Monday, September 30, 2013

The Time Tunnel: A Retrospective on Irwin Allen's Classic Science Fiction Series

Cast members Robert Colbert, Lee Meriwether,
and James Darren--from Terry's private collection.
"Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages during the first experiments on America's greatest and most secret project: the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly towards a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time."

-- From the opening credits for Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel, spoken by Dick Tufeld, best known as the voice of “the Robot” in Lost in Space, with a theme song by John Williams. Seriously, even the credits have star power. They do not make television like they used to. 

While science fiction television in the 1960s might be best remembered for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, the backbone of most of the best TV series of that decade was Irwin Allen. Allen was responsible for Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Land of the Giants. But my personal favorite, launched in 1966, was The Time Tunnel, which aired on Friday nights on ABC (right after The Green Hornet!) for one season. While it was Allen’s shortest-lived series, many of us who were kids (or adults!) at the time have fond memories of the Tunnel!

The Time Tunnel set.
The first episode set up the series:  Drs. Tony Newman (James Darren) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert) are scientists working on Project Tic-Toc, a time control experiment. Lack of results in their time experiments are leading to budget cuts, so Tony rashly enters the Tunnel before it can be fully tested. A few bright lights and explosions later, he finds himself on the H.M.S. Titanic. To save Tony (and potentially the ocean liner), Doug follows. There are lots of arguments and plans, but the Titanic sinks anyway. 

Then, at a critical moment, the two scientists are yanked from 1912 into another year, beginning a weekly jumping from one historical event to the next. Meanwhile, back at the Tunnel's headquarters, staff members General Haywood Kirk (Whit Bissel, in charge), with Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba) and Dr. Ann MacGregor (Lee Meriwether), are running the science part of the show (and pretty much making up time rules from one week to the next).

A novelization by
Murray Leinster.
There are several reasons that The Time Tunnel appealed to many of us as kids. First, Tony and Doug got to go back in time to see famous events, along with a few imagined ones in the future. History you learned about in school was dramatically presented each week!  It was educational!  Second, producer Irwin Allen used scenes from Fox theatrical films to dress up the production, so it looked much more expensive than many series of the day. So for the Titanic episode mentioned above, there were scenes from A Night to Remember (1958) with a believable sinking. Another favorite episode about a war between Greeks and Trojans, "Revenge of the Gods," used clips from Fox’s 1962 film, The 300 Spartans.

Now, I do think that, for most of these “imagined” episodes, the series relied on props and monsters from other Allen shows. So when you thought that aluminum foil clad alien looked familiar from last week’s episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, you may have been right!  But then, that’s what made these shows so much fun! I remember having discussions with my childhood friends on Saturday mornings about the previous night’s episode and what we liked about it. 

A rare image from the View-Master set
that shows Tony and Doug home again.
While the show saved production dollars by using footage from theatrical features, The Time Tunnel was still a very expensive show. At that time, you didn't know that shows were cancelled in advance – or at least, I didn't – so when the series didn't return for its second season, I was crushed. I’d gotten the View-Master reels for The Time Tunnel for my birthday in 1967. I used to have theater shows on the side of our house with my V-M projector, showing the pictures from the first episode and telling the story!  The last slide of the set showed Tony and Doug back in the tunnel. They apparently made it home. I couldn't wait for the second season!

Insert a sad face here. The Time Tunnel was cancelled before the last episode was finished. ABC felt it had room for only one drama in their 1967-1968 season, and replaced Allen's series with The Legend of Custer. Who is writing a blog post about that show now?

Irwin Allen never lost his fascination with time travel  He attempted two more time-travelling series before he passed away in 1991. His wife, actress Sheila Mathews Allen, along with producer Kevin Burns, produced a Time Tunnel pilot for a new series for Fox in 2002. They tried again in 2006, but didn't get a pilot made. 

Lee Meriwether, aka Dr. Ann MacGregor,
signs an autograph for Terry.
As a child of the 1960s, living with reality shows of the 2010s, I still hold out hope for The Time Tunnel to return. Of course, I envision a new cast, new tunnel, new time travel rules--new everything!  But, I really want the first episode to pay homage to the original, with the scientists of Project Tic-Toc (now headed by Dr. Ann MacGregor) finally bringing Doug Phillips and Tony Newman home!

