Thursday, June 30, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 50 to 41

This month, the second half of the countdown begins as we work our way to No. 1. As a reminder, these films are not what I'd consider the best 100 movies ever made (though some are). These films are simply one classic fan's favorites. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

Twins meet for the first a summer camp.
50. The Parent Trap - Following the delightful Pollyanna, Hayley Mills and writer-director David Swift teamed up again for The Parent Trap, Disney’s best live-action comedy. The gimmick of having Hayley play twins was achieved through the then-innovative use of traveling mattes and split screens. It works amazingly well—and Hayley is great—but the film’s enduring appeal has nothing to do with its clever special effects. The Parent Trap retains its popularity because of its ability to function as a smart, romantic comedy (for adults) and an enjoyable children’s film (in which the teen protagonists outwit their elders). The film’s breezy nature and charm mask two major flaws in its premise. First, how could any parents be so cruel as to separate twin sisters—and never even tell them about one another? Secondly, it’s obvious that the parents are still very much in love, so why did they split up in the first place? Since any answers would be unsatisfactory, writer-director Swift wisely chooses to ignore them altogether!

Mail-order bride Eleanor Parker.
49. The Naked Jungle – It’s easy to remember this well-written character study for its lively climax involving billions of soldier ants (a local commissioner notes that the ant column is “twenty miles long and two wide, forty miles of agonizing death—you can't stop it”). However, when viewed in the context of the entire film, the ant attack constitutes a subplot which serves the purpose of bringing together two lonely people (Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker) on a South American plantation. In that sense, The Naked Jungle is no more about ants than The Birds was about birds. In both films, an “attack by nature” is used to resolve a conflict between two characters.

48. The Last Man on Earth - This first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s terrifying 1954 novel I Am Legend—about a single human in a world inhabited by vampires—was made in Italy on a shoestring budget. Vincent Price is the only English-language actor in the cast. But, despite its financial limitations, it remains an impressive work filled with compelling images. The scenes of the vampires pounding nightly on Price’s door foreshadow similar images in the better-known Night of the Living Dead (1968). There are also some genuinely frightening sequences, such as the one where Price’s character falls asleep in a church, only to awake at sunset and struggle to reach the safety of his fortress home. For a movie that doesn’t even rate as a cult film in most reference books, it’s amazing how many of my movie buff friends remember it as fondly as I do.

Cushing made a fine Holmes.
47. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, I tried in vain in see the Basil Rathbone version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). Every time it was listed in the newspaper, I’d tune in eagerly—only to see Hammer Films’ 1959 version starring Peter Cushing. I later learned that copyright issues prevented the Rathbone film from airing for many years. When it finally popped up on TV (on The CBS Late Movie, of all places), I was somewhat disappointed. Though Basil was entertaining as always, his Hound was surprisingly inferior to the 1959 version. Indeed, the Hammer Hound has improved with age, like a fine wine or, more appropriately, a glass of sherry (the vicar in the film has a fondness for it). Cushing makes a superb Holmes, all nervous energy as if his brain can barely contain his superior intellect. His interpretation is every bit as good as Basil Rathbone’s more acclaimed one. Andre Morrell‘s Watson is one of the screen’s best--intelligent, affable, and observant, very much like the character in Conan Doyle’s works.

46. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – The most popular criticism of films adapted from stage plays is that the director fails to “open them up”—to transform them from theatrical productions to motion pictures. That always amuses me, for if a film is well-directed and performed, I don’t care if it all takes place in one room (which 12 Angry Men basically does and it’s a favorite, too). Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ hit stage play is a perfect convergence of great acting and a director comfortable with enhancing, but not overpowering strong source material. Burl Ives recreates his masterful Broadway portrait as Big Daddy and Elizabeth Taylor gives what I consider to be her best performance. Williams purists quibble that some of the play’s content is watered down, but the result is still a first-rate film about (as Big Daddy would say) mendacity.

Cary in Baby.
45. Bringing Up Baby/Holiday – Yes, I know I’m cheating again by listing two films in one slot. But, to my defense, these two films are essentially bookends with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn swapping roles in each. In Holiday, Cary Grant is the free spirit and Kate the more uptight of the two and in Bringing Up Baby, they switch roles with Cary as a conservative paleontologist and Kate as a wacky heiress. In both movies, the stars exhibit tremendous chemistry (surprisingly, I’m not nearly as fond of their pairing in Philadelphia Story). I’m not surprised that Bringing Up Baby is better-known than Holiday; the former film is loaded with inspired screwball situations. Still, Holiday is a very engaging film that’s funny and romantic but (in its own way) more serious and heartfelt.

44. Spartacus – Stanley Kubrick’s most atypical film is my favorite among his works. He masterfully interweaves strong character relationships with spectacle to create an action film that resonates on a deep emotional level. The justly famous “I am Spartacus” scene as well as the closing one between Jean Simmons and Kirk Douglas still carry a tremendous impact after repeated viewings. Interestingly, Kubrick said in a 1968 interview that Spartacus was the only one of his films he didn’t like. Certainly, he had less control over it, but I believe that working within the confines of a “Hollywood production” brought out the best in Kubrick and the result is an epic for the ages.

Mifune as a helpful samurai.
43. Sanjuro - This was my first foreign film, my first samurai film, and my first Kurosawa film. When I watched in it on PBS in the early 1970s, I’m not sure if I even knew who Akira Kurosawa was (but suspect I soon learned). I found Sanjuro charming, intriguing, and mesmerizing. Each time I watch it again, I’m reminded of that unique blend of qualities. Although I admire the more critically-acclaimed Kurosawa films such as The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, none of them has toppled Sanjuro as my favorite. Kurosawa’s direction is seamless, flowing effortlessly from kinetic (as in the swordfights) to poetic (camellia blossoms flowing down a creek). The final showdown between Toshiro Mifune’s character and another samurai (whom he respects) is stunning in its efficiency and shock value.

Stewart in The Far Country.
42. The Far Country - James Stewart and director Anthony Mann made five classic Westerns together between 1950 and 1955, starting with Winchester ’73. This is my fave of the bunch, although they’re all excellent. While Stewart plays a different character in each film, his protagonists are social misfits that share traits such as bitterness, shady pasts, and, when necessary, ruthlessness. As cowpoke Jeff Webster in The Far Country, his mottos are: “Nobody ever did anything for nothing” and “I take care of me.” The plot is secondary to Mann’s themes of civilization overtaking the frontier and the importance of community.

Tippi wishes cell phones had
been invented.
41. The Birds - This one functions on two levels for me. It is, of course, a masterfully directed thriller about unexplained bird attacks in a small California seaside community (I love the playground and gas station sequences). But it’s also a well-acted 1960s relationship drama about three women and their interactions with the bland, but likable, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch’s mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) fears losing her son to another woman—not because of jealousy, but because she can’t stand the thought of being abandoned. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother. These relationships are what the film is about—the birds are merely catalysts. That’s why the ending works for me; when the relationships are resolved, the bird attacks end.

Next month, I'll count another ten, including a Val Lewton classic, a Michael Crichton sci fi thriller, and two films each starring Sidney Poitier and William Holden.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

" Oh Mac" it is...McMillan and Wife

When Rock Hudson's film career began to fade, he decided to star in the TV series McMillan and Wife, which may have been inspired by the Thin Man films. Hudson was a gifted comedian and the series gave him a opportunity to share his talent in ways he had not been able to do since his pairings with Doris Day in Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers.

In the TV series McMillan and Wife, Rock Hudson plays a San Francisco police commissioner, Stewart McMillan, with a much younger, flower power wife, Sally (Susan Saint James). The story lines sometimes had Mac and Sally attending glamorous parties and charity events while solving robberies or murders. John Schuck performed as the lovable character Sgt. Charles Enright and Nancy Walker was Mildred, the couple's sarcastic maid.

Fun Fact: The interior set of the McMillans' home in the pilot episode was Rock Hudson's real home. In the second episode, they moved and the exterior shots were done on Greenwich Street, in San Francisco. The address for the couple was once given in the show as 250 Carson Street. In later episodes, a different house was used as the exterior shot of the house. In the final season, McMillan moved into an apartment .

Video from the pilot episode: McMillan and Wife (TV series 1971–1977), Once Upon a Dead Man. Sally, drags the commissioner to a charity auction where a theft takes place, which leads to a murder.

Because of a contract dispute between Saint James and the studio, the characters of Sally and their never seen (sometimes mentioned) son were killed off in an airplane crash during the fifth season. With one of the main characters missing, the show was renamed McMillan. Other cast changes included: Mildred left to run a diner (actress Nancy Walker departed to star in her own sitcom); Mac got a new apartment and a new housekeeper, Agatha (Martha Raye), who was Mildred's sister; Sgt. DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland) assisted Mac as Schuck also left for his own series.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment released the first season of McMillan and Wife on DVD in 2005-2006. On May 21, 2010, Visual Entertainment announced it had acquired the rights to distribute McMillan and Wife, releasing seasons 2 and 3 on June 7, 2011, followed by seasons 4 and 5 on July 5, 2011.

Susan Saint James (born August 14, 1946). Some of her early television performances were two episodes of the first season of Ironside ("Girl in the Night", December 1967 and two months later, playing a different role in the episode "Something for Nothing"). She also had a supporting role in Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968).

From 1968 to 1971, she performed in the series The Name of the Game, winning an Emmy Award for her role in 1969. At the same time she had a recurring role as "Chuck", Alexander Mundy's partner in crime and "friend with benefits" in four episodes of the series It Takes a Thief. She also performed in the pilot episode of Alias Smith and Jones (1971). From 1971 until 1976, she played Sally McMillan opposite Rock Hudson in the series McMillan and Wife and received four Emmy Award nominations.

When she left the show, she co-starred with Peter Fonda in the film Outlaw Blues. She also performed in the vampire comedy, Love At First Bite (1979). Between films, she made a guest appearance in the 1980 episode of M*A*S*H (episode 192: War Co-Respondent). She returned to television, performing in the comedy series Kate and Allie opposite Jane Curtin from 1984 until 1989. She received a additional three Emmy Award nominations for this role. She also performed in guest roles, as the mother of (her real-life niece) Christa Miller in the first season of The Drew Carey Show, and ten years later, as a defense attorney on the February 28, 2006 episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. She also starred in the 1999 Warner Theatre production of The Miracle Worker. On June 11, 2008, Saint James was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Warner Bros. Classic TV Detectives Were the "Ginchiest" - Part 2

Inspired by the success of 77 Sunset Strip, Warner Bros. launched three other TV detective series over the next two years. They all featured the same formula: attractive performers, exotic locales, straightforward mysteries, and a healthy dose of humor. Characters often crossed over from one series to another, a nifty way to promote the less successful shows on the more popular ones.

The biggest hit of the new series was Hawaiian Eye (1959-63), which starred Anthony Eisely and Robert Conrad (whose character was supposed to be half-Hawaiian) as private investigators in Honolulu. They worked out of the posh Hawaiian Village Hotel. They were often aided--even when they didn't want it--by Cricket (Connie Stevens), a nightclub singer/photographer, and ukulele-playing cabbie Kim (Poncie Ponce). One of the running gags of the show was that Kim had relatives all over the island. That often proved handy when looking for a missing person or gathering evidence to solve a murder.

