Saturday, April 21, 2018

Earthquake Rumbles and Rattles!

Genevieve Bujold and Charlton Heston.
Rumble...rumble. That's the sound of Earthquake (1974), one of several big budget, all-star disaster movies made in the 1970s. Airport (1970) perfected the formula, but it was The Poseidon Adventure (1972) that inspired a dozen or so imitations (not counting the spoofs The Big Bus and Airplane!). Still, Earthquake had one thing that these other disaster pics didn't have--and that was Sensurround. But before we delve into that thunderous technology, let's take a look at the plot.

Ava Gardner and Loren Greene.
Charlton Heston stars as Stewart Graff, a former football player-turned-engineer who, along with other Los Angeles residents, feels an earth tremor in the film's opening scenes. Stewart is coping with a high-strung wife (Ava Gardner) who fakes suicides, while becoming attracted to a young widow (Genevieve Bujold).

Disaster film vet Kennedy also played
a cop on The Blue Knight TV series.
Meanwhile, street cop George Kennedy is suspended after punching a fellow officer (who deserved it, of course) and a motorcycle daredevil (Richard Roundtree) prepares to perform a stunt worthy of Evel Knieval. And then there's the creepy grocery store employee (Marjoe Gortner) who moonlights as a National Guardsman.

While all these folks shrug off the tremor, a young seismology student (Kip Niven) predicts that the Big One is coming. Little does he know that one of his bosses has already died as a result of a crack in the Earth and that a city employee has mysteriously drowned in an elevator shaft at the dam....

Earthquake, which was co-written by Mario Puzo--yes, the author of The Godfather!--differs in scope from most disaster films. Its tapestry is an entire city, not just a towering inferno or a cruise ship turned upside down. Puzo and co-writer George Fox do a nice job of introducing the characters and then weaving them into a single storyline after the earthquake decimates the city.

The big quake, which constitutes a seven-minute sequence--still looks impressive. Yes, there are some obvious miniature sets in some clips, but one can see why Earthquake earned an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The effects team included acclaimed matte artist Albert Whitlock, who was likely responsible for the eerie closing shot of a crumbling, burning L.A. Earthquake also won an Oscar for Best Sound and that brings us to...
Los Angeles in shambles after the first big quake.
Sensurround, which was the brand name for a sound system that allowed theater audiences to "feel" the rumbles from the earthquake by using low-frequency sound waves. According to Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States, theater owners rented special speakers and an amplifier for $500 a week when showing a Sensurround movie. While the new technology may have contributed to Earthquake's boxoffice clout, it barely survived the 1970s. It was used in a handful of other films such as Midway (1976) and Rollercoaster (1977). However, the introduction of Dolby high-fidelity stereo had attracted far more attention by the end of the decade.

When Earthquake made its broadcast television debut on NBC in 1976, the movie was expanded into a two-night "event." The running time was extended by inserting leftover footage and filming new scenes, including a subplot about an airplane unable to land due to the quake. My recommendation is to steer clear of that inflated edition and stick with the 123-minute version. It may not be great filmmaking, but it's one of the better disaster movies and the cast seems fully engaged.

By the way, that is Victoria Principal (shown on the right) as the the frizzy-haired Rosa, four years before she starred in Dallas. At one time, she and George Kennedy were among those scheduled to star in an Earthquake sequel. Also, although you may not see Walter Matthau's name in the credits, that's him (of course) as the drunk in the bar. He asked to be credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Do You Remember When? (Classic TV Edition)

OK, classic TV fans, do you remember when...

Festus and Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke.
1. A full season for a TV series like Gunsmoke was comprised of 32 episodes...or more! Today, a show is lucky to get a season order for 24 episodes.

2. Saturday night was filled with quality television series. In 1972, for example, you could watch the following on Saturday evening: Bewitched, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Mission: Impossible.

3. The broadcast networks rolled out their new shows all at the same time as part of "Premiere Week."

The Cardinals--my team--win it all!
4. The World Series was broadcast only during the day. (I had to hide a transistor radio earplug up my sleeve to listen to the '67 series while attending fifth grade.)

5. The Hallmark Hall of Fame was a prestigious TV event that aired 4-5 times a season and starred A-list stars such as George C. Scott, Joanne Woodward, Richard Harris, Peter Ustinov, and Charlton Heston.

6. The CBS Late Movie ran films--most of them never shown before on television--every weekday night at 11:30. To my delight, Friday evolved into "horror movie night" with Hammer classics such as Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) and Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

Host Tom Jones and guest Cher.
7. Variety shows were all the rage! In the 1968-69 TV season, you could watch variety TV series hosted by (take a deep breath): Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, the Smothers Brothers, Rowan & Martin, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton, the King Family, Jonathan Winters, John Davidson, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, and Jackie Gleason. That's not even counting The Hollywood Palace, which featured guest hosts (Bing Crosby was the most frequent one with 31 appearances in seven seasons).

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner.
8. British TV shows were "imported" as summer replacement series--and some of them became hits! Examples include The Avengers, Secret Agent, Man in a Suitcase, The Champions, and The Prisoner.

9.  The only way to see a movie you missed at a theater was to wait for it to come on broadcast television. If you were lucky, one of the networks would buy the rights and show it as a "World Television Premiere" about two years after the film's theatrical run.

10. Real (as opposed to animated) animals starred in their own television series or had flashy supporting roles. There were dogs (Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, the Littlest Hobo), horses (Mister Ed, Fury, My Friend Flicka), a dolphin (Flipper), a lion (Clarence in Daktari), chimps (Bear, Lancelot), bears (Gentle Ben), birds (Fred on Baretta), an alligator (Elvis on Miami Vice), and a pig (Arnold on Green Acres). And that's just naming a few of the furry famous!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Bing Crosby Tends to Dr. Cook's Garden

Bing Crosby as Dr. Leonard Cook.
Leonard Cook is a kindly small-town physician who has delivered most of the residents of Greenfield. Approaching age 70, he still makes house calls, works long hours, and is always willing to help raise funds for the community. There's just one problem: Dr. Cook may be a murderer.

Made in 1971, Dr. Cook's Garden stars Bing Crosby in his final leading role. Sporting gray hair and a beard, Crosby delivers a nuanced performance that's different from anything else he's done.

Even though the film's premise is established in its opening scenes, the actor's sincerity keeps one guessing about whether Dr. Cook could be killing selected patients. His best scene has the good doctor offering plausible, though far-fetched, explanations about why he stores so much poison and places the letter "R" on certain patients' cards ("R means rest or repeat," he insists, when asks if it means "remove").

Frank Converse and Blythe Danner.
Frank Converse co-stars as Jim Tennyson, a young medical intern who returns to Greenfield after a five-year absence. Jim, who lost his parents as a boy, views Leonard Cook as a surrogate father. But the loving reunion starts to slowly sour when Jim notices all the "nice people seem to live to a ripe old age and the mean ones seem to die off." There almost seems to be a correlation with Dr. Cook's garden in which certain plants are removed to provide a healthier environment for the rest. Could that be what Leonard Cook is doing in Greenfield?

Burl Ives and Keir Dullea.
The teleplay for Dr. Cook's Garden was based on a Broadway play of the same title by Ira Levin. The stage version ran for just eight performances in 1967. It starred Burl Ives as Dr. Cook (I imagine he was excellent) and Keir Dullea as Jim. Ira Levin is probably best known for his novels Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, with the latter's idyllic town somewhat reminiscent of Greenfield.

Dr. Cook's Garden appeared on ABC's Movie of the Week during what I consider to be the Golden Age of made-for-TV films. It's a clever, well-acted movie, but don't take my word for it. In Stephen King's Danse Macabre, his 1981 analysis of horror in literature, film, and television, the famed author wrote about Ira Levin's works: "Less known is a modest but chillingly effective made-for-TV movie called Dr. Cook's Garden, starring Bing Crosby in a wonderfully adroit performance."

Well said, Steve.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Lon Chaney, Jr. Places a Call to Dr. Death

Lon Chaney, Jr. reflects on a case.
Inspired by the popular Inner Sanctum radio suspense series, Calling Dr. Death was the first of a six-film series produced by Universal in the 1940s. It's an imaginative mystery with noirish elements that kicks off the franchise in style.

Lon Chaney, Jr. stars as Dr. Mark Steele, a financially successful neurologist trapped in a loveless marriage. Mark blacks out one weekend and awakes in his office to learn that his wife Maria has been brutally murdered. How brutal? The killer beat Maria to death with a blunt instrument and then threw acid in her face.

J. Carrol Naish as the inspector.
Maria's demise allows Mark to pursue a relationship with his loyal nurse Stella (Patricia Morrison). However, his ability to bury the past is obstructed by a dogged detective (J. Carrol Naish) and a persistent fear that he could still be the murderer--even though Maria's lover has been arrested.

There's much to like in Calling Dr. Death, from Naish's weird, obsessed detective to the hypnosis-infused climax. However, what truly sets it apart from other "B" mysteries is the extensive use of voice-overs to convey Mark's thoughts. While I have seen that technique employed effectively in other films, I've never seen it used to such a large degree. It allows the viewer to get to know Mark intimately and, let's be honest, the good doctor should be seeing a psychologist to resolve his own issues.

Patricia Morrison as Stella.
Lon Chaney, Jr. gives an adequate performance as the protagonist, who reminded me at times of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man movies. With a few exceptions (e.g., Of Mice and Men, Son of Dracula), I've never found Chaney, Jr. to be a compelling actor. However, the dependable Naish has one of his best roles as Inspector Gregg and Patricia Morrison makes Stella more interesting as the film progresses. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Gale Sondergaard was originally cast as Stella.

Chaney is the only actor to appear all six Inner Sanctum films, which feature no recurring characters. Most of the series' entries are psychological suspense movies with twist endings. Strangely enough, 1948's Inner Sanctum, though also inspired by the radio show, was not part of the Universal series.

Calling Dr. Death is also notable for the debut for the now-famous prologue featuring a floating, warped head inside a crystal ball. Click on the clip below to watch it!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Sam Peckinpah's TV Series "The Westerner"

Brian Keith and Spike in The Westerner.
Produced in 1960, The Westerner is a tough, realistic TV Western that befits its creator, Sam Peckinpah. The director  was already a TV veteran, having written and directed episodes of Gunsmoke, Broken Arrow, and The Rifleman in the 1950s. In fact, he is often credited as the creator of The Rifleman, having written the pilot which first appeared on Zane Grey Theater.

The Westerner stars Brian Keith as an illiterate drifter named Dave Blassingame, who travels from town to town with his dog Brown. While not openly affectionate--indeed, Dave criticizes Brown for not helping out on more than one occasion--there is a strong bond between man and dog. They're both independent souls; Dave describes Brown as "being his own dog." Hence, it's not a surprise when Dave turns down a hefty sum of $200 when a dandy tries to buy Brown (the same episode features what may be one of the longest fist fights in broadcast TV history).

Diana Millay and Brian Keith.
The Westerner, though, is not about Dave and Brown. They're the protagonists that keep the plots moving, but Peckinpah is more interested in the people they meet while roaming the frontier. In the first episode, Dave almost dies trying to rescue a young woman from the apparent clutches of a manipulative older man. It's not until the closing scene that Dave learns she really doesn't want to be rescued.

Peckinpah earned his reputation as a director, but he was a good writer, too. He has a hand in many of the scripts with Bruce Geller (creator of Mission: Impossible) also penning several of them. The second episode includes some great examples of the series' first-rate writing, such as this exchange between Dave and a dead man's brothers played by John Anderson and Williams Tracy.

Brother #1:  It must take a lot of stomach to ride into a man's kin and tell them you killed their brother. (To the other brother) Go find the book.

Brother #2 (to Dave): Proud of it, he is.

Dave: Don't point at me as being proud. I don't take no pride in killing.

Brother #1: You ain't sorry.

Dave: You bet I am. I'm sorry if I had to kill him I didn't get there a couple of minutes earlier. I'm sorry he was ever born.

Sadly, NBC cancelled The Westerner after 13 episodes due to low ratings; it was up against Route 66 on CBS and The Flintstones on ABC. I suspect the show may have experienced some challenges with the network's censors, too. Some episodes feature sudden violent outbursts (e.g., a schoolteacher attacked and accidentally killed) that remain potent today.

Peckinpah tried to revive the series in 1963 with an episode of The Dick Powell Theatre called "The Losers." It was a contemporary "Western" and starred Lee Marvin as Dave Blassingame (who still has a dog as a companion).

In 1967, Tom Gries adapted an episode he wrote of The Westerner ("Line Camp") into the motion picture Will Penny. The critically-acclaimed movie starred Charlton Heston as a aging cowboy who befriends a young woman and her son. Heston has often claimed it was his favorite among his film roles.

Spike in Old Yeller.
By the way, if the dog playing Brown in The Westerner looks familiar, then you may recognize the work of canine actor Spike. He is best-known for portraying the title role in Walt Disney's Old Yeller. My favorite of his scenes in The Westerner is when Dave is trying to get Brown to chew the ropes tying his hands--and the canine is too busy sampling leftovers on a dinner table. That sounds like my dogs.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Beyond the Poseidon is Not a Disaster

Following 1978's unmitigated flop The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) offers a little redemption for producer-director Irwin Allen and star Michael Caine. Let's be clear: This belated and unnecessary sequel to 1972's The Poseidon Adventure is not a good film. But it is a watchable film thanks to an interesting cast and the many ways it manages to rehash the first film.

Caine plays Mike Turner, a small-time ship captain with financial difficulties, who loses his cargo in a storm at sea. Turner, first mate Wilbur (Karl Malden), and "passenger" Celeste (Sally Field) get a break when they happen on the capsized Poseidon. Turner plans to board the luxury ocean liner and recover any valuables, which he can then claim as salvage.

Michael Caine, Karl Malden, and Sally Field.
Before he can execute his plan, a larger ship arrives at the site. Its captain, Dr. Stefan Svevo (Telly Savalas), states his mission is to rescue and provide medical services to the remaining survivors. Turner and Svevo both lead parties into the bowels of the Poseidon--which Wilbur dubs a "floating time bomb"--and are quickly trapped inside the sinking ocean liner.

There are few surprises in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. It turns out that Svevo has an ulterior motive which has nothing to do with saving passengers. That leaves Turner to become the reluctant hero as he finds passengers who were apparently left behind at the end of the previous film.

Mark Harmon and Angela Cartwright.
Those survivors include: an overprotective father (Peter Boyle), his daughter (Angela Cartwright), the daughter's burgeoning boyfriend (Mark Harmon), the ship's nurse (Shirley Jones), a blind man (Jack Warden) and his wife (Shirley Knight), a socialite (Veronica Hamel), and a self-proclaimed Texas billionaire (Slim Pickens). Naturally, not all of them will make it to the end of the film!

The original Poseidon Adventure is one of the best disaster movies, thanks largely to Gene Hackman's commanding performance. As much as I like Michael Caine, he doesn't put much effort into his lead role. His opening scenes with Sally Field, which include an overdose of playful banter, are painful. It's not hard to see why actors such as John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, and Clint Eastwood allegedly turned down the part.

Savalas...not as Blofeld.
To her credit, Sally Field eventually rights the ship (no pun intended) as the always-optimistic Celeste. Her best scene is when she volunteers to help Caine just so she can cry out of sight of the other passengers. As for the rest of the cast, it's fun to see Slim Pickens hamming it up as a Texas oil man and to watch a young Mark Harmon paired with Penny Robinson from Lost in Space. And I must admit that Telly Savalas' first appearance, dressed in an all-white uniform, made me think he was reprising his role as Blofeld from On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Surprisingly, the special effects--always a highlight in an Irwin Allen production--are somewhat shoddy. There are some embarrassing rear-screen shots at the start of the film. And when Caine and Malden are navigating their tiny ship through a ferocious storm, one gets the feeling that a bunch of grips are just off-screen throwing buckets of water so they splash on the deck.

It's easy to criticize a movie like Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, but by the time Caine and Co. started focusing on how to escape from the ocean liner, I found myself getting involved in their plight. Yes, it rehashed much of the original with folks bickering among themselves as they jump across huge holes in the hallways and climb creaky ladders with flames blazing below them. I expected all of that...along with the stereotypes and the obvious plotting.

That doesn't mean it was any less fun.

Here's a clip from Beyond the Poseidon Adventure courtesy of You can view it full-screen on the Cafe's YouTube channel. (You can also stream the entire movie at Warner Archive).

Monday, April 2, 2018

Five Movie Props I'd Like to Own (Volume II)

1. Atticus Finch's Pocket Watch. I pondered opting for the whole box of treasures shown in the opening credits of To Kill a Mockingbird--but that seemed greedy. Plus, I love the scene where Atticus tucks Scount in her bed and she asks to play with his pocket watch. He explains that he will leave the watch to Jem, as it's a father-son tradition, and she will receive her mother's pearls. And if Atticus's watch isn't available, I'll settle for the one that the kids find in the knot hole in the tree (shown on right).

2. James Bond's Walther PPK Pistol. Agent 007 first brandishes his trademark firearm in Dr. No, but it appears in many subsequent films. Some firearms experts claim the gun used in Dr. No is the PP model and not the PPK as identified in the film. I don't know about that. By the way, one of my friends has a space suit that was used in Moonraker. It's not overly impressive up close, proving once again that cinema is all about creating illusions on the silver screen.

3. James Stewart's Camera from Rear Window. My movie prop collection would have to include something from one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. So, why not the camera--and telephoto lens--used by James Stewart's character in Rear Window? The Exakta Varex VX with a Kilfitt Fern-Kilar f/5.6 400mm lens plays an integral part to the plot. Not only does Stewart employ it to spy on his neighbors, but he uses the flash to temporarily blind Raymond Burr during the climax.

4. The Box containing the "Great Whatzit" from Kiss, Me Deadly. Sure, it's just a leather-wrapped box...but it's also one of cinema's most famous movie "MacGuffins." Incidentally, I am not interested in the contents of the box, which apparently consisted of radioactive materials that led to the (literally) explosive ending.

5. A Model of the Submarine Seaview from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I suspect many of you would opt for the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea if interested in a submarine model. However, as a kid, I loved Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, both the 1961 film and subsequent TV series. There were actually several different-sized models built of the Seaview. I'd go for one of the smaller ones due to storage space. I have a photo of one of them, courtesy of a fan letter I wrote to 20th Century Fox when I was 8 years old.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Movie-TV Connection Game (March 2018)

What do Jane and Brigitte have in common?
Spring is in the air! That means, well, it's time for another edition of our most popular game. As always, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is 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. George C. Scott and George Kennedy.

2. The Beverly Hillbillies and Mary Poppins.

3. Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda.

4. Jennifer Lopez and Strother Martin.

5. Dennis Weaver and Clint Eastwood.

6. Peter Boyle and Michael Sarrazin.

7. Joe Namath and Marlon Brando.

8. Sidney Poitier and Sandy Dennis.

9. Clint Eastwood and Adrienne Barbeau.

10. Danny Kaye and John Garfield.

11. Don Knotts and Chevy Chase.

12. Bing Crosby and Cornel Wilde.

13. Walt Disney and Gregory Peck.

14. Montgomery Clift, Richard Chamberlain, and Christopher Reeve.

15. Greta Garbo and Cyd Charisse.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Let's Go to Witch Mountain!

Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards.
Newcomers Tony and his sister Tia don't blend in with the other children at the Pine Woods orphanage. That will happen when you have telepathic, telekinetic, and clairvoyant powers. The two siblings try to hide their extrasensory abilities, although Tony obviously has trouble doing so.

When he and Tia save the mysterious Mr. Deranian from a car accident, the man appears at the orphanage claiming the children are his long-lost niece and nephew. Tony and Tia can't dispute Deranian's story, because they can't remember their early childhood (although Tia has occasional visions of almost drowning).

After providing forged legal documents, Deranian adopts the siblings and moves them into the mansion of his employer, Aristotle Bolt. It quickly becomes evident that Bolt intends to use the children's powers for his own benefit. Meanwhile, Tia discovers a map that may provide the answer to her and Tony's origins.

The paranormal kids and normal Eddie Albert.
Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) is one of the best Disney live action films of the 1970s, For the most part, the decade was not kind to the family-friendly film company. It struggled with big-budgeted flops like Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) as well as more reasonably priced pictures (e.g., 1973's One Little Indian) that failed to find an audience. Heck, even Fred MacMurray--once one of Disney's most bankable stars--couldn't make a hit out of Charley and the Angel (1973).

Escape to Witch Mountain benefits from a well-plotted story and a good cast. The former can be attributed to Alexander H. Keys' 1968 science fiction novel. The film's screenplay simplifies Key's book and makes some substantial changes. For example, in the novel, Tia is mute and communicates with Tony only through telepathy. However, the film still retains the central mystery of the children's origin and the mysterious map leading to Witch Mountain.

An adult Kim Richards.
A persuasive cast carries the film nicely, particularly the always reliable Donald Pleasance as Deranian and Eddie Albert as a cynical widower that ends up helping Tia and Tony. Unfortunately, Ray Milland is wasted as the one-note villain. As for the kids, Kim Richards (Tia) comes across as a more natural performer than Ike Eisenmann (Tony). Richards was a busy child actor, having co-starred as Prudence in the 1970-71 TV series Nanny and the Professor. And--before you can ask--yes, she grew up to be the same Kim Richards that gained notoriety on the reality TV series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Lee and Davis as the baddies.
Despite a solid showing at the box office, Disney waited three years to mount the sequel Return from Witch Mountain (1978). It reunited Richards and Eisenmann as the paranormal youths, but unwisely omitted Eddie Albert. Christopher Lee and Bette Davis (in one of her worst later roles) star as the villains. There's practically no plot with the emphasis being on an increased number of cheap-looking special effects.

In 1982, Disney produced a busted TV pilot called Beyond Witch Mountain, which starred Eddie Albert and featured Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Bolt. In 1995, Disney remade the original as a made-for-TV film with Robert Vaughn as Bolt. This time, the kids were named Danny and Anna and were helped by a young waitress.

Finally, in 2009, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson headlined Race to Witch Mountain, playing a Las Vegas cabbie that befriends two unusual siblings named Sara and Seth. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann had cameos as, respectively, a waitress and a sheriff.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Celebrate National Classic Movie Day with our Comfort Movie Blogathon!

For the fourth consecutive year, the Classic Film & TV Cafe is celebrating National Classic Movie Day on May 16th by hosting a blogathon. This year, we're shining the spotlight on those special movies that bring us comfort during those times when we most need it.

Recovering from the flu? Didn't get that dream job? Broke up with the person you thought was your soulmate? Then it's time to watch one of those classic movies that inexplicably makes you feel better! And then write about it for the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon!

If you want to participate, check out our blogathon guidelines. Then, provide your blog's web address and your comfort movie by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at When you post your review, please include a link back to this post, which is where we will post the schedule with all the links.

If you don't have a blog, you can still participate by listing your favorite classic comfort movie on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or another social media platform on National Classic Movie Day.

And since May 16th is all about our love of classic movies, it's a great day to introduce a friend to the wonderful films from the silents to the 1970s!

Here's the blogathon schedule (check back later because we will continue to update it!):

An American in Paris - Popcorn and Flickers
Annie - Realweegiemidget Reviews
The Apartment - A Person in the Dark
The Awful Truth - Outspoken and Freckled
Between the Lines (1977) - Film Fanatic
Breakfast at Tiffany's - dbmoviesblog: passionate about cinema
Buster Keaton Shorts - Classic Film Observations & Obsessions
The Court Jester Caftan Woman
Cover Girl - Musings of a Classic Film Addict
Funny Face - Taking Up Room
Grand Hotel - In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
How to Marry a Millionaire - Moon in Gemini
It's a Wonderful Life - MovieRob
Lady for a Day - Silver Screen Modes
The Long, Long Trailer - Whimsically Classic
The Magic Christian - Lo! The Humanities
My Favorite Brunette - Twenty Four Frames
Pollyanna - The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Films
On the Town - Silver Screenings
Parrish - Classic Film & TV Cafe
Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) - Once Upon a Screen
Roman Holiday - Champagne for Lunch
Singin' in the Rain - Critica Retro
Sons of the Desert - Hometowns to Hollywood
Stagecoach (1939) - Old Hollywood Films
Sunday in New York - Love Letters to Old Hollywood
The Thin Man - Backlots
The Three Musketeers (1948) - Silver Screen Classics

Monday, March 19, 2018

Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog

Fred MacMurray and his shaggy, car-driving co-star.
In hindsight, The Shaggy Dog (1959) was a landmark Disney film. After all, this amusing comedy perfected the formula for the contemporary live-action family films produced by the studio for the next twenty years. It was also the first of Fred MacMurray's five Disney films--and, according to some sources, it inspired his long-running TV sitcom My Three Sons. Pretty impressive for a comedy about a teenager that periodically transforms into a sheepdog!

Tommy Kirk stars as Wilby Daniels, the kind of teen inventor that accidentally launches a missile interceptor through the roof of his family's house. That doesn't sit well with his grumpy father (MacMurray), a postal carrier who hates dogs--even though his younger son Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) badly wants one.

Wilby in the bathroom.
Moochie gets his wish, more or less, when Wilby accidentally comes into possession of a ring owned by Lucrezia Borgia. When he tries on the cursed ring, he transforms into a sheepdog owned by his pretty, new French neighbor (Roberta Shore, whom we interviewed in 2016).

Later, Wilby transforms back into his human self, but continues to turn into into a shaggy sheepdog at the most inopportune moments. He seeks help from Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), who informs Wilby that he has invoked a curse that can only be broken by a heroic act. Thank goodness, while in his canine form, he discovers a spy ring in the neighborhood!

Kevin Corcoran was a Disney mainstay.
Although it was loosely inspired by a 1923 novel called The House Florence, The Shaggy Dog owes much to Old Yeller. That family drama, made two years earlier, teamed Kirk and Corcoran as brothers for the first time. And it was about a dog, too! Of course, Old Yeller is a very different film (Tommy Kirk's big scene near the end always gets to me).

Still, it's apparent that Walt Disney recognized the natural brotherly connection between the teenager Kirk and ten-year-old Corcoran. The two got along well and appeared together in a total of five Disney pictures, portraying siblings again in Swiss Family Robinson, Savage Sam (a sequel to Old Yeller), and Bon Voyage!--which also featured Fred MacMurray as their father.

Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk.
However, it was another Shaggy Dog star, Tim Considine, who would become one of Fred's sons when My Three Sons debuted in 1960. Considine only has a small role in Shaggy Dog, playing Wilby's rival for Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore. Earlier in his career, he played Frank Hardy opposite Tommy Kirk's Joe Hardy in two serials about the sleuthing Hardy Boys.

The Shaggy Dog also introduced the "absent-minded inventor" theme that provided the plots of numerous Disney comedies. Kirk played a college student with a passion for a wild experiments in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and its sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965). His Shaggy Dog co-star Annette Funicello played his college sweetheart. Meanwhile, MacMurray had one of his biggest hits in the title role of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel Son of Flubber (1963).

As for the original Shaggy Dog, it was a big hit that resulted in a belated sequel The Shaggy D.A. (1976), with Dean Jones as the adult Wilby. It also spawned several additional sequels and remakes. That's a pretty impressive legacy for a movie about a teen were-dog.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Michael Caine Attends a Funeral in Berlin

In this 1966 follow-up to the previous year's Ipcress File, Michael Caine returns as Cockney thief-turned-spy Harry Palmer. The bespectacled Palmer still works for British intelligence and he's gotten a promotion. The bad news is that he remains on a suspended prison sentence and needs an interest-free loan to buy a car.

Palmer's latest assignment sends him to East Berlin to interview Colonel Stok, a potential KGB defector. Stok, who is in charge of Berlin Wall security, claims he wants to retire to the English countryside to raise roses. Palmer doesn't buy it, but his superiors view Stok's defection as a major coup. They agree to all of the Russian colonel's demands, which include having his escape planned by Otto Kreutzman--who has been a thorn in Stok's side.

Eva Renzi as Samantha.
Meanwhile, Palmer starts a relationship with a pretty Israeli model named Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi). While there's an undeniable mutual attraction between the two, each is suspicious enough to have the other's apartment searched for information. That proves invaluable when Palmer later discovers a connection between Samantha and Kreutzman involving a mysterious man named Paul Louis Broum.

Funeral in Berlin is one of those rare sequels that matches--or possibly surpasses--the original film. Caine is in top form as the insolent Palmer and injects his own sense of wry humor into the proceedings. One of my favorite scenes has Palmer complaining about his cover name of Edmund Dorf. When the forger explains that "all the best Englishmen have foreign names," Palmer replies: "Can I be Rock Hunter?"

Oscar Homolka as Colonel Stok.
Caine gets fine support from the rest of the cast, especially Oscar Homolka and Guy Doleman, who reprises his Ipcress File role as Palmer's cold-hearted superior. Homolka and Caine have such great rapport that the two appeared together again in the third Harry Palmer film, 1967's Billion Dollar Brain.

Like the best spy pictures, Funeral in Berlin interweaves multiple plots to create a tapestry of espionage. The recurring theme is one of duty--just how far will one go to accomplish the mission? At the climax, Palmer proves that there are limits to what he will do. That doesn't hold true for another character.

Funeral in Berlin was based on the third of author Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels--though the character remains famously nameless in the books. On playing Palmer, Michael Caine wrote in his 2010 biography The Elephant to Hollywood: "I really enjoyed playing Harry Palmer in the three movies. In some ways I felt a certain affinity with the way his character develops during the course of them. In The Ipcress File, he was a complete innocent, just as I had been in the film business. By Funeral in Berlin, we had both learned a lot more. And by the time we got to Billion Dollar Brain I felt that both Harry and I had become hardened by our experiences."

Palmer confronts Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman).
Twenty-eight years after Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Caine reprised Harry Palmer for two HBO made-for-TV films shot back-to-back: Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg. He described making these movies as his "worst professional experience ever."

It's interesting to note that while Harry Palmer was envisioned as the antithesis of James Bond, the first three movies had a strong Bond connection. They were all produced by Harry Saltzman, who co-produced many of the 007 films with Albert Broccoli. Saltzman employed many of his Bond film colleagues: director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger), production designer Ken Adam, and composer John Barry (who composed the Ipcress File score).

This post of part of the Michael Caine Blogathon hosted by Reelweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out the other fabulous posts in this blogathon. Finally, you can view a clip from Funeral in Berlin, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel, by clicking on the image below.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Disney's The Island at the Top of the World

In London 1907, businessman Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) convinces Professor Ivarsson (David Hartman) from the University of Minnesota to accompany him on an expedition to the Arctic. Sir Anthony's mission is to find his son, David, who was lost somewhere near the legendary Graveyard of the Whales.
The colorful, exciting poster lured me to the movie as a kid.

David Hartman and Donald Sinden.
Accompanied by a French pilot and a poodle named Josephine, Sir Anthony and Ivarsson travel by dirigible to ice-bound Fort Conger, David's last known location. They gather more details about David's disappearance and trick his Eskimo guide, Oomiak (Mako), into joining their quest.

The journey to The Island at the Top of the World is the best part of this 1974 Disney adventure. The London scenes and the dirigible flight evoke a nice sense of period. And while David Hartman is his usual sincere, if somewhat dull, self, Donald Sinden propels the plot forward, capturing Sir Anthony's almost manic drive to find his lost son.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens with this type of film, the payoff is a letdown. I won't spoil the plot, but suffice to say that it gets bogged down once Sir Anthony and Ivarrson reach their destination. The film is almost saved by a modestly entertaining extended chase sequence packed with special effects. By then, though, it's too little too late--plus the special effects range from the good (the inevitable dirigible explosion) to the bad (man-eating killer whales).

The Hyperion, the film's dirigible.
Clearly, Walt Disney Productions was hoping that The Island at the Top of the World would recapture the magic of its earlier fanciful adventures, such as the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The studio entrusted the project to its "A" team, with veteran director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Absent-Minded Professor) at the reins and Hal Gausman (Son of Flubber, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) designing the elaborate sets. Both craftsmen had experience working with effects-laden films. In addition to its in-house technicians, Disney got Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) to compose the score, which is lovely without being particularly memorable.

Agneta Eckemyr.
Veteran Japanese character actor Mako, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Sand Pebbles (1967), heads the supporting cast. It also includes French actor Jacques Marin (Charade, Marathon Man) and David Gwillim, who became best known for his British television appearances (e.g., the excellent miniseries of The Citadel with Ben Cross). Swedish actress Agneta Eckemyr, a former model and future pin-up girl, plays the female lead (which is a small part in a male-dominated film).

The Island at the Top of the World was based on the 1961 novel The Lost Ones, written by Ian Cameron (a pseudonym for James Vance Marshall, best known for Walkabout). Walt Disney Productions planned to make a sequel based on another Cameron book, The Mountains at the Bottom of the World. However, those plans were quashed when The Island at the Top of the World earned only modest boxoffice returns.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Steve McQueen Makes Use of the Honeymoon Machine

Steve McQueen as Fergie.
Before he played a sailor in The Sand Pebbles and gambled for high stakes in The Cincinnati Kid, Steve McQueen starred as a Naval officer gambling for big bucks in The Honeymoon Machine (1961). But whereas the later films were "A" list dramas, The Honeymoon Machine is a modest comedy intended as a showcase for its up-and-coming stars.

McQueen plays Lieutenant Fergie Howard, who hatches a scheme to take advantage of a state-of-the-art computer--the Magnetic Analyzer Computer Synchrotron--on board his ship. With the help of a scientific genius pal (Jim Hutton) and a gullible fellow officer (Jack Mullaney), Fergie plans to make a fortune playing the roulette wheel at a Venice casino.

Paula Prentiss as a wiener heiress.
Based on the outcomes of hundreds of roulette wheel spins, the computer can predict the three most likely winning numbers based on the result of the previous spin. Pretty soon, Fergie and his pals are rolling in cash. Their plan gets more complicated, though, when Fergie falls for an admiral's daughter (Brigid Bazlen) and his scientist pal encounters an old flame (Paula Prentiss). Even worse, the admiral intercepts the ship-to-shore communications with the computer and thinks that high-level espionage is being plotted.

The screenplay for The Honeymoon Machine was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and George Wells. It was based on Semple's 1959 Broadway play The Golden Fleecing, which starred Tom Poston as Fergie. Constance Ford and (Poston's future wife) Suzanne Pleshette played the female leads. The film version was Semple's first big screen credit. He would go on to write major films such as Papillon (1973) and Three Days of the Condor (1975)--though he is best known for creating the original Batman TV series.

Steve McQueen was not the first choice to play Lt. Fergie Howard. MGM wanted Cary Grant for the part (yes, for a role originated by Tom Poston!). When Grant passed, the studio cast McQueen, who had just been signed to a three-picture deal. According to several sources, McQueen didn't like The Honeymoon Machine and walked out of a screening of it. He certainly doesn't put forth much effort on the screen. It's not a bad performance, but clearly McQueen seems to be relying on little more than his natural charisma.

Jack Weston as Signalman Taylor.
On the other hand, The Honeymoon Machine affords Jim Hutton, Paula Prentiss, and Jack Weston an opportunity to shine. Prentiss steals all her scenes as an heiress who dislikes wearing her glasses--though clearly she can see very little without them. Weston has a field day as a bourbon-loving sailor who imagines seeing Martians.

The always affable Hutton was paired with Paula Prentiss in five films. Their height had something to do with the casting--Hutton was 6'5" and Prentiss 5'11"--but they also displayed an effective on-screen chemistry. They make The Honeymoon Machine an entertaining endeavor--though it's one of those frothy 1960s comedies that once consumed is easily forgotten.

The irrelevant title is a reference to "Operation Honeymoon," a missile project involving the computer in the opening scene of the movie. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Walt Disney's Pollyanna

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna.
Impeccably produced and exceedingly well cast, Pollyanna ranks as Walt Disney's finest live-action children's film. Set in 1913, it tells the story of 12-old-year Pollyanna Whittier, an eternally-optimistic orphan who comes to live with her stern aunt in the picturesque small town of Harrington.

Pollyanna's Aunt Polly is a wealthy spinster who pretty much runs the town (which was named after her family). Polly even provides notes and Bible quotations to the local minister, whose fiery sermons leave the local residents with sour stomachs every Sunday. The town is in need of some cheer and that's what young Pollyanna provides. She finds something to be thankful for even in the bleakest situations. When folks complain that the Sunday sermon ruins their fried chicken dinner, Pollyanna quickly notes that they can be glad it's six days until the next Sunday!

Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow.
She also looks for the best in people, a trait that eventually endears her to an elderly recluse (Adolphe Menjou), a cantankerous hypochondriac (Agnes Moorehead), and even the minister (Karl Malden) who has lost his congregation. Pollyanna's "gladness" spreads throughout Harrington and results in the townsfolk defying Aunt Polly by holding a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage. Polly appears to be the lone hold-out, but a climatic tragedy changes her outlook on life as well.

Based on Eleanor H. Porter's 1913 novel, Pollyanna could have been a sticky-sweet maudlin mess. Instead, it's a bright, energetic film that seems much shorter than than its 134-minute running time. Over 360 young actresses were considered for the title role before British newcomer Hayley Mills was chosen. Walt Disney's wife Lilly was partly responsible for Mills' casting, having seen Hayley in her film debut Tiger Bay (1959).

Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly.
Disney surrounded Mills with an exceptional cast, pairing her with Jane Wyman and some of Hollywood's best supporting performers (e.g., Malden, Menjou, Moorehead, and Donald Crisp). He then added promising newcomer James Drury (The Virginian), the always reliable Nancy Olson, and another Disney child star, Kevin Corcoran (who had earlier appeared in Old Yeller). As if that's not enough, TV fans can rejoice in the presence of familiar faces such as Edward Platt (Get Smart), Reta Shaw (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and Mary Grace Canfield (Green Acres).

The central performance, though, is what holds Pollyanna together and Hayley Mills shoulders the responsibility with ease. I'm hard-pressed to think of another child star who seemed as natural on the screen. Mills' acting earned her a BAFTA nomination (the "British Oscar") and she was awarded a special Academy Award in 1961 for "most outstanding juvenile performance."

Hayley Mills and Karl Malden.
Her best scene in Pollyanna is also my favorite in the film: Pollyanna encounters Reverend Ford (Malden) in a field where he is practicing one of his stern sermons.  She recounts how her father, a missionary, struggled to reach his congregation until he focused on finding the good in people. It's a simple point made with childhood innocence, but it strikes home with the minister. It's a lovely scene and reminded me once again that Karl Malden was one of the great actors of his generation.

I was surprised to read recently that Pollyanna was not a boxoffice success. Walt Disney blamed the film's title, which he thought may not have appealed to boys. That may be true, but Pollyanna is truly a film for all ages. In fact, I didn't realize just how good it was until I watched it as an adult.  I have seen Pollyanna many times over the years now and it never fails to entertain and deliver its message of good cheer and faith in one another.