Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 60 to 51

After five months, we reach the halfway point of my countdown of personal favorite films. If you're reading this series of posts for the first time, allow me to clarify that these are not what I'd consider the best 100 movies ever made (though some of them are). These films are simply one classic fan's faves. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

60. The Solid Gold Cadillac – Judy Holliday is sublime as Laura Partridge, a (very) minority stockholder in a major corporation who keeps questioning the company’s crooked board members during its public meetings. To keep her from badgering them, the board members hire Miss Partridge as their Director of Shareholder Relations—a “do nothing” job until she decides to make something of it. This delightful comedy teams Holliday with Paul Douglas, whose warmth is a perfect complement to her bubbly persona. Fans of Born Yesterday may disagree, but I think the underrated Solid Gold Cadillac is easily Holliday’s finest film.

59. O Lucky Man! – A lengthy tale of a young ambitious man seeking meaning in life, this Lindsay Anderson film is an acquired taste. I think it’s an underappreciated one-of-a-kind gem mixing sharp satire, impeccable performances, and an awesome score by Alan Price (who was a founding member of The Animals). Price’s songs, which serve as a Greek chorus, are so catchy that I scoured used record stores (I was a college student!) the day after I saw the film in search of its soundtrack (I found it). Malcolm McDowell reprises his role as Mick Travis from Anderson’s earlier If; the later Britannia Hospital is related, but not really a sequel. Helen Mirren and Ralph Richardson headline a great supporting cast, in which several performers play multiple roles.

Bond battles Oddjob.
58. Goldfinger – My favorite 007 film has everything going for it: a terrific villain, the first of the memorable henchmen, a strong heroine, clever gadgets, another fine John Barry score, and an ingenious plot. Plus, it boasts Sean Connery giving his best performance as Bond (it helps that 007 is emotionally invested this time around…after Goldfinger murders Jill Masterson). It also features my favorite line of dialogue in a Bond film. While strapped on a slab with a laser heading toward his private parts, 007 tells Goldfinger that he won’t talk. The villain’s famous retort: “I don’t want you to talk, Mr. Bond. I want you to die!”

Lee contemplates his next move.
57. Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) – Bruce Lee’s most traditional martial arts film recycles the vintage plot of two martial arts schools pitted against one another. In this case, the setting is Shanghai 1908 and the basis of the conflict is nationality—the bad Japanese school wants the good Chinese school closed. It’s a thin premise and, overall, the film can’t compare with the slicker Enter the Dragon. Still, it features my favorite Bruce Lee performance and the fight scenes are masterpieces of balletic violence.

56. The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of the Vampires) – I consider this cult classic a stylish parody of Hammer Films’ fangs-and-damsels formula. One’s affection for it will depend, in part, upon familiarity with the Hammer approach. All the expected ingredients are present: attractive women in low-cut attire, a Transylvanian setting, a Gothic castle, garlic hanging from the ceiling of a beer haus, a hint of eroticism, and a well-prepared vampire hunter. To this mix, Polanski adds a dash of the unexpected: a bumbling love struck assistant, a Jewish vampire, a gay vampire, and a darkly humorous ending. It’s also one of my favorite “snow movies.”

The other hand spells "hate."
55. The Night of the Hunter - Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is a haunting, poetic film that explores themes ranging from the battle between good and evil to the propensity of Nature to protect the innocent. The film also provides Robert Mitchum with his finest role as Harry Powell, evil incarnate disguised as a preacher (what makes the character even more chilling is that Harry believes he has a special relationship with the Almighty). Laughton’s striking use of shadows and silhouettes recalls the Expressionistic German films of the 1920s (e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I suspect much of the credit for the brilliant lighting belongs to cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a skilled craftsman who labored in routine films except for this one and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue.
54. A Summer Place - Fans of Delmer Daves’ glossy New England soap opera are sharply divided between those who revere it as a classy, nostalgic sudser and those who regard it as camp. I hold the former view, for in spite of occasional plunges into overwrought drama, A Summer Place evokes genuine warmth with its tale of old love rekindled and young love flaming for the first time. Thematically, Daves’ films are always more complex than they first appear. In A Summer Place, forbidden love and innocent love are explored through a subtle form of voyeurism; everybody seems to be secretly watching everyone else. No review of a Summer Place would be complete without mentioning composer Max Steiner's haunting, lyrical musical score.

McDowell as H.G. Wells.
53. Time After Time - This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer (The Seven Per Cent Solution). David Warner plays Jack the Ripper, who uses H.G. Wells’ time machine to escape from London in 1893 to San Francisco in 1979—with Wells (Malcolm McDowell) in hot pursuit. Watching the two turn-of-the-century intellectuals in a contemporary setting is fascinating. Much of the film’s humor is derived from Wells’s attempts to fit in. He eats at a “Scottish restaurant” called McDonald’s. He boldly discusses his ideas on “free love” to bank employee Amy Robbins (a marvelous Mary Steenburgen), who is amused by his old-fashioned values. In contrast, Warner’s killer adapts to his new environment quickly and smoothly. In an eerie scene, he flips through several TV channels filled with violent images and informs Wells: “I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now, I’m an amateur.”

52. Where Eagles Dare – Set in the white-capped mountains of Austria, Where Eagles Dare sends seven special forces soldiers to rescue a U.S. general being held captive by the Nazis. But this is no routine mission: the soldiers must break into an impregnable mountaintop castle, there appears to be a traitor among them, and their squad leader seems to trust no one—except the blonde agent hiding in the barn. Most of the plot takes place in the first ninety minutes, including some unexpected twists that reveal the true nature of the mission. The last hour consists of a series of explosive action sequences, the highlight being a fight atop a cable car leading from the mountain castle to the village below. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are the stars of this perfect popcorn movie—one of my favorite flicks to watch on snowy day.

51. To Sir With Love - In a role seemingly tailored for him, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a young engineer looking for a job. Unable to find one in his chosen profession, he accepts temporary employment as a teacher in an inner-city London school. It’s a bleak situation—the students are out of control, most of the teachers are burned out, and the school reflects the poverty of the surrounding neighborhood. Thackeray’s initial attempts to reach his students fail miserably, but he eventually makes a difference in their lives. Cynics criticize To Sir, With Love as simple-minded and obvious. Perhaps, it is, but the story is put across with such conviction and professionalism that it’s impossible to ignore its many charms. In particular, a subplot involving an attractive student (Judy Geeson) who develops a crush on Thackeray is handled impeccably. The film’s theme, sung by Lulu (who plays one of the students), became a huge pop hit. Director James Clavell must have recognized the song’s potential—it’s heard repeatedly throughout the picture.

Next month, I'll count another ten, including films featuring Vincent Price, Elizabeth Taylor, two Hayley Mills, Toshiro Mifune, and millions of nasty ants!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 84

Well, we're one day late, but this is our Memorial Day version of TT.

First, here are the answers to the (very few) unanswered questions from last time:

1. How many films feature both Gloria Grahame and one or more elephants? Name it/them.

Answer: Becks was able to come up with The Greatest Show on Earth, but there is actually one more: Man on a Tightrope, with Frederic March. Wonderful film, you should make an effort to see it if you haven't. They run it on Fox Movie Channel fairly often.

2. Rick Nelson hired this up-and-coming singer/songwriter (future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member) to write a song for the film Rio Bravo. It was not used in the film but was released as a single; it's considered a classic. Name the song and the composer.

Answer: "Restless Kid" by Johnnie Cash

Here is TT84.....enjoy!

Who Am I? My debut was in a Barbara Stanwyck film noir. In this and subsequent films, I primarily played villains, and so got to "threaten" many of the big names in Hollywood. What I tried to do to Gloria Grahame in a certain Oscar-winning film was probably the most bizarre death threat I made in my career. Who Am I?

1. Name the two Warner Brothers films that feature both Jimmy Stewart and Murray Hamilton.

2. This actor appeared in Wing and a Prayer, Battleground, The Dirty Dozen, and The Devil's Brigade. Who is he?

3. Noah Beery Jr. did some of his best work for director Howard Hawks. Name the Howard Hawks films he appeared in.

4. These three actors appeared in two classic WWII films with screenplays by Dalton Trumbo. Name the actors and the films.

5. Van Johnson starred in two films with screenplays by Robert Pirosh. Name the films.

6. In which film did Errol Flynn co-star with Thomas Mitchell? Name the film and the director.

7. Name the actor who appeared in both Battleground and Battle Cry.

8. Name two films that feature both George Peppard and Jeremy Kemp.

9. Lalo Schifrin did the score for which Clint Eastwood war film?

10. Name the films in which Charlton Heston's character dies. How many you can come up with?

11. Name the two WWII films in which Steve McQueen "buys the farm".

Friday, May 27, 2011

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (AND Vincent Price!)

Don’t expect to see Jody McCrea as Bonehead, fake surfing scenes, or the girl in the fringed dress shaking her … fringe. Don’t even expect to see more than a short glimpse of a beach! However, Dr. Goldfoot and Bikini Machine (hereafter, Dr. Goldfoot) is a spin-off of the beach party movies, and there are plenty of bikinis. It was produced in 1965 by American International, same filmmakers and writers, with claymation opening by Art Clokey. You will see funny cameos of Annette Funicello, Harvey Lembeck as Erich von Zipper, and Deborah Walley (the Gidget who went Hawaiian).
"The eyes of Goldfoot are upon you!"

Fred Clark
The best of Dr. Goldfoot is the amazing Vincent Price as the mad scientist with the golden shoes that resemble the footwear of Santa’s elves, complete with curled up toes. Price is obviously having a ball with his character, and thank heaven he is in almost all of the scenes. Without him, the movie would have been …well, pretty bad. Beach party alumnus Frankie Avalon plays Craig Gamble, a bumbling, clueless doofus who works for SIC, Secret Intelligence Command. Even though Craig is assistant to SIC director his Uncle Don (played by Fred Clark, droll and curmudgeonly), Craig has never moved up the ladder in the spy game – his code name is 00 ½. After Craig does something particularly stupid, Uncle Don demotes him to 00 ¼ , reminding him that he must remember he is a SIC man! So true.

Susan Hart
Dr. Goldfoot has created a 12-robot army, all gorgeous girls dressed in golden bikinis. He has programmed each one to seduce and marry 12 particular rich men and get their assets signed over, all of course to be given to Dr. Goldfoot. His assistant, Igor (Jack Mullaney) is not a hunchbacked dwarf. He has a greater handicap – he is really stupid! The exchanges between Price and Mullaney are hilarious. Poor Dr. Goldfoot regrets that he ever resurrected Igor from the dead, and is constantly berating him for being a blithering idiot, moron, etc. etc. Poor Igor just can’t win: (“Igor, you idiot! Why must you listen to me when I’m WRONG?!”).  Price often shouts to Igor “Shaddup!” -- a funny departure from Price’s otherwise perfect grammar and diction. One of the rich targets is Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman), who isn’t much brighter than Craig Gamble. Robot #11, Diane (lovely Susan Hart) is assigned to entice Todd . The two men are involved in a mix-up of identity for Diane. (This was an inside joke for AIP studio – in Ski Party, Hickman had played a character named Craig Gamble, and Avalon was Todd Armstrong – there are some references to this name switch throughout Dr. Goldfoot.) The slapstick unfolding of the plot holds no surprises, as in most of the beach party movies. In this one, it’s all about the good comedy script and really well-done comic delivery by Price, Avalon, Hickman and Mullaney.

Frankie Avalon
Dwayne Hickman
Some amusing aspects of Dr. Goldfoot include Dr. Goldfoot’s castle-like abode. It features not only a modern robot laboratory, but also an inquisition-type dungeon (complete with pit and pendulum, many shots of which are actual scenes from Price’s The Pit and the Pendulum.) His inventions include two “gifts” which the robots can give to possible female rivals – opera glasses which shoot out poisoned darts when help up to the eyes, and lipstick that fires laser beams when applied. There are, of course, many sex-referenced jokes:  (Robot Diane bends over a flat tire, pulling up her trench coat to reveal her bikini-topped leg, and opening her coat to reveal the whole package. She says to Todd “I’m completely flat!”, to which Todd naturally replies “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”). Dr. Goldfoot features only one song, and it is a completely forgettable, really bad number done by “Sam and the Apemen.” I bet you've never heard of them. Neither has anyone else. Price said later that the movie was supposed to have more numbers, and he was disappointed that it did not. It did, however, have The Supremes singing the title song. One very entertaining musical feature is heard when the robots are confused about their missions – sound effects include bits and pieces of those used in War of the Worlds and Forbidden Planet. AIP also released a sequel called Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. Apparently, both Dr. Goldfoot movies were the inspiration for Mike Myers’ Austin Powers “fembots”.

Dr. Goldfoot is really funny, and I didn’t expect it to be that good. Price is the glue that holds it together, and spoofs himself beautifully. Avalon and Hickman also have real comic flair as the dimwitted duo. Here are a few stills from the movie (courtesy of bmoviescentral), to which I attached quotes from the movie:

"Creating a lovely creature like that to
waste her ... ammunition ... on a pauper?!"
No quote here. One might wonder about Avalon's
expression ... but this is a G-rated movie!
"Why me?  Why is it always me?"
"It can't be!"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bond Is Forever: “Licence to Kill”

When a rare opportunity to ensnare drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi) is presented, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is called away on his wedding day, with his best man, MI6 operative James Bond (Timothy Dalton), in tow as an “observer.” Sanchez is captured, and the two men make it to the chapel in time by parachuting. Good cheer, however, is short lived, as the criminal circumvents his route to prison and retaliates by murdering Leiter’s bride and leaving the agent critically injured. An enraged 007 initiates a personal investigation, and when MI6 head M recognizes some of Bond’s handiwork, he demands that Bond handle his officially sanctioned assignment in Istanbul. When Bond threatens to resign, M revokes his licence to kill, but rather than surrendering his Walther PPK, 007 goes rogue. Bond’s legwork leads him to a CIA agent and former Army pilot, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), who had been working with Leiter. Targeting Sanchez, Bond and Bouvier receive help from unlikely allies, including Sanchez’ captive but defiant girlfriend, Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), and weapons expert Q (Desmond Llewelyn), whose recruitment into 007’s unauthorized mission allows him to work in the field.

Licence to Kill (1989) was director John Glen’s final Bond film. He had directed five consecutive films and also worked in the capacity of editor in the 007 series. Likewise, Licence to Kill was the second and last film for Timothy Dalton as the cinematic spy. Dalton was contracted for a third movie but relinquished the role after a lengthy delay in the series (see GoldenEye for additional information). Others not returning to the 007 series were Robert Brown as M, Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny, title designer Maurice Binder, director of photography Alec Mills, and screenwriter Richard Maibaum, all of whom had worked on previous movies. Binder had died before the subsequent Bond film went into production. Though credited in Licence to Kill, Maibaum left the writing process early due to a WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike.

Licence to Kill was well received critically but performed poorly at the U.S. box office. As of 2011, it remains the weakest of the Bond series in terms of theatrical revenue in the States, though it was successful in other countries. The lackluster audience response is attributed to the break in the discernible Bond format, as 007 becomes a rogue agent and is engaged in what M rightly calls a “personal vendetta.” Without MI6 regulations, Bond will occasionally act on impulse, such as singling out a specific villain directly responsible for a friend’s death and flagrantly shooting a harpoon into his chest.

A closer examination, however, will bring to light familiar Bond terrain, as well as tying together elements of Licence to Kill with the remainder of the series. Though Dalton’s Bond is slightly more unrefined than other interpretations, he retains an elegant quality. In this film, he still wears a tuxedo, masters a casino blackjack table, and orders his martini shaken, not stirred. Comparatively, his female equivalent, Pam Bouvier, deftly infuses style and violence, sitting in a bar with a shotgun under the table and adorned in a shimmering gown with a Beretta strapped to her thigh. Q’s involvement may be off the books (stating he was enlisted to help by a worried Moneypenny), but he arrives with a case of gadgets with which to outfit the agent. Bond additionally focuses on the investigatory aspects of the case, more in tune with Fleming’s novels and films such as Dr. No (1962) and For Your Eyes Only (1981). He studies Sanchez and his men, cautiously impregnates Sanchez’ organization, and tactfully sows the seeds of distrust among the villains.

In the same manner, Bond working on his own does not stray far from the previous Bond movies. At no point in the series is Bond ever made to look like a scrupulous agent. The agent’s persona is based on his penchant for a playboy lifestyle, enjoying the wealth and women associated with his career. This is sometimes at the expense of his assignment, such as his baseless seduction of Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973). In other movies, 007 is working without MI6’s consent, like in Thunderball (1965), when a simple retreat to a health clinic melds into Bond nosing around the building -- he has to make a request before he is part of the mission. Despite his rank as a Commander of the Royal Navy and his double-0 status, Bond has always given the impression of being a sole agent. When he has found a stable partner, Tracy, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), he leaves MI6, an act which he had also contemplated -- for the same reason -- in his novel debut, Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (which likewise carried over to the 2006 adaptation). This reaffirms a carefree existence, that he will remain an agent insofar as it does not affect his personal life.

Licence to Kill is bolstered by a strong cast. Lowell is a phenomenal Bond Girl as Pam Bouvier. She’s vigorous, intelligent and capable, and undeniably beguiling, expertly reciting the provocative line, “Sweet dreams, Mr. Bond,” denying him a second night with her by shutting her bedroom doors. Lowell displays solid chemistry with Dalton, and Pam’s scenes with 007 almost play like romantic interludes. The actress would garner further attention with her role as the Assistant DA for two seasons of the long-running TV series, Law & Order. Davi excels at playing villains and/or tough guy roles. His characters often come across as seasoned and hardhearted, so that the villains are defined by story and not by a shallow performance, and such is the case with his compelling portrayal of Sanchez. Desmond Llewelyn gets more screen time in Licence to Kill than other movies, and it’s a welcome extension. Benicio del Toro has an early role as Dario, a Sanchez henchman, and del Toro makes his mark with an impeccable presence. He had debuted just the year before in Big Top Pee-wee, and he would follow Licence to Kill with award-winning performances in films such as The Usual Suspects (1995), Traffic (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). The only drawback to the otherwise notable performances is Talisa Soto, who is unfortunately squandered in the static role of Lupe.

Licence to Kill was plagued with production problems. It was originally set in China, but having to film in Mexico to save money forced the narrative to shift to South America. While filming in Mexico, the crew endured what they described as a “haunted” stretch of road, burdened by numerous accidents (though one of them, in which a semi-truck slammed into another, looked good enough to work into the storyline). There was also the aforementioned WGA strike that took place while scripting the film, and producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli became ill while visiting the set in Mexico and had to return to the U.S.

David Hedison was the first actor in the Bond series to reprise his role of Felix Leiter. He had initially portrayed the character in Live and Let Die with Roger Moore. Interestingly, the manner in which Leiter is injured in Licence to Kill was taken from Fleming’s novel, Live and Let Die, a scene that was dropped from the 1973 adaptation. Though Licence to Kill was the first Bond film to not use an Ian Fleming title, it continued using the author’s work as a source. In addition to the Live and Let Die plot device, the 1989 movie features the villain, Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), who, along with his yacht, Wavekrest, appeared in Fleming’s short story, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, from the collection, For Your Eyes Only. In the same story, Krest punishes his wife by whipping her, similar to Sanchez’ punishment of Lupe in Licence to Kill.

The original title of Licence to Kill was Licence Revoked. According to the director, MGM requested the change, fearing that U.S. audiences would not comprehend the meaning of “revoked.” On the other hand, some have suggested that viewers in the U.S. would associate a revoked license with loss of driving privileges.

The title song was reportedly based in part on “Goldfinger” and consequently sounds derivative and a little bland. Gladys Knight’s vocals, on the contrary, are superb and enhance the opening credits sequence. The song was a Top Ten hit single in the UK and Germany.

In the film, Bond meets M at the Hemingway House in Key West, leading to a joke from 007 when he is told to hand over his weapon (“A farewell to arms,” he says with a smirk). In the same scene, M is introduced without his face shown and surrounded by cats, a knowing allusion to Bond’s multi-movie nemesis, Blofeld.

