Monday, February 19, 2024

Jeff Chandler Plays a Make-Believe Parent in The Toy Tiger

Jeff Chandler as Rick.
Had a bad day at work? Relatives causing undue stress? If so, then perhaps you need to sit down and watch a mindless 1950s comedy. You know the kind. It's entertaining enough while you're watching it, but it won't linger in your brain. It's like cotton candy--light and tasty, but not filling and quickly forgotten. If that's what you're looking for, then The Toy Tiger (1956)--a remake of the earlier Mad About Music--is the movie for you.

Laraine Day plays Gwen Harkinson, a widowed advertising executive who has shuffled her son off to a private boarding school. Gwen's plan is to work hard, make a lot of money, and then "retire" to spend time raising son Timmy (Tim Hovey). She has no time for romance, which is a bummer for Rick Todd (Jeff Chandler), an art director at the agency who loves her. Rick is fed up with advertising, but agrees to go to a small upstate New York town to convince an ex-colleague to work on a new ad campaign. He is completely unaware that the town is also the home of Timmy's boarding school: The Meadows.

Meanwhile, Timmy is dealing with a bully at school, who suspects (quite rightly) that Timmy has created an imaginary father: a world-famous explorer who sends him letters about his quests. In reality, Timmy is writing the letters and mailing them to himself. When pressured by the bully, Timmy states his father is arriving in town that day on a bus. The other boys become excited to meet Timmy's dad and go to meet the bus. When Rick gets off the bus, Timmy identifies him as his father!

Laraine Day, Tim Hovey, and Jeff Chandler
in a publicity still from The Toy Tiger.
It's a lightweight premise that functions surprisingly well for most of the movie. As expected, Rick eventually decides to go along--not realizing Timmy is Gwen's son--and play the part of Timmy's "famous" father (good thing the Internet didn't exist back then). Jeff Chandler seems to be having a good time as Timmy's make-believe dad and he and young Tim Hovey create a believable father-son relationship. It also helps to have a couple of old pros, Cecil Kellaway and Richard Haydn, playing the brothers that run the boarding school. (Both deserve more screen time!)

The Toy Tiger gets bogged down, though, when Gwen shows up. She is just not a likable character. Granted, Laraine Day and the writers faced a tough challenge: the film hinges on peeling back the layers of Gwen's business-focused persona to reveal a caring mother and a woman who wants to be in a loving relationship. Laraine Day never quite gets there. Perhaps, a more accomplished actress like Doris Day could have pulled it off. Or the writers could have opted for a more realistic ending, in which Gwen finds a way to spend more time with her son, but rejects a relationship with Rick.

Of course, that would be a different movie altogether. And we've already established that you just want to watch The Toy Tiger and enjoy it for what is. There's nothing wrong with that. You'll be pleasantly amused for 88 minutes and then you'll forget it.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Seven Things to Know About Linda Cristal

1. Linda Cristal was born on February 23, 1931, in Rosario, Argentina, as Marta Victoria Moya Burges. In addition to her native language of Spanish, she became fluent in Italian, French, and English. She got her acting break in 1952 when she appeared as a school girl in the Mexican film When the Fog Lifts (Cuando Levanta la Niebla). It was then that she changed her name professionally to Linda Cristal.

2. She had made several Mexican films when she heard that United Artists wanted to cast a Latina female lead opposite Dana Andrews in Comanche (1956). She got the part and was billed in the opening credits as "And Miss Linda Cristal as Magarita."

3. Linda Cristal won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer in 1959 for her performance in the Tony Curtis-Janet Leigh comedy The Perfect Furlough. She plays a movie sex symbol--the Argentine Bombshell--who accompanies Tony's Army corporal on the "perfect furlough" to Paris.

4. Linda worked with John Ford in Two Rode Together and The Alamo (where he was the uncredited second unit director). She said in an interview: "It was such a wonderful thing to say that I worked under the direction of John Ford. If I never do anything else ever again, I'd die happy." In both films, she played the love interest of men much older than her: James Stewart (23 years her senior) in Two Rode Together and John Wayne (24 years older) in The Alamo.

Linda Cristal as Victoria Cannon.
5. Linda Cristal gained international recognition for her role as Victoria Cannon in the popular Western television series The High Chaparral, which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1971. In a 2015 interview, Cristal's High Chaparral co-star Henry Darrow told me: "The High Chaparral was the first time in a series that a Latino family was on an equal level with an Anglo family." For her performance as Victoria, Linda Cristal was nominated for two Prime Time Emmy Awards and won a Golden Globe in 1970 as Best Actress in a Drama Series.

6. After her 1966 divorce from actor-producer Yale Wexler, Linda Cristal dated celebrities such as Bobby Darin, Adam West, and Christopher George. One Hollywood gossip magazine even published an article about Linda coming between Bobby Darin and ex-wife Sandra Dee (whom fans hoped would reconcile).

Linda Cristal as Cleopatra.
7. Linda Cristal's autobiography A Life Unexpected: The Linda Cristal Story, co-written with her son Jordan Wexler, was published in 2019. Among her many acting credits in film and TV are two unusual ones: Legions of the Nile (1959) and Mr. Majestyk (1974). In the former, an Italian production also known as The Legions of Cleopatra, she plays the title role four years before Elizabeth Taylor. According to one source, 20th Century-Fox bought the rights to Cristal's film so as to limit its distribution in the U.S. prior to the release of Taylor's big-budgeted Cleopatra (1963). Mr. Majestyk, one of her last theatrical films, paired her with Charles Bronson as a migrant worker and union activist. It gave her an opportunity to show what she could do in an action picture. Today, Mr. Majestyk is recognized as one of Bronson's best-reviewed 1970s films.

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Alternate Movie Title (January 2024)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a 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. Flex Martian--Bodybuilder.

2. The Pin Is a Mighty Sword. (Note that all spelling is correct!)

3. Will Kane Stands Alone.

4. The Watch of Colonel Mortimer.

5. The Christmas Angel.

6. The Singing Cricket.

7. Masquerade for Money.

8. The Wrong Man Wins the Cake.

9. Love, Love, Love in Rome.

10. Barn Burner!

11. The Red-Haired Pirate and The Spy.

12. Law, Jazz, and Hardboiled Eggs.

13. The Hit Man Who Liked Cats.

14. And the Waves Washed Over Them.

15. Homer's Chapel.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Working Girl and The Verdict

Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford.
Working Girl (1988). Mike Nichol's R-rated update of a familiar comedy formula, Working Girl earned six Oscar nominations, made a star (albeit briefly) of Melanie Griffith, and transformed Harrison Ford into a romantic lead. Griffith plays Tess McGill, a hard-working, ambitious young woman who thinks she has landed the perfect job when she becomes the personal assistant to business executive Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver). Katherine listens to Tess's ideas. It turns out that she also steals one of them, which Tess discovers while Katherine is in the hospital recovering from a skiing accident. Rather than confronting her boss, Tess passes herself off as one of Katherine's fellow executives. She uses her smarts to set up a big business deal, but will she be able to pull it off before Katherine discovers the charade? Kevin Wade's script offers no surprises, so Working Girl relies heavily on Griffith, Ford, and Weaver. Fortunately, they deliver whatever is required: Griffith's plucky heroine is vulnerable yet tough; Ford provides a charming romantic foil; and Weaver delivers a deliciously funny performance as the film's villain. Director Mike Nichols makes fine use of the New York City locations. However, his inclusion of three brief nude scenes (including two of Griffith) seems unwarranted in a film about female empowerment. Carly Simon's song "Let the River Run" earned Working Girl its only Oscar despite those six nominations. (Personally, I think a more deserving Carly Simon song was "Coming Around Again" from Mike Nichols' 1986 movie Heartburn.) 

Paul Newman as Frank Galvin.
The Verdict (1982). Paul Newman earned the seventh of his nine Best Actor Oscar nominations as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic, washed-up Boston lawyer. When a friend tosses a medical malpractice case his way, Galvin chooses not to settle it out of court. Instead, he ignores his clients' wishes and takes the case to trial. The reasons for his decision are unclear. Has Frank rediscovered his passion for law? Is he trying to prove to himself that he can still be a successful attorney? Is he solely concerned with justice for the comatose victim? David Mamet provides no clear answers. In his original draft of the screenplay, the verdict was never even revealed (the movie does include it). While I admire Mamet's intent, I find the The Verdict to be ambitious without being fully successful. There's a twist involving Charlotte Rampling's character that's obvious from the moment she is introduced. James Mason, a fine actor, struggles to find any nuance in his high-powered defense attorney who will do anything to win. On the plus side, Paul Newman breathes life into Galvin and convinces the audience to root for this self-pitying attorney--who may or may not have found his self-respect at the film's conclusion. I know many fans of The Verdict and I encourage them to make their case in the comments below or on Twitter (I'm @classic_film). I have made my final summation.