Monday, March 22, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Julie Newmar

1. Born as Julia Chalene Newmeyer in 1933, she was billed as Julie Newmeyer in her first major screen role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). She played Dorcas and was paired with Jeff Richards as one of the seven Pontipee brothers. Richards, a former professional baseball player, was 6' 2", which made him just three inches taller than the 5' 11" Julie Newmar.

2. Julie Newmar won a Tony award as Featured Actress in the 1958 Broadway comedy The Marriage-Go-Round, which starred Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. She played a Swedish bombshell who wanted the married Boyer, a college professor, to father her baby so the child would have brains and beauty. Newmar repeated the role in the 1961 film version with Susan Hayward and James Mason.

Julie Newmar with Jack Mullaney in My Living Doll.
3. Newmar's first TV series was the 1964-65 sitcom My Living Doll. She plays an android called Rhoda  that becomes the responsibility of an Air Force psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings. Most of the humor is derived from Cummings' character trying to keep Rhoda's android identity a secret. In an interview with Starlog Magazine (issue 148), Newmar stated that CBS considered Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. before casting Cummings. "(The show) needed a different kind of actor...It was not a flip part--it needed a straight actor who could play opposite this bizarre creature so the comedy would come off."

Catwoman with Adam West as Batman.
4. The Batman TV series was already a hit in 1966 when Julie Newmar was offered the role of Catwoman. She had never heard of the show, but her brother had--and told her she had to take the part. Newmar portrayed Catwoman in thirteen episodes during the first two seasons of Batman. Due to a scheduling conflict, she was replaced by Lee Meriwether in the 1966 Batman theatrical film. Also, Eartha Kitt replaced her as Catwoman during Batman's third and final season. Long after the show ended, Newmar acquired her form-fitting Catwoman costume and donated it to the Smithsonian Institution where it's displayed on the third floor of the Museum of American History in Washington, as one of the "National Treasures of Popular Culture."

As Vicki Russell on Route 66.
5. Julie Newmar appeared as Vicki Russell, a free-spirited, motorcycle-riding heiress in two episodes of Route 66. Her first appearance was in the second season episode "How Much a Pound is Albatross?". She returned as Vicki in the following season's "Give an Old Cat a Tender Mouse" (George Maharis had left the series by then). Thus, Julie Newmar is the only guest star to play the same character in two nonconcurrent episodes of Route 66

6. She holds a patent for panty hose! According the patent's abstract: "An elastic shaping band is attached to the rear panty portion and is connected from the vicinity of the crotch to the vicinity of the waist band and fits between the wearer's buttocks to delineate the wearer's derriere in cheeky relief."

7. Julie Newmar was married to J. Holt Smith, an attorney, from 1977 to 1984. They had one child, John Jewl Smith, who has Down's syndrome and lives with his mother. You can learn more about Julie Newmar at her website

Monday, March 15, 2021

Lemmon and Ford: Life as a Cowboy Through the Eyes of a Tenderfoot

Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford.
The incredibly versatile Delmer Daves directed three of my favorite Westerns from the 1950s, a decade in which the genre flourished. Each film is decidedly different from the other. The Hanging Tree (1959) is a tale about self-forgiveness and the power of love. 3:10 to Yuma shows how a family-oriented rancher and a bitter outlaw can develop respect for one another. The third film--the one we're reviewing today--is another tale of mutual respect. However, Cowboy is also a gritty, colorful portrait of life on the trail in the Old West.

Lemmon as a hotel clerk.
Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) is a clerk at a posh Chicago hotel who has fallen in love with Maria, the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher. Maria's father dismisses Frank's marriage proposal and decides his family will return home to Guadalupe. Frank is heartbroken, but finds a glimmer of hope when cattleman Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) checks into the hotel. Reese knows Maria's father and discusses buying cattle from him. Frank seizes on a plan: If he can convince Reese to hire him as a cowhand on the trail, perhaps Frank can still pursue Maria.

Reese has no interest in taking a tenderfoot on a cattle drive. However, when he loses a large amount of money in a poker game, Frank offers to reimburse Reese's losses. There is one condition: Reese and Frank will become partners on the next cattle drive. Reese, who has been drinking too much, agrees and he wins back most of his money. When he tries to pay off Frank, the latter refuses the cash and insists on joining the cattle drive.

It's a grueling journey in which the two men learn a lot about each other. Frank becomes tougher and more realistic, while the hardened Reese becomes more compassionate about his fellow man.

Lemmon as a cowboy.
Made in 1958, Cowboy was based on the 1930 novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy by Frank Harris. John Huston originally secured the rights as a vehicle for his father and himself. In the early 1950s, there were plans to adapt it for the screen with Spencer Tracy as Reese and Montgomery Clift as Frank. However, when those plans eventually fell through, Delmer Daves expressed interest in making it with Glenn Ford as Reese. Ford agreed on the condition that Jack Lemmon to be cast as Frank.

According to Peter Ford's biography Glenn Ford: A Life, Lemmon was initially hesitant because of his inexperience with riding a horse. Glenn Ford invited him to cocktails and, during a long evening of drinking, convinced Lemmon to accept the role. Lemmon spent the entire first day of filming on horseback and was so sore that three stuntmen had to lift him down from the saddle. In Peter Ford's book, he recalled: "I had to wear a Kotex every day for two months while I was on that friggin' horse. I was never off the damn thing long enough for (the wounds) to heal."

Richard Jaeckel and Ford.
As a film about Frank's experiences, Cowboy is understandingly episodic. Each subplot is designed to show Frank's evolution from tenderfoot to full-fledged cowboy. He watches a stupid campfire prank result in the death of one of his colleagues (Strother Martin). His rendezvous with Maria ends badly. He watches Reese and the other hands turn their back on a friend (Dick York) who's in trouble. In short, it's not an easy trek for Frank Harris, but one which does indeed toughen and transform him. Reese undergoes a transformation, too, even if it's a far more subtle one.

The two stars are fabulous together, with Ford at his gritty best and Lemmon at his most appealing in one of his first serious film roles. The latter makes it heartbreaking to watch Frank lose his initial joy as his perceptions are shattered one by one by the reality of the dusty trail. My only complaint is that Cowboy does them a disservice by rushing to its conclusion. After the script works hard to drive a wedge between the two men, it throws them into a dangerous situation and suddenly they bond together as the film ends.

Jack Lemmon never made another Western. Delmer Daves directed the excellent The Hanging Tree before transitioning to big screen soap operas. Glenn Ford, though, continued to forge a solid career in the genre, appearing in movies like Cimarron (1960), The Rounders (1965), and Day of the Evil Gun (1968).

Monday, March 8, 2021

Rodgers & Hammerstein Films: Ranked Best to Worst

Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
1. The King and I (1956) - Yul Brynner's Oscar-winning per-formance as King Mongkut of Siam anchors this clash of cultures (a popular R&H theme) and unlikely, ever-so-subtle love story. Deborah Kerr provides strong support as Anna Leonowens, a British widow who accepts the position of teacher to some of the king's many children. The king's efforts to propel his country into the 19th century make him a fascinating figure and Brynner portrays his inner struggles beautifully. The many songs includes some of R&H's most melodic compositions: Hello Young Lovers, We Kiss in the Shadows, Something Wonderful, and Shall We Dance. My only complaints: The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet is too long and Anna's son disappears for most of the film. The King and I won Oscars for Best Actor, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Recording, and Music Score.

Julie Andrews as Maria.
2. The Sound of Music (1965) - R&H's biggest box office hit played theatrically for over a year in my hometown. Julie Andrews, who snagged a Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins the previous year, earned another Oscar nomination. She plays Maria, a novice nun in a abbey near Saltzburg in the late 1930s, who is sent to serve as temporary governess to widower Captain von Trapp's seven children. In the hands of veteran musical director Robert Wise (West Side Story), The Sound of Music bursts with lively production numbers, often filmed against visually stunning on-location backgrounds. Julie Andrews is effervescent in the lead and well matched with Christopher Plummer's stern von Trapp. The score includes many of R&H's most famous songs: the title tune, My Favorite Things, Do-Re-MiEdelweiss, and Climb Ev'ry Mountain. The Sound of Music won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Editing.

Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.
3. Oklahoma! (1955) - R&H's first stage musical was hailed as innovative when it debuted in 1943. However, by the time it was adapted for film, Hollywood had already copied its formula. There's still much to enjoy with its elaborate musical numbers and director Fred Zinneman's dazzling use of outdoor locations (with Arizona substituting for Oklahoma). However, the narrative compares unfavorably to The King and I and The Sound of Music. The plot essentially revolves around farm girl Laurey's unwillingness to acknowledge her love for confident cowboy Curly. Its popular score includes: Oh What a Beautiful Mornin', The Surrey With the Fringe On Top, People Will Say We're In Love, and the title song. As with the later King and I, there's a lengthy ballet (presented as a dream sequence) that probably worked better on stage. It was surprisingly ignored at the Oscars, only earning wins for Best Sound and Best Music Score.

4. Flower Drum Song (1961) - R&H return to their favorite theme of contrasting cultures, only this time it's a clash between the old and the young among the Chinese-Americans living in San Francisco. The older residents wants to retain many of their culture's traditions while the younger folks want to embrace their new freedoms. The first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast, Flower Drum Song is an ensemble piece filmed almost entirely on studio sets. While it boasts its share of clever songs (I Enjoy Being a Girl) and pretty ballads (You Are Beautiful), there were no breakout hits. Flower Drum Song was also a box office disappointment and didn't win any Oscars. It's a more intimate film than its predecessors and the cast imbues it with charm and warmth.

Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie.
5. South Pacific (1958) - Racial prejudice is the dominant theme in this musical drama set on a South Pacific island during World War II. The plot follows two romances: the first is between a U.S. Navy nurse (Mitzi Gaynor) and a French plantation owner; the second is between a Navy lieutenant and a young Polynesian woman. The problem is that the first romance is joined in progress and the second one is never fully developed. Star Mitzi Gaynor shines throughout, delivering her uptempo songs with energy and her passionate ones with subtlety. However, Joshua Logan's decision to shoot the musical numbers through color filters is a major distraction. (To his defense, his intent was to use softer colors, but the processing was muffed.) Musical highlights include: I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, and Some Enchanted Evening. Happy Talk, though, may be the worst R&H song in any of their movies.

Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain.
6. State Fair (1945) and (1962) - This musical is the only one that R&H wrote expressly for the silver screen. The basic plot is the same in both versions: The Frakes, a farming family, spend several days at the state fair. Father Frake aims to win a blue ribbon with his prize hog Blue Boy. Mother wants to win the mincemeat competition. Their kids Margy and Wayne fall in love with, respectively, a journalist and a carnival show singer. I've lumped the original and the remake together because the quality is about the same. Margy's romance works better in the 1945 film with Jeanne Crain while Wayne's relationship is better developed in the 1962 remake with Pat Boone. State Fair is a lighthearted affair compared to the other, more ambitious R&H musicals. However, since it featured songs written expressly for the film, it earned its composers an Oscar for the bittersweet It Might as Well Be Spring.

7. Carousel (1956) - It was a bold risk to build a musical around an unlikable character: a handsome, self-centered carnival barker named Billy Bigelow who marries an naïve young woman. It was also intriguing to have Billy tell his story in flashback, while taking a break from polishing stars in what appears to be Heaven. Unfortunately, it's extremely hard to root for Billy, who constantly makes poor decisions and only redeems himself (somewhat) in the final three minutes of the movie. Oklahoma! star Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones sing beautifully and, for musical die-hards, the June Is Bustin' Out All Over number is pretty elaborate. The big hits were If I Loved You and the inspirational I'll Never Walk Alone.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Ray Harryhausen's Valley of Gwangi

Gwangi: The star of the movie!
Made in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi is one of those movies that seems to improve with age. Its far-out “cowboys vs. dinosaur” premise has always held a certain appeal. However, repeat viewings have allowed me to truly appreciate the little touches that made special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the greatest stop-motion animator in motion picture history.

Set in Mexico at the turn of the century, Gwangi stars James Franciscus as Tuck Kirby, a hustler always eager to make a quick buck. He arrives in town to convince his former girlfriend T.J. (Gila Golan) to sell her “diving horse” to Wild Bill Hickok. Tuck thinks T.J. needs the money to save her Wild West show. However, T.J. eventually reveals that she has a new money-making attraction: a miniature horse dubbed El Diablo. The creature was found in the secret Forbidden Valley—one of those places that warrants warnings from wise old gypsy women.

Tuck befriends a paleontologist (Laurence Naismith), who reveals that El Diablo is an eohippus, a prehistoric ancestor of horses. While he and Tuck argue on El Diablo’s future, the gypsies kidnap the little horse and return him to the Forbidden Valley with T.J.’s men in pursuit. When everyone arrives in the now no-longer-secret valley, they discover a prehistoric world that has defied time. It’s “ruled” by a ferocious T-Rex dubbed Gwangi. When the carnivorous creature is injured following a cave collapse, Tuck decides to capture it. After all, Gwangi could be the biggest show attraction in the world!
A wire was used for the rope when animating the lasso.
If a connection between The Valley of Gwangi and King Kong seems obvious, that’s because the former was originally conceived by Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator that brought Kong to life. O’Brien, who later became Harryhausen’s mentor, did a significant amount of pre-production work on the project, then titled The Valley of Mists, in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, RKO shelved the project, allegedly because its executives thought the public was no longer interested in dinosaurs. O’Brien’s premise did serve as a basis for a low-budget American-Mexican production called The Beast of Hollow Mountain in 1956, which was quickly forgotten. A decade later, when Harryhausen and his production partner Charles Schneer were exploring ideas for a new film, Ray remembered the abandoned Valley of Mists.

The Valley of Gwangi gets off to a leisurely start before transitioning to 45 minutes of almost non-stop cowboys vs. dinosaurs action. The film's highlight is the sequence where Tuck and the gang try to lasso the T-Rex. It took Harryhausen five months to animate the scene, carefully matching footage of the actors throwing ropes at a pole mounted in a jeep with the stop-motion movements of his dinosaur model. To "animate" the rope, Harryhausen used wire--again synchronizing it to match the actual lassos being thrown in the live footage.
The T-Rex takes on a Styracosaurus while cowboys watch.
For a scene where Gwangi confronts an elephant, Harryhausen originally intended to use real footage of an elephant. When the filmmakers were unable to procure a pachyderm on location (the film was shot in Spain), Harryhausen went ahead and animated the elephant, too.

While it's true that Gwangi lacks the expressive emotions that made King Kong special, one must realize that the T-Rex wasn't known for sensitivity. On the other hand, Harryhausen adds the little details that make the dinosaur seem real. My favorite is a quick shot in which Gwangi, seen in the distance, pauses to swipe at his nose with one of his little "arms."

Gila Golan and James Franciscus.
In an special effects-driven movie like Gwangi, the human actors are there to basically move the story. James Franciscus is an unlikely choice for a Western; his well-groomed looks just don't seem to fit (at least he looked scruffier in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Still, he's a capable actor and thus pulls off the part of the hustler who eventually realizes he's taken on more than he can handle. Laurence Naismith adds some class to the film, playing the kind of British gentlemen that he specialized in. It's hard to judge Gila Golan's thespian skills as the Israeli actress was dubbed after the producers determined her accent was too strong.

The film's star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen. The Valley of Gwangi doesn't rank with his best work (e.g., Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), but it's a diverting little picture with some incredible stop-motion special effects.