Monday, July 27, 2020

The Black Hole Sinks into Itself

In the wake of the massive success of Star Wars (1977), Walt Disney Productions mounted its own science fiction adventure in 1979 with The Black Hole. The concept must have looked promising on paper: A 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea set in outer space for a new generation of young people. However, The Black Hole teeters on the brink of a total disaster with its uneven mixture of seriousness and silliness.

It opens with the crew of the the spaceship Palomino discovering a black hole and a nearby ship capable of defying its gravitational pull. The mysterious spaceship turns out to be the Cygnus, which was assumed to have been destroyed 20 years earlier. After getting too close to the black hole and suffering damage, the Palomino docks inside the much larger Cygnus. The latter ship turns out to still be functional and occupied by its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and a crew of robots.

Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt.
Reinhardt claims that meteors disabled the Cygnus, causing him to evacuate almost the entire crew. He assumed that their escape ship had reached Earth. Reinhardt remained behind with a handful of others--all now dead--and repaired the spaceship with the goal of entering into the black hole.

While some of the Palomino crew believe Reinhardt, others remain skeptical. Their suspicions are reinforced by an unusual robot funeral, a robot that limps, and a garden much larger than required for one human. Could it be that Reinhardt's silent "robots" are actually what's left of his human crew?

As evidenced from above, The Black Hole is not a sci fi romp along the lines of Star Wars. It's a picture devoid of any fun and lacking any action until its final half-hour. The only character with any heft is Reinhardt, who is played with passion and menace by Maximilian Schell. Good actors like Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine flail about trying to make sense of their parts. Borgnine eventually resorts to playing the stereotypical crew member concerned most with self-preservation--but at least he becomes relevant.

Vincent the robot, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine.
Apparently because this is a Disney film, the writers plop two cute robots into the proceedings. They don't belong in the movie and it's awkward when one of the robots banters with Timothy Bottoms when the crew should be focusing on avoiding its demise. Still, the robots are voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, which makes it almost impossible to criticize them.

The Black Hole was Disney's most expensive production to date and most of the budget went toward the special effects. Instead of farming out the effects (which is now the norm), Disney relied on its in-house technicians. The results are sometimes spectacular and sometimes surprisingly shoddy. The entrance into Reinhardt's control room and a sequence with a meteor hurling toward our heroes are jaw-dropping. On the other hand, you can see wires attached to the actors in some of the scenes where they're supposed to be in zero gravity. And some of the matte shots don't match, so it looks like live actors were placed into a cartoon.
The massive control room inside the Cygnus.
In my opinion, John Barry is one of the all-time great film composers. However, his score for The Black Hole rates as one of his weakest efforts. The opening theme is simply disturbing--perhaps indicative of the screenwriters' confusion over whether The Black Hole should be a sci fi adventure or a watered-down version of 2001. Even worse, the background music seems incongruent with the action scenes in the climax.

To be sure, there are some interesting ideas in The Black Hole, such as one character's ability to communicate with a robot through ESP. However, the film is mostly just a jumbled mess. I'm still not sure what to make of the scenes inside the black hole which show what appears to be hell and includes an angel  floating swiftly through the air. Maybe Stanley Kubrick could have made some sense of it.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Movie-TV Connection Game (July 2020)

Rex Harrison and Marc Singer.
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. Bob Denver and Ray Milland.

2. Ray Milland and Leslie Howard.

3. Leslie Howard and Bruce Campbell.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Man With the Golden Gun.

5. Rex Harrison and Marc Singer.

6. Charlotte's Web (1973) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).

7. Honeymoon in Vegas and Beach Blanket Bingo.

8. Jennifer (1978) and Stanley (1972).

9. Jane Eyre (1944) and Peter Pan (1953).

10. The Wolf Man and The List of Adrian Messenger.

11. The Bishop's Wife and For Your Eyes Only.

12. James Mason and Claude Rains.

13. Barbra Streisand and Ginger Rogers.

14. Born Losers (1967) and Beach Party.

15. The Sound of Music and Bedazzled (1967).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Classic Movies and Television on Peacock TV

This month, NBCUniversal launched a new streaming service called Peacock TV. It offers two tiers: a limited version that's free and a more robust one that costs $4.99 monthly (though it may be free with your cable service). Both tiers include commercials; it costs $9.99 to go commercial-free. We spent the last two months watching Peacock TV on Comcast Xfinity cable--which equates to the $4.99 monthly tier with commercials. Here's our review!

Let's start with the big question: With all the streaming services available, is Peacock TV a worthwhile investment for the classic film and TV fan? The answer is "maybe." 

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo.
If you're hoping for a plethora of classic TV shows, you'll be disappointed. Most of the television series are either new ones developed for Peacock or recent shows that aired on NBC or the USA network. The most notable exceptions are ColumboAlfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Rockford Files, The Munsters, and Murder, She Wrote. Granted, you can currently watch some of these for free (e.g., The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on MeTV), but Peacock lets you binge the shows at your own speed. My wife and I recently finished season one of AHP (which I reviewed here earlier).

Peacock TV offers "hundreds of movies," which is substantially fewer than the big streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Yet, while its quantity is limited, its quality is pretty impressive in terms of classic movies. There are a lot of Hitchcock films, including Saboteur, Shadow of a DoubtRope, Rear Window, and every film he made from The Trouble With Harry (1955) to Family Plot (1976). 

If you're a fan of Universal's classic horror movies, then you'll love exploring Peacock's collection of Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Invisible Man movies. Even the Abbott and Costello comedies featuring the Universal monsters are included (though I was disappointed that Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer was missing). 

Sophia Loren in Arabesque.
There are a few notable pre-1950s films, such as Beau Geste (Gary Cooper), Shanghai Express, Death Takes a Holiday (Fredric March), Horse Feathers, The Lady Eve, and Double Indemnity. However, Peacock fares better with an impressive sample of movies from the 1950s through the 1970s. There are Hitchcock imitations (Charade, Arabesque, Midnight Lace), Doris Day comedies (The Thrill of It All, Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back), Westerns (Bend of the River, The Far Country), science fiction (It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man), Douglas Sirk soaps (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life), and thrillers (The Day of the Jackal).

The movies I watched included about three minutes of commercials upfront and then were shown without any interruptions. The TV shows, though, seem to have one to three commercials, though the breaks are usually pretty brief. 

It remains to be seen how often Peacock plans to freshen its classic film and TV content. If the movies and shows change on a regular basis, then the Peacock TV $4.99 tier might be a worthwhile investment. Of course, that assumes you don't already own a lot of these classics on DVD and don't want to wait for them to pop up on TCM.

Here's a current sample of classic films (note that these titles are subject to change at any time):

All that Heavens Allows
Arabesque
Beau Geste (1939 and 1966 versions)
A Foreign Affair
Bend of the River
Black Horse Canyon
Blonde Venus
Border River
Bride of Frankenstein 
Cape Fear
Charade
The Curse of the Werewolf
The Day of the Jackal
Death Takes a Holiday
Death of a Gunfighter
Desire
Destry Rides Again
Double Indemnity
Dracula (1931)
Duck Soup
The Eiger Sanction
The Far Country
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Frankenstein (1931)
Going My Way
The Great Impostor
Horse Feathers
Houdini
Imitation of Life (both versions)
The Incredible Shrinking Man
It Came From Outer Space
King King (1933)
Lady Godiva
Lady On a Train
Lover Come Back
The Major and the Minor
Man of a Thousand Faces
Marnie
McHale’s Navy
Midnight Lace
My Favorite Blonde
No Man of Her Own
Pillow Talk
Play Misty for Me
Psycho
Rear Window
Remember the Night
Road to Morocco (and Utopia and Zanzibar)
Rope
Scarface
Shadow of a Doubt
Shanghai Express
Tammy Tell Me True
Tammy and the Doctor
Texas Across the River
Topaz
Spartacus
The Sting
Three Smart Girls
The Trouble with Harry
Vertigo

Monday, July 13, 2020

Seven Things to Know About I.A.L. Diamond

1. Beginning with Love in the Afternoon (1957), I.A.L. Diamond wrote twelve movies with Billy Wilder over a period of 25 years. Their biggest hits included Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1961), and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Diamond and Wilder won an Academy Award for original screenplay for The Apartment and were Oscar-nominated for Some Like It Hot and The Fortune Cookie.

2. In a Vanity Fair interview with Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder talked of his collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond: "It’s always very difficult for me to say, 'This is mine and this is his,' always, except of course I have to give him credit for 'Nobody’s perfect' (the closing line in Some Like It Hot). Because that’s the thing they jump on, and I say, 'That was a temporary line, suggested by Mr. Diamond.' And it wound up to be our funniest last line."

3. Diamond was born Itek Domneci and immigrated from what's now Moldova to the U.S. when he was nine. His father changed the family's last name to Diamond.  However, it was Itek who legally changed his first name to I.A.L.--allegedly because it sounded more literary. Another story is that the I.A.L. stood for Interscholastic Algebra League; the young Diamond was a math wiz who was the league's champion. In Hollywood, Diamond became known simply as Iz.

Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.
4. Although Diamond was known mostly for writing with Wilder, he also wrote or co-wrote films such as:  Never Say Goodbye (1946) with Errol Flynn; Monkey Business (1952) with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers; Merry Andrew (1958) with Danny Kaye; and Cactus Flower (1969) with Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress).

5. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were widely admired by their fellow screenwriters. They were nominated for the Writer Guild Association (WGA) award ten times and won three (Love in the Afternoon, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment). The WGA honored Diamond with its honorary Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement in 1980.

6. I.A.L. Diamond married Barbara Ann Bentley in 1945. They remained together until his death in 1988, at age 67, of multiple myeloma. They had two children, son Paul and daughter Ann. Paul became a screenwriter and penned scripts for TV series such as Miami Vice Married...With Children, and Knight Rider.

I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder.
7. In the Vanity Fair interview, Billy Wilder also described his highly successful working relationship with Diamond: "We never talked about personal things. That was the beauty of it. I came in the morning; he came in the morning. He gets The Hollywood Reporter and I get Variety. Then we exchanged the trade papers, and then we said, 'Now, where are we?' 'Oh, yes . . .' And then it goes on. He was a unique man, so unique. It was not a collaboration like with (Charles) Brackett, where he told me who his dentist is, kind of things that don’t belong, you know. But Iz Diamond was a very taciturn guy, my partner. It was wonderful to talk about dialogue, or about structure. He was always on the set with me."

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Perry Mason Primer

Warren William as Perry.
Raymond Burr will always be Perry Mason for millions of mystery fans, but Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer hit the big screen twenty years before the long-running TV series.

Warren William was a sharp-witted, gourmet-minded Mason in four Warner Bros. films, beginning with 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog. William seemed a natural for the part, having already played that urbane sleuth Philo Vance and destined to play the Lone Wolf, a jewel thief and detective. In fact, William’s Mason did so much detection that it was easy to forget he was a lawyer and some entries were devoid of courtroom scenes. Two of William’s films are of special interest. The Case of the Curious Bride featured superstar-to-be Errol Flynn as a murder victim and Donald Woods, a future Perry Mason, in another supporting role. Meanwhile, The Case of the Velvet Claws found Mason and secretary Della Street (Claire Dodd) married and trying to take a honeymoon! Comic actor Allen Jenkins played Perry’s detective assistant Spudsy (not Paul) Drake in some of the films.

In 1936, former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez replaced William in The Case of the Black Cat and Donald Woods finished the Warner series with 1937’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.

Raymond Burr.
The Perry Mason TV series debuted in 1957 and enjoyed a nine-year run on CBS. Burr played the lead, of course, with Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as detective Paul Drake, William Talman as prosecuting attorney Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg (Collins died prior to the 1965-66 season). Interestingly, William Hopper also auditioned for the part of Perry (you can probably find his screen test on YouTube).

In 1973, CBS revived the show as The New Perry Mason starring Monte Markham, but it folded after half a season. It co-starred Sharon Acker as Della, Albert Stratton as Paul, Dane Clark as Tragg, and Harry Guardino as Burger. It has never been released on video, but you still might find a few episodes on the video website Daily Motion.

Burr's return as Perry.
Then, in 1985, NBC brought back Raymond Burr in the TV-movie Perry Mason Returns, reuniting him with Hale and introducing William Katt (Hale’s real-life son) as Paul Drake’s son. The premise had a bearded Perry resigning as appellate court judge to defend Della when she is accused of murder. The film’s ratings went through the roof and a series of equally high-rated made-for-TV movies quickly evolved. NBC showed two to four Mason films annually for the next eight years. William Katt bowed out after the 1988 season, with William R. Moses coming aboard as new private eye Ken Malansky. Following Burr’s death from kidney cancer in 1993, NBC produced four Perry Mason Mysteries that starred either Paul Sorvino or Hal Holbrook as Mason-like lawyers.  Barbara Hale and William R. Moses continued as series regulars. With a total of 29 films, the NBC Perry Mason films reign as the longest TV-movie series in broadcast history.

Finally, HBO revived Gardner's sleuth for television in 2020--but with some substantial changes. This new Perry Mason takes place in 1932 with Perry (Matthew Rhys) as a small-time private investigator. Intended as a "origin" series--but with no relation to the books--it also features Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) as a beat cop and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) as the legal secretary to Perry's mentor. The first season earned generally positive reviews.

Here's a list of Perry Mason movies:

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)  (Warren William)
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)  (William)
The Case of the Black Cat (1936)  (Ricardo Cortez)
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937)  (Donald Woods)

Raymond Burr TV-Movies:
Perry Mason Returns (1985)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star (1986)
Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Poison Pen (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of Skin Deep Scandal (1993)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Tell-Tale Talk Show Host (1993)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993)  (Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994)  (Hal Holbrook as “Wild Bill” McKenzie)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1995)  (Holbrook)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995)  (Holbrook)

Monday, July 6, 2020

A Black Sheep and a Young Burl Ives

Bobby Driscoll as Jeremiah.
Young Jeremiah Kincaid lives in a small Indiana town at the turn of the century--the kind of place where the train passing through is the highlight of the day for a youngster. One of those trains changes Jeremiah's life when it stops so that Dan Patch, the champion race horse, can stretch his legs. Jeremiah feeds an apple to the dark-brown horse, who quickly becomes the most prominent subject in the young boy's scrapbook.

When a little black lamb is born, and rejected by its mother, Jeremiah adopts it. His goal is raise Danny, named after Dan Patch (of course), into a prize-winning ram. Jeremiah's pragmatic grandmother, who cares for the boy, has reservations. She knows that black wool has little value. It doesn't help that Danny is a rascal, who runs rampant one day and almost destroys the farm.

Made in 1948, So Dear to My Heart is a heartwarming Disney picture that combines live action with animated sequences. To be honest, the animation doesn't add much to the film except a splash of color and some modestly entertaining songs sung by cowboy star Ken Carson. Still, if one subtracts the animated scenes, the 79-minute film would barely be long enough for a theatrical release.
Ever notice that large animated animals have deeper voices?
It's interesting to watch So Dear to My Heart knowing the trajectory of Disney family films over the next two decades. The studio would gradually abandon endearing family fare like this and Old Yellow (1957) in favor of comedies starring the likes of Fred MacMurray, Dean Jones, and Kurt Russell. 

A young-ish Burl Ives.
Burl Ives had only appeared in three films when he took the role of Uncle Hiram, the town's blacksmith and a father figure for Jeremiah. At age 39, he looks relatively trim, but still possesses the engaging smile and twinkle in the eyes that would serve him well in movies like this one. (It's also why he was so very effective in different roles, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) 

Ives also gets a chance to warble a couple of tunes, including the English folk song "Lavender Blue." It became one of his signature songs and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song (which is odd because it was not an original song).

Danny the black sheep.
 As Jeremiah and his grandmother, Bobby Driscoll and Beulah Bondi give appealing, natural performances. It's nice to see Bondi, a talented supporting actress, in a lead role and you can feel her character's angst as she struggles with how to raise her grandson. 

As for Driscoll, he earned a special juvenile Oscar in 1949 for his performances in So Dear to My Heart and The Window. Driscoll also appeared in other Disney fare such as Song of the South and Treasure Island. Unfortunately, his acting career fizzled as he grew older and, in 1961, he was sentenced to a rehab center for drug addiction.

So Dear to My Heart isn't shown as often as other Disney films. It used to be available on Hoopla, a free streaming service available through many public libraries. That ended, though, with the launch of Disney+. The film may not be one of Disney's best, but it nicely evokes a time when state fairs were a big deal and a small town could rally around the dreams of a young boy.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One

The new streaming app Peacock TV officially launches on July 15, 2020. However, it's available now for customers of Comcast's Xfinity cable service. Most of the TV shows on Peacock are recent ones from NBC. A wonderful exception is Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the classic anthology series that aired for seven seasons starting in 1955. (Incidentally, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is also available.)

While not as consistently good as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was an above-average series comprised of twisty tales. Each episode also featured a wryly amusing prologue and epilogue starring Alfred Hitchcock. Occasionally, these were better than the stories that they book-ended!

The actors that appeared on AHP were a mix of big-name stars (Claude Rains, Joseph Cotten, Barry Fitzgerald, Thelma Ritter, Claire Trevor), promising newcomers (Vera Miles, Joanne Woodward, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson), and Hitchcock movie regulars (John Williams, Pat Hitchcock). The Master of Suspense directed four of the 39 episodes.

Here are our picks for the best episodes from the first season:

Vera Miles in "Revenge."
Revenge - The first episode of the series is one of its finest! Vera Miles stars as a woman, recovering from a nervous breakdown, who claims she was assaulted in her mobile home. Later, she identifies the assailant to her husband. The twist ending is downright chilling. Hitchcock directed.

Premonition - A man (John Forsyte) returns to his hometown from Paris, packing only his toothbrush. He wants to make up with his estranged father, but everyone keeps putting obstacles in his way. Forsyte is excellent, but the outcome becomes apparent just before the climax.

Salvage - An ex-con (Gene Barry) seeks revenge on the woman who caused his brother's death. Yet, instead of killing her, he has a change of heart at the last minute--and then proceeds to help her become successful and content. A devious plot that works quite well.

Joseph Cotten in "Breakdown."
Breakdown - Hitchcock directed this tale in which style takes precedence over content. A ruthless businessman (Joseph Cotten) becomes completely paralyzed in a car accident and cannot communicate that he is alive. But we, the audience, can hear his thoughts as he becomes more and more desperate. An unique and satisfying episode.

The Case of Mr. Pelham - Another Hitchcock-directed episode in which a man (Tom Ewell) discovers that a lookalike is taking over his life. Genuinely bizarre, but still fascinating until the ending which I found somewhat lacking.

Marissa Paven and John Cassavetes.
You Got to Have Luck - A killer (John Cassavetes) breaks out of prison and hides out in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a young wife (Marissa Paven). Well-acted and featuring one of the best twists of the season.

The Creeper - A serial killer is murdering blonde-haired women in New York City during a hot spell. Blonde-haired Ellen Grant (Constance Ford), whose husband works at night, suspects everyone. A taut tale that benefits mightily from Ford's excellent performance and an atmospheric setting that captures the discomfort and unease experienced by the characters.

Interested in more Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Check out our picks for the series' five best episodes!