Sunday, November 24, 2019

There's a Spy in Stalag 17

William Holden as Sefton.
Considering it was made by one of Hollywood's most versatile directors, it's no surprise that Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 flows back and forth effortlessly between drama and comedy. Set in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, the dramatic storyline focuses on a barracks in the midst of a streak of bad luck. The camp's commandant seems to know everything that happens among the prisoners--culminating in an ill-fated escape in which two American soldiers are gunned down.

The barracks' residents conclude there must be an informant hiding among them and their chief suspect is a wheeler-dealer named Sefton (William Holden). Sefton is determined to make his stay in Stalag 17 as comfortable as possible. He barters with his German captors and profits off his fellow prisoners by running gambling games (e.g., mice races) and selling moonshine (from his own still). None of his fellow soldiers like Sefton, except for the quiet Cookie, who functions as his assistant (and also serves as the film's narrator).

Convinced that Sefton is the barracks' spy, his fellow prisoners beat him severely. Proclaiming his innocence, Sefton warns the others that he will uncover the informant and seek retribution.

Made in 1953, Stalag 17 was based on the 1951 stage play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who both spent time in a World War II prisoner of war camp. Jose Ferrer directed the stage version, which starred John Ericson (in his Broadway debut) as Sefton. Two members of the supporting cast, Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, repeated their roles for the film version.

Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss.
Lembeck and Strauss provide most of the film's comedic scenes. Strauss portrays Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa, whose obsession with Betty Grable leaves him perpetually depressed (except when there's an opportunity to spy on Russian female prisoners). Shapiro tries keep up his buddy's morale, although he's self-centered enough to let Animal think letters from a creditor are from Shapiro's lady admirers back home. Both roles border on stereotypes, so it's a credit to Strauss and especially Lembeck that they make these characters believable and amusing. Strauss earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Holden with Gil Stratton
as "Cookie."
Billy Wilder always brought out the best in William Holden, who gives a gritty performance as Sefton, There's no attempt to whitewash the character. Sefton's only explanation for his opportunist ways is that within a week of his arrival at Stalag 17, his Red Cross package, blanket, and left shoe were stolen. Sefton is a loner; he has no friends and no interest in making them. He isn't even particularly nice to Cookie, though he prefers him to the other barracks residents. Holden won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, though supposedly he thought it was atonement for not winning in 1951 for Sunset Boulevard (ironically Jose Ferrer won that year for Cyrano de Bergerac).

Having seen Stalag 17 multiple times, the most interesting element this time around was the group dynamics. Fueled by guilt over their comrades' deaths, the barracks residents need to uncover the informant. Therefore, they hone in on the person they don't like. There is no evidence against Sefton--other than he already barters with their German captors (which would be stupid for an informant). The barracks' leader doesn't even give Sefton an opportunity to defend himself in a mock trial. A sort of mob mentality takes over, with Sefton branded as guilty and duly punished. (For this reason, Sefton's very last interaction with his fellow soldiers, near the end of the film, doesn't ring true.)

Peter Grave as a prisoner.
Many members of the supporting cast went on to greater fame. Peter Graves worked steadily in film and television before becoming a star with Mission: Impossible and later Airplane! Harvey Lembeck played Phil Silvers' sidekick on the popular Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko) and later portrayed Eric Von Zipper in several Beach Party movies. Neville Brand played heavies in many films and TV shows before becoming a good guy in the TV series Laredo. And Stalag 17 playwright Donald Bevan gained additional fame as one of Sardi's in-house caricaturists for many years.

Finally, less we forget, the TV series Hogan's Heroes borrowed liberally from Stalag 17, although the tone was decidedly different. Indeed, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski tried to sue the show's makers, but their lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Here's a scene from Stalag 17, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:


Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Three-Word TV Series Game

In this game, we will describe a TV series in three (or maybe four) words and ask you to name it. Most of the questions below are pretty easy, but there are a few that might pose a challenge. Please answer only three per day so other people can play.

1. Ranch, half-brothers, "L".

2. Veterinarian, orphan, state (or, to be precise, commonwealth).

3. Fuse, disguises, self-destruct.

4. Insurance, blindness, martial arts.

5. Publisher, rotating, 90-minutes.

6. Journalist, vampire, marshal.

7. Train, hotel, daughters.

8. Aliens, moon, film company.

9. Circus, skating, Ameche.

10. Scientist, son, dog.

11. Swedish, politician, housekeeper.

12. Pennsylvania, journalist, small town.

13. Jeeps, war, four.

14. Youths, India, elephant.

15. Grandfather, grandson, search.

16. Lumberjacks, Seattle, ladies.

17. Chorus, conductor, lyrics.

18. Detective, family, movie star.

19. Chicago, spinoff, housing projects.

20. Dentist, sitcom, chimpanzee.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Seven Things to Know About Nancy Kovack

1. In the 1990s, Nancy Kovack--who had retired from acting--hired Susan McDougal as her personal assistant. If the name sounds familiar, it's because McDougal was involved in the Whitewater investigation involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. Kovack accused McDougal of embezzlement, though the latter was acquitted. McDougal then sued Kovack for malicious prosecution with the outcome being an out-of-court settlement.

Nancy Novack as Nona in Star Trek.
2. Nancy Kovack was a popular TV series guest star in the 1960s, with her most famous appearance being a second season episode of Star Trek. In "A Private Little War," she plays Nona, the plotting wife of a peaceful villager who resists the use of firearms against a rival tribe. At one point, she saves Captain Kirk's life and claims that he must comply with her wishes.

3. She was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1935. She attended the University of Michigan at the age of 15 (!) and graduated when she was 19. Her first show business jobs included a stint as one of the "Glea Girls" on The Jackie Gleason Show and as a hostess on Beat the Clock.

As Darrin's former girlfriend.
4. She appeared as Darrin's ex-girlfriend, Sheila Sommers, in three episodes of Bewitched--starting with the very first one. Naturally, she plots to get Darrin back. (Am I the only one who wonders why women were so attracted to Darrin?). Nancy Kovack also played another character in a two-part Bewitched episode called "Cousin Serena Strikes Again."

5. Her best year for film roles was probably 1963. She starred as the high priestess Medea in Ray Harryhausen's fabulous Jason and the Argonauts. Her provocative dance number has over 53,000 views on YouTube. She also played Vincent Price's love interest in Diary of a Madman. In an interview with author Tom Weaver, she recalled: "I remember that just before the scene where he kills me with the knife, Vincent was tickling me and I was laughing, and I couldn't stop laughing after that!"

With Zubin in 2014.
6. Nancy Kovack married the famous conductor Zubin Mehta in 1969. He had the reputation of being a "ladykiller" and was known by friends as Zubie Baby. They met at a party and were talking about marriage two weeks later.

7. Except for a handful of TV guest star appearances, Nancy Kovack retired from acting after her marriage. Her last role was in a 1976 episode of Cannon. Now 83, she helped her husband Zubin recover from a cancerous tumor in 2018.

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: