Something Wilder: THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (20th Century-Fox 1975)

The late Gene Wilder was well loved by filmgoers for his work with Mel Brooks, his movies alongside Richard Pryor, and his iconic role as Willie Wonka. Wilder had co-written the screenplay for Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and now branched out on his own as writer/director/star of 1975’s THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER.

The zany tale, set in 1891, finds Sherlock’s jealous brother Sigerson (Wilder, who derisively calls his more famous sibling “Sheer-Luck”) assigned to the case of music hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn) who’s being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (the enormously funny Dom DeLuise ). Assisting Sigerson is his own Watson, the pop-eyed Sgt. Orville Stacker (Marty Feldman), blessed with “a photographic sense of hearing” that he can only access by whacking himself upside the head. The plot thickens as Sigerson learns Jenny’s a practiced liar (who only trusts men when she’s sexually aroused), she’s actually the daughter of British Foreign Secretary Redcliff… which is another lie; she’s Redcliff’s fiancé, and has handed over an important document to Gambetti, who’s about to sell it to none other than the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern)!

Wilder displays a keen eye for film in his directorial debut. Like his friend Brooks, he’s obviously a student of the medium, and the film is a visual delight. There’s plenty of laughs to be had, like the scene where Sigerson and Sacker are trapped by Moriarty and Gambetti in a tiny room menaced by a buzzsaw, and escape by the seats of their pants… literally! The comic highlight is “A Masked Ball”, an opera parody starring Gambetti and Jenny invaded by Sigerson, Sacker, and Moriarty’s henchman (Roy Kinnear) where the document is passed around, all with expert comedy timing. Following this is a swashbuckling sequence with Wilder taking on the dastardly McKern.

Wilder, Feldman, and Kahn are all reunited from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, while McKern and Kinnear were previously paired in The Beatles film HELP! Douglas Wilmer, who starred as Sherlock in the 60’s BBC TV series, donned the deerstalker cap once again; his Watson is Thorley Walters, who essayed the part in three Holmes films. And yes, that’s the voice of Mel Brooks behind the door in a parody of “The Lady or The Tiger?’.

There are plenty of musical sequences in the movie, including the bizarre “Kangaroo Hop”. THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER is a madcap romp, but just a notch below Wilder’s films with Brooks. He’d go on to write and direct three more films; THE WOMAN IN RED was his most popular, though I prefer his silent era spoof THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (let’s not talk about HAUNTED HONEYMOON). Still, it’s a solid first effort for Wilder in the director’ seat, with a sterling cast of comic pros, and if you like Mel Brooks’ brand of buffoonery, you’ll definitely enjoy this film, too.

 

Jurassic Joke: THE LOST WORLD (20th Century Fox 1960)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure novel THE LOST WORLD was first filmed in 1925 with special effects by the legendary Willis O’Brien  . O’Brien gets a technical credit in Irwin Allen’s 1960 remake, but his wizardry is nowhere to be found, replaced with dolled-up lizards and iguanas designed to frighten absolutely no one. This one’s strictly for the Saturday matinee kiddie crowd, and though it boasts a high profile cast, it’s ultimately disappointing.

Genre fans will appreciate the presence of The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains , in the role of expedition leader Professor Challenger. The 71 year old Rains is full of ham here, playing to the balcony, and still managing to command the screen with his sheer talent. Challenger claims to have discovered “live dinosaurs” in the remote Amazon rainforest, a claim scoffed at by the scientific community, especially rival Professor Summerlee (the equally hammy Richard Hayden). The crusty Challenger asks for volunteers to accompany him on a return journey, and we meet the rest of the cast: Michael Rennie as big-game hunter Lord Roxton, David Hedison as intrepid reporter Ed Malone, Jill St. John as Roxton’s girl Jennifer Holmes (complete with a teacup poodle), and Ray Strickland as her younger brother David.

The crew fly to South America, where guide Manuel Gomez (Fernando Lamas) and his partner Costa (Jay Novello) will take them by chopper to the unchartered plateau deep in the wild. We get some breathtaking shots of the Amazonian jungle along the way (presumably by DP Winton Hoch ) before landing, where a giant lizard destroys the helicopter, stranding the expedition. The monsters they encounter are a sorry lot indeed, just blown-up reptiles and (in one scene) a goofy superimposed green spider. I mean, the studio sprung for Cinemascope and DeLuxe Color, and they give us el cheapo special effects! Not to mention they had Willis Freakin’ O’Brien on the payroll!

