Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Curious Incident of the Woman Who Changed Her Mind

In your travels through life, if you are suddenly beset upon by an unemployed game show host who asks who, in your opinion, is the most influential and durable character in English Literature, I would be very surprised if you didn't answer Sherlock Holmes. Of course, a pass will be given if you are one of those people who believes Holmes was a real person. You can talk all you want of Poe's C. August Dupin, but it's Conan Doyle's 1887 creation who captured the world's imagination and never let go. We cannot get enough of the Victorian era consulting detective whose popularity eventually came to so bedevil Sir Arthur. The character whose basis is four novels and 56 short stories took on a life of his own. People who have never read a Conan Doyle story know of 221B Baker Street, of the devoted chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, of Mrs. Hudson and Professor Moriarty.

For over a century the character of Sherlock Holmes has been subject to uncountable adaptions, homages and pastiches of varying success and quality. Actors as diverse as Peter Cushing and Matt Frewer have assayed the role. Some such as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, despite their wide-ranging careers, are indelibly associated with Sherlock Holmes. One of the first and best to tie his name and image with that of Holmes was the American actor William Gillette (pictured left) who, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's permission, adapted Sherlock Holmes for the stage in 1899. While Gillette was working on the project and appearing on stage in San Francisco a hotel fire destroyed both the original Conan Doyle manuscript from which he was working and Gillette's own finished play. He patiently rewrote the entire play which is a lesson for those of us stymied by computer crashes. It was Gillette who gave Holmes his deerstalker cap and magnifying glass, and the line "Elementary, my dear fellow." William Gillette played Holmes for over 30 seasons on the stage and gave his last performance for radio at the age of 79. Orson Welles is quoted as saying  "It is not enough to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.” It is not a stretch to imagine that Arthur Wontner and Basil Rathbone must have seen Gillette and been influenced by his interpretation.  Surely Rathbone's performance on film and radio influenced future performers.

The mania for all things Holmesian continues into the 21st century. Fans of television mysteries see the clear line from 1880s stories printed in The Strand magazine to David Shore's House, MD, Bruno Heller's The Mentalist and Steven Moffat's Sherlock. My book shelves contain not only my annotated and illustrated original Holmes stories, but many of the homages and imaginings of other writers from Eve Titus' Basil of Baker Street, August Derleth's Solar Pons, Steve Hockensmith's Holmes on the Range series, Laurie R. King's engrossing Mary Russell novels, and more.

A couple of years ago when Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law was announced, I was intrigued because I am one of those who can't get enough of Holmes. However, I frequent certain areas of the internet (the IMDb) which suddenly and frightfully became a breeding ground of Holmes purists who were aghast at the thought of the movie. I am someone who didn't object when an animated Holmes was frozen and brought back to life in the future in Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. I have no purist scruples because it has been proven that Holmes is untouchable. Therefore, I was keen on the project until I saw the trailer. My trailer judgements are swift and irrevocable. Strike one, the cinematography had an annoying greyish tint which I supposed was to accommodate CGI. Strike two, there was no discernible plot. Strike three, an alarming amount of slow-mo and an over-reliance on smart-assery. The entire thing left me with an overwhelming sense of "meh". I sighed and dismissed the movie from my universe.

The Harry Potter movies are a tradition the family shares at the theatre so early last autumn I made a rare trip to a movie theatre. It is a rare trip nowadays because I resent the cost, the piped in pop music I spend most of my life trying to avoid, and the commercials. Time was you went to the movies because there were no commercials, but that pleasure can now only be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. I wept my way through the trailer for War Horse, much to the amusement of my loved ones, and next came a sequel to Sherlock Holmes. I steeled myself for the onslaught of "meh" which did not come. I was amused. I was intrigued. How could this be so? I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn't before. What if Sherlock Holmes (2009) wasn't a bore? What if Sherlock Holmes (2009), perhaps, was a little bit more?

A couple of weeks before Christmas after a hard day of shopping, I gave Sherlock Holmes (2009) a chance. The family is well aware of my intractable trailer judgments so I bore with good grace my daughter's smirk and raised eyebrow. She does it because she can and because nothing is more annoying to someone who can't raise one eyebrow and whose smirk looks like a grimace of pain.

Back to the movie. The darn thing did have a plot. A wackadoodle peer played by Mark Strong was manipulating a secret society and fear of the supernatural in a plan to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Cool! Who else but a wackadoodle private consulting detective could defeat such a villain?

My eyes became accustomed to the grey tinted cinematography which may have been to accommodate CGI and might also have been to indicate a smokey, foggy London. At any rate, after a while I stopped wishing someone would squeegy the screen.

Robert Downey Jr. rarely puts a foot wrong as an actor for me, and his Holmes continued in that vein. Jude Law exemplified the perfect Watson. The characters are so firmly established in our imaginations that we had no need to go back and be introduced to them, there they were, fully formed waiting for us to enjoy the adventure. The brilliant and arrogant Holmes, both admirable and aggravating, and the loyal and understanding Watson. Dr. Watson is the friend we all should be or should have - someone who puts up with us.

If there must be a woman in the picture, and there must, then it must the "the" woman and it was. Canadian gal Rachel McAdams played the adventuress Irene Adler as if she were the long lost grandmother of Emma Peel of The Avengers. The spirited action worked in the style of the story told. We even had a peek at a mysterious professor pulling strings from the shadows. Oooh!

I enjoyed an amusing bit wherein Holmes would imagine his next move prior to carrying it out. It was clever and not overdone. All the plot lines tied up nicely at the end for a satisfying movie experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire romp and look forward to the sequel. I am only concerned about my heretofore reliable trailer judgment. What else have I been missing out on? Perhaps that movie with the boxing robot - but, no. Let's not be silly.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Six Degrees of Separation

MacGuffin Movies Round: link Her Serene Highness Princess Grace to the Clown Prince Charlie Chaplin.

Classic Becky began the festivities with a link from Chaplin to lovely Virginia Cherrill in City Lights and passed the baton this way.


Virginia Cherrill appeared in the 1936 feature Troubled Waters with...

...none other than the man of the month, Alastair Sim.

Now, let's see ... who shall I ... Hey, Vincent (Carole & Company), remember back when you knocked on my door and I wasn't home to play the game? Well, tag!

PS: It should be an easy three links to Grace from Sim.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for December on TCM

December is a month filled with endless movie delights, but if only one movie is watched during the month it must be 1951s A Christmas Carol. I hear you. "Really, Caftan Woman? You must know that we all watch A Christmas Carol and who doesn't love the 1951 feature?" True, but Christmas is a time of tradition, not originality. A Christmas Carol has been a Christmas Eve tradition since my girlhood some fifty-odd years ago and this gives me a chance to sing its praises. 

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

It starts with the story and Charles Dickens was one of the best story men of all time. His novels delighted audiences in the 19th century and still do in the 21st. Mankind being what we are, we haven't changed that much. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge shown the path to make his and others' lives better by the spirits of the past, present and future is a lesson in faith, hope, charity, redemption and grace that speaks to our core.

Brian Desmond Hurst produced and directed the "potboiler" in the summer of 1951 to cash into the Christmas market, challenging the idea that you have to spend two years in the desert to make a masterpiece. The Irish born Hurst was a veteran of WWI who studied film under John Ford in Hollywood before returning to Europe to create his well-regarded films. Hurst's A Christmas Carol is presented with a sense of authenticity in setting and characterization that sets it apart and above the countless other versions of the story.

Noel Langley adapted the screenplay. His 40-year career on both sides of the Atlantic includes Maytime, Edward, My Son and Shirley Temple's Storybook on television. Some of the changes and nice touches he brought to the story include making Ebenezer the younger brother of Fan and having his mother die in childbirth which makes a symmetrical connection to the story of nephew Fred. Langley added to the business relationship between Scrooge and Marley. Instead of Ebenezer seeing his lost love enjoying the family life he might have shared, Scrooge saw his former fiance a single woman assisting the poor. When Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present if the people are real or shadows, the spirit responds "We are the shadows. Did you not cut yourself off from your fellow beings when you lost the love of that gentle creature?" I can't help think that Dickens himself would nod and smile at that line.

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley's ghost
Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

The crowning jewel is the casting of Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim had been stealing scenes and delighting film and stage audiences for years. They couldn't get enough of his plummy voice, pop eyes and the unique way he had of insinuating himself into a character yet at the same time letting us in on the joy in his work. Michael Hordern (not yet Sir) is truly eerie and heartbreaking as Jacob Marley. Hordern would also play Scrooge in a 1977 TV version of the story. Sim and Hordern would reprise their Scrooge and Marley roles in Richard Williams' stunning 1971 animated version of the story.

One of the most memorable characters is Mrs. Dilber. In the story that is the name used for the laundress, however Langley gave it to the charlady and Kathleen Harrison ran with the role. Ms. Harrison had as long a career as a life, and she lived to be 103, with one of her last television roles in another Dickens adaption when Our Mutual Friend appeared as part of Masterpiece Theatre.

Mervyn Johns is my favourite Bob Cratchit. He plays a sweet, but not cloying soul who is servile to a mean master only because he must. Hermione Baddeley is a perfect match as the loyal Mrs. Cratchit, and it tickles me to think that in over a decade she would be cavorting with Johns daughter Glynis in Sister Suffragette when Mary Poppins hits the screen. Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein) is droll as the undertaker and Miles Malleson (The Thief of Bagdad) unforgettable as Old Joe the junk man. The entire film is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Britain's fine character actors. As Old Joe says in the movie, "We're all suitable to our calling."

Glyn Dearman, Alastair Sim, Francis De Wolff
John Charlesworth, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley
Assorted Cratchits champing at the bit for Christmas to begin.

The music for the film is from Richard Addinsell whose popular Warsaw Concerto is from another Hurst film, Dangerous Moonlight. The booming introduction to the movie never fails to produce goosebumps, and the imaginative use of familiar Christmas tunes and of the folk song Barbara Allen as a theme for Fan still brings a tear to my eye. In the Dickens story, he mentions only a "familiar air" in relation to Scrooge's sister and the sweetly melancholy Barbara Allen is a perfect choice.

In his story Dickens mentions Sir Roger de Coverley, a traditional Christmas dance tune and it is featured prominently at Fezziwig's party. Our local classical radio station in Toronto has the tune as part of its' Christmas playlist. I never can hear those fiddles start-up without hearing Alastair Sim, with excitement in his voice, say "Look, there's Old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig - top couple."

We return to the inimitable Mr. Sim whose transformation from "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" to "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew" is total and touching and real. It is all that is all we can ask for, and more, from any performance of Scrooge and any adaption of A Christmas Carol

If your 24th is already booked and hasn't room for this personal and Canadian tradition, TCM is screening 1951s A Christmas Carol for the first time on the network on Monday, December 12th at 8:00 pm.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ode to Mine Host

Ease of manner

A twinkle in his eye

A fan and a scholar

Sigh. What a guy!

Dear Robert Osborne,

I hope you enjoyed your recent time away from TCM. Don't do it again!!

Caftan Woman

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Irene Dunne as Vinnie and William Powell as Clarence Day, Sr.
Life With Father

A scene in the Day household -

Clarence: I'll tell you one thing, I'll never be baptized as long as that hideous monstrosity (pug dog statue) is in this house.

Vinnie: Alright. Alright. Clarence (Jr.). That pug dog goes back this afternoon and he is christened first thing in the morning. You heard him didn't you, Clarence? You heard him say that he'd be baptized as soon as I got this pug dog out of the house.

A scene in the Nolan/Hall household -

He: Don't tell me you're listening to Christmas music! The Americans haven't even had their Thanksgiving yet.

Me: You heard him didn't you, kids? He said as soon as it was American Thanksgiving it was all Christmas music, all the time.

What many people (meaning husbands) don't understand is that Christmas music, like the Christmas movies and books, must be started early or the season will pass without seeing reading or listening to all your old favourites.

I have a box full of tapes and CDs, and a shelf lined with LPs that call out to me. These are a but a few of the many.

Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to the 1965 television special combines a true sense of childhood innocence with a touch of adult nostalgia that is at the same time a part of and transcends the iconic Charles Schulz characters of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, and Snoopy. For many youngsters, it is their introduction to jazz. A happy introduction that will influence a lifetime of musical enjoyment.

Round and round the Christmas tree
Opening presents with the family
One for you and two for me
Oh, what a Christmas day!

Bing's classic Merry Christmas album with White Christmas, Silver Bells with Carol Richards, the fun tunes with the Andrews Sisters and the hymns gets a major workout this time of year, but I always start out with A Time to Be Jolly. It is a joyous album with a party feeling that I find irresistible.

Released in 1986 with Milt Hinton, Ralph Sutton, Gus Johnson, Jim Galloway going to town on traditional Christmas songs, The Sackville All Star Christmas Record became an immediate classic in our family. I was "adopted" into a family simply by virtue of reading Harpo Speaks. If you listen to the Sackville album, you automatically become one of us.

The album cover alone is comforting, but add Nat's voice and you are immediately enveloped in a sense of wonder and the best that Christmas has ever meant to you, or will ever mean.

Perry Como. Just thinking about him makes me smile. His heart seems to be in the Christmas music, both joyous and reverent. I must hear Perry recite The Night Before Christmas every year.

Another album I consider an instant classic is the eclectic Christmas album from the glorious Maureen McGovern. A contemporary take on traditional music that retains all of the old-fashioned heart.

It is one of the tragedies of my life that the Hi-Lo's never made a Christmas album. Gene Puerling, being kind of heart as well as genius of mind, made up for it when he took his The Singers Unlimited, Don Shelton, Len Dresslar and Bonnie Herman into the studio for this must-have, must-listen-to album. It is what you point to when you want to scoff at those who claim perfection cannot be achieved.

Many of the wonderful tracks on The Singers Unlimited Christmas are the Christmas songs of Alfred Burt. Jazz trumpeter and composer Burt originally collaborated with his father Bates Burt, an Episcopal minister on Christmas songs presented as gifts to family and friends. After his father's death, he continued the tradition with organist Willa Hutson.

