Saturday, December 28, 2013

James Garner Faces a Fake Future in "36 Hours"

James Garner as Major Pike.
On the eve of the Normandy invasion, American intelligence officer Major Jefferson Pike gets thunked on the head during a clandestine rendezvous with a spy. He awakes in an Allied military hospital five years later. When Pike (James Garner) reveals that he can't remember the last five years, his doctor (Rod Taylor) explains that Pike has suffered sporadic bouts of amnesia due to trauma. Trying to recapture his lost memories, Pike learns that the Allies won the war, Harry Wallace is president, and he's married to his nurse Anna (Eva Marie Saint).
Rod Taylor as Gerber.

What Pike doesn't know--that the audience does--is that it's still 1944 and he's the victim of an elaborate German scheme to get him to reveal the Allies' invasion plans. German psychiatrist Major Gerber, the mastermind behind the deception, seems to have thought of every detail. His team has added gray to Pike's hair, rehearsed the "performers" who will interact with the American, and even created a fake 1949 newspaper. Yet, for all his cleverness, Gerber has his own problems: If he fails to learn of the plans from Pike in 36 hours, the SS will take over, resort to torture to gain the information, and likely execute Gerber. As an SS agent confides to Gerber: "You have staked more than your reputation on it. Much more."

Though inspired by a Roald Dahl short story called Beware of the Dog, the plot to 36 Hours (1965) no doubt sounds familiar to fans of Bruce Geller's Mission: Impossible TV series (I've often wondered if it served as Geller's inspiration). And, as with that TV show, part of the fun is waiting for Pike to discover a flaw in the deception--if indeed there is one. The ticking clock, another device often used in Mission: Impossible, adds a further element of suspense.

Yet, as with the best suspense films (think Hitchcock), it's the well-developed characters that cause the audience to fully invest in the proceedings. Gerber, who was raised in America, is a psychiatrist interested in the results of his "experiment" only in a scientific way. He doesn't care about the intelligence information; he simply wants to test his research on his most complex human subject to date. His ultimate goal is a surprisingly admirable one: To use his "therapy" to help soldiers recover from psychological trauma.
Eva Marie Saint and Garner.

Likewise, Otto Schack (an excellent Werner Peters), the SS agent, sees Gerber's experiment as a means to an end. He wants to harvest the invasion information from Pike's mind, but his principal interest is furthering his career. He scoffs at Gerber's methods initially. However, when they begin to show results, he quickly takes credit for their success--even as he reminds Gerber that any blame for failure will still reside with the psychiatrist.

Finally, there's Anna Hedler, who poses as Pike's nurse and wife even though she hates herself for participating in the deception. Her motive is simple: survival. After years of abuse in concentration camps, she admits that she's willing to do anything to escape the horrors of her existence. Yet, unlike Gerber and Schack, she has a moral compass and sees Pike as a fellow victim.

The misleading poster has a 007 look.
An excellent cast brings all these characters to life and James Garner holds his own as the disoriented Pike who senses that something isn't right. The standout, though, is Eva Marie Saint, who gives one of her best performances as Anna. In one scene, she sways the audience from accepting Anna an accomplice to viewing her as a victim. When a frustrated Pike demands: "Can't you cry?", she responds flatly: "I've used up all my tears."

Yet, if it's the strong performances that make 36 Hours an exceptional suspense film, it's the ingenious plot that makes it memorable. I'm surprised it's not a better known film, though an uptick in recent television viewings may raise its profile among classic movie fans. Interestingly, William Castle's 1968 science fiction flick Project X borrowed the premise of using a recreated environment to gain access to repressed memories. I'm sure it's nowhere nearly as good as 36 Hours, but having not seen it for 50 years, I'd love to watch it again.

This review is part of the MGM Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes. Click here to view all the great blogathon entries.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Classic Movies About Circuses

The allure of the big top setting has long since faded, but for four decades starting in the 1930s, it was an ideal place to find high-wire dramatics, ferocious beasts, incognito killers, and perhaps a troupe of vampires. Laughs, too, as evidenced by the number of comedies set against a circus backdrop. W.C. Fields played a ringmaster in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), the Marx Brothers saved one from bankruptcy in At the Circus (1939), and even Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis got into the act with Three Ring Circus (1954).

James Stewart in clown make-up.
Movie murderers have also exhibited a special fondness for circuses, as evidenced in Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Circus of Horrors (1960), Psycho Circus (1967), Berserk (1968), and the vengeance-minded bloodsuckers in Vampire Circus (1971). On a more dramatic level, James Stewart played a murder suspect hiding out as a mild-mannered clown in Cecil DeMille’s 1952 extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth. This multi-character melodrama garnered a Best Picture Oscar and tallied record box office figures for Paramount. The film’s successful behind-the-scenes formula was more or less copied in Trapeze (1956), The Big Circus (1959), The Big Show (1961), and Circus World (1964).

The life of the world’s greatest circus showman was chronicled in 1934’s The Mighty Barnum and 1986’s Barnum, with Wallace Beery and Burt Lancaster in the title roles, respectively.

Serious European directors have used the circus for symbolic purposes, as in Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987).

Doris Day and friend in Billy Rose's Jumbo.
Four Disney pictures have taken place at least partially under the big top:  Dumbo (1941), Toby Tyler (1960), A Tiger Walks (1964), and The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964). Lady in the Dark (1944) had a musical dream sequence set in a circus, while Rodgers and Hart’s Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) revolved around a circus owned by Doris Day. The circus in 1961’s Gorgo featured a dinosaur as its main attraction. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a baby with a mad mother in hot pursuit.

The following representative list of classic movies about circuses excludes those films set in fairs and carnivals:

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
The Circus (1928)
Dangerous Curves (1929)
Freaks (aka Nature’s Mistakes) (1932)
Rain or Shine (1930)
Polly of the Circus (1932)
The Big Cage (1933)
The Mighty Barnum (1934)
Circus Clown (1934)
Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)
At the Circus (1939)
You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
Chad Hanna (1940)
Dumbo (1941)
Road Show (1941)
Sunny (1941)
The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)
The Dark Tower (1943)
Lady in the Dark (1944)  (dream sequence)
Dual Alibi (1947)
Caged Fury (1948)
The Fat Man (1951)
Encore (1952)  (segment)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Sawdust and Tinsel (aka The Naked Night) (1953)
Man on a Tightrope (1953)
Three Ring Circus (aka Jerrico, the Wonder Clown) (1954)
La Strada (aka The Road) (1954)
Carnival Story (1954)
Ring of Fear (1954)
Trapeze (1956)
Invitation to the Dance (1957) (segment)
Merry Andrew (1958)
The Big Circus (1959)
The Flying Fontaines (1959)
Circus of Horrors (1960)
Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus (1960)
The Big Show (1961)
Gorgo (1961)
Hippodrome (1961)
Bimbo the Great (1961)
Billy Rose’s Jumbo (aka Jumbo) (1962)
The Main Attraction (1962)
Circus World (aka The Magnificent Showman) (1964)
A Tiger Walks (1964)
The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964)
Rings Around the World (1967)
Psycho Circus (aka Circus of Fear) (1967)
Berserk  (1968)
Vampire Circus (1971)
The Clowns (1971)
Parade (1974)
Punch and Jody (1974 TVM)
The Last Circus Show (aka The Balloon Vendor) (1974)
The Great Wallendas (1978 TVM)
When the Circus Comes to Town (1981 TVM)
Side Show (1981 TVM)
Octopussy (1983)
Barnum (1986 TVM)
Wings of Desire (aka Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987)
Big Top Pee Wee (1988)
Shadows and Fog (1992)
Freaked (1993)
When Night Is Falling (1995)
Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book:  Mowgli and Baloo (aka Jungle Book Two) (1997)
P.T. Barnum (1999 TVM)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Seven Things to Know About Errol Flynn

1. According to Errol's autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he once worked on a ranch where he castrated sheep--with his teeth.

2. It has been rumored that Errol was a descendant of Fletcher Christian of Mutiny of the Bounty fame. Errol played Christian in his film debut in the low-budget In the Wake of the Bounty. Actually, he was not related to Fletcher Christian, but his mother was an ancestor of Midshipman Young, who was Christian's chief aide.

Flynn's character was also shown "alive"
in a flashback.
3. Flynn played a corpse in The Case of the Curious Bride, a 1935 Perry Mason B-movie starring Warren William as the crime-solving attorney. The film was the first teaming of Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz--they made Captain Blood that same year. As for portraying a dead body, Flynn once wrote: "Some people claim it was my best role."

4. In 1953, he tried to produce and star in The Story of William Tell, to be directed by famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff. However, Flynn's Italian backers ran into financial difficulties and the production folded after several weeks. Supposedly, there is 15-30 minutes of finished footage...somewhere. You can read more about Errol's unfinished film by clicking here.

5. Some people claim his bestselling autobiography was penned by a ghost writer. I don't believe it. Earlier in his career, he wrote the autobiographical Beam Ends (about a voyage from Australia to New Guinea) and a novel called Showdown. He also wrote the screenplay to The Adventures of Captain Fabian (though I don't recall the resulting film being very good).

6. Errol met his second wife, Nora Eddington, during his infamous trial for statutory rape. The nineteen-year-old Eddington worked behind the cigar counter at the courthouse where the trial took place.

7. Errol Flynn as a musical star? He sang "Lily of Laguna" in Let's Make Up (aka Lilacs in the Spring), a 1954 British musical starring Anna Neagle. He also sang "That's What You Jolly Well Get" in the Warner Bros. all-star, Hollywood Canteen fund-raiser Thank Your Lucky Stars (see photo on right).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Classic Movies About Boarding Schools

Boarding schools have provided atmospheric settings for a wide variety of films‑sentimental tales of dedicated teachers, satanic thrillers, mischievous comedies, and student revolutions. Jean Vigo’s 1933 surrealistic classic Zero for Conduct blended revolution with comedy in the story of mistreated students who rebel against a regimented boarding school run by a midget principal. British director Lindsay Anderson expanded on the same premise in his 1968 film If..., in which defiant Malcolm McDowell and fellow students gun down the school’s faculty on Speech Day (or is this massacre merely imagined by McDowell’s character?). The girls known as The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1951) were rebellious too, but never mounted a revolt since they pretty much ran the school anyway.

Convent and church-run schools have been especially prone to attracting mischief-making students, as evidenced by The Trouble With Angels with Hayley Mills and Goodbye, Children. Dedicated teachers molded mischievous youths into mature students of life in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939 and 1969) and Dead Poets Society. In contrast, schoolmaster David Hemming’s students threatened to murder him‑-like they did his predecessor‑in Unman, Wittering and Zigo. Clint Eastwood found himself in a worse situation as a virile male hiding out in a girls’ school populated by lonely, jealous females in The Beguiled.

Pamela Franklin (shown at right) entered a girl’s boarding school to investigate her sister’s suicide in the 1973 TV-movie Satan’s School for Girls.  Despite its title, it turned out to be a nicer place than the demonic school run by a witches coven in Dario Argento’s stylish Suspiria.

Many films such as Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist have been partially set in boarding schools. Below is a representative list of pre-1990 movies set in boarding schools.

Maedchun in Uniform (1931)
Zero for Conduct (aka Zero de Conduite) (1933)
Girls’ Dormitory (1936)
Housemaster (1938)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Tom Brown’s School Days (aka Adventures at Rugby) (1940)
The Happy Years (1950)
The Browning Version (1951)
Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1951)
Her Twelve Men (1954)
The Belles of St. Trinians (1954)
Les Diaboliques (aka Diabolique; The Fiends) (1955)
Tea and Sympathy (1956)
The Ladies’ Man (1961)
13 Frightened Girls (1963)
The Trouble With Angels (1966)
If... (1968)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
The House That Screamed (aka The Boarding School) (1969)
Walk a Crooked Path (1969)
The Beguiled (1971)
Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971)
Child’s Play (1972)
Satan’s School for Girls (1973 TVM)
Our Time (aka Death of Her Innocence) (1974)
Suspiria (1976)
Boarding School (aka The Passion Flower Hotel) (1977)
Deadly Lessons (1983 TVM)
Goodbye, Children (aka Au Revoir, Les Enfants) (1988)
Dead Poets Society (1989)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

We Describe the Movie...You Name It!

This is our 6th edition of our most popular quiz. The rules are easy: Name each film below based on our vague description. Be sure to include the question number with your response. Please don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is one film that is the single best answer to each description.

1. An ambitious young man finds love with the woman of his dreams. Too bad his ex-girlfriend is pregnant.

2. A man wins a valuable prize--that's promptly stolen by his no-good brother.

3. Some Earthlings apparently descended from grasshopper-like aliens.

4. A man gets called a "kitty cat." As if that's not bad enough, he gets his nose cut.

5. A submarine fends off an attack from a giant octopus. Repeat: giant octopus.

6. Man cheats to win toy train race by buttering his competitor's tracks.

7. People from the future send a cyborg back in time to change the future. By the way, this movie was made in the 1960s!

8. Poison is placed in the wrong kind of drinking vessel. Hilarity ensues.

9. Amnesiac names himself after an airplane and a beverage.

10. In the opening scene, a man arrives at a country house he knows from a dream. In the closing scene, a man arrives at a country house he knows from a dream.

11. He becomes a track star for her. She become a biker chick for him. It's a rock'n'roll version of "The Gift of the Magi."

12. His companions are aghast when they learn he designs toy airplanes. That's right, toy airplanes!

13. Like in a Mission: Impossible episode, a captured intelligence officer during World War II is led to believe he has recovered from amnesia and the war is over.

14. The scheme is not to steal the gold, but to make it radioactive.

15. Man meets woman of his dreams at a traveling carnival. They fall in love...and become criminals.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies

In regard to showing theatrical films, the television landscape has changed mightily over the last 50 years. Back in 1960, there was no streaming video, no DVRs, and no DVDs. Either you saw a theatrical film when it was released, caught it at a revival house, or waited for years for it to pop up on your local TV station. Indeed, most stations were still showing vintage films from the 1930s and 1940s. That changed when NBC ushered in Saturday Night at the Movies on September 23, 1961.

NBC's concept was to broadcast a "world television premiere" of a major motion picture each week. It focused on "recent" post-1950 films, many of which were in color (which was still a big deal since most programming was in black and white). NBC wasn't the first network to launch a movie series, but it was the one that worked. Its debut offering, 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire, garnered strong ratings and Saturday Night at the Movies became a staple on NBC's schedule for the next 16 years. That first year featured The Day the Earth Stood Still, Garden of Evil, People Will Talk, The Black Rose, It Happens Every Spring, and 25 other motion pictures.

The films ran in a two-hour time slot from 9:00 to 11:00, though occasionally longer films (e.g., There's No Business Like Show Business) shifted the local news by fifteen to thirty minutes. If a movie ended early, then NBC would often show a "making of" featurette about an upcoming movie to fill out the time slot.

There was no letter-boxing back then, so wide-screen films were adapted for the smaller television screen ratio using a technique called "pan and scan." Thus, if there were two people talking on opposite sides of the screen, only one of them would be shown when the movie appeared on television. Sometimes, creative framing caused insurmountable problems. I once watched a pan-and-scan version of American Graffiti in which it looked like two noses were having a conversation.

The network also edited movies for time and objectionable content.The latter was not a major concern with the films of the 1950s, but became more prevalent as movies expanded the boundaries of censorship. Sometimes, it was just easier not to show a "racy movie" like Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue--which didn't premiere on network TV until 1973--twenty years after its theatrical release.

Kiss of the Vampire before re-editing.
However, some films were so heavily edited that new footage had to be shot to fill out the running time. One example was the excellent 1963 Hammer film Kiss of the Vampire. The film's plot was altered extensively through editing and additional scenes were filmed with other actors. Fortunately, the altered film was retitled Kiss of Evil--which has helped horror film enthusiasts distinguish it from the original Kiss of the Vampire.

The success of Saturday Night at the Movies prompted CBS and ABC to add movie nights. That scheduling tactic became so popular that, during the 1968-69 season, a network movie aired in prime time on each day of the week: NBC showed movies on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday; ABC did on Sunday and Wednesday; and CBS did on Thursday and Friday.

Clu Gulager and Lee Marvin as The Killers.
The increase in movie nights, the desire to show current films, and rising costs led to the development of made-for-TV movies. These inexpensive films didn't feature big screen stars and frequently doubled as pilots for new TV series (which saved additional money!). The 1964 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, was made for Saturday Night at the Movies. However, NBC determined that it was too violent and so The Killers was released theatrically. Therefore, most TV historians consider See How They Run to be the first made-for-TV movie. It starred John Forsyte and Senta Berger in a tale about killers pursuing three orphans who unknowingly possess valuable evidence against a cartel.

By the mid-1970s, spurred by the popularity of ABC's Movie of the Week, telefilms began to outnumber theatrical films shown on network TV. A decade later, cable channels and videotape distributors overtook the television networks as the first option for a post-theatrical movie release. The network's familiar "world premiere" claim was modified to "broadcast television premiere." It was the beginning of the end, although the networks still had sporadic successes. When NBC showed Gone With the Wind in 1976, it became the most-watched broadcast in U.S. television history at that time.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Gene Autry is Back in the Saddle Again

Classic TV Western fans can rejoice that Timeless Media has released all five seasons of The Gene Autry Show in a deluxe boxed set. A shrewd businessman, Autry saw the potential of television in 1950 and launched his TV series while still making his popular "B" Westerns for theatrical release. The half-hour series ran on CBS from 1950-1955. Its popularity led Autry's Flying A Pictures to produce other TV series, such as The Adventures of Champion, Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill, Jr.

The Gene Autry Show follows the same formula as his big screen Westerns. Gene sings a song or two, sometimes accompanying himself on guitar. He and his bumbling, but likable, sidekick Pat (Pat Buttram) work to maintain law and order--whether it's investigating gold shipment robberies ("The Doodle Bug"), helping out a pair of orphans ("Danger! Warning"), or investigating a murder ("The Sharpshooter").

Pat Buttram as Gene's sidekick.
Gene and Pat don't always play the same characters. For example, Gene might portray a ranch hand or a marshal. In most episodes, he and Pat play partners; in other episodes, though, their characters don't know each other. Likewise, some episodes features a contemporary setting (e.g. the sheriff drives a car in "Head for Texas") and others are set in the Old West. (By the way, if Pat Buttram's voice sounds familiar, then you probably remember him--less the beard--as Mr. Haney on Green Acres.)

Gene serenading Champion.
The other regular cast member in The Gene Autry Show is Champion the "Wonder Horse." Autry rode three horses named Champion throughout his film and television career (there were also "special" Champions used in live appearances). The original Champion made his film debut in 1935 in the film Melody Trail. Autry's second horse, typically known as Champion Jr., appeared in Gene's films from 1940-50. Finally, a third Champion (sometimes referred to as "Television Champion") joined the cowboy star for The Gene Autry Show. A handsome sorrel-colored horse with a whitish mane and tail, he later starred in The Adventures of Champion. Occasionally, the TV series also featured the equine guest star, Little Champ, who was actually a trick pony.

From a technical standpoint, the 91 episodes in The Gene Autry Show boxed set look impressive. The prints, restored from Autry's personal archives, are devoid of the numerous scratches and excessive fading found in most 1950s TV series. As with many older black and white films, the dark shades lose a little definition. The set includes the two color episodes from the first season--"The Raiders" and "Double Barreled Vengeance"--that were produced as part of a CBS experiment with color television. Additionally, all 13 episodes in the shorter final season appear in color.

Young Lee Van Cleef as a baddie.
There are numerous bonus features on the discs, ranging from Gene Autry film trailers to photos from Autry's 1953 British tour to a Melody Ranch radio show. And, while the casual TV fan won't spot a lot of familiar guest stars, there are still appearances from Chill Wills, Alan Hale Jr., Lee Van Cleef, and even Clayton Moore (though not as The Lone Ranger). Best of all, there's a bonus disc featuring two episodes each of other Flying A Pictures' TV shows: The Range Rider, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Jr., and--of course--The Adventures of Champion. As stated in a disclaimer at the start of this disc, the quality of these prints is variable. For example, Annie Oakley looks near-pristine, while The Adventures of Champion is visually washed out.

Gene Autry fans--who have been waiting for the definitive, complete TV series boxed set--will no doubt treasure this collection. Now, if someone would just produce a similar boxed set of The Roy Rogers Show (1951-57), then Western fans could cherish the complete small-screen exploits of the two cowboys who--along with The Lone Ranger--pioneered the genre on television.

You can more learn about Gene Autry by visiting the excellent web site Timeless Media provided the Cafe with a review copy of The Gene Autry Show boxed set.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

1949--The Year in Film

In 1949, NATO was established, a postage stamp costs three cents, the first Emmy Awards were handed out, George Orwell's 1984 was published, and the first 45 RPM record was sold in the U.S. But as Harry Truman started  his second term as President, what was happening in the motion picture industry in 1949? Here are some highlights:

1. The Best Picture was All the King's Men, with Broderick Crawford winning Best Actor for his performance as Willie Stark. Olivia de Havilland won Best Actress for The Heiress.

2. The top-grossing film at the box office was Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah. It made $11,500,000, which would equate to $122,872,000 in 2013. That's a big moneymaker by today's standards, but don't forget that the U.S. population was a lot smaller in 1949 and there were less movie theaters, too. That makes Mr. DeMille's feat all the more impressive.

3. The top box office attractions were: Bob Hope; Bing Crosby; and Abbott & Costello. Incidentally, Bob and Bing weren't in a Road movie in 1949 (their last one had been 1947's Road to Rio).

4. After supporting roles in The Egg and I (1947), Ma and Pa Kettle got their own movie--appropriately-titled Ma and Pa Kettle. It was the first of a nine-film series with a new installment appearing every year through 1957. Majorie Main played Ma in all of them and Percy Kilbride co-starred in the first seven. He retired from acting after suffering an injury in an automobile accident.

5. Future stars that were born in 1949 include Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Bridges, Pam Grier, and Sissy Spacek. Film greats who passed away that year included Frank Morgan, Victor Fleming, and Wallace Beery.

Paul Robeson.
6. At the Paris Peace Conference, actor-singer Paul Robeson gave a speech in which he allegedly said that it was "unthinkable" for blacks to fight in a potential war against the Soviet Union. According to a 2011 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, an inaccurate transcript was released by the Associated Press and "historians would later discover that Robeson had been misquoted, but the damage had been almost instantly done." The House Un-American Activities Committee subpenoed baseball player Jackie Robinson, who testified that Robeson's comments, "if accurately reported, were silly."

7. Television became more prevalent, grew in popularity, and started to pose a threat to the film industry. The Sears & Roebuck catalog included television sets for the first time. RCA made great strides toward development of color TV (its color TV technology would become the U.S. industry standard in 1953). The Lone Ranger TV series made its debut on ABC and went on to become the fledgling network's first legitimate hit.

Alec Guinness in one of his eight
roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets.
8. Britain's Ealing Studios--which became known for its low-key, quirky comedies--released three classics:  Whiskey Galore (aka Tight Little Island); Passport to Pimlico; and Kind Hearts and Coronets.

9. Vittorio De Sica's Italian neo-realism masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief, was released in the U.S. and given an honorary Oscar. By 1952, it was voted the greatest film ever made in Sight & Sound magazine's first poll among film professionals.

10. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared in their last film together: The Barkleys of Broadway.

Monday, December 2, 2013

CMBA Blogathon: The People That Inspired My Love of Classic Films

Have you ever asked a classic film fan how they became an admirer of classic cinema? Many of them can't provide a definitive answer--like so many things in life, their love of classic films just evolved over time. For others, though, the answer might be one life-altering film experience. Or, it could be a silver screen star that ignited their passion for classic movies. For me, it was all about my family and friends.

If there was such a thing as a gene for classic film fans, I would have inherited it from my parents. Mom and Dad grew up in a small West Virginia town during the Great Depression. There was no local cinema, so movies were a rare experience (in fact, I don't remember my mother ever mentioning watching a movie in her youth). Somewhere along the way, my father became a fan of Lon Chaney, Sr. and Jean Harlow. He used to regale me with plots of his favorite movies (like an occasional bedtime story). One plot I remember vividly had Chaney as a fugitive who straps his arms to his side and poses as an armless knife-thrower in a circus. Dad couldn't remember the name of the movie, but, boy, did I never forget that plot! (Years later, I learned the movie was The Unknown, directed by Tod Browning.)

As a young man, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Dad worked briefly as an usher in a Loews Theater in Detroit. That was pretty much our family's experience in the entertainment industry until the 1970s. Then, the U.S. entered World War II and my parents' lives changed forever. By the time I was born in the late 1950s, local television stations were showing movies from the 1930s and 1940s. A few years later, NBC ushered in network-broadcasted films with its Saturday Night at the Movies.

My parents had their favorite performers, but none were held in higher esteem than Errol Flynn and Bing Crosby. Whenever one of their movies was on television, it was a special family event. In the days prior to cable, we would frequently fidget with the rooftop antenna trying to pick up a faraway station showing Errol in The Adventures of Robin Hood or Bing in The Bells of St. Mary's. There were others favorites, too, such as Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Colman, and (perhaps more for Mom) Paul Newman.

My siblings, both older than me, also helped shape my love of classic cinema. When he was in college, my brother sent me a copy of Leonard Maltin's TV Movies (it has undergone a number of title changes since the '60s). I wore that book out, perusing capsule reviews of movies I'd seen and noting ones I wanted to see.

My sister and I gradually convinced our parents to let us stay up late on the weekend to watch movies. Shock Theater was a Saturday night staple in our house and that's where I first saw the Universal horror classics as well as early Hammer films, George Pal's War of the Worlds, and other science fiction and horror flicks. When my sister got her driver's license, the two of us often spent Saturday afternoon at a local cinema. (If required for R-rated films, she'd be my "adult guardian"). When she was older, she spent two summers working in a movie theater, which meant I got to watch movies for free! Most of my favorite 1970s films (e.g., The Day of the Jackal, The Andromeda Strain) were ones I saw with my sister.

College expanded my classic film horizons by exposing me to foreign-language cinema and more silent-era films. I took courses in early-sound movies, horror and science fiction films, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, the French cinema, and, yes, one called "Sex in the Cinema." Although I had some wonderful professors, I also benefited from friends, who not only attended the movies with me but also enrolled in the courses. One young woman in my American Film Culture class became my future wife! (We had actually met briefly as juniors, but love blossomed during our senior year.) Her film essay for that class was on Laura--it's a marvelous piece that I should post on the Cafe one of these days. I have seen more films with my wife than with anyone else and it's amazing how often we agree on whether we liked a movie.

I could pretty much take you on a journey of my life and describe all the various people who have shaped my love of classic films. In some cases, I may have "converted" them into classic movie buffs. In other instances, they may have changed my perceptions of filmmakers and performers. (For example, I always liked Deborah Kerr, but became a huge fan after we had a "Deborah Kerr Film Festival" when one of my nephews visited).

No, there's not one film that sparked my interest in classic movies. Instead, there are dozens of people who have kept my passion for classic cinema alive with their love of Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Alfred Hitchcock, Danny Kaye, Gene Tierney, Paul Newman, Hammer Films, Jean Renoir, Hayley Mills, David Niven, Bruce Lee, Powell & Pressberger, Vincent Price, Akira Kurosawa, Bing Crosby, 007, Laurence Olivier, Walt Disney, and many, many others.

This post of part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Film Passion 101 Blogathon. Click here for the full blogathon schedule and for links to other members' posts.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Classic Film & TV Fan (2013 Edition)

For the past five years, the Classic Film & TV Cafe has published a list of holiday gift ideas recommended by our staff. Click here to view previous years' recommendations. After each gift idea below, we have included the retail price in U.S. currency. Please note that--with a little web research--you can find many of these items for 20-50% off the retail price.

Television Westerns Episode Guide ($39.95 paperback) - Classic TV Western fans will spend countless hours browsing this 568-page encyclopedia of 180 Western series that played on U.S. television from 1949-1996. For almost every series, author Harris M. Lentz III describes the cast, the premise, and the following information for each episode: title, broadcast date, guest stars, and a brief plot summary. While it's fun to read about the famous Westerns, such as Gunsmoke (all 635 episodes!) and Have Gun--Will Travel, I had a blast looking up more obscure, personal favorites (e.g., Rod Serling's The Loner, Black Saddle, Yancy Derringer). In terms of defining the Western genre, Lentz errs on the conservative side and includes contemporary Western series, such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Cowboy in Africa. There's even an entry for The Secret Empire, a limited-run, science fiction Western shown as part of NBC's Cliffhangers umbrella series. There are no photographs, but the book includes an extensive personnel index and an additional "storyline" index that cross-references historical figures, locations, and significant subjects. Comprehensive, interesting, and unique, Television Westerns Episode Guide will keep your favorite classic TV Western fan glued to its pages.

TCM's Greatest Classic Films Collection: Astaire and Rogers ($29.92) - Thanks, TCM, for packaging the four best Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies into one low-cost set comprised of Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, and The Gay Divorcee. This is an opportunity to add to one's DVD collection some of the finest musical numbers choreographed on film: Astaire's stunning solo "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and the dancing-on-air fluidity of "Cheek to Cheek" (Top Hat); the emotional "Never Gonna Dance" (Swing Time); the roller-skating delight "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (Shall We Dance); and the enchanting "Night and Day" (The Gay Divorcee).Plus, you can enjoy the comedic talents of Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Alice Brady, and Erik Rhodes. The latter's "chance is a fool's name for fate" routine from The Gay Divorcee always earns laughs from my family and friends.

Great Showdowns: The Return ($14.95) - Last year, illustrator Scott Campbell published The Great Showdowns, a very funny little book which featured his drawings of the confrontations between famous film characters. Last October, he published the sequel: Great Showdowns: The Return. While I still prefer the first book, the second one is a delight, too. Just remember that Campbell includes no "answers" to his illustrations; either you "get" them or you don't. Some of the films are off the beaten track (Zardoz, Princess Mononoke), while most are pretty famous (Grease, The Gold Rush). One of my faves is shown to the right: Donald Sutherland shrieking from the 1978 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Jonny Quest: The Complete First Season ($39.98) - Young folks should enjoy discovering this classic action-packed, prime-time animated series. And the young at heart, who watched it during the 1960s, will enjoy revisiting it again. The 26 episodes pit Jonny, his father Dr. Benton Quest, bodyguard Race Bannon, friend Hadji, and dog Bandit against a plethora of villains that include: a mummy; a lizard monster; a spider-like robot; pirates; dinosaurs; a possible werewolf; and Quest nemesis Dr. Zin. Jonny Quest purists have quibbled that some of the dialogue has been re-edited to make it politically correct and that series creator Doug Wildey's name is missing from the end credits. Those are valid points, but still don't distract from a well-packaged DVD set.

Frankie & Annette: MGM Movie Legends Collection ($39.98) - MGM has packaged almost all of the movies made by Frankie Avalon and the late Annette Funicello. While these nostalgic sand-and-surf musicals may hardly seem like classics, they hold up surprisingly well thanks to quality musical acts (e.g., Little Stevie Wonder), the funny antics of Harvey Lembeck and Don Rickles, and the charming stars. Two films in the Beach Party series are conspicuously missing: Pajama Party, which stars Annette and Tommy Kirk (plus a prominent cameo from Frankie) and the lame Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, which features neither Frankie nor Annette. It's understandable why the latter is missing from this collection, but Pajama Party should have been included. Still, there's enough music and surfing to inspire a beach party (tonight!) at your house.

We also want to mention two additional books that we reviewed in-depth earlier this year: Star Trek: The Art of Juan Ortiz and My Lunches With Orson Welles. That's it for this year--happy shopping to all and to all a good night!

McFarland & Co., Inc. Publishers provided a review copy of Television Westerns Episode Guide and Titan Books provided a copy of Great Showdowns: The Return.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ursula Andress Is She Who Must be Obeyed

Although Hammer Films remains best known for its horror films, the studio frequently dabbled in other genres. In fact, it achieved solid success with historical adventures about Robin Hood, pirates, and smugglers. Its most ambitious adventure yarn was She (1965), an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's venerable 1887 novel about "She who must be obeyed." Haggard's novel had reached the screen in several previous incarnations, mostly notably an expensive 1935 version produced by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong) and starring Randolph Scott. Of course, Hammer's She had one thing not found in the earlier films--Ursula Andress.

Set in Palestine in 1918, the tale finds three Army veterans trekking through the desert to find the lost city of Kuma. The reason: The youngest of the trio, Leo (John Richardson), had a vision in which a beautiful woman named Ayesha (Andress) promised endless wealth and more. After overcoming minor obstacles like murderous bedouins and death from thirst, the three men--with assistance from a young woman who fallen for Leo--arrive at their destination.

Andress with Christopher Lee.
They are welcomed hospitably until the local townsfolk realize that Leo's face adorns their local currency. It turns out that he's the spitting image of a previous ruler, who just happened to be Ayesha's lover. It seems that the merciless Kuma queen (hence her nickname of "She who must be obeyed") is over a thousand years old. Naturally, she looks pretty stunning for her age and that seems to be all that matters to Leo. And despite the fact that she murdered her former lover for infidelity, Ayesha appears ready to accept Leo as his reincarnation and live happily forever--literally forever--after.

Peter Cushing as Leo's friend
Major Holly.
After making a string of cost-conscious, profitable pictures, Hammer briefly considered moving to larger-scale productions. She would end up being the studio's most expensive film and it shows on the screen. While it lacks the scope of Hollywood epics like Ben-Hur, She is a vast improvement over earlier Hammer movies that were clearly shot on cheaply-made sets (e.g., the flashbacks in The Mummy). It helps noticeably that the exteriors for She were film in Israel.

Another upgrade for Hammer is James Bernard's soundtrack. Bernard was the studio's "in-house composer" and wrote some marvelous scores for classics like Horror of Dracula. However, due to time constraints, Bernard sometimes had to borrow from himself. Listen closely to the music in the Dracula films and it all sounds very familiar. For She, Bernard crafted separate musical cues for Leo and Ayesha that recur throughout the film--perhaps a little too often. Still, it's a lovely score and one of Bernard's best.

John Richardson as Leo.
Alas, despite the improved production values, She can't overcome sluggish plotting and a dreadful performance from John Richardson. If one removed the desert journey and the extraneous dancing scenes in Kuma, there's probably about 45 minutes of plot left (or so it seems). Still, that might be forgivable with a more convincing lead than the wooden Richardson. Given his portrayal of Leo, it's impossible to fathom why Ayesha seems so intent on making him her immortal lover (we'll talking centuries of marital boredom, people!). I do believe that Richardson must have had an amazing agent, given that he was cast as the love interest for both Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch (One Million Years, B.C.).

The rest of the cast in She ranges from excellent (the always reliable Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) to adequate (Andress). In Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, director Robert Day said of his female lead: "She's a great presence but had little experience. I really had to work with her. It wasn't easy!"

Olinka Berova in
Vengeance of She.
Although She failed to be the boxoffice smash Hammer hoped for, it still made money. Three months after its release, the studio announced a sequel called Ayesha--Daughter of She starring Andress. That film never came to fruition nor did another proposed sequel called The Return of She. In 1968, though, Hammer released The Vengeance of She. Initially, the studio planned to cast Susan Denberg (Frankenstein Created Woman) in the lead role, but ultimately it opted for an unknown Czechoslovakian beauty named Olga Schoberova (but billed as the more exotic Olinka Beroka). And in case you were wondering, her co-star was John Richardson.

Finally, for all you Rumpole of the Bailey fans, it was indeed Rumpole's intent to reference H. Rider Haggard's fearsome ruler when he referred to his spouse as "she who must be obeyed."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Seven Things to Know About Frankie Avalon

1. Frankie Avalon learned to play the trumpet as a child--and was very good at it. He played trumpet for singer Al Martino (Johnny Fontane in The Godfather) when the crooner visited Philadelphia. That led to an audition for an agent and an appearance on The Jackie Gleason Show.

2. On his web site, Frankie states: "It seems like every young kid in Philadelphia wanted to be a singer. I started as a musician…a trumpet player in the beginning. But, when I picked up the paper one day and read about Jimmy Darren who was from my own neighborhood and school, making a successful career for himself, I decided that I could do it just as well."

3. Frankie dominated the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1958-60, scoring seven Top 20 hits. He reached #1 twice, first with "Venus" (his biggest hit) and then with "Why." The latter song was co-written by Avalon's manager Bob Marcucci, who also discovered Fabian. (The 1980 film The Idolmaker is supposedly based on Marcucci's career.) Frankie Avalon recorded a disco version of Venus in 1976; it reached #46 on the chart.

4. He made his feature film debut in 1960, appearing in Guns of the Timberland with Alan Ladd and in John Wayne's The Alamo. In the former film, producer Ladd even found a way to incorporate Avalon's singing talents; Frankie croons the memorably-titled "Gee Whiz Whillikins Golly Gee."

5. Yes, Frankie and Annette Funicello did date in real life--but they quickly realized they were destined to just be friends. (By the way, Annette also dated Paul Anka, who wrote the song "Puppy Love" for her.) Frankie and his wife Kathryn have been married since 1963 and have eight children.

6. In addition to the Beach Party movies, Frankie and Annette also starred in the stock car "B" picture Fireball 500 (though Fabian gets the girl!). In 1978, Frankie and Annette appeared in a TV series pilot called Frankie and Annette: The Second Time Around. Although a regular series never materialized, the duo reteamed in 1987 for the Beach Party spoof Back to the Beach.

7. These days, Frankie also sells health and food products. One can buy Zero Pain, a homeopathic cream to treat arthritis pain, on his web site and purchase Frankie Avalon Italian sausage on QVC. And at the age of 73, he is still performing concerts--with three dates on his tour schedule for November.

Embed from Getty Images Frankie Avalon in 2013.