Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Friday, April 29, 2016


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.  

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.

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


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


"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.    

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for April on TCM

Jim Wilson is a big city cop at the end of his rope.  We meet Jim and his two partners on night patrol.  The Force has been under a lot of pressure since a cop killing of two weeks standing.  Wilson, however, has been a walking exposed nerve for longer than the past two weeks.  He is a lit fuse waiting to explode.

Detectives Santos, Wilson and Daly
Anthony Ross, Robert Ryan and Charles Kemper

Pete Santos:  "Hey, what's the matter with Jim?  I tell ya' he's sore or somethin'."

Pop Daly:  "He's sore alright.  All we ever see is crooks, murderers, winos, stoolies, dames - all with an angle.  You get so you think everybody is like that.  Until you find out different it's kind of a lonely life.  I've had to put pu with it, so did you.  Jim just takes it harder than the rest of us."

Pete:  "He's getting harder to work with all the time."

Mad With Much Heart is the evocative title of Gerald Butler's novel which is the basis of 1952s On Dangerous Ground.  A.I. Bezzerides (Thieves' Highway) and director Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar) adapted the screenplay for the story of Jim Wilson's redemption.

Jim's reputation as a tough man precedes him and proves true as he roughs up suspects and places tipsters in danger.  He gets the job done, but pays a heavy psychological price and faces disciplinary action as well.

Jim Wilson:  "What kind of a job is this anyway?  Garbage!  That's all we handle, garbage.  ...  How do you do it?  How do you live with yourself?"

Pop Daly:  "I don't.  I live with other people.  To get anything out of this life you gotta put something in it - from the heart."

Captain Brawley played by Ed Begley (12 Angry Men, Odds Against Tomorrow) has tried talking to Wilson, but now tries a temporary measure to pull him back from the edge of the cliff.  A girl has been murdered upstate and Jim is sent out of town to assist in the case.  It is not much of a mystery as the suspect has been identified and there is manpower for the search.  Whether Jim's help is actually needed by the rural authorities is one matter.  On the other hand, for Jim Wilson may just find himself in this foreign environment.

It is a long journey from the dark city streets to the open unknown.  Tall pines replace skyscrapers and isolation replaces crowded humanity.  Jim is suddenly and unexpectedly teamed with the father of the victim in the manhunt.  Ward Bond plays Walter Brent, a man filled with grief and rage, and a need for vengeance.  This simple family man embodies all the turmoil that Jim Wilson has been living with for years.

Ward Bond and Robert Ryan

From his earliest pictures such as The Big Trail through The Long Voyage Home to It's a Wonderful Life and TVs Wagon Train, in close to 300 bits and film roles, Ward Bond fit a variety of roles as if that were the one he was born to play.  It was never going to happen, but if the Academy had ever deemed to recognize one of his performance, I think that of Walter Brent would be the one.  The bereaved parent travels his own heartbreaking journey that mirrors and amplifies that of Detective Wilson.

Walter Brent and Jim Wilson
Ward Bond and Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan's one Academy Award nomination was for playing an unrepentant killer in Crossfire.  He played outstanding villains, but that craggy face could also portray a kindly soul as in The Boy with Green Hair.  As Jim Wilson, Ryan gives us the depravity of a lost soul and his latent hope.

The emotional journey of our character is also a very physical one as Wilson and Brent's chase includes running through snow and over difficult terrain.  Hate motivates a lot of the chase, but hate is being pounded out of them.  The chase leads them to the farmhouse of Mary Malden and her brother Danny.  Danny, a young man "not quite right", is the murderer they seek and Mary must find a way to protect her brother by giving him up.  Mary is played by Ida Lupino (They Drive by Night), the director of four films by this time, took on directing duties during an illness experienced by Nicholas Ray during the shoot.

Bernard Herrmann's score for On Dangerous Ground uses the same insistent motif that characterizes his score for North by Northwest.  I find it fascinating that it is equally effective for an adventure film and for the overwrought emotions of this tale.

Jim Wilson and Mary Malden
Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino

Mary's blindness complicates the search for Danny.  Brent is confused and frustrated by Mary and by Jim's reaction to the woman.  Mary has spent much time alone and time examining her own loneliness which she senses in Jim.  For Jim Wilson the dam which has been holding back his emotions is beginning to shatter.

Mary Malden:  "Tell me, how is it to be a cop?"

Jim Wilson:  "You get so you don't trust anybody."

Mary:  "You're lucky.  You don't have to trust anyone.  I have to trust everybody."

One Dangerous Ground epitomizes the tough film-noir in the gritty telling of the first part of the story.  What had been our focus sets up the change in setting and mood as the story wears its emotional heart on its sleeve in the second act.  At the very least I think you will find On Dangerous Ground an interesting film, at the most you may find it enriching.

TCM is screening On Dangerous Ground on Thursday, April 7th at 11:15 am on a day exploring the creative phenomenon, Miss Ida Lupino.


Friday, March 25, 2016

The Favourite Television Episode blogathon: Maverick - Shady Deal at Sunny Acres (1958)

Now in its glorious second annual presentation, Terence Towles Canote of A Shroud of Thoughts hosts the Favourite Television Episode blogathon running from March 25 to 27.  Click HERE for the contributors.

In its glorious second season Maverick (1957-1962) received a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Western Series, the first and only time the Television Academy presented that award in an era where westerns glutted the small screen landscape.  Writer and producer Roy Huggins created Maverick to be the snide opposite of his successful and more traditional western Cheyenne starring Clint Walker.  Whether the Academy got the joke or not is up for debate.

Jack Kelly as Bart and James Garner as Bret

Legends of the West, Bret and Bart Maverick roamed the TV west with a deck of cards and a ready wit; conning con men, romancing pretty Warner's contractees, and being generally adventurous.  In a tight spot they would quote the larcenous philosophy passed down by their "old pappy".  James Garner starred as Bret, and when the demanding schedule of the enormously popular program proved too much for one actor, Jack Kelly was signed as Bart.

Both actors of charm and skill, fans were most delighted when a script called for the two sharing the spotlight in an episode.  Such an episode is Shady Deal at Sunny Acres written by Roy Huggins for that award winning second season and directed by Les Martinson, who turned 101 this past January.  Martinson's career in television dates back to General Electric Theatre in the 1950s through The Roy Rogers Show, Conflict, all of the Warners programs of the 50s and 60s including 18 episodes of Maverick, Ironside, Mannix, The Six Million Dollar Man, Barnaby Jones and practically anything you ever watched.

John Dehner as John Bates
"If you can't trust your banker, who can you trust?"

Fate and the friendly laws of probability have been kind to Bret Maverick.  In a crowded saloon on a warm evening his pocket is $15,000 richer than when he entered the establishment.  Overcome with a sudden case of discretion, Bret prevails upon a local banker, one Mr. Bates, to open his premises for the safe storage of his funds.  Bret sleeps well that night with Mr. Bates' receipt tucked in the Maverick wallet.  The next day Bret's request at the bank for a portion of his funds is met with a blank stare from Mr. Bates who claims never to have seen the gambler before.  The signature on the receipt is an obvious forgery, as attested to by the honest banking partner, Mr. Granville.  That Maverick fellow is up to something.  Yes, he is.  Bret pays for two weeks rent on his hotel room and announces that when he leaves town he will have his purloined $15,000.  He then perches comforably in a rocking chair on the front porch of the hotel and whittles.  When townspeople, who find the whole affair rather amusing, ask how he will get his money back Bret smiles and says that "he's working on it".

If, in the usual course of a Sunday evening (Maverick's original air date), it was a treat to have both Maverick brothers on hand, imagine the delight the first time this episode aired with a plethora of recurring characters audiences had become familiar with all coming together (Avengers Assemble!) for a perfect sting.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Dandy Jim Buckley

Diane Brewster as Samantha Crawford

Richard Long as Gentleman Jack Darby

Leo V. Gordon as Big Mike McComb

Arlene Howell as Cindy Lou Brown
with John Dehner and Jack Kelly

Bart Maverick arrives in town under the name of Bartley J. Mansfield III, representative of British investors and a private stock speculator.  Gaining the confidence of the greedy John Bates, and with expert and willing performances from the slickest con artists this side of the Rockies, Bret does indeed leave town with his $15,000.  The honest banker becomes the only banker in town, Bates sits in the hoosegow contemplating his downfall, and Bret rarely got up out of that rocker.

Fans of classic character actors are treated with more familiar faces than they can shake a stick at in this episode.  Along with the great John Dehner as Bates we have Regis Toomey, Karl Swenson, J. Pat O'Malley, Irving Bacon, Syd Salor, Jonathan Hole and Earle Hodgins.  A genuine treat from beginning to end.

As my old pappy used to say, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, and those are very good odds."

Sunday, March 6, 2016

THE TV SIDEKICK BLOGATHON: Della Street and Paul Drake of "Perry Mason" (1957-1966)

Perry Mason: Noted criminal lawyer - intrepid, dramatic, elusive fighter, whose cause is never lost.
- The Case of the Perjured Parrot, 1939

The sign on the office door is a comfort to clients found at the wrong place at the wrong time; clients with secrets and clients who lie, innocent clients accused of murder.  In over 80 novels written by lawyer/author Erle Stanley Gardner and 271 television episodes from 1957-1966, Perry Mason,  and his Emmy winning portrayer (1959 and 1961) Raymond Burr, won the day.   

Della Street:  As much Perry Mason's right arm as his secretary.
- The Case of the Waylaid Wolf, 1960

Perry, however, was not in the fight for justice on his own.  Those clients would be languishing in cells to this day, or worse, if the entire team hadn't pulled together.  A lawyer like Perry is only as good as his confidential secretary and Della Street is the gold standard.  Competent, intuitive and fearless Della Street was played on the series by Barbara Hale.

A star attorney such as Perry must be armed with the truth when he enters the courtroom and that information requires legwork.  The legwork for Mason's cases is provided by the Paul Drake Detective Agency.  Paul, played by William Hopper, knows his job, even though at times he is baffled by Perry and the risks his friend is willing to take for often less than forthcoming clients.

Barbara Hale

Barbara Hale was born in DeKalb, Illinois in 1922.  As an art student she turned to modeling as a means of making money which led to being signed by RKO Studios.  A featured player and sometimes leading lady, a few of Barbara's pictures include The Falcon Out West, The Falcon in Hollywood with Tom Conway and Higher and Higher with Frank Sinatra.  RKO teamed her with her husband Bill Williams (married 1946-1992) in The Clay Pigeon, A Likely Story and West of the Pecos.  Barbara played the title character in Lorna Doone, leading lady to Larry Parks in Jolson Sings Again, to James Stewart in The Jackpot, to Randolph Scott in 7th Cavalry and to James Cagney in A Lion is in the Streets.  Barbara is a sympathetic teacher in The Boy with Green Hair, a harried mother in the film-noir classic The Window and a bombshell entertainer in the nifty noir The Houston Story.

Della Street:  Mason's confidential secretary with an intuitive flair for the feminine angle.
- The Case of the Cautious Coquette, 1949

In the 1950s Barbara was devoting most of her energies to raising her young family.  On interview extras included with the television series 50th anniversary DVD release Barbara relates that she was speaking with Gail Patrick Jackson about an idea for customizing costumes for dolls to be sold in specialty boutiques.  Gail, as executive producer of a new TV program based on Erle Stanley Gardner's popular Perry Mason novels, had other ideas.  She wanted Barbara for Della Street.  Previous secretaries to the crime busting attorney included Claire Dodd to Warren William, June Travis to Ricardo Cortez and Ann Dvorak to Donald Woods.

Barbara Hale won the Primetime Emmy in 1959 for Best Supporting Actress (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series.  She was nominated for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor or Actress in a Series in 1961.  Don't you just love the way the Emmy folks play around with their categories?!  There were three nominees in the category that season including Barbara as Della, Abby Dalton as Lt. Hale in Hennessy and the winner, Don Knotts as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show.  Don't you just love the way the Emmy folks put that mix together?!

This coming April 18th Barbara Hale, a great-grandmother, turns 96.  Barbara's attendance at fan conventions in recent years affirm how beloved she is among generations of Barbara and Della watchers. 

 Della Street:  She was a one-way street and the way was always Perry Mason's.
The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, 1965

Della was more than the gatekeeper to Perry Mason's inner sanctum.  Perry relied on her instincts when sizing up clients and on her legal secretarial skills to keep the office and trials running smoothly.  Della could be counted on giving more than one hundred percent to any cause of Perry's.  She was not afraid to get her hands dirty in the field as a decoy or to hiding clients at her apartment.  When forced into court, she was unflappable in the face of cross-examinations.  This is not to say that Della wouldn't offer a word of caution to her foolhardy boss upon occasion, but there was never any doubt of her total support.  On a personal level, while it was more apparent in Gardner's page turners that Perry and Della's closeness extended beyond business (all those late night dinners), there was never any doubt among TV fans of the depth of feeling between the two.

Paul Drake:  Detective, long, laconic, and loyal, willing to toss his natural caution to the winds in the service of Perry Mason.
- The Case of the Perjured Parrot, 1939

Perry's most frequent combatant, District Attorney Hamilton Burger played by William Talman could call upon the services of the police department in the form of Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, Wesley Lau as Lt. Anderson, Richard Anderson as Steve Drumm and Lee Miller as Sgt. Brice.  Who's Perry gonna call?  Paul Drake!  The Paul Drake Detective Agency had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of operatives on call around the clock and contacts in cities far and wide.  Paul may have dreamed of keeping regular business hours, but Perry knew he could call any time during the 24 hours allotted to us and Paul Drake would be on the case.  

William Hopper
(1915 - 1970)

William Hopper's parents were the actor DeWolfe Hopper Sr. and actress turned influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.  It was at his mother's urging that the young man entered the acting profession with no genuine sense of a calling.  Signed by Warner Brothers in the mid-30s you will see in such pictures as The Footloose Heiress, The Adventurous Blonde and Public Wedding a handsome and pleasant actor of potential.

William Hopper was a Navy frogman during WWII, the stress of which left him with his striking white hair and a drinking problem.  Resuming his acting career he played leads in Bs and solid supporting roles in prestigious features.  The sci-fi fave 20 Million Miles to Earth stars Harryhausen effects and Hopper.  He is Natalie Wood's distant father in Rebel Without a Cause and Patty McCormack's too normal father in The Bad Seed.  I think his best roles in this period are for director William Wellman as Jan Sterling's fiance in The High and the Mighty, the good brother in Track of the Cat, and especially as a sympathetic dog trainer in Goodbye, My Lady.

William Hopper was one of the many actors who auditioned for the role of Perry Mason and the clip  below is one of his screen tests to play the attorney.  It may seem strange as we are so used to Raymond Burr as Perry, but I think Bill Hopper gives a credible characterization.  Nonetheless, things worked out as they should.  Nothing tops the breezy way Paul greets Della with "Hello, Beautiful" as he enters the Mason offices ready for the next adventure.

In 1959 William Hopper was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series.  The season featured the Drake-centric episode The Case of Paul Drake's Dilemma, giving our favourite P.I. a chance to shine.  The other nominees included Herschel Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby in Peter Gunn, Johnny Crawford as Mark McCain in The Rifleman and the winner, Dennis Weaver as Chester Goode in Gunsmoke.

Paul Drake:  Detective with a lot of explanations to make and sleep to catch up on.
The Case of the Empty Tin, 1941

Paul Drake had a phone in his car!  When I was a kid I thought that was the coolest thing ever!  Nowadays people of far less importance in my eyes walk around with little phones as if it is commonplace.  Are they on a case?

Paul's favourite cases seem to be anytime he gets to interrogate a pretty girl.  On more than one occasion Paul has put his private investigator's license on the line backing up one of Perry's convoluted schemes.  Paul Drake seems to have the respect of the police and the loyalty of his employees and I certainly would have tuned in for a spin-off series focused on the Paul Drake Detective Agency.  The imagination takes flight.  

Barbara Hale and William Hopper

Loyal and hard-working, Della Street and Paul Drake are the support Perry Mason needs to get his clients acquitted.  However, the brilliant attorney's mind races so that by the end of the episode, and for our benefit, there is usually some little bit of information that must be explained to the team before celebrations can begin.  Above we see our stalwarts in the only colour episode of the original series, The Case of the Twice Told Twist from 1966.  "My, how he does blather on" seems to be in back of Della's expression.  Paul has the confused puppy dog look of "I never get it when he talks like this, but he pays his bills on time"

Rick at the Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting THE TV SIDEKICK BLOGATHON which runs from March 6 - 8.  Click HERE to spend time with our favourite folks from our favourite classic TV shows.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for March on TCM

"One gets lost fighting a lie."

William Wyler directed both film versions of Lillian Hellman's first Broadway success The Children's Hour, first in 1936 as These Three and then in 1961 under the original title with the original lie intact.  Hellman wrote the screenplay in 1936 and the adaption for the 1961 film.  These Three and its story of the impact of lies made quite an impression on me as a teenager.  My overwhelming memories from that first viewing are of the beauty of Gregg Toland's cinematography, the emotion in Alfred Newman's score and Martha Dobie's loneliness.

Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins

"Two well-educated young women, also neat and clean, wish position."

Friends Karen Wright and Martha Dobie have their University Degrees in hand and the future looming before them.  Martha's only family is her self-absorbed Aunt Lily, a refugee from the theatre.  Karen's last relation, a deceased grandmother has left her a farmhouse in Massachusetts and the two young women put their energies into creating a girl's school.  Their neighbour, Dr. Joseph Cardin helps with friendship and handyman skills.  The socially prominent Mrs. Amelia Tilford supports their efforts among her set and provides their first student in her granddaughter Mary.

Karen and Martha create a warm and inviting atmosphere at their school which is appreciated by most of the students.  This is despite the oppressive presence of Martha's aunt, Mrs. Mortar, who insinuates herself into the school as an elocution teacher.  Among the students, the spoiled Mary Tilford proves to be a bully and a trouble-maker.  Joe and Karen have fallen in love and makes plans to be married.  Martha has also fallen in love with Joe, but she stoically keeps her feelings to herself.

Bonita Granville, Alma Kruger

Mary Tilford is not a long range thinker and says of herself that she works better at making it up as she goes along.  Mary makes a lot of things up, sometimes out of whole cloth and sometimes out of bits of fabric she picks up from observation.  She knows how to flatter and cajole Mrs. Mortar.  She knows how to bully her classmates to use to her advantage.  Both Karen and Martha have been patient and kind in their treatment of Mary, but the fairness or not of her most recent punishment leads to a major meltdown.  She starts with feigning illness and follows it up by running back home to her grandmother.  The family maid, Agatha, has no illusions where Mary is concerned, but Mrs. Tilford is a softie where her granddaughter is concerned.  Mary has to come up with a good story to be allowed to leave this most recent school placement.

Mary's story is that something untoward has been happening at the school between Martha and Karen's fiancee, Joe.  Classmate Rosalie Wells can back up every twisted lie Mary comes up with because Rosalie is being hideously blackmailed over a "borrowed" bracelet.  Mrs. Tilford is shocked that inappropriate behavior is being exhibited by those caring for children and she spreads the news which results in the wholesale withdrawal of students from the school.

Alma Kruger, Bonita Granville, Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea

"When three people come to you with their lives spread out on a table for you to cut to pieces, then the only honest thing for you to do is to give them a chance to come out whole."

Joe, Karen and Martha bring a slander suit against Mrs. Tilford and the jury decides in her favour.  Mrs. Mortar, whose testimony ought to have helped, avoided the court.  Karen and Martha are left with nothing.  Joe is dismissed from the hospital.  Lost in the fight Karen allows doubts about Joe and Martha to cloud her judgment.  Joe return to Vienna where he studied medicine.  Martha admits to her feelings for Joe to Karen, truthfully affirming that those feelings remained hers alone.  Nonetheless, the world of three innocent people is completely shattered.

The drama is exquisitely played out by the cast led by Miriam Hopkins (The Stranger's Return, Design for Living) as Martha Dobie.  Martha is at heart a kind person and with her slapdash and isolated upbringing she would have every right to have turned out differently.  Martha is devoted to her friends and to wanting to make a pleasant existence for her charges.  Her love for Joe is not returned and even that she accepts as another of life's inevitable blows.  Karen is played by Merle Oberon (Wuthering Heights, 'Til We Meet Again) at this point in her career at the height of her loveliness.  She is a heroine worthy of the audience's care.  Joel McCrea is especially appealing as Joe, whose humour and strength is put to the ultimate test.

Catherine Doucet

Catherine Doucet (Poppy, It Started With Eve), whose Broadway career began in 1906 and began in films in 1915, is an everlasting irritation and annoyance as Lily Mortar - as she should be.  Miriam Hopkins, in the last of the five films she made with William Wyler, would play this role in the 1961 film.  Alma Kruger (Dr. Kildare series, Saboteur) made her film debut as Amelia Tilford.  She is a grand dame to the world, yet easily manipulated by her affection for her orphaned granddaughter.  She is heartbreaking.

Marcia Mae Jones, Carmencinta Johnson

Bonita Granville (Nancy Drew series, The Glass Key) was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role of Mary Tilford in the first year of that category.  Mary is horrid and despite the best intentions of those around her, you get a sense that there is no hope for the character.  Marcia Mae Jones (Baby Face, Heidi) is the conscience stricken Rosalie, constantly under threat from Mary and her performance is every bit the equal of Miss Granville's.  Wyler's handling of a crucial scene among three students including Carmencita Johnson (The Wind, Frankenstein) is excellent as all three young actresses behave naturally and true to their characters.

Bonita Granville, Margaret Hamilton

Spoiler alert:

The audience is not disappointed when Mary's lies finally become known and we get a touch of he comeuppance.  The maid Agatha, played by Margaret Hamilton (My Little Chickadee, The Wizard of Oz) dispenses a slap heard around the world.  I recall Ms. Hamilton telling a tale on The Mike Douglas Show that Bonita, who was a good kid, was frightened about the slap and kept pulling away and ruining the shot.  In the shot we see in the film, listen closely and you will hear Agatha/Margaret whisper under he breath "Bonita, come here." before giving her the genuine deal Wyler requested.

These Three has lost none of its power through the years as an emotional and cautionary piece of drama.  Watch and compare versions and I think you will agree.

TCM is screening These Three on Friday, March 4th at 8:00 pm as part of the tribute to Star of the Month, Merle Oberon.