Alfred Hitchcock’s Last Ride: FAMILY PLOT (Universal 1976)

Critics in 1976 were divided over Alfred Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, which turned out to be his final film. Some gave it faint praise, in an “it’s okay” kinda way; others decried it as too old-fashioned, saying the Master of Suspense had lost his touch – and was out of touch far as contemporary filmmaking goes. Having recently viewed the film for the first time, I’m blessed with the gift of hindsight, and can tell you it’s more than “okay”. FAMILY PLOT is a return to form, and while it may not be Top Shelf Hitchcock, it certainly holds up better than efforts made that same year by Hitch’s contemporaries George Cukor (THE BLUE BIRD), Elia Kazan (THE LAST TYCOON), and Vincente Minnelli (A MATTER OF TIME).

Hitchcock reunited with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST) to concoct a devilishly clever black comedy about phony psychic Blanche Tyler who, along with her cab driver boyfriend George,  is charged with finding the missing nephew of very rich Mrs. Rainbird.  The old dame is offering a $10,000 finder’s fee, which makes the perpetually broke couple drool, but there’s a catch: the boy in question has been missing since he was a baby, over forty years ago.

Meanwhile, as the couple leave the Rainbird manse, we cross-cut to a tall, mysterious blonde walking toward another stately manse. The silent woman hands over instructions to a trio of suits; she’s actually Fran Adamson, who along with her mastermind husband Arthur kidnap the rich and powerful for ransoms paid in sparkling jewels. The pernicious pair has been plying their trade for years without being caught, and it’s no spoiler to tell you Arthur Adamson is really the missing Rainbird heir, a sociopath who killed his adoptive parents in a house fire, and doesn’t like Blanche and George snooping around in his business…

Hitchcock and Lehman combine the suspense with loads of dark humor, and the result is a fun film that ends with a wink to the camera, as if Hitch is telling us, “Lighten up, it’s only a movie”. It may be a minor film in his major career, but it was entertaining enough to keep me invested throughout. Lehman’s script  keeps it’s tongue firmly in cheek, and he won that year’s Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Screenplay. The language is cruder than you’ll find in Hitchcock films past, but that’s just Alfred keeping up with the times; he had always pushed the boundaries of the censorship boards, and was probably delighted to be able to let loose!

Barbara Harris is marvelous as the fake psychic Blanche, giving a joyously ditzy performance. Harris was shamefully underutilized by Hollywood, and should have been a much bigger star. Bruce Dern does good work as well playing Blanche’s bickering boyfriend, caught up in something way over his head. This was Dern’s second film with the Master; he had previously had a small role in 1964’s MARNIE. William Devane is another criminally neglected actor; he’s chillingly charming as Adamson (and can now be found hawking gold in TV commercials for Rosland Capital!). Karen Black’s Fran is kind of a   thankless role, but her presence is always welcome onscreen, as is another underrated actor, Ed Lauter, playing Devane’s murderous cohort.

Albert Whitlock’s (THE BIRDS) special effects during the car chase scene were no longer cutting-edge, and in fact look as phony as Blanche’s psychic powers, but that’s really a minor quibble. FAMILY PLOT may be lesser Hitchcock, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to keep Hitch fans happy. At least it did for me, and I’d recommend it to all who want to see The Master of Suspense take us on one last ride.

Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Bloody Good Show: Robert Quarry as COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (AIP 1970)

Robert Quarry’s screen career wasn’t really going anywhere by 1970. He had a good part in 1956’s soapy noir A KISS BEFORE DYING , but mostly he was relegated to uncredited bits in movies and guest shots on episodic TV. Quarry kept busy on the stage, until being approached by producer/actor Michael Macready to star in THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, originally envisioned as a soft core porn flick with horror elements. The actor said he would accept the job but only if it were turned into a straight modern-day vampire tale, and thus was born COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, launching Quarry into a new phase as a 70’s horror movie icon.

The plot is an updated version of Stoker’s DRACULA, with a few changes. Here, the Bulgarian-born Count Yorga is a recent transplant to California, and we first meet him conducting a séance on behalf of Donna, whose late mother was involved with the alleged psychic. Boyfriend Mike and pals Paul and Erica  are along for support, disbelievers all, until strange occurrences cause Donna to get hysterical. While Yorga tries to calm her, unbeknownst to the rest, he uses his hypnotic mind powers for future control.

“Mmmm… Tender Vittles!”

Paul and Erica drive the Count back to his eerie estate, where they’re greeted by Brudah, Yorga’s brutish manservant. Their VW microbus gets stuck in mud on the return, so they camp for the night, when Yorga, fangs bared, strikes! Having no memory of what happened, Erica is taken to Dr. Jim Hayes (and his ubiquitous cigarette!), who’s at a loss to explain her severe blood loss. After a transfusion, Paul and Michael check up on Erica, who’s supposed to be resting at home but is found eating her cat!! Blood tests convince Jim that Erica has been bitten by a vampire, and the men travel to Yorga’s abode, trying to keep him awake until the sun rises. But the ancient bloodsucker is far too intelligent for them. When Donna mysteriously disappears, Paul and the doc go vampire hunting, resulting in a carnage-filled slaughterhouse of an ending with a twist!

