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.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Iconic Singers Perform on PBS's A Classic Christmas!

Hosts Marion Ross and Gavin MacLeod.
Imagine Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, The Carpenters, and other legends performing on the same Christmas holiday special! That's just what you'll see when A Christmas Classic (My Music) premieres on PBS on Saturday, November 16th (check local times).

Hosted by Gavin MacLeod (The Love Boat) and Marion Ross (Happy Days), this nostalgic TV special features archival footage of traditional carols and popular standards performed by some of music's biggest stars of the last 70 years. It's part of TJL Productions' series of My Music specials, which have aired on PBS over the last 20 years. The series has highlighted a variety of music genres, spanning soul, rock, disco, folk, doo wop, and the British invasion. Producer Jim Pierson thought this was the perfect time to do a show on Christmas classics.

Ronnie Spector sings!
"It's really the first time that footage with the original artists spanning the decades from the 1950s through the 1980s has been compiled in a TV special," said Pierson. "Plus, we've got a wonderful newly-recorded segment with Ronnie Spector singing a pair of Christmas songs that the Ronettes famously recorded in the 1960s, but were never sung on television until now."

Pierson and his associates faced unique challenges in finding usable footage of some of these Christmas hits.

"A truly 'classic' Christmas special must have as many of the songs as possible that have been popular over the past fifty or sixty years and appeal to multiple generations. A lot of vintage television music and variety shows from the 1950s and 1960s no longer exist and some of the most favorite holiday songs were not always performed on television. But we dug hard and deep to find some rare material that hasn't been seen in decades, such as Brenda Lee singing 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree,' Gene Autry doing 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' and Jimmy Boyd performing 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.' The latter two were both from Perry Como shows that fortunately were saved on filmed kinescope copies dating to the 1950s."

Other iconic singers that will also be featured include: Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Burl Ives, Mitzi Gaynor, The Beach Boys, The Lennon Sisters, Eddy Arnold, Mahalia Jackson, The Harry Simeone Chorale, Jose Feliciano, The Drifters, and Andy Williams (see clips in the promotional video below).

So, get your whole family in the holiday mood by watching this all-star Christmas music extravaganza. And if it inspires you to get all your Christmas shopping done early, you don't even have to thank us!

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Watcher in the Woods

Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood.
If absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder, then it may make the brain more curious. For me, that was the case with Walt Disney Productions' The Watcher in the Woods (1981), which I recently viewed again for the first time in 38 years.

It opens with the Curtis family renting a "secluded" English country mansion from their mysterious new neighbor Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Almost immediately, the two Curtis children, Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richard), experience weird events. Jan can't see her reflection in a mirror, which then reveals an image of a blindfolded teenage girl and shatters into small pieces. Ellie says her new puppy wants to be called Nerak and writes the name on a dirty window (spelling "Karen" from the other side).

Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Aylwood, whose young daughter tragically disappeared many years earlier, stands out in the woods and states solemnly: "She's going to stay here. Is that what you wanted?"

Based on Florence Engel Randall's 1976 novel, The Watcher in the Woods was an attempt by Disney to attract a young adult audience. To its credit, it's not a conventional ghost story and the setting, especially the old stately home and a dilapidated chapel, evokes an effective semi-Gothic atmosphere. However, in a movie like this, the payoff needs to be a whopper and The Watcher in the Woods fails to deliver one.

It doesn't help that the script is riddled with cardboard characters that waste the talents of a good cast. David McCallum and Carroll Baker, as Jan and Ellie's parents, have literally nothing to do in the final version of the film (more on that later). Bette Davis fares better simply because she has more scenes.

Kyle Richards as Ellie.
That leaves it to the young actors to carry the film and their efforts are spotty at best. Lynn-Holly Johnson is photogenic and likable, but her thespian skills are strictly high school-level. She was much better in the earlier Ice Castles (1978), perhaps because she skated competitively and could connect with her character. As her sister, Kyle Richard seems natural and therefore much more convincing. Kyle's sister, Kim, also acted in Disney movies (Escape from Witch Mountain, also with Bette Davis). Years later, the Richard sisters would appear on the reality show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Disney originally hired Brian Clemens to write the screenplay. Clemens, best known for The Avengers TV series and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, turned in a script deemed too dark for Disney's desired audience. It was subsequently rewritten multiple times and credited to three writers.

The creatures from the alternate endings.
When the film made its theatrical debut in 1980, it was thrashed by critics and moviegoers alike. The most common complaint was that the ending was confusing. After less than two weeks in release, it was pulled from theaters. The ending was rewritten (at least twice), the running time was trimmed, and additional footage shot. The revised version of The Watcher in the Woods was released in 1981. That's the one my wife and I saw at an Indiana drive-in. When the film was released on DVD many years later, the bonus feature included two of the alternate endings.

It's worth noting that The Watcher in the Woods has connections with two more successful ghostly movies. The spooky mansion featured in Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is the same one where the Curtis family lives. And John Hough, who helmed The Legend of Hell House in 1973, directed The Watcher in the Woods.

Here's the second alternate ending, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel. It provides additional scenes for Bette Davis and Carroll Baker and clarifies the origin of the creatures living in the woods.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Richard Brooks' The Professionals

Lee Marvin as the group's leader.
It was a commercial and critical success. It earned three Academy Award nominations. It starred two of the biggest stars of the 1960s. And yet, The Professionals (1966) rarely gets the attention it deserves these days. When it was shown on TCM last June, it got a late afternoon time slot instead of a more desirable prime time appearance (sad face!).

Set in 1917, the film opens with wealthy land owner J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hiring four men to rescue his wife from a Mexican revolutionary holding her for ransom. The "professionals" are comprised of: Fardan (Lee Marvin), the group's leader and a former soldier; Jake (Woody Strode), an expert scout and archer; Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), a horse wrangler; and Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Fardan's close friend and a dynamite specialist. Grant agrees to pay each man $1,000 upfront with $9,000 upon return of his wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale).
Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, and Lee Marvin.
From the outset, Dolworth senses that something is not right. He and Fardan fought in the Mexican Revolution alongside Raza (Jack Palance), the alleged kidnapper. When Dolworth considers bailing on the job, Fardan reminds him that they agreed to a contract.

DOLWORTH: "My word to Grant ain't worth a plugged nickel."

FARDAN: "You gave your word to me."

After dealing with bandits and punishing desert temperatures, the four men reach Raza's settlement. However, in the midst of their carefully orchestrated rescue attempt, they make a not-so-surprising discovery. 

Burt Lancaster as Dolworth.
Based on the 1964 novel A Mule for the Marquesa, The Professionals marked a return to the Western genre for director-screenwriter Richard Brooks. Although Brooks was best known for adapting high-class dramas such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, he had made an earlier Western called The Last Hunt in 1956. 

With The Professionals, he aims to explore the final days of the "Wild West," like other notable Westerns of the 1960s (e.g., Ride the High Country and the later Wild Bunch). It's no wonder that hard men like Fardan and Dolworth reminisce about the old days; they no longer have a place in a West "owned" by the likes of J.W. Grant. They admire Raza because--unlike them--he hasn't given up on the revolution. All that the four professionals have left is their word and their mutual respect for one another. It's no wonder that Fardan puts a premium on completing their contract.

Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.
For a film with a number of explosive action scenes, The Professionals is surprisingly talky at times. That's not a bad thing as it allows Brooks and his excellent cast to flesh out the movie's characters and themes. The focus isn't just on the four principals either, as Brooks provides pithy dialogue for Cardinale as the passionate, feisty Maria. (It's worth noting that two of Cardinale's best performances were in 1960s Westerns: this one and  Once Upon a Time in the West). My only complaint with Brooks' screenplay is his occasional use of contemporary words like "terrific," which seem out of place.

Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall capture some breathtaking images of the desert landscapes during daylight and night. Hall's work earned him an Oscar-nomination.

Richard Brooks received two nominations as well, for his screenplay adaptation and for directing. Thus, it's downright odd that The Professionals was not nominated for Best Picture. However, Brooks no doubt relished its commercial success. A sequel was discussed for several years, although it proved impossible to reunite the four male leads (though Marvin and Ryan were both in The Dirty Dozen). Brooks returned to the Western genre one last time in Bite the Bullet (1975). It's a fine film starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn and featuring a closing scene almost as memorable as the one in The Professionals

Monday, November 4, 2019

Robert Mitchum as a Contemporary Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.
The biggest knock against Michael Winner's 1978 adaptation of The Big Sleep was his decision to transplant the story to contemporary England. It was surely an odd choice, especially since Raymond Chandler's novels paint a rich, vibrant portrait of urban California life in the 1940s and 1950s. However, Winner's version does prove that Chandler's cynical private eye, Philip Marlowe, is timeless. You could plug him into a movie today and his voiceover wisecracks would work just as well ("Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains").

James Stewart as Sternwood.
The plot faithfully follows Chandler's 1939 novel, which marked Marlowe's first appearance in print. General Sternwood, a wealthy recluse, hires Marlowe to deal with a shady bookseller who is blackmailing his wild daughter Camilla. Before he can even leave the Sternwood estate, Marlowe is confronted by Camilla's older sister Charlotte, who wants to learn if the private eye has been hired to look for her missing husband.

In between fending off the advances of both daughters, Marlowe gets involved in a web of deceit, pornography, and murder--with the number of corpses increasing at an alarming rate. It's a typical convoluted Chandler plot, but then the acclaimed author was always more interested in his characters and settings than his storylines.

The Big Sleep marks Robert Mitchum's second appearance as Philip Marlowe. He starred in an earlier adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely (1975). However, that film was set in the 1940s and co-starred Charlotte Rampling as the femme fatale. It earned mostly good reviews, with Sylvia Miles even picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Mitchum was the producers' second choice for Marlowe...after Richard Burton.

Sarah Miles as Charlotte.
Mitchum's middle-aged, world-weary Marlowe is an interesting interpretation of what Chandler's private eye might have become. He seems to be playing the same Marlowe in both Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep, though there are some differences. Inexplicably, the contemporary Marlowe drives a Mercedes convertible and wears a Rolex. I'm not sure how a modestly-successful private investigator could afford such luxury items with his rate of £50 a day plus expenses. Incidentally, his presence in England is explained with a quick reference to his decision to stay there after World War II.

