Thursday, January 31, 2013

1960s Twin Bill: "The Rare Breed" and "Blackbeard's Ghost"

James Stewart.
The Rare Breed

With the exception of The Flight of the Phoenix, James Stewart didn't get a lot of worthy roles in the 1960s. He was in his mid-fifties when the decade began, so instead of his typical romantic leads and loner heroes, he played a lot of patriarchs in lukewarm fare like Dear Brigitte, Shenandoah, and Take Her, She's Mine (I admit having a soft spot for Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation). Stewart also continued to appear frequently in Westerns, where his now-graying hair only added to his tough exterior. One of his better horse operas of the period was The Rare Breed, a modest effort bolstered by a strong cast and an offbeat premise.

Maureen O'Hara.
Maureen O'Hara stars as a (typically) spunky, yet refined, English woman who's intent on realizing her deceased husband's dream of cross-breeding longhorn steers with Herefords. When she sells a prized Hereford bull named Vindicator, Stewart's crusty ranch hand agrees to deliver the bull to its new owner. Along the way, O'Hara, Stewart, and Juliet Mills (as O'Hara's daughter) spar with a pair of crooks, who--along with Stewart's character--plan to steal the bull. The plot changes direction at the mid-point when the trio arrive at the ranch of a Scottish rancher (played by an almost unrecognizable Brian Keith), who takes a romantic interest in O'Hara.

Yes, that's Brian Keith!
The film's first half is a lazy hodgepodge that shifts back and forth from a lighthearted Western (with big barroom brawls) to a more serious film (where people are killed in cold blood). Still, The Rare Breed settles down in its second half, becoming more of a character study, with Stewart's loner--having lost O'Hara's trust and affections--finally finding meaning in his life.

The three veteran leads are solid, with Keith having a grand time with his Scottish brogue. Yet, Juliet Mills (Nanny and the Professor) comes off best as a young woman with true grit. (It's fun to see O'Hara, Keith, and Mills together, since the first two starred with Juliet's sister, Hayley, in The Parent Trap.)

From a production standpoint, the film's scenic landscapes are undermined by poor-looking rear screen shots and stunt doubles that barely resemble the stars.

Blackbeard's Ghost

Peter Ustinov and an atmospheric coastal setting make Blackbeard's Ghost one of Disney's better live action comedies of the late 1960s. Disney regular Dean Jones stars as Steve Walker, the new track coach for Godolphin College. Steve arrives in the quaint seaside town on the night of the Buccaneer Bazaar, a fund-raising effort for the elderly Daughters of the Buccaneers. The nice old ladies are in financial trouble, because a local gangster has bought their mortgage and wants full payment. His plan is to boot them out of their inn so he can replace it with a casino.

That night, Steve, who is staying at the inn, inadvertently calls forth Blackbeard's ghost when he recites a spell from a witch's book. Blackbeard (Ustinov) explains that he's been caught in "limbo," destined never to join his ghostly crew until--as Steve later discovers--the pirate performs a good deed. This will obviously be a challenge for the whiny, surprisingly sensitive, rum-drinking buccaneer.

Peter Ustinov and Dean Jones.
Though based on a children's novel by Ben Stahl, Blackbeard's Ghost recycles many familiar elements from earlier Disney films. In lieu of a wacky basketball game (The Absent-Minded Professor) or football game (Son of Flubber), we get a track meet where Blackbeard--who's invisible to everyone but Steve--helps Godolphin College's unimposing athletes earn an unlikely victory. Predictably, Steve's eventual love interest (played by the always likable Suzanne Pleshette) dates the gruff football coach who dislikes Steve. The gangsters are a thick-headed bunch except for their leader, the appropriately-named Silky Seymour (well played by Joby Baker, another Disney regular).

Suzanne Pleshette.
While it may all sound rather predictable, Blackbeard's Ghost gets a huge boost from Peter Ustinov, who transforms the bloody pirate into a reluctant and amusing hero. Ustinov even keeps in check his tendency to play some roles too broadly. Of course, a little blustering seems appropriate for a famous pirate. The end result is that, despite the film's derivative aspects, Ustinov makes Blackbeard's Ghost a diverting way to spend an evening.


  1. Rick, I have to say that this is truly an unusual pairing. But I have seen each movie. Like you, I really liked Juliet Mills in "The Rare Breed." It was clever of you to note that Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara were also paired with Juliet's sister, Hayley, in "The Parent Trap."

    I probably preferred "Blackbeard's Ghost" because of the Disney elements of an unlikely track coach taking on the stronger football coach and the mob, too. You just know everything will work out well and Dean Jones will end up with the lovely Suzanne Pleshette. Peter Ustinov is quite fun as Blackbeard and very different from Hercule Poirot, about whom you posted a couple of weeks ago.

  2. Rick, what about James Stewart's two 60's films with John Ford 1961's Two Rode Together with Richard Widmark and 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

    1. Paul, I overlooked THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, a fine, through-providing film (though, personally, I still prefer FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX).

    2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is my favorite Stewart film and my second favorite Wayne film (The Quiet Man) Also, how about How The West Was Won?

  3. Rick,
    If I had a steer it would be called 'Vindicator' what a badass name!
    As for Keith. Take it easy on the hair and makeup. Whoa! Thanks for including the pic.

    My dad loved the Stewart Westerns, regardless of how bad the script. As mentioned above, Liberty Valance, pretty sure my dad has seen it about 30 times.

    Ustinov, made an interesting pirate. We went to the drive in to see it and another Disney feature as kids. (We saw every Disney film during that time.) I think my brother enjoyed it a lot more than I did. My dad had a crush on Pleshette which really irritated my mom. Funny, since she had the same black hair and hairstyle as Pleshette. ha ha