Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Visit to the Williamsburg Film Festival

With its big star lineup and restoration premieres, the TCM Classic Film Festival has become the annual convention for many classic film fans. However, if you prefer a more intimate setting, a smaller crowd, and the chance to chat with the stars, there are better choices! Last year, I attended the Western Film Fair and Nostalgia Convention in Winston-Salem, NC, where I spent an afternoon interviewing Piper Laurie as she signed autographs. Earlier this month, I attended my first Williamsburg Film Festival in the historic Virginia town.

Presented by the Williamsburg Classic Film Guild, the Williamburg Film Festival has been an annual tradition since 1997. Like the Western Film Fair, it was started by fans of old cowboy films. Although the festival's scope has expanded, those passionate Western film buffs still make their presence known. On the day I attended, there was a theater devoted for much of the day to "B" Westerns featuring favorites such as Tex Ritter and Allan Lane. There were also a number of attendees dressed in elaborate Western gear, to include six-shooters danging on their hips.

Despite icy weather, the vendor room
was a popular place.
The festival's format follows the same formula as the Western Film Fair, Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Conventions, and similar events. Movies play in multiple theaters throughout most of the day. Each star participates on an interview panel (usually following a showing of one of their films or a TV series episode) and answers questions from the audience. And there's a banquet on the last evening. However, the highlight for most festival attendees is the "vendor room," where the stars sell personally autographed photos and other memorabilia and vendors offer everything from comic books to collector plates featuring famous stars.

The best-known guests for this year's Williamsburg Film Festival included:

Lana Wood.
Lana Wood. Natalie Wood's sister never achieved major stardom, but remains a favorite among James Bond fans for her appearance as Plenty O'Toole opposite Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever. She also played the "Younger Debbie" in The Searchers (Natalie played the older Debbie) and was a regular for two years on the Peyton Place TV series. Lana was one of the reasons I wanted to attend the festival and she kindly agreed to do an interview with me.

Johnny Crawford. The actor who played Chuck Connors' son on The Rifleman is always a popular attraction. He headlines the Johnny Crawford Dance Orchestra these days and will autograph a copy of one of his CDs. He loves to chat with fans, but be prepared to wait in line for awhile if you see him at another nostalgia convention.

Michael McGreevey.
Michael McGreevey. A Disney regular in TV and film during the 1960s and early 1970s, McGreevey is a fine storyteller. He started his career on the TV series Riverboat with Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds. He eventually became a writer-director and penned episodes of TVs series such as The Waltons and Fame. He recently participated in a documentary about Waltons creator Earl Hamner, which was shown at the festival. Needless to say, he gave a great interview.

Belinda Montgomery and friend.
Belinda Montgomery. One of the busiest actresses on American television in the 1970s and 1980s, Montgomery was a regular in three prime time series: Aaron's Way, Doogie Howser, M.D. (she played Neil Patrick Harris' mother), and Man from Atlantis (with Patrick Duffy). She also appeared intermittently on Miami Vice as Sonny Crockett's first wife (and later ex). On the big screen, Belinda Montgomery co-starred as real-life skier Audra Jo Nickolson in The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) and its sequel.

Sharon Farrell.
Sharon Farrell. A familiar face to film and TV fans for three decades, she starred alongside major stars such as Steve McQueen (The Reivers), James Garner (Marlowe), and Kirk Douglas (A Lovely Way to Die). It seems like she guest-starred in almost every hit TV series that aired in the 1960s and 1970s, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (three appearances) to Love, American Style. She also starred in Larry Cohen's cult classic It's Alive.

If you're interested in learning more about the Williamsburg Film Festival, click here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Interview with Michael McGreevey: The Actor-Writer Discusses Riverboat, Disney, the Fame TV Series, and The Waltons

Michael McGreevy and Sally Field in The Way West.
Michael McGreevey made his film debut at age of 7 in the 1958 Jane Powell musical The Girl Most Likely. He would soon become one of the most in-demand child actors of the 1960s. He appeared as a regular on the TV series Riverboat (1959-60) and starred in several multi-part episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. He also guest-starred in classic TV series such as Route 66, Naked City, and Bonanza. On the big screen, he made films like The Way West (1967) with Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, and Robert Mitchum. Michael also continued to work for Disney, playing Kurt Russell's best friend in the three Dexter Riley movies (e.g., The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes). In the 1970s, he moved behind the camera and became a successful writer for TV series such as The Waltons, Fame, and Quincey, M.E. Michael McGreevey recently appeared at the Williamsburg Film Festival and kindly agreed to an interview.

Café: You were around 11 when you starred in Riverboat. In addition to stars Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds, it featured a huge number of then-current and future stars. Are there any that you remember fondly?

