Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ante Meridiem Theatre: “The Fly” (1958)

Ante Meridiem Theatre is a new feature at the Cafe to focus on those movies that, years ago, would crop up on TV in the wee hours of the morning, when you were only partially awake, and right before the network turned to snow.
A night watchman at a factory finds a woman standing next to a hydraulic press and a crushed body. The woman, Helene (Patricia Owens), flees and later calls her brother-in-law, Francois (Vincent Price), to tell him that she’s killed her husband (and Francois’ brother), Andre. Francois is initially skeptical but his brother’s death is quickly confirmed and made all the more confusing when Helene claims that she operated the press but Andre had lain his head and arm under the machine. Francois and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) find Andre’s laboratory (a madman’s lab, according to Francois), and Helene is seemingly obsessed with flies and becomes hysterical when her nurse swats one of the insects. Eventually, Helene tells the story of Andre (David Hedison), who had invented a device capable of transporting matter, suitably titled the Disintegrator-Integrator. His invention is successful, but one day, he locks the lab door. Slipping notes under the door, Andre informs his wife that he cannot speak and that he needs her help, though she must promise to not look at him. Inside, Andre’s head and face are covered by a cloak, and he keeps his left hand hidden. Helene must find a specific fly, one with a white head, for Andre to correct the ghastly accident which occurred when he transported himself -- not realizing that a fly was in the machine with him.

When I was younger, some of the local cable channels would show numerous horror and sci-fi films late at night and into the early morning hours. Vincent Price was the star of many of these movies, and my brother and I were huge fans, my brother filling a stack of VHS tapes with Vincent Price films. Some our fav
orites were House of Wax (1953), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and the Dr. Phibes movies (1971-72). Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958) is perhaps not the best film to watch for Price fanatics, as over half of the film is Helene’s flashback, in which Price’s character, Francois, only appears in a couple of segments. But despite Price as a supporting character, the actor’s presence has made The Fly a Vincent Price movie.
The Fly is a superb film, and its structure works wonderfully. Rather than open with the genesis of a scientist’s creation, it starts with the aftermath, the shocking image of Helene -- in a dress and with her hair up -- standing next to a bloody body. The first act of the movie consists of Francois and the inspector investigating the crime scene and Andre’s lab, while Helene provides only a few details. The flashback slowly and effectively builds to the accident and invariable reveal of Andre’s new head and arm. Andre as the fly is finally seen with only about 20 minutes remaining, but the gradual suspense -- including Helene and her son trying to catch the fly that Andre says he’ll need to reverse the procedure -- makes the long wait anything but disappointing. Unfortunately, the more overt qualities overwhelm the movie’s subtleties, as the intriguing concept of Andre’s waning humanity is given little development. But the film remains engaging throughout and has a terrific ending -- Francois finds the much-desired white-headed fly.

A sequel followed in 1959, called Return of the Fly. In it, Andre and Helene’s young son has grown and is trying to redeem his father’s name and reputation by continuing his work. Similar results ensue, courtesy of dissimilar circumstances. Price reprises his role of Francois. A second sequel, Curse of the Fly
(1965), was produced in the UK and follows the son and grandson of Andre -- though the son now has a different name. They experiment with teleportation, and before long... well, you can guess what happens. Brian Donlevy, who portrayed the titular scientist in two of the Quartermass movies from British studio, Hammer Films, stars as Andre’s son. Director Don Sharp also made movies for Hammer.
Some viewers see the 1958 film as campy, particularly Andre the fly -- though I think he looks creepy, and I especially enjoy his thousand-eyed point-of-view of Helene. There was no sign of campiness in Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s remake in 1986. The movie starred Jeff Goldblum as scientist Seth Brundle who impresses a beautiful journalist, Veronica (Geena Davis), with his Telepods -- devices that can teleport an object from one machine to the next. The most significant difference between the remake and the original is that, while in the original the scientist and the fly “swapped” molecules (and body parts), in the remake the biological makeup of both fuse and create a singular being. This causes Seth to metamorphose into a new creature -- he calls himself “Brundlefly.” The movie is decidedly more horrific and more grotesque, and though the 1958 movie is good, Cronenberg’s remake is even better. There was also an okay sequel to the ‘86 movie: The Fly II (1989), with Eric Stoltz as Seth’s son who -- blah, blah, blah, he becomes a fly!

Suffice to say, teleportation never seems to work out well in movies, or literature, for that matter (example: Stephen King’s short story, “The Jaunt”, from the collection, Skeleton Crew). People are often excited about technological advances, but The Fly represents a fear of new technology -- Helene explicitly voices her apprehension -- and the potential (and feasibly harmful) side effects of unfamiliar machinery. Most technology is about convenience. Sure, it’d be great to quickly teleport to a place miles away, much like the speed of messaging via texts and email. But would I take a fly head and arm in exchange for Apple’s new iTeleport? Nah, I’ll just walk.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Come to “The Little Shop of Horrors” For All Your Man-Eating Plant Needs

At Mushnick’s Florist, a small flower shop on skid row, Seymour (Jonathan Haze) is an unassuming employee. To avoid losing his job, he brings in a special plant he’s been nursing. The plant, Audrey Junior -- named after Seymour’s beautiful co-worker, Audrey (Jackie Joseph) -- is frail and apparently dying. Seymour’s care seems to have no effect until that evening at the shop when, quite by accident, Seymour learns that Audrey Junior is responsive to his blood. The strange plant brings in some customers, but it quickly returns to its feeble state. Seymour considers his next move, and Audrey Junior clears up his indecision by stating bluntly, “Feed me.” That night, the lowly employee is lucky enough to happen upon an accidental death, and Audrey Junior grows in size and popularity. Meanwhile, the plant’s appeal for sustenance is vigorous and persistent, and suddenly Seymour is at a loss as to where he might find food. But let’s face it: with a sadistic dentist (John Shaner) who enjoys inflicting pain on his patients, how hard can it be?

Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is a wonderfully diverting black comedy. Though the man-eating plant takes center stage, it’s supported by a motley cast: the customer (Dick Miller) who, as an Audrey Junior counterpart, buys flowers for consumption; Seymour’s hypochondriac mother (Myrtle Vail), whose meals are spiced and garnished with various medications; and the investigating cops, Joe Fink (Wally Campo) and Frank Stoolie (Jack Warford), who are so apathetic that Stoolie casually and coldly tells Fink that his own son has died from playing with matches -- and then lights a cigarette. Haze is quite good as Seymour, who’s passive but never measly, and his romance with Audrey is a high point of the film. Seymour’s boss, Mushnick (Mel Welles), adds even more humor to the plot, insisting that his employee call him “Dad” when Audrey Junior piques customers’ interests, but then retracting that when the plant isn’t looking well.

A number of cast members had previously worked with Corman and would work with him again. Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, who has several smaller roles in The Little Shop of Horrors, including a would-be robber and the voice of Audrey Junior, scripted Corman’s earlier effort, A Bucket of Blood (1959), which starred Miller. However, the movie’s most famous star is Jack Nicholson, who appears in a single scene as a masochistic patient of the dentist. Even today, varying home media releases of the 1960 film will highlight Nicholson’s appearance.

The Little Shop of Horrors garnered a cult following, a status that was solidified by an Off-Broadway adaptation in 1982, written by composer Alan Menken and playwright/lyricist Howard Ashman. The production eventually moved to Broadway and was further adapted into a cinematic musical in 1986. The movie was directed by Frank Oz and starred Rick Moranis as Seymour, Ellen Greene as Audrey, and a scene-stealing Steve Martin as the dentist. Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist for the Four Tops, provided the voice of the plant, called Audrey II in the adaptations.

Roger Corman filmed The Little Shop of Horrors in two days. Corman has stated that the film’s budget was $30,000, which would make the 1986 musical’s reported $25 million budget over 800 times higher. In Corman’s 1960 original, Audrey Junior is, essentially, a mutation or some type of deformity. Its origins are a little unclear, as Seymour claims that he bought seeds from a Japanese gardener and then later defines the plant as a cross between a butterwort and a Venus Flytrap. Audrey II of the stage and film adaptation is an alien, a fact that’s nearly impossible to forget with the catchy number, “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”.

The musicals are topnotch, but one shouldn’t negate the skill of Roger Corman. The singing and dancing rev up the comedy, but the 1960 movie was already funny, and some might argue that the original has a charm that the adaptations don’t quite match. With a shoestring budget and made in little time, The Little Shop of Horrors is a testament to Corman as a director and producer. Success isn’t predicated on the size of the production. Sometimes it only takes a little shop. And a man-eating plant.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Trivia Time 100

We're getting our gratuitous Errol Flynn pic out of the way early this time....Becks, I hope you've got your Internet up!

Wow!! Can this really be the 100th installment of Trivia Time?

I will get to the questions in a moment, but first I have to thank a few people…. especially Rick, since he gave me a place to play my "twisted little mind games". And then my graphic designer and co-conspirator for the past year, my wife JoAnn.

Of course much gratitude is owed to all you loyal players, old timers and newbies alike: Classic Becky, Dawn, Gilby, Kim, Tom, Caftan Woman, Sazball, angel25, beelzebub, Aurora, Dorian and the very first person ever to get all of a TT right on the first try, The Lady Eve! If I didn't mention you by name but I should have, blame my incipient Alzheimer's, LOL!!

So here it is….TT100! Drumroll please! (don't worry, it's pretty easy)

1. Mike Post said that this singer, who later turned actor, had a real problem singing on key. Who is he talking about?

2. In the late '70's this composer scored a scene that many (myself included) consider to be one of the greatest "G-rated" love scenes ever filmed. Name the composer, the film, and the director.

3. Regarding #2, did the composer work with that director before the film in question? If so, name the previous film.

4. What do Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner have in common?

5. Name at least three writers for the Smothers Brother's show who went on to "bigger and better things".

6. Name two Jerry Lewis films featuring music by Count Basie.

7. Who did a commercial for "Shower In A Briefcase"?

8. In The "Gunslinger" episode of The Dick Van Dyke show (final episode), name the song that Laura sang.

9. Which classic horror film gave birth to a tune that became a jazz standard? Name the film, the stars, and the song.

10. Beginning in December 1942, Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon appeared together in a Broadway show. They starred with Katharine Cornell in the Chekov play, The Three Sisters. Can you name a film featuring both Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon?

11. Name the stars and the director of the film in #10.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ode to the Movie Mutant Monsters

So very many mutants,
oh how is one to choose?
Tarantula or Swamp Thing
or even Killer Shrews?
It's Alive's scary baby
really knew how to creep.
If the sea is your thing,
try Humanoids from the Deep.
Gamma People on the earth,
Mole People down below.
And in the air Ghidrah flew
despite Godzilla's blow.
So how to choose a mutant?
Remember to use care.
Don't feed the plant in Little Shop,
Shoo The Fly off your chair!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

And the Beasts Shall Reign Over the Earth: Them!

The title appeared in color, though
the film was shot in B&W.
In a New Mexico desert, two state troopers pick up a six-year-old girl wandering aimlessly in a bathrobe and slippers, carrying a broken doll. When Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) tries to question the little girl, she remains silent, staring in space--a victim of shock. Up the road, Peterson and his partner discover a trailer with a large hole ripped in one side. Bloody clothes and dollar bills litter the well as a corpse. Outside the trailer, the troopers discover an unusual footprint in the sand, made by neither man nor known beast. As the desert wind whistles, an eerie sound causes the girl to look up in trepidation.

The young survivor of the first attack.
This brilliant opening scene sets the stage for the first-third of Them!, which unravels more as a mystery than a science fiction film. The clues are revealed one by one: a hardware store destroyed in the same manner as the trailer; the sudden arrival of scientists from the Department of Agriculture; an autopsy that reveals a victim may have died from an injection of formic acid; and finally the little girl screaming "Them! Them!" after taking a whiff of the acid.

The first we see a giant ant
is during a sandstorm.
By the time Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) reveals that the culprits are giant ants, it's almost anticlimactic. It also marks a shift in approach as the mystery gives way to a standard science fiction formula. To be sure, Them! executes the formula with precision, with three marvelous set pieces: the first glimpse of the ants as one becomes visible during a sandstorm; a cyanide gas assault on the ants' nest; and the climax in Los Angeles storm drains.

Yet, its very success is what makes Them! slightly disappointing on second and later viewings. Certainly, it ranks above all but a handful of science fiction films produced during the 1950s; it's a unqualified genre classic. However, stripped of its novelty "mystery approach" and big pay-off scenes, it lacks a potent theme that resonates in the same way as truly timeless genre films like The Day the Earth the Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even The Incredible Shrinking Man.

One could argue that Them! is the definitive example of the "nuclear power-caused mutant creature subgenre." Still, that's nothing new thematically. Man invented nuclear power, so we're back to the old sci fi staple of man messing around in areas he shouldn't and inadvertently creating monsters. This is a theme at least as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and featured in earlier sci fi films such as The Invisible Ray (1936). What Them! brings to it is a dark sense of humor, in that through man's intervention, the tiniest of creatures threatens to wipe out all of mankind.

Whitmore opens fire as Gwenn's
scientist observes the giant ant.
It seems unfair perhaps to criticize Them! because of its own high standards. To be sure, the cast is above average for a 1950s sci fi opus, with Edmund Gwenn giving new life to the standard role of the scientist that figures it all out. The special effects, while not on a Harryhausen level, work well enough, aided considerably by the inspired settings (e.g., the sandstorm, the tunnels). And although there is some sexism directed toward Joan Weldon's Dr. Pat Medford (e.g., she's introduced legs first), she evolves into a strong character. True, she investigates the first crime scene in a dress suit and high heels. But later, she ditches that for a military uniform and accompanies the male heroes in the tunnels to make sure the ants are dead.

Even if its potency fades during repeated viewings, Them! has earned its status as a genre classic. Its "mystery approach" alone makes it a unique sci fi film. There can also be no doubt that it was an influential film, inspiring 1950s imitators such as Beginning of the End (giant grasshoppers), Tarantula, Earth vs. the Spider, and The Deadly Mantis (as in big preying mantis).

Monday, October 17, 2011

Trivia Time 99

Wow, can you believe this is actually TT99?

Thanks for participating last week, people! Here are the leftover questions (and answers) from TT98:

1. Who Said This to Whom in Which Film? "Close the door! What, were you born in a barn?"

Answer: Bob Hope said it to Trigger in Son of Paleface.

2. Who Said This? "Come back! I want to go to Boom-Boom Land!"

Answer: Jan Murray in Episode 17 of Car 54, Where Are You? (Rick got part of this one).

8. In the movie Mister Mom, what was on the TV screen when Michael Keaton put his foot through it?

Answer: A scene in which Cary Grant was in drag (in I Was a Male War Bride).

10. What do the films Slap Shot and 10 have in common?

Answer: Melinda Dillon

11. Who played the Mexican hotel bartender in 10?

Answer: Brian Dennehy

12. Which two recording artists are featured in Sunday in New York?

Answer: Rick got Peter Nero, the other one was Mel Torme.

Just for Becks, here is a totally extraneous Flynn pic, with Olivia and Trigger, from The Adventures of Robin Hood:

This week (TT99) will be short and sweet; I'm gearing up for next week's installment (TT100). You have been warned!

1. Who said this in which film? "Refund!?!? Refund!?!?"

2. What do the films North By Northwest and Gidget Goes to Rome have in common?

3. In which film does Greg Morris play a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer? Name the three leading stars.

4. What do Lee Marvin and Count Basie have in common?

5. What do Cary Grant, John Ridgely, and Arthur Kennedy have in common?

6. In the film A Woman's Secret, where does Gloria Grahame say she's from?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Don’t Run and Hide From This Monster, “Swamp Thing” is Here to Save You

Government agent Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) is sent to the swamp, where Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is working on a top secret experiment. Dr. Holland shows Alice a vegetable cell with animal DNA, telling her that his purpose is to create “aggressive” vegetation, or, more specifically, plants that can survive in extreme conditions. But when Holland has a breakthrough, a group of paramilitary soldiers led by a corrupt scientist, Arcane (Louis Jourdan), infiltrates his lab. The villains are there to steal Holland’s work, but a struggle results in an explosive compound setting the doctor afire, Holland then running outside and jumping into the swamp. Alice has eluded the soldiers, and when they come after her, they are thwarted by a still-living Holland, now a brawny plant-like creature (and played by Dick Durock). It isn’t long before Arcane mixes his own batch of Holland’s chemical with the hopes of achieving immortality.

Based on characters from DC Comics, Swamp Thing (1982) was written and directed by Wes Craven. Having previously helmed the low-budget hits, The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Craven was provided a significantly higher budget and well-known stars, including Jourdan and Barbeau. Swamp Thing leans closer to action than any other genre, with some entertaining and impressive stunts. The movie is remembered for its campy qualities, although Craven’s intent was clearly to make a live-action comic book, exemplified by the exaggerated transitional wipes, not unlike the various and sometimes irregular frames of comic book panels.

Swamp Thing is an unusual mutated monster, as he is most assuredly the hero. His identity is unmistakable to the audience, and he’s not played as a misunderstood creature, even to Alice. Her initial wariness of Swamp Thing, even if he seems to be protecting her, is tongue-in-cheek: The first thing she says to the mutated Holland is “Shoo!” while waving him away. Though Craven does touch upon Holland’s inner turmoil -- the scientist realizing that his massive hands cannot handle the delicate lab work -- the movie showcases a monster with noble intentions, focusing on Swamp Thing’s attempts to save Alice.

Alice, however, is not helpless, simply waiting to be saved. She swings and punches, knocking down one of the soldiers and shooting another with no hesitation. When she is cornered at a gas station with a young boy, Jude (Reggie Batts), a wise-cracking character who supplies much of the comic relief, she draws the soldiers away from the boy. The bulk of the film is the villains pursuing Alice, but she isn’t always rescued by Swamp Thing, sometimes escaping with no reinforcements. When Alice is invariably caught, she is adorned in a dress and bound much like Ann (Fay Wray) in the 1933 King Kong. The difference, of course, is that Ann was being sacrificed to King Kong, while Alice is being kept away from the monster. Barbeau is terrific as Alice, portraying a strong female typical of her roles in earlier movies such as The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), both directed by her then-husband, John Carpenter.

An ill-received sequel was released in 1989, The Return of Swamp Thing. Jourdan and Durock as the titular hero both returned, but the movie, which also starred Heather Locklear and Sarah Douglas, was treated as a comedy, a glaring shift in genres that was a misfire for audiences. The subsequent year, Swamp Thing: The Series made its television debut on USA Network. Though critics were largely unreceptive, the series lasted three seasons and has since developed a cult following. Durock reprised his role for TV. A 3-D remake of Craven’s 1982 film is reportedly in the works, to be directed by Vincenzo Natali, who also helmed the cult sci-fi movie, Cube (1997), and, more recently, Splice (2009), with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. DC Comics recently rebooted its line of comic book titles, called The New 52, which includes, among many others, Swamp Thing.

Composer Harry Manfredini wrote the score for a number of horror films, but is perhaps best known for his work on the popular slasher film, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), and its numerous sequels. Cunningham also produced Craven’s The Last House on the Left, which featured David Hess, who stars in Swamp Thing as Ferret, leader of the soldiers. Hess provided memorable turns as villains in Craven’s movies, as well as two films from Italian director Ruggero Deodato, The House on the Edge of the Park (1980) and Body Count (1987/aka Camping del terrore). The actor passed away last week, on Saturday, Oct. 8th.

Some nudity in the film, including a bathing sequence with Barbeau, was cut to receive a PG rating, but the film was released overseas with these scenes included. When MGM released Swamp Thing on DVD, the international version was inadvertently used, despite the PG printed on the box. When the studio discovered the blunder, it quickly pulled the DVD from the shelves. MGM eventually re-released the movie on DVD, this time the original PG cut. Those with DVD players that can bypass regional encoding can search for an European DVD, although the earlier recalled DVD is easy to find online. The unrated version is typically preferred, as the Barbeau scene adds much depth to the, you know, story or whatever.

Two years after Swamp Thing, Wes Craven released A Nightmare on Elm Street, a huge success that spawned sequels and turned Craven’s character, Freddy Krueger (portrayed by Robert Englund), into an icon. Craven’s subsequent filmography was hit-or-miss, but he scored another blockbuster with Scream in 1996. Sequels also followed, all of which have been directed by Craven, including this year’s Scream 4. In addition to the purported Swamp Thing remake, other films from Craven have been recently remade, such as The Hills Have Eyes in 2006 (with a sequel the next year), The Last House on the Left (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Robin Ellis Talks with the Café about "Poldark" and His New Cookbook for Diabetics

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark in 1975.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications once dubbed Poldark "one of the most successful British television dramas of all time." Such high praise masks the fact that Poldark was an immensely entertaining, well-made historical drama set in Cornwall in the late 18th century. Based on the novels of Winston Graham, the 29-episode series appeared in 1975-77 on the BBC in the United Kingdom and on Masterpiece Theatre in the United States.

Chef, author, and actor
Robin Ellis today.
Although an ensemble drama, the cast was anchored by Robin Ellis, who played Captain Ross Poldark. He catapulted to fame as the series' rugged, dashing hero. Over the last 34 years, Ellis has enjoyed a successful career in television, film, and stage. Diagnosed with type II diabetes several years ago, he recently wrote a cookbook for diabetics: Delicious Dishes for Diabetics: Eating Well with Type-2 Diabetes. Robin Ellis graciously agreed to an interview with the Café.

Café:  It’s been 36 years since Poldark was originally broadcast. It still has a strong fan base and attracts new viewers on DVD. What do you think is the key to its enduring popularity?

Robin:  It had the advantage of being adapted from a successful series of novels written by Winston Graham while he was living and bringing up a family in Cornwall. The stories grow from the characters' development and feel authentic--and they are good stories that don't seem to date. There's the added plus of Cornwall itself which is very photogenic.

Café:  What was your favorite Poldark storyline?

Robin:  Good question--it has to be the developing Demelza-Ross-Elizabeth story. I also enjoyed Ross' fights for the underdog against the establishment.

Café:  When the eighth Winston Graham Poldark novel, The Stranger from the Sea, was adapted for TV in 1996, were you approached to play Ross again?

Robin:  I was--but it didn't work out. Disappointing for us as it would have been fascinating to play the same characters twenty years on.

Robin poses with Anne Kelleher
of Acorn Media.
Café:  Donald Douglas, who played your nemesis Captain McNeil in Poldark lives near your home in France. Do you stay in touch with other Poldark cast members?

Robin:  I see Donald very regularly. Living in France makes it more difficult. We've been in contact with Richard Morant--the first Dr. Enis--recently and I occasionally bump into Angharad (Demelza) when we are in the UK. Christopher Benjamin (Sir Hugh Bodrugan) has family down here in France, so we see him from time to time. Dear Ralph Bates (George Warleggan) died twenty years ago and Jill Townsend (Elizabeth) lives in California. Some of us used to go to the annual lunch of the Poldark Appreciation Society--an unofficial reunion--but they haven't happened since the nineties.

Café:  You’ve done a lot of film and television work in addition to Poldark, including Fawlty Towers and Merchant & Ivory’s The Europeans. What are some of your favorite non-Poldark roles?

Robin:  I played the Earl of Essex in Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson--a wonderful experience. Colonel Hammond in A King and his Keeper--a dualogue between Charles the First and his jailer set on the Isle of Wight--opposite the great Alan Badel (playing the King). The lead in Bel Ami by Maupassant for the BBC was a challenge--not least because I had to live with a red perm for months! The musical She Loves Me also for the Beeb was also fun with the lovely Gemma Craven. Meredith says the best thing I did was Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier for Granada with Jeremy Brett and Susan Fleetwood. I spent a very happy year at Stratford in between the two series of Poldark.

Meredith and Robin.
Café:  How did you and your wife Meredith meet?

Robin:  We met in New York City--she interviewed me for NBC-TV when WGBH Boston flew English actors over for the 15th anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre.

Café:  I’ve read that you bought your home in France on the day you saw it. What attracted you to it?

Robin:  It was a "coup de foudre"--(love at first sight)! I just knew that it was where I wanted to be--though we barely knew where it was. Hard to explain that...

Café:  Was there a history of diabetes in your family?

Robin:  Yes--my mother developed type 1 in her late thirties. So I knew about it and that it was something you have to take seriously. The problem is that with type 2, which I have, there are no obvious symptoms, so it's hard for people to believe that there is a problem.

The new cookbook.
Café:  What inspired you to publish your recipes in your new book Delicious Dishes for Diabetics: Eating Well with Type-2 Diabetes?

Robin:  I have cooked for years and collected recipes for years--my mother did the same. We were eating reasonably healthily when I was diagnosed 12 years ago and I realised that with some adjustments to my way of eating I had a good number of recipes already that were suitable for the condition. Then the idea of trying to interest a publisher came up.

Café:  This is a question for Meredith: What is your favorite dish that Robin prepares?

Meredith:  That's a difficult question! Which is your favorite child??! His salmon fishcakes are light (no potato!) and delicious in summer. In winter for comfort food I love his soups--especially a minestrone that includes pancetta. One of his big company dishes that we have for parties is a spicy fish curry--we've even had that for Christmas lunch! His recipe for mussels (a tomato & garlic sauce) is delicious too-- though it always depends on getting good mussels. One of his best sauces is walnut and garlic that is served with duck. His cookbook is really a collection of the dishes we eat year 'round. I like them all in their right season.

Café:  Finally, what’s on the horizon for the Ellis Family—any other books, television appearances, etc.?

Robin: A busy time for sure! I am blogging most days about food, cooking and life in rural France. I'm working with a publisher in California to re-issue Making Poldark--a memoir which I have updated. The cookbook, Delicious Dishes for Diabetics, officially comes out in the United States on November 1st and we're planning a trip to New York, Washington, DC and Chicago to promote it. It was recently ranked number one in its category on which was thrilling. I enjoyed doing one of the original Swedish Wallenders and am open to acting offers (actors rarely retire!). Thanks, Rick, for inviting me to the Classic Film & TV Café!

For more on Robin Ellis, check out his blog at and his Facebook page by clicking here. You can also follow him on Twitter as @RobinPoldark.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Trivia Time 98

Great job last week people! Hope you enjoyed TT97 as much as we did! Here are the answers:

1. Who Said This in Which Film? Person #1: "I trust I make myself obscure." Person #2: "Perfectly."

Answer: (NOTE: Classic Becky got 3/4 of this one!) Person #1 is Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Person #2 is Nigel Davenport playing the Duke of Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons.

2. Who Said This? Person #1: "Mike, you ride a bike!" Person #2: "And fish swim."
Answer: Person #1 is Julie Newmar and Person #2 is Mike Nesmith in an episode of The Monkees.

3. Who Are We and Which Film is This? We four appeared together in this late '70s movie; it was the final film for two of us who were legends of the silver screen from the '30s, as well as for one who was a famous rock star of the '60s and '70s. But it was the very first theatrically-released film for the fourth person who also happened to be a rock star. Name us and our film.

Answers: Mae West, Walter Pidgeon, Keith Moon, and Alice Cooper in the 1978 film, Sextette.

4. What two things do the films, A Man for All Seasons and Julia, have in common?

Answer: (NOTE: Grand Old Movies answered half of this question!) Vanessa Redgrave and Fred Zinnemann.

6. What do Rocky and His Friends and the George Pal film, The War of the Worlds, have in common?

Answer: Paul Frees

9. In which Robert Mitchum film does Angie Dickinson have an uncredited role?

Answer: Man with the Gun

Trivia Time 98 starts here:

1. Who Said This to Whom in Which Film? "Close the door! What, were you born in a barn?"

2. Who Said This? "Come back! I want to go to Boom-Boom Land!"

3. Name a future actress who was a dancer on the TAMI Show.

4. Who Am I? In my comparatively brief career, half of my movies fell into the film-noir crime/mystery category. My first, second, and final films were Oscar winners. My second and final films were both directed by the same person, and won multiple Academy Awards.

5. Name the three Oscar-winning movies mentioned in the previous question, and the person who directed two of them.

6. Name the college for which Bullwinkle played football in Rocky and His Friends.

7. What do the films, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Son of Paleface, have in common?

8. In the movie Mister Mom, what was on the TV screen when Michael Keaton put his foot through it?

9. Again in Mister Mom, how did the family refer to the vacuum cleaner?

10. What do the films Slap Shot and 10 have in common?

11. Who played the Mexican hotel bartender in 10?

12. Which two recording artists are featured in Sunday in New York?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Godzilla (or Gojira): The Reigning King of the Monsters

In the ocean waters of Tokyo, Japan, a couple of boats mysteriously disappear with few survivors. Two rescue ships likewise do not return. Some villagers are quick to attribute their misfortune to Gojira, monster of the sea, and when a hurricane destroys homes and ends lives, reports claim that a large animal is responsible for the destruction. The day after the hurricane, paleontologist Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura) finds footprints with a radioactive signature and the body of the long-extinct trilobite. The professor theorizes that an atomic explosion may have upset the habitat of a creature from the Jurassic period, a theory proven correct when Gojira comes ashore and attacks the city. Yamane wishes to study the unknown creature, which seems to absorb radiation, but citizens and officials alike are looking for ways to kill Gojira.

Gojira (1954) -- better known as Godzilla -- was directed by Ishiro Honda, who also helmed several of the Godzilla sequels, as well as other films of the kaiju (roughly translated as “monster”) genre, including Rodan (1956), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), and Mothra (1961), the latter a kaiju nearly as popular as Godzilla and featured in numerous series entries and her own films. (“Kaiju” is the name of the genre, though Godzilla and Mothra are more specifically daikaiju: “giant monsters.”) The creatures in Honda’s films are different from the spider in Tarantula (1955) and the giant ants in Them! (1954), animals made monstrous by atomic radiation. In the case of Gojira, the titular beast is provoked by nuclear warfare, with the insinuation that he was previously content in his subaquatic existence. Professor Yamane represents the sympathy viewers may feel for Gojira, much like the monster in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Insects that have grown to astronomical size are monsters, but Gojira is an animal merely seen as a monster by the people who fear him. In the 1954 movie, everyone is terrified of Gojira before many of them have actually seen the creature do anything.

With the suggestion in the film that Godzilla/Gojira has been awakened, so to speak, by an atomic explosion, one can clearly see a connection to World War II and Hiroshima. However, the tragedy of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5), a Japanese fishing boat, is most often cited as the inspiration for Godzilla and the kaiju films. In 1954, the U.S. tested a hydrogen bomb, and the nuclear fallout from the detonation was so severe that the crewmen of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru suffered radiation poisoning, one of the men dying months later. The film opens with a fishing boat attacked by Gojira, unseen and signified by a glow on the water’s surface and explosive results.

Gojira initially received a very limited U.S. release in its original form. In 1956, it was released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! It was heavily cut and inserted sequences with an American protagonist, reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr). The film opens with the aftermath of Godzilla’s assault, and a flashback with a voice-over from Steve provides most of the story. Burr interacts with new characters as well as characters from Gojira, such as Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), via doubles and help from the English dubbing. Unfortunately, many of the excised scenes include further development of Yamane’s desire to study Godzilla and the love triangle among Emiko, Ogata (Akira Takarada) and Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). The additional sequences were so extensive that Honda had to share directing credit with Terry Morse, but despite the new footage, King of the Monsters! still managed to be 16 minutes shorter than Gojira.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is generally considered a wholly different film from Gojira, the original proving far superior. However, it was the truncated U.S. version that played overseas and made Godzilla an international star. The edited version was a box office success and performed well in other countries, even Japan. Gojira was a merging of the Japanese words, gorira (“gorilla”) and kujira (“whale”), as the film’s star features traits from both animals. Some fans argue that “Gojira” is the proper anglicized rendering of the creature’s name and that the American name was possibly a mistranslation, while others claim that “Godzilla” was suggested for the U.S. film version by the Gojira studio, Toho. Whatever the case, the creature became known as Godzilla across the globe, and Toho has trademarked and copyrighted the worldwide moniker.

Actor Takashi Shimura had starred in numerous films from famed Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa, including Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). Director and kaiju storyteller Honda likewise worked as an assistant director for Kurosawa in films such as Stray Dog (1949), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), the former two movies also featuring Shimura.

It’s a popular misconception that Godzilla breathes fire. As his power is essentially derived from radiation, the creature is in actuality exhaling what’s been called atomic or radioactive breath. Many times, before Godzilla releases his atomic breath, his dorsal fins will glow. This causes explosions and buildings and vehicles to catch fire, leaving the city in ruins and often in flames. However, in the 1978-79 animated series, a Japanese/American co-production and broadcast in both countries, Godzilla did indeed emit fire (possibly to simplify his power, as the show was aimed at young children).

Godzilla’s influence is indisputable. It’s difficult for films of the giant monster variety, such as Cloverfield (2008), to not draw comparisons to the famous kaiju, and place any person, child or adult, in front of a model-sized city, and one will witness a quick transformation into a roaring beast stomping its hefty feet to crush the tiny buildings. Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 movie is immensely entertaining, a superb debut for a creature who deserved his own series. If possible, viewers should seek the Japanese version, Gojira, in lieu of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, but they should also appreciate the U.S. edit, if for nothing else than introducing the world to the colossal film star. Godzilla may tower over us all, but he easily fits inside our hearts.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Celebrate Halloween Early with New Releases from the Warner Archive Collection

Sweet Hostage (1976): When her truck breaks down on the side of the road, young Doris Mae (Linda Blair) is picked up by Leonard (Martin Sheen). Having recently liberated himself from an institution, Leonard has been stealing cars and robbing stores along the way to his “castle,” an isolated cabin where he takes Doris Mae against her will. The former patient recites passages from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, designating himself Kubla Khan at his Xanadu and referring to Doris Mae as Christabel, after another Coleridge poem. While the girl’s parents and residents of the small town search for Doris Mae, Leonard asserts control by ensuring that she can’t leave and astonishing her with his intellect, dramatizing poetry and correcting her improper English. Doris Mae is not one to sit helplessly, and as the two grow closer, she domesticates Leonard and his Xanadu, having the man go into town to buy food, supplies, clothing and curtains. Is Doris Mae a girl with maturing sensibilities for an older man, or is she simply a hostage looking for a way to escape?

Lee Philips’ Sweet Hostage is a well made TV movie. Based on Nathaniel Benchley’s novel, Welcome to Xanadu, and nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Television Movie, it boasts strong performances from Blair and Sheen, both having garnered recent acclaim with, respectively, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (both 1973). The movie is slow but engaging, with a satisfactory conclusion. It is, however, a little uncomfortable watching intimate moments between the actors, as Blair -- though she would have been approximately 17 years of age at the time, the same age as Doris Mae -- still looks like a very young 14-year-old Regan of The Exorcist. Philips handles the more tender scenes appropriately, with the majority of it implied.

The Phantom of Hollywood (1973): With movies more frequently filming on location, Worldwide Studios has begun the process of selling its backlots. A hooded figure apparently living among the deserted sets roams the lots at night, hiding inside buildings during the day. After two would-be vandals incur the stranger’s wrath, their deaths are written off as accidents, until a night watchman is killed and two survey engineers go missing. Press agent Ray Burns (Peter Haskell) works with the police to expose the person responsible while trying to keep the scandal hidden from potential buyers. But before long the Phantom is threatening the studio head (Peter Lawford) directly, leaving notes and making phone calls, until he finally gets the man’s attention by snatching his daughter and Ray’s girlfriend, Randy (Skye Aubrey).

The Phantom of Hollywood, another made-for-TV movie, is an entertaining thriller that retains a steady pace for the d
uration of its 73-minute running time. It’s aided by director Gene Levitt’s choice of filming with crane and low-angle shots, as well as long shots, taking advantage of the expansive and largely empty sets. The movie was filmed at MGM when the studio was tearing down its backlots. Clips of older movies are interspersed throughout the first half of the film, sometimes the abandoned sets cut with films in which they’re featured (e.g., 1940’s Young Tom Edison with Mickey Rooney), or a screening room running a montage of scenes from films including Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). The nostalgic element overshadows the movie’s other merits, as it is neither suspenseful nor surprising. But nostalgia is more than enough, a film saved by the historical backlots that are being destroyed.

Black Zoo (1963): At Conrad’s Animal Kingdom, zoo owner Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) has a deep love and respect for his animals. He gladly introduces each animal as he guides tours and allows young ladies to sketch one of the tigers. But anyone who would dare impede or threaten Michael in any way sees another side of the man, like when he sics his lion on a developer who’s employing crooked means to obtain the property where the zoo is located. Michael’s wife, Edna (Jeanne Cooper), and mute assistant, Carl (Rod Lauren), are loyal but troubled by the man’s escalating aggression. When more people are killed, the police investigation leads them to not only realize that animals may be responsible but also to look for a connection among the murders.

Robert Gordon’s Black Zoo is bookmarked by a rainy scene at the zoo and a person lying on the ground, an apt method of retaining suspense until the end. The story is simple and sufficient, but is diluted by plot points that are interjected and don’t go anywhere: a girl who flirts with Carl at the zoo never returns, and Michael’s apparent membership in a society that evidently worships animals (they transfer the soul of a deceased animal into a cub) is not fully explored. However, Gough and Cooper make the most of their scenes (a lengthy sequence at the dinner table with only the two of them is particularly effective), and the animals, mostly of the cat family, are alluring and endearingly photographed.

Black Zoo star Jeanne Cooper also had a small but significant role in Sweet Hostage as Doris Mae’s mother. The actress has starred on the CBS soap opera, The Young and the Restless, for nearly 30 years and is the mother of actor Corbin Bernsen, best known for his TV work on L.A. Law and more recently as a regular on USA network’s Psych (with one episode, in which a rest home is infiltrated, titled “The Old and the Restless”).

Each movie on DVD looks good with some noticeable scratches and imperfections but nothing distracting, with The Phantom of Hollywood the best of the trio in terms of visual quality. None of them have extras, subtitles or additional audio options. With crisp and stable images and clean audio, each film has the appearance of a solid VHS copy that’s been digitally transferred and improved. Any one of these movies would make a great addition to a collection. Readers can view details of each film at the Warner Bros. site (Sweet Hostage, The Phantom of Hollywood, Black Zoo), or click here to view other movies that are part of the Warner Archive Collection. (The listed movies are “Made to Order,” in which they are burned to DVD only when an order is place. This should explain the lack of features.)

Warner Bros. provided copies of all three films for review at Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon: My Blonde-Haired Brunette"

The Cafe is pleased to participate in The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon hosted by Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Click here to read other great posts paying tribute to this television classic.

I always felt The Dick Van Dyke Show was two TV series rolled into one: (1) a family sitcom and (2) an inside look at show business that thinly veiled a stand-up act involving three sharp comedians. Yes, the one-liners exchanged between Rob (Van Dyke), Sally (Rose Marie), and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) were frequently funny. However, I always preferred the more natural humor derived from situations in Rob and Laura's home life. It's a personal preference, to be sure, but it's also fueled by my admiration for Mary Tyler Moore. While she never established an enduring career as a serious performer (still earning an Oscar nomination for Ordinary People), she was a fine actress with a comic flair. Her most endearing quality was being able to poke fun at her own insecurities.

"My Blonde-Haired Brunette" appeared as the ninth episode of the first season. It opens with Laura trying to convince a sleepy Rob to get out of bed. When she kisses him playfully on the cheek, Rob mumbles "don't do that" and rolls over. Laura immediately suspects that "the bloom is off the rose" in their marriage. She suddenly notices lines on her face while looking in the mirror. Rob calls her his "old lady." And, worst of all, he plucks a gray hair from his wife's head and laughs about it.

Laura discusses her concerns with her neighbor Mille, who confides that she bleaches her hair blonde when married life is getting dull. Laura follows Millie's advice and transforms herself into a platinum blonde (via a terrible blonde wig!).

Meanwhile, Rob chats with Sally and Buddy about his domestic problems (as if those two could offer any sound advice). He calls Laura to apologize, even serenading her with a song about her "dark, brown hair." As he heads home, Laura and Millie desperately try to dye Laura's hair back to its original color--with the expected disasterous results.

The funniest scenes are the opening ones between Laura and Rob. In one classic bit, a frustrated Laura stomps out of the room when Rob won't get out of bed. She pauses at the door, then tip-toes back to the alarm clock, moves the hands two hours forward, and sets the alarm. She then slips quietly out of the room. When the alarm goes off a few seconds later, a refreshed Rob jumps out of bed and starts exercising. After Laura reveals what she did, Rob is suddenly exhausted again and climbs back into bed. The scene plays to the strength of both Van Dyke and Moore, who use comic timing, facial expressions, and (in Moore's case) an amusing voiceover to generate the laughs.

Although Laura Petrie was rarely the focus of The Dick Van Dyke Show (which was an ensemble show anyway), Mary Tyler Moore's contributions didn't go unnoticed. She was nominated for three Emmys for playing Laura, finally winning the award in 1966 (in the show's last season). Of course, she eventually became one of the most honored actresses in the history of television, receiving eight more Emmy nominations and four wins for The Mary Tyler Moore Shows and several made-for-television movies.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Trivia Time 97

Great job last week, everyone! Thanks to all who participated! The only questions you didn't answer correctly involved the following (rather obscure) facts from Rocky and His Friends:

5. Where was Rocket (Rocky) J. Squirrel born? At what age did he learn to

Answer: Here is a quote from the booklet (preface by Tiffany Ward, Jay's daughter) that accompanies Rocky and His Friends, Complete Season One on DVD, "One of the best kept secrets in show business is that Rocky was not born in Frostbite Falls at all. Actually, the jet-age squirrel first saw the light of day in Winnemucca, Nevada…" This same publication says that he was nine years old when he was caught up in a "Nevada zephyr". Thus he learned to fly and ended up in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota.

6. According to the World Economic Council (1959) what is the real basis for the global monetary system?

Answer: (from the same booklet as the previous question) Cereal boxtops.

9. What was Captain Peter Peachfuzz's nickname?

Answer: "Wrong-Way"

So here begins Trivia Time 97. Some of the questions in TT97 are fairly easy, and others, well…we have to admit that there might be one or two real "brain-busters" in this batch.

You may notice that we have now numbered ALL questions, whether they are Who, What or Where questions or not. Hopefully this will help prevent confusion in the future.

1. Who Said This in Which Film? Person #1: "I trust I make myself obscure." Person #2: "Perfectly."

2. Who Said This? Person #1: "Mike, you ride a bike!" Person #2: "And fish swim."

3. Who Are We and Which Film is This? We four appeared together in this late '70s movie; it was the final film for two of us who were legends of the silver screen from the '30s, as well as for one who was a famous rock star of the '60s and '70s. But it was the very first theatrically-released film for the fourth person who also happened to be a rock star. Name us and our film.

4. What two things do the films, A Man for All Seasons and Julia, have in common?

5. What do the films, Help! and A Man for All Seasons, have in common?

6. What do Rocky and His Friends and the George Pal film, The War of the Worlds, have in common?

7. In how many films did Walter Pidgeon play Greer Garson's husband? Name them.

8. What did Louis B. Mayer and Walter Pidgeon have in common?

9. In which Robert Mitchum film does Angie Dickinson have an uncredited role?

10. Which of the above questions has an answer with an Errol Flynn connection? Explain.

11. Name the barbershop quartette from the 53rd Precinct in the TV series, Car 54, Where Are You?.