Monday, April 28, 2014

The Five Best Cult Films of the 1960s

Cult film--it's a label that's often applied far too loosely. For purposes of this list, my definition is that a cult film is a motion picture that: (1) lacked significant popular or critical success when originally released; (2) has maintained a small, but loyal, following over an extended period; and (3) has not "gone mainstream." Some movies started out as cult pictures, such as the original Night of the Living Dead, but became famous and lost their cult status.

The 1960s was a banner decade for cult films, so it was a challenge to narrow our choices to the five best cult films of the decade. At the risk of omitting some popular choices, here are our picks:

Carol Lynley--is she really a mother?
1. Bunny Lake Is Missing – Not all cult films are low-budget efforts, as evidenced by this "A" picture that has been sadly forgotten by all except a few faithful fans. Carol Lynley stars as a young American woman, recently transplanted to London, who claims that her daughter has been kidnapped…but no one can remember having seen the girl. Director Otto Preminger’s last great film surprisingly recalls his first classic, Laura. Both films begin as conventional crime dramas dealing with kidnapping or murder, but then an unexpected plot twist takes each in a different direction. An underrated gem.

2. The Last Man on Earth – As far as he knows, Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the only remaining human in a world destroyed by a plague of vampirism. Each night, a horde of the bloodsucking creatures gathers around his fortified house and cries out in hunger for the man inside. This first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s terrifying 1954 novel I Am Legend was made in Italy on a shoestring budget. Price is the only English-language actor in the cast. But, despite its financial limitations, it remains an impressive work filled with compelling images and frightening sequences. Later versions starring Charlton Heston (The Omega Man) and Will Smith (I Am Legend) pale in comparison.

Constance Towers in The Naked Kiss.
3. The Naked Kiss (1964) – A prostitute, yearning for a better life, gets a second chance in a Thortonesque town. She finds meaning in her life through caring for handicapped children--but evil lurks in the shadows of this idyllic community. Sam Fuller's lurid melodrama still packs a punch. It paved the way for more acclaimed films like David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Ironically, Fuller's previous film, Shock Corridor, is a better-known cult classic. In my opinion, though, The Naked Kiss is a far superior movie.

B&W publicity still of woman,
balloons, and giant creature.
4. The Lost Continent – I always loved this plot summary from one of my fellow Cafe bloggers: "Shipwrecked survivors drift to an apparently deserted land of strange creatures, killer seaweed, and Spanish soldiers who answer to El Supremo, a leader who appears to be no more than a child--and 'hardly old enough to wipe his own bottom' (as one character puts its)." The Lost Continent also features people that "wear" hot air balloons so they don't sink on boggy land and a groovy title song crooned by a Tom Jones wannabe. What's not to like? Surprisingly, this lively adventure was made by  Hammer Films and stars the marvelous Eric Porter (Soames on the original British TV series The Forsyte Saga).

Linda Lawson as Mora.
5. Night Tide (1961) – A lonely sailor (Dennis Hopper) on shore leave meets a mysterious young woman who plays Mora the Mermaid at one of the pier's tourist attractions. Unfortunately, she may be a siren--"half human and half creature of the sea"--with homicidal tendencies. Written and directed by Curtis Harrington, Night Tide is a moody, stylish black-and-white mystery that makes excellent use of its seaside setting, complete with arcades, coffee houses, and gaudy tourist traps. Though often slow and talky, Night Tide has a haunting quality that lingers after the final credits. Hopper gives a remarkably restrained performance and Linda Lawson channels Simone Simon (The Cat People).

Honorable Mentions: Carnival of Souls; Black Sunday; Danger: Diabolik; Seconds; and Nothing But the Best.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How Sight & Sound Fueled the "Greatest Film" Debate

These days, it has become standard practice for film organizations and film-related magazines to publish their picks for the greatest films of all time. A representative sample includes the American Film Institute (which has published two lists since 1998), Time magazine, IMDb, Total Film, and AMC. There was a time, though, when the "greatest film" debate was limited to friends discussing the topic over coffee. That changed in 1952 when the British magazine Sight & Sound published its first poll of the "greatest films of all time."

Sight & Sound was first published in 1932 and became an official publication of the British Film Institute in 1934. Although well-respected among film scholars and fans, the magazine didn't gain international fame until 1952. That year, it asked an international group of critics, programmers, academics and distributors to each compile a list of the best movies ever made. The results were tabulated and the following Top 10 "Greatest Films of All Time" list was published:

1. Bicycle Thieves 
Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves.

2. City Lights 
2. The Gold Rush 
4. Battleship Potemkin 
5. Intolerance 
5. Louisiana Story 
7. Greed 
7. Le Jour se leve 
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc 
10. Brief Encounter 
10. La Règle du jeu (aka The Rules of the Game
10. Le Million 

This first list reflects a strong European influence with six films made by French, Italian, and Russian directors (and I'm not counting Greed, which the Austrian-born Von Stroheim made in the U.S.). Although there are five American films, it's interesting to note the complete absence of Hollywood "talkies" (although Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath just missed out on the tenth spot).

The most unusual choice is Robert Flaherty's documentary-like Louisiana Story (1948), which chronicles the life of a young Cajun boy. Although well-reviewed and Oscar-nominated for Best Original Story, the film is mostly forgotten today (with Flaherty's fame resting with Nanook of the North).

Surprisingly, the list also includes other then-recent films Bicycle Thieves (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945). The oldest film earning a spot was D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916).

Sight & Sound would not conduct another poll until 1962, thus establishing the practice of a revised "Greatest Films" list every ten years. This edition crowned a new #1 with Orson Welles' Citizen Kane claiming the top spot. It would remain there for the next 50 years!

1. Citizen Kane 
2. L'avventura (aka The Adventure)
3. La Règle du jeu (aka The Rules of the Game)
4. Greed 
4. Ugetsu 
6. Battleship Potemkin 
7. Bicycle Thieves
7. Ivan the Terrible 
9. La Terra Trema 
10. L'Atalante 

Despite the presence of Welles, international filmmakers dominated the 1962 and 1972 lists which featured the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Vigo, and Federico Fellini as well as holdovers Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir.

Classic Hollywood had its best showing in 1982 when filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen joined Orson Welles and Buster Keaton.

1. Citizen Kane 
2. La Règle du jeu (aka The Rules of the Game)
3. Seven Samurai 
3. Singin' in the Rain 
5. 8½ 
6. Battleship Potemkin 
7. L'avventura 
7. The Magnificent Ambersons 
7. Vertigo
10. The General
10. The Searchers 

Over the next 40 years, Sight & Sound continued to publish a new "Greatest Films" list every decade and even added a "Directors' Top Ten Poll" in 1992. Still, the plethora of other lists began to dilute the interest surrounding each new poll. That changed in 2012 when the Sight & Sound poll made headlines after Vertigo finally knocked Citizen Kane from the top spot. The 2012 list (which is naturally the latest one) consisted of:

1. Vertigo 
2. Citizen Kane 
3. Tokyo Story 
4. La Règle du jeu (aka The Rules of the Game)
5. Sunrise
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. The Searchers
8. Man with a Movie Camera
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc

It's interesting to note that Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece La Règle du jeu is the only film to appear on every poll from 1952 to 2012. Starting in 1962, it has never ranked lower than #4--which is pretty amazing.

I know a lot of people who scoff at "greatest" lists, which--like the Academy Awards--represent the opinions of a relatively small group of people. Personally, I enjoy them if only because they encourage debate (for the record, I'm good with Vertigo in the top spot since it's my 2nd favorite film).

And, as "Greatest Film" lists go, the Sight & Sound one remains the most revered. In a 2002 article on the latest Sight & Sound poll, Roger Ebert wrote: "Because it is world-wide and reaches out to voters who are presumably experts, it is by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies--the only one most serious movie people take seriously."

Monday, April 21, 2014

British Classic Television A to Z

A - The Avengers. Could there be a better way to start this list? This lighthearted spy series starred Patrick Macnee as the well-tailored, unflappable, and charming John Steed. He was the anchor of the series, even if his fermale co-stars grabbed the headlines: Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, and Joanna Lumley (in The New Avengers). Of course, I suspect some of Ms. Lumley's fans might lobby for Absolutely Fabulous in this spot.

Rowan Atkinson as the Prince.
B - The Black Adder. "Black Adder, Black Adder, he rides a pitch black steed / Black Adder, Black Adder, he's very bad indeed." As these lyrics suggest, Prince Edmund the Black Adder was up to no good in this Medieval comedy series starring Rowan Atkinson as the man who wanted to be king. Atkinson played descendants of the original Black Adder in several follow-up specials.

C - Coronation Street. It's the longest-running soap opera currently on the airwaves anywhere in the world. Set in a fictional working class community, Coronation Street debuted in 1960 and quickly built a loyal fan base. A Christmas Day episode in 1987 was seen by over 28 million viewers!

McGoohan as John Drake.
D - Danger Man. It was broadcast in the U.S. as Secret Agent and Johnny Rivers scored a huge hit with his song "Secret Agent Man." But under any title, this first-rate spy show, starring Patrick McGoohan as the resourceful John Drake, was a welcome change from the gadget-laden James Bond clones. The show's fans still argue over whether John Drake was No. 6 in McGoohan's The Prisoner.

E - Elizabeth R. This 1971 six-part saga starring Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I of England garnered plenty of awards. In fact, it was the first British TV program to win an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series. Jackson won an Oscar as Best Actress for Women in Love that same year.

F - The Forsyte Saga. I have relatives who would lobby for Fawlty Towers in this spot. However, it's hard to dismiss the first TV version of James Galsworthy’s three novels about the Forsytes, a nouveau riche Victorian family. When originally broadcast, this series was a huge hit in Britain and was picked up by local PBS stations in the U.S. In fact, its success in America is generally believed to have led to the creation of Masterpiece Theatre.

Grigson as Gideon.
G - Gideon's Way. John Grigson, a regular cast member in many Ealing comedies, played Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard in this single-season series. It was shot in the same studio as Roger Moore's The Saint. John Creasey wrote 26 Gideon novels and Jack Hawkins portrayed the detective in the 1958 John Ford film Gideon's Day (aka Gideon of Scotland Yard).

H - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams' popular radio series and novel were transformed into a six-part television show in 1981. Simon Jones starred as Arthur Dent, who travels the universe after the end of the world. And remember, the answer is 42.

I - I, Claudius. Politics and devious plots (wait, am I being redundant?) made this tale of Roman rulers appointment television for millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it's best remembered for giving the marvelous Derek Jacobi one of his first leading roles.

J - The Jewel in the Crown. The final days of Britain's rule in India formed the basis of this engrossing 1984 miniseries based on the novels by Paul Scott. Peggy Ashcroft won the British Academy of Film & Television Arts award for best supporting actress. Interestingly, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar that same year for A Passage to India.

Hyacinth in a flower print dress.
K - Keeping Up AppearancesPatricia Routledge created one of British TV's most memorable characters in Hyacinth Bucket (that's pronounced "bouquet"!). The snobby Hyacinth tried very hard to climb the social ladder, but her challenges in doing so made this show a huge hit--it seems to play in perpetuity on local PBS stations in the U.S.

L - Lovejoy. Ian McShane played the charming title rogue, an antiques dealer with a talent for uncovering hidden treasures. Supporting cast members included Phyllis Logan (now best known as Mrs. Hughes on Downton Abbey). The series lasted for six years, although there was a big gap between the first and second seasons.

M - Monty Python's Flying Circus. The comedy troupe's groundbreaking sketch comedy series debuted in 1969. Forty-five episodes were broadcast over the next five years before the gang graduated to films (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and other projects. Every fan has their favorite sketch; mine is "The Funniest Joke in the World."

Carmichael and Houston.
N - The Nine Tailors. Ian Carmichael starred in five adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. This one is the best, a clever puzzler about two connected crimes—involving the theft of an emerald necklace and a mutilated corpse—committed over a decade apart. As usual, Carmichael is fabulous as Wimsey and Glyn Houston a delight as his valet Bunter (though he has a smaller role in this outing).

O - The Omega Factor.
This short-lived 1979 science fiction series was about a journalist with psychic powers who became a member of the mysterious Department 7, a government agency that investigates paranormal activities.

P - Poldark. There are several fine choices for "P", such as The Prisoner, The Pallisers, and later Prime Suspect. However, we'll go with Winston Graham's addictive historical drama about two Cornish families in the 18th century. We're not picking Poldark just because Robin Ellis is the friend of the Cafe...we loved the show when we first watched it on Masterpiece Theatre in the 1970s.

Q - The Quatermass Experiment. The first of Nigel Kneale's four science fiction miniseries about Professor Bernard Quatermass made quite a splash in 1953. In Halliwell's Television Companion, film critic Leslie Halliwell wrote that "the Quatermass Experiment became the first TV serial to have the whole country (or such parts as could receive television) agog." Hammer Films made feature film versions of three of Kneale's miniseries, starting with 1955's The Quatermass Experiment.

Rumpole at the Bailey.
R - Rumpole of the Bailey. British barrister and author John Mortimer wrote Rumpole of the Bailey as an original play for the BBC anthology series Play for Today in 1975. It was popular enough to warrant discussion of a series, but it wasn't until 1978 that the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series appeared on Thames Television (and later in the U.S. on Mystery!). Leo McKern played the gruff, middle-aged Rumpole and perfectly captures the character's complexities, from his willingness to defend anybody (“I never plead guilty”) to his relationship with his wife (whom Rumpole referred to as “she who must be obeyed”).

S - Sapphire & Steel.  Although originally intended as a kid's sci fi show (think Doctor Who), this saga of two time-traveling agents (David McCallum and Joanna Lumley) morphed into something totally different. Using a small budget to its advantage, this slowly-paced series was sometimes baffling, sometimes disturbing, but always interesting.

T - Till Death Do Us Part. This 1965-75 sitcom chronicled the working-class Garnett family and its bigoted patriarch Alf (Warren Mitchell). If the premise sounds familiar, that's because it was adapted for U.S. television as the equally successful All in the Family.

The Upstairs cast.
U - Upstairs, Downstairs. There might not be a Downton Abbey if not for this impeccable period drama about the upper-class Bellamy family and their servants at 165 Eaton Place in London. Excellent writing and acting made it a hit in Britain and the U.S., but it was also noted for weaving history into its storylines. The characters' lives were impacted by real-life events such as World War I, the suffragette movement, and the sinking of the Titanic.

V - A Very Pecular Practice. Peter Davison (Doctor Who, All Creatures Great and Small) starred as an idealistic physician working with a group of misfits at a university medical center. This sporadic series, which aired 15 episodes between 1986 and 1992, was created by Andrew Davies (best known for adapting the Pride & Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

W - Whoops Apocalypse. A pending apocalypse provides the background for this offbeat 1982 cult series that poked fun at world politics. To provide a sample of its humor: The Soviet Premier is actually a series of clones--as each clone dies, it has to be replaced by another. The series, which was just six episodes, was later adapted into a 1986 film with Loretta Swit and Peter Cook.

X - The XYY Man. William "Spider" Scott is an ex-con who can't leave his cat burglar past behind. Part of the reason is that he possesses an extra "Y" chromosome which predisposes him toward criminal activity. Stephen Yardley played the title character for all 13 episodes.

Y - Yes Minister. This immensely popular political comedy followed the career of the Right Honourable Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) in the fictitious Department of Administrative Affairs. Its fans included Margaret Thatcher. The first three seasons were broadcast over 1980-84. Yes, Prime Minister, a sequel series with the same cast, ran from 1986 to 1988.

Z - Z Cars. This long-running drama chronicled the exploits of uniformed police officers who patrolled in Ford Zephyrs (then considered rapid response vehicles) in a Lancashire town. The series produced an amazing 803 episodes over a 16-year period. The cast changed over the years with the exception of James Ellis as Sergeant Lynch.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Autobiographical Films: People Who Played Themselves in Movie Biographies

Many people have played themselves on film, but few have played themselves in film biographies. The reasons are obvious: the scarcity of motion picture biographies of living persons; the fact that “real” people do not necessarily make believable actors; and the image problem--it can look like you have a big ego if you portray yourself in a favorable light. 

Sports players dominated early film autobiographies, tracing the careers of baseball legend Jackie Robinson (The Jackie Robinson Story), track star Bob Mathias (The Bob Mathias Story), and football players Tom Harmon (Harmon of Michigan) and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (Crazylegs). None of these one-time actors went on to pursue an acting career (though Harmon’s son Mark eventually did). Boxer Joe Louis played a fictitious fighter in Spirit of Youth, although the character was clearly patterned after Louis. Irrepressible boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said: “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” So naturally, he played himself in the modestly-titled biopic The Greatest (1977). 

Actresses Ann Jillian, Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Patty Duke, and Suzanne Somers all played themselves in made-for-TV biographies. MacLaine’s film was adapted from her best-selling autobiography Out on a Limb. Ray Charles also appeared as himself in 1964’s Ballad in BlueTo date, the best autobiographical film remains 1955’s To Hell and Back, in which Audie Murphy traced his own rise from farm boy to the nation’s most decorated soldier in World War II to movie star. 

Although not autobiographical, Will Rogers, Jr., played his father in The Will Rogers Story (1952) and Marie Osmond played her mother in Side by Side: The True Story of the Osmond Family (1982). In the following list, the subject’s name is included in parentheses unless specified in the title: 

Spirit of Youth (1937)  (Joe Louis)
Harmon of Michigan (1941)  (Tom Harmon)
The Fabulous Dorseys (1947)
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Crazylegs (aka Crazylegs, All American) (1953)  (Elroy Hirsch)
The Bob Mathias Story (aka The Flaming Torch) (1954)
To Hell and Back (1955)  (Audie Murphy)
Rock Around the World (aka The Tommy Steele Story) (1957)
Ballad in Blue (aka Blues for Lovers) (1964)  (Ray Charles)
Smash-Up Alley (aka 43: The Petty Story) (1972)  (Richard Petty)
The Greatest (1977)  (Muhammad Ali)
Out on a Limb (1987 TVM)  (Shirley MacLaine)
The Ann Jillian Story (1988 TVM)
Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (1980 TVM)
Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story (1984 TVM)
Call Me Anna (1990 TVM)  (Patty Duke)
Keeping Secrets (1991 TVM) (Suzanne Somers)
Miss America: Behind the Crown (1992 TVM)  (Carolyn Sapp) 
Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story (1994 TVM)
Never Say Never: The Deidre Hall Story (1995 TVM)
Private Parts (1997)  (Howard Stern)

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The James Stewart Blogathon

The Classic Film & TV Café hosted a James Stewart Blogathon on April 14-17, 2014. Twenty six movie bloggers participated and wrote about the popular actor's films and personal life.

It's hard to think of an actor more versatile than James Stewart, whose impressive filmography includes comedies (Harvey), dramas (Rear Window), musicals (Born to Dance), Westerns (Bend of the River), and biographies (The Glenn Miller Story).

He worked multiple times with great directors such as Anthony Mann (eight films), Alfred Hitchcock (four), Frank Capra (three), and John Ford (two).

James Stewart starred in the best film ever made (that'd be Vertigo according to the latest Sight & Sound poll among film critics). He also starred in one of the most beloved films of all time (that'd be It's a Wonderful Life). His leading ladies included Grace Kelly, Carole Lombard, Janet Leigh, June Allyson (three times), Jean Arthur (twice), Marlene Dietrich (also twice), and Kim Novak (twice again!).

In short, James Stewart was one of the greatest stars to grace the silver screen. To learn more about the man and his movies, be sure to check out the posts below:

April 14
Bend of the River - Caftan Woman
Destry Rides Again - Virtual Virago
The FBI Story - Kevin's Movie Corner
James Stewart's World War II Service - Wide Screen World
Rear Window - Twenty Four Frames
Vivacious Lady - Immortal Ephemera
Winchester '73 - Classic Film & TV Cafe

April 15
Bell, Book and Candle - A Person in the Dark
Flight of the Phoenix - Outspoken & Freckled
The Glenn Miller Story - Old Movies Nostalgia
The Jackpot - They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - Girls Do Film
The Shopworn Angel - Motion Picture Gems

April 16
Born to Dance - The Vintage Cameo
Harvey - The Old Movie House
The Musical Side of Jimmy Stewart - A Trip Down Memory Lane
Magic Town - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
No Highway in the Sky - Silver Scenes
Thunder Bay - The Stalking Moon
The Shop Around the Corner - ImagineMDD
The Spirit of St. Louis - The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog

April 17
It's a Wonderful World - Tales of the Easily Distracted
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation - Once Upon a Screen
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - Ramblings of a Cinephile
The Naked Spur - Lindsay's Movie Musings
The Shootist - portraitsbyjenni
Pot o'Gold - Critica Retro

Monday, April 14, 2014

James Stewart and Anthony Mann Team Up for Winchester '73

I think it's fair to say that Winchester '73 ushered in the "adult Western" of the 1950s. Although there were earlier Westerns with flawed heroes, hard-edged films like Winchester '73 reinvented the genre. Their protagonists were rugged men--often with a dark past--focused on revenge (Rancho Notorious), redemption (Bend of the River), or complex "family" relationships (Man of the West). Visually, these films often surrounded their characters with sweeping vistas that seemed to overwhelm the human element. Yet, for all the scenic splendor, this was a grittier West with cowboy hats stained with sweat and rundown desert bars populated by opportunists. One could almost say that these "adult Westerns" reflect the influence of film noir on the traditional oater.

Plotwise, Winchester '73 is a revenge tale about Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a sharpshooter obsessed with tracking down and killing a man that calls himself Dutch Henry Brown. Although it quickly becomes apparent that Dutch Henry is a bad man, Lin's reason for revenge isn't revealed until near the film's conclusion (a plot device used later in Once Upon a Time in the West). It's important to note that Lin is not a lawman and he doesn't want to capture Dutch Henry for a reward. He wants to kill the man.

Stewart at his most intense.
This premise could have backfired if not for the casting of the always likable James Stewart as Lin. It was a decision that benefited both the film and the actor. For Stewart, his intense performance was a stark contrast to most of his pre-World War II roles (though it was a natural extension of his performances in films like Rope and even the darker parts of It's a Wonderful Life). It opened a whole new career arc for the actor, who starred in a number of successful Westerns throughout the 1950s and 1960s--including four more helmed by Winchester '73 director Anthony Mann.

A touch of noir from director Mann.
Prior to 1950, Mann had carved out a career making what are now regarded as classic "B" film noirs (e.g., Raw Deal and T-Men). His first Western, Devil's Doorway starring Robert Taylor, was made prior to Winchester '73. However, it was temporarily shelved after a poor press screening and released--with little fanfare--later in 1950. Still, Universal and Stewart had seen a print of Devil's Doorway and decided that Mann was...their man. Stewart once said that Mann, like John Ford, knew that "a Western has to be a visual thing."

Stewart and Mann regular Jay C. Flippen.
Ironically, James Stewart initially agreed to a two-picture deal at Universal only so that he could star in Harvey. Stewart was keen to play the role of Elwood P. Dowd after substituting briefly for Frank Fay in the original Broadway stage production. In the DVD commentary for Winchester '73, Stewart credits his agent Lew Wasserman for suggesting the Western, noting that the script had been rejected by other studios. To keep the budget down, Stewart accept a percentage of the film's profit--a wise financial move that quickly became the standard for big stars.

Shelley Winters as Lola.
While Mann's directorial flourishes (e.g., the mountain shoot-out) dominate much of Winchester '73, the film's narrative style has always fascinated me. The script, penned by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase, weaves three interconnecting storylines: Lin's pursuit of Dutch Henry; the former dance hall girl Lola (Shelley Winters) who plans to marry a rancher (Charles Drake); and Dutch Henry teaming up with the gleefully bad Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) for a robbery. In the film's opening scenes, Lin meets Lola briefly and has a confrontation with Dutch Henry. Then, we follow separate subplots until Lin and Lola reunite during an Indian attack. They separate again, with Lin still looking for Dutch Henry and Lola eventually meeting Waco Johnny Dean, whose gang includes her fiance Steve. As the film ramps up to its conclusion, Lin's search leads him to the same town where Dutch Henry and Waco plan to rob the bank.

In addition to Rock Hudson, Anthony
(Tony) Curtis has a small role.
To add to this rich narrative structure, Lin's Winchester rifle--which he wins during a centennial celebration--changes hands seven times: from Lin to Dutch Henry to an Indian trader (John McIntire) to an Indian leader (Rock Hudson) to Steve to Waco to Dutch Henry to Lin. Whew!

Although it's an exceptional, highly influential film, Winchester '73 is not my favorite James Stewart-Anthony Mann Western. That would be The Far Country or Bend of the River. Those films offer more thematic depth, exploring the importance of family and the power of redemption. They are also in color, which provides Mann with another tool for visual expression. But the fact remains that those Westerns might never have been made if not for the success of Winchester '73.

The same could be said of a lot of other Westerns that followed in its wake.

This post is part of The James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. We strongly encourage you to check out all the great posts in this blogathon by clicking here for the complete schedule.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hatari! (Swahili for "Danger"...English for "Howard Hawks on Vacation in Africa")

In Todd McCarthy's Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, a quote from the famous director describes his 1962 action film Hatari! as: "It's what happens when a bunch of guys get together to can't sit in your office and describe what a rhino is going to do." This is true and it's how Hawks rationalized the flimsy plot that comprises Hatari!. 

John Wayne plays Sean Mercer, who heads a "bunch of guys" that capture wild animals in Africa for zoos. Sean's comrades have colorful nicknames like Pockets (Red Buttons), The Indian (Bruce Cabot), and Chips (Gerard Blain). In between roping giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, and--yes--rhinos, the once-burned Sean falls in love with a female photographer (Elsa Martinelli). Meanwhile, the other men begin to notice that their co-worker Brandy (Michele Girardon), who owns Momella Game, Ltd., has grown into an attractive young woman. That's all that happens during the film's running time of two hours and 37 minutes.

Wayne and Martinelli.
Before you totally write off Hatari!, please note that the action scenes are impressive and the cast is charming. It took me awhile to warm up to Elsa Martinelli, but she and Wayne develop a sweet rapport. There's no romantic chemistry between them--he was twice her age when the film was made. In fact, young actresses were cast opposite Wayne in several of his 1960s films: Martha Hyer in The Sons of Katie Elder; Elizabeth Allen in Donovan's Reef; and Charlene Holt in El Dorado. Personally, I always thought the middle-aged Wayne seemed more at ease playing opposite veteran actresses (Rita Hayworth in Circus World, Maureen O'Hara in McLintock!) or as a father figure (True Grit).

Girardon, who committed suicide
in 1975, and Kruger.
Howard Hawks originally intended Hatari! as a serious vehicle starring Clark Gable and John Wayne as hunters vying for the same woman. However, Gable's salary demands were too steep, so the script was rewritten. Hardy Kruger, three years before his terrific performance in Flight of the Phoenix, was cast as Wayne's chum. The part was rewritten so that Kruger and Buttons competed for Girardon's affections (although this subplot inexplicably peters out).

There are several interesting trivia facts regarding the film's production:
  • All the animals captured in Africa (in what is now Tanzania) were transported to California for additional scenes. When the movie was finished, the animals were donated to the San Diego Zoo.
  • You can spend your vacation at the Hatari Lodge in Tanzania. The lodge used to be Hardy Kruger's farmhouse. The actor fell in love with Africa during the filming of Hatari! and bought a farm with a scenic view of Mount Kilimanjaro.
  • Henry Mancini, who composed the film's score, wrote a snippet of music for the baby elephants. The playful tune became known as the "Baby Elephant Walk" and its fame far exceeded the rest of the film's soundtrack.
Finally, Hawks' fans will surely want to see Hatari! despite its limitations. In McCarthy's book, the author points out similarities between Hatari! and the director's other films. Martinelli befriends a leopard named Sonia and rescues an orphaned elephant who becomes her pet; Katharine Hepburn has a pet leopard in the Hawks' Bringing Up Baby. Sean and his friends engage in a dangerous occupation like Hawks' heroes in Ceiling Zero, Only Angels Have Wings, and Rio Bravo.

McCarthy even mentions that the famous French film critic and director Francois Truffaut once described Hatari! as a reflection on the filmmaking process. I think that's a stretch, but, really, who am I to argue with Truffaut?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Walt Disney's The Sword and the Rose

Mary Tudor, the younger sister of England's King Henry VIII, gets the Disney treatment in 1953's The Sword and the Rose. Glynis Johns stars as the spunky Princess Mary, who falls in love with Charles Brandon (Richard Todd), the dashing captain of the palace guards. When her romance with Brandon threatens the King's plan to marry her off to King Louis XII of France, Mary runs away to join Brandon on a voyage to America. Unfortunately, the young lovers are captured and a displeased Henry VIII accuses Brandon of high treason and imprisons him in the Tower of London. As Brandon awaits his execution, Mary must decide how to save the man she loves.

Richard Todd as Charles Brandon.
The Sword and the Rose was one of four Disney costume adventures produced in Great Britain in the 1950s. The others were Disney's first all live-action film Treasure Island (1950), The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (1953). The latter two films also starred The Sword and the Rose's Richard Todd and James Robertson Justice, while Glynis Johns reunited with her co-stars for Rob Roy. Walt Disney's decision to shoot the films in Great Britain was a financial one. British treasury restrictions prevented him from moving profits from his cartoons to the U.S. He used those funds to establish a British studio that produced live action films through the 1960s.

Johns "disguised" as a boy.
The Sword and the Rose's strongest virtue is its first-rate British cast. Johns is delightful as the mischievous Princess Mary, who knows just how to manipulate her royal brother to get what she wants. She also looks fetching when dressed as Brandon's page. Indeed, her performance and appearance in The Sword and the Rose surely led to her casting as another spunky heroine opposite Danny Kaye in 1955's comedy classic The Court Jester. As for Todd and Justice, they are well-suited to the kind of roles that made them famous: Todd as the swashbuckling hero and Justice as a blustery, but good-hearted, father figure. Michael Gough is also on hand as the de facto villain, a nobleman who wants to be more than friends with the lovely princess.

Robertson as King Henry VIII.
However, despite its acting pedigree, The Sword and the Rose lacks the flair of the decade's best swashbucklers. Until the climax, there's much more rose (an emphasis on Mary and Brandon's romance) than sword (any kind of derring do). Granted, the plot is partially constrained by historical events--though even there, The Sword and the Rose takes liberties. In real life, Brandon was a duke and not the captain of the palace guards; he had already been married two previous times and had two daughters. Plus, Michael Gough's Duke of Buckingham had no interest in Mary. 

The screenplay was based on Charles Major's 1898 novel When Knighthood Was in Flower and filmed previously in 1922 with Marion Davies as Mary Tudor. The Sword and the Rose was retitled When Knighthood Was in Flower when it was broadcast in 1956 in two parts on the Disneyland TV series (later known as Walt Disney Presents and other titles).

Friday, April 4, 2014

We Describe the Movie...You Name It!

Here are the rules to this quiz: Name each film below based on our vague description. Be sure to include the question number with your response. Please don't answer more than three questions daily so others can play, too. There is one film that is the single best answer to each description.

1. Two real-life brothers play detective brothers.

2. A guy has a crush on a girl and names a plant after her.

3. The answer can be found in the connection between a baby and an old man.

4. A wealthy man with a reckless past becomes a brain surgeon.

5. A woman pays $630 to put her name on a billboard for three months.

6. A man is murdered at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel and the house detective and bellboy try to find the culprit.

7. It's Going My Way except it's about doctors instead of priests.

8. A famous actress starred in this film about a trogolodyte. (Bet you learned a new word today! Who said the Cafe isn't educational?)

9. A man dances with a mouse and a cat.

10. Unfortunately, a man who has just consumed a huge meal relents when his waiter insists on a small after-dinner mint.

11. A fight ensues over a soda pop bottle--well, the fight isn't really about the bottle. But if it wasn't for the soda pop bottle, there wouldn't have been a fight that day.

12. The title of the film has nothing to do with an insect nor the devil.

13. His best friend is a skunk.

14. His best friend is a rat.

15. The president is kidnapped on a golf course.