As Chip Kessler in Riverboat.
Michael McGreevey:  That's the show I met Doug McClure on. It was one of the first things Doug ever did. He was a great guy and became a lifelong friend. Of course, he went on to do The Virginian. Mary Tyler Moore was on the show. I remember her because she was really cute (laughs) and very nice to me. There was Suzanne Pleshette, who went on to do a ton of stuff. Then, there were people on the show that I became very close to: Jack Lambert, who was a great character actor and a regular; John Mitchum, Robert Mitchum's brother; and, of course, Darren (McGavin) and Burt (Reynolds).

Café:  I've read where Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds didn't get along. Is that true?

MM:  Oh, yeah. They were just two very different personalities. I think that Burt was insecure. It was his first job in Hollywood and Darren was a very polished actor. It was Darren's show really--he was Captain Holden. I think Burt was a little jealous of Darren and they clashed quite a bit. What finally happened was that Burt left the show. But I loved them both. Darren was very much a father figure for me and Burt was like a big brother. He had been a football player at Florida State and I was impressed with that because I was into football. The first football I ever got--in fact, I've still got it--he got me. We used to play catch. I still see Burt every once in awhile. He still says: "Don't tell people you were only 11 years old when we were on Riverboat."

Café: How did you get cast in Texas John Slaughter, your first episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color?

MM:   I had done a small part in a thing called Toby Tyler, which was just a one-day shoot. My agent had said: "It's only one day, but you should do it because you might get in over at Disney and become one of the Disney kids." I thought, OK, I'll do it. After that, they called and I did the Texas John Slaughter episode. Then, I did Sammy, the Way-Out Seal, which was a big deal. I remember going for several interviews with director Norman Tokar. Bill Mumy and I got the parts. I showed up on the set and Ann Jillian was my girlfriend on the show. She became my girlfriend in real life later on, which was sort of neat. That was the beginning of the Disney run.

Café: You appeared in several multi-part Disney episodes. Which one was your favorite and why?

Billy Mumy and McCreevey in Sammy.
MM:   That's hard. Sammy, the Way-Out Seal was the most fun, because we were kids and we got to spend two days in a pool swimming with the seal. My favorite of the TV episodes was later, when I was an adult. It was called Michael O'Hara the Fourth and starred Dan Dailey and a wonderful actress named Jo Ann Harris. It was a two-part detective story, sort of a Nancy Drew thing. I really liked my performance in that one. It was a fun thing to do and very few people know that particular one.

Café: What was it like working on the Disney lot while making those shows?

MM:  It was wonderful, especially in the '60s when Walt was still alive. He'd come every day on the set if you were on the lot. There was a real family feeling on that lot at that point. It wasn't like the other studios. And because so many children worked there, it was a more conducive place for them in general. The crews were used to kids. Mr. Disney--Uncle Walt...I always called him Mr. Disney and he would always correct me--set the tone. It was like going to summer camp. I loved it.

Café:  And did you really beat Walt Disney in ping pong?

MM:  No. Actually, I never beat him. I tried. My mother said you'd better lose. Kurt Russell claims to have waxed him.

Café:  Was he good at ping pong?

Kurt Russell and McGreevey in
The Strongest Man in the World.
MM:  Walt? Yes. I don't know if I ever played Kurt. When we used to compare notes, I said I used to play ping pong with Walt and Kurt said: "So did I." I said I never beat him and Kurt said he beat him all the time.

Café:  You and Kurt Russell made a great team in the three Dexter Riley films. Did you get along off camera?

MM:  Yes, we were roommates for four years. I tell people that I could ruin Kurt Russell (laughs). We roomed together in our twenties. We're still good friends. I talked with him before I came here.

Café:  What are your memories of acting in The Way West with Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Sally Field?

MM:  I think that was the most fun I ever had in a movie. I was a little disappointed in the end product. I thought it could have been a much better movie. In my opinion, they sort of ruined it in the editing room. In terms of the actual shoot and the cast, I adored Sally (Field). Director Andy McLaglen was just a wonderful man. I enjoyed that role. I met (Richard) Widmark on that film, who became my mentor. I did another film with him (Death of a Gunslinger). We spent four months in Oregon, too. I made some lasting friendships. John Mitchum was in it and Bob Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Timothy Scott, who later went on to do a lot of great work. It was just a wonderful experience.

Café:  What led to your decision to enroll in UCLA and to pursue film writing and directing?

Michael McGreevey at the 2015
Williamsburg Film Festival.
MM:  My father (screenwriter John McGreevey) was a writer, so I always had some aspirations to write. UCLA was the best choice, because I could sort of go to class and still work if I had to. I really wanted to be a psychiatrist, but got into chemistry and realized I wouldn't make it through medical school. So, I became a psychology major and then got to statistics and realized I wasn't going to get through that. So, I went and became a film major. I had always been an actor, but I didn't really have any idea about the other side of the camera. I had seen it done as a kid. I became convinced that I could write, produce, and direct. I kept acting for about five more years. The Disney movies, although they were a delightful experience, typecast me. People forgot the other movies and thought I was this comedic actor, though I had never really done comedy until those last two or three Disney movies. I thought, well, great, I can just disappear and start writing. I was lucky enough to have a father that was well established and had a lot of contacts.

Café:  What inspired you to write the 1978 made-for-TV movie Ruby and Oswald, which became a collaborative effort between you and your father?

MM:  I had started on my own to research Jack Ruby. I was fascinated with him. I went to my Dad to get some advice on how to approach the screenplay. He said it might be more interesting to parallel Ruby with Oswald. I said I'll do that. I went back and did some stuff with that and realized there was all this documentary footage with Kennedy. In reality, the movie, although it's called Ruby and Oswald, is a three-way depiction of those four days in Dallas where we cut back and forth between the documentary footage of Kennedy and the recreated story with Ruby and Oswald. Dad and I both knew a man named Alan Landsburg, who had done a lot of documentaries. We went to him with the project first and he knew Mel Stuart, who had done an Academy Award-winning documentary called Four Days in November (1964). So, Mel was attached to direct it and we went into CBS and sold it right away as a three-hour special event movie. I was very proud of that movie; it was very well done.

Café:  You've written episodes for several first-rate TV series such as Fame and The Waltons. What was your favorite series to work on?

MM: Fame, by far. I started as a free-lance on one episode of Fame. I later became the story editor and then became the creative consultant--they kept moving me up. I ended up producing the show the last season. I did a total of four seasons on Fame. My background was in musical theater. It was like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland--let's put on a show every week. And they were paying me all this money to do it. It was fun. I loved The Waltons. I just finished a movie about (Waltons creator) Earl Hamner called Earl Hamner Storyteller. The Waltons were an important part of my life and I really enjoyed working on that show.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming films or appearances that you'd like to share with our readers?

MM:  We just screened Earl Hamner Storyteller, a ninety-minute documentary about Earl Hamner in Lynchburg (Virginia). Tuesday night, we screened it in Richmond for University of Virginia mucky-mucks and the governor of Virginia. It should appear on television in the fall. It will probably be on the Hallmark Channel. Earl is 91 and we got to screen it for him in Los Angeles in February and he got a standing ovation. It made my year.

Café:  He was such a great TV writer. People think of him with The Waltons, but he also wrote episodes of Twilight Zone and created Falcon Crest.

MM:  That's all in the documentary. He has been a family friend, my Dad's best friend. My Dad wrote 20 episodes of The Waltons and I wrote four. So, he's been Uncle Earl my whole life. But doing this movie was really fun, because I got closer to him and found out things I didn't know about Earl.

Café:  Thank you so much for doing this interview, Mr. McGreevey.

You can learn more about Michael McGreevey at his web site and you can "like" his Facebook page.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An Interview with Lana Wood

Lana in Diamonds Are Forever.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting actress Lana Wood at the Williamsburg Film Festival. Although best known for playing Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds Are Forever, Ms. Wood has had a long movie and television career, both in front of and behind the camera. Her first credited role was as a young girl in John Ford's The Searchers. As an adult, she became a regular on the popular TV series Peyton Place and guest-starred in shows like The Wild, Wild West and Mission: Impossible. She later worked as a production executive and co-produced a miniseries about her sister, The Mystery of Natalie Wood. She also wrote the biography Natalie: A Memoir About Natalie Wood By Her Sister. In between signing autographs and chatting with fans at the film festival, Lana Wood graciously talked with me about her career.

Café:  In a 2007 interview, you discussed playing the character Debbie as a young girl in The Searchers. You noted Jeffrey Hunter's "incredible kindness." Did you have any interaction with John Wayne?

Lana in The Searchers.
Lana Wood:  John Wayne used to come to me every morning, stand next to me, and pull out a tin of Allenberry black current pastilles, which he doted upon. He'd open them up and I'd take one and he's say: "Take another one." It was an ongoing little jokey thing between us. He was a very sweet and kind man. He cared a great deal about everything.

Café:  How did John Ford treat you as a child actress?

LW:  I don't think John Ford liked me. He never really spoke to me. I think the only thing he ever said to me was in the scene where Chris (the dog) and I run up to the headstone. He said: "Can you bend at the waist?" I couldn't bend at the waist, though I tried very hard to do it.

Café:  Peyton Place was already an established hit when you joined the cast in 1966. What are some of your memories of working with Ryan O'Neal, Mia Farrow, and the other cast members?

A publicity shot from Peyton Place.
LW:  In Peyton Place, we were all very young--and very spirited. I think that's a good way of putting it. There was a great deal of flirtation at all times. Ryan was an adorable, sweet guy, but not the best to work with. Mia was very sweet. All she'd eat for lunch was cottage cheese and spinach. Barbara Parkins absolutely loathed me. She would not speak to me, ever. What I would do was I'd go into the makeup room in the morning and talk to her all the more because I knew she wouldn't answer me. I was kind of poking the bear a bit.

Café:  You made quite an impression as Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds Are Forever and she remains one of the best-remembered "Bond Girls." Why do you think Plenty has remained so popular over the years?

LW:  Hopefully because I wanted her to be very sweet. I didn't want to appear like a hooker. Shill is not really the top category when you list careers you would like to have had. And I was very worried about that. So, I made her very ingenuous and just very nice. That's what came across and I think that's what people identified with.

Café:  I've seen the two deleted scenes with Plenty: the dinner scene with Bond and when she discovers James and Tiffany Case together. Do you know why they were cut from the final film?

Lana and friend Sherry in Williamsburg.
LW:  They didn't help move along the plot. The studio wanted the film at a certain length back then so it could squeeze in another showing. So, unfortunately, it was Plenty who went.

Café:  You were friends with Sean Connery before Diamonds Are Forever. How did the two of you meet?

LW:  My boyfriend at the time was dear friends with Sean. We were invited to dinner at his house. So, I went to his house, we had dinner, and I got to know him.

Café:  What do you think of Daniel Craig as James Bond?

LW:  I adore him. I think, at last, other than Sean, he is James Bond.

Café:  What led you to take a break from acting from the mid-1980s until a few years ago?

LW:  Several things. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I had gone behind the camera at that point as well, so I was producing. I was working at Universal Studios as director of development for television films. I moved my Mom in with me. Lots of things. It was just unfortunate.

Café:  What were some of the made-for-TV films that you were involved with from a production standpoint?

LW:  Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer mystery Murder Me, Murder You. Lynda Carter in Born to Be Sold, which was, at that time, the highest-rated television film. Hotline (also with Lynda Carter) and two Lynda Carter specials. I rewrote six episodes of Bring 'Em Back Alive, a TV series with Bruce Boxleitner. And I produced The Mystery of Natalie Wood, which was an ABC miniseries.

Café:  Of all your films, which one was your personal favorite and why?

LW:  I like different ones for different reasons. I'm so thrilled to have been part of The Searchers. That's something that will go on forever. It meant the world to me to be in a film like that, which is so iconic--with John Wayne, Ken Curtis, Jeffrey Hunter, and Harry Carey. It's a beautiful film that holds up to this day. I'm very proud of it.

Café:  You show a number of adorable dogs and cats on your FB page. Are they all yours?

LW:  (laughs) Oh, yes! I haven't even put the half of them up. I can't get them to sit still.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming films or appearances that you'd like to share with our readers?

LW:  I have two films coming out. One is called Killing Poe, which is a black comedy. Then, I have a thriller coming out called Bestseller.

You can "like" Lana Wood on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day with "Darby O'Gill and the Little People"

In the picturesque Irish village of Rathcullen, old codger Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe) spends more time in the pub talking about leprechauns than tending to the estate of Lord Fitzpatrick. So, it's no surprise when the landowner decides it's time to replace Darby with the younger Michael McBride (Sean Connery). Darby's retirement benefits are generous: half-pay, a house with no rent, and a two-week notice for moving from his current abode. The hardest part for Darby will be breaking the news to his spunky, hard-working daughter Katie (Janet Munro), who has already caught Michael's eye.

As he ponders how to tell Katie, Darby falls down a well on Fairy Mountain and awakes in the home of the leprechauns. It's not his first encounter with King Brian (Jimmy O'Dea), the little people's leader. Several years earlier, the crafty Brian outfoxed Darby by granting a fourth wish that then negated the first three. This time around, Darby turns the tables. He manages to escape from Fairy Mountain, capture King Brian, and earn three wishes. But what to wish for?

A little Disney humor: Walt thanks the
leprechauns in the opening credits.
Made in 1959, this colorful Disney fantasy has aged as well as a 5,000-year-old leprechaun (like King Brian). The film has charm to spare, thanks largely to veteran performers Sharpe and O'Dea. Walt Disney handpicked Sharpe for the lead role after watching the actor in a stage version of Finian's Rainbow a decade earlier. Sharpe only made a handful of films, though his resume included two other engaging fantasies: Brigadoon and You Never Can Tell with Dick Powell. His co-star, Jimmy O'Dea, was an unknown in Hollywood, having spent most of his acting career in the Irish theater where he was known for playing the working-class Mrs. Biddy Mulligan.

Sean Connery as Michael McBride.
The scenes between Sharpe and O'Dea dominate the first hour of Darby O'Gill, with Cleopatra the horse being the only other character to garner significant screen time. As a result, the final half-hour has too much plot: a romance blossoming between Michael and Katie; a lug named Pony causing trouble; and a banshee almost killing Katie. Still, the loose ends are wrapped up nicely; this is a family film after all.

Janet Munro as Katie.
Sean Connery, still three years before his Bond debut, has little to do. He does get to sing a duet with Janet Munro (in a DVD featurette, Connery calls his singing debut "an earth-shattering experience"). Darby O'Gill was the first of three Disney pictures for Munro, the other two being Swiss Family Robinson and Third Man on the Mountain. She oozes sweetness and tones down the sex appeal displayed in her finest film, the first-rate The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Munro's film career was sadly short-lived and she died in 1972 at age 38 of a heart attack. Her career highlight was a 1963 BAFTA (the "British Oscar") Best Actress nomination for Walk in the Shadow, co-starring Patrick McGoohan (another Disney veteran).

The buildings and mountain in the distance were painted on a matte.
While Sharpe and the rest of the cast breathe life into the characters, it's Disney special effects wizard Peter Ellenshaw that makes Darby O'Gill and the Little People a magical visual experience. Ellenshaw gained fame as a matte artist working as an assistant on films such as Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. A matte is a partially-painted piece of glass placed in front of a motion picture camera that inserts new "objects" in the frame. Most of the town of Rathcullen is a painting done by Ellenshaw that blends into the sets built in the backlot of Disney's Hollywood studio (it's so convincing I thought the movie was filmed in Ireland).

To "create" the leprechauns, Ellenshaw used forced perspective, a technique in which two objects--which appear to be adjacent to one another--are actually separated by a significant distance. They are carefully aligned so that when filmed, the near object looks much larger than the far object. The trick is making the different sets, color, and lighting match seamlessly. Special effects master Ray Harryhausen used this same technique in his fantasy The Three Worlds of Gulliver. More recently, forced perspective was used to make the hobbits look smaller in Peter Jackson's films.

Benefiting from a couple of charismatic veteran actors and Peter Ellenshaw's movie magic, Darby O'Gill and the Little People makes for a diverting viewing experience for any occasion. That said, it seems like like a perfect pick for St. Paddy's Day, don't you think?

This post part of The Luck of the Irish Blog o'thon hosted by our good friends at Silver Scenes. Click here to check out the rest of the posts.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

This Is Cinerama!

Former Paramount special effects technician Fred Waller invented Cinerama, a widescreen process which produces a 165-degree curved image, in the early 1950s. It evolved from an earlier Waller system called Vitarama, which used eleven synchronized projectors to create an illusion of vastness and motion on a curved theater screen. Vitarama was a big hit at the 1937 World’s Fair, but its expense and technical requirements made it impractical for common use.

Waller refined the system over the next two decades and introduced a new version in 1952 with the travelogue film This Is Cinerama. The Cinerama process required a film to be shot with three cameras, one facing straight ahead and the other two slightly to the left and right of the middle camera. Three synchronized projectors then projected all three films on a curved screen simultaneously.

Like This Is Cinerama, the early films shown in the process focused on spectacular visual effects, breathtaking rollercoaster rides, and soaring plane flights over the Grand Canyon. Unlike 3-D, Cinerama survived the 1950s, perhaps because its equipment restrictions limited the number of theaters that could show Cinerama films and elevated the process to special event status.

The first nontravelogue was 1962’s How the West Was Won. Occasional films continued to be made in Cinerama throughout the 1960s. However, technical difficulties, specifically problems with keeping the projectors synchronized, drove the development of a one-projector Cinerama process. The “new” Cinerama amounted to little more than projecting a 70mm image on a curved screen. It was abandoned in the 1970s, though expositions and amusement parks continued to exhibit popular Cinerama-like projection systems.

The Seattle Cinerama Theatre, which opened in 1963, is one
of the last remaining Cinerama venues.
As Cinerama faded, a new system called IMAX--its name derived from Image Maximum)--emerged at Expo '70 in Japan. It was refined over the next 45 years into the IMAX system in use today at many theaters throughout the world.

Here's a sampling of Cinerama films (both the original and the later single-film format):

This Is Cinerama (1952)
Cinerama Holiday (1955)
Seven Wonders of the World (1956)
Search for Paradise (1957)
South Seas Adventure (1958)
How the West Was Won (1962)
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Circus World (1963)
The Best of Cinerama (1964)
Battle of the Bulge (1965)
Grand Prix (1966)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Custer of the West (1968)
Krakatoa, East of Java (aka Volcano) (1969)

This post is part of the Cinemascope Blogathon hosted by ClassicBecky's Brain Food and Wide Screen World. We encourage you to check the full schedule of posts by clicking here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Five Best Swashbuckler Films

One of the challenges with listing “swashbuckler films” is that they form a wide genre that defies easy categorization. Yes, a swashbuckling picture must be adventurous in spirit and include some swordplay. However, that definition cuts a wide swath, so one could include tales of knighthood, pirates, samurai, surf-and-sandal epics, and Vikings. To keep my list size to a scant five (that's the "5 Best" rule!), I omitted the latter three groups and focused on classic films from the sound era only. I expect some disagreements (principally from Douglas Fairbanks fans and those bemoaning the inclusion of only twoFlynn flicks...yes, his films could have dominated the list). But, hey, disagreements generate discussion and that’s a part of loving movies, right?

1. The Adventures of Robin Hood – One of the greatest films of all time with one of the greatest casts ever assembled. It has action, humor, romance, and a marvelous hissable villain in Basil Rathbone. Errol Flynn was never more dashing and Olivia de Havilland is the consummate screen heroine. The climatic swordfight is so entertaining that I missed the continuity glitch for many years (watch Basil’s sword magically move between shots). It is, quite simply, the ultimate swashbuckling film.

2. Scaramouche - Stewart Granger is marvelous in a role that Errol Flynn would have played ten years earlier. Janet Leigh, who has never looked lovelier, exudes charming innocence and Eleanor Parker gives a delightful performance as the fiery red-headed Lenore. She and Granger have a natural chemistry that makes their scenes together sparkle. The famous MGM production values are very much on display; the colors are vivid, the costumes ornate, and the set design impeccable. You’ll swear that the thrilling climactic swordfight (maybe the longest in film history at 5:35 minutes…and my personal favorite) was filmed in a real Parisian theatre draped in gold, red, and white.

Basil Rathbone and Danny Kaye in The Court Jester.
3. The Court Jester – Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s such a spot-on spoof of swashbuckling films that I think it qualifies as one itself. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor).The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle with the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in the history of cinema?

4. The Mark of Zorro – I’ll probably get in trouble for listing the Tyrone Power version and not addressing Doug Fairbanks (but I am consistent with my rules). Taking a page from Leslie Howard’s acting class, Tyrone does a fine job of playing the fop who is a fine fencer. His close quarters swordfight with Basil Rathbone (there seems to be a trend with him) is one of the more realistic duels—and it’s an entertaining one, too.

5. The Sea Hawk – There's little similarity with Rafael Sabatini's novel--and it should have been shot in color (by this point, Jack Warner thought Flynn was too big a draw to waste money on color). Still, The Sea Hawk is a first-rate swashbucker with Errol in top form as an English privateer who plunders Spanish ships while Queen Elizabeth looks the other way. The Sea Hawk reunites much of the Robin Hood team, including director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and performers Claude Rains, Alan Hale, and Una O'Connor. Errol's big swordfight with baddie Henry Daniell even recalls Robin Hood, right down to Curtiz's marvelous use of shadows.

Honorable mentions:  Ivanhoe, The Crimson Pirate, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Scarlet Pimpernal, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Captain Blood.

Monday, March 9, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5 holds a special place among Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation TV series. It was the first to be shown in the U.S. and the only one to be broadcast on network television. I was among the youngsters that watched Anderson's space adventure on NBC on Saturday mornings in the mid-1960s. With its intricate miniature sets and sci fi themes, it stood apart from the cartoons and live-action repeats (e.g., Fury) that filled the juvenile TV schedule. (For a description of Supermarionation, see our post on Stingray.)

On March 10th, Timeless Media Group will release all 39 episodes in glorious black and white. The DVD boxed set also includes: audio commentaries on two episodes; a twelve-minute interview with series creator Gerry Anderson; a documentary on the colorful Fireball XL5 comic strips; and a nine-page publicity brochure that accompanied the series' original broadcast in 1962 (shown at right).

Set 100 years in the future, Fireball XL5 chronicles the adventures of blonde-haired Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol Fleet. The XL5 is a 300-foot spacecraft with crew quarters, a lounge, a research laboratory, and weaponry. The nose cone of the XL5--known as Fireball Junior--detaches from the mother ship and can be used for landing on other planets. Steve's fellow crew members include: Doctor Venus (voiced by Sylvia Anderson); Professor Matthew Matic (who sounds like Walter Brennan!); and Robert the Robot (voiced by Gerry Anderson through a voice box).

Doctor Venus.
Venus is a doctor of "space medicine" and, as the brochure describes it, possesses a "Continental accent." She was the first of several prominent female characters in Anderson's children's TV series, setting the stage for Marina and Atlanta in Stingray and Lady Penelope (also voiced by Sylvia Anderson) in Thunderbirds.

The Fireball XL5 missions range from escorting important alien leaders to summits to restoring plant life on an alien planet to foiling espionage plots devised by the notorious Mr. and Mrs. Space Spy. Other XL ships appear in some episodes, such as when Steve and crew rescue Fireball XL7 in "Space Magnet." There are also additional recurring characters, to include Commander Zero, Lieutenant Ninety, and Venus' sometimes-telepathic pet Zoonie the Lazoon.

In the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series chronology, Fireball XL5 followed Supercar (1960-61) and preceded Stingray (1964-65). It builds on some of the elements from Supercar, specifically the emphasis on a fantastic vehicle, the elaborate launch sequence, the presence of a pet (Supercar had Mitch the Monkey), and even some of the plot lines (e.g., espionage is a recurring plot theme in many Anderson series).

The terrific XL5 launch sequence--the highlight of the opening credits.
However, Fireball XL5 was also influential in its own right, introducing several concepts that permeate later Anderson shows. It established the concept of a global organization that protects the Earth (which was even carried over into Anderson's nifty 1970 live-action series UFO). It eliminated the necessity for a child character and, as mentioned earlier, introduced one of the first television sci fi heroines in Doctor Venus. It also may have introduced the "oxygen pill," which allowed the XL5 crew to breathe in outer space without suits. This use of oxygen pills preceded the 1964 sci fi film Robinson Crusoe on Mars, in which Friday used them to breathe on Mars. (Of course, the pills had a practical application for the puppeteers on Fireball XL5--the marionettes didn't have to be put into space suits!)

Robert the Robot.
Composer Barry Gray, who first began working with Gerry Anderson in 1956, composed the music. The show's end credits feature his song "Fireball" (aka "I Wish I Were a Spaceman"), which was recorded by Australian singer Don Spencer as a single. It's the only song from an Anderson TV series to reach the U.K. record chart, peaking at #32 in 1962.

Although the colorful Stingray remains my favorite Supermarionation series, the Fireball XL5 boxed set is a must for fans. The image and sound quality are excellent and it's an enjoyable series. So, as Steve tells Venus in the opening credits: "Let's go!"

Click here to view the Cafe's unofficial trailers for Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Timeless Media Group provided a copy of the XL5 DVD set for our review.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Who Is Nina Van Pallandt?

In the Ellery Queen episode "The
Adventure of Colonel Nivin's Memoirs."
Recently, we were watching an episode of Jim Hutton's TV series Ellery Queen (1975-76) and one of the guest stars was Nina Van Pallandt. I remembered her instantly, but wondered how many people were familiar with the occasional actress's intriguing life story.

Born Nina Moller in Denmark in 1932, she first gained fame as half of Nina & Frederik, a singing duo. The two specialized in folk and calypso songs, though their first big hit was the Christmas carol "Little Donkey." It reached #3 on the United Kingdom record charts in 1960 and their debut album, Nina & Frederik, hit #9 in the UK. While the duo was popular in Europe, they failed to find an audience in the U.S.

Frederik van Pallandt was a baron, so when the couple wed in 1960, Nina became Baroness van Pallandt (she later capitalized the "V"). Nina and Frederik had three children, but separated in 1969 and eventually divorced in 1975. In the meantime, Nina became romantically involved with author Clifford Irving.

Irving had gained some fame with a 1969 book called Fake!, which was appropriately subtitled The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. That may have given him the idea for one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century. In the early 1970s, Irving convinced his publisher McGraw-Hill that he was working with Howard Hughes on an autobiography. Irving had forged documents which backed up his claim--and which were confirmed as genuine by handwriting experts. The hoax eventually unraveled and Irving and his accomplices, to include his wife Edith, confessed and were sentenced to prison. (Interestingly, both Irving and De Hory appeared in Orson Welles' pseudo-documentary, and final film, 1973's F for Fake.)

Nina Van Pallandt was not involved with the hoax, but her connection with Irving thrust her into the public spotlight. A 1972 article in LIFE magazine called her the "radiant survivor of the Hughes hoax." It also noted: "When the Hughes storm broke, she blushed becomingly and agreed with her manager who called it the 'opportunity of a lifetime.'" She wrote a 1973 autobiography, starred in her own nightclub act, and revived her acting career (she had appeared previously in a handful of Danish films and on British television).

With Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.
Her most substantial role was as the female lead in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973). She played Sterling Hayden's trophy wife, with Elliott Gould on hand as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. She followed it with TV guest star roles, to include Ellery Queen.  Her later film appearances included Quintet (1979), another Altman film that starred Paul Newman and Bibi Andersson, and American Gigilo (1980), with Richard Gere. She retired from films in the late 1980s.

It's worth noting that in 2006, Gere played Clifford Irving in The Hoax, a film adaptation of Irving's book about his Hughes scam. Julie Delpy played Nina Van Pallandt in the film.

Nina Van Pallandt, who turned 82 last year, keeps a low profile these days. In researching this article, I was surprised to learn that comedian Richard Lewis had a four-year relationship with her. In his 2000 autobiography The Other Great Depression, he calls her "the most stunning, sensual, earthy-looking woman I had ever seen."

Sadly, life didn't turn out well for Frederik van Pallandt. He and his second wife were murdered in the Philippines in 1994. According to some sources, he had become involved with an Australian crime syndicate.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Abbott & Costello Meet the Frankenstein Monster...and Dracula...and the Wolf Man*

Lou sits on the Frankenstein Monster.
Ask a classic movie fan to name their favorite comedians and I suspect only a few would list Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. More likely answers might be Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers. And yet, the legacy of A&C is significant. They are often credited with singlehandedly saving Universal from bankruptcy in the 1940s. The duo was a Top 10 box office attraction for almost a decade and their comic routines influenced countless other comedians. Heck, the “Who’s on First” sketch from The Naughty Nineties has played in a continuous loop in the Baseball Hall of Fame for years.

Lou writes a note...not realizing who's
in the background.
The Library of Congress added one of their pictures, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, to the National Film Registry in 2001. That’s appropriate since it’s one of the team’s finest efforts, casting them as shipping clerks Chick (Bud) and Wilbur (Lou), who receive two mysterious crates en route to McDougal’s House of Horrors. It turns out that one crate contains Dracula’s coffin and the other the Frankenstein Monster. It’s not long before Count Dracula and the Monster relocate to a nearby castle with Larry Talbot—aka the Wolf Man—and a female insurance investigator in hot pursuit.

This was Lugosi's second--and final--
appearance as Count Dracula.
The film’s premise is wonderfully wacky: Dracula has recently experienced difficulty with controlling the Frankenstein Monster, so he wants to replace the Monster’s brain. Dr. Sandra Mornay (a female mad scientist—a nice touch) has chosen Wilbur’s brain because of its simplicity. When Wilbur discovers Dracula’s plot, he quips: “I've had this brain for thirty years. It hasn't done me any good!”

Loosely structured, A&C Meet Frankenstein allows Bud and Lou to recreate some of their most famous comic routines, specifically the moving candle and the revolving door. The former goes on too long, but the latter is a stellar example of perfect comic timing. Lou accidentally discovers a secret revolving door that leads from a passageway to a room containing Dracula and the Monster. Lou returns to the passage to fetch Bud, but as they pass through the revolving door, Drac and the Monster go into the passage—so Bud never sees them. And that’s just the start of the routine. Silly? No doubt. Funny? Most definitely.

One of the film’s strengths is that Bela Lugosi (as Dracula) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (Larry Talbot) play their roles straight. Honestly, it must have been a challenge to keep a straight face in some of the scenes with Costello, such as these two exchanges:

LARRY TALBOT: I know you'll think I'm crazy, but in half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf.

WILBUR: You and twenty million other guys.

Later in the film, Larry approaches Lou, who has agreed to go to a masquerade ball with both Dr. Mornay and the insurance investigator.

WILBUR: I've got a date. In fact I've got two dates.

LARRY TALBOT: But you and I have a date with destiny.

WILBUR: Let Chick go with Destiny.

Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.
A&C Meet Frankenstein was a big hit for Universal and led to several spooky follow-ups: Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer (1949); Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951); Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953); and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). The first two “sequels” were well-done comedies, but the formula started to wear thin by the time the boys encountered Dr. Jekyll (though even Meet the Mummy has its moments).  After that, they only made one more film (1956’s Dance With Me, Henry) and then dissolved the team for good. Costello died three years later.

There are classic horror fans who grouse that A&C Meet Frankenstein sounded the death toll for Universal’s classic monsters. That’s simply not true. The monster movie extravaganzas House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) already proved that Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster had lost much of their appeal. They could not be relied upon to draw audiences individually—only when combined together. The studio needed a different kind of creature and eventually found just that in the early 1950s with The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

By the way, it’s worth noting that the Frankenstein Monster speaks in A&C Meet Frankenstein. I believe his dialogue consists of one word…when he responds to Dracula with: “Master.” If memory serves, the Monster only speaks in two other Universal movies, the acclaimed Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1940). Glenn Strange played the Monster in the A&C movie, his third appearance after donning the make-up earlier in both House pictures. The 6' 6" Strange went on to play Sam the bartender, who worked at Miss Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon in TV’s Gunsmoke.

Abbott and Costello Meet Franenstein is certainly one of the duo’s best comedies, along with Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), and The Time of Their Lives (1946). It sometimes pops up on television around Halloween, but it makes for an amusing evening’s entertainment any time of year.

* The Invisible Man makes an "appearance," voiced by Vincent Price, in the final scene.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Movie-TV Connection Game (March 2015)

What do Travolta and Olivier have in common?
We're back with another edition of the connection game. As always, you will once again be given a pair or trio of films, TV series, 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 Apartment and Bonnie and Clyde.

2. Elizabeth Montgomery and Bette Davis.

3. Jeff Bridges and Michael Rennie.

4. Bob Hope and Don Knotts.

5. Hayley Mills and Bette Davis.

6. Jim Hutton and Ralph Bellamy.

7. Sidney Poitier and James Franciscus.

8. Carol Burnett and Vivian Leigh.

9. Laurence Olivier and John Travolta.

10. Strangers on a Train and Ride the Pink Horse.

11. Charles Laughton and James Stewart.

12. Janet Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor.

13. Oliver Hardy and Jack Haley.

14. Cary Grant and Rex Harrison.

15. Telly Savalas and Christopher Lee.