Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Barrel of Errol

Of the many classic stars to find success in Hollywood, Errol Flynn (known to millions as the star of the legendary and colorful The Adventures of Robin Hood) is among the most provocative and gossiped-about. Though he was a notoriously voracious sexual animal, he projected a heroic, dignified, at times even wholesome (!) image in many of his films. His background is shrouded in mystery, thanks in part to himself and the creative writing he did in his autobiography "My Wicked, Wicked Ways." Mr. Flynn seemed to delight in shocking people and spinning tall tales about his life, though some of them were likely true.

Before he broke into films in the early 1930s, he had led quite an adventurous life. Born in Tasmania to Australian parents, he was involved in an assortment of business, shipping and hunting ventures, giving him a background that would aid him in his many later roles as swashbucklers, rebels and other assorted heroes. His first role was as Fletcher Christian in an Australian version of Mutiny on the Bounty, though few, if any, Americans saw it. He did a few bit parts at Warner Brothers until they needed an immediate replacement for Robert Donat in Captain Blood and gave Flynn a shot. The highly successful film made him an instant star and he continued to headline major adventure movies for many years afterwards.

Occasionally, Flynn would attempt to break out of the mold by doing a contemporary drama or a comedy (something he was surprisingly adept at), but the public wanted him swinging on a rope with a sword in his hand or riding a horse firing a pistol. Flynn, being Australian, was surprised to find himself in many American westerns, but the truth is he was at home in any genre that required a dashing, confident man, especially if it involved any kind of uniform. Flynn looked smashing in period dress, sometimes beautifully carrying off looks that would have made other actors of his generation look silly.

Warner Brothers paired him eight different times with Olivia de Havilland and it’s easy to see why. Not only did they share wonderful chemistry on the screen (perhaps because of the tension deriving from the fact that the pair never consummated their relationship in real life despite having strong feelings for one another?), but they just looked plain terrific together. Errol enjoyed playing tricks on Olivia, some of which incensed her, but she retained a fondness for him as long as he lived and far beyond.

One costar who did not want to work with him was Bette Davis. They did The Sisters together in 1938 and were actually discussed as potential Scarlett and Rhett candidates when Gone with the Wind was in preproduction. However, she would not accept her role if it meant acting opposite Flynn. When they appeared together in 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, her loathing of him was at full steam and when it came time for her character to slap his, she gave him a strike that would have put many men down. Many years later, she admitted to her pal de Havilland that her dislike for Flynn was misplaced and that he was not only good-looking, but also good! Incidentally, I think this film is the one in which Flynn is his most handsome.

The stories surrounding Flynn and his private life are mind-boggling. Apart from the public scandal that erupted in 1942 regarding the alleged statutory rape of two underage girls, he was accused, often posthumously, of everything including involvement in white slavery, spying for the Nazis, carrying on lavish sex and drug-fueled parties, barely surviving a raft of diseases, watching houseguests have sex through two-way mirrors, and carrying on affairs with Tyrone Power and Howard Hughes. We may never know how much or how little of these and other allegations are true, though it is generally believed now that the Nazism claims, at least, are either heavily exaggerated or altogether false. Certainly, Flynn packed enough living into his relatively short 50-year life that he died looking 70. Here in Poseidon’s Underworld, however, you won’t find photos of him looking bloated and worn. For some reason, the men here tend to be on display at their peak!

What does remain for everyone to examine and enjoy is his body of film work. I am of the belief that no still photo, no matter how beautiful – and some of them are, can truly capture the magic of Errol Flynn. He has to be seen in motion with his graceful moves, charming voice and that glint in his eye. At first, he didn’t take his film career very seriously. Then when he did, the audiences and producers didn’t, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the inherent gifts that he’d previously been squandering. Do yourself a favor and, the next time the TCM documentary The Adventures of Errol Flynn comes on, watch it. It’s a fascinating, affectionate, but encompassing, look at this complicated and gifted man. See if you don’t have a newfound appreciation for his work and his beauty or, if you are already a fan, if that devotion isn’t enhanced even further.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Joan Structure

Yes, we know that Miss Joan Crawford was more of a “Movie Star” than an actress and, yes, we know that she was reputed to be a monster of a mother if you believe her adopted daughter Christina and the select people who have sided with her. Nonetheless, she is still the female star of old Hollywood who I worship the most.

There’s something about the rags to riches journey, the self-invention, the self-education and the amazing artifice that captivates me, regardless of how much or how little actual acting talent was there. (And, to me, her greatest performance – a lifelong acting feat – was managing to play “Joan Crawford” all those decades!) It’s the presence onscreen that mesmerizes and that FACE!

Joan came from a very ratty background. Her mother worked in a laundry in return for piddling wages and a small room for her and Joan (then Lucille LeSeuer) to sleep in. She hoofed her way through chorus dancing on the stage to silent movies, where she finally found her niche (though not without a ton of perseverance and determination on her part.) When a Name that Star contest resulted in “Joan Crawford” (following a previous winning name, Joan Arden, which was ultimately discarded, due to it being taken already), the actress balked, thinking it was too akin to “crawfish.” Little did she know at the time the lasting, legendary impression that the name Joan Crawford would have on the cinematic world.

As the sound era approached, Crawford went all out to make sure she had a voice that would read well and fail to give evidence of her humble background. Not only did she practice pronunciation, projection and elocution, but she also educated herself on the meaning of words, so that she would possess a wide vocabulary. This practice lent her an amazingly studied and affected speech pattern that was every bit as fascinating and, in some cases and to some people, annoying, as it was effective.

She loved to sit for still photography sessions and developed a particularly fruitful and rewarding relationship with George Hurrell. While she was certainly no slouch in person, she was also not quite the stunning goddess that he and his retouching wand created in their many shots, though there was no denying her incredible bone structure and amazing eyes. Because she was such a patient and willing subject and did possess extraordinary attributes, he experimented a great deal with her face and figure, resulting in many tremendous photos.

Joan was like the Madonna of her day, only in movies (which is a field Madonna has had only middling success in at best!) She shifted her looks and her approach in order to keep up with what was desired and required from audiences with each passing period. She went from flapper to working girl to fur-draped sufferer to self-supporting career woman to put upon victim and everything in between. Only near the end, when she clung to some garish makeup applications, which included thick, heavy eyebrows and almost scary false eyelashes with practically Sharpie marker liner, did she become rather stuck in one spot completely. Oddly enough, this is just about when I worship her the most!

Crawford was a tireless letter writer whose blue stationary was famous as she personally answered thousands of fan letters and sent ones of her own to stars she admired, especially up and coming talents that she saw on TV in her later years. It’s been said, perhaps apocryphally, perhaps not, that Joan sometimes even sent thank you cards in response to thank you cards!

Though Joan did play quite a few vulnerable characters in her long career, she was always able to put forth a very convincing tough persona on screen whether it be the gold-digging man-stealer in The Women, the obsessive housewife in Harriet Craig, the destructive control freak in Queen Bee, the concrete-hard Broadway diva in Torch Song or the fire-breathing book editor in The Best of Everything, to name only a few. These bitch goddess types are the ones that tend to attract a gay following. It certainly worked for me! Among my personal favorites are her strap ‘em down and shackle ‘em mental hospital nurse trainer in The Caretakers and her drunken, lovesick neighbor in I Saw What You Did.

One of the great sadnesses of my life (oh dear...) is that she and Bette Davis couldn’t manage to get along long enough to complete the follow-up to their runaway hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? During the filming of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, tensions ran so high that Crawford only worked four days before retreating to the hospital with (real or imagined, depending on who’s asked) pneumonia. Davis’s friend Olivia de Havilland filled the role and did it quite well, actually. It’s just that the JC of this period is the one I enjoy the greatest.

Perhaps because I was introduced to a lot of the great old female stars of Hollywood when they were old and had to work backwards or perhaps just because I like decaying old battle axes, I have a great fondness for films that feature actresses just beyond their prime. Maybe it could be because with age comes seasoning, experience and weariness that result in a more three-dimensional performance than those that were given in youth? Maybe I’m fascinated with the cosmetic attempts to stave off Father Time? Who knows…?

It’s also of particular interest to me that Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway are my favorite female stars of all time and not only did Dunaway play Crawford (to my mind not really all that convincingly, but that’s for another post), but Dunaway was the sole actress of her generation who Crawford felt really had what it took to make it. Ironically, it was when Dunaway played Crawford in the character-maligning Mommie Dearest, her career began heading off the tracks and really never fully rebounded. And now, just like Joan, Faye seems to have begun to cling to things that she really ought to give up such as the long, octopus-like hair and the protruding lips! Has Joan had the last word after all?

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Mission Worth Accepting

One of the most elegantly handled television series of the 60s (and maybe of all time) was the undercover agent suspense drama Mission: Impossible. Conceived during The Cold War when spies were popular in films (The James Bond series among many others) and on television (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy), this program revolved around the I.M.F. – Impossible Missions Force.

A highly secretive branch of the US government, the I.M.F. would receive instructions regarding a sensitive international situation or serious criminal activity, something beyond the realm of regular law enforcement, and be asked to step in and solve things. The leader would then select his team from a pool of agents, depending on his or her skills, and then construct a plan in which to get the job done. Though these plans were always elaborate (sometimes ludicrously so) and exceptionally well thought-out, there was always an element of suspense thanks to the wild card actions of the bad guys the team was trying to defeat.

The unforgettable opening theme (with famous music by Lalo Schifrin) showed an animated fuse burning while rapid-fire clips from the episode in question flickered on the screen. The (abhorrent to many die-hard fans of the show) film series starring Tom Cruise kept this music, but little else.

Though few casual viewers of the show recall it, the first season featured a team leader named Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill. When Hill began to experience (and cause) trouble due to some newfound religious beliefs, he was segued out and replaced from season two on by Peter Graves, who played Jim Phelps. Phelps and his team of Rollin (Martin Landau), Cinnamon (Barbara Bain), Barney (Greg Morris) and Willy (Peter Lupus), though they were only together for two of the seven seasons, are the most iconic and well-remembered group from the run of the show.

Despite the intense secrecy regarding the instructions given to the team (the leader frequently had to use code words or step into offbeat buildings in order to retrieve his envelope and tape recording), the man on the tape would state the following, “As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck, Jim. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds” and the tape would then “dissolve” in a huge cloud of smoke! Really private!

After a while, since the same people were chosen almost every single week, scenes involving the agents being selected out of a dossier were dropped. However, most episodes retained the debriefing scene in which the agents assembled, always glamorously dressed in shades of black, white and/or grey, and revealed tidbits of the plan -- just enough to intrigue the viewer.

Graves was a handsome and stalwart lead who stayed from season two on and even headlined a brief late 80s revival. (Greg Morris’s son Phil also
starred in this as Barney’s son.) Landau got a nice acting workout as a master of disguise. Barbara Bain, in particular, was a breakout star of the show. Possessing an amazingly cool and beguiling face and a sleek figure, she added immeasurable class to the proceedings and picked up three Emmy Awards in the bargain! Morris was notable as the first black lead on a TV series in which no reference was made to his color. (When some racist viewers wrote in to complain that he and Bain were too close together, writers wrote scenes that placed them interacting even more closely!) Amiable muscle man Lupus could barely put five words together, especially at first, but his goodwill with audiences kept him there through the series. He would later shock his costars and the rest of the world with a full-on nude spread in Playgirl magazine.

In a startling and very messy break, Landau and Bain departed the series after three seasons. The complicated details of the split (with both sides blaming the other) led to career trauma for the couple. They later had a modicum of success (mostly on a cult level) with the British sci-fi series Space: 1999 before winding up in utter garbage like The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island! Not even Nostradamus could have predicted that Landau would eventually carve out a solid career as a supporting actor in films again, even winning an Oscar! Bain fared less well, but worked in some nice projects here and there. The once tight couple divorced in 1993.

Replacements for the departed cast members included, over the years: Leonard Nimoy as another master of disguise, Lesley Ann Warren as a nubile distraction, Sam Elliott as a hunky doctor and Lynda Day George, who did surprisingly well as a latter day re-dux of Bain, even copping an Emmy nomination for herself. When she went on maternity leave, Ironside’s Barbara Anderson stepped in for a while. Directly following Bain’s departure, a series of actresses filled in as agents. The most frequent was Lee Meriwether.

The show eventually moved from mostly foreign settings to mostly urban American areas which served to erode it’s uniqueness, but also kept it going after there had been so many fictional Slavic nations, Latin dictatorships and obscure duchies that it had worn thin. The budget decreased in time as well, however, and the series lost a bit of its luster. (However, times were becoming less glamorous anyway as the 70s rolled in, so it likely didn’t stand out so much at the time.)

Fans of Star Trek should take particular delight in watching M:I on DVD as the series share many, many guest stars in common. Remarkably, for a show about spies and crime, there was very little gunplay or bloodshed. The stories relied more upon intricately planned “stings,” much of which the audience was expected to grasp without a lot of explanation. The early seasons, in particular, devote an almost fetishistic amount of attention to the details of how the various gadgets work and the amount of trouble it took to complete the tasks at hand. This fact may be as off-putting to some viewers as it is fascinating to technology geeks.

The allure for me is in the crisp, clean photography, the stylish clothing of the performers, the dedicated teamwork of the agents and the elaborate hoaxes which were pulled on the villains.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Are You There God? It's Green Margaret!

I don’t suppose anything on Earth scared me quite as much as a child than The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (with The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hot on her heels!) I’m certainly not alone on this score as this maleficent hag (and her creepy flying monkeys) sent countless children to their rooms at night, praying that they wouldn't awake to find her at the foot of the bed.

Now, of course, I revel in each and every frame of Miss Margaret Hamilton’s marvelous, but surprisingly scant, screen time in the film. What is it with me loving, practically worshipping, the same things that I either loathed or was afraid to death of as a child?!

Last night I was privileged enough to secure a ticket to a 70th Anniversary screening of this legendary movie which was presented in a high-definition format, allowing every possible detail of the many wonderful props and glorious costumes to be seen in all their glory. (Also, this format pointed out some of the artificiality in the sets and even the lace from the characters’ wigs, but who gives a hoot?!) A tornado was never more threatening and Miss Hamilton was never more vividly green. I came away from the screening even more devoted to the power of handcrafted special effects and more staunchly opposed to computer-generated imagery than I was before.

In an almost ridiculous bit of irony, Hamilton, who has elicited squeals from children for over seven decades now, was, prior to her film career, a Kindergarten teacher!! Jim “Mr. Howell” Backus was one of her young charges, as a matter of fact. She toiled away in character parts (which, with an usual face like hers, was all she could ever hope for, especially in those heady glamour days of Hollywood) until she was called upon to enact what would be a role for the ages.
Initially, the Wicked Witch was going to be more like Snow White’s stepmother, a tall, lithe beauty in a glitzy black gown, but still possessing all the evil qualities one might expect. When the decision was made to head more towards the crone territory, Gale Sondergaard declined to continue in the role. This paved the way for Hamilton who ensured that any potential campiness the role might offer, then or now, went out the window as she delivered a breathtakingly nasty villainess. In fact, some of her most vividly horrible moments were snipped from the film for fear of the effect it might have on kids who would be watching. One can only dream of these someday being unearthed and shown again, unlikely as it is.

Hamilton didn’t have it easy during the making of the movie. Aside from the arduous make-up tests and applications, the necessity to avoid eating during filming due to the toxicity of her make-up and the somewhat heavy costume under scorching lights, she was severely burned thanks to the mistiming of one of her exits involving a fiery explosion. It took a month and a half for her to recuperate and when she returned, she declined to take part in anything involving flames. In a sad comment of the times, she knew she had no way of suing or being compensated for her injuries and trauma unless she never wanted to work in films again.

Still, she took pleasure in the notoriety the part gave her, especially from 1956 on when the film was broadcast on television for the first time and enraptured a whole new generation (even though virtually all the TVs were in black & white at the time!) Miss Hamilton worked in TV and film periodically and had a long tenure as Cora, a general store owner who championed Maxwell House coffee in a series of ads. In 1976, she donned her Wicked Witch makeup and costume again for the ultra-campy and ridiculous Paul Lynde Halloween Special, in which she hobnobbed with, among others, Billie “Witchiepoo” Hayes, Florence Henderson (who delivered a humiliatingly hilarious disco rendition of “That Old Black Magic”) and, most startlingly, the rock group Kiss!

The legacy of Margaret Hamilton in this role is undisputed, but I must point out that even so, her ACTING seems somehow underrated. After all, it was not deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination even though, within the film, she demonstrates not only exceptional skill, but versatility as well. Her crotchety, fussy, old bat Miss Gulch, while mean and crusty, is semi-comic and light years removed from her Witch, who is the personification of horribleness. No one could have brought the intensity, vocal variety or sense of menace to the role the way she did.

Playing The Wizard in a stage production once was a complete joy for me and I must say that the message of this story (at least as it appears to me) is one that I admire heartily. That is that many times the things we desire, or believe that we lack, are within us already. We just haven’t discovered them yet. The Scarecrow who covets a brain is the one who keeps coming up with solutions. The Tin Man who wants a heart is the most emotional of all. The “Cowardly” Lion is the first one up the mountain to rescue Dorothy. It’s a rewarding notion that I think does children more good than 99 and 44/100% of the drek that is placed before them. The fact that they may not sleep for days afterward is a small price to pay in my opinion! Ha ha!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Help! There's no one here to write the screenplay!"

With Airport having been a smashing success for Universal Pictures, it’s surprising that a sequel or other type of follow-up didn’t occur more readily, but once The Poseidon Adventure bowled over audiences, the disaster genre was in high gear and films of that ilk were popping out everywhere.

This one concerned a passenger airliner that is struck in midair by a small private craft, killing or severely injuring all of the flight crew, requiring the chief stewardess to take over the controls. Originally conceived as a television movie, producer Jennings Lang decided to dress it up with lots of stars and improve the budget in the hopes that it would make a successful feature instead. His instincts paid off when the $4 million film made $47 million at the box office! Think about that return. Early 70s audiences lapped up these types of films until they caught on to the routine, cookie-cutter nature of them by the end of the decade.

Unfortunately, the pedestrian and, at times, ludicrous script never made it past its TV-level roots and despite a roster of familiar faces (in boxes on the poster, something that always delights me!), no one in the film was able to truly distinguish his or her self. In fact, participation in this left blights on several careers! The film wound up on All Time 50 Worst Films lists.

Charlton Heston was, by now, an indestructible box office name who headlined many all-star action and disaster films of this era. George Kennedy (the only man to appear in all four Airport movies) was, despite an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke, never one whose name suggested high art anyway, so he also escaped unharmed (at least this time!) For most of the others, however, it meant either a final takeoff on the big screen or a direct flight into television and telefilms. Linda Blair’s career (regardless of the fact that she spent a mere three days filming her role in this) would never really rebound, especially after the debacles that were Exorcist II: The Heretic and Roller Boogie. Helen Reddy managed a featured role in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, but that was basically it for her film career, too. Both these ladies, along with other folks from this film and the 1957 howler Zero Hour! were mercilessly parodied later in Airplane!, a 1980 send-up of the air disaster genre.

Someone who continued in films (some prestigious, most not) for a while, but who was never allowed to live down her role here is Karen Black as chief stewardess Nancy Pryor. Sporting heavy false eyelashes which draw attention to a crossed eye, she spastically and fretfully portrays a woman in over her head when asked to pilot a 747 jet while being coached by a passel of sexist men on the ground. Her infamous line, of course, bleated into a radio receiver is, “There’s no one left to fly the PLANE!!” Her entire parade of scenes in the cockpit are a scream as well as she concocts ways in which to react to falling electronics, oncoming mountains, in-flight mishaps and the like. Occasionally, she comes up with such creative actions such as tugging at her hose or sticking out her tongue! Three or four decades before, a leading lady with a catch in her eye (like, say, Norma Shearer, Queen of the MGM lot) would be photographed and lit as carefully as possible to downplay it. Miss Black, however, is granted so such favors and is splayed across the screen in whichever contortion she presents.

Producer Lang had (pipe) dreams of coercing Greta Garbo out of her 30+ year retirement to play an aged actress. When she swiftly said no, Gloria Swanson stepped up and played herself(!), or some reasonable facsimile of, and wrote all her own (often hooty) dialogue. Keen-eyed viewers will recognize her assistant Augusta Summerland as Chuck Heston’s bikini-clad sidekick from The Planet of the Apes. She briefly changed her name from Linda Harrison as a bid to change her career trajectory, but it didn’t quite work. He and Harrison share no scenes, nor does he share any with nun Martha Scott who twice played his mother in Biblical epics of his. (Despite this, he misidentified Ms. Scott as Ms. Swanson in a caption within his book "Charlton Heston’s Hollywood!") Likewise, Swanson shares no scenes with Nancy Olson, who was the ingenue in Sunset Boulevard, though they shared no scenes in that film either.

For the role of an amiable drunken old lady, Joan Crawford was first approached, but turned it down. Myrna Loy accepted the part and offers a warm and occasionally amusing presence, though the role is far beneath her. One of the film’s rare touching scenes involves a radio conversation between Susan Clark and her husband George Kennedy. Otherwise, there is a healthy amount of awkward comedy, clichéd drama and brazen sexism. On that last count, Erik Estrada is one of the chief offenders, but once he’s gone, Heston takes up the slack himself.

In 1960, in The Crowded Sky, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. played a military pilot who flew his jet into Dana Andrews’ passenger jet. Here, in a fun casting coup, Andrews is the small jet flyer who runs his plane into Zimbalist’s jumbo jet. It is these types of casting tidbits and the connections between the actors from previous projects that make classic movie watching more fun for me. There’s even a female passenger on the plane in this movie who winds up in a featured bit in Airplane! The nervous lady who’s drinking a bit too much when Linda Blair is brought on portrays the passenger who first gets ill and has eggs coming out her mouth in the later film!

Incidentally, Karen Black was not the first actress to portray a stewardess behind the wheel of a passenger plane. Miss Doris Day of all people completed the same task, even landing it, with no small amount of angst, in the 1956 flick Julie.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Password is: Fun!

I’ve been a game show NUT ever since I was a kid and used to see Gene Rayburn, Richard Dawson and Charles Nelson Reilly on Match Game in the 1970s as well as that master of snarkiness Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. Though I eventually evolved to enjoying ever-so-slightly more challenging fare such as Jeopardy, I still can’t help but love the old celebrity driven shows including Password, which is currently being featured on The Game Show Network (GSN.)

Password was a rather simple game involving teams of two trying to make their partners guess a particular word by stating one other word and then alternating turns until either the word was guessed or the point value (which started at 10 and descended with each shot) ran out. The announcer would whisper the password for the home audience. Hosted by Allen Ludden, the original incarnation ran from 1961-1975 and featured a galaxy of famous men and women as the celebrity panelists. These panelists would each be assigned a player of the opposite gender and then, after the first game, the players would switch for a battle of the sexes round. Each game winner (the first to reach 25 points) won a whopping $100 and a chance to win $250 more in the lightning round which involved the celebrity firing through 5 more passwords in a minute or less. Though this was hardly big money, that sort of sum still went a fer piece in the mid-60s and contestants were glad to get it!

Ludden, a widowed father of three, had previously hosted The General Electric College Bowl, but is now most strongly identified with Password, including a revised edition call Password Plus that began airing in 1979. Sadly, he would pass away from cancer during the run of that series and be replaced by Tom Kennedy (though, to be truthful, no one could ever completely replace Ludden.) Ludden was an easy-going, very wholesome-acting person, but one possessing a glint in his eye and a sharp sense of humor. He met his match when a game-loving divorcee and TV personality named Betty White came on the show as a celebrity panelist. He fell for her instantly, but, having been burned twice before in the marriage-go-round, she dragged her feet for about a year before giving in and enjoying a very happy 18-year union with him. (Doubtless, Miss White used Ludden as a mental guidepost when recalling “Charlie” on all those episodes of The Golden Girls.)

This couple’s affection for one another was palpable and they not only worked together on Ludden’s game shows, but also worked on stage together in such unlikely vehicles as "Guys and Dolls!" Betty was a zesty, driven and excited Password player and is the only person to play the game in all of its incarnations including Super Password (hosted by Bert Convy) and even Million Dollar Password (hosted by Regis Philbin.) No one got more thrill out of winning a game than Betty with the possible exception of Eva Gabor. Hungarian Gabor played Password in the mid-60s and wreaked absolute havoc with the rules and decorum of the show. Unable to fully understand some of the words she was given to describe, she would tug on Allen and say, “I doan know zis vord. Vat das dis mean, dahlink?” or better yet yell out, “I don’t vant dis vord! Give me another vord!” Anyone else would have been pelted with ripe vegetables, but she was so enthusiastic and charming and endearingly helpless about it that she won everyone over. In the lightning round, she would screech “NO!” to her partner if he or she didn’t get what she was after, but when they won, she would chuckle with abandoned glee as her hunkalicious counterpart Hugh O’Brian looked on in amazement from the other side of the dais.

Peter Lawford held the record in the lightning round: 5 words given and guessed in 12 seconds. It was a formidable feat and few people ever got much closer to it than about 20 seconds. Other notable and frequent Password players included Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Montgomery and football great turned color commentator Frank Gifford who, in the color episodes of the 1960s was so breathtakingly handsome and polite, it’s almost impossible to believe that he eventually wound up married to that harpy Kathie Lee or involved in the sordid (and set-up) sex scandal that grabbed headlines everywhere at the time. Amusingly, the guest stars and the contestants seemed to take great pleasure in finding the most garishly hued clothing possible once the show began broadcasting in color around 1966. (The original set was bright blue with colored strips in the background. The orange photos here are from later editions.)

My favorite thing about Password is the method of introduction at the top of the show. The female star’s face would be shown as an old-fashioned announcer would gushingly state, for example, “This is the gifted and dynamic star of stage and screen, Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine!” followed by the lady introducing her contestant and where he was from. Then the male star would appear and the announcer might say, “And this is the popular and debonair star of Lost in Space, Guy Williams!” after which Williams would introduce his partner and then say, “…and we’re all here to play Password!” Then Ludden would be introduced, take a bow and swing the cord of his bulky microphone (which hung around his neck!) out of the way as he made his way to his spot. He would be given the words, packaged in little snap-together wallets, out of a sort of pit from someone unseen that he called “The little man.” It was a simpler time, but one that is fun to revisit through the magic of reruns (not to mention VCRs or Tivo as the original show is aired at 3:30am EST!)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Think I'm Ready for a Walker

I keep trying to remember the first time I noticed Clint Walker. His career was, for all intents and purposes, over before I began seeing very many movies. His hit television show Cheyenne (1955-1962) went many years without being rerun and was only recently unearthed by The Starz Westerns Channel. Perhaps it was during a viewing of his 1966 family film Night of the Grizzly, in which he went shirtless in order to chop some wood.

In any case, at some point in the early 2000s, I began to obsess over Mr. Walker to the point of hysteria. An online friend who I had met through imdb.com sent me copies of two of his old Warner Brothers western films – Gold of the Seven Saints and Fort Dobbs – and the 1969 comedy, The Great Bank Robbery. That was it. From then on, I had to see EVERYTHING that Clint Walker ever did.

The epitome of a “strong but silent” type, 6 foot, 6 inch Clint Walker was a giant with a broad, strong chest, but possessing a dulcet voice which could melt a person’s ears off. His ice blue eyes were offset by silken dark hair and a suntan. He had a gentle, polite manner, but was incredibly heroic and tough when it was needed. In short, if I could be a Dr. Frankenstein and make the perfect man, Walker would be it! To give you an idea of his shape, at his peak, he had a 48" chest, but only a 32" waist.

Frequently derided as a wooden actor, he was actually a very understated, but highly committed, performer who brought nuance to the standard, cardboard roles that were always handed to him. He was brought to the attention of Cecil B. DeMille for a role in The Ten Commandments, but C.B. took one look at him and told him he would dwarf the stars, Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, so he appeared as a guard instead. (Look for him in the palace scenes with a horned helmet on his head!) He then landed his signature role of Cheyenne Bodie on the Warner Brothers series and performed in occasional film roles during his off time. Many episodes featured his character stripped to the waist either to wash up or to perform manual labor. It was an unpleasant experience for him for a variety of reasons including typecasting and restrictions in his ability to do more and better film work.

Once free from the series, he tried to break the mold, to a degree, with a comedic role as Doris Day’s hunky former sweetheart in Send Me No Flowers, but generally Clint wound up in more westerns or war movies, including The Dirty Dozen. He also found work in several family-oriented films where his best assets often went wasted (except for that wood-chopping scene in Grizzly, which is legendary among his admirers.) In a nod to his work in war films, he voiced the role of Nick Nitro in the animated film Small Soldiers, his last role to date.

In 1973, Clint was involved in a bizarre skiing accident in which the tip of his ski pole penetrated his chest and nicked his heart! Though he made an admirably speedy recovery from the incident, that was the last anyone ever saw of his amazing chest on the screen. Apart from this, he was in his mid-forties and likely had tired of the beefcake scenes by then anyway. He has admitted in interviews that he shied away from many film offers that came his way from the 1960s on because he didn’t wish to use foul language or appear in things that contained, in his view, inappropriate material. Now in his early 80s, for the last several years he has lived a quiet life with his wife, occasionally venturing to a western convention here and there.

A warning to those who have yet to experience Clint Walker: Tread carefully or you will become as addicted to his face, figure and soothing voice as some people are to crack!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Unparalleled Parker

In an earlier post, I mentioned how my feelings towards The Sound of Music’s Baroness Elsa Schraeder changed over time. As a child, I loathed her for her attempts to thwart the love between Captain Von Trapp and Maria. Once I grew up, though, and began to appreciate the art of cattiness and bitchery, she swiftly became my favorite character and now I treasure every frame of hers in the film! Incidentally, when the film was broadcast on TV for all those years, the pan and scan framing frequently cut her out of the picture, most especially during the introductory car ride, but thanks to letterboxing, we can now see her throughout as intended.

There’s a longstanding debate among fans of SOM regarding the fact that Max and Elsa’s songs from the stage production were cut from the film. Though I like their songs (and having portrayed both The Captain and Uncle Max onstage, have sung them myself), I actually appreciate that they were removed. Having Elsa unable to partake in the tuneful goings on at the estate actually causes her to feel more ostracized and gives her even more motivation for sending Maria packing. (Truth be told, in the stage version, Maria left because of something Brigitta said. The magnificent scene in the bedroom between Elsa and Maria was entirely new, courtesy of the masterful screenwriter Ernest Lehman.)

One thing I love about the Elsa of the film, aside from her stunning sense of style, her regal posture and her snarky running commentary, is the fact that she knows when she’s been beaten and gives up without any fuss, even handing the handsome Captain over to the little would-be nun. Eleanor Parker misses no nuance in her playing of the pivotal balcony break up scene (nor does she in any scene throughout!) She struggles gallantly to hold on to Georg, but, once licked, playfully points out to him that his future is before him, wandering through the moonlit grounds.

Miss Parker had been a very successful, highly versatile leading lady in films. She began film work in the early 1940s and stayed busy until the late 60s. She not only worked with some of Hollywood’s top actors along the way, but also snagged three Best Actress Oscar nominations! She could play practically anything from a demure girl in The Woman in White to an unbalanced shut-in in The Man with the Golden Arm to a woman suffering from multiple personalities in Lizzie to an opera star in Interrupted Melody. She played everyday types, such as in A Hole in the Head, but particularly excelled in roles that required a degree of sophistication and haughtiness. Frequently, this haughtiness would be melted by the final reel of the film, however.

She held her own against some of Hollywood’s most arrogant-flavored screen personalities such as Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Robert Mitchum. She was placed in The Sound of Music as “insurance” because Christopher Plummer was not yet an established leading man in films and Julie Andrews had yet to be seen in a movie when she was cast as Maria.

It was Eleanor Parker who kicked off my interest in classic films. One day, I saw that “The Baroness” was in a different movie that was going to be on TV that night, The Naked Jungle. After watching and enjoying that, and marveling at her good looks and excellent performing skills, I started catching other films of hers. Eventually, I wanted to see films that starred some of her costars in these movies and before long, I was hooked on classic movies in general. There’s a decided difference between yesterday’s movies and today’s and it is an acquired taste for most of us. Thanks to Miss Parker, I was introduced to a world of cinema that has given me incredible rewards over the last several decades.

Since retiring for good in the early 90s, Parker has shunned the limelight and given no interviews. Despite a strong career peppered with many fascinating roles and costars, she is uninterested in regurgitating any of it. Her input for a network like TCM or even in commentaries or featurettes on DVDs would be invaluable, but it seems unlikely to happen. Sadly, few people apart from her fans probably even realize that she's still alive, but for whatever reason she seems to prefer it that way. At any rate, she remains my second-favorite pre-1970 actress.