  The Crooning Sister with a Habit.

2.  A Western Fairy Tale.

3.  Wonder in the Lawn.

4.  The Guy That Didn't Say Much.

5.  Paraffin Abode.

6.  Alphabet Scientist.

7.  As Planets Bump into Each Other.

8.  Ape Man and His Mrs.

9.  The Hunt Portrait.

10. Battlin' Buckboard.

11. 1.25 Months With a Lot of Hot Air.

12. The Nonexistent Male Human.

13. One Can Only Die Two Times.

14. The Giant Caterpillar That Transformed into a Moth.

15. A Story About London and Paris.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Two

Since Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted on Peacock TV last spring, we've been working our way through the show's entire run. Last July, we reviewed the impressive first season. We recently finished the second season, which--by comparison to season one--was a disappointment. Too many episodes felt like filler material and there seemed to be a disproportionate emphasis on comedic episodes. The low point was a three-parter called "I Killed the Count," which would have been boring at a single episode--much less three! Plus, it wasted the dryly amusing John Williams (once again playing a police inspector).

Still, there were some bright spots among the 39 episodes, with the highlights being:

William Redfield as the murderer.
The Manacled - As a detective sergeant escorts a convicted killer on a train ride to San Quentin, the latter tries to negotiate his freedom. Like several episodes, this is essentially a two-character play, but it's extremely well acted by Gary Merrill as the detective and especially William Redfield as the intelligent criminal who seeks out human weaknesses. The teleplay features dialogue by the great Stirling Silliphant, with my favorite passage being when the killer explains he already knew everything about the man who would escort him:  "I thought whoever it was would be wearing a ready-made suit off of a basement rack, his heels would be run down. Be the kind of man who was living on the installment plan. Doesn't really own anything, just pieces of things. A piece of a cheap car, a piece of an ice box, a piece of a bedroom set. And all the stuff he has pieces of is already falling to pieces. But he'll keep paying on it and paying on it, month after month because that's the kind of man he is. Just a piece of a man."

One More Mile to Go - During a violent argument, a man (David Wayne) kills his wife in a rage. Instead of calling the police, he cleans up the crime scene and puts her corpse in the trunk of his car. His goal is to dump the body, but a malfunctioning tail light and a persistent highway cop cause persistent problems. Directed by Hitchcock, this tense episode opens with an mesmerizing sequence without dialogue as we view the crime through a window from outside the house. 

Jessica Tandy and Robert H. Harris
Toby - Albert Birch (Robert H. Harris) is shocked when his former flame Edwina (Jessica Tandy) contacts him out of the blue. Upon meeting again, their romance is rekindled and Edwina agrees to marry Albert. She also reveals that she has custody of her dead sister's baby, Toby. However, she refuses to let Albert--or anyone else--see Toby. The climatic twist is not unexpected, but that doesn't negate the impact of this low-key, unsettling episode. Jessica Tandy gives a haunting, disturbing performance--seven years before she appeared in a pivotal role in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Evelyn Rudie and Cedric Hardwicke.
A Man Greatly Beloved - A young girl named Hildegarde (Evelyn Rudie) befriends a grumpy recluse (Cedric Hardwicke), who may be a famous retired judge. Through his friendship with Hildegarde, the man gradually becomes an esteemed member of the community. Again, the twist is not surprising, but this episode is elevated by charming, natural performances--especially young Evelyn Rudie. The supporting cast includes Robert Culp in an early role. Based on a short story by Winnie the Pooh author A. A. Milne. Incidentally, Evelyn Rudie earned an Emmy nomination the same year for an episode of Playhouse 90

Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Hammer Duo: Twins of Evil and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Neither Collinson twin looks evil here.
In 1970, Hammer Films launched the Karnstein trilogy, which was loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla about a female vampire. The first two movies, The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971), were modestly successful efforts chiefly remembered for injecting nudity and a lesbian theme into Hammer's vampire movie formula. However, the third and final entry, Twins of Evil (1971), remains an above-average Gothic outing with good performances and a well-constructed plot.

Real-life twins Mary and Madeleine Collinson plays teenage sisters Maria and Frieda, who come to live with their Uncle Gustav (Peter Cushing) following the death of their parents. Gustav is a religious zealot whose followers burn young women suspected of being witches. Despite the presence of their kindly aunt (Kathleen Byron), Maria and Frieda have a difficult time adapting to their new almost-Puritan lifestyle.

Frieda becomes interested in Count Karnstein, who defies Gustav with his hedonistic activities. When Karnstein sells his soul for eternal life as a vampire, he finds that Frieda is most willing to join him. However, complications are bound to ensue when there are twin good and one evil!

Peter Cushing as Gustav.
The always reliable Peter Cushing doesn't play a heroic role this time around. Gustav kills innocent women in a subplot reminiscent of the earlier Witchfinder General (1968) with Vincent Price. Ultimately, Gustav works with Maria's boyfriend Anton to stop Karnstein, but that doesn't absolve him from his earlier acts of horror. It's a complex character and Cushing is fully up to the task.

Considering that their voices were dubbed, the Collinson twins give respectable performances. Madeleine somehow manages to look evil (and for that reason, I had no problem telling the sisters apart). The sisters famously became the first Playmate twins in Playboy. Alas, Twins of Evil was the highlight of their acting career.

Director John Hough directs with a sure hand, pacing the story well and maintaining the expected Hammer atmosphere (using the same set as Vampire Circus). An added bonus is the chance to see Kathleen Byron, an under-used actress who was brilliant in Black Narcissus and Night of the Eagle.

Cushing as Victor Frankenstein.
Three years after Twins of Evil, Peter Cushing reprised his role as Dr. Victor Frankenstein for the six and last time. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) reunited the actor with director Terence Fisher, who helmed all of Cushing's previous Frankenstein outings.

The film's opening scenes focus on handsome surgeon Simon Helder (Shane Briant), who has been studying Frankenstein's experiments. Unfortunately, his grave-robbing endeavors get him arrested and sentenced to an insane asylum for five years. The good news is that the institution's resident physician, Dr. Victor, turns out to be none other than Baron Frankenstein!

Frankenstein wants to transplant the brain of a genius into the body of an almost Neanderthal man. His work, though, has been constrained by his crippled hands. Helder eagerly agrees to perform the operation under Frankenstein's instruction. Of course, to get a genius's brain, Victor might have to resort to murder.

Prowse as the ape-like Monster.
There's not much of a plot to Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The brain transplant idea was explored much better in the previous--and much superior--Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Heck, Victor was transplanting brains as far back as The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). The only novel ideas in Monster from Hell are the fanatical Frankenstein working in an insane asylum and the almost humorous ending. The latter, by the way, may be why some critics consider this film to be a black comedy.

Cushing is the sole reason to watch Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. Hammer apparently wanted to make Briant into a star, but he clearly lacks the charisma to anchor a film on his own. As the monster, Dave Prowse (who would later embody Darth Vader) is limited by a mask that restricts facial movement. It's easily the worst-looking monster that Hammer put on screen in its long history.