Saturday, January 28, 2017

R.I.P. John Hurt (1940-2017)

This blog has never been one for honoring passing celebrities.  I usually reserve that for others because I find that dwelling on the passing of celebrities a bit too maudlin.  John Hurt however was instrumental in my life in one particular aspect.  And it was because of this that I present this small memento to him.

In 1980, Hurt was cast as John Merrick in the movie The Elephant Man, a man who suffered from an extreme case of a nervous disease which, at the time, I was told was neurofibromatosis.  It turns out that it was something entirely different, but I connected with the character just the same, because I have neurofibromatosis, although not in such a drastic case as John Merrick, the character Hurt played in the movie.

Hurt as Merrick dealt with this in such a heartbreaking and transforming manner, his famous quote from the movie helped me deal with the changes that were coming over me at the time ("I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!")  This is not to say I was a sideshow freak or to claim any such drastic calamities that Merrick suffered, just that I was able to deal with my own problems in life as a result of seeing Hurt overcome his own character's problems.

Hurt went on to be one of the more prolific actors of his age.  Some other memorable performances were as the unfortunate first victim of the alien in Alien, the rather slimy Lord Graves in King Ralph, Garrick Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies and Winston Smith (with Richard Burton) in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One of the performances I remember in particular was the movie Partners.  I saw this movie as the second feature at a double feature at the drive-in sometime in the early eighties.  (Like a couple of other such instances I cannot recall what the first feature film was, the one that was being shown to draw in the crowd in the first place, but I still remember this one well.)  In it Hurt played a gay policeman who was paired with Ryan O'Neal, a straight policeman, to go undercover in the gay community of Los Angeles to find out who was killing homosexuals in the area.

In retrospect I realize this movie is not all that good, and definitely, from my reading of reviewers at the time, comes off as not very respectful towards the homosexual community.  It remains in my memory, however, and despite the fact of only having seen it that one time, I can still recall quite a bit of it.  It remains as one of only a ½ dozen movies in which I have seen Hurt. These are the aforementioned The Elephant Man, Alien, King Ralph, Partners and two others in which he only had cameo roles.  He was in several movies that are still on my radar but haven't gotten around to watching yet, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (don't ask why I haven't seen that one yet, because even I can't answer that one). I have not, and probably won't see any of the Harry Potter  movies, unless I have to babysit someone's kids...

Still I think John Hurt will be missed.  I certainly will miss him.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Holy Preposterous Expression, Batman!

Trivia Questions:  Which of the four villains in the movie was the first villain to appear on the TV series?  And which of the four was the last to appear against Batman and Robin in the series?  (Note: the villain was NOT the in the last episode, that honor goes to Zsa Zsa Gabor as Minerva.)  Answers at the end of the entry.    

In the winter of 1966,  an assortment of enthusiastic TV personnel foisted upon the unsuspecting public one of the most ridiculous but entertaining shows ever brought to the small screen.  Batman, a character originally created by Bob Kane for the comic books back in the 30's, and also the subject of not one but two separate movie serializations in the 40's, was given a complete overhaul for the TV show.  An interesting note is that the Batman movie was originally to have come first as a teaser to get people interested in a TV show, but due to a really bad series season premieres in the fall of 1965, ABC, the TV station producing the series, forced the TV show into the schedule earlier than originally planned.

Thus the movie came after the first season had already started.  As to why the company went ahead and produced the movie after the successful premiere season of the TV show, there are several things that factored into it.  One, the foreign markets for the TV show had yet to be established and it was thought that the movie could help in that regard.  Also a number of expensive equipment that was shown in the movie that the TV show's budget could ill afford were made available (the Batcopter and the Batboat, to name two.)

The movie premiered in Austin, TX on July 30, 1966.  (The Glastron boat company, which had made the Batboat was headquartered in Austin.)  Another interesting note concerning the premiere was that just two days later, in Austin, Charles Whitman committed his infamous shootings on the campus of the University of Texas.  William Dozier recalled the event, and was quoted by Joel Eisner in his book The Official Batman Batbook as having been driving around in an open convertible just two days before.

Instead of increasing the interest in the TV series, as expected, the show began a steady decline in the second season, and by the third season even the addition of Batgirl (Yvonne Craig) could not keep the series afloat.  It's too bad, because some of the biggest names in Hollywood were clamoring to be cast as guest villains for the series.  Over the course of three seasons such top names in Tinseltown as Vincent Price (Egghead), Cliff Robertson (Shame), Liberace (Fingers), Shelley Winters (Ma Parker), Otto Preminger (Mr. Freeze) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (Minerva) had come on board for battle with the Batman.  One I found absolutely great was when Roger C. Carmel, better known to Star Trek fans as "Harry Mudd" played a character called "Colonel Gumm".

Only recently did the powers that be finally cave in to the public pressure and release the entire TV series on DVD to the public.  Up until then we fans had to console ourselves with only the movie and, if we had access to the equipment and the reruns, taped versions from TV stations (albeit with commercials...gak).  If you haven't been blessed with your own set, bug your richest relatives and friends with the birthday and Christmas requests (or just buy it yourself...)

Batman: The Movie (1966)

The opening sequence and title credits are entirely unlike anything else in the movie (or the TV series for that matter).  A spotlight crosses walls and highlights each of the six main characters and in between a shadowy survey of dark alleys with suspicious figures dashing to unknown destinations.  The music seems to harken back to some film noir films I've seen.  Not to worry, however, because the rest of the movie falls into the same kitschy feel that the TV series had, including the preposterously overacted parts of the main characters.

William Dozier, the TV show and movie producer, pulls double duty as the narrator (as he also did in the series), adding a certain extra bit of campiness to the film.  The film opens informing us that a yacht carrying Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) and his secret invention is on it's way to the United World Headquarters in Gotham.  But there is a threat and it's Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) to the rescue.

There was a bigger budget for the movie, so included in the gear in the Bat warehouse is the Batcopter (which looks a little unwieldy with its superfluous bat wings, but be that as it may...).  As the two approach the yacht it disappears!  And Batman is attacked by an exploding shark.  (You don't need me to tell you they get away, do you...?)

Back at police HQ, the Dynamic Duo talk to the press, which includes Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, taking the place of Julie Newmar, who was unavailable for the movie) disguised as a Russian reporter, named Kitka).  Afterwards, they discuss with Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp) as to who might be behind this dastardly deed.

The conclusion?  It's not just one or two or three, but FOUR super criminals who have banded together for some nefarious purpose; the aforementioned Catwoman, as well as The Joker (Caesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and The Riddler (Frank Gorshin).  They all have their super egos to deal with, each one trying to be the to dog and backbiting each other, but they are  all are in one accord on one topic; the death of Batman and Robin.

To that end, their first attempt is to use the super magnet on their decoy buoy to trap the pair while they fire torpedoes at them.  But by luck or coincidence (or extreme use of deus ex machina...) Batman has brought a Batradar device that causes the torpedoes to explode prematurely, that is until the batteries break down while the third torpedo in en route.  But a porpoise sacrifices it's life to save the duo.  (Of course they got away... Were you expecting something else...?)

Batman calls the Pentagon and discovers that they had sold a surplus pre-atomic submarine to a man who identified himself as "P. N. Gwynn" (Penguin, in case you are slow on the uptake...)  Meanwhile the Fearsome Foursome (as I will now identify the criminals) make plans to lure Batman into a trap by kidnapping one of Gotham's premier citizens....Bruce Wayne.  (Who else were you expecting?)  As bait, Catwoman uses her guise as Kitka to go on a date and end up in her apartment where the other three overpower Wayne and take him captive.

Batman, as Wayne, tricks them into freeing his arms and this time overpowers the three and escapes through a window.  (Come on, you didn't REALLY need me to tell you that, did you?)  When he gets back to Wayne Manor and dons his Batman disguise, he returns to the wharf area from which he had originally escaped and finds, instead of the fearsome Foursome, a bomb on the verge of exploding.  A scene reminiscent of the Keystone Kops ensues as Batman tries to get the bomb someplace safe to explode but is thwarted by the presence of a marching band, a boat with two lovers, a couple of nuns and some ducks.  "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb..."

The secret weapon that Commodore Schmidlapp has produced, a device that can dehydrate a human being, is finally revealed as the Penguin uses it to dehydrate five henchmen and then proceeds to find a way to get Batman to take him back to the Batcave.  There the Penguin re-hydrates his henchmen, but uses the wrong water and they are easily disposed of by Batman and Robin.  But the evil plans of the Fearsome Foursome are not done yet.  They use the machine to dehydrate the nine members of the World Council Security Council and kidnap them, taking them aboard the submarine.

Search and rescue is imminent.  Defeat of the Fearsome Foursome is imminent.  Saving the security council is imminent...or maybe not.  To leave something to tantalize you I'll stop here.  (Or maybe you could already guess whether they succeed or not...?)

The best parts of the movie are the incredibly insipid points of humor, mostly from the mouths of Batman and Robin who play the naivete aspects to the hilt.  Also watching Frank Gorshin as the Riddler is a humongous treat.  Jim Carrey's portrayal in Batman Forever notwithstanding, Gorshin's manic performance as the character really does put an exclamation point on the insanity of the role.

As alluded to in the title of this piece, Robin's exclamations, by themselves, are worth the price of admission.  They became such a regular part of the TV show that it was rated as one of the top catchphrases for TV Land's special on the subject of greatest TV catchphrases.  As an epilogue, here are some of the best of  Robin's "Holy ...." expressions from the movie.

"Holy Sardine!"
"Holy Heartbreak!"
"Holy Long John Silver!
"Holy Polaris!"
"Holy Halloween!"
"Holy Bikini"  (No, there is no girl wearing a bikini with a bunch of holes...too bad...)

{A fantasy sequence of my own imagination on Everybody Loves Raymond would have been for Adam West and Burt Ward to have made a guest appearance as Batman and Robin, and at some point have Robin say "Holy crap, Batman!"  To which Frank (Peter Boyle), whose own catchphrase was that on that TV show, would have said "Hey!  That's MY line..."}

Trivia Question answers.: The first ever episode featured The Riddler.  The Joker appeared in episode #118 (out of 120 episodes).

Well, folks, I'm off to fight crime, as Captain Quiggy,  in my Plymouth (which means unless the villain is riding a tricycle he'll probably get away... Might even get away on a tricycle.  Maybe a pogo stick?)


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Dumb and Dumber? Meet Stupid and Stupider

Before the meteoric rise of one of the most recognizable actors of the 90's and beyond, a virtually unknown actor was cast as a dimwitted high school metal head, teaming up with another virtually unknown actor in a buddy movie franchise that has spawned one sequel, and continuous rumors of another sequel in the works. That actor was...Alex Winter (who???)... I mean Keanu Reeves.

Both actors had been on the scene for a few years, but both were still fledgling artists in 1989.  Winter, for his part, was most prominently known as one of Keifer Sutherland's cohorts in The Lost Boys, and Reeves had a role in the teen drama River's Edge. This would prove to be the launching pad for Reeves as a box-office draw.  Unfortunately, Winter did not see the same success, at least not in the theater, but his career took a different tack, working mostly behind and in front of the TV camera.

The first Bill and Ted movie arrived in theaters in early 1989.  Pitted against such blockbusters of the year as Tim Burton's first Batman, Ghostbusters II, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the movie still managed to find an audience and made enough of a profit that a follow-up was green-lighted.  That movie too managed to garner a profit.  Over 20 years later, in 2011, a rumor began circulating, one which Reeves and Winter both acknowledged, that a third movie was in the works, to catch the two as they approached their 50's, but this has yet to come to fruition.

The Bill & Ted franchise concept was the brainchild of  Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, and, as near as I can tell, with the exception of a couple of the later series episodes of Laverne and Shirley, neither had any writing credits to their name.  They seem to have hit at just the right time with this, however.  That happens in Hollywood, sometimes.  One or a group of people just hit on something that connects with people on a certain level.  I must admit, however, that the crowd that this one hit with was a good 10-15 years younger than I was at the time, but yet I still got a kick out of it, especially the first one.  And every time Poison's "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" comes on the radio, I find myself imitating the two vocalizing the lyrics as if they were profound quotes from a philosophical guru.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

In the future, 500 years from now, the world is a liberal's wet dream.  People live in peace and harmony.  And it's all because of two teenagers from 1988 who are the saviors of the planet through their music.  But it wouldn't be that way without the intervention of a future mentor, Rufus (George Carlin), who goes back in time in a time machine in the form of a telephone booth.  (Shades of Doctor Who!)

I should warn you at the beginning, if you approach this movie with any hope of having it adhere to the concept of time travel and its inherent potential for paradoxes, you are doomed to disappointment.  The film plays fast and loose with the scientic part of the theories.  (And there are some legitimate theories out there, even if the possibility has yet to be proven concretely).

In the present of 1988, Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) are two brain dead slackers who are on the verge of failing history.  Their teacher, Mr. Ryan (Bernie Casey), tells them in no uncertain terms that they must get an A+ on their final exam, an oral presentation, if they are to have any hope of passing his course.

The two are approached by Rufus, who has come from the future to give them use of his time machine to help them pass history and thus save history as he knows it; a future in which the music of Wyld Stallions, their wannabe band, is actually a profound influence.  The two go back to France in the 1800's where they encounter Napoleon, and through an accident bring the French icon into the present.  Leaving Napoleon in the care of Ted's little brother and venture into the past where they abduct Billy the Kid and Socrates.  They also end up in medieval England where they fall in love with two princesses, the daughters of the king.

Seeking "extra credit", they venture back and get several more historical figures; Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, Ghengis Khan, Ludwig van Beethoven and Abraham Lincoln.  Bringing them to the present, they unleash them on the local mall, and try to track down Napoleon, whom Ted's brother ditched because he was too annoying.  The historical figure wreak havoc on the mall, and Napoleon, who has found his way to a water park called Waterloo is doing the same thing.

Finally gathering them all together, the two slackers manage to do a presentation at their history exam, which wows the assemblage.  Rufus congratulates them and presents them with the princess from the past as a present.  But they are still incompetent musicians.  One can only hope that they "do get better"  as Rufus promises to the audience, "breaking down the fourth wall", as it is known in the argot of film.

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)

It is a couple of years later.  The boys and their girlfriends (the princess from medieval England) have formed a band.  But the boys are still losers and haven't got a clue, how to play their guitars or anything else for that matter.  Meanwhile, a renegade from the future, De Nomolos (Joss Ackland) has engineered a plan to change the future by killing Bill and Ted before they can be the influence they eventually become.  He commandeers his own time machine and sends two Bill and Ted look-alike robots to do the job.

The two robots (which Bill and Ted call the "evil robot usses"), kill Bill and Ted.  The two seek out a way to return to the real life.  Along the way they manage to garner the help of the Grim Reaper, who is obliged to help them because they manage to defeat him in a game (or games, since the Grim Reaper is a sore loser...)

On their "bogus" journey they end up in Hell, where they find that Hell is rather personal, each of them forced to endure their own personal nightmare.  Bill has a granny, (played by Alex Winter with tons of makeup), ugly as sin, that wants a kiss and Ted has to escape a military school leader who wants him to drop and give him infinity in pushups).  They eventually escape Hell and get to Heaven, where the big guy in charge gives them the services of the best scientists in the universe (a couple of aliens) to help them defeat the evil robot usses.

In a showdown at the "Battle of the Bands" (in which Wyld Stallions were to perform, don't ask how they managed that...), Bill and Ted and their creations,  the good robot usses, battle the evil robot usses to try and save the day.  Of course, if they defeat the evil robot usses they will still have to deal with De Nomolos who is flat out determined to change the future, at whatever cost.

One can only wonder what happens in the future that causes these two to become the prophets of peace and harmony, when it's obvious they probably couldn't even SPELL "peace and harmony" without a spell check.  But since this is just goofy Hollywood time-wasting, its probably better not to dwell on it.

Well, folks, the screen has just darkened and a phone booth has materialized in the parking lot, so your humble reviewer may be off on an adventure for himself.  Have a safe drive home.


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: #20

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.