Admittedly, it's intriguing to see an older Marlowe shadowing shady characters in London and cruising along the English countryside. That's not the problem with The Big Sleep--nor is a respectable supporting cast consisting of James Stewart, Oliver Reed, John Mills, Richard Todd, Richard Boone, and Diana Quick.

No, The Big Sleep sinks because of its two female leads: Sarah Miles and Candy Clark. Miles starred previously with Mitchum and John Mills in 1970's Ryan's Daughter. She and Mitchum had remained friends over the years, but there's no sizzle between their characters in The Big Sleep. It's a sharp contrast from the sexual tension projected by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the same roles in the 1946 version of Chandler's novel. Indeed, Sarah Miles transforms Charlotte into a dull, lethargic character that generates no audience interest.

Candy Clark as Camilla.
On the flip side, Candy Clark overacts as Charlotte's carefree younger sister Camilla. Her character is so obviously psychotic that it spoils the film's climax. It's a puzzling performance, given that Clark breathed life in wonderfully-controlled quirky characters in movies like Q--The Winged Serpent.

If you want to see Robert Mitchum's take on Philip Marlowe, then your best bet is to check out Farewell, My Lovely. I hate to end with an obvious line--surely used by film critics when The Big Sleep was released--but Mitchum's second Marlowe feature is a snoozefest.

Here's a clip from The Big Sleep, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Kung Fu and Vampires! It's the Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires!

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
I watched The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) for the fifth or sixth time recently. During this latest viewing, I studied it carefully. When it was over, I reviewed my notes, analyzed the plot and themes, and researched the production history. And still, my friends, I have no clue as to why this wacky hybrid of vampires and martial arts is so entertaining!

For those who have never seen it, here's a plot summary. In Transylvania in 1804, an evil Asian monk named Kah journeys to the tomb of Count Dracula. His goal is to ask Dracula to help him revive the seven Golden Vampires in his homeland. Now, it should come as no surprise that the Count doesn't grant his wish. Instead of kindly lending a hand, Dracula assumes Kah's appearance and heads to Asia to revive the Golden Vampires for his own bloodsucking purposes.

One of the Golden Vampires.
A century later, we find Professor Van Helsing (apparently a descendant of the original Van Helsing) giving a guest lecture on vampires at Chungking University. His audience is unimpressed--except for a young man named Hsi Ching who visits Van Helsing that night. Hsi Ching explains that his ancestral village has become a feeding ground for the seven Golden Vampires. He wants Van Helsing to help him--along with his six brothers and his sister--to destroy the bloodsuckers.

The professor is intrigued, but lacks the financial resources for the long journey. That's when a wealthy, attractive widow offers to finance the expedition on the condition that she gets to experience a little excitement, too.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires has an 89-minute running time, but it seems even shorter. Veteran director Roy Ward Baker enlivens the plot with four major action sequences, each one longer and better staged than the one preceding it. We are treated to an attack on the town by the vampires, an ambush on Van Helsing's expedition by criminals, and a surprise vampire assault in a cave. Those scenes are just the appetizers that set up the big battle at the climax.

The golden bat medallion--I want one!
As with any respectable 1970s kung fu flick, there are plenty of bone-crunching punches and high-flying kicks. The Golden Vampires do a respectable job of defending themselves...considering they look like decomposing corpses with fangs and move pretty slowly. Their supporting army of the undead are dispatched quickly with a punch to their rotting chests. A flashback story suggests that a Golden Vampire can be destroyed by removing the golden bat medallions from around their necks. Oddly, none of our heroes ever attempt to do that!

David Chiang as Hsi Ching.
There are other muddled plot points, too. Hsi Ching's village appears to be pretty small. So, over the span of a century, wouldn't the Golden Vampires have drained it dry--especially since they routinely nab most of the young women from the village? And why do Van Helsing and the brothers choose to fight the vampires at night? It seems more logical to look for their headquarters during the day and destroy them before dusk. Of course, then we wouldn't have any kung fu fights, would we?

To his credit and the film's benefit, Peter Cushing delivers a serious, persuasive performance as Van Helsing. It grounds The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and keeps it from devolving into camp. David Chiang is respectable as Hsi Ching, which is impressive considering he's acting in a second language. I quite like that the rich widow (Julie Ege) becomes attracted to Hsi Ching while Van Helsing's son falls for the latter's sister (Szu Shih).

John Forbes-Robertson.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was the last of Hammer's nine Dracula movies that began with 1958's Horror of Dracula. It is the only Hammer film to feature an actor other than Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. His replacement, John Forbes-Robertson, only has a couple of scenes at the beginning and end. His voice was dubbed and his make-up makes Dracula look like he's been embalmed.

A co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was shot in Hong Kong. Both studios surely hoped the combination of kung fu  and vampires would generate big international profits. However, that didn't happen and Hammer was unable to even secure a U.S. distributor when it was released. It finally reached American screens, albeit in re-edited form, in 1979. Seventeen minutes were trimmed and the title was changed to The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. Avoid this version!

Instead, grab your golden bat medallion (if you have one), settle into your easy chair, and throw logic out the window. And remember what a film critic for Melody Maker magazine wrote after skewering 7 Vampires for several paragraphs: "Don't let me indicate that I'm trying to put you off seeing this film, because I'm going to see it again tomorrow!"

Monday, October 28, 2019

Hayley Mills in The Truth About Spring

Hayley as Spring Tyler.
When naming the biggest stars of the 1960s, Hayley Mills may not spring to mind. But the young actress had a remarkable decade, starring in huge Disney hits (The Parent Trap), scoring critical raves (Whistle Down the Wind), and making future cult films (The Chalk Garden). One of my favorite Hayley pictures of this period is the seldom-shown, but highly entertaining The Truth About Spring (1965).

Hayley plays Spring Tyler, a tomboyish teenager who lives with her father Tommy (John Mills) aboard a small boat in the Florida Keys. Tommy is a sly hustler--and a very successful one. In the opening scene, he passes his daughter off as a boy dying from thirst so an ocean liner will provide enough provisions to last a week (including some juicy steaks!). 

Spring's world gets turned upside down when Tommy invites William Ashton, a handsome Princeton grad (James MacArthur), to spend a few weeks aboard the Sarah Tyler to do some fishing. There's an instant attraction between Spring and Ashton, but neither one quite knows how to handle it.

A scruffy John Mills as Tommy.
Meanwhile, Ashton quickly gets caught up in Tommy's latest scheme to recover $250,000 in gold from a sunken wreck with the help of his "partners." Tommy's pals (Niall MacGinnis and Lionel Jeffries) would just as soon murder him except that Tommy knows the location of the loot. Meanwhile, some playful frolicking between the young folks takes a serious turn when Ashton gives Spring her first kiss (and gets promptly slapped).

The Truth About Spring is a breezy lighthearted affair with John Mills having a grand time as a crafty old dodger. Excluding Hayley's appearance as a baby in So Well Remembered (1947) and John's cameo in The Parent Trap, she and her father made five movies together. They seem to be having a ball playing off each in The Truth About Spring. John gets the better role, hamming it up as Tommy and playfully threatening to marry a "good woman, clean and antiseptic" if Spring continues to defy his (questionable) parental authority. 

James MacArthur as Ashton.
The film gets a huge lift from the breathtaking locations off the Spanish coast, which double for the Caribbean. Additionally, almost every scene appears to have been shot aboard a boat or on the beach. 

Director Richard Thorpe was surely one of the most prolific filmmakers in the history of Hollywood, with over 180 credits to his name and a career that spanned the silent film era to the late 1960s. He was versatile as well, working comfortably in costume pictures (Ivanhoe and the underrated Quentin Durward), musicals (Fun in Acapulco with Elvis), and Thin Man mysteries.

If The Truth About Spring seems like a Disney film at times, it's likely because of the cast and the ultimately harmless villains. Hayley Mills, John Mills, James MacArthur, and David Tomlinson (who plays Ashton's uncle) were under Disney contracts at various times during the 1960s. John and James work together earlier on Swiss Family Robinson in which they played father and son. Incidentally, Niall MacGinnis, who plays a crook here, was a much more chilling villain as Karswell in Curse of the Demon.

Here's a scene from The Truth About Spring, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

Patrick Wayne as Sinbad.
Released in 1977, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger isn't as well regarded as the other two installments in Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy. Personally, I find it as good as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), but not as magical as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).

The story begins with powerful sorceress Zenobia turning Prince Kassim, the heir to the throne of Charak, into a baboon. If he's not restored to human form before the end of seven moons, he will remain a monkey--and Zenobia's son will become the caliph. Thus, Sinbad (Patrick Wayne) and Princess Farah (Jane Seymour) set off to find the legendary Melanthius, the one person who may be able to help the prince.

Jane Seymour and the baboon.
It's a slight plot, but it provides an adequate canvas for Harryhausen's special effects. Sinbad battles demons with skeleton-like bodies and bug eyes, a giant walrus, a sabre-toothed tiger, and a giant wasp. The latter is identified as a giant mosquito by one of the characters and on the film's soundtrack, but Harryhausen calls it a wasp in his Film Fantasy Scrapbook and it certainly looks like one. There's also a bronze minotaur-like creature called the Minaton and a troglodyte that battles the big tiger. Harryhausen also animated the baboon, which looks amazingly real.

Sinbad tries to help Trog fight the sabre-toothed tiger.

Taryn Power.
Patrick Wayne, one of John's sons, seems a bit wooden in the opening scenes, but he gets better as the movie goes along. The supporting cast includes Tyrone Power's daughter, Taryn, as Melanthius's telepathic daughter. As her father, Patrick Troughton adds some class and provides an interesting Doctor Who connection. Both Troughton and Tom Baker, who played the villain in Golden Voyage, portrayed Doctor Who on British television.

 At a budget of $3.5 million, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was Harryhausen's second-most expensive film (surpassed only by the later Clash of the Titans). Despite that, some of the routine special effects (e.g., close-ups of the actors in exotic places) look subpar. The stop-action animation doesn't disappoint, though the giant walrus may be my least-favorite Harryhausen creature (Ray considered using a Yeti in that scene--an idea that appeals to me!).

As trilogies go, the three Ray Harryhausen-Charles Schneer Sinbad films still hold their appeal as colorful, fantastical adventures. I'm sure there are cinephiles who prefer modern digital special effects, but I'll take a Harryhausen stop-motion creature over a Jurassic World  dinosaur anytime. They just have more personality!

Monday, October 21, 2019

An Interview with Constance Towers

Born in Whitefish, Montana, Constance Towers became interested in show business in the first grade—when talent scouts visited her schools looking for young radio performers. She appeared in radio plays as a child and later studied music at the Juilliard School in New York City. Constance Towers made her film debut in the 1955 Blake Edwards comedy Bring Your Smile Along. She subsequently appeared in major motion pictures such as The Horse Soldiers (1959), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), The Naked Kiss (1964), and Fate Is the Hunter (1964). She has acted alongside actors such as John Wayne, William Holden, Glenn Ford, and Raymond Burr. Constance Towers also gained acclaim working on Broadway and on television. Her stage roles include a revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner. On television, she has won numerous awards for her performances in the daytime dramas Capitol, CBS Daytime 90, and General Hospital. Ms. Towers married actor and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico John Gavin in 1974; they remained together until his death in 2018. Constance Towers has been passionately involved in many charities, to include the Children’s Bureau of California, the National Health Foundation, and the Blue Ribbon of the Los Angeles Music Center.

Café:  You worked with two of the greatest auteurs of American cinema: John Ford and Samuel Fuller. How would you describe your experiences with each of them?

The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne.
Constance Towers:  The experiences were very different. Both were gentlemen, but John Ford was the epitome of being a gentleman until you really got to know him and then his sense of humor came through. He was bawdy in his own way. Sammy Fuller was totally uninhibited and so much fun because he communicated on a raw level. He really knew how to find the right words to help you find where you were trying to go emotionally as an actor. And because he was the writer, he knew the intent of the writing. Because he was the director, he knew what he wanted to bring out of the actor. He just understood the complete arc of what he had written. That was a treasure. As I said, he was totally uninhibited so he had a way of reaching those children in The Naked Kiss. He sat on the floor and just became a kid and worked with them. Both John Ford and Sammy were great directors in their own way. John Ford was a communicator on a different level. He certainly knew what he wanted from his actors and sometimes played a trick on an actor to get just the right emotion. There's the famous story of Victor McLaglen in The Informer, when he took him out and got him drunk the night before his big scene. The next morning, McLaglen sat down, found himself in front of the camera, and said: "Oh, my god." And then he gave an Academy Award performance. So, John Ford and Sammy Fuller were very different, but both were brilliant and great artists in their own way.

Café:  Our favorite of your movies is Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss and you recently discussed it at the Niagara Falls International Film Festival. What are some of your memories of starring in that cult classic?

In Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss.
Constance Towers:  Sam got truly honest performances out of the children, creating some of the most charming and touching moments in film. It was hard work. We did it in 21 days. It was a lot of filming and a lot of emotion to cover in that short time. I have great memories of working with Sam, because he was this wonderful director who communicated with you--and sometimes shocked you. If he felt he didn't have everyone's attention on the set, he shot off a gun he had. The bullets were blanks, of course, but can you imagine that today? Back then, you could do it without people leaving the studio and running back down the street. He had a way of communicating with everybody on a very human level, giving approval to you on what you were doing. It was a very enjoyable experience.

Café:  What was your reaction when you first read the script?

Constance Towers:  I sat and read the script with Sam and he explained every scene as we came to it. It was a different experience because I could discuss it with the director and the writer. As you envisioned each scene as an actor, he was there to help explain anything you didn't understand. I was concerned about the subject matter because child molestation was not a buzzword at that time. It was a whispered and dark secret that people were aware of, but unwilling to talk about it. Sam Fuller was very courageous. You've seen all of his movies and you know the subject matter of his films has a strong moral and message to it. Certainly, The Naked Kiss had a strong message. Today, child molestation and pedophilia are something that people readily talk about. It's on the front page of our papers practically every day, but it was not back then.

Café:  You guest-starred on Perry Mason five times. We’ve interviewed other actresses (e.g., Julie Adams, Jacqueline Scott, Ruta Lee) who enjoyed their time on that series and spoke highly of producer Gail Patrick. Was your experience similar?

With Raymond Burr in
"The Case of the Ugly Duckling."
Constance Towers:  I loved it. I had such fun on that show. Gail Patrick was a wonderful lady, such an intelligent woman. I'd have to go back and research to be sure, but I think she was one of the first female producers of successful TV series. Raymond Burr was intelligent and such a good actor.  Working with him was a handful, though, because he was so much fun. One of the stories about him is that he was having abdominal surgery around Christmas time. So, the nurses prepared him for the operation, which involved shaving the area. They got him all ready for the operation, sedated him, and sent him into the operating room. When they removed the sheet, printed across his stomach were the words: "Do not open until Christmas." He had this sense of humor that people weren't aware of because Perry Mason was very serious. Working with him was just a joy because he was such fun and was a brilliant actor.

Café:  How did you come to be cast in the 1977-78 Broadway revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner?

With Lillian Gish in Anya.
Constance Towers:  My career started in New York and I went back there after doing The Horse SoldiersThe Naked Kiss, and other films. I went there at the request of Edwin Lester, who was the director of the Civic Light Opera in Los Angeles. He thought I was right for the lead in the stage musical Anya, which was the play Anastasia set to the music of Rachmaninoff. I opened in it, but unfortunately there was a newspaper strike at the time and they were building the subway on Sixth Avenue near the Ziegfeld Theatre. So, we opened under a lot of problems at Christmas time. Frank Loesser, who was the producer of Anya, withdrew, so a golfing friend of George Abbott's--the great Mr. Abbott, the director--took over as producer. So, the show lacked a certain amount of support, even though Hal Prince was sitting there during rehearsals, helping Mr. Abbott. We were open for just three weeks, but I was fortunate that Richard Rodgers saw Anya and took me under his wing and cast me in his production of Show Boat at Lincoln Center in New York that summer. I just had one of those great experiences playing Julie, which was the Helen Morgan role. I sang the song "Bill" and had standing ovations every night, which was a great thrill. I continued to work for Richard Rodgers. I probably did more of The Sound of Music around the country for Mr. Rodgers than I did The King and I. Anyway, when they were casting The King and I revival with Yul Brynner, Mr. Rodgers called and asked if I would play Mrs. Anna and, of course, I said yes.

Café:  You recently reprised your role of Helena Cassadine for a couple of flashback episodes of General Hospital. You’ve made numerous appearances over the last 20 years as GH’s most famous villain. Why do you think Helena remains so popular?

As Helena Cassadine.
Constance Towers:  It's very interesting. When I first took the role, I thought: "Oh, what have I just done?" This is the villain of all villainesses and people hate the villain. I always played characters who were as pure as driven snow. Maybe they ended up on Perry Mason as the one who did it, but the least suspected of all characters. Suddenly, here was a character who was a magic marker villainess, over-the-top evil, and the richest woman in the world. Other actors didn't want to have a scene with me, because when I left their office, they were dead! So, I thought what am I doing to myself. But the character proved to be popular. People walk up to me wherever I go and say: "I just love to hate you!" And I say: "You don't mind that I'm so evil?" And they say: "No. Do more. We love it." We found the vulnerability in Helena Cassadine, which makes people feel a little sorry for her. She loved her grandson, Prince Nikolas, and he was her Achilles heel. She made mistakes because of him. That made her human and people loved that. Now, even though I've died four times on the show and managed to come back, I'm appearing in everyone's nightmares. They wake up and think, oh god, I thought she was really here! The writers keep the character alive that way, which is a very clever device. I just love playing Helena and however they write her, it's great to go back and play the character.

Café:  You probably can’t tell us, but is Helena Cassadine really dead?

Constance Towers:  She's coming back and they always talk about her. One time, my grandson Nikolas pushed me off a cliff and killed me. I came back and one of the characters said: "How did you survive?" And Helena said: "Just one mighty burst of adrenaline." Then, she walked away. The audience just accepted that she was alive. As Helena, I once killed my son Stefan and had him thrown off the back of a yacht. He was totally drunk, having consumed poison and a lot of wine. About three weeks later, he walked in on me. The first line I had after seeing him was: "I knew I shouldn't have taught you how to swim." So, other characters come back just like Helena. Who knows what they have in store for her?

Café:  How did you and your late husband John Gavin meet?

Constance Towers and John Gavin.
Constance Towers:  His godfather was Jimmy McHugh, the songwriter. He wrote "Don't Blame Me," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and many other classic songs. We met in New York when I was singing in the Plaza Hotel. He told me I should call him if I went to Southern California. So, when I came out to California, I did. He invited me to a big party and took me out on the porch and introduced me to John Gavin. My impression was that he was just an absolutely gorgeous man. But he was engaged to someone else and just went off into the sunset. About five years later, I was married and my then-husband said that a very good friend of his was coming to dinner and John Gavin walked in the door with his wife. We became good friends. When we both divorced, we started going out and then we married. That's how that happened.

Café:  You sang on albums such as The King and I and Constance Towers Sings to The Horse Soldiers.  Did you ever consider a concurrent career as a singer?

Constance Towers' first film.
Constance Towers:  Well, I always had a career as a singer. I started out in New York, singing in the Maisonette in the St. Regis Hotel, which was one of the two rooms one could appear in as a cabaret kind of singer. I also sang at the Plaza. Both were big venues. I've been in musicals on Broadway for ten years. I've always been concurrently a singer as well as an actress. I've only sung in films a few times. I did in my first film, Bring Your Smile Along, which was Blake Edwards' first directorial effort at Columbia Pictures. Surprisingly, the first song I sing in the movie is "Don't Blame Me," which was written by Jimmy McHugh. I had not met John Gavin yet. I sang a song named "Lorena," which was an old Civil War song, in The Horse Soldiers and it ended up on the cutting room floor. I also sang with the children in The Naked Kiss.

Café:  Didn't you also sing during one of your guest appearances on Perry Mason?

Constance Towers:  That's right. I forgot that. That was my first one hour show and they had me play a cabaret singer and I sang in it.

Café:  You have been actively involved with many charities over the years. How did Project Connie come about and what is its mission?

Constance Towers:  In 1985, my husband John Gavin was U.S. ambassador to Mexico. And Mexico had that very tragic, horrible earthquake. I went into the streets with the Red Cross and tried to help wherever I could. I was just confronted by so many children who were either orphaned or seriously injured. One boy, a soccer player, had lost both legs at the hip. I brought him to UCLA. His one dream was to walk again. People contributed money and the UCLA rehabilitation center worked to help him walk on prostheses, which proved to be impossible for him. But at least, we gave him the opportunity to try. The staff then gave him a really hotshot skateboard. He could put his body on that skateboard and zip around to wherever he wanted to go, giving him mobility. He's now an older man and has a computer business in Mexico City. We did a lot of rehabilitation like that. Another little boy lost both arms at the elbows. I happened to have a friend in Mexico City, who lost both arms when he was taking down a kite on the Fourth of July and it hit in an electrical wire. He was a very successful businessman. So, he took this little boy under his wing and helped him emotionally as well as physically. He helped him get prostheses, so he had arms and hands that worked. It just changed the world for this little boy. We then decided to start Project Connie. We chose the name because it made it easier to raise money when people knew it was me. I think it would have been harder to do on my own if we were just living in Mexico without all the power of the United States. It was wonderful to be able to reach out and leave a lasting mark as the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. ambassador's wife. When my husband was no longer ambassador,  I put this project under the umbrella of the United Peace Movement and that's where it has remained. It has the people to watch the money and find situations that need it.

Café:  Last year, you starred in the family fantasy The Storyteller. Do you have any upcoming projects or appearances you’d like to share with our readers?

Rita Hayworth--the subject of
a new documentary.
Constance Towers:  At the moment, I'm doing a documentary on the 100th birthday celebration of Rita Hayworth. When I was at Columbia Pictures, Rita Hayworth was making the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. I didn't know her. I was just the young starlet on the lot and she was the big star. In the documentary, I'm going to take people onto the Columbia lot, which has retained some of the original buildings, where I met people like John Ford and Gregory Peck for the first time. Mr. Cohn was the big mogul of Columbia Pictures. His dining room is still there. I will be taking people around the Columbia lot and talking about Rita Hayworth and her contributions to film and why she's still one of the great film goddesses. I'll also be talking about Columbia as I knew it back in those days. It should be fun.

Café:  Thank you so much, Ms. Towers, for taking time out of your day to speak with us.

Constance Towers:  You're welcome.

You can follow Constance Towers on her Facebook page and Instagram.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Wild Bunch - Looking Back on Peckinpah's Classic After 50 Years

William Holden in The Wild Bunch.
Fifty years ago, two of American cinema's most influential Westerns were released: the revisionist Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Neither film staved off the decline of the Western genre, but each impacted Hollywood in significant ways. The former may not have been the first "buddy picture," but the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford revitalized those kinds of films. As for The Wild Bunch, while more violent and bloody films preceded it, they weren't mainstream movies with big stars and a major director. Many critics and filmgoers considered its violence shocking at the time.

Indeed, The Wild Bunch opens and closes with beautifully choreographed and edited scenes of carnage. It was enough, according to one Peckinpah biographer, for some audience members to walk out of the film when it was first released. However, sandwiched between those bloody scenes, Peckinpah presents a carefully-crafted tale of family loyalty and changing times.

Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton.
The Wild Bunch opens with Pike Bishop and his gang riding into a bustling town to rob a railroad office. Bishop (William Holden) has no idea that it's a trap set by a former pal, Deke Thornton, whose permanent release from a brutal prison hinges on his capture of Bishop. By the time, the outlaws realize it's a set-up, it's too late and their only option is to shoot their way out of town. The ensuing gunfight leaves the streets littered with dead bodies, including many innocent townspeople caught in the hail of bullets.

When Bishop regroups after a narrow escape from the town, his gang has been reduced to just five members. Moreover, their loot from the robbery turns out to be bags of worthless metal washers and Thornton is leading a gang of bounty hunters in pursuit. With few alternatives remaining, Bishop and his men journey to Mexico, where they make a deal with a ruthless revolutionary leader to steal guns and ammunition from a heavily-guarded train for $10,000. It's a decision that will ultimately result in the demise of the quintet.

Except for the bookend shoot-outs and a splendid train robbery scene in the middle, The Wild Bunch is a dialogue-driven film. Bishop repeatedly emphasizes the importance of family loyalty, for make no mistake that these outlaws are a family. They bicker, threaten each other, and talk of splitting up, but ultimately they abide by Bishop's code: "When you side with a man, you stick with him." It's enlightening when Bishop reveals to Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), his closest companion, that he feels responsible for Thornton's capture in the past. For his part, Thornton has nothing but respect for Bishop--although he's willing to capture or perhaps kill him to avoid returning to prison.
Pike's gang leaves a poor village that provided them with a moment of peace.

Set in 1913, The Wild Bunch also explores one of Sam Peckinpah's favorite themes: the end of the Wild West. Bishop and his gang marvel when they see an automobile and talk about machines that can fly in the air. The days of horse-riding outlaws are coming to an end and Bishop knows it: "We got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast." It's a theme that Peckinpah visited earlier in his elegant classic Ride the High Country (1962) and would return to again in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).

Peckinpah wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike, but Marvin instead chose Paint Your Wagon (1969), which offered a hefty payday. That was fortunate for The Wild Bunch, for William Holden gives one of his finest performances as the weary, gritty Pike. According to most accounts, the star and the director clashed often on the set, arguing about issues such as whether Holden should wear a fake mustache (he initially refused, but finally agreed...and it's hard to imagine his character without it).

Ernest Borgnine as Dutch.
The supporting cast is exceptional, especially Borgnine, Robert Ryan as Thornton, and an unrecognizable Edmund O'Brien in his last great role as an old-timer who is fiercely loyal to Pike. The camaraderie between Holden and Borgnine seems so genuine that the two were paired again in the 1972 Western The Revengers (which is strictly a standard oater).

Sadly, the graphic violence in The Wild Bunch doesn't seem as horrifying as it once did. Slow-motion shots of bullets entering into bodies and blood spurting everywhere have become too commonplace on the silver screen. However, it is still jarring to see children participate in the violence, whether they're playfully reenacting the opening gunfight or actually picking up guns and shooting people in the climax. One has to wonder what will become of these desensitized youngsters as they grow into adults.
The Wild Bunch makes their final walk.

While The Wild Bunch may be Sam Peckinpah's most famous film, it's not his best (that would be The Ballad of Cable Hogue). But fifty years later, one can appreciate The Wild Bunch as a landmark motion picture that showcases its director's visual flair and love of the Western genre. It also contains one of the most iconic images of 1960s cinema:  the shot where Thornton's men are seemingly suspended in air for a split-second when Pike blows up both ends of a bridge. It's a brilliant metaphor for the end of the Old West, which is literally slipping away from men like Thornton and Pike. It's also a reminder that--when he wanted to be--Sam Peckinpah could be a truly great director.
The bridge collapses out from under Thornton's men.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's (CMBA) Anniversary Blogathon. Click here to check out all the other great entries as the CMBA celebrates its tenth anniversary.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (October 2019)

Robert De Niro and Robby Benson.
If you're new to this game, here are the rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question. 

1. The TV series Superman and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

2. The TV series Lost in Space and Sky King.

3. Banacek and Longstreet.

4. Bonanza and Lost in Space (this one is a stretch...but still a connection).

5. The TV series Star Trek and The Love Boat.

6. Tales of Manhattan and The Yellow Rolls Royce.

7. The Music Man and the TV series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

8. Dead of Night (1945) and Spellbound.

9. Raquel Welch and Grant Williams.

10. Lee J. Cobb and Stewart Granger.

11. Rebecca and The Birds (No, it's more than Hitchcock!).

12. Peter Lorre and Doris Day (an easy one!).

13. Ava Gardner and Kim Cattrall.

14. Robert De Niro and Robby Benson.

15. George Hamilton and Sissy Spacek.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Christopher Lee Battles Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out

Christopher Lee as the hero.
Upon his return to London, Rex Van Ryn learns from the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) that their mutual friend Simon has been a mysterious recluse for the last three months. The duo motor over to a country estate recently purchased by Simon and interrupt what their friend claims is an astronomical society meeting. It's apparent that something else is going on and de Richleau confirms his suspicions when he finds satanic symbols on the observatory's floor and animals awaiting sacrifice.

It turns out that Simon and a young woman named Tanith are about to be baptized into a satanic cult led by a powerful black arts practitioner named Mocata (Charles Gray). Knowing that the following night is a sacred one for the satanists, de Richleau tries to devise a rescue plan while Rex struggles to understand what is happening.

Nike Arrighi as Tanith.
Set in the 1920s, The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil's Bride) ranks as one of Hammer Films' finest motion pictures. Richard Matheson--an acclaimed writer in his own right--adapted Dennis Wheatley's 1934 supernatural novel. The result is an intelligent script with Hitchcockian overtones.

Hammer's best director, Terence Fisher, ramps up the suspense with three thrilling scenes. The first is when de Richleau and Rex interrupt Mocata's bloody ritual to nab Simon and Tanith from his clutches. The following morning, a dapper-looking Mocata visits the house where Simon and Tanith are being guarded. In a scene straight from Hitchcock's playbook, Mocata exudes charm as he chats politely with the house's owner...and slowly bends her to his will. Charles Gray, who gives a masterful performance as Mocata, uses his penetrating eyes and smooth, controlling voice to great effect.
Charles Gray as Mocata, looking dapper and then in his ceremonial robes.

Fisher's final big flourish occurs in the climatic scene where Mocata uses all his tricks--and the Angel of Death--to lure de Richleau and his friends from a circle of protection. The scene is hampered slightly by merely passable special effects. A giant spider doesn't look all that big--the result of the film's modest budget, no doubt. However, as de Richleau, Christoper Lee's ominous warnings create a general air of unease.

It's no surprise that Christopher Lee considers The Devil Rides Out one of his best films. The sets are convincing and the English country houses--connected by narrow, empty roads--add to the feeling of isolation. Perhaps author Dennis Wheatley gets the credit here, but the decision to stage the satanic baptism ceremony in the woods at night was a brilliant one.

Christopher Lee and Charles Gray give commanding performances as powerful figures at opposing ends of the good-and-evil spectrum. The supporting cast is convincing in their roles, especially British TV veteran Sarah Lawson, who plays the woman who confronts Mocata in her home.

No review of The Devil Rides Out would be complete without mentioning one of the greatest shots in Hammer history. When Tanith is driving a car, Mocata appears to her--with only his eyes visible in the rearview mirror. It's an incredibly creepy image that lingers from one of the best horror films of the 1960s.

Charles Gray's eyes in the rearview mirror.