Thursday, November 29, 2018

Two Disney Rareties: Rob Roy and Emil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Five Best Monty Python Skits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman Say Bon Voyage!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Stirling Silliphant--The Poet Laureate of 1960s Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (November 2018)

Richard Anderson and Nancy Walker.
With Thanksgiving this month, we give thanks for having the smartest classic movie and TV buffs play this game every month. We're constantly surprised by the additional answers to the connections  identified by the Cafe's staff. For those of you playing this game for the first time, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question. 

1. June Lockhart and Dorothy McGuire.

2. Patrick McGoohan and Jonathan Frakes.

3. James Stewart and Kyle McLachlan.

4. Carl Betz and Robert Foxworth.

5. James Stewart and Danny Kaye.

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

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

8. George Peppard and Helen Hayes.

9. Jack Lemmon and Rosalind Russell.

10. Greta Garbo and Anne Bancroft.

11. Alec Guinness and Clifton Webb

12. Peter O'Toole and Robin Williams

13. Paul Newman and James Earl Jones.

14. Jack Lemmon and Dean Martin.

15. Bob Hope and Laurence Olivier.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Sean Connery Stages the Great Train Robbery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Fairs, Carnivals, and Amusement Parks in Classic Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Classic Movies on Amazon Prime in November 2018

Aubrey Hepburn has breakfast.
It's been a couple of months since we last explored what Amazon Prime had to offer in the way of classic movies. Its current line-up includes a nice mix of popular fare, a rare Stanley Kubrick movie, a quartet of first-rate Westerns, and some cult classics.

If you gravitate toward big stars, then you're in luck with films featuring: Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany's), Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment), Humphrey Bogart (Dead Reckoning), Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint (Exodus), Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole (Becket), Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck (Meet John Doe), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), and Ginger Rogers (The Groom Wore Spurs).

Frank Sinatra in Suddenly.
Frank Sinatra stars in three movies that boast some of his finest acting: The Man With the Golden ArmThe Manchurian Candidate, and Suddenly. The latter two share some intriguing similarities.

Stanley Kubrick gets the "director spotlight" with a trio of his works: the visually dazzling Barry Lyndon, the superb World War I drama Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas, and Kubrick's first non-documentary Fear and Desire (1953).

There are some choice Westerns from Howard Hawks (Red River), Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), William Wyler (The Big Country), and Anthony Mann (Man of the West). Mann's picture is a tough drama with Shakespearean overtones and powerhouse performances from Gary Cooper and Lee J. Cobb.

Charlton Heston has a revelation.
Charlton Heston's sci fi drama Soylent Green and The Conversation, my favorite Francis Ford Coppola film, are the best known of the cult movies. But there are two delightful thrillers featuring nifty twists: Henri-Georges Clouzot's French classic Diabolique and Hammer Films' underrated Scream of Fear with Susan Strasburg and Christopher Lee. Ray Harryhausen fans can rejoice with one of his best-known fantasy adventures, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

Finally, there are several lesser-known films that are worth a look. Beat Girl (1961) is a British teen drama with an above-average cast (e.g., David Farrar and Christopher Lee again). However, it's now best known as composer John Barry's first big break. And if you're looking for some truly unusual fare, you won't want to miss Samuel Fuller's remarkable "B" picture The Naked Kiss. It features a brothel called Candy a La Carte, a telephone receiver used as a murder weapon, and a really bizarre scene of hospital ward children singing in pirate costumes.

Keep in mind that Amazon Prime sometimes changes its schedule without notice, so some of these movies may disappear without notice.