Monday, August 31, 2015

Bette and Joan Go Hammering

In the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn't unusual for faded classic film stars to find steady work in the horror genre. Examples include Joseph Cotten (Baron Blood), Ray Milland (Terror in the Wax Museum), and Joan Crawford (Trog). Today, we look at two Hammer films starring classic film icons Bette Davis and Joan Fontaine. Ms. Davis had dabbled with horror earlier when she appeared in Robert Aldrich's black comedies Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). She made two Hammer films; the second was The Anniversary, but our pick for this post is...

Would you trust this woman?
The Nanny (1965). Frankly, I'm baffled as to why this well-done psychological drama remains little more than a footnote in Bette Davis' distinguished filmography. Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster specialized in this genre and penned several fine suspense films (e.g., Scream of Fear, Nightmare). The Nanny ranks with the best of them.

A nicely framed shot from director Seth Holt.
Bette stars as the title character, who initially comes across as an older Mary Poppins (in fact, one character compares her to the practically perfect Poppins). Nanny (her name is never revealed) is beloved by Mrs. Fane, one of her former charges, but is reviled by 10-year-old Joey Fane (William Dix). Joey has just returned home from two years in an institution, to which he was confined following his alleged involvement with his little sister's drowning death. Joey not only hates Nanny, but believes that she is trying to kill him. He refuses to eat any food prepared by Nanny (for fear of poisoning) and he locks the loo door when taking a bath (for fear of being drowned). Little Joey is an unadulterated brat and, as his former psychiatrist claims, he may be mentally disturbed. But could he be right about Nanny?

Pamela Franklin.
While the plot's outcome lacks surprise, The Nanny works wonderfully thanks to Sangster's sharply-written script and a bevy of strong performances. Young William Dix is excellent as the pouty, bratty Joey (he only made two other films). Wendy Craig expertly captures the childlike nuances of Joey's incompetent mother. Finally, Pamela Franklin adds some bite as a cynical 14-year-old who lives in the apartment above Joey's. It's an impressively natural performance and reminded me how talented she was in films like The Innocents, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and The Legend of Hell House.

In their book Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, authors Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Veechio claim Ms. Davis "gave what is probably the best performance by an actress in a Hammer film." I wouldn't go that far (Martita Hunt in Brides of Dracula springs to mind immediately). However, Bette convincingly makes the viewer question whether Nanny will be the heroine or the villain. She battled the flu--and director Seth Holt--throughout much of the production. Oddly, she was not the first choice for the role. Writer-producer Jimmy Sangster first met with Greer Garson, but could not convince her to take the part.

Joan Fontaine.
The Witches (aka The Devil's Own) (1966). After recovering from a nervous breakdown, spinster Gwen Hayfield (Joan Fontaine) accepts a teaching position at a school in the rural British hamlet of Haddaby. The village seems idyllic at first, but that turns out to be a facade that masks unnatural behavior and, ultimately, a deep-rooted evil.

Screenwriter Nigel Kneale was one of the most important British television writers of the 1950s and 1960s, his best known works being the Quatermass miniseries and films. His adaptation of Norah Lofts' novel The Devil's Own is ambitious, but also unsatisfying. The opening scenes work well enough and establish a nice sense of unease. One character who is introduced as a clergyman later reveals that he likes to dress that way because it makes him "feel secure." However, the plot grows sillier as it progresses and climaxes in a ludicrous (and lengthy) pagan orgy. The existence of pagan rituals amid modern society is a theme that Kneale would explore later and more effectively in the Quatermass miniseries (1979).

What's on Kay Walsh's head?
Joan Fontaine appears appropriately puzzled as Miss Hayfield, but it's merely an adequate performance. Indeed, she is upstaged by British veteran Kay Walsh, who attacks her role as the villain with such zest that she almost pulls off wearing the silliest high priestess headdress in film history.

I've probably made The Witches sound worse than it is. It's a respectable Hammer effort, but you're far better off watching Bette Davis in The Nanny.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Beware the Boggy Creek Monster!

USA Today recently ran a story about an alleged sighting of Bigfoot in Boone, NC. That got me thinking about other similar "creatures" and soon I found myself reminiscing about that 1972 drive-in classic The Legend of Boggy Creek.

Actually, my pal Herb and I saw it as teens at a movie theater in Winston-Salem, NC--not at a drive-in. In those days, a distributor would sometimes rent out a theater for a week and keep all the box office grosses. This was a practice called "four walling" and producer-director Charles B. Pierce used it effectively with The Legend of Boggy Creek. His low-budget pseudo-documentary, made for around $160,000, grossed $25 million according to the Associated Press.

