Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A "Howling" We Will Go!

If this movie poster comes as a bit of a surprise (as in, you didn't know about this "feature film"), you may be forgiven, for the theatrical release only occurred in the U.K., not here in the U.S. A Howling in the Woods was a 1971 made-for-television film which was deemed worthy of distribution overseas. This certainly, however, would qualify as a very tame "thriller" compared to whatever else was playing! It does, though, provide a rather elusive mystery; one played out by a familiar and amiable cast of performers. Chief among them is its highly-popular leading lady, Miss Barbara Eden. 

At this time, Eden had just wrapped up a 5-season run as the title character in I Dream of Jeannie, a fantasy-tinged sitcom in which she played an impish female genie devoted to (yet ever-interfering with) her "master" Larry Hagman. Hagman played an astronaut who discovered her bottle and, once letting her out, received her eternal devotion thereafter. Though she could never, ever truly achieve it, so beloved was Jeannie, Eden wished to pursue other sorts of roles and so she played in gently raucous comedies and a fair amount of suspenseful TV projects. She was great in all of them, but would remain everyone's Jeannie nonetheless. Even more eager to distance himself from the popular sitcom, Hagman veered towards more serious fare as well.

Thus, it is surprising that he wound up appearing as Eden's estranged husband here, a mere year after Jeannie's cancellation! As the sitcom came to an end, Hagman and Eden had wed on the show (something that may have contributed to its demise, as the sexual tension was thus released.) Now only one season later, to have these two on the verge of divorce in a telefilm must have seemed bemusing to some TV fans. Said fans also probably waited for Eden to cross her arms and blink away some of the troubles she was having in this film, but that was not to be. 

Howling was based upon a novel by romantic suspense writer Velda Johnston. Johnston was a prolific short story author, magazine writer and novelist with an eye towards crafting female characters who could find a way out of their own dilemmas without a man to rescue them. This would be the only screen project to emerge from her array of stories as it turned out. 

Our story kicks off with a mischievous little girl poking around the basement of a building and scoring a little collectible doll for herself. Before slipping out the window from which she entered, she heads further back to investigate sounds she has heard. And that's the end of her!

Cut to a wide-open highway of Nevada, where a car is hurtling towards its destination, carrying the star of our show, one Barbara Eden.

Lookin' fierce in her stylish chapeau, Eden is on her way from back east to her home, a lodge in Lake Tahoe. On her way, she passes through the small town named after her family, The Staines. 

Things are looking a little dreary in Schittsville, er, I mean Stainsville.

It's been a while since her last visit and she doesn't recall it looking so much like an empty, rundown hellhole as it does now.

The locals don't appear to be exactly thrilled at her return either...

The young man in the inset of the prior photo (Bill Vint) toys with her a bit, giving her understandable unease. (Anytime you see the last name of Vint on an actor in a movie, you can basically expect some degree of menace, be it from Bill, Alan or Jesse!) She's now eager to high tail it out of this dump.

Her father's vacation lodge is a much more comforting place to land.

Surrounded by lush forest scenery (woods!) and mountain views, it's just the respite from the big city that she is looking for.

Once inside, she is warmly greeted by her stepmother, of whom Eden is very fond.

Said stepmother is played by Miss Vera Miles. It's interesting to note the different ways these ladies are showcased (and the different trajectories of their careers) for Miles is only two years - nearly to the day - older than Eden in real life! Miles informs Eden that her father is in Mexico on an archeological dig. He left before he knew that she was abruptly coming for a visit.

Eden relays to Miles that she has come to set up residency in Nevada so that she can divorce her husband. Note the striking location scenery which the makers were able to take advantage of. If this is ever shown in a clean, clear print, it's probably a very attractive TV-movie.

There's an aloof, vaguely sinister-looking housekeeper on site who, like most everyone else, doesn't seem delighted to have Eden back home. (This poor actress has a fairly substantial role yet was not credited on screen and is also uncredited on imdb.com! Sadly, I am unable to name her either.)

Eden also meets her stepbrother, John Rubenstein, for the first time. A wounded Vietnam vet, he'd become a drug addict and was away in rehab for a long time prior to moving in with Miles.

An exhausted Eden wants to take a nap before lunch, but is alarmed by a relentless "howling in the woods!" The housekeeper informs her that it's a hunting dog that someone has deliberately left behind after the season was over.

The camera lingers over its star during Eden's fitful nap. She is always lovely to behold in any movie, though in this one she's mostly covered up thanks to the off-season setting.

Having awakened and changed, she is informed by Miles that she has a phone call. An insistent one.

It's Hagman. He's come home to their apartment to find a terse note from her that she's left him and gone back to her father's lodge.

Hagman is a photographer who's often away on assignment. It isn't expressed for certain, but the implication is that he dabbles around with his models on occasion, which may be why Eden has left him.

When this is the sort of work one is doing, I suppose the temptation would present itself! This was a fair amount of boob for 1971 television. But the model turns to find that Hagman has actually walked out on her right in the middle of their session.

Back in Nevada, Eden is horrified to discover that local resident George Murdock is attempting to shoot and kill the howling dog, claiming it is a chicken thief. She protests, though, that the animal appears to be starving.

Down at the lakeside, Eden comes upon a local girl who wants to check her out to see "what a clotheshorse" looks like! Eden is revealed to be a fashion illustrator by trade, but presumably has the dough to afford some stylish creations to wear.

The little girl (Lisa Gerritsen) informs Eden that her cousin, a pretty little blonde girl, was drowned in the very lake they are sitting next to only a few weeks ago.

Gerritsen turns out to be the daughter of Murdock and the housekeeper. She isn't happy that her husband chose to punish the little girl for speaking to Eden.

Next we meet the mother of the little dead girl, played as you can see by Tyne Daly.

The proprietress of the watering hole where these scenes take place is enacted by the always-engaging Miss Ruta Lee! Sadly, her role is negligible in the extreme.

Eden quizzes her step-family about the little drowned girl. They wonder where she heard such a thing.

After Eden reveals that it was Gerritsen who told her, Miles tells her that the girl has a tendency to make up stories.

Eden can't figure out why she'd make up a story like that. But more importantly, she discovers that her father has gone on his expedition without both his gun and his Bible. She is at a loss as to why he would leave these things behind. Do take note of how Eden's get-up coordinates with the brochure stand next to her. Ross Hunter would be proud!

The next day, Eden comes upon Gerritsen singing at her cousin's grave site. (She's singing "In the Sweet By and By" which happens to contain a lyric, "We shall meet on that beautiful shore," sort of ironic when someone has drowned in a lake!) Gerritsen has clearly been the victim of a beating, which doesn't sit well with Eden for obvious reasons.

Having seen the little girl's grave, Eden now demands of Rubenstein an answer as to why they withheld the truth from her. He explains that his mother prefers to dismiss unpleasant things like that and wanted to avoid discussing it.

At the general store, Eden confronts Daly to express her sympathy for what happened to her little girl. An indication of the way Eden was playing younger is brought to light when she states that these two went to school together but in real life Daly was 15 years her junior!!

Eden takes some scraps of meat out to the woods in order to feed and familiarize herself with the ol' hound dog who never stops howling.

He leads her to what appears to be a shallow grave! (I guess we can be glad he didn't lead us over to a reclining Misty Rowe or Gunilla Hutton from Hee Haw!)

An alarmed Eden rushes to the local authority (Ford Rainey) to report the finding and he assures her he will send someone out to get to the bottom of it (literally!)

Later, back at the lodge, Rainey shows up to report his findings to her.

He informs her that inside the makeshift grave was a deer. (Rubenstein appears skeptical! LOL)

Eden cannot fathom why anyone would bury a deer, even to avoid a game hunting violation. By this time she's beginning to feel a bit gaslighted. And who can blame her? Everyone seems to be hiding or avoiding something.

When an expensive piece of camera equipment that her father had ordered arrives, yet one he left without taking with him, Eden has had about enough and decides that she's going to Mexico to find him.

In the meantime, Hagman has made his way to Nevada himself and arrives in the middle of the night.

Eden isn't at all happy to see him, but she's about to depart herself anyway.

He tries hard to reason with her about the state of their marriage, but she's not interested in discussing it. She does, however, call off her trip to Mexico when a telegram from her father turns up, expressing his busy itinerary along with his well-being.

Hagman drives Eden back to town to pick up her car, which had undergone some mechanical problems, and tries one last time to reconcile, but she is adamant, even through tears.

Before she gets into her vehicle, she is approached secretly by Daly, who wants to talk to her... alone.

Hagman is sent packing, but he begins to think about some of the things Eden has told him and wonders if he ought to instead stick around.

Daly meets up with Eden at her former home and begins to unburden herself about what has actually been going on. She spills her guts about her daughter, the dog and other key information.

You can imagine Daly reporting to the set in her ratty tweed coat and no makeup and being confronted with the dazzling Eden who is dressed, painted, coiffed and lit to the hilt! LOL Anyway, she reveals a substantial part of what has been happening in Stainesville, even though it puts her at risk.

While meeting with Daly, Eden stumbles upon a clue which leads the whole crazy scenario right back to her and some property of hers that ties in with the little girl's death. She heads back to the lodge for more answers but Rubenstein, who's only been living there a year or less himself, isn't much help.

Eden is almost there. She just needs to piece together a few more things before this mystery can be solved.

She bids Hagman, who has now checked into the lodge, farewell as she heads off to unravel the last pieces of the puzzle.

I like to think that I am good at keeping ahead of mysteries like this and that I have pretty much seen it all by now. Nevertheless, while I might have figured out some of the story, I didn't have all of it worked out. (Then again, we weren't really given a fair shake at solving everything.)

It would be nice to see this in a restored copy, the scenery of Lake Tahoe and of Barbara Eden would benefit from that. This telefilm does have a fairly devoted following of fans who would love to see that happen.

No manicures were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

Eden balanced small roles in films with TV appearances from the mid-'50s on. Her movie appearances tended towards the colorful and lightweight, such as Flaming Star (1960) with Elvis Presley, All Hands on Deck (1961) with Pat Boone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) with Frankie Avalon and Ride the Wild Surf (1964) opposite Fabian and Tab Hunter. After the success of Jeannie, she made the TV-movie her playground with many and varied projects and an occasional feature film appearance. Now 89 (can it be so?) she has acted as recently as 2019 and has a legion of loyal fans who adore her as well they should.

Hagman floundered for a little while after Jeannie, with small film parts and TV guest roles (along with the failed sitcoms The Good Life and Here We Go Again) keeping him afloat until 1978 when he hit the jackpot. As the amusingly ruthless and cutthroat J.R. Ewing on Dallas, Hagman became a legendary TV icon and won international fame. After that show's staggering success (during which he held out for and won a then-record salary), he didn't really need to work again, but he did from time to time. The most successful instances were when he played J.R. in a few reunion movies, ultimately reviving the role full-time on a zesty 2012 reboot. Sadly, he died that same year at age 81 due to complications of throat cancer and with him died the famous character.

Still eager to rid himself of his days as Major Tony Nelson, Hagman never took part in any of the Jeannie TV reunion movies, but Eden did pop up for a 5-episode arc on Dallas, delighting their fans.

Miles enjoyed an active, at times important, film career thanks to her work in films by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. But she was in demand beyond those gentlemen as well before becoming a very busy television guest star and movie of the week leading lady. You can learn more about her and her career right here. Still with us today at 91, she lives a life deliberately absent from Tinseltown and its trappings (granting no interviews), but is known for correspondence with fans. 

Rubenstein began appearing on TV in the late-1960s with an occasional film role. He really shot to fame, though, for creating the title role in Broadway's Pippin the year after this TV-movie. All through his long TV and movie career, the stage has continued to be an important part of his life. Among his countless roles on TV was the fairly brief series Crazy Like a Fox with Jack Warden, which I recall watching as a kid. A hit off the bat, it was a victim of time-slot tampering. Age 74 now, he continues to act regularly on TV and in the occasional movie.

Daly was not new to screen acting. She'd appeared on television as a girl and had been winning roles as a young lady for the prior few years. What's remarkable is that she was able to essay this simple, earnest role with apparent ease despite being the child of a successful movie & TV actor (James Daly) and being raised in Manhattan. Hers is one of the more realistic portrayals in the movie. By the late-'70s, Daly was winning key supporting roles in movies though doubtlessly her claim to fame arrived in 1981 when she was cast as half of Cagney & Lacey, a popular female detective series. She proceeded to a successful stage career (copping a Tony for Gypsy) and had a regular role on Judging Amy. Now 74, she was still working up through 2019.

Sixth-billed Lee's role could hardly be more thankless. One has to strain to even get a good look at her! Nevertheless, she sells every one of her scant lines with as much polish and verve as one had come to expect from the effervescent performer. Apart from her acting career, which has lasted nearly 60 years, she has been a tireless charity fundraiser and spent half a century with The Thalians. Now 85, she still works from time to time on screen.

Vint is probably the least known of the three acting brothers. Alan and Jesse were in Earthquake (1974) together, but somehow Bill didn't. His acting career, mostly as a TV guest star with an occasional film role, did stretch 25 years, however. The same year as this movie, he worked in Summertree (1971) with Michael Douglas. He later portrayed the troubled Montgomery Clift in the 1980 TV-movie Marilyn: The Untold Story, which starred Catherine Hicks. Now 78, he has not acted on screen since the mid-1990s.

Fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off Phyllis will recall young Gerritsen. shortly after turning 10, Gerritsen began winning parts on episodic TV and soon landed in one of her own as the bright daughter of William Windom in My World and Welcome to It. The critically-acclaimed show was cancelled due to ratings, but she was soon appearing from time to time on Moore and then regularly on Phyllis as the leading lady's precocious daughter Bess. By 1978, though, she exited the biz and proceeded to jobs in the fields of computers and project management. She is 63 today.

Though they don't really get to show too much of it this time out, Eden and Hagman had sparkling chemistry together and remained lifelong friends from their time on Jeannie onward. I couldn't resist ending with this hilariously campy publicity photo from their still-popular series. A Howling in the Woods may be seen here for those interested!