This Café exclusive was written by guest blogger and Irwin Allen authority TerryB. You can "like" Terry on Facebook.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

'70s Flashback: "The Paper Chase" and "The Warriors"

John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield.
The Paper Chase. James Bridges' 1973 drama about the first year in Harvard Law School has aged well thanks mostly to Timothy Bottoms' appealing performance. Bottoms plays James Hart, a Minneapolis native who initially seems out of place with his classmates--many of whom are affluent and/or brilliant. Hart, though, is a hard worker and doesn't lack confidence (indeed, while he's a genuinely nice guy, he is also self-centered).

Timothy Bottoms (and hair) as Hart.
With Hart as the film's focal point, Bridges keys in on the young law student's relation-ships with: Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), a demanding teacher of contract law; Susan (Lindsay Wagner), Hart's girlfriend and, as he learns later, Kingsfield's daughter; and Hart's fellow students in his study group. Hart's admiration for Kingsfield, a Harvard legend for 40 years, borders on obsession--at one point, Hart breaks into the law library to read Kingsfield's private papers.

While Houseman won a Best Supporting Actor as Kingsfield, the character remains intentionally enigmatic. We only glimpse Kingsfield outside the classroom environment. Susan reveals a few details about her father, but even their relationship seems more professional than personal. In one of the film's best scenes, it's difficult to know if Kingsfield is being honest or intentionally distancing Hart:

HART: Professor Kingsfield, I just want to tell you that I truly enjoyed your class.

KINGSFIELD: That's fine.

HART: What I meant is, you really mean something to me. And your class has really meant something to me.

KINGSFIELD (after long pause): What is your name?

Lindsay Wagner, pre-Bionic Woman.
The Paper Chase effectively captures the pressures of a prestigious law school, where the grades--not just getting a degree--impact one's future. That's not surprising since the screenplay was based on the novel by John Jay Osborn, Jr., a 1970 Harvard Law School graduate. The film is less successful in exploring the relationship between Hart and Susan. The couple never seems happy together. It's almost as if Susan's presence serves merely to provide a counterpoint to the law school scenes--which are the best part of the movie.

The Paper Chase was adapted into a critically-acclaimed CBS TV series in 1978 with Houseman back as Kingsfield and James Stephens as Hart. Nevertheless, it wasn't a ratings hit and was cancelled after one season. Showtime revived it in 1983, where it ran for three years and ended with Hart's graduation from law school.

Michael Beck as Swan.
The Warriors. Walter Hill's once-controversial 1979 gang film can now be appreciated for what it is: a stylish chase drama with few pretensions. The plot is set into motion when Cyrus, the charismatic leader of the largest gang in New York, calls for a one-night "gang convention" with nine delegates each from over 100 gangs. Cyrus's message is not necessarily a peaceful one; he wants to unite all the gangs so they can control the city's streets. While many gang members cheer, some do not--to include Swan, a member of the Warriors.

When Cyrus is unexpectedly assassinated, the real culprits frame the Warriors and kill its leader. Swan (Michael Beck) takes command and the rest of the film chronicles the Warriors' night-long trek to get back to the safety of its home turf in Coney Island. Along the way, they must negotiate, fight, and flee from the many gangs trying to avenge Cyrus's death.

The outlandish gangs contribute to the film's surreal look: The Punks wear overalls and striped shirts; the Boppers sport purple vests and black pimp hats; the Lizzies is an all-girl gang; and, most famously, the Baseball Furies wear baseball shirts, sport Kabuki make-up, and use baseball bats for weapons.

Deborah Van Valkenburgh as Mercy.
One of the strongest elements in The Warriors is the evolving "romance" that develops between Swan and Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), a young woman he meets along the way. Beck and Van Valkenburgh have a natural chemistry that enhances the "opposites attract" relationship of their characters. My favorite scene in The Warriors is when, during a rare quiet moment, Swan and Mercy watch a "normal couple" returning from a prom on the subway--knowing their lives will never be like that, assuming they even survive the night.

In many ways, The Warriors sets the stage for Hill's more polished (and better) 1984 picture Streets of Fire. Both films take place principally at night in an urban setting, employ rock and pop music to great effect, and feature a romantic "odd couple."

The climax on a Coney Island beach provides an effective
contrast to the night-long chase in the city.
When The Warriors was originally released, it was linked to three outbreaks of violence at theaters where it was playing. The film does not condone nor glamorize violence. And it doesn't seek to manipulate its audience in the manner of films like Death Wish and Billy Jack. Unfortunately, any film with a topical subject matter has the potential to affect its viewers in an undesirable way, despite its intentions.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The High Chaparral: Still Riding High After All These Years

The cast of The High Chaparral.
By the mid-1960s, Western family sagas--spurred by the popularity of Bonanza--dominated the U.S. television landscape. In addition to the Cartwrights, there were the Barkleys (The Big Valley), the Lancers (Lancer), the Shermans (Laramie), the McCains (The Rifleman), and many others. Most of these families were headed by a single parent, usually a widowed father. An exception was The High Chaparral, which was created late in the cycle by David Dortort, a producer-writer who hit the jackpot with Bonanza in 1959. By 1967, Dortort had ceded the reins of Bonanza to his associates so he could focus on his new Western.

The pilot episode of The High Chaparral follows the journey of the Cannon  family en route to a new beginning in the Arizona Territory in the 1870s. The family includes: "Big John" Cannon (Leif Erickson); his wife Annalee (Joan Caufield); young adult son Billy Blue (Mark Slade); and John's brother Buck (Cameron Mitchell). Along with the usual perils of frontier travel, the Cannons discover that a Mexican landowner covets their new ranch and that the local Apaches are hostile. During an Apache raid, Annalee is killed and John's strained relationship with his son comes to a head.

John and Victoria looking formal.
With future Apache attacks a certainty, John reaches a truce with neighbor Don Sebastian Montoya and--to seal their deal--marries Don Sebastian's daughter Victoria (Linda Cristal). Victoria's rakish brother Manolito (Henry Darrow) joins his sister at the High Chaparral--Annalee's name for the Cannon ranch--and a new "family" is formed.
What sets The High Chaparral apart from other 1960s Westerns is its evolving family relationships. The Big John-Victoria relationship progresses from one of mutual respect to genuine love. Buck's relationship with Blue evolves from supportive uncle to de facto father at times (e.g., when Blue decides to leave the High Chaparral, it's Buck that goes after him and convinces him to return). Buck and Manolito--two kindred spirits when it comes to having a good time--act more like brothers than Buck and John.

"Brothers" Buck and Mano.
The concept of "blended families" in TV Westerns was nothing new in the 1960s. The brothers in Bonanza each had a different mother. Heath Barkley was the illegimate son of Victoria's husband in The Big Valley. The two brothers in Lancer are stepbrothers and one of them was half-Mexican. However, The High Chaparral went further than its predecessors by creating a blended family of different cultures. Hispanic characters such as Victoria, Manolito, and Don Sebastian simply don't play supporting roles; they are major characters that frequently drive the plot lines. Likewise, their cultural values and their passion for their native Mexico plays an important part in episodes such as "A Good Sound Profit" (about equipping an army to overthrow Mexican leader Benito Juarez).

The High Chaparral debuted in 1967 in the Sunday 10 P.M. timeslot, immediately following Bonanza on NBC. The next year, it moved to Fridays, where it remained for the rest of its four-year run. While The High Chapparal scored decent ratings, it never cracked the Nielsen Top 20 shows for a season. Western dramas had also begun to fade from the television landscape. Less than two years after High Chapparal's cancellation  in 1971, even Bonanza came to the end of its 14 seasons.

Over the last four decades, The High Chaparral has attracted a loyal following (click here to visit an in-depth web site created by its fans). Surprisingly, the series has never been released on DVD in the U.S., although the show's fans rave about a region-free DVD set produced in the Netherlands. And if you've never seen The High Chaparral and want to sample it, you can watch it currently on the INSP cable network.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Seven Things to Know About "The Magnificent Seven"

1. The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a pretty faithful adapatation of Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai (1954)--except that the American Western is 79 minutes shorter! It does have a scene not in the original: the one where Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) drive the hearse to boot hill.

2. Yul Brynner was the only one of the original cast to appear in a sequel. He reprised the role of Chris for Return of the Seven (1966), which featured Robert Fuller (Laramie) as Vin. In subsequent movies, Chris was played by George Kennedy (Guns of the Magnificent Seven) and Lee Van Cleef (The Magnificent Seven Ride!).

3. Steve McQueen fidgets with his hat frequently during the film--allegedly in an attempt to draw attention to himself. He wasn't a star yet and, in fact, was still headlining the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive.

4. Brynner was already a star, of course, but four other Seven actors went on to achieve film or television fame: McQueen, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. In fact, McQueen, Coburn, and Bronson reteamed for the 1963 classic The Great Escape. As for the rest of the Seven, Horst Buchholz was already considered a promising newcomer and subsequently appeared in Billy Wilder's One Two Three. That leaves Brad Dexter--who played Harry--as the odd man out. Dexter never came close to stardom, but had a long career as a supporting player; he appeared in several films with best pal Frank Sinatra.

5. In his autobiography, Eli Wallach wrote: “The one regret I had in making The Magnificent Seven was that I never heard Elmer Bernstein’s musical score while making the film. If I had heard that score, I think I would have ridden my horse differently.” Wallach originally wanted to play the Buchholz role--until he read the script and realized that the villainous Calvera was the juiciest part.

6. Elmer Bernstein's music score didn't gain fame until part of it was used in Marlboro cigarette commericials. The Philip Morris Tobacco Company licensed Bernstein's music in 1963 for a Western-themed ad campaign and the rest is history. In fact, it became widely known as the "Marlboro theme." A 1967 album was released called The Music from Marlboro Country, which included musical tracks from The Magnificent Seven and Return of the Seven.

7. Robert Vaughn appeared in two other versions of The Magnificent Seven. He played a mercenary in Battle Beyond the Stars (1977), a low-budget remake that transplanted the premise to an outer space colony harassed by John Saxon's villain. Vaughn's character was "adopted" by the colonists' children (as Bronson's character was by the peasant children in the original). Then, for the 1998-2000 CBS TV series The Magnificent Seven, Vaughn guest-starred as a judge on six episodes.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Five Best Classic TV Detectives

In trying to come up with the "five best" classic TV detectives, I used the following criteria: quality; longevity; and iconic status. And, of course, to be considered classic TV, the detective's series must have originated no later than the 1980s. Thus, it was with heavy heart that I omitted later personal favorites like Cadfael and Christopher Foyle of Foyle's War. I also left out TV series where the protagonists may have done some sleuthing, but weren't necessarily detectives by trade (e.g., The Avengers, The Saint). Without further ado, here are my top five choices:

1. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Poirot) (1989 - ). Incredibly, David Suchet has never won an acting award for his pitch-perfect portrayal of Ms. Christie's Belgium detective. He captures all the nuances of the prissy, perceptive sleuth who uses his "little gray cells" to solve the most baffling cases. When Poirot proclaims he is the world's greatest detective, he's not being egotistical--he's being honest. This series, which debuted in 1989, will conclude in 2013 after 13 nonconsecutive seasons. Its enduring popularity can be partially attributed to the fact that its episodes are based on Ms. Christie's short stories or novels--which often feature ingenious plot twists and/or methods of murder. Many fans favor the one-hour episodes, but I have a soft spot for the longer "movies" based on Christie's novels, several of which are set in exotic locations ("Murder in Mesopotamia") or English country estates ("The Mysterious Affair at Styles"). 

2. Columbo (1968-78; 1989-2003). William Link and Richard Levinson created this persistent police detective for a 1960 episode of the TV anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show starring Bert Freed. Thomas Mitchell played Columbo in a 1962 stage play and Bing Crosby even once considered donning the now-famous crumpled raincoat. However, it was Peter Falk who made the part famous, first in a pair of made-for-TV movies and then in a subsequent long-running TV series. At the start of each episode, the viewer watched the murderer commit his or her crime. Then, Columbo--whom the killer always underestimated--would methodically unravel the mystery and catch the culprit (his trademark was leaving the the room after questioning the killer, only to pause with a variation of: "Just one more thing..."). Falk excelled in this cat-and-mouse game construct, often acting opposite quality guest stars like Patrick McGoohan, John Cassavetes, Laurence Harvey, Vera Miles, and Faye Dunaway.

3. Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote) (1984-96). Link and Levinson were also responsible for creating the most successful female detective on American television. Personally, I think Agatha Christie ought to get a little credit since there are similarities between middle-aged widow Jessica Fletcher and elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple. Ironically, Angela Lansbury played both characters, appearing as Miss Marple in the 1980 motion picture The Mirror Crack'd. Before Lansbury was cast as Jessica Fletcher, Jean Stapleton and Doris Day were considered for the lead in Murder, She Wrote. Frankly, though, I can't imagine anyone but Lansbury, who was Emmy-nominated 12 times for playing Jessica Fletcher--and somehow never won. The series took place in Cabot Cove, a small coastal town in Maine...and apparently a hot spot for murders. Fortunately, the town's most famous resident--bestselling mystery writer Jessica--was as astute as any of her fictional creations and never failed to unmask the culprit.

4. Jim Rockford (The Rockford Files) (1974-80). A wrongly-accused ex-convict who lived in a mobile home, Jim Rockford had little in common with most of the detectives on the airwaves in the 1970s. However, his unique persona--plus the fact he was played by James Garner--kept fans tuning in for six years. Since the series was co-created  by Roy Huggins and starred Garner, it's often compared to their earlier offbeat Western show Maverick. Yet, other than being laid-back and preferring to avoid violence, I think Rockford is a solid departure from the slippery Bret Maverick. Rockford was often assisted by his father Rocky (Noah Beery, Jr.), a retired truck driver and Angel (Stuart Margolin), a con artist Rockford met in prison.

5. Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) (1984-94). For many Holmes enthusiasts, Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Conan Doyle's Baker Street sleuth is considered the definitive one (personally, I'm frightfully fond of Peter Cushing in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles). The series debuted on Britain's ITV network in 1984, with David Burke as Dr. Watson (he was subsequently replaced by Edward Hardwicke). It was developed by John Hawkesworth, who produced other noteworthy classic series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street. During its ten-year run, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured 35 one-hour episodes, a two-parter, and five movies (which included adaptations of Conan Doyle's novels The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four). In the U.S., the series became one of the most popular ones that appeared under the Mystery! banner on PBS. Brett, who died of heart failure at 59, also appeared on stage as Dr. Watson--opposite Charlton Heston as Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood in 1981.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"The Flight of the Phoenix" Soars

Director Robert Aldrich bookends The Flight of the Phoenix with a wild airplane crash and an exhilarating climax. But it’s the drama in-between that makes the film so engrossing:  the friction among the survivors, their audacious plan to reach civilization again, and a brilliant plot twist that comes out of nowhere.

James Stewart in his best 1960s performance.
James Stewart stars as Frank Towns, a veteran pilot flying a second-rate plane for Arabco, a Middle East oil company. The plane’s eleven passengers, mostly oil company employees and soldiers, are oblivious to the fact that the radio doesn't work and the voltage regulators are inoperative. Towns and his navigator friend Lew (Richard Attenborough) ignore these inconveniences—but they can’t ignore the sandstorm nipping at their heels. As swirling sand clogs first one propeller, then the next, Towns has to crash land the plane in the middle of the desert.

Hardy Kruger as Dorfmann.
Although food is not a problem (the cargo included an “unlimited supply of pressed dates”), strict water rationing and the unforgiving desert heat take an immediate toll on the survivors. Thoughts of rescue dwindle with each passing day (Towns knows it’s unlikely, given they were significantly off course). Hope fades further after Captain Harris (Peter Finch) ignores warnings and decides to “march out of there” to an oasis over 100 miles away. At the peak of their despair, Henrich Dorfmann, a quiet, bespeckled German, proposes an incredible plan to save them. It would be unfair to discuss any more of the plot. Keep in mind, though, that there’s an unexpected twist near the end that puts a darkly humorous spin on the proceedings.

Richard Attenborough.
Despite the presence of bigger stars and supporting actor Oscar nominee Ian Bannen, the cast standouts are Hardy Kruger and Richard Attenborough. Kruger creates an unforgettable character in Dorfmann, making him irritating, childish, determined, and innovative. It’s a well-rounded performance matched by Attenborough’s wonderfully understated turn. As the unassuming man who holds the survivors together, Attenborough’s character soothes egos and forges unlikely alliances in the best interests of the group.

Given the film's subject, it may be surprising to learn that Flight of the Phoenix is also noteworthy for introducing a famous love song. Connie Francis can be heard singing "Senza Fine" (written by Gino Paoli) on the radio. While the song, also oddly known as "The Phoenix Love Theme," never charted for Francis, it still became a popular standard. Billy Wilder used it extensively--and to great effect--in his charming 1972 romantic comedy Avanti! with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills.

Thematically, The Flight of the Phoenix covers a lot of ground, ranging from the friction between officers and noncommissioned officers to the clash between modern technology (represented by Dorfmann) and an old-fashioned practical way of life (Towns). Ultimately, though, Aldrich’s film is an exciting tribute to man’s ingenuity and will to survive. (Note: Avoid the 2004 remake which is a second-rate affair all around.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Six Things to Know About Dick Powell

Powell as Rex, with Joyce Holden
as a "humanimal" who was a horse.
1. He once played a dog in a movie! In the 1951 comedy You Never Can Tell, a German Shepherd named King inherits a fortune following his eccentric owner's death--but then is swiftly murdered. The canine angel asks if he can return to Earth long enough to catch his killer and clear the innocent woman accused of the crime. King is sent back to Earth as a "humanimal"--an animal reincarnated as human—in this case, a private eye named Rex Shepherd (Dick Powell!).

Powell as Marlowe.
2. He pulled off the trickiest of career moves, going from a musical-comedy star to a dramatic actor. When he signed with RKO in the 1940s, it was on the condition that he could do more than just musicals. After losing out to Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, he was cast as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet and the rest is history.

3. Powell was a television visionary and founded Four Star Television with David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Joel McCrea (who left and was replaced by Ida Lupino). Four Star produced successful series such as Four Star Playhouse, Zane Grey Theater, Burke's Law, and The Big Valley.

A publicity still with June.
4. Dick Powell was married three times: Mildred Maund (1925-27); Joan Blondell (1936-44); and June Allyson (1945-63). When June Allyson first started dating Powell, who was thirteen years older, MGM executive Louis B. Mayer tried to dissuade her. She later asked Mayer to give her away at her wedding to Powell--and he did so.

5. Powell once played John Kennedy in a film about a presidential assassination! In The Tall Target, Powell is a Pinkerton detective named John Kennedy who learns about a plot to assassinate Lincoln. The film was based on a real-life event known as "The Baltimore Plot."

6. The last film directed by Dick Powell was The Conqueror starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan. The movie was shot near a nuclear test site in Utah, which many believe was contaminated with nuclear fallout. According to a 1980 People magazine article: "Of The Conqueror's 220 cast and crew members from Hollywood, an astonishing 91 have contracted cancer. Forty-six of them, including Wayne, (Susan) Hayward and Powell, have died of the disease."

Monday, September 9, 2013

We Describe the Movie...You Name It!

This is our 6th edition of this type of 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. Two females have a disagreement about shoes.

2. Guys argue about who has the coolest scars.

3. A woman dresses up like a dead woman, changes back to herself, dresses up like the dead woman again, and then dies.

4. One of the characters is apparently crazy about kitten whiskers. Go figure!

5. Turtles named after clothing accessories. Now, that's original!

6. Plastic.

7. Pacific All Risk Insurance Company.

8. Alleged criminal enters a contest to impress a pretty girl.

9. Just prior to this film's infamous climax, one character says to two of his cohorts: "Let's go." One of them replies: "Why not?"

10. When she first makes her appearance in this film, you just know that Kathie is a bad girl...

11. Is that clown a killer?

12. When you get down to it, the main character is the house.

13. In my favorite segment of this film, a woman saves her marriage by flying kites.

14. Woman destroys monster by spending the night with it.

15. One character suffers from crocodyliphobia--and with good reason.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Separate Tables: A Tale of Two Couples

The sign for the Hotel Beauregard in Bournemouth, England, states simply:
Three minutes from the sea
Fine Cuisine
Separate Tables

While it sounds like a quaint little establishment, it's a rather lively place occupied by a bevy of assorted characters:  a domineering mother and her meek, sheltered daughter; a pompous retired Army major; a young couple in love; a volatile writer; the self-sufficient hotel owner; and others. Two events set into motion the intertwining storylines that comprise the film's plot. 

David Niven and Deborah Kerr.
First, we learn that Major Pollock (David Niven) was arrested for "behaving immorally" in a movie theater. The Major tries to hide this shameful incident from the other hotel guests, but a local newspaper article brings it to the attention of Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper). She already harbors resentment toward the Major since he has befriended her daughter Sibyl (Deborah Kerr). Thus, she relishes the opportunity to disgrace such "an awfully common little man" and tries to convince other guests to push for the eviction of Major Pollock (who turns out to be an unretired lieutenant who made up all his military exploits).

Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster.
The second storyline revolves around the arrival of glamorous ex-fashion model Anne Shankland (Rita Hayworth). The real purpose of her visit is vague until it's revealed she was once married to moody author John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster). He has secretly proposed to the hotel manager (Wendy Hiller), but Anne's appearance makes it clear that she and John are still attracted to one another--even though he spent five years in prison for physically abusing her.

If Separate Tables (1958) sounds episodic, that's because it was based on a Terence Rattigan play in which each plot was presented as a stand-alone act. Act I, Table at the Window, told the story of Anne and John--though John was a former Labor politician instead of a hard-drinking writer. Act II, Table Number Seven, focused on the Major's story and his relationship with Sibyl. When the play was originally produced in 1954, Margaret Leighton (The Winslow Boy) and Eric Portman (a Powell & Pressberger regular) played double roles: Leighton played Anne in Act I and Sibyl in Act II; Portman took on the roles of John and Major Pollock. In a 1983 television production directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), Julie Christie and Alan Bates played the four roles.

Niven no longer as "the Major."
Delbert Mann's film adaptation of Separate Tables casts four fine actors in the key roles--but with mixed results. David Niven and Deborah Kerr effortlessly capture the fragile relationship between the Major and Sibyl, two damaged souls who keep their emotions in check--even as they try to express them to one another. For much of the film, Niven plays Pollock playing the role of the loud braggart, who has recounted his made-up military exploits so many times that he almost believes them. Yet, that requires no great acting. It's during a climatic scene--when Pollock finally lets down his guard in front of Sibyl--that Niven shows the true depth of a performance that earned him a Best Actor Oscar. Of course, it helps when you're playing your big scene opposite the marvelous Deborah Kerr, who received an Oscar nomination as Sibyl.

Dame Wendy Hiller.
Unfortunately, as tortured former lovers John and Anne--the showier roles--Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth struggle. Hayworth certainly looks the part of a former fashion model, but she still seems miscast as half of this hate-love couple. The script, adapted by Rattigan and John Gay, deserves some of the blame. Personally, I never became invested in either John or Anne and therefore had no interest in whether they reunited or stay parted. I kept thinking that John was better off staying with Pat, the intelligent, grounded hotel owner (but then again, it seems as though Pat could do way better than John!). Incidentally, Wendy Hiller won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Pat; she's very good, but appears in only a few scenes.

Separate Tables is a skillfully-directed, well-acted film that holds interest--though its critical accolades (including seven Oscar nominations) now seem overrated. Frankly, I think it would have been a stronger film had it dispensed with Table at the Window and expanded Table Number Seven with David Niven and Deborah Kerr. Of course, I suppose that would have made it a different film altogether. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

The First Annual Hammer Halloween Blogathon!

The Classic Film & TV Café will host the Hammer Halloween Blogathon on October 21-25. The blogathon will consist of blog posts about the classic horror, science fiction, and suspense films made by Britain's Hammer Films Productions.

Here's the complete schedule:

Thursday, October 24
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell - Kevin's Movie Corner
The Gorgon - Silver Scenes
The Plague of the Zombies Classic Film & TV Cafe (Rick)
The Reptile - The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog
Supernatural or Super-Murderous?: A Visual Look at Freddie Francis' Nightmare (1964)- Micro-Brewed Reviews 

Friday, October 25
The Curse of the Werewolf - portraitsbyjenni
The Devil Rides Out The Stalking Moon
Frankenstein Created Woman - Citizen Screenings
The Stranglers of Bombay Midnight Only
Taste the Blood of Dracula  - Cinematic Catharsis