Monday, January 30, 2023

Drama Among the Country Club Set in "Banning"

Wagner as Mike Banning.
Banning (1967) often gets categorized as a golf movie--heck, it was even shown on the Golf Channel at one time. It does involve golfing, particularly during the climax, but the reality is that Banning is the equivalent of a big screen soap opera--and I mean that as a compliment. It's set at a posh Arizona country club whose members include a wily old millionaire, his lonely daughter and conniving son-in-law, a washed-up golf pro, a sultry hussy, and an attractive secretary. These people have settled into their roles at El Presidente until their lives are disrupted by the arrival of Mike Banning (Robert Wagner).

A former professional golfer with a shady past, Banning blackmails club member Jonathan Linus (Guy Stockwell) into hiring him as an assistant golf pro. The good-looking Banning attracts the attentions of Jonathan's ignored wife (Susan Clark) and a wealthy socialite (Jill St. John). However, he has set his sights on Carol Lindquist (Anjanette Comer), the club's secretary who harbors a few secrets of her own. His romantic pursuit of Carol is stifled by the arrival of a mob debt collector. It turns out that Banning owes $20,000 to an old pal whose gambling losses need to paid up or else!

Jill St. John.
If you temper your expectations, Banning is an entertaining lightweight drama that relies heavily on its cast. It's not that it's a particularly well-acted film, but rather its makers chose the right actors for each role. Robert Wagner made a career out of playing the handsome, likable guy with a bit of an edge. Jill St. John always fared best when playing exaggerated characters like Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever. And Susan Clark seemed to specialize in playing strong, intelligent women who were not to be underestimated. Add in a mix of seasoned pros (e.g., Gene Hackman, Howard St. John) and promising young actors (James Farentino) and you've got 102 minutes of fun.

Susan Clark.
Banning was made in the late 1960s when Universal Studios was producing modestly-budgeted films with an eye toward television profits. Many of these pictures were headlined by TV veterans, such as Jack Lord (The Ride to Hangman's Tree), Don Knotts (The Reluctant Astronaut), and Doug McClure (The King's Pirate, a remake of Against All Flags). The studio even made a theatrical film based on its TV sitcom The Munsters (1966's Munster, Go Home!). Thus, it's not surprising that Banning is sometimes misidentified as a made-for-TV movie. (Hey, future spouses Robert Wagner and Jill St. John did star together in a made-for-TV movie that same year: the quirky How I Spent My Summer Vacation).

Make no mistake, though, that Banning was released to theaters--and it's got an Oscar nomination to show for it! Yes, the lovely Quincy Jones-Bob Russell composition "The Eyes of Love" was nominated for Best Original Song (losing to the inferior "Talk to the Animals" from Doctor Doolittle). It's apparent that Banning director Ron Winston knew he had a good song because "The Eyes of Love" is played throughout the movie. Jack Jones and Trini Lopez recorded cover versions of it and Quincy included it on his album You've Got It Bad Girl. However, here's the original version sung by Gil Bernard.

Of course, you could just watch Banning. It was a hard-to-see movie for many years, but fortunately my Twitter pal @CED_LD_Guy has uploaded Banning to his "Your Favorite Movies By Request" Rumble Channel. Rumble is similar to YouTube. To watch the movie, just sign up for a free account, log in, and click on this link.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Futureworld: When Sequels Are Unnecessary

At the end of Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973), the androids at Delos, a high-tech amusement park, went amok and killed dozens of guests. Futureword (1976) picks up two years later. One would have thought that the deaths and injuries to almost 150 customers and staff would have bankrupted the company. But instead, it plans to re-open and convince the public that--after $1.5 billion in safety improvements--Delos is "fail-safe."

Peter Fonda as Chuck.
As part of its public relations strategy, the company has invited influential world leaders and news journalists to experience the new amusement park and participate in behind-the-scenes tours. The guest list includes newspaper reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and TV host Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner). Browning suspects that something is amiss at Delos--especially after a former employee tried to contact him and was subsequently murdered. But what could Delos be hiding?

Given the boxoffice success of the modestly-budgeted Westworld, it was not surprising that a sequel was made. However, by 1975, Michael Crichton and MGM, the original studio, had moved on to other projects and were uninterested in revisiting Delos. Producer Paul Lazaurus III eventually secured financing and a distribution deal through American International Pictures (AIP). Known as a "B" movie studio, AIP wanted to move into the "mainstream" with bigger-budgeted movies and Futureworld fit that profile.

Blythe Danner as "Socks."
Unfortunately, Futureworld lacks the creativity and energy that made Westworld a hit with critics and moviegoers. As the intrepid reporters, Fonda seems to be going through the motions with Danner overcompen-sating by playing her character too broadly. Neither one is remotely convincing.  Also, while it's the script's fault, I grew quickly tired of Fonda calling Danner by the "cute" nickname Socks. As a blue collar Delos technician, Stuart Margolin provides some much needed personality. However, he doesn't appear until an hour into the film's running time and Futureworld has already grown tedious by then.

Perhaps, Futureworld could have been saved with a clever story. I won't provide any plot spoilers here, but will state that it recycles a creaky, overly familiar science fiction premise. By the time the credits roll, you'll likely be thinking: Is that all there is to it? And don't expect a big scene from Yul Brynner, who reprises his Westworld role as The Gunslinger. He appears only in a silly dream fantasy.

Futureworld did turn a small profit, but not enough to warrant additional sequels. However, in 1980, a TV series called Beyond Westworld debuted on CBS. Only three of its five episodes were aired before it was cancelled. The original concept was revived quite successfully, though, when HBO launched its Westworld TV series in 2016.

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Brass Bottle: A Comfort Comedy with a Genie and a Future Jeannie

Burl Ives as a genie in The Brass Bottle.
The 1960s may have been the last decade where the "comfort comedy" reigned supreme at the box office. That may have to do, in large part, with the number of comedic actors working at the time. Veteran stars like Doris Day, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Bob Hope were still producing family-friendly comedies. There were also younger stars like Jerry Lewis, Dean Jones, and Frankie & Annette. 

Another member of the latter group was Tony Randall, who graduated from supporting player in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies to headline his own modest funny films. One of his better efforts was The Brass Bottle (1964), an amusing precursor to television's more successful series I Dream of Jeannie.

Randall plays struggling architect Harold Ventimore, who purchases a large antique brass bottle as a gift for his future father-in-law (Edward Andrews). When he discovers his in-laws have a similar-looking lamp already, Harold keeps the brass bottle for himself. That turns out to be fortuitous (sort of) when a genie named Fakrash (Burl Ives) emerges from the artifact.

Tony Randall as Harold.
Finally released after several thousand years of imprisonment, Fakrash is eager to please his new "master." Things go well initially, especially when the genie intervenes so Harold is awarded a huge contract to design a housing development. However, Fakrash's other efforts aren't as successful: Harold's fiancée (Barbara Eden) and her family walk out of a dinner where Harold's "slaves" serve eye of lamb; Fakrash's stock market  profits attract the attention of the federal government; and a beautiful, scantily-dressed princess arrives in Harold's house just as his fiancée drops by. 

At this point in his career, Tony Randall had mastered the perpetually distressed persona that would make him a TV star as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple. It works well in The Brass Bottle--it's just a shame that the script doesn't take greater advantage of Randall's comedic skills. He essentially plays the straight man to Burl Ives' charming, mischievous genie. On the other hand, Ives has a grand time as Fakrash and is the principal reason to see The Brass Bottle. At times, one wonders if the genie really has Harold's best interests at heart or rather Fakrash is just having fun. When he goes to calm down Harold's agitated father-in-law, Fakrash ends up transforming the man into an ass.

Barbara Eden as Jeannie & in The Brass Bottle.
Barbara Eden has little to do as Harold's fiancée, but her presence in The Brass Bottle led to her most famous role. In her autobiography, Jeannie Out of the Bottle: A Memoir, Barbara Eden wrote: "The movie would prove to be a good-luck charm for me: Sidney Sheldon saw it, it sparked the germ of I Dream of Jeanne, and he remembered my performance in it." The first episode of I Dream of Jeannie debuted on NBC the year following the release of The Brass Bottle.

Monday, January 2, 2023

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Westerns Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Western 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. Looking for Debbie.

2. The Amazing Septet.

3. 12 p.m.

4. The Rowdy Gang.

5. Meet Jack Wilson.

6. The Rifle, The Pony, and The Cowboy.

7. Blondie and Tuco.

8. The Ringo Kid.

9. The Big Raft.

10. The Legend of Graham Dorsey.

11. A Man Named Hatton.

12. Waiting for the Train,

13. The Mysterious Doc Frail.

14. The Mobile Iron-Covered Armory Used for Transporting Gold.

15. Bell on My Saddle.