Monday, September 29, 2014

Discovering the Ava Gardner Museum: An Interview with Its Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger

The Ava Gardner Museum opened its doors at its permanent location officially in October 2000 in downtown Smithfield, North Carolina--which is eight miles west of Ava's birthplace. However, the idea for it was conceived much earlier by Thomas M. Banks, who met Ava when he was 12 and she was 18 in Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, NC. When Ava went to Hollywood to pursue acting, Tom became fascinated by her career. He went on to work as a publicist briefly for Columbia Pictures and later earned a Ph.D. in psychology. He married his wife, Lorraine, in 1960 and the couple started collecting Ava Gardner memorabilia. They visited Ava Gardner in 1978 and discussed donating their collection to a university. Ava, however, suggested that they display the memorabilia in her home state. In 1980, Tom and Lorraine bought The Brogden Teacherage where Ava had lived as a child. They operated a museum in the summer months for several years. When Tom died in 1989, Lorraine donated their Ava Gardner collection to the Town of Smithfield. The Ava Gardner Museum Foundation was incorporated in 1996 and the 6,400 square foot museum opened four years later. It now houses over 20,000 pieces of memorabilia and is visited by 10,000 Ava Gardner fans annually.

Deanna Brandenberger, Museum Executive Director of the Ava Gardner Museum, recently spoke with us about the museum and the Ava Gardner Festival that starts this week.

Café: What are some of the most popular items in the museum? Any unique ones that warrant a special mention?

The dress from The Great Sinner.
Deanna Brandenberger: The most popular items are the black velvet dress she wore in the film The Great Sinner, as well as the Bert Pfeiffer paintings. The dress is a sheer work of art and very opulent despite the design’s simplicity. One thing it prompts people to comment upon is how small Ava’s waist was. She actually had an 18-20 inch waist despite having a hearty appetite for down-home Southern cuisine. The Bert Pfeiffer paintings are unique because of his admiration displayed in innovative ways. Despite never meeting her, he certainly seemed to capture various aspects of her personality and visage. He often incorporated oddities (such as a mouse running up her arm or tables without legs) and guests love to browse the gallery to see if they can spot anything whimsical that he may have painted. Even Ava approved of the art. She owned three herself that hung in her London apartment till her death. Those particular three are on display in the theater.

Café: What can you tell us about your upcoming Ava Gardner Festival on October 3-5?

DB: The festival is our 14th annual celebration of the museum’s opening in this location and is also our main fundraiser. As a non-profit, we rely solely upon the income of our visitors and the generous donations to help provide the funding necessary to operate and maintain our facility. Each festival has its own theme; this year’s is “Ava’s Closet: Her Personal Fashion and Style.” On Friday evening, we have a Fashion Fling party which will feature the unveiling of the Ava’s Closet exhibit with never-before-seen wardrobes of her glamor--her everyday--and her intimate-wear; the Sinatra-style entertainment of The Carolina Crooner; and hors d’ouevres and local wines and beers provided by the new downtown restaurant Serendipity Road. Saturday, we will feature a talk by our celebrity guest, Season 12 Project Runway fashion designer and upcoming All-Star Justin LeBlanc, followed by a meet and greet, all from 9-11am. Heritage Tours of significant spots in Ava’s childhood and her gravesite will take place throughout the day. With admission, there will also be free movie screenings of The Killers and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Saturday evening, the festivities will move to the Clayton Center as we team up with the Clayton Piano Festival in their special tribute to Ava in Show Boat and her love of flamenco followed by a meet-and-greet with the artist, and a dessert and coffee reception. On Sunday, the museum will host extended hours from 1-5pm and will show a screening of The African Queen (directed by Ava’s friend John Huston; and following on the Raleigh film festival’s tribute series to him), which is free with admission. Prices and packaging information can be found on our website, or by calling us directly at (919) 934-5830.

Café: Back to Bert Pfeiffer, who was he and why did he add such offbeat embellishments as a mouse on Ava's sleeve?

DB: Bert Pfeiffer was a Dutch artist who saw Ava in One Touch of Venus in 1948 and was captivated by her beauty. Every year for the next 50 years, he painted a different painting of Ava, despite never meeting her. Some of Ava’s traveling friends happened upon his gallery and asked if she would like one of his paintings. She replied that she would purchase three; they are now displayed in the theater.  Pfeiffer’s family donated his collection to the museum after his death in accordance with his wishes. No one is really certain why Pfeiffer chose to display these different embellishments in many of the paintings; although they don’t appear in every one. It is usually chalked up to artist expression. The museum gift shop is honoring Pfeiffer by releasing a limited edition postcard of one of Pfeiffer’s paintings every year, beginning in 2014.

Café: How did Gregory Peck get involved with the Ava Gardner Museum?

DB: Gregory Peck and Ava were lifelong friends after starring together in The Great Sinner (1949). They would go on to star in two other films together and had a wonderful time. After Ava’s death, Peck took in Ava’s housekeeper and friend Carmen Vargas, as well as Ava’s beloved corgi, Morgan. Peck visited the museum before his death while filming in Raleigh. He was a member of the Honorary Advisory Board and held an open position on our Board of Directors to offer his input and support to the museum. His family still maintains ties with us and we are very honored to announce that his daughter Cecilia Peck Voll and Carmen will both continue by sitting on the new Honorary Advisory Board in the future.  

Café: What is the Ava Gardner Heritage Trail?

DB: The Ava Gardner Heritage Trail is a project that was recently finished, thanks to the support of The Winston-Salem Foundation. The trail highlights geographical points of interest regarding Ava’s life and her family history here in Johnston County, North Carolina. The trail map is displayed in the museum and fliers with a brief historical synopsis and directions are provided to guests free of charge.

Café: What are some of your personal favorites of Ava's movies?

Ava in The Barefoot Contessa.
DB: My favorite movie of Ava’s is The Barefoot Contessa. Although the character role was said to be loosely based on Rita Hayworth, I still find many personal parallels to Ava’s own life. There is a beautiful soliloquy where Maria Vargas (Ava’s character) explains to Bogart how she always felt comforted with her feet in the dirt as she grew up in poverty, at least she was grounded by that visceral moment. There is a real-life story of Ava running barefoot through tobacco fields here in Johnston County. Her character went from feet in the dirt to movie star, just like Ava. I love the veracity of Ava’s portrayal. Another favorite film is Mogambo. Ava used to go to the movies here in her hometown and watch Clark Gable in Red Dust. She always thought how wonderful he was and dreamed of starring in a movie with him. Little did she know she would eventually shoot the remake in Mogambo and star opposite Clark Gable. That must have been wonderful kismet for her. I like hearing how dreams come true--she is definitely our country's Cinderella. Ava’s characters were always believable because on some level she could relate to them. That makes her timeless.

Café: Are you working on any new displays for 2015?

DB: We are currently in talks with other institutions who house pieces of Ava memorabilia. Our goal is to get loans for some iconic artifacts which our visitors can see all in one place. There are no specific exhibit plans in place, but we are always brainstorming. Before very long, we will outline something new for the following year. So we will keep you updated!

Café: What advice would you give to an Ava Gardner fan visiting the museum for the first time? 

The entrance to the museum.
DB: Not very long ago, before my dreams of running this museum were realized, I myself was just a visitor. One of the things I was most struck by--and the comment I hear by most of our guests--is how impressive the gallery-style setup is and how professionally the museum is laid out. I honestly expected little more than someone’s living room with a bunch of movie memorabilia tacked on the walls and maybe a dress or two. I was completely blown away by the facility. We have 6400 square feet of space in the building and it houses a diversity of items. Not only do we have items of Ava’s, we have items from family, from husbands (such as Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra), and we even have our own theater and Ava’s personal library. My biggest piece of advice to visitors is to leave enough time to properly see the museum. We recommend no less than an hour. We first introduce you to Ava with an 18-minute biography in the theater and then allow you to peruse the gallery and library. There is so much to see, it is almost impossible without a few hours. But what’s the hurry? Take lunch at a diner, visit our local shops, see a movie at the antique theater where Ava sat, and see what Historical Downtown Smithfield has to offer!

You can learn more about the Ava Gardner Museum by visiting its excellent web site at, "liking" it on Facebook, and following it on Twitter All photos, except for The Barefoot Contessa, are courtesy of the Ava Gardner Museum and the permission to use them is on a project-by-project basis.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Big Bond (James Bond) Quiz

This should be a pretty easy quiz for 007 fans, but it might be more challenging for others. Since we specialize in pre-1985 films at the Cafe, you won't find many questions about the Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig movies. As always, please don't answer more than 3-4 questions daily, so others can play, too.

1. What's the connection between the Bond songs "The Look of Love" (from 1967's Casino Royale) and "The Spy Who Loved Me"?

2. What TV series had three regular cast members appear in Bond films? Name the performers!

3. What's the connection between the Bond pics and a well-known vegetable?

4. What was the first James Bond title song to hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart?

5. What Ian Fleming novel has been adapted three times?

6. According to the title song, how much does The Man With the Golden Gun charge for an assassination?

7. What Bond movie was known during its production history as James Bond of the Secret Service and Warhead?

8. Who was the first actress to star in a Hammer movie and appear in a Bond film?

Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and kitty.
9. What is the breed of Blofeld's cat?

10. What movie featured two Bond girls who were sisters?

11. What was the first Bond film not originally based on an Ian Fleming novel?

12. Name the 007 movies in which James gets married (for real or not).

Lana Wood as Plenty O'Toole.
13. When Plenty O'Toole introduces herself as: "I'm Plenty." in Diamonds Are Forever, what is Bond's response?

14. What was Blofeld's first appearance in the Bond film series?

15. What British actor played a good guy in one Bond film and then a 007 arch-nemesis two films later?

16. Which title songs were warbled by Shirley Bassey?

17. Who was the first singer to appear in the opening credits of a Bond film?

18. In what film is a snippet of the The Magnificent Seven theme played?

He's wearing a hat here.
19. Who was the first actor not to wear a hat during the "gun barrel sequence" that opens every Bond movie?

20. What Bond movie actress is mentioned by name into a famous song popularized in the late 1950s by Bobby Darin?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Man in a Suitcase: The Best Spy TV Series You May Have Never Heard Of

By 1968, the British spy craze in film and television was on a downward trajectory. Sean Connery had departed (temporarily) from the Bond films. Patrick McGoohan's long-running Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) TV series had ended. The Avengers had moved on without Diana Rigg. Still, ITC Entertainment, best known for producing Danger Man and The Saint, believed there was life remaining in the genre--especially if it came with a built-in appeal for American audiences. The result was Man in a Suitcase, a sharply-played, well-written series starring American actor Richard Bradford as a disgraced former espionage agent known only as McGill.

Branded a traitor by U.S. intelligence, McGill makes a living doing free-lance work in Europe and Africa--dealing with blackmailers, protecting stool pigeons, finding kidnapped victims, recovering lost art treasures, etc. He charges $300 to $500 a week, depending on the job, plus expenses. When a potential client gripes about the high fee for a "disgraced American agent with a gun for hire," McGill quips: "I'm expensive...I call it my self-respect bonus."

McGill's backstory is revealed in the series' sixth episode (originally intended as the first and best viewed that way). It explains that his government superiors framed him as a traitor to protect a mole behind the Iron Curtain. Proving his innocence is not an option--McGill recognizes that his false disgrace is a price that must be paid. These kinds of difficult decisions and realistic conclusions elevate Man in a Suitcase above its more conventional rivals. It's not unusual for clients being guarded by McGill to be murdered anyway. And in one episode, after McGill fails to secure blackmail evidence, the victim sacrifices his ethics to protect his reputation.

Much of the show's success, though, can be attributed to Bradford, a relative unknown when ITC signed him for Man in a Suitcase. A graduate of the Actors Studio, Bradford's previous biggest part was as a cheating husband and bigot in a small Southern town in Arthur Penn's The Chase (1966). The role provided Bradford the opportunity to play opposite one of his acting idols, Marlon Brando (in one scene, Bradford brutally beats up Brando).
McGill's Hillman Imp.
Bradford brings a quiet intensity to McGill, a complex character who is outwardly calm but prone to quick bursts of anger and whose cynical perspective is balanced by his innate desire to do the right thing. With his gray hair and a cigarette often dangling from his mouth, McGill even looks different from his contemporary TV rivals like John Steed and Simon Templar. In lieu of a distinctive car, he drives a Hillman Imp sedan. He carries a gun only if the situation requires; his only apparent possession is a beat-up brown leather suitcase. But the most remarkable aspect of the character is his consistency across the 30 episodes. After watching McGill for half a season, one can almost predict how he's going to act in specific situations.

In an interview in Acorn's second DVD boxed set, Bradford criticizes the quality of some of the scripts. There are a handful of weak episodes, such as the first one, which features a brainwashing plot that goes on too long. However, for the most part, the plots are inventive and the writing is very strong, as shown in this dialogue in which a politician's wife (Barbara Shelley) reveals to McGill that she has long been aware of her husband's illegitmate son:

Guest star Barbara Shelley in the
episode "All That Glitters."
"I know about Steve. I haven't been officially informed...but I knew when he was born, when his mother died. I knew when he was ill. I know from the expression on my husband's face whether his monthly visit with the boy has been satisfactory or not. Oh, yes, I know all about Steve."

The production values in Man in a Suitcase are higher than most ITC productions of the late 1960s. Exterior locations and stock footage are well integrated with the studio-shot scenes. Ron Grainer composed the incredibly catchy, jazz-infused title theme (hummed in my household for weeks). The Acorn DVDs look sharp and, surprisingly, the color shows little fading.

Checking for broken teeth after a fight.
Unfortunately, Man in a Suitcase lasted just one season. Still, one has to be thankful for the opportunity to watch such excellent episodes as:  "The Girl Who Never Was" (McGill tracks down a painting stolen during World War II); "Dead Man's Shoes" (a town protects a wounded spy returning to his home); "Burden of Proof" (a man of integrity mysteriously embezzles a fortune and hires McGill for protection);  and "The Whisper" (McGill learns a priest in a small African village was a ruthless mercenary). Stylish and well-acted, Man in a Suitcase is a must-see for conoisseurs of vintage television drama.

Acorn Media provided a review copy of Man in a Suitcase Set 2.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tom Adams Goes to "Where the Bullets Fly"

At the height of the 1960s James Bond craze, several major studios tried to launch their own spy movie franchises with the Matt Helm series, the two Bulldog Drummond films, and Our Man Flint and its sequel. One of the most interesting misfires was the second outing of British secret agent Charles Vine.

As played by Tom Adams, the smooth, cold Vine is perhaps the most obvious of all the Bond imitations (the Connery 007, that is). Vine made his film debut in 1965's Licensed to Kill, which was released in the U.S. as The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World. Many fans consider it an above-average Bond knock-off. I saw it on The ABC Sunday Night Movie circa 1969, although I remember little about it. However, I was able to recently view its 1967 sequel Where the Bullets Fly.

A faded lobby card showing secret agent
Charles Vine flanked by two baddies.
The straightforward premise has a villain named Angel (Michael Ripper) trying to steal a lightweight alloy called Spurium that provides atomic power for a prototype aircraft. To thwart Angel, Vine's boss Rockwell (John Arnatt) assigns his best agent--plus half the R.A.F. ("Only half?" quips Vine.)

With its modest budget, there is no globetrotting in Where the Bullets Fly. All the action takes place in England--but there is plenty of action. Indeed, it features more shoot-outs than in two or three Bond films combined (and yes, I'm including the big action scenes like at the climax of You Only Live Twice).

Like any decent Bond film imitation, there are gadgets galore: a long-range hypnosis device; shooting umbrellas; exploding cigarettes; a floor wired for electric shocks; and a rapier hidden in a belt (which is sadly never used). There are other obvious nods to the secret agent genre, from Rockwell's cat (which is black in contrast to Blofeld's white cat) to a henchman sporting a John Steed bowler. There's also a decent title song, sung Shirley Bassey-style by British pop star Susan Maughan.

Tom Adams as Charles Vine.
Charles Vine is clearly a copy of Sean Connery's James Bond. He dresses sharply, handles the fisticuffs well, attracts the ladies, and dryly delivers the wisecracks. Tom Adams does an admirable job in the role. It's a shame he wasn't cast as a more original spy in a more upscale series. Adams spent most of his career as a supporting actor in films like The Great Escape (1963). Where the Bullets Fly proves that he had star potential if given the right kinds of roles.

Another lobby card, this one with
Addams and Adams.
The supporting cast includes Dawn Addams as Felicity Moonlight, an attractive R.A.F. pilot, and the aforementioned Michael Ripper. To her credit, Addams brings more intelligence to her performance than most of the Bond actresses. Ripper hams its up as the villain, but it's nice to see Hammer Film's long-time character actor get a major role. It's also worthwhile to note that the film was directed by John Gilling, who also worked for Hammer (The Plague of the Zombies).

Where the Bullets Fly did not perform as well at the boxoffice as its predecessor. Still, a third film was produced in Spain in 1969 with Adams reprising his role in O.K. Yevtushenko (aka Somebody's Stolen Our Russian). Production difficulties kept it on the shelf for several years and, by then, the spy movie craze had run its course. Interestingly, writer-director Lindsay Shonteff, who was largely responsible for the first Charles Vine film, was not involved in either sequel. He did, however, later make three spy movies featuring a very similar hero named Charles Bind.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bond Is Forever: "From Russia with Love"

Evil terrorist organization SPECTRE is planning to steal a Lektor, a cipher machine, from the Russians. Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), aka #3, a member of SMERSH who defected from Russia, gives an assignment to agent Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who is unaware that Klebb is a member of SPECTRE. Tatiana informs MI6 that she is defecting to the UK with the Lektor, and she will only do so with superspy James Bond (Sean Connery). Red Grant is assigned with the task of assassinating 007, but only after SPECTRE has retrieved the Lektor. Meanwhile, Bond travels to Istanbul to obtain the cipher machine, teaming up with head of Station T (Turkey), Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz).

From Russia with Love introduces two recurring characters to the series. One was Q, whose name is Major Boothroyd, and who actually made an appearance in the previous year's Dr. No (portrayed by Peter Burton). But Q as played by Desmond Llewelyn became associated with Bond's gadgets. Boothroyd in Dr. No only gave 007 his Walther PPK. In From Russia with Love, Q supplies Bond with what would technically be the very first gadget of the cinematic series: an attaché case containing a sniper rifle, with hidden ammunition, knife and money. And for good measure, there would be an unpleasant surprise for anyone who did not open the case properly. Making his debut in the series is SPECTRE head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. You only see his hands in this film, as he lovingly strokes his cat. Anthony Dawson plays Blofeld (or, rather, plays Blofeld's hands), and he also portrayed the villainous Professor Dent in Dr. No. Blofeld's voice was provided by actor Eric Pohlmann. He and Dawson both reprised the role in 1965's Thunderball.

With a pre-credit teaser and the addition of gadgets, the only substantial difference between the second Bond film and next year's Goldfinger (as well as future 007 films) is the lack of a title song. Like Dr. No, only music plays over the opening credits. However, the film does have a title song (of sorts), near the end, composed by Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro. SPECTRE desiring revenge for Dr. No's death is not the only connection to the previous Bond outing. Near the beginning of From Russia with Love, Bond is enjoying some time with Sylvia Trench (you can also hear the title song on the radio). Fans may recall that 007 met Ms. Trench in Dr. No while gambling, and it is to her that the spy introduces himself as, "Bond. James Bond."

During production, actor Armendáriz was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He finished his scenes, and afterward checked himself into a hospital. Sadly, he committed suicide before the film was released. His son, Pedro Armendáriz, Jr., has a small role in a Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989). Martine Beswick, who plays one of the feuding gypsy women (and who is inaccurately billed in the opening credits as "Martin Beswick"), also appeared in Thunderball as Paula, one of Bond's allies. Fans of Hammer Films may also recognize Beswick from her significant roles in Prehistoric Women (aka Slave Girls) (1967) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). The actress playing the other gypsy woman, Aliza Gur, was roommates with actress Bianchi during the 1960 Miss Universe pageant (Gur was Miss Israel, Bianchi Miss Italy), and both ladies were runners up. Walter Gotell, who plays a henchman on SPECTRE Island, would later portray General Gogol, head of the KGB, in numerous Bond films, beginning with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

In a key scene, a billboard for the 1963 film, Call Me Bwana, is clearly displayed. The movie starred Bob Hope and Anita Ekberg, and was produced by Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli (along with a number of From Russia with Love crew members). Call Me Bwana is the only film produced by EON Productions that was not related to 007.

During production, Terence
Young, art director Michael White, and a cameraman were in a helicopter scouting locations (for the boat chase near the end) and crashed into a lake. Fortunately, they were so close to land that other members of the crew helped them ashore, and Young went right back to filming. Similarly, while on the way to film a scene, actress Bianchi was in an automobile accident, and her face was swollen so badly that she was unable to film for two weeks. Ms. Bianchi was helped from the wreckage by her superspy co-star, who had been following in another car.

Editor Peter Hunt, who had worked on Dr. No and would edit subsequent Bond releases, as well as directing On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), played an important part in the completion of From Russia with Love. With a film over its budget and behind schedule, director Young turned over duties to Hunt and allowed him much liberties. Hunt altered the order of particular sequences (e.g., the chess scene was initially later in the film, instead of immediately following the opening credits), and suggested several "tricks" to save time and money. With so many rewrites, the sequence of Blofeld discussing the mission with Klebb and Kronsteen (aka #5) had to be reshot. Blofeld's dialogue was not a concern, since his face is not shown. Hunt's solution for Klebb reshoots was to, in lieu of rebuilding the set, use a previously shot scene as a matte. Actress Lenya was filmed in a chair, and that image was placed atop an earlier shot of Lenya, so that the actress literally covers herself up (all so that the set in the background can be seen). Peter Hunt's work resulted in a wonderfully paced movie that keeps everything moving.

I think From Russia with Love is one of the greatest Bond films. It was only his second time as 007, but Connery seems to have already mastered the role, alternately charming and lethal. Director Young and editor Hunt created an action-packed movie, with memorable scenes, such as the fight between Bond and Grant, and a sniper sequence with Bond and Kerim Bey. Italian actress Bianchi is excellent (she was dubbed by Barbara Jefford, who would dub actresses in future Bond films), a worthy and distinguished "Bond Girl." Lenya makes an outstanding villain, and Armenáriz is likewise superb.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

Monday, September 22, 2014

James Coburn is Our Man Flint

It's somewhat of a backhanded compliment to call Our Man Flint the "best James Bond spoof." It is that, but it's also a very clever secret agent film in its own right. Unlike the broadly comedic Austin Powers films or Get Smart, Our Man Flint replicates the elements of a 007 outing and exaggerates them ever so slightly. Let's be honest, the majority of the Bond movies are far from serious dramas. So, it's impressive that Flint can negotiate that tight gap between James Bond and Austin Powers.

