Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Movie-TV Connection Game (March 2018)

What do Jane and Brigitte have in common?
Spring is in the air! That means, well, it's time for another edition of our most popular game. As always, 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. George C. Scott and George Kennedy.

2. The Beverly Hillbillies and Mary Poppins.

3. Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda.

4. Jennifer Lopez and Strother Martin.

5. Dennis Weaver and Clint Eastwood.

6. Peter Boyle and Michael Sarrazin.

7. Joe Namath and Marlon Brando.

8. Sidney Poitier and Sandy Dennis.

9. Clint Eastwood and Adrienne Barbeau.

10. Danny Kaye and John Garfield.

11. Don Knotts and Chevy Chase.

12. Bing Crosby and Cornel Wilde.

13. Walt Disney and Gregory Peck.

14. Montgomery Clift, Richard Chamberlain, and Christopher Reeve.

15. Greta Garbo and Cyd Charisse.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Let's Go to Witch Mountain!

Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards.
Newcomers Tony and his sister Tia don't blend in with the other children at the Pine Woods orphanage. That will happen when you have telepathic, telekinetic, and clairvoyant powers. The two siblings try to hide their extrasensory abilities, although Tony obviously has trouble doing so.

When he and Tia save the mysterious Mr. Deranian from a car accident, the man appears at the orphanage claiming the children are his long-lost niece and nephew. Tony and Tia can't dispute Deranian's story, because they can't remember their early childhood (although Tia has occasional visions of almost drowning).

After providing forged legal documents, Deranian adopts the siblings and moves them into the mansion of his employer, Aristotle Bolt. It quickly becomes evident that Bolt intends to use the children's powers for his own benefit. Meanwhile, Tia discovers a map that may provide the answer to her and Tony's origins.

The paranormal kids and normal Eddie Albert.
Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) is one of the best Disney live action films of the 1970s, For the most part, the decade was not kind to the family-friendly film company. It struggled with big-budgeted flops like Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) as well as more reasonably priced pictures (e.g., 1973's One Little Indian) that failed to find an audience. Heck, even Fred MacMurray--once one of Disney's most bankable stars--couldn't make a hit out of Charley and the Angel (1973).

Escape to Witch Mountain benefits from a well-plotted story and a good cast. The former can be attributed to Alexander H. Keys' 1968 science fiction novel. The film's screenplay simplifies Key's book and makes some substantial changes. For example, in the novel, Tia is mute and communicates with Tony only through telepathy. However, the film still retains the central mystery of the children's origin and the mysterious map leading to Witch Mountain.

An adult Kim Richards.
A persuasive cast carries the film nicely, particularly the always reliable Donald Pleasance as Deranian and Eddie Albert as a cynical widower that ends up helping Tia and Tony. Unfortunately, Ray Milland is wasted as the one-note villain. As for the kids, Kim Richards (Tia) comes across as a more natural performer than Ike Eisenmann (Tony). Richards was a busy child actor, having co-starred as Prudence in the 1970-71 TV series Nanny and the Professor. And--before you can ask--yes, she grew up to be the same Kim Richards that gained notoriety on the reality TV series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Lee and Davis as the baddies.
Despite a solid showing at the box office, Disney waited three years to mount the sequel Return from Witch Mountain (1978). It reunited Richards and Eisenmann as the paranormal youths, but unwisely omitted Eddie Albert. Christopher Lee and Bette Davis (in one of her worst later roles) star as the villains. There's practically no plot with the emphasis being on an increased number of cheap-looking special effects.

In 1982, Disney produced a busted TV pilot called Beyond Witch Mountain, which starred Eddie Albert and featured Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Bolt. In 1995, Disney remade the original as a made-for-TV film with Robert Vaughn as Bolt. This time, the kids were named Danny and Anna and were helped by a young waitress.

Finally, in 2009, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson headlined Race to Witch Mountain, playing a Las Vegas cabbie that befriends two unusual siblings named Sara and Seth. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann had cameos as, respectively, a waitress and a sheriff.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog

Fred MacMurray and his shaggy, car-driving co-star.
In hindsight, The Shaggy Dog (1959) was a landmark Disney film. After all, this amusing comedy perfected the formula for the contemporary live-action family films produced by the studio for the next twenty years. It was also the first of Fred MacMurray's five Disney films--and, according to some sources, it inspired his long-running TV sitcom My Three Sons. Pretty impressive for a comedy about a teenager that periodically transforms into a sheepdog!

Tommy Kirk stars as Wilby Daniels, the kind of teen inventor that accidentally launches a missile interceptor through the roof of his family's house. That doesn't sit well with his grumpy father (MacMurray), a postal carrier who hates dogs--even though his younger son Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) badly wants one.

Wilby in the bathroom.
Moochie gets his wish, more or less, when Wilby accidentally comes into possession of a ring owned by Lucrezia Borgia. When he tries on the cursed ring, he transforms into a sheepdog owned by his pretty, new French neighbor (Roberta Shore, whom we interviewed in 2016).

Later, Wilby transforms back into his human self, but continues to turn into into a shaggy sheepdog at the most inopportune moments. He seeks help from Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), who informs Wilby that he has invoked a curse that can only be broken by a heroic act. Thank goodness, while in his canine form, he discovers a spy ring in the neighborhood!

Kevin Corcoran was a Disney mainstay.
Although it was loosely inspired by a 1923 novel called The House Florence, The Shaggy Dog owes much to Old Yeller. That family drama, made two years earlier, teamed Kirk and Corcoran as brothers for the first time. And it was about a dog, too! Of course, Old Yeller is a very different film (Tommy Kirk's big scene near the end always gets to me).

Still, it's apparent that Walt Disney recognized the natural brotherly connection between the teenager Kirk and ten-year-old Corcoran. The two got along well and appeared together in a total of five Disney pictures, portraying siblings again in Swiss Family Robinson, Savage Sam (a sequel to Old Yeller), and Bon Voyage!--which also featured Fred MacMurray as their father.

Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk.
However, it was another Shaggy Dog star, Tim Considine, who would become one of Fred's sons when My Three Sons debuted in 1960. Considine only has a small role in Shaggy Dog, playing Wilby's rival for Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore. Earlier in his career, he played Frank Hardy opposite Tommy Kirk's Joe Hardy in two serials about the sleuthing Hardy Boys.

The Shaggy Dog also introduced the "absent-minded inventor" theme that provided the plots of numerous Disney comedies. Kirk played a college student with a passion for a wild experiments in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and its sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965). His Shaggy Dog co-star Annette Funicello played his college sweetheart. Meanwhile, MacMurray had one of his biggest hits in the title role of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel Son of Flubber (1963).

As for the original Shaggy Dog, it was a big hit that resulted in a belated sequel The Shaggy D.A. (1976), with Dean Jones as the adult Wilby. It also spawned several additional sequels and remakes. That's a pretty impressive legacy for a movie about a teen were-dog.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Michael Caine Attends a Funeral in Berlin

In this 1966 follow-up to the previous year's Ipcress File, Michael Caine returns as Cockney thief-turned-spy Harry Palmer. The bespectacled Palmer still works for British intelligence and he's gotten a promotion. The bad news is that he remains on a suspended prison sentence and needs an interest-free loan to buy a car.

Palmer's latest assignment sends him to East Berlin to interview Colonel Stok, a potential KGB defector. Stok, who is in charge of Berlin Wall security, claims he wants to retire to the English countryside to raise roses. Palmer doesn't buy it, but his superiors view Stok's defection as a major coup. They agree to all of the Russian colonel's demands, which include having his escape planned by Otto Kreutzman--who has been a thorn in Stok's side.

Eva Renzi as Samantha.
Meanwhile, Palmer starts a relationship with a pretty Israeli model named Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi). While there's an undeniable mutual attraction between the two, each is suspicious enough to have the other's apartment searched for information. That proves invaluable when Palmer later discovers a connection between Samantha and Kreutzman involving a mysterious man named Paul Louis Broum.

Funeral in Berlin is one of those rare sequels that matches--or possibly surpasses--the original film. Caine is in top form as the insolent Palmer and injects his own sense of wry humor into the proceedings. One of my favorite scenes has Palmer complaining about his cover name of Edmund Dorf. When the forger explains that "all the best Englishmen have foreign names," Palmer replies: "Can I be Rock Hunter?"

Oscar Homolka as Colonel Stok.
Caine gets fine support from the rest of the cast, especially Oscar Homolka and Guy Doleman, who reprises his Ipcress File role as Palmer's cold-hearted superior. Homolka and Caine have such great rapport that the two appeared together again in the third Harry Palmer film, 1967's Billion Dollar Brain.

Like the best spy pictures, Funeral in Berlin interweaves multiple plots to create a tapestry of espionage. The recurring theme is one of duty--just how far will one go to accomplish the mission? At the climax, Palmer proves that there are limits to what he will do. That doesn't hold true for another character.

Funeral in Berlin was based on the third of author Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels--though the character remains famously nameless in the books. On playing Palmer, Michael Caine wrote in his 2010 biography The Elephant to Hollywood: "I really enjoyed playing Harry Palmer in the three movies. In some ways I felt a certain affinity with the way his character develops during the course of them. In The Ipcress File, he was a complete innocent, just as I had been in the film business. By Funeral in Berlin, we had both learned a lot more. And by the time we got to Billion Dollar Brain I felt that both Harry and I had become hardened by our experiences."

Palmer confronts Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman).
Twenty-eight years after Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Caine reprised Harry Palmer for two HBO made-for-TV films shot back-to-back: Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg. He described making these movies as his "worst professional experience ever."

It's interesting to note that while Harry Palmer was envisioned as the antithesis of James Bond, the first three movies had a strong Bond connection. They were all produced by Harry Saltzman, who co-produced many of the 007 films with Albert Broccoli. Saltzman employed many of his Bond film colleagues: director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger), production designer Ken Adam, and composer John Barry (who composed the Ipcress File score).

This post of part of the Michael Caine Blogathon hosted by Reelweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out the other fabulous posts in this blogathon. Finally, you can view a clip from Funeral in Berlin, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel, by clicking on the image below.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Disney's The Island at the Top of the World

In London 1907, businessman Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) convinces Professor Ivarsson (David Hartman) from the University of Minnesota to accompany him on an expedition to the Arctic. Sir Anthony's mission is to find his son, David, who was lost somewhere near the legendary Graveyard of the Whales.
The colorful, exciting poster lured me to the movie as a kid.

David Hartman and Donald Sinden.
Accompanied by a French pilot and a poodle named Josephine, Sir Anthony and Ivarsson travel by dirigible to ice-bound Fort Conger, David's last known location. They gather more details about David's disappearance and trick his Eskimo guide, Oomiak (Mako), into joining their quest.

The journey to The Island at the Top of the World is the best part of this 1974 Disney adventure. The London scenes and the dirigible flight evoke a nice sense of period. And while David Hartman is his usual sincere, if somewhat dull, self, Donald Sinden propels the plot forward, capturing Sir Anthony's almost manic drive to find his lost son.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens with this type of film, the payoff is a letdown. I won't spoil the plot, but suffice to say that it gets bogged down once Sir Anthony and Ivarrson reach their destination. The film is almost saved by a modestly entertaining extended chase sequence packed with special effects. By then, though, it's too little too late--plus the special effects range from the good (the inevitable dirigible explosion) to the bad (man-eating killer whales).

The Hyperion, the film's dirigible.
Clearly, Walt Disney Productions was hoping that The Island at the Top of the World would recapture the magic of its earlier fanciful adventures, such as the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The studio entrusted the project to its "A" team, with veteran director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Absent-Minded Professor) at the reins and Hal Gausman (Son of Flubber, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) designing the elaborate sets. Both craftsmen had experience working with effects-laden films. In addition to its in-house technicians, Disney got Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) to compose the score, which is lovely without being particularly memorable.

Agneta Eckemyr.
Veteran Japanese character actor Mako, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Sand Pebbles (1967), heads the supporting cast. It also includes French actor Jacques Marin (Charade, Marathon Man) and David Gwillim, who became best known for his British television appearances (e.g., the excellent miniseries of The Citadel with Ben Cross). Swedish actress Agneta Eckemyr, a former model and future pin-up girl, plays the female lead (which is a small part in a male-dominated film).

The Island at the Top of the World was based on the 1961 novel The Lost Ones, written by Ian Cameron (a pseudonym for James Vance Marshall, best known for Walkabout). Walt Disney Productions planned to make a sequel based on another Cameron book, The Mountains at the Bottom of the World. However, those plans were quashed when The Island at the Top of the World earned only modest boxoffice returns.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Steve McQueen Makes Use of the Honeymoon Machine

Steve McQueen as Fergie.
Before he played a sailor in The Sand Pebbles and gambled for high stakes in The Cincinnati Kid, Steve McQueen starred as a Naval officer gambling for big bucks in The Honeymoon Machine (1961). But whereas the later films were "A" list dramas, The Honeymoon Machine is a modest comedy intended as a showcase for its up-and-coming stars.

McQueen plays Lieutenant Fergie Howard, who hatches a scheme to take advantage of a state-of-the-art computer--the Magnetic Analyzer Computer Synchrotron--on board his ship. With the help of a scientific genius pal (Jim Hutton) and a gullible fellow officer (Jack Mullaney), Fergie plans to make a fortune playing the roulette wheel at a Venice casino.

Paula Prentiss as a wiener heiress.
Based on the outcomes of hundreds of roulette wheel spins, the computer can predict the three most likely winning numbers based on the result of the previous spin. Pretty soon, Fergie and his pals are rolling in cash. Their plan gets more complicated, though, when Fergie falls for an admiral's daughter (Brigid Bazlen) and his scientist pal encounters an old flame (Paula Prentiss). Even worse, the admiral intercepts the ship-to-shore communications with the computer and thinks that high-level espionage is being plotted.

The screenplay for The Honeymoon Machine was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and George Wells. It was based on Semple's 1959 Broadway play The Golden Fleecing, which starred Tom Poston as Fergie. Constance Ford and (Poston's future wife) Suzanne Pleshette played the female leads. The film version was Semple's first big screen credit. He would go on to write major films such as Papillon (1973) and Three Days of the Condor (1975)--though he is best known for creating the original Batman TV series.

Steve McQueen was not the first choice to play Lt. Fergie Howard. MGM wanted Cary Grant for the part (yes, for a role originated by Tom Poston!). When Grant passed, the studio cast McQueen, who had just been signed to a three-picture deal. According to several sources, McQueen didn't like The Honeymoon Machine and walked out of a screening of it. He certainly doesn't put forth much effort on the screen. It's not a bad performance, but clearly McQueen seems to be relying on little more than his natural charisma.

Jack Weston as Signalman Taylor.
On the other hand, The Honeymoon Machine affords Jim Hutton, Paula Prentiss, and Jack Weston an opportunity to shine. Prentiss steals all her scenes as an heiress who dislikes wearing her glasses--though clearly she can see very little without them. Weston has a field day as a bourbon-loving sailor who imagines seeing Martians.

The always affable Hutton was paired with Paula Prentiss in five films. Their height had something to do with the casting--Hutton was 6'5" and Prentiss 5'11"--but they also displayed an effective on-screen chemistry. They make The Honeymoon Machine an entertaining endeavor--though it's one of those frothy 1960s comedies that once consumed is easily forgotten.

The irrelevant title is a reference to "Operation Honeymoon," a missile project involving the computer in the opening scene of the movie. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Walt Disney's Pollyanna

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna.
Impeccably produced and exceedingly well cast, Pollyanna ranks as Walt Disney's finest live-action children's film. Set in 1913, it tells the story of 12-old-year Pollyanna Whittier, an eternally-optimistic orphan who comes to live with her stern aunt in the picturesque small town of Harrington.

Pollyanna's Aunt Polly is a wealthy spinster who pretty much runs the town (which was named after her family). Polly even provides notes and Bible quotations to the local minister, whose fiery sermons leave the local residents with sour stomachs every Sunday. The town is in need of some cheer and that's what young Pollyanna provides. She finds something to be thankful for even in the bleakest situations. When folks complain that the Sunday sermon ruins their fried chicken dinner, Pollyanna quickly notes that they can be glad it's six days until the next Sunday!

Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow.
She also looks for the best in people, a trait that eventually endears her to an elderly recluse (Adolphe Menjou), a cantankerous hypochondriac (Agnes Moorehead), and even the minister (Karl Malden) who has lost his congregation. Pollyanna's "gladness" spreads throughout Harrington and results in the townsfolk defying Aunt Polly by holding a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage. Polly appears to be the lone hold-out, but a climatic tragedy changes her outlook on life as well.

Based on Eleanor H. Porter's 1913 novel, Pollyanna could have been a sticky-sweet maudlin mess. Instead, it's a bright, energetic film that seems much shorter than than its 134-minute running time. Over 360 young actresses were considered for the title role before British newcomer Hayley Mills was chosen. Walt Disney's wife Lilly was partly responsible for Mills' casting, having seen Hayley in her film debut Tiger Bay (1959).

Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly.
Disney surrounded Mills with an exceptional cast, pairing her with Jane Wyman and some of Hollywood's best supporting performers (e.g., Malden, Menjou, Moorehead, and Donald Crisp). He then added promising newcomer James Drury (The Virginian), the always reliable Nancy Olson, and another Disney child star, Kevin Corcoran (who had earlier appeared in Old Yeller). As if that's not enough, TV fans can rejoice in the presence of familiar faces such as Edward Platt (Get Smart), Reta Shaw (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and Mary Grace Canfield (Green Acres).

The central performance, though, is what holds Pollyanna together and Hayley Mills shoulders the responsibility with ease. I'm hard-pressed to think of another child star who seemed as natural on the screen. Mills' acting earned her a BAFTA nomination (the "British Oscar") and she was awarded a special Academy Award in 1961 for "most outstanding juvenile performance."

Hayley Mills and Karl Malden.
Her best scene in Pollyanna is also my favorite in the film: Pollyanna encounters Reverend Ford (Malden) in a field where he is practicing one of his stern sermons.  She recounts how her father, a missionary, struggled to reach his congregation until he focused on finding the good in people. It's a simple point made with childhood innocence, but it strikes home with the minister. It's a lovely scene and reminded me once again that Karl Malden was one of the great actors of his generation.

I was surprised to read recently that Pollyanna was not a boxoffice success. Walt Disney blamed the film's title, which he thought may not have appealed to boys. That may be true, but Pollyanna is truly a film for all ages. In fact, I didn't realize just how good it was until I watched it as an adult.  I have seen Pollyanna many times over the years now and it never fails to entertain and deliver its message of good cheer and faith in one another.