Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Bond Age (Part I)

2017 marks 55 years of James Bond on the movie screen.  To celebrate this momentous year, I am undertaking to review the entire oeuvre of Bond films, all 24 of them (at this juncture in history), two at a time.  These will appear on the 7th day of each month  (Bond's agent number being "007").  At the beginning of each entry I will give my personal ranking of each movie and of each movie's theme song.  (These are subjective rankings and do not necessarily agree with the view of the average Bond fan, so take it as you will).  I hope you enjoy them, nay, even look forward to the next installment.  As an added note, I am deeply indebted to Tom DeMichael, and his book James Bond FAQ,  for tidbits of information I with which I am peppering these entries.                                                                                                                                                                                                  -Quiggy

Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, was an ex-intelligence officer for Britain and based his character, James Bond, on his experiences in Naval Intelligence, as well as some of his own likes and dislikes.  Essentially Bond was Fleming, and vice-versa.  In 1953, Fleming published the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, and the legend was born.  Whether or not the legend would be remembered today had it not been for Hollywood calling is a matter of speculation.  It was a huge success in the UK, but outside the UK, sales were not so dramatic...

However, one thing is true.  Americans, who were blissfully unaware of a secret agent 007 just outside the door, so to speak, immediately made Fleming and his creation a huge hit after John F. Kennedy claimed that the book From Russia with Love was one of his favorites.  (It is a tribute to how popular Kennedy was as a President that his saying this made Bond a hit in the US.)  Thus a case could be made that Jack Kennedy was responsible for putting the whole Bond phenomenon into motion.

It wasn't long before Hollywood came (always knowing a good thing when they saw it).  Dr. No, which was actually the sixth Bond novel, became the first one to be translated to the big screen.  Many actors were considered for what was to become the iconic role of James Bond.  The part went to Sean Connery, a former runner-up in a Mr. Universe pageant, and an actor with some small roles.  It is on record that the suggestion to cast him as Bond came from producer Albert Broccoli's wife who saw him in Darby O'Gill and the Little People.  Connery almost turned it down because he foresaw that it would be a recurring role and was reluctant to be tied up in a series.  Fortunately for him and us, he did accept the role.

The first Bond novel chosen to be filmed was actually the 6th novel in the Fleming output, Dr. No.

Note: This was actually not the first representation of the James Bond character on film.  In 1954, the CBS TV show Climax! made its third episode center around the story of Casino Royale, but although this does count as a precursor to the Bond phenomenon as we know it, I don't think it really should count.  For one thing, they changed his name from "James" to "Jimmy", and for another they cast him with an American actor, Barry Nelson.  The most egregious thing about it was they changed him from a British Secret Service officer to a CIA operative, and made Felix, now called "Clarence",  Leiter, whom in the books was a CIA operative, into a British operative.  The saving grace of this TV episode was the casting of Peter Lorre as Bond villain Le Chiffre.  It won't kill you to watch it, but it is a pretty shoddy production.

Additional note:  Over the course of this series I will only be reviewing the legitimate Bond movies.  At some other time I may do a solo review of the Connery helmed semi-remake of Thunderball, the aptly named Never Say Never Again, but this series will not deal with it except in passing.  And if you ask real nice, I may do one of the Peter sellers spoof Casino Royale.  (On the other hand, if you ask real nice I can adopt an attitude of ignoring it... your choice...)

Dr No (1962)

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the movie: #13

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the theme song: #1  (It is the thing that defines a Bond movie after all...)

Best Bond Quote:  "I think they were on their way to a funeral." (referring to a hearse full of villians he just caused to crash)

Best Bond Villain Quote:  Dr. No:  "The successful criminal brain is always superior.  It has to be."

Best Weapon:  Walther PPK.  (I only include this category for the first movie just to be consistent, since I intend to add it to every movie..  But since Bond only exchanges his favorite Berretta for the Walther, there's no real cool weapon to note:  Unless you count his car.  But it was only used to run someone off the road, it wasn't actually a sophisticated weapon like some of the later movie cars.)

Three blind men tap their way across Kingston. Meanwhile Commander Strangways (Timothy Moxon) and three other friends are engaged in a card game, but Strangways has to break off to report in to HQ in London.  As he gets to his car, the three blind men (who are not so blind after all) kill him.  Shortly thereafter they also kill his secretary and make off with secret files marked "Crab Key" and Dr. No."

The movie cuts to a private gambling club in London where a man and a woman are facing off in a high stakes game of baccarat.  The women introduces herself to her opponent as "Trench.  Sylvia Trench."  To which her companion introduces himself as "Bond.  James Bond."  (That's right, folks, the first time Bond introduces himself in that iconic way is in response to a woman upstaging him by introducing HERSELF that way...) Sylvia Trench, by the way, was played by Eunice Gayson, who only had a chance at the part because it was turned down by none other than Lois Maxwell, who picked the role of Miss Moneypenny instead, and thus history was made.  The Trench character, which was going to be a recurring role, got ditched after the first two movies and Maxwell continued on for the next 22 years as Moneypenny.

Bond gets called into MI6 offices, where M (Bernard Lee) assigns him to find out was has happened to Strangways and his secretary.  (See, the "blind" men carried off the bodies, so no one knows what has happened for sure.)  He is also told that Strangways was investigating some mysterious goings-on for the Americans, that were interfering with attempted rocket launches from Cape Canaverel.  M makes Bond trade in his favorite Berreta for a Walther PPK, courtesy of Maj. Boothroyd (Peter Burton), the character who would eventually later become known as Q (although not with Burton in the role since he was unavailable to reprise the role in the second outing.)  

Bond catches a plane to Jamaica where he is picked up by a driver to take him to the Government House.  The car is followed by another car and Bond gives the driver orders to ditch the tail.  He then reveals he is on to the ruse; that the driver is an agent of Dr. No, not a government employee, but the driver commits suicide rather than talk.

Bond finds out two people might be able to help him in his quest.  One is Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), one of the three other companions present at the game from which Strangways disappeared.  The other is a ship's captain, Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), who had taken Strangways out on trips into the Carribbean.  When Bond goes to see Quarrel, he is accosted, but once his identity is revealed, he meets Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), a CIA operative.

Quarrel tells Bond that Strangways had been on Crab Key inspecting rocks and took some samples.  But when Bond goes to Prof. Dent, Dent tells him the rocks were worthless.  Bond is suspicious, and finds out the rocks were radioactive.  He makes a date with Dent's secretary, who lures him to her apartment.  Along the way, a hearse filled with the three "blind" men give chase, but Bond manages to help them get to their own funeral.

Dent's secretary, Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), of course is surprised to see him and manages to try to delay him until Dent can show up, but Bond turns the tables on her and has her arrested before he arrives.  Bond then kills Dent after Dent had tried to kill him first.  Then Bond and Quarrel and Leiter go to check out Crab Key.  It is owned by a mysterious Chinese man named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) who is very secretive and has his island highly guarded.

On the island Bond meets up with a shell seeking woman in a bikini (and I feel cheated because when he finds her in the book she is naked...)  The women is Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress).  She and Bond are captured by Dr No's henchmen and taken to his secret lair.  It appears that all is lost for Bond, since he is beaten up and left in a cell, but you know that won't keep a good man like Bond down (at least not in the first movie of a series anyway...)

How Bond gets away and what he does to Dr. No's operation I will leave for you to find out for yourself.  This being the first of the series, they didn't have the budget to make it as exciting as it could have been, and Wiseman is not the best Bond villain ever, hence the #13 ranking.  But a completist couldn't pass it up without at least one viewing.

From Russia with Love (1963)

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the movie: #7

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the theme song: #23

Best Bond Quote: "Yes, she had her kicks." (referring to Klebb and her poison dagger shoe.)

Best Bond Villain Quote: Blofeld:   "Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one."

Best Weapon:  Gotta be the aforementioned dagger shoe.

Several firsts for the Bond movies came into the fray on this, the second outing.  At the beginning of the movie we are treated to three of them.  One: FRWL is the first to have a pre-credits sequence  This one not exactly involving Bond, as it turns out, but a look-alike who is destined to be the victim of our villain Don Grant in a training exercise.  Two:  It is the first to have a legitimate theme song written expressly for this movie.  Admittedly you don't get a version with lyrics until the end credits, but it still counts.  Third:   The titillating shadows sequences on which the opening credits were run was also a first.

As stated in the previous paragraph, the opening sequence involves someone who looks like Bond (but the audience is fooled until the very end of the sequence, I might add).  The faux Bond is being tailed through a courtyard by assassin Donald Grant (Robert Shaw), and is eventually killed by Grant.  It is then revealed that it was a training exercise and that Grant had been timed on his success.

Rosa Klebb (Lotta Lenye) comes on the scene looking for an assassin of Grant's caliber.  Unbeknownst to almost anyone, she has defected from Russia and is now working exclusively for SPECTRE.  This movie also has the first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE.  He assigns both Klebb (referred to as #3) and Kronnstein (Vladek Sheybal), a chess champion, (but also referred to as #5) to develop a plan to smuggle a Lektor decoding device out of Russia.

A complicated plan is initiated, in which a Russian secretary who works for Klebb (but does't know she is no longer a trusted comrade), will approach the British Secret Service with the ruse that she is planning to defect to the West, and will bring with her a Lektor device.  The ruse involves James Bond, because she will only turn the device over to him.

Meanwhile, back in M's office in MI6, M (Bernard Lee) briefs Bond on his mission.  Again we are treated to a couple of new traditions to the Bond story.  One: Q (Desmond Llewelyn) makes his first appearance, although he is credited as "Boothroyd", the same name used by the quartermaster in Dr. No.  Also we get to see the ingeniousness of the writers at work, as this is the first appearance of any trick weapons (in this case, among others, a trick valise that explodes tear gas if not opened properly.)

The trade-off is scheduled to happen in Istanbul, and a majority of the movie was shot on location.  In Istanbul Bond hooks up with his contact, Kerim Bey (Pedro Armandariz).  Bond and Bey spy on the Russian consolate, where Bey notes that one of the people in the room is Krilinku (Fred Haggerty), a thorn in Bey's side who has attempted to kill Bey twice, once by a bomb in his office, and later at a gypsy camp to which Bey has taken Bond.  Bey enlists Bond's help to kill Krilencu before the other can succeed in the same endeavor.

 Bond meets up with his contact, Tatiana Romanova (Daniella Bianchi), who appears in his room, ready for fun. They then arrange for a transfer of the Lektor device.  Bond is followed by a Russian agent, but the agent is killed by Grant, who, working for SPECTRE, has his agenda to see that the transfer is successful.  Meanwhile Tatiana has actually fallen in love with Bond and wants the transfer to the Brits of the device to succeed.

With the Lektor, Bond and Tatiana board a train with Bey, where they are followed by Grant.  Grant poses as a fellow British Secret Service agent, having actually killed the real agent, and  getting Bond to accept his ruse.  Eventually, after drugging Tatiana, Grant captures Bond and takes ownership of the Lektor, revealing himself to be an agent of SPECTRE.  In a grapple for supremacy on the train, Bond kills Grant, and he takes the Lektor and Tatiana and they jump from the train.

The final reel contains some decent material still.  A stolen truck in which Bond and Tatiana try to escape, a helicopter with SPECTRE agents tries to stop them, and a motorboat chase on the sea, and Klebb and her poisoned dagger shoe fill the final minutes of the film.  Bond, of course, succeeds (would it have been any other way?) and the credits roll with the vocal version of the theme song, sung by Matt Munro, at the end.

Well, folks, gotta fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  It's not an Aston-Martin, and I would gladly accept any castoffs from Bond, but it will have to do.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Following the Yellow Brick Road

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, was first published in 1900.  Although the original first run printing was very limited, it proved to be so popular that by 1949 it had sold over three million copies, one million copies alone by 1938 (before the classic movie was even made).  The author wrote a number of sequels to the book, and in 1910 a silent film version of the first book was filmed.  Another silent film version was released in 1925.  Although it is considered a classic of children's literature, there has been written much to cast it as a political allegory.  I won't delve too much into that aspect here, but one significant change from the book was the fact that the original slippers were silver, and this has been construed as a reference to the Populist idea of transferring the country from a gold standard to one of which silver was also used.  Anyone interested in this can check out the wikipedia article which details this theory here.

In 1939, a musical extravaganza appeared on the screens.  It was a fairly popular movie, especially among kids, but it failed to make a profit.  This seems preposterous now, in retrospect, since it has achieved such a fan base in the 75+ years since its release, but it is true.  Some of the fault for that, as I understand it, was because of the rigid standard of showing movies and getting them out of the theater as quickly as possible to make room for the newer movies that were constantly coming out.

The original movie cut ran for 2 hours.  Think about that for a minute if you will.  The studio execs had conniptions over the length of the film.  (No movies ran that long, unlike today when it's not uncommon to have epic movies run 2½ hours or more.  Lawrence of Arabia, one of the longest movies I have ever seen, ran over 3½ hours).  The movie suffered some cuts, including a scene known as "The Jitterbug", that were cut from the movie.  (A side note:  When the Wicked Witch mentions that she has "sent a little insect to take the fight out of them", it was referring to this scene.  The scene was deleted, but the line was left in, which may cause some confusion to newcomers to the film, since no insect actually appears in the movie).  Remarkably one of the scenes that the execs wanted to cut was "Somewhere Over The Rainbow".  They said they thought it slowed the movie down.  Thankfully, clearer heads prevailed, including associate producer Arthur Freed who threatened to leave the movie production if it were cut.

Some other tasty tidbits of the production:  No less than 5 directors had their hand in the pie.  Even though Victor Fleming was credited with the final cut, No less than King Vidor, another prominent director finished up the last few scenes, but chose not to take credit, granting that since Fleming had directed the majority of it he should get the credit.  Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett on The Beverley Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones on the TV show by the same name) was originally cast as the Tin Man, but got sick from the makeup (and almost died).  By the time he had recovered, the part had already been given to Jack Haley (who by now had a different kind of makeup).

In 1959, television started airing the movie annually. (The first TV airing was in 1956, but it did not become the annual event until 1959).   I seem to recall, in my vague memory, that it was on Thanksgiving weekend when I used to see it.  It was a very good experience for a young kid.  I do remember one thing in particular, however.  Movie Fan Fare, a website I frequent often, once had a post asking it's readership what movies scared you, when you were young.  Well, I watched dozens of old horror movies when I was young, and none of them really scared me.  But I still remember one night, after having seen this movie, having nightmares about the flying monkeys from the film.

The impetus for reviewing this movie at this time comes from the calendar I bought for 2017.  It features some classsic movie theater posters from the past.  I hope to review all of them over the coming year (although I admit a couple of them may take some effort to find).

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The movie begins in black and white, the better to achieve an effect of the barren landscape of Dorothy's farm in Kansas.  These scenes were the ones directed by Vidor, and his feel for the starkness and desolation of the landscape is enhanced by the sepia tones of this segment.  Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is an innocent young girl whose optimistic outlook on life is threatened by Miss Elmira  Gulch (Margaret Hamilton).   Miss Gulch is a rich and cranky old spinster who wants to take Dorothy's dog, Toto (Terry the Dog), and have it euthanized because it bit her.

Unable to get her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) to sympathize or listen to her, as well as the hired hands on her aunt and uncle's farm, Huck (Ray Bolger), Hickory (Jack Haley) and Zeke (Bert Lahr).  She decides to run away.  On her journey she meets Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) who uses a bit of subterfuge to convince her to return home.

Back at the farm, a tornado is approaching.  Everyone runs to hide in the storm cellar, but Dorothy, arriving a little late, can't get anyone to open the cellar, so she runs to hide in the house, and is knocked out by a flying piece of the house.  The twister takes the house , and eventually drops it in Oz where it lands in Munchkin Land (a country populated by little people), killing the Wicked Witch of the East.  Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke)  arrives to ask her if she is "a good witch or a bad witch".  She insists she is not a witch at all and expresses a desire to go back to Kansas.

Unable to help her, Glinda tells her she must seek out the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City.  To get there she must "follow the yellow brick road".  To hamper her journey, the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) seeks to stop her and take the ruby slippers Dorothy has acquired from the witch's sister, after she died.

Along the way, Dorothy gains three friends who accompany her: The Scarecrow (Bolger) who wants the wizard to give him a brain, The Tin Man, who wants to get a heart, and The Cowardly Lion, who wants to acquire courage.  Through many travails (and a number of musical interludes), the four arrive at the Wizard's palace, but the fearsome Wizard insists they must prove themselves worthy and gives them a task; to get the magical broomstick from the Wicked Witch of the West.

It would probably not count as a spoiler to reveal the rest of the movie, since I doubt there is anyone old enough to read this blog who has never seen this movie at least once,  but I'll refrain from it anyway.

The movie has entered the echelon of "classic" in the canon of great movies.  It was ranked as #6 of the 100 greatest movies by AFI in 1998 (and has since been downgraded to #10 in the 2007 ranking).  Personally, I'd put it even higher, maybe even as high as #3, but I'm far from a movie expert.  "Over the Rainbow" got a much better ranking as it was ranked #1 in an AFI 2004 ranking of the best 100 Songs.  In addition several quotes from the film are in the top 100 greatest quotes from the same AFI, as well as the Wicked Witch of the West garnering a #4 ranking on their list of greatest movie villains.  Needless to say, the movie has left a profound impact on the viewing public.  It continues to be a favorite, and you'd have to be very isolated indeed to not have had a chance to watch it, since on one or another cable channel it is still shown at least once a year.

The movie has been adapted or used in several other movies over the years.  Among them, an all-black soul adaptation featuring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, which itself was a film version of a popular Broadway musical.   Also a much-maligned, but personal favorite of this author, Under the Rainbow, a comedy from 1981 featuring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, in which hundreds of little people from across the country converge on Hollywood to be cast in the 1939 movie.

Well, folks, I must be easing on down the road (an intentional reference to the aforementioned  The Wiz).  Godspeed, and keep an eye to the skies for an evil woman riding a broomstick.


Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year!

Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places is a film variation of the story The Prince and the Pauper, originally published by Mark Twain.  A variety of memorable performances gelled together to create this witty, funny movie.  Classic actors Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche joined forces with (then) up-and-coming Eddie Murphy, and his costar from the Saturday Night Live cast, Dan Aykroyd.  Although Eddie Murphy does an admirable job, one can't help but wonder how John Belushi, who had been co-stars with Aykroyd in three previous films (1941, The Blues Brothers and Neighbors). as well as years together on SNL, might have portrayed the counterpart to Aykroyd's Louis Winthorpe III.  (Obviously he wouldn't have been playing a poor black man, but that part of it could easily have been changed without losing too much in the tale).  A footnote to this musing is, I read that the original duo that was to be the stars were Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, so that would have definitely been a different take.

Added to the cast were Denholm Elliot, whom if I were rich would like to have a butler/valet/chauffer just like him.  Jamie Lee Curtis comes on board as "the hooker with the heart of gold", Jim Belushi (John's brother) as an overzealous party-goer, and Paul Gleason as one of the most evil villains I've ever seen in a comedy.  (Note:  If you are interested, I did a tribute to Paul Gleason's villain roles in an earlier entry, which you can read here.) Included in some memorable scenes are also James D. Turner and Ron Taylor (who must have had the easiest time in the world memorizing his lines:  "Yeah",  "Yeah" and...oh, yes....  "Yeah".)

I personally feel the movie benefits from the soundtrack, too.  Classical pieces abound throughout the film as background.  The opening score is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.  Which is fitting, I think, since wikipedia references some similarities between the movie and Mozart's opera.  In another movie classical pieces may have been viewed with a skeptical eye, but here they fit pretty well.  As the opening credits run and Mozart's composition plays we are treated to a variety of sites in Philidelphia, both in the poorer sectors and in the ritzier sectors to lay a foundation to this tale of switcheroos.

Louis Winthrorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) prepares for his day, with the help of his valet Coleman (Denholm Elliot), as an upper-level stockbroker working for the rich Duke & Duke Investments, owned by Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, respectively).  At the same time small time hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) works a scam as a supposedly crippled, blind veteran.

Louis Winthorpe III

Billy Ray Valentine

The Dukes

Billy's ruse is uncovered by two cops, and he tries to get away, inadvertently running into and knocking down Louis as he exits the exclusive club, where Louis has been getting checks signed by the Duke brothers, and Louis drops his briefcase.  When Billy picks it up to hand it back to him, Louis reacts as if he is being robbed.  A panicked Billy runs into the clubhouse but is caught.

The unscrupulous Duke brothers, who had previously been discussing whether an individual's status and bearing have been more influenced by heredity or environment, make a wager in which they plan to discredit Louis and force him into poverty, while at the same time taking Billy and seeing if they can make a classy, well-mannered individual out of him.

Poor Louis

Rich Billy

Neither are immediately transformed (this would be a rather shorter movie if it were true).  Billy treats his new found wealth with all the dubiousness and then extravagance one would expect from someone on the verge of poverty to do, granted a wealth beyond hi dreams.  On the other side, Louis refuses to accept that his circumstances have changed, instead treating everyone with just as much contempt and superiority as he had when he was wealthy.  In the process, he meets up with Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold, who although doubts Louis' story nevertheless agrees to help him.


A brief period of the movie contrasts the changes as, gradually, Billy becomes more refined, while at the same time Louis sinks deeper into depression and debt.  The transformation seems complete, until Louis, in a cab, happens to pass Billy, with his former valet, in his former limousine.  Louis makes plans for revenge, which will coincide with the Duke & Duke Christmas party.  After Louis' foiled attempt to frame Billy with drugs, he runs out of the building, eventually ending up trying to overdose on the same drugs with which he tried to frame Billy.  At the same time, Billy discovers the real story behind what the Duke brothers are doing, trying to use inside information to corner the market on "frozen concentrated orange juice". (Whether there really is such a commodity, I don't know, but I doubt it.  It would be a disappointment to find out there was, because that's one of the funnier parts of the movie.)

Billy tracks down Louis, and reveals the truth.  Together with Ophelia and Coleman, the four plan a plot to take the classified information, being smuggled to the Dukes via a courier, Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason).  The whole series of events takes place on a commuter train travelling from New York to Philidelphia, coincidentally with a New Year's Eve Party going on on board.  (and now you know why I chose this movie at this time.)  Seeing Eddie Murphy as an African exchange student, Dan Aykroyd (in blackface) as a fellow African, Olivia as a Swedish girl, and Coleman as a slightly inebriated Irish priest is a hoot.

Beeks w/ Ophelia
Louis and Billy

Coleman as an Irish priest

Confusion and mix-ups ensue.  With confidence that this isn't a spoiler, I will tell you they DO succeed in getting the secret documents.  (But I won't tell you how....)  The ending involves some pretty furious trading on the stock market floor as Billy and Louis run their counter-ruse on the Dukes.  All for a bet of $1....

May the new year bring all the wealth your little heart desires.  Personally for me, I'd settle for just getting Ophelia.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fa la la la la

I am hoping to be back home later this week so I can write a full fledged review, but I wanted to wish you all a belated Merry Christmas, and to do another of my infrequent reminiscences from those days of yesteryear in my movie experience.

Christmas Eve of 1978.  My sister and I went to see the new Superman: The Movie.  (Why did Hollywood have to add "The Movie"?  Did they think we would go to the theater and expect to see a couple of old George reeves TV shows up on the big screen?  They did the same with the first Star Trek movie:   Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  And several others down through the years...)

My sister and I rarely had the same tastes,  and we still don't.  I doubt she's seen a movie in the theater since I practically had to drag her to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and, even then, the last movie she probably saw in a theater before that was the aforementioned Superman.   The Superman experience was rather phenomenal, for me.  Much like the experience of seeing Tron, and other movies that had cutting edge (at the time) special effects, I was wowed by the feeling, as the tagline so eloquently put it, "you'll believe a man can fly".

In those early years I went to just about any movie that captured my interest, but, as then, today my biggest draw to a movie is how they use special effects.  The stuff that was done to create the illusion in Superman was primitive by today's standards, but that doesn't diminish how great it looks.  And since it was Christmas Eve, I went to bed, not with visions of sugarplums and Santa Claus, but with visions of another hero that flew through the air.

It's not nearly as awe-inspiring these days, since I am limited to a comparatively smaller screen (but at least I don't have to rely on over-priced popcorn and soda pop as treats).  I keep watching the papers however.  Occasionally the Alamo Drafthouse (a damn good theater experience even if it is indoors) will have showings of older movies in celebration of one thing or another.  There are a whole list of movies that I was unable to experience on the big screen as well as many I DID see that I'd like to experience again.

Happy New to you, and hope to see you folks again next year.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Fruitcakes and Nuts (and Bill Murray)

Ebenezer Scrooge.

Unless you've been living under a rock your whole life, you know the name.

And you know what he represents.  Goodness, kindness, philanthropy, human companionship, great employer, and fantastic all-round human being.

What's that?  I'm wrong?  Did you actually make it to the end of the story or did you just nod off midways through the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Present?

OK, so Scrooge WAS a skinflint at the beginning of the story.   As his author so eloquently described him:

"...he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner."

When Ebenezer Scrooge first appeared on the literary landscape in December of 1843, he was just another character from the imagination of Charles Dickens.  But over the past almost 1 and 3/4 centuries, he has become synonymous with the greed and avarice of his pre-ghostly visitations.   Call someone a "Scrooge" and both you and he/she are likely to get the meaning outright.

Down through the years countless adaptations (and various pastiches and parodies on the theme) have been presented to the public. Countless stage productions, a variety of radio programs (when radio was what TV is today), numerous TV productions, a smattering of new, modernized takes on the old theme, and a good many TV comedy and drama shows down through the years have taken Dickens' theme and put it to good use.

Among versions of the original story is a made-for-TV version which starred, remarkably, George C. Scott as Scrooge.  Scott was, as near as I can tell, the only American actor in this otherwise British and British Commonwealth cast.  Yet Scott does an admirable job in his role.  The saving grace here is he doesn't try to affect a British accent, which definitely would have distracted me while I kept trying to catch anything that wasn't said in the "fake" accent.

Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge

In the role of Bob Cratchit was David Warner.  Edward Woodward, who was, at that time, the star of his own American TV show, The Equalizer, appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Susannah York appeared as Mrs. Cratchit.  Angela Pleasance (Donald Pleasance's daughter) was the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Other familiar names included Roger Rees, Joanne Whalley, Nigel Davenport, and Michael Gough.  (I noted many similarities in the way the movie was cast, how similar the actors were to their counterparts in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol.)

Scrooge has been portrayed by Englishmen (of course), a Frenchman or two, a German and many other nationalities.  He has been portrayed by a duck (Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck's uncle, was named after Scrooge and in 1983 got his chance to play his namesake).  He has been played by a woman (among others, Susan Lucci, the Queen of Mean on the soap opera All My Children did a turn as Elizabeth "Ebbie" Scrooge).

"Ebbie" Scrooge

Scrooge has even been played by The Fonz.  Well, sort of.  In 1979 Henry Winkler, the actor best known at the time as  Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli  on the television show Happy Days, was  cast as Benedict Slade, a Depression era skinflint in the New England area of the United States.  Slade was a carbon copy of the Scrooge character, and the story, adapted for the film with some significant changes, still follows the same blueprint.  One significant change is that each of the three spirits looks exactly like someone from whom Slade had, the previous day, Christmas Eve, repossessed items, so he has trouble believing initially they are, in fact, spirits. The fun part of this film, at least at the time, was getting to see a familiar character (The Fonz) in makeup that did a real fine job of making Winkler look like a septuagenarian.


Benedict Slade

The Scrooge story was even adapted as a musical.  Albert Finney and Alec Guinness starred in the 1970 film Scrooge, which featured the story told in the classic musical form.  I saw this once on TV as a young lad, and even today, some 45 years later, I can still vividly recall some of the grandeur and spectacle in some of the scenes, and even can hum one of the tunes ("Thank You Very Much"), despite it being the only time I saw the film.

Finney and cast

Many TV shows that had a crotchety, cranky older character has made use of the theme in it's own way.  One I remember fondly, in particular, was in an episode of Sanford and Son.  Lamont Sanford (Demond Wilson), playing all three ghosts in one fell swoop, led Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) through his life in order to show him the error of his ways.  As usual, Fred was back to his old self on the next episode, but for one brief shining moment, the theme of Christmas even changed him.

Fred Sanford and friends

Among the many parodies and pastiches of the Scrooge theme, in 1988, Richard Donner, famous for having directed the first Christopher Reeve Superman, and fresh off of the first Mel Gibson/Danny Glover film  Lethal Weapon, teamed up with Bill Murray to turn the Scrooge theme on its ear with Scrooged.

Scrooged (1988)

Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a self-obsessed, egomaniacal TV executive.  He belittles everyone below him, including his put-upon secretary, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard),  and is an obsequious twit to his boss,  Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum).  At the beginning, a staff meeting watches a promo for a Christmas Eve schedule including a Lee Majors action show (in which Santa's workshop is invaded by terrorists), and a promo for a planned live-action television broadcast of A Christmas Carol.

Frank Cross

Frank objects to Carol promo created by his execs and proposes his own which terrorizes the execs.  (Bombs, terrorists etc, all of which "may happen" if you miss the live-action show...)  Eliot (Bobcat Goldthwait) expresses an objection to the violence and gets his ass canned (on Christmas Eve).  Frank is just about due for a visit from some ghosts, don't ya think?

Eliot Loudermilk

Franks' old boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe),  looking a little worse for wear, makes an appearance and tells him he will be haunted by three spirits.

Lew Hayward

Of course, instead of showing up in his apartment, these spirits have an uncanny knack for just showing up whenever and wherever they feel like it.  The Ghost of Christmas Past [GCPast] is played by David Johansen, whom you may recognize as either the lounge singer Buster "Hot, Hot, Hot" Poindexter, or if you are much older, as the leader of the 70's punk band the New York Dolls.

Frank and the GCPast

The GCPast in this case is a brash New York cabbie.  He drives like a bat out of Hell, scaring the bejesus out of Frank before showing him his childhood, and then a few brief glimpses into his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen).  Of course Frank always was his egotistic self even back then, but he manages to hold on to Claire for a time.  Until, that is, his penchant for self-promotion and scmoozing to get to the top conflict with his private life.

Claire and Frank

Back in the present, Frank is still trying to get the horrendous Christmas special on the roll.  He seeks out Claire, who now works at a homeless shelter, and disses her by saying that her homeless people she helps are just leeches and she should just "scrape them off".  He also manages to insult Grace's mute son.  The kid hasn't spoken since the death of his father a few years previously... The Ghost of Christmas Present [GCPresent], in the persona of a flighty and, really, very annoying Carol Kane, makes her presence known.

Frank with the GCPresent

The GCPresent has one good quality, however; she realizes that Frank needs a conk on the head now and then to get his attention.  She shows Frank how nearly everyone around him has a normal life that is not governed by greed, and they are much happier without it.  Once again, back in the present, Frank is accosted by and threatened by a drunk and vengeance-seeking Eliot, who armed with a shotgun chases him around the control room.

Eliot on the rampage

Fortunately (or maybe not so fortunately), Frank is rescued by the Ghost of Christmas Future [GCFuture] who, although mute, shows Frank a future, which of course since this is a pastiche of the original story, includes his death.

Frank meets the GCFuture

How the story ends, typical of the theme, but atypical since Bill Murray is involved, is well worth the viewing.  And a pretty decent song to follow as the credits roll (the Jackie DeShannon song "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" sung in a duet by Annie Lennox and Al Green).

Love for his fellow man at last

Well folks, hope Santa brings you your dreams tonight.  Be back soon with the leftovers.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Bird is the Word

This is my entry in the Humphrey Bogart 117th Birthday blogathon, hosted by Sleepwalking in Hollywood and Musings of a Classic Film Addict

He was born into the camera (so to speak), if stories can be believed. He was the model for a drawing for an advertising campaign for a brand of baby food called Mellin's.  Note:  It is a false rumor that he was the model for the Gerber's baby.  As noted in a  article, Gerber's did not begin producing baby food until Bogart was well into his adult years.  The Mellin's baby food picture was indeed drawn by his mother, who surely used him as a model, however.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon was originally published as a novel, by Dashiell Hammett, in serial form in Black Mask, a pulp detective magazine from pre - WWII.  It was published in 5 installments from September 1929 - January 1930.  The story told of a whole raft of people who are as ruthless and cunning as any you'll ever meet.  At the end of the fourth installment (in the Dec. 1929 issue), which ended just as Spade walks into his apartment to find the fat man and his cohorts waiting for him,  a footnote was added by the editor.

"To our readers:
     I read this story just as you have read it-installment by installment.  When I got this far I was as uncertain as you are how the story comes out, or who killed Archer and Thursby.  I had ideas, of course, just as you probably have.  It wasn't until, practically speaking, the very last word of the last installment (the installment you will read next-in the January issue) that i knew the answer and it took me completely by surprise.
      As a matter of fact, when I finished reading the last installment I was breathless and overwhelmed.  In all of my experience I have never read a story as intense, as gripping or as powerful as this last installment.  It is a magnificent piece of writing; with all the earnestness of which I am capable I tell you not to miss it.
                                                   THE EDITOR"*

Whew!  Barring that it might be hyperbole, it is easily some of the best breathless salesmanship for the next issue of Black Mask, at the very least.  Would that I were capable of such prose...  "Don't miss my next blog entry, folks. Suspense! Action! Drama!  All this and more, as I review the fantastic Thomas Edison extravaganza The Sneeze!"

Now, of course I'm just trying to be witty.  Both The Maltese Falcon versions, book and movie ARE extremely well written an well done.  By the way, today's version of the Falcon story was actually the third attempt to bring it to the big screen.  The first, made in 1931 starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels.  The second, which actually only had most tenuous of connections to the original story was made (As a comedy! Egad!) as Satan Met A Lady,  in 1936.  But the Bogart/Huston/Astor version was the grandaddy of them all, proving that sometimes the remake can be better than the original.

The movie opens with a brief history about the Maltese falcon, which is repeated, more or less, by Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) later in the movie.  The action proper begins in San Francisco in present day.  Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is in his office when his secretary (Lee Patrick) announces the arrival of a potential client, a Miss Wonderley (Mary Astor)

Spade and Archer get a new client

Miss Wonderley wants to hire the firm of Spade and Archer (Jerome Cowan) to get her sister away from a mysterious figure named Floyd Thursby, whom she thinks has either kidnapped or seduced her sister.  Before the night is over, both Archer and Thursby are dead, killed in separate locations, so it wasn't the result of a shootout.

Spade is visited by Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), a police detective friend, and Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane) at his apartment to try to get some details, but also to intimate that they have suspicions that Spade killed Thursby in revenge for the death of his partner.

Spade vs. the cops

The next day Spade gets a call from Miss Wonderley, now going by the name of Miss LeBlanc.  But upon arrival at her new digs, it is finally revealed that her real name is Brigid O'Shaunessey, and that the story she told about her "sister" was not true.  But she is still vague about the real truth.

Spade agrees to do what he can to help her, despite some misgivings about the whole shebang.  After returning to his office he meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who wants his help in finding a missing "ornament" (the titular falcon).  Cairo offers $5000 to get Spade's help, but missteps when he pulls a gun and wants to search Spade's office by force.  After knocking out Cairo and determining some of his identity through a search of his pockets, Spade offers his help for a small fee.

Getting physical with Cairo

A mysterious figure follows Spade as he leaves his office, but Spade manages to elude him and returns to Brigid's rooms.  When he tells her about his meeting with Cairo, she immediately becomes cagey.  But after a bit she finally reveals some of the details about her past and what part the falcon plays in it.

The unwanted shadow

Spade finally meets his mysterious shadow, Wilmer (Elisha Cook), and manages to make an instant enemy. The twists and turns of this story abound.  Wilmer is actually a hired gunman for "the fat man", the aforementioned Kaspar Gutman.  Eventually Spade meets up with Gutman and finds out the true story of the falcon.  It turns out that it may be worth considerably more than the $5000 Cairo offered Spade to find it.

Making deals with the dark side

I don't want to get too much more into this movie because it is well worth the watching.  Considered by most people to be one of the best examples of film noir, it could be further detailed here, in this blog entry, but to do so would be denying you of the thrill of discovering it's assets for yourself.

Bogart, for his part, is defined, in many people's eyes, for his performance in a handful of movies, of which this is probably the second most common one. Gotta give a nod to him in his role of Rick in Casablanca, even here, as probably being number one.  (Of course, there are others, but so as not to offend anyone for leaving a specific favorite out, I'll limit it to these two...)

Bogart plays Spade as a hard and determined individual, one who has his moral compass set in the right direction, but is still willing to manipulate it to achieve his ultimate goal (which, despite any indications to the contrary, I think is still on the side of good, if not necessarily law and order).

Bogart did not get a nomination for Best Actor for his performance (although the film was nominated for several awards, including Best Picture, but lost to How Green Was My Valley, and Greenstreet got a nom for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Crisp).  Film noir  was not the pariah that science fiction seemed to be for the Oscars, however.  Just 4 years later Ray Milland won a Best Actor for his performance in The Lost Weekend, as did the movie for Best Picture.

But Bogart would not receive his first (of three) noms for Best Actor until 1943, for the aforementioned role of Rick in Casablanca, and he would not win one until 1951 for the role of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen.  Still the role of Spade should not be discounted (nor, for that matter, should almost any of Bogart's roles, with the exception, maybe,  of The Return of Doctor X).

Hope you enjoyed this entry, folks.  Time to fire up the old Plymouth Fury and see if I can get home without being followed by ne'er-do-wells.


*  The quote from
Black Mask editor was transcribed from The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, ed. Otto Penzler © 2010.