Davi and Grand L. Bush, who plays a DEA agent in Licence to Kill, had appeared together the previous year in John McTiernan’s popular Die Hard, as Special Agent Johnson and Agent Johnson (“No relation”). Composer Michael Kamen, who worked on Licence to Kill, also wrote the score for Die Hard.

Director Glen has stated that he wanted to implement a “harder edge” in Licence to Kill. He more than accomplished his goal, with a somewhat bloodthirsty 007 more inclined to destroying evidence out of spite than collecting it to warrant a conviction. Some have questioned the MI6 agents motivation in Licence to Kill with a lack of an established relationship between Bond and the man on whose behalf he is seeking vengeance. Such a criticism not only neglects the two characters’ close ties originated in Fleming’s novels, but also overlooks what the film is addressing: Bond’s apathy in dealing with deaths in previous films. It’s refreshing to see 007 take something personally, to react violently and only consider the consequences afterward. Most importantly is the correlation between Leiter’s marriage and Bond’s own to Tracy, directly (and subtly) acknowledged in Licence to Kill. All of it instills within the spy a human quality with which to garner viewers sympathy.

After repeated viewings, Licence to Kill has become one of my favorite Bond films. I urge others to watch it even if they have already done so, as it is an exceptional entry in the 007 series.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with Octopussy (1983).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 83

Since the world didn't end yesterday, we're back!

Answers to remaining questions from TT82:

1. Name three films that Robert Preston and Brian Donlevy made together.

Answer: Union Pacific, Beau Geste, and Wake Island.

2. Name the two films in which Robert Preston romanced Barbara Stanwyck and Susan Hayward.

Answer: Union Pacific and Wake of the Red Witch.

7. On The Adventures of Spin and Marty, what were the names of Spin's and Marty's horses?

Answer: Rick got half of this one, he was able to name Marty's horse, Skyrocket. Spin's horse was named Sailor.

New questions for TT83:

1. How many films feature both Gloria Grahame and one or more elephants? Name it/them.

2. Rick Nelson hired this up-and-coming singer/songwriter (future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member) to write a song for the film Rio Bravo. It was not used in the film but was released as a single; it's considered a classic. Name the song and the composer.

3. Where did Patty Duke live in The Patty Duke Show?

4. In which Disney film did the Beach Boys appear?

5. Name the Errol Flynn film or films in which much of the action takes place in San Francisco.

6. Which TV star ended up buying and living in Errol Flynn's infamous party house?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pajama Party: “It’s the Latest Craze Having a Party in Your PJs”

Mars is planning an invasion of Earth, and what better way than to target its teenagers? Fearing that teens may cause “intergalactic trouble” in the future, Martians send Go Go (Tommy Kirk), fully confident that, should he be captured, his idiocy will only further confuse his captors. Go Go lands in Aunt Wendy’s (Elsa Lanchester) backyard, and the woman, accepting the fact that Go Go is a Martian, dubs him “George” and has him change into clothes more suitable to a teen. She then introduces George to Connie (Annette Funicello). Connie is being courted by Aunt Wendy’s nephew, Big Lunk (Jody McCrea), but Wendy believes that Connie can make Big Lunk jealous by expressing interest in someone else. Big Lunk, for his part, earns his nickname by neglecting the beautiful Connie, who drops none-too-subtle hints that he should kiss her.

Aunt Wendy’s neighbor is J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White), whose sole reason for living next door is to steal the fortune of Wendy’s deceased husband, presumably hidden inside the house. Hulk believes the best way to the money is through Big Lunk, who is also singled out by Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his motorcycle gang of Ratz and Mice, their dimwitted leader blaming the teens for getting the beach “all footprinted up.” Big Lunk is identified by his red baseball cap, and when Connie goes out with George/Go Go donning said cap, it’s no surprise that Von Zipper and Hulk’s cronies, “Indian” Chief Rotten Eagle (Buster Keaton) and Swedish, non-English speaking blonde, Helga (Bobbi Shaw), mistake one for the other. It all comes to a head at a pajama party, part of Hulk’s nefarious plan, held to distract Aunt Wendy and leave her house vacant -- though the real pajama party was earlier, with Connie and the girls in tiny PJs.

Pajama Party (1964), directed by Don Weis, seems out of place among the Beach Party films, particularly since Annette Funicello has a lead role that isn’t Dee Dee. But the film secures its spot in the “official” series with familiar faces (Funicello, McCrea, Candy Johnson, and Lembeck reprising the winsome Von Zipper), familiar settings (though Aunt Wendy’s pool is a popular hangout, the teens spend just as much time at the beach), and familiar dilemmas (adults trying to spoil the youngsters’ fun and an offbeat chase sequence). Additionally, McCrea’s Big Lunk is a fusion of his own Deadhead/Bonehead and Frankie Avalon’s Frankie, most notably his disregard for Funicello’s character. Kirk, White (as the same character), and Susan Hart, who made their Beach Party debuts in Pajama Party, would later appear in the final series entry, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), also directed by Weis, while newcomer Bobbi Shaw would have roles in the remainder of the Beach Party series.

One slight difference in Pajama Party, however, is the decidedly more provocative innuendo. It isn’t the bikini babes leaving behind a line of bewildered boys, but the gyrating hips of Susan Hart’s Jilda making flowers swoon, setting marshmallows afire, and inciting a small display volcano to erupt. Perhaps more telling is Funicello, whose time as a Mouseketeer in Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club kept her in more discreet swimwear than her Beach Party co-stars. In Pajama Party, she’s told by Aunt Wendy to look “seductive” for George (he hardly notices, though I personally found it quite effective), and when Connie makes note of a “well rounded education,” George says she has “well rounded--” before stopping himself. The movie soundtrack is appropriately titled Annette’s Pajama Party and features PJ-clad Funicello on the cover. The film’s highlight, teased by its title, is Connie’s sleepover, with all the girls, including Hart and even Donna Loren, in babydoll pajamas. The camera crawls through the window and into Connie’s bedroom as she sings “Stuffed Animal”, with suggestive lyrics: “a stuffed animal is more than a toy/something cuddly and not like a boy.”

Unfortunately, the characters of Chief Rotten Eagle and Helga, at least in retrospect, threaten to squander tolerance, as he perpetuates Native American stereotypes and she seems to mock foreigners’ inability to speak English. However, Chief Rotten Eagle, as portrayed by Keaton, does have inspired moments, like when he’s sprayed in the face by the perfume lady, and he retaliates by dousing her in perfume as well. Similarly, Helga’s lack of comprehension is more generally employed to mock characters other than herself, such as Big Lunk declaring her a good listener and conversationalist simply because she smiles, nods her head and repeatedly says, “Yah, yah” (and Big Lunk doesn’t understand that Helga is obviously recording him). It’s also a humorous metaphor to accommodate the film equating teens with Martians from another planet.

Elsa Lanchester as Aunt Wendy brings an air of sophistication to the series. She takes the role seriously, yet it still seems tongue-in-cheek as she expertly delivers comedic lines. The actress, perhaps best known as the Bride in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), was married to famed actor Charles Laughton until his death in 1962. She and her husband were both nominated for Academy Awards for Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), for which Lanchester received a Golden Globe. She was also nominated for an Oscar for 1949’s Come to the Stable.

Donna Loren, as per usual, has one of the film’s best songs, “Among the Young”. She plays Vikki and even has a couple of speaking lines. Other memorable musical moments include a Funicello and Kirk duet, “There Has to be a Reason”, and “Where Did I Go Wrong” by Dorothy Lamour, who plays the saleslady at Aunt Wendy’s dress shop and sings her song when the girls dare to watusi in formal attire.

Beach Party alumni Frankie Avalon and Don Rickles have small roles as Martians, occasionally discussing the upcoming invasion (Avalon’s face isn’t shown until the end, but it’s clearly him). They are both credited in the closing with a “special thanks,” which also acts as a teaser for the subsequent film, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965).

Actress Teri Garr (billed as Teri Hope) and singer/dance choreographer Toni Basil have small roles as “Pajama Girls.” Garr, whose breakout role was in Mel Brooks’ seminal comedy, Young Frankenstein (1974), appears in the dress shop scene, modeling a yellow dress. Basil, best known for her number one hit single, “Mickey” (the accompanying hit music video was directed by Basil), is in the same scene in a bikini, and also appears earlier, when her return serve in volleyball is sidetracked by beach choreography. The film’s dance sequences were handled by choreographer (as well as director and producer) David Winters. Also a dance teacher, Winters’ students included Garr and Basil.

Well known journalist, columnist and What’s My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen has a cameo in Pajama Party, while her young son, Kerry Kollmar, plays a recurring character who regards every intimate moment in the film as “mush.”

Pajama Party is a Beach Party film that spends time away from the sand -- its trailer promised “babydoll PJs instead of bikinis.” It’s a world that the fans know: the hilarious Eric Von Zipper and his gang that sometimes leaves him behind in a sidecar (and declares themselves “typical clean-cut American yoots”); Jody McCrea as the imbecile; a spotlight on Donna Loren; and a gorgeous Annette Funicello whose cinematic boyfriend is oblivious, making her somewhat available and all the more appealing to a male audience. But the film also offers growth in the character of Connie. She’s more mature than Dee Dee, more sure of herself and what she wants. Even her voice sounds more sultry in the songs she sings. In the other films, she’s a pretty girl on the beach. In Pajama Party, she’s a woman, as Funicello steps out from the shadow of Walt What’s-his-name. Sadly, this was the only film for Connie, but I like to think that, in her last two Beach Party films, Dee Dee took a little inspiration from her Pajama Party counterpart.

Monday, May 16, 2011

CMBA Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Light That Failed

A great actor who understood his limitations, Ronald Colman must have realized in 1939 that his days as a romantic lead were numbered. At age 48, he had just completed an incredible decade in which he drew critical and popular acclaim for classics such as A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon, and The Prisoner of Zenda (both 1937). He displayed his versatility by playing a swashbucker (Under Two Flags), a romantic poet (If I Were King), and a thinking man's hero (Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities).

Although memorable roles still awaited--including a romance for the ages in Random Harvest and an Oscar for A Double Life--1939 marked a turning point in Colman's career. He made fewer films in the 1940s and appeared content to let other actors assume the mantle of romantic hero. What better way to make such a transition than as the melancholy artist hero of Rudyard Kipling's first novel The Light That Failed?

William Wellman's film version begins in England in 1865 with a sweet prologue in which childhood sweethearts Dick and Maisie decide to become artists when they grow up. When Dick learns of Maisie's pending departure, the two youngsters pledge to always love one another.

Years later, Dick (Colman) has become a war correspondent in the Sudan, drawing battle scenes for the newspapers back in England. He suffers a serious head injury when he saves the life of his friend, Torpenhow (Walter Huston). Months later, he learns from "Torp" that his drawings have garnered critical acclaim back home. Upon his return to England, Dick becomes a popular artist whose paintings of British soldiers in the Sudan fetch a handsome price.

While walking one Sunday afternoon, Dick encounters Maisie, who is struggling to achieve any kind of success as an artist. They gegin to meet weekly to discuss art and Dick quickly realizes he has never stopped loving her. However, when he expresses his feelings to Maisie, she decides to leave for Paris. Although she values their friendship (and his artistic advice), she is dedicated to her artistic career.

At the same time, Dick loses his zest for painting, sometimes altering his original artistic vision simply to make his work more commercially viable. He becomes interested in painting again when he meets Bessie, a barmaid romantically involved with Torp. With Bessie as his model, Dick begins to paint again, though his work still lacks passion. It's only when he learns of an impending tragedy that he is able to channel his loneliness--and grief over losing Maisie--into his artistic masterpiece.

Dick cradling Binky in his arms.
Though always interesting, The Light That Failed is a flawed film that works best as a portrait of an artist. Dick's ability to interpret and capture the emotions of others through his art contrasts sharply with his struggles to maintain his own relationships. Torp is his only close friend if one excludes the loyal Scottish Terrier, Mr. Binkles (aka Binky), that adopts him. Maisie values him as a friend and critic, but his love for her seems to be based on a memory of when they were young (he even mumbles her name while recovering from his head injury...long before meeting her again as an adult). As for Bessie, he calls her a "little piece of nothing" at one point, then tries to buy her help later when he needs it. The role is ideal for Colman, who doesn't hesitate to show Dick's cruel side, especially when he berates Bessie and destroys any chance of her having a long-term relationship (albiet slight) with Torp. But he also shows Dick's unselfishness, such as when he poignantly lets Maisie and Torp "off the hook" by sending them away when he needs them the most.

Ida Lupino as Bessie.
Walter Huston and Ida Lupino, as Bessie, deliver strong supporting roles in what is essentially a four-character play. Allegedly, Colman wanted Vivien Leigh to play Bessie, but it's hard to imagine anyone other than Lupino. She captures both the vulnerability and pettiness of the street-living Bessie. The one weak link, in terms of both performer and character, is Muriel Angelus as Maise. Her character's only endearing quality is her love for her art. She begs Dick for constructive criticism of her paintings, but then has trouble accepting it. When Dick needs her the most--and then offers her a way out--she takes it. There's no obvious selfishness to her actions; it's just that her total focus is on her work and that blinds her to the needs of others.

Director William Wellman once said: "The best director is the director whose handprints are not on the film." Indeed, Wellman always adapted his visual style to fit his films. In this case, The Light That Failed comes across as a rather stagy affair, with many scenes taking place in Dick's apartment/studio. That approach is certainly consistent with Dick's introspection, but leaves the viewer with the impression of having watched a stage play. Still, it works well in some scenes, such as when Dick receives bad news in a doctor's office, with a clock ticking loudly in the background, reminding Dick (and us) that time has already started running out.

Kipling's novel The Light That Failed was published in 1890 in installments in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. It provides more backstory to Dick's character, tracing his upbringing as an orphan (which explains why making money on his paintings is important to him). The novel was filmed previously in 1916 and 1923.

The 1939 Colman version isn't a great film, but it's a very good one that provides an ideal opportunity to watch a wonderful actor in a juicy role. Yet, while The Light That Failed, as a whole, almost achieves classic status, it falls just short. Its flaws are encapsulated in the closing scene. On the surface, it's a moving display of gallantry and freedom. However, as one ponders the ending, it's also a depressing testament to one who has given up on life.

Click here to check out the the awesome reviews written by my fellow CMBA members as part of the Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 82

We're back after a brief, unplanned hiatus. Sorry Rick!

Here are the answers to the unanswered questions from the last TT:

Who Said This? "It's hard to think straight when you have a crooked mind." Who Said This?

Answer: Snidley Whiplash on The Bullwinkle Show.

2. This 1936 film is a landmark in British flim history due to its story, production design and score. Name the film and the composer.

Answer: Things to Come, Sir Alfred Bliss.

3. Actress Leigh French had a semi-recurring role on The Smothers Brothers Show. Name her character.

Answer: Goldie O'Keefe (as in "sip a little tea with Goldie")

Without further ado, here is TT82:

Who Said This? Person #1: "Would you like to come in? Person #2: "I'd rather stick needles in my eyes." Who Said This?

1. Name three films that Robert Preston and Brian Donlevy made together.

2. Name the two films in which Robert Preston romanced Barbara Stanwyck and Susan Hayward.

3. Name two Technicolor films featuring a giant squid.

4. Name the two films that Bette Davis and Errol Flynn made together, in order.

5. Besides Dive Bomber, name another Errol Flynn film featuring Ralph Bellamy.

6. Name the Western that featured both Omar Sharif and Ted Cassidy.

7. On The Adventures of Spin and Marty, what were the names of Spin's and Marty's horses?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Beach Blanket Bingo: "That's the name of the...that's the name of the...that's the name of the game!"

The fourth installment in AIP's Beach Party series remains the best remembered for several reasons. It featured early performances by blonde actresses Linda Evans and Marta Kristen, both of whom would find fame on television (Evans in The Big Valley and later Dynasty; Kristen in Lost in Space as Judy Robinson, the older daughter). It marked the first teaming of director William Asher and comedian Paul Lynde. That same year, Asher produced the TV series Bewitched for then-wife Elizabeth Montgomery and soon cast Lynde in his most famous role as Uncle Arthur, the mischievous warlock. Beach Blanket Bingo also marked the beginning of the end for sand-and-surf teen movies. Frankie Avalon made only a cameo in the follow-up How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Neither Annette nor Frankie stayed around for The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, the dismal final entry in the Beach Party series.

The storyline in Beach Blanket Bingo hinges on three loosely-connected subplots. Frankie and Dee Dee (Annette), who live on the beach with a bunch of friends, become mixed up with skydivers Steve (John Ashley) and Bonnie (Deborah Walley, a former Gidget). Bonnie wants to make Steve jealous, so she puts the moves on Frankie. In retaliation, Dee Dee feigns interest in Steve. Meanwhile, Frankie's pal Bonehead (Jody McCrea), a perennial loser at love, encounters a beautiful mermaid named Lorelei (Kristen). She can walk on land for brief periods (“You have pretty legs for a fish!” exclaims Bonehead), but her life as a sea creature proves a serious obstacle to a permanent relationship. Bonehead also likes Sugar Cane (Evans), an unknown singer being promoted by Bullets (Lynde), a snide publicity hound. Sugar has another admirer, too, motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), who kidnaps the singer because she is his “idol.” Unfortunately, Von Zipper's pool hall rival, South Dakota Slim (Timothy Carey), kidnaps Sugar from the motorcycle gang leader.

It’s pretty silly stuff, but remains undeniably entertaining thanks to the pleasant performances and engaging songs. The most famous tune in the whole Beach Party series is probably the hook-laden title track (“Beach blanket bingo…that’s the name of the game!”) penned by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner. However, my personal fave is “It Only Hurts When I Cry” crooned by bubbly Donna Loren—who should have been a pop music star, but spent her best years stalled on the brink of stardom. The soundtrack also features Harvey Lembeck’s showstopping number “I Am My Ideal,” which boasts some delicious lyrics (“I'm the greatest, I admit / I got class, I'm full of it”). It was popular enough to be reprised by Lembeck in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. (By the way, while it appears that Linda Evan is singing, she’s actually lip-syncing to Jackie Ward’s vocals).

The Beach Party films pretty much defy serious analysis, except in regard to their pop culture treatment of 1960s teens, especially young women. In Beach Party, Annette’s character believes herself to be attracted to an older man (Robert Cummings). In Bikini Beach, she--along with all the other girls--swoon over British rock sensation The Potato Bug (Frankie in a dual role). She sits idly by while Luciana Paluzzi tries to steal Frankie in Muscle Beach Party. And in Pajama Party, her boyfriend is the incredibly dumb Big Lunk (Jody McCrea), whom she eventually dumps for an affable alien. So, it comes as a surprise in the series’ fifth film when Dee Dee decides to take matters into her hands. In Bingo, when Frankie seems interested in Bonnie, the skydiver, Dee Dee hooks up with Steve (series regular John Ashley, the “other good-looking guy”). It may just be a routine jealousy ploy, but it’s a step-up for Dee Dee—showing that she’s willing to take matters into her own hands and not allow Frankie to dictate their relationship.

The Beach Party movies are an acquired taste. I never really caught the bug until the late 1990s when AMC started showing them on Saturday nights. But I became such a fan that I bought all seven on DVD and last summer, my wife and I watched one every weekend for almost two months. It was a blast! Muscle Beach Party may be a close second, but Beach Blanket Bingo is still stuck firmly in the sand as our #1—thanks to its songs, the mermaid, creepy South Dakota Slim, wisecracks from Paul Lynde and Don Rickles, Donna Loren’s singing, Frankie & Annette’s natural chemistry, and the always amusing Harvey Lembeck. In fact, Harvey delivers our favorite line to Linda Evans' Sugar (which we tweak a bit in saying to each other): “Eric Von Zipper adores you. And when Eric Von Zipper adores somebody, they stay adored.”