Later in the first season, the agency hired another investgator played by Grant Williams (The Incredible Shrinking Man). When Eiseley left after three years, Troy Donahue joined the cast as the social director of the hotel for the fourth and final season.

Although it never captured the public fancy to the extent of 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye was a solid hit and laid the groundwork for future private eye shows set in the islands (e.g., Hawaii Five-O, Magnum, P.I.).

Duggan, Howell, Williams, and Long.
Bourbon Street Beat (1959-60) starred Andrew Duggan and Richard Long as private detectives in New Orleans. They operated the agency Randolph and Calhoun Special Services on the second floor of The Old Absinthe House restaurant in the French Quarter. Kenny Madison (Van Williams), a young law student, assisted them on some cases and Melody Lee Mercer (Arlene Howell) keep the office running. When the series was cancelled after one season, Richard Long's character, Rex Randolph, joined 77 Sunset Strip. Van Williams returned as Kenny Madison the following year in a new series called Surfside 6. Ironically, his new show even stayed in the same slot of Monday, 0830-9:30.

Sierra, Donahue, Patterson, McBain,
and Williams.
Set in Miami, Surfside 6 (the title is a telephone exchange) cast Van Williams with Lee Patterson and Troy Donahue as a trio of young private detectives who worked out of a houseboat that doubled as their digs. They also received their share of unwanted help from ditzy socialite Daphne Dutton (Diane McBain), whose yacht was anchored next door, and Cha Cha O'Brien (Margarite Sierra), who sang in the Boom Boom Room in the ritzy Fountainebleau Hotel. Surfside 6  lasted for two seasons.
While these TV series were still on the air, Warner Bros. capitalized on the popularity of its young stable of stars by casting them in theatrical films--even at the risk of overexpose. Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, and Diane McBain all appeared in Parrish (1961). Stevens and Donahue paired up again for Susan Slade (1961), with Grant Williams making a brief appearance as well. Donahue and Conrad played adversaries in Palm Springs Weekend. And Diane McBaine got a starring role (and was very good) as Claudelle Inglish (1961), an  Erskine Caldwell Southern tale about a girl with a bad reputation.

Diane McBain.
While none of the Warner Bros. detective series could be described as great television, they were all diverting and provided great experience for a number of likable young actors who continued to appear on the big screen and small screen. Richard Long surfaced opposite Barbara Stanwyck in the TV series The Big Valley. Robert Conrad landed his most famous role in Wild, Wild West. Connie Stevens had a #3 hit song with "Sixteen Reasons" and parlayed that into a long-lasting career as an entertainer. Troy Donahue's film career gradually declined, though he later appeared in a supporting role in The Godfather Part II. Finally, Van Williams starred in The Green Hornet TV with Bruce Lee. The show only lasted a season and Williams retired from acting shortly afterwards. However, he used his business savvy to amass a tidy fortune.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bond Is Forever: “Octopussy”

MI6 agent 009 is killed in the course of an assignment, but manages to reach friendly territory before collapsing, where a Fabergé egg is found on his person. The egg is a “near perfect forgery,” while the genuine item is scheduled to be auctioned. James Bond (Roger Moore) and an art expert attend the auction with the hopes of locating the seller. Their intrigue is piqued, however, by Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), a notoriously shady seller, who is overbidding for the item in question. Bond bids against him before eventually succumbing and, for good measure, swaps the real egg with the forgery. The agent follows Kamal to Delhi, India, where Bond initiates contact and flaunts that he possesses the real Fabergé egg at a backgammon table. Not surprisingly, Bond incurs Kamal’s wrath and sidesteps bullets, throwing knives and the occasional scimitar. With the belief that the forgeries are funding the Russians, 007 ultimately finds his way to an island of exclusively women, part of a “cult” with members signified by a blue-ringed octopus tattoo and ruled by an enigmatic jewel smuggler known as Octopussy (Maud Adams).

Octopussy (1983) was the second film of the series for director John Glen and also the second appearance for actress Adams, who first starred in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun. Octopussy is best remembered -- aside from a title that makes most people blush -- for its release in the same year as an “unofficial” Bond film, Never Say Never Again, starring Sean Connery as 007. The latter film was brought to the screen by producer Kevin McClory, who had worked with Bond creator Ian Fleming and Jack Whittingham on an original story for 007’s cinematic debut. The project was abandoned, resulting in Fleming’s Thunderball, which, in turn, resulted in seemingly endless legal disputes. McClory and Whittingham received credit for additional printings of the novel, as well as the 1965 Broccoli/Saltzman adaptation, and McClory was allowed to make his own version of the movie. The year of 1983 became known as the “Battle of the Bonds.” Both movies performed well, although Octopussy ended with a slight lead, making it into the Top 10 films that year in the U.S. Never Say Never Again performed well and reached the Top 20. (For more on the Thunderball legal wrangling, read about the 1965 film.)

A substantial entry in the series, Octopussy retains a energetic style throughout, and Moore, in his sixth turn as the beloved spy, is just as diverting as when he first stepped into the role. Following the previous Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, in 1981, Moore had technically fulfilled his contract, and EON Productions searched for an actor to portray 007. American actor James Brolin filmed screen tests, including one with Maud Adams (in a scene from 1963’s From Russia with Love) and another with Vijay Amritraj, who stars in Octopussy as Bond’s ally in India. Moore, however, was reportedly asked to return to battle any competition from Never Say Never Again and Connery, the cinematic Bond original. Like the solid For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy keeps the gadgets to a minimum -- the highlight of Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) anticipated “presentation” of gadgetry is a simple tracking device. In a particularly entertaining sequence, Bond manages to board a speeding train, conceal himself inside a compartment to attain details of a criminal plot, and combat a henchman atop the train still in motion, with nothing more than his expertise and a little savoir-faire.

Louis Jourdan is a charming villain as Kamal, a ferocity teeming just below his handsome exterior. His casual discussion of the manner in which he would torture Bond for information, all while Kamal enjoys a souffle, is both alluring and darkly humorous. Bond’s initial contact in India is Vijay, who’s posing as a snake charmer and plays the Bond theme on the recorder to catch the agent’s attention. Vijay is a delightful supporting character, adept and, like 007, not unaccustomed to fashionable attire. Actor Amritraj was a professional tennis player (as were his brothers, Anand and Ashok), and, in one of the film’s better scenes, he drives an auto rickshaw (with Bond as his passenger) in a high-speed pursuit down Indian streets while simultaneously keeping villains at bay with a tennis racket. Actor Llewelyn is, as per usual, irresistible as Q and has one of the film’s best lines, spoken to Bond after the MI6 agent asks Q to repair a hole in his jacket: “They missed you. What a pity!”

In spite of its ingenuity, Octopussy does stumble before making it to the closing credits. The most significant drawback of the film is its length. It might have benefited from an abridgement, especially considering that the basic plot is finished with approximately 40 minutes remaining, almost giving the impression that the filmmakers were biding their time until they made it to an excess of two hours. There is additionally a rather asinine sequence of Bond being hunted in the jungle, facing such perils as spiders, a snake and a tiger, and all of it culminating in 007 swinging on vines with the Tarzan cry.

Bernard Lee, who had played M in the first 11 movies of the Bond series, died while For Your Eyes Only was being made. M was written out of that film, and Octopussy marks the debut for Robert Brown in the role. Michaela Clavell plays Penelope Smallbone, apparently intended to succeed Miss Moneypenny. However, Lois Maxwell, who’d played Moneypenny in all Bond films up to and including Octopussy, would reprise her role (with no Penelope in sight) for the 14th and final time in A View to a Kill (1985), retiring from the series along with Roger Moore. (Clavell was the daughter of author and filmmaker James Clavell, whose work included writing, directing and producing 1966’s To Sir, With Love.)

The song that opens the film is “All Time High”, sung by Rita Coolidge and written by composer John Barry and award-winning lyricist Tim Rice, who is a frequent collaborator with Andrew Lloyd Weber. It’s a lovely number, reinforced by Coolidge’s warm and resonant voice. At the film’s end, a disclaimer insists that “James Bond Will Return in ‘From a View to a Kill.’” He did indeed, but with a minor title revision.

The title of the movie was taken from a Fleming short story, appearing in the collection, Octopussy and the Living Daylights (sometimes published with a condensed title of Octopussy). In the film, Octopussy reminds Bond of a previous mission involving a Major Smythe (her father), and the assignment to which she’s referring is the plot of Fleming’s short story. The film’s dramatic jumping board -- villains securing funds during auctions -- was taken from another short story, “The Property of a Lady”, which is included in the same collection (although not in the original 1966 edition). The title of said story is referenced in the film as the anonymous seller of the Fabergé egg. Additionally, Bond exposes Kamal’s loaded dice at backgammon and uses them to win a hand, to which Kamal responds by suggesting that he spend his winnings quickly. A similar scene and similar warning occur in the novel, Moonraker, when Bond swindles the cheating Hugo Drax at a card game.

Certainly not as strong as other Bond outings with Moore, such as The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy will nonetheless quench a 007 thirst. Along the way, fans will find accomplished stars and noteworthy action scenes. And most viewers will welcome the opportunity to watch Octopussy’s girls employ their skills as circus performers or a villain treat a circular saw like a yo-yo.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with Die Another Day (2002).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Tribute to Lieutenant Philip Gerard

Barry Morse as Philip Gerard.
A supporting character in The Fugitive, police Lieutenant Philip Gerard was one of the first TV detectives to portray the mundane aspects of his job. And, in two key episodes, he also showed how his job impacted his family, to the point of almost breaking up his marriage.

British actor Barry Morse played the stoic, driven Lt. Gerard in 37 of the 120 episodes. Fugitive creator Roy Huggins based the character loosely on Javert in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Gerard gets only two lines in Huggin's original treatment of The Fugitive and isn't even given a name. In most of the episodes, Gerard's presence serves merely to move the plots along. He almost captures convicted murderer Richard Kimble on numerous occasions, but his prey always slips through his fingers--typically because law-abiding citizens aid the fugitive.

Lt. Gerard and Richard Kimble.
The source of Gerard's obsession with Kimble is established in the opening credits. Gerard, who investigated the murder of Kimble's wife in Stafford, Indiana, is shown aboard a train escorting Kimble to death row. However, their train derails and Kimble escapes. Knowing that he has failed to execute his task, Gerard becomes obsessed with recapturing the fugitive. It doesn't matter whether Kimble is innocent or not. He was found guilty in a court of law and therefore must be apprehended.

The impact on Gerard's family life is first shown in episode 35 "Nemesis," in which Gerard abandons a fishing trip with his young son (Kurt Russell) to pursue a lead on Kimble. When Phil, Jr. (that's actually his name) hides in the backseat of a car, the vehicle is stolen--by Kimble. The irony is that Kimble and the boy eventually form a bond, one strong enough to convince young Phil to help him escape. This unexpected outcome reminds Gerard how he has lost touch with his own son, something he vows to rectify.

Barbara Rush as Marie Gerard.
Likewise, in the season 3 two-part episode "Landscape with Running Figures," Gerard abandons a vacation with his wife to follow another lead on the fugitive. The "vacation" turns out to be an attempt by the Gerards to repair a marriage weakened by Philip’s obsession with bringing Kimble to justice. Tired of fighting for her husband's attention, Marie Gerard (Barbara Rush) leaves her husband. As befits a dramatic television series, she has an encounter with Kimble, too--though the results are different from the one with Gerard's son. And in the end, there is a glimmer of hope for the Gerards' marriage.

Humorless, detailed, and driven, Lt. Philip Gerard may not have succeeded as a lead character in a 1960s TV series. But as a supporting character in a popular show, he showed the less glamorous side of detective work and made a significant contribution to the classic TV detective genre.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 87

Here are the answers to the unanswered (or partially answered) questions from TT86:

Who Said This and in Which Film? "You're about the sexiest bozo ever to wear to a funny blue dress." Who Said This and in Which Film?

Answer: Robbie Benson said it to Lynn Holly Johnson in Ice Castles.

2. Name the film in which Annette O'Toole and Robbie Benson appeared together.

Answer: One on One

3. Andy Devine and Janet Gaynor appeared together in (at least) two '30s films for William Wellman. Name them.

Answer: A Star is Born (1937) and Small Town Girl (1936)

5. Name three films in which characters played by Robert Mitchum met their demise in automobiles.

Answers: DKoren came up with two - Out of the Past and Angel Face; the other two possible answers for the third film are Thunder Road or The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

7. Which Bond girl was a former professional ballet dancer?

Answer: Jane Seymour (Live and Let Die).

And here is TT87.....some easy questions here! And of course we have to have a picture of Errol Flynn, not only for Becks, but because today is his birthday!

Who Are We?
I was known as one of the most athletic actors of my day, yet when I tried to enter the military in WWII I was found to be physically unfit. One of my closest friends (also an actor) made a scathing comment to the press about people who play heroes in the movies but won't fight in real life, not knowing about my health problems. Who Are We?

Who Said This In Which Film? Person #1 "Wings? I don't have wings!" Person #2: "Of course not. You're a boy." Who Said This In Which Film?

Who Am I? I'm an actress who made two films for John Cromwell, and I was also in one of Elvis' first films. Who Am I?

1. Name the two films Who Am I? made for John Cromwell.

2. The 1937 film Ballerina was remade at least once. Name the first remake and give the original title of Ballerina.

3. Aside from The Adventures of Robin Hood, name at least one film in which Errol Flynn appeared that was a remake of an earlier movie.

4. Name the child star who morphed into a "femme fatale" in a Nunnally Johnson film.

5. After leaving Warner Brothers, Humphrey Bogart started his own production company. Name the production company and his first two films.

6, Robert Mitchum and Richard Jordan made two films together. Name the films and the directors.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Roger Corman Blogathon: Creating an Illusion of the Supernatural in "Tomb of Ligeia"

(This review is part of the June 17-19 Roger Corman Blogathon, hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. Click here to check out the rest of the blogathon entries. The review below was originally written in 1979 for a film class taught by noted Hitchcock historian James Naremore. It does contain plot spoilers and assumes you’ve seen the movie. For the record, I got an A- on it…but an A for the course!)

The last of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, Tomb of Ligeia (1964) is generally considered the second best of the series, with top honors going to Masque of the Red Death. Yet, while Ligeia may not be as “finished” as the earlier film (to quote the New York Times review), it represents Corman channeling Hitchcock by creating a thematic cousin to Rebecca.

Adapted from a Poe short story by Robert Towne (Chinatown), Tomb of Ligeia stars Vincent Price as Verden Fell, a Victorian gentleman recovering from the death of his beloved wife Ligeia. To perhaps even his own surprise, he meets and quickly marries the strong-willed Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) and brings her to his dilapidated country estate. Rowena quickly learns that Ligeia still maintains a hold on Verden, whether it’s through supernatural means or merely in Verden’s mind. Like the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, she believes she must battle the memories—or ghost—of Ligeia in order to save her marriage. But unlike the second Mrs. de Winter, Rowena begins to worry that she is becoming Ligeia.

While the parallels with Rebecca are obvious, Hitchcock never suggested a supernatural presence. Corman, on the other hand, strives to create the illusion of it through his use of setting and narrative viewpoint. One of the most important characters in Ligeia is the abbey on Verden’s estate. In fact, the film’s title refers to the abbey, which is—in reality—the tomb of Ligeia. By treating the abbey as a character, Corman suggests that it is alive or perhaps even haunted by a ghost. There are no doors which open and close at will; Corman is more subtle than that. Instead, the abbey becomes the setting of all the “supernatural” events. As long as Verden and Rowena are outside of the abbey (e.g., on their honeymoon), they are happy. However, once they return to the decaying abbey, their happiness is shattered.

An example of the abbey’s influence is when Rowena, under Verden’s hypnotic spell, inexplicably becomes Ligeia. At first, this appears to be a supernatural occurrence, but it can also be explained by the influence of the abbey (containing memories of Ligeia) on Rowena’s subconscious mind. No matter where she goes in the abbey, Rowena is confronted by memories of Ligeia (e.g., Ligeia’s cat and portrait…shades of the dog and painting in Rebecca). In fact, the influence of the abbey and its memories are so strong that Rowena begins to dream about Ligeia.

Corman also creates a supernatural quality through his use of narrative viewpoints. Throughout Ligeia, it is difficult to discern who is telling the story and when the camera is being subjective. Corman seems to change viewpoints as the film progresses, presenting his story from four different viewpoints: third-person objective, Ligeia, Rowena, and Verden.

The film begins with a third-person narrative, as if Corman is telling the story and we are watching. This viewpoint represents the “reality” in Ligeia. There is nothing supernatural about events such as the fox hunt or Verden’s sudden appearance at the graveyard. And nothing supernatural occurs while Rowena and Verden are on their honeymoon. As long as Corman remains outside the abbey, his narrative viewpoint remains objective and realistic.

However, once Rowena enters the abbey, the film begins to change its narrative. Sometimes, it seems as if Ligeia is the camera and she is spying on Rowena and Verden. Corman's camera peeks into bedrooms and follows Rowena down the darkened hallways in long dolly shots. The camera (Ligeia) spies on Rowena and her former beau Christopher when they have breakfast on the porch. As they talk about Verden’s strange behavior, the camera zooms beyond them and to the tower. It seems as if Ligeia is laughing at them because they know nothing of her secret.

Finally, the camera also becomes subjective at several points in the film, allowing the audience to see what Rowena or Verden is seeing. This subjectivity often adds a supernatural quality to something that could be easily explained. Following the cat’s first attack on Rowena, she becomes convinced that the cat is trying to keep her away from Verden. This belief continues to the point where she believes that the cat is Ligeia. When Corman gives us a close-up of Rowena's face, then a shot of the cat, you see the cat the way Rowena does--as a creature intent on killing her. Hence, the montage scene in which Rowena runs from room to room and finds the cat waiting in each is purely subjective. Rowena imagined the cat’s movements and we saw them because she did.

A better example of this technique is in the final scene. Verden carries Rowena out of Ligeia's tower room. When he lays her on the stone floor, he sees that she has transformed into Ligeia. This would appear to be the most supernatural event in the movie: We see Verden carry out Rowena; we see him lay Ligeia down. Yet, Corman has deceived us by changing viewpoints in the scene. Verden did carry out Rowena, but she did not change into Ligeia--except in Verden’s mind. When Christopher walks into the room, we see the two lovers from his viewpoint. Verden is holding Rowena, not Ligeia (as he imagines). When Verden starts to strangle her, he too sees Rowena. But it has been Rowena all the time, because Verden imagined the transformation.

Throughout Tomb of Ligeia, Corman plays with the audience’s perceptions. He has structured his film so that it can be viewed as either a supernatural tale or a suspense drama. Corman’s dividing line between the two is a very thin one. More importantly, he has created a finely-textured film in which what we see isn’t influenced by just our own perceptions. The eye of the beholder is important, but of equal weight is the identity of the beholder. Ligeia challenges the viewer to take note of who is seeing what…as well as what they are really seeing.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Warner Bros. Classic TV Detectives Were the "Ginchiest" - Part 1

Roger Smith, Edd Byrnes, and
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
Warner Bros. was the kingpin of prime-time crime shows on television in the early 1960s. All its series featured the same formula: good-looking private eyes that worked in exotic locales surrounded by beautiful women and assisted by a kooky assistant or two. Warner's first series, 77 Sunset Strip, established the formula, became a cultural phenomenon, and ran for six seasons. Its creation and evolution form a fascinating backstory.

Franchot Tone as the
original Stu Bailey.
Writer (and future TV executive) Roy Huggins wrote several literary novels and short stories in the 1940s and 1950s featuring a private eye named Stu Bailey. Franchot Tone played Bailey in a 1948 film called I Love Trouble. In 1956, Huggins penned a pilot episode for a television series with Bailey called "Anything for Money" on the anthology TV series Conflict. The pilot, which starred Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., didn't sell, but it intrigued Warner Bros. enough to order a second pilot. However, the studio wanted the running time expanded to 90 minutes so it could be marketed as a feature film. Huggins and screenwriter Marion Hargrove came up with Girl on the Run (1958), with Zimbalist reprising his role of Bailey. It served as a second pilot episode for the 77 Sunset Strip TV series and was also released overseas as a theatrical film.

Warner Bros. picked up the series, but the show's convoluted creation led to a dispute with Huggins over royalties and who held the rights to any future film involving the characters. Huggins eventually left 77 Sunset Strip to devote more time to Maverick, another show he created. Huggins enjoyed a long and extremely successful career as a studio executive and TV producer, creating classic series such as The Fugitive and The Rockford Files.

Kookie combing his hair
(what else?).
En route from the movie Girl on the Run to the 77 Sunset Strip TV series, other changes occurred. Stu Bailey acquired a partner in Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith), a former federal agent (like Bailey) who was also a non-practicing attorney. In Girl on the Run, Edd Byrnes played a sociopathic killer named Kenneth Smiley, who had a propensity for combing his hair. During a screening of the film, the young members of the audiences reacted so favorably to Byrnes that he was added to the TV series cast--as a good guy. He played a valet named Gerald Lloyd Kookson III--"Kookie" for short--who still liked to comb his hair.

77 Sunset Strip debuted on ABC in October 1958 and was an instant hit. It climbed in popularity, peaking at #6 in th Nielsen ratings for the 1959-60 season (tied with Father Knows Best). It also became a cultural phenomenon with its hip theme song (complete with snapping fingers) and Kookie, who unexpectedly became the most popular member of the cast. His "Kookie-isms"--his personal slang expressions--appealed to the show's young viewers. Examples include: "a dark seven" (a depressing week); "headache grapplers" (aspirin); and the "ginchiest" (the greatest).

Edd Byrnes even parlayed his fame to a brief singing career, scoring a novelty hit with "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb" (a No. 4 hit on the Billboard Top 40). At the height of his popularity, Byrnes demanded a larger part on the series and walked out. He returned after a short hiatus, though, and Kookie was promoted to partner in the detective firm.

Zimbalist moved from one
hit to another.
By its fifth season, ratings had declined significantly. Roger Smith had left after a blod clot was discovered in his brain and Richard Long became a new partner. In 1963, Warners hired Jack Webb and William Conrad to totally revamp the show. They first fired the cast, retaining only Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and transformed Stu Bailey into a globe-hopping federal agent. The new 77 Sunset Strip never caught fire and show was cancelled in February 1964.

Zimbalist wasn't out of work for long. The next fall, he was headlining a new TV series, Quinn Martin's long-running The F.B.I. Roger Smith retired from acting in 1965 and became a full-time agent for his wife, Ann-Margret. Edd Byrnes never matched his "Kookie" success, but appeared in numerous TV series and films, include the musical Grease.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this profile of Warner TV detective series, to include Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6, and Bourbon Street. And if you feel an urge to hear the theme to 77 Sunset Strip, click on the link below. And, yes, the Dino's Lodge that appears in the opening was owned by Dean Martin.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Murder, She Wrote: How to Solve a Murder with Jessica Fletcher

Some detectives sit in a cramped, gloomy office, and a murder investigation is triggered by a dame walking through the door and demanding help. Others are plainclothes police offers, on the clock and awaiting a crime scene. For mystery novel writer turned amateur detective J.B. Fletcher (Jessica, to her friends) of Murder, She Wrote, which premiered on CBS in 1984, murder seems to follow her wherever she goes. The author’s knowledge and adeptness is derived from hours of research, concocting various ways in which a person(s) can be murdered. She’s so thorough, in fact, that, when working a case, she’s occasionally been named a suspect, often an unscrupulous way to glean information that she’s stockpiled on her own. (She’s also been arrested, such as the Season 5 premiere, “J.B., as in Jailbird”, but that had more to do with the fact that she was standing over a dead body.)

Jessica (Angela Lansbury) is a modern day Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s popular female sleuth. Like Jessica, Miss Marple is an older woman working as an amateur gumshoe (though Jessica is considerably younger). Both women work alone or without a regular partner, and while Miss Marple was never married, Jessica is a widow and lives in a small cottage in Cabot Cove, Maine. (Keep in mind that, while Jessica was often paired in the course of the investigation with characters such as Sheriff Amos, played by Tom Bosley, such characters worked as a counterbalance, their superficial view of a crime or suspect invariably proven wrong by Jessica.)

Though Jessica Fletcher did not go looking for murder, it always managed to find her. Whether she was visiting relatives (nieces, nephews and the like, as she and her late husband had no children), attending conferences or events related to her books, or simply staying at home, dead bodies seem to fall at her very doorstep (that almost happens in the series’ second episode, “Deadly Lady”, when a stranger shows up at her door looking for work and winds up dead -- though somewhere else, not at her door). Wherever Jessica was, or whomever the victim, there was a basic pattern to solving murder mysteries, and the novelist followed fundamental steps, much like a story’s outline.

1. Ingratiate oneself with the local authorities. Jessica typically deals with two types of authority figures. While most of the detectives or cops are familiar with her and/or her novels, they either consider her a nuisance or are gushing fans. If the investigating detective was a fan (e.g., the French inspector, played by Fritz Weaver, in “A Fashionable Way to Die”, who jokingly calls her Watson), Jessica was at a major advantage, with firsthand details of the ongoing case. But a cop who doesn’t appreciate her presence or respect her work creates another obstacle for the author. In any case, the best way seems to be working with the lead investigator, and not against -- unless, of course, said authority is suspect, like in Season 3’s “Cemetery Vote”.

2. The most effective way to prove an innocent person’s innocence is to expose the real killer. Generally the police lock onto a suspect or two, and Jessica may have doubts. Establishing someone as beyond suspicion is a nearly impossible feat, as the only real way to erase all residue of guilt is to throw it all onto the guilty party. Whether or not the unjustly accused is Jessica’s friend or a family member, the novelist will take a step back, gather all the clues and allow them to lead her to -- hopefully -- someone else.

3. Obtain a confession by any means available -- trickery, proof of deceit, etc. -- but always be prepared. On the road to the killer’s identity, Jessica often finds herself face-to-face with a person whom she’s confident (or, at least, fairly certain) is a murderer. She may remind said person of a spoken untruth or an inconsistency in his/her story, or she may intentionally cause a person to blunder, but what Jessica does nearly every time is arrive with backup. This functions as another set of ears if a killer confesses but, more than that, it’s simply protection from a person whose desperation may prove fatal. Sometimes it all comes to a head in a room full of suspects, which is preferable by offering additional witnesses and more limbs to restrain a murderer.

4. In the course of the investigation, lying or manipulation may be a necessary evil. There are occasions when Jessica flatly misleads someone or does not rectify a misunderstanding. One such example is from Season 4’s “Witness for the Defense”, when Jessica leads a suspect to believe that she’s an ambitious small-town reporter so that he will feed her further details of a murder.

5. Let the resolution happen naturally. In a number of episodes, Jessica has all the pieces she needs and doesn’t quite know how everything fits. It’s often when she’s discussing or considering another topic that a connection is made, and she can move from there to a solution.

Not every episode followed a formula. Season 3’s “Murder in a Minor Key”, as a for instance, was an interesting change of course. Jessica speaks directly to her audience, introducing and recapping (following what would have been the commercial breaks) the story of one of her novels -- the episode’s title. Perusing the plot, however, one sees familiar terrain: a law student (Shaun Cassidy) works as a novice sleuth, determined to prove that a friend did not commit a murder and ultimately extracting a confession from the person truly responsible. It seems that Jessica’s life provided the basis for her novels -- or were her books the inspiration for her investigatory process?

“Murder in a Minor Key” acted as almost a precursor to what became known as “bookend episodes” in Seasons 6 and 7. With the assumption that Lansbury would be departing after the fifth season, executive producer and writer Peter S. Fischer scripted a series finale, which had to be reworked at the eleventh hour when Lansbury signed on for two additional seasons (though she stuck around for even more). Part of her agreement was a reduced workload, which was handled by sporadic episodes throughout a season in which Jessica would only appear to introduce and/or close a story. Examples included another of her novels (“Good-Bye Charlie”), and episodes featuring her crime-solving friends, such as MI6 agent Michael Haggerty (Len Cariou), football player turned P.I. Bill Boyle (Ken Howard), and insurance investigator and former thief/conman Dennis Stanton (Keith Mitchell). There was a notable drop in ratings during these two seasons, which seemed to affirm that viewers tuned in not for the murders but for the bright and beguiling Jessica Fletcher. It was a drastic change to watch, for instance, Dennis solve a crime (Mitchell’s character starred in one of the bookend episodes in Season 6 and all five of them in 7). His method was a diametrical difference, as he sought to prove guilt, intentionally agitated law enforcement, and identified fabricated accounts from others in lieu of manipulating them (an interesting approach from an ex-conman).

Angela Lansbury was topnotch as Jessica Fletcher. She made the character immensely charismatic, sweet like a grandmother, nimble like a dancer, and elegant like a queen. She was a lady whom anyone would wish to know, although only from afar, considering the track record for her wrongfully accused family and friends. For her portrayal, Lansbury was nominated for 12 Emmys (a nomination per season) and 10 Golden Globe awards. Shockingly, she never won an Emmy, but she did walk away with four Golden Globes. The versatile actress has been nominated and won awards for her work in film, TV and theatre, including an Academy Award nomination for her 1944 film debut, Gaslight, also starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and five Tony Awards.

Though Lansbury was the only regular, there were several recurring characters. William Windom played Dr. Seth Hazlitt, Cabot Cove’s doctor. Windom actually debuted on the series as another character (a murder suspect!) in the Season 1 finale, “Funeral at Fifty-Mile”. Seth first appeared in the second season. Tom Bosley was Sheriff Amos Tupper. Bosley left the series after Season 4 for the lead in Father Dowling Mysteries. Though Bosley’s departure was disappointing, he was replaced by Ron Masak as Sheriff Mort Metzger, a warm and favorable character on par with Sheriff Amos. Masak, like Windom, first starred on Murder, She Wrote as a different character (two, actually, in Seasons 1 and 3) before becoming the sheriff. Michael Horton also made frequent appearances as Jessica’s long-suffering nephew, Grady. He has been accused of murder a few times, including the pilot. A body is discovered soon after announcing his engagement to Donna (Debbie Zipp, who is married to Horton in real life) and another on the couple’s wedding day. In Season 6 (“The Szechuan Dragon”), a corpse makes its way into Jessica’s living room while Grady and a pregnant Donna are house sitting (Jessica still solves that one, over the phone and 3,000 miles away in London).

Jessica’s ingenuity and knack for solving murder mysteries is undisputed. The sheriffs of Cabot Cove were intelligent men, but their reliance on Jessica is clear, and, though they may not admit it, detectives and cops of other cases may never have found the real killer if not for the author. And if not for the crossover episode, who would have helped Magnum, P.I. (Tom Selleck) prove his innocence? My favorite part of Murder, She Wrote is Jessica’s moment of revelation, which happened in most episodes. It was that subtle jaw drop, the eyes a little wide, and her frozen, immobile state that lasts for a couple of seconds. She’d usually run from the room, sometimes thanking the person she’s with, the person clueless as to what she’s deduced. There are times when I know why Jessica had her reaction, and many times I don’t. But it’s always a welcome sight.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 86

Here are the answers to the unanswered or partially-answered questions from TT85:

1. In which film did Karl Malden play Natalie Wood's dad? (No, it's not Gypsy.)

Answer: Bomber B-52

2. Who played Natalie Wood's lover and who played her love interest in the film in #1?

Answer: Sorry! We screwed up the question! It should have just asked about ONE love interest, who was Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

3. Name the four films in which Frank Sinatra "buys the farm".

Answers: Becks and DKoren came up with Von Ryan's Express, From Here to Eternity, and The Devil at 4:00. There are at least TWO more, since I had forgotten all about about The Devil at 4:00: Suddenly and Cast a Giant Shadow.

4. Rex Ingram was featured in two films with scores by Miklós Rózsa. Name the films.

Answers: Thief of Baghdad and Sahara.

6. Name the film in which George Takei appeared with Richard Burton.

Answer: Ice Palace.

And here is TT86....have fun!

Who Said This and in Which Film? "You're about the sexiest bozo ever to wear to a funny blue dress." Who Said This and in Which Film?

1. Errol Flynn and Barbara Stanwyck appeared together in which film?

2. Name the film in which Annette O'Toole and Robbie Benson appeared together.

3. Andy Devine and Janet Gaynor appeared together in (at least) two '30s films for William Wellman. Name them.

4. Robert Shaw played characters who died in two films in the 1960s and two films in the 1970s. Name the films.

5. Name three films in which characters played by Robert Mitchum met their demise in automobiles.

6. Which Bond girl was a former professional figure skater?

7. Which Bond girl was a former professional ballet dancer?