Friday, April 30, 2010

I hear Floyd the Barber is packing heat

The actress who played Thelma Lou on “The Andy Griffith Show” was robbed this week.

According to The Associated Press, Betty Lynn was robbed in Mount Airy, the North Carolina city that is the birthplace of Mr. Griffith and was the inspiration for the show’s setting, the fictional town of Mayberry.

Ironically, Ms. Lynn, whose character was the girlfriend of Deputy Barney Fife, had moved to Mount Airy because she’d been robbed several times in Los Angeles.

This is indeed disquieting news for those of us who grew up watching TV in the 1950s and 1960s and enjoyed the comedies that were set in a pleasant, much more innocent world – such as “The Real McCoys,” "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and “The Lucy Show.”

But if reality continues to intrude on our fond memories, we baby boomers should perhaps steel ourselves for headlines like these:


Fed Official 'Can't Believe Bank Approved Application
From Guy Who Apparently Hasn't Held a Job in Years!'


Sunday, April 25, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Captain Blood'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

I hadn’t seen “Captain Blood” (Warner Bros., 1935) in many years.

I think the last time I’d seen it might have been when I was a kid, watching a local show called “Hollywood Matinee.”

Actually, that might not be exactly right, if you consider that the host, Ed Murphy, always seemed to pronounce this as “Hollywood Mmmmmmmmmmmatinee!”

The show ran Mondays through Fridays, 1 to 2:30 p.m. Into those 90 minutes the station would shoehorn Ed’s opening and closing, a bunch of commercial breaks and, oh yes, a movie.

I’m guessing that most of the movies Ed showed had a running time of 90 minutes, tops, or an hour and 45 minutes.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that most of the time, the movies were not presented in full. They’d show the opening credits, then jump to the second reel, or maybe the third.

Surprisingly, as I recall, this didn’t hurt that many movies, especially as a good number seemed to be Universal B pictures.

Occasionally a movie would be so long that the traditional “Hollywood Mmmmmmmmmmmatinee!” treatment wouldn’t work. So they’d make it a two-parter.

I especially remember that they did this for Frank Capra’s “Arsenic and Old Lace.” I don’t know why, but they always seemed to show this while I was home sick from school.

As the years went by, I suspect the ratings began to slip, because the station decided to add something in an attempt to perk things up (though it cut into the movies even more):

Dialing for Dollars.

Remember that? And remember Bowling for Dollars, which the same station aired at 7 p.m.? I’ve sometimes wondered why they didn’t combine the two, for a show called Dialing for Bowlers. But then again, I don’t have the brains to be a network executive and come up with red-hot show ideas like “Minute to Win It.” (Which I never enjoyed all that much years ago when it was called “Beat the Clock.”)

Oh, I’m supposed to be talking about “Captain Blood”?

OK, if you insist.

“Captain Blood” was one of those two-part “Hollywood Mmmmmmmmmmmatinee!” movies. I remember enjoying it when I was a kid, and I’m happy to report that years later it seems to hold up quite well.

The hero, played by Errol Flynn in his first big role, is about a pirate named, quite conveniently, Peter Blood. Actually, Blood doesn’t start out as a pirate but as a doctor (go ahead, write your own joke here, I'll wait), and when he gets called away one night to attend to a patient and tells his housekeeper that he’ll surely be back in time for breakfast, well, even audiences in 1935 knew that the housekeeper’s next paycheck would be a long time coming.

Blood gets into trouble for treating someone who is unpopular with the kind of folks who can, if they want, have Blood deported and made a slave somewhere in the Caribbean. And of course it turns out that this is exactly what they want to do.

So Blood winds up being sold to Olivia De Havilland, who’s the niece of perennial bad guy Lionel Atwill, here wearing a wig that makes him look like a demented Buster Brown.

Blood gets revenge – and Ms. De Havilland – all to the strains of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score and under the expert directorial supervision of Michael Curtiz.

On the one hand there is something triumphant about the picture – not only Blood’s triumph but the triumph of a studio that was gambling that Flynn could become a major star. It was a gamble that paid off big-time, and I can only imagine the thrill that the audiences felt as they realized they were seeing a major star become a major star before their eyes.

And there’s something about Flynn’s boyishness and inexperience that works in his favor, and you do root for his character.

But, 75 years after the film’s first release, the sense of triumph and the thrills are offset by what we know now: that as the years pass, Flynn and his characters will gradually grow more cynical and dissolute; only eight years after this film came out, Flynn was parodying himself during a number in the Warner variety film “Thank Your Lucky Stars.” He was quite amusing as he parodied himself, but still.

And he was only 50 when he died.

But I suppose his diehard fans can take comfort in knowing that the young, promising Flynn, on a fast and seemingly inevitable track to stardom and good fortune beyond a Powerball player’s dreams, will always be with us as long as “Captain Blood” survives.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Elizabeth Montgomery

There are some concepts that are beyond imagination.

I cannot imagine a square circle.

Or the total immensity of the universe.

Or an insurance policy that's easy to understand.

And there is at least one concept that is way way beyond imagination.

I cannot imagine being a growing boy in the 1960s and not having a crush on Elizabeth Montgomery.

And neither, apparently, can Ken Levine, whose name you might have noticed on my blogroll.

I suppose I would have gotten around to writing about her sooner or later.

And I also suppose that as a former journalist, I should resent being scooped.

But when the scooper is as eloquent as Ken is, and when, after all, he has saved me some work, what's there to resent?

Read this, and see if you don't agree.

At the (old) movies: 'Murder at the Vanities'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first presentation of the new spring season….

I don’t know what modern-day critics think of “Murder at the Vanities” (Paramount, 1934), but the Federal Trade Commission would probably approve of it, and why not? It’s a perfect example of truth in advertising. You have a murder (actually, more than one), and the story takes place at a Broadway show called “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.”

And of course, and as you’ve probably already figured, it takes place on the show’s opening night. (As much as we might yearn for a more original approach, I suppose you do have to grudgingly admit that “Murder During the 13,517th Performance of ‘Cats’” doesn’t exactly evoke a frisson of excitement.)

But if you’re hard up to find an actor who’s name rhymes with frisson (or at least seems to), there’s Carl Brisson, who plays Eric Lander. Brisson comes across as a combination of Laurence Harvey and Allan Jones, but that’s not as gruesome as it might sound because he does have some charm, or at least enough of it to attract Kitty Carlisle, as Ann Ware. Unfortunately, as Mitchell Leisen’s film gets under way, we find that although Carl has fallen for Kitty, heavy objects – such as a sandbag or two – have been falling for but just missing Kitty.

The plot thickens (“congeals” might be a better word) when a Private Detective Who Knows Something is murdered. (The dick – or dickette? – is played by Gail Patrick, years before she produced the “Perry Mason” series.)

This leads Jack Oakie, who is running the show, to reluctantly call in a police lieutenant, played by Victor McLaglen, who spends a lot of the movie trying to lose his Scottish accent.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, the show’s diva gets her just deserts.

Along the way we meet a number of 1930s character actors, a couple of whom seem a bit out of character – Donald Meek, as a police doctor, plays the role without any of his usual fussy, jittery mannerisms, and Jessie Ralph, whom I’ve most often seen in aristocratic roles (I’m particularly thinking of “After the Thin Man”), plays a Wardrobe Mistress Who Has a Secret.

The always welcome Duke Ellington is also on hand.

Although a real-life, honest-to-goodness mystery writer had a hand in the plot (Rufus King, pretty much forgotten today), if you ever see “Murder at the Vanities,” don’t waste your time trying to figure out whodunit, because the plot is resolved by a sort of deus ex murderer who, near the end, confesses to keep the chief suspect from being arrested.

Perhaps “Murder at the Vanities” is best known for two of its songs – “Cocktails for Two,” still a nice standard and often the object (some might say “victim” is a better word) of parodies, most notably the one perpetrated by Spike Jones. My own favorite send-up of it features Steve Allen and his old gang – Don Knotts, Pat Harrington Jr., Louis Nye and Gabe Dell, with assists from Jo Stafford and Tony Randall. You can find it here.

The other famous song – well, maybe not that famous, and maybe “notorious” would be a better word – is “Sweet Marijuana,” which is performed by Gertrude Michael and has to be seen and heard to be believed. And as luck (I’ll let you decide whether it’s good or bad) would have it, you can see and hear it here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Robert Culp and John Forsythe

The last couple of weeks have brought sad news to those of us who grew up watching TV in the fifties and sixties.

Last week, Robert Culp died. I first remember him from “Trackdown,” in which he played Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. I don’t remember any of the episodes. I’m not sure I even watched any; I was quite young. But Culp’s sullen presence made an impression on me.

In the early sixties he was an occasional visitor to my family’s TV screen, kind of like a cousin who drops by while he’s just passing through town, guest-starring on what was available.

Then there came “I Spy,” and who can forget those images of him in the opening montage: first, that horizontal split screen during the show’s opening, in which his eyes, at top, reacted to the scenes below, and then that shot of him looking at the camera, then throwing a bomb at it? And his easy camaraderie with Bill Cosby, the type of relationship you can’t force. I sometimes wondered whether they were, to some extent, improvising. Were they? Then again, did it really matter?

After “I Spy,” more guest shots, most notably on “Columbo.” Not only did Culp play three murderers in the original series (one of them wearing a moustache; I suppose this was to prevent the lieutenant from saying, “Oh, just one more thing: Haven’t I arrested you before?”), but in the ABC revival of the show years later he played the father of two murderous college students.

Culp was such a perfect “Columbo” villain (perhaps in a dead heat with Jack Cassidy) that when Mad magazine published its satire of the show, called “Clodumbo,” the murder looked remarkably like Culp and, of course, was named “Robert Culpable.”

Perhaps his best role in more recent years was that of FBI agent Bill Maxwell in "The Greatest American Hero," where he was over the top (and perhaps a little sideways) in a part that called for exactly that kind of approach.

Would I have wanted to know him in real life? I dunno. I remember seeing him on an episode of “The $10,000 Pyramid,” where, as I recall, he got way too intense; at one point, after one of the rounds, they even had to bleep his reaction to the news that his team hadn’t done as well as he wanted. I also have a pretty good idea that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. But I’ve also heard that he was a great guy, one you definitely wanted to have on your side, and I’d prefer to think of him that way….

John Forsythe, who died this week, was one of those guys who probably would have never really made it as a big-screen star but who was more at home on the little screen – and we viewers were always comfortable with him there, too.

I never watched “Dynasty” – shows like that and “Dallas” rarely interested me, even if I appreciated the talent that went into making them. I mostly remember Forsythe from his “Bachelor Father” series of the fifties and sixties, in which he played carefree Bentley Gregg, who winds up taking care of a niece.

It was a pleasant enough, forgettable show. Some years ago a cable station showed reruns of it. I watched maybe a couple all the way through, and parts of other episodes. Not exactly must-see TV; it was more the type of thing Universal/Revue churned out. And as a kid I remember hearing that Sammee Tong, who played Gregg’s servant, had killed himself. And I’ve sometimes wondered what happened to Noreen Corcoran, who played the niece, and whether she was related to Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran of the Walt Disney TV show.

Anyway. John Forsythe was a classy guy who, by all accounts, never blew his own horn but seemed content to sit on the roadside of superstardom -- one of those lucky people who not only march to the beat of a different drummer but come up with the arrangements as well.

“Bachelor Father” was part of an era of TV history in which the stars often thanked the viewers “for inviting me into your home.”

Given Mr. Forsythe’s professionalism and self-deprecatory charm, we should have been thanking him.