Monday, August 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Richard Chamberlain as The Count of Monte-Cristo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 1)

We played this game last July with classic TV series and it turned out to be a lot of fun. This time around, we're opting for movie titles. The rules are the same: 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. Good luck!

1. Pursuits of a Bird Head Covering.

2. Departed on a Breeze.

3. Type of Candle Drawing Fop.

4. A Large Distance Under a Large Body of Water.

5. The Personal Happenings of Liz and X.

6. An Astronomical Object Comes into Existence.

7. The Terribly Frightened Trees.

8. Timepiece on the Part of a Melon.

9. Self-satisfaction and Bias.

10. The Secret Agent That Got Nice and Toasty.

11. Robbers' Interstate.

12. Payments of Terror.

13. The Chess Piece's Spouse.

14. Everything You Wanted to Know About the Night Before Christmas.

15. Twilight Avenue.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Robert Stevenson's Kidnapped

James MacArthur as Stevenson's young hero.
Isn't it Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, you ask? Well, it is, of course, but today we're reviewing the Walt Disney-produced 1960 adaptation written and directed by Robert Stevenson. It was the fourth of 19 films that Stevenson made for Disney and also one of the filmmaker's best.

The oft-filmed story opens in 1751 with a young Scottish man named David Balfour (James MacArthur) journeying to the House of Shaws to present a letter to the laird from his recently-deceased father. It turns out that the miserly laird is David's Uncle Ebenezer, whom he never knew existed. When Ebenezer fails to murder David, he pays a ship's captain £20 to kidnap him and sell him as an indentured servant in the Carolinas.

Peter Finch as Alan Breck.
During a heavy fog at sea, the ship collides with a boat carrying a Scottish rebel named Alan Breck Stewart (Peter Finch). The roguish Alan makes a deal with the captain to deposit him on Scottish soil. When David warns Alan that the captain plans a doublecross, the two become allies. After a fight aboard the sailing vessel, it crashes into the rocks during a storm. David and Alan are separated, but are later reunited as David tries to get back home and Alan plots against the British who have stolen Scottish lands.

Filmed in Scotland (and in Pinewood Studios), Kidnapped surrounds the American MacArthur with a delightful cast of British veterans. Peter Finch, having appeared opposite Audrey Hepburn in the previous year's The Nun's Story, makes a dashing hero who is both gentleman and rascal. It's too bad that the usually serious Finch didn't get to play more roles like this. He's perfect as the kind of hero who drunkenly asks to borrow money, gambles it away, and then chastises his benefactor for loaning him the funds.

A young Peter O'Toole.
John Laurie, Bernard Lee (later M in the Bond movies), and Niall MacGinnis (Curse of the Demon) make an impressive trio of villains. Veteran character actor Finlay Currie (Ivanhoe) steals his lone scene as a Scottish nobleman who has lost everything to the British. Even Peter O'Toole, in one of his first roles, pops up in an amusing bagpipe "duel" with Finch.

James MacArthur, the adopted son of Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, starred in four Disney theatrical films, starting with The Light in the Forest (1958). MacArthur projected a likable screen persona that made him one of the busiest actors of the 1960s. In 1968, he landed the part of Danny Williams on the hit TV series Hawaii Five-O (another actor, Tim O'Kelly, played Danny in the pilot). In an enjoyable interview on his website, the now-deceased MacArthur was asked to list some of his favorite actors to work with and included Finch, Currie, and Laurie.

Bernard Lee as one of the baddies.
MacArthur, Finch, and writer-director Robert Stevenson make Kidnapped one of Disney's best historical adventures. The story--while episodic--is compelling and the splendid Scottish landscapes are well integrated into the action. (I only wish that the DVD, one of the Disney Movie Club exclusives, featured a more vibrant print.) While Stevenson's later films, such as Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, were much too long, Kidnapped clocks in at a crisp 96 minutes. In fact, it could have been a wee longer. One of my few complaints is that it lacks a worthy climax and the ending seems a little rushed.

Stevenson's next film was one of Disney's biggest hits to date: The Absent-minded Professor (1961). James MacArthur followed Kidnapped with Swiss Family Robinson (1960), another Disney boxoffice success. And Peter Finch returned to serious roles, winning the BAFTA for Best Actor for The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1961).

Monday, July 30, 2018

Star Trek: Is Gary Seven a Hero or Villain?

Robert Lansing as Gary Seven.
While on a Federation time travel mission to conduct research about Earth in 1968, the Enterprise crew inadvertently intercepts a transporter beam. Their newest passenger appears to be human and calls himself Gary Seven (Robert Lansing). He claims that he is a human from the current time period, but was sent by the race of another planet to save Earth from destruction. Seven cautions Captain Kirk about delaying his mission and potentially altering history. Mr. Spock states the obvious when he tells Kirk that it's "a most difficult decision."

Teri Garr as Roberta.
While Kirk ponders what to do, Seven and his telepathic cat Isis escape from security and teleport to Manhattan. Seven discovers that his fellow agents on Earth have died in a car accident. Prior to that, they employed a secretary named Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr), who thought she was working for encyclopedia researchers. Seven gradually reveals that his mission is to sabotage a rocket carrying a nuclear warhead into space. But can he accomplish the mission without his fellow agents and will Kirk and company try to stop him?

"Assignment: Earth" was the last episode of season two of the original Star Trek television series. It was a "backdoor pilot," meaning that it was intended to launch a new TV show starring Lansing and Garr. Kirk and Spock are the only two Star Trek characters with any significant screen time and their involvement in the plot is pretty limited. 

That's understandable since they played no role in the original script for the proposed half-hour Assignment: Earth series. The script reveals a slightly different premise from the Star Trek episode. In it, Seven is a man from the 24th century sent back to Earth to battle a race of shape-shifting aliens called the Omegans. Seven's cover business is a private detective agency. Roberta joins him as his assistant. Isis is one of the aliens and Seven doesn't have a cat. He does have the multi-functional pen, dubbed a "servo," that he uses in Star Trek.

Mr. Spock and Isis.
As a Star Trek episode, "Assignment: Earth" is moderately entertaining. Its biggest strength is Robert Lansing, who makes Seven into a calm, unflappable hero who still wears a suit while climbing around a rocket launch pad. As Roberta, Teri Garr plays the kind of ditzy blonde that would stereotype her in many of her films. It's hard to believe that Roberta is supposed to have a high IQ. She has little to do in the plot and it's hard to imagine her providing anything other than comic relief in a weekly series.

The integration of the original pilot into Star Trek is also a little sloppy. When Seven is thrown into the brig, no one searches his body and finds the servo. That's pretty poor security! Also, rarely has Captain Kirk been so indecisive. The only conflict in the episode is whether Gary Seven is good or bad and it takes Kirk until the final seconds--when a warhead is about to cause World War III--to make his determination.

While I can't imagine Assignment: Earth lasting long as a weekly series (especially in a half-hour format), it has become a popular Star Trek episode. It has spawned a comic book series, novels, action figures, trading cards, and even a short video on YouTube with Roberta doing office work (sort of). If you want to learn more about Assignment: Earth, then check out this website devoted to it.

Victoria Vetri as Isis.
By the way, in the closing scene of Star Trek, Isis transforms herself into a beautiful woman briefly. She is played by Playboy playmate Angela Dorian, who changed her name to Victoria Vetri and starred in Hammer's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). She also appeared in Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), one of Roger Ebert's favorite "B" (no pun intended) movies.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Greene Goes Red as Captain Scarlett

He sports a long red cloak, a red vest, a red sash around his waist, and a red plume in his hat. If his name wasn't Carlos Scarlett, then I suspect the villagers would dub him Captain Crimson, the Burgundy Balladeer, or some similar colorful name.

We first meet Captain Scarlett (Richard Greene) when he saves a runaway bride-to-be from bandits. It turns out the bandits aren't so bad after all. Scarlett, who has returned to his home for the first time in years, learns from the local Friar that all is not well. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, mid-tier tyrants moved in to lay claim to the rich lands of France. In fact, the nefarious Count Villiers (Eduardo Noriega) has confiscated Scarlett's estate.

After a short stay in Villiers' dungeon, Scarlett teams up with an outlaw (Nedrick Young) and Villiers' unwilling fiancee (Leonora Amar) to oust the villain and restore the lands to their rightful owners.

A low-budget blend of Robin Hood and Zorro, Captain Scarlett is a lively swashbuckler with some snappy dialogue. When Scarlett inadvertently climbs into Princess Maria's chambers, they have this spirited exchange:

Maria:  What do you want?

Scarlett:  What do you want? What did I want when I climbed in here or what do I want now that I've seen you?

Leonora Amir and Nedrick Young.
Made in Mexico in 1953, Captain Scarlett is notable chiefly for its cast. While Richard Greene may be the most recognizable name, he never won an Oscar...and co-star Nedrick Young did! In addition to acting, Young also wrote screenplays and received Oscar nominations for The Defiant Ones (1958) and Inherit the Wind (1960). He won the Academy Award for the former, although he penned both films under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas because he was blacklisted at the time. In 1993, 25 years after Young's death, his widow Elizabeth MacRae successfully petitioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to restore Young's credit for his Oscar.

The Brazilian Venus.
The leading lady in Captain Scarlett, Leonora Amar, only made nine films. Yet, she was popular enough in Mexico to be dubbed the Brazilian Venus. She graced the pages of LIFE magazine in 1951 and, according to the book Beauties of Mexican Cinema, she was touted as "the Esther Williams of Mexican cinema." Captain Scarlett was her only English-language film and it was also her last one. She retired from the screen at age 27.

Richard Greene as Robin Hood.
As for star Richard Greene, his once-promising career stalled after an interruption to serve in the British Army during World War II. By the early 1950s, he was entrenched in "B" movie adventures such as The Desert Hawk, Shadow of the Eagle, Rogue's March, and The Bandits of Corsica. The silver lining is that his ease in playing those kinds of roles led to his casting in the syndicated TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood. Starting in 1955, Greene appeared in 143 half-hour episodes as Robin Hood. When the series wrapped up, he played Robin one last time in Hammer Films' 1960 big-screen adaptation The Sword of Sherwood Forest.

Richard Greene makes a likable hero in Captain Scarlett. And while it's not an undiscovered gem, it's a pleasant swashbuckler with an interesting cast. Plus, it's certain to inspire you to search your wardrobe to find something red to wear.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (July 2018)

Connie Stevens and Deborah Kerr.
Come in out of the heat...and play the latest edition of the Cafe's most popular game. As always, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and challenged 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. Peter Fonda and Yul Brynner.

2. The Incredible Hulk and Mission: Impossible.

3. Rod Taylor and James Darren.

4. The TV series Little House on the Prairie and the movie The Thing With Two Heads.

5. Gregory Peck and Walt Disney.

6. John Wayne and Jack Lemmon.

7. Greer Garson and Petula Clark.

8.  Anthony Perkins and Rod Taylor.

9. Ward Bond and Sylvester Stallone.

10. Connie Stevens and Deborah Kerr. (This one might be hard!)

11. John Wayne and Fess Parker.

12. Greer Garson and Susan Hampshire.

13. Burt Lancaster and Lloyd Bridges.

14 Judy Garland and Alan Young.

15. Raquel Welch and Jill St. John.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Eagle Has Landed

Michael Caine as Kurt Steiner.
Toward the end of World War II, Hitler commissions a "feasibility study" to determine the plausibility of kidnapping Winston Churchill. Initially, Colonel Max Radl (Robert Duvall) thinks the study is a waste of time. But as he gathers and analyzes intelligence data, Radl slowly realizes that an unlikely series of events has created an ideal opportunity. Churchill has scheduled a weekend retreat along a sparsely-populated English coastline--and an undercover Nazi agent already lives in a nearby village.

