Monday, April 27, 2020

Peter Sellers and Neil Simon? It's After the Fox!

The Fox masquerades as a director.
Imagine Peter Sellers starring in a comedy written by Neil Simon and directed by Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves)! A talented trio, to be sure--but also a seemingly unlikely one. And yet they teamed up in 1966 to make the Italian comedy After the Fox.

It's almost two movies in one, with the first half being devoted to the life of master criminal Aldo Vanucci--better known as The Fox. After a clever escape from prison, Vanucci tries to make amends with his mother and teenage sister (Britt Ekland). Mother Vanucci is upset that her son spends all his time in prison without taking care of his dear mother. Meanwhile, Vanucci fears that his sister Gina has become a streetwalker. Actually, she's just trying to break into the movies! With the police hot on his trail, the master criminal indulges in a lot of disguises and accents (which plays to Peter Sellers' strength).

After the Fox goes off in a different direction when a fellow thief contacts Vanucci and wants him to smuggle 300 bars of gold bullion into Italy. Vanucci hatches a brilliant idea: He will make a movie and incorporate the unloading of the gold into the plot. He convinces a fading American actor (Victor Mature) to star in The Gold of Cairo and casts Gina as the female lead.

Victor Mature as an aging star.
While the first half of After the Fox is mildly amusing, the second half evolves into a sharp satire of the movie business. Victor Mature is splendid as Tony Powell, a has-been movie star who spurns an offer to play a 64-year-old sheriff in a Western because the character is too old. When his agent (Martin Balsam) points out that Tony is in his sixties, the actor exclaims: "I don't want to be sixty, I want to be forty!"

Sellers also excels as the thief playing the part of a movie director. Tossing around terms like neorealism, he appeals to Tony's vanity as well as an entire village's desire to be immortalized in a movie. His initial plan is to just film the unloading of the gold from the ship. However, when the ship's arrival is delayed, he has to start shooting a motion picture. With no script, he decides to make a movie about two beautiful people doing nothing. As he explains to Tony: "We have a great opportunity to make a wonderful comment about the lack of communication in our society." It's a concept that Tony thinks is brilliant (as does a film critic in a later scene).

A dark-haired Britt Ekland as Gina.
One suspects that Neil Simon's intent was to satirize the artistic filmmakers who dominated international cinema in the 1960s, such as Godard, Renais, and Antonioni. It was Simon's first screenplay after making a splash on Broadway with Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. De Sica insisted that Simon work with his frequent collaborator Cesare Zavattini. The result is that--whether intentional or not--Sellers' director seems to be a larger-than-life portrait of De Sica. I think that's one of the reason that After the Fox has acquired a cult reputation over the years.

Of course, it also has a ridiculous--but mind-numbingly catchy--title tune written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The Hollies and Peter Sellers perform it over the credits and it start with these lyrics:
    Who is the fox?
    (I am the fox)
    Who are you?
    (I am me)
    Who is me?
    (Me is a thief)
    You'll bring your poor, poor mother grief.

Incidentally, Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland were married when they made After the Fox. He insisted that she be cast as Vanucci's sister Gina. It was the second of three movies starring the couple, with the others being Carol for Another Christmas (1964) and The Bobo (1967). They divorced in 1968 after a four-year marriage that produced a daughter named Victoria.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun

Debbie Reynolds in the title role.
In 1963, a Belgian nun named Sœur Sourire--also known as The Singing Nun--had a worldwide hit record with the song "Dominque." Even though the lyrics were in French, the song went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. It's no surprise that this amazing feat attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmakers. Thus, in 1966, MGM released The Singing Nun, which starred Debbie Reynolds as a young nun very loosely based on Sœur Sourire.

The film opens with Sister Ann (Reynolds) arriving at Samaritan House, which is located in a struggling community in Brussels. Sister Ann composes and sings music, accompanying herself on guitar. Her talents immediately attract the attention of Father Clementi (Ricardo Montalban), who believes her faith-inspired music can bring comfort to millions. With the church's approval, he convinces a record executive (Chad Everett) to make an album with Sister Ann. (It turns out that the executive studied music with Sister Ann prior to her conversion.)

Katharine Ross.
Meanwhile, Sister Ann has become involved with a motherless little boy whose unemployed father is an alcoholic and whose older sister (Katharine Ross) makes money by posing for risque photos. As her music fame grows, Sister Ann struggles with her own success--especially when a tragedy strikes close to her heart.

It's a flimsy plot for a 97-minute movie and The Singing Nun relies on Debbie Reynolds' charm and musical talents to carry the day. There are some good tunes, especially an English-language version of "Dominque" as well as a boisterous rendition of "Brother John" (which was written by Randy Sparks, founder of The New Christy Minstrels). However, the subplot about the little boy and his family lacks interest, likely because it feels manufactured solely to tug at the heart strings.

Ricardo Montalban.
The Singing Nun boasts an impressive supporting cast, but none of them have much to do except for Ricardo Montalban. That includes Greer Garson as the Mother Prioress and Agnes Moorehead and Juanita Moore as two of Sister Ann's fellow nuns. On the plus side, Ed Sullivan appears as himself in one of the film's better scenes in which Sister Ann records a song for his popular show.

The real-life story of Sœur Sourire would have made a far more interesting film--though not the family film that MGM wanted. As Jeannine Deckers, she left the convent and continued to record music, although her former music company would not allow her to use the names Sœur Sourire or The Singing Nun. She found little success, eventually recording a disco version of "Dominique" in 1982. Jeannine Deckers and a close friend committed suicide in 1985; she was 51.

As for The Singing Nun, it was a modest hit, finishing #23 at the boxoffice in 1966. Director Henry Koster has said that the production wasn't a pleasant one with star Debbie Reynolds and producer John Beck clashing frequently. It turned out to be Koster's last film, following an impressive career that included The Bishop's Wife, Harvey, and Come to the Stable.

Here's a clip of Debbie Reynolds singing "Brother John," courtesy of our YouTube Channel:

Monday, April 20, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Donald O'Connor

1. Show business was in his blood. His father, John, worked as an acrobat, clown, trapeze artist, and strong man for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. His mother Effie was a circus bareback horse rider and dancer. When Donald was thirteen-months-old, he and his sister Arlene, who was six, were hit by a car while crossing the street. She died instantly. A few months later, Donald's father collapsed on stage and died from a heart attack.

2. Donald joined the family vaudeville act almost as soon as he could walk. He, his brother Jack, and his mother were billed as The O'Connor Family, the Royal Family of Vaudeville. They sang, danced, and performed comic routines all over the country. Donald never received any formal dance training, something he later said made it difficult to transition to movies.

3. He was signed to a contract with Paramount in 1936 at age 11. His first major role was in Sing You Sinners (1938), in which he played the youngest brother of Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray. He sang with Crosby on "Small Fry," composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser. Incidentally, Donald O'Connor played Fred MacMurray as a boy in Men With Wings, Gary Cooper as a youth in Beau Geste, and Eddie Albert as a kid in On Your Toes.

Donald and co-star Francis.
4. In 1941, Donald signed with Universal Pictures, where he was often paired with Peggy Ryan in musicals like Private Buckeroo and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (both 1942). He was drafted in 1943 and spent two years in the Air Corps. When he returned, he made a handful of musicals and comedies before being cast opposite a "talking mule" in Francis (1950). The film was a huge hit and O'Connor starred in five of the six sequels between 1951 and 1955. When asked why he quit the profitable Francis series, O'Connor famously quipped: "When you've made six pictures and the mule still gets more mail than you do...."

5. Donald O'Connor, who was a heavy smoker, was physically exhausted after performing his famous wall-climbing dance to "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain (1952). When he was done, Gene Kelly asked if he could do it again the next day because the footage was ruined due to a technical problem. O'Connor, ever the professional, recreated the dance again. For his performance in Singin' in the Rain, Donald O'Connor won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical. Gene Kelly was not nominated.

6. In 1954-55, Donald starred in The Donald O'Connor Show, which was also known as Here Comes Donald. The half-hour sitcom alternated with The Jimmy Durante Show as part of The Texaco Theatre. In this sitcom, O'Connor and co-star Sid Miller played songwriters trying to peddle their songs. It was really just an excuse for the duo sing, dance, and perform comedic bits. While that show didn't last long, O'Connor did win an Emmy Award earlier in 1954 as a regular on The Colgate Comedy Hour.

7. Donald O'Connor was married twice. His first wife, Gwen Carter, has a small unbilled part in Singin' in the Rain. They had a daughter and divorced in 1954 after ten years of marriage. He married Gloria Noble in 1956. They had three children and remained together until his death. Donald O'Connor died from complications due to heart failure in 2003. He was 78.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Original Bad News Bears

Tatum O'Neal and Walter Matthau.
Time has been kind to The Bad News Bears, a 1976 baseball comedy pairing a grumpy Walter Matthau with a bunch of misfit kids. The film sparked a minor controversy when originally released due to several of the youths spewing profanity. In hindsight, the language is less harsh than it once seemed and the humor less broad. That allows the viewer to focus on director Michael Ritchie's delight in going behind the scenes of one of America's most revered institutions: Little League baseball.

The film opens with attorney Bob Whitewood having won a lawsuit that forces an ultra-competitive youth baseball league to add a seventh team composed of less skilled "athletes"--such as Whitewood's son. The attorney pays Morris Buttermaker, a swimming pool cleaner and washed-up minor league baseball player, to coach the team. Initially, Buttermaker (Matthau) is content to regale the boys with tales such as when he struck out Ted Williams in spring training. However, when the league's best team embarrasses the Bears in their first game (26-0), Buttermaker realizes his team can only gain self-respect by winning.

Jackie Earle Haley as Kelly.
He recruits Amanda Whurlizer (Tatum O'Neal), a hard-throwing 11-year-old pitcher and daughter of one of his ex-girlfriends. Amanda plays a key role in gaining the services of Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a Harley-riding troublemaker who is also "the best athlete in the area." With Amanda and Kelly leading the way, the Bears start to gel as a team and begin winning. But are Buttermaker and the Bears championship material?

Much of the humor in The Bad News Bears is derived from the beer-guzzling Buttermaker's interactions with his motley group of kids. There are some stereotypes, to be sure, such as the overweight catcher who devours chocolate bars in their wrappers because he needs "energy." And it's no surprise when the team's worst player makes an incredible catch during the big game.

Still, director Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt's son) capture revealing moments that ring with truth: the coach so obsessed with winning that he slaps his son, the tough outsider finding joy in the camaraderie with his teammates, the understanding mother, and even Buttermaker, who realizes he has pushed his team too hard. Ritchie also delights in exploring the spectacle behind the game, as he did in Smile, his 1975 satire on beauty pageants. In The Bad News Bears, we're treated to a high school band playing before the first game, Buttermaker's challenge with acquiring a sponsor for the uniforms, and a funny, realistic trophy presentation.

The Bears' team photo.
Walter Matthau has a grand time in a role that fits him like a glove. He and Tatum O'Neal, fresh off her Oscar win for Paper Moon (1973), have an easygoing, natural relationship. In general, all the young actors acquit themselves nicely (and yes, that's Brandon Cruz from TV's The Courtship of Eddie's Father as a rival pitcher).

The Bad News Bears was the tenth highest-grossing movie of 1976. It spawned two sequels: The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) with William Devane and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) with Tony Curtis. Some of the original's young cast, such as Jackie Earle Haley, appear in all three films. Jack Warden played Morris Buttermaker on the 1979-80 TV series The Bad News Bears. Billy Bob Thorton starred in a needless 2005 remake, which got mixed reviews. I recommend sticking with the original.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Five Best Walter Matthau Performances

1.  The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) - Four men hijack a New York subway and hold the passengers for ransom, demanding that $1 million be delivered within an hour. One passenger will be executed for every minute that the money is late. As the unlikely hero of this tense suspense film, Matthau stars as Lieutenant Garber of the New York Transit Authority Police. Initially, Garber appears a dull, methodical company man who spends most of his day in the transit’s office. But as the situation worsens, Matthau reveals his character's coolness and ability to make quick decisions in a finely nuanced performance.

2.  Charley Varrick (1973) - The title character is a crop duster who makes ends meet by robbing small-town banks. When a patrolman recognizes a stolen license plate, one of Charley's robberies goes horribly awry, resulting in three fatalities. Plus, it turns out the stolen loot belongs to the mob. Charley is an morally dubious anti-hero, but at least he's better than the corrupt bank officials and the hit man chasing him. The gruff, likable Matthau fits the bill perfectly, somehow coming across as curmudgeonly and cold. The bottom line is that, despite his significant moral flaws, it's easy to root for Charley because we admire his ingenuity--and because he's played by Walter Matthau.

3.  Hopscotch (1980) - When CIA operative Miles Kendig is forced into retirement, he decides to get even by writing and publishing his memoirs. Her former bosses are none too pleased and set off to find him--though Kendig always seems to be one step ahead. Walter Matthau makes it grand fun to watch the crafty, opera-humming Kendig outmaneuver the CIA at every turn. It's also entertaining to watch him unveil his grand scheme step by step. Oddly enough, Warren Beatty was originally cast in the role--I can't imagine that!

4.  The Fortune Cookie (1966) - Cameraman Henry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) suffers a concussion when a Cleveland Browns football player accidentally plows into him during a game. Henry recovers with no side effects, but his brother-in-law--an ambulance-chasing lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie--wants to sue CBS, the Cleveland Browns, and Municipal Stadium for $1 million. The Fortune Cookie is one of Billy Wilder's most uneven films, but it provides Matthau with a plum role as Whiplash Willie. As the rascally devious attorney--who is actually quite smart--Matthau stole the film and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was his only Academy Award, though he was also nominated for Kotch (1971) and The Sunshine Boys (1975).

5.  Kotch (1971) - Walter Matthau was 51 when he starred in Kotch, but he's quite convincing as an elderly man who rejects his family's plan to put him in a retirement home. It would be easy to turn the title character in a stereotypical curmudgeon, but Matthau finds the loneliness, hopefulness, and humor in the role.

Honorable Mentions:  Charade, Lonely Are the Brave, The Odd Couple, The Bad News Bears, and Fail Safe.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 5 - Errol Flynn Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it! Good luck.

1. Perilous Trek.

2. Rapiers That Form an "X"

3. Not in Favor of Any Pennants.

4. The Big Star at Dawn (this one is a stretch).

5. Liz and Robert: Confidential.

6. One More Daybreak.

7. Don't You Ever Try to Leave Me!

8. Let's Leave It at a Trio.

9. The Early Morning Squad.

10. Dr. Pirate.

11. Showdown in the Alamo.

12. The Killer Dentist.

13. RCMP vs. The Nazis.

14. The Jean Picard Story.

15. Red Beard and the Boy Spy.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Kotch: Lemmon Directs and Matthau Acts

Walter Matthau as Kotch.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had acted together in two films when they made Kotch in 1971. This collaboration was a very different one, however, as Lemmon was the director and Matthau the star.

For his directorial debut, Lemmon chose to adapt Katharine Topkins' novel about Joseph Kotcher, an elderly man who lives with his son (Charles Aidman) and daughter-in-law (Felicia Farr, Jack Lemmon's wife). Kotch (Matthau) spends most of his day caring for his baby grandson Duncan. His world gets turned upside down when his daughter-in-law decides he is no longer a suitable babysitter--especially after another mother makes a complaint about Kotch. First, Wilma hires a teenage babysitter to care for Duncan and then she convinces Gerald that his father would be "more comfortable" in a home for the elderly.

Kotch has no intention of moving into the Sunnydale retirement community ("for the sunset years"). Instead, he goes on a road trip along the West coast. When he returns home, he decides to look up Duncan's former babysitter, who departed after getting pregnant. Kotch learns she has moved to Palm Springs, so he heads there to find her. It's a decision that will change his life.

Deborah Winters as Ricci.
The beauty of Kotch is that it's one of those films that takes off in an unexpected direction. When the lead character is essentially rejected by his own family, he unintentionally decides to form a new one. The film's central relationship becomes the one between Kotch and Ricci, the pregnant former babysitter (well played by Deborah Winters). They are an unlikely duo, but they need each other for different reasons and that forms a strong bond.

Walter Matthau was 51 when he starred in Kotch, but he's quite convincing as a much older man who delights in regaling stories from his past. It would be easy to turn Kotch in a stereotypical curmudgeon, but Matthau finds the loneliness, hopefulness, and humor in the role. Ultimately, the film is about its title character's transformation from a man searching for his place in the world after his wife's death to an individual secure in his new life and newfound self-reliance.

Larry Linville, pre-M*A*S*H,
as Ricci's brother.
Director Jack Lemmon shows a deft understanding of his source material. However, he struggles to keep the plot moving at times; the film's first half seems downright sluggish (even the opening credits seem to go on forever). The pace picks up once Kotch relocates to Palm Springs, though, and the closing scenes end the film on a high note. It's a promising directorial debut, but it would also turn out to be Lemmon's only outing in the director's chair.

Kotch earned Walter Matthau the second of his three Oscar nominations. He lost the 1972 Best Actor Oscar to Gene Hackman for The French Connection. Kotch also earned Oscar nominations for Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Song. Frankly, I found the song, "Life Is What You Make It" by Marvin Hamlisch and Don Black, to be too saccharine. Instrumental snippets are repeated ad nauseum throughout the film.

Here's a clip from Kotch, courtesy of our YouTube Channel:

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Up Periscope: Early James Garner

The same night that he proposes marriage to a recent acquaintance, Navy Lieutenant Kenneth Braden (James Garner) is whisked away to conduct a secret mission in the Pacific. Once aboard the submarine Barracuda, Captain Paul Stevenson (Edmond O'Brien) explains that Braden will be dropped off in a lagoon near a Japanese-occupied island. His task is to locate a enemy radio transmitter, photograph a radio code book, and return to the sub.

As if that's not challenging enough, the journey to the island is fraught with its own perils. The most significant may be that the submarine crew has lost confidence in its commander. During an earlier mission, Stevenson played it "by the book" and waited underwater for six hours while Japanese boats patrolled the ocean surface. However, as a result of the long wait, a young sailor died of wounds sustained during the attack.

Edmond O'Brien frets a lot.
Apparently, Warner Bros. was grooming James Garner, one of its biggest TV attractions, for movie stardom in Up Periscope (1959). However, it's clear that the studio didn't want to put too much effort into this modestly-budgeted actioner. The trek to Braden's destination contains some minor thrills (e.g., an aerial attack on the sub), but the plot never gains steam until the final half-hour. Add a pedestrian script and what you have is a rather perfunctory picture that does little but showcase Garner's natural appeal.

Edmond O'Brien deserves better than the clichéd role of the vessel commander who begins to doubt his own decisions. The same can be said of an interesting supporting cast, which is mostly wasted. Still, it's entertaining to watch early appearances by football player/future broadcaster Frank Gifford, Edd Byrnes, and Warren Oates. Judging by Byrnes' limited screen time, I'm guessing the production started before he became a pop culture phenomenon as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip.

Alan Hale, Jr. with beard!
Two other actors may have unknowingly auditioned for their most famous roles. As Garner's bunkmate, Alan Hale, Jr. provides most of the film's humor--preparing him well for playing the Skipper in Gilligan's Island. Meanwhile, Henry Kulky, who plays the Barracuda's Chief Petty Officer, would play one again in the first season of the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. (Sadly, he died of a heart attack, so the Seaview had a new CPO in seasons 2-4.)

If you're a James Garner fan, you probably ought to see Up Periscope. Garner displays everything that made him a film and TV star for decades, from the heartfelt love scenes with Andra Martin to the physicality of his (backlot) jungle scenes. That's the best recommendation for this otherwise soggy adventure.

James Garner and Andra Martin on the beach.