Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tyrone Power Goes Gambling on the Mississippi

Mark:  Since you spare me only a moment, I'll tell you very bluntly: You and I are in love with each other and we always will be. We've known it since that first moment in St. Louis. 

Angelique:  I could have you run out of town for speaking to me like this!

Mark:  No need to run me out. I'll be leaving tomorrow. You're not ready yet for marriage. And I won't be ready until you come to me. 

Angelique:  Why, you completely egotistical...

Mark:  Yes, it does sounds that way when put into words. But it's the only way a woman can be truly happy with a man. 

Tyrone Power plays a good hand.
For those who have never seen The Mississippi Gambler (1953), I don't think I'm giving away the end by saying that Angelique does indeed go to Mark en route to true happiness. Of course, along the way, three people die from a duel, an accidental death, and a suicide. Two women fall in love with the same man and the brother of one of them falls in love with the other. Plus, two men build and lose a fortune.

Yes, a whole lot happens in The Mississippi Gambler, which boasts a plot structured like a crooked river filled with unexpected bends. That's part of the film's charm, along with an appealing cast consisting of Tyrone Power (Mark), Piper Laurie (Angelique), John McIntire, Julie Adams, and Paul Cavanagh.

The film opens with Mark Fallon, the son of a New York fencing master, setting out to become a professional gambler on the Mississippi riverboats. He quickly befriends a con man (McIntire, in one of his best roles) and falls in love at first sight with Angelique, a stunning aristocratic woman. In fact, he rescues the latter from a runaway carriage, but negates his chivalry when he quips: "Sometimes, beautiful women and horses are upset by whistles."

Piper Laurie looking serious.
The film's central conflict arises when Mark beats Angelique's wimpy brother, Laurent, in a poker game. Mark gives Laurent a chance to walk away with minimal losses, but the hot-headed young man insists on continuing and loses his sister's diamond necklace, a family heirloom. None of this is Mark's fault, of course, but the stubborn Angelique refuses to acknowledge her brother's many weaknesses. That keeps her and Mark apart for almost the entire movie.

In spite of occasionally hokey dialogue, The Mississippi Gambler is a lively, entertaining yarn, Though shot on Universal-International's backlot, it looks fabulous (especially the interiors). Along with the colorful costumes, one would think that it was a costly film. However, given the studio's then-thrifty reputation, I suspect most of the budget went to pay Tyrone Power's salary. Actually, he made The Mississippi Gambler while on hiatus from his 20th Century-Fox contract and wisely took a percentage of the film's profits. It turned out to be one of 1953's biggest hits.

I recently watched The Mississippi Gambler at a film festival screening attended by star Piper Laurie. She said Power was also one of the film's producers, although not credited as such, adding:

I was in a competition for the part with Linda Christian, his wife. We both made screen tests. That was a frightening moment. I had never met with Power, although I had seen he and his wife walk into the commissary, dressed in white, looking like gods. I did my best (with the audition) and she did, too. They made us both wait for about a week and then I found out I had the job.

Piper's co-star and friend
Julie Adams.
It's hard to imagine any actress other than Piper Laurie as Angelique. Radiant, pouty, and charming, she makes it easy to believe that any man could fall instantly in love with her. That's no easy task when Julie Adams is also in the movie. Incidentally, the two actresses became friends during their days as contract players at Universal--and remain so today. They toured Korea together in the early 1950s, performing musical numbers for servicemen.

As for Linda Christian, she eventually got to play Angelique--in a Lux Radio Theater production with her husband. She and Tyrone Power would divorce three years later.

Monday, August 25, 2014

An Interview with Piper Laurie: The Three-Time Oscar Nominee Discusses Her Career in Film, Live Television, and the Stage

Piper's inscription reads: "To Rick from the
Classic Film & TV Cafe."
The highlight of last July's Western Film Fair was--for me--the opportunity to spend 45 minutes sitting next to actress Piper Laurie. While she signed photos for charity, she graciously and thoughtfully answered all my questions about her 64 years in show business. It's an impressive career that netted her Oscar nominations for The Hustler, Carrie, and Children of a Lesser God.

Café:  When you first started in movies, you signed a seven-year contract with Universal, which you later described as a "prison that shielded...creativity." If you could go back, knowing what you know now, would you sign it again?

Piper Laurie:  No, I wouldn't. But, you know, I learned something from all my mistakes and it has made me who I am. That's part of life. I got to work more than most of the contract players. If I had been a different sort of person that could really speak up and fight for myself, I might have gotten--might have gotten--better parts. I doubt it, because they just didn't have those kinds of scripts.

Café:  Early in your career, you were paired multiple times with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. What were they like on and off the screen?

In The Golden Blade.
PL:  Well, Tony and I were good friends early on before we were put under contract. I met him when I was about 15. He came to my acting class and joined it. He flirted with me and we had some movie dates. He was a lot of fun. I liked him and he liked me. And then something very weird happened after I was signed at his studio. There seemed to be something going on, even though we were put together in lots of movies. It was never quite the same comfortable camaraderie that we had originally. Rock Hudson, on the other hand, was just a delight. Just a big laugh for a big eater. He was always broke, so he'd come to my mother's kitchen and get fed. He was a lovely man and I think he became a really accomplished actor. He got by early on, but I think he became very good later on in light comedy.

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson.
Café:  There's a great photo in your book of the two of you at a costume ball.

PL:  We were at some charity benefit. I went as the Greek goddess Circe and carried a live baby pig with me. Rock Hudson was my date and he was dressed as one of my conquerors in dark make-up. He did look bizarre. 

Café:  You starred in several live TV dramas like the Playhouse 90 production of The Days of Wine and Roses with Cliff Robertson. How did live television compare to being on the stage?

PL:  It's similar, but live television is much more extreme. It's really walking on the high wire. I don't think people today understand that when you did the show, not only could you not do it again, but it was going out on the air at that moment to everyone in the country. And whatever mistakes you made, that was it. You would live with it for the rest of your career. It was really chancy. It was a daredevil act. I was terrified and forced myself to do it, because I thought I should and thought I could. And it was very rewarding.

Piper and Paul Newman in The Hustler.
Café:  You wrote in your autobiography that you were "too close" to appreciate The Hustler after you made it, but realized years later that it was a great movie. Have you felt that way about any other of your movies?

PL:  Yes, I recently saw Tim that I made in Australia.

Café:  It's a very good film.

PL:  Well, I liked it, too. I saw it and I was better than I thought I was. I either think I'm worse or I'm better. I'm a little out of my mind when I actually finish a project and my perspective is just not accurate. 

Café:  Both you and your co-star Mel Gibson give fine performances in TimDid you see his potential then as a big star and future director?

Mel Gibson and Piper in Tim.
PL:  Absolutely. I knew he would be a big star. I begged him not to come to America. I knew that once the movie was seen that people would want him to come. I said please stay here for another year or two and continue to work in the theater, which he had been doing. And he didn't pay any attention to me (laughs). It took several years before Tim was released. In the meantime, he made the Mad Max movies and became a big star. As a result of that, Tim was finally released. It's still rarely seen. 

Café:  In your autobiography, you credit Carrie with giving you a "third career." It's a compelling film that has aged wonderfully. How did you come to be cast in it?

Piper as Sissy Spacek's terrifying
mother in Carrie.
PL:  I was living in the country in Woodstock, New York, and they had been looking for someone to play the mother. I hadn't worked in fifteen years in a movie and some people I knew mentioned my name to Brian De Palma. An old agent sent me the script. I read the script and I thought it was just not very good. My husband (film critic Joe Morgenstern) said that Brian De Palma has a comedic approach to what he does. I thought, oh, I misread the whole's satiric. It's going to be a comedy. On that basis, I took the train into New York City and met De Palma, whom I liked enormously. I guess he liked me. By the time I got back to Woodstock, I heard he wanted me to do the movie. Weeks later, when I went out to rehearse, I had comedic things I had worked out. During rehearsals, De Palma said: "Piper, if you do that, you're going to get a laugh." That really floored me. So, I changed my interpretation slightly. At any rate, that's how I got the part.

Café:  What led to your directing of the 2006 short film Property?

Piper at the Western Film Fair in 2014.
PL:  I'd had a trauma in my life. I had been living in my home for many years in the Hollywood Hills. There was a freak accident when a city worker mowed down a fire hydrant up above my house in the hills. And all night long, the water gushed down the street and ran down into my backyard and undermined everything. The whole hill came crashing down on my house. I was in bed at the time. It was nine o'clock in the morning and I was watching Meet the Press. I felt something shoving at my back. I looked out the window and, in the corner of my eye, I saw something moving--it was the hill. The mud was at the window. So, I just moved as fast as I could and got out of the house and drove away. The city promised it would take complete responsibility. I stayed in an apartment for four years while they rebuilt everything. I had to put all the things I created in storage--all my films, my paintings, my sculptures...everything that I valued. So, I was living in this stark apartment  and I just needed something. I started to fill my life again with whatever I could creatively. I realized I was in love with the short story "Property" by James Lasdun and I'd love to see it as a movie. So, I set out to make that happen.

Café:  You seem to be a harsh critic of your own performances. Which ones are you the most proud of?

Piper in A Little Night Music.
PL:  I guess, after all these long years, The Hustler and Carrie. I liked what I did in Tim. I liked what I did in the Playhouse 90 live show The Days of Wine and Roses, which was rough and not as slick as the movie. My interpretation differed from Lee Remick's, who was lovely in the film version--but different. I like my stage work, though I've never had it recorded. I really enjoyed working on stage. I did The Glass Menagerie on Broadway with Maureen Stapleton; that felt like it was good work. I liked the one-person play I did about Zelda Fitzgerald on tour, which William Luce wrote. And I just recently did my first stage musical, A Little Night Music. I played Madame Armfeldt in a production in Santa Barbara that opened a brand new theater there. I had a wonderful time. I'm also proud of the singing and dancing--for me--in Ain't Misbehavin'.

Café:  Did your ex-husband, film critic Joe Morgenstern, ever review any of your movies?

PL:  During the major part of our marriage, I wasn't making movies. I was going to see a lot of them. The first time he decided he would review me was for The Grass Harp (1995). He stated in the review that he had been married to me once and may have been prejudiced. He was very kind to me and I think nice about the movie. 

Café:  And lastly, you've starred with many of the finest actors of the last 60 years. Who were some of your favorites and why?

PL:  George C. Scott, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, and one of my idols, Claude Rains. 

Piper Laurie will appear at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland, September 18-20, 2014. The convention's screening schedule includes the aforementioned Playhouse 90 adaptation of The Days of Wine and Roses.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thelma Ritter Shines in The Mating Season

Within days of meeting under unusual circumstances, Val McNulty (John Lund) and Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney) decide to get married. Val is a working-class junior executive who believes Maggie's family is affluent. Yet, while Maggie's mother has hobnobbed with royalty as an ambassador's wife, the family has little money of its own. Mother and daughter may look like socialites, but they lack the means to maintain that lifestyle.

Thelma Ritter as Ellen.
Still, when Val's down-to-earth mother Ellen (Thelma Ritter) arrives unexpectedly, her son becomes concerned that she'll look and feel out of place. A hard-working woman, Ellen has finally sold the diner that she kept alive after her husband's death. She doesn't even have time to explain her situation before Val gives her money to buy a new dress for the wedding. Concerned that her son is ashamed of her, Ellen skips the nuptials.

However, instead of returning home, she stays in Ohio and--through an unusual turn of events--winds up as the live-in cook in the home of the married Val and Maggie. By this point, Val can't begin to explain his mother's presence--and he doesn't even try. He and his mother conspire to keep her true identity a secret...even after Maggie's mother decides to move into the crowded apartment for an extended stay.

Gene Tierney as Maggie.
Despite a far-fetched premise, the oddly-titled The Mating Season (1952) generates a satisfying amount of situational humor. It's one of those comedies where you can easily guess the outcome, but don't mind because the road there is a pleasant drive. Still, considering that Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett had a hand in adapting the original stage play, it's hard not to imagine that The Mating Season could have been better. 

The film's cast is both its strength and weakness. It's pretty much a showcase for Thelma Ritter, who had earned her first Oscar nomination for the previous year's All About Eve. She is in top form in The Mating Season; she wisely chooses to play her role as drama and allows the comedy situations to generate the laughs. She makes Ellen a character that's easy to root for--a tough cookie with plenty of common sense who's willing to do anything for her son. Her performance earned Ritter her second consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She would eventually receive a total of six nominations in that category--and yet somehow never register a win. 

The rest of the cast is a mixed blessing. Gene Tierney exudes radiance and charm as Maggie. Thus, the audience doesn't blame her when her expectations lead her husband to live beyond his means (until his Mom comes to the rescue). As Maggie's mater, Miriam Hopkins is amusing in a one-note fashion. 

John Lund as Val.
That leaves John Lund as the film's chief liability. Lund comes across as a lightweight version of Van Johnson, but with none of Johnson's celluloid appeal. Yes, the screenwriters share the blame, too, but the bottom line is that it's difficult to fathom what attracted Maggie to Val (beyond a physical attracton). And worse, Val rarely seems to fully appreciate all that his mother has done for him.

As a final assessment, The Mating Season is an amusing showcase that reminds one just how good Thelma Ritter could be. That may not be a glowing critique, but it'll do for Ritter fans.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Movie-TV Connection Quiz (August 2014 Edition)

How are Astaire and De Niro connected?
In this edition of the connection game, you will once again be given be a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Henry Fonda and George Gobel. 

2. Ida Lupino and Jodie Foster. 

3. Maureen O'Sullivan and Sean Connery. 

4. Lana Turner and Ursula Andress. 

5. Danny Kaye and Gary Cooper. 

6. Marta Kristen from Lost in Space and Glynis Johns from The Court Jester. 

7. Charles Laughton and Gene Hackman. 

8. Fred Astaire and Robert De Niro. 

9. Fred MacMurray and Dick Powell (think occupation). 

10. Brian De Palma's Carrie and David Lynch's Twin Peaks. 

11. The Birds and My Cousin Rachel. 

12. Marlon Brando and Peter Fonda (an easy one!). 

13. Earthquake, Midway, and Rollercoaster. 

14. Bob Hope and Charles Laughton. 

15. Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kirsten Dunst.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Actor-Author-Scriptwriter Jim Rosin Discusses Jack Klugman, His Books,and Playing an Alien in "Buckaroo Banzai"

One of the highlights of my attendance at the 2014 Western Film Fair was meeting Jim Rosin. He started in show business as a supporting actor in TV series such as Mannix, Cannon, T.J. Hooker, and Quincy, M.E. He subsequently wrote several teleplays for Quincy and later penned a number of informative and entertaining nonfiction books on classic TV series. During the convention, Jim took a break from autographing his books and talked with me about his career and books.

Café:  One of your most interesting acting credits is in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, which became a big cult film. When you were making it, did you think it would ultimately become as popular as it did?

The closing credits of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Jim Rosin: Not really. When I was filming my scenes, it was a very hot day. We were shooting at a power plant in south L.A. and I had to wear a mask because I played an alien, a Lectroid. It took them about an hour to put the mask on me. I remember being very hot and it was claustrophobic. When I did the scene as John Yaya, where I didn't have to wear the mask--boy, that was a joy. That's what I remember most about the filming. It was really an interesting movie. I think they shot it in about 60 days for a budget of about $18 million. It really became a cult movie when I was living in New York. Every Saturday, for years after, theaters would show The Rocky Horror Picture Show followed by The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. Peter Weller, a very dear friend who later played Robocop, was Buckaroo Banzai. The cast also featured Chris Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, and Robert Ito who played Jack Klugman's lab assistant Sam on Quincy, M.E. Jamie Lee Curtis was Buckaroo's mother, but I think her scene with Buckaroo as a boy was deleted from the opening. The film was a combination of action-adventure and sci fi...with a hero who was also a musician with a band. It was unique and different. They were going to do a sequel, but perhaps the boxoffice receipts didn't warrant it because they never came out with a second film. But, at the end of the first, you see the name of the second Buckaroo Banzai film. I have fond memories of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

Café:  You appeared on three classic TV series: Banacek, Mannix, and Quincy, M.E. Who was the best detective of those three?

JR:  I don't know. George Peppard was very good as Banacek. He was cool, able to deduce things, and came up with all those Polish proverbs. It was a well-written show. Jack Klugman as Quincy was also very methodical, unique, and very determined to find out the answer to any problem. Mike Connors (Mannix) was a very nice man; I liked working with him. All three of those characters had a tenacity to get to the truth to find out who the guilty party was. It's hard to delineate who was the best. They were all great and I enjoyed working with all three actors.

Café:  You wrote three episodes of Quincy, M.E. Which one was your favorite and what was the inspiration for it?

JR:  I have a soft spot for "A Test for Living," which is about an autistic child. Jack (Klugman) had done a telethon to raise funds to care for autistic children. When we talked about doing a show, we chose that subject and worked on it together. It was a very worthwhile story line that required a lot of research. Jack sent me out to UCLA to talk with doctors and read books, so I had a huge investment in coming up with the script for that episode. Also, Jack's participation in it was meaningful. Lloyd Nolan, who played the psychiatrist, had a son who was autistic. We did another telethon after the show aired. So, all those things put together made for a very memorable experience for me.

Rosin, Klugman, and Henry Beckman in the 1983 episode "On Dying High."

Café:  What was Jack Klugman like?

JR:  Jack was a very good-hearted man. Very intense. He had a great work ethic. He was very demanding. He had high standards of excellence. You had to be on your toes when you worked with him. As a young actor and writer, I learned a great deal from him and he was very good to me. I was very fortunate to have an association with Quincy, six episodes as an actor and three as a writer. I'll never forget it. The fact it was on for seven years was a testament to him. He fought the studio and the network to do socially relevant material and ultimately he was right, because people responded to it. He really was a very diligent, hardworking, top-flight professional who would involve himself in every facet of the show. The end result is that it was on for 148 episodes.

Café:  You were that rare dual threat--an actor and a writer. Which came first?

With Piper Laurie at the Western Film Fair.
JR:  I started out acting first and then I wrote a play in L.A. In between acting jobs, I was first a bartender in Beverly Hills and then a cab driver. I wrote a play about an actor who drives a cab in Beverly Hills. It was a comedy-drama that Jack read and that ultimately brought me to Quincy. It ran at a theater in Hollywood for about six weeks. That's how I got started writing. I subsequently did some Quincy shows and some soap opera episodes. And I recently completed a screenplay. But I always loved being an actor. The more things you can do in the business, the better off you are because the competition is so keen. If you have a talent for directing or writing, it's very good to explore them because it's harder to depend upon one area because of all the people trying to do the same thing as you.

Café:  You have also written a number of books about classic TV series such as Naked City, Adventures in Paradise, Wagon Train, and Route 66. How did you get into doing that?

JR:  Well, I started doing some books on sports and Philly music. Then, I started thinking about writing about classic TV shows that I grew up with, ones that were popular and enjoyed by millions of people. The first one I did was Route 66, because, to me, that was a wonderful show. It had a great premise of two young men driving in a Corvette convertible all over the country, never knowing what was down the road or around the bend. I knew Marty (Martin Milner), who I worked with on Adam-12 several times. He was great and George Maharis was outstanding. There was a chemistry between them and a contrast. So, I felt I had to do a book on that show. When you combine the aura that they projected on TV, the Corvette, the sense of adventure, the different town every week, the people stories, the backdrop of America--it was just a tremendous show.

Café:  What about some of your other books?

JR:  Herbert B. Leonard, who produced Route 66, also did Naked City. It featured the same approach; it was filmed in New York with a stark look. It was not about police procedure, but more about the ordinary denizens of New York. After the book on Naked City, I wrote one on Wagon Train because I wanted to do a Western. Ward Bond and Robert Horton were great together. Again, it was a series about people. In fact, The title of every episode was a person's name--"The Horace Best Story," "The Malachi Hobart Story," and so on. It had wonderful actors and was about their characters' experience along the prairie from Missouri to California. I loved Adventures in Paradise because it was pure escapism. It took us to a part of the world where we never went. James Michener said it best that we all go to work, wake up, go to work, wake up, we drive the same route back and forth--then we turn on the TV and see Gardner McKay on the Tiki in Tahiti in this exotic part of the world. It was a great source of entertainment and Gardner McKay was very good on the show. He was an expert sailor who had sailed across the Atlantic. The other two books I did were two Quinn Martin shows because I had worked on some of his series. The Invaders starred my dear friend Roy Thinnes, who gave a very believable, honest, edgy portrayal as David Vincent, trying to prove to a disbelieving world that aliens were among us. Quinn Martin wanted to do a show about paranoia. It ran for only two seasons, but everyone loved the show and it was different for the time. The other Quinn Martin series, The Streets of San Francisco featured one of the prettiest cities in the country as a backdrop. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas were a fine team. I think Karl saw Michael as his son, because he and Kirk Douglas were close friends. Michael grew immensely on the show and was very willing to learn. He really put his feet to the ground and absorbed all these things about acting and production. After the fourth season, he produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and became an Academy Award-winning producer. John Wilder, another friend of mine, produced it for three years and wrote some of the episodes. Quinn Martin just had a great organization. When you put everything together--the backdrop of San Francisco, the chemistry of Karl Malden and Michael Douglas, the writing, the guest stars, the breezy music score--it was just an excellent series.

Café:  I'm a huge Route 66 fan and have read varied accounts as to why George Maharis left the show. Based on your research for your book, what was the reason?

George Maharis and Martin Milner.
JR:  I know why he left and in my book, he talks about it. There's a misconception that he left because he wanted out of the show, was getting movie offers, and wanted to be a movie star. That wasn't true. Geroge Maharis left because he contracted hepatitis. He missed four episodes at the end of the second year. He came back for the third season because Herbert Leonard said: "If you don't come back, we might not get renewed." The show could not stand alone with Marty. George Maharis was a very vital part of Route 66. And when he left, he proved to be irreplaceable. The show only lasted another season. His replacement, Glenn Corbett, was a competent actor and a handsome guy, but he was too much like Marty Milner. He didn't have the edge that George had. There was a stark contrast between George and Marty. Their characters were sometimes at each other, which heightened the drama of the show. They didn't always see eye to eye. Yet, there was a bond and chemistry. George was not someone you could replace. Unfortunately, when he came back for the third year, he was promised he would only work so many hours a day because the doctor said to take it easy. He came back in three weeks after having hepatitis. He had a relapse midway through the third season. He went to the doctor, who told him he needed to walk away from the show. He didn't work for a year. It took him that long to recuperate. There was acrimony between Bert Leonard and him. The press made something out of it that wasn't there. George regretted leaving the show because he enjoyed it. He and Marty had a great relationship--it's another misconception that they didn't get along. They were two different individuals, but there was never a bad word between them.

Café:  Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects or appearances that you want to share with our readers?

JR:  I did a book on Philly music history, Philly Pop, Rock, Rhythm & Blues. It's dear to my heart because I'm a Philadelphian. It covers the rock'n'roll and R&B eras of Philly from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s--with all the great performers from the golden years of the rock'n'roll and the doo-wop era, then the R&B era that came after. I have a lot of commentary from the performing artists. I have some discographies and biographies. I've got Hall & Oates on the cover and Gamble & Huff on the back. I love the book and thought I owed it to Philly because it's got such a wonderful music history. I scratch my head as to why the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland and not in Philadelphia--with no disrespect to Cleveland, which is a nice town. There are so many performers both nationally known, as well as local and regionally known, that came out of Philadelphia, South Philadelphia in particular.

Café:  It's been great talking with you, Jim.

JR:  Thanks, Rick.

You can order Jim Rosin's books at his website: He will be appearing at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland, September 18-20, 2014.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Hallmark Hall of Fame: 63 Years and Counting

In terms of television ratings, 2014 has not been a good year for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. As the industry publication Variety recently noted, the venerable "franchise remains a shadow of its former self." Ironically, the decline of of the Hallmark Hall of Fame comes as the Hallmark Channel thrives on cable. In fact, the success of the latter may have diluted the greeting card company's long-running series of television specials.

One could argue that a presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame is no longer special--you can view similar movies any time on the Hallmark Channel. It wasn't always that way, though. For decades, the Hallmark Hall of Fame meant first-rate entertainment for the whole family. It was "event programming," too, with only three or four specials per year.

Amahl was broadcast on NBC, Hallmark
Hall of Fame
's home for 27 years.
Hallmark launched the series on NBC in 1951 with the broadcast of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (the first original opera commissioned for television). Hallmark has shown the opera seven times, with its last appearance being in 1964. Since then, there have been an incredible 252 Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcasts through April 2014.

Chamberlain as Hamlet.
Hallmark introduced Shakespeare to millions of families with adaptations of: Hamlet (Maurice Evans); Richard II; Macbeth (Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson); The Taming of the Shrew (Evans and Lilli Palmer); Twelfth Night; Kiss Me Kate; The Tempest (Evans and Richard Burton); and a second Hamlet (Richard Chamberlain).

For its first three decades, the Hallmark Hall of Fame relied on classic literature and, most prominently, stage plays for its program content. The plays ranged from A Doll's House (Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer) to Inherit the Wind (Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley) to Harvey (with James Stewart reprising his role 22 years after the 1950 film version). The classic literature adaptations included The Master of Ballantrae, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Anthony Hopkins), and The Secret Garden.

A trend toward recent "feel good" novels in the 1990s ignited with Sarah, Plain and Tall, an adaptation of Patricia MacLachlan's 1986 Newberry Medal-winning novel. Glenn Close starred as the mail order bride who moved to Kansas in 1910 to care for a widower (Christopher Walken) and his children. The telefilm was nominated for nine Emmys, but only won one for Best Editing for a Miniseries or Special. Still, its popular success spawned an encore showing and two sequels with Close and Walken: Skylark (1993) and Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter's End (1999).

The "feel good" formula found ratings success and the Hallmark Hall of Fame thrived for most of the next 20 years. As recently as 2010, it pulled in over 13 million viewers with November Christmas, the story of an optimistic young girl with cancer. However, a network switch from CBS to ABC proved disastrous and 2011's Have a Little Faith, adapted from Mitch Albom's bestseller, attracted less than 7 million viewers. Subsequent Hallmark Hall of Fame specials have performed about the same--a far cry from the days when they were ratings blockbusters.

Hopefully, it's not the end of the line for the long-running series, which has amassed an impressive 81 Emmys. I suspect that even if ABC drops it, the greeting card company may retain the franchise on its Hallmark Channel. If the Hallmark Hall of Fame continues, I'd love to see a return to its stage and literary adaptations which starred the likes of Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson, Bette Davis, Basil Rathbone, Ossie Davis, Faye Dunaway, Alec Guinness, and Deborah Kerr.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Pleasure of Fred Astaire's Company

The importance of casting cannot be overestimated. To substantiate this remark, I offer as evidence the 1961 comedy The Pleasure of His Company.

Fred Astaire stars as Biddeford “Pogo” Ford, a globetrotting playboy who has returned to San Francisco to attend his daughter Jessica’s wedding. The catch is that Pogo has only seen Jessica (Debbie Reynolds) three times in the last 15 years and not since she became a young woman. That hasn't dissuaded Jessica from asking her father to give her away at the wedding. Indeed, she is thrilled to see her father—although nobody else is.

As for Pogo, he has a hidden agenda and that’s to whisk away his daughter prior to the nuptials. He charms Jessica while skillfully humiliating her cattle rancher fiancé (Tab Hunter). In fact, he can scarcely hide his satisfaction when he causes a heated argument between the young couple.

Fred dances a little...with Lilli Palmer.
When not interfering in his daughter’s life, Pogo works hard to woo back his ex-wife Kate (Lilli Palmer) and irritate her husband Jim (Gary Merrill). He moves into Jim’s study and rearranges the furniture. He tries to fill Kate’s head with wonderful—but made-up—memories of their married life. He steals a portrait of Jessica. He changes the champagne order for the wedding. In short, Pogo is a self-centered nuisance who wants whatever he doesn't have. He is not a nice person, which is why the casting of Fred Astaire works so wonderfully.

He effortlessly displays Pogo’s irresistible charm. There’s a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes even as Pogo tries to destroy his daughter’s future happiness. He portrays the rascally playboy as a kid who knows he’s being bad, but can’t seem to help it. And because it’s Fred Astaire, the audience tends to cut Pogo some slack, too.

Debbie Reynolds (and Fred's hands).
Of course, the script often works in Pogo’s favor. Jessica’s fiancé may be a nice guy, but he is incredibly boring and the couple hardly seems compatible. Likewise, Jim comes across as an affable but dull spouse, though—after experiencing “a common case of Pogo Poole”—Kate seems content with her life with Jim. She is also the one who knows Pogo best, telling her daughter that her father “needs to have someone to give him substance.”

Lovely Lilli Palmer.
Indeed, one of the film’s greatest assets is Lilli Palmer’s performance as Kate. Looking radiant at age 47, she makes it easy to see why Pogo questions why he divorced her. The elegant German actress was married to Rex Harrison from 1943 to 1957. After starring in Hollywood productions such as Body and Soul and Cloak and Dagger, she moved back to Europe where she worked steadily until her death at age 71 in 1986.

The Pleasure of His Company was adapted from Samuel Taylor’s 1958 Broadway play that starred Cyril Ritchard as Pogo, Dolores Hart (Where the Boys Are) as Jessica, and a young George Peppard as Jessica’s fiancé. The only actor to appear in both play and film was Charles Ruggles as Kate’s father. He won a Tony for his stage performance, although he sadly gets little screen time in the film version.

Cinematographer Robert Burks (a Hitchcock favorite) lovingly captures the sights and sounds of San Francisco. Unfortunately, the dialogue-driven plot takes place mostly indoors. The result is that The Pleasure of His Company becomes a talky affair and, despite delightful performances from the cast (particularly Astaire and Palmer), it wears out its welcome. Just like Pogo Poole.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Jubal: Shakespeare and Male Bonding in the Old West

This post is part of the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. To view the full blogathon schedule, click here.

Rod Steiger and Glenn Ford in Jubal.
Glenn Ford and director Delmer Daves collaborated on three Westerns made between 1956 and 1958. A common theme connecting this unofficial trilogy is the formation of mutual respect and trust among men. In 3:10 to Yuma (1957), an outlaw (Ford) grows to respect the rancher (Van Heflin) guarding him as they await a train and a likely deadly shoot-out. In Cowboy (1958), a veteran trail boss (Ford) begrudgingly takes on a tenderfoot (Jack Lemmon) during a hard cattle drive. During the arduous trek, the two men grow to admire each other and an unlikely friendship forms. That brings us to the first Ford-Daves Western Jubal (1956), which may be the most complex of their collaborations.

I love how director Daves visually conveys
 the divide between Pinky and Jubal.
Ford plays Jubal Troop, a drifter rescued on a mountain road by kind-hearted rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine). Shep offers Jubal a job as one of his ranch hands. That doesn’t sit well with disgruntled employee "Pinky" Pinkum (Rod Steiger), who tells Jubal: “Let’s get this straight, mister. As far as I’m concerned, you still stink.”

Pinky isn’t Jubal’s only problem. Shep’s beautiful wife Mae (Valerie French) takes an immediate interest in the drifter. When she confronts him during a moment alone, Jubal informs her that “we’re ending this before it begins.” She replies provocatively: “Are we?”

Pinky's dislike of Jubal turns into hatred when Shep selects the newcomer to be his new foreman. Rejected by Shep and Mae--who both prefer Jubal--Pinky seeks revenge by suggesting to Shep that Jubal and Mae are sleeping together. That lie festers into an ugly situation that eventually results in three deaths.

Jubal is loosely based on Paul I. Wellman's 1939 novel Jubal Troop. Described in The Saturday Review as "Anthony Adverse all over again," Wellman's sprawling tale traces the exploits of a man who killed his mistress' husband at age 18, romanced many women, sold stolen cattle, and made and lost a fortune in Oklahoma oil. 

Borgnine as Othello...I mean, Shep.
Drawing on a plot thread involving Shep and Mae, Daves and co-screenwriter Russell S. Hughes transform the film version into a Western variation of Othello. Shep represents the Moor general Othello, who promotes Cassio (Jubal) over Iago (Pinky). The angry Iago retaliates by suggesting to Othello that Cassio slept with Othello's new bride Desdemona (Mae). This lie leads to tragedy, just as it does in Jubal. There are significant differences, of course. Mae wants to be unfaithful with Jubal, Pinky has previously slept with Mae, and Shep doesn't kill Mae. Still, the basic elements of Othello are clearly present in Jubal--a fact which has contributed to the film's cult status among the adult Westerns of the 1950s.

Although Jubal falls in love with Naomi (Felicia Farr), a young pioneer woman, the key relationship in the film is between Jubal and Shep. As Jubal confides to Naomi, Shep is the first person since his father to show him any kindness. Shep, for his part, admires Jubal for his intelligence, but values most his trustworthiness. Indeed, when explaining why he chose Jubal over the more experienced Pinky, Shep states flatly it was because he could trust Jubal. The extent of Shep's trust becomes evident when he reveals to Jubal that he senses Mae has become distant. This is a topic the rancher would never broach with any of his other employees (least of all Pinky). So, it's no wonder that Shep goes into a blind rage when he believes that Jubal--the one person he trusted--betrayed him. 

Valerie French looking seductive as Mae.
Of course, when given the opportunity, Mae chooses not to contradict Pinky's lie. Early in the film, she confesses to Jubal that she married Shep only because she thought he was rich and lived in a "castle." In reality, the "castle" is an impressive ranch and her husband spares no extravagance on his wife. However, Mae's ambivalence toward Shep has grown into disgust fueled by self-pity. She complains to Jubal that the ranch is "ten thousand acres of nothing, ten thousand acres of loneliness." Shep doesn't help matters either. When Mae complains that her husband treats her like property, it's hard to disagree. He playfully calls her his "Canadian heifer" and clearly likes showing her off.

Charles Bronson as Reb.
The standout in the fine cast is Ernest Borgnine, who earned a Best Actor Oscar for the previous year's Marty. His multi-layered portrait of Shep shows all sides of the character: Shep's generosity, his sexist attitude toward women, his insight into the men that work for him, and his rage when he believes he has been betrayed. Glenn Ford is fine as the conflicted hero and Valerie French sizzles as Mae. Charles Bronson lends solid support in one his first major roles as another drifter that befriends Jubal.

Surprisingly, Rod Steiger seems content to repeat his performance as Jud from Oklahoma! (1955). In the biography Glenn Ford: A Life, written by the actor's son, Ford downplays the "method school of acting" made famous by Steiger, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others. Ford said: "'Doing nothing well' is my definition of a good actor. One of the great misconceptions about this business is that you get in front of a camera and 'act.' That's the very thing you should not do. Be yourself--people need to identify with you. If they're not able to, you're in trouble."

Jubal is not the best of the Glenn Ford-Delmer Daves Westerns. That distinction belongs to the thoughtful, tense 3:10 to Yuma, which is universally recognized as one of the best Westerns of the 1950s. However, with its Shakespearean slant and its focus on the frailty of human relationships, Jubal justly deserves reevaluation and greater recognition.

The fine music score in Jubal was composed by David Raksin, who is best known for his theme from Laura. Mr. Raksin is the connection to the next film in this blogathon: The Bad and the Beautiful, which is reviewed by one of our favorite classic movie bloggers at The Lady Eve's Reel Life.