Dancing masters like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and The Nicholas Brothers all agreed… Eleanor Powell was the tops! The 24-year-old star made a big splash in MGM’s BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, and the studio quickly followed up with BORN TO DANCE, showcasing Eleanor’s tap-dancing prowess in a fun musical-comedy-romance featuring a cavalcade of stars, and an original score by Cole Porter. Yep, Leo the Lion was going big on this one!
The plot’s your typical Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Wins Girl Back fluff, this time around concerning submarine sailors in port and the babes they chase after. Nora Paige (Eleanor) enters the Lonely Hearts Club (no, not Sgt. Pepper’s! ) looking for work as a hoofer (“You don’t use a fan?”, says wisecracking Jenny Saks, played by wisecracking Una Merkel ). Nora shows what she can do in the hot number “Rap, Tap On Wood”, a joyous dance number (that Eleanor makes look so easy!). Enter sailor Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart… hey, what’s he doing here??) and it’s love at first sight, because that’s the way things work in these movies!
When Ted saves musical comedy star Lucy James’ (Virginia Bruce) pet peke Cheeky from drowning, the publicity machine gets cranking: “FAMOUS ACTRESS IN LOVE WITH GOB” read the headlines, and poor Nora is stood up while Ted dines with Lucy. Misunderstandings abound, as Nora tells Ted she’s a married woman with a child (actually Jenny’s kid, whose dad is Ted’s sailor pal ‘Gunny’) so he’ll leave her alone. Nora then gets a job as a Broadway understudy for… who else but Lucy! The temperamental Lucy gets Nora canned, Jenny spills the beans, and the whole thing ends up with a rousing, twelve-minute, patriotic, Depression-busting showstopper set on a battleship that becomes a dazzling showcase for the terpsichorean talents of Miss Powell.
Eleanor has some marvelous numbers, and I especially enjoyed the athletic love dance she does in Central Park after Jimmy croons Porter’s classic “You’d Be So Easy To Love” to her – and far as Jimmy’s singing goes, let’s just say Bing Crosby had nothing to worry about! Curiously, while Stewart was allowed to sing, Eleanor’s vocals are all dubbed by Marjorie Lane (wife of actor Brian Donlevy). The number “Hey, Babe, Hey” is another stunner, performed by Eleanor, Jimmy, and fellow cast members Una, Sid Silvers (Gunny), Buddy Ebsen (Mushy), and Frances Langford (Peppy), each getting a chance to shine. And then there’s that finale “Swingin’ the Jinx Away”, where Eleanor is a whirling bundle of energy and shows just why her contemporaries considered her the best ever!
Virginia Bruce has never looked more beautiful to me, but then again I’ve only seen her in two other films – as the tortured victim in the Pre-Code KONGO and the title role in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN , where I hardly saw her at all! Miss Bruce gets to introduce the world to the Porter standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” here, and her voice is as lovely as the rest of her. Una Merkel gets all the good laugh lines; after seeing Ted with Lucy James in the papers, she quips, “That dame’s first name shoulda been Jesse”. And to her precocious daughter (Juanita Quigley): “Sally, you’re gonna drive me to stop drinking!”. Blustery Raymond Walburn is on hand as the blustery submarine captain, Helen Troy has a cute bit as a nasally telephone operator, and Reginald Gardiner plays a cop who comes across Ted and Nora in the park and breaks into a funny impersonation of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Dependable Roy Del Ruth directed, and with this cast it must have been a dream job. I know I use the phrase “They don’t make ’em like this anymore” a little too frequently on this platform, but in this case the old cliché fits like a glove. And they sure don’t make stars like Eleanor Powell anymore, a multi- talented lady whose career was all-too-brief, but oh-so-memorable:
The Blaxploitation Explosion was beginning to wind down by 1975, but genre superstar Pam Grier had a few more aces left up her silky sleeve. One was SHEBA, BABY, a film that doesn’t get much love, probably due to its lower-then-usual budget restrictions, but I found it a more than passable entry, mainly because of Pam’s charisma. She carries the movie on her sexy shoulders and makes it watchable, budget be damned!
In this outing, we have gangsters terrorizing local Louisville, KY businesses, including Andy Shayne. Enter daughter Sheba, a Chicago PI who comes home just in time to help. The cops refuse to get involved, so when Andy’s gunned down by hoods, Sheba’s on the case, and there’s no stopping her from getting revenge on those creepy criminals…
Pam is again one bad sista, decked out in stylish 70’s fashions as she pursues the villains with aplomb. In fact, SHEBA, BABY is a Totally 70’s Time Capsule, from the properly funky score by disco/jazzman Monk Higgins to Sheba’s fire engine red Mustang to a scene set at the local Louisville Burger Chef! Sheba is a Liberated Ass-Kicker who’s not afraid to take matters into her own hands, as we see when she tortures information out of the pimped-suited, jive-talking Walker (a funny Christopher Jay) in a car wash. Another effective scene has Sheba being chased through a carnival by bad guy Pilot (an over-the-top D’Urville Martin ) and his goons, turning the tables so the hunted becomes the hunter. The climax finds Sheba a One-Woman Aquatic Assault Force, chasing down the smarmy, rich, white, narcissistic main villain Shark (Dick Merrifield) first on a jet ski, then in a speedboat, putting an end to the rotter with a spear gun!
Director/writer William Girdler was no Hitchcock or Welles, and he didn’t pretend to be. Instead, the Louisville native cranked out films that may have had low budgets, but were highly entertaining. His Kentucky-lensed proto-slasher THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972) caught the eye of AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff, who signed Girdler up for a series of horror films. ABBY (1974) was a Blaxploitation EXORCIST ripoff featuring Carol Speed and William (BLACULA) Marshall that did big box office, but his most famous flick is 1976’s GRIZZLY, a sort of JAWS-in-the-woods about a 15-foot prehistoric bear on a rampage, with Exploitation stalwarts Christopher George, Andrew Prine, and Richard Jaeckel among the cast members. Girdler only made nine films before his untimely death in a helicopter crash while scouting locations in the Philippines in 1978 at age 31, and though his filmography isn’t exactly Oscar caliber, genre fans may want to look deeper.
Pam Grier starred in one more AIP Blaxploitation flick (FRIDAY FOSTER) before her contract with the studio ended. She spent the next twenty or so years working in lesser roles until Quentin Tarantino reintroduced her to audiences in 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, reviving her career and putting her back in the spotlight, where she belongs. SHEBA, BABY isn’t her best action film, but it puts Pam front and center in a showcase for her talents. And Sheba’s got plenty of talent, Baby!
Welcome to the weirdly wonderful world of giallo, pioneered by the late Italian maestroMario Bava . Though Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (released stateside as EVIL EYE) is considered by connoisseurs the first, it was BLOOD AND BLACK LACE that defined the genre, with its comingling of crime drama, murder mystery, and horror elements coalescing into something truly unique. I hadn’t seen this film in decades before a recent rewatch, and was again dazzled by Bava’s technique. The film has proved to be highly influential in the decades-later slasher genre, yet has its roots set firmly in the past.
The opening sequence is a stunner, as we see the beautiful model Isabelle walking through a woodsy pathway on a dark and stormy night, stalked and then brutally murdered by a faceless, trenchcoated killer. From there, we’re introduced to the remaining cast, members of the haute couture fashion world run by Countess Christina Cuomo. Police Inspector Silvester is on the case, and he gets more than he bargained for, with all the players holding deep, dark secrets. Isabelle’s diary holds the key to the crime, and more gruesome murders follow, with suspects aplenty…
Bava gives us a compact but compelling shocker, and while rewatching, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the movie resembled the films of Val Lewton and 40’s film noir, with dashes of Hitchcock and Welles thrown in for good measure – only saturated with vibrant colors! Garish reds, blues, greens, and violets make the screen pop, aided by some brilliantly deep shadowplay. While Ubaldo Terzano is credited as cinematographer, Bava himself was no slouch in that department, having worked behind the camera since the early 1940’s, and did much of the work uncredited. Best known for his horror films (BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, LISA AND THE DEVIL), he worked in every genre, and though he did his share of clunkers (DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS, for example), most of his resume contains movies well worth searching out.
Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok are the most recognizable actors here to classic film fans. Mitchell had been around Hollywood since 1945; his best known roles were as Happy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN (a part he originated on Broadway), Lauren Bacall’s suitor in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, and Jigger in CAROUSEL. When his career dried up, Mitchell went to Europe to star in peplum films and Spaghetti Westerns before returning to Tinseltown for the TV series THE HIGH CHAPARRAL (1967-71). Bartok was familiar to American audiences for playing opposite Burt Lancaster in THE CRIMSON PIRATE, the early Hammer sci-fi SPACEWAYS, and Dean Martin’s first solo outing TEN THOUSAND BEDROOMS. Those well-versed in Italian cinema will be able to identify Mary Arden (A… FOR ASSASSIN), Franco Ressel (SABATA), Luciano Pigozzi (WEREWOLF IN A GIRL’S DORMATORY, CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD), and Enzo Cerusico (HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES) among the cast members.
Most familiar to American audiences would be the voice of Paul Frees, who dubs most of the male cast (including Mitchell, for some strange reason). BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was considered controversial in its day, so much so that even American-International wouldn’t release it! It was up to the Woolner Brothers (ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN) to bring it across the Atlantic, releasing through Allied Artists. Critics of the time weren’t kind, but the movie has since taken on a cult status, in large part due to the artistry of Mario Bava. It’s pretty tame compared to today’s gore-fests, yet still manages to pack a punch, with one helluva triple twist conclusione.
And on another note… BLODD & BLACK LACE marks Cracked Rear Viewer’s 1,000th post!
You won’t find the name of John Llewellyn Moxey bandied about in conversations on great film directors. Truth is, though Moxey did make some features of note, he spent most of his career doing made-for-television movies, a genre that doesn’t get a lot of respect. John Llewellyn Moxey wasn’t a flashy director or an “auteur” by any stretch of the imagination, but he was more than capable of turning out a solid, worthwhile production, and some of his TV-Movie efforts are just as good (if not better) than what was currently playing at the local neighborhood theaters or multiplexes at the time. Moxey’s passing on April 29 at age 94 was virtually ignored by the press, but his career deserves a retrospective, so Cracked Rear Viewer is proud to present a look back at the film and television work of director John Llewellyn Moxey.
Moxey was born in Argentina, his father the overseer of a coal and steel empire. He was a movie-mad youth, and after serving in the British infantry during WWII, found work as an editor and assistant director in England. He got the opportunity to direct a few TV shows before taking on his first, best, and most famous feature, 1960’s HORROR HOTEL (also known as CITY OF THE DEAD). This now-classic tale is filled with shock after shock, and starred Christopher Lee in a tale of Satanism and witchcraft in New England. Moxey shows he knew how to handle a good horror story, building the tension slowly, and would become a genre specialist in the years to come.
The director followed with a string of low-budget British thrillers based (loosely, I might add) on the works of mystery writer Edgar Wallace: DEATH TRAP, RICOCHET, FACE OF A STRANGER, DOWNFALL, STRANGLER’S WEB; the films featured familiar actors like Maxine Audley, Patrick Magee, and Barbara Shelley. Also on tap was 1966’s PSYCHO-CIRCUS (retitled CIRCUS OF FEAR for American audiences by AIP), another Wallace crime drama with some horror elements. This British-German coproduction reunited Moxey with Christopher Lee, along with Klaus Kinski, Suzy Kendall, and Leo Genn. During this time period, Moxey worked in British television directing episodes of CORONATION STREET, Z-CARS, THE BARON, THE AVENGERS, and THE SAINT.
Moxey moved his base of operations to America in the mid-60’s, directing episodes of NYPD, JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, NAME OF THE GAME, HAWAII 5-0, and THE MOD SQUAD. In 1969, the struggling ABC network took an old concept (the anthology series) and spun it on its ear with the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK. Budgeted at around $350,000 apiece and clocking in at 90 minutes (including commercials!), these were like the ‘B’ movies of the old studio days, featuring mainly faded stars of the past and up-and-coming actors in mysteries, romances, thriller, comedies, and even Westerns. Moxey’s first foray into the genre was THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE, a haunted house chiller involving Revolutionary War-era ghosts terrorizing Barbara Stanwyck and her niece (Kitty Wynn) in Pennsylvania Amish country. Mr. Moxey had found his niche, and would become TV’s most prolific TV-Movie director. 1971 alone saw him do ESCAPE (Christopher George as an escape artist/private eye), THE LAST CHILD (a sci-fi drama dealing with overpopulation that featured the last acting work of Van Heflin ), A TASTE OF EVIL (psychological horror with Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, and Roddy McDowell), and THE DEATH OF ME YET (a Cold War thriller with Doug McClure).
The next season saw Moxey helming a true classic: 1972’s THE NIGHT STALKER. The Richard Matheson teleplay follows Darren McGavin’s down-on-his-luck reporter Carl Kolchak investigating a Las Vegas serial killer that turns out to be ancient vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater). THE NIGHT STALKER was a huge hit, the highest rated TV Movie ever up to that time, and inspired a sequel (THE NIGHT STRANGLER, directed by producer Dan Curtis ) and a brief weekly series (KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER). This well-done little gem compares favorably to any horror/exploitation theatrical film of the day, and has become a cult favorite for horror buffs, thanks in large part to Moxey’s taut direction.
More Moxey TV-Movies followed, including a pair of 1972 Westerns starring Clint Walker (HARDCASE, THE BOUNTY MAN). HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (’72) was a Christmas-themed shocker with Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris, Jessica Walter, and Walter Brennan; GENESIS II (1973) a pilot for a new Gene Roddenberry sci-fi series starring Alex Cord; A STRANGE AND DEADLY OCCURRENCE (1974) another haunted house chiller, this time with Robert Stack and Vera Miles; WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE? (’74), post-apocalyptic sci-fi with Peter Graves and Verna Bloom; CONSPIRACY OF TERROR (1975), a creepy Satanism-in-the-suburbs tale featuring Michael Constantine and Barbara Rhodes. Moxey was also busy doing episodic TV, like SHAFT, POLICE STORY, KUNG FU, and the pilot episode of CHARLIE’S ANGELS.
Two 1976 TV-Movie efforts are worth noting. NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY could have fit right in on a Southern Fried Exploitation double feature with MACON COUNTY LINE or JACKSON COUNTY JAIL. In this one, Deborah Raffin and Lynne Moody are travelling down south when they encounter sleazy sheriff Chuck Connors, who wants to write them more than a ticket, if you get my drift! They’re arrested on false charges and brought before the judge, who happens to be the sheriff’s cousin (Ralph Bellamy, no less!), and sent to a grueling labor camp, where they undergo the familiar harsh conditions and sexual harassment. Sure, it’s a TV knockoff, but extremely well handled by Moxey and his cast, which also features Tina Louise, Robert Reed, Della Reese, and Lana Wood, and is a personal Guilty Pleasure of mine!
SMASH-UP ON INTERSTATE 5 was the TV-Movie version of a disaster flick, done on a much smaller scale, concerning a 39 car pile-up on a California highway that results in many injuries and deaths. The movie follows a select few who’ll be involved on the fateful day, and like its big screen brethren, it features an all-star cast (though again, on a much smaller scale): Robert Conrad, Buddy Ebsen, Herb Edelman, Scott Jacoby, Sue Lyon, Vera Miles, Donna Mills, David Nelson, Harriet Nelson, and Terry Moore (with an early role for young Tommy Lee Jones as a traffic cop on the scene).
Into the late 70’s and 1980’s, Moxey’s output slowed down, but there are a few worth mentioning. INTIMATE STRANGERS (1977) was one of the first films (TV or otherwise) to tackle the issue of domestic violence, with Dennis Weaver as the rage-oholic, Sally Struthers his battered wife, and Tyne Daly in an Emmy-nominated performance as her supportive friend. SANCTUARY OF FEAR (1979) was a pilot for a mystery series featuring Barnard Hughes as G.K. Chesterton’s priest/sleuth Father Brown. THE VIOLATION OF SARAH MCDAVID (1981) was another tough drama ripped from the headlines, as inner city teacher Patty Duke is brutally beaten and raped, and battles the system while the higher-ups (led by Ned Beatty) create a cover-up. DEADLY DECEPTION (1987) won an Edgar Award for Best TV Mystery Teleplay (by Gordon Colter), about a reporter (Lisa Eilbacher) aiding a father (Matt Salinger) locate his long missing and presumed dead son. LADY MOBSTER (1988) was an over-the-top melodrama with Soap Opera Queen Susan Lucci taking on the Mafia – and winning!
After directing 8 episodes of MAGNUM PI and 18 of MURDER SHE WROTE, John Llewellyn Moxey retired from filmmaking. His body of work features some outstanding efforts, and as a director he had a high batting average indeed. He’ll be remembered for his home runs (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER), but the rest of his filmography features some solid doubles and triples, and though the mainstream press hasn’t paid much attention to his passing, Cracked Rear Viewer fondly salutes you, Mr. Moxey. Job well done.