Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stage Fright: Hitchcock, Lovely Ducks, and a Controversial Flashback

Spoiler Alert:  The following review reveals the film's ending.

As the film that preceded Hitchcock's "comeback" classic Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright (1950) is typically glossed over in the famed director's filmography. While it's true that it doesn't rank with his masterpieces (e.g., Vertigo, Rear Window), Stage Fright has much to offer: a clever opening, a playful homage to acting, a pair of delightfully quirky supporting performances, and--of course--that infamous flashback.

The proceedings get off to a fast start when two people in a convertible exchange the following dialogue as the car whisks through the streets of London:

EVE: Any sign of the the police?

JONNY (looking over his shoulder): It looks like we're getting away with it.

EVE: Good.

Jonny enters the apartment--the start of
a memorable, single-take tracking shot.
It quickly becomes apparent that Jonny (Richard Todd) is in trouble and has turned to Eve (Jane Wyman) for help. When probed by Eve, he explains that his lover Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), a famous stage actress, came to him after murdering her husband following a quarrel. Charlotte needs Jonny to destroy her bloodstained dress and fetch a new one from her flat. Jonny does more than that--he restages the crime scene but is spotted by a maid and transitions from accomplice to suspected murderer.

Eve, who believes she's in love with Jonny, deposits the wanted man with her oddball father (Alastair Sim). She also becomes determined to prove Jonny's innocence. After a chance meeting with Charlotte's dresser, Eve hatches a risky scheme to go undercover and collect the evidence that will clear Jonny.

The twist in Stage Fright is that Jonny is not Hitchcock's typical innocent-man-on-the-run. Indeed, Jonny murdered Charlotte's husband and everything he told Eve at the start of the film--shown to the viewer via a flashback--was a lie. This revelation slips out as Eve and Jonny hide from the police in an opulent theatre at the film's climax. In a matter of seconds, Jonny evolves from hero to villain.

Jonny reveals the truth in
the theater.
Much has been written about the "lying flashback," chiefly that it doesn't play fair with the audience--a view postulated by Francois Truffaut in his book of Hitchcock interviews. However, this contention assumes that everything we see in a film is the "truth" as presented by the filmmakers. Hitchcock makes it clear that we are hearing and seeing Jonny's version of the events. It's not dissimilar from the various versions of the truth recounted (also in flashback) by the different characters in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. The key difference is that Jonny is an actor and he casts himself in the role of the framed innocent man--a part he plays not only in the flashback, but also in his post-murder dealings with Eve.

Alastair Sim, as Eve's father, paying
off blackmailer Kay Walsh.
Acting and the theater are a recurring motif in many Hitchcock films:  Judy played the role of Madeleine in Vertigo; Uncle Charlie was just a character masking a serial murderer in Shadow of a Doubt; and the mini-plays in Rear Windows were framed by windows, an analogy to the confines of a theatrical stage. However, Stage Fright trumps them all in the number of characters playing parts. In addition to Jonny playing the innocent man, Eve assumes the roles of newspaper reporter and Charlotte's dresser. Since deception is acting, too, Eve's father gets in the act by lying about Jonny to Eve's mother. The theater motif is emphasized too strongly perhaps, with opening credits against a stage curtain and a backdrop that crushes Jonny at the climax.

One imagines that Hitchcock was drawn to the source material because it stands one of his favorite themes on its head. Quick, how many Hitchcock films can you name about men wrongly accused of a crime who set out to prove their innocence and/or stop the bad guys with the aid of a strong woman? It's dominated his career from Young and Innocent to The 39 Steps to Saboteur, North By Northwest, and others. But in Stage Fright, the innocent man really is a killer--a point that must have amused Hitchcock.

Marlene singing: "My poor heart is
aching to bring home the bacon..."
In Truffaut's interview with Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense maintains that the two great flaws in Stage Fright are that the villain is weak and the characters are never in any tangible danger. I disagree with the villain being weak--when Jonny finally reveals his true self to Eve, he becomes an acceptable villain. I maintain that the problems are that: (1) Jonny is a minor character who disappears from the film for long stretches; (2) since Jonny is role-playing a good guy, there is no villain until the climax. And, as a standard mystery, Stage Fright puts forth few legitimate suspects: Charlotte, Jonny, Charlotte's manager, or the dresser Nellie (with the latter two in very little of the picture).

Joan Grenfell promoting the chance to
to shoot "lovely ducks."
While the principals in Stage Fright carry the load admirably (especially a charming Michael Wilding), two marvelous character actors almost steal it. Alastair Sim injects the film with some much-needed dry humor ("What sort of father are you?" asks a police inspector. The reply: "Unique.") Yet, even he is upstaged in a delightful scene with Joyce Grenfell manning a fund-raising booth for an orphanage at a garden party ("Half a crown to shoot a lovely duck!)". These two veteran British comedians play off each other brilliantly, providing the perfect levity for the classic Hitchcock scene that follows them: a young child carrying a bloodied doll through the crowd as Charlotte performs on a stage.

While the entertainment value is high in most Hitchcock films, I have a soft spot for the lighthearted ones that seem to show the director in a playful mood (this one, To Catch a Thief, and I'm slowly turning the corner on The Trouble With Harry). That's one of the reasons why I find Stage Fright methodically moving up my list of favorite Hitchcock films with each viewing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Michele Monro Talks with the Cafe about "The Singer's Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro" (Part 2)

Freddie Garrity, Matt Monro, and
Dusty Springfield.
This is the second part of our interview with Michele Monro, daughter of British singer Matt Monro. Michele sat down recently to chat with the Cafe about her new biography of her father, who recorded classic hits likes "My Kind of Girl" and sang on the soundtracks to films like Born Free and From Russia With Love.

Cafe:  Matt Monro obviously enjoyed his only major acting role in George Montgomery's film Satan's Harvest. What other film roles was he offered?

An adventure film
co-starring Matt Monro.
Michele:  George Montgomery persuaded Matt to take his first film role giving him license to pick any role he wanted. The singer chose a character that had four or five lines but without Matt’s knowledge George completely re-wrote the role so that his friend would have a much meatier part. Matt loved the camaraderie on the shoot; the South African locations were stunning and he was eager to repeat the experience. George immediately asked Matt to take on a Western role the following year, which was to be shot in the Philippines. Sadly the country suffered from civil unrest and the movie was put on hold. In the meantime Matt was besieged with parts, one in Carry on Henry VIII which he couldn’t envision himself doing and countless offers for singing bus driver roles. They didn’t appeal. Sadly Matt never got the opportunity of making another movie.

Cafe:  One of our favorite Matt Monro albums is These Years. But Matt wasn't pleased with most of his hastily-produced U.S. albums with Capitol, was he?

Michele:  All but one of the tracks on These Years were recorded in a single day. The album was thrown together without the care that was taken in Matt’s English recordings. The process was rushed and Matt was forced into singing over backing tracks for a lot of the songs. Recording five albums over a six-month period is exhausting by anyone’s standards. Capitol insisted that albums were a big market in the States, but it just seemed to Matt that the record company was rushing headlong into projects without much thought.  As far as he was concerned, the English way might have been slower but it was more professional and the end product proved the worth of spending the extra time on an album. The mindset was completely different in America--they felt that if an album took two days rather than one, they were losing money.

Cafe:  Bee Gee Maurice Gibb played a key part in getting your father to  enter rehab for alcoholism. You wrote that your father never had another  drink. Did he stay in touch with Maurice Gibb?

Michele:  My father was extremely strong-minded and once he put his mind to something, that was that. He was lucky that he could apply that same mental process after leaving the rehabilitation clinic. Not only did he never touch alcohol again but he never needed the support of an AA group either. Maurice became dad’s sponsor and was instrumental in getting the singer to face his demons. Their friendship carried on but like all show business friendships, hook-ups were difficult as they were reliant on the performers being in the same city at the same time and that didn’t happen very often. But out of sight didn’t mean out of mind and they spoke to each other often over the years. Indeed, Maurice Gibbs gave this quote: "The inimitable vocal style of Matt Monro will never be forgotten. My memories of Matt will remain with me always. Not only a wonderful voice, but a wonderful man."

Cafe:  What was Matt's favorite recording? What's your  favorite?

My father always used to sing "My Funny Valentine" when my mum was in the audience. It was their song and it was a tragedy that he never came to record it--or that is what I thought. A chance remark from a fan in  Hong Kong led me to contact Mood Media asking if they held any Matt Monro tracks in their archives.  A list arrived of thirteen tracks. On that list was "My Funny Valentine." The date the email came was 14 February 2011!

Draft cover from the upcoming album.
It took another eleven months until I actually got listening copies of those thirteen recordings; it was one of the most frustrating periods in my life. Even though I told the company it was a possibility that I would include the tracks on the new release Matt Uncovered: The Rarer Monro, which is due out on 28 July 2012, they couldn’t be hurried as they were in the middle of transferring their archives to digital media and Dad’s tracks were among thousands of tapes that were in line for treatment.  When I finally received the disc, I wept when I heard them, for every one of those songs was pristine and even though there were a couple on the list that Dad had recorded later in his career, they turned out to be completely different arrangements. I couldn’t believe that they were nearly sixty years old. They sounded as if they had been recorded yesterday and it was a wondrously exciting moment. As I listened to each track on the disc, I was in awe of the perfection of each performance and as the tune came to an end I held my breath in hope that the next in the play list would be as good. Each of these unexpected gifts were as wonderful as the last but I have to say that "My Funny Valentine" would have been enough. I feel that the other twelve were an extra bonus. This is the sort of thing that doesn't happen every day and it makes the new album even more special in that I am able to share it with the fans. I can’t think of anything more tragic had they been left undiscovered, just a list within someone’s computer document.

The one song that does hold a special place in my heart is "Michelle." Dad had arranged for me to go to the studios with him. It was my first time and I was hugely excited. I had no idea what he was recording but at the given time George Martin tapped his baton to gain silence from the orchestra, my dad held my hand and started singing to me. It was actually that rendition that was cut and pressed. Moments like that stay with you throughout your life.

Cafe:  Your 788-page biography is exceedingly well-researched and thorough. What inspired you to write it and how long did it take?

Michele:  This book was really a labour of love and was written for my son Max. I suffered a near-fatal car crash a few years ago and it struck me that if anything happened to me, my son wouldn't know anything more about his grandfather other than he was a great singer. It upset me that he wouldn't know his origin or roots or what Matt Monro had contributed to the music business so as soon as I was able I started the process. It took three years to do the research and interview more than 200 people. A further year was spent actually writing the book and a further year with publisher re-writes and edits.

Black & white photo is from The Singer’s Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro © 2012 Michele Monro. Titan Books provided a review copy to the Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Michele Monro Talks with the Cafe about "The Singer's Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro"

Michele Monro, daughter of British singer Matt Monro, sat down recently to chat with the Cafe about her new biography of her father. Famous for 1960s hit records such as "Portrait of My Love" and "My Kind of Girl," Matt Monro was also widely known for singing on the soundtracks to films like Born Free, From Russia With Love, and The Quiller Memorandum.

Cafe:  Your father was born Terence Edward Parsons  How did Terry Parsons come to be known as Matt Monro?

Michele Monro:  Less than six weeks after signing his recording contract, Terry was booked in at the studios to cut his debut album Blue and Sentimental with The Malcolm Lockyer Orchestra.  Decca Records soon decided Terence Edward Parsons needed a different name for his recording career and it took a matter of minutes to choose. ‘Matt’, taken from Matt White, an Australian Fleet Street journalist who worked for the Daily Sketch at the time and had written a centre-page spread of adulation about the singing bus driver, and ‘Monro’, from pianist Winnie Atwell’s father, Monro Atwell. Matt Monro was born. In later years, Matt’s name was legally changed, but the constant misspelling came to irk him; it was either spelled Munro, Monroe or even Munrowe, sometimes as many as three different ways within the same article.

Cafe:  Most film fans remember Don Black as the lyricist of classic  movie songs like "Born Free" and "Diamonds Are Forever." What  different job did he perform for Matt Monro?

Michele:  Don Black met Matt Monro while working as a music plugger in Tin Pan Alley and they immediately became firm friends. Matt encouraged his friend to write at every opportunity and even recorded a plethora of the budding lyricist’s songs in order to give him a boost. When Matt hit it big with "Portrait of My Love," he asked Don to leave his job and come on board as his manager. It was a successful relationship and the job role gave Don ample opportunity to continue writing.

Cafe:  What role did Peter Sellers and producer George Martin (of  Beatles fame) play in Matt's career?

Matt Monro in concert.
Michele:  In autumn 1959, George Martin rang Matt’s wife  Mickie and told her about a small job he had which would require the singer to record a take-off of Frank Sinatra. A song had been written for the opening track on the second Peter Sellers album he was working on and the intention was that Sellers should sing it with a voice as near as possible to Sinatra’s. Although Peter couldn’t sing terribly well, it was thought he could use his great powers of mimicry so that it would actually sound like someone doing an impression of Sinatra, adding comic significance to the title of the LP, Songs for Swingin’ Sellers. However, Sellers was doubtful that he could pull off the task, admitting that he could manage ordinary impressions but not vocal ones. Although he wanted to phrase it like Sinatra would, he didn’t know how to achieve the effect. George’s solution was to look for someone who had a voice like Sinatra--he didn’t want an impression but to hear it sung the way that Sinatra might sing it.

Matt did the job and he did it well and upon hearing the recording, Sellers--a master of impersonation--admitted he could never approach Sinatra’s style so accurately or do such justice to the song. He thought the test number was great and suggested they use Matt’s version as the opening track on the album under the guise of a pseudonym – Fred Flange. Released at the end of 1959 with the memorable album cover featuring a body hanging from a tree, it caused something of a furor in professional circles. Parlophone Records was besieged with phone calls and letters, with record buyers and press wanting to know who the mystery singer was. Once the true identity of the impersonator got out, the industry tabloids were awash with admiration and offers to give Monro work flooded in.

Cafe:  Matt met a dozens of other big stars during his frequent television  appearances on television series like The Ed Sullivan Show. Who were some  of his favorite singers?

Tom Jones and Matt Monro.
Michele:  Matt adored working with his mentor Winnie Atwell. She had a certain  funk going on that he loved and of course Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis ranked highly on his list. He loved them as people and to him that was important because they gave their music heart and soul. He would have given his right arm towork with Sinatra, but something always conspired to get in the way. He actually had the opportunity of  signing with Reprise and he would have jumped at the chance had it not been for his advisors. They read more into it that just an innocent  offer--had my father signed with the company they could in fact have prevented him from recording at all. Some thought they wanted this so Sinatra had no competition--but like so many rumors--they were without substance.

Cafe:  The Oscar-winning song "Born Free"--written by John  Barry & Don Black and sung by Matt-- was cut from the movie at one point. What's the story behind that?

Michele:  Matt’s first single for Capitol was one of the songs he will forever be associated with. Producer Carl Foreman had partnered with Columbia to film Born Free, a simple tale about lions in captivity and John Barry and Don Black were chosen to compose the music

Foreman disliked the finished song immensely, feeling the lyrics should centre around and encompass the lions themselves. However, Barry somehow persuaded the producer to stick with his vision. It should have gone smoothly from then on, but Foreman kept changing his mind on whether the film should even have a title song and thought Don’s lyrics were too much of a social comment.  Barry and Black fought their for corner vigorously and thought they had won the battle with the producer, but they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

Matt attended the Royal première of Born Free at London’s Odeon Leicester Square and it wasn’t long before Don received an anguished call from the singer telling him they’d cut the song from the final cut of the movie.  Carl Foreman had approached Matt in the lobby after the film’s closing credits and apologised for the omission. He explained that they’d dropped the first reel of the movie and fractured the film so the soundtrack couldn't be used. But the truth was that he thought it was in the film’s best interest to drop the song and he’d gone back into the cutting room and re-edited the film, removing the song and replacing it with an orchestral version for the opening.

The trio were apoplectic, but Foreman was adamant that his decision wouldn’t be reversed. However, as it transpired "Born Free" had rocketed up the American charts and the Roger Williams orchestral version, complete with backing choir, was now sitting in the number one position. Carl Foreman couldn’t justify his decision any longer--he had to reverse it. For a song to be eligible for an Academy Award, it had to be featured in every print of the film. The heads of Columbia, the publishers, Screen Gems and the producers all clamoured to reclaim every piece of celluloid that had been distributed, so as to put the song back in, spending vast sums of money on an Oscar campaign to promote the new version. In 1966, both the song "Born Free" and John Barry’s score won Academy Awards.

Part 2 of this interview will be published on Wednesday.

Black & white photos are from The Singer’s Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro © 2012 Michele Monro. Titan Books provided a review copy to the Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Classic Cult Movies A to Z

What's a cult movie? Let's skip the formal definitions and focus on five common attributes: (1) a cult film wasn't a a success--with audiences or critics--when first released; (2) it has since acquired a fan base that champions it; (3) it features an offbeat plot, theme, or visual style; (4) it features people who weren't famous, but became famous; and (5) it may have acquired a following due to its camp or nostalgia value. With our own description in mind, let's get to the Cafe's A to Z rundown of classic cult movies:

Assault on Precinct 13 - John Carpenter's directorial debut was a taut, contemporary remake of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo about a revenge-minded street gang attacking an almost-closed police department manned with a skeleton staff.

Bugsy Malone - A gangster musical with all the adult characters played by kids. Thirteen-year-old Jodie Foster played Fat Sam's moll Tallulah.

The City of the Dead - Better known in the U.S. as Horror Hotel, this atmospheric 1960 suspense tale shares several plot elements with the same year's better-known Psycho.

Detour - A hitchhiker encounters big trouble courtesy of a dead body, a femme fatale, and a very long telephone cord in this 1945 film noir. Another fine choice for "D" is D.O.A.

Eraserhead  - David Lynch's visually compelling feature-length directorial debut is about...well...I'm not sure.

The Flesh Eaters - An actress, her assistant, and a hunky pilot are forced to land on an almost-deserted island. Its one inhabitant is a mad scientist who has created microbes that live in the saltwater and snack on human flesh. A more mainstream choice for "F" would be The Fearless Vampire Killers.

Gun Crazy - John Dall, a young man with a lifelong fascination for guns, meets comely Peggy Cummins, a "bad girl" sharpshooter at a local carnival. Love, a crime spree, and tragedy ensue!

Harold and Maude - Harold is a young man obsessed with death; Maude is a 79-year-old who embraces the joys of life. They meet at a funeral and love--of a kind--blossoms between them.

Invisible Invaders - Invisible aliens inhabit the bodies of dead Earthlings and try to wipe out the human race. Awful script and flat performances...but the premise is fun and the striking images of the walking corpses pre-date Night of the Living Dead.

Jack the Giant Killer - The best Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventure made by someone other than Ray Harryhausen. The special effects wiz in this case was Jim Danforth. Bryan Singer (X Men) is currently remaking it.

Mike Hammer has no time for love!
Kiss Me Deadly - Ralph Meeker is lean and mean as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer in a film filled with a mysterious stranger, an even mysterious-er box (dubbed "the great whatsit"), and a nuclear explosion.

The List of Adrian Messenger - A clever mystery about a murderer who is a master of disguises. Its cult rep, though, is due to the cameos by famous actors in deep disguise (e.g., Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra).

The Maze - There's something moving through that Scottish castle's giant maze at night--and you will never guess what it is! Unique 1953 3-D flick directed by the famous set designer William Cameron Menzies.

Night Tide - Sailor Dennis Hopper falls in love with a sideshow mermaid, who claims to be a descendant of the real thing--only these are murderous mermaids.

O Lucky Man! - Malcolm McDowell is an ambitious young coffee salesman who eventually finds "the reason to live on and not to die" in Lindsay Anderson's witty update of Candide--complete with an incredible song score by Alan Price.

Peeping Tom - The film that ruined Michael Powell's directorial career in 1960 has since been hailed as a masterpiece by Martin Scorsese and other notables. The mix of violence and voyeurism is still potent today.

Look up in the sky. It's a, Q!
Q, the Winged Serpent - An Aztec god in the form of...well...a winged serpent flies around New York City biting off the heads of residents. A quintessentially quirky classic from writer-director Larry Cohen.

Reefer Madness - An unintentional camp classic about the perils of marijuana. It was one of the first "midnight movies" shown at theaters across the U.S. in the 1970s. Of course, one could argue that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is more deserving of the "R" slot.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians - Pia Zadora's five minutes of fame in the 1980s hastened this 1964 film's entry into the cult classic status. Still, its subject and camp value may have been enough without Pia.

Rockin' in Spinal Tap.
This Is Spinal Tap - Rob Reiner's  hilarious mock-documentary about a rock band is so popular among its loyal fans that a 4 1/2 hour bootleg version exists.

The Undying Monster - Someone or something is killing local villagers near the Hammond estate. Are there supernatural forces at work? A rare foray in the 1940s horror genre from 20th Century-Fox.

Vanishing Point - A driver who delivers souped-up sports cars bets he can make it from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. As he eludes various highway patrols, a blind disc jockey dubbed Super Soul turns him into a media "hero."

Whistle Down the Wind - Three children in rural England discover an escaped criminal in their barn and believe he is Jesus. Written by Hayley Mills' mother; later made into an unsuccessful stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes - Interesting, downbeat sci fi with Ray Milland who experiments on himself with a new X-ray vision drug. Directed by Roger Corman.

You Never Can Tell - A wealthy dog named Rex is murdered--and then reincarnated as human private eye Rex Shepard (Dick Powell). His goal: Track down his killer.

Zardoz - Futuristic jumble is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Yet, there are enough interesting ideas and Sean Connery as a guy named Zed to make it an acceptable choice in the hard-to-fill "Z" spot.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Three Lives of Thomasina

"I made them what they are today--though I had to be murdered first."

Thomasina--complete with bib.
This opening line to The Three Lives of Thomasina is spoken by the title character, an orange tabby cat who begins her life with the MacDhui family in Scotland circa 1912. Thomasina belongs to seven-year-old Mary, whose father Andrew is the village veterinarian. Andrew still mourns his deceased wife and struggles to communicate with his daughter. As a result, Mary transfers much of her love to her cat, who eats at the dinner table and rides in the young girl's doll carriage.

Mary relies on her father for very little. However, when Thomasina is critically injured in an accident, she pleads with her father to save her cat. Unfortunately, Andrews is conducting surgery on a injured seeing-eye dog. He can only save one animal and chooses the blind man's dog. When Andrew euthanizes Thomasina--who "dies"--Mary declares: "My daddy's dead...I killed him."

Karen Dotrice as Mary; she also
starred in Mary Poppins.
Walt Disney made one of the best dog movies with Old Yeller and it's apparent that The Three Lives of Thomasina was intended as Disney's "serious" cat movie. However, there is a crucial difference between the two films. Old Yeller focuses on the unique bond between humans and canines. The Three Lives of Thomasina focuses on the relationships among its human characters. Thomasina provides her unique perspective as narrator (though I wish she had more to say) and serves as a facilitator. Ultimately, she is responsible for bringing father and daughter together and for introducing a loving person who can heal their wounds.

Patrick McGoohan as Dr. McDhui.
Patrick McGoohan is perfectly cast as Andrew, who masks his emotional scars with an icy exterior. Considering this is a family film, he's a surprisingly unlikable character for most of the movie. He is perceived as an outsider by the local Highlanders, but makes little effort to socialize with anyone but the local pastor and his housekeeper. He doesn't seem to enjoy his profession, confessing at one point that his dream was to be a physician. As for his relationship with Mary, one wonders if it deteriorated following his wife's death or was always tentative. He has no clue how deeply his daughter loved her cat, offering to get her a "wee dog" after the local children bury Thomasina.

The luminous Susan Hampshire
as Lori.
As for Mary, she disappears from the middle portion of the film, which picks up with Thomasina's "second life" with Lori, a reclusive young woman who "has a rare way with beasts and birds." The villagers dub her a witch, but seek her aid with ill or injured animals due to their mistrust of Andrew.  The film's second half explores the relationship that forms between Andrew and Lori, who has learned how to cope with her parents' tragic death.

Based on Paul Gallico's 1957 novel Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God, The Three Lives of Thomasina is a Disney oddity. The plot is more about the adults than the child or the feline title character. The "cat heaven" sequence, while intriguing due to its Powell & Pressberger similarities, seems out of place. The climax featuring animal cruelty in a circus also feels like it was lifted from another movie.

And yet, it's those very differences that make The Three Lives of Thomasina more interesting than routine Disney efforts like Big Red and Savage Sam. The cast is also first-rate and, like the superior Greyfriars Bobby, it captures the quaint charm of a small Scottish village and its residents. Keep your expectations modest and you'll be pleased you spent 97 minutes with this different Disney drama.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sark and Rick Discuss Brian De Palma's "Body Double"

This post is being republished as part of ClassicBecky's and Dorian's The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made) blogathon. Click here to read other entries in the blogathon.

This discussion of Body Double (1984) between film fans from different generations assumes that you’ve seen the film. But if you haven’t—or have, but need a plot refresher--here’s a synopsis:

Actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) experiences a debilitating episode of claustrophobia on the set of a low-budget horror film. Dismissed for the day, he discovers his girlfriend Carol making love to another man. Later, he learns that he has been fired from the movie. Since Carol owned the house they shared, Jake needs to find new lodgings. His luck improves when another actor, Sam, offers a house-sitting gig. One of the perks of the observatory-like house is a telescope aimed at the window of an attractive woman who performs a provocative dance routine every night. Jake becomes obsessed with his "window" neighbor, but becomes concerned when he spies another man watching and following her. (Body Double is rated R for adult themes, nudity, and violence.)

Rick29: Sark, you once said that De Palma’s best Hitchcock homages were the ones where he took Hitchcockian themes and turned them on their head. I think Body Double is a great example of that. On the surface, Body Double is a suspense film--and a very good one. But underneath the surface, it's a witty film about acting and deception. When Jake freezes up while reliving the "sardine game" in his acting class, the teacher yells at him: "You've got to act!" That's just what everyone around Jake does throughout the rest of the movie. Alexander Revelle acts the role of Sam who, in turn, acts the role of "the Indian." Holly acts out of the role of Gloria. Even Jake gets in the game, acting out the role of an adult film producer. The scene over the closing credit is a perfect coda, where De Palma shows us a body double in a shower scene in the horror film. Holly, who is standing beside the lead actress, tells her: "I bet this will get you a lot of dates." Thus, more deception will be promulgated!

Sark: In keeping with the idea of deception in the form of acting, it's interesting that Jake's "real life" is the Hitchcockian world. His girlfriend betrays him, he's allowed to stay in an extravagant house, he spies on his beautiful neighbor and eventually shadows her. He's no longer on the movie set, but his life is a movie. And, as we learn, these occurrences in his life are for a "role" that's been scripted for him. And he still can't act, just like in his class. But when he moves beyond the "movie," he enters the adult film industry, and it seems more real than his life. That's because, in actuality, it is real, whereas he was previously being set up as the witness. But he's great as the producer. So he essentially steps off the movie set again. Only this time, he's making his own film, and doing a darn fine job of acting. It's funny that he tells Holly he's interested in her starring in one of his films. He's lying to her, but in another way, he's being truthful. She's in his movie, and I guess that would mean Jake is making a sequel to Sam's movie, right?

Rick29: Great point! And the climax to Jake's film is when he's trapped in the grave with Holly. And what does he do? He uses a method acting technique to overcome his claustrophobia. He remembers what it was like to be trapped--a "sardine"--in the grave in the movie set. Then, he uses that feeling as motivation to overcome his fear and get out of the real grave. By the way, I forgot to mention my favorite of De Palma's visual gags: The title of the movie is shown over a desert landscape. The camera begin to pan apparently, but it turns out that it's the desert that's moving--it's just a canvas backdrop being wheeled around a movie studio. Right from the start, De Palma lets us know that he's going to play with what's real and what's not.
Sark: De Palma is a stylist, and he's always toying with audience's perceptions. I think he manages to do this even with individual characters. It's important to distinguish Gloria from Holly. Gloria is in Sam's movie, the woman for whom he is intended to be a witness. When he finally speaks to her, she's illuminated with soft lighting, and her voice is of the breathless variety. She's a purely cinematic character. Jake's kiss with her is intensified by De Palma's revolving camera (which De Palma had done before in Obsession and Carrie almost as if he is mocking himself). Holly's introduction--her true introduction--is in a pornographic video, and when Jake finally meets her, he's in such a movie, too. Holly's wearing a leather outfit and is covered in harsh lighting (but still very pretty). She isn't a meek woman like Gloria, and with her rather colorful language, she's much more realistic, more true to life. Jake's kiss with Holly, while they're filming the aforementioned movie, is coupled with the previous kiss. It's really just De Palma saying that everything with Gloria isn't real. What's ironic is that Holly is a body double, a cinematic element, but she is the person who brings Jake into the real world. (And, of course, lest we forget that several years earlier, De Palma was criticized for using a body double for Angie Dickinson in her shower scene in Dressed to Kill.)

To read the rest of this discussion, click here to go to the Corner in the Cafe.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer Magic: Burl Ives Invites You to the Ugly Bug Ball

It's more of an ensemble film than
suggested by the poster!
Hayley Mills' fourth Walt Disney picture was a footnote in both her career and the Disney filmography for many years. Certainly, it pales in comparison to stellar Disney-Hayley collaborations like Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. There's no shame in that, but, in my experience, it's also not unusual for Disney die-hards and Hayley fans to ignore Summer Magic when discussing In Search of the Castaways, The Moon-Spinners, and That Darn Cat. Still, I'm pleased to say the film has its faithful  fans; when I recently mentioned Summer Magic on Twitter, I received a surprising number of enthusiastic responses.

The story unfolds in Boston around the turn-of-the-century, with the Carey family packing up their belongings to move to more affordable accomodations. The recently-widowed Margaret Carey (Dorothy McGuire) has little time to mourn her husand as she copes with what her daughter Nancy calls "reduced circumstances." Mom soon learns that the enterprising Nancy (Hayley) has inquired about a vacant house in rural Maine, where the family vacationed in happier times. Nancy easily convinces the family to leave Boston behind and take up residence in "the yellow house" in the charming town of Beulah.

The village's most popular resident is Osh Popham (Burl Ives), the local postmaster, storekeeper, handyman, and real estate agent for the mysterious Mr. Hamilton, who owns the yellow house. Osh and his two children befriend the Carey brood immediately (Mrs. Popham is not as easily swayed). But just as the Careys settle down, they are joined by uppity teenage cousin Julia (Deborah Walley), who competes with Nancy for the attention of the handsome new schoolmaster (James Stacy).

Summer Magic was based on Kate Douglas Wiggin's 1911 novel Mother Carey's Chickens, which was adapted for the stage in 1917. RKO mounted a screen version in 1938 with Fay Bainter as Margaret Carey, Ann Shirley as Nancy, and Walter Brennan as Ossian Popham. It was intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle, but she bought out her contract with RKO that year.

Ives and Mathers.
As a lighthearted musical remake, Summer Magic coasts largely on the affability of its cast, especially the always versatile Burl Ives. He's the glue that holds the episodic plot together. He also gets to sing "The Ugly Bug Ball," written by Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman, who scored the best Disney musicals (e.g., Mary Poppins). Ives croons this unlikely tune about self-acceptance to young Peter Carey (played by Jimmy Mathers, brother of Jerry Mathers of Leave It to Beaver fame). According to Robert Sherman's book Walt's Time: From Before to Beyond, Disney didn't like "The Ugly Bug Ball" initially, but was convinced by the Shermans to leave it in the film. The song remains a favorite of Ives' fans (if you've never heard of it, just Google the title and you'll be amazed about its enduring popularity).

While far from a Disney classic, Summer Magic will appeal to fans of its performers and to anyone in the mood to visit the kind of innocent small town where the worst crime is the theft of a 25-cent haircut.

Monday, July 9, 2012

10 Classic Film Things to Do This Month

Get out the BIG can of bug spray!
1. Make a pest control company employee watch Them! on TCM (July 11th, 10:00 AM EDT) and ask: "Could you get rid of those ants?"  (Another option is show them The Naked Jungle, where quantity--not size--is the concern.)

2. Host a family reunion cook-out and reenact scenes from Picnic. (I'd opt for the dance scene with Kim Novak...OK, I can't dance, but neither could William Holden and he still got Kim.)

3. Get ready for the Olympics and watch the charming Wee Geordie (1955), the tale of a "99 lb. weakling" who sends off for a bodybuilding program and becomes a champion hammer thrower.

4. Watch a Samuel Fuller cult classic. TCM is showing several Fuller pics on July 13th; my top pick is The Naked Kiss, a terrific low-budget drama that packs a wallop (and not just for the telephone scene).

5. Avoid the heat and watch a good snow movie, such as Where Eagles Dare, the 1965 Ten Little Indians, or The Fearless Vampire Killers.

6. Embrace the heat, have a glass of cold lemonade, and watch Paul Newman woo Joanne Woodward in The Long, Hot Summer.

7. Watch Scaramouche on TCM (July 9th, 6:00 PM EDT) and stage a formal debate over whether Stewart Granger should have chosen Eleanor Parker or Janet Leigh at the film's conclusion.

8. Director Anthony Mann is known for his first-rate Westerns (e.g., Winchester '73) and film noir (e.g., Raw Deal). But don't miss the opportunity to watch his nifty historical thriller The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror) on TCM (7:00 AM EDT).

9. Check out Spencer's Mountain on TCM (July 21st, 3:30 PM EDT). In the 1980s, when TBS showed classic movies (yes, it did!), this family drama was shown three or four times a year. If the premise sounds familar, that's because Spencer's Mountain later spawned The Waltons (James MacArthur plays Clayboy, who evolved into John-Boy).

10. Always wanted to see Singin' in the Rain on the big screen? You're in luck! For its 60th anniversary, TCM is showing it at selected movie theatres nationwide on July 12th.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Walt Disney's The Fighting Prince of Donegal

Walt Disney began making films in Great Britain in the 1950s as a way to use "frozen funds." The studio had amassed strong sales from its products during the 1940s. However, Britain's laws prevented pounds earned there from being fully converted to U.S. dollars. Disney's solution was to spend that money on live-action films such as Treasure Island (1950), The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), and The Sword and the Rose (1953). These films had the added benefit of costing less and being quicker to produce than Disney's full-length animated movies.

The Disney studio still had a strong presence in Great Britain when it made The Fighting Prince of Donegal in 1966. This fact-based tale traces the exploits of Hugh O'Donnell (Peter McEnery), a 16th century prince intent on uniting the clans of Ireland against Queen Elizabeth. After convincing one of the strongest rival clans to join him, Hugh gets captured by the English and imprisoned in Dublin Castle. He escapes, gets captured, escapes again, and goes on to rally the Irish to a small, but significant victory over the English troops.

McEnery in one of the fighting scenes.
Based on the 1957 novel Red Hugh: Prince of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly, The Fighting Prince of Donegal is a partially accurate depiction of history. The real Hugh O'Donnell was fifteen when he was thrown into prison (while Peter McEnery was 26 when he played the role). O'Donnell did indeed escape from Dublin Castle twice and went on to fight several battles against the English. However, Disney's film ignores the political infighting among the clans and Hugh's later role in the Nine Years' War and his most famous victory at the Battle of Curlew Pass.

As a historical action film, The Fighting Prince of Donegal comes across as solid, but without generating any tangible excitement. Part of the blame goes to its lightweight star Peter McEnery, who first gained film fame as Boy Barrett in 1961's then-controversial Victim. McEnery certainly looks the part of a fighting prince, but he can't project the passion required for the role (especially in a key scene where he must convince the other clans to join him).

The luminous Hampshire.
In contrast, the rest of the cast consists of some of my favorite British performers of that period: Susan Hampshire (The Forsyte Saga, The Pallisers) as McEnery's love interest; Gordon Jackson (Hudson from Upstairs, Downstairs) as the villainous Captain Leeds; Andrew Keir (Professor Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit) as one of the clan leaders; and Tom Adams (Charles Vine in a pair of spy film capers) and Donal McCann (The Pallisers) as Hugh's mates. Unfortunately, except for Jackson, most of these marvelous performers have little to do.

Still, their presence plus some colorful scenery make The Fighting Prince of Donegal a pleasant way to spend 112 minutes. It's just a shame that Disney missed the opportunity to produce a first-rate historical yarn about a lesser known, but interesting, figure in Irish history.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Most Frequently Shown Movies on Television

Back in the 1970s, TV Guide published an article about the movies shown most frequently on television. The Magnificent Seven topped the list then--and it's still shown with regularity today. Besides being a fine Kurosawa-inspired Western, it boasts an all-star cast, though few of them had reached their peak of stardom (e.g., Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn).

In the early 1980s, TBS appeared to be on a mission to ensure that every American with cable TV saw Spencer's Mountain. Earl Hamner, Jr.'s family drama, a precursor to his hit TV series The Waltons, must have been broadcast three or four times a year. TBS showered similar affection on The Molly Maguires (which, ironically, rarely pops on TV today) and The Trouble With Angels (sometimes shown on Rosalind Russell "days" on TCM).

However, none of the previously mentioned films can hold a candle to the reigning champion: Road House (1989). Honestly, it must be broadcast on some channel in the U.S. at least monthly. I always think of Road House as a brainless drive-in movie (perhaps, in large part, because I originally saw it at an outdoor theater). The first half offers a surprisingly high fun quotient with Patrick Swayze being hired as a bouncer to clean up an exceptionally rowdy small-town bar--the kind where the band (nicely played by The Jeff Healey Band) rocks out from behind a safety screen. Anyway, despite the arrival of silver-maned Sam Elliott as Patrick's mentor, Road House loses it way en route to an incredulous showdown between Swayze and Ben Gazzara.Wait a minute...why am I bothering to discuss the plot of Road House? You've probably seen it a half-dozen times!

So why is Road House shown so frequently? Ratings, of course, and that's a product of the film's enduring appeal, which can be defined in two words: Patrick Swayze (okay, maybe there's a little Sam Elliott effect... let's say 7%). Swayze wasn't a great actor, but he was a very likable one that appealed to females (GhostDirty Dancing) and males (cult fave Red Dawn). In Road House, he engages in lively brawls (for the guys) and also takes his shirt off an awful lot (for the gals). Let's not forget that television is all about demographics and Swayze's cross-gender appeal makes Road House an obvious favorite.

While Road House may reign supreme, here are the four runners-up in my pageant of most popular movies shown on television:

Overboard (1987) - Like Swayze, Goldie Hawn is a star with broad appeal, but why is this comedy favored over other Hawn vehicles like Private Benjamin and Protocol? I think the answer lies in its classic comedy plot about an heiress who gets amnesia and thinks she's married to a working-class slob with unruly kids. Plus, for the record, I think it's one of her funniest films and the real-life chemistry between her and Kurt Russell is obvious.

A Summer Place (1959) - This lush soap has become a TCM favorite over the past two years (and, back in the 1990s, TNT loved it too). There's Troy Donahue for the girls, Sandra Dee for the guys, Dorothy McGuire and Richard Egan for classic film fans, a famous theme, and (for some) an element of camp. It's got so much going for it that I'm surprised it's not shown more often.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - It's hard to figure out why Shawshank is shown so often--other than the fact that it's an excellent movie and a lot of people like it. I think it's that simple, because there's actually a lot going against it. Neither of the stars (both fine actors) have huge followings (when is the last time you heard someone remark: "Let's go see the new Morgan Freeman movie!"). Plus, at 142 minutes, it eats up a lot of a channel's viewing schedule.

Beach Blanket Bingo (1964) - As a later-in-life Beach Party fan, I've done some self-analysis on this film's lasting popularity. One can't discount its entertainment value and the catchy songs, but its appeal can be mostly attributed to a nostalgia factor that's extremely high for baby boomers.

Honorable mentions among the most frequently shown movies on TV: The Wizard of Oz, any of the James Bond movies, Rocky and its sequels, and White Christmas.

Can you think of any additions to this list?