Friday, February 15, 2019

Lesser Known Lansbury: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. "The Deadly Toys Affair"

For pop culture addicts in the autumn of their years, Angela Lansbury will forever be associated with Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote fame. After all, the series ran from 1984 through 1996, with an extended epilogue of TV movies lingering through 2003. Film fans may remember her memorable turn as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd or as the red menacing madre terrible in The Manchurian Candidate.

Less remembered is Lansbury's television work from the mid-1960s. I have yet but would love to see her 1963 appearance on the psychological drama series Eleventh Hour (playing wife to Martin Balsam and mother to troubled teenager Tuesday Weld) or her 1965 appearance alongside future Columbo star Peter Falk on his short-lived series The Trials of O'Brien. What I have seen, however, is lady Lansbury's appearance in the lighthearted November 1965 episode of  The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: "The Deadly Toys Affair."

How do we know it's lighthearted? I offer you People's Exhibit A:

And People's Exhibit B:

Elfie:  Call me Schnookie-poots.
. . .
Solo:  Just call me Nappy. 

Silly stuff, to be sure, but a fun change of pace ... until it became standard operating procedure in the series' third season.

Lansbury brings an infectious and enthusiastic lunacy to her role of Elfie Van Donck, eccentric Dutch aunt to a boy genius falling fast into the clutches of Thrush. Van Donck is an erstwhile "glamorous movie star," one seen less on the silver screen and more on the small screen's "late, late show." And although she conducts herself like the star she once was, the truth is her star has dimmed considerably:

Solo: What I'd like to know, Miss Van Donck--

Elfie:  Call me Elfie.

Solo:  Elfie? Yes. What I'd like to know, Elfie, why is it you were jumping out of an airplane with a parachute over Amsterdam with aardvarks?

Elfie:  For money, darling! Advertisement for nylons. 

Darling? Yes, for this role Lansbury laid on lavishly the Gabor with a sprinkling of Tallulah Bankhead and a splash of Norma Desmond (minus the pathos). And of course it's all pulled off with aplomb by Angela, who clearly was having a blast hamming it up.

Angela aficionados be warned: Lansbury makes her first appearance at the 20-minute mark, but she makes the most of those remaining 30 minutes, exchanging flirty witticisms with Solo and even engineering a daring rescue and escape from the school/Thrush compound:

"I am not eagle scout, Amsterdam division, for nothing!"

For the Adoring Angela Blogathon, the episode's plot is secondary to an appreciation of Angela's part. Suffice it to say it's a standard issue story about good guys trying to keep the bad guys from luring into their web of treachery a teenaged scientific genius, played by a post-Dennis the Menace Jay North. The episode's nominal leading lady was Diane McBain, but she's relegated to the bench once Lansbury appears and sweeps Solo, the show, and the audience into her adoring entourage.

As the 50-minute mark nears, God is in his heaven and Elfie is at the controls, nabbing from Nappy the episode's closing line:

Elfie:  How would you like to accompany me on a small safari to Arabia? 

Solo:  I'd be delighted.

Elfie:  Would you mind bringing your own camel?

Solo:  One hump or two? 
ElfieOh, you kill me!

PS: Though "The Deadly Toys Affair" (not to be confused with the delightful Wonder Woman episode "The Deadly Toys," guest starring Frank "Riddler" Gorshin!)  proved to be Lansbury's sole pairing with Solo and Kuryakin, it wasn't Lansbury's last with actors Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Vaughn ventured onto three episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and McCallum turned up in two.

This review is but one of many this weekend paying homage to the work of Angela Lansbury. Consider checking out other contributions to the Adoring Angela Lansbury Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews.

NOTE TO COMMENTERS: I apologize but am unable to reply or even post a comment on my own blog due to some recent changes Blogger has made. I'm working on the problem, but please know that even though I can't reply each comment is read and appreciated! 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS: The 1966 and 1988 Film Adaptations

Robert Bolt’s 1960 play portraying the unflagging integrity and commitment to conviction was a surprise success on the London stage in 1960 and on Broadway in ‘61. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), author, theologian, attorney, statesman, and lord chancellor to King Henry VIII, was a fascinating Renaissance figure, and one brought to life in two film adaptations by two very different actors: Paul Scofield in 1966 and Charlton Heston in 1988. Both films are entertaining and edifying, and each has its particular merits and demerits.
The Plot and the Conflict

It’s 1530 and King Henry VIII desperately wants a son. He’s in a loveless marriage to the “barren as a brick” Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his late brother. In order to marry Catherine, Henry got a special dispensation from the Pope. Henry suspects God is withholding a male heir as punishment for Henry’s sin, a violation of Leviticus 18 () He wants the special dispensation dispensed with so he can divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he’s been shamelessly sporting. The established order, among them Cardinal Wolsey, are pragmatists. Let the king divorce Catherine, marry Anne, and have a chance of a male heir. The reasons are practical, without a male heir, upon Henry’s death  war among rival dukedoms is liable to break out as they vye for the throne.
Standing steadfast in opposition is Sir Thomas More, who stands with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. One cannot ask a special dispensation be dispensed with when it becomes inconvenient. The king becomes an “accidental reformer,” breaking with the Catholic Church, establishing the Church of England, which further galvanizes More to stand in opposition to him. The king seeks to break More, imprisoning him, putting him on trial for treason, and when More won’t bend, has him executed.

The 1966 Film

The 1966 film was made on an epic scope and a large budget, and it shows on screen. Fred Zinneman, who had directed such films as High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and Oklahoma!, did an admirable job in bringing Bolt’s stage play to the screen. He wisely engaged the playwright himself to adapt it, and in many ways Bolt’s screenplay became a work unto itself as it subtracted characters and scenes from the play and added new ones.
I appreciated that the leading role went to Paul Scofield, who played More in the London premiere and took it to Broadway in 1961.  Scofield, primarily a stage actor and by no means a “bankable” or “name” star to moviegoers, played More with aplomb and won the Oscar, beating out such formidable competition as Alan Arkin, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Steve McQueen. 

Highlights among the cast are Leo McKern as Cromwell, John Hurt as the insipid opportunist Richard Rich, and Orson Welles perfectly cast as the corpulent Cardinal Wolsey. On the London stage McKern had played the “Common Man,” a role snipped from the ’66 version,  and assumed the role Cromwell on Broadway. He’s a lot of fun to watch for fans of his work during this peak period—Help (1964), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and his iconic role as Number 2 on The Prisoner (1967). And his theatrics in the climactic courtroom scene presages his later role as Rumpole of the Bailey. 
Paul Scofield and Leo McKern

  Another standout in the cast is Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII. Fellow James Bond fans will fondly recall Shaw’s role as Grant in From Russia with Love. Shaw brings a lot of bombast to his role as the younger, vibrant king. But he also brings menace, exploding into hysterical rages when he doesn’t get his way. Henry respected More, and desperately desired his approval. When it was withheld, the axe fell. 

This version runs a brisk two hours, dragging in the extended scenes of boats rowing up and down the Thames. It appeared to be almost a fetish of Zinneman’s, but upon reading the introduction to my old green-covered Vintage paperback of the play, Bolt used the river  as a metaphor for going with the flow and the difficulty of swimming against it. Scenes with More’s family dragged too as none of the characters were especially engaging, even the household heretic, More’s Lutheran son-on-law Will Roper.
An award-winning and admirable film, but one I suspect is more appreciated than enjoyed.  

The 1988 TNT TV Movie
Charlton Heston directed and starred in this 1988 TV movie, which launched a line of TNT original films for Ted Turner. It was an ambitious undertaking and Heston ably delivered. I recall watching this television “event” just before Christmas back in 1988. Heston’s film career was in a lull at the time, and he had recently spent a season headlining the primetime soap The Colbys, a spinoff of Dynasty. Heston played More in several off-Broadway productions in the 1970s and 1980s and had just enjoyed a successful run in London that led to the making of this film.

Judging by IMDb ratings and reviews, this 1988 version is scorned as a poor man’s remake, an unnecessary affront to the 1966 version, or as a Heston vanity project. There’s a little truth in those criticisms, but on the other hand . . . .  Robert Bolt returned to write this adaptation and restored many of the play’s features that were cut from the 1966 film, first and foremost the pivotal character of the Common Man. This character, and Roy Kinnear’s masterful portrayal of him, elevates this film and makes it at minimum a necessary complement to the ’66 film. The ’88 version captures better the original stage version, which brings with it the charge that it’s “stagey.” But is that necessarily a bad thing? This is after all a dialogue-driven play and film.

Kinnear, who sadly died before the film was broadcast, serves as the narrator and plays a variety of characters throughout the movie, often addressing the audience directly. In many ways he’s as much a star of the show as Heston, and he’s an eminently appealing one.
Heston’s version runs two and a half hours, and it does admittedly begin to feel a little long. I wished several interminable scenes of the More family slipping into poverty had been snipped as they actually undercut the movie’s message, making More seem selfish and peevish instead of principled. As their clothes grew ragged and they dragged into the house bundles of twigs to burn in the fireplace, More defends his staunch refusal to accept a charitable gift of much-needed money from the Catholic bishops because it could be misinterpreted as payment for his writings. His family didn’t buy it, and I didn’t either, and it seemed More slipped into scrupulosity and an unhealthy embrace of his martyrdom with no regard of its effect on others.  
Scenes with the Spanish envoy Chapuy—cut from the ’66 version—could also have been cut as they added little except a reminder that Spain would be provoked if Catherine of Aragon were cast aside and disgraced.
By no means a perfect version, but a thoroughly enjoyable one, due in great part to Heston and Kinnear.

Let’s compare some of the major players and see which version’s actors came out on top.

Sir Thomas More. I reached this pop cultural conclusion watching the films: Paul Scofield plays More as Mr. Spock, Charlton Heston plays More as Captain Kirk. Scofield is emotionally unmoveable, detached, and difficult to warm up to. Heston brings an emotional dimension to the character, a vulnerability that makes him relatable, and yes, a degree of bombastic hamminess. In prison, Scofield is clean-shaven and unruffled; Heston is stubbly, disheveled, and weeping. Both portrayals make More out to be a superhuman paragon of integrity, but Heston at least appears to have reached it through struggle and a clear sense of what he’s lost as a result.
The Winner: Charlton Heston (’88)

King Henry VIII. Robert Shaw’s portrayal was so definitive that Martin Chamberlain in 1988 appears only to ape his predecessor. Further hindering Chamberlain’s portrayal is his anachronistic eighties’ feathered hairstyle.
The Winner: Robert Shaw (’66)

Thomas Cromwell. I love Leo McKern and thought he was wonderful as the conniving Cromwell . . . until I saw Benjamin Whitrow in the ’88 version. McKern plays Cromwell as a “dockside bully,” and Whitrow as a wily and scheming Machiavellian. I have to set aside sentiment and admit that McKern really is number two, taking a backseat to  Whitrow in this role.
The Winner: Benjamin Whitrow (’88)

Richard Rich. No, not the poor little rich boy of comics and cartoon fame, but an indolent ladder-climbing opportunist courting the influential for a place in court. Rich scorns a teaching post More could get for him. Rich will play the toady, stooge, and even perjurer if it will get him another rung up the ladder. A young John Hurt played Rich in ’66 and he’s at once loathsome and menacing. It was a perfect portrayal of a weasel. Jonathan Hackett plays Rich in ’88 as a more jovial and almost clownish figure. His arrival at court in splendid raiment painted him more as a vain fop than as a man who sold his soul for material wealth and power.

The Winner: John Hurt (’66)
The Duke of Norfolk. Nigel Davenport was fine as the Duke of Norfolk in the ’66 version, going from friend to foe of the intransigent chancellor. But the character wasn’t especially memorable. In ’88 the role is played by Richard Johnson, Shakespearean star and erstwhile secret agent Beau Brummel, who creates a compelling character. Johnson’s Duke is a true friend of More, a friend tortured by the fate More has chosen and the thankless role the vindictive king has cast him in—judge at More’s trial for high treason. Johnson and Heston were off-stage friends, and that easy chemistry translated well to the screen.  

The Winner: Richard Johnson (’88)

Cardinal Wolsey. Orson Welles appears to have relished his role as Wolsey, looking pained and full of gout, and pathetic as he waits for death. That voice and delivery added real heft to his short scenes. John Geilgud has a commanding voice and delivery, too, but he’s no Cardinal Wolsey. Thin, he bore no resemblance to the bloated churchman, and worse, he phones it in. Geilgud’s screen time amounts to only a few minutes, yet there he is prominently featured in all the promo material and DVD box. It wasn’t worth it, a major miscasting misstep.  
The Winner: Orson Welles (’66)

Baby, the Axe Must Fall
I rewatched my DVDs of these films a day apart this week. I enjoyed and appreciated both versions and will enjoy them both again some day. There’s no real reason to choose a favorite. Each offers something the other lacks. For what it’s worth, I gave each version an 8-star rating on IMDb, holding them about equal. But were someone to corner me and demand to know which version is my favorite upon threat of beheading, would I maintain my silence like More? No way:

The Winner: The 1988 TV Movie starring Charlton Heston.
PS: Sir Thomas More, who died a martyr’s death, was beatified in 1878 and canonized a saint in the Catholic Church in 1935. His feast day is celebrated on June 22 in conjunction with that of Bishop John Fisher, who is mentioned in passing in A Man for All Seasons. Ironically, since 1980 the Anglican Church also recognizes More and Fisher as “martyrs of the Reformation,” and celebrates their feast day on July 6, the anniversary of More’s execution.  One wonders what More would think of that!

This look at A Man for All Seasons is my contribution to the inaugural Broadway Bound Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room. Check out all their other Broadway-related reviews!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN: A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for All

"For the love of money is the root of all evil. . . " I Timothy 6:10a (KJV)

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what is commonly known as money. It comes in all sizes, colors, and denominations. Like people. We'll be using quite a bit of it in the next two hours; luckily, I have enough for all of us." Sir Guy Grand, opening narration

A “comfort movie” is like “comfort food,” sought out like an old friend sure to lift sagging spirits and make one feel good. And The Magic Christian is indeed ”guaranteed to raise a smile” and a help you “forget about life for awhile.”   
The film boasts Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, a bevy of Britain's top talent, and the music of Badfinger. It was filmed in the spring of 1969, and we get Ringo Starr circa Abbey Road just as the Beatles were winding down, and Graham Chapman and John Cleese the year Monty Python pitched its flying circus tent and were ramping up.

Chapman and Cleese helped write the screenplay and each enjoys a small scene. The screenplay needed additional material because the original 1959 Terry Southern novel is a spare affair,  a series of loosely connected vignettes, but set in America and wholly lacking the character of Youngman. The one scene I recall that hewed close to the book was Grand’s “big, get acquainted sale,” one of the film’s weakest episodes, but which true to the book features only Sellers. The Magic Christian is a rare instance where the film is better than the book.
I admire the big name stars who showed up willing to forsake reputation and dignity for filthy lucre. Bollocks to the Bard! Laurence Harvey lets it all hang out and oh, yes! Yul Brynner lets down his hair.  Wilfrid Hyde-White, a few years out from My Fair Lady, plays a proper British ship's captain. Hammer fans will get a kick out of seeing Christopher Lee playing—what else?—Ship’s Vampire.

This is a veddy British film, opening with “God Save the Queen” playing over a ten-pound note. Fans of 1960’s British television series such as  The Avengers will recognize among the cast familiar faces in Terence Alexander, Peter Bayliss, and Patrick Cargill. And fans of the beloved Britcom Are You Being Served will enjoy seeing both series co-creator Jeremy Lloyd and star Frank Thornton in small scenes. Interestingly, Lloyd attempts an American accent in his scene, and by the time of the film's release in December 1969 he was appearing on American TV screens as a regular player on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.  
The music of Badfinger is practically a character unto itself and is integral to the film. The Paul McCartney-written “Come and Get It” was the film’s famous hit, and it recurs regularly throughout the movie. But my favorite song is “Carry On Till Tomorrow,” a Badfinger original written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans. The song plays over contrasting scenes of Sir Guy Grand and Youngman beginning this fateful day in each of their lives. Guy begins his in grand style, a sumptuous feast and a violinist accompanying him to his car, while a bedraggled Youngman, dressed in a peacoat and faded jeans, is bullied and badgered by the world. In my favorite scene of the film, their paths intersect on a bridge in a park, where Youngman is leaning over the railing casting his bread upon the water. Strolling past in a commanding gait is Guy, who slows a bit for a glance as he passes, but who continues on, walking off screen a few seconds before returning to approach Youngman. I love how, at this pivotal first meeting, the music shifts to a celebratory blare and the credits appear in Grand’s wake, crawling across the screen in time with him. A deceptively simple scene that was carefully choreographed, bringing together the three elements of action, music, and text.

A selection of clips, including the opening titles. Enjoy!
In short order Guy Grand adopts Youngman as his son and he is warmly welcomed by Grand’s dowager sisters Agnes and Esther, played by Isabel Jeans and Caroline Blakiston. From here the two men embark on a series of episodes designed to upend convention and to prove every man has his price.

“You’re certainly putting everyone on today, Dad,”
“Well, you know, Youngman, sometimes it’s not enough merely to teach. One has to punish as well.”

And punish they do, from hapless hot dog vendor Victor Maddern to “pompous toff” Peter Bayliss to the very model of a “mad major” Terence Alexander.
Some episodes are more successful than others. Laurence Harvey’s Hamlet is a highlight, as is the directors meeting aboard the train, which gives Dennis Price and Jeremy Lloyd moments to shine. There’s also an animated sequence here promoting Grand’s “new, great British Zeus” (pronounced Zee-us), a super-sized car Grand hopes will show up the “American big boys.” A traditional British pheasant hunt is then upended by the boys bringing in heavy artillery to ensure a "quick, clean kill."

Less successful is Grand’s gastronomic feast in the restaurant, which was recycled for the even more awful “Autumn Years” sketch in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. There’s a heavy-handed harp-playing and war games scene that aspires like Icarus to social commentary with similar results. And the film’s final major scene with the vat of excrement is an overreach and proves anticlimactic. Thunderclap Newman’s apt “Something in the Air” makes it bearable, however. The closing tag is a winner, which like a great novel brings us back to the beginning in the park.
It being 1969 there is a revolutionary air and theme of the “old values are crumblin’,” as Ringo puts it. There's pot puffing and an interracial couple of homosexuals in speedos who unnerve the social set. 

If you see the film, resist the urge to skip the closing credits because they offer a never-heard-elsewhere version of “Come and Get It” that shifts from Badfinger’s into a lush orchestral version. 
So just what is The Magic Christian? This film features neither magic nor Christians, unless one counts a fleeting few seconds of Sellers dressed in a nun's habit. It’s not a spoiler to say it’s the name of a cruise ship, and the social event of the season is to be aboard her maiden voyage. The shipboard portion of the film is packed with many of the film’s most memorable moments and guest stars, with Christopher Lee, Roman Polanski, and Raquel Welch as the Priestess of the Whip (whose mere minute of screen time overwhelmingly dominates the publicity and  memories of those who have enjoyed the movie). 
I first saw and VCR-recorded The Magic Christian off television in the mid-1980s. And it was your proverbial love at first sight—cinematic, of course (to paraphrase a line from the move)! The version I saw was edited for television and cut in its entirety the vat of excrement episode and dubbed over John Cleese’s profanity with a belch!  After that first viewing I knew it would forever be one of my favorite films, and lo over thirty years later it still is. 

Extra Credit Assignment: Double the fun and pair The Magic Christian with its perfect complement, Candy (1968). Both movies have their origins in the madcap imagination of Terry Southern and feature Ringo Starr along with all-star casts in hilarious episodic romps. 
This post is my contribution to the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by Rick at The Classic Film & TV Cafe. Click HERE to check out other films that have brightened the blue days of our fellow film buffs. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

DALLAS: Confessions of a Forty Years After the Fact Fanatic

First season title. It's a Lorimar Production, but this sure ain't the Waltons!
When Forty Winters Shall Besiege Thy Brow . . . 

Forty years ago tonight--on Sunday, April 2, 1978 at 10pm Eastern--audiences first met Miss Ellie, Jock and their ambitious boys J.R. and Bobby in the premiere episode of DALLAS, "Digger's Daughter." The title of course refers to Pamela Ewing nee Barnes, Bobby's brand-new bride who was also the daughter of Jock's arch-nemesis Digger and brother to professional Ewing-hater Cliff. The stage was set for epic drama, and this series delivered it over 14 seasons and a whopping 357 episodes.

Perhaps you're like me: In the spring of 1978 I was wholly ignorant of all things Ewing. I was an eleven-year-old fifth grader and when not poring through Marvel Comics my primetime television fare skewed towards HAPPY DAYS, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, THE HARDY BOYS, CHIPS, and THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Even had I been interested, a 10 o'clock program on a school night was never an option, and my family was five years away from owning a VCR.

Thirty-nine years later this 50-year-old television fan learns that DYNASTY is free on Amazon Prime. I had never seen an episode, though remember my mother and grandmother were fans and it seemed in the '80s that if  it wasn't Elizabeth Taylor it was Joan Collins and Linda Evans gracing the covers of my mother's STAR magazine (bought for the crossword puzzle, of course). So on a whim I watched the three-hour premiere with the pithy title "Oil." And I was hooked.

DYNASTY proved to be the "gateway drug" to DALLAS, because at some point I realized that in my heart I had committed myself to embracing in their entirety all the eighties' primetime soaps: THE COLBY'S, FALCON CREST, KNOTS LANDING (and if I can locate it, even the short-lived EMERALD POINT N.A.S. starring Dennis Weaver). That epiphany sparked me to "take it from the top" and take up watching the fountainhead from which all these other shows sprang: DALLAS.

Strange Bedfellows: Major Tony Nelson and Ginger Grant
He's more handsome than Bob Denver, but he still can't hold a coconut-powered radio to Russell Johnson!
Now what would have perhaps interested my eleven-year-old self would be seeing two stars from a couple of my favorite afterschool reruns appearing together: Larry Hagman and Tina Louise. Though on second thought, it would have undoubtedly been distressing to see these beloved characters engaged in the sordid stuff of primetime soaps. Watching Hagman and Louise now (and I only the other day enjoyed the riveting "Red File" two-parter from the second season) I grew increasingly impressed by the dramatic talents of these erstwhile sitcom stars, which only deepened my appreciation for their work on I DREAM OF JEANNIE and GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. I sure got a kick out of seeing them working together.

O Brave New World, That Has Such People In 't!

Longtime television fans know the joy of discovering a new hitherto-unseen series that promises reunions with actors from others series who are like old friends. DALLAS has delightfully surprised me with its guest casts, which in less than two seasons has boasted in recurring roles David Wayne (father to ELLERY QUEEN), Barbara Babcock (STAR TREK) and Fred Beir (TWILIGHT ZONE), plus memorable one-shot appearances by familiar faces Ed Nelson, Brian Dennehy, Gene Evans, Morgan Fairchild, Talia Balsam (Alex's estranged daughter on TAXI), Melinda O. Fee (David McCallum's wife on THE INVISIBLE MAN), and Richard Kelton (Ficus on QUARK). My personal favorite guest star was Greg Evigan, on the cusp of fame with B.J. AND THE BEAR, playing the unhinged abductor of Lucy Ewing in "Runaway." And I'm confident many more such casting surprises await me in the seasons still looming before me. I bought the big white box o' DALLAS DVDs, and am settling in for the long haul.

The look when your agent says you gotta trade in that hottie for a chimpanzee.
Two score years ago tonight DALLAS began its auspicious 1978-91 run and became a genuine pop culture phenomenon. The journey of 357 episodes begins by watching the first one, and I'm only 23 shows into the sojourn. I hope to have the series completed--along with watching contemporaneously the other primetime soaps it spawned--before DALLAS celebrates its golden anniversary in 2028.

*    *    *
PS: For those already on the journey or who have joined our happy throng, marching as to Southfork, I highly recommend the website THE DALLAS DECODER, which has been a trusted traveling companion and a wealth of information for this wide-eyed neophyte. (And also the source for the swiped borrowed screencaps accompanying this post.)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Star Trek Baddies in Breaking Training

Perhaps only the most avid of Star Trek aficionados would appreciate my delight when seeing two favorite future guests stars appearing together on Route 66, "The Man on the Monkey Board" (28 Oct. 1960 | 1.4). The above photo--my very first attempt at a screencap!--boasts Alfred Ryder (Prof. Robert Crater, "The Man Trap") in the center with Roger C. Carmel (Harcourt Fenton Mudd, "Mudd's Women," "I, Mudd," and the animated "Mudd's Passion"). Bookending the picture are Lew Ayres and series co-star Martin Milner.

While Ryder was prominently featured in the episode, this was the sole scene for Carmel, billed only as "Man in the Shower." It is notable, however, for being Carmel's first credited role. Bright futures were just ahead for both talented men.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie of the Week Blogathon: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973)


A film that deftly weaves together those twin 1970’s obsessions--the airplane-in-distress movie and the supernatural thriller. HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is a thoroughly entertaining movie with eminent rewatchability. On Midsummer’s Eve a jet airplane travels from England to America carrying a dozen passengers and ominously the stone chapel of Grove Abbey, site of human sacrifices and home to a Druid sacrificial stone. Adding insult to injury, the decadent architect intends to use the rebuilt abbey as a bar on Long Island. Strange and stranger things immediately begin happening aboard this hellbound flight.

This CBS-produced movie aired on Tuesday, February 13, 1973. Two strengths are its brisk running time of 73 minutes. The action never lags. Second, aside from the opening scene at the Heathrow Airport ticket desk where we meet some key players, the entirety of the movie’s action unfolds aboard the jet.

But what really puts this film over the top is the cast. William Shatner, Roy Thinnes, Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Will Hutchins, Paul Winfield, Tammy Grimes, the Professor and Elaan of Troyius! For fans of 1960’s television it was a treat to see sci-fi series stars Captain Kirk of STAR TREK and David Vincent of THE INVADERS together. Buddy Ebsen, erstwhile Clampett clan chief, had just a month earlier premiered his folksy detective BARNABY JONES. [And interestingly, the second episode of that series broadcast a week before this movie boasted guest stars William Shatner and Darleen Carr!]

Shatner’s brooding defrocked priest Paul Kovalik was the film’s protagonist and bright light. He shined in every scene, with a highlight being his conversation about faith and fear with Jane Merrow in the bar.  His character had the greatest depth and experienced the greatest change over the course of the story. It was also a restrained performance by Shatner (I compare it favorably with Richard Burton's defrocked priest in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA). Wholly unbelievable, however, was the idea that scholarly Paul would ever have thrown it all away for the elfin guitar-plucking hippie Lyn Loring.  Her nagging, shrieking and hysterical panicking made her increasingly loathsome as the story progressed. I suspected their relationship died when Loring masterminded the ill-fated voodoo doll ruse while Shatner simmered with contempt.

Another highlight in a cast of luminaries was Paul Winfield’s refined and British-accented Doctor Enkalla. He was impeccably played and rose to a prominent role early on.  A short six months after this film was broadcast, Winfield was on the big screen headlining the blaxploitation classic GORDON’S WAR. One just has to admire this actor’s range. And of course Winfield would memorably appear alongside Shatner nine years later in STAR TREK II.

I was unfamiliar with Tammy Grimes, but she was enchanting as the druidess Mrs. Pinder secretly relishing her demonic deity’s onslaught upon the passengers. She was perfectly cast and played a formidable foil to Roy Thinnes’ apathetic architect Alan O’Neill (no David Vincent he). Alas, evil knows no loyalty, and learning later that her beloved dog Daemon was flash frozen by the entity appeared to have sent her cascading into a faith crisis.

Speaking of faith, the film has a recurring religious theme that is especially evident in the climactic ending. Paul’s horror at seeing the desperate passengers were about to offer Jane Merrow as a human sacrifice, coupled with the tearful pleading of a child, lead Paul to reembrace his faith (implied by the quick cut to him wearing his priestly collar). Hutchins’ yelling, “I see the sun!” had a striking parallel in Paul seeing the Son through eyes of faith. Paul’s being blasted through the airplane door was not the horrible death it appeared—which would make no sense in light of the victory he just achieved over evil—but rather his being assumed into heaven like Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus himself, a reward for his act of faith and sacrifice. 

Mine is perhaps an eccentric interpretation, but such religiously symbolic endings were not uncommon in this era (cf. the ending of THE OMEGA MAN). And it seems fitting in what was essentially a good vs. evil plot.

But the most important thing about HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is that it's just a lot of fun to watch and watch again. Make it a Midsummer's Eve tradition! And the film is available in a beautiful print on DVD or free on YouTube.

What Else Was Cool:

  • Buddy Ebsen’s businessman dressing down Roy Thinnes for not knowing what he was paying to transport the accursed abbey.
  • Mrs. Pinder referring to “The Old Ones,” which pricked up the ears of this Lovecraft fan.

What Was Fool: 

  • Will Hutchins not receiving an up-front credit. His bombastic Western actor Steve Holcomb was a key player. And a decade earlier Hutchins had his own series, SUGARFOOT, and later played sidekick to Elvis Presley in a couple movies. Creds a’plently for front billing.
  • Underutilized actors Russell Johnson and H.M. Wynant, though Wynant gets one of the movie’s best lines: “You can’t burn the plane to save it!”  France Nuyen was wasted, too.
  • The stewardesses’ outfits. Yeah, a lot of fans love them—hats and go-go boots—but to me they were just ridiculous.  They looked like something from a Gerry Anderson production.


After rewatching HORROR AT 37,000 FEET in anticipation of this blog post, YouTube kindly recommended to me a 1976 TV movie with a strikingly similar name--MAYDAY AT 40,000 FEET. Once I saw it starred David Janssen, Christopher George, and Dandy Don Meredith I was hopelessly hooked! So please stand by and watch this space for a complementary review of another mid-70's airplane-in-distress movie-of-the-week.


This review was just one of over twenty TV movie reviews posted today as part of the Classic Film & TV Café Movie of the Week Blogathon. Check out the full roster at Classic Film & TV Cafe.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"You Don't Have Steinbeck to Kick Around Anymore" (Unless You're the NY Times Book Review).

Today, Sunday, December 20, 2015, marks the 47th anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck (1902-68). And almost a half-century after his death Steinbeck's work is still read and respected by a broad audience. Recalling fondly my own past readings, and eagerly anticipating future re-readings of Steinbeck's work, imagine my dismay at opening this morning's New York Times Book Review and finding its erstwhile editor Sam Tanenhaus throwing Steinbeck under the wayward bus.

Tanenhaus' target is Steinbeck's 1936 novel In Dubious Battle, which fictionalized real-life cotton strikes in the San Joaquin Valley. According to Tanenhaus, Steinbeck "first conceived [of the novel] as an almost documentary record, though he didn't visit the strike camps (instead relying on interviews). In the end he buffed and prettified the material, making it a fable of salt-of-the-earth whites, forerunners of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, when in fact 75 percent to 95 percent of the work force was Mexican."

Has our obsession with race poisoned even our ability to read, enjoy, and appreciate classic literature? Should Steinbeck's work be weighed in Tanenhaus' scales and be found wanting? Since In Dubious Battle is a work of fiction, shouldn't the author have the privilege of casting his narrative with anyone he pleases, regardless of color and gender? Should the exclusion of any demographic be looked upon conspiratorially, as an act of overt exclusion that belies racism or prejudice?

Tanenhaus finds a comrade in political correctness in Kathryn Olmsted, whose book Right Out of California sparked Tanenhaus' take-down of In Dubious Battle. Reviewing Olmsted's book, Tanenhaus says Olmsted, "is doubtless correct that Steinbeck's 'decision to erase brown-skinned people and women of all colors from the story was political.'"

Upending both Tanenhaus' and Olmsted's implications that Steinbeck harbored anti-Mexican prejudices, one need only look at his previous novel, Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, which was a celebration of the Mexican paisanos of Monterey, California.

John Steinbeck's work speaks for itself, at least to those who invest the time in reading his books. Doing so will dispel the cloud of criticism left by the likes of Tanenhaus and Olmsted, and prove to be both enlightening and enjoyable.