Monday, March 31, 2014

The Five Best Fred MacMurray Performances

A versatile performer in film and television for five decades, Fred MacMurray deserved more opportunities to display his acting talents. Still, when he got the chance to bite into a good role, he did so convincingly--whether it was in a Billy Wilder film noir or a Walt Disney family comedy. Below are our picks for his six best performances--yes, there's a tie for the fifth spot. Do you agree? Disagree? As always, all feedback is welcomed.

1. Double Indemnity - Fred gave a career-defining performance as the cynical protagonist of Billy Wilder's classic film noir. His insurance salesman is no fool; he realizes that Barbara Stanwyck's femme fatale is up to no good from their first meeting. However, he also knows that he can't resist her and thus is pulled into a web of deceit and murder. Amazingly, MacMurray keeps the audience from despising his character. His genuine friendship with nice guy Edward G. Robinson helps, as does the feeling that he knows he's doing wrong, but is powerless to do anything about it.

2. The Apartment - There is nothing redeeming about Jeff Sheldrake, a corporate executive that uses his position for personal gain, cheats on his wife, and lies to his mistress. MacMurray, reteaming with Billy Wilder, plays Sheldrake with a hard edge. The only time he displays what appears to be genuine emotion is when he tells his mistress that he's leaving his wife--and, of course, that turns out to be a ploy, too. Sheldrake is a jerk and Fred plays him beautifully.

3. Murder, He Says - I'm surprised this cult comedy hasn't gained a more mainstream reputation over the years. Fred plays a pollster trying to find a missing co-worker who was sent to interview the backwoods Fleagle clan (headed by matriarch Marjorie Main). MacMurray grounds the film as the bewildered hero plopped into a plot about hidden gold, murder, assumed identities, and a seemingly nonsensical song. He and Marjorie Main play off each other extremely well. They later appeared together in the more popular The Egg and I, which led to the Ma and Pa Kettle film series.

4. Remember the Night - Prior to Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck starred in this charming romance about a prosecutor and a shoplifter who fall in love over the Christmas holidays as she awaits trial. It's an unlikely premise, of course, but the two stars pull it off nicely and Preston Sturges' script carefully navigates through the film's more sentimental scenes. Though some people find the ending disappointing, I love it--primarily because it's true to MacMurray's character.

5. Quantez - The best of MacMurray's 1950s Westerns is a nifty character drama about an outlaw gang hiding out in a ghost town en route to Mexico. MacMurray's bandit, while the toughest and most rugged of the lot, is also the one least prone to condone violence. It's no surprise that he's harboring a secret past, but the way in which it's revealed is the highlight of this intriguing little picture.

5. The Absent-Minded Professor - Fred is perfectly cast as an (what else?) absent-minded college professor who gets so caught up with his experiments that he forgets his own wedding. Fortunately, his latest invention, Flubber, eventually saves the day. During the latter part of his career, Fred specialized in family films, often playing occasionally befuddled fathers in comedies like The Shaggy Dog and The Happiest Millionaire and on TV in My Three Sons. It's fascinating to watch him playing those parts with such ease after a recent viewing of Double Indemnity or The Apartment.

Honorable Mentions: The Caine Mutiny; Take a Letter, Darling; and Alice Adams.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Five Hunks Who Coulda Been Stars!

Earlier this week, we profiled five lovely actresses who certainly had the looks to become major stars (click here to read that post). While some of them had solid careers, stardom eluded them. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of timing in the film business. Today, we turn our sights to five handsome actors who seemed destined for bigger things, but never quite made it.

Grant Williams. Best known for his first-rate performance in the sci fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Williams seemed to be on the cusp of stardom in the 1950s. He signed with Warner Bros. in 1960 and became relegated to supporting roles in films like Susan Slade (he played Susan's mountain-climbing lover Conn White). Even worse, he was cast in the 1959-63 TV series Hawaiian Eye midway through its run. The overexposure did not help his screen career; his last major film role was in PT 109, in which he was listed fifth in the cast. Through the rest of the 1960s, he guest starred in TV series such as Perry Mason and Bonanza. His last screen appearance was in the low-budget sci fi film Brain of Blood. Williams, who had studied acting with Lee Strasberg, subsequently opened a drama school. He died at age 53 of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen wall.

Tom Conway. With a debonair disposition and distinctive voice, Tom Conway seemed poised to follow his brother's path from "B" films to major motion pictures. But whereas his sibling, George Sanders, crafted a memorable career as a supporting player and occasional lead, Conway languished in low-budget mysteries and horror films. Some of his 1940s "B" films were first-rate, specifically The Falcon and the Co-eds and his three Val Lewton movies. Unfortunately, good roles became scarce in the 1950s and his career took a downturn. Alcholism took its toll in the 1960s and a newspaper article revealed that Conway was practically broke and living in a cheap flophouse. He died in 1967, at age 62, from cirrhosis of the liver.

Gardner McKay. After a short stint in a TV Western called Boots and Saddles, Gardner McKay was cast in Adventures in Paradise, a 1959-62 television series based on the works of James A Michener. He became an instant TV heartthrob and was sought after for film roles when the series ended. He turned down a chance to star opposite Marilyn Monroe in Something's Got to Give. Indeed, post-Paradise, McKay appeared in only two movies before retiring from acting. One of those films was The Pleasure Seekers, a pleasant remake of Three Coins in the Fountain, which highlighted his easygoing charm. McKay became a sculptor, novelist, and playwright. His art work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and he won the L.A. Drama Critics' Circle Award for his play Sea Marks. He died of prostate cancer at age 69.

John Dall. He earned an Oscar nomination opposite Bette Davis for The Corn Is Green, had a major role in Hitchcock's Rope, and starred in a famous cult film (Gun Crazy). And yet, John Dall never achieved stardom and, in fact, appeared in only eight films during a 15-year acting career. That would lead one to assume that he focused on a stage career, but he only appeared in four Broadway plays. His biggest stage success was in Dear Ruth. He played the role of Lieutenant William Seawright in the original 1944 production for 680 performances--only to see the 1947 film role go to William Holden.

George Maharis. For those that question the handsome Maharis' acting ability, I recommend that you watch the first two seasons of Route 66. Maharis had the best role of his career as the street-smart, passionate Buz Murdock and shined in episodes like "Birdcage on My Foot" (which co-starred Robert Duvall as a drug addict trying to go "cold turkey"). Maharis abruptly left Route 66 during its third season, with the reasons varying as to why. Except for the tense thriller The Satan Bug (1965), his film choices were poor and he returned to television for the short-lived 1970 TV series The Most Deadly Game. He was arrested for "sexual perversion" in 1974, though he continued to act on television after that. His last film appearance was in 1993. He lives in Beverly Hills and New York City and creates impressionist paintings.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Five Babes Who Coulda Been Stars!

Timing and looks are almost as important as talent when it comes to becoming a star of the silver screen. Editing room floors have been littered for years with actors that may have had the talent--and definitely had the looks--to earn star status. But alas, their timing was wrong for one reason or another. Today, we pay tribute to five beautiful actresses who never achieved headline status. Some of them had solid careers; others made just a handful of films. And, yes, we will devote a similar post to five handsome hunks later this week.

Helen Gilbert. Except for an early lead role opposite Robert Young and Charles Coburn in the horse film Florian, this blonde beauty spent her career in "B" films. She logged appearances in the Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, and Falcon series. Her most memorable role was as the femme fatale in The Falcon Takes Over, a solid revamped version of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe mystery Farewell, My Lovely. She acted sporadically in the 1940s before moving to television in the 1950s. She was married six times! Johnny Stompanato was one of her husbands--if only for six months. A bodyguard for gangster Mickey Cohen, Stompanato later dated Lana Turner, whose daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed and killed him after she claimed Stompanato had attacked her mother.

Susan Hart. American International Pictures was grooming this stunning brunette for bigger roles--until she retired from acting a few years after marrying the company's co-founder. Susan Hart appeared in several Beach Party movies as one of "the gang" and played the title character in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. None of these films did much for her career. She fared better as Tab Hunter's love interest in Ride the Wild Surf, a Beach Party-like flick released by Columbia Pictures. She also showed her comedy chops as a robot created by mad scientist Vincent Price in the wacky Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. In 1964, she married producer James H. Nicholson; she was 24, he was 49. When he died in 1972, she helped complete his films Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and The Legend of Hell House. Susan Hart spent her later years helping to raise funds for the UCLA Medical Center. She owns the rights to several of her husband's films, which have never been released on video--much to the dismay of many "B" movie fans.

Diane McBain. Signed by Warner Bros. while still a teen, Diane McBain appeared to be on the fast track to stardom in 1960-61. First, she got a plum supporting role in the big-budget Richard Burton-Robert Ryan film Ice Palace. She followed that with a juicy part as a "bad girl" in Parrish and as the "poor white trash" heroine of Claudelle Inglish (both 1961). Concurrently, Warners cast her as a blonde-haired socialite opposite Troy Donahue (his Parrish co-star) in the lighthearted detective TV series Surfside 6. Although the TV series provided steady work, it may also have overexposed her. The once-promising actress soon became typecast as the flighty socialite or bad girl. She worked steadily as a television guest star for the next few decades and in occasional movies--but never appeared in another "A" picture.

Ilaria Occhini. Unless you've seen 1962's Damon and Pythias, you've probably never heard of Ms. Occhini. She was one of several Italian beauties to appear opposite English-language co-stars in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, while some of these actresses became international stars--such as Claudia Cardinale and Sylva Koscina--Ilaria Occhini did not. That's not to say she didn't have a successful film and television career in her own country, racking up 52 acting credits through 2012. Undoubtedly, the dubbing in Damon and Pythias made it hard for U.S. audiences to judge her thespian skills, but the camera certainly seemed to love her.

Joanna Frank. Her career started with a splash with memorable appearances as Vartuhi  in Elia Kazan's America, America (1963) and as the "bee woman" in the classic Outer Limits episode "Zzzzz." However, after a guest spot on The Fugitive, Joanna Frank limited her screen appearances and eventually left Hollywood in the late 1960s. She appeared in occasional guest roles over the next two decades. Then, she returned to Tinseltown in 1986 to play a recurring role as Sheila Brackman on the hit TV series L.A. Law. Of course, L.A. Law was a family affair: her younger brother Steven Bochco co-created the show while she played the wife of Douglas Brackman--who was portrayed by real-life husband Alan Rachins. Still, many TV fans will always remember her as the dark-haired beauty from The Outer Limits. In a documentary on that show, Frank says the producers wanted the bee-turned-woman to be a strawberry blonde--but Frank insisted on the stylish dark-hair look.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Errol Flynn Theatre

By 1956, Errol Flynn was no longer in demand in Hollywood. He had already moved to Europe to star in international productions such as the Italian-made Crossed Swords (with Gina Lollobrigida) and the British-lensed King's Rhapsody and The Dark Avenger (aka The Warriors). He had also dabbled in U.S. television by playing the title role in The Sword of Villon, an episode of the half-hour anthology series Screen Directors Playhouse. (Ronald Colman had played French poet and rogue Francois Villon years earlier in the movie If I Were King.)

So, it made sense for Flynn to follow in the footsteps of former screen stars like Dick Powell and Loretta Young and host his own anthology series. The Errol Flynn Theatre debuted in 1956 and ran for a single season consisting of 27 half-hour episodes. The first episode, The Evil Thought, starring Christopher Lee, was actually produced three years earlier as a pilot for a failed series. England's Bray Studios, which later became home to Hammer Films, provided production facilities for Flynn's show. However, its target audience was American television viewers. Unlike the aforementioned anthology series, Errol's show played in syndication only and was not shown on network television.

Patrice Wymore.
Flynn introduced each episode and appeared in every fourth one. His most frequent co-star was his wife, Patrice Wymore, but the anthology series featured several well-known stars: Paulette Goddard, Christopher Lee, Glynis Johns, Herbert Lom, June Havoc, Mai Zetterling, and Brian Aherne. According to some sources, eighteen of the episodes have been lost. The visual and sound quality of the surviving episodes is iffy at best, which isn't unusual for a 1950s television series.

Errol and son Sean in "Strange Auction."
In 1990, a video company called TV Gold released a VHS tape containing three episodes of The Errol Flynn Theatre: "The Duel" (with Flynn); "The Sealed Room" (starring Glynis Johns and Herbert Lom); and Strange Auction" (with Flynn, his wife Patrice Wymore, and son Sean Flynn). I watched all three episodes recently and, sadly, none of them are very good. The best is probably "The Sealed Room," a tale of a woman who begins to remember events that occurred hundreds of years earlier. Still, it's fun to watch Errol go all out as a despicable villain in "The Duel" and portray a lovable rake in "Strange Auction" (though his Irish accent comes and goes). The latter also provides a rare opportunity to see Errol play opposite his wife Patrice and son Sean (whose real-life mother was actress Lili Damita).

Errol Flynn's career perked up briefly after the demise of The Errol Flynn Theatre. A supporting role in 1957's The Sun Also Rises earned him his best reviews in years and there was even talk about a possible Oscar nomination. That never happened, of course, but it led to other roles in major motion pictures like Too Much, Too Soon and The Roots of Heaven (both 1958). Errol Flynn died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 50.

This post is part of the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon hosted by our friend Aurora at How Sweet It Was. Click here for more information on this blogathon.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Family Business: Actors with a Classic Film Star Parent

I recently watched Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which co-starred the adult children of John Wayne and Tyrone Power. So, I thought it'd be fun to write about actors that were the children of classic film stars. The challenge with this kind of post is narrowing the topic to a manageable size. You could write a book on it (and there probably is one). Also, many movie star children became famous in their own right (e.g., Michael Douglas, Lon Chaney, Jr., Carrie Fisher, the Barrymores, the Carradines, etc.). For this post, I just want to focus on a handful of lesser-known--but still interesting--classic film star offspring.

Sean Flynn - Errol Flynn's son with Lili Damita made his acting debut at age 15 opposite his father and stepmother Patrice Wymore in an episode of The Errol Flynn Theatre. His first film was 1960's Where the Boys Are, though he was uncredited and you'll miss him if you blink. He spent the rest of the decade starring in European films, the most famous being The Son of Captain Blood. He left acting in 1966 and became a respected photojournalist. He was under contract to Time Magazine when he disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. It's now believed that he and fellow photojournalist Dana Stone were captured by guerillas and later killed. Sean Flynn was declared legally dead by his mother in 1984.

Taryn Power - The daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian was born in 1953 and was only five when her father died of a heart attack. She appeared in just eight movies, with the most notable ones being The Count of Monte Cristo (1975) with Richard Chamberlain and the Ray Harryhausen fantasy Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). The latter film also starred Patrick Wayne, the son of John Wayne.

Jody McCrea - Best known as a regular in the Beach Party films, Joel Dee McCrea's parents were Joel McCrea and Frances Dee. After a stint in the Army, he had small parts in several 1950s films and co-starred with his father in the short-lived TV Western Wichita Town. He appeared in six of the seven Beach Party movies playing the same dull-witted character who was known as Deadhead (Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party), Bonehead (Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), or Big Lunk (Pajama Party). He even recorded a novelty song in support of Bikini Beach. Jody retired from acting in 1970 and became a rancher. He died in 2009 at the age of 74.

Christopher Mitchum - The second son of Robert and Dorothy Mitchum appeared in over 60 films from the 1970s through the 1990s, including three John Wayne Westerns: Chism, Rio Lobo, and Big Jake. He served on the Board of Directors for the Screen Actors Guild in the 1980s. A political conservative, he ran for a Congressional seat in 2012 and plans to run again later this year. He and his wife Cindy have been married since 1964 and have four children.

James Mitchum - Robert and Dorothy Mitchum's oldest son made his first credited appearance in his father's moonshine drive-in classic Thunder Road (1958). He played his father's younger brother! He carved out a niche as a supporting player, sometimes playing unsavory characters (he's the de facto villain in Ride the Wild Surf, one of my favorite sand-and-surf pictures). His only "A" picture was the all-star In Harm's Way (1965).

Patrick Wayne - Born Patrick John Morrison in 1939, the Duke's son appeared in nine movies with his father and had significant roles in McLintock!, The Green Berets, and Big Jake. He performed admirably as the dashing lead in two modest 1977 fantasy films: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and The People That Time Forgot. Alas, major stardom eluded him, though he continued to appear regularly in films and on television throughout the 1980s.

Mary Crosby - The daughter of Bing Crosby and Kathryn Grant is best known for playing Sue Ellen's sister, Kristin Shepard, on the TV series Dallas. The devious Kristin secured her place in the annals of TV history when it was revealed that she shot J.R. in one of the highest-rated TV episodes of all time. Mary Crosby has appeared in numerous TV series and miniseries. She had little success on the big screen, though she made a spunky heroine in the action-fantasy The Ice Pirates. It's interesting to note that Mary's mother was the female lead in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which sorta connects Mary to Patrick Wayne and Taryn Power.

Friday, March 14, 2014

From the Cafe's Bookshelf: "Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies"

Fans of the Beach Party movies and other 1960s surfing flicks will find no better spring break reading than Thomas Lisanti's Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969. Originally published in 2005 and reprinted as a paperback in 2012, Lisanti's book provides a comprehensive look at the genre from Gidget (1959) to The Sweet Ride (1969). While other books have covered these films in the context of 1960s pop culture, Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies goes behind the scenes with production details provided by veteran stars such as Shelley Fabares and Jody McCrea.

Sandra Dee and Cliff Robertson
in Gidget.
Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies is divided into three parts: an introduction; entries on each of the 32 films covered; and biographical sketches of selected performers. The introduction provides an historical overview, starting with Frederick Kohner's novel Gidget, which was based on his teenage daughter Kathy's obsession with surfing. Beginning the film version of Gidget, Lisanti traces the evolution of the beach movie genre and the influence of films such as Where the Boys AreBeach Party, and The Endless Summer.While the author states that his "book does not contain in-depth analyses about the films in terms of their cultural importance," his introduction nonetheless offers insight into what made them popular and why they faded by the end of the decade.

Still, the focus of Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies is on the individual movies. For each film, Lisanti lists the complete credits, describes the plot, provides quotes from reviews, and--best of all--takes the reader behind the scenes for fascinating trivia, such as:
  • The Beach Party series almost starred Fabian and Sandra Dee instead of Frankie and Annette.
  • American International Pictures originally intended Bikini Beach for the Beatles--until the band's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show made their salaries too costly.
  • Nancy Sinatra was first offered the role of Sugar Kane (played by Linda Evans) in Beach Blanket Bingo.
  • Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield wrote two title songs for Where the Boys Are. The version they and Connie Francis preferred was not the one selected by producer Joe Pasternak. The Pasternak-preferred song became a huge hit, of course, and Connie's signature song.
Lisanti quotes frequently from many of the performers who appeared in these movies, particularly Jody McCrea, Aron Kincaid, and Luree Nicholson (daughter of AIP co-founder James H. Nicholson). Although the genre's biggest stars--Frankie and Annette--did not participate in interviews for the book, they are liberally quoted from other sources. McCrea offers an interesting perspective on his co-stars: "I got along very well with Frankie and Annette because I left them alone. They always had many lines to memorize or songs to sing. I just concentrated on my part and didn't fraternize with either of them at all."

Jody McCrea and Mary Hughes.
The comprehensiveness of Lisanti's film coverage is commendable. He does a fine job highlighting lesser-known films of interest such as The Girls on the Beach, A Swingin' Summer, and cult fave Ride the Wild Surf. Indeed, the only obvious omission is the Troy Donahue-Stefanie Powers 1963 romp Palm Springs Weekend. While it doesn't take place at a beach, it certainly fits within the genre. Plus, Lisanti does includes other non-beach efforts like the aforementioned A Swinging' Summer (Lake Arrowhead) and Ski Party (and its imitators).

In the third section of Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies, Lisanti profiles "a select number of actors and actresses who made their marks in...the genre." It would have been helpful to include the criteria for selection, for there are some notable omissions, to include: Harvey Lembeck, Bobbie Shaw, Dwayne Hickman, Timothy Carey, and Donna Loren. These performers are mentioned throughout the book, so it's not as if the author ignores them. It's just that their contributions to beach movies seems as notable as profiled performers Kincaid, Ed Garner, and Peter Brown (who only appeared in one surf movie).

Still, such criticisms amount to mere quibbles. With an exhaustive bibliography, an index, and 96 photos, this 456-page reference volume is highly recommended for fans of the beach movie genre and for libraries with extensive film book collections. So, the next time you head to the beach, be sure to grab your surfboard, your sun tan lotion, some Beach Party DVDs, and a copy of Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies!

McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers provided a review copy of this book.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Beach Boys Harmonize While Kookie Stays in Orbit!

With its Beach Party series thriving at the box office in 1964, American International Pictures (AIP) was anxious to make a movie with surf music's supergroup: The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson, working with songwriting partners Roger Christian and Gary Usher, had already contributed six tunes to Frankie and Annette's Muscle Beach Party (1964). However, according to Marshall Crenshaw's Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'n' Roll in the Movies, the Beach Boys' AIP film deal fell apart when the studio insisted on retaining the soundtrack rights.

The Beach Boys.
While the Beach Boys never headlined their own movie, Paramount did feature them later that year in The Girls on the Beach. The title song, written by Wilson and performed by the Beach Boys, appeared on their sixth studio album All Summer Long. The group also appeared in the movie, but only long enough to sing "Little Honda."

The focus on The Girls on the Beach is the Beatles--and they never appear in the movie! The premise has a trio of girls trying to raise $10,000 to save their sorority house. After several futile fundraising efforts (e.g., a bake sale, a beauty contest), they meet three guys who--trying to sound impressive--claims to know Paul, John, George, and Ringo. The girls decide that a Beatles concert is a surefire way to save the Alpha Beta House!

It's a silly plot, to be sure, but the cast is likable and the music good. In addition to the Beach Boys, Leslie Gore and the Crickets (who continued after Buddy Holly's death) perform jaunty tunes. Carol Connors dubs for actress Noreen Corcoran on a couple of songs, including the marvelously-titled "We Wanna Marry a Beatle." Connors was formerly lead singer of the Teddy Bears, who scored a huge pop hit with "To Know Him Is To Love Him." Years later, she co-wrote "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky.

Kincaid and friends.
Among the cast, the most recognizable performers are Ahna Capri, Lana Wood (Natalie's sister), and Aron Kincaid. Ahna Capri would go to play John Saxon's brief love interest in Enter the Dragon. Lana Wood's most famous film appearance was as Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds Are Forever. Kincaid, a beach movie veteran, would appear in two AIP films, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (with Deborah Walley) and  Ski Party (his best role as a campus heart-throb who falls for Dwayne Hickman dressed as a girl), and Paramount's Beach Ball.

The second half of this "Spring Break" double-feature, Beach Ball stars Edd Byrnes--forever known as Kookie from the TV series 77 Sunset Strip. Less charming than The Girls on the Beach, Beach Ball is best known for its incredible musical line-up: Diana Ross and Supremes, The Four Seasons (who sing "Dawn"), the Righteous Brothers, the Hondells, and the Walker Brothers.

In between the musical numbers, there's a plot about Byrnes trying to get a grant (!) so his band, The Wigglers, won't have to return to their instruments to the music store. The best thing about Beach Ball is that the plot doesn't get in the way of the music. Plus, it's fun watching Byrnes trying to act super cool. When a girl asks him to leave the dance floor so they can chat, he quips: "Don't bug me, baby. I'm in orbit."

Neither of these two Paramount forays into the 1960s surf musicals compares favorably with AIP's Beach Party series (no Annette, no Eric Von Zipper!). Still, they're entertaining in a silly way and, if you're a fan of 1960s rock-and-pop music, it's a rare opportunity to watch some of the decade's biggest acts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Seven Things to Know About Miss Perpetual Motion (that'd be Candy Johnson!)

1. Candy Johnson gained fame as the fast-shakin' go-go dancer in the colorful fringe outfits in four Beach Party movies made in 1963-64: Beach Party; Bikini Beach; Pajama Party; and Muscle Beach Party (shown on right with "Little" Stevie Wonder in the background). Those are the only movies she made!

2. In the first film, Candy is aptly billed as the "perpetual motion dancer." In the other three films, her character's name is...Candy. Her character's hip gyrations are so dangerous that--if aimed properly--they could send a guy flying across a room without even touching him. Thus, Candy comes in handy when Frankie and the boys are fighting Eric Von Zipper's gang.

Candy's hips send Deadhead flying in Bikini Beach.

Candy doing her act in a nightclub.
3. Candy was discovered by Red Gilson, who managed a West Coast band called The Exciters. Gilson convinced her to join the band and she became its "frontman." The band, which became billed as Candy Johnson and Her Exciters, played lounges in Palm Springs and Las Vegas. That's where she attracted the attention of American International Pictures executives.

4. Candy could have made a fortune with her weight loss program; she allegedly burned off five to fifteen pounds a night when performing her lounge act. In Tom Lisanti's book, Drive-in Dream Girls: A Galaxy of B-movie Starlets of the 1960s, he mentions that Candy ate steak and potatoes every night to make up for the weight loss. He also included one of Candy's quotes to the press: "If your trouble is too much weight, just twist it off!"

5. Red Gilson started a small label called Canjo Records (the name being a truncation of Candy Johnson, of course). Canjo only released two albums: The Candy Johnson Show at Bikini Beach and Ray Ryan Presents The Candy Johnson Show. They're both very rare, but not pricey for collectibles. You can buy a near-mint copy of either album for around $40. Canjo Records also released 45s featuring Candy's Beach Party series co-stars Jody McCrea (Bonehead or Deadhead) and Meredith MacRae (Animal). The "A" side of McCrea's single was "Chicken Surfer" and the "B" side was "Looney Gooney Bird." Meredith MacRae, who later gained fame on My Three Sons and Petticoat Junction, sang "Image of a Boy" on her single.

A rare moment of stillness.
6. Candy performed at the World's Fair in New York in 1964-65. Allegedly, that's where the members of The Strangeloves saw her and were so inspired they wrote their #11 pop hit "I Want Candy."

7. Candy Johnson and Red Gilson married in the late 1960s and opened a New York City nightclub called The Candy Store. It didn't last long and neither did her marriage to Gilson. Candy subsequently retired from show business (some sources claimed she turned down the role on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in that eventually went to Goldie Hawn). Candy kept a low profile for many years, but did make a rare public appearance at a special 2006 screening of Beach Party--where she received a standing ovation. Candy Johnson died in 2012 at the age of 68.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Get Ready for a Palm Springs Weekend!

Stefanie Powers and Troy Donahue.
As soon as Troy Donahue starts warbling "Live Young" over the opening credits, it's clear that you'll either find Palm Springs Weekend to be nostalgic fun or a dated disaster. I fall into the former camp; I hold a special affection for the fluffy teen pics of the 1960s, from classics like Beach Blanket Bingo to lesser-known imitations like Swingin' Summer. Unlike many of those youth films, Palm Springs Weekend isn't a musical, though it does boast the only known duet between Ty (Bronco) Hardin and Jerry Van Dyke. Plus, it offers something that its competitors can't--a wealth of promising young performers who were all under contract to Warner Bros. at the time.

Ty Hardin and Connie Stevens.
Written by Earl Hamner, Jr. (who would later create The Waltons), Palm Springs Weekend opens with the spring vacation invasion of the famed California resort city. College basketball star Jim Munroe (Donahue) and his teammates believe they have elluded their coach en route from L.A. to Palm Springs. Alas, their crafty coach (Jack Weston) is onboard the bus, too, and his presence puts a crimp in their plans. That doesn't stop Jim from meeting Gail (Connie Stevens), who also claims to be a college student seeking fun in the sun.

Robert Conrad as the rich bad boy.
But romance isn't in the cards for Jim and Gail. She becomes wooed by both a rich bad boy (Robert Conrad) and a nice Hollywood stunt man named Stretch (Hardin). Meanwhile, Jim hooks up with Palm Springs local Bunny (Stefanie Powers), whose father is the grumpy chief of police. As if there was any doubt that love is the air, Coach Campbell becomes smitten with the motel owner (Carole Cook) and Jim's pal Biff (Van Dyke) finds love with Gail's roommate Amanda (Zeme North). Just to make sure things don't get too icky with all the romance, there's a young brat named Boom Boom (Billy Mumy), who wreaks havoc by turning the swimming pool into a giant bubble bath.

Yes, Palm Springs Weekend is frequently silly, but the peppy young cast keeps it entertaining and never lets the proceedings turn into a spoof. There's even a modest amount of depth to some of the characters. Conrad's troublemaker turns out to be a lonely lad dealing with an absentee father. Connie Stevens' Gail is actually a high school student named Jane, whose identity crisis almost leads to a bad situation. Still, Palm Springs Weekend has no illusions of being taken seriously, not even to the point of Gidget or Where the Boys Are (both of which dealt fleetingly with more mature themes).

Jerry Van Dyke and Zeme North, whose
career fizzled in the late 1960s.
Interestingly, about half the Palm Springs Weekend cast was appearing in Warner Bros. TV series concurrently and the other half were set to launch long-running TV careers. Ty Hardin was starring in the Western Bronco, a spinoff of Cheyenne that was created when Clint Walker had a contract dispute with Warners. Robert Conrad and Connie Stevens both appeared in the exotic detective series Hawaiian Eye (Conrad later starred in Wild, Wild West). Troy appeared in the Miami-set private eye series Surfside 6. Stefanie Powers would become The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. before the decade ended and Billy Mumy would gain fame as Will Robinson in Lost in Space. Jerry Van Dyke appeared in many sitcoms, the most unususal being My Mother the Car, in which his deceased mother was reincarnated as a 1928 antique auto voiced by Ann Sothern. Decades later, he'd have greater success as a supporting player on the sitcom Coach.

The bottom line is that if you like these performers and enjoy the "1960s teen pic" genre, Palm Springs Weekend is a celluloid gretaway for you.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bikini Beach: “Where All the Chicks Are Bikini Clad”

Welcome to Bikini Beach, where the ladies adorned in bikinis are constantly distracting passing drivers, cooks, surfers and guys already spending time with girls. Frankie (Frankie Avalon), Dee Dee (Annette Funicello), and the rest of the gang are spending another summer at the beach, lying on the sand and surfing against the rear projection that is the ocean. Their fun in the sun is threatened when Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn) arrives with his chimpanzee, Clyde (Janos Prohaska), who shows off his surfing skills to a dumbfounded crowd of teens. Honeywagon, however, is demonstrating the youngsters’ lack of intelligence, bolstered by a “preoccupation with sex,” and he follows it with a scathing article in his newspaper. The lovely Miss Clements (Martha Hyer) soon learns that Honeywagon’s true agenda is to purchase the beach property and convert it into a retirement home, Sea-Esta by the Sea.

Meanwhile, back at the beach, Frankie is in danger of losing Dee Dee to... well, himself, as the actor also portrays British rock phenomenon, The Potato Bug. The singer pitches a tent on Bikini Beach and instantly woos the girls, including Dee Dee, who is peeved by Frankie scoffing the idea of marriage. When The Potato Bug boasts of his proficiency at drag racing, Frankie believes he can regain Dee Dee’s affection by besting the British star. It literally becomes a race to the finish, while monkey wrenches are thrown into the mix: Frankie having few resources with which to purchase a race car (not to mention the inability to drive one); Clyde the chimp once again transcending humans by securing the drag racing record and out-watusi-ing everyone; and the delightful but dim Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his motorcycle gang of Ratz and Mice stirring up trouble for all.

Bikini Beach (1964) was the third in American International Pictures’ Beach Party films and was directed by William Asher, a prolific TV director and producer. Asher also directed the preceding films, Beach Party (1963) and Muscle Beach Party (1964), as well as How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and the fan favorite, Beach Blanket Bingo (both 1965). Asher’s direction works well with the slapstick comedy and frivolous (but endlessly quotable) dialogue. He does repeat some visual puns (e.g., girls causing surfers to “crash,” accompanied by sounds of vehicular collisions, from Beach Party), but there are also worthy gags such as the recurring unknown female in a bikini drawing everyone’s attention, at one point inciting the camera to turn away from the action.

While Frankie Avalon’s performance as The Potato Bug is a bit hammy, it’s also a nice change from the character of Frankie, whose cheeky attitude makes him undeserving of a lady such as Dee Dee. Potato Bug, with his moptop haircut and indistinguishable songs, is a gleeful play on The Beatles, who, in 1964, were in the midst of their British Invasion in the U.S. The only time that The Potato Bug is excessive in Bikini Beach is when Frankie impersonates the singer as a ruse. It’s Frankie playing Frankie playing Frankie, and it’s unduly metaphysical for a Beach Party film. Furthermore, Frankie is too convincing and manages to fool the typically shrewd Dee Dee.

Don Rickles plays “Big Drag,” but there’s an explicit acknowledgement that he’s the same character from Muscle Beach Party. When Big Drag is told that he looks familiar, he states that he was once called Jack Fanny and references “a string of muscle men” (“I got out of the Fanny business; that’s all behind me now”). Rickles is exceptionally funny in Bikini Beach, avoiding the mismatched stand-up routine he would perform in Beach Blanket Bingo, and dishing out amusing dialogue with charm, like when he recites a litany of problems with a race car he’s trying to sell. His response to Frankie when asked if anything is functional: “The radio’s kinda nice.”

Jody McCrea reprises his role of Deadhead in Bikini Beach. Although apparently portraying the same character, he was called Bonehead in Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (evidently Big Lunk in 1964s Pajama Party is not the same guy). Candy Johnson also revisits her role as Candy, the “Perpetual Motion Dancer,” whose swinging hips become a viable weapon and can knock opponents to the ground. Harvey Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper makes a most welcome return in Bikini Beach, having been absent from the earlier Muscle Beach Party. He isn’t allotted time for his own song like in Beach Blanket Bingo, but he does give himself The Finger (See “F” in The Beach Party Movies: A to Z) and it’s a treat to hear his refrain, “You stupid!” and his argument favoring motorcycles over drag racing cars: “Cycles is better.

Like most of the Beach Party films, Bikini Beach has a number of memorial tunes. Musical highlights include Donna Loren singing “Love’s a Secret Weapon”, the Frankie and Annette duo, “Because You’re You”, and “This Time It’s Love”, a solo by Annette. The film also features a performance from Little Stevie Wonder (who’d made his film debut in Muscle Beach Party) and “introduces” the short-lived surf rock group, The Pyramids.

The character of Honeywagon shares his name with the term for a mobile restroom utilized for film and TV productions. A honeywagon is a trailer housing multiple rooms for various uses. It’s more generally written as two words, and as such, a honey wagon is for transporting waste or a portable component of a sanitation system.Janos Prohaska, who portrayed Clyde, often played monsters or animals, in costumes which he designed. He typically appeared on television, such as Star Trek, as the Horta, Mugato and Yarnek, in the respective episodes, “The Devil in the Dark”, “A Private Little War” and “The Savage Curtain”. Prohaska also starred as the recurring Cookie Bear in The Andy Williams Show, as well as the TV series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Bewitched, Land of the Giants and The Outer Limits. His creature creation from the Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear”, was deemed so unnerving that local stations in some cities censored or delayed the broadcast.

Bikini Beach is a commendable entry in the series of Beach Party movies. By the third film, the characters are familiar, and the Frankie-Dee Dee struggle is an anticipated theme. There’s also the prerequisite celebrity cameo, a surprise appearance near the film’s end, with a joke on a previous cameo in Beach Party. I’ll concede that Beach Blanket Bingo is the most revered of the bunch, but I quite fancy time on Bikini Beach: there’s good humor, silly characters, and Annette in a bikini. Frankie’s eyes may wander (although more so in other films, like to Luciana Paluzzi in Muscle Beach Party), but mine are completely glued.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Five Best Spring Break Movies (excluding the Beach Party Series)

What? No Beach Party movies and no Gidget? We excluded the Beach Party films from this list for two reasons: (1) they have already been covered extensively at the Cafe; (2) they would dominate this list and we wanted to promote some of the other "spring break movies." As for Gidget, while it may have been the first mainstream feature about surfers, it was a coming-of-age film and not about young people on spring break.

1. Ride the Wild Surf (1964) - The premise, borrowed freely from Three Coins in the Fountain, has three young men arriving in Hawaii in search of the “big wave” at Waimea Bay. What they find initially are three pretty girls and plenty of teen angst. Despite their successful pop hits, stars Fabian and Shelley Fabares (shown on right) don't warble a single song. They do manage a couple of effective dramatic scenes and receive fine support from Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, Peter Brown, and Barbara Eden (as a dark-haired tomboy). Although the climax goes overboard on surfing footage, it's still a rare opportunity to watch some of the greatest real-life surfers of the 1960s.

Dolores Hart (who later became
a nun) and George Hamilton.
2. Where the Boys Are (1960) - This was the movie that introduced the premise of teens (well, young adults) heading to the beach in search of sun, fun, and romance. It differs from other 1960s spring break films in terms of its female focus and solemn conclusion. The plot starts out in lighthearted fashion with a quartet of young women (Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux, Connie Francis, and Paula Prentiss) heading to Fort Lauderdale for a good time. However, the film takes a serious turn at the climax--a jarring change in tone that, while effective, makes one feel somewhat guilty for enjoying the earlier playful proceedings. Connie Francis had a huge hit with the title song, which was written by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.

Ty Hardin and Connie Stevens.
3. Palm Springs Weekend (1963) - As soon as Troy Donahue starts crooning "Live Young" over the opening credits, it's clear that you'll either find Palm Springs Weekend to be nostalgic fun or a dated disaster. I fall into the former camp, in large part because of the young Warner Bros. cast that includes: Donahue, Connie Stevens, Stefanie Powers, Robert Conrad, Ty Hardin, Jerry Van Dyke, and a young Billy Mumy. Written by Earl Hamner, Jr. (who would later create The Waltons), Palm Springs Weekend is a silly, but entertaining lark (though it's notable for showing parents in a positive light).

Raquel Welch.
4. A Swingin' Summer (1965) - Three college pals try to a save a dance pavilion in Lake Arrowhead by staging a rockin' concert. Meanwhile, a gang of local hooligans aim to cause trouble and Raquel Welch plays a bookworm that wears thick glasses and keeps her hair in a bun. I'm not giving away any of the plot by revealing that the hooligans are defeated, the pavilion saved, and Raquel Welch lets her hair down and transforms into...Raquel Welch! A Swingin' Summer is diverting entertainment well played by its likable cast (James Stacy, Quinn O'Hara, and William Wellman, Jr.). However, it's best-known for featuring music performances from Gary Lewis & the Playboys, the Righteous Brothers, and Donnie Brooks. While the Rip Chords sing, too, Marshall Crenshaw in his book Hollywood Rock notes that the voices belong to Bruce Johnston (former Beach Boy who wrote "I Write the Songs") and Terry Melcher (Doris Day's son, who produced for The Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders). (March 2019 update: I just watched A Swingin' Summer again and would now remove it from this list. Time has not been kind to it.)

5. The Girls on the Beach (1965) - A trio of girls try to raise $10,000 to save their sorority house--but their questionable fundraising efforts (e.g., a bake sale, a beauty contest) fail miserably. Then, they meet three guys who--trying to sound impressive--claim to know Paul, John, George, and Ringo. The girls decide that a Beatles concert is a surefire way to save the Alpha Beta House! It's easily the weakest film on this list and yet it's undeniably fun if viewed in the right frame of mind. And again, it features some terrific music--this time from the Beach Boys, Leslie Gore and the Crickets (who continued after Buddy Holly's death). Carol Connors, who dubs for actress Noreen Corcoran on a couple of songs, was the former lead singer of the Teddy Bears ("To Know Him Is To Love Him"). A decade later, she co-wrote the Oscar-nominated "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky.