Thursday, September 27, 2018

Walter Matthau Makes House Calls With Glenda Jackson

Walter Matthau as a widower.
Relationship comedies were all the rage in the late 1970s. Jill Clayburgh played a woman who becomes suddenly single when her husband of 16 years leaves her in An Unmarried Woman (1978). Burt Reynolds was a divorced man struggling to get over his ex-wife in Starting Over (1979). And in the film we're discussing today, Walter Matthau starred as a recently-widowed surgeon in House Calls (1978).

He plays middle-aged Charley Nichols, who returns to work after three months to find that women suddenly find him irresistible. Initially, the newly-single Charley embraces his situation, even though the one-night stands seem to be based on physical attraction only (at least, from his side). That changes when he meets Ann Atkinson (Glenda Jackson), a bright, opinionated divorcee.

Glenda Jackson as Ann.
He first encounters her in the hospital when he suspects her condition has been misdiagnosed by Dr. Willoughby, the senile chief of staff. Charley takes over her case--though it proves costly. To avoid an ethics charge, Willoughby forces Charley to nominate him for another five-year term as chief of staff.

A few weeks later, Charley and Ann meet again on a public television panel show about healthcare. Sparks fly between them and they soon enter into a trial relationship--but Charley isn't sure he wants to make a long-term commitment.

There's nothing surprising about House Calls, a predictable romantic comedy from start to finish. Thus, it's up to the stars to make it entertaining and, in this case, the unlikely casting of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson is pure genius. Matthau made a career of playing slobs, con artists, and villains in the 1960s, but he was not a novice as a romantic lead. He proved in Cactus Flower (1969) and Pete 'n' Tillie (1972) that he could appeal to the opposite sex as a gruff, but likable and decent guy.

Matthau and Jackson have chemistry.
Glenda Jackson also dabbled in romantic comedy prior to House Calls (e.g., A Touch of Class with George Segal). Still, her career was noted for dramatic performances in challenging films like Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) and Women in Love (1969). A great actress defies genres, though, and Glenda Jackson could have made a career as a comedienne. One of the best scenes in House Calls is a delightful display of physical comedy as Ann and Charley try to prove--after watching an old movie--that a couple can make love on a bed with each partner keeping one foot on the floor.

Carney as Dr. Willoughby.
House Calls is basically a four-character picture, with Art Carney and Richard Benjamin in the other two roles. Carney has fun as the aforementioned Dr. Willoughby, whose fading memory causes him to get almost everyone's name wrong. Benjamin plays Matthau's chum, delivering an understated (for him), effective performance.

Of course, the reason to see House Calls is to watch Matthau and Jackson together. They paired up again two years later in Hopscotch, which I recall liking quite well (I plan to watch it again soon). Incidentally, the politically active Jackson quit acting in 1992 and was elected to Britain's Parliament. I once e-mailed her about a possible interview about her film career. One of her staffers sent a polite response, stating that she doesn't discuss her movies any more.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Robert Goulet

With Julie Andrews in Camelot.
1. Robert Goulet was a virtual unknown when he auditioned for the role of Lancelot in the 1960 Broadway stage musical Camelot. Yet, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe cast him opposite Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. Goulet held his own and crooned one of the showstoppers "If Ever I Would Leave You"--which became his signature song.

2. Goulet didn't even get a Tony nomination for Camelot, while Burton won Best Actor and Andrews was nominated for Best Actress. Six years later, though, Robert Goulet won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for The Happy Time with music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb. Stage producer David Merrick originally planned to cast Yves Montand in the role. Interestingly, the play was set in Canada, which is where the U.S.-born Goulet was raised.

3. Although Robert Goulet recorded several successful albums, he only scored one pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "My Love, Forgive Me" peaked at #16 in 1964. The original version of the song enjoyed immense popularity in Italy, where it was known as "Amore scusami."

4. In the 1966 TV series Blue Light, Robert Goulet played a double agent posing as an American journalist in Nazi Germany. French actress Christine Carere portrayed another spy, the only person who knows about Goulet's true identity. The series lasted just seventeen episodes. Four of them were written by Larry Cohen (The Invaders, Coronet Blue) edited together and released as the theatrical film I Deal in Danger.

5. Goulet played a cat...or rather, he provided the voice for the animated cat Jaune-Tom in the movie musical Gay Purr-ee (1962). His leading lady was Judy Garland. The songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who worked with Garland on an earlier musical: The Wizard of Oz.

6. You can still hear Robert Goulet singing on television five nights a week. He croons the opening song to Jimmy Kimmel Live! The tune was composed by Les Pierce, Jonathan Kimmel and Cleto Escobedo III.

7. Robert Goulet was married three times to: Louise Longmore; singer-actress Carol Lawrence; and the former Vera Chochorovska. After escaping with her mother from Yugoslavia, Vera eventually relocated to the U.S. in 1980, where she became Goulet's manager. She and Robert Goulet married in 1982. Robert Goulet died from pulmonary fibrosis on October 30, 2007.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (September 2018)

What do Gene and Robin have in common?
With autumn just around the corner, 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. Bert Lahr and Gale Sondergaard.

2. Robin Williams and Gene Hackman,

3. James Darren and Scott Bakula.

4. Pam Grier and Fred Astaire. (Hope you know your Pam Grier movies!)

5. Steve McQueen and Steve Martin.

6. Monte Markham and Raymond Burr. (An easy one!)

7. Jack Palance and Frank Langella.

8. Helen Reddy and Ralph Richardson.

9. Jack Lemmon and Dean Martin. (Similar to a recent question!)

10. Dudley Moore and David Hedison.

11. George Peppard and Richard Boone.

12. The Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled and the TV series The Odd Couple.

13. Dirk Bogarde and Amy Irving. (Maybe the hardest one?)

14. Die, Monster, Die and The Haunted Palace.

15. Tony Curtis and Alan Ladd.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Classic Film Stars--Not Terror--in the Wax Museum

Wax Jack the Ripper and Ray Milland.
Ray Milland, Elsa Lanchester, Louis Hayward, Broderick Crawford, John Carradine, Maurice Evans, and Patric Knowles...that would have been an impressive cast for a film made in the 1940s or 1950s. Alas, by the 1970s, these classic-era actors were at the twilight of their careers and found themselves appearing together in the low-budget horror picture Terror in the Wax Museum (1973).

Elsa Lanchester.
Set in turn-of-the-century London, it stars Carradine as Claude Dupree, the co-owner and lead sculptor of a wax museum that specializes in horrific subjects such as Lizzy Borden and Jack the Ripper. Dupree is contemplating closing the museum and selling the wax figures to a brash American businessman (Crawford). It's a tough decision, especially since Dupree thinks of his wax figures as family and doesn't want his hunch-backed assistant Karkov to lose his job.

Louis Hayward.
Of course, it becomes a moot point when Dupree is murdered by someone dressed as the wax Jack the Ripper. There are plenty of suspects, to include Dupree's business partner (Milland), his niece (Nicole Shelby) and her guardian (Lanchester), a nearby pub owner (Hayward), the American businessman, and, of course, the sensitive Karkov (Steven Marlo).

Alas, Terror in the Wax Museum is not much of a mystery, relying on cliché plot points such as a missing will and hidden treasure. It was also an oddity when I first saw it during its theatrical run. At a time when horror films were becoming more bloody--even Hammer's period-set pictures--Terror in the Wax Museum was extremely mild. It's not even as intense as the 1966 wax museum movie Chamber of Horrors, which was originally made for television.

It's Karkov...not Karkoff.
Still, the cast alone makes Terror in the Wax Museum worth a one-time viewing. In addition to the aforementioned stars, there's also Shani Wallis (who played Nancy in Oliver!) and Lisa Lu (The Joy Luck Club). According to the AFI Catalog, the wax figures were played by "twelve members of the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts Pageant of the Masters, a popular southern California 'Living Picture' troupe."

The film's publicity materials are a lot of fun, too. First, the character Karkov was sometimes listed as Karkoff (perhaps to make viewers think Boris Karloff was in the cast). A lobby card misidentified Lizzie Borden as Lucrezia Borgia and vice versa. I have also seen a poster showing Terror on a double-feature with Ted V. Mikels' The Doll Squad. Now, there's a twin bill!

Finally, producer Andrew J. Fenady and his brother, director Georg Fenady, shot Terror in the Wax Museum back-to-back with the oddball comedy Arnold (1973). That film starred Stella Stevens and Roddy McDowall, but also featured Terror troupers Elsa Lanchester, Patric Knowles, and Steven Marlo.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thieves' Highway: Dark Streets and Rolling Apples

Who would have thought a movie about transporting and selling apples could be so engrossing? Yet, director Jules Dassin has crafted an atmospheric, cynical film noir about just that--and somehow still manages to deliver a message of hope.

In Thieves' Highway, Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, a World War II Navy veteran who buys two trucks of California golden delicious apples. With his newfound partner Ed (Millard Mitchell), he plans to drive four hours to San Francisco to sell the apples for a quick profit.

Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte.
Arriving in the city well ahead of Ed, Nick seeks out produce merchant Mike Figlia--whom he blames for the truck accident that crippled his father. The crooked Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) plans to swindle Nick and hires a prostitute to distract the weary trucker. Meanwhile, Ed has his own problems as he struggles with a decrepit truck loaded with the rest of the apple shipment.

Conte and Valentina Cortese.
Taking place over two days and one night, there's a lot going on in Thieves' Highway. I love how screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides peels away the facades that some characters use for protection. The stereotypically tough prostitute Rica (Valentina Cortese) gambles with her male cronies and accepts money from Figlia to help cheat Nick. When she first meets Nick, there's an immediate physical attraction  (the scene where she caresses his bare chest must have raised eyebrows at the time). However, it's Nick's honesty and hardened vulnerability that makes her want to take care of him. When she meets his shallow, ambitious girlfriend Polly, Rica knows immediately that Polly is not the girl for Nick. And that gets her thinking that...just perhaps...she could find love and life beyond the dark, dirty streets of the city.

Nick and Slob.
Likewise, the rival trucker Slob (wonderfully played by Jack Oakie) initially appears to be the kind of hustler who will do anything to make a buck. He and his chum follow Ed, jeering him at every opportunity, in the hope of getting his cargo. It's not until Slob witnesses a tragic accident that he reveals his true colors. He proves that hustlers have ethics, too, and he takes an unlikely stand against Figlia.

One of the most vivid characters in Thieves' Highway is the bustling inner city with its neon lights, shadow-filled streets, and earthy characters. It's almost as if director Dassin had placed his camera in the middle of the San Francisco produce market at night. I can only think of a handful of films--The Set-Up and Sweet Smell of Success are two that spring in mind--which evoke a comparable urban atmosphere.

Ironically, the film's most iconic scene takes place during daylight and away from the city. Near the film's climax, a truck careens off the road and crashes, emptying dozens of golden apples onto a hillside.  As the apples careen down the downhill, going helter skelter in different directions, I was suddenly reminded of the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's silent classic Battleship Potemkin.

There are critics who think that the end of Thieves' Highway is a bitter joke. Its promise of a happy life for two of its characters is tainted by who they are and what they have done. In that context, perhaps the apples represent happiness slipping away. Personally, I prefer to believe that Dassin's ending is a hopeful one.

Melina Mercouri and Jules Dassin.
Although he was not one of the Hollywood Ten, Jules Dassin was blacklisted in 1950 after he finished his follow-up film Night and the City. He subsequently went to Europe and made a number of memorable films, to include the heist pictures Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964). He eventually married his frequent leading lady, Greek actress Melina Mercouri. Because of his name and the location of his later movies, Dassin is often mistakenly labeled a European filmmaker. In reality, he was born in Connecticut and raised in Harlem.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Five Best Giant Squid/Octopus Movies

1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) - Walt Disney provided the giant squid with its best role when it attacked the submarine Nautilus during a ferocious storm at sea. As a huge tentacle grabs Captain Nemo (James Mason) and threatens to crush him to death, harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) arrives just in time to save the day. Director Richard Fleischer initially filmed this fondly-remembered scene at sunset, but was concerned that the wires operating the squid would be visible. Thus, it was shot again, this time during the storm at night. That version appears as an extra on the newest 20,000 Leagues DVD (and it's also on YouTube).
The giant squid attacks the Nautilus in torrential rain.

Bad news for Golden Gate Bridge!
2. It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) - Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen introduced the most destructive giant octopus to date with this stop-action animated creature. Due to cost constraints, the title creature had only six tentacles. In his Film Fantasy Scrapbook, Harryhausen noted: "I sometimes wonder if the budget had been cut anymore if we might not have ended up with an undulating tripod." It's not Harryhausen's best work, although the annihilation of the Golden Gate Bridge is memorable. Ray also animated another tentacled underwater creature in 1961's Mysterious Island.

3. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) - Although it rarely gets good reviews, I always enjoy this theatrical prelude to Irwin Allen's TV series. It features a giant squid and a giant octopus. The latter was a live creature and special effects expert L.B. Abbott said that a major challenge was keeping the octopus attached to the cone of the submarine Seaview. It kept letting go and falling to the bottom of the water tank. Apparently, live octopi don't follow directions well!
The Seaview gives this octopus a charge!
4. Reap the Wild Wind (1942) - This rubbery squid may not look very real; indeed, there are times when Ray Milland's character seems to be intentionally wrapping a tentacle around his body. That said, it's pretty impressive when a giant squid gets a plum supporting role in a Cecil D. DeMille movie alongside stars like John Wayne and Milland. Also, with the exception of the 1937 "B" movie Sh! The Octopus, it was the biggest part to date for a squid or octopus.

5. Dangerous When Wet (1953) - Sure, the former musical is famous for Esther Williams' animated underwater number with cat Tom and mouse Jerry. However, the same scene also features a singing purple octopus that serenades Esther in "In My Wildest Dreams." (Fernando Lamas provides the voice.)

Honorable MentionsThe Little Mermaid (1989), which boasts a sea witch who is part octopus and Tentacles, an awful 1977 Italian film that gets a mention because its cast includes Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, and John Huston.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Fred MacMurray and a Double Dose of Flubber

MacMurray in the lab.
Following the success of 1959's The Shaggy Dog, Walt Disney re-teamed Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk for The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). This time around, Fred got most of the screen time with Tommy in a supporting role as the villain's son.

Fred plays Ned Brainard, a brilliant professor at Medfield University, who tends to forget everything when conducting his experiments. Having missed his wedding to fiancee Betsy two times, Ned relies on his housekeeper to get him to his latest scheduled nuptials. That turns out to be a poor plan when Ned leaves Betsy waiting for the third time!

Nancy Olson as Betsy.
To make matters worse, his current experiment literally blows up--but in the aftermath, Ned discovers a strange gooey substance. He rolls it into a ball and discovers that it gains energy with every bounce. It's like flying rubber, so Ned dubs his invention "flubber." Unfortunately, no one takes Ned and flubber seriously until the despicable Alonzo P. Hawks (Keenan Wynn) learns of the new invention's potential.

The Absent-Minded Professor is a first-rate family film bolstered by a bevy of wonderful supporting players. In addition to the aforementioned stars, the cast includes: Nancy Olson (Sunset Boulevard) as Betsy, Leon Ames (Mr. Ed) as the college president, Elliott Reid (Inherit the Wind) as a rival for Betsy's affections, Edward Andrews as a government bureaucrat, David Lewis as a general, Ed Wynn as a fire chief, and many others. My wife and I think we recognized almost everyone in the movie.

What a way to score!
Almost as important as the cast is Disney's special effects department, which earned an Oscar nomination for its work. The film's highlight is a basketball game in which Medfield is being crushed by its nemesis Rutland University.With the score 46-3 at halftime, Ned hatches onto a scheme to help Medfield and demonstrate flubber. He irons the gooey substance on the soles of the Medfield players' shoes. He then encourages them to bounce! The result is one of the most memorable basketball games in the history of cinema!

The Absent-Minded Professor was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1961 (Disney's 101 Dalmatians and The Parent Trap were also in the Top Ten). Thus, Walt Disney, who allegedly abhorred sequels, agreed to make Son of Flubber in 1963. It returns most of the original film's cast, although Tommy Kirk, still playing the same character, has now become Professor Brainard's assistant.

Joanna Moore as Desiree.
Having sold flubber to the government, newlyweds Ned and Betsy have yet to see any money from Ned's promising invention. That doesn't matter to the IRS, which wants them to pay over $600,000 in taxes due to projected earnings. Things get rockier when Ned's old flame, the vivacious Desiree de la Roche (Joanna Moore) returns to Medfield. Meanwhile, Ned has harnessed flubber gas, which he plans to use to control the weather.

Son of Flubber is a spotty follow-up that feels hastily put together. The highlights are an educational film on the commercial uses of flubber in the home and a football game with Paul Lynde as the announcer. In the latter, Biff employs flubber gas to give Medfield an edge against an undefeated Rutland team. However, since flubber gas can become unstable, it's not used to inflate the football--but rather a running back who is then thrown by his teammates!
A Medfield player--with ball--is hurled through the air.
Although Son of Flubber was a big hit, too, no further sequels were made. Medfield College popped up later, though, as the setting for the Dexter Riley film trilogy starring Kurt Russell: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969); Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972); and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). The Disney Studios remade The Absent-Minded Professor twice, first as a 1988 made-for-TV movie with Harry Anderson and then as the 1997 theatrical film Flubber with Robin Williams.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Classic Movies on Amazon Prime in August 2018

Amazon Prime may not have a reputation for featuring classic movies, but it boasts a stellar line-up this month. Here are the highlights:

Poitier as detective Virgil Tibbs.
In the Heat of Night (1968) won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rod Steiger. Watch it, though, for Sidney Poitier's dynamic performance as a Philadelphia detective coping with racism and murder in the Deep South.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is one of the 1970s finest suspense films, with stunning sequences featuring a runaway subway and a race against time through the crowded streets of New York to deliver ransom money. It also boasts a witty script and Walter Matthau at his best as a New York transit authority officer who becomes a hostage negotiator.

Donald Sutherland.
This first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is almost as good--perhaps better--than the the 1956 original. The closing scene with Donald Sutherland is a stunner. (In our interview with actress Veronica Cartwright, she contrasts Body Snatchers with her other sci fi classic Alien).

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote and directed Crime Without Passion (1934), which stars Claude Rains as a coldhearted attorney whose jealousy gets him into a major jam. The opening scene shows three Furies rising from a pool of blood to fly over New York City. It'll make your jaw drop!

The Magnificent Seven (1960) pops up regularly on TV, but I never get tired of it...nor Elmer Bernstein's incredible score. Plus, Amazon Prime also has the not-as-good sequels Return of the Seven (at least, it's got Yul) and Guns of the Magnificent Seven. Wait, there's more...you can watch the Denzel Washington remake, too, but it kinda pales next to the original.

Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
All That Heaven Allows (1955) is the best of Douglas Sirk's lush, colorful sudsers with Jane Wyman as a lonely widow who falls in love with a younger plaid-shirted Rock Hudson. Her crappy kids--and a conventional society--stand in the way of the couple's happiness.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) may be a lesser Billy Wilder picture, but it's still an interesting take on Conan Doyle's famous sleuth. Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond never quite find the right tone, but they have a grand time debunking some of Holmes' famous traits and Robert Stephens makes a memorable Sherlock.

Also playing:  Support Your Local Sheriff, an amusing Western with James Garner; Gary Cooper in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell; Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in the Army comedy Caught in the Draft; Kim Novak and Brian Keith in the heist caper 5 Against the House; and the violent (and very sad) Hammer film Hands of the Ripper, starring Angharad Rees (Demelza in the first Poldark miniseries).