Al Burt was a member of the Alvino Rey (married to Louise King) orchestra and through that association, his carols were popularized by the King Family, first at their personal Christmas parties and on their television specials. His wonderful carols were recorded by Columbia records (company president James Conkling was married to Donna King) shortly before Al's untimely death from cancer.

Al Burt's lovely songs include Christmas Cometh Caroling, Jesu Parvule, Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wintry Wind, Bright, Bright, the Holly Berries, The Star Carol, Caroling Caroling, We'll Dress the House and Some Children See Him.

Al Burt's carols have come to mean Christmas to me more and more as the years go by. Along with The Singers Unlimited album, they are front and center on Bing's A Time to be Jolly and Maureen McGovern's Christmas.

Composer/arranger LeRoy Anderson's thrilling medleys of familiar carols are my traditional Christmas wrapping soundtrack. The album was saved from cutout limbo at the old Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto.

Why, oh why isn't this fabulous TV special from 1979 available on DVD?!?

Christmas on the Ponderosa. Wanna make somethin' of it?!

Old-time opera recordings are my happy place. I think I am reincarnated from the gramophone set. This compilation features songs mainly from radio broadcasts and covers years ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s. Every year I find a new favourite.

I love the Christmas compilations like this misnamed CD from Publisher's Clearing House. Not all of the tracks are from the 1940s, but I'm not going to quibble if they want to give me Mel Torme and Jack Jones from The Judy Garland Show along with Buddy Clark, Joe Williams, and Benny Goodman.

There's also the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Chieftains and Doris Day and The Mills Brothers and Peggy Lee and Harry Belafonte and Jim Reeves and Roger Williams and The Platters and ...

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends, and thanks for the often mentioned, but seldom followed guideline to when it is appropriate to listen to all Christmas music, all the time.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What's that guy's name? Christian Rub.

Christian Rub

We were watching Jeopardy!. The category was Things Related to Wood. Two of the "questions" were "What is Tales from the Vienna Woods?" and "Who is Pinocchio?". I turned to my husband and commented that this was a good night for Christian Rub (pronounced and sometimes spelled "Rube") fans because in 1938s The Great Waltz he played the carriage driver who helped Strauss and the soprano compose that song, and in Disney's 1940s Pinocchio Rub was the human model and voice for Geppetto. The breadth and depth of my knowledge stunned my beloved into silence. I'm sure he was in awe.

Sadly, I have not at this time found no details on Mr. Rub's personal life other than his birthplace in Bavaria and that his wife's name was Amy, but his movie career places him in a number of bona fide classics and personal favourites.

Christian Rub, Cliff Edwards and Dickie Jones cut a rug

Some actors become famous for playing butlers or cops. In Christian Rub's case, he played more than his fair share of janitors and groundskeepers. Check out Princess O'Rourke with Olivia de Havilland, Once Upon a Time with Cary Grant, Mary Stevens MD with Kay Francis, Murder on a Bridle Path with James Gleason (especially!), All This, and Heaven Too with Bette Davis, Henry Aldrich for President and Rhapsody in Blue among many others. The one valet credit I could find was the Warren William picture Outcast. I have yet to see it, but it looks like a dandy.

Miliza Korjus, Christian Rub, Fernand Gravet make music history
The Great Waltz

When not sweeping up, Christian Rub played a number of musicians and music lovers. He's a cellist in the Charles Laughton segment of Tales of Manhattan, a trombone player in Tovarich and is featured in two Deanna Durbin movies Mad About Music and One Hundred Men and a Girl. Christian Rub is adorable as a sympathetic innkeeper in The Cat and the Fiddle with Jeanette MacDonald and Roman Navarro.

Above is my favourite performance of a title song of a movie. It is 1940s Rhythm on the River starring Bing Crosby. Christian Rub is the pawnbroker in the background who can't keep from grooving.

While searching for photos of Christian Rub online I found him misidentified on a couple of sites. He is not now nor never has been Ian Wolfe or Donald Meek. Such an infraction against all three gentlemen is considered criminal in my family!

Look for Christian Rub the next time you watch You Can't Take It With You where he is one of the Vanderhoff's neighbours or Captains Courageous as one of the shipmates. You will soon compile your own list of personal favourites.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario on November 30, 1878. His family background of Scottish immigrants was military with a strong sense of duty and Presbyterian with a strong sense of spirituality. McCrae joined the Guelph Militia while in High School and when attending the University of Toronto in 1892 joined the Queen's Own Rifles. He studied medicine on a scholarship and tutored to defray expenses. Two of his students became the first female doctors in Ontario. McCrae also studied medicine in England. In 1899 he fought as a Captain in South Africa, but resigned because of what he felt was poor treatment of the ill and injured.

John McCrae was a noted physician who filled his leisure time with poetry, sketching and a love of the sea. Many times he signed on as a seaman to travel between North America and England. In 1914, not unlike many of his generation, for a sense of duty and a sense of adventure McCrae reenlisted for King and Country, a field surgeon with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

McCrae's former student and friend Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres, also known as Flanders Fields. Amid the carnage and sadness John McCrae found an outlet by composing his most famous poem. In Flanders Fields was published in the magazine Punch in December of 1915 and immediately struck a chord with the grieving families and battle weary soldiers. The poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance throughout the Commonwealth.

John McCrae suffered from asthma most of his life and passed in the field on January 28, 1918 from complications from pneumonia. His life and work, including his poetry and medical text books, is honoured in museums and schools throughout Canada.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 Germany signed the armistice. It is on this date we pay tribute to the sacrifices made during the war to end all - and those which followed.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Where Are My Manners?

The bustle of day-to-day life is no excuse for not mentioning that Caftan Woman was invited to spend some time at the most comfortable spot on the net, the Classic Film and TV Cafe, where some movie memories are shared. Please join us.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Caftan Woman vs. Garbage Truck

"Take That!" by Janet C. Hall

November got off to a flying start. My lingering cold had progressed from the "cuddled under a quilt on the couch with chicken soup watching Bend of the River" phase to the "need more moisture laden tissue and pizzazz in my life" phase. I can think of no better way to add pizzazz than to mix club soda with orange-tangerine juice (it's pizzazz on a budget). The grocery store is only two and a half blocks from home, but who knows what else I might pick up so I took my cart aka bundle buggy to pick up the necessaries.

Middle-aged women who take a cart to pick up two items at the store are notoriously cautious pedestrians. I had finished the first half block on the return home south on Royal York Road and stopped at Van Every noting the garbage truck stopped at the crosswalk and the worker loading garbage. The truck was stopped. I assumed the driver had seen me because isn't being aware of your surroundings part of the driver's job? I calmly started through the crosswalk. I was in front of the truck when I realized it had started and was moving!! Moving!! I shouted. I started to run in a loop out into the street. Middle-aged women who take a cart to pick up two items at the grocery store are not noted for their swiftness. I don't believe I have ever been more frightened. I think I heard people on the street shouting. I'm not certain what alerted the driver, but as the truck struck my back it stopped. I went flying and tried to dig a hole in Royal York Road with my face. I didn't lose consciousness. I was crying. I was bleeding. My cart was totaled. I hate to think that that would have been me if I hadn't brought the cart along, but I can't stop thinking about it.

Good Samaritans abounded. One fellow got napkins from the nearby (Gavin's favourite) pizza restaurant for the blood. My new friend Crystal turned her car to stop oncoming traffic and phoned my daughter Janet, two blocks away blithely working on her art. (Janet will be attending the art program at Sheridan College in January. Her goal is animation.)

The police arrived to take the accident report. The Emergency Medical Services arrived with the ambulance.

EMS guy: "So, how straight was your nose this morning?"
Me: "What the Hell?!"

The Emergency Room at St. Joseph's Hospital was very crowded. Nothing but patients in neck braces on boards as far as the eye could see.

Me: "Is it like this every garbage day?"

Our admitting nurse was competent and funny. Hubby thinks she's cute.

Janet: "You have Stephen Fry's nose."
Me: "What's he breathing with?"

CT scan. Full body x-ray. Only issues are slight fracture of the nose and abrasions on the forehead that did not need stitches after all. I had been looking forward to the Frankenstein look. I have a dressing on my forehead, two blackened and bruised eyes - and it's tough to have a cold when your nose has a slight fracture, even if you do have moisture laden tissue.

My friends, in the words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on Hill Street Blues: "Be careful out there".

Caftan Woman aka The Luckiest Gal in the World

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for November on TCM

The November choice is the film version of John Patrick's play The Hasty Heart directed by Vincent Sherman in 1949. The Hasty Heart is set at a convalescent hospital in the jungles of Burma at the end of WW2. The few remaining men are awaiting the unraveling of red tape of the healing of injuries before they are to be sent home.

Richard Todd, Ronald Reagan

Young Scot Corporal Lachlan, known as "Lachey", won't be going home. The doctors prognosis is "no hope" and they ask nurse or, as the Brits say, "Sister" Margaret Parker played by Patricia Neal and the men in her ward to keep the tragic news from the young man and make is last days happy.

Most of the men are uncomfortable with being placed in this spot, but agree. The most vocal opponent is Sister Margaret's sweetheart "Yank" played by Ronald Reagan. He is quite eloquent when describing his feelings about the Scots in general and his hidebound grandfather in particular. Lachey does nothing to dispel Yank's misgivings. The young corporal is an embittered loner who trusts no one. It is at Sister Margaret's urging that the pretense is kept up.

Patricia Neal, Richard Todd

Very slowly and painfully Lachey opens up to the people around him. He even falls in love with Sister Margaret, which complicates things for everyone. Eventually the feelings of friendship among the group deepen and, ironically, at a time when lies might make things easier they become harder to tell because genuine feelings require honestly. Honesty is also a military order when the Colonel must tell Lachy of his fate and send him home.

A heart can break very quickly, but can it heal as easily when precious time is almost gone? The Hasty Heart is an emotional movie and a worthy one. The entire ensemble brings their best to the script with Richard Todd giving an outstanding performance, as evidenced by his Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Author John Patrick (1905-1995) was born in Kentucky. He began working for radio in the 1920s writing over 1000 comedy scripts and Streamlined Shakespeare for NBC. His early work in Hollywood was a mix of crime dramas such as Mr. Moto Takes a Chance and comedies like the prison send-up Up the River.

In 1942 John Patrick began volunteer service for the American Field Service providing medical support for the British Arm serving in Egypt and the India/Burma campaigns. His experience formed the idea for his play The Hasty Heart which had over 200 performances in the 1945 Broadway season. Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce) adapted the screenplay and was nominated by the Writer's Guild of America for Best Written American Drama.

Set your recorders because TCM is showing The Hasty Heart on Friday, November 18th at 12:15 am.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Boo! Boris in The Black Room (1935)

Boris Karloff lived his dream through commitment and hard work. The English born William Pratt was destined for government work if his family had had their way, but his heart belonged to the stage. Moving to Canada and working in many jobs including farm labourer, he eventually joined a Stock Company and found his place in the theatre.

In films from 1919 first in bit parts and slowly working his way into larger character roles any early dreams of stardom were probably long gone by 1931 when he took on the role of the monster in James Whale’s production of Frankenstein. The combination of Jack Pierce’s make-up and Boris Karloff’s commitment to the character created a horror movie icon and assured the 44 year old actor a niche in movies and in the hearts of fans. The years ahead would feature many roles in, as he called them, “chillers” and led to Broadway successes and television popularity.

Roy William Neill (1887-1946)

Roy William Neill was romantically born on board a ship captained by his father off the coast of Ireland. Born the same year as Karloff, he entered film around the same time in 1916 as a busy and prolific actor, writer, producer and director. His directing credits include a mix of all genres including action, mystery, horror, comedy and westerns, directing Buck Jones in several silent features.

I enjoy his work in mystery mode with such movies as 1933s The Circus Queen Murder starring Adolphe Menjou, 1935s The Return of the Lone Wolf starring Melvyn Douglas, all but the first of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and his last and maybe best feature, the exemplary film-noir classic from Cornell Woolrich’s novel, Black Angel starring June Vincent and Dan Duryea. Roy Neill died of an unexpected heart attack while visiting England after completion of the Woolrich picture.

Holmes star Nigel Bruce, in his unpublished autobiography Games, Gossip and Greasepaint, said this of Neill:

"Roy was an Englishman by birth who had become an American citizen. He was a little man, very fussy about his clothes and like myself, he always smoked a pipe. He was an extremely kind and friendly person and all his assistants and the crews who worked for him were devoted to him. Roy was an extremely able director, having a great knowledge of film technique and of the use of his camera. During the many pictures we made under his direction we found him a joy to work for. Basil and I nicknamed him 'mousey' during our first picture and the name stuck to him from then on. We both became extremely attached to Roy Neill.”

Gregor and Anton - Boris Karloff

I can’t help but think from that description that 1935s The Black Room directed by Roy William Neill and starring Boris Karloff was as felicitous a teaming between director and star as it was of star and co-star. You see, in The Black Room Karloff plays twins. It’s a movie trick that seems to fascinate both actors and audiences. Why settle for one Bette Davis when you can have two (A Stolen Life, Dead Ringer) or two of Olivia deHavilland (The Dark Mirror) or two of Hayley Mills (The Parent Trap) or two of Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers), etc.?

Let’s have a somewhat spoilerish look at The Black Room.

Baron Frederick de Berghman (Henry Kolker) refuses to celebrate the birth of his twin sons because, as he explains to his young friend Lt. Hassel (Colin Tapley), it means the end of the family. There is a curse of the family of de Berghman that they will end the way they began, with the younger of twin brothers murdering the older in the black room. The young lieutenant cannot believe in such nonsense, but sensing his friend’s sincerity suggests that the solution lies in sealing up the cursed black room, which is done immediately.

Gregor and Mashka - Boris Karloff and Katherine DeMille

Time passes and forty years later the younger brother Anton has been gone from home for many years, driven away by the curse, although being born with a withered right arm may preclude his bringing any harm to his brother. Anton has been a student, a traveler and has grown into a thoughtful and kind man. The Baron Gregor de Berghman has remained in charge of the family estate with the assistance of family friend the now Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall). Colonel Hassel has become adept at hiding his fear and loathing of Gregor. Gregor is the sort of man who engenders fear and loathing. The local peasantry are of two minds about the Baron, some say he is a tyrant, others that he is a fiend. It is known that women who have ventured to the castle have never been heard of again.

Gregor and Thea - Boris Karloff and Marian Marsh

Gregor has called his brother Anton back to the family estate asking for help with affairs which have become too difficult to handle. The obliging Anton returns to find the peasants on the brink of revolt, his brother a volatile sort, and Colonel Hassel’s niece Thea (Marian Marsh) a lovely and charming young woman. Thea is in love with Lt. Albert Lussan (Robert Allen) and frightened by the attentions of the Baron. Gypsy girl Mashka (Katherine DeMille) isn’t frightened by the Baron, but she should be.

Anton’s return is part of Gregor’s scheme to quell the rebellion and gain lovely Thea as his wife. It is a cunning plan involving murder, deception and the black room. Gregor will murder Anton and take his place subduing the angered peasants. He will worm his way into Thea’s good graces through her uncle. Gregor will have everything he wants. Gregor is not afraid of the curse of the de Berghmans.

The Black Room is a “little” movie with an epic feel. Boris Karloff is a joy to watch as both the adorable Anton and the grim Gregor. The atmosphere of dread and gloom is palpable and the pace is brisk. Recurring visuals that highlight the story are the use of mirrors that can't help but reveal truths, and graveyards and iconic religious statues that reinforce the spiritual nature of the curse and the belief./In Karloff's Baron Gregor de Berghman we have a villain of the highest order and his comeuppance is as delicious as a splash of Irish in a cup of coffee to dispel a dark, dank October evening. Happy Hallowe’en!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rex Stout Causes Unrest in Marriage

The brownstone on West 35th Street, New York City wherein resides the over-sized genius who may or may not be the illegitimate offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler is as well known to mystery fans as Middle Earth is to Lord of the Rings devotees.

Nothing fills the mystery bookworm with such anticipation and dread as when a favourite detective makes that leap from the page to the screen. Sometimes perfection is achieved. Joan Hickson was born to embody Jane Marple. Sometimes the artistic license taken may leave you shaking your head, but the casting is heaven sent, as in the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce pairing in the Universal Sherlock Holmes movie series.

Nero Wolfe should have been a lock for film. Rex Stout's detecting team of Wolfe and legman Archie Goodwin combine that unfathomable genius we appreciate with the witty observations we like to think we would make, plus joyous helpings of action, labyrinth plotting and quirky characters.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) wrote his first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance in 1934 and his last, A Family Affair was published in 1975. It was that last novel that was my introduction as a teenager to the series. I read an obituary of Stout in the Sunday paper and straightway bought the book. Fans will realize this greatly coloured a lot of my later reading. Thankfully, there was a lot of reading to catch up on in the Nero Wolfe canon of novels, novellas and short stories.

Lionel Stander, Edward Arnold

Hollywood first came calling in 1936 with Meet Nero Wolfe starring Edward Arnold as Wolfe and Lionel Stander as Archie. I have yet to see the picture, but knowing Edward Arnold's work I do applaud that aspect of the casting. Lionel Stander as Archie. H'm, let me see. No! A wiseacre from way back was Bronx born Stander, but I just can't see him as Ohio born Goodwin. Did the producers miss the part about Archie's fatal attraction for the ladies?

Another Wolfe picture followed in 1937 based on The League of Frightened Men. Walter Connolly was cast as Wolfe (I can't call him Nero. Can you?) and, again, Connolly is a fine actor. Did he and the writers know what to do with the character? Again, Lionel Stander was Archie. Yeah. Sure. Lily Rowan would invite him for a weekend with her tony friends.

Radio might be just the thing! We can imagine the brownstone and environs in our minds eye and if the voice is right, and the scripts are up to snuff then radio might be just the thing.

The Adventures of Nero Wolfe, in 30 minute episodes, ran in the 1943-44 season and went through three leading actors. The first was British born J.B. Williams, followed by Santos Ortega with John Gibson as Archie. Mexican born Luis Van Rooten was the last actor to play the role on this program. A note here from a gal who misses her "stories". John Gibson appeared on The Guiding Light in the 50s, in some way connected with the Reverend Fletcher. Santos Ortega I remember well as Pa Hughes on As the World Turns in the 60s. Luis Van Rooten was also on As the World Turns at that time playing the dad of the legendary Lisa (Eileen Fulton).

The Amazing Nero Wolfe ran in the 1946 season and starred old Messala himself, Francis X. Bushman.

The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe in the 1950-51 season scored the casting coup of Sydney Greenstreet (the fat man!) as Wolfe. Can't you just hear him? Well, you can on OTR on the web. The program went through a succession of Archies including future directors Lawrence Dobkin and Lamont Johnson, Harry Bartell, Wally Maher and Gerald Mohr. Inspector Cramer on this program was played by William Johnstone who was dignified Judge Lowell on As the World Turns. I think Greenstreet and Mohr had great possibilities as a screen team. Ah, what could have been.

Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, Don Galloway, Raymond Burr

The television series Ironside ran from 1967-1975. The wheel-chair bound Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside was smarter than your average cop and inclined toward the gruff side upon occasion. I've always felt that The Chief and Sgt. Ed Brown had a quasi Wolfe-Goodwin relationship. For many years it was Don Galloway I would picture as Archie when reading the stories. Also, Johnny Seven who had the recurring role of Lt. Reese on the series would have made a fine Cramer.

Tom Mason, Thayer David

Frank Gilroy wrote and directed the 1979 TV movie Nero Wolfe starring Thayer David and Tom Mason. I only saw this the time it aired, but it looms large in my memory as quite the movie. Thayer David seemed to perfectly embody the irritating genius that is Wolfe and Tom Mason grew on me as Archie. The movie may have been a pilot, but sadly Thayer David passed from cancer after giving us this performance. The movie was nominated for an Edgar Award in the category of Best TV Feature or Miniseries. The winner was Levinson and Link's Murder by Natural Causes and the other nominee was Paul Monash's adaption of Salem's Lot.

Lee Horsley, William Conrad

Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts produced the 1981 series Nero Wolfe which ran for only half a season. I'm crazy about Conrad, but he really was just a grumpier Cannon waiting for Jake. Lee Horsley I prefer on the plain, as in Paradise, although he grew into a credible crime fighter in the short-lived Bodies of Evidence. What really worked for me in this series was the supporting cast. George Wyner was born to play Saul Panzer. George Voskovic as Fritz, Robert Coote as Theodore Horstmann and especially Alan Miller seething with irritation as Inspector Cramer were worth the price of admission.

Timothy Hutton, Maury Chaykin

Return with me to a decade ago when A&E was a regular channel surfing stop. You could count on an interesting Biography or an innovative original series such as A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Paul Monash scripted the 2000 pilot movie based on The Golden Spiders (see above Edgar Award mention). Hopes were high and hopes were met. The series became a personal project for actor Hutton who was one of the executive producers when the program began its unfortunately limited run on the network. Each episode was adapted from one of Stout's stories with scripts by William Rabkin and Lee Goldberg (Diagnosis Murder, Psych, etc.) and Sharon Elizabeth Doyle.

A repertory company of talented actors appeared in the episodes as different characters (Kari Matchett, Christine Brubaker, Francie Swift, Debra Monk, Julian Richings, Robert Bockstael, etc). Core characters were impeccably cast with Bill Smitrovich the cigar chomping Cramer, Colin Fox as a fussy Fritz coping with the world's most demanding gourmand. The busy Saul Rubinek showed up occasionally as Lon Cohen. He had played Saul Panzer in The Golden Spiders.

Attention to set and costumes was beyond reproach. Just as Stout's stories had his characters static in age while time swirled around them, the series was the same with Archie making quips about Nazis in one episode, and mini-skirts in another.

At the heart was, of course, the relationship between Archie and Wolfe. Timothy Hutton was just right as Goodwin. Sometimes I felt Maury Chaykin gave me too much of the petulance and not enough of the genius, but perhaps that was only because he hadn't lived with Wolfe as long as I had. Overall, I enjoyed his work and looked forward to seeing more of it. Unfortunately, A&E pulled the plug after only 27 episodes of A Nero Wolfe Mystery citing production expenses. If you want something done right, you are going to have to pay for it. We were taken to paradise, in this case West 35th Street, and turned away.

You are probably thinking to yourself that this is all well and good, Caftan Woman, but what has this got to do with Rex Stout causing unrest in your marriage? It's not what you may think. Garry has known about my thing for Archie since day one and he's cool with it. Last weekend my Honey Bunny was heading out the library and it being a blustery day here in Toronto and me being a soft-hearted sap, I pointed out that we had a multitude of books around the house and suggested perhaps a Nero Wolfe would fit the bill. His response: "No. I've read them all. They'll only make me hungry and, Sweetie, you're no Fritz Brenner." Nice to know what he really thinks of me!


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