Thursday, November 14, 2019

Iconic Singers Perform on PBS's A Classic Christmas!

Hosts Marion Ross and Gavin MacLeod.
Imagine Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, The Carpenters, and other legends performing on the same Christmas holiday special! That's just what you'll see when A Christmas Classic (My Music) premieres on PBS on Saturday, November 16th (check local times).

Hosted by Gavin MacLeod (The Love Boat) and Marion Ross (Happy Days), this nostalgic TV special features archival footage of traditional carols and popular standards performed by some of music's biggest stars of the last 70 years. It's part of TJL Productions' series of My Music specials, which have aired on PBS over the last 20 years. The series has highlighted a variety of music genres, spanning soul, rock, disco, folk, doo wop, and the British invasion. Producer Jim Pierson thought this was the perfect time to do a show on Christmas classics.

Ronnie Spector sings!
"It's really the first time that footage with the original artists spanning the decades from the 1950s through the 1980s has been compiled in a TV special," said Pierson. "Plus, we've got a wonderful newly-recorded segment with Ronnie Spector singing a pair of Christmas songs that the Ronettes famously recorded in the 1960s, but were never sung on television until now."

Pierson and his associates faced unique challenges in finding usable footage of some of these Christmas hits.

"A truly 'classic' Christmas special must have as many of the songs as possible that have been popular over the past fifty or sixty years and appeal to multiple generations. A lot of vintage television music and variety shows from the 1950s and 1960s no longer exist and some of the most favorite holiday songs were not always performed on television. But we dug hard and deep to find some rare material that hasn't been seen in decades, such as Brenda Lee singing 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree,' Gene Autry doing 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' and Jimmy Boyd performing 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.' The latter two were both from Perry Como shows that fortunately were saved on filmed kinescope copies dating to the 1950s."

Other iconic singers that will also be featured include: Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Burl Ives, Mitzi Gaynor, The Beach Boys, The Lennon Sisters, Eddy Arnold, Mahalia Jackson, The Harry Simeone Chorale, Jose Feliciano, The Drifters, and Andy Williams (see clips in the promotional video below).

So, get your whole family in the holiday mood by watching this all-star Christmas music extravaganza. And if it inspires you to get all your Christmas shopping done early, you don't even have to thank us!

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Watcher in the Woods

Bette Davis as Mrs. Aylwood.
If absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder, then it may make the brain more curious. For me, that was the case with Walt Disney Productions' The Watcher in the Woods (1981), which I recently viewed again for the first time in 38 years.

It opens with the Curtis family renting a "secluded" English country mansion from their mysterious new neighbor Mrs. Aylwood (Bette Davis). Almost immediately, the two Curtis children, Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) and Ellie (Kyle Richard), experience weird events. Jan can't see her reflection in a mirror, which then reveals an image of a blindfolded teenage girl and shatters into small pieces. Ellie says her new puppy wants to be called Nerak and writes the name on a dirty window (spelling "Karen" from the other side).

Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Aylwood, whose young daughter tragically disappeared many years earlier, stands out in the woods and states solemnly: "She's going to stay here. Is that what you wanted?"

Based on Florence Engel Randall's 1976 novel, The Watcher in the Woods was an attempt by Disney to attract a young adult audience. To its credit, it's not a conventional ghost story and the setting, especially the old stately home and a dilapidated chapel, evokes an effective semi-Gothic atmosphere. However, in a movie like this, the payoff needs to be a whopper and The Watcher in the Woods fails to deliver one.

It doesn't help that the script is riddled with cardboard characters that waste the talents of a good cast. David McCallum and Carroll Baker, as Jan and Ellie's parents, have literally nothing to do in the final version of the film (more on that later). Bette Davis fares better simply because she has more scenes.

Kyle Richards as Ellie.
That leaves it to the young actors to carry the film and their efforts are spotty at best. Lynn-Holly Johnson is photogenic and likable, but her thespian skills are strictly high school-level. She was much better in the earlier Ice Castles (1978), perhaps because she skated competitively and could connect with her character. As her sister, Kyle Richard seems natural and therefore much more convincing. Kyle's sister, Kim, also acted in Disney movies (Escape from Witch Mountain, also with Bette Davis). Years later, the Richard sisters would appear on the reality show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Disney originally hired Brian Clemens to write the screenplay. Clemens, best known for The Avengers TV series and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, turned in a script deemed too dark for Disney's desired audience. It was subsequently rewritten multiple times and credited to three writers.

The creatures from the alternate endings.
When the film made its theatrical debut in 1980, it was thrashed by critics and moviegoers alike. The most common complaint was that the ending was confusing. After less than two weeks in release, it was pulled from theaters. The ending was rewritten (at least twice), the running time was trimmed, and additional footage shot. The revised version of The Watcher in the Woods was released in 1981. That's the one my wife and I saw at an Indiana drive-in. When the film was released on DVD many years later, the bonus feature included two of the alternate endings.

It's worth noting that The Watcher in the Woods has connections with two more successful ghostly movies. The spooky mansion featured in Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is the same one where the Curtis family lives. And John Hough, who helmed The Legend of Hell House in 1973, directed The Watcher in the Woods.

Here's the second alternate ending, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel. It provides additional scenes for Bette Davis and Carroll Baker and clarifies the origin of the creatures living in the woods.



Thursday, November 7, 2019

Richard Brooks' The Professionals

Lee Marvin as the group's leader.
It was a commercial and critical success. It earned three Academy Award nominations. It starred two of the biggest stars of the 1960s. And yet, The Professionals (1966) rarely gets the attention it deserves these days. When it was shown on TCM last June, it got a late afternoon time slot instead of a more desirable prime time appearance (sad face!).

Set in 1917, the film opens with wealthy land owner J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hiring four men to rescue his wife from a Mexican revolutionary holding her for ransom. The "professionals" are comprised of: Fardan (Lee Marvin), the group's leader and a former soldier; Jake (Woody Strode), an expert scout and archer; Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), a horse wrangler; and Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Fardan's close friend and a dynamite specialist. Grant agrees to pay each man $1,000 upfront with $9,000 upon return of his wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale).
Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, and Lee Marvin.
From the outset, Dolworth senses that something is not right. He and Fardan fought in the Mexican Revolution alongside Raza (Jack Palance), the alleged kidnapper. When Dolworth considers bailing on the job, Fardan reminds him that they agreed to a contract.

DOLWORTH: "My word to Grant ain't worth a plugged nickel."

FARDAN: "You gave your word to me."

After dealing with bandits and punishing desert temperatures, the four men reach Raza's settlement. However, in the midst of their carefully orchestrated rescue attempt, they make a not-so-surprising discovery. 

Burt Lancaster as Dolworth.
Based on the 1964 novel A Mule for the Marquesa, The Professionals marked a return to the Western genre for director-screenwriter Richard Brooks. Although Brooks was best known for adapting high-class dramas such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, he had made an earlier Western called The Last Hunt in 1956. 

With The Professionals, he aims to explore the final days of the "Wild West," like other notable Westerns of the 1960s (e.g., Ride the High Country and the later Wild Bunch). It's no wonder that hard men like Fardan and Dolworth reminisce about the old days; they no longer have a place in a West "owned" by the likes of J.W. Grant. They admire Raza because--unlike them--he hasn't given up on the revolution. All that the four professionals have left is their word and their mutual respect for one another. It's no wonder that Fardan puts a premium on completing their contract.

Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.
For a film with a number of explosive action scenes, The Professionals is surprisingly talky at times. That's not a bad thing as it allows Brooks and his excellent cast to flesh out the movie's characters and themes. The focus isn't just on the four principals either, as Brooks provides pithy dialogue for Cardinale as the passionate, feisty Maria. (It's worth noting that two of Cardinale's best performances were in 1960s Westerns: this one and  Once Upon a Time in the West). My only complaint with Brooks' screenplay is his occasional use of contemporary words like "terrific," which seem out of place.

Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall capture some breathtaking images of the desert landscapes during daylight and night. Hall's work earned him an Oscar-nomination.

Richard Brooks received two nominations as well, for his screenplay adaptation and for directing. Thus, it's downright odd that The Professionals was not nominated for Best Picture. However, Brooks no doubt relished its commercial success. A sequel was discussed for several years, although it proved impossible to reunite the four male leads (though Marvin and Ryan were both in The Dirty Dozen). Brooks returned to the Western genre one last time in Bite the Bullet (1975). It's a fine film starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn and featuring a closing scene almost as memorable as the one in The Professionals

Monday, November 4, 2019

Robert Mitchum as a Contemporary Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.
The biggest knock against Michael Winner's 1978 adaptation of The Big Sleep was his decision to transplant the story to contemporary England. It was surely an odd choice, especially since Raymond Chandler's novels paint a rich, vibrant portrait of urban California life in the 1940s and 1950s. However, Winner's version does prove that Chandler's cynical private eye, Philip Marlowe, is timeless. You could plug him into a movie today and his voiceover wisecracks would work just as well ("Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains").

James Stewart as Sternwood.
The plot faithfully follows Chandler's 1939 novel, which marked Marlowe's first appearance in print. General Sternwood, a wealthy recluse, hires Marlowe to deal with a shady bookseller who is blackmailing his wild daughter Camilla. Before he can even leave the Sternwood estate, Marlowe is confronted by Camilla's older sister Charlotte, who wants to learn if the private eye has been hired to look for her missing husband.

In between fending off the advances of both daughters, Marlowe gets involved in a web of deceit, pornography, and murder--with the number of corpses increasing at an alarming rate. It's a typical convoluted Chandler plot, but then the acclaimed author was always more interested in his characters and settings than his storylines.

The Big Sleep marks Robert Mitchum's second appearance as Philip Marlowe. He starred in an earlier adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely (1975). However, that film was set in the 1940s and co-starred Charlotte Rampling as the femme fatale. It earned mostly good reviews, with Sylvia Miles even picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Mitchum was the producers' second choice for Marlowe...after Richard Burton.

Sarah Miles as Charlotte.
Mitchum's middle-aged, world-weary Marlowe is an interesting interpretation of what Chandler's private eye might have become. He seems to be playing the same Marlowe in both Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep, though there are some differences. Inexplicably, the contemporary Marlowe drives a Mercedes convertible and wears a Rolex. I'm not sure how a modestly-successful private investigator could afford such luxury items with his rate of £50 a day plus expenses. Incidentally, his presence in England is explained with a quick reference to his decision to stay there after World War II.

Admittedly, it's intriguing to see an older Marlowe shadowing shady characters in London and cruising along the English countryside. That's not the problem with The Big Sleep--nor is a respectable supporting cast consisting of James Stewart, Oliver Reed, John Mills, Richard Todd, Richard Boone, and Diana Quick.

No, The Big Sleep sinks because of its two female leads: Sarah Miles and Candy Clark. Miles starred previously with Mitchum and John Mills in 1970's Ryan's Daughter. She and Mitchum had remained friends over the years, but there's no sizzle between their characters in The Big Sleep. It's a sharp contrast from the sexual tension projected by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the same roles in the 1946 version of Chandler's novel. Indeed, Sarah Miles transforms Charlotte into a dull, lethargic character that generates no audience interest.

Candy Clark as Camilla.
On the flip side, Candy Clark overacts as Charlotte's carefree younger sister Camilla. Her character is so obviously psychotic that it spoils the film's climax. It's a puzzling performance, given that Clark breathed life in wonderfully-controlled quirky characters in movies like Q--The Winged Serpent.

If you want to see Robert Mitchum's take on Philip Marlowe, then your best bet is to check out Farewell, My Lovely. I hate to end with an obvious line--surely used by film critics when The Big Sleep was released--but Mitchum's second Marlowe feature is a snoozefest.


Here's a clip from The Big Sleep, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel: