Rockin’ in the Film World #13: Elvis Presley in KID GALAHAD (United Artists 1962)

Let’s face it – with a handful of exceptions, most of Elvis Presley’s  post-Army 1960’s movies are awful. They follow a tried-and-true formula that has The King in some colorful location torn between two (or more!) girls, some kind of vocational gimmick (race car driver, scuba diver), and a handful of forgettable songs. KID GALAHAD is one of those exceptions; although it does follow the formula, it’s redeemed by a stellar supporting cast, a fair plot lifted from an old Warner Brothers film, and a well choreographed and edited final boxing match.

The movie’s very loosely based on 1937’s KID GALAHAD, a boxing/gangster yarn that starred Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Wayne Morris in the role now played by and tailored for Presley. He’s a young man fresh out of the Army (how’s that for typecasting?) who returns to his upstate New York hometown of Cream Valley looking for work as a mechanic. He wanders into in a boxing camp run by glib Gig Young, who has a penchant for betting on horses, and gets roped into being a sparring partner, despite the fact he has little ring experience. Gig throws Elvis to the lions and discovers the kid has a devastating right and so, together with trainer Charles Bronson , begins grooming the naïve youngster for pugilistic stardom.

There are subplots galore, as Gig has run afoul of some crooked fight promoters, and has issues with his ladylove Lola Albright to boot. Gig’s kid sister Joan Blackman (costar of Elvis’ hit BLUE HAWAII) comes to camp to straighten out her brothers finances, and of course falls in love with Presley, to big bro’s displeasure. Trainer/cornerman Bronson has his hands broken before the eve of the big fight by goons, but you just know Presley’s gonna come out on top, and win the girl as well… you do know that, right?

The supporting players make the film a cut above the usual Elvis pic. Gig Young’s fight manager is a smooth-talking hustler, in up to his neck with trouble from both the mob and the feds, and takes gal pal Lola Albright for granted. Young gives a good performance, as does the sexy Lola, an actress who deserved a better career than she had. Charles Bronson was still a second-stringer at the time, and is totally believable as the veteran fight trainer. He and Presley work well in their scenes together; it’s too bad they never costarred again, preferably in a Western (Curse you, Col. Tom Parker!). Joan Blackman, making her second appearance with The King, had a few good roles (GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING, CAREER, TWILIGHT OF HONOR), but like Albright never reached the heights her talent deserved. Some Familiar Faces bobbing and weaving through the plot include Edward Asner , Michael Dante, Richard Devon, Robert Emhardt, David Lewis, Bert Remson, and Roy Roberts.

As for Elvis… well, he’s basically playing Elvis, and as such he’s fine. There are echoes of some of his earlier characters, but after 1960 his screen persona had mellowed. No longer the hot-headed rebel of JAILHOUSE ROCK or KING CREOLE, here he’s just a good ol’ country boy who wants to work on cars, and happens to have a powerful right hook. The songs aren’t all that memorable, but I did like the jaunty “I Got Lucky” (co-written by Ed Wood’s ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller!) and the wistful “A Whistling Tune”. The boxing scenes were staged by former welterweight turned bit player Mushy Callahan, who plays the referee in Elvis’s big bout with “Sugar Boy Romero”, played by then-current welterweight champ Orlando De La Fuente. And yes, that’s renowned boxing announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. as the ring announcer.

All of this is put together with style by veteran director Phil Karlson , who I’ve discussed several times and whose filmography is worth looking into. KID GALAHAD is the last really good Elvis movie, thanks to that cast and crew, before he settled into the predictable formula for the rest of the 60’s. It’s a pity Col. Parker didn’t let Presley spread his thespic wings, because Elvis coulda been a contender with the right balance of script, cast, and direction. But as they say in Hollywood, that’s show biz.

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I’ll Be Superamalgamated!: DOC SAVAGE, THE MAN OF BRONZE (Warner Brothers 1975)

I used to devour those Doc Savage pulp novels reissued as paperbacks by Bantam Books. You know, the ones with those cool James Bama covers? They were filled with action, adventure, intelligence, and good humor, as written by Lester Dent under the pseudonym ‘Kenneth Robeson’. Doc himself was a paragon of goodness, trained from birth in the arts and sciences, a perfect physical specimen adept at all the fighting disciplines with near super-human strength. In fact, one could make a case for Doc Savage as the world’s first mass-market superhero, the Man of Bronze predating DC’s Superman (The Man of Steel) by a good five years.

Doc’s amazing adventures screamed for a screen treatment, but it wasn’t until 1975 that producer George Pal bought the character’s rights from Dent’s widow Norma and made DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE. Pal, whose credits include sci-fi classics like WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and THE TIME MACHINE, seemed like the right man for the job. He hired handsome, muscular former TV Tarzan Ron Ely to portray Doc, and director Michael Anderson, who’d helmed the WWII action flick THE DAM BUSTERS and the Oscar-winning AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. All the right elements were in place: Doc’s Fabulous Five band of brothers (Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny, Long Tom), his Fortress of Solitude, a 1930’s setting, a script based on Doc’s origin story (with parts of two other novels incorporated), and plenty of gadgets. But Pal, his co-screenwriter Joe Morhaim, and Anderson chose to go the camp route, spoiling the film. Frank DeVol adapted John Philip Sousa marches as his score, and it’s horrible, ruining the action scenes. While Dent’s books always carried a hefty amount of humor, here it’s played to the Nth degree, and not always intentional. Doc’s eyes literally twinkle thanks to animation, every mode of transport has the stylized Bantam ‘Doc Savage’ logo on it. The film has the look and feel of a bad TV movie, as Pal was aiming for a series akin to the 1960’s BATMAN, but the camp craze was long out of fashion. The whole thing fails to capture the spirit of the Savage novels, treating the material as a joke.

Ely deserved better. The actor, who later hosted the game show FACE THE MUSIC and the Miss America pageant, makes a good-looking, solid Doc, and plays things fairly straight. The Fab 5 (Michael Miller, Darrell Zwerling, William Luckling, Paul Gleason, Eldon Quick) don’t, and though they resemble the team, they’re just cardboard characters. Paul Wexler as archvillain Captain Seas is way over the top, and Pamela Hensley (BUCK ROGERS, MATT HOUSTON) just flat-out couldn’t act. Michael Berryman, Carlos Rivas, and Robert Tessier are also in the cast, and Paul Frees does the narration. The little old lady crossing the street near the end is Grace Stafford, longtime voice of Woody Woodpecker (Pal was pals with Grace and her husband, animator Walter Lantz).

At the very end, DOC SAVAGE: THE ARCHENEMY OF EVIL is advertised as coming soon. Since the first film tanked miserably, it never got made. I’m glad it didn’t, because I want to see a more straightforward version of Doc put on the Silver Screen. In May of 2016 it was announced a new version would be filmed, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by Shane Black. We’re still waiting for that to materialize. Meanwhile, fans of the Man of Bronze can stick to rereading those Bantam paperbacks, and skip this waste of time.

 

Book Review: WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA by Noah Isenberg (W.W. Norton 2017)

CASABLANCA was released seventy-five years ago on November 26, and The Cult of Casablanca is stronger than ever! The film resonates with young and old alike in its themes of lost love, redemption, and answering to a higher moral authority. Noah Isenberg’s latest book, WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA: THE LIFE, LEGEND, AND AFTERLIFE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST BELOVED MOVIE, takes a look behind the Silver Screen to track the history of the film  from its beginnings through its continuing popularity today.

Isenberg, a professor of film studies at The New School and author of the definitive EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS (2014), gives the reader a three-pronged look at the film. In the first, he meticulously delineates the screenplay’s roots, from its birth as the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, to the adaptation by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, to the contributions of writers Howard Koch and Casey Robinson. All this is carefully researched by Isenberg through interviews and the Warner Brothers archives, unearthing the correspondence of producer Hal Wallis and studio chiefs Jack and Harry Warner, among others.

The second prong deals with the  film’s memorable cast and crew. Yes, the big names are all there – Bogie, Bergman, Henreid, director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner – but Isenberg also shines the spotlight of many of the smaller players, most of whom were refugees from war-torn Europe. Though these actors were big names themselves in their respective native countries, the majority of them were reduced to being bit players in Hollywood, a fact that made them feel as if they’d turned from “St. Bernards to Dachshunds”. The plight of actors Curt Bois, Marcel Dalio, Lotte Palfi, and Hans von Twardowski, forced out of the limelight by circumstance and into lesser, sometimes uncredited roles, caused much bitterness among these talented strangers in a strange land.

Finally, Isenberg takes us to the CASABLANCA phenomenon, starting shortly after the death of Humphrey Bogart. Revival houses like The Brattle in Cambridge, MA brought the film a new, college age audience in the late 50’s. It’s anti-authoritarian stance and theme of fighting for a just cause also  resonated with the 60’s counterculture movement, and of course the film’s romanticism played a large part in that. Isenberg looks at the movie’s lasting impact in pop culture, even today, and discusses several critical points of view, not all of which are favorable (which is sacrilegious far as I’m concerned!).

WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA is a surprisingly easy read. Only the arms of Morpheus prevented me from finishing it in one sitting. Then again, you know what a huge CASABLANCA buff I am! Even if you’re not as obsessive about the movie as me, if you’re a classic film buff (and I assume most of you reading this blog are) the book is a fascinating look at Hollywood filmmaking in the 40’s, when the studio dream factories were in their glory. I highly recommend it to those of you interested in movie history – in fact, it would make the perfect Christmas gift for the film fan in your life!.

More on CASABLANCA from Cracked Rear Viewer:

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

Here’s Looking at You On The Big Screen, CASABLANCA!

One Hit Wonders #9: “In the Year 2525” by Zager & Evans (RCA 1969)

A futuristic ballad about the danger of technological advancement and dehumanization spent 6 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1969. Properly titled “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)”, this was the first and only hit for folk-rock duo Denny Zager and Rick Evans:

1969 had been a banner year for science fiction themes, with the films PLANET OF THE APES and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY becoming box office hits a year earlier, popular novels from Kurt Vonnegut (SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE), Michael Crichton (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN), and Ursula K. LeGuin (LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS) being published, and a young Brit named David Bowie releasing his LP “Space Oddity”. Of course, that was also the year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and the possibilities for space exploration seemed endless. But some doomsayers warned of the impending takeover by machines, where mankind would become a slave to its own inventions.

“In the Year 2525” was actually written in 1964 by Rick Evans. It became a regional hit in the Midwest for Evans and his musical partner Denny Zager, and RCA picked it up and released it nationwide five years later, scoring a huge success. Zager & Evans failed to capitalize on it, and have pretty much faded into obscurity. The song’s bleak outlook for the future of mankind seem somewhat prophetic in this age of people relying on their various devices, the proliferation of more and more technology isolating us all from each other, staring at our collective screens. Yesterday we all gorged on those Thanksgiving feasts, so maybe today would be a good time to step away from the laptops, go outside, stretch our legs, breathe in some fresh air, and talk to some real live humans… before the robots take over completely, and we all turn into nothing more than amorphous blobs of protoplasm!

 

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!

Thanksgiving Tradition: ALICE’S RESTAURANT (United Artists 1969)

There’s another Thanksgiving tradition besides gorging on turkey’n’trimmings and watching football (which usually ends up with me crashed on the couch!), and that’s listening to Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 story/song “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. Here in chilly Southern New England, I catch the annual broadcast on 94-HJY (Providence’s Home of Rock’N’Roll) at noontime, just before the yearly chow down. Arlo’s one of our own, though born in Brooklyn a long-time Massachusetts resident, and still frequently plays concerts around the state (catch him if he’s in your neck of the woods, he always puts on a good show).

Director Arthur Penn stretched Arlo’s 18-plus minute autobiographical tune into a 111 minute film back in 1969. ALICE’S RESTAURANT is not a great film, but it is a good one, with Penn and coscenarist Venable Herndon hitting all the touchstones of the counterculture movement: free love (read: sex), drug use, the Vietnam War, long-haired “freaks” vs establishment “straights”. Penn doesn’t gloss over or romanticize things either, instead giving the viewer a look at how these particular hippies live, work, and play without rose-colored glasses.  Despite any current nostalgia for the days of “peace’n’love, man”, we learn they are just as concerned with their place in society as the rest of us, with all of the same hopes and fears as the so-called squares.

The loosely constructed plot follows Arlo on a journey to self-discovery and his own place in the sun. Guthrie plays himself (or the fictionalized version of himself), and his pleasant personality carries him through whatever deficiencies he had as an actor. He’s especially good in the scenes where he visits with his father, folk legend Woody Guthrie, as the elder man lays dying in a hospital bed of the Huntington’s disease that killed him. The scenes are quite poignant, only brightened when another folk legend, Pete Seegar (playing himself), shows up and the two try to cheer Woody up by dueting on Woody’s “Riding in the Car Car”.

Arlo’s two friends, the grandiose man-child Ray Brock (James Broderick) and his wife Alice (Pat Quinn), are the hubs of this hippie universe, and both give good, nuanced performances. Another friend, Shelly, has a heroin addiction, and actor Michael McClanathan delivers a realistic performance as the gentle dope fiend. McClanathan, who only has six screen credits to his name, is alive and well and living in Phoenix as a professional bagpiper ( Visit his website here! ).

ALICE’S RESTAURANT also features the real-life Officer Obie (William Obanheim) and Judge James Hannon of “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” fame playing themselves, complete with the “8X10 color glossy photographs with the circles and the arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one” and a trial ending with “a clear case of blind justice”. The scene with Arlo at the draft board, forced to sit with the “mother rapers, father stabbers, father rapers” and all kinds of mean, nasty things on the Group W bench is revisited too, but this being Thanksgiving Eve, I think I’ll just step back and let Arlo himself tell you the story. Enjoy your bird, everyone!: