Friday, May 28, 2021

Why Didn't Anyone Ever "Tell Me?"

I've seen a lot of movies in my time. A TON. Never- theless, many have escaped me for one reason or another, mostly thanks to the sheer volume of motion pictures that have been created over the last 100+ years. Some I just avoided for one reason or another. Others just never came my way. Today I want to share an aspect of one that fell into my lap recently and really gave me an eyeful, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon from 1970. I had no clue what it was going to be like or that it would feature some fascinating visuals because... no one ever told me! Ha ha!

Meet the Junie Moon of the title, played by Miss Liza Minnelli. She's a young lady who has suffered a horribly disfiguring incident that has left one arm and half of her face badly scarred.

She is forced to confront the results for the first time when the bandages come off and she is placed before a mirror. This leads to a flashback. (And, no, these aren't the "visuals" I am referring to in my opening paragraph.)

Prior to the injury, she was quite the hotsy-totsy, gussying herself up to head out on plenty of fast dates in figure-revealing outfits.

One such date (with creeptastic Ben Piazza) winds up at a cemetery where she is coerced into getting naked while her salivating beau mutters inaudible (to us) commands! Sadly for her, she later finds this whole kinky scenario amusing and lets him know it...

This prompts the deplorable Piazza to hurl her to the ground and, after a real struggle, open up and overturn a car battery onto her, searing her with acid!

In the same hospital is shy, somewhat awkward epileptic patient Ken Howard.

Then there is wheelchair bound gay man Robert Moore, who spins around the place barking orders and making demands of the staff.

These three "damaged" souls are drawn to one another and have become very close over the course of their convalescence.

As a result, they wind up moving in together! Minnelli rents a small house where she can retreat from prying eyes, often obscuring her features with a large hat. Meanwhile, Howard looks for a job. The interpersonal relationships (and trials) of this trio form the bulk of the movie's content.

Junie Moon was directed by Otto Preminger and so, like in many of his later movies, the cast is dotted with a sizeable array of familiar faces in supporting parts. Here we find Miss Nancy Marchand as a nurse.

And here we find Miss Anne Revere, off movie screens since 1951's A Place in the Sun, as a result of the infamous Hollywood blacklist! The Oscar-winning (and twice further nominated) actress had only been permitted a handful of TV appearances in the interim, but thankfully found success on the stage.

Leonard Frey pops up in some flashback sequences of Moore's character.

James Coco plays a local fishmonger who employs Howard and befriends the trio.

An eye-popping treat is seeing Kay Thompson (Minnelli's real-life godmother) zipping in as an eccentric millionairess who owns the cottage rented by the threesome.

Not only is she a sight to behold, but her home is something else, too! But even she isn't the aspect of this moving that really made me sit up and take notice.

At about an hour and twenty minutes into the film, the trio speeds off in Coco's fish truck and they bluff their way into a luxury beach-side resort hotel. Here they are greeted by the security guard with derision until Moore can convince the place that he's a wealthy patron.

And here is where things get interesting...! On site is muscle-bound beach boy and the hotel's Man Friday, Fred Williamson. The freshly-retired pro football player had been working on TV and had just made his movie debut in MASH earlier in 1970.

That strangely old-fashioned, yet garish, look of the resort.

Long before "accessible" entrances and amenities, it's up to Williamson to transport Moore upstairs to his suite. He picks up the wheelchair and Moore in one fell swoop and tromps up the steps with him!

The hotel manager is portrayed by Ned Wertimer, who later gained a measure of fame as the greedy doorman at the high-rise home of The Jeffersons.

Probably sensing a monetary gold mine in Moore, hustler Williamson begins catering to him and taking him and the others around in his groovy dune buggy.

Once Howard and Minnelli are off on their own (the pair exploring a burgeoning, tentative romance), Williamson darts off with the otherwise immobile Moore.

Willaimson (who truly got a workout in this film!) tosses Moore over one shoulder like a duffel bag of laundry and takes him to the dock for lunch. Note the positioning of the ketchup bottle in the inset. Intentional or not, I tend to spy things like this.

Moore looks like he might be getting some ideas as he observes Williamson chowing down on, of all things, a hot dog! A sign behind Moore refers to sport fishing... and he may be about to reel in a big one!


Back at the room, Moore is all atwitter because Williamson is on his way to pick him up for a night on the town. Howard helps him out of the bathtub and assists him in getting ready. (My friend Jeremy always hilariously referred to the practice of becoming especially clean and perfectly groomed for a date as getting "pooshed and douched!")