The Legend of Boggy Creek opens with a folksy narration that describes the small rural town of Fouke (pronounced "fowk"), Arkansas, and its friendly residents. Things turn ominous at the nine-minute mark when the narrator notes: "Fouke is a right pleasant place to live...until the sun goes down." He then proceeds to recall: "That day in the store, Willie Smith didn't believe me when I told him about a wild, hairy creature in the woods. He believes me now."

Producer-director Charles B. Pierce.
Producer-director Charles B. Pierce uses a mixture of actual interviews and staged reenactments to tell the tale of several "creature" attacks. A long section of the film is devoted to the most famous appearance of the Fouke Monster (as it came to be known). That was a 1971 attack on the Turner family, who had just moved into their isolated house. There's nothing scary or even suspenseful about this sequence and, alas, the same can be said for The Legend of Boggy Creek. It's not a very good film--but there's still something intriguing about a mysterious seven-foot, furry creature running around the forests of Arkansas.

Interestingly, in real life, the Turners sold their property and Pierce offered the new owners $2000 to film his reenactments there. They held out for more money, so Pierce used another near-by house to stand in for the old Turner home.

There have been entire books written about the Fouke Monster, but here's a primer for those unfamiliar with this urban legend. Margaret Ross, in a 1971 article in the Arkansas Gazette, mentions sightings of a "Wild Man" that occurred as early as the 1850s. In the 1940s, there was a sighting in Jonesville, Arkansas, which is less than ten miles from Fouke. The creature was dubbed the Jonesville Monster, a name it retained for several decades. There were sightings in the 1960s, but the creature didn't achieve celebrity status until 1971.

In May of that year, in an article in the Arkansas Gazette, Bobby and Elizabeth Turner claimed their home was attacked by a large, hairy creature. In fact, Bobby Turner said that the creature grabbed his shoulder and threw him to the ground. Turner was later treated for scratches across his back and for mild shock at St. Michael Hospital in Texarkana.

Later that month, Jim Ross, a reporter for the Texarkana Daily News, wrote an article about a couple that said the Fouke Monster crossed in front of their car on a highway near Fouke. Mrs. Wilma Woods stated in the article: "It was hunched over and running upright. It had long dark hair and looked real large...It was swinging its arms, kind of like a monkey does. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but there it was. My husband turned to me after it crossed the road and asked me if I saw it, too."

When the Associated Press and United Press International picked up the articles, the Fouke Monster gained national attention. Charles B. Pierce made The Legend of Boggy Creek the following year and Fouke Monster sightings have popped up now and again ever since. There have been other movies, too, such as the children's movie Return to Boggy Creek (1977) with Dawn Wells from Gilligan's Island and The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek (1985). The latter was another Charles B. Pierce effort, in which the filmmaker starred as an anthropology professor.

This year, Fouke will will host its 3rd annual Boggy Creek Festival on October 23-25, 2015.

"It's an opportunity to explore the lure of Bigfoot and discover what new information some prominent Bigfoot field researchers have to share at this three-day gathering nestled in the swamps of Boggy Creek," said DeAnna O'Malley, chair of the Planning Committee. "Whether you are a skeptic, enthusiast, believer or a true encounter veteran, you don't want to miss this event. The Boggy Creek Festival features live music, handcrafted arts and crafts, fun games, delicious food, sanctioned BBQ contest, parade, a health & safety expo, kids activities and a host of prominent Bigfoot field researchers. Monies raised are put into the local community benefiting five local churches, the Fouke Museum, Fouke School District teachers, and the local fire department. Participation is the best way to donate and have some fun at the same time, so join the parade, set up an activity, food or retail booth. Help keep this tradition alive and make it bigger and better than ever! Tickets are available now." (Click here to visit the festival's website.)

The Monster Mart in Fouke.
As for the existence of the Fouke Monster, well, there's little evidence beyond the sightings. Dr. Frank Schambach, an archaeology professor at what is now Southern Arkansas University, examined some large monster tracks uncovered in 1971 and determined there was a 99% probability that they were fake.

Of course, there's always that one percent.

You can learn more about the Fouke Monster at the website The Beast of Boggy Creek

Monday, August 24, 2015

Snack-sized Reviews: "The Mark" and "Twilight of Honor"

Stuart Whitman in The Mark.
The Mark (1961) - This well-made Irish film tackles a controversial subject with restraint and intelligence. Stuart Whitman plays an American named Jim Fuller, who has been recently released from prison. His psychiatrist (Rod Steiger), his boss (Donald Wolfit), and the local police are the only people that know the nature of Whitman's crime: He plead guilty to child seduction with intent to assault. Although he has been deemed cured, Fuller struggles to fit into society and lead a "normal" existence. His daily challenges are complicated by a disturbingly maternal landlady (Brenda de Banzie) and a mutual attraction with a co-worker named Ruth (Maria Schell). She knows that Jim is a former convict, but she doesn't know the nature of his crime. She also has a young daughter who forms an instant bond with Jim. For most of its running time, The Mark is a potent film that shows both Jim's struggles and the general public's fear that arises when his secret is revealed. In one of its best scenes, the police pick up Jim with no explanation. He waits in agony for two hours, not knowing why he is being detained. When he's finally released, Jim learns that a young girl was assaulted and murdered...and naturally, the police suspected him until his alibi could be verified. Stuart Whitman shines as Fuller, his face conveying a tormented man who doesn't believe he deserves happiness. The performance earned Whitman a Best Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to Maria Schell's brother Maximillian, who won for Judgment at Nuremberg). My only quibble with The Mark is that it ultimately plays it safe. The ending doesn't ring true and I also wonder how audiences would react to the film if Fuller had really been a child molester.

Chamberlain and Heatherton.
Twilight of Honor (1963) - At the height of his Dr. Kildare fame, Richard Chamberlain starred in this courtroom drama set in New Mexico. He plays David Mitchell, a young lawyer assigned to defend a drifter (Nick Adams) who allegedly murdered the most popular man in town. David quickly learns that the defendant is all but convicted. The judge refuses to change the venue, an ambitious special prosecutor (James Gregory) has been called in, and the defendant's promiscuous wife (Joey Heatherton) wants to collect the reward for turning her husband in. Assisted by his legal mentor (Claude Rains), David bases his defense on an obscure New Mexico law (though, as it turns out, good ol' self-defense might have worked, too). A poor man's Anatomy of a MurderTwilight of Honor is a reasonably entertaining courtroom drama that lacks the brilliant performances, humor, and sizzle that made the latter film a classic. Claude Rains heads a solid supporting cast peppered with actors destined to become known for their television roles: Pat Buttram from Green Acres, James Gregory (Barney Miller), Linda Evans (The Big Valley and Dynasty), and Paul Langton and Henry Beckman (both Peyton Place). Twilight of Honor also "introduced" Joey Heatherton, who is actually quite convincing in the "bad girl" role. Nick Adams, who gained fame on TV's The Rebel, is okay as the none-too-bright defendant. He surprisingly garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance (the film received another nomination for Best Art Direction-Black and White). As for Richard Chamberlain, he struggles at times, but guts out his performance. I think he grew as an actor and was quite convincing in later roles in Shogun and The Thornbirds.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Start with Ray Milland, End with George Clooney

Sylvia Syms defending Ray Milland.
Hostile Witness (1968). A London barrister (Ray Milland) suffers a nervous breakdown when his adult daughter is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When he recovers, he's framed for the murder of a colleague who may have driven the car. For half its running time, this now-forgotten film sets up an intriguing courtroom drama. Unfortunately, the rest of Hostile Witness goes flat--with no one to blame but Ray Milland.

As director (it was his fifth outing in that capacity), Milland doesn't know how to tighten up the rambling drama. As the film's star, he overacts, especially his pivotal trial scenes. I was also bothered by the introduction of a character from the barrister's past late in the plot. It just didn't seem fair to inject a new suspect at that point.

The film's highlight is Sylvia Syms as another attorney (a far brighter one) in Milland's firm. Of course, she earlier starred in a much better movie about a barrister--one being blackmailed in the then-controversial Victim (1961).

(For a more in-depth review of Hostile Witness, check out the write-up at Lindsay's Movie Musings.)

18 feet? No, he's not! He's
estimated at 15 feet tall in the film.
Grizzly (1976). There were several "animal attack" movies in the wake of Jaws and this one was probably the best and certainly the most successful at the boxoffice. That still doesn't mean it gets a ringing endorsement. But let's be honest, if you're watching a movie called Grizzly, then your expectations are probably not very high.

The always likable Christopher George stars as Kelly, a park ranger who has to battle the title bear and a supervisor afraid of losing business even while guests are being eaten (yes, that subplot was ripped off from Jaws). Kelly also has to struggle with some laughably bad dialogue, such as this exchange with his supervisor:

Kelly:  It's not a bear! It's a grizzly! There is a difference.

Supervisor: A bear is a bear.

Kelly: A bear is not a bear, believe it or not.

That's not even the most memorable line in Grizzly. That would go to Andrew Prine who berates Richard Jaeckel's character by telling Kelly: "You got a dime? I wanna call your mama. I mean, does she know that you're running around in the woods, tryin' to act like a smell like scratching around on the ground like one? I mean, does she know you're making a damn fool of yourself?"

A young Clooney--without
grizzly bear.
All three actors fare better than Joan McCall, the film's female lead who inexplicably disappears midway through the plot. Interestingly, she and her husband co-wrote a belated 1987 sequel to Grizzly that was called Predator: The Concert. As you may have guessed, it was about a grizzly attacking folks at an outdoor concert. The musical performances were shot in Budapest before production difficulties shut down the filming. You can view some of the footage on YouTube--although there's no grizzly in it. However, the cast does include Deborah Raffin, Louise Fletcher, Laura Dern...and a young George Clooney.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Annette Funicello and Janet Munro Go Horse Jumping!

A "good condition" VHS tape of The Horsemasters goes for about $170. That's not bad for a 1961 two-part episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color that was released theatrically as a motion picture in Europe. The popularity of The Horsemasters among video collectors has nothing to do with the quality of the film. It's all about the cast--but more about that later.

The plot follows eight youths enrolled in an intensive training program at the Valleywood Riding School in England. Their goal is to become "horsemasters," which apparently requires that you know everything about caring for and riding horses. The students spend the first few weeks doing nothing but cleaning stables, grooming horses, and learning about them. Eventually, though, they do to get to ride and jump their steeds. The training program ends with a riding exam and a written test.

Much of The Horsemasters unfolds like a documentary as we follow the kids during their daily routine. The first half, which was subtitled "Follow Your Heart" for TV, focuses on Dinah Wilcox (Annette Funicello). Her mother was a famous equestrian whose career was cut short after being thrown from her horse. As a result, Dinah has to overcome her fear of jumping.

Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk, and Millicent Martin.
The film's second half, known on TV as "Tally Ho," centers on first-time Valleywood instructor Janet Hale (Janet Munro). She struggles to gain the respect of her pupils while instilling discipline in them. She gets minimal advice from The Major (who owns the school): "People are like horses, Janet. If you don't ride them, they'll ride you." It doesn't help that there are romantic sparks between her and the handsome lad from Australia (John Fraser).

The Horsemasters is modestly interesting without ever being engrossing. It doesn't help that the film ends abruptly with the new graduates riding over a hill during a fox hunt.

Still, the reason to watch this film is for the cast. Annette Funicello was pretty much at the peak of her Disney stardom (and two years away from the Beach Party series). Her subplot in Horsemasters pairs her with Tommy Kirk, who was also a big Disney star at the time. Walt teamed the two frequently and they became good friends. After leaving Disney in 1963, Kirk signed with American-International Pictures and co-starred with Annette again in 1964's Pajama Party. (Kirk subsequently returned to Disney for two more films, including The Monkey's Uncle with Annette.)

Janet Munro.
Janet Munro appeared in four Disney films, the other three being Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain, and Swiss Family Robinson. Although she frequently played tomboy roles, she could also turn on the sex appeal, as she showed in the excellent science fiction film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). She died from heart disease in 1972 at age 38.

The remaining cast members include: Donald Pleasence, Jean Marsh (Upstairs, Downstairs), and Millicent Martin (Daphne's mother on Frasier).

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Movie-TV Connection Game (August 2015)

What do Farrah and Jean have in common?
Welcome to this month's edition of the Connection Game! Once again, you will 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. Farrah Fawcett and Jean Simmons.

2. Anthony Hopkins and Michael Redgrave.

3. Roger Moore and Vincent Price.

4. Walter Pidgeon and Richard Basehart.

5. Peter Lorre and Doris Day (an easy one!).

6. James Garner and Cary Grant (in addition to both co-starring with Doris Day).

7. Chevy Chase and Claude Rains.

8. Anne Baxter and Otto Preminger.

9. Mia Farrow and Patty Duke.

10. Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters.

11. Kirk Douglas and Jose Ferrer.

12. Joel McCrea and Jim Hutton.

13. Alan Young and Mickey Rooney.

14. Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney.

15. Roger Moore and Robert Taylor.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Seven Things to Know About Patrick McGoohan

1. Although considered a British actor, Patrick McGoohan was actually born in Astoria, New York, in 1928. His parents moved back to Ireland when he was six months old. The family relocated to Sheffield, England, when he was seven.

2. Patrick McGoohan won two Emmys for guest appearances on Columbo. In 1975, he played a murderous commandant of a military academy in the episode "By Dawn's Early Light." Then, in 1990, he portrayed a vice presidential candidate who makes a murder look like suicide in "Agenda for Murder"; McGoohan also directed this episode. (Note: He appeared two other Columbo episodes for a total of four.)