There’s a love triangle between Rennie, St. John, and Hedison that fails, mostly due to the sexist script by Allen and Charles Bennett. The dialog’s on a par with Allen’s sci-fi shows like LOST IN SPACE, dumbed down to children’s level. Lamas tries to bring some panache to his role, as Gomez holds a dark secret, but he too is doomed by the script. There’s a subplot about the lost city of El Dorado that didn’t amount to much. In fact, the film as a whole doesn’t amount to more than a semi-pleasant diversion.

THE LOST WORLD could’ve been much better, but is sunk by the crummy special effects and ludicrous script. You’d be better off watching the 1925 silent, and you can, if you’re interested. It’s in public domain, so instead of me babbling on about how lousy the newer version is, here’s 1925’s THE LOST WORLD in its entirety:

 

My Reason to Watch WILSON (20th Century Fox 1944)

Normally I wouldn’t watch something like WILSON, producer Darryl F. Zanuck ‘s 1944 biographical box office flop about the 28th President of the United States. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But when I turned TCM on last night, there was Ben Mankiewicz introducing the film, so I decided I’d watch a little. I ended up watching the whole thing, and while it’s not very exciting, I did get engrossed in the movie, but not for the story.

The film itself follows the life and career of Woodrow Wilson, and his rise from President of Princeton University to Governor of New Jersey to U.S. President. How much is truth and how much fiction, I couldn’t tell you. I can tell you that character actor Alexander Knox is a dead ringer for Wilson, and pretty much carries the film with his statesmanlike manner. Ruth Nelson plays first wife Ellen, who dies a tragic movie death, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite good as Wilson’s second bride Edith, who takes charge when the president suffers a stroke.

The main reason I stayed up to watch WILSON was the marvelous supporting cast of character actors, a veritable Who’s Who of Classic Films! There’s Thomas Mitchell as Wilson’s trusted aide Joe Tumulty, Charles Coburn as economic advisor Dr. Holmes, a very young Vincent Price as Treasury Secretary McAdoo, an almost unrecognizable Sir Cedric Hardwicke as political rival Henry Cabot Lodge, Thurston Hall as Jersey Senator “Big Ed” Jones, Eddie Foy Jr. as Eddie Foy Sr. (who else?), plus Sidney Blackmer, Three Stooges nemesis Symona Boniface, Francis X. Bushman, Gino Corrado, Marcel Dalio, Francis Ford , Reed Hadley, Charles Halton, John Hamilton, Cy Kendall, George Macready, Edwin Maxwell, Isabel Randolph, Roy Roberts, Dewey Robinson, Ian Wolfe, Will Wright, and a host of other Familiar Faces. Keep a sharp eye peeled for quick cameos from James Cagney and Robert Cummings. I didn’t spot Bess Flowers, but I’m sure she’s in there somewhere!

At around the movie’s midpoint, we get vintage newsreel footage of America preparing for World War I (the war to end all wars, remember?), and history buffs can get glimpses of historical figures like King George V, General Blackjack Pershing, and Teddy Roosevelt, along with silent stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler, and Al Jolson pitching in for the war effort. So while WILSON the movie didn’t exactly hold my interest, staying up to play “Spot the Classic Stars” certainly did. If you’re a classic movie buff like me, you’ll have yourself a ball!

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #10: THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT (20th Century Fox 1956)

Frank Tashlin  combines two of 50’s America’s favorite obsessions, sex & rock’n’roll, in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, Jayne Mansfield’s first headlight headlining role. When Jayne sashays across the screen, turning heads, melting ice, boiling milk, and cracking eyeglasses a star is born, in CinemaScope and gorgeous DeLuxe color. But the film is stacked with more than just Jayne’s Twin Peaks; it features performances from rock royalty like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and a host of others.

The plot is very simple (and very familiar): a goony gangster (broadly played by a hilarious Edmond O’Brien ) hires a down-on-his-luck agent (Tom Ewell of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) to make a singing star out of his honey (our girl Jayne). Only problem is, Jayne can’t carry a tune in a bucket, shattering lightbulbs whenever she starts to warble. Seems she doesn’t want to be a star anyway, just to settle down and be domestic. Tom and Jayne quietly fall in love, the gangster gets jealous, and you just know that by film’s end everything will turn out for the best.

Interspersed in all this are the cream of classic 50’s rockers belting out their big ti.. er, hits! Little Richard does the title tune, “Ready Teddy”, and “She’s Got It”. The Three Chuckles (whose lead singer Teddy Randazzo costarred with Tuesday Weld in ROCK ROCK ROCK  ) perform “Cinnamon Sinner”. Fats Domino lends his New Orleans-flavored R&B to “Blue Monday”. Gene Vincent blasts his mega-hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Eddie Cochran belts out “Twenty Flight Rock”. Abby Lincoln does a Gospel-tinged “Spread the Word”. The Platters doo-wop to “You’ll Never, Never Know”, and Nino Tempo, Johnny Olenn, Eddie Fontaine, The Treniers, and Freddy Bell & The Bell-Boys also appear.

Tashlin’s trademark cartoony gags bounce playfully throughout the film, beginning right off the bat with the pre-credits introduction by Ewell. It’s packed with double entendres by the truckload, most of them involving Jayne’s ample endowments. There’s a funny fantasy scene where Ewell, still carrying the torch for ex-client Julie London, sees her everywhere singing her own big hit, “Cry Me A River” (and by the way, the future Nurse Dixie McCall of TV’s EMERGENCY was pretty darn hot herself!). Surpassing that is the sight of O’Brien gyrating wildly and croaking out the song “Rock Around the Rock Pile”, a precursor of sorts to Elvis Presley’s showstopping number in JAILHOUSE ROCK .

Despite the classic rockers, Tashlin’s Looney Tunes humor, and a beautiful pastel color scheme, all eyes will be on Jayne Mansfield. She’s really good in this, giving a sweet-natured performance as the girl who just can’t help it. Jayne was red-hot at the time due to her Broadway smash WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (later filmed by Tashlin), and 20th Century Fox signed her as a rival to Marilyn Monroe. She was a good actress, though now best remembered for her sexpot image, and it’s a shame her career took such a downward trajectory so fast. With the right material, we’d probably be looking at Jayne Mansfield today for more than her obvious assets.

Legend has it when THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was released in England, a 16-year-old kid in Liverpool saw his rock idols perform for the first time. The lad’s name was John Lennon, and soon he met 15-year-old Paul McCartney, who auditioned for Lennon’s teenage band by doing an imitation of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” from the film. McCartney got the gig, and within a few years The Beatles  were the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world. That’s how influential THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was in the history of rock’n’roll, and any fan of rock music, Jayne Mansfield, or Frank Tashlin needs to put it on their must-see list.



 

Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

laura1

If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

laura2

Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

laura3

McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

laura4

Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

laura5

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

laura6

LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!

 

 

 

Cheers for THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (20th Century Fox 1973)

lah1

The world of NASCAR racing takes center stage in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, a fictionalized biopic of legendary driver Junior Johnson. But this isn’t just a film about stock cars; it’s an extraordinary character study of a young man from the backwoods of North Carolina who discovers himself and what’s important to him. Jeff Bridges is outstanding in his first full-fledged starring role, demonstrating at age 24 the acting chops that have carried him to a long and prosperous film career.

lah2

Junior Jackson hauls moonshine for his Daddy on the winding backroads of  the Carolina hills, his tactics eluding the cops at every turn. He’s cocky and confident, and pisses the local law off so much they bust up Daddy’s still and send him back to prison. Junior decides to use his only marketable skill to raise money for the family while Daddy’s away – driving. He enters a demolition derby, using an illegal railroad tie to batter his opponents, and badgers promoter Hackel (Ned Beatty in another fine performance – why hasn’t this man ever won an Oscar???) into letting him enter a ten-lap preliminary race, which he wins.

lah3

Junior knows how good he is, and his talents take him to the top of the sport, encountering along the way characters like stock car groupie Marge (Valerie Perrine) and macho driver Kyle Kingsman (a swaggering William Smith). But the center of his universe is his family. Daddy Jackson (Art Lund) doesn’t know any life other than making moonshine, and wants better for his son. When Junior expresses his desire to race, he tells his son, “Damn foolishness to one person is breath of life to another”. Mom (Geraldine Fitzgerald) worries about the dangers of the racing life, and brother Wayne (pre-stardom Gary Busey) is both antagonist and supporter, as most brothers are. The Jackson family isn’t portrayed as just a bunch of hillbilly moonshiners, but real flesh and blood people, and it’s refreshing to see.

lah4

Director Lamont Johnson is another of those that had more success on television than film. He did eight TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, including the classics “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can”, and won Emmys for WALLENBERG: A HERO’S STORY and LINCOLN. His big screen output ranged from okay (YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER, CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES) to atrocious (LIPSTICK, SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE). THE LAST AMERICAN HERO is without question his finest feature. The exciting action on the oval is well captured by DP George Silano, and skillfully edited by the tandem of Robbe Roberts (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) and Tom Rolf (TAXI DRIVER, THE RIGHT STUFF). William Roberts (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ) based his screenplay on an Esquire Magazine article by Tom Wolfe.

lah5

THE LAST AMERICAN HERO doesn’t make many critical discussions about great films of the 70’s, but I believe it deserves to be in the conversation. Not just another slice of Americana pie, it’s a well-constructed story expertly told, with exciting action, a great ensemble of actors, and a star turn by Jeff Bridges. It should be on your watch list. As a bonus, the movie’s theme is “I Got a Name” by the late, great Jim Croce, which didn’t even get an Oscar nomination, but should have (“The Way We Were” won that year), so to close this out, here’s Jim Croce:

 

 

The Roots of STAR WARS (20th Century Fox 1977)

starwars1

It had to happen sooner or later so, with the new ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY being released tomorrow, I figure now is a good time to take a look at one of the biggest films of the 1970’s, STAR WARS (retitled A NEW HOPE for you revisionists, but to me it’s still just STAR WARS). I’m pretty sure everyone reading this post is familiar with the story, so rather than rehash the plot, I’m just going to dive right into some points of interest for classic film fans.

starwars2

First off, the movie was originally imagined as a loving homage to serials like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS. Writer/director George Lucas originally intended to remake FLASH, but couldn’t obtain the rights, so he created his own space opera universe, cobbling bits and pieces from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joseph Campbell, The Bible, and other sources, including the movies he grew up with and admired. There’s a definite John Ford feel to much of STAR WARS, especially THE LOST PATROL  (the droids trekking across Tattoonie) and THE SEARCHERS (Luke discovering the fate of his aunt and uncle). I’d swear Ford himself was calling some of the shots, the composition is that close. Being a huge Ford fan myself, I’m always pleased when someone decides to “borrow” from the old master!

starwars3

Sergio Leone  also gets some love, during some of the action scenes and use of close-ups. Another Italian director who doesn’t get mentioned when STAR WARS influences are cited is Antonio Margheretti, whose 60’s low-budget sci-fi lunacies sprang to mind as I rewatched the movie. And everyone should be aware of the influence Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has on this film. I do know the scene where a man’s arm is cut off by light sabre, and again where Han Solo is offered “Two thousand now, plus fifteen when we reach Alderaan” are direct references to Kurosawa’s classic YOJIMBO.

starwars4

I’ve not seen Kurosawa’s THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, so I can’t comment on the correlation between the characters in that film and the banter between CP3O and R2D2. I can say with some certainty the two loveable droids have a direct lineage to classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy , with a dash of Abbott and Costello for good measure. CP is obviously modeled after Rotwang’s creation Maria in Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, while R2 resembles nothing less than a sentient vacuum cleaner! R2 does have a moment when he gets zapped by Jawas that brought to mind FORBIDDEN PLANET (which itself was a heavy influence on another space opera franchise- STAR TREK !).

starwars5

The evil Lord Darth Vader was so malevolent it took two actors to portray him! Well, not really, the truth is physical presence Dave Prowse’s heavily accented voice didn’t fit the character. Lucas wanted Orson Welles to provide Vader’s ominous tones, but went instead with James Earl Jones, who does a superb job. Prowse had once played the Frankenstein Monster alongside Peter Cushing in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, and the two are reunited here as the great Mr. Cushing plays equally evil Gran Moff Tarkin. I couldn’t help but wonder what the film would’ve been like if Lucas had chosen Christopher Lee to portray Vader, and gave us fans another chance to watch Hammer Film’s two greatest icons together!

starwars6

The light sabre duel between Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) is no doubt inspired by the grand final battle between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Sir Alec himself thought the movie was a lot of “rubbish”, but lends a dignified presence to the proceedings. Some of the films he made with British director David Lean, mainly LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, cast a large shadow over the look of STAR WARS. War films as a whole play a part in influencing the movie, as Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor was behind the camera for THE DAM BUSTERS, the attack on the Death Star was pretty much lifted from 633 SQUADRON, and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE has also been cited as an influence.

starwars7

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. As much as STAR WARS has influenced a generation of filmmakers, the original itself has its own roots firmly in the cinema of the past. There’s the James Bond-ish battles between the Stormtroopers and the Rebels, the old “walls-closing-in” gag, the opening shot recalling 2001, the CASABLANCA like bar scene, the cocky Han Solo echoing both Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster… and I’m not 100% certain, but when Leia calls Chewbacca a “walking carpet”, is that a reference to THE CREEPING TERROR?? Only George Lucas knows for sure!! Lucas took the futuristic visual aesthetic of his THX-1138 , combined it with the full-blooded teen angst of AMERICAN GRAFFITI and his love of film, and gave us an adventure that’s truly stood the test of time. So when you all rush out to see ROGUE ONE tomorrow night, remember without classic films past, there is no STAR WARS. And maybe, just maybe, this little post will persuade a few of you to revisit some of those thrilling films of yesteryear, made long ago, in a studio far, far way…