Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bullitt: Steve McQueen Plays It Cool (What Else?)

Bullitt was not the film that established the Steve McQueen "cool quotient." Steve was displaying coolness earlier in the 1960s in movies such as The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Heck, his character was even known as The Cooler King in The Great Escape (okay, that was a different kind of "cooler"). Yet, if Steve was already cool, Bullitt elevated him to a new level and became perhaps his most iconic film. Think of Bullitt and two things spring to mind: the high-speed car chase through San Francisco and the poster with McQueen in a dark turtleneck with shoulder holster looking...yes...pretty damn cool.

McQueen plays Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, a no-nonsense detective for the San Francisco Police Department. An ambitious politician (Robert Vaughn) handpicks Bullitt to protect a mob informant who's scheduled to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing. Despite taking all the normal precautions, a professional hit man shoots the informant at the safe house. When the would-be witness dies in the hospital, Bullitt covers up the death. Bothered by too many loose ends (e.g., who divulged the location of the safe house?), he launches his own investigation--even as others look to make him a scapegoat.

In her big scene, Bisset's face is obscured
by McQueen's shoulder and green weeds.
Stripped of McQueen's charisma, the famous car chase, and the scenic splendor of San Francisco, Bullitt is just another urban cop drama. Veteran actors such as Simon Oakland, Don Gordon, and Norman Fell are in fine form, but they're just inhabiting stock characters: the tough, trustworthy boss; the loyal partner; and the agitated superior. Jacqueline Bisset fares even worse in a throwaway part as Bullitt's girlfriend, who--in her one meaty scene--gets saddled with insipid dialogue such as: "Do you let anything really reach you? You're living in a sewer, Frank, day after day." (Well, he's a police detective in a big city...who did she think she was dating?)

McQueen's Mustang GT appears in the rearview mirror as the chase gets underway.
The car chase officially begins at the 1:08 mark in the film when the bad guys in the Dodge Charger strap on their seat belts. The next seven minutes are a delirious combination of squealing tires, burning rubber, skidding turns, roaring engines, and speeding cars flying over the hills of San Francisco. Director Peter Yates and editor Frank P. Keller--who won an Oscar for his work--expertly cut between shots of the cars, the drivers' faces, and nerve-racking first-person views. I love the shot where the driver of the Charger looks through his rearview mirror and sees nothing but dust. Assuming that Bullitt's Mustang has crashed, a very slight smile crosses his face.

Steve driving his iconic car. Actually, two Mustangs were used in the film.

Stunt driver Bill Hickman.
Steve McQueen and stunt driver Bud Ekin drove the dark-green Mustang GT, while Bill Hickman drove the black Charger. Hickman was also behind the wheel in The Seven-Ups, which features--yes, I said it--an even more impressive car chase sequence. It was directed by Philip D'Antoni, who produced Bullitt. (For our picks for cinema's five best car chases, click here.) By the way, the Bullitt car chase is often listed as nine minutes long, but that includes a prelude in which the baddies tail Bullitt. It's when our hero craftily creeps up behind them--and the seat belts get clicked--that the high-speed chase officially starts. From that point until the fiery conclusion, it's almost seven minutes.

Robert Vaughn.
As for McQueen, he plays his authority-defying hero to perfection. In a typical scene, Bullitt even refuses to
back down from Vaughn's powerful politician, telling him: "You work your side of the street. I'll work mine." It's a typical McQueen role, but one that audiences expected at that point in the actor's career.

Yes, that's Steve McQueen!
Still, the huge success of Bullitt cemented McQueen's superstar status and enabled him to take more chances on future films. He collaborated with Sam Peckinpah on Junior Bonner and The Getaway (both 1972). The former contains what critics now consider one of McQueen's best performances. The latter was one of his biggest hits and also where he met his second wife (of three) Ali MacGraw. And in 1978, he was almost unrecognizable as the bearded, bespectacled protagonist in An Enemy of the People, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

TV Western Themes: "Branded" and "The Virginian"

The answers to this week's TV quiz referenced the theme song to the 1965-66 Chuck Connors Western series Branded. Frankly, I was surprised by the number of people who remembered both the series and the song fondly. Did you know the series was created by the prolific Larry Cohen (e.g., The Invaders TV series, It's Alive, Phone Booth)? So, for all you Branded fans, here's that famous opening (and as a bonus, the closing, too):

And to get everyone prepared for James Drury's interview at the Cafe next Monday, here's the opening theme to The Virginian. It was composed by Percy Faith, who is best known for his instrumental cover of Max Steiner's Theme from a Summer Place. That record was a #1 smash in 1960 and remains the best-selling instrumental single of all time. Note that these opening credits for The Virginian are from 1963 and include the famous NBC peacock.

Monday, May 27, 2013

We Describe the TV Series...You Name It!

The rules are the same as the movie edition of this game: Name each TV series 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 TV show that is the single, best answer to each description. 

1. Pediatrician quits practice due to circumstances surrounding family tragedy.

2. Young man, who lives with uncle, aspires to be a film director for Mammoth Pictures.

3. Man gets his sword broken in half--in the opening credits of every episode!

4. Two bachelors live in a train caboose.

5. Architect encounters trouble after late-night stop for coffee.

6. Rigid rules of a "retirement" community don't appeal to new independent-minded member.

7. Two astronauts land "in the strangest place."

8. Young teacher solves problems at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles.

9. Two guys in a Corvette.

10. Man interested in jewelry becomes bodyguard.

11. Mother has gas...all the time!

12. Supervisor worked for five bosses during the nine-year run of this show. Only one regular employee worked for the supervisor during that span.

13. The premise of this sitcom starring a famous young actress is genetically impossible.

14. Good thing the lead character never had rhinoplasty!

15. The lead character was supposed to be a male, but was played by a female named Susie.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"The Long, Hot Summer"...the TV Series!

Ah, the wonder of YouTube! I vaguely remember my parents watching a mid-1960s TV series based on the 1958 Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward hit The Long, Hot Summer. But since the show--which lasted just one season--quickly faded into obscurity, I figured it would never be released on video. Then, one night last week, I decided to search YouTube and--voila!--discovered four complete episodes. It's a small sample to judge a season comprised of 27 episodes, but still provides a feel for how the series was progressing...and perhaps why it failed.

Jimmie Rodgers sings the sublime title
songs over the opening credits.
Not surprisingly, the 1965-66 Long, Hot Summer TV series is based more on the theatrical film than on William Faulkner's Snopes family novels about life in Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi. Roy Thinnes plays Ben Quick, a good-looking drifter who has recently returned to the rural town with little money. Ben runs afoul of Will Varner (Edmond O'Brien), a domineering man who owns pretty much everything. Secretly, Varner admires Ben's pluck, but he doesn't like the hint of a spark between Ben and Varner's daughter Clara (Nancy Malone). Other characters include: Varner's weak son Jody (Paul Geary); Varner's mistress Minnie Littlejohn (Ruth Roman); and Eula (Lana Wood), a young woman of modest means who works for Minnie. Undoubtedly, fans of the 1958 film recognize all these characters. Indeed, the only substantial difference is that Jody and Eula are married in the movie, but only dating (in spite of Varner's objections) on the TV series. (Also, for the record, no one in the TV series attempts a Southern accent and Will Varner called his daughter "Missy" instead of "Sister").

Thinnes (without shirt) and Edmond O'Brien.
So how does it all work? Roy Thinnes and Dorothy Malone fare pretty well in the roles made famous by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Thinnes can't replicate Newman's mischievous charm, but he broods well (and takes off his shirt a lot, especially in the beefcake-heavy second episode). Malone faces a bigger task, given that Woodward was a delight in the movie. Yet, she still captures Clara's spunk and mistrust of Ben. She shows promise in the second episode, but, alas, doesn't play a major role in the others ones I viewed.

Edmond O'Brien has big shoes in fill in taking over Orson Welles' larger-than-life portrayal of Will Varner. His take on the character seems more subdued, but the result is that his Varner seems meaner (and not the manipulative rascal played by Welles). Unfortunately, O'Brien left the series midway through the season (some sources claim he clashed with the producers on the direction of the show). Dan O'Herily replaced him and, though a fine actor, he lacks the charisma required for the part.

Lana Wood as Eula.
Among the supporting players, Ruth Roman registers effectively as Minnie. Paul Geary is incredibly bland as Jody (and nothing like the desperate son played by Tony Franciosa). Lana Wood (Natalie's sister), who is well-cast physically as Eula, does what she can with a poorly-developed part.

The episodes that focus on Ben and Clara's relationship work best. Unfortunately, other episodes (e.g., a falsely-accused murderer hiding in the swamp, Will thinking he may be terminally ill) come off as routine filler. One is left with the feeling that a TV version of The Long, Hot Summer may have worked better as a miniseries (incidentially, it was made into a two-part TV movie in 1985 with Don Johnson, Judith Ivey, and Jason Robards).

Roy Thinnes in The Invaders.
Following the show's cancellation, Roy Thinnes scored the lead in The Invaders TV series, which didn't last long either, but has acquired a cult following. Nancy Malone became a producer and director and eventually vice-president of 20th Century-Fox television. Lana Wood appeared as Plenty O'Toole opposite 007 in Diamonds Are Forever and guest-starred in numerous TV series. Cult favorite Tisha Sterling had a small recurring role on The Long, Hot Summer, as did Bobby Pickett--who scored a huge hit single with "The Monster Mash."

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Philadelphia Experiment: Time Travel Romance...and Urban Legend

Nancy Allen and Michael Paré.
There are better time travel romances, such as Somewhere in Time, Time After Time, and I'll Never Forget You. And yet, I know a surprising number of people who view The Philadelphia Experiment with affection. That's all the more amazing considering that this modest 1984 film didn't make a dent at the box office and was released to video less than three months after its theatrical release. Maybe there's a Paré pattern 
here--Eddie and the Cruisers, another film starring Michael Paré, followed a similar trajectory after audiences discovered it on pay cable.

Michael Paré...after Davy learns to drive
without a stick shift.
The Philadelphia Experiment opens in 1943 with the Navy testing a new device that will render the USS Eldridge invisible to radar. However, the experiment goes terribly wrong and the ship's crew begins to glow in agony. Two sailors, Davy (Paré) and Jimmy (Bobby Di Cicco), jump ship and travel through a vortex to the Nevada desert in 1984--though they don't realize they've traveled through time. After a misunderstanding at a diner, they try to steal a car. Unfortunately, Davy doesn't know how to drive a car with automatic transmission, so he kidnaps its driver, Allison (Nancy Allen).

Jimmy glows at the hospital.
By the time Davy and Jimmy realize what has happened, they are captured by the police. Jimmy, whose hand has started glowing, is taken to a hospital--where he disappears. Davy escapes again and Allison, who has fallen for the time traveler, goes with him. Meanwhile, a huge electrical cloud begins to form over the area where Davy and Jimmy appeared. Two experiments, apparently conducted simultaneously in parallel times, have opened up a "hole" that could destroy the world.

The plot of The Philadelphia Experiment doesn't hold up well under close scrutiny. Davy goes to great lengths to elude the military authorities that he later wants to confront about his predicament. He could have saved a lot of time by turning himself in! Earlier, during a high-speed pursuit, a military vehicle flips over and bursts into flames. We don't see anyone escaping from the wreckage, so we can only assume the jeep's occupants died. Davy walks up to the burning vehicle and I assumed he was going to pull the bodies free from the fire. Instead, he recovers some secret documents--showing no remorse for the two dead men. A bit cold, I think.

The always likable Nancy Allen.
Of course, the heart of The Philadelphia Experiment is its romance and, to their credit, Paré and Allen pull that part off nicely. His brooding good looks and her girl-next-door charm make for a winning combination and the leads have an easy-going chemistry. Parts of The Philadelphia Experiment remind me of the same year's superior Starman. In both films, women trek cross-country with fish-out-of-water guys and elude government officials. Both films even feature incidents that take place at a country diner. Interestingly, John Carpenter directed Starman and executive produced The Philadelphia Experiment (after turning down a chance to direct it).

A prologue to The Philadelphia Experiment suggests there really were mysterious Naval experiments in Philadelphia in 1943. In some accounts, the USS Eldridge was rendered invisible and teleported to Norfolk, Virginia. There are a surprising number of variations to this urban legend, so many in fact that the U.S. Navy addressed the Philadelphia Experiment (aka Project Rainbow) on a naval history and heritage site at one time. 

As for the movie version of The Philadelphia Experiment, its slow-building popularity was enough to warrant Philadelphia Experiment II, a belated 1993 sequel. It featured none of the original cast, although Paré's character returned. In 2012, the SyFy Channel televised a pseudo-sequel, The Philadelphia Experiment, which featured Paré in a supporting role as another character.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Angela Cartwright Talks with the Café about Danny Thomas, Lost in Space, The Sound of Music, and Her Artwork

Danny Thomas' stepdaughter on The Danny Thomas Show, Penny Robinson in Lost in Space, and Brigitta von Trapp in The Sound of Music--Angela Cartwright may have been the most successful young actor of the 1960s. Born in Cheshire, England, but raised in Los Angeles, Angela and her sister Veronica entered show business at a young age. In fact, Angela was just three-years-old when she appeared in Somebody Up There Likes Me starring Paul Newman. Over the years, she has modeled, acted on stage, and opened an "eclectic store" called Rubber Boots. However, she is best known as an accomplished photographer and artist. She took time out of her packed schedule to drop by the Café for a chat.

Angela as Linda Williams on
The Danny Thomas Show.
Café:  The rapport between your character, Linda Williams, and her stepfather (played by Danny Thomas) seemed incredibly natural on The Danny Thomas Show. How would you describe your real-life relationship with Danny Thomas while making the series?

Angela Cartwright: I thought Danny was hilarious and he was always cracking me up. He was loud and gregarious, nothing like my real Dad who is far more reserved than that. So, it was fun to be able to make smart remarks and get away with it. I would never have talked to my real parents that way, but in the make-believe world of the Williams family I got away with that.

Café:  Your web site includes some delightful photos of Angela Cartwright toys, such as a jigsaw puzzle, a "Buttons 'n Bows" game, and a doll that came in three sizes. What was your first reaction when you saw the "Angela Cartwright" dolls?

AC:  I was pretty young to remember my exact reaction, but what little girl wouldn't want a doll made in her likeness? I never thought the Linda doll looked an awful lot like me though, but it was cool that the Linda doll came in three different sizes. One was even big enough that she walked with you. Madame Alexander also made two Brigitta, Sound of Music dolls and they were also favorites of mine. I especially liked the one in the sailor suit carrying a book.

Café:  What was it like to be reunited with The Danny Thomas Show cast when you returned six years later for Make Room for Granddaddy (1970-71)?

AC:  I loved it. The Danny Thomas Show had ended six years prior. In the interim, I made The Sound of Music, I played Penny in Lost In Space, I made various TV guest appearances and commercials, and modeled in Europe. I returned home to appear on the Granddaddy show. Life was good…I loved the fantastic guest stars we had on the show and I was older now, so I learned from the experience. Even though we were plagued with the Writer’s (Guild) strike in 1970, it was still a good year.

Angela as Brigitta in The Sound of Music.
Café:  How did you come to be cast in The Sound of Music?

AC:  I went on an interview for the part of Brigitta. I was still filming The Danny Thomas Show, but I knew the series was coming to an end. After several auditions, I was the first von Trapp cast. I asked Danny Thomas if he would let me out of my contract so I could be in the movie and he was very gracious to let me out of the last show of the season. He didn’t have to do that and I am very grateful he did.

Café:  What are some of your favorite memories of making The Sound of Music?

AC:  I was thrilled to get the part of Brigitta and I totally enjoyed making The Sound of Music. Singing and dancing and playing with other kids while running around Salzburg, Austria, with Julie Andrews was a fantastic experience. How could you not enjoy that? Being turned over in a rowboat was certainly a memorable experience…I can just remember wanting to get out of the water as soon as I could because there were leeches on the bottom of the pond. The sights, the sounds and the foods of Salzburg made the whole experience magical. It is an honor to be in a film that has touched so many people.

Café:  What were some of the challenges of making a science fiction series like Lost in Space in the 1960s?

AC:  I did enjoy playing the part of Penny Robinson. I thought how exciting it would be to portray a family in space exploring new worlds and encountering aliens. The challenge was trying to make an hour show in eight days with special effects and long scenes. It was grinding work, but we must have done something right to have such a following and love of the show decades later.

As Penny Robinson in "My Friend,
Mr. Nobody" (Season 1, Ep 8).
Café:  What was your favorite Lost in Space episode and why?

AC:  "My Friend, Mr. Nobody" was my favorite episode. I love the black and white film noir feel to it. I loved the message it had...though I remember it was challenging to talk to "no one" through the whole episode.

Café:   You seem to have maintained enduring relationships with the real-life performers in your TV and film families:  the Williams’s, the Robinsons, and the von Trapps. That's unusual in show business. What is the secret to your success?

AC:  Friendships need to be nurtured. It was important to me to maintain the close relationships I had forged while working in film and television. I nurtured those relationships as I have in my personal life, and made it a point to keep in touch.

Café:  What led to your interest in photography? When did you open the Angela Cartwright Studio?

AC:  I love photographs and have since I was a small child and it was my Dad who started taking photographs. I always loved fashion and design. I would take photos of my friends in their latest outfits and then develop the photos and print them in my Dad’s darkroom in the garage. That love of photography has stayed with me all my life and I carried it into my art. The art I create is by taking my black and white photographs and hand painting them with oil paint or watercolors and other mediums. I also wrote a book about these techniques called Mixed Emulsions: Altered Art Techniques for Photographic Imagery. You can see my artwork here: 

I opened Angela Cartwright Studio a couple years ago when I designed my art wear line. Finally the technology was available for me to take my hand-painted photographs and transform them onto natural fabric to create art wear. Every piece is made to order here in the USA.  It’s all very exciting and the possibilities are endless.

Café:  In addition to photography, you've painted, drawn sketches, and worked in other forms of art. If you could only work in one media and style, what would it be?

AC:  I would have to say give me a pen and paper and I will be very happy. My Dad was a terrific artist and I always wanted to sketch like he did…but his style was more realistic and mine is more "unruly." I break rules all the time. Art is one place you can do that with delightful consequences. 

"3 Portals."
Café:  You're incredibly busy with your artwork and web sites and somehow even found time to contribute to last year's publication of The Sound of Music Family Scrapbook. What's on your horizon that you'd like to share with Café readers?

AC: There is an exciting new project I am working on that I can’t talk about yet. Let’s just say it has been a phenomenal experience.  It is due for release in 2014 and as soon as I can spill the beans I will on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog. Better yet, sign up on my mailing list on my website if you want to be the first to know all the latest. 

I would like to tell all the Sound of Music fans that we have some limited editions of The Sound of Music Family Scrapbook that are signed by the seven film von Trapp kids. If you are a fan of the movie, you will love this book because it tells our story about making the movie. We have filled the book with never-before seen photographs from our personal photo albums and included some of our home movies taken on location in Austria. You can buy the signed version at our website. We also have a Facebook page. With the 50th Anniversary of The Sound of Music on the horizon, I am sure there will be some exciting events on the horizon so I hope you will visit us.

You can "like" Angela Cartwright on Facebook and follow her on Twitter You can also visit her web sites:

art studio:.........
art wear:...........

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Top Five Hit Songs of the 1970s--Sung by TV Stars!

It's not uncommon for a television performer to use the popularity of his or her TV series as the springboard for a music career. Ricky Nelson may be the most famous, but there have been numerous others. Lorne Greene scored a surprising #1 hit with 1964's "Ringo," a song about a legendary gunfighter (technically, Lorne spoke most of the words). In the 1980s, at the height of Moonlighting, Bruce Willis had a hit with his cover of the Staple Singers' Respect Yourself. And, of course, stars of daytime dramas encountered great success on the charts in the 1980s. General Hospital heartthrobs Rick Springfield ("Jessie's Girl") and Jack Wagner ("All I Need") notched several hits, while Michael Damian from The Young and the Restless topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1989 with "Rock On."

Still, the best decade for TV stars-turned-pop-singers remains the 1970s. So, without further ado, here are our picks for the five biggest hit songs of the 1970s--that were sung by TV stars.

The whole family appeared on the single,
though only two sang on it.
1. I Think I Love You - The Partridge Family. Hey, so what are you so afraid of? Although The Partridge Family TV series was never a huge hit, this song--played twice on the show--went to #1 in 1970. Its success was no doubt helped by David Cassidy's immense popularity among teenage girls. Actually, he and his stepmother Shirley Jones were the only members of TV's Partridge Family to sing on the single. The "Partridge Family" produced several follow-up hits such as "Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted" and "I Woke Up in Love This Morning."

2. The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia - Vicki Lawrence. Best known for her comedic talents on The Carol Burnett Show (and later Mama's Family), Vicki Lawrence became a one-hit wonder when she recorded Night in 1972. The song was written by her then-husand Bobby Ross, who first offered it to Cher. The story of the "night they hung an innocent man" reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold a million copies.

An odd cover--David's hair doesn't
even look blonde!
3. Don't Give Up on Us - David Soul.  The blonde-haired star of Starsky and Hutch crooned this soulful ballad in 1976. It unexpectedly became a worldwide smash, reaching #1 in both the U.S. and Great Britain. While he had several other big hits on the British charts, he never cracked the Top 40 again in the U.S.

4. Da Do Ron Ron - Shaun Cassidy. The Crystals first scored a hit with "Da Do Ron Ron" in 1963. Shaun Cassidy--Shirley Jones' son and David Cassidy's stepbrother--recorded it for his self-titled album, which was released in Europe in 1976. By the time the catchy ditty hit U.S. airwaves in 1977, Shaun was starring in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. (Shaun played teen sleuth Joe Hardy, with Parker Stevenson as his brother Frank). Cassidy had two other Top 10 hits that same year with "That's Rock 'n' Roll" and "Hey Deanie" (both songs were written by Eric Carmen of "All By Myself" fame).

Trying to master that puppy-dog look...
5. Let Her In - John Travolta. Two years before Grease and while he was still a Sweathog on Welcome Back, Kotter, John Travolta released several singles. None of them gained any traction until the treacly Let Her In went to #9. Travolta had two minor hits that peaked in the 30s before he teamed up with Olivia Newton-John on the Grease #1 smash "You're the One That I Want."

Got a favorite 1970s song--sung by a TV star--that I omitted? If so, please let me know!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Seven Best Ray Harryhausen Movies (because we couldn't stop at five!)

Harryhausen and some of his models.
Ray Harryhausen, cinema's undisputed master of stop-motion special effects, worked on his first feaure-length film in 1949. Under the tutelage of King Kong's special effects wiz Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen did much of the stop-motion animation for Mighty Joe Young, which won an Academy Award for its special effects. Harryhausen went on to create an amazing gallery of life-like creatures. In the 1950s, he developed a process called Dynamation which allowed rear-projection footage of live actors to be synchronized and filmed with his stop-motion creatures. The results were some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history.

Ray Harryhausen died yesterday at the age of 92. As a tribute, here are our picks for his seven best films:

1. Jason and the Argonauts. The first 45 minutes establishes the backstory for this version of the Greek myth about the Golden Fleece. It's all quite well done, but once our heroes set foot on the island of Bronze, the movie becomes a magical experience, courtesy of Harryhausen's sensational special effects. Every fan has their favorite Harryhausen sequence, but my top two are both from Jason: the capture of the winged Harpies and Jason's dual with the "dragon's teeth"--or as I call it--the breath-taking swordfight with the skeletons.

2. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. This colorful Arabian nights' adventure has Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) fighting a two-head roc, a dragon, a skeleton, a four-armed siren, and a cyclops. Plus, Kathryn Grant's princess gets "reduced" to palm size by Torin Thatcher's evil magician. The skeleton fight is terrific--though Harryhausen one-upped himself with the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts.

Battling the giant crab in Mysterious Island.
3. Mysterious Island. Union soldiers escape from a Confederate camp, steal a hot air balloon, and wind up on the title island in this adaptation of Jules Vernes' novel. On the island, they encounter a giant crab, giant bees, a giant chicken (actually a prehistoric bird), and a squid-like creature. This film also features Capatin Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus, and an erupting volcano.

4. First Men in the Moon. This entertaining tale of a Victorian space voyage to the Moon is a questionable choice on this list--if one goes strictly by the quantity of Harryhausen's special effects. There are few spectacular set pieces in this H.G. Wells fantasy, but the film is well-made and nicely acted, almost on par with Mysterious Island.

5. One Million Years B.C. Raquel Welch in a fur bikini made the movie famous, but Harryhausen's dinosaurs are what make it memorable. The battle between the Ceratosaurus and the Triceratops is a highlight, although the winged Pterosaur that snatches Raquel is almost as impressive.

The grown-up Ymir.
6. 20 Million Miles to Earth. A spaceship returning from Venus brings back a specimen, a small reptilian creature called a Ymir. Unfortunately, the Ymir starts growing...and growing...and then goes on a rampage. The climax finds the 20-foot tall Ymir in a showdown with military forces atop Rome's Colosseum.
7. It Came from Beneath the Sea. A giant octopus wreaks havoc, culminating in an incredible sequence where it destroys San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. In his highly-entertaining Film Fantasy Scrapbook, Harryhausen points out that the octopus is actually a sexopus. Due to budgetary constraints, it only has six tentacles!

Honorable Mentions: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers; The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; and The Valley of Gwangi.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

"Z" for Zorro--Tyrone Power's 1940 Version

Tyrone Power in full Zorro guise.
For me, Errol Flynn dominated the swashbuckler genre from his appearance in Captain Blood (1935) through Against All Flags (1952). However, I freely admit that I can't envision him as the lead in one of the best swashbuckler pictures of that period. Simply put, The Mark of Zorro is not a Flynn vehicle--but it fits Tyrone Power like a glove...or rather, a black mask with holes for the eyes.

There may be some of you that argue The Mark of Zorro isn't really a swashbuckler film at all. You would be wrong, of course. The setting may be Los Angeles in the early 19th century, but the plot and sword fights are straight out of Sherwood Forest with perhaps a dash of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Power plays Diego de Vega, a Spanish officer-in-training known for his prowess with a sword and his cocky attitude (due to his American upbringing, his nickname is the California Cockerel). When Diego's father suddenly calls him back to California, the dispirited young man tells his friends: "Think of me in the land of gentle missions, happy peons, sleepy caballeros, and everlasting boredom."

Diego playing the aristocratic dandy.
Of course, shortly after his arrival back home, Diego learns that things have changed for the worse. A greedy buffoon has replaced his father as alcalde (i.e., magistrate), the cruel Captain Pasquale mistreats the villagers, and taxes are high and going higher. Assessing the situation quickly, Diego decides to play the role of an aristocratic fop more interested in fabrics, scents, and lotions than politics. His deceit not only fools the alcalde and Pasquale, but also Diego's parents. Meanwhile, the young Spaniard dons a black mask and takes up the people's cause as the defiant Zorro--who steals from the rich and distributes the gold to the villagers through the local padre (Eugene Pallette).

No, Eugene Pallette is not playing Friar Tuck!
Although based on Johnston McCulley's serialized 1919 novel The Curse of Capistrano, The Mark of Zorro is highly derivative. The premise of a bold hero disguised as a fop has appeared in numerous literary works, most notably Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Not only is the plot lifted from the Robin Hood legend, but whole scenes are strongly reminiscent of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), such as robbing the coach, appearing on his love's balcony, and the climatic sword duel with--yes--Basil Rathbone. I would also be remiss to not mention Douglas Fairbanks' splendid 1920 silent Mark of Zorro, which undoubtedly provided the impetus for this remake.

Power and Rathbone cross swords.
Yet, while The Mark of Zorro lacks originality, it is executed with flair (underlined by Alfred Newman's rousing Oscar-nominated music score). I disagree with Leslie Halliwell, one of my favorite film critics, who wrote in Halliwell's Harvest that Diego is "unsatisfactorily played by a chubby young Tyrone Power, who simply can't manage, without unseemly grimaces, the elements of self-mockery which came so easily to Errol Flynn." I think Power is well-cast as both the effeminate Diego and the robust Zorro. He certainly handles a sword well, with the big showdown opposite Rathbone (a fine fencer in real life) ranking as the film's highlight.

Linda Darnell dressed in black and white.
The rest of the cast lends solid support, except for the lovely Linda Darnell. Granted, her role is barely developed as the film's heroine (in contrast to Merle Oberon's prominent role in the 1934 Scarlet Pimpernel). My chief complaint is that her line readings simply sound too contemporary. Perhaps, it was just a young actress still learning her craft--this was easily her biggest part to date.

Michael Curtiz might have directed a more lively film, but Rouben Mamoulian adds his own distinctive touches. His use of deep black contrasted against white is highly effective, especially when Zorro makes his first appearance--dressed head to foot in black aboard his black stallion as he rides swiftly through a sleepy village filled with drab off-white colors. (I have no idea why Fox bothered to colorize the film for one of its DVD releases, thereby ruining Mamoulian's photography.)

The success of The Mark of Zorro led to other action hero roles for Power (e.g., Captain from Castille, Prince of FoxesThe Black Rose). Zorro continued to be a popular character and has been played by: Guy Williams (in a Walt Disney TV series); Frank Langella (in a made-for-TV movie); George Hamilton (in a spoof); Antonio Banderas; and others.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Farewell, My Falcon

Raymond Chandler--the creator of Philip Marlowe, one of literature's great detectives--signed a contract in 1941 for RKO to film his novel Farewell, My Lovely. The price: $2000. According to Frank McShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler, it was a decision the writer later regretted, blaming the "unparalleled stupidity on the part of my New York agent."

Even worse, RKO took Chandler's now-acclaimed novel and adapted it as The Falcon Takes Over (1942), a "B" detective film. It was the third entry in the Falcon film series, based on a gentleman detective created by Michael Arlen in a 1940 short story. In fact, the film's opening credits state the screenplay was "based on the character created by Michael Arlen" and then in smaller letters, it includes "From the novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler."

George Sanders as The Falcon,
with Lynn Bari.
Surprisingly, the plot adheres pretty closely to Chandler's novel with a big lug named Moose Malloy (Ward Bond) looking for his girlfriend Velma. Moose has recently escaped from the state pen, where he spent five years taking the rap for Velma's boss. Now, he's mad--and that's neck-breaking bad news for anyone getting in his way. After Moose kills a nightclub owner, Gay Lawrence (George Sanders) takes an interest in the case, especially the whereabouts of Velma. He also becomes involved with an alleged necklace theft, a beautiful icy blonde, and a fake psychic. Since this is a plot devised by Raymond Chandler, one can rest assured that somehow it all ties together. (Chandler often interwove plots from previously-written short stories into his novels; for Farewell, My Lovely, the stories were "Try the Girl" and "Mandarin's Jade.")

For anyone who has read Chandler's novel or has seen the superior 1944 adaptation Murder, My Sweet, it's jarring to see George Sanders' upper-class detective filling in for Marlowe. Marlowe's cynical first-person narrative and the seedy settings have been replaced with lighthearted title music and a bumbling assistant named Goldy (Allen Jenkins) who provides comic relief.

Brothers Tom Conway and George
Sanders, with Jane Randolph.
Sanders, after five movies as The Saint--a similar character--and two as The Falcon, looks relatively bored. He would make one more Falcon movie, The Falcon's Brother, in which Gay Lawrence is killed off and replaced with his brother Tom Lawrence (played by Sanders' real-life brother Tom Conway). This clever idea was good news for Sanders' career and for The Falcon series, which improved with Tom Conway and produced a low-budget gem with The Falcon and the Co-eds.

Why didn't Helen Gilbert
get better roles?
Still, at 65 minutes, The Falcon Takes Over is a watchable mystery and features good performances from Ward Bond as Moose and Helen Gilbert as the chilly Diana Kenyon. Judging from this film alone, it's surprising that Gilbert didn't get better parts. Although she appeared in major film series like Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare, her career stalled after the mid-1940s, although she made a handful of television appearances in the 1950s.

The supporting cast in The Falcon Takes Over also includes Turhan Bey as the fake psychic (foreshadowing his role in The Amazing Mr. X), James Gleason as a police detective, and Hans Conrad (who is unbilled).

A third version of Farewell, My Lovely (with that title, for a change) appeared in 1975 with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. It earned generally positive reviews, although I was less enthused, principally because Mitchum seemed at least a decade too old to be playing Chandler's detective.