Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Rock Hudson Gets Caught in an Avalanche!

Rock Hudson makes a call!
A 3.7 rating (out of 10) on the IMDb and a 7% (out of 100%) audience score on Rotten Tomatoes might lead one to believe that a movie may be a turkey. Yet, there's always that "may" and, besides, I'm a Rock Hudson fan and have a bit of a soft spot for disaster movies. Thus, I spent 91 minutes watching Avalanche so you wouldn't have to.

Rock stars as David Shelby, a rugged developer who has risked his entire fortune on a newly-opened, sprawling snow resort (you know he's rugged because he boldly wears a light-green plaid flannel shirt with a white turtleneck underneath). In addition to launching his new business, he's dealing with a messy situation involving a crooked politician and trying to woo back his ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow). She catches the eye of rugged photographer Nick Thorne (you know he's rugged because he lives in a cabin by himself on a snow-covered mountain).

Mia Farrow looking concerned.
Nick (Robert Forster) warns David of bad incoming weather and an unstable slope; there's also mention of a deadly avalanche that occurred in the 1880s. (Such foreshadowing is often a standard element in disaster movies). No one seems concerned about the snowfall, though, including the two figure skaters, Shelby's secretary, his mother (Jeanette Nolan), and a studly skier ("I ski like I breathe or talk...or make love").

After an hour or so of tedious plot, the avalanche finally comes when an airplane collides with the top of the mountain. The big event consists of a lot of stock footage interspersed with what appears to be foam blocks rolling into people. When the moving mounds of snow stop, the big rescue begins.

Avalanche was produced by Roger Corman during the period in which his New World Pictures was trying to compete with the bigger studios. Even so, it's borderline shocking to see the likes of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow in a Corman picture. Unfortunately, I think most of the film's budget went to their salaries. The best disaster movies (e.g., The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) benefit from the kind of well-known cast that Roger just couldn't afford.

Robert Forster tries to save the day.
It still might have worked in the hands of a better writer and director. Corey Allen had a long successful career as a TV director and an actor before that (he was Buzz in Rebel Without a Cause). So, perhaps, he just had a bad experience making Avalanche--I don't know how else to explain his shoddy work behind the camera and as co-writer. Robert Forster, who gives perhaps the best performance, inexplicably disappears for most of the film's second half. In some sequences, Allen cuts back-and-forth between scenes so quickly that it's dizzying. His characters are poorly-developed and uninteresting and there's no logical narrative to the film. Heck, a few juicy subplots would have made a world of difference!

Still, I guess Avalanche must have affected me on some innate level for I found myself looking for another New World Pictures disaster film: Tidal Wave (1975). It starred Lorne Greene, though the disaster footage was lifted from a big-budgeted Japanese movie called The Submersion of Japan. I thought for sure I'd find it on YouTube...but not yet.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The 5 Best Christmas Movies

(Note: This post originally appeared in 2011. Seven years later, we still think these are the five best, but we've changed the order. Also, we conducted a recent Twitter poll with over 200 participants and 42% of them picked It's a Wonderful Life as No. 1.)

With the holiday season upon us, it only seems appropriate to do a Yuletide version of "The Five Best" series. Between 1938 and 2000 alone, there were over 100 movies centered around Christmas and I'm not even counting films with Christmas scenes such as The Bells of St. Mary's and Meet Me in St. Louis. Picking out a Top 5 was not an easy task and I fully expect to receive some comments on omissions and the rationale for my picks. But, as I've said previously, there's nothing like a good movie discussion!

1. The Bishop's Wife.  When I first saw this film on TV in the 1970s, it was not the annual holiday favorite that it is today. Its stature has grown exponentially since then and it’s typically listed among the best films of all three of its stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Aside from its magical moments (e.g., the angel Dudley’s visit with the professor, the ice skating scene, etc.), what I admire most about The Bishop’s Wife is Grant’s performance. For once, despite his looks and charm, he doesn’t get the girl. Furthermore, Dudley becomes jealous and, in one scene, perhaps a little petty. In the hands of a less gifted actor, this often human-like angel could have posed a problem. But Grant provides all the required character shading and still keeps Dudley likable. That was one of his greatest gifts as a performer.

2. White Christmas and Holiday Inn.  OK, I'm cheating by listing two films in one slot, but it's hard to separate these two Bing Crosby musicals that featured his biggest hit song. When I was young, I preferred Holiday Inn because it wasn't shown frequently on television and contained a rare Crosby-Astaire pairing. As a adult, my preference shifted solidly to White Christmas. Its detractors harp about the flimsy plot, but with such an incredible cast and Irving Berlin's songs, who cares? Danny Kaye is at the top of his game and has probably his best dance number with "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" with the underrated Vera-Ellen. Plus, Bing duets with Rosemary Clooney (who never sounded better) on "Count Your Blessings." It's worth mentioning that versatile Michael Curtiz directed--the one who helmed CasablancaThe Adventures of Robin Hood, and many other memorable movies.

3. It's a Wonderful Life.  Repeated showings on television may have diminished its impact for many people...but I still remember its emotional wallop when I first saw Frank Capra's holiday classic. Certainly, except for Dickens' A Christmas Carol, no Christmas tale has maintained such an enduring appeal and influenced popular culture. Hey, even Dallas did an episode in which J.R. Ewing was shown what would have happened to others if he had never existed. While there is much to admire in It's a Wonderful Life, what always draws me to the film is James Stewart in his first great post-World War II performance.

4. Christmas in Connecticut.  Barbara Stanwyck so excelled playing "bad girls" in classics like Double Indemnity that her comedic skills are sometimes overlooked. She is simply marvelous in this fine example of a "snowball comedy" in which a simple situation quickly gets out of control. In Christmas in Connecticut, Ms. Stanwyck plays a food and style critic for a popular magazine--the only problem being she has no actual experience. When she's required to play the part, she convinces friends to help out pull off the deception, to include getting a fake husband and baby. The supporting cast includes scene-stealing character actors such as Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, and Una O'Connor.

5.  A Christmas Story.  Jean Shepherd's nostalgic, affectionate childhood memories--centered around his Christmas wish for a Red Ryder BB rifle--come to life in this perfect family film. It's a funny comedy, to be sure, but it's the little family scenes that make this one special (e.g., when Mom has Randy play "piggy in the trough" to finish his dinner). This deft blend of warmth, humor, and the spirit of childhood is tough to capture on film. Jean Shepherd and director Bob Clark tried again with a 1994 sequel called It Runs in the Family, which featured a different cast. Despite some amusing scenes, it lacks that special spark. (If you can find it, a better sequel is the TV-movie Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss, which also features Ralphie's family).

Honorable mentionsMiracle on 34th Street; A Christmas Carol (the Alastair Sim version is my favorite); The Shop Around the CornerThe Cheaters (aka The Castaway); Remember the Night (also with Barbara Stanwyck); and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Robert Lansing as The Man Who Never Was

Robert Lansing as Murphy.
With an enemy agent hot on his trail, spy Peter Murphy (Robert Lansing) ducks into a late-night Berlin bar. As he ponders his next move, he hears a loud drunkard and turns around to see a man who could be his twin. Murphy goes up to the building's roof and watches the man with his face leave the bar--only to be shot dead in Murphy's place.

When an exhausted Murphy makes his exit, he is mistaken for the dead man. Murphy's superior, Colonel Forbes (Murray Hamilton), soon learns about the switch and immediately recognizes the potential to turn it into an advantage. The dead man was Mark Wainwright, a millionaire playboy with access to resources and people which could be a boon for the intelligence agency. For his part, Murphy is reluctant to assume Wainwright's identity, realizing the challenges of pulling off the ultimate deception. The situation is greatly complicated by the fact that Wainwright was married.

Dana Wynter as Eva.
It doesn't take Eva Wainwright (Dana Wynter) long to figure out that Murphy isn't her husband. But, in a delightful twist, she has her own reasons for going along with the deception. Can Peter and Eva pull it off? Can Peter trust Eva as he tries to live another man's life while doubling as a spy?

This was the premise of The Man Who Never Was, a 1966-67 espionage TV series created by John Newland (One Step Beyond). Its network, ABC, hoped to cash in on the spy craze that was still going strong on television (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy) and in movies (the Bond films, Our Man Flint). However, unlike most of those TV shows and films, The Man Who Never Was opted for more realistic adventures. Peter Murphy never relies on gadgets and tries to avoid violence if he can (though that's not always the case).

Although the series is unavailable on DVD, you can view a handful of episodes on YouTube, though the video quality is subpar. Fortunately, four of the first five half-hour episodes were edited into a theatrical movie called Danger Has Two Faces and it's available from 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives. 

Murray Hamilton as Peter's boss.
The film's first half (consisting of the initial two episodes) is excellent, with Peter and Eva feeling each other out and then trying to pull off the incredible masquerade. The second episode ends with Eva providing an alibi for Peter, who has just killed an enemy agent in self-defense. It's the act that seals their unwritten agreement.

The second half of Danger Has Two Faces consists of two unrelated episodes. One involves plotting the escape of a priest who wants to defect and the other deals with uncovering the person responsible for the deaths of two U.S. agents. Both episodes are well done if a little conventional. It helps that the show was shot in Europe and boasts fabulous scenery. However, there's not enough of the relationship between Peter and Eva, which worked so well in the first two episodes.

Lansing and Wynter facing danger.
Lansing, who had been replaced as the lead on Twelve O'Clock High after the 1965 season, is perfectly cast as a spy with a unique identity crisis. And you couldn't ask for a better female protagonist than the elegant Dana Wynter, whose calmness is the perfect complement to Lansing's intensity.

The Man Who Never Was was cancelled after 20 episodes. I suspect the half-hour format was part of the problem. It just wasn't long enough to develop the plots. Plus, its time slot rival on CBS was Green Acres, which finished the 1966-67 season as the sixth most watched television series. Still, I'd love to see The Man Who Never Was released on DVD and, with Coronet Blue finally getting a DVD release in 2017, there's still hope.

And here's a scene from Danger Has Two Faces, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:

Monday, December 17, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (December 2018)

Red Buttons and Robert Lansing.
Happy holidays to everyone! If you're new to this game, here are the rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to 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. David Niven and Leslie Howard.

2. Red Buttons and Robert Lansing.

3. Them! (1954) and The Third Man.

4. The Gold Rush (1925) and Hobson's Choice.

5. Patty Duke and Hayley Mills.

6. Joanne Woodward and Patty Duke.

7. Tom Selleck and Robert Conrad.

8. Bing Crosby and Dustin Hoffman.

9. Jane Seymour and Elsa Lanchester.

10. Robert Redford and Fredric March.

11. The movies Dangerous When Wet and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

12. Cary Grant and George Hamilton.

13. Burt Lancaster and Rod Taylor.

14. Raquel Welch and Deborah Walley.

15. Jack Nicholson and Richard Dreyfus.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Kirk Douglas as Ned Land.
It's a whale of a tale...I swear by my tattoo. Well, truth be told, I'm not a tattoo kind of guy, but Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still an impressive achievement 64 years after its original release. However, a recent viewing reminded me that it's more a movie for adults than children.

The plot, a fairly faithful adaptation of Jules Verne's 1870 novel, opens with the U.S. government launching a search for a "sea monster" that has been destroying warships. The expedition includes a famous French scholar, Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas), his assistant (Peter Lorre), and a harpooner named Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). When their ship is attacked, the trio fall overboard and are later rescued by the "monster"--which turns out to be a technologically advanced submarine called the Nautilus.

Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus.
The submarine's commander is Captain Nemo (James Mason), who has turned his back on mankind and retreated to a world beneath the oceans. Nemo is thrilled to discuss his discoveries with a fellow scientist, Aronnax, so he spares the lives of his three new passengers. Yet, as their undersea voyages continue, the professor gradually realizes that Nemo is consumed by revenge. Meanwhile, the restless Ned Land plots his escape--hopefully with some of the treasure stored aboard the Nautilus.

Cannibal tries to board the submarine.
With whole sequences that play like a documentary narrated by Paul Lukas and a running time just over two hours, one would expect 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be a leisurely affair. However, director Richard Fleischer spaces the three best action scenes with precision. Just as an underwater expedition starts to turn dull, Douglas and Lorre are attached by a shark. A quick visit to a seemingly deserted island gets enlivened by a tribe of cannibals chasing after Douglas. And, as Nemo's near-madness begins to take center stage, Fleischer inserts the film's showstopper: an attack by a giant squid amid a ferocious storm.

James Mason as Captain Nemo.
Douglas, Lukas, and Lorre acquit themselves capably, but the standout performance belongs to James Mason. He captures Nemo's excitement at discovering the wonders of the deep, but also the Captain's depression over the death of his family and his hatred toward the human race that he holds accountable.

Of course, one could argue that the true star of 20,000 Leagues is the Nautilus. From the submarine's exterior design to the observation cone in the captain's quarters, it presents one wonder after another. It should come as no surprise that the film won Oscars for Best Art Direction - Color and Best Special Effects.

The giant squid attack at sunset.
Part of the justification for the latter award was no doubt the famous squid battle. It was originally filmed at sunset, but then reshot because it lacked drama (and some of the wires were visible). Although the scene was believed to be lost, 16mm footage was later discovered and the sequence edited for a "special edition" DVD. It looks pretty good, although the sunset looks like a painted backdrop. The reality is that the storm added immeasurably to the suspense.

Watch it for the thrilling giant squid. Watch it for another fine James Mason performance. Or watch it for the impressive art direction. Whatever the reason, if you haven't watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea recently, it's probably time to see it again.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Five Best Movies That Start With "Q"

I know it's quazy, but what if you're in the mood to watch a movie with a title that starts with "Q"? We pondered this question and came up with five quick picks:

Andrew Keir as Quatermass.
1. Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) - Construction workers uncover the ancient skulls of “ape men” and a large metallic-like object while working in a deserted underground subway station in the Hobbs End area of London. Are the ape men the earliest known ancestors of humans? Is the metallic-like object a bomb or perhaps a spacecraft? And what does it have to do with stories of former Hobbs End residents claiming to have heard odd noises and experienced visions of “hideous dwarfs”?  Nigel Kneale's ingenious mix of science fiction and horror makes for a one-of-a-kind film. It was adapted from his earlier British television serial, which is pretty good in its own right.

2. The Questor Tapes - Robert Foxworth stars as the title character, an android assembled by a team of scientists from plans designed by Dr. Emil Vaslovik, a scientific genius who has suddenly disappeared. When Questor fails to function due to missing programming code, the project is abandoned. Later that day, the android "comes to life," completes its design (e.g., adding facial features and hair), and escapes from the laboratory--determined to find its creator. Gene Roddenberry produced this aborbing made-for-TV film, which doubled as a pilot for series that never materialized.

Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr.
3.  Quo Vadis - This elaborate MGM spectacle stars Robert Taylor as a Roman military commander who falls in love with a Christian woman (Deborah Kerr) during the reign of Nero (Peter Ustinov). The studio spared no expense on the the film--and it shows with the elaborate sets, detailed costumes, and rich color cinematography. The standouts among its fine cast are the always marvelous Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov as the megalomaniacal Nero. At various points prior to production, Clark Gable and Gregory Peck were considered for Taylor's role and Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn as the female lead.

4.  Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx - A young man (Gene Wilder) makes a living in Dublin by scooping up horse dung and selling it as garden fertilizer. He becomes smitten with an American student (played by the late Margot Kidder). This offbeat Irish comedy was made before Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein made Wilder a star. It's been decades since I've seen it, but the faded memories of it are still strong enough to earn a place on this list.

Eeck! A winged serpent!
5.  Q--The Winged Serpent - A giant winged serpent is terrorizing the skies of New York City, killing window washers and snatching sunbathers from rooftops. Well, technically, it's an Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl and it's also indirectly responsible for a recent spate of human sacrifices. The film's "hero" (an excellent Michael Moriarty) is a two-bit crook who wants the city to pay him to reveal the location of the monster's lair. Larry Cohen's very quirky cult classic isn't a movie for all tastes, but it's a clever and amusing affair.

Honorable Mentions:  George Segal's spy thriller The Quiller MemorandumQ Planes, another spy picture about the theft of experimental aircraft; and Queen of Outer Space, a wacky sci fi film with about four male astronauts landing on a planet populated solely by women (including Zsa Zsa Gabor).

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Alternate TV Title Game (Volume 2)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic TV series and ask you to name the actual show. Most of these are pretty easy. Keep in mind that they're older series (e.g. classic television). Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. Good luck!

1. Pistol Fumes.

2. Frozen Father.

3. Firearms and Ladies' Undergarments.

4. The Lawyer Named After a Character from Oklahoma!

5. Him & Her.

6. Romance on Top of a Building.

7. Hannibal & The Kid.

8. The Widow's Haunted House.

9. I'm Not John Drake.

10. Everyone Comes to Mother's.

11. Please...No More Than Two Times Four.

12. Call McCall.

13. The Marsupial Officer.

14. Return of a Man Called Gabe.

15. Doc on the Run.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Five Best Philo Vance Movies

Having been a Philo Vance aficionado since my teenage years, I can attest that no actor has captured the uppity, intellectual sleuth. Willard Huntington Wright, writing under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine, penned twelve Vance novels between 1926 and 1939. The first four are excellent mysteries that minimize the academic discourse that would plague the later works. William Powell played the detective four times on the screen...but his portrayal wasn't the best. Without are our picks for the five best Philo Vance movies:

Warren William as Philo.
1.  The Dragon Murder Case (1934) - At a country estate in upper New York, wealthy playboy Sanford Montague disappears after a night-time dive into a natural lake called the Dragon Pool. When Montague fails to turn up after a day, the police drain the pool and discover claw marks on the sandy bottom. Later, detective Philo Vance discovers Montague's dead body in a "glacial pot-hole" on another part of the estate. The victim's mangled body is covered with large claw marks--as if he had been ripped open by a dragon. This snappy, atmospheric mystery features a fine performance from Warren William as an acerbic Vance and Eugene Pallette as the blustery Sergeant Heath (a role he played previously opposite Powell). It's too bad Warren William only played Vance one other time in the comedic The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939).

2.  The Kennel Murder Case (1933) - In his famous book The Detective in Film, author William K. Everson lauded this as one of the three best detective films ever made. I wouldn't go that far, but it is William Powell's best Philo Vance film. Set against the backdrop of the Long Island Kennel Club, this is a "locked room mystery" in which the victim is found locked inside his bedroom, an apparent suicide victim. That's not the case, of course! Michael Curtiz stylishly directs, using camera movement and quick transitions to tighten the film's pace.

James Stephenson.
3.  Calling Philo Vance (1940) - This "B" remake of The Kennel Murder Case is pretty good on its own terms, weaving espionage into the plot and making Vance more action-oriented. Despite the changes, James Stephenson makes a very good Philo Vance. Warner Bros. intended to make a new series starring him, but Stephenson died of a heart attack at age 52 in 1941. He was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor the previous year opposite Bette Davis in The Letter.

4.  The Bishop Murder Case (1930) - This early talkie is slow as molasses and rather tedious. However, it features a crisp performance by Basil Rathbone as Philo, who displays much of the cutting persona that graced his later Sherlock Holmes interpretation. The plot is also a clever one involving nursery rhymes and chess. It was based on my favorite of the Philo Vance novels and needs to be remade one day!

William Powell.
5.  The Green Murder Case (1929) - My wife and father maintain that the source novel for Powell's second film was the best novel (no, it's second best!). The plot is ostensibly about one of those wealthy families where everyone is bumped off so the killer can claim a large inheritance. Jean Arthur plays Ada Greene, one of the suspects. The cunning mystery still holds up, even if the production now seems dated and the usually reliable Eugene Pallette comes across as too inept as Sergeant Heath.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Two Disney Rareties: Rob Roy and Emil

Richard Todd as Rob Roy.
Richard Todd made three British-filmed historical adventures for Walt Disney in the 1950s: The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (!952); The Sword and the Rose (1953); and Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953). James Robertson Justice co-starred in all three and Glynis Johns, one of my favorite actresses, appeared in the last two. Our subject today, Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue, was loosely based on the life of Scottish folk hero Robert Roy MacGregor.

It opens with Rob Roy (Todd) leading an attack in the Highlands against the much larger army of King George I. Taken prisoner by the sympathetic Duke of Argyll (Justice), Rob Roy later escapes with the help of his comrades--and his mother. He marries his sweetheart Helen Mary (Johns), but is arrested again on his wedding night.

Glynis Johns as Helen Mary.
Having replaced Argyll, the despicable Duke of Montrose (Michael Gough) promises amnesty to all the Scotsmen except for the MacGregors. But if Montrose thinks he can keep Rob Roy as a prisoner, he is mistaken....

Colorful and passionate, Rob Roy is a likable tale of derring-do. Todd, in full beard, and Johns make an appealing pair and there are plenty of fights for action fans. Except for Kidnapped and The Fighting Prince of Donegal, Disney moved away from these costume pictures--and it's really a shame. Incidentally, the soldiers depicted in the film--to include the sweeping opening scene--were real-life Scottish warriors who had returned home from the Korean War.

Made just over a decade later, Emil and the Detectives (1964) is a more traditional Walt Disney family film. It's based on a 1929 children's novel by Erich Kästner. Bryan Russell stars as Emil (we're shown it's pronounced a-mill), who sets off by bus to visit his aunt in Berlin. During the trip, a pickpocket steals an envelope of money intended for Emil's aunt. When Emil realizes the money has been stolen, he's too embarrassed to report the crime.

Gustav advises the younger Emil.
Fortunately, he runs into Gustav, an industrious lad of many professions--one of which turns out to be detective work.With Emil as a client, Gustav and his operatives track the pickpocket to a hotel where he meets with two other criminals--whom the boys call "the Skrinks." They quickly learn that the Skrinks are up to no good, but just what is it?

Two of the three Skrinks.
Released after Mary Poppins, Emil and the Detectives is an unusual Disney film in that it features a no-name cast (except for villain Walter Slezak). It did, however, play a major part in turning young Roger Mobley into a TV star. As the charismatic Gustav, Mobley is easily the most talented of the young cast in Emil and Walt Disney took notice. One year later, he cast Mobley in the lead role in "The Adventures of Gallegher," which aired on The Wonderful World of Color. This two-part mystery about an aspiring teenage newspaper reporter in the Old West was immensely popular and generated several sequels.

As for Emil and the Detectives, it's an enjoyable outing with some unexpected quirky touches. Slezak has a grand time as a cultured criminal who stops to have caviar and wine in the middle of executing a crime. The young actors acquit themselves well, too, especially Cindy Cassell as Emil's cousin Pony, who publishes her own column and wants a scoop in return for her silence.

Emil and the Detectives was not a hit and faded into obscurity quickly, although it was serialized in 1977 on The Mickey Mouse Club under the title The Three Skrinks.

Kästner's novel has been filmed multiple times. Many critics consider the 1931 German version, written by Billy Wilder, to be the best adaptation. Alas, I have not seen it.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Five Best Monty Python Skits

The members of Monty Python.
Everyone has their favorite Monthy Python skits, so compiling a "five best" is an impossible task. That said, I think we've come up with five pretty funny, laugh-out-loud classics. Our only rule was that we limited our picks to skits that appeared on the TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus (as opposed to the feature-length movies). Sadly, that leaves out the killer bunny from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Terry Jones as the waitress.
1.  "Spam" (season 2) - A couple literally "drop in" to a diner in which almost every dish is served with spam--often in multiple servings such as "spam, bacon, sausage and spam." When the wife asks for something without spam in it, the waitress notes: "Spam, eggs, sausage, and spam has not got much spam in it." The skit escalates from there and ends up with Vikings (!) singing a spam song. Incredibly silly--and funny. It works just as well on the radio and was featured on Dr. Demento's syndicated show.

2. "The Dead Parrot" (season 1) - A man tries to return a dead "Norwegian Blue" parrot to the pet shop that he purchased it from. However, the shopkeeper refuses to accept that the parrot is dead. Much of the humor is derived from the parrot owner's many ways of emphasizing that the parrot "is no more," "has ceased to be," "is bereft of life," and "rests in peace." He then flatly states: "This is an ex-parrot." The shopkeeper finally fetches the pet store proprietor--who is the shopkeeper with a fake moustache.
Michael Palin as the shopkeeper and John Cleese with ex-parrot.

3. "The Funniest Joke in the World" (season 1) - A documentary traces the origin of a joke that's so funny that people die laughing. That's the fate of the joke's writer, his mother who reads the joke thinking it's a suicide note, and a police inspector. Eventually, the joke is translated into German and taught to British soldiers during World War II. It proves to be such an effective weapon that the Germans try to create their own killer joke--to no avail.

The violent old ladies!
4. "Hell's Grannies" (season 1). A newscast features a story about Bolton being terrorized by gangs of grannies who attack young men with their handbags and nudge people off the sidewalk. One man laments on camera: "It used to be a nice neighborhood before some of the old ladies started moving in." I suspect this may not be on many Monty Python "best of" lists, but I think it's a visual riot (e.g., the grannies wait for a leggy blonde to walk by, trip her, and then laugh cruelly at her). It appeared in the same episode as "The Dead Parrot."

5. "The Lumberjack Song" (Season 1) - A lumberjack (Michael Palin) sings--accompanied by a Canadian Mountie chorus--about his manly exploits to his girlfriend. However, as the song continues, the lyrics start to take an unexpected turn: "I cut down trees. I skip and jump. I like to press wild flowers. I put on women’s clothing. And hang around in bars." Palin is delightful, but it's the faces of the Mounties and the girlfriend that make this a priceless skit.

Was your favorite Monty Python skit omitted? If so, please leave a comment!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman Say Bon Voyage!

Fred MacMurray playing another Dad.
Fred MacMurray made seven films for Walt Disney Productions, starting with The Shaggy Dog (1959) and ending with Charley and the Angel (1973). There were big hits (The Absent-Minded Professor) and big flops (The Happiest Millionaire). One of Fred’s least successful Disney outings was Bon Voyage! (1962), a well-intentioned family comedy that will test the patience of even Fred’s most fervent fans.

The veteran actor stars as Harry Willard, a plumbing contractor from Terre Haute who finally makes good on his promise to take wife Katie (Jane Wyman) to France. Of course, it’s taken 20 years to make the trip a reality and the couple now have three kids: teenagers Amy (Deborah Walley) and Elliott (Tommy Kirk) and youngster Skipper (Kevin Corcoran).

Deborah Walley as Amy.
Amy finds romance almost immediately with a handsome, brooding would-be architect named Nick (Michael Callan). Elliott pouts over his girlfriend back home--for about five minutes--then tries to reinvent himself as a suave playboy. Katie finds herself wooed by a Hungarian lothario. And Harry...he just attempts to make sense of everything going on around him.

Bon Voyage! was based on a novel co-written by Joseph Hayes, who penned The Desperate Hours--a very different family drama. Esther Williams and James Cagney were attached to Bon Voyage! at various times during its development. But the cast changed significantly when Walt Disney acquired the rights.

Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk had already appeared together in two Disney pictures: The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. Kevin Corcoran co-starred with them in the former film. Deborah Walley and Michael Callan had also teamed up in the previous year's Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

Yet, despite such built-in chemistry, Bon Voyage! comes across as no more than an overlong, episodic travelogue that makes one pine for Rome Adventure (also 1962). It's difficult to fathom why director James Neilson didn't trim the length by at least 30 minutes. The current running time of 132 minutes seems interminable.

As Nick, poor Michael Callen is saddled with a character that borders on psychotic. In one scene, Nick is wooing Walley with aplomb. In another, he is launching into rants about marriage, career choices, and the meaning of life. Simply put, Nick may be the most bizarre character to grace a Disney live action family film.

Jane Wyman as Katie.
As expected, Fred MacMurray shoulders most of the movie, although it's too bad he and Wyman don't get a subplot together until late in the proceedings. By then, I was already looking at my watch every five minutes.

As much as I like the actors, I can't recommend Bon Voyage!. Save two hours of your life! However,  you may want to watch the opening credits. The title song by Disney veteran composers Richard and Robert Sherman is pretty catchy.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Stirling Silliphant--The Poet Laureate of 1960s Television

Stirling Silliphant and his wife
Tiana Alexandre.
For years, I knew producer-writer Stirling Silliphant as the guy that wrote In the Heat of the Night (a favorite) and The Poseidon Adventure (a guilty pleasure). I had also read where he and James Coburn were good friends with Bruce Lee. That was pretty much it. But that all changed when my wife gave me a DVD set of with 16 episodes from the first season of Route 66 as a birthday present several years ago.

Most people remember Route 66 as that "road show" with the cool music about two guys driving around the country in a Corvette. That's an apt description, though it doesn't capture what made Route 66 innovative--it was almost an anthology show set throughout the U.S., with terrific guest stars and sparking scripts. The lead characters, Tod (Martin Milner) and Buz (George Maharis), were sometimes the focus of the stories...and sometimes not. Oh, one or both would be present in every episode, but their part in the proceedings might be peripheral. (Note: Maharis eventually left the series and was replaced by Glenn Corbett).

Martin Milner and George Maharis.
Yet, what truly set Route 66 apart from its contemporaries--and even more so today--were Silliphant's scripts. Silliphant, who co-created the series with producer Herbert B. Leonard, wrote an incredible 73 of the 116 episodes over the show's four-year run. In terms of entertainment value, the plots were consistently above-average, but it's Silliphant's dialogue that gave Route 66 its unique voice. As David Mamet would do later, Silliphant embellished his characters with dialogue that would never pass for natural--but which conveyed a singular poetry all its own.

Tod, or more likely Buz, often got the poetic dialogue. But it could be a guest star, too, as in the episode "Hell Is Empty, All The Devils Are Here," in which Eva Stern plays a young woman coping with the memory of her husband's first wife:

"All of a sudden, I know how an insect feels, how helpless when it's caught by a cruel child. A blank face, bigger than the sky, smiling down at you from somewhere beyond your own tiny world. Smiling down and taking its time, letting its icy fingers pull off your legs and wings."

No, people don't talk that way...except in Silliphant's Route 66 episodes. In fact, one can often guess which episodes were penned by Silliphant from just looking at the colorful titles (e.g., Love Is a Skinny Kid, How Much a Pound Is Albatross, There I Am--There I Always Am, etc.).

Inger Stevens and George Maharis.
Stirling Silliphant's later career would include a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Screenplay for In the Heat of the Night. Still, I think he was at his peak in the early 1960s, writing for Route 66, creating some of the most poetic dialogue ever written for a weekly TV series.

For a sample scene from Route 66, check out this clip from the Silliphant-penned episode "Burning for Burning" with Inger Stevens.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (November 2018)

Richard Anderson and Nancy Walker.
With Thanksgiving this month, we give thanks for having the smartest classic movie and TV buffs play this game every month. We're constantly surprised by the additional answers to the connections  identified by the Cafe's staff. For those of you playing this game for the first time, 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. June Lockhart and Dorothy McGuire.

2. Patrick McGoohan and Jonathan Frakes.

3. James Stewart and Kyle McLachlan.

4. Carl Betz and Robert Foxworth.

5. James Stewart and Danny Kaye.

6. Richard Anderson and Nancy Walker (this one could be tough).

7. Time Tunnel and the Batman TV series (an easy one!).

8. George Peppard and Helen Hayes.

9. Jack Lemmon and Rosalind Russell.

10. Greta Garbo and Anne Bancroft.

11. Alec Guinness and Clifton Webb

12. Peter O'Toole and Robin Williams

13. Paul Newman and James Earl Jones.

14. Jack Lemmon and Dean Martin.

15. Bob Hope and Laurence Olivier.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Sean Connery Stages the Great Train Robbery

Sean Connery as Edward Pierce.
In addition to writing bestselling novels like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton also found time to moonlight as a film director. One of his most successful efforts was The Great Train Robbery (1978), based on his own popular novel--which was inspired by a real crime.

The plot concerns the heist of a gold shipment being transported by train to pay British troops fighting in the Crimean War in 1855. The challenges are substantial. Not only must the gold be stolen while the train is moving, but it must be removed from two safes locked with four different keys. Two of the keys are stored in the railway offices in the train station and the other two keys are retained by company executives.

Sutherland as the pickpocket.
None of that is enough to sway Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) from tackling the crime of the century. With the aid of his mistress (Lesley-Anne Down), a pickpocket (Donald Sutherland), and a railway guard, he develops a complex scheme to steal the four keys and make wax impressions of them. His efforts, though, attract the attention of the police, which makes the actual robbery exceedingly more difficult than Pierce's original plan.

The Great Train Robbery is lighthearted escapist fare for most of its running time (thus, a scene where Pierce strangles a crony seems out of place). Sean Connery has a grand time as the heist's mastermind, never taking the plot too seriously but also refraining from winking figuratively at the audience. One of his most amusing scenes is a conversation with one of the executives' wives that's filled with enough double-entendres to make James Bond proud.

Lesley-Anne Down.
Donald Sutherland, one of the busiest actors of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is well cast as Connery's partner-in-crime. However, the most surprising performance comes from Lesley-Anne Down, who spent much of her career stuck in superficial roles. In The Great Train Robbery, she gets to masquerade as an upper-class French prostitute and a cockney lass in addition to playing Connery's plucky mistress.

Naturally, the film's highlight is the robbery aboard the moving train. It requires Connery's character to run along the tops of the railcars, ducking periodically to avoid being decapitated by bridges and tunnels. Incredibly, Connery does most of his own stunts, which include jumping from the tops of the cars. He actually fell off the train doing one stunt. In The Films of Sean Connery, the actor mentions that his wife Micheline was furious when she saw The Great Train Robbery and learned the risks he had undertaken.

Yes, that's actually Sean Connery atop the moving train.

In case you're wondering, the real-life robbery did indeed involve stealing four safe keys and hijacking the gold from a speeding train. The similarities pretty much end there. Edward Agar, one of the thieves, was arrested after the robbery for passing a bad check. While in prison, he learned that one of his fellow criminals kept the portion of the gold intended for Agar's mistress and illegitimate son. Agar then cooperated with the police, provided all the details on the heist, and all the train robbers were eventually captured.

The Great Train Robbery was released as The First Great Train Robbery in Great Britain to avoid confusing it with the Great Train Robbery of 1963. There was an excellent 2013 miniseries made about that train robbery; you can read a review of it at our sister blog British TV Detectives.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Fairs, Carnivals, and Amusement Parks in Classic Movies

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis.
Fairs on film have evoked a nostalgic atmosphere of Americana, as typified by the three film versions of State Fair.  Will Rogers starred in the original 1933 film about a family’s adventures at the Iowa State Fair, but the 1945 version, boasting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only film score, remains the best remembered.  The turn-of-the-century musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) ended with the opening of the 1903 World’s Fair and also provided Judy Garland with one of her biggest hits “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Elvis in It Happened at the World's Fair.
Elvis Presley attended the Seattle World’s Fair in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair.  A belly dancer caused quite a sensation at the 1890’s Chicago Fair in Little Egypt (1951). Jean Simmons’ brother mysteriously disappeared without a trace at the 1889 Paris Exposition in the intriguing mystery So Long at the Fair (1950).  And The World of Tomorrow (1984) provided a retrospective look at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Fairs on a smaller scale provided the settings for comedy in Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952) and romance in the Dan Dailey musical Meet Me at the Fair (1953).

Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley.
In contrast to frivolous fairs, carnival films have tended to offer a darker view of life.  Spencer Tracy played a ruthless carnival promoter who has visions of Hell in the 1935 curio Dante’s Inferno.  Tyrone Power, in a change-of-pace role, was a heartless carny hustler who hits the big time in the spiritualism racket in Nightmare Alley (1947).  He gets his comeuppance, however, and eventually winds up as a sideshow freak.  Linda Lawson played a sideshow mermaid who actually believed herself to be a descendant of the murderous Sea People in Curtis Harrington’s minor cult favorite Night Tide (1961).  A spooky carnival run by the mysterious Mr. Dark invaded a quiet, Midwestern town in the underrated 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s chilling Something Wicked This Way Comes. Elvis returned to the scene, this time working for Barbara Stanwyck, in Roustabout.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Less human monsters seem to prefer amusement parks over carnivals. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was toying with the Coney Island Cyclone rollercoaster when Lee Van Cleef shot him up with radioactive isotope.  Godzilla battled his archnemesis Ghidrah, along with several other creatures, in a children’s amusement park in Godzilla on Monster Island (1971), one of Toho’s sillier pictures.  The amusement park in Gorilla at Large (1954) featured a murderous ape who turned out to be Anne Bancroft (!) in a gorilla suit.

George Segal tracked a madman specializing in sabotaging rollercoasters throughout the nation in 1977’s Rollercoaster.  It was filmed in real amusement parks (e.g., King’s Dominion in Virginia) and presented in “Sensurround,” a sound system which simulated rumbling vibrations during key scenes.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic Strangers on a Train featured several amusement park scenes, including the thrilling merry-go-round climax.  Likewise, the famous hall of mirrors showdown in Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai took place in an amusement park crazy house.

The cinema’s most famous amusement park is Coney Island, which provided the setting for Sinner’s Holiday (1930), Coney Island (1943), its remake Wabash Avenue (1950), Little Fugitive (1953), and the aforementioned Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).

Joseph Cotten at ferris wheel.
The Third Man featured a tense conversation between Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles atop a ferris wheel, while Luv opted for an awkward ferris wheel love scene.

The rollercoaster rumbles in Rollercoaster may have been deafening, but the most stomach-churning rollercoaster footage still belongs to 1952’s This Is Cinerama , which projected its speeding dives and turns on a 165-degree curved movie screen.

Below is a a representative list of classic movies about fairs, carnivals, and amusement park:

Sinner’s Holiday (1930)
The Half Naked Truth (1932)
Take a Chance (1933)
State Fair (1933)
Whirlpool (1934)
Dante’s Inferno (1935)
Strike Me Pink (1936)
Road Show (1941)
Coney Island (1943)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
State Fair (aka It Happened One Summer) (1945)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Are You With It? (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
Wabash Avenue (1950)
So Long at the Fair (1950)
Texas Carnival (1951)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Little Egypt (1951)
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952)
Lili (1953)
Meet Me at the Fair (1953)
Little Fugitive (1953)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Gorilla at Large (1954)
The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage) (1955)
Dance With Me, Henry (1956)
All at Sea (1958)
Night Tide (1961)
State Fair (1962)
It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
Roustabout (1964)
Luv (1967)
She Freak (aka Alley of Nightmares) (1967)
Godzilla on Monster Island (aka Godzilla vs. Gigan) (1971)
Rollercoaster (1977)
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978 TVM)
Carny (1980)
The Funhouse (1981)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
The World of Tomorrow (1984)
Slayground (1984)
Breaking All the Rules (1985)
Funland (1986)
Ghoulies II (1987)
Two-Moon Junction (1988)
Kansas (1989)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.