Sunday, July 31, 2016

Gene Rayburn and "The Match Game"

Gene Rayburn and his telescoping mike.
The latest revival of The Match Game--this time as a summer TV series hosted by Alec Baldwin--comes 54 years after the debut of the original. Frank Wayne, who later executive produced The Price Is Right for many years, created The Match Game for Mark Goodson/Bill Todman Productions. It premiered on NBC as a daytime quiz show in 1962 (it aired at 4:00 where I lived).

The show's format was simple. There were two teams, each consisting of two celebrities and one contestant. Teammates tried to match each other's answers to a fill-in-the-blank statement like: "John gave Mary a shiny new ____ for her birthday." A team earned 25 points if two teammates had a match and 50 points if all three had the same answer. The first team to score 100 points won the game.

The winning team then played "audience match," in which they won money for matching answers given by the studio audience in an earlier survey. This part of The Match Game was very similar to the later (even more successful) game show, The Family Feud.

The original version with Gene flanked by two celebrities.
Gene Rayburn hosted The Match Game and it was his personality, along the humorous and later risque questions, that made the quiz show a hit. Rayburn had worked in radio, television, and theater since the 1940s. He began as a page at NBC and attended its "announcer's school" before serving in the Army as a pilot during World War II. After the war, he found success on WNEW radio in New York City, teaming with Dee Finch on the show Rayburn and Finch. During this time, Rayburn popularized the novelty hit The Hop Scotch Polka and even received a co-composer credit with Carl Sigman and William Whitlock (the origin of this song could be the subject of an entire post.)

When The Tonight Show was launched with Steve Allen as the host in 1954, Gene Rayburn became the announcer and Allen's second banana (even appearing in skits). Rayburn's national exposure sealed his fame in the entertainment business and he subsequently guest-starred in TV series (Robert Montgomery Presents, The Love Boat), hosted several games shows, and even replaced Dick Van Dyke in Bye, Bye Birdie on Broadway.

Yet, Gene Rayburn is best remembered for The Match Game. The popular quiz show had a good run on NBC from 1962 to 1969. However, it might have been forgotten if not for the CBS revival, intially dubbed Match Game '73, that first appeared in--you guessed it--1973. The number of celebrities was expanded to six and the format was tweaked so that two contestants competed against each other by trying to match answers with the six-member panel. In addition to more celebrities, the naughtiness also increased, with questions such as: "You could tell by the way she was dressed that she was a ________" (the most common celebrity answers were "swinger" and "hooker").

Gene joking with Joan Collins, Richard Dawson, and _____.

Regular panelists on the new Match Game included Richard Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Brett Somers (who was recommended by her husband Jack Klugman). Other celebrities that appeared frequently were: Betty White, Dick Martin, MacLean Stevenson, Elaine Joyce, Marcia Wallace, Fannie Flagg, Gary Burghoff, Bert Convy, and Joyce Bulifant.

A syndicated nighttime version called March Game PM, also hosted by Rayburn, aired from 1975-1981. And when CBS canceled the daytime version in 1978, it continued in syndication for another three years. There have been various revivals over the years. The format has also been exported to other countries under the title Blankety Blanks (in Australia, for example, it was called Graham Kennedy's Blankety Blanks).

When TV Guide ranked the Top 60 Game Shows of All Time in 2013, The Match Game came in at No. 4, right behind Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, and Family Feud. And when TIME Magazine listed the 15 Best Game Show Hosts, who was it in the No. 4 slot following Bob Barker, Groucho Marx, and Gary Moore? That's an easy match: Gene Rayburn.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Christopher Lee as Rasputin, the Mad Monk

Christopher Lee as Rasputin.
Hammer Films and historical drama may sound like strange bedfellows. And yet, the British studio produced much more than just horror films, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Its output also included suspense pictures, costume swashbucklers, comedies, and science fiction films. Still, even by Hammer's standards, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is something of an oddity.

The film opens with Rasputin (Christopher Lee) using his healing powers to cure the critically-ill wife of a tavern owner. In the ensuing celebration, Rasputin tries to rape the innkeeper's daughter and chops off the hand of her boyfriend--though the latter act was in self-defense. The monk leaves the monastery and shows up in St. Petersburg, where he pairs up with a drunken physician.

He also makes the acquaintance of Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina. Though he's far from handsome (except for those Dracula-like eyes), she cannot resist Rasputin and becomes his lover. He later hypnotizes Sonia and compels her to injure the young prince, so Rasputin can heal the boy and became a member of the royal family's inner circle.

The real Rasputin.
This plot is loosely based on real-life events involving the faith healer Grigori Rasputin, who became an influential friend to Tsar Nicholas II. Screenwriter Anthony Hinds was no doubt aware of MGM's legal troubles when it mounted its lavish Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. That film, which featured all three Barrymore siblings, was the subject of a libel lawsuit by Prince Yusupov (who allegedly participated in the assassination of Rasputin). Yusupov was still alive when Hammer made its version. Incidentally, the MGM lawsuit is largely credited with the following verbiage appearing in the credits of most movies: "This motion picture is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental."

On its own terms, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is a modest success. It was shot back-to-back with Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness and features several of the same cast members (Lee, Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer), plus some of the same sets (the frozen lake plays a key role in both films). Hammer lacked the budget to provide Rasputin with the necessary scope. In fact, for the longest time, I wasn't sure where the movie was supposed to take place because it sure didn't look like Russia (eventually, a character mentioned traveling to St. Petersburg). The ending is a definite letdown, apparently because a longer fight scene was cut from the final print.

Christopher Lee gives a convincing portrayal as the title character. In a 1974 interview for Nightmare magazine, he said: "Probably one of the best performances I've ever given was as Rasputin in a Hammer film. If it had been made by another company as a serious picture, I think it might have helped me considerably, but it was made once again in the sort of Hammer-horror-mold and as such didn’t really benefit me very much." Interestingly, when Lee was a child, he met Prince Yusupov and as an adult, he met the real-life Rasputin's daughter.

Barbara Shelley.
The other reason to see Rasputin, the Mad Monk is for Barbara Shelley's performance. The lovely red-haired actress rarely got roles worthy of her talent. She makes the most of her screen time as Sonia and convinces the audience that this intelligent woman could so easily fall under Rasputin's influence.

For Hammer aficionados, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is required viewing. For others, though, it depends on whether you're in the mood for a malicious monk movie.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Lost in Space: The First Episode

The series ran on CBS from 1965-68.
When a friend recently updated his Lost in Space collection to Blu ray, he kindly gave me his DVD set. Although I've watched several Lost in Space reruns on the telly over the years, it had been a long time since I watched the first episode. I was astonished at the difference between the series' debut and the TV series that evolved from it.

But before reviewing it, I want to discuss producer Irwin Allen's original concept. He envisioned a space-age version of Johann Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson about a family of explorers who survive a crash landing on a desert planet. This was not a new idea; indeed, Gold Key Comics published a comic book series called Space Family Robinson beginning in 1962.

In Allen's original Lost in Space pilot, an episode called "No Place to Hide," the Robinsons' spacecraft Gemini XII is thrown off course when meteors crash into it. After landing on an uncharted planet, the Robinsons make a new home--and encounter a giant cyclops.Will Robinson even sings "Greensleeves," accompanying himself on guitar. Speaking of music, the theme for the pilot episode was borrowed from Bernard Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

CBS liked the $600,000 pilot and ordered a series--but also wanted changes that resulted in the addition of a villain and a robot. According to Lost in Space historian Mark Phillips, Irwin Allen wanted a villain like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon and story editor Anthony Wilson wanted a Long John Silver-type. Their compromise was Dr. Zachary Smith.

Guy Williams and June Lockhart were
"The Reluctant Stowaway," the first official Lost in Space episode, takes place on October 16, 1997. It initially unfolds in semi-documentary fashion, describing how the Robinsons were chosen from more than two million volunteers to navigate the Jupiter 2 to the planet Alpha Centauri. The five-year journey will require the family and pilot Major Don West to remain in suspended animation. Amid all the preparations for the spaceship's launch, Dr. Smith sneaks aboard the Jupiter 2. A spy for an unnamed nation, Smith reprograms the robot to destroy the spaceship eight hours into its maiden voyage. Unfortunately, Smith gets trapped aboard, hence becoming the "reluctant stowaway."

Dr. Smith threatening Major West.
As in the pilot episode, a meteor storm throws the spacecraft off course and its passengers are rudely awakened from their suspended animation. Needless to say, they're surprised to find Dr. Smith aboard. He's absorbed with trying to stop the robot from destroying the cabin pressure system and radio--thus killing all the passengers.

This Dr. Smith is slightly different from the one who would become--with Will and the robot--the eventual stars of Lost in Space. Smith is a villain, though a none-too-bright one, although we're led to believe that he was the grand master of the Oxford chess club. One enduring trait is clearly established: Dr. Smith is a big liar!

John and Maureen Robinson (Guy Williams and June Lockhart) play a much larger role. They have the episode's juiciest scene when they engage in a heated disagreement over whether to continue with the mission or try to return to Earth. The episode ends with John floating helplessly into space after his safety cord breaks while repairing the Jupiter 2's exterior systems. It's quite a cliffhanger, leading to the now familiar:

Billy Mumy as Will.
The first half-dozen episodes provide ample screen time for all the characters (and includes Angela Cartwright's favorite episode "My Friend, Mr. Nobody"). However, starting with "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension," Smith, Will, and the robot began to player larger roles--at the insistence of CBS executives. By midway through the first season, it's clear that the aforementioned trio have become the show's focal point. The other characters would occasionally get meaningful screen time, but Lost in Space had become the show we know today.

Incidentally, most of the footage from the original pilot was included in the series' first five episodes. That pilot eventually aired on the SyFy network and was included in a video release of Lost in Space from Columbia House. By the way, the now-familiar Lost in Space theme was written by a young composer named Johnny Williams--yes, that's John Williams, the man that went on to become the most nominated composer in the history of the Academy Awards.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Panel Discussion on Acclaimed Filmmaker and Critic Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut (1932-1984).
After a long hiatus, we're reviving our "3 on 3 panel" this month. The concept is that we ask three experts to answer three questions on a single classic film topic. This week, the Cafe poses three questions about French film critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Our panel of three Truffaut experts consists of: Richard Finch, co-founder of the Facebook group Foreign Film Classics; Ray Keebaugh, a frequent contributor to the Foreign Film Classics group; and Sam Juliano, who writes about classic movies at his blog Wonders in the Dark.

1. What Francois Truffaut film would you recommend as an introduction to someone who has never seen any of his works?

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows.
Richard Finch: The Truffaut film I would recommend as a starting point is his very first one, The 400 Blows. It’s about a lonely and alienated boy, about 14 years old, growing up in Paris and finding solace in books and movies. If you read a biography of Truffaut, the film is clearly autobiographical and like most such first films (and novels, for that matter) heartfelt and moving. It clearly has the feeling of lived experience to it. It has one of the most haunting and enigmatic final shots in all cinema, Truffaut’s version of the last shot of Garbo in Queen Christina. In a poll at the excellent film blog site Wonders in the Dark last year for the top films about childhood (79 made the cut), it was chosen #1.

Ray Keebaugh:  If someone had never seen a movie by Truffaut, he is not likely to be acquainted with foreign films nor with movies beyond those made in America. I’d recommend The Story of Adele H., then Shoot the Piano Player or Jules and Jim. If his/her appetite was not stimulated enough to seek more Truffaut after those extremes, there's not much else I can do.

Sam Juliano: The venerated critic-director's very first film--The 400 Blows--would be my choice for the newbie approaching his work. My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 1970s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director. I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discovering critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time. In the beginning--as should be expected for one so green behind the ears--it was actor Jean-Pierre Léaud's familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin, and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased. It sent shivers down my spine and still does today. There is a universality in The 400 Blows that, while not exclusive in Truffaut's canon, is perhaps most accessible in this, a film that is easy to connect with and executed with the director's trademark aching lyricism. 

2. What do you believe was Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema?
Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock.

Richard:  Truffaut made several important contributions to world cinema. First, he was one of the original theorists and practitioners of the French New Wave, a movement that has had immense influence on subsequent filmmakers. He and others like Jean-Luc Godard first proposed what is called the auteur theory, the concept that the director of a film is its author, the same as the writer of a book is its author. They developed an informal manifesto of a new type of film typified by freedom of style and and an emphasis on personal expression. Second, because for inspiration they looked to the Hollywood directors who, even though working in the studio system, consistently left their own stamp on their films. They brought serious attention to American directors like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray. These directors had been dismissed by American critics as mere purveyors of entertainment. Third, as Truffaut’s style and choice of subject changed over his 30-year career, he made it acceptable that directors can grow and develop--not just stick with their youthful dogma and keep making the same movie again and again. In many ways, his earliest films can be quite different from those of his maturity.

Ray:  It’s something to be argued among critics and “serious” film students. A cinematographer would not provide the same answer as, say, an editor. Different directors would not necessarily agree among themselves, and you may be certain critics wouldn’t. For me, choosing e pluribus unum, I love the eerie ease with which he draws us quickly into stories--often about destroyed lovers--like an unselfconscious poet. Narrative was not something to be sacrificed for his "art." It was what his art served. How he did it so entertainingly reflects the director's youthful love for movies, which, unlike some of his characters, did not come to a shocking, destructive end (except that it was so early). Truffaut also restored dignity to adolescence by weeding out all that false Hollywood Blue Denim crap. 

The Wild Child (1970).
Sam:  Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema was his mastery of humanism, ranging from childhood to old age, and embracing various time periods and settings. His intoxicating cinematic lyricism was his manner and his foray into psychological realism. He was understandably celebrated for his ability to investigate the childhood experience. When movie fans are asked to identify the prime proponents of the cinema of childhood, the names of Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut invariably dominate the discussion. In the case of the former, the label seems more than justified all things considered, but of the Frenchman Truffaut’s twenty-one films, only three could reasonably be framed as films dealing with and populated by kids. The reason for the misrepresentation is undoubtedly the fact that the New Wave master’s debut feature, The 400 Blows, is one of the most celebrated and influential films of all-time, and the one most often named as the ultimate work on adolescent alienation. To be sure, Truffaut did chronicle the aging process of his Antoine Doniel character a series of films like Bed and Board and The Soft Skin, but at that point the youthful parameter had expired. In 1969, he explored the true-life story of a deaf and dumb boy raised in the outdoors--The Wild Child--and then seven years later, he wrote and directed what was to be his final foray into the pains and wonders of childhood with his magical Small Change. 

3. What do you think is Truffaunt's masterpiece and what is your personal favorite? Explain your choices.

Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim.
Richard:  My personal favorite of Truffaut’s films and what I consider his masterpiece is one and the same: Jules and Jim. It’s one of those films that just grab you and never leave your mind. Its centerpiece is the puzzling but hypnotic character Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau, one of the greatest of all screen actresses, in what I think is her greatest performance. She plays a woman who has an affair with two best friends at the same time--a bona fide ménage à trois, quite a daring subject for its time, even for the French! Its influence can be seen in American films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For me, it’s one of those films of which I can say without equivocation: “Once seen, never forgotten.”

Ray:  I love this question because it separates moviegoers from critics.  A critic has to regard a director's masterpiece as his favorite because what would it say about a critic's "taste" if he/she didn't? I'd say The 400 Blows is the "masterpiece." My favorite Truffaut movie would be (since I have to choose) Jules and Jim.

Sam:  The 400 Blows would also be my choice for the director's absolute masterpiece. No matter what you opt for, the landmark 1959 film remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films. Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement, it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians. Yet, the film’s preeminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood. Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing. Truffaut's legacy and contribution to world cinema doesn't only rest with his profound studies of childhood, but with the human condition, where he sits with the most renowned practitioners in the art.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Movie Object Game

The amulet mentioned in question #9.
The Movie-TV Connection Game is taking the month off (vacation time!), but will return in August. In its place, we're trying a new game in which we list an object featured prominently in a movie and ask you to identify the film. There may be multiple correct answers--which is bound to be interesting. As always, please answer no more than three questions a day so others can play, too. Good luck!

1. An hourglass.

2. A child's sled.

3. A letter with a misspelled word.

4. A jewel-encrusted glove.

5. A 1904 French motor vehicle.

6. A drinking vessel with the figure of a dragon.

7. A wrist watch that also functions as a super magnet.

8. A sword that cuts through iron--but only for one person.

9. A mysterious amulet that wields power when a unique word is spoken.

10. A monogrammed lighter.

11. A piece of paper with runic symbols.

12. A bust of Napoleon (actually several of them).

13. Flash bulbs.

14. A rare postage stamp.

15. An airplane and a beer truck.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Seven (More) Obscure TV Series That I Curiously Remember

Kevin McCarthy, Lana Turner, and George Hamilton.
1.  Harold Robbins' The Survivors (1969-70). Novelist Harold Robbins was still churning out lurid bestsellers when he was approached to create a prime-time series. The result was this nighttime soap about the jet set starring Lana Turner, George Hamilton, Ralph Bellamy, Kevin McCarthy, and even Mrs. Howell (or rather, Natalie Schaefer). My family watched it because Dad was a Robbins' fan (some of the early novels, like A Stone for Danny Fisher, are pretty good). The Survivors, on the other hand, wasn't very good and ABC axed it after 15 episodes. It did resolve its major storylines in the final episode, leading some folks to claim it was American television's first miniseries.

2.  The Most Deadly Game (1970-71).  Speaking of Ralph Bellamy, he returned to prime time the next fall as Mr. Arkane, the senior member of a team of criminologists specializing in high profile murder cases. His colleagues included his former ward, Vanessa (Yvette Mimieux), a college-educated expert in criminology, and former military man Jonathan Croft (George Maharis). Originally, the series was to be titled Zig Zag and feature Inger Stevens as the female lead. She died in 1970, though, and the role was recast.

Phyllis Diller as Phyllis Pruitt.
3. The Pruitts of Southampton (1966-67) - I can still remember the lyrics to the title song of this Phyllis Diller sitcom and they concisely describe the premise: "The Pruitts of Southampton live like the richest folk/But what the folks don't know is/That the Pruitts are flat broke." Yes, the Pruitts were forced to declare bankruptcy after learning they owed millions in back taxes. Other series regulars included Reginald Gardiner as Uncle Ned, Grady Sutton as the butler, and Richard Deacon as the IRS agent. The show was revamped at midseason and renamed The Phyllis Diller Show. The change didn't help Phyllis find a steady viewing audience.

4. The Second Hundred Years (1967-68). A gold prospector (Monte Markham), who was frozen during an Alaskan avalanche in 1900, "thaws out" in 1967. Perfectly preserved, he winds up living with his 33-year-old grandson (Markham in a dual role) and 67-year-old son (Arthur O'Connell). A little confusing, eh? This "high concept" sitcom lasted a year thanks mostly to likable leads Markham and O'Connell.

The Silent Force trio.
5. The Silent Force (1970-71).  Bruce Geller (Mission: Impossible) may have played a role in developing this half-hour series about three Federal agents--played by Ed Nelson, Percy Rodriguez, and Lynda Day George--who go undercover to fight organized crime. It was a well-done show that probably would have worked better as an hour series. ABC cancelled The Silent Force after 15 episodes. Lynda Day George joined the cast of Mission: Impossible in the fall of 1971.

6. T.H.E. Cat (1966-67). We've written about this incredibly cool show before, but it still deserves a spot on this list. Robert Loggia stars as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, a former circus performer and retired cat burglar who now works as a bodyguard. T.H.E. Cat featured one of the best openings of any 1960s show, with a terrific Peter Gunn-inspired theme and a nifty animated sequence (a black cat lunges forward and transforms into a shadowy man). Still, it was Loggia that made this show such a delight.

Michael Nouri as the Count.
7. Cliffhangers (1979). This short-lived, but clever series featured chapters from three different serials each week. The serials were: Stop Susan Williams, starring Susan Anton as a photographer investigating her brother's death; The Secret Empire, a science fiction Western; and The Curse of Dracula with Michael Nouri as a modern-day vampire who teaches history (of course) at South Bay College. Several of the "chapters" were edited into television movies; for example, condensed versions of The Curse of Dracula turned up as World of Dracula and The Loves of Dracula.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Five Best War Films

Who better to select the five best war films than a recently retired U.S. Army colonel? Migs, our guest blogger, was commissioned in 1987 from the United States Military Academy at West Point and held various commands during a distinguished military career. It was not an easy task to pick just five war films, but Migs accepted the mission graciously and we thank him. Here are his choices and his rationales:

1. Saving Private Ryan - What else is there to say. I cry at the end of the movie every time: "Tell me I am a good man, tell me I’ve lived a good life." This movie covers the alpha to omega on emotions. Simply, the best war movie ever.

Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax.
2. Paths of Glory - I started to write my own review about this compelling movie, which has a similar theme to A Few Good Men and another great war movie Apocalypse Now, which both convey the fog and insanity of war. However, I will use the words of an unknown critic: “Paths of Glory is a wonderful film about authority and at times the idiocy and insanity of those that were on top of the pile. It takes place during World War I. Anyone who has studied it or has knowledge of it knows it was a period of war in which traditional methods of warfare clearly failed and millions died over the ignorance and arrogance of a few.” I thought Kirk Douglas was great in the movie. He convincingly played the role of the 701st Regimental Commander, the lead protagonist. The director, Stanley Kubrick, elected to go for an atypical Hollywood ending. I will not spoil it for you. It is a very easy movie to watch at just over 85 minutes and it can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Peter O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence.
3. Lawrence of Arabia is a personal favorite of mine because of my experiences as a military advisor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Before our deployment to Iraq as advisors, we were required to watch this movie. I initially saw little to no value, especially after spending almost four hours watching a movie that by today standards lacks all the good Hollywood stuff. However, six months into my deployment, there was probably no better movie for us to watch in preparation to be an advisor. The cast is superb, an absolute all-star cast. I understand that the movie cost almost ten times more to make compared to other films at that time. However, the authenticity is real and you can feel it as you see the actors actually struggling with the effects of real desert terrain and weather. I find myself watching clips of the movie on YouTube. If you are looking for a good intellectual movie with a classic acting, Larry of Arabia is for you.

Denzel Washington.
4. Glory is a fantastic movie recounting the story of the 54th Massachusetts. The powerful story line lays out the struggles of a nation and culture where racism is deep in both the Confederacy and United States. It features a great cast led by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, Mathew Broderick and Morgan Freeman. My biggest problem with this movie is that the story is told from the perspective of Colonel Shaw (Broderick). I would much rather have seen or at least seen some scenes from the perspective of John Rawlins, the escaped slave. Another thing that still irks me is that, despite a fantastic job by screenwriter Kevin Jarre, I still do not get why the 54th has little or no support while attacking. Still, Glory is, in my opinion, the best Civil War movie.

Gibson as Lieutenant Colonel Moore.
5. We Were Soldiers is a great movie if you do not let Hollywood get in your way. Hollywood takes the great story of Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore’s leadership and fouls it up with sometimes stupid lines that, having served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, distort the challenges in combat and do not give enough credit to the ones left behind at our homes.  If I am saying these things about the movie, why is it on my list?  It is simply a great leadership story and there are some realistic scenes depicting combat and the reality of casualties. Mel Gibson does a fine job and Sam Elliot is OK.  If I were a Company Commander again, I would make all my subordinates watch this movie.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Peggy Cummins Twin Bill

American viewers probably know Peggy Cummins best from the film noir classic Gun Crazy (1950), Curse of the Demon (1958), and The Late George Apley (1947). However, despite appearing in only 26 films, the enchanting actress was a steady presence in British cinema in the 1950s. I recentlycaught two comedies from that decade which paired her with Terence Morgan.

Always a Bride (1953). Peggy Cummins as a con artist? In this amusing comedy, she plays a daughter who reluctantly teams with her grifter father. One of their scams involves checking into a luxury hotel as newlyweds--with the groom (her father) allegedly stealing his young wife's fortune and abandoning her. She then "steals" from the hotel guests who willingly donate money to help out the destitute "bride." Problems arise when Clare (Cummins) falls in love with one of her fraud victims, an earnest treasury employee named Terence Wench (Terence Morgan). When a guilt-ridden Clare disappears, Terence pursues her--while Clare's father teams up with old cronies for one last big sting.

Terence Morgan.
Running a tight 82 minutes, Always a Bride capitalizes on its versatile cast. Peggy Cummins and Terence Morgan make an appealing couple; his offbeat charm reminds me very much of Michael Wilding's police detective in Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950). Cummins, meanwhile, taps into her vulnerable side in a role that's the direct opposite of her bad girl in Gun Crazy. While they provide the film's romance, Ronald Squire has a grand time as Clare's rascally father. Assisted by a bevy of old pros, he makes Always a Bride fun to watch as his grand money-making scheme spirals out of control. (By the way, look fast for Sebastian Cabot as a taxi driver.) If you enjoy Ealing's 1950s comedies, be sure to check out Always a Bride, which is currently available on Amazon Prime.

The March Hare (1956). This disappointing reteaming of Peggy Cummins and Terence Morgan gets off to a decent start when Morgan's character, a young Irish baronet, loses his estate betting on his race horse. His aunt (Martita Hunt from Brides of Dracula) buys him a promising colt and hires Lazy Mangan (Cyril Cusack) to raise and train it. I don't know about you, but I'd be wary about employing someone called "Lazy" and who is well known for his propensity to spend hours at the pub. Meanwhile, a wealthy American rents the estate and his lovely daughter (Cummins) catches the baronet's eye.

Cyril Cusack as Lazy Mangan.
The biggest problem with The March Hare is that there's too little of Peggy Cummins and too much of Cyril Cusack. The latter chews up several pastures of scenery--at least I think he does. It's actually hard to understand most of his line readings given his heavy accent and the character's perpetual drunken state.

Although its running time is only three minutes longer than Always a Bride, The March Hare is quite a slog. And if you're wondering what the title means, I'll save you the effort of watching: It's the name of the horse. Really.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Steel Collar Man and Me

We like tickets at a discount!
I made my first trip to New York City in May 1984. My wife, my friend Herb, and I had originally intended to vacation in Great Britain. Alas, that fell through (we had cheap stand-by tickets and the flight was full). Our backup plan was an East Coast jaunt, starting in Philadelphia and including three days in the Big Apple at the Milford Plaza (no luxury suites for us, though!). 

On our first afternoon, Herb and I walked to the TKTS booth at Times Square to get half-price tickets to a Broadway show that night. As we were waiting in line—trying to decide on which play—we saw a young woman handing out tickets for free. She approached us and asked if we wanted to be part of television focus group for CBS. We would be shown a pilot for a new prospective TV series and then given the opportunity to provide feedback. Plus, everyone who participated would receive a free gift! It sounded like fun—plus I always like to get free presents—so we took three tickets (the third one for my wife).

The NYC headquarters of "The Eye."
Late that afternoon, the three of us showed up at CBS’s New York headquarters. Along with perhaps 17 other people, we were ushered into a small room with a TV and chairs with what looked like remote controls on both arms. We learned that we’d be watching the pilot episode of a science fiction adventure called The Steel Collar Man.

First, we were asked some general questions about our television viewing habits. Then, someone explained how the “remotes” were used to gauge audience reaction during the viewing. If you saw something you liked, you pressed a green button with one hand. If you saw something you didn’t like, you pressed the red button with the other hand. Finally, the lights dimmed and the opening scene of The Steel Collar Man was underway.

The credits were even hard to read.
Fifty-two minutes later, my “red button” finger was sore from exertion. The Steel Collar Man was one of the worst TV pilots I have ever seen—it was a testament to ineptitude. 

For the record, Saturday Night Live alum Charles Rocket played D5B, an android created for warfare, but on the run from government baddies (led by Chuck Connors). D5B wants to go to the White House to make a plea for his right to exist. Hoyt Axton co-starred as a trucker that helps him along the way. I surmised that the android and the trucker would help out nice folks each week as they trekked across America—narrowly avoiding capture by mean Chuck.

Charles Rocket as D5B.
Given the earlier successes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Fugitive, it’s easy to see why a pilot was commissioned that combined the premises of those hit shows. Indeed, the concept wasn’t the problem; it was all in the execution. Rocket, speaking in a deliberate monotone, was ridiculous as the protagonist. Even worse, the show’s attempts at occasional humor failed miserably. The latter is especially surprising considering that Dave Thomas created The Steel Collar Man and penned the pilot. Four years earlier, Thomas was hailed for his funny skits as one half of the McKenzie Brothers (with Rick Moranis) on SCTV.

I wasn’t alone in my assessment of The Steel Collar Man. My wife and my pal Herb has experienced similar finger pain. We still laugh about the experience today. I’m also glad to report that CBS didn’t pick up the pilot for a TV series. However, a year later the pilot episode of The Steel Collar Man showed up on CBS in the summer of 1985 as a “special.” In TV lingo, that’s called “burning off" a busted TV pilot.

By the way, a good thing came out of that first day in NYC. That evening, we sat in the second row of Sunday in the Park With George, a sublime Stephen Sondheim musical that remains a favorite. Plus, we only paid half-price for the tickets!