Robert Duvall as Colonel Radl.
Radl recruits heavily-decorated war hero Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and rascally IRA operative Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) to lead the mission. It begins smoothly with Devlin infiltrating the village as a new game warden and Steiner's men posing as Polish troops conducting maneuvers. However, the plan collapses when Devlin becomes attracted to a young woman (Jenny Agutter) and one of Steiner's men saves a child from a water mill.

Donald Sutherland as Devlin.
Based on Jack Higgins' best-selling novel, The Eagle Has Landed (1976) is one of several exceptional historical thrillers made in the 1970s and early 1980s. Others include Eye of the Needle (1981) and, my personal favorite, The Day of the Jackal (1973). It's interesting to note that Eagle shares something with each of those films: the rural coasting setting in Eye of the Needle (plus star Donald Sutherland) and the nifty trick of having the audience root for traditional bad guys (The Day of the Jackal).

Yes, while the audience manipulation in The Eagle Has Landed is effective, it's not exactly subtle. When we first meet Michael Caine's German officer, he disobeys orders to try to save a Jewish woman. Later, one of his men sacrifices his life for one of the village children. These aren't the ruthless Germans portrayed in hundreds of other war films. Likewise, Sutherland's British traitor is charming and acts downright chivalrous in regard to Agutter's smitten young woman. It's no wonder that we root for them right to the scene where Caine's character is pointing a gun at Churchill.

Donald Pleasence as Himmler.
While the three leads are in top form, the supporting cast almost steals the film. Donald Pleasence projects eerie calm as the cunning Himmler, while Jean Marsh is coldness personified as the undercover Nazi agent. It's fascinating to watch her face when she realizes her place in village society has come to mean something to her--and now she will lose it all. The only weak performance belongs to Larry Hagman, who overplays his role as a military paper pusher who's too eager for action.

For the record, the events depicted in The Eagle Has Landed are fictional. The plot shares some elements with Graham Greene's story Went the Day Well?, which was filmed in 1942. Eagle author Jack Higgins wrote a sequel in 1991 called The Eagle Has Flown, which also features the character Liam Devlin. In fact, Devlin pops up in several novels by the prolific Higgins.

I first saw The Eagle Has Landed when it was released in the late 1970s. Honestly, that may have been the last time I saw it until it recently popped up on Amazon Prime. The decades have been kind to it; I found myself thoroughly engrossed during its two-hour running time. Speaking of which, there are at least two alternate versions, one running 135 minutes and the other 151 minutes.

The Eagle Has Landed also marked the end of John Sturges' long career as a director. Sturges helmed 44 films, including action classics such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963).

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Five Best Coronet Blue Episodes

Series star Frank Converse.
A former Cafe contributor wrote about Larry Cohen's cult TV series Coronet Blue back in 2009. The show's premise is brilliantly simple: a young man awakens in New York Harbor with no memory--except for the two words "coronet blue." Taking the name Michael Alden, he spends the next 13 episodes trying to unravel the meaning of that phrase, which holds the key to his identity.

Made in 1965, Coronet Blue sat on the shelf until CBS decided to "burn it off" in the summer of 1967. The network held the show in such little regard that the final two episodes were never aired. Still, it acquired a cult following over the years (as did the catchy title song, where you can hear on our YouTube Channel). Finally, in 2017, Kino Lorber released the entire series on DVD.

It was grand fun to watch it again and to see a very young Frank Converse as Alden. It inspired the Cafe staff to take this opportunity to list our five favorite episodes. By the way, the DVD set includes an interview with series creator Larry Cohen, in which he explains the ultimate meaning of "Coronet Blue" (you can google the answer, too).

1. The Assassins - Michael answers a mysterious classified ad and meets a couple who claim to be his parents. They welcome him lovingly back into the family--and reintroduce him to his fiancee! But are they his parents? And if not, what do they want with him? This absorbing episode reminds me of a later classic episode from Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner called "The Chimes of Big Ben." Actually, there are a lot of similarities between Coronet Blue and The Prisoner.

Frank Converse and Brian Bedford.
2.  A Dozen Demons - Surviving an assassination attempt on his life, Michael awakens in a monastery in New York City. He's befriended by a young man training to become a monk (series semi-regular Brian Bedford). When the men notice Michael's uncanny resemblance to St. Anthony in a stained glass window, they set out to find the artist. The opening scenes in the monastery are the highlight of this episode, which also features Donald Moffat as a rector. Moffat was one of many fine British actors that appeared on the series, along with Susan Hampshire, Denholm Elliott, and Juliet Mills.

Juliet Mills and Converse.
3.  Man Running - After saving a political figure from an assassination attempt, Michael attempts to reunite him with the daughter he hasn't seen in years. Michael finds the daughter (Juliet Mills), but then his house guest suddenly disappears. Like the best Coronet Blue episodes, this one keeps the viewer guessing as to which characters are good and which are bad. Juliet Mills gives a very appealing performance; it's too bad her film career never equaled that of sister Hayley. Juliet is delightful opposite Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972).

4.  Tomoyo - Michael recognizes an Asian woman from his past, but she claims to have never met him. Seeking to learn more about her, Michael enrolls in a karate class and quickly makes an enemy with one of the black belt instructors. Appearing long before Kung Fu or even Longstreet, this episode offers an engrossing look into martial arts. This was one of the episodes never shown on CBS.

Susan Hampshire.
5.  A Time to Be Born - The first episode sets up the premise concisely and provides viewers with the most tangible clues into Michael's real identity. We see him pre-amnesia in the opening scene before he's beaten up and tossed into the harbor. After a long hospital recovery, he assumes the name Michael Alden and sets out to discover what happened to him. A potential clue leads him to a young socialite (Susan Hampshire), whose father may hold the key to Michael's identity.

Here's a two-minute scene from the episode with Juliet Mills from the Cafe's YouTube Channel:



Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Doctor: A Tale of Transformation

William Hurt as Dr. Jack McKee.
Jack McKee (William Hurt) is a highly-skilled surgeon with a loving family, an expensive home, and a Mercedes convertible. He jokes with his buddies at the hospital and keep his patients at a distance because “you need to be detached to be a good surgeon.” His bedside manner certainly needs improvement; when a female patient fears her husband will find her surgery scars unattractive, McKee responds flippantly: “You’ll look like a Playboy centerfold and have the staples to prove it.”

But his world gets turned upside down when an irritating itch in his throat turns out to be a malignant laryngeal tumor. Suddenly, the cavalier doctor has been transformed into a patient—and he doesn’t like it. He gets frustrated with the countless forms he’s required to fill out. His appointments are cancelled at the last minute. He’s placed in a semi-private room, not the private one he expected. He is even administered an enema by mistake. Worst of all, none of the hospital staff seem to care that Jack is a surgeon at the hospital. 

Based on Ed Rosenbaum’s book A Taste of My Own Medicine, The Doctor (1991) reunites William Hurt with his Children of a Lesser God director Randa Haines. Like that earlier film, The Doctor offers a thoughtful, introspective story that unfolds slowly, but effectively. 

Elizabeth Perkins as a fellow patient.
Jack McKee gradually learns that the hardest part of being a cancer patient is coping with the uncertainly of one’s future. This feeling of vulnerability is new to a self-centered man who has internalized his emotions. There is no doubt that Jack loves his wife (Christine Lahti), but he ignores her and turns to a fellow cancer patient (Elizabeth Perkins) for support during his treatment. (This breakdown in communication between the married couple leads to a climatic scene that reminded me very much of Children of a Lesser God.)

Christine Lahti and Hurt.
In the lead role, William Hurt evolves effortlessly from confident surgeon to baffled patient to a man with a new outlook on his career and life. His character's journey may seem a little too measured at times (e.g., we don't see the physical impacts of his treatment). Yet, The Doctor is still a powerful tale of how positive change and hope can be forged from a life-threatening disease.

Elizabeth Perkins and Christine Lahti are the standouts in the the supporting cast, though it's fun to see Mandy Patinkin and Adam Arkin play hospital surgeons three years before their TV series Chicago Hope.

The Doctor garnered good reviews and made a decent profit on its initial release. However, unlike Children of a Lesser God, it was forgotten at awards time and faded quickly into obscurity. It's one of those movies, though, that has always stuck with me. So, I was eager to see it again when recently given the opportunity after a 25-year gap. I'm glad to say that it still resonates and may have improved with age.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Five Best Bob Hope Films

John Greco, the classic movie blogger behind the delightful Twenty Four Frames, recently listed his favorite comedies of the 1940s. Not surprisingly, two of Bob Hope's best efforts made the list. That got the Cafe staff thinking about our favorite movies starring Mr. Hope. So, here goes!

Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope.
1. The Ghost Breakers (1941) - This first-rate haunted house comedy benefits from a funny script and a strong cast. It reteams Hope and Paulette Goddard from the similar The Cat and the Canary (1939). Both movies feature spooky settings and were adapted from stage plays. However, while The Cat and the Canary comes off as a bit creaky, The Ghost Breakers holds up nicely. Willie Best, a fine comedian in his own right, has his share of great lines, too, as Hope's valet. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis remade The Ghost Breakers as Scared Stiff in 1953. Both original and remake were directed by George Marshall.

2. Son of Paleface (1952) - This is the rare case where the sequel is better than the original--and that's saying a lot because The Paleface (1948) is pretty funny. Bob plays Junior, an Eastern dandy who heads out West because his father--Paleface Potter--supposedly left behind a fortune in gold. Instead, he finds that Dad pretty much owed money to everyone in town. Jane Russell, Hope's Paleface co-star, plays a saloon owner with a secret identity and Roy Rogers is an undercover government agent with a rifle hidden in his guitar case. This is classic Hope, with lines like: "Why, I'm so mean, I hate myself."

Crosby and Hope.
3. Road to Utopia (1945) - The best Road movie casts Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as a a pair of vaudeville performers who stowaway on a ship to Alaska. Their plan is to cash in on the gold rush, but they end up impersonating a couple of killers named Sperry and McGurk. Naturally, Dorothy Lamour is on hand, as well as a talking fish, a cameo by the Paramount mountain, and Bing playing the adult offspring of Bob and Dorothy. (Yes, this is one road Road movie where Bob got the girl...sort of.)

4. My Favorite Brunette (1947) - I'm a fan of all three of Bob Hope's My Favorite... films. In this outing, he plays a baby photographer with aspirations of becoming a private detective. He explains in voiceover that he knew what it took to become a detective: "Brains, courage, and a gun. And I had the gun." When Dorothy Lamour's exotic client mistakes him for a real private eye, Bob tackles a case involving a kidnapped uncle, mineral rights, and plutonium. Peter Lorre plays a knife-throwing henchman and Lon Chaney, Jr. is a delight as his oafish assistant. I also love the "keyhole camera."

Bob with Madeleine Carroll.
5. My Favorite Blonde (1942) - There were a lot of candidates for this final spot, but you can't go wrong with this comic variation of a Hitchcock espionage film. Bob plays a vaudeville entertainer (with a roller-skating penguin, no less) who encounters a mysterious, beautiful blonde on a train ("Is that your real hair or did you scalp an angel?"). She turns out to be a secret agent who needs Bob's help to elude her pursuers. Bob and Madeleine make a fine duo; it's too bad they didn't make any more movies together. Actually, Ms. Carroll took a five year break from acting after My Favorite Blonde, devoting herself to caring for the wounded and orphans during World War II.

Honorable Mentions:  The Paleface; The Lemon Drop Kid; and Casanova's Big Night.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Alternate TV Series Title Game

Happy Independence Day! Today, we thought it'd be fun to try a new game. We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic TV series and ask you to name the actual show. Most of these are pretty easy. Keep in mind that they're older series (all pre-1989), so #5 isn't Castle! Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. Good luck!

1. Governess and College Teacher.

2. A Large Piece of Artillery.

3. Big Texas City.

4. The Colorful Flower from a Big State.

5. Chess move.

6. Rodent Reconnaissance Team.

7. Dusk Area.

8. Female That Marvels.

9. That Which Requires a Criminal.

10. Military Officer Who is Agreeable and Pleasant.

11. Sweet Toes.

12. Steak Restaurant Franchise (be careful with one!).

13. Intelligent Male Human.

14. Alphabet Letter Military Unit.

15. Now Obsolete Ford Compact Car.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Vengeance of She

Olinka Berova as Carol/Ayesha.
I've been a Hammer Films aficionado since my youth and I've seen almost all its movies. One which eluded me for decades was The Vengeance of She, the 1968 sequel to She (1965). The latter film shows up on television frequently, probably due to Ursula Andress' appearance in the title role. The lesser-known sequel has become an oddity--but one which I recently found on eBay for $4.00.

Olinka Berova stars as Carol, a young woman who may or may not be the reincarnation of Ayesha, the once-immortal queen of a desert civilization. Carol experiences intense headaches, bad dreams, and memory loss. That may explain why she awakes on a French Riviera beach one morning, strips down to her underwear, and swims out to a millionaire's yacht. She can offer no explanation for her actions, but all the males on the boat are in favor of her remaining a passenger. (Well, the captain does make one of those ominous remarks about her bringing bad luck.)

The yacht's owner dies of a heart attack shortly after rescuing Carol from an inexplicable dive into the ocean. That should have been the cue to cut ties with her. Instead, one of the yacht's passengers, psychiatrist Philip Smith offers to accompany Carol on a desert journey to the lost city of Kuma. After some mishaps along the way, she and Philip reach Kuma, where Carol is hailed as its ruler. Things don't fare as well as for Philip, who is imprisoned by a high priest hoping to gain immortality for himself.

The Vengeance of She is an initially promising follow-up to She. The opening scene of Carol walking down a mountain road in a white fur and high heels is certainly unexpected. Ditto for the song over the credits with lyrics like" "Oh, who is She?" The sudden demise of a lecherous trucker and Carol's uncanny silence add to the intrigue. But once the yacht lands in North Africa, it becomes clear that The Vengeance of She is a role-reversal rehash of the original. This time around, Ayesha is being summoned to Kuma while her immortal lover Killikrates awaits her.

Edward Judd as Philip.
While the cast isn't as strong as the one in She (e.g., no Peter Cushing), it makes the most of the mediocre material. Edward Judd, who was excellent in the earlier sci fi classic The Day the Earth the Caught Fire, makes for a serviceable hero. Derek Godfrey is appropriately despicable as the nasty high priest. And, as Killikrates, handsome John Richardson provides the link back to She. I have always found him to be an exceptionally dull leading man, although he gets one of the film's most memorable lines. Speaking of Ayesha, he notes: "She is mine and I have need of her."

As the replacement for Ms. Andress, Olinka Berova certainly looked the part even if her thespian skills were suspect. The Czechoslovakian beauty's real name was Olga Schoberova (I don't know why Hammer thought Olinka was an improvement over Olga). She spent most of her acting career in European films. Her second husband, from 1972-92, was Warner Bros. executive John Calley, who received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award during the 2009 Oscars ceremony.

Actually, Hammer intended for Ursula Andress to star in the sequel, which was originally titled Ayesha--Daughter of She and then later The Return of She. However, Andress' contract expired before production could begin. Susan Denberg, another blonde beauty who later starred in Frankenstein Created Woman, was also considered for the title role.

The Vengeance of She is nowhere near as bad as some critics claim. It ultimately lacks originality, but one can say that about most sequels. It's certainly watchable, though the poster promises a lot more. It features Ms. Berova in a short, skimpy tunic wielding a whip with the tag line: "Kneel before She. The ultimate female who used her beauty to bring kingdoms to their downfall...and men to their knees."

Here's a clip from our YouTube channel showing Ayesha's big entrance: