Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hour of the Gun: After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

James Garner as Wyatt Earp.
A decade after directing the Western classic The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), director John Sturges returned to the Earp-Clanton saga with Hour of the Gun. In narrative terms, it's a sequel; indeed, the opening is the shoot-out at the famed corral in Tombstone, Arizona. However, the two movies are distinctly different in terms of cast, tone, and accuracy. Sturges emphasizes that last point by ending the opening credits with: "This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened."

In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, villain Ike Clanton was gunned down in the climax. Hour of the Gun reveals--accurately--that Clanton wasn't involved the gunfight. Only three men died that day at the O.K. Corral, all of them at the hands of the Earp Brothers (Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil) and Doc Holliday. Although Virgil Earp was the Tombstone marshal, Ike Clanton arranges for the Earps and Holliday to be charged with murder.

When the four men are acquitted during a trial, Clanton takes matters into his own hands. He has one Earp brother maimed and another one murdered, leading Wyatt Earp and Holliday to seek vengeance--and try to stay within the bounds of the law.

Hour of the Gun is a grim Western and, for most of its running time, that's a good thing. James Garner, whose natural humor was always a strength, leaves that levity behind. He portrays Wyatt Earp as an man torn between upholding the law and enforcing retribution. Boasting a mustache and black duds, he transforms into an angel of death wearing a silver badge.

Jason Robards as Doc Holliday.
Garner is wisely paired with Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, who serves as Wyatt's conscience. Robards almost steals the film with his portrayal of the bigger-than-life Holliday, a gambler, alcoholic, and tuberculous-inflicted gunfighter who (in this narrative) values friendship and loyalty above all else. It's the kind of performance that should have earned him an Oscar nomination (he did subsequently win Supporting Actor Oscars for Julia and All the President's Men).

The two leads are backed up by Robert Ryan as Clanton and a bevy of strong supporting players: William Windom, Frank Converse, Steve Ihnat, Jon Voight, Monte Markham, William Schallert, and Albert Salmi. It's interesting to note there are no significant female characters in the film.

Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton.
Despite its claim that "this is the way it happened," the screenplay boasts a few historical inaccuracies. The most obvious is the way it depicts Ike Clanton's demise at the climax. However, compared to previous film versions, to include John Ford's My Darling Clementine, it's much closer to the facts.

James Garner later portrayed a much older Wyatt Earl in Blake Edwards' Sunset (1988), a fictitious tale that had Earp teaming up with cowboy star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) to solve a mystery in L.A. in 1929. Hollywood's fascination with the legend of Wyatt Earp peaked in the 1990s, with two films about the famous marshal being released within a year of each other:  Tombstone (1993), starring Kurt Russell as Earp, and Wyatt Earp (1994) with Kevin Costner.

Here's the opening scene of Hour of the Gun (1967), courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 3)

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

1. Unwanted Guest With an Octopus.

2. While the Big Town Stays Awake.

3. The Bubblegun-colored Jungle Animal Visits Again.

4. Hole of Vipers.

5. Authentic Hot Breakfast Food.

6. I Was Rudolf's Double.

7. Pint-sized Roman.

8. Joe & Jerry & Daphne & Josephine.

9. The Kidnapping of Hank McKenna.

10. Incident in Bodega Bay.

11. The Mysterious Dr. Frail.

12. Mystery Writer and the Killer Dentist.

13. Cooler King and the Tunnel King (a really easy one!).

14. Expensive Gems Last a Long Time.

15. Captain Spitfire and The Hawke.

Friday, February 14, 2020

"Marty" and the Precision of Dialogue

Ernest Borgnine as Marty.
Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lonely 34-year-old butcher who lives with his mother in The Bronx. He has made sacrifices for others, especially his family, at the expense of his own happiness. He has all but given up hope of finding a meaningful relationship with a woman. As he tells his mother, he is tired of being hurt.

Marty's life takes a turn for the better when he meets Clara (Betsy Blair) at the Stardust Ballroom. Clara, a quiet school teacher, has been jilted by her date because she's a "dog." Marty asks her to dance and the two wind up spending the night together. They confide the most intimate secrets to one another. At one point, Marty is so excited at talking with Clara that he literally can't stop.

The next morning, Marty is giddy with the seeds of love. However, his mother and best friend both express reservations about Clara, implying that she's not good enough for Marty. When it comes time to call her, he isn't sure what to do.

Made in 1955, Marty is one of those personal dramas that Hollywood used to excel at making before space adventures and superheroes dominated the boxoffice. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, one of the great television dramatists of the 1950s, expanded his own 1953 teleplay. In the book The Craft of the Screenwriter, Chayefsky explained the secret to his naturalistic dialogue: "My dialogue is precise. And it’s true. I think out the truth of what the people are saying and why they’re saying it. Dialogue comes because I know what I want my characters to say."

Marty and Clara.
A great example is a lengthy scene in which Marty starts talking about everything and anything as he and Clara exit the ballroom. Realizing he has been dominating the conversation, he tries to stop only to continue again. It's not just what Marty says, but the way he says it and how Borgnine delivers it that make the scene ring true.

Marty provides Ernest Borgnine with the role of a lifetime and he deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar. He had already established himself with strong supporting performances in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Still, it's safe to say that Marty elevated Borgnine to bigger parts (co-lead in 1956's Jubal) and paved the way for an enduring career.

Betsy Blair and Gene Kelly.
Sadly, his co-star Betsy Blair did not fare as well. Actually, Blair almost wasn't cast as Clara due to her left-wing political views. She lobbied hard to co-star in Marty, but gained little ground until her then-husband Gene Kelly got involved. In her autobiography The Memory of All That, she recounts a conversation in which Kelly told MGM executive Dory Schary that he wouldn't make It's Always Fair Weather if Schary didn't help Blair. She wrote: "(Schary) called the American Legion in Washington right there and then, in front of Gene, and he vouched for me. And so I was in Marty."

Although nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Blair lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden. That's a shame for Blair is every bit as good as Borgnine. Her post-Marty career is pretty much forgettable, although there were a few bright spots. Interestingly, both she and Borgnine appeared in variations of Othello:  Blair was in the contemporary jazz drama All Night Long with Patrick McGoohan and Borgnine co-starred in the aforementioned Western Jubal with Glenn Ford.

In addition Borgnine's Oscar, Marty won for Best Picture, Best Director (Delbert Mann), and Best Screenplay (Chayefsky). Rod Steiger originated the role of Marty Piletti in Chayefsky's live TV drama with Nancy Marchand as Clara.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Missing Billy Wilder in "Cactus Flower"

Goldie Hawn as Toni.
I.A.L. Diamond co-wrote some pretty amazing screenplays--his work includes The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Of course, his writing partner on those films was a guy named Billy Wilder. Mr. Diamond also occasionally branched out on his own. That was the case with the 1969 comedy Cactus Flower, which was based on a French stage play.

Walter Matthau stars as Julian Winston, a New York City dentist who has avoided marriage by telling his much-younger girlfriend Toni (Goldie Hawn) that he's married with three children. When Julian misses a date, Toni assumes he has chosen his wife over her and attempts suicide. A concerned Julian decides to marry Toni. The only problem is that Toni now wants to meet Julian's wife!

Goldie and Walter Matthau.
A desperate Julian tries to convince his highly-efficient nurse, Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman), to pose as his wife. Initially, Stephanie bluntly refuses and advises Julian to tell the truth. However, she has second thoughts and meets with Toni to explain she wants a divorce from Julian. Stephanie is too convincing, however--perhaps because she truly harbors some feelings for Julian?

After watching Cactus Flower for 15 minutes, it's obvious how the movie will end. Therefore, it's just a matter of execution: Can Diamond and the cast make the situations funny enough to justify the predictable plot? The answer is no for most of the film's running time. 

Even the usually delightful Walter Matthau displays an atypical lack of energy--though his lethargy succeeds in counteracting the excessive effort that Goldie Hawn puts in her performance. Amazingly, Goldie not only was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she won! (For the record, I don't dislike Goldie. I enjoyed her immensely in Overboard...until it began popping up on television every week.)

Jack Weston with Ingrid Bergman.
There are a handful of amusing scenes and Ingrid Bergman makes Stephanie an appealing character. Rick Lenz also scores as Goldie's next-door neighbor, Igor, in the kind of role typically played by Jim Hutton in the 1960s.

As mentioned above, Cactus Flower originated as a 1964 French stage play, Fleur de cactus, written by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. Abe Burrows adapted it for Broadway in 1965 where it was an immediate hit and ran for almost three years. The Broadway leads were Barry Nelson (Julian), Lauren Bacall (Stephanie), Brenda Vaccaro (Toni), and Burt Brinckerhoff (Igor). Vaccaro and Brinckerhoff were nominated for Tony Awards in the Featured Actress and Actor categories.

As for screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, he teamed up again with Billy Wilder for his next four films, including the offbeat Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and the underrated Avanti. He then retired from the movie business.

Monday, February 3, 2020

William Holden Leads the Devil's Brigade

Holden as the brigade commander.
A year after the boxoffice hit The Dirty Dozen (1967), David L. Wolper produced another World War II action film about a band of misfits transformed into an efficient combat unit. The differences are that The Devil's Brigade (1968) was based on fact and paints its story on a larger canvas.

William Holden stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick, who is tasked with forming a special forces brigade consisting of both American and Canadian soldiers. While the Canadian battalion is already combat-ready, the American unit is saddled with former prisoners and AWOL candidates. Plus, friction forms almost immediately between the disciplined Canadians commanded by Major Crown (Cliff Robertson) and the rambunctious Americans led (sort of) by cigar-crunching Major Bricker (Vince Edwards).

Robertson as Major Crown.
To Crown's puzzlement, Frederick encourages the rivalry between the two battalions. Learning that the Canadians were handpicked, one American soldier (Claude Akins) quips: "Where I come from, the only thing we pick by hand is little yellow daffodils."

However, as sometimes happens in action pictures, a barroom brawl--this one started by local lumberjacks--requires the two sides to work together. Having bonded, the men form a cohesive fighting unit. That's a good thing because the Brigade is soon tasked to take a Nazi-occupied mountain in Italy that no one else has been able to capture.

Even with the real-life Robert Frederick (who retired as a Major-General) as a consultant, it's hard to tell what was fact-based and what was created for dramatic intent in The Devil's Brigade. It is worth noting that, according to the book The Devil's Brigade (co-written by one its members), the barroom brawl incident actually took place and did contribute to team-building. The only significant difference is that the instigators were miners and not lumberjacks.

Claude Akins and Andrew Prine as two
of the American soldiers.
The cast is solid, though they are mostly saddled with stereotypical characters (e.g., Carroll O'Connor's blustery general, Jack Watson's straight-arrow corporal). That may be a result of trying to introduce the audience to too many members of the Devil's Brigade. Holden gets the most screen time, which affords him the opportunity to add some nuance to his mission-focused commander.

It's worth noting that Richard Jaeckel appeared in both The Devil's Brigade and The Dirty Dozen. Also, some non-actors of note make brief appearances: Green Bay Packers football star Paul Hornung, champion middleweight boxer Gene Fullmer, and stunt man/future film director Hal Needham.

Veteran director Andrew V. McLaglen (Victor's son) handles the large-scale action scenes with precision. He also make maximum use of the spectacular mountain scenery in Italy and Utah (which stands in for Montana, where the brigade actually trained).

The Devil's Brigade doesn't rank with the best World War II action movies, but it's a respectable effort that won't disappoint fans of this genre. As for the real-life 1st Special Service Force--the official name for the brigade--its surviving members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Eva Gabor

1. Contrary to their uncanny resemblance, Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor are not twins. Eva was two years younger than Zsa Zsa and four years younger than sister Magda. In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Eva said that Zsa Zsa was considered the "beauty" in the family and Magda was the "smart sister." As for herself, she sighed: "And while I was the ugly duckling, they used to say I had personality."

2. She was chairperson of the board of Eva Gabor International, one of the largest wig-makers in the world. She started the company in 1972. According to her publicist, her appearances on the Home Shopping Network broke sales records. And, yes, one of the wigs looked like her own blonde curls.

Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor.
3. Eva Gabor called playing the role of Lisa Douglas "the best six years of my life...I adored every minute of it." Of course, there was a good deal of Eva in her TV character. When Eva met President Lyndon B. Johnson in real life, she replied: "Hello, Mr. President, darling."

4. Eva was married five times, although she once said she was married "4 1/2 times, because one was on the rebound." Her longest marriage was 13 years to fourth husband, textile millionaire Richard Brown. Although they had known each other for nine months, they decided to get married two hours after Richard proposed. It was such short notice that neither of Eva's sisters could attend. Red Buttons gave away the 33-year-old bride and the wedding took place at the Hotel Flamingo in Las Vegas. After her last marriage ended in divorce in 1983, Eva became the frequent companion of Merv Griffin. She once said of him: "We’ve never been lovers, but we are great, great friends."

5. In a 1990 interview in the Chicago Tribune, she said of her role as a mother: "The other day I was having dinner with Merv and a couple of people, and we were talking about children, and I said, 'Well, my stepchildren love me more than my own.' And Merv said, 'But you don`t have any children of your own,' and I said, 'I don't?'" (Indeed, Eva Gabor never had any children.)

Eva, Zsa Zsa, and Magda Gabor.
6. Following the cancellation of Green Acres, Eva Gabor only made sporadic appearances in the entertainment field. She was a panelist on The Match Game for a year. She played a matchmaker in a pilot for a TV series in 1990 called Close Encounters, but the show wasn't picked up. She teamed up with Eddie Albert again in the made-for-TV movie Return to Green Acres (1990). Eva and Eddie Albert had previously reunited on Broadway in 1983 in a revival of You Can't Take It With You.

7. In 1995, Eva Gabor broke her hip while traveling in Mexico. When she was admitted to a hospital in Los Angeles, she was found to also be suffering from pneumonia. She died from respiratory failure on July 4th. Both her sisters survived her.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Vanishing Point: A High Speed Road to Destiny

Barry Newman in Vanishing Point.
Rural car chase movies were a staple at drive-in theaters in the 1970s, where you could view Grand Theft Auto, Eat My Dust, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. The most famous of these films is arguably Vanishing Point, which was released in 1971. Unlike the aforementioned "B" pictures, Vanishing Point was made by a major studio, 20th Century-Fox, and boasted a budget of $1.3 million. It was not intended to be a "drive-in flick," but that's where it found its greatest fame.

Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a car delivery driver tasked with taking a super-charged 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. Kowalski bets a friend he can complete the one-way 1250-mile trip in 15.5 hours. By the time he reaches Nevada, his frequent encounters with the highway patrol have gained statewide police interest.

The Dodge Challenger as a high-speed blur on the highway.
Concurrently, his story has attracted media attention thanks to the efforts of Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind African American disc jockey. He learns about Kowalski's exploits by monitoring the police band. Super Soul transforms the driver into "the last American hero, the super driver of the Golden West." He also "talks" with Kowalski on live radio, offering encouragement and useful police information.

Newman and Dean Jagger.
As the drama unfolds, the viewer gets glimpses of Kowalski's past though flashbacks, newspaper headlines, and police reports. He was a Medal of Honor winner who served in Vietnam. He worked as a police officer, but fought corruption and was dishonorably discharged. A woman who loved him died in a surfing accident (though it may have been suicide). As he speeds down desert highways, he encounters an old hermit (Dean Jagger), two hippies, and a girl at a gas station. He treats them all with respect and kindness.

Yet, this is literally all we know about the protagonist of Vanishing Point. Even though he's on screen for almost the entire running time, Kowalski remains an enigma. His motive for defying the police (or the Establishment) is never clear. And as he becomes more and more defiant, it becomes obvious to him--and the audience--that his journey cannot end well. In hindsight, Kowalski is the ultimate post-Vietnam 1970s anti-hero. (It's too bad that he takes amphetamines to combat fatigue, since one could argue that the drugs impact his final decision.)

Cleavon Little as Super Soul.
Barry Newman projects the required "cool factor" as Kowalski, but the part doesn't require a lot of acting. In the only other major role, Cleavon Little is electrifying as Super Soul, whose desire to transform Kowalski into an American hero contrasts with his nondescript life in a small, racially-divided Southwestern town.

Of course, the film's most famous "actor" is the white Dodge Challenger, which zips across the highways and desert landscapes at high-octane speeds. On the DVD commentary track, director Richard Sarafian reveals that the crew "burned up about eight of the Challengers" during the shoot. In 2011, a Pennsylvania Dodge dealer worked with the company to produce ten Kowalski Editions of the famous white muscle car.

Some fun facts:
  • The Vanishing Point soundtrack has also gained fame over the years. The film includes an appearance by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (which include Rita Coolidge). Kim Carnes, who would later gain fame as a singer ("Bette Davis Eyes") wrote two songs for the soundtrack.
  • A scene with Charlotte Rampling as a hitch-hiker was cut from the U.S. release.
  • Viggo Mortensen played Kowalski in a 1997 made-for-TV remake.
Here's a clip from Vanishing Point from our YouTube Channel:

Friday, January 24, 2020

Ghidorah Makes His Film Debut in the First Smackdown!

Ghidorah (center) battling Mothra and Godzilla.
When I first saw Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster at the Winston Theatre in 1965, it was a different movie. The title monster's name was Ghidrah (no "o"), the dialogue was dubbed, and the movie was viewed through the eyes of a squirming youngster. Five decades later, I watched a subtitled Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster...and enjoyed it more than the first time.

Akiko Wakabayashi as the princess.
The plot was certainly more complex than I remembered. Assassins want to kill Princess Selina Salno of Selgina before she can visit neighboring Japan. Moments before her plane explodes, she is warned by a flashing light in the night sky. She walks to the exit door and--with no parachute--jumps out of the plane just before it bursts into flames. When we next see her, she claims to be a princess from Venus who has come to Earth to warn it of impending disaster. She has no memory of her life in Selgina.

Meanwhile, monsters Godzilla and Rodan have re-emerged to fight one another...and destroy a few cities in the process. Unknown to them, a meteorite "hatches" to reveal a flying, three-headed dragon hellbent on destroying the Earth. The Venusian princess confirms that this creature, Ghidorah, wiped out all life on Venus and must be stopped. Fortunately, it just happens that the Shobijin, the twin fairies from Infant Island, are visiting Japan. They send for Mothra in the hope that she can convince Godzilla and Rodan to team up to defeat Ghidorah.

Mothra--in her larva state.
One's understanding and appreciation of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster depends on whether one has seen the previous kaiju films, especially Mothra (1961). I can imagine novice viewers getting a little confused when the tiny Shobijin start singing their Mothra song!

The first forty minutes focus mostly on Selina's transformation from an Earthly princess to a Venusian one. It's not without interest, but the plot picks up considerably when Godzilla makes his first appearance.

The special effects possess a quaint charm in this day of elaborate CGI. Even in the 1960s, as a wee lad, I could tell the difference between an actor traipsing around in a monster suit and the impressive stop-motion animation creatures of Ray Harryhausen. The miniature sets, though, still look impressive--though one needs to appreciate them quickly before they're crushed as collateral damage amid the monster battles.

Ghidorah's three heads.
As for for the gold-colored Ghidorah, I think he's one of special effects specialist Eiji Tsuburaya's most inventive creatures with each of his three heads capable of spewing forth a "gravity beam." He proved to be a popular villain and returned the following year in Invasion of Astro-Monster (known as Monster Zero in the U.S.). In the original kaiju films that spanned 1954-75 (known as the Showa Era), Ghidorah was a villain. His origin story changed in post-Showa films and he was sometimes portrayed as a hero.

The Shobijin summon Mothra.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster marks the third and final appearance of twins Emi Itō and Yumi Itō. They first appeared in Mothra as the Infant Island fairies who can summon Mothra and resurfaced in Mothra vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla vs. the Thing) in 1964. They're typically called Shobijin these days, though they are referred by other names, such as the Alilenas, depending on the movie and translation. In real life, the twins had a successful recording career as The Peanuts for several years. Emi died in 2012 and Yumi in 2016.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Movie-TV Connection Game (January 2020)

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

1. Danny Kaye and Yul Brynner.

2. Claude Rains and Ben Murphy.

3. Ben Murphy and Robert Redford.

4. Roger Moore and Barry Nelson.

5. John Denver and Connie Stevens.

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

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

8. Albert Finney and Tony Randall.

9. Michael Caine and Peter Fonda.

10. John Travolta and David Soul.

11. Paul Newman and Ben Gazzara.

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

13. Elton John and Robert Preston.

14. Sidney Poitier and Bette Davis.

15. The TV series The FBI and The Invaders.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Fahrenheit 451--Bradbury by Way of Truffaut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, January 13, 2020

The Brotherhood of the Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Seven Thing to Know About the Adventures of Superman TV Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 6, 2020

Walt Disney's The Swamp Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Top Ten Posts of 2019

As the year draws to a close, the Classic Film & TV Cafe traditionally ends it with a countdown of our ten most viewed posts. We published a total of 95 in 2019. Naturally, the countdown is a little skewed, since those posts that came out at the start of the year will have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2018. If we had not, The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes would have crushed the competition (as always). We also omitted our monthly quizzes. To build a little suspense, we'll begin at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

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

10. The Snubbed By the Oscars Awards...the Results Are In!

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

8.  Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket.

7.  James Garner Stars in a Disney Duo.

6.  The Five Best Shirley MacLaine Performances.

5.  An Interview with Constance Towers.

4.  An Interview with Ruta Lee.

3.  An Interview with Barbara Bain.

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

1.  Interview with Jerry Mathers.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Ring of Bright Water: An Otter Delight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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