Thursday, August 30, 2018

Cult Movie Theatre: Race With the Devil

I miss drive-in movies. Sure, you can still watch a movie at a drive-in, but no one shows drive-in movies anymore. I'm referring to the teen musicals, biker flicks, chase pictures, and fright fests that dominated the outdoor theatres of the late 1950s through the 1970s. These low-budget exploitation films are largely forgotten today, but some have acquired small loyal followings over the years. One such example is Race With the Devil (1975), which combines the thrills of a road race drama with the creepiness of Rosemary's Baby.

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as Roger and Frank, two hardworking friends who decide to take a long-deserved vacation to Aspen, Colorado with their wives (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit). Their plan is to drive a new $36,000 RV across Texas to reach their destination.

Warren Oates in the driver's seat.
On their first night, they park their van in a secluded meadow far off the highway. As their wives huddle inside the RV, Roger and Frank share booze and conversation under the stars. Their peaceful interlude is interrupted when they see what appears to be an orgy in the woods. As they move closer to investigate, they're stunned to witness a young woman being sacrificed. At the same time, Roger's wife Alice (Swit) calls out to her husband...and the noise attracts the attention of the Satanic cult. A chase ensues in which the two couples barely escape with their lives--but that's just the beginning of their problems.

Race With the Devil is probably best-remembered for its two action set pieces: the race through the woods at night and the high-speed pursuit climax. Indeed, the former scene is a tense nail-biter that reminded me of a similar night attack in the made-for-TV classic Gargoyles.

Loretta Swit and Lara Parker.
However, on the whole, Race With the Devil works best as a paranoid thriller. Lara Parker (Dark Shadows TV series) gives a nicely nuanced performance as Fonda's wife Kelly. Although her initial fear subsides, Kelly gradually begins to suspect that everyone she meets may be a member of the cult. Even in the apparent safety of a large commercial RV park, she sees people "watching" her. Is Kelly starting to lose her grip on reality or she the only one who realizes how much trouble they're really in?

Peter Fonda takes aim.
Race With the Devil was the second of three films that Fonda and Oates made together. It was sandwiched between The Hired Hand (1971) and 92 in the Shade (1975). The actors' careers, though, were going in different directions. With his appearances in Sam Peckinpah films and critical acclaim for Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Oates was near his career peak. In contrast, Fonda was stuck in 1970s drive-in fodder like Fighting MadFutureworld, and High-Ballin'. Of course, to his credit, he also made one of the best chase movies with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and the comedy Outlaw Blues (with Susan Saint James) is a lot of fun.

Race With the Devil isn't an undiscovered gem, but it's a well-made, exciting drive-in movie. It's the kind of picture that will have you shouting advice at the TV screen. I mean, I kept telling them to drive about 400 miles before reporting what they saw in the woods. But no...they stop at the little nearby town the next day and R.G. Armstrong appears as one of those condescending sheriffs that you just can't trust. No one listens to me in these movies....

Monday, August 27, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (August 2018)

Tanya Roberts and Cloris Leachman.
Welcome to the August 2018 edition of our most popular regular feature! 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.  Cate Blanchett and Bette Davis.

2.  Tom Conway and Joan Fontaine.

3.  The TV series The Outer Limits and the movie Psycho.

4.  Gary Cooper and Marty Robbins.

5.  William Conrad and Timothy Hutton.

6.  Tanya Roberts and Cloris Leachman.

7.  Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon.

8.  The film Mary Poppins and the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies.

9.  Burt Lancaster and Lloyd Bridges.

10. Gene Barry and Patrick Macnee.

11.  Kris Kristofferson and Clint Eastwood.

12. George Peppard and Helen Hayes.

13. Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. (There are multiple correct answers!)

14. Perry Mason and Death Takes a Holiday.  (This one is a bit tricky!)

15. James Stewart and Van Johnson.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Tina Louise

1. In his book Inside Gilligan's Island, series creator Sherwood Schwartz wrote: "Actually, we were fortunate to sign Tina Louise in that role (of Ginger). I had remembered her from God's Little Acre. She had a face and figure that were hard to forget. But she was in a Broadway musical at that moment, Fade Out, Fade In, with Carol Burnett. In order for her to play Ginger, we had to buy out her contract for the balance of her guarantee to the play."

2. At the age of 18, Tina Louise appeared in the 1952 Broadway musical revue Two's Company. The show was conceived to showcase Bette Davis, who was finding quality film roles scarce even after her Oscar nomination for All About Eve (1950). The revue was plagued with problems, including Davis collapsing from fatigue during a tryout performance, but it still played on Broadway for 90 performances.

Tina in L'il Abner.
3. In the 1950s, Tina Louise worked mostly on stage and in television. In 1956, she gained attention as Appassionata Von Climax in the original Broadway production of L'il Abner (a role that Stella Stevens would play in the movie version). Hollywood came calling and she was cast as Robert Ryan's sexy daughter-in-law in the then-racy God's Little Acre (1958).

4. After film roles opposite leading men such as Richard Widmark (The Trap), Robert Taylor (The Hangman), and Robert Ryan (Day of the Outlaw), Tina Louise appeared in a handful of Italian movies and then transitioned to television. She also appeared in a 1959 issue of Playboy; her photos were a little provocative, but nothing too scandalous.

5. In 1957, she also released a album called It's Time for Tina. It includes covers of classic tunes like "Embraceable You" and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." The album was reissued in 1998 and you can still buy it on Amazon.

6. Tina Louise was married to talk show host Les Crane from 1966-71; they had a daughter named Caprice. After Gilligan's Island ended in 1967, Tina tried to distance herself from the role of Ginger Grant. She turned down lucrative paydays by refusing to appear in any of the Gilligan's Island made-for-TV movies. She wouldn't even provide the voice for Ginger in the Saturday morning animated series. To her castmates' surprise, she did join them for a Gilligan's Island reunion on Good Morning, America in 1982.

7. Tina Louise has written two books: When I Grow Up (2007) and Sunday: A Memoir (1998). The former is a children's book, while the latter autobiography focuses on her own childhood. The dust jacket includes this description: "When Tina Louise was around six years old, she was shunted off to boarding school by her parents, who were divorcing. Sunday is her moving memoir of growing up in an uncaring world of strangers... A blue stone, the color of her mother's eyes, becomes her link to the world that left her behind; a childhood prank has adult repercussions; and Sunday, the day when parents visit, becomes a day of hope and dreams of reconciliation."

Monday, August 20, 2018

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Author Paula Finn Discusses Her Interviews with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Others

In her new book, Sitcom Writers Talk Shop, Paula Finn provides a fascinating look behind the scenes of a beloved American TV genre: the situation comedy or sitcom. Her in-depth interviews feature fifteen sitcom writers, who discuss classic comedies from the 1950s to today. Her subjects include many of the genre's heavyweights, such as Norman Lear (All in the Family), James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show). However, she also talks with lesser-known writers who are widely recognized by their peers for their excellent writing, creating indelible characters, and breaking barriers. A UCLA graduate with a degree in anthropology, Paula Finn is no stranger to the world of TV sitcoms--her father Herbert Finn wrote episodes of The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, Gilligan's Island, and other classic sitcoms. Recently, Ms. Finn was kind enough to let us be the interviewer and ask her some questions.

Café:  What was it like having a sitcom writer for a parent?

Author Paula Finn.
Paula Finn:  One of the best things about it was that my dad could always get me in to see my favorite TV shows filmed. These were closed sets, meaning you had to know someone at the studio, give your name to security at the gate, etc., to gain access. To say it was a thrill is an understatement. Also, the bookshelves in my dad's office were filled with TV scripts. Dennis the Menace and The Flintstones made for great summer reading. Perks he brought home from work included a personally-autographed photo of Jay North, (when Jay was my favorite!), the Flintstones cels (I didn’t keep mine, but some of them are worth thousands of dollars today!), or record albums of performers on The Garry Moore Show.

Café:  Have you ever watched a sitcom episode written by your father and realized it was based on something that happened in your family?

PF:  When I was eight I won a neighborhood beauty/talent contest. For those familiar with the San Fernando Valley, I was crowned “Miss Valleyheart Drive” for a year. My dad later wrote a Flintstones episode where Pebbles won a beauty/talent contest.

Café:  Of all the shows your father worked on, which one was your favorite? And do you have a favorite episode?

PF:  I’d say The Honeymooners. And the episode would be “The Golfer.” After telling his boss he plays golf, Ralph’s under pressure to prove it when his boss invites him to play with him. Norton tries to teach Ralph how to do it, but he doesn’t know anything more about golf than Ralph does. Just when Ralph thinks he lucked out--it turns out he didn’t. If you’re familiar with that episode, Norton’s “Hello, Ball” is a famous line from it.

Café:  Having interviewed writers from the 1950s to today, what do you see as the most significant changes in the American television sitcom?

Alan Alda in M*A*S*H.
PF:  Obviously, the content has changed dramatically. The early shows’ stories were simple, and the subject matter was childish. Characters didn’t cope with serious problems or illness. The scope of what the writers could cover was much more limited, and the episodes had little or nothing to do with real life. As writer Joel Rapp says of Gilligan’s Island: “You could make up any kind of nonsense for that show!”
      The language was clean. Everyone knows--and many complain--about the prevalence of profanity as sitcoms have progressed. Gender roles were different: in early sitcoms, the husband earned the money and the wife/mother was content in the kitchen. With few exceptions, children were raised by their two parents. They were better behaved, and didn’t disrespect their elders. Contrast that to Bart Simpson!
      Most early shows had only one plot per episode, whereas episodes of shows like M*A*S*H, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm had multiple storylines. Former M*A*S*H producer John Rappaport recalls writing one with seven stories. [“No Sweat,” S9E11]
      Racial and sexual diversity was almost absent compared to today. And Cheers writer Ken Estin thinks TV jokes today are more mean-spirited: “Viewers like to laugh at people being obnoxious more than they used to.”
      Writer Bill Persky (That Girl) told me he thinks sitcom humor has changed in that humanity and human behavior are less important than having two people in bed. He elaborates: “I was skipping past something, I guess it was Two and a Half Men, and the two characters were having a conversation that was kind of funny. But they had it in bed, naked. That could have been even funnier if they were doing something, you know? If they were trying to cook a meal together or if there were some other point at the time…but just them being in bed was the provocative thing, and the topic of their conversation was secondary.”
      He adds: “Someone just asked me if I thought The Dick Van Dyke Show would be as good if we were writing it today. I said you can’t separate the times from the shows…You can’t ignore the fact that pornography is available to people on their computer now, and not have somebody be involved in it. Who’s to say half the characters we all loved wouldn’t be in the bedroom watching porn!”

Café:  We're going to put you on the spot here. What three to five sitcoms do you think were most influential in the evolution of the genre?

Carney & Gleason in The Honeymooners.
PF:  As one of the first sitcoms to portray the struggles of the working class, The Honeymooners influenced such shows as The Flintstones, Family Guy, Roseanne, All in the Family, and Married…with Children. The concept of a sensible wife with a bumbling dim-witted husband inspired the dynamics between many subsequent sitcom couples. Writer Al Jean names such characters as Archie Bunker, Fred Flintstone, and Homer Simpson as descendants of Ralph Kramden.
      All in the Family revolutionized the genre with its social relevance, shocking epithets, and controversial, politically-incorrect, real-world topics. No one had ever seen or heard anything quite like it on television before.
      The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the first to star an independent woman with a career other than the traditional women’s occupations of teacher, secretary, or nurse. She was 30--and single. And it was okay. Incidentally, creators Jim Brooks and Allan Burns pitched the show with the character of Mary Richards as a recent divorcee. The networks didn’t think viewers would accept that. They suggested instead that she’d just come from a bad breakup. And they told Grant Tinker, head of the show’s production company: “Get rid of those two clowns!” (referring to Brooks and Burns).
Diane and Sam.
      Cheers is credited with being the first primetime sitcom to have a “serial plotline,” i.e., an ongoing, evolving storyline--in this case, about Diane and Sam’s relationship. According to writer Phoef Sutton: “Believe it or not, that was kind of a new idea: the idea of following a relationship from its inception and them getting together, and them breaking up. And every show has to have that now! The problem with the Sam/Diane relationship was they kept having to break them up to keep the tension alive, but then they had them get back together again to keep the tension alive. So you were always treading that fine line, because Sam and Diane having problems and trying to get through to each other and trying to seduce each other and all that--was fun. But them as a couple wasn’t really all that interesting.”
      The Simpsons ended the more than 20-year long drought of primetime animated sitcoms for grownups, paving the way for such shows as Family Guy, Beavis and Butt-Head, and South Park. Entertainment writers cite the Simpsons’ influence on such shows as Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development, and Scrubs. Simpsons showrunner Al Jean believes live-action shows have tended to incorporate the Simpsons pace and “cut-away” style.               
Café:   Please tell us that you're already writing a "sequel" about cop shows!

PF:  Sorry, no. But that is a great idea. Hmm…

Café:  Given your background as a writer and knowledge of the genre, have you ever considered penning a script for a sitcom?

PF:  You mean, besides the Honeymooners script I wrote when I was eight? No. And considering what I learned from talking with these writers…I can think of few things that are harder! I strongly admire anyone who can do it, especially with the pressure of a deadline.

Café:  Although it's not mentioned in your book, you've got to tell us about being a teenager invited by Sonny and Cher to watch TV at their house.

Sonny and Cher.
PF:  Their home address in Encino had been circulating around my high school. One December night when my parents were out, I called a taxi and got a ride to Sonny and Cher’s house. I rang the bell to their electric gate, and Sonny came out in his bathrobe to see who it was. He welcomed me into their home, where he and Cher were getting ready to go to a Christmas party. While Sonny was taking a shower, Cher and I watched Bewitched in their bedroom. I had brought Cher a box of homemade earrings, and Sonny gave me an autographed 45 of their latest song, “The Beat Goes On.” He also called a taxi for me to go home, and gave me $5 cab fare – which more than covered it. I can’t tell you what their house looked like inside – I was too vain to wear my glasses! I wonder how many of today’s celebrities would treat their young fans as graciously.

Café:  Thanks for the interview, Paula. We love your book. It'll be an easy pick for our Christmas buying guide for classic TV and film fans.

PF:  It’s been a pleasure. Thank you again!

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop will be published on September 15th and can be pre-ordered now. You can learn more about it on its Facebook page. You can follow Paula Finn on Twitter at @Talkingcomedy.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Richard Chamberlain as The Count of Monte-Cristo

Chamberlain as Edmond Dantes.
Between his TV heartthrob status as Dr. Kildare and his reign as "King of the Miniseries," Richard Chamberlain sought to expand his acting versatility. He appeared in Shakespeare plays, worked with unconventional director Ken Russell, and played a different sort of Prince Charming in a musical version of Cinderella. He also starred in four movies based on the works of Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Count of Monte-Cristo.

The last of that quartet was produced for British television and broadcast in the U.S. by NBC in 1975. Chamberlain plays newly promoted Captain Edmond Dantes, whose success in business and love incurs the jealousy of three shipmates. They frame him as one of Napoleon's spies by forging a letter. It's a weak charge, but the prosecutor has a secret he must hide at all costs: his father is a Napoleon loyalist and traitor. So, the prosecutor banishes Edmond to an island prison, where he is forgotten.

Yes, that's Trevor Howard.
After ten years of loneliness, Edmond becomes acquainted with the Abbe Faria (Trevor Howard), a fellow prisoner who has been digging a tunnel to freedom. The Abbe becomes a father figure to Edmond, teaching him about the arts and sharing a map to an alleged long-lost treasure on the island of Monte-Cristo. The Abbe also helps Edmond deduce the identities of the four men responsible for ruining his life.

Although the Abbe dies, Edmond manages to escape from his castle of captivity. His heart, though, is filled with vengeance and he dedicates his life to destroying each of the men that wronged him.

Dumas was a masterful storyteller and The Count of Monte-Cristo is an absorbing tale from start to finish. Chamberlain makes an effective transformation from a naive young man to a bitter, angry one who has aged well beyond his years. His best scenes are those with Trevor Howard as the Abbe in the prison. It was no surprise to learn that Chamberlain and Howard each earned Emmy nominations for their performances.

Nelligan pleads for her son's life.
Louis Jourdan, Kate Nelligan, and Donald Pleasance are convincing in supporting roles. The same can't be said for Tony Curtis, who walks through his villainous part with little conviction. His climatic sword fight with Chamberlain is a snooze thanks to a very obvious body double (though Richard seems to be doing his own dueling). Tyrone Power's daughter Taryn makes her English-language debut in a small part. I remember her best from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which was released two years later.

Sidney Carroll, who co-wrote The Hustler back in 1961, does an admirable job of condensing Dumas' packed plot into a 103-minute movie. A couple of major subplots are jettisoned, but the end results are the same and the streamlined movie undoubtedly moves at a quicker pace. My only beef is that I wanted to know the fate of the likable smugglers who pulled a weary Dantes from the sea after his prison escape.

Three years after The Count of Monte-Cristo, Chamberlain made Centennial, the first of three blockbuster miniseries that would secure his fame in TV history. He followed it with Shogun in 1980 and The Thorn Birds in 1983.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Song Is Born: Fabulous Music But a Waste of Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye as Hobart Frisbee.
A musical remake of Ball of Fire must have been one of the easiest pitches of all time. After all, the original 1941 comedy--penned by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett--was about a bunch of academics writing an encyclopedia about music. Ball of Fire starred Gary Cooper as a naïve musicologist and Barbara Stanwyck as a brash nightclub singer who shakes up his world. The remake, A Song Is Born substitutes Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. It retains the plot, adds songs, and features many of the finest musicians working in the U.S. in 1948. How could it go wrong?

It gets off to a promising start with Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) realizing that music has changed in the seven years that he and his colleagues have sequestered themselves to write their encyclopedia. To gain an appreciation for this "new" music, Frisbee embarks on a tour of New York City nightclubs. This serves as a great excuse for a musical montage featuring Tommy Dorsey, the Golden Gate Quartette, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, and others.

Virginia Mayo as Honey.
Frisbee also encounters Honey Swanson (Mayo), a pretty singer who needs to find a place to lay low when the police close in on her gangster boyfriend. Honey decides that Frisbee's Totten Music Foundation would be the ideal temporary hideout--never mind that she'd be living with seven intellectual bachelors.

Given the source material, music, and Danny Kaye, I expected A Song Is Born to be much better than a middling musical that smolders without catching fire. Except for the opening jungle chant number, Kaye neither sings nor dances. In his Kaye biography Nobody's Fool, author Martin Gottfried notes that the comedian had temporarily split from his wife Sylvia Fine following his affair with Eve Arden. Fine wrote many of her husband's songs and she refused to be involved with A Song Is Born. As a result, Danny Kaye "did not--he would not--find anyone else to write material for him."

Benny Goodman as a professor.
Without the fabulous music and a fully functional Kaye, the second half of A Song Is Born lumbers along toward its obvious climax. To her credit, Virginia Mayo tries her best to keep the film afloat and occasionally succeeds (as in the "yum-yum" scene).

It was Mayo's fourth film with Danny Kaye, having teamed with him previously in Wonder ManThe Kid From Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. She even had a bit part in Kaye's Up in Arms. By the way, Steve Cochran, who played the villain in A Song Is Born, appeared with Mayo six times (including The Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat).

In addition to its plot, A Song Is Born shares other connections with Ball of Fire. Howard Hawks directed both films and Gregg Tolan served as his cinematographer. Mary Field also plays Miss Totten, the benefactor of the music foundation, in both films. Hawks expressed little enthusiasm for A Song Is Born, claiming that he made it only because Sam Goldwyn "pestered" and "annoyed" him into it.

Fortunately for Danny Kaye, his best films--White Christmas and The Court Jester--were still to come. And if A Song Is Born is nothing but a footnote in his long career, it's an still an interesting one that documents some of the great jazz and popular music instrumentalists of its era.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Monster Squad...That's Who You Oughta Call!

Duncan Regehr as Dracula.
When a resurrected Dracula decides to unleash an unspeakable evil on the world, he enlists the aid of the Frankenstein Monster, a werewolf, a mummy, and an amphibious gill-man that looks like the Creature of the Black Lagoon. Who's going to stop such a formidable quintet?

The unlikely answer is the self-proclaimed Monster Squad, which consists of nerdy teenagers Sean, Patrick, and Fat Kid (aka Horace), a James Dean wannabe named Rudy, and Sean's little sister Phoebe. (The boys insist that Phoebe is not a member, but she proves her worth later.)

The Monster and Phoebe.
To complete his plan, Dracula (Duncan Regehr) needs an amulet brought to the United States (Baton Rouge, no less) by Professor Van Helsing's associates. Sean unknowingly gets in the Count's way when his mother gives him Van Helsing's diary--which she found at a garage sale. Since it's written in German, Sean and his buddies seek the aid of the neighborhood's Scary German Guy. His translation reveals the location of the amulet and it becomes a race to see who will find it first.

Made in 1987, The Monster Squad is a juvenile horror film obviously made by folks who grew up on the Universal classics. While it lacks the sharp wit of the same year's The Lost Boys--which featured a couple of nerdy, teenage vampire hunters--it's a good-natured yarn that shows glimpses of what it could have been. One of its best scenes is when the elderly German neighbor mentions that he has seen monsters before--just as he inadvertently reveals numbers tattooed on his arm from his imprisonment at Auschwitz.

Patrick, Fat Kid, and Sean outside a scary house.
Co-writer Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) also displays some of his familiar dark humor in a scene in which the Frankenstein Monster approaches Phoebe near a lake. It's a throwback, of course, to James Whales' Frankenstein (1931), in which the Monster accidentally drowns a little girl who befriends him. This time around, the scene fades to black, and when we next see Phoebe, she is happily holding hands with her new "friend"--much to the shock of the Monster Squad members.

Yet, despite such promising snippets, The Monster Squad can't escape from its adolescent approach. That's not a bad thing--I might have enjoyed The Monster Squad if I saw it as a ten-year-old. However, I suspect the filmmakers wanted to make a teen adventure, along the lines of The Goonies, that also appealed to kids and adults. As its box office failure indicated, The Monster Squad  couldn't achieve that lofty goal.

Jason Hervey as a bully.
Unlike many teen pictures of the 1980s, the cast of The Monster Squad doesn't feature a plethora of future stars. However, I did notice one familiar face: Jason Hervey. He went on to play Kevin Arnold's older brother Wayne on the TV series The Wonder Years.

And if you're curious as to what The Monster Squad's cast looks like today, then seek out Wolfman's Got Nards, a 2018 documentary directed by Andre Gower (who played Sean). It's a love letter to The Monster Squad featuring interviews with many of the cast and crew.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 1)

We played this game last July with classic TV series and it turned out to be a lot of fun. This time around, we're opting for movie titles. The rules are the same: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. Good luck!

1. Pursuits of a Bird Head Covering.

2. Departed on a Breeze.

3. Type of Candle Drawing Fop.

4. A Large Distance Under a Large Body of Water.

5. The Personal Happenings of Liz and X.

6. An Astronomical Object Comes into Existence.

7. The Terribly Frightened Trees.

8. Timepiece on the Part of a Melon.

9. Self-satisfaction and Bias.

10. The Secret Agent That Got Nice and Toasty.

11. Robbers' Interstate.

12. Payments of Terror.

13. The Chess Piece's Spouse.

14. Everything You Wanted to Know About the Night Before Christmas.

15. Twilight Avenue.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Robert Stevenson's Kidnapped

James MacArthur as Stevenson's young hero.
Isn't it Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, you ask? Well, it is, of course, but today we're reviewing the Walt Disney-produced 1960 adaptation written and directed by Robert Stevenson. It was the fourth of 19 films that Stevenson made for Disney and also one of the filmmaker's best.

The oft-filmed story opens in 1751 with a young Scottish man named David Balfour (James MacArthur) journeying to the House of Shaws to present a letter to the laird from his recently-deceased father. It turns out that the miserly laird is David's Uncle Ebenezer, whom he never knew existed. When Ebenezer fails to murder David, he pays a ship's captain £20 to kidnap him and sell him as an indentured servant in the Carolinas.

Peter Finch as Alan Breck.
During a heavy fog at sea, the ship collides with a boat carrying a Scottish rebel named Alan Breck Stewart (Peter Finch). The roguish Alan makes a deal with the captain to deposit him on Scottish soil. When David warns Alan that the captain plans a doublecross, the two become allies. After a fight aboard the sailing vessel, it crashes into the rocks during a storm. David and Alan are separated, but are later reunited as David tries to get back home and Alan plots against the British who have stolen Scottish lands.

Filmed in Scotland (and in Pinewood Studios), Kidnapped surrounds the American MacArthur with a delightful cast of British veterans. Peter Finch, having appeared opposite Audrey Hepburn in the previous year's The Nun's Story, makes a dashing hero who is both gentleman and rascal. It's too bad that the usually serious Finch didn't get to play more roles like this. He's perfect as the kind of hero who drunkenly asks to borrow money, gambles it away, and then chastises his benefactor for loaning him the funds.

A young Peter O'Toole.
John Laurie, Bernard Lee (later M in the Bond movies), and Niall MacGinnis (Curse of the Demon) make an impressive trio of villains. Veteran character actor Finlay Currie (Ivanhoe) steals his lone scene as a Scottish nobleman who has lost everything to the British. Even Peter O'Toole, in one of his first roles, pops up in an amusing bagpipe "duel" with Finch.

James MacArthur, the adopted son of Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, starred in four Disney theatrical films, starting with The Light in the Forest (1958). MacArthur projected a likable screen persona that made him one of the busiest actors of the 1960s. In 1968, he landed the part of Danny Williams on the hit TV series Hawaii Five-O (another actor, Tim O'Kelly, played Danny in the pilot). In an enjoyable interview on his website, the now-deceased MacArthur was asked to list some of his favorite actors to work with and included Finch, Currie, and Laurie.

Bernard Lee as one of the baddies.
MacArthur, Finch, and writer-director Robert Stevenson make Kidnapped one of Disney's best historical adventures. The story--while episodic--is compelling and the splendid Scottish landscapes are well integrated into the action. (I only wish that the DVD, one of the Disney Movie Club exclusives, featured a more vibrant print.) While Stevenson's later films, such as Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, were much too long, Kidnapped clocks in at a crisp 96 minutes. In fact, it could have been a wee longer. One of my few complaints is that it lacks a worthy climax and the ending seems a little rushed.

Stevenson's next film was one of Disney's biggest hits to date: The Absent-minded Professor (1961). James MacArthur followed Kidnapped with Swiss Family Robinson (1960), another Disney boxoffice success. And Peter Finch returned to serious roles, winning the BAFTA for Best Actor for The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1961).