The film opens with a series of natural disasters that aren't natural at all--they are being caused by a weather-control device. A peace-loving organization called GALAXY claims responsibility and threatens more disasters if its demands are not met. When world leaders converge, they universally agree that there is only one man for the job: Derek Flint (James Coburn). This comes as bad news to Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), the head of the Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage (Z.O.W.I.E.), who dislikes Flint for his refusal to follow orders.

Cramden on the Z.O.W.I.E. phone.
Thus, Cramden is initially relieved when Flint refuses to help. However, when a curvaceous enemy operative tries to assassinate Flint, the super secret agent accepts the mission. He has one stipulation, though: He works alone.

Much of the film's humor derives from Flint's mastery of...well... everything. He can fence with two opponents simultaneously. He practices martial arts one on five. He dances with the Russian ballet. He can trace bouillabaisse on scent alone to the only restaurant in the world with that unique recipe. And he lives with four women that attend to his every need (e.g., shaving him, picking out his clothes, managing his business affairs, etc.). At one point, a frustrated Cramden explains: "Damn it, man, is there anything you don't know?"

Based on his earlier performances in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and Charade (1963), I never would have cast James Coburn as a suave secret agent. That's one of the many reasons I'm not a casting agent. Although Coburn was fine in those aforementioned films, he didn't seem like star material. Yet, Our Man Flint capitalizes on the "Coburn cool" and the actor dominates the screen physically and with his laid-back personality. Coburn also looks impressive in the fight scenes and that's not surprising since he learned martial arts from Bruce Lee.

An impressive Coburn kick!
Gila Golan.
The only other actors with significant roles are Lee J. Cobb as Cramden and Gila Golan as a GALAXY agent. Cobb, a very fine actor, gives an exaggerated performance as Cramden and, for the most  part, it's an effective contrast to Coburn. Golan, an attractive actress with an inexplicably short resume, creates a worthy adversary for Flint. (Of course, it's inevitable that she will succumb to his charm.)

The homages to the James Bond films are both obvious and subtle. There's a quick reference to SPECTRE and the availability of 0008. In lieu of Bond's attache case or gimmicky Aston Martin, Flint only has a lighter--however, it has "82 different functions--83 if you wish to light a cigar." Composer Jerry Goldsmith contributes an excellent title theme which is cleverly employed throughout the film.

Flint with two of his ladies.
I suppose there are some viewers who may bristle at the film's sexist attitude. Yes, Flint essentially has a harem and refers its occupants as his "girls." Also, some of the women on Galaxy Island--especially the feisty ones--are reprogrammed as "pleasure units." However, these elements are exaggerated to the extent that Our Man Flint film becomes a satire of the more offending sexist films of the 1960s (to include the Bond pictures).

One can also gripe that Flint loses steam in the last half-hour after the hero reaches Galaxy Island and the villains are revealed as misguided peace lovers. It's interesting to note the similarities in the climaxes between Our Man Flint and the later 007 entry You Only Live Twice (1967).

Our Man Flint was a resounding success with moviegoers and critics. A sequel, In Like Flint, followed in 1967 with Coburn and Cobb reprising their roles. It's sillier, but still very entertaining with another memorable Goldsmith theme. According to some sources, there were discussions about a third film to be called F for Flint (which became an alternate title for In Like Flint). I suspect that Coburn had no interest in being typecast and that nixed future theatrical installments. In 1976, ABC tried to a launch a TV series with the telefilm Our Man Flint: Dead on Target. It transformed Derek Flint into a private eye and featured a miscast Ray Danton in the title role.

Lastly, here are two famous bits of Our Man Flint trivia--you know, in case these topics pop up during a trivia tournament. The names of Flint's female companions are: Sakito, Gina, Anna, and Leslie. Flint's personal code book is based on a mathematical progression of 40-26-36.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Rock Hudson-Piper Laurie Double Feature

For much of the 1950s, Universal Studios paired Rock Hudson with its most promising young actresses in modestly-budgeted films. Sometimes, he was the star (Captain Lightfoot); other times, he played a supporting role (Bend of the River). He appeared in five movies with Julie Adams, four with Yvonne De Carlo, and two with Barbara Rush. Two of my favorite Rock Hudson films of this period are his pairings with Piper Laurie.

Charles Coburn in a familiar role.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952). This sprightly 1920s comedy is really a vehicle for veteran Charles Coburn. He plays Samuel Fulton, a millionaire hypochondriac with no relatives, who wants to leave his fortune to the family of the woman who turned down his marriage proposal. He credits her rejection with providing the drive that led him to discover gold in Alaska and oil in Texas. He decides to learn about the now-deceased woman’s family before bequeathing the money.

James Dean in a bit part at the soda fountain.
Moving to Hilverton, a picturesque slice of Americana, Fulton—using an assumed identity—ingratiates himself with the Blaisdell family. He ends up living in their house and working as an assistant soda jerk in their drugstore. He becomes fond of the family, especially daughters Millicent (Piper Laurie) and Roberta (Gigi Perreau). However, everything changes when Fulton gives them a check for $100,000 anonymously through his solicitor.

Charles Coburn, who started making films in his late fifties, specialized in playing cigar-smoking, crafty curmudgeons. He’s right at home playing the Blaisdells’ secret guardian angel, getting son Howard out of gambling trouble and playing matchmaker to Millicent and nice guy/soda jerk Dan (Rock Hudson).

