Friday, January 24, 2020

Ghidorah Makes His Film Debut in the First Smackdown!

Ghidorah (center) battling Mothra and Godzilla.
When I first saw Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster at the Winston Theatre in 1965, it was a different movie. The title monster's name was Ghidrah (no "o"), the dialogue was dubbed, and the movie was viewed through the eyes of a squirming youngster. Five decades later, I watched a subtitled Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster...and enjoyed it more than the first time.

Akiko Wakabayashi as the princess.
The plot was certainly more complex than I remembered. Assassins want to kill Princess Selina Salno of Selgina before she can visit neighboring Japan. Moments before her plane explodes, she is warned by a flashing light in the night sky. She walks to the exit door and--with no parachute--jumps out of the plane just before it bursts into flames. When we next see her, she claims to be a princess from Venus who has come to Earth to warn it of impending disaster. She has no memory of her life in Selgina.

Meanwhile, monsters Godzilla and Rodan have re-emerged to fight one another...and destroy a few cities in the process. Unknown to them, a meteorite "hatches" to reveal a flying, three-headed dragon hellbent on destroying the Earth. The Venusian princess confirms that this creature, Ghidorah, wiped out all life on Venus and must be stopped. Fortunately, it just happens that the Shobijin, the twin fairies from Infant Island, are visiting Japan. They send for Mothra in the hope that she can convince Godzilla and Rodan to team up to defeat Ghidorah.

Mothra--in her larva state.
One's understanding and appreciation of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster depends on whether one has seen the previous kaiju films, especially Mothra (1961). I can imagine novice viewers getting a little confused when the tiny Shobijin start singing their Mothra song!

The first forty minutes focus mostly on Selina's transformation from an Earthly princess to a Venusian one. It's not without interest, but the plot picks up considerably when Godzilla makes his first appearance.

The special effects possess a quaint charm in this day of elaborate CGI. Even in the 1960s, as a wee lad, I could tell the difference between an actor traipsing around in a monster suit and the impressive stop-motion animation creatures of Ray Harryhausen. The miniature sets, though, still look impressive--though one needs to appreciate them quickly before they're crushed as collateral damage amid the monster battles.

Ghidorah's three heads.
As for for the gold-colored Ghidorah, I think he's one of special effects specialist Eiji Tsuburaya's most inventive creatures with each of his three heads capable of spewing forth a "gravity beam." He proved to be a popular villain and returned the following year in Invasion of Astro-Monster (known as Monster Zero in the U.S.). In the original kaiju films that spanned 1954-75 (known as the Showa Era), Ghidorah was a villain. His origin story changed in post-Showa films and he was sometimes portrayed as a hero.

The Shobijin summon Mothra.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster marks the third and final appearance of twins Emi Itō and Yumi Itō. They first appeared in Mothra as the Infant Island fairies who can summon Mothra and resurfaced in Mothra vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla vs. the Thing) in 1964. They're typically called Shobijin these days, though they are referred by other names, such as the Alilenas, depending on the movie and translation. In real life, the twins had a successful recording career as The Peanuts for several years. Emi died in 2012 and Yumi in 2016.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Movie-TV Connection Game (January 2020)

A Robert Preston and Elton John connection.
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. Yes, that's means we're looking for something in particular!

1. Danny Kaye and Yul Brynner.

2. Claude Rains and Ben Murphy.

3. Ben Murphy and Robert Redford.

4. Roger Moore and Barry Nelson.

5. John Denver and Connie Stevens.

6. The TV series Hawaiian Eye and Walt Disney's film Pinocchio.

7. The TV series Love, American Style and Happy Days.

8. Albert Finney and Tony Randall.

9. Michael Caine and Peter Fonda.

10. John Travolta and David Soul.

11. Paul Newman and Ben Gazzara.

12. The TV series The High Chaparral and Harry O.

13. Elton John and Robert Preston.

14. Sidney Poitier and Bette Davis.

15. The TV series The FBI and The Invaders.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Fahrenheit 451--Bradbury by Way of Truffaut

Montag prepares to burn.
Guy Montag is a "fireman" in a futuristic society--except that he starts fires as opposed to putting them out. To be precise, Montag (Oskar Werner) burns books since reading is forbidden by the government. Montag lives in a nice house in the suburbs with his vacuous wife Linda (Julie Christie). It's a mundane existence, but he doesn't question it until he encounters a neighbor, Clarisse (also Christie), on the train to work. A schoolteacher, she asks if Montag has ever read one of the books he burns.

That single questions sparks his curiosity, leading Montag to secretly confiscate a copy of David Copperfield. He reads it and becomes passionate about literature--any kind of literature. Soon, he is hiding books all over the house and taking significant risks to satisfy his irrepressible desire to read.

Oskar Werner as Montag.
Made in 1966, Fahrenheit 451 is the first adaptation of Ray Bradbury's popular 1953 science fiction novel of the same title. Bradley wrote his book in a library's basement paying ten cents per hour to use a typewriter. The title is the result of a phone call to a fireman, in which Bradbury asked him at what temperature paper began to burn. (Bradbury admits he used the given answer...without conducting any additional research.)

The film adaptation was an awkward proposition from the beginning. Critic-turned-filmmaker Francios Truffaut was chosen to direct and co-write the screenplay based on his international successes The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. However, it was an English-language production and Truffaut did not speak English at the time. He also frequently clashed on the set with his star, Oskar Werner, even though Werner had starred in the earlier Jules and Jim (1962). Their confrontations became so fractured that Werner had his hair cut during the filming, thereby creating continuity challenges for Truffaut.

The casting of the lead actresses also sparked a minor controversy. Originally, Julie Christie was supposed to play Linda only. Actresses such as Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg were considered for the role of Clarisse. Truffaut liked the idea of casting the same actress in both roles, as he saw Linda and Clarisse as opposites. However, Bradbury--who held a favorable impression of the film version--thought it would have been more effective to have different actresses in the parts.
Julie Christie as Linda and as Clarisse.
Taken as a whole, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking motion picture that seems cold and distant. Clarisse is the only character that evokes any kind of warmth. If the intent was to show Montag transform from an empty shell to a feeling person, then it simply doesn't work. Werner's character remains an enigma at the end, though he now devotes himself to keeping literature alive. Perhaps, the deteriorating relationship between Werner and Truffaut carried over into the actor's performance.

Interesting ideas abound, from a newspaper which contain only pictures to a class Montag teaches to novice fireman on where to look for hidden books. Even the opening credits are clever, in that they are read aloud and never shown on screen.

Truffaut turned to a former Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, to compose the score. It is one of the film's highlights, though the other worldly quality sometimes reminded me of his music for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Below is a clip from Fahrenheit 451, courtesy of our YouTube channel. The symbol shown repeatedly is a salamander, not a dragon.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Brotherhood of the Bell

Glenn Ford as Andrew Patterson.
During an induction ceremony into the Brotherhood of the Bell, St. George College student Philip Dunning is told that his secret society brethren will take care of him. They will mentor him, provide useful business contacts, and put him on the path to financial success. In return, he only has to do what the Brotherhood asks of him at a future date.

Andrew Patterson, a long-time brother who attended Dunning's ceremony, learns that it's his time to do the Brotherhood's bidding. He receives a letter instructing him to ensure that one of his colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization turns down a job offer from another academic institution. If his colleague refuses to comply, Patterson (Glenn Ford) is to threaten to release information about the people who helped the man to defect.

Rosemary Forsyth as
Andrew's confused wife.
Patterson tries to refuse the assignment. But he eventually does threaten to use the letter and learns the next day that his colleague has committed suicide. Racked with guilt, Patterson tries to expose the Brotherhood of the Bell--not realizing how strong a grip the secret society has on every aspect of his life.

Made for television in 1971, The Brotherhood of the Bell is an effective paranoid thriller for most of its 100-minute running time. Much of the credit belongs to Glenn Ford, who creates a believable and sympathetic protagonist.

One wishes, however, that his character--a well-regarded researcher at a Los Angeles think tank--would display more intelligence. When he meets with a "federal agent," he neglects to confirm the man's identification. He also takes on the Brotherhood without first considering the second-order effects on his family. Without documented proof or collaborating witnesses, why would Andrew Patterson think that anyone would believe his preposterous story about an all-powerful secret society?

Based on a novel by David Karp, an earlier version of The Brotherhood of the Bell was produced as a live TV drama on the Studio One anthology series in 1958. It starred Cameron Mitchell, Tom Drake, and Joanne Dru. Although Karp didn't write the Studio One teleplay, he did pen scripts for TV series such as The Untouchables, I Spy, and The Defenders (for which he won an Emmy). For the 1970 telefilm The Brotherhood of the Bell, Karp adapted his own book. He went on to create the Hawkins TV series for James Stewart in 1973.

I'd be curious to know if Karp differed from his novel to add the scene featuring William Conrad as an incendiary TV show host who disparages Patterson. It comes across as a needless scene created just to extend the running time.

Dean Jagger as a baddie.
The Brotherhood of the Bell is an absorbing film that goes on too long and opts for a contrived, unbelievable ending. Those weaknesses are overcome, however, by its original, disturbing premise and strong acting by Ford and Dean Jagger, who exudes quiet menace in a villainous role.

The Skulls (2000) shares many similarities, but limits its plot to a college setting. The much earlier Black Legion (1937), starring Humphrey Bogart, is also about a secret society. It works on a smaller scale, too, with the purpose of the title organization to instill fear in foreign workers.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Seven Thing to Know About the Adventures of Superman TV Series

George Reeves as Superman.
1. Although athletic, George Reeves was not signed to play Superman because of his physique. According to Bruce Scivally's book Superman on Film, Television, Radio and Broadway, the 37-year-old Reeves wore shoulder pads and "muscle pads" that covered his upper chest and biceps.

2. Although George Reeves signed a seven-year contract for the Adventures of Superman, he demanded a raise once the series became popular. Reluctant to pay their star more, the producers asked Kirk Alyn--who played Superman in two serials--if he'd be interested in replacing Reeves. He replied that he'd want the same amount of salary, so Reeves was retained.

Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.
3. The 2006 film Hollywoodland implies that George Reeves's alleged jealous mistress Toni Mannix, wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix, had Phyllis Coates fired as Lois Lane after the first season. In a 2006 interview, Coates disputed that claim, stating she, Reeves, and Mannix were good friends. She said that she left the series on her own accord to shoot a pilot for a TV series that was never picked up. Coates was replaced by Noel Neill, who had played Lois Lane in the serials with Kirk Alyn.

4. Starting in 1954, the Adventures of Superman started filming all episodes in color. That was unusual at the time because of the scarcity of color televisions on the market. However, it turned out to be a stroke of genius once color TVs became commonplace and syndicated color shows were in great demand. Incidentally, in the black-and-white episodes, Superman's costume was brown and gray--not blue, red, and yellow.

5. In preparation for his post-Superman career, George Reeves became a member of the Directors Guild of America. He directed the final three episodes of the Adventures of Superman and was preparing to direct a science fiction movie.

Reeves and Leonore Lemmon.
6. George Reeves allegedly committed suicide in 1959, at age 45, prior to the start of another season of Adventures of Superman. His fiancee, Leonore Lemmon, was downstairs in his house with guests when they heard a gunshot in Reeves' room. In an Associated Press article at the time, Lemmon offered a reason for his possible suicide: "Because he was known as Superman. He couldn't get a job. That combined with the fact that a woman never got off his back. I think everything just swooped down on a very sensitive man." The quote about that "woman" may have been a reference to Toni Mannix. George Reeves' mother thought it was not suicide and hired famous Hollywood attorney Jerry Geisler to investigate her son's death. However, Geisler uncovered no new evidence.

7. Adventures of Superman ran for six seasons and 104 episodes. A number of now-famous actors appeared as guest stars, to include: Chuck Connors, Hugh Beaumont, Claude Akins, Billy Gray, Russell Johnson, and John Banner (Schultz on Hogan's Heroes).

Monday, January 6, 2020

Walt Disney's The Swamp Fox

Leslie Nielsen as Swamp Fox.
During its first decade, Walt Disney's television series featured several action-packed episodes about historic American heroes. The most famous example is Davy Crockett, who was played by Fess Parker in five episodes that aired between 1954 and 1955. Its immense popularity led to shows about Texas John Slaughter (a Texas Ranger), Mexican gunfighter and lawyer Elfego Baca, and Francis Marion, the subject of today's review.

Marion served as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After the British laid siege to Charleston in 1780, Marion organized a militia that conducted guerrilla-like raids on larger British forces. Marion's ability to evade capture was party due to his knowledge of the South Carolina swamps. That earned him the nickname of The Swamp Fox.

Leslie Nielsen starred as Francis Marion in eight episodes of The Swamp Fox, which aired as part of Walt Disney Presents between 1959 and 1961. In "The Birth of the Swamp Fox," Marion escorts the South Carolina governor and his family to safety after the British invade Charleston. When Marion returns to his home, he learns that a bounty has been placed on his head. He seeks refuge on Snow Island, where he periodically summons other American loyalists to conduct raids on the British Army to free prisoners, steal supplies, etc. 

Joy Page as Mary.
The key members of the Swamp Fox's unit are: his right-hand man, Major Peter Horry (Myron Healey), his brother Gabriel Marion (Dick Foran), Sergeant Jasper (Richard Erdman), and occasionally Oscar (Smoki Whitfield) and young Gabe (Tim Considine). Marion--or Fran as friends call him--is engaged to Mary Videau (Joy Page), whose parents as Tory sympathizers. Mary uses her access to British Army officers to spy for Fran and pass along tactical information.

There's a whole lot of fighting in The Swamp Fox, though there's also time to sit around the campfire and sing songs such as this one:

Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat 
Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox is at 
Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, hiding in the glen 
He runs away to fight again

There's no doubt that Walt Disney was hoping that The Swamp Fox would enjoy popularity on the scale of Fess Parker's Davy Crockett. It's colorful, has a somewhat catchy tune, and Leslie Nielsen wears a three-cornered hat with a fox tail. However, The Swamp Fox never captures the Crockett magic. Part of the problem lies with Leslie Nielsen's performance in the title role. He's competent and makes a believable hero, but he lacks the easygoing charm and sincerity that made Fess Parker a TV star. He also lacks a sidekick as entertaining as Buddy Ebsen.

To its credit, The Swamp Fox features a strong heroine with Mary Videau. She may not have a lot of scenes, but her courage speaks for itself (hey, spies were hanged!). It also provides Smoki Whitfield with the opportunity to sing a few songs.

Incidentally, the character of Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson in the 2000 movie The Patriot, was partially based on Francis Marion. Too bad Mel didn't wear a fox tail in his hat--I thought that was a stylish look.