The getup that Williamson arrives in is nothing short of jaw-dropping...!

Yeah, baby. Like far out!

No wonder Moore can't stop smiling (or looking at his escort!)

Once again, here comes Williamson with Moore flung across his shoulder!

To say that, at this point, Williamson was unseasoned as an actor is a vast understatement. But he's so damned amiable and charismatic that it scarcely matters!

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that sunshine yellow must have been an "on trend" color in 1970? Even in today's anything goes clothing atmosphere, this look would pop peoples' eyes out of their heads if spotted at a semi-public, evening get-together.

Behold. That is all.

Later, Williamson packs up Moore and takes him to a bar more to his liking.

Here they add in two gals to the mix and zoom off to the beach for more antics. Moore might or might not have gotten what he was after, but it's still a remarkable time for him.

When the trio has to check out because of Howard's medical condition, Williamson takes a turn at carrying the nearly 6'7" basketball player down the stairs, too!!

After about 25 minutes of being in the storyline, we have to bid adieu to Mr. Williamson, but it's the epitome of being gone but not forgotten. I know I won't forget seeing this performance.

I really have to hand it to Williamson. Yes, he was probably hungry to pursue a feature film career and so he wasn't apt to turn many things down, especially for an established director and with a star like Minnelli on board. But to play a role with so much homoeroticism contained within it at a time when not only was such a thing highly unusual, but also totally counter to his uber-hetero lifestyle as a football hero, is rather stunning. And don't misunderstand. He never flounces, prances, minces, etc... He is just playing a very pleasant opportunist. One who demonstrates any number of kindnesses along the way as well.

Right near the time that Junie Moon was filming, Minnelli suddenly lost her staggeringly famous mother Judy Garland and it took a heavy emotional toll on her. She was not at all soothed by the ever-present hand of the fiery-tempered tyrant Preminger, for whom there usually could only be one way... his! She was fresh off an Oscar nomination for 1969's The Sterile Cuckcoo (losing to Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), but would take the prize home for 1972's Cabaret. For someone as acclaimed as she was, Minnelli headlined relatively few movies in the final analysis (less than a dozen, really.) She is 75 today and hasn't acted on screen since about 2013.

This was the film debut of college basketball player turned Broadway actor Howard. He worked for Preminger again in Such Good Friends (1971) and had the role of Thomas Jefferson in 1776 (1972), having snagged a Tony in 1970 for the drama Child's Play. Ultimately, he became best known for his TV roles such as on The White Shadow for 3 seasons and as Diahann Carroll's lover on Dynasty and The Colbys. He picked up both a Daytime and a Primetime Emmy along the way for other things. While acting as president of the Screen Actors Guild, Howard died at 72 from pneumonia in 2016. He had been afflicted with both shingles and prostate cancer as well.

This is sole movie credit of theatre actor and director Moore, who was at the helm of the memorable play Boys in the Band and proceeded to direct many hit Broadway shows (including Promises, Promises, Deathtrap and Woman of the Year, among others.) He also acted in episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, with a regular role on the short-lived sitcom Diana (as in Rigg!) Additionally, he directed for TV as well as feature films, with Neil Simon collaborations like Murder By Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978.) A casualty of the AIDS crisis, he passed away in 1984 at only age 56, one of countless such creative people to be claimed by the disease.

Prior to this, Williamson had worked on shows from Ironside to Star Trek, then was selected to play Diahann Carroll's recurring boyfriend on Julia. After this, though, Williamson slipped into a prolific series of Blaxploitation movies, kicking ass all over the place. Now 83, he has (or had) a bunch of projects in the works that were cut short by the Covid19 situation. 

Last November, we posted about a memorable guest role he had on Police Story, which is worth revisiting if you find him intriguing here.

One can only imagine the razzing he took from some of his old football teammates, but I suspect he could handle it.

I'm just glad I suddenly stumbled upon this fairly obscure movie and was able to take in The Hammer in all his glory. Are ya gettin' these pants, especially in the middle shot?! And with that, we at last come to...

The End!

Friday, May 21, 2021

A Visit to the "Playground"

Today we're going to take a little gander at a lesser-known film from an era which we don't tend to focus on all that much around here. Because said movie had some points of interest to us, however, I'm sharing these with you in the hopes that you might also find them entertaining. The movie Devil's Playground (1937) is a remake (yes, they were remaking all sorts of things even back then...!) of Frank Capra's 1928 action-thriller Submarine, a silent film with some recorded sound effects. Submarine had been Columbia Pictures' top-grossing film of all time to that date, so a sound remake surely seemed like a winner. Lightning didn't exactly strike twice, but the result is a movie with some compelling attributes.

The top-billed star is Richard Dix as a U.S. Navy officer. A stage actor, he transitioned to films in the 1920s and led a successful career for a time. He was Oscar-nominated for Cimarron (losing to Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul), a picture that won top prize for 1931 and was the only western so honored until Unforgiven (1992), many decades later.

Costarring as fellow naval officer was Chester Morris. Morris had also come from the Broadway stage to movie screens in the 1920s and starred in a memorable hit, The Big House (1930), about life in prison. That same year, he won his only Oscar nomination for Alibi (a fact that was discovered years after, not officially announced at the time!) After proceeding to play detective Boston Blackie in a popular series of films, he struggled to maintain a career in "A" pictures.

The gents play carousing buddies, who - while devoted to their navy duties - enjoy chasing women and swilling booze in their off hours.

Their fleet of good times (and their close relationship together) comes to a screeching halt when Morris is assigned to command a submarine and Dix is selected to train deep-sea divers for the navy.

Things perk up a little when Dix is shown surveying his latest class of potential divers.

This being 1937, they are all shaved to the skin.

This young man (who commits the cardinal sin of a movie performer by looking right into the camera) was perhaps my favorite, not that any of these guys are seen for very long.

Now, apart from training in the water, Dix is basically a landlubber and soon buys himself a small house. Yet before long he is both lonesome and bored. He heads out to a nightclub where he meets up with an attractive taxi dancer.

Practically from the start, the two hit it off and are enjoying a lovely dinner in a secluded restaurant booth. (If you don't know, a taxi dancer was someone who worked in a dance club and could be hired as a dance partner in exchange for tickets purchased from the club. Ever heard of the song "Ten Cents a Dance?" Often in Hayes Code era films, these sort of people were euphemisms for prostitutes and gigolos!)

The lady winning Dix's heart is played by Mexican-born actress Dolores Del Rio. Del Rio had begun film work in the mid-1920s and proceeded to star in hit films including Bird of Paradise (1932) and Flying Down to Rio (1933) among others. Although enjoying her newfound fame, she became tired of playing natives or exotic foreigners and was eager to play more conventional roles, albeit ones in which her considerable beauty was going to be present in any case.

Take note of this beach-side picnic grill-out in which Dix has just slipped Del Rio a wiener.

Caught in the rain, burly Dix takes his gal to his home where we see that his own chest hair is still in place, though covered up. Next thing we know, the two are married.

It's not long, though, before he is sent away on an assignment and she is left to her own devices. In her (then) contemporary clothing, she seems to be borrowing attributes of fellow stars Greta Garbo and Luise Rainer. The trademark mole on the left side of her nose was her own.

Eventually, used to a colorful nightlife, she can't bear the solitude any more and heads back to the nightclub where she used to work.

Here she meets up with Morris, in town for a visit, never knowing he is her husband's close friend. They embark on a very similar trajectory as she did with Dix.

See? The same booth in the same restaurants, though this time shrouded with drapes.

And this time she's the one serving up the meat while Morris relaxes nearby.

I had to laugh when he took one bite of her hot dog and then tossed the remainder in the sand!

Nevertheless, he immediately falls heels over head for her. She makes a vain attempt at resisting his charms, but...

...he dives into the (apparently quite deep!) ocean and manages to reel her in for an underwater kiss.

Later on, post-tryst, Morris drops in to visit his old pal Dix, still unaware that he's just taxi-danced his wife into a state of ecstasy!

As Dix introduces her, he becomes unaccountably surly.

And this is Del Rio's fever-ridden "poker face." In barely a moment, Dix discovers what has happened and beats Morris up.

Later, Morris is aboard his sub when (in a now-rickety sequence - though I'll still take it over CGI any day!) it plows into an old shipwreck and becomes disabled on the ocean floor!

Classic movie buffs will note Ward Bond at left as a key member of Morris' crew.

As a lifelong disaster movie fanatic, I never fail to be captivated by cataclysmic events in old movies. The sailors scramble for their lives as water begins to pour into their sub.

The water effects from 1937 remain exciting today.

6'5" Bond (who likely wouldn't have been at all comfortable on a real submarine!) appears to be a tough, secure seaman, but turns out to be among the weakest-willed on board.

As happens so often in period movies, the more messed up the leading man's hair gets, the more easily his looks transcend time. I love Chester's brooding expression here.

Trapped in a small section of the sub with highly limited air (which is meted out at certain intervals to make it last), the crewmen begin to submit to everything from fatigue to delirium to outright fear and despair.

Bond finds that he can hardly take the increasingly thin air any longer...

In a move that might have helped the movie Gray Lady Down (1978) become a bigger hit, he starts to tear off his t-shirt!

He intends to MAKE the man operating the air controls allow more oxygen to enter the room.

At this point, Morris steps in and begins wrestling Ward to keep him from wasting the air (and somehow wins!) This is sort of a hairier, oilier rendition of what later went on between Lee Grant and Brenda Vaccaro in Airport '77, a movie whose plot line owes a little bit to Devil's Playground!

Bond finally returns to his senses as the half-naked, nearly-unconscious fellow crewmen watch from the floor.

This movie already has unintentional moments of homoeroticism throughout, but it hit a cheeky new level when Bond placed his hand on Morris' sweaty arm...

...then rested it on his behind as he went to turn away from the conflagration.

Bond still isn't done freaking out, though. While awaiting a miracle rescue, he continues to tear at his throat and chest in agony.

Morris gives him a few seconds of fresh air, still trying to control how much is stored up as they await their fate. This dark, sweaty den of half-clothed men reminds me of a couple of seedy bars I ventured into back in the 1990s and early 2000s...!

Meanwhile, topside, the only person who can come to Morris & Co.'s rescue is Dix, looking anything but heroic in his deep-sea diver's get-up...

In an earlier shot, bent over, Morris' chest looked a little droopy by today's standards, but he was in quite good shape for an actor of the time. These photos don't truly capture the sheen of his luminous skin in the film.

These last two shots bring to mind the final moments of another big favorite of mine, The Poseidon Adventure (1972.)

It's never a goal of mine to run anybody down (well, maybe a little bit here and there! Ha ha!), but Dix was never a leading man who I appreciated much. Even in his hey-day he was only so-so and he grew to become sort of, well, clammy looking, as he matured. He also had a bad habit of focusing on costars' foreheads, sometimes with his eyes slightly crossed! He continued in films for another decade after this, notably in ones concerning The Whistler, but died prematurely of a heart attack in 1949 at only age 56.

On the other hand, lantern-jawed Morris, with his crooked mouth has become something of a favorite for things he appeared in during his early career.

His haircut, all swept straight across his scalp and trimmed straight across the back, became known as the "Boston Haircut," presumably because of his role as Boston Blackie.

Clearly a man interested in playing all sorts of roles, he managed to remain a working actor for more than half a century. Just look at the bottom left photo of him with goatee, close-cropped hair and those big soulful eyes! Morris had finished The Great White Hope (1970) and was appearing in a play when he took a barbiturate overdose, presumably to end the suffering he was in from stomach cancer. He was 69.

Del Rio was hailed for her beauty and style, which never left her. A few years after this movie, she returned to Mexico where she emerged as a highly successful and beloved leading lady, winning awards there for her work. Occasionally, she returned to English-speaking films like Journey Into Fear (1943) for her lover Orson Welles or Flaming Star (1960) as Elvis Presley's mother.

Del Rio (I couldn't love this portrait any more!) believed in physical discipline (diet, meditation, mental health) in order to remain attractive. Though she swore by a daily 20-minute relaxation exercise and a good 8 or 9 hour sleep each night, it is a myth that she owed her looks to 14 or 16 hours of slumber per night. She was far too active and enthusiastic a person to have taken part in that!

Del Rio basically retired by 1970, with one further movie, and lived until 1983 when liver failure claimed her at age 78. One of her later films was Cheyenne Autumn (1964) for John Ford, the third movie she made for him. Which brings us to...

Ward Bond. Bond basically owed his career to Ford, working with him more than 30 times over the course of his very busy career. After many years of featured roles in countless movies, Bond segued into TV as the star of the popular western series Wagon Train, with Robert Horton. A polarizing figure thanks to his emphatic political views, he died in 1960 of a heart attack while still starring on Wagon Train. he was 57.

While Del Rio is the object of desire in Devil's Playground and threatens to tear apart the close bond between Morris and Dix, the movie at its heart is more about the camaraderie of the two gentlemen.

It even concludes with them snugly situated in a rickshaw, riding off into the sunset together, singing as if there had never been an issue between them!

They were clearly smitten with the divine Miss Del Rio...

...but one can also wonder how they got along in China without her in the way!