Gigi Perreau as Roberta.
Coburn also teams effectively with Gigi Perreau, a very likable child performer. Their scenes together display a natural charm, leaving one to wonder why they weren't teamed in another movie. Surprisingly, Perreau’s film career petered out after appearances in Bonzo Goes to College and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. She worked regularly, though, in television throughout the late 1950s and 1960s.

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson.
Rock and Piper don’t have a lot of scenes together, but they make an endearing couple. They were good friends in real life and that comes through on the screen. His performance is a bit stiff; he hadn't developed the light touch that would make him a fine comedian. Piper relies on her innate effervescence and it serves her well. She even gets to sing a little. Plus, she also looks adorable in a parade of colorful dresses and hats.

One suspects  that both young performers wanted to sink their teeth in meatier roles. Still, they provide energy and youth appeal to this pleasant comedy that effectively recreates the 1920s on Universal’s backlot.

The Golden Blade (1953). While this studio-bound adventure can’t be described as high drama, it still provided a more rewarding challenge for the two young stars. They are clearly the headliners of this Baghdad opus about the (magical) Sword of Damascus.

Harum finds the amulet.
Rock plays Harum, a young man from Basra, who seeks revenge on the person responsible for his father's death and destruction of his village. His only clue to the villain's identity is an amulet his dying father ripped from his killer’s neck. Shortly after his arrival in Baghdad, Harum finds a sword made out of gold with the inscription: “Let him who can unsheathe this sword claim any crown as his reward.”

Harum gets to try out the golden blade when some soldiers try to quiet an outspoken young woman. It takes awhile for Harum to learn that the spunky lass is also a princess in disguise. Initially, they don't like each other, but--in this kind of movie--that's code for they're really attracted to each other, but don't want to admit it.

Harum pulls the sword out of the stone.
The Golden Blade isn't an original action flick, borrowing liberally from the legend of King Arthur and his sword Excalibur. Indeed, at one point in the film, the blade gets embedded to a stone wall and no one can remove it--except Harum, of course. Later, there's even a jousting tournament  for the hand of Princess Khairuzan. While this uneasy mixture of Arabian Nights and medieval knights seems disconcerting, Nathan Juran (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) leaves little time to dwell on it. At a scant running time of 80 minutes, the closing credits of The Golden Blade are rolling before you know it.

I love their facial expressions.
Rock Hudson always fared well in action roles and he seems to be having a grand time as the swashbuckling hero. Piper Laurie comes across as playful when disguised as a boy and later transforms into an elegant beauty. She and Rock have more scenes together than in their earlier film and their comfort level is once again visible on the screen. They both still look young, but there's more confidence in their acting--even if The Golden Blade is nothing more than a programmer.

Piper Laurie decked out in gold.
Rock would hone his skills for two more years before hitting it big opposite Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk's melodramatic Magnificent Obsession. Piper Laurie would get an occasional good role (e.g., Smoke Signal), but ended her Universal contract out of frustration. She worked in live television and eventually landed a role opposite Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961). It was a supporting performance that would earn her the first of her three Academy Award nominations.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Boris Karloff--Detective

Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong.
Let me start by addressing the most uncomfortable aspect of the Mr. Wong movies produced by Monogram Pictures from 1938 to 1940. Mr. Wong, who is Chinese, is played by Boris Karloff, a British actor, in five of the six films. This was neither the first nor the last time that a non-Oriental actor starred as an Oriental detective. There are numerous other instances. Swedish actor Warner Oland made a fine Charlie Chan in the 1930s. Hungarian Peter Lorre starred as Japanese detective Mr. Moto in a film series for Twentieth Century-Fox. Decades later, Ross Martin (The Wild, Wild West) and even Peter Sellers also appeared as Charlie Chan.

Karloff as Fu Manchu.
To his credit, Karloff does not try to impersonate a person of Chinese descent. He speaks deliberately, but there is no trace of an accent. His hair is dyed black and slicked down. He sports a mustache (which changes shape slightly from film to film) and sometimes glasses. He looks a little Oriental—if one knows that was the intended effect. It’s a stark contrast to his appearance as the title villain of 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Karloff made his first appearance as James Wong in Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). It’s an average “B” mystery in which the owners of a chemical company are murdered one by one. The prime suspect is a disgruntled inventor, who claims the company stole a valuable formula. However, as witnesses can testify, the inventor was somewhere else when each death occurred. The best part of the film is the ingenious way in which the murders are accomplished. All in all, it’s a decent introduction to Mr. Wong.

A death threat for the sapphire's new owner.
The first sequel, The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), is an upgrade. It’s an entertaining whodunit involving a stolen sapphire (the Eye of the Daughter of Moon—gotta love the name!) and another clever murder. This time, Wong is present when a homicide occurs in front of party guests, who are watching their hosts reenact a scene from a play. When a character is shot in the play—the person playing the character is really shot. The film features a brisk pace and veteran director Williams Nigh achieves some nice visual effects with framing and lighting.

Marjorie Reynolds.
Alas, the second Mr. Wong film is the series highlight. The third entry, Mr. Wong in Chinatown, is a lackluster, sluggish affair. Amazingly, the plot was recycled nine years later for the Charlie Chan film The Chinese Ring starring Roland Winters. In Mr. Wong in Chinatown, Marjorie Reynolds (Holiday Inn) joins Grant Withers as a series regular. Withers’ police Captain Sam Street continues to come across as thickheaded and dull while Reynolds overplays the energetic reporter trying to get a big scoop. Neither one adds any value to this film nor subsequent outings, leaving it up to Karloff to carry the Mr. Wong mysteries by himself.

