Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Animals in Film Blogathon: A Tiger Walks (1964)


The Animals in Film Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood has arrived and runs May 26 - 28.  Enjoy all the interesting contributions by clicking HERE.

"A tiger walks the streets of Scotia today while residents cower within their homes gripped by the primitive fear that jungle people have known through the centuries."

Doodles Weaver (Hockey Homicide, Duck Pimples) as Bob Evans, local reporter selling his big, big story to city editor Stafford Repp (Big House USA, TVs Batman).

Ian Niall's 1960 novel A Tiger Walks is the story of a man-killing circus animal loose outside of a village in Wales.  The Disney film version, adapted by Lowell S. Hawley (In Search of the Castaways, TVs The Loretta Young Show) changes the setting to a small New England town.  Norman Tokar (Candleshoe, Those Calloways, TVs Leave It to Beaver) directs a dream cast of familiar character actors.



Kevin Corcoran, Pamela Franklin

The truck transporting tigers for a travelling circus breaks down in the small town of Scotia leaving the handlers to wait for repairs.  Theo Marcuse (The Cincinnati Kid) is lead handler Joseph, a braggart, a bully and, on this tragic day, a drunkard.  He relentlessly torments the tiger Raja and foolishly leaves the cage door open in a show of misplaced courage.  The hungry and enraged tiger leaps to his freedom in the surrounding countryside.  Spectators, comprised mainly of youngsters, scatter as the tiger heads down an alley coming face to face with Julie Williams played by Pamela Franklin (The Innocents, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).  Raja is interested only in escape and Julie's only injury from the encounter is a scrape on her arm from a fall.

Joseph follows the tiger into the woods armed with a shotgun taken from garage mechanic Frank McHugh (The Roaring Twenties, Three Men on a Horse).  What Joseph does not know is that the gun is not fully loaded and this will lead to his death.  Also following Raja is the more sensible and compassionate trainer Ram Singh played by Sabu (Black Narcissus, Drums) in his last film.  Mr. Singh wants to capture the tiger alive and is instrumental in educating the local children as to the animal's true nature.

Julie is the daughter of the town's sheriff Pete Williams played by Brian Keith (The Wind and the Lion, Nightfall).  The crisis of the tiger comes in the midst of his re-election campaign.  His political opposition includes the governor played by Edward Andrews (Advise and Consent, The Unguarded Moment) and his opportunistic campaign manager played by Jack Albertson (The Poseidon Adventure, The Fox and the Hound).



Pamela Franklin, Brian Keith, Vera Miles

Julie inadvertently causes problems for her father when she explains to a reporter that her father is on the tiger's side in that it isn't the big cat's fault for behaving naturally.  The death of the sadistic trainer has caused the press to paint the tiger as a man-killer and everyone is out for blood.  Mrs. Williams is played by Vera Miles (The Searchers, Psycho) and she sees both sides of the conflict that causes tension in the home.  

Dorothy Williams:  "The thing is, Pete, we have talked to her.  Almost from the day we brought her home from the hospital.  We're the ones that taught her animals weren't put on this earth just to be kicked around; that they have certain rights just like people.  Who is it that taught her that justice is important?  That you have to do what's right?  Not just in the big things, but in the little things and not just when it's convenient, but when it louses up everything for you."

The escaped tiger has become national news and the tiny town is swamped with reporters, politicians and the military.  Local businesswoman, hotel and bar owner Mrs. Watkins played by Una Merkel (Destry Rides Again, 42nd Street) takes full advantage of the situation by raising her fees in the name of civic duty.



Raja's supporters

Hal Peary (The Great Gildersleeve) plays a children's TV host who spearheads a campaign based on Julie's television appearance to "Save That Tiger".  Protests are staged and money is collected to purchase Raja and his family for a zoo.  The governor intervenes when it appears the sheriff is being too soft on a man killer.  It is unexpected to see such behavior from adults and authority is such a cynical light in a family entertainment, but as a child I appreciated it and as an adult I find it amusing.

Raja, born and bred in captivity, is not equipped to deal with life in what is to him extremely strange circumstances.  He frightens more than harms the local wildlife and cultivated stock.  A farmer played by Arthur Hunnicut (El Dorado, The Red Badge of Courage) on his way to town to apprise the sheriff of the tiger's whereabouts is shot and wounded by a frightened National Guardsman.  Sheriff Williams had warned that the combination of fog and too many scared people would lead to disaster, but the politicians continue to view the situation as a way to garner votes.

The military believes they finally have the tiger trapped in a valley and the captain in charge played by Donald May (Kisses for My President, TVs The Edge of Night) agrees to let Sheriff Williams, Mr. Singh and a deputy played by Peter Brown (Summer Magic, TVs Laredo) attempt to capture the tiger alive.  The captain, however, is overridden by the governor who wants headlines of a different sort.  Events culminates in a race against time and authority to "save that tiger".

Deputy Vern Goodman:  "I wonder if it takes all this to put on a tiger hunt in Africa or India, or wherever the heck it is."

Sheriff Pete Williams:  "They're hunting a lot of things, Vern.  Headlines.  Pictures.  Trophies.  Excitement and publicity.  Not many of them come just to help out."



Walt Disney with Seranga and Sultan

Animal behaviorist, author and founder of Marine World and Africa, USA, Ralph Helfer supplied the tigers Seranga and Sultan to play "Raja".  Helfer trained animals using what he called "affection training" and provided exotic animals to Hollywood productions including TVs Daktari and Gentle Ben.



A Tiger Walks is entertaining, exciting and edifying.  The character of Raja is presented as what he is - a tiger; a natural creature with its nature perverted by a life in a cage.  The human characters are all too human with their fears, anxieties, ambitions, yet also their capacity for understanding and compassion.






Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Great Villain Blogathon: William Talman as Dave Purvis in "Armored Car Robbery" (1950)



Run for cover! The Great Villain Blogathon is once again upon us hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows and Satin.  Cinema is filled so many extraordinary villains that the blogathon will run from from May 15th to 20th.  Contributions:  Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6.

Armored Car Robbery, directed by Richard Fleischer in 1950, is as tidy and dandy a noir-procedural as you are likely to come across.  At this stage of Fleischer's varied career he was becoming the master of the tightly-paced, low-budgeted crime picture with 1948s Bodyguard, 1949s The Clay Pigeon and Follow Me Quietly.  The Narrow Margin would follow in 1952 and Fleischer would move on to more prestigious and bigger-budgeted films such as The Vikings, The Boston Strangler and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.



The film's use of Los Angeles locations including Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs farm team, is one of the strengths of the picture.  You are put right into the action from City Hall, Police Headquarters and Communications, to highways and wharves.  The other highlight of this 67 minute treat is the intriguing mastermind of the armored car heist, Dave Purvis, and his portrayer, the gifted William Talman.



William Talman

Immortalized for his outstanding performance as tenacious, but luckless district attorney Hamilton Burger on TVs Perry Mason (1957-1966), Talman made his Broadway debut in 1940, his film debut in 1949 and his television launch in 1955.  In between was Army service in the Pacific rising from private to major.  His many movie and television roles highlight the actor's versatility.  He was equally believable as a brave young policeman in 1951s The Racket and a real-life psycho in 1953s The Hitch-Hiker.

In the annals of film-noir, Dave Purvis is one of the coldest and coolest villains you will come across.  Dave Purvis is a meticulous and calculating individual.  Constantly on the move, Purvis is careful to leave no clue to his identity.  He goes so far as to remove labels from clothing and have nothing in writing.  He plans his capers down to the last detail.  His reputation among the underworld types he uses is enough to ensure their obedience.  His obsession with self-preservation, however, sorely taxes their loyalty.



William Talman, Douglas Fowley 

Purvis' number one underling is Benny McBride played by Douglas Fowley (Battleground, TVs The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp).  Benny is desperate for a big score to impress and hold onto his estranged wife, Yvonne LeDoux.  Yvonne is a burlesque dancer with expensive tastes and a roving eye played by Adele Jergens (The Dark Past, Side Street).  If there is a sentimental bone in Yvonne's body, she hides it very well.  She's stringing Benny along all the while she's having an affair with Purvis.  Yep.  Benny is being played for a sap by his wife and his pal.

Benny recruits the two other men required for the job by bringing Al Mapes played by Steve Brodie (Crossfire, Winchester '73) and "Ace" Foster played by Gene Evans (Park Row, Steel Helmet) on board.  They are strictly no imagination types, but know how to follow orders and the heist is promised to yield half a million dollars.  Having timed police response time, the plan involves creating a diversion in front of a stadium which is the last stop on an armored car route.  Gas will knock out the guards and in the three minute wait time the car will be emptied of its treasure.  Only one little thing has to go wrong and it does.  A patrol car is closer than anticipated and before the three minutes is up there is a shootout resulting in the death of a police officer and the wounding of Benny.



Don McGuire, Charles McGraw

Lt. Cordell has a vested interest in this case as he was on the scene and has lost his partner of many years.  "You get used to a guy."  Cordell is played by Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue) and this actor's cops are as tough as his villains.  When it comes to focus, Cordell and Purvis are perfectly matched adversaries.  Cordell's new partner is Danny Ryan played by Don McGuire (writer - Bad Day at Black Rock, Tootsie).  He's a solid worker, but maybe a little too eager to impress Cordell.



Gene Evans, Douglas Fowley, William Talman, Steve Brodie

Dressed as road workers, the gang comes up against a road block and it is the first test after the mostly botched heist.  Mapes, the driver, is a nervous wreck and almost draws undue attention their way.  Purvis' bullying snaps them into place, even the desperately wounded Benny.  Reaching the hideout, Benny's pleas for a doctor go unheeded by Purvis to the point where Benny pulls a gun on  him.  Purvis' cool response is to end Benny's suffering by putting three bullets in him.  "Ace" takes care of dumping the body and their car in the harbor while Mapes keeps an eye on Purvis.  Even these mooks have caught onto the fact that the man is not to be trusted.  Mapes suggestion that now the loot be cut three ways is dismissed by Purvis who says he is going to make sure that Benny's widow gets her share.  Mapes has seen Yvonne strut her stuff and sees clearly through that altruistic statement.



Adele Jergens, William Talman

The police close in on the waterfront digs and Purvis is the only one to keep his head.  "Ace" is shot down and a panicked Mapes makes a noisy exit in a motorboat.  Purvis risks one quick meeting with Yvonne advising her to keep her distance and her nerve for the next couple of weeks.  When he gives the signal they will leave town with the dough.  Mapes has payback plans, but when he is picked up and put on the spot for the cop killing Mapes comes clean about Purvis and, once again, the police close in on the criminal.



William Talman

You can well imagine that someone with Purvis' smarts is not going to be easy to catch.  His habit of changing addresses often and quickly comes in handy.  Even Detective Ryan's undercover rouse does little to break Purvis' composure.  It is nothing to him to shoot to kill another cop.  Deft police work lead to an airfield and a chartered plane.  Even as things start to unravel, Purvis battles to the end.

All of the characteristics of a villainous mastermind are displayed in William Talman's riveting performance.  Purvis is smart, with a smartness that leads to arrogance.  He is cool under pressure and equally as calm about using violence when it suits him.  As ruthless as they come, Dave Purvis is due a spot in the movie villain Hall of Fame.






Sunday, May 15, 2016

National Classic Movie Day: 5 Movies on an Island Blogathon


The rolling year has brought us again to National Classic Movie Day.  Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting a commemorative blogathon with this year's theme, the 5 movies you would want on that fabled desert island.  Click HERE to see what your fellow movie fans envision.






"The power of the woman in the motion picture is very strong and the nature of her resistance results in one of the greatest moments of all cinema."

"It gets me angry to think people judging it and against it in this way when you don't know where it comes from and who they are.  You are taking it as a movie.  It's not a movie.  It is a story and a work of art and a work of poetry and very unique and beautiful.
- Martin Scorsese

First on my list is John Ford's Oscar winning (Best Director and Best Cinematography, Color) The Quiet Man.  The opening credits supported by Victor Young's soaring score are a cue for my emotions to collide.  Unbidden tears rush to my eyes all the while I am anticipating laughter.  Each suitable-for-framing scene of the Irish locations is indelibly imprinted in my memory, as is the tender yet probing shots of the actors/characters that moves the story.

The screen charisma of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara combines thrillingly and naturally as conflicted soulmates.  John Wayne's performance may be one of his finest as he shares the screen with his leading lady and quietly holds our attention in the midst of an ensemble of bona fide scene stealers.

Based on a story by Maurice Walsh published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933, the tale of an American boxer carrying his wounded heart to his Irish birthplace became, in the hands of John Ford, an appealing and ever fascinating allegory touching on history, legends, poetry, humor and humanity.

On my island I would want to have the people of the Isle of Innisfree with all their stubborn pride and open hearts with me. 



Last year's blogathon theme for Classic Movie Day was My Favorite Classic Movie, and my choice was The Thing for Another World.  I can't imagine being on that island without the sci-fi/adventure classic.

Picture the isolated setting of the Arctic Circle where a group of scientists and Air Force personnel must face a seemingly immortal and very hostile alien.  The thought of it sends chills down my spine.  But it is not for the thrills alone that this film is a favourite.  It is the characters and their typical Howard Hawks attitude toward life, death and a job to be done.  Our feisty group of characters face danger in a no-nonsense manner, always ready with a quip and Hawks' trademark overlapping dialogue.  I want to be one of them. 




"Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people."
- Nora Charles

On to the island of Manhattan.  I love a mystery, don't you?  Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, published and produced as a film in 1934 is a sophisticated whodunnit featuring a former private eye, his wealthy wife and a cross-section of New York society from the nouveau-riche to Runyonesque mobsters.  William Powell and Myrna Loy are Nick and Nora Charles, the most charming companions one could hope for, on or off an island.  Nora's elegance and Nick's wry observations carry us through the Christmas holidays and a myriad of murders and disappearances.  The Charles' zest for life is contagious and uplifting.  Nick's expertise with cocktails might even inspire some experimentation with whatever can be found on the island.





We Saw the Sea.  Let Yourself Go.  Get Thee Behind Me, Satan.  I'd Rather Lead a Band.  But Where Are You?  I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.  Let's Face the Music and Dance.

All those great Irving Berlin songs are in Follow the Fleet starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  This fifth film to feature the singing/dancing/acting pair, and the third of five directed by Mark Sandrich, is a fun way to spend time with these old movie friends and admire their talent.  Fred and Ginger are former dance partners with a romantic past.  She is working solo and he has joined the Navy.  Fate brings them together again, along with Ginger's sister played by Harriet Hilliard and Fred's pal played by Randolph (Be still my heart!) Scott.  Romantic complications - we got 'em.  Great dance routines - naturally.  Haunting ballads - yes, sir!  Pretty gowns and pretty girls to wear them - Bernard Newman, Costume Designers Guild Hall of Fame.


You want more?  Okay, we've got more - a monkey.  The cutest gosh darn little monkey you ever saw in a 1936 RKO musical.




"You may be a movie buff if ... you have more pictures of Laurel and Hardy about the house than of actual relatives."
- Caftan Woman

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's none too bright, but ever optimistic screen characters work superbly in costume pictures and 1937s Way Out West is the perfect western spoof and the perfect movie for my island sojourn as I love westerns and laughter.

Stanley and Ollie are charged with the task of delivering the deed to a mine to a newly orphaned girl played by Rosina Lawrence.  Surely a simple task for anyone else, our beloved dolts can't help but mess things up.  For one thing James Finlayson is the penny pinching employee of our heroine, and he and his golddigging wife played by Sharon Lynn actively work to thwart the mission and gain the mine for themselves.

Undaunted, our champions face a multitude of stumbling blocks in righting the situation, with a little time out for singing and dancing in the manner of the popular singing cowboy stars of the era.  There are some, I know, who roll their eyes at musical interludes (I am not one), but even those who spurn such movie moments will find delight in the numbers by Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy abetted by Chill Wills and the Avalon Boys.  Way Out West is truly one of the funniest comedies ever produced in Hollywood's classic era, and without which no island sojourn is complete.




PS:  The wink to It Happened One Night is priceless.





Monday, May 2, 2016

BING'S BIRTHDAY MOVIE: SING, YOU SINNERS (1938)


It is that happy time of year again when we celebrate the birthdate of one of Mommy and Gavin's favourite singers, Bing Crosby.  This year we reach back to the 1938 Paramount release, Sing, You Sinners.  The National Board of Review placed this comedy/drama/musical among its Top Ten Films of the Year along with such titles as Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Michael Powell's The Edge of the World and Frank Borzage's Three Comrades.  Sing, You Sinners was directed by Wesley Ruggles, the Oscar nominated (Cimarron) younger brother of actor Charles.  Ruggles directed two earlier Crosby vehicles, College Humor in 1933 and Mississippi in 1935.  

The story and screenplay for the movie is by Claude Binyon, the former Variety reporter whose work in movies includes classic screwball comedies like True Confession with Carole Lombard, The Gilded Lily with Claudette Colbert, Mississippi starring W.C. Fields and Bing, and Dreamboat with Clifton Webb.  The cinematography by Karl "Sunrise" Struss is almost as sumptuous as his work on Waikiki Wedding, which has the effect of almost hypnotizing me.



Donald O'Connor, Fred MacMurray, Bing Crosby, Elizabeth Patterson

Elizabeth Patterson (Intruder in the Dust) plays the widowed Daisy Beebe raising her three sons in the straitened circumstances of the Depression.  Her son David played by Fred MacMurray (The Absent-Minded Professor) is a sensible, hardworking fellow who is delaying his marriage to girlfriend Martha Randall played by Ellen Drew (Christmas in July, Stars in My Crown) until his mother and youngest brother are secure.  The kid brother is played by 12-year-old show biz veteran Donald O'Connor (Singin' in the Rain).  What is holding David back from his dreams of matrimony is a combination of the times and layabout brother Joe played by Bing Crosby (Rhythm on the River).  It isn't that Joe won't look for a job, it is that he can't keep a job.  There is always something Joe would rather be doing and...he does it.



SONGS BY JAMES V. MONACO AND JOHNNY BURKE

Unlike musicals or operettas where the characters express their emotions in song (Why don't we do that more often?), the songs in Sing, You Sinners are performance pieces and presented as such.  The opening apprises us of the fact the Beebe boys have been encouraged in musical endeavours by their mother as we see them singing Shall We Gather at the River at a Sunday morning church service.  At first their performance is somewhat lackadaisical, but a stern look from Mother Beebe puts some life into the number.

The more popular crowd pleasing tunes are by composer James Monaco and lyricist Johnny Burke, both members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and recipients of multiple Oscar nominations.  First up is the peppy I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams sung by the Beebe trio at a road house.  David (Fred) on clarinet, Joe (Bing) with a guitar and Mike (Donald) with an accordion.  David is against the whole thing.  He's philosophically opposed to singing about violets while a bunch of geeks jump up and down.  Doggone it, he's a man!  Mike also fears for his carefully built-up reputation helping to train race horses during the summer.  Joe claims to be in line with his brother's way of thinking, but "the man offered them ten dollars".

Sometime later hard working David can't get away from his mechanic's job to take his girl Martha to a lecture on seals.  He gives the tickets to Joe because if you can't trust your brother with your gal, then who can you trust?  The dry lecturer is played to perfection by Irving Bacon and fans will rejoice in his comic turn.  Joe makes Martha cut out early and they head to a night spot where the bandleader Harry Barris (Bing's Rhythm Boys pal) prevails upon the popular Joe to sing for the crowd.  Bing's number is Don't Let That Moon Get Away and it is a hit with folks.  In fact, it is so much of a hit that strangers keep sending free drinks his way.  Joe is feeling no pain when he drives home, tries to move in on Martha and gets a sock on the jaw from David.

The writing is on the wall and Joe decides to head to Los Angeles in search of his fortune.  He actually finds said fortune at the race track and his run-in with a fellow bettor played by Tom Dugan is hilarious.  Joe sends back home for Mom and Mike, giving David and go-ahead to marry Martha.  The family was misled into thinking Joe had bought a swap shop business, but they soon discover that Joe is the proud owner of a race horse named Uncle Gus, played by six year old Ligaroti, purchased by Bing and Lin Howard from Argentina.  Joe even has to borrow a dollar from his mother to pay the stable boy Filter played by Paul White.  Mrs. Beebe is upset, but they all keep the secret from David until he and Martha show up and the truth is out.  Race horse aside, there is only one dependable way for the Beebe boys to make money and we next see them at a nightclub crooning a little ballad called Laugh and Call It Love.



SONG BY HOAGY CARMICHAEL AND FRANK LOESSER

Small Fry, a perennially popular tune written by Hoagy "Stardust" Carmichael and Frank "Guys and Dolls" Loesser for Sing, You Sinners is what passes as a production number for Paramount's Crosby pictures.  You can understand their mindset.  After all, when you have one of the most popular singers working for you, why dress things up with fancy sets and dancing girls.  Fred MacMurray in drag and Bing Crosby bewhiskered and top-hatted in front of an old shack bring the song to life and try not to get upstaged by the insanely talented Donald O'Connor.  Bing and Johnny Mercer would have a hit record with a duet in 1941, and you can enjoy the Fleischer cartoon from 1939 based on the song:



A night club turns out not be the healthiest environment for the youngest Beebe boy.  A gambler who frequents the place threatens young Mike into throwing the big race in which Uncle Gus is expected to improve the family's fortunes.  John Gallaudet plays the gangster and he's a nasty one.  The finale of the movie features an exciting horse race, and a very disturbing scene when the gambler goes after Mike.  Rest assured, the Beebe's stick together and Mother Beebe gets her way.



Donald O'Connor, Bing Crosby

Originally Mickey Rooney had been cast as the youngest Beebe, but MGM stopped the loan at the last minute.  Assistant director Arthur Jacobson attended a Motion Picture Relief Fund benefit which involved vaudeville acts including the O'Connor Family.  Young Donald impressed Jacobson, Wesley Ruggles and the brass at Paramount.  Donald O'Connor relates (from Gary Giddens biography of Bing Crosby):

"I would see him (Bing) on the screen in between shows and, like everybody else, I always thought he was a friend of mine.  So when I met Bing, he was extremely nice.  Had a wonderful smile.  And he never said too much to me on the movie.  He was very, very patient with me.  I was a very small child at twelve and I was riding this big goddamned racehorse and I was scared to death of this horse.  There was one scene down at the track, an exposition scene, where I tell him I've been bribed, I've got the money and I feel awful, I'm letting the family down.  It's a long scene and Bing is in front leading me on the horse and he's pumping me and at the same time reassuring me not to be worried.  We get right down to the end and I blow my lines.  So we turn the horse around, all the way back, and it was a cold day at Santa Anita, and we have to start again with all the crying and everything.  I blow the line again.  We must have done that forty times.  And Bing never complained, not once.  I told him, "I'm so sorry, my mind just can't get his."  He said, "Don't worry about it, kid, you'll get it, we have no place to go."  We had a lot of fun on that movie.  He treated me like a pal."

Bing was pleased with the picture and the role of Joe Beebe.  Critics noted that Crosby was indeed an actor and the star himself even commented that perhaps he could do more than sing.  The movie was a popular success and ideas were floated around that the Beebe's would make a profitable series of pictures, much like the Hardys over at MGM, but nothing came of it.  Nonetheless, we have Sing, You Sinners with its appealing cast, funny and frightening situations, and songs to entertain us.



Friday, April 29, 2016

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR MAY ON TCM



It's time to get your goof on, ladies and gentlemen.  Four legends - I do not use the term lightly - LEGENDS of the Silver Screen join forces to asphyxiate you with laughter.  Your mirth will be so great that you will struggle to find the breath to say "Stop, you're killing me!"

The little studio put together by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (I always read that as Zarkoff.  It tickles my funny bone.), American International Pictures found its niche by catering to the young audience ignored by the big shots of the movie industry.  The drive-in crowd enjoyed the juvenille deliquency plots of Reform School Girl and Hot Rod Girl, and the contemporary music of Shake, Rattle and Rock!.  Horror added another area of success with I Was a Teenage Werewolf and his kin Frankenstein and Cave Man.

Success was found by upping the production values on a series of features produced by Roger Corman.  Stories loosely adapted from Poe had name recognition value, as did leading man Vincent Price.  Audiences flocked to House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligeia and Pit and the Pendulum.  (Ooh, it may be springtime, but I just got a Hallowe'en chill up my spine.)

1963s The Raven directed by Corman from a Richard Matheson screenplay has little to do with Poe, but everything to do with sending up the genre in fine style.  Vincent Price and Boris Karloff are rival wizards and Peter Lorre turns into a crow.  It is a hoot and was quickly followed by The Comedy of Terrors, my TCM choice for this month.  Sadly, in terms of finances my movie wasn't boffo box office so further comedy-horror ventures fermenting in Matheson's mind for the studio and these stars were scrapped.  Ah, what could have been!

Regarding The Comedy of Terrors, who better than multi Hugo and Edgar nominee Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson to spoof the genre he knew inside out?  The director is Jacques Tourneur who gave us Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and Night of the Demon, also the quintessential noir Out of the Past and the charming piece of Americana Stars in My Crown.   The house cinematographer was Oscar winner for High Noon, Floyd Crosby and Les Baxter handled the musical chores.  With these guys behind the scenes and the legendary cast on the screen, The Comedy of Terrors is a treat on all levels.



Rathbone, Lorre, Karloff and Price
Promotional shot

Waldo Trumbell (Vincent Price) has married into a prosperous undertaking business and run it into the ground.  He spends his days trying to murder his father-in-law Amos Hinchley (Karloff) and arguing endlessly with his wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a frustrated opera singer.  The household is rounded out by a cat, Orangey, and Waldo's put-upon assistant Felix Gillie (Lorre).  Gillie has an unspoken and deep affection for Mrs. Trumble adding a touch of poetry to our story.  Jameson nails the role of the neglected wife.  Boris Karloff as her whiny old dad doesn't appreciate how she saves him from certain death at the hands of his son-in-law every day.  Boris is a mess, and a quiet riot as Hinchley.

The firm has but one good coffin which they retrieve after mourners have left the graveyard to recycle for the next customer.  Finances are so bleak that Trumbell and Gillie have to go out into the cold night to round up customers - the willing and the unwilling.  Even this effort does little to alleviate the pecuniary situation so when the landlord Mr. John F. Black (Rathbone) gives notice of eminent eviction Trumble plans to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by making Black their next client/victim.    


Joyce Jameson and Vincent Price
An evening at home with the Trumbles

Far from solving all of his problems, Trumble has only created more.  The penny-pinching, Shakespeare quoting landlord simply will not die!  He passes out.  His heart stops beating,  However, he will not get in the coffin and stay put!  Oh, the indignity!  It is here that Basil Rathbone picks up the movie, puts it in his back pocket and walks away.  He is incredibly funny while stealing the movie, which you must admit is quite a feat with this cast of supreme hams giving it their all.  In an interview included with the DVD release, Richard Matheson said Rathbone took to the part on the first read-through.

Supplemental viewing:  1939's Tower of London starring Basil, Boris and Vinnie.




The gang's all here!

The Comedy of Terrors cracks me up, and if you are the sort of goofs I believe you to be, then you will not want to miss it.  TCM is spotlighting American International Pictures this month on Thursdays and that is where you will find The Comedy of Terrors on May 12th at 2:30 in the morning.











Monday, April 11, 2016

CMBA SPRING BLOGATHON - WORDS! WORDS! WORDS!: FULL OF LIFE (1956)


The 2016 Classic Movie Blog Association Spring Blogathon is "Words! Words! Words!" covering movies about writers, books, librarians, publishers, and even screenwriters.  The blogathon runs from April 11 to 15 and you can click HERE for the various contributions.



Richard Conte as Nick Rocco
At the grindstone.

Nick :  "This house is full of life.  Babies to be born, books to be written."
Emily :  "How many, Nick?"
Nick :  "Well, you give me the babies and I'll give you the books.  I'll try to keep up with you."

In 1956s Full of Life Nick and Emily Rocco are a happily married couple expecting their first child.  This child is anticipated with great love and was planned for just this time.  The proceeds of Nick's novel helped with the down payment on a charming suburban house that is perfect for a family.  The advance on his current novel will have to stretch through the upcoming event.

Even the best of plans feature their own bumps in the road.  Nick is feeling slightly neglected by Emily's preoccupation with her status.  Emily's hormones are bouncing all over the place and her mood swings from jealousy of neighbourhood women's waistlines and an urge to scrub the world clean for the new arrival.

The other husbands on the street enter their garages in the morning and drive the car to work.  Nick enters the garage and stays in a small room fashioned into his office to sit at his typewriter and commence the work of imagining and realizing.  An intercom system keeps him in contact with Emily.  Once upon a time she hung on every word he wrote and was a true partner in the work.  Nowadays she nods distractedly and reads books on semantics.



Richard Conte, Judy Holliday, Amanda Randolph
Not a happy woman.

Unexpectedly the sounds of a crash and cries for help come over the intercom.  Emily Rocco has crashed through the kitchen floor.  The incident is the fault of termites, and a recently deceased so he can't be sued termite inspector, but try telling that to a woman who can no longer sleep on her stomach!  Also, try telling that to the dwindling savings account.  The only solution is to ask Nick's father, a retired stonemason, for help.  Nick and his brothers estrangement from their father is based on the natural differences between immigrant parents and modern thinking sons.  Vittorio Rocco feels abandoned by his children and Nick knows that his father does not respect his career.  Nonetheless, the older man adores his daughter-in-law and lives in hope of a grandson.  He will  fix the house for "Miss Emily".  He will also take over life in the Los Angeles house and further an agenda of his wife's, that Nick and Emily finally be married in the Catholic church.

Old Vittorio can be quite the charmer in his way and his way is to sip wine on a chaise lounge and consider the job in the kitchen.  He would much rather build a great stone fireplace to make this abominable stucco house more substantial and fitting for his grandson, but ... no "buts", that is exactly what he does.  Vittorio also heckles Nick into writing down the family legend of the great Uncle Mingo and his adventure with the bandits.  Nick has real work to be done, but he listens to the drunken, incoherent stories of his old man to please Emily.  He spends the wee hours working on a story that he thinks is really fine and is excited to share.  Papa doesn't have to read it, he lived it.  Emily tosses the manuscript on the table for later perusal - maybe.



Judy Holliday and Salvatore Baccaloni
Old Papa knows what he's doing.

Nick is fed up.  The great life he thought he was building is out of control.  Two people who should be on his side seem to be against him.  A visit from the local parish priest is the last straw.  However, Emily has been considering more than semantics and modern childbirth methods.  She has been wondering about a spiritual component in their lives now that they are about to become parents.  Nick must find a way to reconcile is feelings toward his father and his feelings toward the church.  Mama will be happy to learn that although she did not become a Catholic, Emily married Nick with Father Gondolfo presiding.  A grandson for Vittorio, with red hair and big feet like Uncle Mingo, is safely delivered.  Emily, not so distracted as Nick presumed, sent his story of Uncle Mingo and the Bandits to the Saturday Evening Post.  The Rocco's can now pay for a termite exterminator and carpenter.  Vittorio, couple united in the church and stone fireplace big enough for Santa Claus complete, can return home to Mama.



Salvatore Baccaloni and Richard Conte
Meeting the baby.

John Fante wrote the screenplay to Full of Life based on his novel of the same name.  The novel is a rawly personal account of a first time father's expectations and changing relationships with his wife, his parents, and the family about to come into existence.  In the screenplay, Fante lets his character be the bemused and exasperated support to the characters of the wife and old papa.  The transition from novel to screen maintains the same wry humour and abundant affection.  Life is not perfect.  Life isn't meant to be perfect.  Love and closeness sustain us in times of turmoil and confusion.  Family is presented respectfully and honestly.

John Fante, the author of novels Ask the Dust, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, The Road to Los Angeles, Dreams from Bunker Hill, among others, was a screenwriter in Hollywood and his screenplay for Full of Life was nominated as Best Written American Comedy by the Writers Guild of America.  It lost to Around the World in Eighty Days.  Other nominees were Teahouse of the August Moon, Bus Stop and The Solid Gold Cadillac.

Oscar winner (Born Yesterday) Judy Holliday and Richard Conte starred as Emily and Nick Rocco.  The character of Emily is a far cry from the patented dumb blonde Billie Dawn or the quirky Gladys Glover (It Should Happen to You).  Emily is a lovely, thoughtful young woman who just happens to be going through one of the major experiences of life.  Her mood swings are nothing out of the ordinary and Holliday plays them as such.  Crime pictures occupy most of Richard Conte's resume at this period of his career.  One could be forgiven for thinking he was born wearing a fedora and carrying a gat, but should not be surprised at the versatile actors skill in this charming domestic comedy.

The find of Full of Life was the movie debut of opera bass Salvatore Baccaloni.  To this day he enjoys the reputation of having been one of the finest comic basses of the 20th century with a career that went from Milan and LaScala to the Royal Opera House, the Met, and his own company.  As Vittorio Rocco, the fount of all humour and conflict, Baccaloni is a delight.  He sings just a wee bit while enjoying his work on the fireplace, but it is enough to make you seek out recordings.



Richard Conte and Judy Holliday
Coming home.

Directed by Richard Quine (Bell Book and Candle, How to Murder Your Wife) during a most prolific time of his career at Columbia, Full of Life is a charming mix of the joyful and the sweetly melancholy abetted by a lovely, wistful original score by George Duning (3:10 to Yuma).

The semi-autobiographical Full of Life is an enjoyable movie of simple virtues that lives pleasantly in the memory.  A perhaps idealized look at a working writer with that writer's craft on display in adapting his own work.


The Classic Movie Blog Association e-book collection of essays on "Words! Words! Words!" is available free on Smashwords or $ .99 on Amazon with proceeds going to the National Film Preservation Fund.


















Friday, April 8, 2016

BEYOND THE COVER BLOGATHON: CITY FOR CONQUEST (1940)


"I worked like a dog on City for Conquest.  There were some excellent passages in Kandel's novel, passages with genuinely poetic flavor, and all of us doing the picture realized that retaining them (as we were doing) would give City for Conquest distinction.  Then I saw the final cut of the picture, and this was quite a surprise.  The studio had edited out the best scenes in the picture, excellent stuff, leaving only the novel's skeleton.  What remained was a trite melodrama.  When I realized what they had done I said to hell with it, and that cured me of seeing my pictures thenceforth.  I even wrote a letter of apology to the author.  Yet City for Conquest did well at the box office, which ought to prove something or other." 
- Cagney by Cagney, Doubleday 1976

When I first read those words in the Cagney autobiography years ago I was puzzled and disappointed.  City for Conquest was one of my favourite Cagney pictures.  I felt deeply the emotions of the characters and have come to truly love the performances and story.  Just how much better was the novel - or was it a case of, for Mr. Cagney, the novel experience surpassed that of the film.  It is often that way with fans.



"Kandel's theme in his words, was "There's no welcome in New York - no farewell ... The city is deep and high and angry.  Come in and you're swallowed.  Leave, and you're not missed."  But there was also a feeling of love for the city that gave the different stories a unique vitality."
- Cagney by John McCabe, Alfred A. Knopf 1997

I found the novel a fascinating read.  Beginning at the early part of the 20th century the different neighbourhoods of NYC are painted through strong imagery with an unblinking eye toward the tawdry lives lived in poverty and the tawdry lives lived in wealth.  Sights and smells combine with emotion and harsh realities that filled me with pity and curiosity.  The view of the characters may be in the abstract, yet in some instances there is the heavy sting of judgment; in others, a detached understanding.  So many plots and characters round out the story of City for Conquest that truly a television mini-series would be the only film form to attempt to give it full justice.

Kandel's work as a screenwriter ranges from Magnificent Obsession and They Won't Forget to I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Trog.  His novel City for Conquest was his most lauded venture.



Frank McHugh, Donald Crisp, James Cagney
George Tobias, Pat McKee

The subplots selected by Warner Bros. studio to focus on for their adaption perfectly suited the skills of their leading players and the audience's expectations of those stars.  Cagney plays a guy who grew up tough in a tough town.  His fists are his way out of the grind and up to the top.  The fight game is shown to be crooked and Cagney's Danny Kenny lacks the single-minded ambition necessary to truly succeed.  It is for others that he puts himself in the ring.



James Cagney, Arthur Kennedy

In his film debut Arthur Kennedy (5 time Oscar nominee) is Danny's brother, Eddie.  Eddie is a sensitive soul, a musician who sees the world around him not only as it is, but as a symphony that he must write.  Danny doesn't quite understand Eddie, but he loves and admires him.  He fights so Eddie can have his dream.



Ann Sheridan, James Cagney

Ann Sheridan plays Peggy Nash, a girl who loves to dance.  She loves to dance for her own pleasure and for an audience.  It is the dream of many in this town to have their name in lights.  Peggy hungers for that with all her being.  Danny fights so he can share in Peggy's dream.

The original screenplay by John Wexley (The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces), however, did not meet with the star's approval.  Again from John McCabe's Cagney quoting a memo from Jim to his brother Bill:

"It is quite apparent that Wexley knows nothing of show business, of what went on during the period covered by the script and apparently knows less about the fight business.  The dialogue throughout is completely phoney and will have to be redone if there's to be any honesty in the finished production.  The fact that it is still interesting speaks more than well for the Kandel yarn."

The shooting script was doctored by Robert Rossen (A Walk in the Sun, The Hustler).  Cagney was also disappointed that the studio replaced Raoul Walsh (The Strawberry Blonde, White Heat) with Anatole Litvak (Out of the Fog, The Snake Pit).  Cagney's no-nonsense approach to his work clashed with what he saw as Litvak's artistic pretensions, and the creation of a hierarchy on the set which placed labourers on the bottom.



Elia Kazan, Jerome Cowan

The movie follows the rise and fall of these characters scrambling to get out of desperate situations.  Lessened in attention given from the book to the movie is the character of "Googi", a poor kid who learns early that crime is the way to beat the odds.  He is important to the plot of the film and played by Elia Kazan with great verve and awareness.



Anthony Quinn, Ann Sheridan, James Cagney

The film is a nice showcase for Anthony Quinn, another younger actor starting to make his mark in increasing larger roles.  Here he plays Murray Burns, the abusive dancing partner of our heroine, Peggy.  Most of the cast is filled out with a roster of familiar and dependable character actors such as Frank McHugh in the ninth of eleven pictures with pal Jimmy.  Donald Crisp is a fatherly fight manager instrumental in Danny's success and his greatest heartbreak.  Lee Patrick, Joyce Compton, George Tobias and Jerome Cowan add much to the flavour and depth of the movie.

One conceit of the screenplay alternately annoys me on some viewings or comforts me on others.  I believe it is an attempt to capture the scope of the novel that they have given the film a narrator in the form of an "Old Timer" played by Frank Craven.  He travels the streets, introducing the characters and, apparently a timeless tramp, pops up again at the end to wrap things up for us.  The role is not dissimilar to the Stage Manager Craven so famously played in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town.

Success, at tremendous costs, comes to both Danny and to Peggy, but that success keeps them apart.  A guilt-ridden Eddie looks for shortcuts in his musical career to help his self-sacrificing older brother.  Unprincipled racketeers destroy Danny's eyesight.  Googi gets too big for his britches.  Peggy comes close to starvation.  Can you see a happy ending out of all that?  Warner Brothers could and, apparently, that may come close to explaining James Cagney's dissatisfaction with the film.  

However, from the point of view of my teenage self in front of the television at midnight or the adult choosing a DVD for an evening's entertainment, I cannot not imagine leaving Peggy and Danny (you are to blame, Mr. Cagney, for being the actor you were) without that glimmer of hope for their future happiness, no matter how small.  It catches in my throat and brings unbidden tears.  If that is trite, I will take it.


Many thanks to Liz of Now, Voyaging and Kristina of Speakeasy for hosting the Beyond the Cover blogathon running April 8th, 9th and 10th with daily updated links to contributions.