Monday, June 29, 2020

Doris Day in Hitchcock and Hitchcock-Lite

In regard to his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped: "Let's just say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." These days, it's fashionable to prefer the earlier film, though I firmly believe the 1956 version is the stronger of the two.
Doris Day and James Stewart as the McKennas.
James Stewart and Doris Day star as Ben and Jo McKenna, American tourists spending three days in Marrakesh with their young son Hank. They encounter a mysterious man named Louis Bernard as well as Lucy and Edward Drayton, a friendly British couple. In the middle of a bazaar, an Arab--who has been stabbed--approaches Ben. As the dying man staggers to the ground, Ben realizes it's Bernard in disguise. He whispers to Ben that there will be an assassination in London and that Ben must tell the authorities about "Ambrose Chapel."

Later, at the police station, Ben receives a phone call that his son has been kidnapped and will remain safe as long as he says nothing to the authorities. When they return to their hotel, Ben and Jo realize that the Draytons kidnapped Hank. They follow them to London, determined to find their son.

Brenda De Banzie as Mrs. Drayton.
The opening scenes in Marrakesh set up the plot nicely (though Hitch's use of rear screen projection is distracting at times). However, once the action shifts to London, the tension unexpectedly lets up, punctuated by a goose chase in search of Ambrose Chapel that seems like filler material. Still, The Man Who Knew Too Much ends on a high note with a suspenseful extended climax at Albert Hall and a foreign embassy.

There are still sequences featuring Hitchcock at his best, such as when the face of the disguised Bernard slides through Ben's hands, leaving brown make-up on his fingers. The Albert Hall scene, in which an assassin's shot must be timed with the crash of cymbals, shows Hitchcock at the height of his craft. It also features composer and frequent Hitch collaborator Bernard Herrmann as the orchestra's conductor.

James Stewart and Doris Day are fine as the determined parents and Doris even gets to sing the Oscar-winning "Que Sera, Sera," which would become her signature song. Acting honors, though, go to the marvelous Brenda De Banzie as a reluctant kidnapper.

Doris walking in the fog.
Made four years later Midnight Lace (1960) is a Hitchcock wannabe starring Doris Day as heiress Kit Preston, an American newlywed in London. Even before the credits roll, she hears an eerie voice threatening her during a heavy night fog. Her husband, financier Tony (Rex Harrison), tries to convince her it was just a practical joke. However, when she starts to receive similar phone calls, Kit and Tony go to Scotland Yard.

Kit's problem is that no one else hears the disturbing phone calls. Is she delusional and imagining the voice? Or is someone really planning to kill her? There are certainly plenty of suspects: the housekeeper's creepy son (Roddy McDowell); the handsome construction chief (John Gavin) working on a nearby building; the strange man hanging around the neighborhood; or even her husband Tony.

Doris Day and Rex Harrison.
Unfortunately, the outcome becomes apparent early on in Midnight Lace. That doesn't keep it from being moderately entertaining. The supporting cast, which includes Myrna Loy as Kit's aunt and John Williams as (what else?) a police inspector, is first-rate. The London setting is both atmospheric and contributes to Kit's uneasiness (until the arrival of her aunt, she has no real friends in town).

Unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace is a "Doris Day vehicle" and she's in almost every scene. For the most part, she carries the picture, although her histrionics in the later scenes verge on overacting. Director David Miller compensates by keeping the narrative to a crisp 103 minutes.

Midnight Lace was remade for television in 1981 with Mary Crosby in the lead role. Carolyn Jones has a supporting role in that version, just as she did in The Man Who Knew Too Much!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Five Best Greer Garson Performances

As Paula in Random Harvest.
1. Random Harvest - At the end of World War I, an entertainer named Paula (Greer Gardson) falls in love with a amnesiac known only as Smithy (Ronald Colman). They marry, have a child, and live blissfully in the English countryside. Then one day, Smithy journeys alone to Liverpool and is struck by a taxi. When he awakes, he remembers his life as the affluent Charles Rainer--but he has forgotten his life as Smithy. Years later, he hires Paula--still not knowing who she is--to work for him. Greer Garson is brilliant as a woman who spends every day with the love of her life, but never reveals her identity. It's a poignant performance made all the more powerful because Garson makes Paula a strong, independent woman. The impact of the final scene rests solely on Garson's shoulders and she pulls it off with aplomb.

2. Pride and Prejudice - Greer Garson was 36-years-old when she played Jane Austen's plucky 20-year-old heroine Elizabeth Bennett. It's something I notice during the opening frames of Pride and Prejudice (1940)--and then totally forget. That's because Garson finds the strength, intelligence, and playful wit in Elizabeth, making this adaptation one of my favorite ones of Austen's classic. It helps, too, that she develops such delightful chemistry with Laurence Olivier's exceptionally brooding Mr. Darcy.

Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon.
3. Mrs. Miniver - I suspect if you polled classic movie fans about Greer Garson's best performances, the number one answer would be her portrayal of Kay Miniver. There is no doubt that she shines as the mother that holds a British family together as World War II brings danger, damage, and death into their lives. Her efforts earned her the Best Actress Oscar in 1943 (her only one to go along with six other nominations). She reprised the role of Kay Miniver in The Miniver Story in 1950.

4. Goodbye, Mr. Chips - In her first role on the big screen, Greer Garson received an Oscar nomination opposite Robert Donat in this adaptation of James Hilton's bestseller. She plays the effervescent Kathy, who transforms a shy schoolmaster into a beloved institution at a British boys' school. Amazingly, Garson had difficulty transitioning from the stage to film, finding the process of shooting scenes out of order disorienting. She relied on co-stars Robert Donat and Paul Henreid for support and advice. Her lack of confidence is not apparent on the screen and her performance transformed her into a star overnight.

Greer Garson and Errol Flynn.
5. That Forsyte Woman - This screen adaptation of John Galsworthy's The Man of Property, the first book in his Forsyte Saga, may seem like an odd choice. The film is not remembered fondly nor admired by Galsworthy's readers. Even Greer Garson noted that it "wasn't much," but was a lot of fun for the cast and crew. However, I think she underestimates her performance as Irene Heron, a Victorian woman who marries a "man of property" whom she does not love. When she later falls in love with an architect, her affair sets off a series of dramatic, and tragic, events. The role of Irene is a difficult one since initially the character elicits little audience sympathy. However, the beauty of Garson's performance is that she finds the "truth" in Irene--and brings out the best in Errol Flynn, who is quite effective in a rare serious role as her possessive husband. She was impressed enough with Flynn to write the foreward to a book about his films.

Honorable Mentions:  Mrs. Parkington, Sunrise at Campobello (as Eleanor Roosevelt); and Blossoms in the Dust.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis Take on The Scalphunters

Burt Lanaster as Joe Bass.
When easygoing trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) takes a shortcut through Kiowa land, he is confronted by a party of Indians led by Two Crows. The Kiowa leader wants to trade a black slave for Bass's pelts. The trapper isn't interested in the deal--but he's really doesn't have a choice since he is vastly outnumbered.

The slave, Joseph Winfield Lee, is an educated man who wants to reach Mexico where slavery has been outlawed. Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) is eager to discuss his situation, but Joe Bass is focused solely on retrieving his pelts. His plan is to wait for the Indians to get drunk on stolen rum, then ride into their camp and nab the furs.

Ossie Davis as Joseph Lee.
However, before he can do that, Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) and his scalphunters attack the Indians and massacre all but one (who is assumed to be dead). They take Bass's pelts, too--and that makes him fighting mad. Plus, Joe Bass considers scalphunters--who sell the scalps of murdered Indians for $25 apiece--to be the lowest scum on Earth. He devises a second plan to retrieve his pelts, but things become a little more complicated when Joseph Lee gets captured by Howie's gang.

Made in 1968, The Scalphunters is a good example of Hollywood's attempt to reshape the Western genre in the late 1960s. It is part comedy, part violent Western, and part social satire. However, first and foremost, it's a showcase for African American actor Ossie Davis. Unlike his contemporary, Sidney Poitier, Davis rarely got starring roles. Although he's billed fourth in The Scalphunters, he dominates the screen with his portrayal of Joseph Lee, connecting the other characters played by Lancaster, Savalas, and Shelley Winters.

The film's best scenes are those shared by Davis and Lancaster. Joseph Lee (Davis) is the better educated of the two and lets Joe Bass (Lancaster) know it:

LEE:  I can read, write, and cypher.

BASS:  Don't brag on it.

Shelley Winters as Kate.
Lee also knows how to adapt his persona to the situation. When he learns that Howie plans to sell him to the highest bidder, Lee assumes the role of a caring servant to Howie's mistress Kate (Shelley Winter). She wants to live the high life and Lee wants to make himself invaluable. Remembering everything Bass has told him about his natural surroundings, he uses the juice from a cactus to wash Kate's hair.

In addition to Davis, the other stars make the most of their parts. Burt Lancaster exudes his usual charm as Bass, with his performance reminding me of his lead turn in The Kentuckian thirteen years earlier. Telly Savalas plays a less extreme version of the villainous roles in which he was typecast prior to Kojak. Still, his character's genuine affection for his mistress is a nice touch. And Shelley Winters deserves more scenes as the constantly-complaining, easily-manipulated former prostitute who dreams of a better life.

The influence of The Scalphunters can be seen in later lighthearted Westerns such as Skin Game (1971), which teamed up James Garner and Lou Gossett, Jr., and Buck and the Preacher (1972) with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The latter co-starred Ruby Dee--who just happened to be the real-life wife of Ossie Davis.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Alastair MacLean's The Guns of Navarone

A long movie that doesn't seem long is a carefully-crafted motion picture. Such is the case with The Guns of Navarone (1961), which clocks in at a brisk 158 minutes.

Based on Alastair MacLean's 1957 novel, it tells the story of a small military team tasked with destroying two huge German guns. The artillery are located on the island of  Navarone and prevent Allied battleships from rescuing 2,000 British soldiers marooned on an adjacent isle. Since the guns are housed inside a cave, they cannot be destroyed by aerial bombs. The team's only hope to scale a dangerous mountain on the most lightly guarded side of the island.

David Niven and Gregory Peck.
The team consists of: Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a famous mountain climber who is fluent in German; Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), who hatched the plan; Corporal Miller (David Niven), an explosives genius; "Butcher" Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanic and knife expert; a young soldier (James Darren) born on Navarone, but raised in New York; and Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a Greek officer who blames Mallory for the death of his family. Irene Pappas and Gia Scala co-star as two resistance fighters who live on Navarone.

Richard Harris has a brief cameo.
Each of the stars is perfectly matched with his role, even though Peck, Niven, and Quinn are too old for their characters. That fact becomes immaterial as the action speeds along to the thrilling climax. MacLean's story constantly throws obstacles in the team's path: a curious German patrol, a savage storm at sea, capture by the Nazis, and the presence of a spy. The highlight, though, comes in the film's first half when Peck and Quinn have to climb the treacherous cliff at the rain. On a DVD commentary, director J. Lee Thompson said he thought this nail biting sequence was too long (I disagree!).

The Guns of Navarone is so expertly made--and placed in historical context--that one assumes it was based on fact. Actually, the plot is wholly fictitious, although MacLean's tale was inspired by the Battle of Leros in the Aegean Sea during World War II. The novel was MacLean's second and become a bestseller. Following the box office success of the movie adaptation, other MacLean novels were made into movies, notably The Satan Bug (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Harrison Ford in Force 10.
MacLean wrote a sequel in 1968, Force 10 from Navarone, in which Mallory, Miller, and Stavros are sent on a mission to Yugoslavia. A movie version was planned in the late 1960s with Peck, Niven, and Quinn reprising their roles. However, the production was delayed and didn't reach the screen until 1978. By then, Robert Shaw and Edward had been cast as Mallory and Miller. The plot bore little resemble to MacLean's novel. The supporting cast included Harrison Ford (Stars Wars was released a year earlier) and Barbara Bach (who had just appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me).

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Robert Lansing

1. Robert Lansing was born Robert Howell Brown, but had to change his name when he joined the Actors' Equity Association because another actor was named Robert Brown. According to Allan T. Duffin's The 12 O'Clock High Logbook, he took his last name from Lansing, Michigan, as he was about to board a bus to that city.

2. After studying at the Actors Studio, Lansing made his Broadway debut in 1951 in Stalag 17. He worked on the stage, in live television, and made his film debut in the title role of 4D Man (1959). His next movie was The Pusher (1960), which Harold Robbins adapted from an Ed McBain novel. He played tough Manhattan detective Steve Carella, a role that he would reprise in the TV series 87th Precinct (1961-62). Based on McBain's gritty crime novels, the series is well regarded now, but was cancelled by NBC after a single season. Gena Rowlands portrayed Carella's deaf wife Teddy in four episodes.

Lansing on 12 O'Clock High.
3. Lansing's most successful TV role was probably Brigadier General Frank Savage in 12 O'Clock High, which debuted on ABC in 1964. However, after one season, his character was written out of the show. In a TV Guide article, executive producer Quinn Martin blamed ABC's decision to move the show from Friday at ten o'cock to 7:30 on Monday: "ABC is very high on Lansing, and asked me to find another series for him. They said they want him for a 10 P.M. show. Had we remained at 10 P.M., Bob would have continued." Lansing seemed to take the decision in stride, commenting to TV: "I can't hate ABC. Hating a network would be like hating Dodger Stadium...I can't be mad at Quinn either. He says it was the network's decision, and I have no evidence to make me doubt him."

4.  In 1966, Robert Lansing was back on TV in the half-hour drama The Man Who Never Was. He played spy Peter Murphy, who assumes the identity of murdered millionaire Mark Wainwright. Murphy looks just like Wainwright and his impersonation convinces everyone but the dead man's wife Eva (Dana Wynter). Fortunately for Murphy, Eva is willing to go along with the masquerade--especially since her husband was trying to swindle her. Sadly, ABC cancelled The Man Who Never Was after 21 episodes. Three episodes were edited together and released overseas as the theatrical film as Danger Has Two Faces.

5. According to Alan Schneider's The American Theatre Reader, playwright Edward Albee wanted Robert Lansing for the role of Nick in the original Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, Lansing was never signed due to a disagreement over the billing. The role eventually went to George Grizzard; George Segal played Nick in the 1966 film adaptation.

With feline friend as Gary Seven.
6. During the second season of the original Star Trek, Robert Lansing guest starred as Gary Seven, a human sent by the race of another planet to save Earth from destruction. The episode, which was titled "Assignment: Earth," was a backdoor pilot for a TV series that would have starred Lansing as Gary Seven and Teri Garr as his assistant. The original script by Art Wallace and Gene Roddenberry had nothing to do with the Enterprise and its crew. However, when Roddenberry couldn't get a network interested in the proposed series, he and Wallace rewrote it for Star Trek.

7. Robert Lansing was married three times. His first wife was actress Emily McLaughlin, who played nurse Jessie Brewer on ABC's General Hospital for 28 years. Lansing's second wife was starlet Gari Hardy, whom was once described as "the new Ann-Margret" (though she was blonde). When they married in 1969, Hardy was 21 and Lansing was 41. They had a daughter, but divorced after two years. Lansing married Ann Pivar in 1981 and they remained together until his death in 1994. Incidentally, Gari Hardy married another older man, Jack Ryan, who designed the Barbie doll for Mattel and who was one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's husbands.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Alternate TV Series Title Game (British Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic television series and ask you to name the actual show. 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! Note that the alternate title may be a variation of the original title or plot description. For this month's edition, all the answers will be British TV series.

1.  The Tracy Boys.

2.  Irene and Soames.

3.  The Himalayan Powers.

4.  Nampara.

5.  The Village.

6.  Man With a Halo.

7.  Regan & Carter.

8.  The Noble Detective.

9.  The Man from WASP.

10. 165 Eaton Place.

11.  McGill.

12.  Fiery Plants of Africa.

13.  The Opera-Loving DCI.

14.  Gemstone and Metal.

15.  SHADO.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wee Geordie Throws a Hammer!

Bill Travers as the adult Geordie.
Young Geordie MacTaggert doesn't like to be called "wee' by the other lads in his rural Scottish community. Yet, it's accurate to say that he's decidedly short for his age. It's a sore point, though, and comes to a head when he and childhood playmate Jean visit an eagle's nest. Jean is tall enough to see the baby birds, but Geordie is neither tall enough nor strong enough to view the nest.

That night, he sees a newspaper ad that will change his life. In the advertisement, bodybuilder Henry Samson asks: "Are you undersized? Let me make a different man of you!" Geordie sends off for Samson's exercise program and soon becomes obsessed with physical fitness. He eventually grows into a 6' 6" muscular young man! (As one character notes, the exercises can't have accounted for his growth spurt.)

Unfortunately, Geordie's focus on building his muscles has come with a cost. Jean, now an attractive young woman, feels ignored. The situation doesn't improve when Samson recommends that Geordie take up a sport like hammer throwing--at which he excels. Indeed, his hammer throwing attracts the interest of officials organizing Britain's team for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Norah Gorsen as Jean and Travers.
Made in 1955, Geordie (aka Wee Geordie) is a heartfelt film brimming with Scottish charm. Despite a handful of rear projection shots, it's one of those movies that will make you want to move to the Scottish glen--or at least take a vacation there. In the title role, Bill Travers makes a charming, reluctant hero who has to be convinced to participate in the Olympics. His Geordie has no desire to leave his beloved home and see the rest of the world. Why would he--when everything he loves is right there in the glen?

Indeed, Geordie works best when staying in Scotland and focusing on the Geordie-Jean relationship. One of the best scenes has Geordie floundering in his first hammer throwing competition until he hears Jean calling out to him from a nearby hill. Later, when the plot relocates to Melbourne, it becomes a conventional fish-out-of-water story.

Alastair Sim as the Laird.
Travers gets wonderful support from Norah Gorsen as Jean, Paul Young as the young Geordie, and Alastair Sim as The Laird. While it's true that Sim frequently portrayed quirky British gentlemen, that doesn't take away from his typical amusing performance. Paul Young, who made his film debut in Geordie, had a long television career (that's still ongoing). In contrast, the fresh-faced Norah Gorsen retired from acting in the mid-1960s.

Upon its release in Great Britain, Geordie quickly became a box office hit. Hollywood took notice of the ruggedly handsome Bill Travers and cast him opposite established stars in movies like Footsteps in the Fog (1955) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957). His biggest success, though, didn't come until 1967 when he appeared with his wife Virginia McKenna in Born Free (1966). That film and Ring of Bright Water (about an otter) transformed the couple into animal rights activists. It was a passion that Travers pursued until his death in 1994.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song

Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li.
My elementary school chorus teacher introduced me to the Broadway musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. To be specific, she favored the catchy songs from The Sound of Music and The King and I. Hence, I always experience some built-in nostalgia whenever I watch those movie adaptations. Yet, despite that background, I never sought out the 1961 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song--and it seemed to purposefully elude me. That changed, though, when I recently discovered it on Amazon Prime.

Nancy Kwan as singer Linda Low.
Set in San Francisco, it opens with the arrival of stowaways Dr. Li and his granddaughter Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki). The latter has journeyed to America to fulfill a marriage contract with Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner she has never met. Sammy has no interest in getting hitched, having been romantically involved with singer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) for five years. He hatches a scheme to introduce Mei Li to Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong), who wants his Chinese-American son Ta (James Shigeta) to marry a woman with Old World values. This leads to a series of misunderstandings and deceptions before true love wins out.

Benson Fong's as Ta's father.
Flower Drum Song holds the distinction of being the first Hollywood production with an all-Asian cast. That may explain in large part why it was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant and added to the National Film Registry in 2008. Its critics counter that it promotes cultural stereotypes and casts non-Chinese actors in Chinese roles (e.g., U.S.-born James Shigeta was of Japanese ancestry). One can't argue with the latter complaint, but the "stereotypes" in Flower Drum Song are merely stock movie characters. Who hasn't seen a movie with a feisty father figure who wants to impose his values on his children?

The screenplay has a lot of fun with portraying the differences between American and Chinese culture...and everything in-between. While the elders hold on to their old-fashioned values, the kids embrace everything snazzy and new. And in the middle, there's Ta's aunt, who has merged both worlds and become an American citizen after studying for five years. This central theme is captured playfully in the lyrics to the song "Chop Suey":

Living here is very much like chop suey 
Hula hoops and nuclear war 
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor 
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey 
Chop suey!

Flower Drum Song features a pleasant selection of songs, although the only bona fide hit was the playful "I Enjoy Being a Girl" (lip-synced by Nancy Kwan in a clever number in which she performs with three mirror reflections of herself). Miyoshi Umeki sings the sweet opening song "A Hundred Million Miracles" and duets with Jack Soo on the clever "Don't Marry Me." Of course, there are some forgettable songs as well, including the melodic but empty "Love, Look Away."
Nancy Kwan times three!
Filmed entirely on studio sets, Flower Drum Song bursts with bright colors and the cast provides plenty of high energy. Nancy Kwan may not sing her songs (her vocals are dubbed by B.J. Baker), but she dances up a storm. And while the cast was ignored by the Academy Awards, the film earned Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Score, and Best Sound.

Flower Drum Song may not rank with the best Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals, but even their second-best is better than most. I was happily surprised and recommend checking it out if you haven't done already.

Here's one of the musical numbers, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel: