Monday, April 29, 2019

In Defense of the Musical Lost Horizon

A glimpse of Shangri-La.
It was a boxoffice bomb and savaged by critics. It barely recouped 25% of its budget, leading the movie industry to label it "The Lost Investment." Time hasn't been kind to it. Rather than becoming a cult film, it has been lambasted in books such as The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. And, sadly, it's sometimes listed as a key reason for the breakup of the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

But don't listen to all the naysayers about the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon. Granted, it's not a good movie, but it's not a horrible one either.

Peter Finch as Conway.
The plot adheres pretty closely to the classic 1937 adaptation of James Hilton's popular novel. En route to Hong Kong, a plane carrying five passengers is hijacked and crash lands in the Himalayas. The pilot dies, but the others survive and are rescued by a mysterious man named Chang. He escorts them to Shangri-La, a paradise sheltered on all four sides by the mountains.

The passengers include: a diplomat named Conway (Peter Finch), his journalist brother George (Michael York), a businessman (George Kennedy), a comedian (Bobby Van), and a photo journalist (Sally Kellerman). Except for George, each one finds meaning to his or her life in the tranquil city and choose not to return to civilization. Unfortunately, George is desperate to leave Shangri-La with a "young" woman named Maria. He refuses to listen to his brother, who warns him of the consequences of his actions.

Liv Ullmann.
Most of the songs are integrated naturally into the plot. Maria sings the haunting "Share the Joy" as entertainment for the new guests. "The World Is a Circle" is performed by teacher Liv Ullmann and her class of children as part of a lesson (the number looks like an homage to The Sound of Music, so it's no surprise that Julie Andrews was first offered Ullmann's role). "Living Together, Growing Together" is presented as part of a ceremony (and unfortunately wastes the singing talents of James Shigeta).

The producer of Lost Horizon, Ross Hunter, is one of many who has disparaged the score. Personally, I thought there were a handful of strong songs: the title tune, "Share the Joy," and "The Things I Will Not Miss." Yes, I cringed during "The World Is a Circle" and "Question Me an Answer," though Bobby Van at least delivers the latter with his usual showmanship. While Van and Sally Kellerman actually performed their vocals, the singing voices were dubbed for Finch, Ullmann, and Olivia Hussey. Finally, it's worth noting that The Fifth Dimension recorded "Living Together, Growing Together" and turned it into a Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman.
The dancing is another matter, as it's uniformly dreadful except for Van's number. There is a reason why Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman did not become dancers!

Lost Horizon was originally conceived as a roadshow presentation, meaning that its extended running time meant that theaters could only show it two or three times daily. However, the studio mandated that it be shortened and 23 minutes, including three songs, were cut from the film (it's still over two hours long).

Burt Bacharach was displeased with the treatment of the score during the editing of Lost Horizon. Some sources claim that Hal David didn't support Bacharach and that led to their breakup. However, in a 2013 interview with The Telegraph, Bacharach says that he wanted to split their profits 60-40 and David refused to accept the lower number, leading to their split and years of legal disputes.

Charles Boyer as the High Lama.
Music aside, Lost Horizon is a by-the-numbers remake of Frank Capra's 1937 version. Peter Finch makes an adequate lead. The film's best scene is the first encounter between him and an unrecognizable and surprisingly good Charles Boyer as the High Lama. Sally Kellerman brings some pathos to her character and Van does what he can with an underwritten role. The rest of the cast looks pretty lost, especially Liv Ullmann, who no doubt hoped to move out of Ingmar Bergman's shadow.

Don't ignore the chance to see Lost Horizon just because it's become vogue to trash it. Watch it and make up your own mind, especially if you're a fan of Burt Bacharach's music. There are better ways to spend two hours...but then I could say that about a lot of other movies, too.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Five Best Shirley MacLaine Performances

1. The Apartment (1960) - While Shirley MacLaine often played strong, independent women later in her career, her finest performance was as the vulnerable, lonely, and borderline-desperate Fran Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s classic comedy-drama. Fran is smart enough to guess that the slimy business executive, played by Fred MacMurray, has no intention of leaving his wife. Yet, the scene where she admits this to herself is poignant and tragic. It helps, too, that MacLaine and Jack Lemmon make a near-perfect onscreen couple, with her cynicism evenly balanced by his earnestness.

2. Terms of Endearment (1983) - After four previous Best Actress nominations, Shirley MacLaine won the Oscar for playing an independent-minded mother opposite an equally feisty daughter (Debra Winger) in James L. Brooks' popular hit. MacLaine has called Terms a "singularly difficult experience" in which "maybe the shooting circumstances contributed to its artistic success." She is referring, of course, to her on-set friction with Debra Winger. The on-screen result is an incredibly natural mother-daughter relationship that allows MacLaine to show the full range of her acting talent as a dramatic actress and (especially in her scenes with Jack Nicholson) as a comedienne.

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
3. The Children's Hour (1961) - William Wyler's underrated drama stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as two teachers who are accused of being in a lesbian relationship by a student. While it is untrue, MacLaine's character harbors unspoken love for her colleague and friend. The scene is which she openly admits her feelings for the first time is the most emotionally-wrenching scene in MacLaine's career.

4. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) - I suspect many readers consider this is an odd choice. The reality, though, is that Shirley MacLaine may have been Clint Eastwood's best female co-star. She is certainly tough enough to go toe to toe with him and their interplay is the highlight of the film. Director Don Siegel once said that Shirley was "a hard, hard woman." Although she now speaks highly of Eastwood, MacLaine and Siegel routinely clashed on the set. Perhaps, this is another case of off-screen friction leading to on-screen success.

In one of her "roles" in Gambit.
5. Gambit (1966) - This may seem like another offbeat selection, but hear me out. It makes the list because it features what amounts to two delightful Shirley MacLaine performances. In the first half of the film, con man Michael Caine imagines a heist that features Shirley as an accomplice who doesn't have a word of dialogue. MacLaine's acting consists solely of facial expressions and gestures--and she's marvelous. In the film's second half, she plays a talkative accomplice who's much smarter than Caine's character. Her performances are masterful examples of light comedy and serve as a reminder she could have been a much bigger star if that was her goal.

Honorable Mentions: The Turning Point, Irma La Douce, Some Came Running, and Steel Magnolias.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2019)

If you're new to this game, here are the rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to 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.  James Mitchum, Frankie Avalon, and Patrick Swayze.

2.  Guy Williams and George Hamilton.

3.  Kirk Douglas and Robert Redford.

4.  Deborah Walley and Raquel Welch.

5.  Burt Lancaster and Maud Adams.

6.  Red Skelton and Robert De Niro.

7.  James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Barbara Stanwyck.

8.  Myrna Loy and Jo Ann Pflug.

9.  Celeste Holm and Farley Granger.

10. Barbara Stanwyck and David McCallum.

11. Warren Beatty and Boris Karloff.

12. Frank Sinatra and Gene Wilder.

13. Ginger Rogers and Red Skelton.

14. Richard Conte and Patrick Swayze.

15. William Holden and John Garfield.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Gun Crazy: Lovers That Go Together Like Guns and Ammunition

Peggy Cummins takes aim!
A film noir with a tragic love story involving the femme fatale and a gun-obsessed guy?

That's the unlikely premise of Gun Crazy, a 1950 "B" picture selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1998. Although it made little noise when first released, it developed a quick cult reputation. By the 1960s, Gun Crazy was being hailed by noted critics and filmmakers, such as Francois Truffaut who famously recommended that Robert Benton and David Newman watch it. That duo was working on a script that would become Bonnie and Clyde--another landmark film often compared to Gun Crazy.

The opening scene is a stunner as fourteen-year-old Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn) stands in the pouring rain on a neon-lit street and looks longingly at a handgun in a store window. He breaks the window with a brick and steals the gun and some ammunition. As he's running away, Bart falls down in a puddle and drops the gun, which slides over in front of the sheriff's feet.

John Dall as the adult Bart.
Bart's older sister tries to convince a judge that Bart is a good boy. She explains that he has always been fascinated by guns, but has killed nothing since he shot a chick at age 7 with a BB rifle. Despite her pleadings, the judge expresses concern with Bart's obsession with guns and sentences him to reform school.

When we next meet Bart (John Dall), he has returned home from serving as a marksmanship instructor in the Army. His pals take him to the carnival, where he witnesses a sharp-shooting display from Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), one of the sideshow acts. Their "meet cute" sizzles with an undercurrent of sexual attraction, so rather than describe it, here's the scene (courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel):

Bart joins the carnival at Laurie's suggestion, though the situation creates a rivalry with Packett, the carny manager and Laurie's jealous boyfriend. Packett eventually confronts Laurie and threatens to tell Bart about the man she killed in St. Louis. Her response provides the first glimpse of her true nature: "You're going to hold that over my head for the rest of my life, aren't you?" Packett fires Annie and Bart, who hit the road and get married.

Post-honeymoon problems.
They live blissfully until Bart's savings run out. When Bart suggests that he get a job at Remington for $40 a week, Laurie confides that "she wants to do a little living" and "wants things...a lot of things." Threatening to leave him, Laurie convinces Bart to participate in an armed robbery--which signals the start of their fatalistic downfall.

Gun Crazy is an impeccably crafted film that benefits from two dazzling performances, deft direction, and a razor-sharp screenplay. John Dall, whom we have profiled in this blog, was an underrated actor who deserved better roles. He certainly got a juicy one in Gun Crazy and delivers as the reluctant robber who loves only two things in life: Laurie and guns.

The more surprising portrayal comes from Peggy Cummins, who is best remembered for romantic comedies (Always a Bride) and for playing the vanilla heroine in the later Curse of the Demon (1958). She exudes sexual energy with Dall while coming across as a cold, manipulative killer. But here's the beauty of her performance: Despite Laurie's bad girl persona and many faults, Cummins convinces the audience that her character truly loves Bart. It's a blessing that director Joseph H. Lewis was unsuccessful in casting his first choice for the role: Veronica Lake.

Laurie provides a distraction for the robbery.
Lewis was a journeyman director with a resume that included some interesting "B" movies (My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night). But none of his work comes close to the innovative style employed in Gun Crazy. The film's highlight is a three-and-half minute bank robbery shot in a single take from the inside of the getaway car. The climax is almost as mesmerizing with Laurie and Bart hiding out in a fog-enshrouded swamp as they listen to their pursuers' footsteps in the water. Finally, I love how Lewis subtlety pushes the bounds of the production code by finding provocative ways to photograph Laurie (e.g., when she does a trick shot by bending down and shooting between her legs).

The lovers surrounded by fog.
As for the screenplay, it was credited to MacKinlay Kantor, whose original story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and Millard Kaufman. In the 1990s, Kaufman, who penned such classics as Bad Day at Black Rock, admitted he did not co-write Gun Crazy. He acted as a "front" for Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Personally, I think the screenplay for Gun Crazy is one of the most quotable in all film noir, as evidenced by this passage delivered by Laurie prior to her wedding: "Bart, I've never been much good, at least up until now I haven't. You aren't getting any bargain. But I have a funny feeling I want to be good. I don't know...maybe I can't. But I'm going to try. I'll try hard, Bart. I'll try."

Laurie wants to be good.
Still, it's not just the dialogue that makes the Gun Crazy screenplay so compelling. The main characters, each destined for tragedy from the beginning, are what drive the film. Bart's love for Laurie is just as obsessive as his love for guns. As a youth, he couldn't stop himself from stealing the gun in the store window. As an adult, he can't stop himself from doing whatever is required to keep Laurie. In both instances, though, Bart overcomes his obsession when it comes to killing. It's the one thing he won't do for her. In the end, that's what separates Bart from her. Having been "kicked around," Laurie is willing to do anything--even commit murder--to get the things she thinks she deserves.

Gun Crazy is required viewing for any film noir fan. Film noir expert Eddie Mueller ranks it #18 on his list of the Top 25 Noir Films and calls it "the most exciting, dynamic and influential Noir movie ever made." The British Film Institute published a 96-page book devoted solely to it. Even the original movie poster, now valued at up to $2800, has its passionate admirers. So if you haven't seen Gun Crazy, what are you waiting for?

This review is part of the Femme Fatales of Film Noir Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. We encourage you to check out the other films in this blogathon by clicking here.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

An Interview with Ruta Lee: A Lively Conversation about Seven Brides, Marlene Dietrich, Perry Mason, Khrushchev...and More!

Ruta Lee made her big screen acting debut in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1953 at the age of eighteen. She has been performing ever since! Her film roles have run the gamut from portraying Tyrone Power's girlfriend in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) to starring opposite the whole Rat Pack in Sergeants 3 (1962). She has guest-starred in dozens of television shows, including multiple appearances in classics such as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and The Andy Griffith Show. She has also gained acclaim as a stage actress with credits ranging from Hello, Dolly to Steel Magnolias.  Ruta Lee is a great believer in volunteerism and serves as the Chairman of the Board Emeritus for The Thalians, a non-profit organization that "raises funds to educate and enlighten the world about mental illness." She recently returned from Lithuania where she was the keynote speaker at a women's conference.

Café:  Your first movie role was as one of the brides in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. What are some of your memories from making that classic musical?

Ruta Lee:  There are so many memories that it would probably take four weeks of us sitting down and talking about them. I think the best part was my mother, who took me to the audition, going into the church across from casting at MGM and getting on her knees and praying. I, on the other hand, went into the audition in my little ballet tights and shoes and danced for the choreographer. He told me to do a little ballet and do a little a jazz. Then, he said: "How about a little something folksy?" Well, I'm of Lithuanian descent and if there's one thing I know, it's a good Lithuanian polka. So, I did my polka for him. I'm not sure if it was my polka or my mother's prayers, but I got the job.

Café:  In Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, you played Tyrone Power's girlfriend. What was it like working with Wilder, Power, Charles Laughton, and Marlene Dietrich?

Ruta, as a brunette, and Tyrone Power.
Ruta Lee:  First of all, Billy Wilder was probably one of the most innately funny people that God put on this Earth. He has a wonderfully wild sense of humor. It showed up in a great deal of his work, like Some Like It Hot. When I first came into Witness for the Prosecution, it was several weeks after production had started. The studio had taken two huge sound stages and built a replica of the Old Bailey courtroom to three-quarters scale, which was incredible. I had been warned by the make-up department, who said: "Listen, Ruta, Charles Laughton is sometimes a nasty old gay who doesn't like young girls, so just do your work, know your lines, and everything will be fine." So, I came onto the set, in my little tight dress and perky hat, and everyone is sitting around in British tea circles. No one is saying hello to me or welcome. For the first time in my life, I wished the floor would open up and swallow me--that kind of a feeling. And, as I'm standing there, somebody walks up behind me, smacks me on my butt, and sends me flying across the stage. I turn around and it's Charles Laughton. He says: "That's the best damn ass I've seen in a long time." And I became his baby doll. He would sulk if I didn't come in to say good morning to him before anybody else. He taught me to play all kinds of games like Perquackey and Scrabble; he was quite the game player. He and his wife Elsa (Lanchester) would sometimes invite me to lunch in their dressing room. She was trying to watch his weight...ha, ha! They helped me with my middle British accent. High English and Cockney are rather easy, but that middle English was tougher. They were the dearest, most wonderful people and I will love Charles Laughton until the day I die. As for handsome Ty Power, I adored him. He was a lovely, lovely man and very sweet. I will never forget telling him that I hadn't seen Blood and Sand, which was a terribly important movie in his career. He arranged a screening of it for me. Then, of course, there was Marlene Dietrich. Marlene is one of the most professional people that I've ever known, but she was not exactly thrilled with young girls. When she saw my screen test for Witness of the Prosecution, she said "nein" when she saw the blonde hair and I was a brunette overnight. She was very cool and had little to do with me. She was a little bit warmer when I saw her in later years. Boy, though, I learned a lot from her. All you had to do was watch her. She knew about cinematography and lighting and what worked for her and what didn't. She'd say to our cinematographer: "I believe I'd like that inky under my chin here because I could use a little more light." He'd say: "Oh, Marlene, you don't need it. You're well lit. I'm taking care of you. We don't even have an inky." And she'd say "I do" and she'd open up a big trunk and there was the inky she needed for a light. I wish all of us had taken lessons from her because she really knew what she was doing.
(Note: An inky, or inky dink, is a small light of 100-250 watts.)

Café:  You were the female lead in Sergeants 3 (1962), which starred Frank Sinatra and the whole Rat Pack. How would you describe that experience?

On the set with Frank Sinatra.
Ruta Lee:  The most fun of my life. We laughed all the way through making that film. Poor (director) John Sturges kept trying to get our attention. I tried to do all my work properly, but you could not help but laugh because Dean Martin is a truly funny man. Frank is a funny guy, Joey Bishop was a funny guy, and Sammy is one of the most delicious people ever. It was one big lark. And, of course, they all treated me like their little, baby sister that had to be taken care of. I thought, oh hell, I could have had an affair with all of them and written books...but I didn't.

Café:  You guest starred in almost every classic TV series in the 1960s (and many beyond that). What were some of your favorite guest star roles?

As a "bad girl" in Twilight Zone.
Ruta Lee:  I think that playing a bitchy, little tramp in The Twilight Zone ("A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain") was one of my favorites. When I got through doing a scene, there came a big round of applause from the crew members up on the catwalk. Later, when I finished work that day, they said the applause was because I was good and reminded the crew of their favorite: Carole Lombard. I thought, wow, what a compliment! I also believe I did a good job in a Bonanza episode ("A Woman Lost"), but it was before everyone's agent nominated them for an Emmy. I could have won one with the right publicity. One of the great learning experiences for me was the stuff I did on Perry Mason. Gail Patrick was a beautiful star from the 1930s and into the 1940s, who became a producer. She would hire me a lot. It was always very interesting to me that there was this exquisitely beautiful woman who was not afraid of young girls and not afraid of the competition. I did at least five Perry Mason episodes and that was almost like going to acting school. Working with that cast was absolutely wonderful. I could also say that about the work I did at Warner Bros. One of the mistakes that I made back then was that I said no when Warner Bros. wanted to put me under contract. The contract would have paid me $300 a week whereas I was doing one to two shows a month for $750 a week. But when you go under contract to a studio, you have a powerful machine behind you. You get lessons in whatever you need. You get a publicity department behind you. You get put into roles without having to audition for them. Still, I was very grateful, because I got to do shows like Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye. I was a fixture at Warner Bros. The house that I'm sitting in now I call the "House that Jack (Warner) Built" because my Warner Bros. salaries and residuals helped make the payments.

Café:  When we interviewed Julie Adams in 2013, she also said how much she enjoyed guest starring on Perry Mason.

Ruta Lee:  I don't know if this happened with Julie, but I would get invited as a guest to dinner parties, not every week, but maybe twice a year at Gail Patrick's home. She was married to a man named Cornwell, or Corny, Jackson. I just felt so honored to be among the elite of Hollywood and listen to their stories. It was a great honor and I will never forget Gail Patrick for that.

Café:  Were there any actors that you particularly enjoyed working with?

Ruta Lee:  I loved working with everybody. I am a very easy person to get along with and I enjoy people and their stories. Needless to say, Frank, Dean, and the boys were just the best. Jimmy Garner was great fun to work with on Maverick.

Café:  You have also appeared in a number of stage plays. What were some of your favorite stage roles and why?

Ruta Lee in Hello, Dolly.
Ruta Lee:  My altogether favorite is one of the hardest roles to play and that's The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I played that role for the first time in Fort Worth, Texas, where I went on to perform it for 40 years. Because of Molly Brown, I became the darling of Fort Worth. The press would write that summer is here and Ruta is here, so everyone can enjoy their summer! It was a great role for me and the best part was the composer of the show, Meredith Wilson, came to see Molly Brown with his wife on opening night. When Meredith was interviewed by the press, he said: "Ruta is the best Molly of them all. If she had played it on Broadway, it would still be running." I also love Anne Get Your Gun, Bells Are RingingHello, Dolly, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is the easiest and still a great role in which to strut your stuff.

Café:  You and your husband, business executive Webb Lowe, Jr., celebrated your 43rd wedding anniversary in February. How did you meet and what is the secret to your long marriage?

Ruta and her husband Webb.
Ruta Lee:  I'll answer the second question first. The secret to our long marriage is having a great sense of humor. My husband taught me something the first year we were married. As a new young bride, I'd get upset and distressed if he didn't hear what I had to say or didn't bring flowers on an occasion. He said to me: "Let me ask you something. At the end of the day, will this be important? At the end of the week? At the end of the month? At the end of the year, will this still be important and will you still be thinking about it?" I realized that nothing in life is worth stressing over. I'm not talking about serious tragedies, but the usual daily routine. If you can't just laugh it off, then you don't need to be married. Now, as to how I met him, that's a fun story. I had promised the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) that I'd be its guest star at an event in Naples, Florida. At the time, I was doing a show in Dallas, which was supposed to close on Sunday and then I'd go to Naples on Monday. The theater owners came to me and asked if I could play another week since my shows were selling out. I agreed to do two shows on Sunday, go to Naples, and return to Dallas. I hadn't been feeling well, but I threw myself together, flew to Miami, and ran across the tarmac to a small plane which took me to Naples. I put on the feather boas and long eyelashes and made my big appearance at the LPGA. The next day, of course, I had to return to Dallas for a show and I had a fluey thing going on. So, I put a babushka on my head, big sunglasses, and not a stitch of make-up. It's hot in Florida, so I carried my fur coat as I ran across the tarmac. I go over to American Airlines and they tell me it's a turnaround flight and that they'll pre-board me as soon as it gets cleaned up. So, I was leaning against the counter, my head in my hands, and looking down at the floor. I see a great pair of Gucci loafers coming towards me. And I look up a little further and see nice slacks with a crease on them. I look up a little higher to see a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons. A little further, there's a great tie. And then I see a shock of silver hair and a face that's a cross between Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. I said: "Be still my heart!" And he kept walking towards me...and then right past my counter and down the hall. I thought, oh shoot, we're just ships that pass in the night. So, the airline pre-boards me and I'm piling all my stuff under my seat and on the seat next to me. And all of a sudden, I look down and the same pair of shoes are standing there. And he said: "Is this seat taken?" And I said--for the last time in my life--no. And he leaned over and said: "Hello, my name is Webb Lowe." And I said: "Hello, my name is Ruta Lee. And we should be married, because then my name would be Ruta Lee Lowe and we could open a Chinese laundry."

Café:  That's a charming story! Now, I've read where you personally contacted Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, when he was the Premier of the Soviet Union, to secure the release of your grandmother from an internment camp. Can you provide the fascinating details?

Ruta and family reunited.
Ruta Lee:  I had been trying for years to get my grandmother out of Siberia where she had been deported. She spent fifteen years there. Most of my family was deported to Siberia. No one knows why. We're not talking about brilliant, educated teachers and writers. These were peasant folk who tilled the land and grew their own vegetables to eat. My grandmother was finally permitted to go back to Lithuania with some of the family and we received word that she was dying. We tried to keep them alive by sending packages. You could only send forty-pound packages and the contents were dictated by the pound of coffee, one pound of lard, one pair of socks...that kind  of thing. I came home from work one day and my mother was in a state of tears. We had received a letter, though much of it was blacked out, and my grandmother was thanking us for sending clothes for her to be buried in. She had been to a doctor and was told she was going to die. I was so distressed. She was my one remaining grandparent and I had never met any of them. I went out with friends that night and the more wine they poured, the more obvious it became that I should pick up the phone and call Khrushchev--so I did. In those days, there was person-to-person calling and you didn't pay for the call if you didn't get your party. If you got your party, you paid maybe twice as much. I kept calling and calling and the American operator would talk to the Russian operator who would talk with the Kremlin operator, who would get back to me and say: "Nyet, nyet, nyet." In the meantime, I called the Russian Embassy in Washington to get permission to go to Lithuania and I'd get "nyet" there, too. Finally, the Kremlin operator called back and said: "Mr. Khrushchev doesn't speak English. You speak to interpreter to Mr. Khrushchev." I remembered a good-looking young man who traveled with Khrushchev when he was here and had translated for him. Anyway, I spoke with the interpreter and he said: "Miss Lee, we would be very happy to have you travel to the Soviet Union. We know you here. We see your films here. Why don't you speak to your congressman about it?" And I said: "Excuse me, sir. What the hell does my congressman have to do with my traveling to your country? This is not a political matter. It is a matter of the heart. What are you going to do about it?" And he said: "In half an hour, present yourself again to the Soviet Embassy in Washington." I thought, oh no, here we go again! I hung up and a half-hour later I called the embassy. This time, I was connected immediately to the first secretary, who was Lithuanian. Of course, he knew me because I was the one doing the Voice of America broadcasts against Communism. It's an absolute miracle that within 48 hours, my parents and I were on a plane headed to Moscow and then to Lithuania. They took us to my grandmother and six months later, I was given permission to bring her and an aunt back to the United States. She lived for two years, two months, and two days.

Café:  That's an amazing story.

Ruta Lee:  I've been writing a book for the last ten years. One of these days, I'll hopefully get it together and finish it. Maybe you'll help me out by telling all your readers to go buy Ruta's book!

Café:  I will certainly do that. Now, I know you're passionate about volunteerism. You, along with other stars such as Debbie Reynolds, have been deeply involved with a charity called The Thalians for many years. Can you tell about its mission and about how others can help?

Ruta at a Thalians event.
Ruta Lee:  First of all, everyone can go online to and read about us there. It all started in 1955 with a group of young actors who got tired of being called hard-drinking idiots who had nothing to contribute. We'd get together to laugh and play at parties, so we decided we should sell tickets and make a few dollars for a charity. So, we sent Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren to find out what charities were available. They came back a few months later and said that all the big charities were taken. But they had found a doctor who worked with emotionally-disturbed children at Mount Sinai Hospital. At first, we raised funds for the children and then, eighteen years later, we built a clinic and went from pediatric to geriatric care. We were very proud that this small group of Hollywood performers had shone a spotlight down into that dark pit, which is mental illness, and tried to bring it into the light of healing. Many years later, we changed our focus to returning veterans, who came back scarred not only physically but mentally. We joined up with a group at UCLA called Operation Mend. It deals with the broken arms and faces and we deal with the broken spirits through The Thalians. We ask everybody who has $5, $50, or $5 million to please contribute to The Thalians. We have raised millions of dollars by doing huge shows starring the stars of all-stars and they all did it gratis.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming events that you'd like to tell our readers about?

Ruta Lee:  Yes, The Thalians has an event at the Music Center in Los Angeles on the 18th of May. It's a wonderful luncheon and not a terribly expensive one. If you go to our website, you can read about it and call our office for more information.

Café:  Ruta, you've been a highly entertaining and informative interview subject. Thank you for all of your charity work and for all you've brought to classic movie and TV fans throughout the world.

Ruta Lee:  That's very kind of you. Thank you and all of your readers, Rick. God bless you all.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Five Best George C. Scott Performances

1. Patton (1970) - Judith Crist, then a critic at New York magazine, called Scott's portrayal of General George S. Patton, Jr. "one of the great performances of all time." It's hard to argue even though the film as a whole doesn't resonate today as strongly as it once did. Still, his opening speech on a stage in front of a huge American flag is an iconic moment in 1970s cinema. Scott famously refused his Oscar for Best Actor in 1970. Actually, he tried to refuse the nomination, just as he did for Best Supporting Actor for The Hustler in 1961. Scott played Patton again in the 1986 made-for-TV movie The Last Days of Patton.

2. The Flim-Flam Man (1967) - George C. Scott was 40 when he played elderly, gray-haired con artist Mordecai Jones. It could have easily become a gimmick, but Scott's performance is so masterful that one quickly forgets the age difference between actor and character. His make-up is adequate, but it's Scott's voice and physical gestures that allow him to transform into an old man. He owns the character, balancing Mordecai's enthusiasm over successfully pulling off a con with his paternal friendship with a young Army deserter. He boasts of holding the degree M.B.S., C.S., D.D. in one scene (that's for "Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing and Dirty-Dealing"). Then, in another, he reflects, with a tinge of remorse, about how he became bitter toward the human race.

3. They Might Be Giants (1971) - In this cult favorite, George C. Scott plays Justin Playfair, a former judge who imagines himself to be Sherlock Holmes in contemporary New York. Joanne Woodward plays his psychiatrist, Dr. Watson. While the film is only partially successful, it provides a showcase for the mesmerizing Scott, who effortlessly transitions back and forth from the confused Justin to the supremely confident Holmes. In the film's most touching scene, a tired Holmes reads the biography of Justin Playfair, a once influential judge who retired from the bench and lost his wife the previous year (thus explaining why Justin became Holmes).

4. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - Scott has a field day as an ambitious, theatrical prosecutor in a high-profile murder case in one of the best (if not the best) trial films. In her memoir, actress Colleen Dewhurst stated that it was "the part that would explode him in the public eye." Scott, who had earned good notices for his stage and television work, was originally offered the small role of the bartender. However, he lobbied to play the prosecuting attorney and earned his first Academy Award nomination.

5. Hardcore (1979) - It's too bad that writer-director Paul Schrader's dark drama isn't better known. Scott plays a conservative father from the midwest who learns that his missing daughter is involved in the adult film business. He goes to L.A. to find her and bring her home. Scott gives an emotionally-charged performance as a morally rigid man thrust into a seamy underworld. However, it's his scenes with Season Hubley, playing a streetwalker who helps him, that bring out the complexities in his character.

Honorable mentions:  The Hustler, The List of Adrian Messenger, Dr. Strangelove, and The Changeling.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Cult Movie Theatre: They Might Be Giants

George C. Scott as Holmes, sort of.
When Blevins Playfair receives a blackmail note demanding $20,000, he decides to commit his wealthy brother Justin to a psychiatric institution. It solves two problems: Blevins can gain power of attorney and access to his brother's fortune and Justin (George C. Scott) is delusional--he believes he's Sherlock Holmes.

Justin makes an impressive Holmes, not only looking the part but acting it, right down to some impressive displays of deductive reasoning. Thus, psychiatrist Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward) insists on a thorough evaluation before signing off on the institution's paperwork. For his part, Justin/Holmes has no time to dally with a psychiatrist--after all, he's chasing his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. But then, he realizes that Mildred is Dr. Watson and it's obvious that she must become his partner and chronicle his exploits. Mildred quickly gets caught up in Justin's fantasy world and, before long, the game is afoot as the detecting duo scour New York City for clues to Moriarty's location.

Joanne Woodward as Dr. Watson.
Based on James Goldman's stage play, They Might Be Giants is an entertaining lark for most of its running time. It's also a showcase for the mesmerizing Scott, who effortlessly transitions back and forth from the confused Justin to the supremely confident Holmes. In the film's most touching scene, a tired Holmes reads the biography of Justin Playfair, a once influential judge who retired from the bench and lost his wife the previous year (thus explaining why Justin became Holmes).

One could argue that Joanne Woodward has the more difficult part. She must convince the audience that lonely, intelligent Mildred Watson could get swept up in Justin's delusional mystery. Even if parts of the mystery display a weird logic, her actions and sudden confession of love for Justin defy belief. Perhaps, that's the point. Heaven knows, there are many films from the late 1960s and early 1970s that throw logic out the window and I'm quite fond of some of them (e.g., I'll Never Forget What's 'isname).

Jack Gilford as Wilbur.
In addition to Scott's excellent performance, They Might Be Giants provides Jack Gilford with arguably his best film role. He plays Wilbur, a librarian who has known Justin from childhood, and wishes he could immerse himself in another identity. He would choose the Scarlet Pimpernel, fop by day and hero by night. (Gilford's recitation of "They seek him here..." is a little gem.)

As it builds to what appears to be a whimsical climax, with Holmes and Watson joined in a march by all the quirky people they've met, They Might Be Giants suddenly changes tone. It closes on an odd note, leaving one to wonder if the couple have lost their sanity forever or simply found contentment in their complete fantasy. (Although there are different running times for the film, I have not found any indication that the final scene was tampered with in any way.)

That's not a reason to dismiss They Might Be Giants. Even if its grand ideas don't ultimately come together, you shouldn't miss a chance to see George C. Scott play Sherlock Holmes.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Seven Things to Know About Martin Milner

1. A second season episode of Route 66 featured a brawl between the characters played by Martin Milner and Lee Marvin--resulting in Milner accidentally breaking Marvin's nose. In the biography Lee Marvin: Point Blank, Milner recalls: "The only reason he didn't punch me back is because we were such good friends." Click here to watch the fight on our YouTube Channel.

2. Milner's first screen role was as John Day, the second oldest son in the Day family in the William Powell comedy Life With Father (1948). He once said: "I was never a child star. I was just somebody who got two or three jobs before I was a young adult."

George Maharis and Martin Milner.
3. Route 66 guest star Nancy Malone said in a 2006 interview: "George (Maharis) was the bad boy. He had this dangerous element about him which was very attractive; this dark, smoldering sexuality. Marty (Milner) was the adorable and wholesome one who held everything together. In certain ways, they were like oil and water, but the overall result was that they were fabulous together."

4. In James Rosin's book Route 66: The Television Series, producer Herbert Leonard noted that the casting of Tod Stiles came down to Martin Milner and a newcomer. The latter "had a tendancy to scream every time he got emotional," so Milner won the role. The other actor had a pretty good career though--his name is Robert Redford.

As Officer Peter Malloy on Adam-12.
5. Martin Milner knew Jack Webb long before he was cast in Adam-12. Milner appeared on Dragnet and starred with Webb in The Halls of Montezma (1950) and Pete Kelly's Blues (1955). Webb also directed the latter film, which featured Lee Marvin in a supporting role alongside Milner's hot-headed drummer (a very different role from the good guys typically played by Milner).

6. Milner married actress Judith Bess Jones (she has one acting credit in the IMDb) in 1957. They remained married until Milner's death from heart failure in 2015. They had four children. Their daughter Amy guest-starred on Adam-12 when she was 17. She died from leukemia in 2004.

7. Reflecting on his two iconic TV series, Martin Milner said in a 1992 interview: "The older people stop me for Route 66 and the younger, yuppie-types stop me for Adam-12."

Monday, April 1, 2019

Murder One: The Sensational First Season

Daniel Benzali as Ted Hoffman.
When wealthy philanthropist Richard Cross is arrested for the murder of his mistress's 15-year-old sister, he secures the services of defense attorney Ted Hoffman. Within days, though, a mysterious woman comes forward to provide Cross (Stanley Tucci) with an alibi. He is released and the police quickly charge actor Neil Avedon with the homicide. When Cross pleads with Ted (Daniel Benzali) to defend Neil, the attorney accepts the case.

These events set into motion the tightly-woven web of deceit, blackmail, and more murder that comprises the superb first season of Steven Bochco's TV series Murder One. Having created mega-hits Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, ABC pretty much gave Bochco carte blanche to create a new lawyer TV series in 1995 (despite his flop Cop Rock). That gave Bochco the freedom to develop a series that focused on a single case for 23 episodes. This brilliant decision allowed Murder One to delve into the fascinating details of a murder trial, from the pre-trial motions to jury selection to the press coverage.

Stanley Tucci as Richard Cross.
The early episodes interweave other legal cases which are resolved within a single episode. Sometimes, these other cases relate directly or thematically with the Avedon trial. However, the majority of them just seem extraneous. Murder One becomes a better show once Neil Avedon's fate becomes the sole focal point.

Bochco's first-rate series is anchored by two stellar performances: Daniel Benzali as defense attorney Ted Hoffman and Stanley Tucci as the Machiavellian millionaire Richard Cross. Their frequent clashes crank up the drama with Cross's smug denials frequently earning Hoffman's stinging retorts. As befits some of television's finest villains, Cross masks his motives until a climatic revelation explains what really happened on the night of the murder.

Barbara Bosson as an assistant D.A.
Barbara Bosson is almost as compelling as Miriam Grasso, the dedicated deputy district attorney prosecuting Avedon. As her friend Ted points out, Miriam has accepted her place in the D.A.'s office and just wants to win her cases--but she's not one to take lightly. It's ironic that one of the subplots in Murder One involves a marriage that falls apart as part of the trial's collateral damage. Bosson was married to Steven Bochco for 27 years, appearing in several of his shows. However, they divorced during the second year of Murder One and she retired from acting.

Despite critical accolades, Murder One never found an audience. Part of the problem was that ABC scheduled it opposite the NBC juggernaut ER for its first two months. By the time its time slot was changed, viewers may have decided they were too far behind in the plot. (Remember, this was the era before on-demand programming was available.) There may have been a bit of Bochco backlash, too. While Bosson and Tucci earned Emmy nominations, neither won. And it's an outrage that neither Benzali nor the show were nominated. (On the plus side, Mike Post's dynamic theme did win an Emmy.)

Despite the low ratings, ABC commissioned a second season, though it came with big changes. There were three overlapping cases spread over 18 episodes. Bochco fired Benzali because, according to the producer, the actor was an hour late every day due to his bathroom habits. Anthony LaPaglia came on board as a disgruntled prosecutor who quits his job and takes over Hoffman & Associates. While LaPaglia is a fine actor, his character makes too many boneheaded decisions (e.g., he starts an affair with a key suspect during the trial). The faster pace and courtroom theatrics sadly transform Murder One into just another legal drama.

The final verdict for Murder One is to stick with the first season and enjoy binging one of the most entertaining, educational examinations of the American legal system.