Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is "Son of Frankenstein" the Best of Universal's Series?

Boris Karloff in Son of Frankenstein.
The general consensus among film critics and classic movie fans is that Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is the high point of Universal's Frankenstein series. It's also widely heralded as one of the finest horror films (TIME Magazine even ranked it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time in 2005). While I'm definitely a Bride fan, I hate that its reputation overshadows the series' next installment, 1939's Son of Frankenstein. I think it's as good--if not better--than Bride of Frankenstein.

The film opens with Wolf von Frankenstein and his family aboard a train heading for the town of Frankenstein as a horrendous thunderstorm rages across the landscape. Although there are local officials and villagers waiting at the train station, the family gets a cold reception (the burgomaster states flatly: "We are here to meet you, not to greet you."). Memories of the Frankenstein Monster's wrath still cast a dark shadow on a village that is "forsaken, desolate, and shunned by every traveler."

Ygor and friend.
Among the documents left by his father, Wolf (Basil Rathbone) finds Henry Frankenstein's records detailing how he discovered the source of life. When exploring his father's laboratory, Wolf finds the Monster--who lives, but in a comatose state. The shepherd Ygor (Bela Lugosi) tells Frankenstein that the Monster (Boris Karloff) survived the explosion at the end of Bride of Frankenstein. He implies that the Monster cannot be destroyed ("Your father made him for always"). However, while "hunting" one night, the Monster was struck by lightning and now lies almost lifeless on a slab. Wolf, who has already become obsessed with his father's work, sees restoring the Monster as a way to vindicate the family name. Of course, Ygor has other plans for the Monster....

The prevalent theme in Son of Frankenstein revolves around family. Wolf's actions are driven in large part by his desire to prove his father was a great scientist, not a mad one. When he finds the words "Maker of Monsters" etched on his father's casket, he changes "Monsters" to "Men." Another familial connection is the one between the Monster and Ygor. This is a carryover from the brief friendship between the Monster and the blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein--only Ygor's motives are far from altruistic. Then, there's Wolf's temporary disinterest in the welfare of his own family, which almost results in his young son's death. And finally, there's the most intriguing family connection of all: Ygor notes that Wolf and the Monster are "brothers" since they shared the same father (but the Monster's "mother" was electricity!).

Bela Lugosi as Ygor.
Willis (aka Wyllis) Cooper, a radio producer, wrote the original screenplay. However, according to many sources, director Rowland V. Lee rewrote much of it during the production. That partially accounted for the film's original budget ballooning from $300,000 to $420,000. Despite the manner in which the script was developed, it contains many juicy bits of dialogue. My favorite may be Ygor's response to Frankenstein on why he was hanged: "Because I stole bodies...they said."

The picture gets a huge boost from a number of outstanding performances. Lionel Atwill's one-armed police inspector has a chilling scene in which he describes his encounter with the Monster as a boy ("One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots."). Atwill would appear in four more Frankenstein films, playing inspectors in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. While Boris Karloff has no dialogue in this outing, he nonethless instills the Monster with very human emotions. While more of a killer than in the previous films, he elicits sympathy in two key scenes: as he stands in front of a mirror, disgusted with his appearance, and compares himself to Wolf and when he lets out a cry of anguish after finding Ygor's body. As for Basil Rathbone, while he has been accused of overacting as Wolf, I thought his manic performance was perfect for the part. He was certainly more subdued than Colin Clive in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

The Monster compares himself to Wolf von Frankenstein.

That leaves Bela Lugosi, who gives the best performance of his career. True, Ygor is a meaty role--but Lugosi attacks it with glee. He can be subtle, too, as in a brilliant scene in which he reminds Wolf that the Monster will do whatever Ygor tells him. Sadly, Lugosi reprised the role to less effect in 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein, which, unlike its predecessors, was strictly a "B" film.

One of Otterson's distorted sets.
From a technical standpoint, Son of Frankenstein reflects the work of highly skilled craftsmen. Jack Otterson's brilliant, warped sets enhance the film's feeling of dread. His set design, combined with director Lee's bold use of light and shadows, pre-dates some of the techniques popularized in later film noirs. Although Otterson didn't receive an Oscar nomination for Son of Frankenstein, he was nominated--every year--from 1937 to 1943. Likewise, composer Frank Skinner was ignored for his memorable score, but was also nominated five times from 1939 to 1944. His Son of Frankenstein score was popular enough to be recycled in numerous other Universal films.

If I haven't convinced you yet of the virtues of Son of Frankenstein, let me leave you with this assessment from Universal Horrors: "Grandiose in scope, magnificent in design, it supplanted the quaint romanticism and delicate fantasy flavoring of Bride of Frankenstein with a stark, grimly expressionistic approach to horror." Well said.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Movie Connection Game (January 2015 Edition)

How are Karloff and Pacino related?
In this edition of the connection game, you will once again be given 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. The film Ski Party and the TV series Batman.

2. Cary Grant and David Niven.

3. Disney's Alice in Wonderland and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

4. Claudia Cardinale and Elke Sommer.

5. The films Soylent Green and Idaho Transfer.  

6. Rod Taylor and James Brolin.

7. Barbara Shelley and Tony Randall. 

8. To Kill a Mockingbird and Saturday Night Fever

9. Charles Bronson and Ray Milland.

10. Sean Connery and Errol Flynn.

11. Bonita Granville and Parker Stevenson.

12. George C. Scott and Orson Welles.

13. Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and Forbidden Planet.

14. Al Pacino and Boris Karloff. 

15. Michael Rennie and Harrison Ford.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

To Sir, With Love: The Feel-Good Side of the Sixties

During my formative teenage years, I developed a fondness for the British cinema of the mid-to-late 1960s. These films spanned several genres: the serious spy film (The Deadly Affair); social satire (Nothing But the Best); quirky thriller (Bunny Lake Is Missing); and pop culture comedy (Georgy Girl). The only thing they shared was a healthy dose of cynicism and impeccable British casts. So, it seems ironic that one of my favorite films of this period is an upbeat, almost sentimental, tale starring a mainstream American actor: To Sir, With Love.

Sidney Poitier as Mr. Thackeray.
In a role seemingly tailored for him, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a young engineer looking for a job. Unable to find one in his chosen profession, he accepts temporary employment as a teacher in an inner-city London school. It’s a bleak situation—the students are out of control, most of the teachers are burned out, and the school reflects the poverty of the surrounding neighborhood. Thackeray’s initial attempts to reach his students fail miserably. He finally concludes that the teens act childish because they’re treated as children. He starts showing them respect and demands the same of them. He tosses out the curriculum and teaches his students about life. In the end, Thackeray becomes a teacher and his students become adults.

Judy Geeson as Pamela Dare.
Cynics will no doubt criticize To Sir, With Love as simple-minded and obvious. Perhaps, it is, but the story is put across with such conviction and professionalism that it’s impossible to ignore its many charms. In particular, a subplot involving an attractive student (Judy Geeson) who develops a crush on Thackeray is handled impeccably. Its only flaw is that Poitier and Geeson have such a natural chemistry that one almost wishes a romance could work out between them (but then, To Sir, With Love would have been a very different film).

Lulu--she was once married to Bee Gee
Maurice Gibb.
The film’s theme, sung by Lulu (who plays one of the students), became a huge hit. Director James Clavell must have recognized the song’s potential—it’s heard multiple times throughout the picture. In one scene, it’s played over a montage of Thackeray taking his students to a museum. The scene looks very much like one of the world’s first music videos.

Sidney Poitier stands out as one of my favorite actors of the 1960s, with memorable performances in A Patch of Blue, Lilies of the Field, and In the Heat of the Night. Judy Geeson went on to play a major role in the vastly entertaining British miniseries Poldark and Poldark II. When my wife and I were in London in 1987, we saw Lulu in a production of the stage musical Peter Pan. She played Peter and still sounded great.

Sidney Poitier reprised his role as Mark Thackeray in the 1996 made-for-TV movie To Sir With Love II, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The plot has Mr. Thackeray retiring from teaching in England, only to start anew at a Chicago inner-city school. It's pleasant enough, thanks to Poitier, but my recommendation is to stick with the original.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Classic TV Comic Book Tie-ins

Merchandise tie-ins and other licensing deals have been an essential marketing tool for decades. For movies, it dates back at least to Walt Disney, who made a licensing deal with a Switzerland company for Mickey and Minnie Mouse handkerchiefs in the late 1920s. Another example is William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy films, which began in the 1930s and led to dozens of tie-in products such as kids’ lunch boxes.

Television made a huge splash in the merchandising game in the 1950s with Superman, The Lone Ranger, and Fess Parker as Davy Crockett on the Disneyland TV series. Not surprisingly, savvy television producers were quick to partner with comic book publishers. Dell Comics and later Gold Key Comics led the way with tie-ins of popular shows. Many of them were based on youth-oriented TV series (e.g., Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), but there were also comic book tie-ins with adult fare like Dr. Kildare, Mission: Impossible, and Burke’s Law.

In fact, a recent Café post on Burke’s Law inspired my sister to look for some of the classic TV comic books she bought as a youth. I had a blast looking at these covers and wanted to share them with Café readers.

You can enlarge any of the covers by clicking on them. Note the German officer pictured next to Chris George in The Rat Patrol cover is Hans Gudegast. He later changed his name to Eric Braeden and gained fame as Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Greatest Stars of the 1940s Revealed! (Part 2)

Where does he rank in the Top 10?
Last week, we started the countdown of the 25 top vote-getters in our Greatest Stars of the 1940s poll. Today, we will unveil the Top 10.

But before doing that, I want to highlight two important statistics. First, the star that received the most votes appeared on 56% of the ballots. That shows how dispersed the votes were among all the stars on the ballot. Second, the top five stars were significantly more popular than all the rest. In other words, the number of votes separating #5 from #6 was substantial. However, the number of votes separating #6 from #10 was just a handful.

Polls like this are, by nature, a popularity contest. However, one could make a pretty convincing argument that most of these performers are indeed the Greatest Stars of the 1940s.

9.  (tie) Ann Sheridan and Gary Cooper.
8.  Judy Garland.
7.  Katharine Hepburn.
6.  Clark Gable.
5.  James Stewart.
4.  Barbara Stanwyck.
3.  Bette Davis.
2.  Humphrey Bogart.

And, at #1, it's Cary Grant!

By the way, if you missed the post on the rest of the Top 25, click here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Stingray--Submarines, Marionettes, and a Love Triangle

Imagine a science fiction TV series about an organization called the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), which battles underwater threats from its West Coast headquarters in the year 2065. Commander Samuel Shore, who travels via a "hoverchair" due to paralysis, runs WASP with assistance from his daughter Atlanta. She's in love with Captain Troy Tempest, the handsome pilot of the super submarine Stingray. Troy returns her affections to a degree--but he's also attracted to Marina, a mute young woman from an underwater civilization. In fact, each episode ends with a love song about Marina ("What are these strange enchantments that start whenever you’re near?").

Now, imagine that all the characters are "played" by marionettes on miniature sets. That's Stingray, a fanciful 1964-65 British series created by innovative television producer Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia. On January 13th, Timeless Media Group will released a 50th anniversary edition of Stingray: The Complete Series. This five-DVD boxed set includes all 39 half-hour episodes, plus an interview with Gerry Anderson, a making-of featurette, and audio commentaries on several episodes from the Andersons and others.(Click here to view our trailer on YouTube.)

Troy Tempest and his co-pilot Phones.
By the 1960s, Gerry Anderson was well-known in his homeland for unique children's shows that incorporated an ingenious marionette process dubbed "Supermarionation." A key element in this process was the use of a solenoid motor located in a puppet's head that was synchronized to an audio filter. Thus, each puppet's mouth moved in response to dialogue on a pre-recorded tape. The size of the motor required the puppet's head to be disproportionately larger than the rest of its body. The puppets averaged 22 inches in height. Their movements were controlled by thin wires operated by puppeteers--one per character--working on a bridge eight feet over the miniature set.

Sylvia and Gerry Anderson with Troy.
Gerry Anderson's early juvenile hits included Supercar and Fireball XL5 (which NBC broadcast in the U.S. on Saturday mornings). With Fireball XL5 taking place in outer space, it only seemed logical for Gerry and Sylvia to create a show about a super sub.

Stingray was their first color series and also their most sophisticated one to date. The marionettes had interchangeable heads that were used to convey different emotions. The biggest challenge, though, was that much of Stingray took place underwater. On one of the commentary tracks, Gerry Anderson explains how the illusion of filming underwater was achieved and the dangers it created:

We used to film through a specially constructed aquarium in which we had different-sized fish. In order to give the illusion that Stingray was traveling underwater, we ordered the aquariums to be made by the same people who made aquariums for the London Zoo and so naturally, we thought the thing would be done properly and everything would be safe. When they arrived, we spent the first morning filming through the aquarium and everything seemed to work perfectly. Then fortunately, the crew broke for lunch. As they walked through the studio door in the corridor, there's this enormous bang as the aquarium exploded through the pressure of water and, of course, jagged pieces of glass blew out in all directions and the fish landed on the floor and all died. We were very lucky, because had the crew been there, I think there could have been a very, very serious accident. It's something I always think of when I see Stingray traveling, seemingly underwater.

Troy Tempest and James Garner.
The 20-minute documentary "The Thing About Stingray..." is a special treat for the show's fans. Director John Read, art director Bob Bell, special effects technicians, and puppeteers provide fascinating details about Stingray's creation and production. For example, the appearance of hero Troy Tempest was modeled after actor James Garner. The fine wires used to manipulate the puppets created some logistical challenges, such as Troy and his fellow cast members couldn't walk through a doorway--the door frame would have interfered with the wires. Anderson thought the puppet's walking movements looked awkward, so the crew employed some creative ways to minimize walking shots (e.g., puppets walk behind furniture, use of the hoverchair).

Atlanta was voiced by Lois Maxwell
(Miss Moneypenny to Connery's 007).
The Stingray TV series lasted for 39 episodes and was sadly eclipsed by the Andersons' next two endeavors: Thunderbirds (1965-66), the biggest hit of the Supermarionation shows, and Captain Scarlett and the Mysterons (1967-68). Still, in my opinion, they didn't top Stingray, which mixed lively adventures with witty comedy (e.g., in the last episode, Troy wins "Aquanaut of the Year" and reminiscences about his greatest escapades). And, of course, let's not forget about the Atlanta-Troy-Marina love triangle!

The mysterious Marina.
Despite the success of his marionette TV series, Gerry Anderson wanted to move into "live action" films and television. He almost got his big break when Harry Saltzman, who owned the James Bond film rights with Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, asked Anderson if he'd be interested in producing Moonraker in 1969. Nothing came of the discussions, though. According to some sources, Anderson later settled a lawsuit against Broccoli, claiming some elements of his Moonraker treatment were used.

Still, Gerry Anderson got his wish when he made the intriguing theatrical film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in 1969. From there, he produced the cult TV series UFO (a personal fave), Space: 1999 with Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, and The Protectors starring Robert Vaughn.

Incidentally, the pretty closing song "Aqua Marina" was performed by Gary Miller. He had previously scored six hits on the UK record chart, with his biggest song being the theme from Richard Greene's Robin Hood TV series. Sadly, "Aqua Marina" wasn't a hit--though perhaps that was a good thing for Atlanta, who didn't have a song at all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Greatest Stars of the 1940s Revealed! (Part 1)

The Duke just missed the Top 10!
Last month, over 195 classic movie fans participated in our online poll to determine the greatest movie stars of the 1940s. The ballot included 105 actors and actresses who were active during that decade, ranging from Fred Astaire to Orson Welles. Over the next week, we will reveal the top 25 vote-getters, starting with 11-25 today.

Amazingly, all but five performers received at least one vote. That group included some fine performers, too: Robert Young, Barry Fitzgerald, Celeste Holm, Donald Crisp, and Judith Anderson.

The poll also allowed participants to submit write-in votes and 40 people took the opportunity to add their favorites. The Priscilla Lane Fan Club mounted a campaign on that actress's behalf and she led all write-in candidates with 8 votes. British film fans noted the exclusion of Michael Redgrave, Alastair Sim, Margaret Lockwood, and Joan Greenwood. Some of the Hollywood stars that received write-in votes were Linda Darnell, Jean Arthur, Lon Chaney, Jr., Norma Shearer, and Audrey Hepburn. While a couple of these performers should have been on the ballot (e.g., Linda Darnell, Jean Arthur), most of them made only a few appearances during the 1940s. For example, Norma Shearer starred in just three movies and Audrey Hepburn's film debut was in 1951!

Without further ado, we'll start at #25 and work our way to #11. Then next week, we will unveil the Top 10!

25.  Bing Crosby.
24.  Gregory Peck.
23.  Gene Tierney.
22.  Myrna Loy.
21.  Tyrone Power.
20.  Claude Rains.
19.  Bob Hope.
18.  Ingrid Bergman,
17.  Errol Flynn.
16.  William Powell.
15.  Spencer Tracy.
14.  Fred Astaire.
13.  Rita Hayworth.
12.  James Cagney.
11.  John Wayne.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Frankie and Annette as Murder Suspects? It's Burke's Law!

Could Annette be a murderer?
I've recently rediscovered Burke's Law, the 1963-65 TV series starring Gene Barry as the head of the LAPD homicide division--who also happens to be a millionaire. Last Friday, I randomly selected the episode "Who Killed the Strangler?", which opens with a wrestler (called the Strangler, of course) abruptly dropping dead in the ring.

As the camera panned the inevitable murder suspects in the crowd, a young man with glasses and a pretty brunette looked familiar. The show's title credits soon confirmed that those guest stars were indeed Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. As those of you who visit the Cafe regularly know, we love us some Beach Party movies. Thus, this episode of Burke's Law turned out to be an unexpected delight--even if it wasn't one of the series' better efforts. 

Barry as Amos Burke.
For the uninitiated, each episode of Burke's Law follows a similar structure. Typically, it begins with a homicide that interrupts Amos Burke, who almost always spends his leisure time in the company of an attractive woman. Captain Burke and his two subordinates, seasoned detective Les Hart (Regis Toomey) and the less experienced Tim Tilson (Gary Conway), then interview the suspects. These potential murderers are played by the guest stars, many of whom are veterans of classic Hollywood cinema (e.g., William Bendix, Joan Blondell, Elsa Lanchester, Dorothy Lamour, Walter Pidgeon, Ann Blyth, Jane Greer, etc.). At the climax, Amos comes to a startling conclusion that exposes the culprit. Oh, and I forgot to mention that every female in the cast swoons over Amos (to include Annette).

In addition to Frankie and Annette, "Who Killed the Strangler?" also featured Jeanne Crain (still radiant at 40), Una Merkel (who fought Marlene in Destry Rides Again), and Robert Middleton. Each guest star has about ten minutes of screen time--except for the murderer who gets unmasked in the climax (I guessed the culprit).

Annette, in fringe, with Gene Barry.
For the record, Annette plays an aspiring ballerina who moonlights as a go-go dancer because her brother, the Strangler, refused to give her any money. Beach Party fans are certain to enjoy watching Annette shake her fringe dress in the best Candy Johnson tradition (but let's admit it, Candy was in a class by herself). It's also fun listening to Annette spout "hip" dialogue about topics such as Squaresville!

Frankie looks suspicious in glasses!
Frankie doesn't fare as well as a sports journalist who uses a "method" technique (you know, like method acting) to write about horse racing, tennis, and wrestling. It may sound clever, but the idea wears thin quickly and Frankie tries too hard to make his scene funny.

Still, it's a fairly entertaining episode and par for the series. An added bonus for Beach Party fans is that Quinn O'Hara has a small role; she would go on to star in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. On the downside, I wish that Jeanne Crain had been given more screen time and a more interesting character.

My sister's Burke's
 comic book.
The history of Burke's Law has always intrigued me. Playwright Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses) created the the character of Amos Burke for the first episode of The Dick Powell Theatre in 1961. Titled "Who Killed Julie Greer?", it starred Dick Powell as the wealthy detective and featured a supporting cast comprised of Nick Adams, Ralph Bellamy, Ronald Reagan, Jack Carson, Edgar Bergen, Lloyd Bridges, Mickey Rooney, and Carolyn Jones (as the murder victim). Dean Jones and Edward Platt (Chief on Get Smart) played detectives.

Gene with Peter Barton in the
1994-95 revival.
It premiered as a regular TV series on ABC in 1963 with Gene Barry. Burke's Law was a solid ratings performer and even spun off the 1965-66 TV series Honey West; Anne Francis first appeared as Honey in the Burke's Law episode "Who Killed the Jackpot?" However, in 1965, at the height of the spy movie craze, the series was unwisely revamped as Amos Burke, Secret Agent. The new show was cancelled after 17 episodes. It went out with a bang, though, with a nifty two-parter called "Terror in a Tiny Town" which places Amos in a community filled with residents that inexplicably want to kill him.

In 1994, CBS revived Burke's Law with a new series about Amos (still played by Gene Barry) and his son Peter (Peter Barton). It maintained the lighthearted approach of the original series, but never captured much of an audience. It was cancelled after a single season.