Monday, December 19, 2022

Revisiting John Ford's The Searchers

John Wayne as Ethan.
A few months ago, I hosted a Classic Western Films Tournament on Twitter, in which The Searchers (in a series of close contests) was crowned champion. The outpouring of passionate support for John Ford's 1956 classic inspired me to revisit a movie I hadn't seen in several decades. Not surprisingly, my overall assessment of The Searchers hasn't changed, but I have gained a greater appreciation for a Western that--for me--works better in parts than as a whole.

John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who has returned to his brother Aaron's Texas home three years after the end of the American Civil War. Ethan is vague about a lot of things, especially the newly minted dollars that he gives his brother for room and board. He is also racist toward Indians, as indicated by his wary attitude toward Martin, Aaron's adopted son, who is 1/8 Cherokee.

When a neighbor's bull is killed by a band of Comanches, Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) join a Texas Ranger-led party to pursue the Indians. However, the killing of the bull turns out to be a ruse to lure most of the men away from Aaron's ranch. By the time Ethan and Martin return home, the Comanches have killed Aaron and his wife Martha and burned the ranch. Ethan's nieces, teenage Lucy and eight-year-old Debbie, are missing and assumed to have been taken by the Comanches.

Jeffrey Hunter as Martin.
After the funerals, Ethan and Martin join a posse organized to search for Lucy and Debbie. They find the Comanches' camp, but a poorly-planned attack results in the posse being ambushed. Although it fends off the attack, one of the men dies and most of the others return to their homes. However, Ethan, Martin, and Lucy's fiancé Brad press on with their search. Tragedy strikes again when Ethan discovers Lucy's corpse and a grief-stricken Brad rides into a Comanche camp, essentially committing suicide. Yet, even that cannot dissuade Ethan and Martin from their single-minded mission to find Debbie.

The Searchers is many things, but it works best as a character study of Ethan. At the start of the film, he is a man without purpose who has ignored his only family. Since the end of the Civil War, he has apparently wondered aimlessly, fighting in the Franco-Mexican War and perhaps even turning to robbery. He clearly harbors secret feelings for Martha, his brother's wife, stealing glances at her when he comes to visit. He envies Aaron's life despite knowing that he would not be good at it. Still, it's an idealized existence that he feels compelled to pursue and his niece Debbie represents all of that: a loving wife, a family, a home, a legacy. To be sure, Ethan wants to rescue Debbie and Lucy at the beginning. But he is too much of a realist to truly believe that--as the years pass--he and Martin stand a chance of finding Debbie.

The key relationship in The Searchers is the one between Ethan and Martin. The latter represents a mirror to Ethan, allowing the older man to see his darker side. Martin expresses shock when the pragmatic Ethan shoots bad men in cold blood. Martin leaves the woman he loves because he says he's concerned what the racist Ethan might do if he finds Debbie has become a Comanche. It's not just Debbie's safety that concerns him; Martin fears for Ethan's soul. It's a credit to screenwriter Frank S. Nugent that the Ethan-Martin relationship avoids a father-son angle. Rather, Martin slowly earns Ethan's respect--which is not something the older man gives freely--and the two come to rely on one another.

Ford shows Ethan's isolation by framing
him in several scenes.
John Wayne gives one of his best performances as Ethan, capturing the character's loneliness, singlemindedness, and lack of patience with those who disagree with him. Wayne also embraces Ethan's unsavory traits, such as his hatred of Indians and his disregard for human life.

I think I might have liked The Searchers more if the film's structure embraced Ethan's focused pursuit. Unlike Ethan, The Searchers wanders away from its compelling character portrait and introduces a love story for Martin and peppers the plot with typically quirky John Ford characters: Lars Jorgensen, a Swedish immigrant; Samuel Clayton, a Texas Ranger and a traveling preacher; Mose Harper, an eccentric in search of a rocking chair by the fire, and the singing Charlie McCorry.

I'll diverge from the general critical and popular opinions that The Searchers is one of the greatest films ever made. It's an exceptionally well-made movie with some first-rate performances, but it could have benefitted from tighter story-telling and an ending that feels less rushed.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Ranking Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry Movies from Best to Worst

1. Magnum Force (1973) - The best-written Dirty Harry film finds Harry trying to track down vigilantes intent on cleaning up the streets of San Francisco. The screenplay by future directors John Milius and Michael Cimino minimizes subplots and comes the closest to an actual mystery (though the killers' identities quickly become obvious). Hal Holbrook is in top form as Harry's by-the-numbers boss who clashes with Callahan over his violent methods to fight crime. It's also fun to see David Soul (pre-Starsky and Hutch) and Tim Matheson as young police officers. My quibbles are minor: the protracted climax makes this the longest Dirty Harry movie (and it feels it); Harry's poorly-developed relationship with his pretty neighbor adds nothing to the film; and the fate of Harry's partner gets glossed over too quickly.

2.  Dirty Harry (1971) - Star Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel provide a strong introduction to the titular hero as well as a loving postcard to the city of San Francisco. The plot is nothing exceptional: A crazed killer who calls himself Scorpio threatens to kills random people unless the city pays his demand for $100,000. However, Siegel makes superb use of real location such as Kezar Stadium, Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Dolores Park, and North Beach. Perhaps because it's the first Dirty Harry entry, we learn more about Harry's past, such as his wife's death. The film also establishes the formula for the four sequels, including such elements as Harry stopping a crime in progress (often while eating) and a memorable Callahan quote snarled at a criminal, such as: "I know what you're thinking: 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

3.  The Enforcer (1976) - Harry Callahan is none too happy when a female rookie detective inspector, whose previous experience is mostly administrative, gets assigned as his partner. Fortunately, Kate Moore (Tyne Daly) turns out to be tough, resourceful, and persistent--in other words, an ideal sidekick for Harry. The best part of The Enforcer are the scenes between Harry and Kate, who is played to perfection by Daly. Unfortunately, the potent pair are saddled with a silly plot about an alleged terrorist group exhorting money from the city of San Francisco (a premise somewhat similar to Dirty Harry). An over-the-top villain plagues this entry as well as the two that followed.

4.  The Dead Pool (1988) - The final Dirty Harry picture is a lackluster effort about a psycho trying to implicate a horror film director (a pony-tailed Liam Neeson) in a series of murders. Each victim's name appears on the director's submission in a "dead pool," a tasteless game in which players try to predict the deaths of famous people. There are some interesting observations about fame and fanatics, but they're lost in a shoddy screenplay. Poor Patricia Clarkson plays a character who evolves far too quickly from an independent, career-minded woman to Harry's admiring girlfriend. The film's saving graces are a car chase involving a remote-controlled toy car and a brisk running time of just over 90 minutes.

5.  Sudden Impact (1983) - The weakest Dirty Harry entry wastes a good performance by Sondra Locke as a painter systematically murdering the scum responsible for the gang rape of her and her younger sister. It's a potentially intriguing reexamination of the vigilante theme explored in Magnum Force, only this time the motive is revenge. Unfortunately, Sudden Impact spends too much time on another plot in which Harry has to cope with hit men after "causing" their mobster boss's heart attack. It detracts from the main story and pads the film's running to an excruciating 117 minutes. Sudden Impact also features the two worst villains in the series, who are written and portrayed so broadly that they're almost cartoonish. On the plus side, it's nice to see Harry venture outside San Francisco for a few scenes and Clint gets to grit his teeth and growl the most famous of all Dirty Harry quotes: "Go ahead, make my day."

Monday, December 5, 2022

Bud, Lou, and the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy

Buck Privates, the 1941 comedy that made stars of Abbott and Costello, doesn't rank among the team's best films (e.g.,  A&C Meet Frankenstein, Hold That Ghost, The Time of Their Lives). Still, that's to be somewhat expected since Bud and Lou aren't even top-billed in the cast. 

Lee Bowman and Jane Frazee.
That honor belongs to Lee Bowman and Alan Curtis, who play new Army recruits vying for the affections of a pretty USO hostess (Jane Frazee). Bowman's rich playboy has a hard time bonding with his fellow soldiers, especially after he ditches a rifle competition to go on a date. It's a superfluous plot that serves to bridge the gaps between Bud and Lou's routines and the Andrews Sisters' musical numbers.

Bud wants to borrow $50.

As for the boys, they play street hucksters who accidentally join the Army, thinking that they're signing up for a raffle in a movie theater. It's easy to see why the duo were the film's breakout stars. With only one other movie to their credit (One Night in the Tropics), they were able to introduce several of their funniest vaudeville routines. Thus, audiences were treated to classic gags like: "You're 40--she's 10," "Give me the $40 and you'll owe me $10," and the craps game. If some of these routines sound familiar, that's because Bud and Lou recycled them in later movies.

Maxene, Patty, and LaVerne Andrews.
The Andrews Sisters were already recording hit songs by 1941. However, their second film appearance in Buck Privates raised their profile significantly. That was mostly due to the debut of one of their signature hits "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." The song earned an Academy Award nomination (losing to "The Last Time I Saw Paris"). Charles Previn's music score also received an Oscar nomination.

Its combination of broad comedy and catchy music turned Buck Privates into one of the biggest box office draws of 1941. Universal Pictures, which was already making Hold That Ghost with Abbott and Costello, put that movie on hold to produce another service comedy. In the Navy reteamed the boys (now top-billed) with the Andrews Sisters--and featured Dick Powell in one of his last singing roles. It turned into box office gold as well and the Andrews Sisters were quickly added to the Hold the Ghost cast.

By 1942, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were the biggest box office stars in America. They remained among the top 10 stars annually throughout the 1940s. Buck Privates is a good introduction to some their best comedy routines, but the pair would make better movies in the coming years.

Monday, November 28, 2022

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Doris Day Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Doris Day 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. Party Line.

2. I'm Beverly Boyer and I'm a Pig.

3. The Kidnapping of Hank McKenna.

4. Her Secret Love.

5. The Pitcher's Wife.

6. Vip!

7. Two Women and a Trumpet.

8. Evening Wear.

9. Sleep Tite Tonight!

10. Twinkle and Shine (an actual re-release title).

11. The Husband Hunter.

12. The Wonders.

13. The Cosmetic Caper.

14. Ellen & Nick & Bianca & Stephen.

15. I'll Never Stop Loving You.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Caprice: A Bad Day for Doris

The 1960s was an uneven decade for Doris Day, beginning with some of her best films and ending with some of her worst. The former include Lover Come Back, That Touch of Mink, and The Thrill of It All. The worst include Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? and the subject of today's review: Caprice (1967).

Set near the height of the 1960s spy craze, Caprice casts Doris as Patricia Foster, an industrial designer for a cosmetics company sent on a mission to infiltrate another cosmetic company to steal a secret formula for a water-repellent hair spray. At least, that's what the plot initially appears to be. It turns out that Patricia's real name is Felippa Fowler and her goal is to discover who killed her father, an Interpol agent on the trail of a narcotics ring.

Co-star Richard Harris.
Richard Harris is on hand as Christopher White, a suave ladies man who appears to be a double agent working for both cosmetics companies. He spends most of his time, though, wooing and rescuing Patricia.

One suspects that the makers of Caprice were going for a Charade vibe, with Doris Day playing the innocent opposite Richard Harris's handsome rake, whose true intentions are nebulous. The comparison with Charade, though, serves only to highlight that Caprice is a dud in every way. The script seems to have been written on the fly. The on-location filming clashes with the cheesy rear screen close-ups of the stars. Scenes end abruptly, especially a ski chase in which Harris nabs Doris as she sails over a snow-covered cliff. And Doris wears one of the worst wigs of her career. However, its greatest offense may be that it wastes a good supporting cast in Ray Walston, Edward Mulhare, and Lilia Skala.

Michael J. Pollard.
There is one amusing scene in Caprice, which finds Doris's industrial espionage agent following a model and her boyfriend into a movie theater. The film playing is Caprice, only the opening credits now feature Doris singing the title song. As Doris tries to cut a lock of the model's hair, the boyfriend (Michael J. Pollard) assumes that Doris is interested in him. So, he starts flirting with Doris as he makes out with his girl. It's the kind of broad humor that Ms. Day plays well and Pollard is quite amusing.

After reading the screenplay to Caprice, Doris Day stated she did not want to make the movie. She then learned that her then-husband and agent, Martin Melcher, had already signed a contractual obligation on her behalf. Always the professional, Doris Day gives an energetic performance in Caprice, but that can't disguise the fact that it's awful movie. She appeared in three more movies before retiring from the big screen at age 46.

Monday, October 31, 2022

A Halloween Vampire Movie Marathon

Count Orlock's shadow in Nosferatu.
Celebrate this Halloween with seven bloodsucking chillers and a miniseries featuring a variety of vampires! You'll have to start early in the morning to cram in all the capes, stakes, and heartaches (get it?). We recommend watching the movies in the order below and topping off your evening with the 1979 minseries adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot.

Nosferatu (1922) - F.W. Murnau's silent vampire classic still chills today thanks to the director's haunting visuals and Max Schreck's memorable Count Orlok. It's the first horror screen classic, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
Brides of Dracula (1960) - No Dracula and no Christopher Lee? No problem--as those constraints inspired Hammer to reach new heights with an intelligent vampire tale filled with fine performances, an imaginative plot, and the best ending of any vampire movie. If you want to opt for a more historically significant Hammer vampire film, you can substitute Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula). It also has the bonus of featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) - Take a laugh break with this funny, well-made send-up of Universal's 1930s and 1940s monster movies. The best scenes are the ones between Lou Costello's buffoon and Bela Lugosi's Dracula, who wants to transplant the former's brain into the Frankenstein Monster. Who thought Bela could play such a perfect straight man?

The Last Man on Earth (1964) - Writer Richard Matheson didn't care for this Italian-made adaptation of his popular novel I Am Legend, in which a plague of vampirism wipes out most of the Earth's population. I think it's an inventive, effective fright fest with a strong Vincent Price performance. Despite its budget limitations, it's superior to the semi-remake The Omega Man (1971) and the disappointing I Am Legend (2007).

The Night Stalker (1972) - Cynical newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) discovers that a vampire is roaming the streets of contemporary Las Vegas--but no one will believe him. This made-for-TV movie became the highest rated television for many years. It spawned a pretty good 1973 sequel The Night Strangler and the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) - Roman Polanski's parody of vampire films is so good that it stands on its own as a first-rate horror picture. Polanski displays an uncanny understanding of the genre, from the snowy setting to the famous dance of the vampires (the film's original title). Sharon Tate exudes charm as the heroine, proving she was more than just a pretty face.

The Lost Boys (1987) - A divorced mother and her two teenage sons relocate to Santa Carla, California, to live with her father. The older son's sudden interest in a mysterious girl leads to his involvement with a gang of teen vampires. It's stylish and fun, if a bit lightweight. You may choose to substitute one of two other above-average 1980s teen vampire pictures: the more serious Near Dark (1987) or the more lighthearted Fright Night (1985), which features a delightful performance by Roddy McDowall as a Peter Cushing-like TV horror host.

Ralphie Glick at the window.
Salem's Lot (1979) - Stephen King's bestseller about a vampire snacking on the residents of a small New England town works well as a miniseries. Director Tobe Hooper emphasizes atmosphere over shocks for the first two hours, which allows viewers to enjoy the fine supporting performances from Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, Bonnie Bedelia, and especially James Mason as the vampire's sinister, but suave, caretaker. Salem's Lot features one of the most iconic scenes of network television horror: teen vampire Ralphie  Glick hovering in the fog outside his brother's bedroom window, pleading to be invited inside. (For the record, a later similar scene with Danny Glick is almost as effective).

Monday, October 24, 2022

Three Coins in the Fountain: Lookin' for Love

Louis Jourdan and Maggie McNamara.
Time has not been kind to Three Coins in the Fountain, a 1954 blockbuster that earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. What may have once seemed fresh, colorful, and romantic now comes across as lightweight, sluggish, and a little condescending to its three female protagonists. Of course, the Rome scenery is still spectacular and the title song, as crooned by Frank Sinatra, has become something of a standard. Incidentally, the cinematography and the song each won Oscars.

Stars Maggie McNamara (The Moon Is Blue), Jean Peters, and Dorothy McGuire play secretaries who room together in the city of love. Maria (McNamara) has just arrived and quickly become enamored with a handsome, playboy prince (Louis Jourdan). Anita (Peters), who has fallen into a rut and decided to return to the States, suddenly realizes she and a good-looking interpreter (Rossano Brazzi) have romantic feelings toward each other. Finally, there's Frances (McGuire), who has been working for a reclusive author (Clifton Webb) for 15 years--hiding her love for him behind a strictly professional veneer.

Jean Peters and Maggie McNamara--framed for Cinemascope.
Each woman must overcome significant obstacles en route to finding true love. This is where Three Coins in the Fountain becomes borderline condescending, implying that love is necessary for a single woman to find happiness. It would have been more effective--and certainly more realistic--if one of the three experienced an unhappy ending. Flash forward just six years later to Where the Boys Are, in which four female college students spend spring break in Fort Lauderdale, and you'll find a more potent ending.

Three Coins in the Fountain must also overcome an oddly-structured screenplay in which each woman's love story is presented as almost a stand-alone tale. For example, Anita's subplot takes place near the start of the film and then is virtually forgotten when the narrative shifts to Maria and then Frances. The separate stories link up hastily at the end, but, by then, you may be trying to remember the subplot with Anita.

The Rome locations are striking, though they were used more effectively in the previous year's Roman Holiday. Also, for a film that won an Oscar for cinematography, it's jarring to see several scenes utilizing grainy rear-screen projections.

The Loni Anderson remake.
Still, there is no denying that Three Coins struck a chord with post-war audiences looking for love fantasies. The premise has also proven to be a reliable one. Three Coins director Jean Negulesco helmed a 1964 remake, The Pleasure Seekers, which was set in Madrid and starred Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley, Pamela Tiffin, and Gene Tierney. Yvonne Craig starred in an unsold 1970 pilot for a Three Coins in the Fountain TV series. And Loni Anderson starred in 1990 made-for-TV version called Coins in the Fountain.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Disney Takes on a Children's Classic and a Spooky Washington Irving Tale

Mr. Toad--in disguise--and friends.
Released in 1949, Walt Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad consists of two half-hour animated shorts strung together for a theatrical release. The connecting device is simply that each featurette boasts a memorable character from literature. 

Mr. Toad is a loose adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's classic The Wind in the Willows. The main character is the wildly unpredictable J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq., who lives in Toad Hall, the grandest manor along the river bank. Toad's latest obsession is a horse-drawn cart, which he drives recklessly throughout the countryside, causing so much damage that he's on the verge of bankruptcy. 

His friends Rat, Mole, and McBadger try to curb Toad's "adventures," but fail badly. Shortly after seeing his first motorcar, Toad is arrested for stealing it and sentenced to 20 years in the Tower of London. Can Toad's misfortunate change his frivolous ways? And though he may be guilty of "motor mania," did Toad really steal the car?

Viewers who have never read The Wind in the Willows may find Mr. Toad amusing. It's colorful, lively, and warmly narrated by Basil Rathbone. It's just a shame that Disney veered so far from Grahame's novel. Toad has been given an accomplice, a horse named Cyril, who is just as silly as his amphibian owner. Badger has been transformed in the Scottish Angus McBadger. The focus on Toad relegates Rat and Mole--the book's most charming characters--into supporting characters. It's all a shame because the source material was there for a true Disney animated classic!

The creepy Headless Horseman.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been "Disneyfied" as well, but the end result works much better. The plot stays mostly true to Washington Irving's 1819 short story about Ichabod Crane, the new schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, a quaint New York town. Pursued by several women in the village, Ichabod sets his sites on marrying the lovely Katrina van Tassel, whose wealthy father owns the biggest farm in the area. Ichabod must fend off a rival, though, in the handsome, muscular Brom Bones.

At a harvest party hosted by Katrina's father, Brom notices that Ichabod is extremely superstitious, so he recounts the legend of the headless horseman who roams the country roads at night. On Ichabod's way home that evening, he becomes terrified as he is pursued by a...headless rider in a black cape on a black steed!

Most of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has a light air about it with Bing Crosby narrating the story and crooning catchy songs with Jud Conlon's Rhythmaires. However, it takes a delightfully creepy turn with the climax, which is probably the scariest animated sequence in Disney history. The vivid black, red, and orange palette serves as a stark contrast to the soft, rich autumn colors employed earlier in the story.

It's also interesting to note the similarity between the village scenes in Sleepy Hollow and Disney's much later Beauty and the Beast (1991). Additionally, Brom reminded me very much of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Brom from Sleepy Hollow and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Mr. Toad and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow were subsequently shown separately on television and in theaters. For its 1978 re-release, Mr. Toad was retitled The Madcap Adventures of Mr. Toad and shown with Disney's feature film Hot Lead and Cold Feet.

Monday, October 10, 2022

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Hammer Films Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Hammer film and ask you to name it. 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.  We Are the Martians!

2.  Kung Fu Vampires.

3.  Professor Petrie's Place.

4.  Who Do Voodoo?

5.  The Quatermass Movie That's Not a Quatermass Movie.

6. Christina & Hans: A Love Story.

7.  The Terror of Tera.

8.  Vampire Masquerade.

9.  Snake Eyes.

10. Monkie Business.

11. Guy and Doll--Together as One!

12. The Eternal Fire.

13. Sanna and Her 'Saurs.

14. The Wheelchair and the Swimming Pool.

15. Bank Holiday Heist.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Weird Woman Shines Its Spotlight on Three Unsung Actresses

Lon Chaney, Jr. and Evelyn Ankers.
Fritz Leiber's 1943 supernatural novel Conjure Wife has been adapted for the screen three times. The best version is 1962's Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle), an exceptionally chilling tale about academic ambition and witchcraft--real or imagined. It's one of the finest horror films of the 1960s. Witches' Brew (1980) takes a comedic approach with unimpressive results. That brings us to the first film version, the oddly-titled Weird Woman (1944), which was the second entry in Universal's Inner Sanctum series starring Lon Chaney, Jr.

Lon stars as Norman Reed, a professor at Monroe College who seems destined to become the new head of the sociology department. Norman's wife, Paula, struggles to fit in among the academic set. Of course, they don't know that she was raised on a South Seas island by a voodoo high priestess.

Anne Gwynne as Paula.
Sensing evil in her new surroundings, she has cast a spell of protection over her husband and herself. Norman, an adamant skeptic, finds her voodoo charms and burns them. With the spell broken, Norman's life falls apart: he loses the department chair, stands accused of inappropriate advances by a young female student, and gets arrested for murder. Could a spurned colleague be behind Norman's destruction?

The central theme in the later Burn, Witch, Burn is the rationalization of magic. Norman finds himself having to work harder, as his plight worsens, to explain events which his wife simply attributes to witchcraft. At the end, even he has to accept that some things cannot be easily reasoned away. Weird Woman takes a more conventional--but still interesting--approach. Once the culprit is identified, Norman and friends employ psychology to instill fear to the point of a confession.

Although Norman is the protagonist, strong female characters dominate Weird Woman--and they're played convincingly by Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, and Elizabeth Russell.

Gwynne spent most of her career saddled with insignificant parts. However, she personifies insecurity, vulnerability, and fear as Paula. By the way, Gwynne became one of the most popular pin-up girls for American servicemen during World War II.

The lovely Evelyn Ankers (shown on right) was the resident "scream queen" for Universal's 1940s horror films. She even co-starred with Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein. In Weird Woman, she gets to play the villain--and she's fabulous. But Universal failed to take notice of her acting range and she left the studio in 1945. She retired from acting five years later at the age of 32. She was married to actor Richard Denning.

Elizabeth Russell.
The real cast stand-out, though, is Elizabeth Russell, who plays the widow of one of Norman's colleagues. She holds Norman and Paula responsible for her husband's suicide--and her caged fury is a sight to behold. My wife recognized Russell and her piercing eyes instantly from Val Lewton's marvelous The Curse of the Cat People, in which her character tries to murder a young girl. Russell appeared uncredited in several Lewton films. Like Gwynne and Ankers, it's hard to fathom why she wasn't groomed for more meaningful parts or at least more substantial supporting roles.

If you only see one version of Fritz Leiber's novel, then your choice must be Burn, Witch, Burn. But once you've seen it, I encourage you to seek out this lesser, but still worthwhile, version is that buoyed by three actresses who deserved better.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Charles Bronson Seeks The Stone Killer

Charles Bronson as Torrey.
Made two years after Dirty Harry (1971), The Stone Killer stars Charles Bronson as a Harry clone named Lou Torrey. After being suspended for his violent behavior, police detective Torrey transfers from New York City to Los Angeles. After two quiet years, Torrey arrests a former mob hitman who warns that "something big" is about to happen. Torrey expresses little interest until the retired mobster is assassinated at an airport by a professional killer.

As Torrey investigates the case, he learns that Vietnam veterans are being recruited and trained to execute a series of mass killings. But who are the targets and who is behind this nefarious plan? And how is it linked to a series of mob killings that took place in 1931?

An interesting plot and a cast peppered with familiar faces highlight this middle-of-the-road gritty crime drama. The former can be credited to John Gardner, who wrote the source novel A Complete State of Death (a line uttered by Bronson in the movie).

Bronson is adequate as the lead, though there's no depth to his character. An opening scene reveals that Torrey is divorced and has an estranged daughter--but she appears to have been written out of the rest of the screenplay. 

Balsam heads the supporting cast.
Fortunately, the supporting cast include a bevy of seasoned veterans, such as: Norman Fell as Bronson's boss; Martin Balsam as a Sicilian crime boss; Stuart Margolin as a mercenary; Alfred Ryder as a mob gunman; and Ralph Waite as a lousy excuse for a police detective. Waite appears in one of the best scenes. When Torrey hops in a police car to chase a baddie, Waite's stranded detective calls headquarters to find out if he has to pay for a taxi back to the station or whether he can claim it as a business expense. Discerning viewers might also recognize a young John Ritter (yes, appearing in a film with Norman Fell three years before Three's Company).

Director Michael Winner, who teamed with Bronson frequently, heightens the action with a nifty downtown chase scene involving a car and a motorcycle. It's one of those crazy sequences in which a police car plows through a street market and crashes through a showroom window. One can only imagine the number of lawsuits subsequently filed against the city! There's also a decent shoot-out at a desert training facility and a better one inside a parking garage (though it's hard to tell the good guys from the baddies).

The Stone Killer doesn't rank with the decade's best crime dramas (e.g., The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) nor is it even the best collaboration between Bronson and Winner (that'd be Death Wish). However, it's an easily watchable action film with a good cast and a crisp, exciting plot. For the record, the title is mob slang for a professional killer.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Pamela Franklin Reveals the Third Secret and Takes on Miss Brodie

Actress Pamela Franklin.
With the exception of Hayley Mills, Pamela Franklin may have had the best 1960s career of any young actor. She started the decade with a spellbinding performance in The Innocents (1961). She sparkled in the offbeat Disney film A Tiger Walks (1964) and Hammer's underrated suspense film The Nanny (1965). However, Pamela Franklin's best performances were reserved for the unusual thriller The Third Secret (1964) and the Maggie Smith classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).

The Third Secret opens with the apparent suicide of renowned British psychoanalyst Dr. Leo Whitset. It's an unexpected event that shakes American journalist Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd), one of Whitset's patients, who is convinced that the doctor wouldn't take his own life. When Whitset's teenage daughter, Catherine (Pamela Franklin), seeks out Alex, she expresses the same doubts. The two eventually team up to find Whitset's murderer, focusing their investigation on three patients: an art gallery owner (Richard Attenborough), a secretary (Diane Cilento), and a barrister (Jack Hawkins).

Pamela Franklin and Stephen Boyd.
The core of The Third Secret is the somewhat disturbing relationship between Alex and Catherine. At times, it projects a father-daughter vibe, but then it lapses into an uncomfortably adult-like friendship between a 33-year-old man and a fourteen-year-old girl. It's no wonder that Catherine's uncle assumes the worst when he finds the two of them alone in Catherine's bedroom in her empty home.

As she did in The Innocents, Pamela Franklin gives a remarkable performance as a youth who behaves well beyond her years. She keeps The Third Secret afloat as it rambles occasionally towards its surprisingly satisfactory conclusion. Incidentally, the first secret is what we don't tell other people and the second secret is what we don't tell ourselves. And the third secret is....well, I'm not telling (a good print of the movie is currently on YouTube).

Four years after The Third Secret, Pamela Franklin played one of the "Brodie Girls" in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was written by Jay Presson Allen (Marnie) and based on the 1961 novel by Muriel Spark. 

Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie.
Maggie Smith stars as the title character, a forceful teacher at a girls' boarding school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Popular with her students and armed with tenure, Miss Brodie defies the school's headmistress and teaches whatever she wants (e.g., she sings the praises of Mussolini and Franco). Miss Brodie enters into a relationship with the school's conservative choir teacher (Gordon Jackson), but still harbors passionate feelings toward the married art teacher (with whom she had a brief fling).

As the years go by, Sandy (Pamela Franklin), one of Miss Brodie's favored students, becomes disillusioned toward her mentor. She becomes the art teacher's mistress, but breaks it off after learning he is still infatuated with Miss Brodie. Following the death of a fellow student, Sandy decides that Miss Brodie has become a dangerous influence and takes matters into her own hands.

Pamela Franklin as Sandy.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Maggie Smith's movie and her tour-de-force performance earned her both Oscar and BAFTA best actress awards. However, Pamela Franklin holds her own in the climatic confrontation between Miss Brodie and Sandy. She earned a BAFTA supporting actress nomination, but lost to her co-star Celia Johnson, who played the schools' headmistress. (For the record, Rod McKuen's song "Jean" was also Oscar-nominated; the singer Oliver's cover of it reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 later in 1969.)

Pamela Franklin's career stalled unexpectedly in the 1970s after a move to the U.S. She appeared in a Green Acres episode that served as a failed backdoor pilot for a sitcom called Pam. She was a frequent guest star in TV shows like Cannon, Medical Center, and Fantasy Island. She occasionally starred in movies, with The Legend of Hell House probably being her best film during this period. Pamela Franklin retired from acting in 1981 at the age of 31.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Classic Film Photo of the Week: Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon with Their Daughter

Embed from Getty Images

Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon with their three-month-old daughter Jennifer in 1966.

Monday, September 12, 2022

William Holden Seeks Revenge!

William Holden as Mr. Benedict.
Between 1969 and 1972, William Holden made three Westerns: the first was a bona fide classic (Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch); the second was taken out of the director's control and became a notorious flop (Wild Rovers), and the third was a conventional revenge tale that borrowed its premise from The Dirty Dozen (1967). That last film, creatively titled The Revengers, is the subject of today's review.

Holden plays John Benedict, a former Cavalry officer who has settled down to raise horses and a family. His idyllic existence is shattered when a band of ruffians kill his wife and children while he's hunting a wounded cougar. Consumed with vengeance, he tracks down one of the murderers and learns that their leader has retreated to a well-protected hideout in Mexico.

Knowing that he will be outnumbered, Benedict visits a prison camp where the crooked commandant "sells" prisoners to work in mines. Benedict agrees to pay a premium if he can select his laborers--which he intends to use for his personal posse.

Ernest Borgnine looking grubby.
The relationship between Benedict and his men is the most interesting aspect of The Revengers. When he frees them, most of the former convicts abandon him...only to return the next day. Having spent their money, they have nothing more interesting to do! But as time passes, they develop respect and loyalty to Mr. Benedict and his quest becomes their quest.

The youngest rider, a Mexican named Chamaco, imagines that he is Benedict's son (conceived when the older man visited his birth town as a Cavalry officer). When he mentions this unlikely possibility to Benedict, the older man--who is still grieving the loss of his son--angrily rejects Chamaco. The young Mexican then shoots Benedict, apparently killing him. This paves the way for a much-too-long rehabilitation sequence with Susan Hayward, which supposedly causes Benedict to reevaluate his motives.

Woody Strode looking stoic.
William Holden lacks fire as Benedict, displaying none of the intensity that he captured so well in The Wild Bunch. Most of the supporting cast makes little impact, although Ernest Borgnine (Holden's brilliant co-star in The Wild Bunch) is colorful and Woody Strode exudes a powerfully calm screen presence. Mexican actor Jorge Luke is also convincing as the young Chamaco.

The Revengers marked Susan Hayward's return to the screen after a five-year absence following 1967's Valley of the Dolls. Alas, she has little to do as a lonely nurse who becomes attracted to Benedict.

I saw The Revengers with my parents when it was released theatrically. If it seems like an odd choice for a family film, I can explain. My mother would go see any movie with William Holden! Although Dad didn't say it, I'm sure he was disappointed. This Holden movie didn't have Kim Novak.

Monday, September 5, 2022

An Interview with Sunset Blvd's Nancy Olson Livingston

Actress Nancy Olson Livingston shot to fame at the age of 22 when she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Sunset Blvd. (1950). She subsequently became one of the most in-demand actresses of the 1950s, starring alongside William Holden (Union Station, Force of Arms, etc.), John Wayne (Big Jim McLain), Jane Wyman (So Big), Bing Crosby (Mr. Music), and Van Heflin (Battle Cry). Nancy reduced her workload in the late 1950s to spend more time with her family. However, she made occasional guest appearances on TV series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Big Valley. She also starred on Broadway in The Tunnel of Love, Send Me No Flowers, and Mary, Mary. Starting in 1960, Nancy Olson Livingtson appeared in five Walt Disney films over a 12-year period, including Pollyanna, The Absent-Minded Professor, and Snowball Express. Her autobiography A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood, and the Age of Glamour will be published this November.

Café:  How would you describe your experience of working with director Billy Wilder on Sunset Blvd.?

Nancy Olson in Canadian Pacific.
Nancy Olson Livingston:  It was a profound experience because I had only done one picture before Sunset Blvd. That was Canadian Pacific (1949) with Randolph Scott, who was old enough to be my father. At least, I had the experience of being in front of the camera and knowing what the set-up was and how it operated. I was also going to UCLA and majoring in theater arts. I was under contract to Paramount, which lent me to 20th Century-Fox to do Canadian Pacific. I was fascinated that I could walk around the Paramount lot and go to the commissary to have lunch. I did that to get acquainted with what the studio was all about. I certainly knew who Billy Wilder was. I had seen his films and I was a great admirer of his work. He would stop me on the lot and engage me in long conversations: “What was it like to be born and raised in the Midwest? Your father is a doctor, what was that like? Tell me about your college life at UCLA.” It was bizarre. Why in the world would Billy Wilder want to know all these things? When I was cast in Sunset Blvd. and read the script, I realized that my character, Betty Schaefer, was an aspiring writer. She had to innately have a way of speaking that would make you believe she was a writer. She had to be able to speak well, to use language well, to be confident. I eventually came to understand that’s why I was cast. I would visit the set before I started my scenes and was always warmly welcomed. I worked with Edith Head, who did the wardrobes, and I was wearing what she wanted me to wear. And Billy said: “I don’t like that. I like what she wore yesterday when she came to visit.” So, I wore my own clothes in Sunset Blvd. I had not been in California long enough to know where to shop. I did not have a great wardrobe. What was absolutely clear was that Billy Wilder wanted me to be me. Betty Schaefer was me.

Café:  What was your biggest challenge in Sunset Blvd.?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  The first day of work. It’s my first scene in the movie where Betty comes into the office of this producer and asks about the script that Joe Gillis (William Holden), who was sitting there, wrote. Betty didn’t know who Joe Gillis was, so she was very honest about what she thought about the script. We rehearsed that scene several times. When I said that we were ready, Billy said “Shoot!” and we started the scene. There was a moment where I kind of stuttered a little, but I kept going. When the scene was finished, I said: “Please, Mr. Wilder (eventually I called him Billy), could we please do it again?” I didn’t feel totally comfortable at that moment. But he said: “Nope. It was fine.” Now, this is something that Shirley MacLaine and I talked about years later. He never wanted to shoot a scene more than once. You often had the feeling that you could do it a little better, that you didn’t bring something into it that you wanted to. I was upset about that. But I learned that you better know what you’re doing from the beginning.

Café:  Why do you think Sunset Blvd. continues to resonate with film fans over 70 years after it was made?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  Sunset Blvd. resonates not only with film fans, but with the general public. I had an experience about a year ago when I went into Saks Fifth Avenue and I walked into the cosmetics department. This man, who was the general manager, suddenly came over to me and said: “I know who you are. I saw Sunset Blvd. three weeks ago. You’re Nancy Olson.” I was 91 or 92. When you watch Sunset Blvd., it’s old-fashioned—the clothes, the cars, everything is of a different era. And yet, it has an up-to-date understanding. It feels today. And that is because it reveals the truth. I wrote about that in my book: “Sunset Blvd. tells the brutal truth about a part of the motion picture business and how it can ruin one’s life. To be exploited for other people’s profit can be both painful and humiliating. Even though one is paid sometimes a great deal and receives tremendous ego-fulfilling rewards, to be portrayed as larger than life is distorting and destroys the delicate balance between reality and fantasy.” Everything about Sunset Blvd. tells the truth. Joe Gillis is a desperate man who is at the end of his rope. He can’t pay his car loan. He can’t pay his rent. And when he gets into Norma Desmond’s house, he decides to sell his soul for his survival. And Betty Schaefer, my character, falls in love with this man who has sold his soul. It’s about human nature. It’s about who we all are and how we conduct our lives. Movie stars were a commodity back then. Marilyn Monroe is a perfect example. She was so exaggerated, but she was also vulnerable. She was created bigger and bigger than she really was. Ultimately, movie stars are thrown away, like Norma Desmond and, to a great extent, Marilyn Monroe. So, Sunset Blvd. survives because it tells the truth about an aspect of life which is kind of generally true.

Café:  I also think Sunset Blvd. has one of the great openings in movie history, with Joe’s body floating in the swimming pool as he provides the voice-over narration.

Nancy Olson Livingston:  You want to know what the real beginning was? It was filmed with bodies in a morgue. Joe is under the sheets with all the other bodies and he starts to talk with them. When the studio showed the movie at a test showing, the audience laughed. People thought it was funny and kind of ridiculous. So, Billy went back and re-edited and started at the point where Joe’s body is floating in the pool.

Café:  You made four films with William Holden, whom you have described as a good friend. What do you think was the secret to the onscreen chemistry between the two of you?

Nancy Olson and William Holden in Sunset Blvd.
Nancy Olson Livingston:  We were very alike. He was from Pasadena. I was from Milwaukee. There was a common ground. We really began to love each other. I was married. He was married. He did make a slight pass at me during the shooting of Sunset Blvd., which I’ve written about. It became so clear to him that nothing was going to ever happen. That was the end of it and we became friends. We loved hugging and kissing (laughs). I don’t know why, but it felt wonderful and comforting to be held by him. We enjoyed each other and we liked each other. Years after Bill and I had stopped working together, I was at an airport with my husband Alan Livingston and, as we were walking to board a plane, I heard a voice from behind me: “Nancy!” I turned around and it was Bill. I cried out: “Bill!” And we spontaneously ran as fast as we could and went into an embrace. He gave me a kiss and said: “My God, how are you? I haven’t seen you for two years. I understand you’re remarried now. Are you happy?” It was one of those things. A man was walking by as we were talking and laughing and he taps us on the shoulder: “Excuse me, but this is better than watching an old movie.” 

Café:  You starred in five Walt Disney films over 12 years, starting with Pollyanna in 1960. What led to your Disney connection?

Nancy Olson in The Absent-Minded Professor.
Nancy Olson Livingston:  I had not done a movie for a long time and figured I wasn’t going to do another movie. I did not want to be a movie star. That was a lesson I learned in Sunset Blvd. Being a movie star was isolating and lonely and unreal. I was 32 and I thought it was over. So, I am in Majorca, picking up my children who were visiting their father and stepmother. And I got a phone call and it was Mr. Disney. He said: “Nancy, this is Walt Disney. We are working on a movie here and are spending a lot more money than we usually do. It’s an all-star cast. Every part has been cast with a star. We have John Mills’ daughter, Hayley, who is fantastic, to play Pollyanna. We have Jane Wyman, Richard Egan, Karl Malden, Adolphe Menjou, Agnes Moorehead…and we want you.” I thought that was interesting. He said they were shooting at the end of August. I was planning on going to California to visit my parents anyway. I was living in New York at the time. But I had to bring the children back to school. Walt said I’d be finished by the middle of September. I said I had a governess who could take the kids back to school. I told him: “You know something…I’ll do it.” And that began my work with Walt Disney. I enjoyed it. My children had fun coming and visiting me on the set. I finished Pollyanna and thought that was the end of it. I never even asked what he was going to pay me. That wasn’t an issue. About a year later, I get a call from my agent saying that Disney is doing The Absent-Minded Professor with Fred MacMurray and wanted me for Fred’s love interest. Fred was twenty years older than me. Casting at that time was really out of whack. I loved Fred MacMurray’s work. He was a brilliant actor. He just had a natural sense for it. I read The Absent-Minded Professor script and decided I'd do it. I made it and then went back to New York. The next year, they decided to do a sequel because The Absent-Minded Professor was a huge success. So, I did Son of Flubber. By the way, sequels are never as good as the original. At least, that’s my opinion. I felt very comfortable on the Disney lot. Walt Disney made everyone call him Walt—including the grips. There was a unique friendliness that pervaded the lot. It was interesting and different from any place I’d ever worked before. I think Walt Disney was from the Midwest, too, and a homespun, middle-class kind of background. He was a Republican. I’m a big Democrat. Fred MacMurray was a big Republican, so the two of them got along wonderfully. Fred grew up in Wisconsin so the two of us had a kind of bond and told stories to each other about our experiences growing up. Because I wanted to work every once in a while, the Disney folks would call me. I did Smith! (1969) with Glenn Ford and Snowball Express (1972) with Dean Jones, which was not a very good film. But if you ever see Snowball Express, that was the absolute best that I ever looked when I was photographed. I saw it the other day and I was amazed. 

Café:  I think the first half of Snowball Express was pretty good, but the second half just turns silly.

Nancy Olson Livingston:  But don’t you agree that I look very well photographed?

Café:  Well, you always looked good in your films. Now, you appeared with many of the biggest stars of the 1950s and 1960s: William Holden, Jane Wyman, Fred MacMurray, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, and Glenn Ford. Who were some of your favorite co-stars and why?

John Wayne and Nancy Olson in Big Jim McLain.
Nancy Olson Livingston: Making Big Jim McLain with John Wayne was an interesting experience. It was a terrible script. When I read it, I thought that nobody was going to see this film. It’ll come out, get terrible reviews, and get shown on Saturday nights with another big film. But I thought I should have the experience of working with a true icon like John Wayne and it was made in Honolulu, which I loved. I found John Wayne to be an amazing person and very mysterious as to who he really was. Everybody called him Duke; I called him John. He never corrected me. We became really wonderful friends. For years, whenever we saw each other, we embraced and were happy to see each other. He was not the least flirtatious. Now, Bing Crosby had cold blue eyes. He put himself at a distance from almost everyone. He had a group of cronies around all the time, buttering him up. However, he and I became friends. The whole cast, crew, and director (of Mr. Music) treated me like I was a kind of charming child and that was odd. I was beginning to date Alan Lerner, my first husband, so it didn’t much matter. But I realized I was much too young to play opposite Bing as his love interest. When I was in Battle Cry, my marriage to Alan Lerner was beginning to have terrible problems. He ultimately married eight times, so he was a man with problems. I was too young and naïve to understand them, because he was fascinating and brilliant and would be with the most interesting people. He knew the best writers and producers in New York and the theatre was extremely interesting at that time. I was very happy to marry him, but it eventually became obvious it was not going to end well. There was a point where Warner Bros. called and asked if I would do Battle Cry. I said yes. There were so many stars in Battle Cry that I had a limited story with Aldo Ray. Aldo, bless him, kind of fell in love with me. I needed that. Please understand that we never had an affair. But when we had a long scene, he would prolong it--and it felt good. 

Café:  Excluding Sunset Blvd., what was your favorite of your films and why?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  The first thing that pops in my head is The Absent-Minded Professor, because it was so much fun and such a wonderful script. Fred MacMurray was marvelous. But there were very few films that lived up to Sunset Blvd. That was just an amazing experience.

Café:  You played Lloyd Bridges’ wife in the 1984 TV series Paper Dolls, which revolved around the fashion industry. How would you describe that experience?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  I only worked one or two days a week and maybe not at all the next week. It was a great cast and we all became friends. It was a nice interruption and just fun to be on a set and act a little.

Café:  Were there any roles you turned down or wish you had pursued during your career?

Nancy Olson Livingston:  No. My acting career was only a third of my life and eventually an eighth of my life. It was interesting, but it was not my life. As I write about in my book, my experiences outside of films were just as interesting or more so. Life is a fascinating, extraordinary experience. I’ve lived a long time and I’ve been extremely lucky. I was lucky having the parents I did, growing up where I did, how I grew up. Even my first marriage, which ended so painfully, had its moments. My Fair Lady was dedicated to me. I sat there and watched it being created. I had the most amazing experiences with my second husband, Alan Livingston, the president of Capitol Records. He started at Capitol after he got out of the Army and college. He went to Paramount, where they wanted him to write children’s albums, which he had never even thought of doing. But he created Bozo the Clown and other albums that became bestsellers. Then, he put Frank Sinatra with the right conductor and changed his whole career. He made Nat Cole a soloist instead of a pianist. Then, he left Capitol and went to NBC television and created Bonanza. After several years, he went back to Capitol and signed The Beach Boys. I gave parties for The Beatles and The Band. Alan Livingston ended up with the first American company in China. So, my life was varied and anybody who lives this long will have success and failure, happiness and heartbreak, sadness and joy. You can’t live this long without having all of it.

Café:  Thank you so much for much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Nancy Olson Livingston:  I enjoyed it.

A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood, and the Age of Glamour by Nancy Olson Livingston will be published by the University of Kentucky Press on November 15, 2022. It's 408 pages and features 44 black & white photos.