Monday, February 22, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Bogie Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Humphrey Bogart film 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!

1.  Everybody Comes to Rick's.

2.  Charlie & Rose.

3.  The Outlaw John Murrell.

4.  Quest for Blood!

5.  A Snake Called Adolphe.

6.  The Chauffeur's Daughter.

7.  Black Tunnel.

8.  The 8666th M*A*S*H.

9.  The Impending Storm.

10. The Lulu Belle.

11. Badges.

12. Trees of Stones.

13. Slim.

14. Court Martial!

15. Glove on the Canvas.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Seven Things to Know About William Hopper

1. William Hopper auditioned for the TV series Perry Mason--for the role of Perry! You can view his screen test opposite Ray Collins as Lieutenant Tragg on YouTube. The part went to Raymond Burr, of course, and Hopper was cast as private investigator Paul Drake. He was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series in 1959.

2. William DeWolf Hopper Jr. was born in 1915 to actors DeWolf and Hedda Hopper. His father became a theatre producer and his mother became a famous Hollywood gossip columnist. For William's film roles in the 1930s and 1940s, he was listed as DeWolf Hopper--if he got a credit at all.

3. In her 1962 book The Whole Truth and Nothing But, Hedda Hopper wrote about her son: "When he went off to war, he'd already attained stature as an actor. On his return--with a medal for valor which I've never seen--not one soul in the motion picture industry offered him a job. Hell would have frozen over before I'd have asked anyone for help for a member of my family. So Bill went to work selling automobiles for "Madman" Muntz. One day he woke up to the fact that he was an actor, got himself a part with Bill Wellman in The High and the Mighty--and asked Wellman not to tell anybody who his mother was."

4. William Hopper acted in over 100 films prior to joining the Navy during World War II. His appearances consisted of bit parts, though often in A-pictures with stars like John Garfield, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. He was in six Errol Flynn films: Virginia City, They Died With Their Boots On, Dive Bomber, Footsteps in the Dark, Desperate Journey, and Gentleman Jim.

5. William Hopper and Raymond Burr each acted in films opposite Natalie Wood prior to Perry Mason. Hopper played Natalie Wood's father in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Burr starred as a psychopath who held Wood's character captive in A Cry in the Night (1956). 

With Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed.
6. Hopper's other notable pre-Perry Mason film roles were in The Bad Seed (1956) as little Rhoda's father and in the science fiction movies The Deadly Mantis and 20 Million Miles to Earth (both 1957). He appeared earlier in Conquest of Space (1955), co-starring two other future TV stars: Eric Fleming (Rawhide) and Ross Martin (The Wild Wild West).

7. William Hopper retired from acting after Perry Mason ended its run--though he had a small unbilled part as a judge in Myra Breckinridge (1970). He died of pneumonia after experiencing a stroke in 1970; he was 55. He was survived by his second wife Jeanette Ward and daughter Joan from his first marriage. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

How the West Was Won

James Stewart and Carroll Baker.
The words “epic” and “”sprawling” are typically used to describe MGM’s 164-minute, 1962 all-star Western. At the risk of sounding mundane, that’s still an apt description. Filmed in the widescreen process Cinerama, How the West Was Won explores the settling of the Old West through the eyes of the Prescott family. A key theme is the evolution of transportation from the rivers to the wagon trains to the railroad.

Debbie Reynolds and Thelma Ritter.
The story is divided into five segments that cover two generations of Prescotts. The opening tale focuses on young Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker), who falls in love with a beaver trapper (James Stewart) and eventually settles in Ohio. The second segment takes place several years later with Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) traveling via wagon train to California to claim a gold mine. The remaining stories revolve around Eve’s oldest son Zeb and his experiences in the Civil War, working for a railroad, and serving as a federal marshal. His last segment features an elderly Lilith, who has now retired to a ranch in Arizona. 

The most fully developed segment is the first, in which Stewart’s grizzled trapper finds himself smitten with Eve—although he can’t fathom the idea of settling down. Both characters are appealing, with their age difference of 23 years being realistic given the era. This segment also includes an exciting encounter with river pirates and a thrilling raft ride through treacherous rapids. It sets a high mark that the remainder of the film can’t match. 

Young and older George Peppard.
A recurring problem is that the other stories aren’t long enough. Each features a handful of dialogue scenes coupled with a large-scale action sequence. Certainly, those set pieces are impressive, especially a train robbery filled with amazing stunts and crashes. However, the end result is a disjointed film and the superfluous narration by Spencer Tracy doesn’t help connect the pieces. Surprisingly, James R. Webb’s screenplay won an Oscar.

On the plus side, How the West Was Won is a visually enthralling experience. Directors Henry Hathaway (who did three segments), John Ford, and George Marshall clearly understand the Western genre and incorporate the landscapes seamlessly into the drama. The film was one of only a handful of dramas shot in Cinerama, a widescreen process that incorporated three cameras to create a slightly-curved image. When How the West Was Won was later shown in non-Cinerama theaters and on television, the three images had to be “stitched” together. If you look closely at the sky in some scenes, you can see the two “seams,” which appeared as light columns.

The standouts in the all-star cast are Carroll Baker and James Stewart. Debbie Reynolds gets to perform some lively musical numbers and does a very creditable job of capturing her character as a young woman and an elderly widow. George Peppard isn't as effective in repeating that trick, though he still delivers a capable performance. Some of the stars, such as John Wayne and Henry Fonda, have what amount to cameo appearances.

The decision to focus on one family inadvertently omits the contributions of Native Americans in the taming of the Old West. In the wagon train segment, an Indian attack is played strictly for thrills. However, the railroad company's broken agreement with the Arapaho tribe gets a storyline later in the film (although one could argue the subplot is more about George Peppard's character).

Considering its length of almost three hours, How the West Was Won moves along at a nice pace. Yet, as previously mentioned, some of the stories are abbreviated. It might have worked better as a two-part film (which was not a practice in the 1960s) or a television miniseries (also not a format at the time). Ironically, a made-for-TV movie and subsequent TV series based on the movie aired in the late 1970s. They starred James Arness and Eva Marie Saint as members of the Macahan family.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Third Man on the Mountain

James MacArthur as Rudi.
I'm hoping that Disney+ will eventually provide an outlet for some of the studio's lesser-known live action films, such as The Sword and the Rose, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, and Third Man on the the Mountain. The subject of this review, Third Man on the Mountain (1959), chronicles the fictitious exploits of young Rudi Matt, whose father died while trying to reach the peak of a Swiss mountain known as The Citadel in the mid-1800s.

Rudi (James MacArthur) daydreams of scaling the treacherous rocks while working as a dishwasher. In his spare time, he seizes every opportunity to climb the smaller mountains surrounding his village. One day, he hears a distress call and rescues Captain John Winter--a famous mountain climber--who has become trapped in a crevasse. Winter wants to find an experienced guide to help him scale The Citadel. Rudi realizes this may be an opportunity to realize his dream, but first he must convince others that he's worthy of the climb.

Michael Rennie as Captain Winter.
Walt Disney, who enjoyed skiing vacations in Switzerland, acquired the screen rights to James Ramsey Ullman's 1955 novel Banner in the Sky. A winner of the prestigious Newbery Honor, Banner in the Sky was inspired by Edward Whymper's first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.

The film adaptation was shot in 1958 in the Swiss village of Zermatt, with the Matterhorn standing in for the fictitious mountain The Citadel. Allegedly, it was during his visits to the set that Disney came up with the idea for the famous Matterhorn attraction at his Disneyland theme park.

In the lead role of Rudi, Walt Disney casts James MacArthur, the adopted son of actress Helen Hayes and author Charles MacArthur (The Front Page). MacArthur had previously starred in Disney's The Light in the Forest (1958) and would go on to appear in classics such as Swiss Family Robinson and Kidnapped (both 1960).

Janet Munro as Lizbeth.
A likable, enthusiastic actor, MacArthur lacked the screen presence to carry a film on his own. Thus, Disney surrounded him with a bevy of talented performers, such as: James Donald (Quatermass and the Pit); Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Laurence Naismith (Greyfriars Bobby); and Herbert Lom (A Shot in the Dark). For Rudi's chaste love interest, Disney cast the talented Janet Munro, who had signed a five-picture deal with the studio (though she'd only complete four films). She and MacArthur would team up again in Swiss Family Robinson.

Third Man on the Mountain is shock full of thrilling mountain climbing sequences and jaw-dropping scenery. In fact, there's almost too much footage of Rudi and company scaling up the rocky walls and rappelling down them. The movie could have trimmed 15 minutes easily and told the story just as effectively. Still, the mountaineers obviously fascinated Walt, who devoted an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney to a behind-the-scenes look of the on-location shooting (which doubled as great "free" advertising, too).

While it doesn't rank with the top tier of Disney's live action adventures (e.g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson), Third Man on the Mountain is a worthy juvenile tale of a young man achieving his dream. However, I am curious to find out whether mountain climbers back then actually wore the coats and ties depicted in the movie. I would have thought they'd opt for warmer clothing. So, if you're reading this and you're a mountain climber, please let me know in the comment section below!