Monday, May 31, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Jack Lemmon Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Jack Lemmon 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. Meltdown.

2. Tenderfoot.

3. Homage.

4. Enter!

5. The Witches of Greenwich Village.

6. Josephine and Daphne.

7. The Legend of Whiplash Willie.

8. Some Days You Win, Some Days You Lose. (This might be a hard one!)

9. Love and Gin Rummy.

10. Lobsters on a Train!

11. The Disappearance of Flight 23.

12. Ex-Presidents.

13. New York Ain't For Everyone!

14. The Leslie Special vs. The Hannibal Twin-8.

15. Father Tim.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Van Cleef Seeks Revenge; Holden Steals Cattle!

Lee Van Cleef as Ryan.
Death Rides a Horse (1967).  As young Bill Meceita watches a vicious outlaw gang slaughter his family, he notes a distinguishing feature on each killer--a scar, an earring, a tattoo, a spur. Two decades later, a dead cowboy provides a key clue that reignites Bill's desire to avenge his family. As he tracks down the villains, he keeps encountering a man named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef). Recently paroled, the older Ryan has his own reasons for finding the same outlaws. Inevitably, Ryan and Bill team up to take down the outlaw's gang leader, who has become a successful (albeit crooked) businessman.

John Philip Law as Bill.
Like the previous year's blockbuster The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Death Rides a Horse was written Luciano Vincenzoni, features music by Ennio Morricone, and, of course, stars Van Cleef. Thematically, though, it shares more in common with Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965). Each film features two men pursuing the same villain independently, though they eventually have to team up to accomplish their goal. Some film critics have claimed the two Spaghetti Westerns also share a mentor-protégé premise. That may be true of Death Rides a Horse, but Van Cleef's ex-colonel and Clint Eastwood's bounty hunter do not fit that mold in For a Few Dollars More

In the hands of director Giulio Petroni, Death Rides a Horse is an above-average Spaghetti Western punctuated with a handful of well-staged shootouts. The relationship between Ryan and Bill (John Philip Law) is well-developed, though the big twist is obvious from the moment Ryan is shown on screen. 

Unlike Eastwood, who moved back to Hollywood after his Spaghetti Western hits, Van Cleef remained in Europe until the late 1970s. His most successful non-Leone Western was probably Sabata (1969), though Death Rides a Horse has attained cult status over the years.

Alvarez Kelly (1966).  During the American Civil War, cattleman Alvarez Kelly delivers a herd of steers to the Union Army, who needs beef to feed its troops. However, Kelly barely has time to count his profits before he's kidnapped by the Confederates. They want him to help them steal the cattle for their troops!

Loosely based on a real-life event called the Beefsteak Raid, Alvarez Kelly squanders a promising premise and a strong cast. The film's central focus seems to be the relationship between the apathetic Kelly (William Holden) and a passionate Confederate colonel (Richard Widmark). To drive a deeper wedge between the men, the script includes a hasty subplot in which Kelly helps the colonel's fiancée (a poorly-utilized Janice Rule) escape from the surrounded Virginia capital of Richmond. Despite this, the audience is led to believe that Kelly and the colonel can still become "frenemies."

Standard fare like Alvarez Kelly and Paris When It Sizzles (1964) stifled Holden's career in the mid-1960s. Fortunately, it got a huge shot in the arm when Sam Peckinpah cast Holden as the lead in The Wild Bunch (1969). Richard Widmark wasn't as lucky, though he got a juicy role as an NYC detective in Madigan (1968) and its belated TV series (which aired under one of NBC's Mystery Movies in 1972-73).

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Celebrate National Classic Movie Day with the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon!

Tomorrow marks the celebration of National Classic Movie Day and, as is tradition, we're hosting a blogathon to highlight this annual May 16th event. This year, we're asking classic movie bloggers to list one favorite film from each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s (or, one film per decade from the 1930s through the 1980s). Our goal is to shine the spotlight on the incredible movies that were made during cinema's classic era.

Thirty of our favorite movie bloggers are participating. We invite you to check out their blogathon entries below. We will highlight a blog's title in red as its 6 Films - 6 Decades entry is published.

Box Office Poisons

Caftan Woman

Cinema Essentials

CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch

Classic Film Obsessions

Classic Film & TV Cafe

Critica Retro


The Everyday Cinephile 

Four Star Films

goosepimply all over

The Lady Eve's Reel Life

Love Letters to Old Hollywood

The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film

Old Books and Movies

Once Upon a Screen

A Person in the Dark

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies

Realweegiemidget Reviews

Reel Charlie

Shadows and Satin

Silver Scenes

Silver Screenings

the Story Enthusiast

Taking Up Room

Thoughts All Sorts

Twenty Four Frames

Whimsically Classic

My Picks for the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon

For my entry in the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon, I chose a favorite film from each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s. My criterion was a simple one: These are classics I can watch over and over again! If I join one of them in progress while channel surfing, you can bet I will be watching the rest of the movie again.

James Olson and Arthur Hill.
The Andromeda Strain (1971) – This superior science fiction outing pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. Its critics have labeled it slow-moving and overlong, but I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s a doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month-old baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people? Part of the appeal for me is that The Andromeda Strain includes one of my favorite plot devices: the forming of a team in which each member is introduced to the audience.

James Stewart as the pilot.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) – Director Robert Aldrich bookends The Flight of the Phoenix with a wild airplane crash and an exhilarating climax. But it’s the drama in-between that makes the film so fascinating: the friction among the survivors; their audacious plan to reach civilization again; and a brilliant plot twist that comes out of nowhere. Despite the presence of stars James Stewart, Peter Finch, and supporting actor Oscar nominee Ian Bannen, the cast standouts are Hardy Kruger and Richard Attenborough. Kruger creates an unforgettable character as a quiet, bespeckled German who proposes an incredible plan to save the plane crash survivors—he's irritating, childish, determined, and innovative. It’s a well-rounded performance matched by Attenborough’s wonderfully understated turn. As the unassuming man who holds everyone together, Attenborough’s character soothes egos and forges unlikely alliances in the best interests of the group.

James Stewart and Ben Gazzara.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate the jury's emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Out of the Past (1947) –  My favorite film noir has Robert Mitchum as a man who has put his shady past behind him and found love with a good woman in a small community where he operates a gas station. But, as is often the case in the movies, his past catches up with him when a former acquaintance passes through town. With its contrasts of bright lights and dark shadows, Out of the Past is a visual feast. It’s also a compelling tale of a man pulled back into the shadows of his past—no matter how hard he tries to escape them. Kirk Douglas nails the manipulating villain; too bad he didn’t play more bad guys. Yet, despite the presence of Mitchum and Douglas, the film belongs to Jane Greer, an underrated and under-utilized actress who created one of the genre’s best femme fatales.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) – It's hard not to list The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Wizard of Oz as my1930s representative, but I've written about them before. So instead, I will opt for another Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland classic. Often criticized for its historical inaccuracies, The Charge of the Light Brigade is nonetheless a top-notch historical action film. Against the backdrop of the Crimean War, Errol and Patric Knowles play brothers vying for Olivia's affections. An early scene informs us that Olivia’s character, though engaged to Flynn, has secretly fallen in love with Knowles. This knowledge causes us to empathize with Flynn’s British officer as his emotions evolve from disbelief to anger to understanding. I think it’s one of Flynn’s finest performances. The climatic charge, directed by Michael Curtiz, is an incredible sequence (although it resulted in many complaints over the mistreatment of horses).

Spies (aka Spione) (1928) - A diabolical genius heads a mysterious criminal organization bent on world domination. A secret agent, known only by a number, is given the mission to stop the villain. A femme fatale is dispatched to kill the hero--but instead falls in love with him. Is this the plot of the latest James Bond movie? No, it's Fritz Lang's influential silent film Spies, which pre-dates 007's movie debut by 34 years. Spies often gets lost amid Lang's early German silent classics such as Dr. Mabuse (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1927). And yet, in terms of entertainment and as an expression of Lang's love of cinema, Spies surpasses those better-known films. It's a thrill ride from start to finish, highlighted by a nailbiting train crash and a climax with a clown that could have been devised by Hitchcock. For many years, only a 90-minute print was available--and that's the one I've seen. In 2004, it was restored to 143 minutes.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Love, Hogs, and Mincemeat at the State Fair!

Ann-Margret and Pat Boone.
This bright 1962 remake of the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) was clearly intended to attract the young adult audience. Top-billed Pat Boone had scored a #1 hit song with "Moody River" the previous year. Co-star Bobby Darin was still churning out hit singles with regularity. For good measure, the cast included two up-and-coming actresses: Ann-Margret and Pamela Tiffin.

Boone and Tiffin played siblings who are attending the Texas State Fair with their parents. Wayne Frake (Pat Boone) hopes to win an auto race. His mother has entered her mincemeat into a contest. Dad has big plans for his prized hog Blue Boy. As for their daughter Margy (Pamela Tiffin), she is looking for something--she's just not sure what.

Pamela Tiffin as Margy.
To their surprise, both of the Frake kids find love at the fair. In between fine-tuning his car's carburetor, Wayne falls hard for Emily (Ann-Margret), a vivacious entertainer that's unlike any of the girls back in Wayne's home town. In another case of opposites attract, Margy becomes enamored with a smooth-talking TV host (Bobby Darin). 

Will the kids' romances turn out to be the "real thing"? Will Mom's mincemeat triumph over the big companies? Will Blue Boy regain his confidence and become top hog? State Fair answers all these questions!

The plot hews pretty closely with the 1945 version, the only musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote directly for the screen. In the earlier film, Wayne isn't an amateur race car driver, Margy's boyfriend is a newspaper reporter, and the setting is the Iowa State Fair. Richard Rodgers also wrote the music and lyrics for five news songs for the 1962 film. (Incidentally, I can't imagine the song "Never Say No to a Man" being included in any future productions.)

Ann-Margret as Emily.
As expected, Pat Boone is the featured vocalist. Surprisingly, Bobby Darin has only one solo number, the mediocre "This Isn't Heaven" (one of the new tunes). The musical highlight belongs to Ann-Margret, who turns "Isn't It Kinda Fun" into a dynamic song-and-dance number. The soundtrack's most famous song, the Oscar-winning "It Might As Well Be Spring," is lip-synced by Pamela Tiffin; most references list Anita Gordon as the singer.

While generally pleasant and diverting, State Fair is still a lesser effort compared to other Rodgers-Hammerstein musicals. Frankly, the songs aren't as good and director José Ferrer doesn't know how to shoot a musical. For example, he uses a wide shot during much of "It Might As Well Be Spring," a sweetly melancholy song that calls for close-ups of the performer's face.

Incidentally, Wally Cox is on-screen for less than ten minutes, but proves to be a supreme scene-stealer as a contest judge who can't enough of Ma Frakes' brandy-soaked mincemeat.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Burgess Meredith

1. In So Far, So Good: A Memoir, Burgess Meredith wrote: "Well, everybody was taking parts in Batman — from Frank Sinatra to Otto Preminger, everyone. It was the trendy thing to do back then. The Penguin stuck to me because the character was vivid." Actually, Sinatra never played a Batman villain. He reportedly wanted to play The Joker...but Cesar Romero was already signed for the role. 

2. Surprisingly, Meredith's most memorable TV role was not as The Penguin. He played bank teller and book lover Henry Bemis in "Time Enough to Last," one of the most beloved episodes of Twilight Zone. He once said: "I've heard...more about it than anything else I've done on television. I think it must have had a great impact on people. I don't suppose there's a month goes by, even to this day, that people don't come up and remind me of that episode."

3. In an 2016 interview with Empire Online, Rocky director John Avildsen said: "A lot of people came in to audition for the role of Mickey, the trainer. I wouldn’t hire anybody unless they auditioned and I liked them. Lee J. Cobb came in and he wouldn’t audition. We got Lee Strasberg to audition. Then Burgess [Meredith] came in and they read the scene where Rocky is told that he has to get out of his locker. He read the scene a few times and then I said, 'Why don’t you guys go through the scene and do it in your own words?' So they did, and at the end Rocky is walking away, dejected, and Burgess yells, 'Hey, did you ever think about retiring?' Stallone doesn’t know what to say to him, so he says, 'No,' and Burgess says, 'Well, start thinking about it.' That was just perfect, and that’s how he got the job."

Meredith as Mickey in Rocky.
4. Burgess Meredith was highly respected among his acting peers. He received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for The Day of the Locust (1975) and Rocky (1976). He won an Emmy as attorney Joseph Welch in Tail Gunner Joe, a 1977 TV movie about Joseph McCarthy. (Interestingly, the real Joseph Welch played the judge in Anatomy of a Murder.) He received another Emmy nomination that same year for a TV version of The Last Hurrah. Finally, he was nominated for a Tony for directing the Broadway play Ulysses in Nighttown (1974) and received a Special Tony for directing A Thurber Carnival in 1960.

5. Director Otto Preminger was a big Burgess Meredith fan and cast the actor in 1962's Advise and Consent (one of my personal favorites), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971).

6. In addition to directing for the stage, Meredith helmed two theatrical films. The first was The Man in the Eiffel Tower (1949), a mystery starring Charles Laughton as Inspector Jules Maigret. The second was the 1970 oddity The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go with James Mason and Jack MacGowran. Its poster claims: "It'll make you think of Dr. No!" Honestly, I don't believe you will. Meredith's most accomplished directing job was on the Playhouse 90 live TV drama The Days of Wine and Roses, which starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. (She discussed it with us in 2014.)

7. Burgess Meredith was married four times. His third wife was Paulette Goddard; their marriage lasted five years. He stayed married to fourth wife, Kaja Sundsten, from 1950 until his death. They had two children. Burgess Meredith died in 1997 at age 89.