American-International’s entry into the gore sweepstakes isn’t as bloody as a Herschell Gordon Lewis epic, but it manages to shock the viewer with its brutality. Quarry is both fearsome and sophisticated as Count Yorga, his presence resembling an American Christopher Lee, and after years of toiling at his craft he became a ‘B’ horror star. AIP wanted him to be the next Vincent Price, whose contract was soon to expire, and cast him in THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, another blood-splattered hit. He was teamed with Price for DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , playing the immortal Darius Biederbeck, rival of Phibes in his quest for the River of Life. The two didn’t get along; at one point during filming, Quarry burst into song. “Bet you didn’t know I could sing”, said the actor, to which the sarcastic Price retorted, “Well, I knew you couldn’t act”!

Be that as it may, Quarry was again paired with Price (along with Hammer legend Peter Cushing) for MADHOUSE. He starred in DEATHMASTER as the Mansonesque leader of a hippie vampire cult, and played a gangster in the Blaxploitation/voodoo thriller SUGAR HILL . Quarry was riding high when horror film tastes changed, and his career was curtailed once again. A hit-and-run accident in 1980, followed shortly by a street mugging, kept him offscreen for almost ten years, until being rediscovered by cult filmmaker/superfan Fred Olen Ray, who cast Quarry in many of his low-budget, direct-to-video films, with titles like CYCLONE, BEVERLY HILLS VAMP, and TEENAGE EXORCIST. Robert Quarry moved into the Motion Picture and Television Country Home, where he spent much time giving interviews and answering fan mail, until his death in 2009 at age 83.

“Man, I sure could use a cigarette!”

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Murphy (Paul) would go on to do NASHVILLE, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, MANHATTAN, and the HBO series TANNER. Roger Perry (smoking Dr. Jim) was a good actor who never quite made it out of the ‘B’ category himself; he did a ton of TV, including regular roles on HARRIGAN AND SON (with Pat O’Brien), THE FACTS OF LIFE, and FALCON CREST. Donna Anders (Donna) appeared in WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS . Michael Macready’s father, the great character actor George Macready , provides the chilling opening and closing narration.  Director Bob Kelljan was an AIP mainstay, acting and/or directing in many of their films, followed by a long run as a TV director.

“Ready for some HLA, girls?”

There’s evidence of what COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE could have turned out to be through the film: a scene where Yorga, sitting in his basement throne room, watches his lusty vampire babes engage in some HLA (that’s Hot Lesbian Action!); Donna is attacked by Brudah, and we fade to black just before the rape occurs; Dr. Jim’s busty receptionist’s part was trimmed, but when she pops up in his bed we know they’ve been doing more than working overtime! Thanks to the star, things were cleaned up a bit, and the result was a surprise hit for both AIP and Robert Quarry, last of the great movie vampires, for which genre fans can be forever grateful.

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Shadows and Satin , Speakeasy , and Silver Screenings . Check out the other posts and join in on the devilish fun!  

Time Well Spent: THREE HOURS TO KILL (Columbia 1954)

I don’t think you’ll find THREE HOURS TO KILL among anyone’s Top Ten Films list, or Top Ten Westerns, or even Top Ten Dana Andrews Movies. What you will find, if you give this movie a chance, is a solid, adult themed Technicolor Western with just a hint of film noir, made by Hollywood pros in front and behind the cameras. And you can’t ask for much more than that.

Jim Guthrie returns after a three year absence to the town that once tried to hang him. Jim relates the tale via flashback to old friend and current sheriff Ben East: a big night in town had everybody drinking and partying it up. Sexy hotel owner Chris Palmer comes on to Jim, but he only has eyes for pretty Laurie Mastin, bringing out the jealous side of banker Niles Hendricks. Laurie’s brother Carter disapproves of Jim, and a fight breaks out. The camera moves indoors as the partygoers hear two shots, then rush outside to see Jim standing over Carter, gun in hand. The alcohol-fueled crowd erupts into a lynch mob, and Jim barely escapes with his life, his rope-scarred neck a constant reminder of that fateful night.

Ben gives Jim til sundown, just three short hours away, to prove his innocence before either leaving town for good or being arrested. He soon learns many things have changed since he left. Laurie is now married to Niles and has a young son – and as it turns out, the kid is Jim’s! His probing makes him a marked man, and there are suspects galore, all with their own reasons for wanting Carter dead and Jim held responsible…

Dana Andrews  takes the role of Jim Guthrie and plays it like one of his many noir protagonists. He’s a hard man, and justice isn’t the only thing on his mind. Andrews is as obsessed and determined as his Mark McPherson in LAURA , and though his star had fallen somewhat (due to his alcoholism; Andrews eventually conquered his demons through AA), he delivers a sturdy performance. Donna Reed was a year removed from her Oscar win for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and the part of Laurie is a nice, juicy dramatic role for her. As always, Reed gives it her all, and the two work well together.

Character actor James Westerfield in “Three Hours to Kill”

The supporting cast is filled with Familiar Faces. Stephen Elliott is Sheriff Ben, who’s not what he seems. Richard Coogan (TV’s original CAPTAIN VIDEO) plays Niles, who’s also not what he seems. Dianne Foster (Chris) has an impressive sagebrush resume that includes THE KENTUCKIAN, THE VIOLENT MEN, and NIGHT PASSAGE. James Westerfield is bartender Sam, Whit Bissell barber Deke, Richard Webb (another TV captain, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) the unfortunate Carter, and Laurence Hugo (the soap opera EDGE OF NIGHT) the gambler Marty. Carolyn Jones has an early role as a bar girl, and you’ll find vets Stanley Blystone, Franklyn Farnum, Frank Hagney, Hank Mann, Frances McDonald, Snub Pollard, and Buddy Roosevelt among the townsfolk.

Producer Harry Joe Brown treats the film like one of his Randolph Scott Westerns – in fact, it probably would’ve made a good Scott vehicle! The screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons (SHIELD FOR MURDER) and Roy Huggins (future creator of TV’s THE FUGITIVE and THE ROCKFORD FILES) is tense and original. Veteran DP Charles Lawton (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI) makes the Columbia backlot look sufficiently Western. And director Alfred Werker had been around since the silent era; working mainly in B’s, his better known films include HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, KIDNAPPED, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and HE WALKED BY NIGHT.

The name Paul Sawtell rarely shows up in discussions on great film composers, but if you’ve ever watched a classic-era movie, you’ve heard his work. Sawtell’s credits are legion: he worked on many Universal Horror and Sherlock Holmes films in the 40’s, moved on to RKO for some Tarzans, scored films noir like THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, BORN TO KILL , T-MEN, RAW DEAL , and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL , low budget horror and sci-fi (SON OF DR. JEKYLL, THE BLACK SCORPION , IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE ), Irwin Allen’s THE LOST WORLD , VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, and FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, and even a couple of Russ Meyer sexploitationers (FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, MOTORPSYCHO). Sawtell also composed tons of stock music cues that pop up in almost 500 films and TV shows. He’s one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, and though he’s no Max Steiner, he deserves a shout-out – so here it is!!

THREE HOURS TO KILL is not a “classic” Western (we’re not talking John Ford here!), but the talent on both sides of the camera make it just a cut above average. It’s well worth watching, not only for Western buffs, but for fans of good, solid Hollywood filmmaking.

Pre Code Confidential #27: Mae West in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount 1933)

Bawdy Mae West had scandalized Broadway with her risque humor, and struggling Paramount Pictures snapped her to a movie deal. Her first was a supporting part in 1932’s NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, where she was allowed to rewrite her own dialog, and stole the show by purring sexually charged lines like “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. Mae’s presence helped refill Paramount’s coffers, and raised the hackles of censorship boards across America. It wasn’t long until the Production Code became strictly enforced, thanks in large part to Mae, but before then, she was given the spotlight in 1933’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG, based somewhat on her stage success DIAMOND LIL.

Like the play, SHE DONE HIM WRONG is set in The Bowery during the 1890’s, but here Diamond Lil is called Lady Lou, because the censors wanted to whitewash all vestiges of the ribald play. Diamond Lil or Lady Lou, Mae is still Mae, and no one could deliver sexual innuendo like her! Lou is, according to her, “One of the finest women ever walked the streets”, a saloon singer who attracts men like a magnet. Owner Gus Jordan keeps her adorned in diamonds, Russian gigolo Serge Stanieff is infatuated, even prim Salvation Army reformer Captain Cummings has a crush on her. When Lou visits her ex-lover Chick Clark in stir, he’s driven so mad with jealousy he escapes to make sure Lou’s being true (fat chance!).

The plot revolves around some shady white slavery business involving Gus, Serge, and Russian Rita, but that takes a backseat to Mae and her ribald double entendres. This is the film where she coos to a young Cary Grant (playing the reformer!), “Why’ncha come up sometime and see me”. Cary asks if she’s ever met a man that could make her happy, to which Mae replies, “Sure, lots of times”. Or this little gem: “When women go wrong, men go right after them”. She also gets to sing three hot numbers, “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone”, “A Guy What Takes His Time”, and “Frankie & Johnny”.

Mae always claimed to have ‘discovered’ Cary Grant, but he’d already made seven films by this point, including the Pre-Code classic BLONDE VENUS with Marlene Dietrich. Grant was 29 at the time, while Mae was approaching 40, but a little thing like age never stopped Mae West, and the sexual heat between them is believable. Gruff Noah Beery Sr. plays saloon owner Gus, oily Gilbert Roland is the oily Serge, and Owen Moore the jealousy-driven Chick. Other cast members include Rafaela Ottiano as Russian Rita (reprising her stage role), Dewey Robinson as Lou’s loyal bodyguard Spider, and the delightful Louise Beavers as Lou’s maid Pearl. Familiar Faces abound in lesser parts: Arthur Housman , Rochelle Hudson , Tom Kennedy , Fuzzy Knight , David Landau, among others.

Though the prudes were outraged at Mae’s onscreen behavior, SHE DONE HIM WRONG  packed ’em in around the country, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year (the shortest movie ever nominated, clocking in at 66 minutes). The Production Code clampdown a year later watered Mae’s earthy persona down considerably, but even watered down Mae West was better than none at all. She still found ways to sneak some in (as in this from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE: “I was in a tight spot, but I managed to wiggle out of it”), but Mae’s shocking one-liners mostly found themselves on the cutting room floor. Mae West never gave in or gave up though, and continued to be her raunchy self for years to come. She was Hollywood’s first Liberated Woman, and SHE DONE HIM WRONG represents the immortal Mae West at her lustful best!

Make ‘Em Laugh: RIP Tim Conway

If comedy is a gift, then Tim Conway was America’s Santa Claus, delivering bags full of laughter directly into our homes for over fifty years. The cherubic Conway, who died May 14 at age 85, was mainly known for his television work, but also starred in films, on stage, and in the home video field, making him a true Renaissance Man of Comedy.

Tim and Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson

Young Tim got his start in his hometown of Cleveland, not exactly a hotbed of humor (with apologies to Jim Backus, Kaye Ballard, and British transplant Bob Hope ), writing and appearing in skits with local TV personality Ernie Anderson during breaks in a morning movie show. Anderson himself would later gain fame as a horror host (Cleveland’s Ghoulardi) and  a network announcer, ‘The Voice of ABC’ (“Tonight on The Loooo-ve Boat….”).

Comic actress Rose Marie, on a cross-country tour promoting THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, saw some clips of Tim and Ernie’s skits and helped him land a spot on Steve Allen’s national program. This led to Conway being cast as the bumbling, naive Ensign Charles Parker on a new sitcom titled MCHALE’S NAVY,  set during WWII and starring Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine as the conniving Lt. Cmdr. Quenton McHale. Parker’s inept ensign was a constant thorn in the side of stuffy Capt. Binghamton (‘Old Leadbottom’), played to perfection by the nasal-voiced Joe Flynn, who was always trying to find a way to rid himself of McHale and his crew of reprobates. But it was Conway who was the comic glue holding things together during the series four-year run, and his slapstick antics delighted both kids and adults out there in TV land.

The series proved popular enough to inspire two feature films, the first (1964’s MCHALE’S NAVY) featuring the entire cast. 1965’s MCHALE’S NAVY JOINS THE AIR FORCE was made without Borgnine (who was busy filming FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX), giving Conway the chance to showcase his comedy talents. This one finds Ensign Parker embroiled in a case of mistaken identity with an Air Force lieutenant (Ted Bessel), and bumbling his way into becoming a war hero! Conway and Flynn made a great comic duo, but no more MCHALE’S films were made.

“Rango” (1967) with Norman Alden & Guy Marks

Tim tried and failed several times at starring in his own sitcom (RANGO, THE TIM CONWAY SHOW, ACE CRAWFORD PRIVATE EYE), but was in demand as a guest star on other programs. Most notoriously, he hosted the first (and as it turned out, only) episode of TURN-ON , a sketch show ripped off from the then-popular ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN that was so offensive, it was immediately cancelled after the first airing. Tim’s hometown of Cleveland didn’t even wait that long – station WEWS pulled the plug before the show was halfway through! Conway took his sitcom failures with good humor, though; his license plate read “13 WKS” (which was how long most of them lasted!).

“The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975)

It didn’t look like Tim would ever be more than a second banana, until Disney came a-calling. His first for the studio was 1973’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHLETE, with the late Jan-Michael Vincent as a jungle boy who brings sports success to a failing college program. Tim’s next Disney movie was fortuitous indeed; 1975’s THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG paired him with another sitcom refugee, Don Knotts , as a pair of inept Wild West outlaws mixed up with a gold heist and a trio of cute kids. Critics trashed it, but families turned out in droves, and THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG was the tenth-highest grossing film released that year, spawning a sequel, 1979’s THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG RIDES AGAIN.

Tim & Don in “The Private Eyes” (1980)

Tim and Don teamed in a pair of comedies that Conway co-wrote: THE PRIZE FIGHTER (1979) and THE PRIVATE EYES (1980). The former has Tim as a broken down boxer and Don his manager, the latter finds the duo as slapstick sleuths on the loose in London. Both give Tim and Don plenty of opportunities to strut their silly schtick, and were box office hits for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. They would team one more time in a cameo as goofy Highway Patrolmen in CANNONBALL RUN II, and we fans wish they would’ve made more movie madness together!

Mrs. Wiggins & Mr. Tudball

Tim had been making guest appearances on Carol Burnett’s weekly variety show since it began in 1967, and became part of the regular ensemble in 1975. He was given free reign to create crazy characters and out-there comic skits, and really began to shine. His pairings on the show with fellow funnyman Harvey Korman  are TV classics,  as Tim never failed to break Harvey up with his insane antics and ad-libs. A case in point is the classic skit “The Dentist”, which you can find here . His shuffling, stumbling World’s Oldest Man was another comedic highlight, as was his Swedish boss Mr. Tudball, constantly frustrated with blonde bimbo secretary Mrs. Wiggins (Carol in a blonde wig and tight dress). He also joined in on ‘The Family’ sketches (which later morphed into the sitcom MAMA’S FAMILY) as Korman’s bungling employee Mickey, and this outtake shows why Tim was the Comic’s Comic:

Life after Carol found Tim hitting the lucrative home video market with DORF ON GOLF (1987) as a so-called sports expert. Dorf talked in the same accent as Mr. Tudball, but was only about four feet tall (Tim achieved this by effect by sticking his knees in a pair of shoes). More Dorf videos ensued, each as popular with home audiences as the next.

Tim made new fans later in his career as the voice of Barnacle Boy, sidekick to superhero Mermaid Man (voiced by Tim’s old buddy Ernest Borgnine) on the Nickelodeon cartoon show SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Tim Conway delighted TV and movie lovers for generations, and he was rewarded for his efforts with six Emmys. Inventive, fertile comedy minds like his don’t come around too often, but fortunately for us, we can still enjoy his peculiar brand of silliness for generations to come. Thanks for all the laughter, Tim, and rest in peace.

Happy National Classic Movie Day!

So apparently, today has been delegated National Classic Movie Day, and no one told me! It was created in 2014 as some sort of “grassroots movement” (according to Facebook), and isn’t really a National Holiday. But it should be! What better way to bring people together than watching a classic film starring Bogie, Bette, Duke, or Bela, and then actually TALKING about it. I’ve struggled with creating an All-Time Top Ten List for years, so I’m not even going to attempt it. Instead, here’s a list of 20 films off the top of my head that I could watch over and over again (and in the interest of fairness, I’ll present them in  alphabetical order):

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (Warner Bros 1938)

Cagney and O’Brien, Bogie and Ann Sheridan, The Dead End Kids – what more could a classic film fan ask for??

BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (Banner Pictures 1953)

I can hear you all taking a deep intake of breath and saying, “What the f…”, but I don’t care! I love this no-budget masterpiece, and I love Lugosi, so there!!

CASABLANCA (Warner Bros 1942)

I’ve written plenty of praises for my favorite movie, so I’ll just move right along…

CITIZEN KANE (RKO 1941)

Some say it’s the greatest film ever made, and who am I to argue? Orson Welles broke all the cinematic rules here, and invented some new ones!

DUCK SOUP (Paramount 1933)

Groucho, Chico, and Harpo at their most anarchic! “Remember, we’re fighting for this woman’s honor… which is more than she ever did!”

FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1931)

Karloff as Mary Shelley’s tragic creation turned a minor actor into the Undisputed King of Horror. And the sequel (1935’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) is as good (if not better) than the original!

THE GODFATHER (Paramount 1972)

Francis Ford Coppola’s portrait of an American family, who happen to be in the Mafia. It’s much more than just another gangster movie.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (United Artists 1967)

Of all the Spaghetti Westerns ever made, this one’s my favorite. Cool Clint, Ice Cold Van Cleef, and Crazy Eli are a trio that can’t be beat, and Sergio Leone dazzles us with his movie-making magic.

IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD MAD WORLD (United Artists 1963)

Often imitated, but never duplicated. How could it be, with Spencer Tracy heading up a cast of classic comedians doing their thing!

KING KONG (RKO 1933)

No amount of technological advancement or big-name stars can top this marvelous movie. A fairy tale for the ages!

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Continental Distributing 1968)

A movie that scared the crap out of me when I first saw it… and still does!!

 PSYCHO (Universal 1960)

They don’t call Alfred Hitchcock the Master of Suspense for nothin’!!

THE QUIET MAN (Republic 1952)

The lush Irish landscape, John Wayne and Victor McLaglen’s big brawl, and Maureen O’Hara at her most gorgeous make this one of John Ford’s most poetic movies.

THE SEARCHERS (Warner Bros 1956)

Wayne and Ford again. Simply the greatest Western ever made.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO 1949)

Three in a row for the Ford/Wayne combo. A very underrated Western.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (MGM 1952)

A musical masterpiece about Old Hollywood. Gene Kelly never ceases to amaze me!

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Warner Bros 1951)

Another Hitchcock thriller, a delicious cat-and-mouse game between Robert Walker and Farley Granger.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (Paramount 1950)

A Hollywood Horror Story, with Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson pulling out all the stops!

SOME LIKE IT HOT (United Artists 1959)

Wilder creates one of the screen’s greatest comedies, with a little help from Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and the superb Joe E. Brown! “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

THEATER OF BLOOD (United Artists 1973)

Because every classic movie list should include a Vincent Price flick!

A Moment of Comedy Bliss with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman

As the world still mourns the loss of Doris Day yesterday, another great has left us  – TV comedy genius Tim Conway, who died today at age 85. Tim rightfully deserves a tribute post of his own, and he’ll get it, but until then, enjoy this classic bit of comedy gold from THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (and watch Harvey Korman try to keep a straight face!):

Tim Conway (1933-2019)

Once I Had A Secret Love: RIP Doris Day

You wouldn’t think from reading most of the content I publish – Western actioners, horror flicks, film noir, exploitation trash – that I’d be a big Doris Day fan. But the first film I can remember seeing on the Big Screen is THAT TOUCH OF MINK, with Doris and Cary Grant, and I’ve been in love ever since. Talent is talent, and the iconic singer/actress, who died earlier today at age 97, had it in bucketloads. Doris’s career spanned nearly 50 years, from the Big Band Era to Cable TV, and was “America’s Sweetheart” for most of her adult life (not to mention “The World’s Oldest Living Virgin” due to her squeaky-clean screen image!).

Cincinnati-born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, born in 1922, wanted to be a professional dancer, but a severe car accident in 1937 curtailed that dream. Instead she turned to singing, and became a local sensation, eventually landing a gig with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. Brown’s orchestra, carried by Day’s stylish phrasing, rose to the top of the pop charts in 1945 with a song that resonated deeply with GI’s returning home from World War II and became a jazz standard, “Sentimental Journey”:

After spending two years as the featured singer on Bob Hope’s radio show (where she honed her comedic skills), Doris was signed by Warner Brothers and made her film debut in 1948’s ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS, an amusing bit of musical romantic fluff that starred Jack Carson, Janis Paige, Don DeFore, and Oscar Levant, in which she introduced the Oscar-nominated song, “It’s Magic”:

Doris was a hit with movie fans, and a series of musicals followed: MY DREAM IS YOURS, TEA FOR TWO, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, ON MOONLIGHT BAY, APRIL IN PARIS, BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON. She began getting some dramatic roles as well, as in  1950’s YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, which found her as the love interest for alcoholic trumpeter Kirk Douglas. STORM WARNING (1951) found Doris enmeshed in a Southern town dominated by racism and the KKK, along with Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan. I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1951) was a box-office smash, based on the life of famed early 20th Century songwriter Gus Kahn (played by Danny Thomas).

One of my personal favorite Day movies is CALAMITY JANE (1953), a rollicking musical set in the Wild West. Doris is the uncouth, rowdy legend Jane, while Howard Keel plays the object of her affections, Wild Bill Hickok. Doris gets to play broadly, mugging it up and having a grand old time, and introduces another #1 hit, the Oscar-winning “Secret Love”:

Her next two films are classics. LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955) is the musical biography of famed torch singer Ruth Etting, whose involvement with gangster Moe “The Gimp” Snyder (James Cagney) shocked the nation. Alfred Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) was a remake of the director’s 1934 film about an American couple abroad (Doris and James Stewart) embroiled in international intrigue and the kidnapping of their child. Both these films were hits, and Doris was now one of America’s top 10 box office draws (an honor she held ten times, including eight consecutive years, from 1959-1966).

Most fans remember her screen teamings with Rock Hudson in a series of ‘sex comedies’,beginning with 1959’s PILLOW TALK. This adult-oriented farce has Doris sharing a telephone party line with swinging playboy Rock, and the battle of the sexes that ensues. Tony Randall added to the fun as Rock’s pal, and the three reunited for 1961’s LOVER COME BACK, with Doris and Rock as rival Madison Ave ad execs. Last (and my favorite of the bunch) was 1964’s SEND ME NO FLOWERS, which has Rock as Doris’s hypochondriac hubby, who thinks he’s dying. The two stars remained lifelong friends, and Doris stood by Rock’s side as he was slowly slipping away due to complications from AIDS.

The times (and tastes) were a-changing during the 1960’s, and Doris moved to television, starring for 5 seasons on THE DORIS DAY SHOW. The sitcom went through numerous cast and setting changes during it’s run, never falling out of the top 40, but by this time Doris Day was symbolic of an earlier, more gentler era. She basically retired from show business, appearing in a few specials and talk show appearances, and hosted her own chat show, DORIS DAY’S BEST FRIENDS, on cable in the mid-80’s. Mostly, she was involved with her Doris Day Animal Foundation, and was an advocate to ‘reduce pain and suffering’ for animals worldwide. Doris Day’s passing today marks the end of an era, as Hollywood’s surviving Golden Age members are shrinking in numbers. It  may not be hip or cool to be a Doris Day fan, but if so, then I guess I’m not so hip and cool after all. God bless you, Miss Day, and thanks for the memories.

Rest in peace, Doris Day

1922-2019

 

 

Pulp Fiction #3: Batman At 80

Whether you call him the Caped Crusader or the Dark Knight, it’s hard to believe Batman has been in the public eye for eighty years! Making his debut in Detective Comics #27 (cover dated May 1939) in a story titled “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Batman has gone from mere comic book crimefighter to king of all media! Not bad for a poor little rich kid from Gotham City!

BATMAN BEGINS 

Artist Bob Kane (1915-1998) had been toiling in the nascent comic book field for three years when DC’s superhero character Superman took off like a rocket. Comic houses were scrambling to compete in this new genre of costumed cavorters, and Kane came up with some sketches of a masked vigilante, basing his design on Lee Falk’s Phantom, Douglas Fairbanks’ ZORRO, and the 1930 horror/mystery THE BAT WHISPERS. Kane asked writer Bill Finger (1914-1974) to look at them, and it was Finger who came up with some suggestions: Batman’s iconic cape and cowl, gauntlets, and dark color scheme. Though Kane got sole credit for decades in Batman’s creation, without Bill Finger, the character probably would’ve faded into obscurity like a thousand other masked men gracing the pages of early comics. Finger also wrote that first story, and contributed to much of the Batman Mythos, like secret identity Bruce Wayne.

The Bat-Man (as he was originally called in that first story) was heavily influenced by the pulps of the era, especially Walter Gibson’s The Shadow. He worked outside the law, and even carried a gun, but soon evolved into his own (bat) man. Batman’s utility belt was introduced in Detective #29, complete with chemical pellets, grappling hook, and sundry other Bat-devices added later on. The Batarang, Batman’s most well-known weapon, debuted in Detective #31, along with the Batplane. The Batmobile was at first just a red car, but as time went on morphed into the familiar batwinged vehicle we all know and love.

Batman’s origin wasn’t explained until Detective #33, as we learned millionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a mugger when he was just a child. Young Bruce vowed to wage war on crime, and studied voraciously, learning everything he could about the criminal mind, becoming proficient in science, and immersing himself in the fighting arts. Batman proved so popular he was given his own comic in 1940, and featured in other books like World’s Finest (where he’d have a long-running team-up series with DC’s top superhero Superman beginning in 1954).

THE FRIENDS OF BATMAN

Commissioner Jim Gordon was featured in that first Bat-story in Detective #27, at first an antagonist to the cowled crusader, later becoming a trusted friend and ally. Gordon’s main way to communicate with Batman was through the Bat-Signal, introduced in Detective #60. His daughter Barbara later became Batgirl during the height of the camp craze (but we’ll get to that later).

Butler Alfred Pennyworth made his first appearance in Batman #16. Originally a chubby comic relief character, Alfred later lost weight and became Batman’s sounding board. Alfred was popular enough with readers to have his own four-page featurette in Batman Comics lasting thirteen issues, with the (then) bumbling butler solving crimes on his own.

Now we come to Robin The Boy Wonder, introduced to the world in Detective #38 as an eight year old, growing over the years into a teenager. Robin was the first comic book teenage sidekick, for better or worse, created to give kids someone to identify with, but I never identified with any of those those (as Mad Magazine once called them) “icky teenage sidekicks” – I’d rather be Batman! Be that as it may, young Dick Grayson debuted in 1940, a circus aerialist whose parents are murdered by gangsters. Bruce Wayne adopted Dick as his ‘ward’, leading Batman into some hot water with a certain psychologist – but like Batgirl, we’ll get to that later, too!

Robin was popular enough to be featured in his own solo adventures, in the pages of Star-Spangled Comics from 1947-52. The Boy Wonder was also one of the founding members of Teen Titans, along with other “icky teenage sidekicks” Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and Aqualad. They made their debut in The Brave and the Bold #54 back in 1964, getting their own mag in ’65, and have been comic book staples ever since.

BATMAN’S ROGUE’S GALLERY

One of the best things about Batman has always been his enemies, the most colorful collection of costumed criminal creeps in comic book history! With apologies to all you Bane enthusiasts, here are Batman’s Top 10 Most Wanted:

THE JOKER (Batman #1, 1940) – The Dark Knight’s greatest adversary, this chalk-white, green-haired killer has been a thorn in Batman’s side from the get-go. According to legend, Joker was a crook called the Red Hood, chased by Batman into a chemical vat, causing his grotesque visage, and warping his mind as well. The killer became the Clown Prince of Crime after the arrival of the Comics Code, but returned to his murderous glory in the 70’s thanks to the Bat-team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. Joker is one of the few super-villains to star in his own comic series, back in 1975.

CATWOMAN (Batman #1, 1940) – Selina Kyle was a slinky jewel thief whose relationship with the Caped Crusader has always been a bit complicated. Though she’s usually on the wrong side of the law, let’s just say she and Batman are more than just frenemies!

DR. HUGO STRANGE (Detective #36, 1940) – This maddest of mad scientists was Batman’s first recurring foe, until he was killed off in Detective #46, brought back to nefarious life in Detective Comics during the 70’s by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers in the story arc “Strange Apparitions”.

THE PENGUIN (Detective #58, 1941) – Oswald Cobblepot, that waddling master of foul play, used bird and umbrella motifs to commit his heinous crimes, always fouled by Batman. Penguin is certainly the most dapper of Batman villains!

THE SCARECROW (World’s Finest #3, 1941) – Psychologist Jonathan Crane, bullied as a child, used chemically-induced fear on the Dynamic Duo for two appearances in the Golden Age, returning with a vengeance during the 1960’s to become even more scarier!

THE RIDDLER (Detective #140, 1948) – Edward Nigma (E. Nigma, get it?) was a puzzle-obsessed crook compelled to leave cryptic clues at the scenes of his crimes. Riddler was really a minor figure in Batman’s world until Frank Gorshin brought him to life in the 60’s TV series (yes, we’ll get to that later, I promise!).

POISON IVY (Batman #181, 1966) – The beautiful botanist’s kiss put a spell on Batman, and like Catwoman, there’s more than meets the eye in their love-hate relationship. Poison Ivy emerged in full bloom in her debut, and it wasn’t until much later readers were given her full back story. In an interesting side note, Ivy’s look was originally based on pin-up girl Bettie Page!

MAN-BAT (Detective #400, 1971) – Dr. Kirk Langston, seeking a cure for his hearing loss, mutated into the hideous Man-Bat, terrorizing Gotham City. Code restrictions were loosened during the early 70’s, and horror-themed anti-heroes proliferated (ie, Spider-Man’s vampire foe Morbius). Like The Joker, Man-Bat also had a brief run in his own title.

RA’S AL GHUL (Batman #232, 1971) – This ancient eco-terrorist believes the world can achieve balance by wiping out most of humanity. Ra’s replenishes his life by frequenting The Lazarus Pit, and is leader of the League of Assassins, chief among them his daughter Talia, another villainess who’s more than fond of Batman! Speaking of more than friends….

THE SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT 

In 1954, eminent psychiatrist and world-class kook Dr. Fredric Wertham published an ominous tome titled Seduction of the Innocent, in which he claimed comic books were the leading cause of warping young American minds. Not just EC’s graphic horror and crime comics, but… well, I’ll let Dr. Wertham state his case:

“Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life… Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick (Grayson) is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases… Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown… It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Well. Who knew?

Apparently nobody who read comics, but adults were up in arms about Wertham’s claims, which not only painted Batman and Robin as gay lovers, but Superman as a fascist and Wonder Woman a bondage-loving lesbian! Of course, newspaper editorials expressed their outrage over these four-color abominations corrupting American morals, and of course a Senate subcommittee was formed, led by headline-hunting presidential wannabe Estes Kefauver.

The comics industry, rather than succumb to governmental oversight, created its own Comics Code Authority, to which every publisher was to adhere. Among the many do’s and don’ts were no more use of the words horror or terror in their titles (effectively killing off EC Comics), all crime must be punished, respect for authority, no sexual perversion or abnormalities, no excessive violence, and no drawings of excessive female pulchritude. Or as Dean Wormer said in ANIMAL HOUSE, “No more fun of any kind!!!”.

Batman and his costumed cohorts (of which there were few, superheroes having gone out of vogue) were essentially deballed. The Dark Knight took on a much lighter tone, and the Dynamic Duo wren’t so dynamic anymore. Batwoman and Bat-Girl were introduced, just to prove Bruce and Dick weren’t sexual deviants after all. They were even given a pet pooch, Ace the Bat-Hound, who aided in their crimefighting efforts. Stories about inter-dimensional imp Bat-Mite were played for “laughs”, and all in all it was a terrible time to be a Bat-Fan.

ENTER JULIUS SCHWARTZ 

Batman was boring, so boring DC was seriously considering cancelling it’s line of Batman comics, until editor Julius Schwartz took over stewardship in 1964. Schwartz, a literary agent who’d once represented Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, entered the comics field as an editor in 1944. He helped usher in the Silver Age of Comics with revivals of The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Justice League of America, and now set his sights on returning Batman to his former glory. The “New Look” was initiated; gone were Batwoman, Bat-Mite, and all that silliness, and the writer/artist team of John Broome and Carmine Infantino brought back the detective aspect of Detective Comics. Batman was even given a little costume freshening, with the now-familiar yellow oval encircling the bat on his chest. Things worked out for the best, and Batman was Batman again… thank you, Julie Schwartz!

HOLY CAMP CRAZE! 

Batman first appeared onscreen in a 1943 serial starring Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft as the Dynamic Duo, battling the evil machinations of Japanese spy Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish). They wouldn’t return until 1949, this time with Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan taking on criminal mastermind The Wizard (Leonard Penn). Batman and Robin wouldn’t be seen in live action form until 17 years later, this time on television.

BATMAN  debuted as a mid-season replacement on ABC January 12, 1966. To say it was an immediate hit is to put it mildly. This was the age of James Bond and THE MAN FROM UNCLE, of pop art and rock’n’roll, and the series’s style reflected the era. It was camp, it was hip, and it self-knowingly winked at its audience. Every kid in America with access to a TV set was talking about the show at school the next day (including Yours Truly!). Adam West and Burt Ward were perfect as the Dynamic Duo, helping to make BATMAN not only must-see TV for the small set, but getting teens and adults all a-buzz about it (remember kids, back in the day, there were only three TV networks!).

High camp was in, and every star in Hollywood wanted to get in on the act. Special Guest Villains were a prestige gig, and stars like Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Julie Newmar (Catwoman) and the aforementioned Frank Gorshin (Riddler) were the Big 4 in Bad Guys. But there were plenty of others: Victor Buono (King Tut), Vincent Price (Egghead), David Wayne (Mad Hatter), Roddy McDowell (The Bookworm), Joan Collins (The Siren), Cliff Robertson and Dina Merrill (Shame and Calamity Jan). Mr. Freeze was played by three different actors: George Sanders , Otto Preminger, and Eli Wallach . Rock stars Chad & Jeremy and Paul Revere and the Raiders took part in the fun, and a cameo role on BATMAN became the in thing to do; Dick Clark, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Devine , Phyllis Diller, Jerry Lewis , George Raft, and Edward G. Robinson all popped up in brief bits.

Despite the initial outbreak of Batmania, the show lasted just two and a half seasons. Even bringing on Yvonne Craig as Batgirl failed to boost ratings, and the Bat-Craze of the mid-60’s came to an end just as fast as it began. But oh, what a glorious time to be a Bat-Fan it was!

THE LEGEND CONTINUES 

Batman soldiered on in comics, with memorable pairings of writer/artist teams like the previously mentioned O’Neil/Adams, Englehart/Rogers, and Bob Haney/Jim Aparo in the team-up comic The Brave and the Bold. Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns” restored Batman to his dark roots. In 1989, He returned to the screen in BATMAN, with Michael Keaton donning the cape and cowl, and Jack Nicholson a memorable Joker, and hasn’t left since (despite those two awful Joel Schumacher versions!). Batman continues to fascinate fans, whether in comic form, animated TV, live-action movies, or in his super-cool Lego incarnation. So happy 80th anniversary, Caped Crusader… here’s to 80 more! Now everybody Batusi!!: