Monday, November 29, 2021

Walt Disney's Live-Action Robin Hood

Richard Todd as Robin.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is one of the greatest films ever made--with its perfectly-cast characters, vivid color, fabulous sets, and iconic scenes (e.g., the archery contest, the climatic swordfight). Thus, it's surprising that Walt Disney chose to mount his own version of the Robin Hood legend just fourteen years later. And yet, what's even more surprising is that The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952) is a lively, diverting yarn with its own charms. To be sure, it will always be overshadowed by the Warner Bros. classic, but it still stands proudly on its own.

Joan Rice as Marian.
In this version, Robin (Richard Todd) and Marian (Joan Rice) are childhood sweethearts who are separated when King Richard leaves to fight in the Crusades. Marian is placed under the protection of the Queen Mother in London, while Robin and his father remain in Nottingham. When Robin's father refuses to support greedy Prince John and his handpicked sheriff (Peter Finch), he is murdered and his son becomes an outlaw. Robin soon forms his band of merry men, who live in the forest and rob from the rich noblemen and give the spoils to their overtaxed countrymen.

There are the requisite encounters with Little John (James Robertson Justice) and Friar Tuck (James Hayter) before Marian returns in time to get imprisoned by Prince John. That development, plus a scheme to steal King Richard's ransom money, sets up the climax in this fast-paced, 84-minute adventure.

Peter Finch as the sheriff.
The British cast impresses from top to bottom, with Richard Todd making a likable hero, Joan Rice sparkling as a sweet Marian, and an almost unrecognizable Peter Finch as Robin's worthy adversary. It's too bad the big duel between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham seems like an afterthought (though the latter's demise is memorably gruesome, especially for a Disney film). 

The same applies to the scenes with James Hayter as Friar Tuck and James Robertson Justice as Little John. The latter made a career out of playing bigger-than-life characters in films such as Doctor in the House, but he has little (pun intended) to do here. On the other hand, musician Elton Hayes gets some choice scenes as traveling minstrel Alan-a-Dale. One almost wonders if he was Danny Kaye's inspiration for his Giacomo in The Court Jester.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men was just Disney's second live-action film, following 1950's Treasure Island. Like that film, the production values are high, with scenes shot in the real Sherwood Forest blending effectively with set pieces filmed in Pinewood Studios. Really, though, Disney should restore some of its early live-action movies, as the once vibrant colors have faded on the even best quality prints.

Richard Todd appeared in two additional Disney pictures the following year: The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue. Both are fine escapist fare and co-star Justice and the always enchanting Glynis Johns. Nevertheless, they lack the strong narrative that comes with the Robin Hood legend. There's just something about watching the men and women of Sherwood Forest performing their derring-do.

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Movie Quote Game (November 2021)

This month, we're introducing a new game! We will list a quote from a famous movie and ask you to name the movie. Try to answer these questions on your own without resorting to Google searches. As always, please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play.  If you have a response other than the intended one, just be able to defend it.

1.  "Damn that Texan! When you need him, he's dead."

2.  "I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din-din!"

3.  "Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration."

4.  "There's nobody alive but us! And nobody's going to help us except ourselves. lt's up to each one of you. lt's up to all of us. Together."

5.  "I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb."

6.  "This was no boat accident."

7.  "I can promise you one thing, I'll do nothing to disgrace the office of the United States Senate."

8.  "How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can't even trust his own pants."

9.  "Leiningen, you're up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide... forty square miles of agonizing death! You can't stop it!"

10. "You have yourself a few flings this summer. I bet you're quite a ladies' man, huh?"

11. "They can't make a fool out of Lina Lamont. They can't make a laughing stock out of Lina Lamont. What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than...than...than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!"

12. "So few people can boast that they've lost a flying saucer and a man from Mars--all in the same day! Wonder what they'd have done to Columbus if he'd discovered America, and then mislaid it."

13. "There's nothing wrong with Ellen. It's just that she loves too much."

14. "All right then, run, lady, and you keep on running. Buy yourself a bus ticket and disappear. Change your name, dye your hair, get lost--and then maybe, just maybe, you're gonna be safe from me."

15. "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention."

Monday, November 15, 2021

Seven Things to Know About George Sanders

1. In his autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad, George Sanders recalled his first film role in The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937) as one of the gods: "The part called for me to ride half-naked and shiny with grease, at four o'clock in the morning during one of England's coldest winters, on a horse which was also coated with grease. Torin Thatcher and Ivan Brandt were the other two greasy gods. Though I never fancied myself as a horseman, I was the only one of the three that didn't fall off. In that regard at least I was already a successful film actor."

2. George Sanders was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1906. His family moved to Great Britain in 1917. After studying at Brighton College and Manchester Technical College, Sanders worked in the textile industry and on a tobacco plantation in South America. On his return to Great Britain, he was working for Lever Brothers when his co-worker Greer Garson suggested he take up acting.

3. George Sanders was married four times. His second wife was Zsa Zsa Gabor (1949-54) and his fourth wife was Zsa Zsa's sister Magda Gabor (1970-71). That marriage only lasted for a month. In between, Sanders was married to actress Benita Hume, the widow of Ronald Colman, until her death in 1967. When asked about ex-husband Sanders, Zsa Zsa once said: "We were both in love with him. I fell out of love with him, but he didn't."

4. George Sanders played debonair detective Simon Templar in five films starting with The Saint Strikes Back in 1939. Sanders then transitioned to a similar "B" detective series in which he played another suave detective, Gay Lawrence aka The Falcon (loosely inspired by a Michael Arlen short story). By the time he had appeared in three Falcon movies, Sanders was in demand for "A" pictures. RKO wanted to continue The Falcon film series, so it made The Falcon's Brother (1942), in which Gay Lawrence is killed and his brother, Tom, takes over as The Falcon. The nifty part is that the role of Tom Lawrence was played by George Sander's real-life brother Tom Conway. He went on to star as The Falcon in nine more movies (see The Falcon and the Co-eds, easily the best in the series).

With Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Rebecca.
5. Although Sanders' breakthrough role was in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), as the adulterous title character's lover, his first starring role wasn't until 1942. He played a stockbroker-turned-painter in The Moon and Sixpence, which co-starred Herbert Marshall and Doris Dudley (who made only four films). Subsequent roles, though, often typecast him as a cad--such as the married children's book author who romances Gene Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). He got another break in 1950 when he played a cynical theatre critic in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Although Jose Ferrer was originally considered for the part, it's hard to imagine anyone other than George Sanders as the velvet-voiced, part-time narrator who introduces himself so memorably: "To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre."

Elizabeth Taylor and George Sanders.
6. His Oscar win afforded him more choices in his next few roles. He got the opportunity to sing opposite Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam (1953). He played a well-written villain in love with Elizabeth Taylor's character in Ivanhoe (1952). He even hosted a short-lived, half-hour anthology TV series called The George Sanders Mystery Theatre in 1957 (also starring in one episode).

7. George Sanders was still acting at age 65 when he committed suicide in 1972. According to his New York Times obituary, he died of an overdose of sleeping pills and left the following note: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck." 

Monday, November 8, 2021

Doris Day Finds the Thrill of It All

In the early 1960s, Doris Day was romantic comedy royalty. Her films with leading men Rock Hudson, James Garner, and Rod Taylor delighted audiences and scored big at the box office. One of her finest was The Thrill of It All (1963), a sparkling effort that pokes fun at advertising while addressing such ’60s issues as a wife’s right to work.

Doris plays Beverly Boyer, the spouse of obstetrician Dr. Gerald Boyer (James Garner) and mother to their two young children. At a dinner party, she meets Tom Fraleigh, the head of the Happy Soap Company, and comments that the soap "saved her life" that day. She explains that her young daughter put up a fuss about getting her haired washed with the usual tar shampoo. So, Beverly switched Happy Soap instead--which her daughter said "smelled like her piano teacher." Old Mr. Fraleigh is charmed by the story and asks Beverly to do a commercial.

Doris as Beverly Boyer.
After a rocky start, viewers and buyers respond to Beverly's television commercials and she is hired as the Happy Soap spokesperson for $80,000 a year. However, Gerald has trouble adjusting to the family's new life and to his wife's fame. She receives VIP treatment at restaurants and fans seek her autograph. His breaking point comes when he discovers--at a very bad time--that the Happy people have installed a swimming pool in his backyard without notifying him!

Doris Day and James Garner on the set.
In retrospect, the casting of James Garner as Gerald is crucial to the enduring popularity of The Thrill of It All. Viewing the film through a contemporary lens, Gerald comes off as a selfish, chauvinistic spouse who is upset that he is no longer the family's primary breadwinner. He also complains that Beverly's job keeps her away from the children too much, although he is frequently on call due to his job. Gerald could easily be an unlikable character--but that's not the case because he's played by James Garner. The actor uses his natural charm and appeal to make the audience give Gerald the benefit of the doubt. Plus, James Garner and Doris Day make such a convincing couple that we never doubt that Gerald loves Beverly.

Yet, The Thrill of It All is more than just a domestic comedy, as screenwriters Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart also take aim at television and advertising. Their sharpest jabs are aimed at the anthology show sponsored by Happy Soap, which recycles the same plot in a different setting each week. When one of the executives notes the redundancy, another quips that TV viewers will never notice. The next scene shows Beverly's kids watching the show and describing what the characters will do next--because they realize it was the same plot every week!

Carl Reimer originally envisioned The Thrill of It All as a vehicle for Judy Holliday, but health problems prevented her from taking the lead role. Judy would have been fine, but The Thrill of It All is an ideal vehicle for Doris Day. She and James Garner reteamed again in 1963 to make Move Over, Darling, a remake of My Favorite Wife (1940).

Despite having a conventional conclusion, I rank The Thrill of It All as Doris Day's second best 1960s comedy, behind the marvelous Lover Come Back and ahead of That Touch of Mink.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Ten Little Indians x Five!

Agatha Christie's classic 1939 mystery novel Ten Little Indians (the original title is best forgotten) has been adapted multiple times in multiple languages for the big and small screens. Below are the five best-known versions ranked--according to the Café staff--from best to worst.

Shirley Eaton.
1. Ten Little Indians (1965) - This one is the first, and best, of three adaptations produced and co-written by Harry Alan Towers. It shifts the location from an island to a snowy retreat which becomes isolated when the only cable car is sabotaged. The theatrical version features a sixty-second Whodunit Break which stops the action near the climax to "refresh your memory with a few clues." The cast includes great character actors such as Wilfrid Hyde-White, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price, and Leo Genn (plus Christopher Lee as the voice of Mr. U. N. Owen). However, the film belongs to Shirley Eaton, who turns the female protagonist into a cool beauty who just might be capable of murder! Alas, there's also Fabian who is hopelessly miscast...but at least, his demise comes quickly. The setting, the supporting cast, and Ms. Eaton elevate the 1965 Ten Little Indians to our top spot over other versions.

Walter Huston, Louis Hayward & Roland Young.
2. And Then There Were None (1945) - This adaptation written by Dudley Nichols opts for the happy ending from Agatha Christie's 1943 stage play as opposed to the downbeat one in her novel. It's a practice that most other screen versions would mimic. It also uses the title of the U.S. publication of the book and changes some of the characters' names. Otherwise, it's a pretty faithful adaptation set on an isolated island and blessed with a strong cast of veteran performers such as C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, Walter Huston, and Barry Fitzgerald. None of the murders are explicitly shown. Director Rene Clair even adds a touch of macabre humor to the proceedings--although that also lessens the suspense. Incredibly, 20th Century-Fox allowed the copyright to expire, so beware of poor public domain prints. You can view all the murders in this compilation clip on our YouTube channel (just beware of spoilers!).

3. And There There Were None (2015) - This is the first of several Agatha Christie television adaptations written by Sarah Phelps. The first-rate cast features Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, and Aidan Turner. Christie purists can rejoice that it retains the island setting, restores the original ending from the novel, and features a dark, menacing atmosphere. At times, though, it's almost too grim and its three-hour length feels too bloated for the plot. 

Elke Sommer and Oliver Reed.
4. Ten Little Indians (aka And Then There Were None) (1974) - Harry Alan Towers' second adaptation exists in two versions: a 109-minute film with a subplot about spies and a more widely available 98-minute cut that is almost a scene-for-scene remake of Towers' 1965 film. Both versions are notable for their color photography (the '45 and '65 films were in B&W) and for relocating the the mystery plot to an abandoned luxurious hotel in the middle of an Iranian desert. I've only seen the shorter print, a color-by-numbers exercise that fails to do justice to Christie's ingenious premise. The international cast never quite meshes together, though it's still fun to see the suspects played by the likes of Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Charles Aznavour, Adolfo Celi, Richard Attenborough, Gert Fröbe, and Herbert Lom. Interestingly, Celi and Fröbe played James Bond villains in, respectively, Thunderball and Goldfinger. In the latter film, Fröbe's Goldfinger painted Shirley Eaton's character with gold paint; as noted above, Eaton starred in the '65 Ten Little Indians. 

Sarah Maur Thorp.
5. Ten Little Indians (1989) - Towers intended his third adaptation to be more faithful to the source novel. However, budget constraints led him to set the film in Africa, with the suspects living in tents! Actually, this setting works surprisingly well as it seems more plausible for a killer to sneak around a safari camp without being seen. The cast features a handful of respectable performances, notably Donald Pleasance, newcomer Sarah Maur Thorp, and Herbert Lom (who appeared in the '74 version as a different character). However, Frank Stallone (Sly's brother) makes a wooden "hero" and Brenda Vaccaro nibbles on the scenery far too often. Although the running time is similar to Towers' earlier endeavors, this perfunctory version turns into a snooze fest long before the climax.