Sunday, August 29, 2021

Seven Things to Know About the Emmy Awards

1. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences awarded the first Emmys in 1948. However, the first winner for Best Dramatic Show was not bestowed until 1950. That honor went to Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, which featured 60-minute adaptations of Pulitzer Prize-winning works such as You Can't Take It With You, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Mary of Scotland. The series aired on ABC and was sponsored by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.

2. Kelsey Grammer is the only actor to be nominated for playing the same character in three television series. He first appeared as Dr. Frasier Crane in Cheers and was twice nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He earned another nomination for playing Frasier in a guest-starring role on Wings in 1992. He capped it off with ten nominations and four wins for playing the title role in his Frasier TV series from 1993-2004. (And for the record, Kelsey also won for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for The Simpsons in 2006.)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast.
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was nominated for each of its first four years, but failed to win an Emmy thanks to All in the Family and M*A*S*H. However, it then won three consecutive times for Outstanding Series--Comedy. By the time it finished its seven-year run in 1977, it had racked up an amazing 41 wins in various categories. That was the record for the most Emmys won by a single TV series until Frazier passed it 25 years later.

4. Television shows developed for streaming services and cable networks dominate the prime time Emmys these days--but it wasn't always that way. The Sopranos became the first cable TV series to win Outstanding Drama Series in 2004. It was nominated in 1999, 2000, and 2001--losing to, respectively, The Practice and The West Wing (twice).

Belafonte and Emmy.
5. Harry Belafonte was the first Black performer to win an Emmy. His episode "Tonight with Belafonte" on The Revlon Revue won for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program in 1960. Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. were the first Black actors to be nominated for an Emmy in 1956. The first Black actress to win an Emmy was Gail Fisher for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Mannix in 1970.

6. As Erica Kane on All My Children, Susan Lucci was nominated 21 times for the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. She finally won an Emmy with her 19th nomination. It was her only win out of 21 total nominations. Don't feel sorry for her, though, as Susan Lucci became daytime television's highest-paid star in the early 1990s, earning $1 million annually.

7. Dick Van Dyke once said: "I've won several Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy so maybe somebody will let me have an Oscar, and then I'll have a full set."

Monday, August 23, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Roger Corman

1. Roger Corman produced Martin Scorsese's second feature-length film Boxcar Bertha (1972). In Corman and Jim Jerome's book How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Scorsese recalled: "He once said, 'Martin, what you have to get is a very good first reel because people want to know what's going on. Then you need a very good last reel because people want to hear how it turns out.' Probably the best sense I have ever heard in the movies."

2. Corman offered the lead role in his motorcycle gang picture The Wild Angels (1966) to George Chakiris, an Oscar winner for West Side Story. However, Chakiris could not ride a motorcycle and withdrew from the film, so Corman promoted Peter Fonda to the lead role. Fonda accepted on the condition that his character's name be changed from Jack Black to Heavenly Blues (a type of Morning Glory flower). Fonda's previous role, that of the doomed gang member Loser, went to Bruce Dern. The Wild Angels cast also included Nancy Sinatra, Dern's then-wife Diane Ladd, Michael J. Pollard, Gayle Hunnicutt, and Corman regular Dick Miller.

A young Tom Selleck in Terminal Island.
3. In the mid-1960s, Roger Corman interviewed several UCLA and USC graduates for an assistant position. He eventually hired Stephanie Rothman, who had a master's degree in film from USC. She later became a producer, writer, and director responsible for drive-in cult classics like The Student Nurses (1970) and Terminal Island (1973). Corman interviewed UCLA grad Julie Halloran, but didn't hire her. He did start dating her and they were married in 1970. Julie Corman became a successful film producer, too.

4. Corman tried working for a major Hollywood studio on a couple of occasions. His year-long deal with Columbia Pictures in the 1960s proved fruitless. Corman wanted to produce an adaptation of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Columbia wasn't interested. However, his deal with Twentieth Century-Fox yielded The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967). The one million dollar budget was the largest of Corman's directorial career. The director originally wanted Orson Welles for the role of Al Capone, but the studio convinced him otherwise. So, he had Jason Robards switch parts from Bugs Moran to Capone.

5. One of Roger Corman's most cost-effective hits was Tidal Wave (1973). It was originally a three-hour Japanese movie called Submersion of Japan. Corman bought that film, had it edited down to 72 minutes, dubbed the dialogue, and included new footage of Lorne Greene as a United Nations ambassador. Corman said: "It surprised all of us and made money...Tidal Wave was probably the most outrageous example of re-editing a film for domestic release."

Jack Nicholson in The Terror.
6. The Terror (1963) is often described as a horror film made by Corman in two days with the leftover sets from The Raven (1963). The reality is that it was the longest film ever made by Roger Corman. With barely a script and Boris Karloff available for only two days, Corman shot as much footage as he could. Then, over a period of several months, he had five different directors shot sequences of the film. Those directors included Francis Ford Coppola and Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop). Jack Nicholson, who co-starred in The Terror, commented to Corman that "everybody in this whole damned town's directed this picture" and asked if he could direct the last day. Corman said: "Sure, why not?"

7. Today, Roger Corman is 95. His last film credit was as executive producer of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy in 2018. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave Roger Corman an honorary Oscar "for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers."

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith.
"Running was always a big thing in our family, specially running away from the police. It's hard to understand. All I know is that you've got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post's no end, even though the barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That's what the loneliness of a long distance runner feels like."

Those words are spoken over the opening scene of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by its protagonist Colin Smith. A young man from a working class background, Colin (Tom Courtenay) has recently arrived at Ruxton Towers Reformatory after his conviction for robbing a bakery. Colin struggles to suppress his defiant attitude until his athletic ability unexpectedly changes his fortunes at Ruxton.

Michael Redgrave as the governor.
It turns out that Colin can run faster than any of the other lads. That draws the attention of the reformatory's governor (Michael Redgrave), who is obsessed with winning a cross country running competition with a private school. Colin's new privileges include being able to run alone outside the reformatory's walls. As he does so, he reflects on his life, his hazy future, and the events that led to his present situation.

Made in 1962, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner initially resembles the "angry young men" films popularized in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the working class young protagonists in Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Colin has a chip on his shoulder. He wants a job with good pay, but he doesn't want to work for anyone and lacks the initiative to start his own business. It's easier to commit small-time larceny. 

Yet, by conventional accounts, Colin is the type of juvenile delinquent that can be reformed. One could reason that he just needs some direction, some discipline, and a goal. The reformatory's governor believes that the rigors of long distance running can instill the discipline and that winning a championship cup for the school can provide a goal. Yet, what the governor doesn't grasp is that his goal may not be Colin's goal. 

In the end, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is not about Colin's transformation. That might have made an interesting, inspirational movie. Instead, screenwriter Alan Sillitoe and director Tony Richardson choose to paint a portrait of Colin's life inside and outside the reformatory. It's a similar approach to the duo's earlier Saturday Night and Sunday Morning--except that Colin is much more appealing than Albert Finney's self-absorbed protagonist. Additionally, Colin's defiant attitude and independent spirit just might provide him with the strength to better his life.

While the cast includes veterans such as Michael Redgrave and Alec McCowen, this is Tom Courtenay's film. He's in almost every frame, fully inhabiting the complex character at the heart of the story. His performance earned him a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles.

In the same year he made The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, director Tony Richardson married Michael Redgrave's daughter, actress Vanessa Redgrave. The couple, who were married for five years, had two children who also became actresses: Natasha and Joely.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Jamie Lee Boards a Terror Train; The Animals Have Their Day

Jamie Lee Curtis.
Terror Train (1980).  When a cruel college prank goes awry, its victim, Kenny, seemingly has a nervous breakdown. Three years later, the prank's perpetrators have become senior pre-med students, one of whom has hired a steam-driven train for a masquerade party. After almost everyone has boarded the train, a student named Ed is secretly murdered. The killer rolls the corpse under the caboose and dons the disguise—a Groucho Marx mask—worn by Ed. Thus, all the party attendees think that “Groucho” is Ed…and not a revenge-minded homicidal psycho.

The killer in disguise.
The Canadian-made Terror Train was one of the first slasher films made in the wake of Halloween’s box office success. Helmed by veteran Roger Spottiswoode, it’s an efficient thriller that generates a reasonable amount of tension. A key plot point has the killer donning the disguise of his latest victim. It also features an effective twist at the climax, which—while not original—nevertheless comes across as a mild surprise.

In her third "slasher film", following Halloween (1978) and Prom Night (1979), Jamie Lee Curtis stars as a surprisingly tough heroine. Her character may regret her role in the ill-fated prank and even feel sympathy towards Kenny, but she's willing to take on the killer at the end. The supporting cast is stronger than usual for this type of film with Ben Johnson as the train conductor, Hart Bochner as a manipulative student, and David Copperfield in his only dramatic role as...a magician. If actress D.D. Winters looks familiar, that's because she became Prince's protégé Vanity.

Terror Train isn't an undiscovered gem. It's an average thriller made on a modest budget, but by people that know how to make this sort of thing.

Christopher George as Steve.
Day of the Animals (1977). When the Earth's ozone layer starts depleting, it has an inexplicable effect on both domestic and wild animals living in high altitudes. It transforms them into bloodthirsty killers!

That's bad news for a group of vacationers participating in a two-week wilderness trek through the mountains led by guides Steve (Christopher George) and Daniel (Michael Ansara). After the group fends off an attack by a single wolf, it begins to splinter. Matters get worse when one of the hikers, a bigoted executive (Leslie Nielsen) with a huge ego, convinces some of the group to follow him instead of Steve. Pretty soon, the humans are fighting for their lives as they face mountain lions, bears, birds, snakes, wild dogs--and each other.

Leslie Nielsen.
Made two years after Jaws (1975), Day of the Animals is often mentioned with other ecologically-themed films where Mother Nature rebels against humans (e.g., Grizzly, Frogs, Food of the Gods, The Pack, etc.). That's a shame, because it's better than those drive-in efforts; indeed, for most of its running time, Day of the Animals is a tidy suspense film with solid acting. 

Unfortunately, it starts to unravel when Leslie Nielsen's bizarre executive strips off his shirt and starts acting like a mad man. Sure, Nielsen has a field day overacting and spouts some memorable dialogue (to a young boy: "You little cockroach! You gonna tell me about survival?"). However, his performance ruins the second half of the movie (for a more serious take on a similar character, see Sands of the Kalahari).

Lynda Day George and hair.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves satisfactorily and it's fun to see: Lynda Day George (Chris's wife) as a reporter whose blonde hair always looks perfectly coiffed; Ruth Roman as an overbearing mother; Richard Jaeckel as a well-meaning professor; Paul Mantee (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) as a former football player; and a young Andrew Stevens.

The animals prove to be adequate thespians, too, especially the bear and a pack of wild dogs that attack near the climax. The latter scene does leave one with a lingering question: Why are all the wild dogs in the pack German Shepherds?

Monday, August 2, 2021

If a Man Answers: Treating Your Husband Like a Dog

Sandra Dee as Chantel.
Romantic comedies were box office gold in the early 1960s with hits like Lover Come Back and Come September (both 1961). Therefore, it was inevitable that a Hollywood studio would make one aimed at the young adult crowd. That's what Universal had in mind when it cast Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin as the leads in If a Man Answers (1962).

Dee and Darin met on the set of Come September, fell in love, and were married in 1960. By 1962, Sandra Dee was the ninth biggest draw at the U.S. box office and Bobby Darin had a #3 hit record on the Billboard Top 40 chart with "Things."

In If a Man Answers, Sandra Dee stars as a young socialite named Chantel, who has rejected numerous suitors. Her attitude toward men changes when she meets Eugene (Darin), a smooth-talking fashion photographer. He asks her to pose for him for a calendar shoot and--after some minor obstacles--the two get married.

Bobby Darin as Chantel.
However, Eugene doesn't want to photograph his wife in risqué outfits, so he hires Chantel's "friend" Tina (Stefanie Powers) as a model. That creates its own problems for the newlyweds. Chantel turns to her mother for advice and receives an unexpected response. Her mother "trained" Chantel's father using lessons from a dog obedience book. At first, Chantel is incredulous, but when she tries one of the dog training techniques on Eugene, it works like a charm.

Micheline Presle.
It's a silly premise, but works surprisingly well thanks to the agreeable cast. While Dee and Darin hold their own as the stars, it's the older supporting cast that shines. As Chantel's mother, French actress Micheline Presle adds elegance, intelligence, and a touch of sparkle. It's easy to see why her daughter confides everything to her and why her husband is devoted to her. Cesar Romero is her equivalent as Eugene's playboy father, who makes an appearance late in the film. Romero was born to portray charming lovers who are more playful than dangerous. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

The other "star" of If a Man Answers is costume designer Jean Louis. The Hollywood veteran makes Sandra Dee, Micheline Presle, and Stefanie Powers look fabulous in tailored dresses in vibrant colors such as red, orange, and blue. Jean Louis is especially successful at enhancing Dee's sexiness after the actress was all but stereotyped as a tomboy in movies such as Gidget (1959) and Tammy Tell Me True (1961).

If a Man Answers continued Sandra Dee's string of hit movies. Bobby Darin's next film was a dramatic change-of-pace with him playing an Air Force gunner suffering for post-traumatic stress disorder in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). Darin's performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In 1965, husband and wife teamed up again for another romantic comedy, That Funny Feeling.

By the late 1960s, however, Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin had divorced and each began to experience a decline in popularity. Darin died in 1973 following open heart surgery; he was 37. Sandra Dee appeared sporadically on television, but essentially retired from acting in 1978. She died in 2005 at age 62 from complications of kidney disease. Their son, Dodd Mitchell Darin, wrote a biography of his parents in 1994 titled Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee.