Friday, February 27, 2009

Favourite movies: Battleground (1949)

Wild Bill Wellman
1896 - 1975

William Wellman is a director I have long admired. He was a rogue, a character and a man who made many, many fine films. I'm sentimental about the man and his work dating back to Tuesday, July 9, 1974. On that date The Ontario Film Insitute hosted An Evening With William A. Wellman that included two of his best, the thoughtful movie about a lynching based on Water Von Tilburg Clark's novel, The Ox-Bow Incident and a story of displaced youth during the Great Depression, Wild Boys of the Road. The highlight of the evening was the entertaining presence of the director. It was a free evening of entertainment. My Dad read about it in the paper and asked if I would like to go. Would I? Sixteen years old, absolutely mad for classic movies and a night out with my dad!

"Wild Bill" Wellman wanted to direct every kind of movie there was, and I believe he did. Westerns (Track of the Cat), comedies (Nothing Sacred), crime pictures (The Public Enemy), et cetera. A WWI veteran, he seemed to have an affinity for stories of people facing adversity. He directed Wings, the first picture to win the Academy Award. He directed the well-regarded story of war correspondent Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe. And he directed Battleground, a picture MGM didn't want to make in 1949. The reasoning was that nobody would want to see another war picture. If it's as good a picture as Battleground then, yes, people would want to see it. It was the idea of producer/writer Dore Schary and when the receipts and the awards piled up, he was made head of the studio.

Battleground is the story of one squad of the 101st Airborne Division. It is the epic Battle of the Bulge through the eyes of a few men - strangers, yet family. We see them through the eyes of rookie replacement Jim Layton (Marshall Thompson). The polished Sgt. Kinnie (James Whitmore), cocky Holley (Van Johnson), thoughtful Jarvess (John Hodiak), easy-going southerner Spudler (Jerome Courtland), all-round great guy Rodrigues (Ricardo Montalban), elder statesman "Pop" Stazak (George Murphy), whiner Kippton (Douglas Fowley) and others played by Richard Jaeckel, James Arness, Herbert Anderson and Don Taylor.

Layton grows up before our eyes. It is inevitable and not always pretty. Holley, too, for all his bravado grows through facing up to his own fears. James Whitmore was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Sgt. Kinnie. While we begin to see the emotional layers crack for the men, in Sgt. Kinnie we see this physically as the uniform becomes ragged and his boots are lost to rags. My feet hurt just thinking about him. Whitmore wanted his character to look like Pulitzer Prize Winner Bill Mauldin's Sadsack - and, does he ever!

Thanks. Just what we needed.

The script of Battleground is by Bastogne veteran Robert Pirosh, who won an Oscar for his work. It's one thing to write what you know, but another to write as well as Pirosh did. He would be Oscar-nominated a couple of years later for his work on another war picture, Go for Broke! the story of an all Japanese-American platoon. He would also develop the television series Combat (1962-1967) as well as writing for every show from The Waltons and A Family Affair to Ironside and Bonanza.

A favourite line which typifies the movie for me is spoken by Jarvess (John Hodiak), who ran a newspaper with his wife back home. "Only one thing gets me. When you work on a newspaper, I'd get those wire releases and know I was the first person in town who had the news, all the news. I guarantee you my wife knows what's going on in Bastogne. All I know is what is going on in the 2nd squad of the 3rd platoon of I Company."

Battleground is an enthralling story and a fine example of an ensemble cast. All the elements mesh perfectly to entertain, educate and move the viewer.

The final scene of the movie, with fresh troops moving to the front and "our guys", their ranks depleted and their bodies broken, proudly marching back to Sgt. Kinnie's cadence count is iconic among war pictures, and chokes me up every time.

Recent passings: Van Johnson (1916 - 2008), Ricardo Montalban (1920 - 2009) and James Whitmore (1921 - 2009).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fond Farewells

Beverly Garland
October 17, 1926 - December 5, 2008

Beverly Garland was an actress of great vibrancy. Her winning personality was an asset to every role she tackled. The perfect tv wife to Bing Crosby in a short-lived series and Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons. The perfect tv mom on Remington Steele, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Lois and Clark. Beverly's first movie role was in 1950s noirish D.O.A. She had small roles in A pictures and starred in well remembered B's such as Gunslinger in 1956. She was tv's first lady cop in Decoy (1957 - 1959) and if you had a favourite tv show then you saw Beverly guest star.

My favourite movie memory is a bit in 1953's The Glass Web. Murderer Edward G. Robinson is trying to tidy up the crime scene (his girl's apt.), a long playing record is on (an Eddy Duchin sort of thing). Drunken reveller Bev leaves the party next door to pound on the door, interrupting our frightened criminal with "Hey, I like classical music as much as the next guy, but could ya' keep it down!"

Page Cavanaugh
January 26, 1922 - December 19, 2008

What can I say about this legendary musician that isn't said perfectly at Check it out, folks. I will say that ever since I first heard the trio on the Disney tv show extolling the Truth About Mother Goose, I was in Heaven. Just in case you were wondering, it's what I call real Paddy Lee music. Classic movie fans check out Howard Hawks' musical retelling of Ball of Fire as A Song is Born or Romance on the High Seas for more of the smoothest, coolest sounds ever.

Don Galloway
July 27, 1937 - January 8, 2009

Kentucky born Don Galloway studied acting with Herbert Berghof in NYC and, as so many have, got his start on the soaps with The Secret Storm in 1954. Handsome and talented, he had a busy career, but it is as Sergeant Ed Brown on Ironside that he has an eternal place in my heart. He's family.

Ricardo Montalban
November 25, 1920 - January 14, 2009

He's just so cool! Handsome leading man who has left us some amazing movie and television memories. I recall reading once that he never turned down a job because an actor is only an actor when he is working. I have two images of Montalban. One is of the television guest star in such series as Bonanza or his Emmy winning role in How the West Was Won. The other is the MGM leading man of the 40s and 50s. Three fine movies to check out are William Wellman's Battleground, and the crime dramas Border Incident and Mystery Street. Married for 60 years to Georgianna Young, Montalban is surely an inspiration for hard working actors and hopeful couples.

James Whitmore
October 1, 1921 - February 6, 2009

Oooh, he's one of the good ones. You see James Whitmore's name in the credits and you rub your hands with glee and settle back for a fine piece of work. This ex-Marine studied acting on the GI Bill and won awards for his Broadway entree, Command Decision. In one of his first film roles, the memorable Battleground from 1949 he was nominated for an Oscar. From The Asphalt Jungle and Them! and Kiss Me, Kate to Where the Red Fern Grows and The Shawshank Redemption, he has generations of admirerers. Television appearances on the likes of The Big Valley, The Twilight Zone (On Thursday We Leave for Home), and The Virginian have left indellible memories. Name someone else with a roster of one man shows that matches Will Rogers USA, Give 'Em Hell, Harry and Bully: A Teddy Roosevelt Adventure. Yes, indeed. He's one of the good ones.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Favourite tv shows: Ironside (1967 - 1975)

Original cast: Don Galloway, Barbara Anderson, Don Mitchell, Raymond Burr

Seasons 5 to 8: Don Galloway, Raymond Burr, Don Mitchell, Elizabeth Baur

The late TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory wrote: Maybe every episode of "Ironside" isn't the best episode of "Ironside", but we watch it anyway because we love spending time with the Chief, Ed, Eve and Mark.

I would agree that that is one of the reasons Ironside is a favourite of mine. I don't watch much regular programming these days. Do people still make a family of their favourite shows?

I wonder what the betting was in 1967 that Raymond Burr could create another successful television character/series after the phenomenon of Perry Mason. I was ten years old at the time and I recall vividly the impact of the pilot movie for Ironside written by Collier Young, Don Mankiewicz and directed by James Goldstone. Quincy Jones' driving theme song, the flashy editing and, for me, exotic setting of San Francisco made for a collective wow!

Confined to a wheelchair by a sniper, SFPD Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside investigates his own case, bullying the Department into creating a special consulting position for him and okaying his staff of Sgt. Ed Brown and Police Woman Eve Whitfield. Handsome Don Galloway (1937 - 2009) played Ed with a down-to-earth charm and easy-going professionalism. Devoted to the Chief and smart, in my mind he was the Archie Goodwin to Burr's Nero Wolfe-like boss. Barbara Anderson's Eve was a society girl looking for more in life and found it in a career. Classy in a Grace Kelly sort of way, she wore her heart on her sleeve and 60s fashions with elan.

Don Mitchell was the icing on the cake as Mark Sanger, a young man with a criminal background who joined the family as physical trainer and assistant to the Chief. Most crime shows of that period didn't delve too much into the personal lives of our protagonists. The idea behind the shows was the crime and the solving of it. Most of the characters would not advance beyond their pilot blueprint. Audiences had the opportunity to see Mark grow from an angry young man to a struggling and confused law student, a rookie cop, and from a bachelor to a married man (lovely Joan Pringle).

The format of Ironside gave the actors and guest stars plenty of range. What would it be this week - a caper, a murder mystery, a character study, something on the light side perhaps or international intrigue?

Who would be our guest star - Anne Baxter, Myrna Loy, Bradford Dillman, Burgess Meredith, Paul Winfield, Suzanne Pleshette, Ivan Dixon, Richard Basehart, Bill Bixby, Clu Gulager, maybe Barbara Hale? Would Gene Lyons (Police Commissioner) ever win an argument with the Chief? Maybe that fine connection to the "real" department, Lt. Reese played by Johnny Seven would put in an appearance. A sampling:

All in a Day's Work
Written by Ed McBain featured Eve in a heartbreaking story as she shoots a young thief.

Nightmare Trip
Ed Brown has an awakening to how cops treat the public in a tense episode directed by Raymond Burr.

The Last Payment
A very human story written and starring four time guest star Felton Perry.

Barbara Who (season 1)/Goodbye to Yesterday (season 3)
Vera Miles guest starred as an amnesiac romantic interest for the Chief.

Why the Tuesday Afternoon Bridge Club Met on Thursday
Jessie Royce Landis and Arthur O'Connell guest star as the Chief's aunt gets mixed up in murder.

Cross Doublecross
A love story for Fran guest starring Gary Lockwood and Mike Farrell.

Memories of an Ice Cream Stick
Mark is torn between childhood loyalties and the realities of his present life.

Downhill All the Way
The Chief creates a new family when he leaves the Force to find a criminal. Features a couple of songs by Marty Paich, who provided wonderful background music and tunes for a couple of years.

In the 5th Season Barbara Anderson left the show and a new character came on board. Elizabeth Baur played Fran Belding. A cop from a family of cops. Good at her job, but like Eve, having to deal with the stigma of working in a man's world at that time. Fran was likable and wanted to please. She felt she had a lot to prove.

An interesting spin-off was Amy Prentiss starring Jessica Walter as the first female Chief of Detectives. More well-done stories, but perhaps the world wasn't ready and the the show lasted less than one season (1974). George Kennedy's excellent but short-lived Sarge (1971) also spun out of Ironside.

The bittersweet reunion TV movie The Return of Ironside aired in 1993, the year Raymond Burr passed away. The whole gang was there, Eve, Fran, Chief Brown and Judge Sanger. As with the Perry Mason movies completed at the same time, it must have been important to Raymond Burr to get the family together at that time.

Years ago I saw Burr and co-stars Galloway and Mitchell in a stage mystery at the Royal Alexandra in Toronto called Underground. The theatre was filled with fans and filled with love.

The first two seasons of Ironside have been released on DVD, but there is no word on when or if Shout Entertainment plans to continue the issue. Frustrating news for me and for Ironside's legion of fans.


Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...