Behind the mask in Scarecrow.
3. In the 1963, McGoohan signed a contract with Walt Disney. He first appeared on Disney's Wonderful World of Color in the fondly-remembered three-part tale The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. He played the quiet vicar of an English village in the late 1770s--who was actually a smuggler who used his plunder to put food on the over-taxed parishioners' tables. It was edited and released as the film Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow in Great Britain. McGoohan's second Disney effort was the theatrical release The Three Lives of Thomasina, in which he portrayed a veterinarian faced with the decision of saving his daughter's cat or a a blind man's seeing eye dog.

As Dr. Sid Rafferty.
4. McGoohan TV's series Secret Agent (aka Danger Man) and The Prisoner are well documented. However, he also starred in the mostly forgotten 1977 TV series Rafferty, which lasted for just 13 episodes on CBS. He played a cantankerous, retired Army doctor who had trouble adjusting to civilian life. He also directed one episode ("The Wild Child").

5. In addition to his highly-regarded television performances, Patrick McGoohan earned acclaim on the stage in both Great Britain and the U.S. In 1959, he won the London Drama Critics Award for his performance in the title role of Henrik Ibsen's Brand. Twenty six years later, he earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Actor for Pack of Lies. He played a government agent who convinces to a family to allow him to conduct surveillance on their neighbors, who may be spies. It was McGoohan's Broadway debut (when the play was adapted for television in 1987, Alan Bates played McGoohan's role).

He even brought an edge to The Three
Lives of Thomasina
6. McGoohan chose a variety of eclectic roles over his career. His filmography includes: All Night Long (1962), a contemporary version of Othello set in the world of jazz; the submarine espionage film Ice Station Zebra (1968), which was allegedly one of Howard Hughes' favorite films; and The Moonshine War (1970), in which he played a crooked IRS agent in Prohibition-era Kentucky.

7. In an NPR obituary in 2009, film critic David Thomson said: "This was a man who very easily, I think, could have been up there with Olivier and Gielgud in terms of being that famous an actor. He was handsome. He had a great voice. He was a tremendous actor. But as he admitted himself, he was difficult. He wanted to do things his way and he had his own vision. And that meant he did much less."

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Mount Rushmore of Film Directors

Hitchcock on Mount Rushmore--from
the North By Northwest poster.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of great American directors, who would you put on it? I pondered this question recently and then posed it to three other classic movie bloggers whom I admire. I gave them two criteria: (1) They could only pick four directors...because it's Mount Rushmore; (2) Their decisions had to be based on the directors' American-made films (after all, we're talking about an American monument here). Thus, directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang could be considered--but not international greats like Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, and Akira Kurosawa. (And, yes, when I say "American," I am referring to the   U.S.--not all of North and South America.)

The Master of Suspense.
Personally, I had little trouble in coming up with three of my four choices. I consider Alfred Hitchcock to be the greatest film director...period...based on his storytelling skills, the complexity of his film's themes, and the body of his work. I don't think another director will ever be able to replicate the astounding number of superb films he made between 1940 and 1964--a period that included RebeccaNotorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, and Marnie. My second choice is Billy Wilder, possibly the most versatile of all filmmakers. He made classic film noirs (Double Indemnity), sophisticated comedies (Some Like It Hot), screwball comedies (One, Two, Three), and courtroom dramas (Witness for the Prosecution). His best films integrated drama and comedy so expertly that they created something uniquely Wilder (e.g., The Apartment, Stalag 17). That brings me to my third choice, a director whose films gave rise to a now common adjective "Capraesque," which one online dictionary defined as "of or evocative of the movies of Frank Capra, often promoting the positive social effects of individual acts of courage." Capra's film's restored faith in human nature when America needed it most--during the Great Depression and after World War II. He also helped make stars out of Gary Cooper and James Stewart. That brings me to my final spot and I struggled mightily here. I considered Richard Brooks, Samuel Fuller, Michael Curtiz, Robert Wise, and Otto Preminger. In the end, though, I went with Anthony Mann. A versatile director like Wilder, Mann helped define film noir in the 1940s with tough, dark films like Raw Deal and T-Men. In the 1950s, he reinvigorated the Western genre with five superb films starring James Stewart. Mann's protagonists were cynical men with violent pasts who found redemption, often by becoming part of a forgiving community (The Far Country, Bend of the River). In many ways, Mann's protagonists paved the way for the flawed "heroes" that dominated American cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ernst Lubitsch.
The Lady Eve, Lady Eve's Reel LifeIf not Mount Rushmore, these four filmmakers at least deserve to have their faces carved in stone on the hillside under the Hollywood sign. Here’s why: Alfred Hitchcock was a master of the art of what he called “pure cinema”-- visual storytelling (consider the famed crane shot in Notorious that zooms in on the key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand). And no one has surpassed his ability to draw the viewer so completely into a film or, at times, to identify with the villain (Robert Walker retrieving his lighter in Strangers on a Train, Anthony Perkins sinking a car into a swamp in Psycho). Long touted “the master of suspense,” Hitchcock was, more than anything, a cinematic genius (see also Rear Window and Vertigo). The comedies of Ernst Lubitsch literally sparkle (even the screen itself seems luminous). Brimming with charm and sophistication, his films offer a knowing yet sympathetic glimpse into human yearnings and foibles. His best work (the likes of Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be) has rightly been likened to the soufflé, a deceptively lighter than air concoction that is also deliciously rich and deeply satisfying. "Screwball" comedy existed before Preston Sturges started writing and directing his own films, but he took the concept into another realm. Original and decidedly eccentric, his best films neatly weave sly commentary on social values into byzantine plots involving cockeyed characters who rattle off snappy/smart dialogue at a mile a minute. Unique barely describes The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Unfaithfully Yours.... Billy Wilder, like Hitchcock, was a top filmmaker from the ‘40s to the ‘60s. But Wilder began his career as a journalist and so, naturally, his films are marked by strong screenwriting and fine-tuned dialogue. His cynical world view made him a natural for noir, and Double Indemnity stands as a pillar of the genre. But Wilder wasn’t one to be pigeon-holed, as his wild, satirical romp Some Like It Hot would prove. Noir, farce, drama or “dramedy,” Wilder had as much range as he had skill.

Frank Capra.
Annmarie Gatti, Classic Movie Hub Blog:  If I could put four American directors on Mount Rushmore, who would they be???  Well, that's a really tough question...and one that will probably have me second guessing myself for quite some time--but, that said, after much "agony" and deliberation, my picks would be Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Here's why:  Frank Capra--for creating some of the most beloved 'feel-good' films of all time that champion the common man and the basic goodness of human nature. Billy Wilder -for his use of script to drive the story (vs elaborate cinematography) and his ability to push the boundaries of mainstream entertainment by expanding the range of acceptable subject matter. Alfred Hitchcock--for his belief in the superiority of suspense over surprise, and his cinematic approach to filmmaking that communicates via images and editing to maximize fear and anxiety. And, last but not least, John Ford--for his sweeping visuals and dramatic vistas, master storytelling, and iconic portrayals of heroes and anti-heroes of the American West. 

D.W. Griffith.
Cliff Aliperti, Immortal Ephemera:  My Mount Rushmore of American directors? Difficult. I approached my selections thinking not necessarily of my favorites, but of the four I'd consider most iconic in their representation of America and the American film industry, while being among my favorites. Faces I'd carve in stone and be happy to leave there forever. That has to start with D.W. Griffith. For all of the issues over the content of The Birth of a Nation (1915), at least the movie is strong enough to warrant our talking about it a hundred years later, fighting over the same issues that incensed a hundred years ago. Griffith's early features that follow Birth are reliably accessible, well-told stories that at least perfect technique if not actually innovating it. If there were no Griffith, silent film would have been a much tougher sell for me during my formative movie-watching years, so Griffith gets the first nod just for all that he’s responsible for exposing me to. It gets more difficult from there because I've seen so many more films in the decades that follow, but two directors whose work I think of as intrinsically American are King Vidor, whose stories are so wonderfully visual while being grounded by the American Dream, and Frank Capra, who relied more on situation and dialogue to show the everyman overcoming bigger challenges. If Vidor had only done his war, wheat, and steel trilogy—The Big Parade (1925), Our Daily Bread (1934), and An American Romance (1944)—he'd have done enough, but that doesn't even include his best film, The Crowd (1928). Capra kept telling the same story by the time of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941), with his underdogs fighting for their place in so many of his other films as well. If Griffith led me to enjoy more silent films then it was Capra, even earlier in my film watching years with titles like Mr. Smith and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), who allowed me to accept “old” black and white movies as if they were no different from last week’s release. A similar underdog spirit goes to the fourth face on my Rushmore, William Wellman, who could masterfully handle topics from any genre no matter the size of the movie and always seemed to have a great time doing it. A working-class director in that he reveled in the work, Wellman's characters could be as light as his subject matter was heavy. Out of his Great War experiences, he was dedicated to portraying male camaraderie, but I think he had an even keener insight into female characters, especially during the Depression years.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

An Interview with Pamelyn Ferdin on Star Trek, Clint Eastwood, and Playing Lucy in Peanuts

Pamelyn Ferdin may have been the busiest young performer in television in the 1960s and the 1970s. She made her TV debut in 1964 at age 4 and was soon cast in series like Bewitched and The Andy Griffith Show. She had a recurring role as Edna Unger, Felix's daughter, on The Odd Couple. She was later a regular in TV shows like Blondie, The Paul Lynde Show, and Space Academy. Ms. Ferdin also made several memorable guest star appearances in series such as the original Star Trek and appeared with Clint Eastwood in the 1971 theatrical film The Beguiled. Still, she may be best known for providing the voice of Lucy in two Peanuts specials and the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown. She took a break from acting at age 20 and became a registered nurse (which is how she met her husband of 30 years, who is now a retired surgeon). She is an active promoter of animal rights. Ms. Ferdin kindly agreed to an interview recently at the Western Film Fair and Nostalgia Convention.

Café:  You grew up in show business, having made your first appearance in a TV series at age 4. How would you compare your experiences as a child star in the 1960s with the young performers of today?

Pamelyn Ferdin at the Western Film
Fair and Nostalgia Convention.
Pamelyn Ferdin:  I think I'm lucky because I was involved within the acting industry at the tail end of the great studio era. There were just a certain amount of studios out there and they still had commissaries that were filled with stars and starlets and you knew everybody at the studio. You would go out on interviews right in the studios. You knew the casting directors. You knew the directors. It was all very family oriented. Today, with all the studios, you don't even get to meet the casting directors any more. It's not a family at all. It's just too enormous to be a family. I think I grew up in a much more loving, sheltered environment than the kids who are acting today.

Café:  You guest-starred in a memorable episode of the original Star Trek series: "And the Children Shall Lead." How did you get the part of Mary?

Pamelyn with William Shatner.
PF:  Well, I just went out on it like hundreds of other little girls. I read the script and I was lucky enough to get the part. It was fabulous; I had so much fun. I had a big crush on William Shatner and I followed him everywhere. Finally, I think he got so tired of me pestering him that he sat down with me and started talking and we became good, good friends. In fact, he asked me to marry him and I was thrilled. He gave me a little cigar band for a ring. It was wonderful. He was the first crush I ever had when I was a young actress.

Café:  You appeared in some of the most popular TV shows of the 1960s, ranging from The High Chaparral to Green Acres. Did you have a favorite among your guest star roles?

PF:  That is a loaded question because so many of those shows were wonderful. I worked so much that sometimes they blend together. I didn't have that much time in between. But I would say The Odd Couple is definitely an outstanding memory because Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were so much fun to work with. Green Acres was also great because I got to know Eva Gabor. She had this chair that would turn you over on your head. She let me try it. She was a doll.

Pamelyn with Clint Eastwood in
The Beguiled.
Café:  My favorite of your performances was as Amy in The Beguiled, one of Clint Eastwood's early films. How would you describe working with director Don Siegel?

PF:  Don Siegel was great. He treated me like an adult. I had been in the business for so long that I really was a very professional adult even though I was a kid. I was a teen who knew my lines, was prepared, and didn't kid around. I was very serious about my work and I think Don Siegel really appreciated that. It was a hard film. We were on location in Louisiana for six months. It was hot and humid. I think he appreciated my ability to be just one of the other actors and not have to baby me or treat me in a special way to get me to say my lines. I was prepared every day and I think Clint Eastwood appreciated that, too.

Café:  How did you get along with Clint Eastwood?

PF:  He was wonderful. He had children about my same age. He was a little bit homesick at the time we were in Louisiana. It's really just him and me at the beginning of the movie. In between scenes, he would talk about his kids. He called me his "little dove." At the end of the movie, he gave me two doves to keep.

Café:  You played Paul Lynde's daughter in The Paul Lynde Show in 1971-72. What was that experience like?

PF:  Paul Lynde was a crack-up. He could be very funny when working, but he was a very serious person. He could turn it on and turn it off really quickly. Most of the time I was on the show, he was extremely serious. The only time that he was really funny and was a cut-up was when he was actually playing his scenes and doing his lines. But if you would go up to him and have a conversation, he was not the Paul Lynde you saw on The Hollywood Squares. He was a very serious man of few words. He really didn't like to talk that much. That was surprising to me because I always thought he would just be having fun the whole time, but he was not. I don't think he was happiest person.

Café:  How did you come to be cast as the voice of Lucy in two Peanuts specials and the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown?

PF:  I went to my agent at the time and she gave me a script to read. There were dozens of other little girls who got the same script. We went into a sound booth one at a time and we read the script. I didn't want to play Lucy as a mean girl. I played her as frustrated that she was so smart and Charlie Brown didn't get it. When we were done, all the voices were sent up to Charles Schultz. He was the one that picked me as the next Lucy. He once told me: "You captured Lucy better than any other Lucy we hired."

Café:  You've compiled an impressive resume with Star Trek, The Beguiled, Peanuts, and the cult sci fi series Space Academy. Which of your films or TV series seems to be the most popular with your fans?

PF:  I would say Peanuts. People absolutely love Lucy. I would say the next one is between playing Tony Randall's daughter in The Odd Couple and Star Trek.

Café:  Are there any upcoming projects you want to tell our readers about?

PF:  I'm thinking about getting back into the acting business. So many of my fans have begged me to get back into the industry. I'll have to let you know about that one.

You can learn more about Pamelyn Ferdin at her web site and you can follow her on Twitter as @PamFerdin.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Love in the 1980s: Tootsie and Crossing Delancey

Hoffman as Michael as Dorothy.
Love is never easy in a romantic comedy.

In Tootsie (1982), Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an out-of-work actor whose career soars after he lands a role--as a woman--on a television soap. His best friend (Bill Murray) and agent (director Sydney Pollack) are the only ones who know that he's impersonating a woman. That becomes a major problem when Michael falls in love with Julie (Jessica Lange), one of his co-stars on Southwest General.

Oscar-winner Jessica Lange.
The central premise of Tootsie has been done before and done better (e.g., the much funnier Some Like It Hot). Tootsie becomes a far more interesting film when viewed as a tale of personal transformation. When we first meet Michael, he is a self-centered man unable to connect emotionally with women. He teaches acting because he can't get work as an actor. It's only when he becomes actress Dorothy Michaels that he "sees himself" for the first time and strives to be a better person. He subsequently develops a meaningful relationship with a woman, as his friendship with Julie evolves into love.

While Tootsie works sporadically, it can't overcome its blemishes. For example, the outcomes of Michael's inevitable revelation are resolved far too neatly. It's hard to imagine Julie's father (Charles Durning) ever forgiving Michael after proposing marriage to Dorothy. Also, at the beginning of the film, Hoffman makes Michael almost too unlikable. I can see where Hoffman wanted to take his performance. By stressing Michael's character flaws, it makes his later transformation all the more effective. Still, it's a fine line to walk, even for an actor of Hoffman's caliber.

Tootsie was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Pollack), Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Lange and Teri Garr), and Best Song (the pretty "It Might Be You," a modest hit for Stephen Bishop). The only nominee to go to home with an Oscar statuette was Jessica Lange.

Amy Irving as Izzy.
In Crossing Delancey (1988), Isabelle's biggest obstacle to finding love is herself. Her identity is shaped by her need for independence and her career. Isabelle, or Izzy for short, has made a conscious decision to distance herself from her Jewish roots. She can't ignore them totally, though, for the most important person in her life is her Bubbie (Jewish grandmother).

Her Bubbie has decided that Izzy's life would be more fulfilling with a husband to share it. She has engaged the services of a marriage broker, much to her granddaughter's dismay. To please Bubbie, Isabelle (Amy Irving) agrees to meet the marriage broker's proposed candidate. Imagine her surprise when Sam (Peter Riegert) turns out to be a good-looking, financially-stable, charming guy.

Izzy and her Bubbie.
At its heart, Crossing Delancey is a character study about a young woman blinded by her perceptions of career and love. She pursues an intellectual author because she loves the "idea" of him. She can't see that he views her only as a sexual conquest and/or his new personal assistant. Likewise, she initially looks down on Sam because he has no career aspirations beyond his family's pickle business and no interest in moving from her old Jewish neighborhood.

Amy Irving brings out the flaws in Izzy, while still keeping the character likable. It's perhaps her best performance, though I also think she was quite good in Brian De Palma's The Fury, opposite Richard Dreyfuss in The Competition, and in Yentl with Barbra Streisand.

The star of the film, though, is Reizl Bozyk as Bubbie. Her credits consist of two movies, including Crossing Delancey, and an episode of Law and Order. According to her New York Times obituary, Reizl Bozyk appeared in hundreds of Yiddish stage productions in New York, Argentina, and Poland. She was 74 when she appeared in Crossing Delancey, giving a heartfelt, nuanced performance as the loving, sometimes feisty, and always crafty Bubbie.