Wednesday, January 31, 2018

James Stewart's TV Series "Hawkins"

If you need the best criminal lawyer in the U.S., then place a long-distance phone call to West Virginia. That's because Billy Jim Hawkins is your man! Billy Jim may play the "I'm a simple guy from the country" card, but don't be fooled. He's a crafty fellow who's not above playing some sneaky tricks in the courtroom.

This is the premise to Hawkins, a 1973-74 TV series starring James Stewart as the title character. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the later Matlock and some sources claim that Andy Griffith was first approached to play Billy Jim. There are only eight 90-minute episodes of Hawkins, which appeared as part of the umbrella series The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies. The other "shows" under this banner were Shaft (starring Richard Roundtree) and original made-for-TV movies.

Julie Harris in "Die, Darling, Die."
As a huge fan of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), I was hoping that Stewart would play a variation of attorney Paul Biegler. But as soon as he said "Call me Billy Jim," I knew that Hawkins would be closer to Matlock than Otto Preminger's classic courtroom drama. It doesn't help that Hawkins features some pretty pedestrian plots and a lack of viable suspects (always a sign of lazy writing in a mystery series). Amazingly, series creator David Karp received an Emmy nomination for writing the pilot film Hawkins on Murder, which was recycled under the title "Death and the Maiden" as the series' first episode.

The show's third episode highlights its strengths and weaknesses nicely. Billy Jim is hired to defend a woman (Julie Harris) accused of killing her terminally-ill husband by withholding his medication. An ambitious assistant district attorney (Sam Elliott without moustache) refuses to accept any kind of plea bargain. To make matters worse, the defendant won't talk to Billy Jim.

Sam Elliott as an assistant D.A.
Stewart and an above-average guest star cast deliver some solid performances (especially Harris and Elliott). The plot almost justifies its 73-minute running time, whereas other episodes seem downright leisurely. However, once again, if one assumes that the defendant is innocent, there are only two realistic suspects--and they indeed turn out to be the culprits.

This episode features Mayf Nutter (who reminded me a little of Mac Davis) as Billy Jim's journalist nephew. He was a regular in three of the eight episodes. James Hampton (F Troop) assisted Hawkins in one episode and the others featured Strother Martin as Billy Jim's brother R.J., also an attorney. Martin, who was cast at Stewart's insistence, is hilarious in the role--though I surely wouldn't have hired R.J. to represent me in any kind of legal matter!

Strother Martin as R.J. Hawkins.
Hawkins didn't last a second season, primarily because James Stewart wasn't interested. He once said that he never worked so hard as he did on Hawkins. He did win a 1973 Golden Globe as Best Actor in a TV Drama for his efforts. Honestly, I suspect it was an award more for the body of his film and TV work than it was for his performance as Billy Jim. Strother Martin also received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Even if Stewart had wanted to continue, I don't think CBS would have committed to a second season. The ratings just weren't there. While NBC's Sunday Mystery Movie was #14 in the 1973-74 ratings, The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies didn't even crack the Top 30. Now, if Billy Jim's nine siblings and dozens of cousins had all watched, it might have been a different story!

Here's a clip from Hawkins featuring Stewart, Martin, and guest star Sheree North. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel.



Sunday, January 28, 2018

Go West, Eddie Albert!

Eddie Albert as Daniel Bone.
I fully expected The Dude Goes West (1948) to be a knock-off of Bob Hope's Paleface movies. To my surprise, it turned to be a bright, original Western comedy that opts for clever humor instead of broad gags.

Eddie Albert stars as a Daniel Bone, a Brooklyn gunsmith who decides to relocate out West so he can grow his business. His destination is the dubiously-titled Arsenic City, which we later learn is overrun by notorious badmen like the Pecos Kid and Texas Jack Barton. Daniel may be a tenderfoot, but he is also a "great reader" and his book knowledge will come in handy during his frontier adventures.

Gale Storm as Liza Crockett.
During his almost Ozian journey to Arsenic City, Daniel befriends several people who will play a significant role in his exploits: A grizzled cowboy (James Gleason) with a fondness for playing poker; Texas (Barton MacLane), a distrusting cowpoke with a mysterious bullet in his leg; and a whole tribe of Paiute Indians. He also falls for a young woman (Gale Storm), a fellow Easterner trying to locate her dead father's gold mine. Of course, the Pecos Kid (Gilbert Roland) and tough, cigar-smoking saloon owner Kiki Kelly (Binnie Barnes) also aim to stake a claim to that goldmine.

Veteran character actor James Gleason.
Veterans like Gleason and MacLane excel in their well-written parts, but it's Eddie Albert that claims the spotlight. Despite a long acting career dating back to the 1939 comedy Brother Rat, Albert never achieved stardom as a lead actor. Still, he earned Best Supporting Actor nominations for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and became a legitimate TV star in Green Acres (1965-71) and later Switch (1975-78). He's at his best as the resourceful, determined gunsmith in The Dude Goes West.

Jock Mahoney as Yancy.
Naturally, it helps when you have a fine script courtesy of the husband-and-wife team of Richard Sale and Mary Loos (niece of Anita Loos). Instead of one-liners, they opt for situational humor. The film's funniest scene may be the one in which Texas learns that Daniel is a sharpshooter. When the outlaw marvels how a greenhorn can be such a good shot, Daniel replies casually that it's a handy skill to have when your profession is repairing firearms. (Note that Daniel's pipe turns into a derringer; ten years later, Sale and Loos would create the cult TV series Yancy Derringer about a Southern gentleman who also carried a derringer...or two.)

Speaking of television, it's a shame that Albert and the writers didn't revive The Dude Goes West as a TV series. I could easily imagine weekly episodes revolving around Daniel Bone's exploits in and around Arsenic City. I certainly would have watched.

Here's a clip from The Dude Goes West. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.



Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Chuck Connors

Chuck Connors as a Celtic player.
1. Chuck Connors, who was 6' 5", played both professional basketball and baseball. He appeared in 53 games for the Boston Celtics in 1946-48 and averaged 4.5 points per game. In major league baseball, he appeared in one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. He spent a season with the  Chicago Cubs in 1951, batting .239 with 18 runs batted in. He also played football and baseball when he attended Seton Hall University.

2. He made his film debut in 1952, appearing as a police captain in Hepburn and Tracy's Pat and Mike. According to some sources, it was his performance in Walt Disney's Old Yeller (1957) that led to his casting on The Rifleman. Connors played Old Yeller's real owner, who lets Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran keep Yeller when he realizes how much they love the dog. (Technically, he trades Yeller for a horny toad and a home-cooked meal).

As Lucas McCain on The Rifleman.
3. Connors played one of the first widowed parents on U.S. television in The Rifleman (1958-63). He and co-star Johnny Crawford created an incredibly natural father-son relationship on the screen. It's one of the reasons why The Rifleman is still popular on television today. When Connors died in 1992, Johnny Crawford said: "Well, it was a great childhood, and he was bigger-than-life, a wonderful guy, very intelligent, and a big influence on me, and a great supporter, too. He was always interested in what I was doing and ready to give me advice or help me and he would call me out of the blue, and I really miss him."

4. Chuck Connors, a Republican who campaigned for his friend Ronald Reagan, met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1973. According to his New York Times obituary: "When President Richard M. Nixon invited several celebrities to meet Brezhnev in 1973, Mr. Connors presented the visiting Soviet leader with United States armaments--two Colt .45 six-shooters--and a cowboy hat. Brezhnev, a Western fan, was delighted. He and the actor locked in such an enthusiastic bear hug that Mr. Connors briefly lifted him off his feet."

As the villain on Werewolf.
5. Following the cancellation of The Rifleman, he starred in numerous TV series to include Branded (1965-66), Cowboy in Africa (1966-67), and The Yellow Rose (1983). Two of his most different roles were in Arrest and Trial (1963-64), in which he played a criminal defense attorney, and Werewolf (1987-88), in which he played...a werewolf.

6. Although the New York Times stated that Chuck Connors was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of a slave owner in the mini-series Roots (1977), that apparently is not true. Although Roots received 37 Emmy nominations (and won nine), we couldn't find Chuck Connors' name anywhere in the list.

7. He was born Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors--but never liked his name. The story goes that he changed his name to Chuck while playing first base in baseball. He would yell to the pitcher: "Chuck it to me, baby, chuck it to me!"

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Do You Remember When? (Classic Movies Edition)

OK, classic film lovers, do you remember when...

1. Classic movies were on local TV stations all the time under umbrella titles such as: The Big Movie, The Morning Matinee, The 4:30 Movie, The Sunday Afternoon Movie, Million Dollar Movie, Night Owl Theatre, and The Big Action Movie (I watched that one on Channel 2 in Greensboro, NC).

2. AMC actually showed classic movies and TNT was the TCM of cable TV (before TCM existed).

3. You could stay to watch a theatrical movie as many times as you wanted; no one booted you out of the theater.

4. Drive-in theaters were plentiful and admission for a carload was $5.00 or less. You had to use the portable speakers, too--none of that fancy FM radio stuff.

5. A kid under age 12 could see a theatrical film for 35¢.

6. You could watch family-friendly movies (e.g., Friendly Persuasion) around the holidays on thesyndicated SFM Holiday Network. (It featured the same theme music as Monday Night Football.)

An RCA VideoDisc player.
7. Videophiles insisted that laser discs were the only way to watch a movie at home.

8. The broadcast networks featured "world television premieres" of theatrical films as part of their regular schedules. In the 1960s, you might see anything from Vertigo to The Day the Earth Stood Still on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies. Later, the networks spotlighted movies released theatrically within the last one to three years.

9. There was no theatrical movie rating system, so even a 10-year-old could see Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. In the U.S., films such as Bonnie and Clyde only carried the warning: "Suggested for mature audiences." (Obviously, my parents considered me mature for my age.)

10. There were bars that showed classic movies. My wife and I saw movies such as Goldfinger and The Fearless Vampire Killers at the Video Saloon in Bloomington, IN, in the early 1980s.

11. Local TV stations gave away money during the "Dialing for Dollars" movie. If you were in the phone directory, that meant you could be a winner--along with thousands of other people. Of course, every time the host made a phone call, it was another interruption to the movie.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Robby Benson Takes on Collegiate Sports Corruption

Robby Benson in One on One.
It's conceivable that One on One was originally intended as a serious expose of corruption in collegiate athletics...a topic as timely today as it was in 1977. But, like so many other star vehicles, it was ultimately tailored for its lead actor's target demo--which in the case of Robby Benson was comprised largely of teenage girls.

It's easy to forget that, for the better part of a decade, Robby Benson was one of Hollywood's most reliable stars. Originally, he specialized in playing sensitive youths in films like Jeremy (1973), Death Be Not Proud (1975), and Ode to Billy Joe (1976). He later expanded his repertoire by playing romantic leads (Ice Castles), estranged sons (Tribute), and, in perhaps his best performance, a Hasidic Jew in The Chosen (1981).

In One on One, he is typecast as Henry Steele, a gawky lad from rural Colorado who happens to play a mean game of basketball. A big-time coach recruits him to play for Western University, a nationally-ranked basketball power located in L.A. Henry is so naive that he's conned by a young hitchhiker (Melanie Griffith) before he even reaches campus.

Once enrolled, Henry enjoys the many perks of being a basketball scholarship player. He receives a stipend from the alumni, gets two tickets per home game which can be sold for $300 each, and is hired for a campus job that requires him to simply turn the football field sprinklers on and off (by the way, it turns out they're on a timer). He also has a car, which his basketball-obsessive father bought for him with money provided by his coach.

Seals & Crofts sing on the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, things aren't going as well on the basketball court. No longer a star player, he struggles to keep up with his teammates and loses his confidence. It continues to worsen to the point that his demanding coach (G.D. Spradlin) "asks" Henry to renounce his scholarship. To his coach's surprise, Henry refuses to quit and the rest of the film becomes a test of wills between coach and player. Stripped of all his perks, the young man becomes physically tougher, emotionally stronger, and more responsible (he even gets a job as a night clerk on his own).

Annette O'Toole.
Benson, who co-wrote the script, is likable enough as Henry. My main problem with One on One is that Henry is either too naive or a hypocrite. He appears to have no ethical problems with accepting the perks, which are obvious rule violations. Assuming Henry couldn't grasp this key point, one would think that his father, his high school coach, or his intelligent girlfriend (a winning Annette O'Toole) might have explained it to him.

Instead, the climatic confrontation between Henry and his college coach is all about what's best for Henry. It would have made for a harder-hitting film had Henry reported his coach and the university for being cheaters. I also think Henry could have sounded a little more beastly.

He mastered that a few years later, though, when he voiced the Beast (and showed off his singing voice) in Disney's charming, Oscar-nominated 1991 musical The Beauty and the Beast.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Movie-TV Connection Game (January 2018)

Helen Hayes and Tony Randall.
Happy 2018! May your knowledge of movie and TV trivia be even more impressive this year!

For those who have never played this game, 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. Jessica Tandy and Burt Lancaster.

2. Richard Basehart and Stewart Granger. (This one could be difficult!)

3. Fredric March and Michael Rennie.

4. Geroge C. Scott and Chuck Connors.

5. Judy Garland and Red Buttons.

6. Sylvester Stallone and Gregory's Girl.

7. Ray Milland and Vincent Price.

8. Tony Randall and Helen Hayes.

9. James Stewart and Ronald Reagan.

10. Shari Belafonte and Bill Dana.

11. Clint Eastwood and William Devane.

12. The Omen (1976) and the Dr. Kildare  TV series.

13. The Batman TV series and the film King Kong (1976).

14. The series Mission: Impossible and The Rat Patrol.

15. William Daniels and Ann Sothern.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Five Biggest Stars of the 1940s

After previously listing our picks for the Five Biggest Stars of the 1950s and the Five Biggest Stars of the 1960s, we turn our attention to the 1940s. The major Hollywood studios were still at their peak, though Olivia de Havilland's 1944 legal victory against Warner Bros. planted the seeds of change. World War II made a major impact, too, as some of cinema's biggest stars joined the Armed Forces.  As with our other Biggest Stars posts, our criteria focused on boxoffice power, critical acclaim, and enduring popularity.

1. Humphrey BogartHigh Sierra cemented Bogart's stardom in 1941 and he followed it with one of the most successful decades of any actor. His filmography for the 1940s includes: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1949). Note that this list includes Bogie's two most iconic roles, as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Rick Blaine in Casablanca.

2. Olivia de Havilland - Ms. de Havilland started the decade with her final two pairings with Errol Flynn (Santa Fe Trail and They Died With Their Boots) and ended it with Best Actress Oscars in 1947 (To Each His Own) and 1949 (The Heiress--likely her most popular role among classic film fans). In between, she earned critical acclaim for films like Devotion (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948).

3. Cary Grant - Cary was an established star at the start of the decade and maintained that status with a string of popular films: The Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), and The Bishop's Wife (1947). His career would continue to thrive in the 1950s as well.

4. John Wayne - The Duke's most significant contribution to the decade may have been his Cavalry Trilogy with director John Ford: She Wore a Yellow RibbonFort Apache, and Rio Grande. But he also scored other critical successes (Red River) and boxoffice hits (Sands of Iwo Jima). It's interesting to note that neither Wayne nor Grant served in the Armed Forces during World War II. (Bogart had a stint in the Navy at the end of World War I.)

5. Bette Davis - Although she was perhaps a bigger star during the previous decade, Bette Davis still forged a glittering career in the 1940s with films such as The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), and The Corn Is Green (1945).

Honorable Mentions:  Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Doctor X: Colorful and Funky as Ever

The "Moon Killer."
A recent viewing of Doctor X reconfirmed that this 1932 horror classic has lost none of its quirkiness. Indeed, with a moonlight killer, a medical academy perched atop a cliff, and "synthetic flesh", it remains a unique viewing experience. And, as if that weren't enough, it's historically significant as one of the first talking pictures filmed in color.

Lionel Atwill stars as the title character, Dr. Jerry Xavier, the head of the aforementioned academy. It has attracted unwanted attention due to a string of murders in the vicinity. The killings take place only on nights when the moon is full. The victims, who die by strangulation, all have a small surgical incision at the bottom of their brains.

Lionel Atwill as Dr. Xavier.
While the police--as well as a fast-talking reporter-- investigate, Dr. Xavier conducts an experiment to rule out members of his staff. That's a good idea because they're a suspicious group whose fields of study include cannibalism and the effects of moonlight. The experiment goes horribly wrong during a blackout and one of the scientists is murdered with a scalpel. The good news, though, is that Dr. Xavier now knows that someone from the academy is the "Moon Killer."

Curtiz's use of silhouettes.
Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X three years before Captain Blood (1935) would establish him as one of Hollywood's top directors. Curtiz, who was impressed by German Impressionism early in his career, imbues Doctor X with extreme lighting, silhouettes, and disturbing camera angles. He shot the film in two-strip Technicolor (not the later, more vibrant three-strip process). The print I watched, which was restored by the UCLA Film Archive, looked like a combination of sepia and an eerie dark green. While it was muted color by later standards, it gives the film an effective semi-noir appearance.

Fay Wray as Joanne Xavier.
Based on a stage play called The Terror, Doctor X benefits from a trio of effective performances. Lionel Atwill, who evolved into one of Hollywood's best supporting actors, is wonderfully off-kilter as the enigmatic Xavier. As his on-screen daughter, Fay Wray has one of her best roles and, for once, is required to do more than look frightened. Then there's Lee Tracy, who memorably played the U.S. president in The Best Man (1964), one of my favorite political dramas. Tracy almost transforms the stereotypical wisecracking reporter into a believable character. That's no small feat.

Doctor X will never rank with Universal's best horror films of the 1930s (e.g., The Invisible Man). Still, it's certainly original and made with panache by a gifted filmmaker. It was a big moneymaker for Warner Bros. and led to another Technicolor horror film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which reunited Curtiz, Atwill, and Wray. The later "B" picture The Return of Doctor X (1939) has nothing to do with Doctor X, but is notable for featuring star Humphrey Bogart and director Vincent Sherman before they went on to bigger things.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Five Movie Props I'd Like to Own (Volume I)

1. Larry Talbot's Cane from The Wolf Man. My interest in this prop isn't because I'm a huge fan of the movie. Don't get me wrong...I like The Wolf Man, but it wouldn't rank among my top 5 Universal horror classics. However, Larry's wolf-head silver cane--which ultimately becomes the weapon used to kill him--is just so cool. The actual prop was made of cast rubber and painted silver. Bob Burns, who has amassed a treasure trove of movie props, owns the original. Universal make-up artist and prop master Ellis Berman gave him the cane in 1948 when Bob was 13. You can buy replicas of it now.

2. Charles Foster Kane's Snow Globe from Citizen Kane. Yes, the Rosebud sled is the most famous prop from the movie, but let's be honest, I don't know where I'd store a sled. The globe, with its little snow-covered house, figures into one of the film's most iconic scenes as it falls from Kane's hand to the floor and smashes. You can buy a replica of it, too, for under $40.

3. The Portrait from Laura. Who wouldn't want the famous painting of Gene Tierney hanging over their fireplace? Actually, it's not technically a painting. Director Otto Preminger didn't think portraits photographed well, so he had a photo of Gene Tierney "smeared with oil paint to soften the outlines." The "portrait" was used in two other films as well: On the Riviera (1951) (in which you can see it in color) and Woman's World (1954)--which doesn't even star Gene Tierney.

4. The Maltese Falcon sculpture. It may be the second most famous prop in movie history (topped only by the ruby slippers). A Las Vegas hotel magnate bought the original Falcon at auction in 2013 for $4.1 million. That put it way out of my price range! However, Vanity Fair later published an interesting article about other supposedly real Falcons used in the movie, too. It's all very mysterious. I'd like one, but, heck, even a solid resin knockoff on Amazon runs around $119. That's not what my dreams are made of.

5. The Hourglass from The Wizard of OzNaturally, I thought about the ruby slippers and I even considered the big crystal globe in which the Witch spies on Dorothy. In the end, though, I opted for the hourglass because it scared the crap out of me as a kid when the Witch turned it over and told Dorothy: "Do you see that? That's how much longer you've got to be alive. And it isn't long, my pretty. It isn't long."