Monday, August 31, 2009

You Can Keep Your SUVs. I Want My Van!

There was a time when a reasonably little-known 1960 film called Tall Story used to play frequently on the classic movie cable channels. It starred Anthony Perkins and Jane Fonda and, though I have nothing against them, I never felt the need to tune in. It was about a college basketball star and that is not really my milieu. Had I known then that the film featured a young man named Van Williams as "Young Man in a Shower," I'd have watched it every time it was on! Missed work, abandoned friends, quit shaving... the works! I have yet to see this film in which he's discovered in the buff by Jane as she is skulking about in the boy's locker room with Tony Perkins.

Van was a finely mannered, but inherently masculine, young actor who is best known today for his one season role on TV as The Green Hornet. Previous to that, he'd appeared as private investigator Ken Williams on several Warner Brothers TV series (primarily Bourbon Street Beat and Surfside 6.) He also appeared in the all-star film The Caretakers, which dealt with then-revolutionary group therapy at a mental hospital.

No project he worked on (and he was pretty busy throughout the 60s and early 70s) ever truly demonstrated him to his best ability. True, he was no Laurence Olivier, but he was amiable, accessible and extraordinarily hunky! He eventually left the business in order to pursue a career in the business world as well as local law enforcement.

As the photos sprinkled throughout here demonstrate, he was a man who really looked sharp in a suit and who looked equally delectable out of one. His eyes were a striking blue and his sturdy chin finished off one very handsome face. His chest was a work of art. He never went shirtless on The Green Hornet except for one time when he was injured and showed a bit of shoulder not covered by the bandages. However, in certain scenes of his detective shows, he would occasionally sport a pair of teeny and snug shorts. He also played one yummy dad on a short-lived Saturday morning kids show called Westwind where he rarely bothered to button up his shirts.

Another selling point to this beautiful man was his generosity in making sure that his Green Hornet co-star - a little someone named Bruce Lee (!) - was given the showcasing he deserved at a time when the TV landscape was virtually devoid of Asian actors, especially regulars on a weekly show. Mr. Williams is, as of this writing, the last remaining actor from that series who is still alive. He makes occasional appearances at fan/autograph conventions.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Now Arriving at Gate 7: Airport

Arthur Hailey wrote the sprawling and detailed best-selling novel Airport in 1968 and the film version, released in 1970, became a runaway hit. It cost $10 million to make and earned $100 million at the box office!

I came to this one backwards, having been only 3 when it was in theaters. My ex-stepmother counted this as her favorite movie and got me interested in checking in out. Seeing as it features virtually all of my cinematic obsessions (those being all star casts, disaster, glamour, bitchy repartee among others), I was instantly hooked myself.

Several plot points begin separately. A desperate man considers killing himself and others aboard a plane in order to collect the insurance money. An elderly stowaway is caught and reprimanded. A stewardess has to break it to her married lover that she is pregnant. The airport manager is under immense pressure over a troublesome runway as his harpy of a wife is close to leaving him. Finally, the area is hit with a powerful snowstorm that has helped block a key landing strip. All of these story threads converge at once into a suspenseful and entertaining climax.

The poster for Airport features boxes of all the main stars and set a trend that other films would copy, though later movies tended to align them at the bottom rather than surround the entire sign. Alfred Newman, an amazing and prolific film composer whose sons David and Thomas have followed the same career path, created the dazzling score just before dying. Edith Head whipped up the clean and chic costumes including the smart airline uniforms. She would later be asked to create actual stewardess uniforms for a major airline following this.

Though Burt Lancaster held contempt for the film and his role in it, he does a fine job as does Dean Martin, a casting surprise in his role as a pilot (since Dino was known for having a drink in his hand on most occasions, even if it was later revealed to be apple juice more often than not!) However, in my world, the film belongs to the ladies.

Notably tragic Jean Seberg (who disliked her costume and wig, though I live for them) is terrific as a savvy airline exec who attempts to one up the stowaway, but can never quite win. Jacqueline Bisset plays the chief stewardess and looks incredible. Her blue eyes jump off the screen. She has a delicious smackdown with the stowaway herself that is one of the highlights of the film (and of my life!) And who is playing this crafty little stowaway? Why Helen Hayes, of course, who took home an Oscar for her trouble! Ms. Hayes is shameless in her meticulously developed, scene-stealing performance in which every cell of her body is geared towards making sure every facet of her impish character comes across. It's an underrated piece of acting in that her detractors never seem to get just how marvelously she handles every nuance and bit of dialogue.

Also providing some stunning support is Maureen Stapleton as the doomed man's wife. Her heart-on-the-sleeve performance is almost uncomfortable at times, so desolate and sympathetic is she. On the flip side, there is selfish, brittle, demanding (and thus irresistible) Dana Wynter as Lancaster's social-climbing wife. Her first name, by the way, is pronounced "Donna" in case anyone gives a hoot. Her name is a variation of Lana, as in Lana Turner.

Some folks will find this film slow-going, especially at first, but if one is invested in the storylines, the way they are drawn together will be sure to enthrall towards the end. This type of stylish, formal air travel is gone forever. It's neat to take a step back and see the way things (sort of) were. (This is a Ross Hunter production, after all, so the gloss is ladled on far more heavily than real life could have accommodated.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gown with the Wind

As mentioned in a prior post, The Towering Inferno was the movie in which my seven year-old pea brain finally realized that actors were actually used more than once rather than only doing one film in their lifetime. I was already aware of Faye Dunaway as a persona thanks to her work in The Three Musketeers and so was especially excited to see her amid the gigantic cast of Inferno.

She has a fun introductory scene in which Paul Newman comes into his office and starts talking to a large, high-backed chair. He removes a hat from this person the viewer cannot see and then Miss D. rises up to plant a devouring kiss on him. She obviously has read Dr. Atkins 1972 book because she informs Paul that he's better than a cheeseburger. "All protein. No bread." After they enjoy a mid-afternoon romp in the small bedroom she has prepared right off his office, she is seen modeling the red lingerie he has brought back from an extended trip. Faye and Paul make, to my mind, close to the perfect couple despite their ultimate lack of scenes together.

Later, when it's time for the grand opening gala of The Glass Tower, the title edifice which unfortunately bursts into flame on the big night, we see Dunaway in a dark taupe chiffon evening gown that barely covers her top and two back panels which waft behind her as she walks. Though the color is nothing to shoot the cat over, the style of the dress is remarkably provocative and unspeakably glamorous, especially as the evening wears on.

Eventually, she is trapped at the top of this 138 story building and one of the rescue attempts involves knocking out the windows of the top floor restaurant. This creates a strong draft which gives Faye a chance to play with her dress as it billows around. Shortly thereafter, she ascends to the roof of the building to meet a rescue helicopter and here things go really wild, with her gown flying all over the place. Finally, she is placed inside a scenic elevator that is knocked off its tracks midway down. Again, she is placed in a situation where her dress is given life by the air around her.

I can't possibly understand why this sort of thing appealed (and appeals!) to me, but it instilled in me an obsession with light fabric caught in the wind that has never left me. I suppose our early experiences at the cinema tend to leave an imprint on us and this was mine. All I know is that I could watch any clip of Faye Dunaway in this movie on a continuous loop and never tire of it! There's something also about the way she is clearly trying desperately to make some sort of impression in the film when her role is thankless window dressing. She imparts all of her few lines with a delicious repressed urgency and parades around like a goddess, frequently using her dress to draw attention to herself. (Check out, especially, the scene in which a crowd of people is listening to Paul Newman announce the use of the glass elevator and when it starts to break up, she remains behind on purpose and then grabs her dress in a way that grabs our eye!)

Costume designer Paul Zastupnevich worked almost exclusively with producer Irwin Allen and was Oscar-nominated three times for his trouble. Astonishingly, he was NOT nominated for The Towering Inferno, in which he created one of the most remarkable dresses of all time. In a bizarre twist, critics and audiences began chiding the man for having Faye "wear chiffon to a fire." This is lunacy! Of course, she was wearing chiffon to the dedication party of the world's tallest building that just happened to catch fire. The clothes he designed for the movie lent incredible visual interest to it and wouldn't have been the same if the ladies had been in brocade or velvet. It's one of the great oddities of Academy Award history. However, even he knew that Faye's dress was, perhaps, attention-getting for the wrong reasons. He was quoted as saying that "half of the suspense was wondering whether Faye was going to fall out of that dress." He was once quoted as having admitted that he'd employed tape to hold it in place and another time saying that there was none and that only Faye's regal posture held it in check, so who really knows...?
Her descent in the scenic elevator is one of my all time favorite shots in a movie. As the car begins to lower, she turns to face the outside of the building, clasps her hands together in an almost prayer-like formation and holds her head a certain way under the overhead light. This serves to turn her high-cheekboned face into a skull-like death mask. And the ride down does turn out to be a deadly one for one of the passengers.
Faye spent countless hours making sure she looked just so for this movie and she caught some major heat for it from William Holden who was tired of waiting for her on the set. Reportedly, he pressed her up against a wall and gave her what-for and her punctuality improved afterwards. In any case, I have never been more grateful to an actress/designer collaboration than I am to Faye and Paul (Z.) who together presented the movies with an unforgettable image.

Someone decided that a hefty chunk of her scenes would be better left out of the final print. Thankfully, an extended TV version included these and the 2-disc DVD includes them as well, as a bonus feature. I can think of quite a few other story fragments which could have been snipped instead, but at least they're available to see!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Imitation of a Back Street Madame

These early postings of mine are bound to cry out as having been written by a mother-dominated ninny! It's not necessarily so, it's just that I was raised by a single mom and we wound up spending a great deal of time together one-on-one, frequently at the movies or plunked down before the TV set watching them. Thus, the bulk of my early movie memories include her in some way.

In the early '70s, local channels would fill-in their broadcast day with old movies, probably using prints we'd rather forget about now in the high-definition age. I can remember lying on the floor while my mother tuned in to those good old fashioned "women's pictures" and noticing her stifling a tear towards the end of them (so designed were they to wring sobs out of anyone watching!)

My favorites were always the Universal-International ones, in vivid color, lavishly produced (often by Ross Hunter, whose name on a project usually guarantees that I'm going to enjoy myself, even if the movie is no good!) and typically featuring a once-mighty star who now was seeking a career boost.

Imitation of Life (1959), a remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert film and based on a Fannie Hurst novel, became Universal's biggest grossing picture ever up to that point and made its star, Lana Turner, very rich thanks to her contractual arrangement for profit-sharing. Helmed by the masterful director Douglas Sirk, the film is amazing to behold, visually, especially when Lana hits it big and starts prancing around in jewels and eye-popping Jean Louis gowns. She plays a single mom who pairs up with another single (and black) mom in order to pursue an acting career. The story may be rather unbelievable at times (and by now pretty far removed from the source novel!), but it matters little thanks to the compelling theatrics, the creative direction and the cathartic charge it provides, especially on repeated viewings. And no one's eyes ever held tears more beautifully than Miss Lana's.

Back Street (1961), also made previously a couple of times and also based on a Fannie Hurst novel, is even more adrift from the source material. However, it serves up glitz and gloss in spades, having turned its adulterous heroine into a successful dress designer. Susan Hayward seems, at times, to be co-starring with a series of telephones, so often is she filmed with one, but she acts diligently with them as well as with her hunkalicious leading man John Gavin (who was also the male lead in Imitation of Life.) John was never known for his riveting acting prowess, but he was a strong-jawed, soft-spoken GOD in the looks department, providing amiable presence in many '50s and '60s films. Sadly for Susan, the real scene-stealer here is the often-earnest Vera Miles who, this time out, pulls out every stop to enact the shrewiest, nastiest, most jealous, drunken bitch she could come up with as she portrays John Gavin's wife! She's fantastic. The highlight of the film is when she makes a sudden appearance at Susan's charity fashion auction and introduces herself in an inimitable way.

My all time favorite film of this kind is Madame X (1966.) This one had been made previously quite a few times, but, like the films mentioned above, it got the glamour treatment this time out. Lana Turner plays a "girl" from a less than prestigious background who marries into a wealthy, almost Kennedy-esque family and soon draws the ire of her picky, ambitious and controlling mother-in-law Constance Bennett. Connie will do anything to ensure success for her son John Forsythe including shipping Lana across the sea, presumed dead. But that's only the beginning of the story! This one is almost a litmus test for me. Yes, the entire enterprise is far-fetched and overdone, but I don't think I could truly be friends with anyone who didn't get at least a little bit choked up at the climax of this film.
Imitation and Madame have been released (along with several other gems such as Portrait in Black, Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows) on DVD, but Back Street has not (nor have Where Love Has Gone or the highly-sought-after Love Has Many Faces!) VHS has provided the plasma to get myself and others over the hump until they come out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Big Family

Coming home from school as a child meant one thing... getting there and in place by 4:00pm to watch the daily reruns of The Big Valley! Born in '67, I was too young to have ever watched it in its initial four-year run. However, one day I happened to catch a rerun and caught a glimpse of fierce Victoria Barkley (played by Barbara Stanwyck), tough Nick (Peter Breck), hunky Heath (Lee Majors) and stunningly beautiful Audra (Linda Evans.)

I was basically raised an only child (one step-sister who I saw every other weekend and a half-sister who came much later), so I gravitated towards the tightly knit Barkleys (which also included dependable attorney Jarrod, played by Richard Long), perhaps enhanced by the fact that, like myself, they had a strong mother at the helm and the father was gone.

The show has an odd dichotomy to it. It began as a very realistic and serious family drama with Heath coming out of nowhere to claim his place as the illegitimate son of the deceased patriarch Tom Barkley. Victoria had long hair in a snood and Audra wore period-inspired dresses. But somewhere along the way, the show began to buck a lot of that and Victoria had a contemporary haircut and modern makeup (dig the false eyelashes!) along with plenty of kicky black leather riding ensembles. Audra's hair (which was just about the most beautiful hair ever to grace the small screen) got blonder and more modern in style and she began to look less and less like someone from the 19th century. Still, the show retained its seriousness for the most part. Some of the adventures the family underwent were quite violent and harrowing (and Barbara Stanwyck revelled in doing practically all of her own stunt work, once even being dragged on rugged, rocky ground for 150 feet!)

Yes, an occasional dud episode may sneak in, but generally the shows are captivating and entertaining, especially once the viewer begins to think of The Barkleys as a unit, devoted to each other even when experiencing their occasional brawls. What the show had, which so many shows today lack, was a sense of justice, integrity and dignity. The Barkleys always fought for what was right and just. Yes, they made mistakes, but they always did the right thing in the end. It was a family that I would have loved to have been a member of, if they'd have had me!

And what a great looking bunch they were! Stanwyck was in a class by herself in terms of latter day attractiveness and style. Premature grey be damned! Richard Long, though a bit dowdy compared to the other men, was a nice looking and debonair man. Peter Breck was dangerous and fiery (and, in some episodes, his display of manhood down near his chaps is eye-popping to say the least!) Heath was beautiful. Delectable. Audra's striking looks were almost too good to be true. (And it's a shame to see what poor Linda has done to her face of late.) A fourth son, Eugene (played by Charles Briles) was quickly written out with no explanation given aside from occasional references to college. Mr. Briles himself told me that he was drafted for The Vietnam War, which does add a sad footnote to his brief participation in the show. Thank goodness he made it through and hopefully was able to continue with a happy and contented life.

The theme song was always good, but in the 3rd and 4th seasons, it was augmented to make it more dramatic and little bit longer and this version is among the very best television theme songs of all time! Oddly, in recent syndication packages, the episodes use only two of the original four opening credit sequences. There were differences, sometimes minor, sometimes major, between all of them and it's a shame they aren't all available for viewing.

Living for the Sword

The next film to have a pretty important impact on me was Richard Lester's rollicking version of The Three Musketeers. Something about the grandeur, humor and camaraderie of the story took hold of me and I fell head over heels in love with the film. Though I adored practically everyone in it, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway were my favorites.

Somehow, I obtained a copy of the novel - a movie tie-in version which was abridged. At age six, I was in no way prepared to digest even the truncated work of Alexandre Dumas in the way it was presented in the book, but there were pictures inside and, most importantly, the cover showed all of the main actors with their names and who they played. This led to an absolute fetish of mine in that I cannot resist a film that has an all-star cast and especially love movie ads/posters that put all their faces in small boxes or otherwise feature the stars' mugs. (Think Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile.)

I may not have been able to read the novel but I made sure I knew EVERY name on that cover. This, again, being the days before VCRs or even any channels besides the big three and maybe a UHF or two, it was next to impossible to see the film itself again. I was also horribly deflated when later, on a trip to visit family in Florida, my (step) uncle Charlie refused to take me to see the sequel The Four Musketeers and we went to some other, forgettable flick. Eventually, I did get to see the sequel and it solidified my passion for Faye Dunaway. Ever since that movie, I have been in her spell, even if the spell has faltered or dissipated at times!

As I said, I could barely read, but I knew that name. Cut to the day in 1974 that my mother started to take me to the movies and insisted that we see a film I had no interest in. I whined and squirmed and was a genuine brat as she dragged me in and sat me down. Then the movie started and it was already boring to me. A helicopter flying around a bunch of scenery... Then I looked up and there on the screen was that NAME! Faye Dunaway! Believe it or not, I had no clue that actors ever played in more than one film! Ha! My young mind didn't realize that actors worked in a film and then could come back, altogether different, in another one! From that moment on, I didn't move. I sat there totally fixated on The Towering Inferno. Imagine my delight when Richard Chamberlain's name appeared as well! He was no longer the nice, helpful Aramis of The Three Musketeers, but Faye was also the opposite of the ice cold Milady de Winter. Here, she was a thoughtful, loving, serene goddess who blew my mind for all time. (Yes, I know what you're thinking... She was playing a girlfriend in a disaster movie and had hardly any screen time or dialogue. Well, believe me, when you adore someone as I did her, you are grateful to see them do anything!)

It's not possible to fully convey the impact of seeing Faye Dunaway up there floating around The Promenade Room in what was, to me, the dress to end them all. Every time she moved or the wind blew, I was out of my mind. (At 7!) There will be more to come at a future date about Faye's dress.

These strong early movie impressions: all star casts, chiffon, disaster sequences and glamour would forge for me a set of preferences that would dominate my movie viewing habits for the rest of my life.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Sound of LPs

The first film that I can ever remember seeing in a movie theater was The Sound of Music. It was re-released in about 1971, give or take, and my mother took me to see it. I'm sure that I was taken to the movies before this (I was born in 1967), but I have no memory of it.
This time I was completely captivated. I insisted that we stay and watch it again (you can imagine my mother's reaction considering how lengthy the film is!) She compromised and we stayed through Sixteen Going on Seventeen. At that tender age, that was my favorite part and Liesl was my favorite character. (Hello! Mom should have seen the writing on the wall when I liked the pink chiffon dress and the swirling around inside the gazebo versus anything any other boy might like!)

I couldn't stand Baroness Schraeder and scowled at her from my seat. Later, I would completely submit to the charms of Eleanor Parker as the elegant, scheming, but ultimately pragmatic lady and tire just a bit of Charmian Carr's naive (and slightly too old!) sixteen year-old (not that I didn't still adore her and everything about the movie.) But that would come much later. Similarly, I would later appreciate the sex appeal of Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp, something that was unthinkable to me as a babe, even though I knew even then that I was "different."

This film, along with another I will write about later, instilled in me a lifelong obsession with flowy fabrics - chiffon and the like - between Liesl's dress and Maria's blue party frock, which she swished around in during The Laendler.

It's hard for young people to fully grasp that in the days before DVD (not to mention VHS!), we had to wait for films to either be re-released to theaters or come on TV where they would be chopped up for commercials and often edited down to fit time slots. And you'd better make sure you weren't in the bathroom during your favorite part because "rewind" wasn't an option. Also, the formatting was fouled up and so you couldn't even see the entire composition of the film. However, most of us didn't know any better. We were just grateful to get to see the films again.

In the meantime, we'd wear out our soundtrack albums, singing all the songs and, in my case, performing them for company on command. I'd stand behind the doorway leading from our living room to the dining room and do So Long Farewell for whichever hapless guest was visiting. My mother's cousin Wanda drove a Volkswagon bug convertible and used to scream in agony as I went through Do-Re-Mi over and over in the backseat, including all the variations within the lengthy number only to start from the top once I was finished.

The album had a picture of Liesl sitting at the Captain's feet during Edelweiss (you must realize that even seeing PICTURES of favored people and projects was nothing like it is now) and I remember feeling crushed when the network began cutting the section where she sang along and echoed the lyrics he was singing. The way the big three networks cut these films up, a little bit more every year or so, eventually led me to never watch another movie on TV unless it was on a cable channel such as TCM or the like.

As an adult, I got the rare privilege of getting to play Captain Von Trapp in the stage version and later played Uncle Max. Both times were wonderful experiences though the book of the stage musical has no chance of competing with the brilliant screenplay Ernest Lehman devised. That man worked wonders with the thin story, turning it into the memorable and captivating project that it was and is. Though The Baroness's songs were cut (something I actually agree with because it makes her character even more alienated and uncomfortable), she was given a lot more dialogue, much of it hilariously snotty, and made the character unforgettable. One key scene, in which she convinces Maria to go away, was completely fabricated for the film. In the stage musical, Brigitta does this duty inadvertently.

Always accused of being sentimental and saccharin, I find the film to be surprisingly witty, sarcastic and even restrained at times. And there's just no topping that magnificent scenery. It's a movie that is as much a part of my life as anything ever could be, perhaps because it is the first movie I was ever conscious of.

In the Beginning....

This is the first post of my first blog. It's hard to even know what sort of things will show up here, but I hope that whatever blatherings bubble to the surface are interesting to those who stop by. One thing I would like to do is draw attention to those classic (and campy) stars of film & television who have brought so much joy and entertainment into my life, but who have often been shunted to the side in the wake of the electronic age.

My favorite types of films are 1970s disaster movies, glossy melodramas, whodunit mysteries and anything (primarily epic or musical) that was intended to be great, but is actually horribly bad! I love all-star casts.

As far as TV shows, I love classic game shows, programs that feature famous guest stars - the more the better - and prime time soaps of the '80s. I go nuts over any TV show whose opening credits show the faces of the guest stars and then either show or say their names.

I guess I just love screen stars. I find it comforting to see actors I know doing work in film and television and, for the most part, have never 100% warmed up to the new generation of "stars" who dominate entertainment now. That makes me a fuddy-duddy in some ways, but I do occasionally take in new programming and product. Most of it just doesn't hold much interest for me.

So if you enjoy looking at pictures of practically forgotten stars (and don't forget to click on them for larger-size viewing!) along with my own unique take on them as to what they've meant to me or how they've pleased me, I hope you'll drop by for an occasional peek!