Monday, January 20, 2020

Movie-TV Connection Game (January 2020)

A Robert Preston and Elton John connection.
The rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question. Yes, that's means we're looking for something in particular!

1. Danny Kaye and Yul Brynner.

2. Claude Rains and Ben Murphy.

3. Ben Murphy and Robert Redford.

4. Roger Moore and Barry Nelson.

5. John Denver and Connie Stevens.

6. The TV series Hawaiian Eye and Walt Disney's film Pinocchio.

7. The TV series Love, American Style and Happy Days.

8. Albert Finney and Tony Randall.

9. Michael Caine and Peter Fonda.

10. John Travolta and David Soul.

11. Paul Newman and Ben Gazzara.

12. The TV series The High Chaparral and Harry O.

13. Elton John and Robert Preston.

14. Sidney Poitier and Bette Davis.

15. The TV series The FBI and The Invaders.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Fahrenheit 451--Bradbury by Way of Truffaut

Montag prepares to burn.
Guy Montag is a "fireman" in a futuristic society--except that he starts fires as opposed to putting them out. To be precise, Montag (Oskar Werner) burns books since reading is forbidden by the government. Montag lives in a nice house in the suburbs with his vacuous wife Linda (Julie Christie). It's a mundane existence, but he doesn't question it until he encounters a neighbor, Clarisse (also Christie), on the train to work. A schoolteacher, she asks if Montag has ever read one of the books he burns.

That single questions sparks his curiosity, leading Montag to secretly confiscate a copy of David Copperfield. He reads it and becomes passionate about literature--any kind of literature. Soon, he is hiding books all over the house and taking significant risks to satisfy his irrepressible desire to read.

Oskar Werner as Montag.
Made in 1966, Fahrenheit 451 is the first adaptation of Ray Bradbury's popular 1953 science fiction novel of the same title. Bradley wrote his book in a library's basement paying ten cents per hour to use a typewriter. The title is the result of a phone call to a fireman, in which Bradbury asked him at what temperature paper began to burn. (Bradbury admits he used the given answer...without conducting any additional research.)

The film adaptation was an awkward proposition from the beginning. Critic-turned-filmmaker Francios Truffaut was chosen to direct and co-write the screenplay based on his international successes The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. However, it was an English-language production and Truffaut did not speak English at the time. He also frequently clashed on the set with his star, Oskar Werner, even though Werner had starred in the earlier Jules and Jim (1962). Their confrontations became so fractured that Werner had his hair cut during the filming, thereby creating continuity challenges for Truffaut.

The casting of the lead actresses also sparked a minor controversy. Originally, Julie Christie was supposed to play Linda only. Actresses such as Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg were considered for the role of Clarisse. Truffaut liked the idea of casting the same actress in both roles, as he saw Linda and Clarisse as opposites. However, Bradbury--who held a favorable impression of the film version--thought it would have been more effective to have different actresses in the parts.
Julie Christie as Linda and as Clarisse.
Taken as a whole, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking motion picture that seems cold and distant. Clarisse is the only character that evokes any kind of warmth. If the intent was to show Montag transform from an empty shell to a feeling person, then it simply doesn't work. Werner's character remains an enigma at the end, though he now devotes himself to keeping literature alive. Perhaps, the deteriorating relationship between Werner and Truffaut carried over into the actor's performance.

Interesting ideas abound, from a newspaper which contain only pictures to a class Montag teaches to novice fireman on where to look for hidden books. Even the opening credits are clever, in that they are read aloud and never shown on screen.

Truffaut turned to a former Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, to compose the score. It is one of the film's highlights, though the other worldly quality sometimes reminded me of his music for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Below is a clip from Fahrenheit 451, courtesy of our YouTube channel. The symbol shown repeatedly is a salamander, not a dragon.



Monday, January 13, 2020

The Brotherhood of the Bell

Glenn Ford as Andrew Patterson.
During an induction ceremony into the Brotherhood of the Bell, St. George College student Philip Dunning is told that his secret society brethren will take care of him. They will mentor him, provide useful business contacts, and put him on the path to financial success. In return, he only has to do what the Brotherhood asks of him at a future date.

Andrew Patterson, a long-time brother who attended Dunning's ceremony, learns that it's his time to do the Brotherhood's bidding. He receives a letter instructing him to ensure that one of his colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization turns down a job offer from another academic institution. If his colleague refuses to comply, Patterson (Glenn Ford) is to threaten to release information about the people who helped the man to defect.

Rosemary Forsyth as
Andrew's confused wife.
Patterson tries to refuse the assignment. But he eventually does threaten to use the letter and learns the next day that his colleague has committed suicide. Racked with guilt, Patterson tries to expose the Brotherhood of the Bell--not realizing how strong a grip the secret society has on every aspect of his life.

Made for television in 1971, The Brotherhood of the Bell is an effective paranoid thriller for most of its 100-minute running time. Much of the credit belongs to Glenn Ford, who creates a believable and sympathetic protagonist.

One wishes, however, that his character--a well-regarded researcher at a Los Angeles think tank--would display more intelligence. When he meets with a "federal agent," he neglects to confirm the man's identification. He also takes on the Brotherhood without first considering the second-order effects on his family. Without documented proof or collaborating witnesses, why would Andrew Patterson think that anyone would believe his preposterous story about an all-powerful secret society?

Based on a novel by David Karp, an earlier version of The Brotherhood of the Bell was produced as a live TV drama on the Studio One anthology series in 1958. It starred Cameron Mitchell, Tom Drake, and Joanne Dru. Although Karp didn't write the Studio One teleplay, he did pen scripts for TV series such as The Untouchables, I Spy, and The Defenders (for which he won an Emmy). For the 1970 telefilm The Brotherhood of the Bell, Karp adapted his own book. He went on to create the Hawkins TV series for James Stewart in 1973.

I'd be curious to know if Karp differed from his novel to add the scene featuring William Conrad as an incendiary TV show host who disparages Patterson. It comes across as a needless scene created just to extend the running time.

Dean Jagger as a baddie.
The Brotherhood of the Bell is an absorbing film that goes on too long and opts for a contrived, unbelievable ending. Those weaknesses are overcome, however, by its original, disturbing premise and strong acting by Ford and Dean Jagger, who exudes quiet menace in a villainous role.

The Skulls (2000) shares many similarities, but limits its plot to a college setting. The much earlier Black Legion (1937), starring Humphrey Bogart, is also about a secret society. It works on a smaller scale, too, with the purpose of the title organization to instill fear in foreign workers.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Seven Thing to Know About the Adventures of Superman TV Series

George Reeves as Superman.
1. Although athletic, George Reeves was not signed to play Superman because of his physique. According to Bruce Scivally's book Superman on Film, Television, Radio and Broadway, the 37-year-old Reeves wore shoulder pads and "muscle pads" that covered his upper chest and biceps.

2. Although George Reeves signed a seven-year contract for the Adventures of Superman, he demanded a raise once the series became popular. Reluctant to pay their star more, the producers asked Kirk Alyn--who played Superman in two serials--if he'd be interested in replacing Reeves. He replied that he'd want the same amount of salary, so Reeves was retained.

Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.
3. The 2006 film Hollywoodland implies that George Reeves's alleged jealous mistress Toni Mannix, wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix, had Phyllis Coates fired as Lois Lane after the first season. In a 2006 interview, Coates disputed that claim, stating she, Reeves, and Mannix were good friends. She said that she left the series on her own accord to shoot a pilot for a TV series that was never picked up. Coates was replaced by Noel Neill, who had played Lois Lane in the serials with Kirk Alyn.

4. Starting in 1954, the Adventures of Superman started filming all episodes in color. That was unusual at the time because of the scarcity of color televisions on the market. However, it turned out to be a stroke of genius once color TVs became commonplace and syndicated color shows were in great demand. Incidentally, in the black-and-white episodes, Superman's costume was brown and gray--not blue, red, and yellow.

5. In preparation for his post-Superman career, George Reeves became a member of the Directors Guild of America. He directed the final three episodes of the Adventures of Superman and was preparing to direct a science fiction movie.

Reeves and Leonore Lemmon.
6. George Reeves allegedly committed suicide in 1959, at age 45, prior to the start of another season of Adventures of Superman. His fiancee, Leonore Lemmon, was downstairs in his house with guests when they heard a gunshot in Reeves' room. In an Associated Press article at the time, Lemmon offered a reason for his possible suicide: "Because he was known as Superman. He couldn't get a job. That combined with the fact that a woman never got off his back. I think everything just swooped down on a very sensitive man." The quote about that "woman" may have been a reference to Toni Mannix. George Reeves' mother thought it was not suicide and hired famous Hollywood attorney Jerry Geisler to investigate her son's death. However, Geisler uncovered no new evidence.

7. Adventures of Superman ran for six seasons and 104 episodes. A number of now-famous actors appeared as guest stars, to include: Chuck Connors, Hugh Beaumont, Claude Akins, Billy Gray, Russell Johnson, and John Banner (Schultz on Hogan's Heroes).

Monday, January 6, 2020

Walt Disney's The Swamp Fox

Leslie Nielsen as Swamp Fox.
During its first decade, Walt Disney's television series featured several action-packed episodes about historic American heroes. The most famous example is Davy Crockett, who was played by Fess Parker in five episodes that aired between 1954 and 1955. Its immense popularity led to shows about Texas John Slaughter (a Texas Ranger), Mexican gunfighter and lawyer Elfego Baca, and Francis Marion, the subject of today's review.

Marion served as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After the British laid siege to Charleston in 1780, Marion organized a militia that conducted guerrilla-like raids on larger British forces. Marion's ability to evade capture was party due to his knowledge of the South Carolina swamps. That earned him the nickname of The Swamp Fox.

Leslie Nielsen starred as Francis Marion in eight episodes of The Swamp Fox, which aired as part of Walt Disney Presents between 1959 and 1961. In "The Birth of the Swamp Fox," Marion escorts the South Carolina governor and his family to safety after the British invade Charleston. When Marion returns to his home, he learns that a bounty has been placed on his head. He seeks refuge on Snow Island, where he periodically summons other American loyalists to conduct raids on the British Army to free prisoners, steal supplies, etc. 

Joy Page as Mary.
The key members of the Swamp Fox's unit are: his right-hand man, Major Peter Horry (Myron Healey), his brother Gabriel Marion (Dick Foran), Sergeant Jasper (Richard Erdman), and occasionally Oscar (Smoki Whitfield) and young Gabe (Tim Considine). Marion--or Fran as friends call him--is engaged to Mary Videau (Joy Page), whose parents as Tory sympathizers. Mary uses her access to British Army officers to spy for Fran and pass along tactical information.

There's a whole lot of fighting in The Swamp Fox, though there's also time to sit around the campfire and sing songs such as this one:

Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat 
Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox is at 
Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, hiding in the glen 
He runs away to fight again

There's no doubt that Walt Disney was hoping that The Swamp Fox would enjoy popularity on the scale of Fess Parker's Davy Crockett. It's colorful, has a somewhat catchy tune, and Leslie Nielsen wears a three-cornered hat with a fox tail. However, The Swamp Fox never captures the Crockett magic. Part of the problem lies with Leslie Nielsen's performance in the title role. He's competent and makes a believable hero, but he lacks the easygoing charm and sincerity that made Fess Parker a TV star. He also lacks a sidekick as entertaining as Buddy Ebsen.

To its credit, The Swamp Fox features a strong heroine with Mary Videau. She may not have a lot of scenes, but her courage speaks for itself (hey, spies were hanged!). It also provides Smoki Whitfield with the opportunity to sing a few songs.

Incidentally, the character of Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson in the 2000 movie The Patriot, was partially based on Francis Marion. Too bad Mel didn't wear a fox tail in his hat--I thought that was a stylish look.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Turning Back the Clock: A Tribute to the Best Time Travel Movies

I have always been intrigued by the concept of time travel. The end of the year seems like an appropriate time to list my picks for best time travel films and then learn what Cafe readers have to say about the subject. Starting from the top:

Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell.
1. Time After Time. This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer first gained recognition with his best-selling mystery The Seven Per Cent Solution, which teamed up Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Meyer serves up a second unique pairing in Time After Time--only with two nifty differences. Instead of working together, the pair are friends-turned-adversaries in the form of H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) . And instead of setting the plot in the past, it involves time travel from the past to the future. The usual time travel conumdrums are explored here, but they never get in the way of a delightful love story and clever social satire. In short, an underrated gem.

2. The Terminator. Given the blockbuster status of its sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Terminator was a sleeper hit by unknown director named James Cameron. Although Terminator 2 is a near-perfect action film, the first Terminator is grounded by a solid love story and gets kudos for setting the concept in motion. I imagine most of you have seen it, but those who haven't I won't spoil the "nested loop" that makes the head-scratching plot so memorable. By the way, I've often wondered if Cameron borrowed parts of his premise from the 1966 Michael Rennie B-film Cyborg 2087.

3. Repeat Performance. Decidedly offbeat 1948 B-film stars Joan Leslie as a popular stage actress who kills her husband on December 31st--and then gets the chance to live the year over again. Knowing the outcome, can she change the events that lead up to her murderous act? This atmospheric film benefits from a surprisingly good cast with Richard Basehart, Tom Conway, and Natalie Schaefer. It was remade for TV in the late 1990s as Turn Back the Clock with Connie Selleca. Repeat Performance is not shown often on TV; I haven't seen it in years.

4. The Time Machine. George Pal's 1960 adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel is still the best version. The once state-of-the-art special effects hold up pretty well and Rod Taylor makes an appealing hero (Alan Young, from TV's Mister Ed, is even better as a friend). Taylor's romance with Yvette Mimieux (as Weena of the Eloi race) lack a certain magic for me, but Wells' ideas remain fresh and the time machine itself looks way cool.

5. Somewhere in Time. There are people that loathe this film and those that love it. I naturally fall into the latter group. I must admit, though, that my perceptions are clouded...I first saw this romance with my future wife when we were young and very much smitten with one another (we still are). The plot, which Richard Matheson adapted from his cult novel Bid Time Return, stars Christopher Reeve as a playwright who falls in love with a photograph of an actress (Jane Seymour) and wills himself back in time to be with her. The leads are photogenic and likable, the location filming at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is breathtaking, and the music score by John Barry (who weaves in Rachmaninoff) is one of my all-time favorites. By the way, for many years, Somewhere in Time was the top-grossing film in Japan...though it flopped in the U.S. until rediscovered years later on video.

6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy devised the entertaing premise which sent the original Enterprise crew back in time to rescue some humpback whales (who are needed to save Earth in the future). Nicolas Meyer, who already explored time travel in the aforementioned Time After Time, contributed to the screenplay. Although some of the social humor is now dated, this is one of the best of the Star Trek film series and, accounting for inflation, is probably the biggest box office hit of the original Trek pictures.

7. Back to the Future. Speaking of blockbusters, this family smash about a teenager who goes back in time and meets his parents in high school is undoubtedly the best known time travel movie with contemporary audiences. The performances are engaging and the story gets a lot of laughs out of its unlikely situations (Mom, as a teenager, is attracted to her son). The sequels, which were shot back to back, are not as good. Back to the Future 2 gets mired in its plot entanglements by sending its heroes to multiple time periods. Back to the Future 3 is set primarily in the Old West and at least restores some charm to the series.

Sean Connery in Time Bandits.
8. 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits. Although these movies are very different, I list them together because they both sprang from the fertile imagination of Terry Gilliam. For me, Time Bandits is an adult fantasy masquerading as a family film; its visual images (e.g., a knight on horseback bursting into a child's room) are what I remember most. 12 Monkeys is a richly layered time travel film, in which once again a person from the future is sent back in time to alter future events. I have several friends who will cringe to see 12 Monkeys listed way down in the No. 8 spot. I admit, I haven't seen it in awhile, so I may be off base on my ranking of this one...but if so, not by much for me.

Honorable mentions: Berekley Square and its remake I'll Never Forget You, the influential French short film La jetee, Planet of the Apes, and 1964's The Time Travelers (which may feature the most bizarre ending of all time travel movies).

OK, so there are my choices. What have I left out and how would you rank the best time travel pics?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Top Ten Posts of 2019

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 95 in 2019. 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 2018. If we had not, The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes would have crushed the competition (as always). 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. The Snubbed By the Oscars Awards...the Results Are In!

9.  Chambers of Horrors: The Fear Flash and the Horror Horn!

8.  Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket.

7.  James Garner Stars in a Disney Duo.

6.  The Five Best Shirley MacLaine Performances.

5.  An Interview with Constance Towers.

4.  An Interview with Ruta Lee.

3.  An Interview with Barbara Bain.

2.  Five Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

1.  Interview with Jerry Mathers.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Ring of Bright Water: An Otter Delight

Mij the otter.
In 2005, the newspaper The Daily Telegraph called Ring of Bright Water “one of the best-loved British films of all time.” And yet, this unusual, charming 1969 tale about a man and an otter remains an obscurity in the U.S.

Bill Travers stars as Graham Merrill, a London resident who spots a playful otter in a pet store window on his way to work. Over the next few days, an inexplicable bond forms between the two and Graham winds up with a pet otter he names Mij. Otters and city life do not mix, so Graham makes a major life decision and moves to rural Scotland.

Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.
Graham befriends Mary (Virginia McKenna), a small town doctor, and lives a quiet life with his otter along the coast. His tranquility, though, comes to a crashing end when tragedy strikes.

Ring of Bright Water was loosely based on Gavin Maxwell's autobiographical book of the same title. A colleague gave Maxwell an otter in 1956 and he raised it in rural Scotland. He became close friends with poet Kathleen Raine; she wanted a romantic relationship, but he did not. It was one of her poems that inspired the title of Maxwell's first work about living with otters. That book, Ring of Bright Water (1960), was a hugely popular and critical success. Maxwell wrote two sequels: The Rocks Remain (1963) and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1968).

Gavin Maxwell and otter.
Maxwell's life would make an interesting film biography, but that's not the purpose of the movie adaptation. It focuses on the otters (there are some wild ones in addition to Mij) and they make for fascinating subjects with their canine-like muzzles, grunting sounds, and graceful movements when swimming. The rural countryside and windswept beaches are picturesque as well. The whole visual experience comes across as incredibly idyllic.

Of course, it doesn't always make sense. After Graham quits his London job, it's unclear how he makes a living in Scotland. At one point in the film, Graham becomes concerned with being able to feed Mij, but wouldn't that have been an even bigger problem when they lived in the city? And while I am no expert on aquariums, I'm not sure one could make one big enough for a swimming otter out of driftwood and scrap pieces of glass.

A curious Mij examines a suitcase.
Stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, who were a real-life married couple, made a more renowned animal film three years earlier with Born Free (1966). That picture provided a juicy role for McKenna, so it's Travers who gets the spotlight this time around. A tall, rugged actor, Travers knows how to play off the adorable otters...I mean, you can't upstage a playful otter slithering in the sand or cavorting with a dog. Travers also co-wrote the screenplay and, in real life, he and his wife became great animal preservation activists.

Ring of Bright Water pales next to Born Free--but there's no shame in that, as the latter ranks among the finest films ever made about the bond behind humans and animals. Taken on its own, Ring is a rewarding look at one man's fascination with one of nature's most fun-loving creatures.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress

Toshiro Mifune as Rokuota.
I just want to say upfront that the least interesting thing about The Hidden Fortress is that George Lucas has said it inspired Star Wars (1977). Akira Kurosawa's 1958 adventure can stand on its own. It was a huge hit in Japan when first released and has garnered critical raves since then. That said, I had mixed feelings after recently watching it again.

Set in Japan in the 16th century, The Hidden Fortress opens by introducing Tahei and Matashichi, two greedy, constantly bickering peasants. After being captured by and then escaping from the Yamana clan, they encounter a mysterious stranger. They tell him how they plan to navigate through enemy lines to safety in Hayakawa. The peasants don't know that the stranger is General Rokuota (Toshiro Mifune), who has been tasked with the mission of transporting Princess Yuki through dangerous Yamana lands.

The bickering duo.
Rokuota realizes that the peasants' plan is ingenious. He takes them to the location of a hidden fortress, where they eventually encounter the princess. The peasants, though, think she is a mute girl of no importance. Princess Yuki plays that role to the hilt when she, Rokuota, Tahei, and Matashichi start their journey with the enemy close behind. It's a trek filled with danger and, of course, the two greedy fools--who make both idiotic and unintentionally intelligent decisions.

The first half-hour of The Hidden Fortress plods along relentlessly, focusing on the ineptitude of Tahei and Matashichi. Initially, they are an amusing pair, but their act quickly grows wearisome. The story finally picks up when Kurosawa injects some much-needed drama. We learn that Rokuota's sister has died in Yuki's place in an effort to protect the princess. Later, after the quartet has begun its journey, we discover that Yuki's servants have also sacrificed themselves to buy their mistress valuable time.

The defiant princess.
In contrast to the film's sluggish opening, its final 90 minutes comprise an exciting, near-perfect action film. Rokuota fights four assailants on horseback, hides in plain sight in a town infested with the enemy, and--best of all--confronts an old nemesis in an elaborate duel with spears.

Director Akira Kurosawa's focus, though, is on the princess. When we first meet her, she is obstinate, defiant, and petulant. She undergoes a transformation during the journey, becoming more compassionate, learning to rely on others, and displaying courage when required. In a key scene, she thanks Rokuota for allowing her to experience the journey and learn what she never could have known inside the castle walls.

Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki.
Toshiro Mifune projects a compelling presence (as he did in most of his films), but is more serious than in better-known movies where he played broader characters (e.g., Sanjuro, Yojimbo). That's a good thing considering that the peasants are played for comedic effect. That leaves it to Misa Uehara to provide the most captivating performance as Princess Yuki. Given little dialogue, she defines her character using facial expressions and body language. Surprisingly, this was the actress's first film and her acting career consisted of just nine movies from 1950 to 1960.

As always, Kurosawa incorporates vivid landscapes into the action, with the story punctuated with forest trails, rocky paths, dusty pits, and sweeping hills. It's one of the reasons why some of his films worked so well when remade as Westerns (The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars).

When released in the U.S., The Hidden Fortress was edited from its 139-minutes running time. One version cut 13 minutes and a later reissue eliminated a whopping 49 minutes. I'm hoping that's all at the start of the film!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Seven Things to Know About Sue Lyon

1. According to author Rebecca Bell-Metereau, director Stanley Kubrick looked at photos of over 800 girls before casting 14-year-old Sue Lyon in Lolita (1962). Kubrick had seen her on an episode of The Loretta Young Show TV series.

2. Tabloids suggested romances with Richard Burton and producer James Harris on the set of Sue Lyon's second film The Night of the Iguana (1964). Lyon denied the rumors, stating that she was involved with recently-divorced actor Hampton Fancher.

Fancher and Lyons in a L.A. Times photo.
3. Lyon and Fancher married in late 1963; he was 25 and she was 17. Fancher played one of Karl Malden's no-good sons in the Troy Donahue vehicle Parrish (1961). Two decades later, he co-wrote the screenplay to cult sci fi film Blade Runner (1981).

4. Sue Lyon continued to be in demand in the 1960s, appearing in John Ford's 7 Women, opposite George C. Scott in The Flim Flam Man, and with Frank Sinatra in Tony Rome. However, juicy film roles began to dry up by 1970 and she started appearing as a guest star in TV series such as The Virginian and Night Gallery.

With Richard Burton in Night of the Iguana.
5. She divorced Fancher in 1964 and didn't marry again until she tied the knot with Roland Harrison, a African American who played fullback for the San Diego Chargers. She and Harrison adopted a 14-year-old boy named Robert and she gave birth to their daughter Nona. However, the marriage was a short one, lasting just ten months.

6. In 1973, Sue Lyon married Gary "Cotton" Adamson, a convicted murder serving his sentence at the Colorado State Penitentiary. They divorced a year later, with Lyon explaining to the The New York Times: "I've been told by people in the movie business, specifically producers and film distributors, that I won't get a job because I'm married to Cotton. Therefore, right now we can't be married. But that doesn't mean love has died. I'll always love him." According to the Associated Press, Adamson escaped from the Colorado State Hospital (now the Colorado Mental Health Institute) in 1976, but was subsequently arrested after robbing a bank.

7. Sue Lyon's last acting role was a small part in the movie Alligator (1980). Her current status is unknown, but her daughter Nona Harrison Gomez is on social media.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 2)

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! Good luck.

1. The Big Cat on a Snowy Day.

2. A Really Good Life Insurance Policy.

3. Italian Vacation.

4. Farewell for Conrad.

5. Writer on a Binge.

6. Murdered Man Walking...and Asking Questions.

7. The Lying--But Likable--Magazine Columnist's Holiday in New England.

8. Librarians vs. Computer.

9. Former Girlfriend of a Dead Mountain Climber.

10. Message on a Train Window.

11. Bodybuilders and Bikinis and Rickles.

12. A Glass of Glowing Milk.

13. We Are the Martians!

14. The Mysterious Dr. Frail.

15. Queen of Neewollah.

Monday, December 9, 2019

John Thaw as Kavanagh Q.C.

John Thaw as James Kavanagh.
While John Thaw was still appearing sporadically in episodes of Inspector Morse, he also starred in another, very different, TV series called Kavanagh Q.C. (1995-2001). The "Q.C." stands for Queen's Counsel and Thaw plays a middle-aged barrister who practices law in London. Unlike the solitary Morse, James Kavangh is a family man with a wife seeking a professional career, a daughter at university, and a teenage son.

The first three seasons feature Kavangh's private life as well as his cases. He copes with the after-effects of his wife's affair, his daughter's relationship with a married man, his son's academic challenges, and the death of a parent. Starting with the fourth season, the episodes focus more on his cases as both a defending attorney and a prosecutor. Unlike the U.S. legal system, British barristers can handle cases from either side--imagine Perry Mason as a prosecutor!

Oliver Ford Davies.
Kavangh practices law with two other senior barristers: Peter Foxcott (Oliver Ford Davies), who also serves as Head of Chambers, and the pompous, ambitious Jeremy Aldermarten (Nicolas Jones). Cliff Parisi (Call the Midwife) plays the chief clerk, who assigns the cases and manages the business affairs for River Court (the name of the practice). Other barristers come and go over the course of the series, to include Anna Chancellor as Julia Piper, Jenny Jules as Alex Wilson, and Valerie Edmond as Emma Taylor.

The writers of Kavanah, Q.C. handle some of the character departures in clumsy fashion. For example, the intelligent Julia Piper decides against moving to Africa with the man she loves. In a later episode, she suddenly decides to leave the law practice and work for a non-profit organization...in Africa. There's no mention of her former fiance. Then, a year later, Julia suddenly pops up in Florida, where she is married (but not to her one-time fiance) and pregnant. There's no explanation with how she got from Africa to Florida.

Despite such disruptive inconsistencies, the overall writing is above-average and there are several first-rate episodes. One of the best concerns a cover-up when a young man is injured on his job and suffers permanent brain injuries. Other engrossing plots find Kavanagh representing military officers in court-martial hearings and even a priest in a church tribunal.

Anna Chancellor as Julia.
The only episode that's truly bad is "In God We Trust," which finds Kavanagh traveling to the U.S. to help Julia with a death-row murderer's appeal. Although the setting is supposedly Florida in 1997, it comes across more like the Deep South during the racially-charged 1960s, right down to a bigoted governor running for re-election.

Still, that's a rare misstep for a solid TV series with a strong lead performance. For viewers only familiar with John Thaw as Morse, his performance as James Kavanagh will be an eye-opener. Whereas Morse was an introvert with few friends, Kavanagh is a outgoing family man and passionate barrister. It's a great role for a fine actor and the best reason to watch Kavanagh, Q.C. As of this post, it was streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dead Again: Past Lives Remembered

Branagh as Roman Strauss.
It was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling on Kenneth Branagh after he made Shakespeare films fashionable again with 1989's Henry V. Branagh used his newfound influence to star in and direct the stylish contemporary mystery Dead Again (1991). He also made sure that two of his Henry V co-stars, then-wife Emma Thompson and the incomparable Derek Jacobi, were given juicy parts. That was a wise decision considering their considerable acting prowess.

The brilliant opening sequence is composed of newspaper clippings which tell the backstory of composer Roman Strauss, who was suspected, arrested, convicted, and executed for murdering his wife Margaret in 1949. The film then opens in contemporary L.A., with a woman (Thompson) awakening from a nightmare to find herself at the Saint Audrey's School for Boys. She will not speak, has no identification documents, and appears to be amnesiac. The school's headmaster sends for Mike Church (Branagh), a private eye who was once a student at the Catholic orphanage.

Branagh as P.I. Mike Church.
Church agrees to place an ad in the newspaper for information leading to the woman's identity. He also plans to drop her off at a mental hospital, but changes his mind after seeing it. He take the woman, whom he later names Grace, to his home. 

The next day, an antiques dealer named Madson (Jacobi) comes calling. He wants to help Grace through hypnosis. Church protests, but Madson puts Grace under a trance quickly and she regains her speech. She then accepts Madson's offer of help and the next day, while under hypnosis, reveals that she was Margaret Strauss in a previous life.

Emma Thompson as Margaret.
There's a Hitchcockian quality to the script and one suspects that's what drew Branagh to Dead Again. The decision to have Branagh and Thompson also play Roman and Margaret not only strengthens the narrative, but makes it easier for audiences to understand. However, it's disconcerting that only one person comments on the physical similarities when it's obvious from old photographs that Grace doesn't just resemble Margaret...but looks just like her!

The decision to film the extensive flashback in black and white serves two purposes. First, it also makes the somewhat convoluted story easier to follow. More importantly, it evokes L.A. in the 1940s as filtered through the lens of old black-and-white Hollywood films. It's Branagh's way of paying homage to classic cinema--especially the works of Hitchcock and Welles--in a contemporary mystery with film noir elements. The choice of scissors as a murder weapon is a obvious reference to Hitchcock (Dial M for Murder) as is the artwork in Grace's apartment (the giant scissors remind me of the Dali dream sequence in Notorious). Incidentally, some people claim that the decision to shoot the flashbacks in black-and-white was made after test screenings. However, I couldn't find a reliable source to confirm that claim.
A sample of the artwork in Grace's apartment.
Derek Jacobi as Madson.
Emma Thompson and Derek Jacobi dominate the screen, even though the former doesn't utter any dialogue for the film's first 30 minutes. An unbilled Robin Williams also impresses as an disconcerting former psychologist who stocks shelves in a grocery store. As for Branagh, it's a matter of two performances: he's perfect as the jealous Roman Strauss, but seems downright out-of-place as detective Mike Church. From his peculiar American accent to his verbal ramblings, the film would have been served better by someone who underplayed the role.

Dead Again is a stylish, often engrossing murder mystery--but also a forgettable one. I watched it again recently and, despite having seen it theatrically, I couldn't remember a single plot point beyond the general premise. It serves as a effective reminder of just how hard these kinds of suspense films are to make. We tend to forget that because Hitchcock and De Palma (to a degree), made it look so easy.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Just Another Stormy Monday

Sting as Finney.
It's "American Week" in Newcastle upon Tyne and the English town is abuzz with U.S.-themed parades, movies, and concerts. The mayor is also hosting a visit from Mr. Cosmos (Tommy Lee Jones), an American businessman with ambitious plans to revitalize the local economy. Cosmos has run into an obstacle, though, in the form of a nightclub owner named Finney (Sting). Finney has rejected Cosmos's lowball offer to buy The Key Club, which occupies prime real estate near the riverfront.

Meanwhile, Kate--a waitress who moonlights as a hooker for Cosmos--has a chance encounter with a young Irishman named Brendan. Newly arrived in the city, Brendan (Sean Bean) applies for a janitorial job at The Key Club and takes an immediate interest in Kate (Melanie Griffith). He also overhears two of Cosmos's goons planning to "convince" Finney to sell his nightclub.

Melanie Griffith as Kate.
Stormy Monday (1988), writer-director Mike Figgis's first theatrical film, features a fascinating, interweaving plot populated by characters whose backgrounds remain intentionally vague. The narrative's catalyst is the seemingly naive Brendan, who unintentionally works against Cosmos by warning Finney about the goons and then changing Kate's outlook on her life. It's interesting that Brendan interacts with every major character in the film except Cosmos, whom he doesn't meet until the climax.

Figgis goes out of his way to provide minimal background details about most of his characters. He reveals almost nothing about Brendan, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions based solely on Brendan's actions on the screen (e.g., he respects women, he knows how to use a gun). Likewise, Cosmos and Finney are painted with broad strokes. Kate is the only character who offers any meaningful revelations about her past and even she is guarded in what she confides to Brendan.

Sean Bean as Brendan.
The result is that the actors appear to have been given the flexibility to shape their performances. This approach works well for the most part. Melanie Griffith exposes Kate's vulnerability. Sean Bean captures Brendan's innocence as he tries to connect the dots. Sting adds a little compassion to his smooth, cool nightclub owner. Only Tommy Lee Jones falters by making Cosmos nothing but a stereotypical American gangster.

Running a snappy 93 minutes, Stormy Monday mostly succeeds in putting a different spin on the British crime drama genre. It was adapted into a 1994 TV series called Finney, with David Morrissey in the title role. The action takes place prior to the events in Stormy Monday.

Incidentally, I'm not sure if the movie takes place on Monday. There is some rain in it, but not persistent precipitation. Therefore, I'm guessing the film's title is just an ode to the song "Stormy Monday," which B.B. King sings over the closing credits.


Here's a scene from Stormy Monday, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:



Sunday, November 24, 2019

There's a Spy in Stalag 17

William Holden as Sefton.
Considering it was made by one of Hollywood's most versatile directors, it's no surprise that Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 flows back and forth effortlessly between drama and comedy. Set in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, the dramatic storyline focuses on a barracks in the midst of a streak of bad luck. The camp's commandant seems to know everything that happens among the prisoners--culminating in an ill-fated escape in which two American soldiers are gunned down.

The barracks' residents conclude there must be an informant hiding among them and their chief suspect is a wheeler-dealer named Sefton (William Holden). Sefton is determined to make his stay in Stalag 17 as comfortable as possible. He barters with his German captors and profits off his fellow prisoners by running gambling games (e.g., mice races) and selling moonshine (from his own still). None of his fellow soldiers like Sefton, except for the quiet Cookie, who functions as his assistant (and also serves as the film's narrator).

Convinced that Sefton is the barracks' spy, his fellow prisoners beat him severely. Proclaiming his innocence, Sefton warns the others that he will uncover the informant and seek retribution.

Made in 1953, Stalag 17 was based on the 1951 stage play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who both spent time in a World War II prisoner of war camp. Jose Ferrer directed the stage version, which starred John Ericson (in his Broadway debut) as Sefton. Two members of the supporting cast, Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, repeated their roles for the film version.

Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss.
Lembeck and Strauss provide most of the film's comedic scenes. Strauss portrays Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa, whose obsession with Betty Grable leaves him perpetually depressed (except when there's an opportunity to spy on Russian female prisoners). Shapiro tries keep up his buddy's morale, although he's self-centered enough to let Animal think letters from a creditor are from Shapiro's lady admirers back home. Both roles border on stereotypes, so it's a credit to Strauss and especially Lembeck that they make these characters believable and amusing. Strauss earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Holden with Gil Stratton
as "Cookie."
Billy Wilder always brought out the best in William Holden, who gives a gritty performance as Sefton, There's no attempt to whitewash the character. Sefton's only explanation for his opportunist ways is that within a week of his arrival at Stalag 17, his Red Cross package, blanket, and left shoe were stolen. Sefton is a loner; he has no friends and no interest in making them. He isn't even particularly nice to Cookie, though he prefers him to the other barracks residents. Holden won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, though supposedly he thought it was atonement for not winning in 1951 for Sunset Boulevard (ironically Jose Ferrer won that year for Cyrano de Bergerac).

Having seen Stalag 17 multiple times, the most interesting element this time around was the group dynamics. Fueled by guilt over their comrades' deaths, the barracks residents need to uncover the informant. Therefore, they hone in on the person they don't like. There is no evidence against Sefton--other than he already barters with their German captors (which would be stupid for an informant). The barracks' leader doesn't even give Sefton an opportunity to defend himself in a mock trial. A sort of mob mentality takes over, with Sefton branded as guilty and duly punished. (For this reason, Sefton's very last interaction with his fellow soldiers, near the end of the film, doesn't ring true.)

Peter Grave as a prisoner.
Many members of the supporting cast went on to greater fame. Peter Graves worked steadily in film and television before becoming a star with Mission: Impossible and later Airplane! Harvey Lembeck played Phil Silvers' sidekick on the popular Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko) and later portrayed Eric Von Zipper in several Beach Party movies. Neville Brand played heavies in many films and TV shows before becoming a good guy in the TV series Laredo. And Stalag 17 playwright Donald Bevan gained additional fame as one of Sardi's in-house caricaturists for many years.

Finally, less we forget, the TV series Hogan's Heroes borrowed liberally from Stalag 17, although the tone was decidedly different. Indeed, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski tried to sue the show's makers, but their lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Here's a scene from Stalag 17, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:


Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Three-Word TV Series Game

In this game, we will describe a TV series in three (or maybe four) words and ask you to name it. Most of the questions below are pretty easy, but there are a few that might pose a challenge. Please answer only three per day so other people can play.

1. Ranch, half-brothers, "L".

2. Veterinarian, orphan, state (or, to be precise, commonwealth).

3. Fuse, disguises, self-destruct.

4. Insurance, blindness, martial arts.

5. Publisher, rotating, 90-minutes.

6. Journalist, vampire, marshal.

7. Train, hotel, daughters.

8. Aliens, moon, film company.

9. Circus, skating, Ameche.

10. Scientist, son, dog.

11. Swedish, politician, housekeeper.

12. Pennsylvania, journalist, small town.

13. Jeeps, war, four.

14. Youths, India, elephant.

15. Grandfather, grandson, search.

16. Lumberjacks, Seattle, ladies.

17. Chorus, conductor, lyrics.

18. Detective, family, movie star.

19. Chicago, spinoff, housing projects.

20. Dentist, sitcom, chimpanzee.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Seven Things to Know About Nancy Kovack

1. In the 1990s, Nancy Kovack--who had retired from acting--hired Susan McDougal as her personal assistant. If the name sounds familiar, it's because McDougal was involved in the Whitewater investigation involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. Kovack accused McDougal of embezzlement, though the latter was acquitted. McDougal then sued Kovack for malicious prosecution with the outcome being an out-of-court settlement.

Nancy Novack as Nona in Star Trek.
2. Nancy Kovack was a popular TV series guest star in the 1960s, with her most famous appearance being a second season episode of Star Trek. In "A Private Little War," she plays Nona, the plotting wife of a peaceful villager who resists the use of firearms against a rival tribe. At one point, she saves Captain Kirk's life and claims that he must comply with her wishes.

3. She was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1935. She attended the University of Michigan at the age of 15 (!) and graduated when she was 19. Her first show business jobs included a stint as one of the "Glea Girls" on The Jackie Gleason Show and as a hostess on Beat the Clock.

As Darrin's former girlfriend.
4. She appeared as Darrin's ex-girlfriend, Sheila Sommers, in three episodes of Bewitched--starting with the very first one. Naturally, she plots to get Darrin back. (Am I the only one who wonders why women were so attracted to Darrin?). Nancy Kovack also played another character in a two-part Bewitched episode called "Cousin Serena Strikes Again."

5. Her best year for film roles was probably 1963. She starred as the high priestess Medea in Ray Harryhausen's fabulous Jason and the Argonauts. Her provocative dance number has over 53,000 views on YouTube. She also played Vincent Price's love interest in Diary of a Madman. In an interview with author Tom Weaver, she recalled: "I remember that just before the scene where he kills me with the knife, Vincent was tickling me and I was laughing, and I couldn't stop laughing after that!"

With Zubin in 2014.
6. Nancy Kovack married the famous conductor Zubin Mehta in 1969. He had the reputation of being a "ladykiller" and was known by friends as Zubie Baby. They met at a party and were talking about marriage two weeks later.

7. Except for a handful of TV guest star appearances, Nancy Kovack retired from acting after her marriage. Her last role was in a 1976 episode of Cannon. Now 83, she helped her husband Zubin recover from a cancerous tumor in 2018.