Sunday, June 29, 2014

Seven Things to Know About Glynis Johns

1. Stephen Sondheim wrote "Send in the Clowns" specifically for Glynis Johns, whose husky voice worked best with short phrasing. She sang it in the original 1973 stage production of  A Little Night Music and won a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.

2. Glynis Johns received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Sundowners (1960), Fred Zinneman's saga of an Australian family. She lost the Oscar to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry. Deborah Kerr was also nominated, as Best Actress, for The Sundowners; Kerr and Johns appeared together 15 years earlier opposite Robert Donat in Perfect Strangers (aka Vacation from Marriage).

Johns and Danny Kaye--in disguise--in
The Court Jester.
3. She once said: "I would sooner play in a good British picture than in the majority of American pictures I have seen." Ironically, it was an American picture--the 1955 comedy classic The Court Jester--that provided her with one of her most fondly-remembered roles.

4. In 1963, she starred as an author who dabbled in crime-solving in her own American sitcom Glynis. The series was created by Jess Oppenheimer, one of the masterminds behind I Love Lucy, and was produced by Desilu. Keith Andes played Glynis' husband. Alas, the series was cancelled after 13 episodes--though a similar premise worked quite well years later for Johns' Court Jester co-star Angela Lansbury. Interestingly, Johns guest-starred in a 1985 episode of Muder, She Wrote called "Sing a Song of Murder."

As Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins.
5. Glynis Johns and Angela Lansbury share two other connections. Lansbury was also Tony-nominated for A Little Night Music. She appeared in a 2009 Broadway revival, playing the mother of Johns' character. Johns and Lansbury also appeared in Disney musicals about magical child caregivers. Glynis Johns portrayed Mrs. Banks opposite Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins  (1964), while Angela Lansbury starred as an apprentice witch in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).

Rudy Vallee and Glynis Johns.
6. Johns played villain Lady Penelope Peasoup on the Batman TV series. She teamed up with Rudy Vallee, who portrayed Lord Marmaduke Ffogg.

7. She played a flirtatious mermaid curious about humans in Miranda (1948) and its belated 1954 sequel Mad About Men. The first film was one of the biggest British boxoffice hits of the year. In the second film, Glynis Johns played double roles: Caroline, a school teacher who takes a vacation in Cornwall, and Miranda, a mermaid and distant relative to Caroline.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Powell and Pressberger's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing

I suspect that The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus are the films that spring to mind when most movie buffs think of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. However, the filmmaking duo explored the theme of war more than any other. It's present--either directly or indirectly--in 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Contraband, and A Canterbury Tale. However, their most prominent war film was One of Our Aircraft is Missing.

It was produced in 1942 under the auspices of Great Britain's Ministry of Information, with the goal of boosting the country's morale during World War II. It also marked the fourth collaboration for Powell and Pressberger and, notably, their first one in which their producing, directing, and writing credits were billed collectively as The Archers.

One of Our Aircraft Is Missing begins with an empty airplane plunging into power lines and then backtracks to 15 hours before the crash. In almost documentary-like fashion, we're introduced to the plane's crew as it prepares for its next--apparently routine--mission. Personally, I struggled with differentiating the characters during these early scenes since I was unfamiliar with many of the British actors. As a result, the first 26 minutes were a bit of a slog.

However, the film takes off once the crew parachutes from its damaged plane into occupied Dutch territory. To their surprise, the British fliers are discovered by children that lead them to a resistance group willing to smuggle the entire crew out of Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The escape comprises the rest of the 139-minute running time, with suspenseful sequences alternating with pithy conversations among the Brits, the Dutch Resistance, and the Nazis.

Googie Withers as a spy.
Powell and Pressberger specialized in creating strong parts for their leading ladies, as evidenced by Black Narcissus, I Know Where I'm Going, The Red Shoes, and others. You can add One of Our Aircraft Is Missing to that list. Pamela Brown shines as a member of the Dutch Resistance, especially in her first scene where she subtly interrogates the Brits to ensure they are not Germans in disguise. Later in the film, the crew is aided by an entrepreneur (Googie Withers) who plays a dangerous game: She conducts routine business with the Nazis while she hides the British fliers in her quarters and plans the final phase of their escape. These tough, dedicated women are the true heroes of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.

Geoffrey Tearle is probably the best-remembered of the male leads, having portrayed a villain in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935). He later appeared in Mandy (1952), a critically-acclaimed film about a young deaf girl, and the Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). Of course, the most famous actor in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing has only a small supporting part. That would be Peter Ustinov, who looks so young as to almost be unrecognizable as a priest.

Powell uses lighting to simulate shells
exploding in mid-air outside the plane.
The crisp black-and-white photography suits the film--which is saying a lot since Michael Powell later revolutionized the use of color in Black Narcissus. The film opens with a pre-title sequence, which was unusual for the 1940s. It also contains no music, emphasizing natural sound to great effect.

One of Our Aircraft Is Missing earned Academy Award nominations for special effects and the screenplay by Powell and Pressberger. Amazingly, it was Michael Powell's only Oscar nomination. Emeric Pressberger won an Oscar for his 49th Parallel screenplay and received another writing nomination for The Red Shoes in 1948.

The man who edited One of Our Aircraft Is Missing didn't receive any recognition for his work. Still, he had a pretty good career in the cinema. His name was David Lean.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Wonderfulness of "I Spy" Arrives on DVD

The cultural significance of I Spy--which Timeless Media will release as a boxed set on June 24th--has been covered in numerous books and essays. It was, after all, the first U.S. television series to feature an African American actor in a lead role. In 1965, that was a landmark achievement--and a bold one. Four of NBC's affiliates in the southern U.S. refused to broadcast I Spy.

The irony is that the people responsible for the success of I Spy went out of their way to avoid focusing on the fact that co-star Bill Cosby was an African American. Their show was simply about two friends who happened to be spies. It was incidental that one was white and one was black. In fact, racial insults were banned from the show after a season one episode ("Danny Was a Million Laughs") in which Martin Landau's smarmy criminal flips a coin to Scotty (Cosby) and tells him: "Here you are, boy. I'll leave my shoes out for you tonight."

The series was the brainchild of actor-turned-producer Sheldon Leonard. After producing such hits as The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leonard wanted to create an hour-long drama. With the James Bond craze in full throttle in 1965, Leonard developed the idea for an espionage series that utilized international locales--but few gadgets. Robert Culp, who had approached Leonard with a proposed TV series about a retired spy, was a natural choice for one of the roles. The original premise was for Culp to play a protege to an older spy. Leonard dropped that idea when Carl Reiner suggested the other role be played by an up-and-coming stand-up comic named Bill Cosby--who had no acting experience.

Cosby's "test" episode "Affair in T'sien Cha" did not go well. The acting novice was stiff and his natural charm came across as muted. Still, Leonard and and Culp pushed ahead with the series (that episode was eventually broadcast midway through the first season).  I Spy debuted on September 15, 1965, with Culp starring as Kelly Robinson, a veteran espionage agent who maintains his cover as an Ivy League-educated tennis pro. His Rhodes scholar partner, Alexander Scott (or Scotty), acts as Robinson's trainer.

Yes, that's Culp as Chuang Tzu.
Culp, who also wrote several episodes, was clearly the intended star during the first season of I Spy. He appears in the opening credits, his name comes first, and the font size of his name is larger than Cosby's. The breakout star, though, turned out to be Cosby. He won the first of three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series. Each year, Robert Culp was among the other nominees in the same category (Culp even played a double role in the season 2 episode "The War Lord," also appearing as the villainous Chuang Tzu).

The success of I Spy can be attributed almost entirely to the breezy interplay between Culp and Cosby. The two, who became good friends off-screen, sometimes improvised their dialogue. A favorite expression was "wonderfulness," which was first used in the second episode "A Cup of Kindness." As Scotty makes a homemade explosive to escape from a warehouse, he explains how he'll use a cigarette as the fuse. Kelly quips back: "Is there no limit to the wonderfulness of your mind?"

Mr. & Mrs. Culp in "The Tiger,"
an episode written by Robert Culp.
While some episodes tilted toward comedy ("Chrysanthemum") and others went for straight drama ("The Loser"), the best ones were a combination of both (the delightfully twisty "Dragon's Teeth"). Many well-known performers appeared on the show, such as Boris Karloff, Dorothy Lamour, Keye Luke, and Don Rickles. Some of the guest stars gained fame later on television or in films, to include: Carroll O'Connor, Gene Hackman, and Nicolas Colasanto (Coach in Cheers). I Spy also provided a unique platform for African American performers. Earth Kitt won an Emmy for playing a drug addicted singer in "The Loser." Other episodes featured Ivan Dixon (Kinch on Hogan's Heroes), Greg Morris (Barney on Mission: Impossible), and Godfrey Cambridge. Culp's favorite guest star may have been France Nuyen, who appeared in four episodes. She and Culp were married from 1967-70.

The snazzy credits complimented
Hagen's theme.
From a production standpoint, I Spy stood apart from its espionage TV series rivals by setting the action in scenic international locales. In fact, much of I Spy was filmed throughout the world, in colorful countries like Hong Kong, Greece, Mexico, and Italy. Finally, no mention of the show would be complete without highlighting the catchy opening theme by Earle Hagen. The composer also scored the background music for the series, often incorporating ethnic music from an episode's locale.

Hickey & Boggs movie poster.
While never a Top 20 TV series, I Spy enjoyed a solid three-year run. Four years after its cancellation, Cosby and Culp reteamed as a pair of private eyes for the theatrical film Hickey & Boggs (1972), which was directed by Culp. They also reunited again for the 1994  made-for-television movie I Spy Again. It was intended as a pilot for a television series which would feature the grown children of Kelly and Scotty as spies.

The new I Spy boxed set from Timeless Media includes all three seasons on 18 discs. The picture and sound quality are excellent. Although the discs feature no extras, there is an attractive booklet containing a brief history of the series, synopses of each episode, and interesting trivia.

The Cafe received a review copy of the I Spy boxed set from Timeless Media.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2014 Edition)

These two have a connection?
This is the second edition of our latest game. In the questions below, you'll be given be a pair of films, TV series, performers, or any combination thereof. Your task is to find the common connection between the pair. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, a film that inspired a TV series, etc. For example, suppose the pair was: the Perry Mason TV series and Errol Flynn. The connection is the 1935 film The Case of the Curious Bride, which starred Warren William as Perry Mason and Errol Flynn as a murder victim. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question. Good luck!

1. James Garner and Steve McQueen (it's not The Great Escape). 

2. David Niven and Leslie Howard. 

3. Ginger Rogers and Jerry Lewis. 

4. Ray Milland and Patrick McGoohan. 

5. The TV series It Takes a Thief and the film The Towering Inferno.

6. Tom Cruise and Peter Graves. 

7. Johnny Weissmuller and Charlton Heston. 

8. Laurence Olivier and Peter Cushing. 

9. Raquel Welch and Carole Landis. 

10. I Love Lucy and My Three Sons (an easy one!).

11. Richard Burton and the 1966-71 TV series Dark Shadows.

12. Cornel Wilde and Robert Taylor.

13. Timothy Carey and Paul Newman.

14. Agnes Moorehead and Veronica Lake.

15. Janet Leigh and James Stewart (this one is a stretch...and it's not Hitchcock!).

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Poseidon Adventure: Trust in Hackman

The first--and best--of the 1970s "disaster movies," The Poseidon Adventure has aged well over the years. I sometimes think it gets lumped in with its disaster brethren--The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, etc.--which is a shame, because Poseidon is a superior film that established the formula for those lesser efforts.

The first half-hour is basically an introduction to the people aboard the S.S. Poseidon, an outdated cruise ship making its final voyage from Athens to New York. The passengers and ship staff include: a police detective and his former-prostitute wife (Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens); a retired couple (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) going to see their grandson for the first time; a teen girl and her obnoxious younger brother (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea); a lonely businessman (Red Buttons); a singer (Carol Lynley); a bartender (Roddy McDowall); and an unorthodox priest (Gene Hackman), whose defiance of his church superiors has resulted in his banishment to a third-world country (a mission that the priest embraces). Granted, some of these characters border initially on stereotypes, which is surprising considering that Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, Route 66) co-wrote the screenplay. However, as the film progresses, Silliphant reveals hidden depths to some of the passengers.

Gene Hackman and Pamela Sue Martin..
The plot cranks into high gear when the ship capsizes after being hit with an aftershock (8.6 on the Richter scale) from an underwater earthquake. With several people already dead, the survivors face their first dilemma. Two of them (Buttons and Hackman) propose that they make their way upward to the propeller shaft where the hull may be thin enough to reach the surface. However, the ship's purser encourages the passengers to remain in the ballroom, with promises that help must surely be on its way. Unable to reach agreement, two groups split off with one following the decisive priest and the other remaining with the purser.

Borgnine as the detective Rogo.
As the first group of passengers makes its way slowly up to the hull, friction quickly develops between the priest and the detective. In addition to having doubts about the priest's course of action, Borgnine's detective--a man typically in charge--bristles at taking orders from someone else. And it doesn't help that his wife seems to have complete confidence in Hackman's priest. This intra-group turbulence heightens the suspense as the survivors face one seemingly insurmountable hurdle after another. 

The interior of the ship, masterfully created by set designers William Creber and Raphael Bretton, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. Danger seems to lurk around every turn, whether it is rising water, searing flames, or boiling steam.

Oscar nominee Shelley Winters.
In addition to its art decoration, The Poseidon Adventure earned Oscar nominations for cinematography, costumes, sound, editing, and John Williams' excellent music score. Shelley Winters, who won the 1973 Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, lost the Academy Award in the same category to Eileen Heckart for Butterflies Are Free. Still, The Poseidon Adventure wasn't shut out in Oscar wins; the song "The Morning After" picked up a statuette and the film was given a "special achievements award" for its visual effects.

Although Borgnine gives one of his best post-1960s performances and Winters has a great scene, acting honors go to Gene Hackman. His high-octane performance propels the film and reaffirms his status as one of the most versatile actors of his generation.

The flop sequel with
Michael Caine & Sally Field.
Backed by a canny marketing campaign ("Hell, upside down" and "Who will survive?" proclaimed the posters), The Poseidon Adventure was a boxoffice smash. Producer Irwin Allen copied the formula, only with bigger stars, for The Towering Inferno. And, at the end of the disaster movie cycle, he mounted an unsuccessful sequel called Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.

Thirty-three years after the original film, two remakes appeared: a made-for-TV version with Rutger Hauer and 2006's Poseidon, a lively remake helmed by Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot). Though the latter is quite watchable, I recommend sticking with the original if you're in the mood for a suspenseful movie about an overturned ocean liner.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Five Best Classic Movie Robots

They come in all sizes, from imposing, lumbering giants to pint-sized wheeled models. Sometimes, they can speak a variety of languages fluently, but other times they can only make beeping sounds or no noise at all. They're adept at fixing things and destroying things. Once in awhile, one goes bad--but typically they function as loyal companions. Yes, we are talking about robots of the silver screen!

In our picks below, please note that cyborgs and androids have been omitted (sorry, Blade Runner, RoboCop, and Terminator!).

1. Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Eight feet tall and made of an impenetrable alien metallic substance, Gort was the movies’ first robot superstar. He doesn’t say a word, but was the recipient of a classic line of dialogue: “Klaatu barada nikto” (roughly translated, it means that Klaatu was killed and needs to be revived…and, by the way, please don’t destroy the Earth). Definitely the tall silent type.

2. Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet). Slightly shorter than Gort and much more talkative, Robby also starred in the cult sci fi film The Invisible Boy (1957). But he’s most famous for Forbidden Planet, in which his character was inspired by the sprite Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Dr. Morbius programmed Robby so that the robot could not harm humans. (Robby was also the obvious inspiration for the robot in TV's Lost in Space).

3. The Robot Maria (Metropolis). This 2006 inductee into the Robot Hall of Fame (Gort made it the same year) is the oldest robot on this list--though she's doesn't look it, of course. Possibly cinema's first female robot, the Robot Maria (also know as the False Maria) is eventually given human features that make it impossible to discern the real Maria from her robotic duplicate. Still, it's the image of the robot prior to the transformation that has captured the imagination of millions of film fans.

4. R2-D2 and C3PO (Star Wars movies). They need no introduction after compiling more screen time than any other robots in motion picture history. Plus, they've starred in video games, been molded into popular play-action figures, and been transformed into kiddie Halloween costumes!

5. Huey, Dewey, and Louie (Silent Running). These three little service drones prove invaluable to an astronaut-botanist (Bruce Dern) after he hijacks a spaceship carrying a living forest. The drones not only conduct maintenance on the station, but they also perform surgery on Dern’s injured leg, tend to the forest, and play poker with their human companion.

Honorable Mentions: The Iron Giant, Tobor the Great (spell his name backwards), and Terror of Mechagodzilla.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What do James Stewart, Billy Wilder, and Connie Francis Have in Common?

The answer is the melodic strains of the of the song "Senza Fine."

Italian composer Gino Paoli wrote "Senza Fine" in 1961. Although a popular success, it was not his biggest hit in his native country. That would be "Sapore Di Sale" or "Il Cielo in una Stanza." While those songs still have their ardent fans (Martin Scorsese used the latter in Goodfellas), it's "Senza Fine" that would be immortalized in two English-language films.

It first appeared in Robert Aldrich's gripping The Flight of the Phoenix. The song is playing on the radio as James Stewart and Ernest Borgnine watch over a fellow airplane crash survivor destined to die from his injuries. As Connie Francis croons "Senza Fine" in both English and Italian, the dying young man (Gabriele Tinti) finds solace in its lyrics. It's a poignant scene--a moment of tranquility--in a film filled with conflict, hardship, and suspense. You can view the scene below.

Alec Wilder wrote the English lyrics for "Senza Fine," since Paoli's original was in Italian only. When The Flight of Phoenix was released in Italy, though, the song was sung by Ornella Vanoni completely in Italian.

Although Connie Francis was near the height of her popularity in the mid-1960s, her recording of "Senza Fine" was never released as a single in the U.S. (although it was in Great Britain). Francis' version did appear on her 1966 album Movie Greats of the 1960s, where it was billed as "The Phoenix Love Theme (Senza fine)."

Thus, it was left to an instrumental group called The Brass Ring to record the only version of "Senza Fine" to chart in the U.S. Punctuated by Phil Bodner's saxophone solo, it's an upbeat interpretation which is pleasant enough, but without the poignancy of Francis' rendition. Still, it reached #21 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart as part of a two-sided single that also included "Lara's Theme (from Dr. Zhivago"). 

Despite its fame (and having watching The Flight of the Phoenix multiple times), I never took note of "Senza Fine" until I saw Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972). Charming and under-appreciated, the film is about a reserved businessman (Jack Lemmon) who travels to an island near Naples to bury his father. He meets the daughter (Juliet Mills) of his father's mistress and, though married, finds himself falling in love. Wilder incorporates "Senza Fine" throughout the film, giving this scenic romance an effervescent charm. It's a lovely arrangement by Carlo Rustichelli (who also composed the original music for Avanti!).

And, of course, there have been numerous other version of "Senza Fine." It has been covered by recording artists as diverse as Andrea Bocelli, Boz Scaggs, and Dean Martin. Interestingly, it's rarely listed by its English-language title: "Without End."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Peter Falk's First Case as Columbo

Falk's first close-up as Columbo.
Upon suspecting that her psychiatrist husband left their anniversary party for a rendezvous with his mistress, Joan Flemming threatens to ruin him professionally and financially. Dr. Ray Flemming (Gene Barry) comes up with a convincing lie--he was planning a surprise second honeymoon in Mexico. Yet, the reality is that he has already plotted Joan's murder to the last detail. The following day, with an assist from his actress girlfriend, Flemming pulls off what he believes to be the perfect crime. The only problem is that the L.A. detective assigned to the case is Lieutenant Columbo.

Bert Freed was the first Columbo.
Prescription: Murder, a 1968 made-for-TV movie, marked Peter Falk's debut as the crafty Columbo. However, it was not the first appearance of the fictional sleuth created by Richard Levinson and William Link. Columbo--then known as Fisher--was featured in the short story "Dear Corpus Delicti," which was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1960. That same year, Levinson and Link adapated their short story into "Enough Rope," an episode of the live drama anthology Chevy Mystery Show. Bert Freed played Columbo, who was a secondary character to the villainous Dr. Flemming (played by Richard Carlson).

A year later, Levinson and Link expanded "Enough Rope" into a stage play called Prescription: Murder. It starred Joseph Cotten as Flemming, Agnes Moorehead as his wife, and Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. Sadly, the play never made it to Broadway, in part because Thomas Mitchell died of cancer in 1962.

Levinson and Link, who met in junior high school, dusted off Prescription: Murder again in 1968--this time as a telefilm for NBC. They originally wanted Lee J. Cobb to play Columbo. When his schedule prevented him from taking the role, they offered it to Bing Crosby. When he also declined, the part went to Peter Falk. Levinson and Link initially worried that the 41-year-old Falk was too young to play Columbo (Mitchell was 70). However, once they saw his performance, they knew it was a perfect pairing of actor and role. 

Gene Barry as the murderer.
Considering that Columbo would eventually become a TV icon, it's somewhat surprising that he doesn't make his entrance until 32 minutes into Prescription: Murder. He introduces himself to Gene Barry's murderer as simply: "Lieutenant Columbo, police." Thus, it's up to Barry to carry the film's opening scenes and he's quite persuasive as the intelligent, egotistical Flemming. His simple, yet ingenious, murder plot relies on an axiom employed by Agatha Christie in her classic Hercule Poirot novel Lord Edgware Dies. Flemming explains it to his accomplice: "People see what they expect to see."

It takes Flemming most of the film to realize that he has underestimated his dogged pursuer. In the best scene, the two men discuss the murder in theoretical terms--though each knows exactly what happened. Flemming even offers a psychoanalysis of Columbo's tactic of masking his intelligence. At its best, Prescription: Murder is a two-character play--and I mean that as a compliment. William Windom, Nina Foch, and Katherine Justice are fine in supporting roles, but the crux of the film is the cat-and-mouse game between Columbo and Flemming.

Columbo: "There's just one more thing..."
Although Prescription: Murder is sometimes described as a pilot for a TV series, most sources claim that neither Falk nor Levinson and Link were interested in the grind of a weekly show. NBC addressed their concern in 1971 when it suggested a Columbo drama as part of its 90-minute umbrella series, The NBC Mystery Movie. Thus, instead of starring in 24 or more weekly hour shows, Falk had to commit to just seven 90-minute shows yearly.

Lee Grant as the first female killer.
However, before finalizing the deal, NBC asked for a pilot film that became Ransom for a Dead Man. It was telecast in March 1971, with the Columbo TV series debuting the following September. Ransom stars Lee Grant as a tough attorney who murders her husband--and then devises a fake kidnapping in order to liquidate his financial assets to pay a ransom. Columbo makes an earlier appearance this time (at the 12-minute mark). Although Grant was nominated for an Emmy, Ransom for a Dead Man lacks the bite that permeates Prescription: Murder--perhaps because Levinson and Link penned the story, but not the script.

Still, Ransom for a Dead Man was a ratings hit and the rest--as they say--is television history. Counting Prescription and Ransom, Peter Falk played Columbo in 68 telefilms or TV episodes over a span of 35 years.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Boris Karloff Hosts a Thriller

In his 1981 history of horror fiction Danse Macabre, Stephen King dubs Thriller "probably the best horror series ever put on TV." It's still hard to argue with King's assessment. While this 1960-62 anthology series was inconsistent, it boasted some of the most chilling content ever broadcast on television. Ironically, that--combined with its one-hour length and short run--may explain why it never achieved lasting popularity along the lines of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Simply put, episodes like the classic "Pigeons from Hell" (which featured a "zuvembie" and a hatchet murder) aren't everyone's cup of tea.

Don't let Miss DeVore (Patricia Barry)
remove her wig!
Thriller was created by Hubbell Robinson, a television pioneer who served as executive producer of CBS's prestigious anthology series Playhouse 90. According to the book Fantastic Television, Robinson sold Thriller to NBC without a pilot and based on a vague description. From the beginning, Robinson and his producers disagreed about the direction of the series. Unlike The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller lacked a strong vision and its initial ratings were soft. Fantastic Television includes this enlightening Robinson assessment: "The show simply did not have time to find its identity."

Veteran producers Maxwell Shane and William Frye were brought in to salvage the show. At the same time, the series' scope was narrowed to suspenseful crime stories (produced by Shane) and horror tales (Frye). Although Thriller fared better with critics and viewers, it was still a show with a split personality. One never knew what to expect on a given week: an episode about a botched kidnapping scheme or a scary yarn about a wig that turns its wearer into a vengeful killer.

Henry Daniell in "Well of Doom."
In retrospect, the show's reputation rests almost exclusively on the horror episodes--many of which are still hailed as genre classics. The aforementioned "Pigeons from Hell," adapted from a Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) story, is a contemporary Gothic tale about two brothers who encounter a zombie-like, murderous creature in a decayed Southern mansion. In "The Cheaters," a pair of unusual glasses reveals different things to its various owners--but the result is always bad for everyone involved. The title hairpiece in a "A Wig for Miss DeVore" was once worn by a vengeful witch burned at the stake. It restores youth to a washed-up actress--who unfortunately transforms into a nasty-looking killer whenever the wig is removed. And, in a personal favorite, the densely-atmospheric Well of Doom, a man and his fiancee are imprisoned in a dungeon by mysterious strangers that may possess supernatural powers. The stellar cast features Henry Daniell (looking like Lon Chaney in London After Midnight) and Richard Kiel (Jaws in two Bond films) as the villains.

John Williams in "Yours Truly,
Jack the Ripper."
While I agree that the crime episodes are not as engrossing overall, there are notable exceptions. Stand-up comic Mort Sahl gives a good dramatic performance as a none-too-bright joe who overhears a kidnapping plot in Man in the Middle. His unconventional solution: Kidnap the heiress first. In The Twisted Image, married businessman Leslie Nielsen becomes the target of an obsessed younger woman. And in another fave, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," John Williams (a Hitchcock semi-regular) portrays an expert engaged by the Washington, D.C. police to help apprehend a Ripper-like murderer. Or is the murderer actually Jack the Ripper himself, who has used black magic rituals to defy ageing? This episode was based on a short story by Robert Bloch, who also penned teleplays for Thriller (and wrote the source novel for Hitchcock's Psycho). Interestingly, Block revamped his Jack the Ripper short story a few years later as the Star Trek episode "Wolf in the Fold."

Boris Karloff served as host of Thriller. It was not his first TV series, that distinction belonging to the 1954-55 British program Colonel March of Scotland Yard. Karloff, whose career was fading in the 1950s, gained fame anew when his Universal monster films were released to television, starting in 1957. By 1960, his name was synonymous with horror and he brought instant recognition to Thriller. Alas, his introductions weren't always well-written and often add little to the show. They lack the dark humor of Hitch's introductions on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the poetic fate of Serling's Twilight Zone narratives.

Thriller composers Pete Rugolo and Jerry Goldsmith earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination in 1961 for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Music. Rugolo, who wrote the jazzy Thriller opening theme, is perhaps best remembered for his work on The Fugitive. Goldsmith, of course, went on to a long, highly successful career as a film composer. Morton Stevens, another Thriller composer, later wrote one of the famous of all TV series themes: Hawaii Five-O.

To learn more about Thriller, I recommend checking out the entertaining blog A Thriller a Day... and Alan Warren's book This Is a Thriller. You can watch Thriller on MeTV; the complete series is also available in a boxed set from Image Entertainment.

This post is of part of The Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to view all the other great blogathon entries.