He’s up to the task, though one wishes that Wong was more interesting. He lacks Charlie Chan’s memorable proverbs and Mr. Moto’s judo. Hugh Wiley created the Yale-educated Chinese sleuth for Collier’s magazine in 1934. James Lee Wong lived in San Francisco and worked on the “federal pay rolls.” He appeared in twelve short stories, which were republished in the 1951 collection Murder By the Dozen.

Keye Luke as Jimmy Wong.
After five Mr. Wong films, Karloff bowed out of the series and was replaced by Keye Luke as Jimmy Wong in Phantom of Chinatown (1940). Although some critics suggest Luke is playing James Wong’s son, the film seems more like a reboot. The affable Key Luke does well enough in his first lead role after playing Charlie Chan’s son opposite Warner Oland. Although Luke was signed for additional Mr. Wong films, the series came to an abrupt end. Still, Phantom of Chinatown was something of a landmark—Keye Luke became the first Chinese actor since the silent film era to headline a Hollywood film.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Seven Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember

I've seen thousands of movies. I remember most of them, but am sure I've forgotten quite a few. Curiously, I can recall some pretty obscure films. For no apparent reason. Most of my classic film friends have never heard of these movies, but they do exist. So today, I wanted to share seven obscure movies that still linger in the windmills..make that cobwebs...of my mind.

1. The 7th Commandment (1961) - This film is so obscure that I incorrectly thought the title was The Tenth Commandment for decades! Anyway, the memorable plot is about a low-life named Ted who believes he has killed a man in a car accident. He wanders away from the crash site and suffers trauma-induced amnesia. Ted is rescued by a traveling evangelist and eventually becomes a famous preacher. That's when his sordid past catches up with him in the form of blackmail.

T-Rex goes for a snack.
2. Dinosaurus! (1960) - Construction workers on a Caribbean island discover a T-Rex, a Brontosaurus, and a caveman encased in ice. A big storm (complete with lightning) melts the ice and revives all three. The image of the T-Rex attacking the excavator has stuck with me over the years. I used to have the Dell comic book, too.

Jock Mahoney in Joe Dakota.
3. Joe Dakota (1957) - In this Western mystery, a stranger who calls himself Joe Dakota visits a small California town and starts asking questions about "the Old Indian." Most of the townsfolk ignore the stranger, but a young woman claims that the Indian was known as...Joe Dakota. Think Bad Day at Black Rock on a modest budget and you'll get a feel for this interesting oater starring likable former stunt man Jock Mahoney (TV's Yancy Derringer).

Dean Jagger and Glenn Ford.
4. The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) - Glenn Ford starred in this creepy made-for-TV film about a college professor who joins a secret society--only to realize the high cost later in life. I've only seen it once, but it reminded me of the early Humphrey Bogart film Black Legion. Written by David Karp, whose teleplay earned an Emmy nomination, an earlier version of The Brotherhood of the Bell was also produced for the classic 1950s TV anthology series Studio One.

5. Night Monster (1942) - Various people converge at the isolated, fog-enshrouded, swampy estate of rich crippled recluse Curt Ingston (Ralph Morgan). Three of the visitors--physicians who may have played a part in Ingston's paralysis--are murdered. This whodunit has achieved minor cult status due to its cast (Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi), the eerie atmosphere achieved by director Ford Beebe, and the bizarre climax. I don't know why it's not shown more often.

Rosemarie Bowe Stack.
6. The Golden Mistress (1954) - John Agar and Rosemarie Bowe team up as Caribbean treasure hunters in this lively low-budget adventure that features a miniature gold skeleton, voodoo, and a secret underwater passage. Never heard of the stunning Ms. Bowe? The former model only made a handful of films before marrying Robert Stack in 1956 and retiring (for the most part) from show business. They remained married until his death in 2003.

Shatner in Impulse.
7. Impulse (1974) - Honestly, there's no way I could write a better plot summary than this one from the IMDb: "A paranoid, leisure-suit-wearing conman/gigolo named Matt Stone seduces lonely women, bilks them of their savings via an investment scam, then kills them." Now, imagine that Matt is played by a scenery-chewing William Shatner! Actually, what I remember most about this film is that Impulse co-star Harold Sakata--who played Oddjob in Goldfinger--appeared at a local cinema promoting the film. I didn't get see Sakata, but I remember the film and Shatner's fake headaches to this day.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Get Ready for the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention!

Angela Cartwright will be there!
The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention--or MANC as its fans call it--will be held September 18-20 in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Now in its ninth year, the MANC attracts thousands of fans of classic films, television, and radio. This year's impressive line-up of celebrity guests includes: Connie Stevens, Piper Laurie, Angela Cartwright, Veronica Cartwright, George Lazenby, and Lana Wood. Like other fan conventions, attendees can get autographed photos from the stars (usually for a price) and buy memorabilia from vendors. However, MANC also features seminars, panel interviews, a banquet, and special screenings of rarely-seen movies and TV series. A highlight of the three-day event is a celebrity auction with all proceeds going to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Martin Grams, the event coordinator for MANC, was nice enough to talk with us about this month's MANC.

Café: What inspired the very first MANC back in 2006?

Martin Grams: As an attendee and vendor at more than 26 conventions a year, I observed over time what I thought was the best and worst of ideas. Every convention has its own flavor. After seeing the handwriting on the wall at a few of these events, I felt it was more important to help carry on the tradition with the best of ideas. So friends of mine and I put together MANC, applying the best of what we observed at other events. This turned out to be a recipe for success because the crowd has consistently grown about 200 to 300 people in attendance every year. People keep referring to our show as a throwback to the way conventions used to be. And that is a good thing. 

Café: Some of our favorite stars will be at this year's MANC. How do you determine who to invite? 

Margaret O'Brien at the 2013 MANC.
MG: There are multiple factors that we take into consideration when determining which celebrities attend MANC. Draw appeal and popularity is one factor. We have a working budget but we have to be careful not to go into the red. The rising cost of airfare has not been helping. Celebrities who attend other events are scrutinized. If they develop bad reputations among attendees at those shows, we look in another direction. If they win over the attendees, we take them into consideration. If they are celebrities requested by frequent attendees, we also take that into consideration. The age and health condition of the celebrity is another factor. But the decision is based on educated and practical reasons. Of course, a sponsor for MANC can also wave our decision in a specific direction.

Café: Your screening schedule includes a plethora of hard-to-see movies (e.g., four Danny Kaye shorts, the Ritz Brothers' Straight, Place and Show) and TV series' episodes (e.g., Casablanca, the Playhouse 90 teleplay of The Days of Wine and Roses). Which ones were the hardest to track down?

MG: We pride ourselves on screening rare films that you won't see anywhere else. While our event is not a film festival per say, the selection of films makes our event qualified as a film festival. Especially if the films are not available on DVD through the commercial market or the "grey" market. This year we are screening the lost 1955 I Love a Mystery television pilot with Howard Duff. The film was discovered a year ago and transferred to digital exclusively for us for the convention. You won't see that available anywhere else. We never seek out rare films. We have access to hundreds of rare films and when one strikes our fancy, or there's a connection with a celebrity we have at the show, it's a natural selection.

Café: The MANC web site lists all the interview panels, screenings, and seminars--but are there any events that you'd like to highlight? 

Rocky Lane played Red Ryder--
and was the voice of Mister Ed.
MG: There are so many events at the show that it is difficult to highlight one above the other. Authors, historians, museum curators, film preservationists, and other notables host panels and slide show seminars. We encourage slide show seminars rather than have a guest speaker stand up on stage and talk. The attendees enjoy visuals during presentations. In the past, we had some top-notch lectures such as the history of Dick Tracy in comics by author Garyn Roberts and a history of Buck Rogers by Maury Cagle. This year the most anticipated event is probably the Allan "Rocky" Lane slide show. Linda Alexander, author of the new Allan "Rocky" Lane book, contacted Lane's family and had access to the family photos. Her presentation will no doubt impress even the most die-hard of cowboy fans. I heard more queries from attendees about that presentation than any other this year. 

Café: What can attendees expect at the dinner banquet?

MG: We always have a musical performance from a gifted singer. Sometimes a magician or Abbott and Costello impersonators entertain. Donald and Mary Ramlow direct a "lost" radio re-enactment on stage complete with microphones, sound effects and scripts. This year's highlight is the very first Dragnet radio broadcast from 1949, which does not exist in recorded form. The first two or three radio episodes never had the familiar theme song and to ensure accuracy, we will include that theme song. We also have an awards ceremony.

Café: This year, you're doing something very unique by streaming the MANC over the Internet. How will that work?

Piper Laurie--another 2014 guest.
MG: As easy as it sounds. We will set up a camera with a computer, connected to the internet, and people from all over the globe can, with the push of a few buttons, watch the events live as it happens during the weekend. All of the seminars, panels and presentations are streamed. There is a small fee to pay for the service, but it costs money to upload the video to the internet and the nominal service fee people pay is usually a lot cheaper than flying to Maryland to attend the show. Especially if they live in Alaska, Hawaii, California, Canada, you get the idea. But if potential attendees live within a couple hours drive of the hotel, they might as well make the trek since the cost of admission is the same as paying to watch the events live on their computer. 

Café: We're going to put you on the spot here: Who are some of your favorite celebrities from previous MANCs?

Roy Thinnes of The Invaders.
MG: Well... since this interview will be made public, that does put me on the spot. I wouldn't want celebrities from past events to discover their names were omitted. Let's just say the three celebs that left me with a big impression were Roy Thinnes, Ron Ely, and Jeff Connors (son of Chuck Connors). Educated and well-spoken, you could have an intelligent conversation with them and long for more. But celebrities who attended past MANC events have all been wonderful and hospitable. Our priority is to have attendees having fun all weekend and the celebrities make good on that policy.

Café: The celebrity auction to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital sounds like a great event. What are some of the items donated by celebrities this year? 

MG: In the past, we have had autographed items donated by Elizabeth Taylor, Casey Kasem, Alan Young, and other celebrities. This year, we have autographed items from David Hedison, Peter Fonda and two more just came in this morning. We have original television scripts donated by actor Jim Rosin. Attendees always bring vintage merchandise to donate to the auction and I am constantly impressed with some of the items people are willing to part with--great stuff that helps support children with treatable cancer.

Café: Finally, what advice can you give someone coming to their first MANC? 

The autograph and vendor room.
MG: This is a large venue so attendees have to expect the usual handicaps that result from large events. What might be considered the best seating in the panel/seminar room will fill quickly so people need to get in the room 10 to 20 minutes early if they want the best seats. Don't book your hotel room the night before the convention. The hotel sells out quickly. This is the first year we sold out of dinner tickets in advance, so anyone who usually shows up at the door and buys dinner tickets at the show will probably be disappointed when they discover that the dinner tickets are all sold out. The Saturday night dinner banquet is certainly a highlight of the weekend. 

Café: Well, we do have one last question: Any hints about what stars may be attending in 2015? 

1960s pop singer Lesley Gore
on TV's Batman.
MG: We have a cast reunion for My Three Sons, Donna Douglas, Jon Provost and Lesley Gore slated. There are two big surprises I am forced to withhold until contracts are signed, but I can tease they are very huge names. The best way to keep informed of the latest news is to subscribe to our email newsletter or "like" our Facebook page. Even if they do not live close enough to consider traveling to the show, they should still subscribe to our email newsletter because we offer free surprises throughout the year, giveaways, informative articles and much more.

You can learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention on its website.