Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.

In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only person that can control the beast, so hustler O’Hara signs them both up to headline his newest venture, Hollywood nightclub The Golden Safari.

The act features Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on piano while Mighty Joe hoists her far above his head. Then, in one of my favorite segments, ten of the world’s strongest men (professional wrestlers Sammy Stein, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin, Henry “Bomber” Kulky, Slammin’ Sammy Menacker , Max the Iron Man, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera) attempt a futile tug o’war against Joe! The act’s a smash hit, yet neither Jill nor Joe are happy with their decision to leave home for the bright lights of Tinseltown.

A trio of trouble-causing drunks sneak backstage and get Joe wasted on booze, and the enormous ape escapes and wreaks havoc on the club. Joe is captured and ordered to be killed by those pesky authorities, but the ever-hustling O’Hara comes up with a scheme to free the beast and return him and Jill to Africa. The cops are in hot pursuit when the gang spots a burning orphanage (which was tinted red in the version I recently viewed), and Mighty Joe rescues a bunch of children from certain doom. Joe and Jill are allowed to return home, accompanied by Jill’s now boyfriend Gregg, and guess what – that’s right, they live happily ever after!

Sixteen year old Terry Moore had been playing mostly bits before shooting to stardom in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Miss Moore. who’s still with us at age 90, went on to a lengthy screen career in films like COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), DADDY LONG LEGS, SHACK OUT ON 101, PEYTON PLACE, and numerous TV appearances (and also did a memorable 1984 nude PLAYBOY pictorial at age 55!). Ex-rodeo champ, stuntman, and John Ford favorite Ben Johnson put his roping and riding skills to good use here as Gregg (and Ford himself was an uncredited co-producer). KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong plays the hyperbolic producer O’Hara, older but still as fast-talking as ever. And perennial Warner Brothers movie sidekick Frank McHugh steals a few scenes as O’Hara’s sidekick Windy.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a Familiar Face spotter’s dream (especially that panning shot down the nightclub bar!). Old Hollywood Buffs will have a ball locating (among many others) such stalwarts as Iris Adrian , Kay Christopher, Chester Clute, Joyce Compton, Ellen Corby , James Flavin, Bess Flowers, Byron Foulger , John Gallaudet, Ed Gargan, Dorothy Granger, Paul Guilfoyle, Carol Hughes, Tom Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Charles Lane, Richard Lane , Kermit Maynard, Anne Nagel , Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Irene Ryan , William Schallert , Regis Toomey – a veritable classic movie lover’s paradise! Happy Hunting!

Willis O’Brien  supervised the special effects, but most of the animation was done by his protege, Ray Harryhausen. Young Ray had done some film work, notably on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was his first of many fantasy features to follow – classics such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH , 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, ONE MILLION YEARS BC , GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and CLASH OF THE TITANS. His debut here earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which was given to O’Brien as special effects supervisor. O’Brien, in turn, handed the Oscar over to Harryhausen, and deservedly so. Honestly, you don’t see that kind of humility in Hollywood very often!

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade by Disney in 1998. Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t see how it could possibly compare to the original. This is (in my humble opinion) one of the all-time great fantasy films, and despite it’s age still holds up well today. It’s the kind of movie that, if you  showed it to the younger generation, would surely spark their interest in films of the past, and I can’t give it a greater compliment than that!

 

Confessions of a TV Addict #8: The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen Pt. 1

Irwin Allen  (1916-1991) wore many different hats during his long career: magazine editor, gossip columnist, documentarian, producer, director. He helped usher in the Age of the Disaster Movie with such 70’s hits as THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO, but before that he was best known as the producer of a quartet of sci-fi series from the Swingin’ 60’s. From 1964 to 1970 he had at least one sci-fi show airing in prime time… during the 1966-67 season, he had three, all complete with cheezy-looking monsters, campy humor, stock footage, guest stars (some on their way up… some down!), special effects by Oscar winner L.B. Abbott, and music by John Williams (who later scored a little thing called STAR WARS )! Here’s a look at the Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen:

Allen’s first foray into sci-fi TV was VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (ABC, 1964-68), based on his hit 1961 film. Richard Basehart starred as Admiral Nelson, head of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, in charge of the nuclear-powered sub Seaview, with David Hedison as Commander Crane. The first season was more a straightforward adventure series, filmed in black and white, with Nelson and his crew up against many Cold War threats. From the second season on, now in color, the Seaview began battling more outre’ enemies: aliens, giant sea monsters, even werewolves became the norm!

The series started to introduce futuristic gadgets like the Flying Sub, compete with laser beam, to confront these new monsters-of-the-week. The 1966 debut of BATMAN ramped up the camp quotient a few notches, as the plots got more and more out there. Among the many guest stars featured in the course of the series were Nick Adams , Eddie Albert , Edgar Bergen (without Charlie McCarthy), James Brolin (pre-stardom and Streisand), John Cassavetes, Michael Dunn (diminutive Dr. Loveless of THE WILD WILD WEST), Jill Ireland, Leslie Neilsen, and Vincent Price as a mad puppeteer out to take over the Seaview!

Space Family Robinson (back row, from left) Angela Cartwright, Mark Goddard, Marta Kristen, The Robot, Jonathan Harris, Guy Williams (front row) June Lockhart, Billy Mumy)

Next up for Allen was LOST IN SPACE (CBS, 1965-68), a take on Swiss Family Robinson set in outer space. The Jupiter-2, due in large part to sabotage by stowaway foreign agent Dr. Zachary Smith, hits a meteor storm and veers off course from its destination Alpha Centauri, causing the Robinson family and crew to become hopelessly lost in space (hence the series title). The cast consisted of TV veterans Guy Williams as Prof. John Robinson (ZORRO), June Lockhart as wife Maureen (LASSIE), Mark Goodard as pilot Maj. Don West (THE DETECTIVES), Angela Cartwright as youngest daughter Penny (MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY), and Billy Mumy as ten-year-old Will (practically every TV show made calling for a precocious kid!). Marta Kristen (Lorelei the mermaid in BEACH BLANKET BINGO ) played eldest child Judy, who served as Major West’s love interest.

Jonathan Harris (the TV version of THE THIRD MAN) received “Special Guest Star” billing as the nefarious Dr. Smith, and at first played him as a straight villain. The character was not originally intended to last the entire series run, but Harris, with Allen’s blessings, began to tweak the role, rewriting his dialog to turn Smith into something completely different than originally intended, a comically cowardly character who managed to create chaos wherever he went. Dr. Smith became pals with young Will, though their roles were reversed, as the boy was much more mature than the older doctor!

Dr. Smith  was constantly at odds with The Robot (Bob May inside the suit, Dick Tufeld providing the voice), another popular character on the show (“Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!”), berating the mechanical marvel with sobriquets like “You blithering booby” and “You cackling cacophony”. Harris’s portrayal, relationships with Will and The Robot, and catch phrases (“Oh, the pain!”, “IN-deed!”), helped turned the show from straight sci-fi to high-camp fantasy, with the plots getting more and more ridiculous during the series’ three year run. The Robinson family, thanks to Smith’s blundering, encountered space pirates, circuses, cowboys, and Vikings, an intergalactic collector (Michael Rennie of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL in a two-parter), a “devilish” alien (Gerald Mohr), a cosmic toymaker (Walter Burke), a band of far-out hippies (twice!), and sentient vegetables!

Plots from films and fables past were recycled and adapted for the show: the legend of King Arthur, Sleeping Beauty, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD , FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. My favorite episode was a unique original titled “Visit to a Hostile Planet”, where the Jupiter-2 gets trapped in a time/space warp and returns to Earth – but it’s the Earth of 1947, and the small town population they land near thinks they’re being invaded by aliens! LOST IN SPACE enjoyed a long run in syndication after being cancelled by CBS, making it Allen’s most popular (and profitable!) space series.

Next week, part 2 of The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen, spotlighting THE TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS!

Adventure of a Lifetime: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists 1940)

Alexander Korda’s Arabian Nights fantasy THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has stood the test of time as one of filmdom’s most beloved classics. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1924 silent classic, Korda and company added some elements of their own, including Indian teen star Sabu as the title character, and some innovative Special Effects. In some scenes THE THIEF OF BAGDAD plays like a child’s fable, in others a horror movie, all blended together to create a grand piece of entertainment, despite having five different directors!

Those familiar with Disney’s animated 1992 ALADDIN will recognize much of the plot here. Blind former Prince Ahmad and his faithful dog are begging for alms when summoned by trickery to the court of evil Grand Vizier Jaffar to awaken a beautiful princess from her slumber. Ahmad then relates the backstory of what has transpired: thrown into prison by his treacherous Vizier, he meets the child-thief Abu, who has stolen the key to the cell. The two escape before being beheaded to the city of Basra, where Ahmad lays eyes on the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, whose face it is forbidden to behold. Ahmad must see her again, and he does, with the help of young Abu. The exiled prince and the beautiful princess fall madly in love, because of course they do!

Jaffar, usurper of the throne of Bagdad, also travels to Bagdad, though his purpose is more nefarious in nature. He’s greeted by the doddering old Sultan, a collector of mechanical toys, and Jaffar has come bearing a gift: a flying mechanical horse! The Sultan, after taking a joyride, must possess this magnificent marvel, and Jaffar asks in return the hand of his daughter. The Princess, wanting no part of Jaffar, flees to Samarkand, and Ahmad and Abu are caught at the palace, where Jaffar uses his evil magic to blind Ahmad and turn Abu into a dog!

Back to the present: Ahmad’s presence wakes the princess, but she’s spirited away from him again aboard Jaffar’s ship. Abu-dog follows, only to be thrown overboard for his troubles. The princess, at Jaffar’s mercy, lets him embrace her, breaking the spell and restoring Ahmad and Abu to normal. They give chase, but the Grand Vizier conjures up a raging hurricane, stranding the pair on a deserted island, where peril awaits at every turn, including from a giant vindictive Djinn who has been trapped in a bottle for two thousand years…

The adventure never abates, as Abu must steal the All-Seeing Eye embedded in a statue inside a great temple in order to find his friend Ahmad. This spooky sequence is the most horror-influenced in the film, with Sabu climbing the web of a giant, venomous spider to get to the Eye, being careful not to fall into the abyss where a deadly octopus lays in wait. Another scary scene occurs when Jaffar conjures a murderous six-armed “Silver Maid” to lure the Sultan into a death embrace. There’s also flashing swordplay, romance, comedy, and even a few songs thrown in for good measure… a little something for everybody in this spectacular film, shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Oscar-winning Cinematographer Georges Perinal.

Sabu gives a charming, energetic performance as the thief Abu. The young star came into prominence in 1937’s ELEPHANT BOY at the age of 13, and is fondly remembered as Mowgli in the 1942 THE JUNGLE BOOK, as well as a string of Universal/Maria Montez/Jon Hall costumers. The great Conrad Veidt is the personification of evil as Jaffar, in what may very well be his best role of the sound era. John Justin (Ahmad) is handsome and heroic; he had a long screen career mainly in Britain, later popping up in some of Ken Russell’s 70’s films. June Duprez is lovely indeed as the Princess; among her movie credits are THE FOUR FEATHERS, NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Miles Malleson (The Sultan) also wrote the film’s screenplay; horror fans will recognize him from DEAD OF NIGHT , PEEPING TOM , and the Hammer entries HORROR OF DRACULA , HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, BRIDES OF DRACULA, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

The there’s Rex Ingram, the American actor playing the Djinn. Ingram’s genie is no joking Robin Williams, but a towering titan of malevolence who only does Sabu’s bidding when the thief tricks him back inside the bottle. Ingram made his film debut in 1918’s TARZAN OF THE APES as an uncredited native. His booming voice landed him the plumb role of De Lawd in the 1936 all-black cast THE GREEN PASTURES, but like most black actors of the era, Ingram never broke the color barrier to major stardom. His talent could not be denied however, and he worked steadily in films: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (as Jim opposite Mickey Rooney’s Huck), THE TALK OF THE TOWN (as Ronald Colman’s valet), the all-black musical fantasy CABIN IN THE SKY, the war drama SAHARA, A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (as a giant reminiscent of his Djinn), GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, ANNA LUCASTA (as Eartha Kitt’s father), and his last, Otto Preminger’s HURRY SUNDOWN. Ingram also stands out in a 1969 episode of GUNSMOKE as an aging ex-slave.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was started by German director Ludwig Berger. Producer Korda, unhappy with the results, replaced him with Michael Powell, assisted by Tim Whelan. When financing and the war in Europe ground production to a halt, Korda moved filming to Hollywood, where William Cameron Menzies and Zoltan Korda took turns in the director’s chair. Menzies worked on the ’24 version, and his fingerprints are all over this one, though art direction and production design are credited to another Korda brother, Vincent. The Oscar was also awarded to the movie for its dazzling Special Effects. Lawrence Butler pioneered the bluescreen travelling matte process in this film, a process still in use today. Though primitive compared to CGI, it holds up well, and should be viewed from a historic standpoint. Miklos Rozsa’s outstanding score earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, though he lost to PINOCCHIO. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is truly a classic fantasy film, and has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, so does PADDINGTON 2, so don’t take their word for it… see it yourself, and prepare to be enchanted!

 

 

Strange New World: George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE (MGM 1960)

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George Pal (1908-1980) made movies full of wonder and imagination. The Hungarian born Pal got his start in film by creating “Puppetoons”, stop-motion animated shorts that delighted audiences in the 1930s and 40s (my personal favorites are JOHN HENRY and TUBBY THE TUBA). Some of these featured the character Jasper, a stereotyped black child always getting in some sort of trouble. Pal saw Jasper as closer in spirit to Huckleberry Finn than Stepin Fetchit, but by 1949 he  abandoned the “Puppetoons” altogether to concentrate on producing features, beginning with THE GREAT RUPERT, a Christmas fantasy starring Jimmy Durante. Pal produced a string of sci-fi hits in the early 50s (DESTINATION MOON, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, CONQUEST OF SPACE), and began directing his films with 1958’s “tom thumb”. Having had his biggest success with the H.G. Wells adaptation WAR OF THE WORLDS, Pal produced and directed another Wells classic, the sci-fi/fantasy masterpiece THE TIME MACHINE.

Four men have gathered at George Wells’ house in London to meet for dinner, but the host is late. His housekeeper Mrs. Watchett hasn’t seen him in five days, but soon George comes bursting in, looking extremely disheveled. The four friends are startled as George relates what happened to him since they last met on New Year’s Eve 1899…

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On that day, George tried explaining his theory of travelling through the Fourth Dimension, through time itself. He demonstrated using a model of a Time Machine, which vanishes before their very eyes! The men are skeptical, believing it to be some magician’s trick, but George is adamant about his theory. When they depart, he goes into his workshop, where sits a full-sized machine. George begins experimenting, slowly at first, and stops in 1917, where he meets friend Filby’s son, who says his dad was killed in WWI. Going forward, he lands in 1940, at the height of the Nazi blitzkrieg. He travels to 1966, and lands in the midst of a nuclear holocaust. George then hits the full throttle, and crash lands in the strange new world of year 802,701.

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George is amazed by the lush paradise, with “natural splendor beyond compare”. Soon he discovers other humans, all very blonde and very young. One of them, a stunning young girl, is drowning in a nearby river, while the rest still by idly. George jumps in and rescues her, and finds out her name is Weena, and they are called the Eloi. It seems the Eloi have no government, no laws, and no motivation to do anything but lounge around all day (the original slacker generation!!). But all is not what it seems, as George finds out the Eloi are controlled by a fearsome underground race called the Morlocks. These brutish, blue skinned mutants breed the Eloi like cattle, then when they’re matured lure them into their cavern to become dinner for the cannibalistic Morlocks. The Morlocks have also stolen George’s Time Machine, and now he’s trapped in a world he never made!

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Australian actor Rod Taylor had his first leading role as George, and became a star because of it. Taylor would go on to headline Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, then went on to a series of action films like DARK OF THE SUN, THE HELL WITH HEROES, DARKER THAN AMBER, THE TRAIN ROBBERS (with John Wayne), and THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Taylor’s last film appearance before his death in January 2015 was as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Costar Yvette Mimieux was only 18 when she made THE TIME MACHINE. The pretty young star was featured in WHERE THE BOYS ARE, TOYS IN THE ATTIC, and PICASSO SUMMER. Never a big star, Mimieux is remembered for the 70s exploitation drama JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, and TV movie HIT LADY, which she wrote. Alan Young, who plays Filby and his son, is known to baby boomers as Wilbur Post, owner of TV’s talking horse MR. ED, and to a later generation as the voice of Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Sebastian Cabot, Whit Bissell, and Doris Lloyd also offer strong support.

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The special effects by Gene Warren and Wah Chang won the Oscar that year, though they’re a bit crude today. William Tuttle’s makeup on the Morlocks, based on Pal’s design, is quite a fright to behold, with their long fangs, blue skin, and glowing eyes. The wonderfully dramatic score by Russell Green is one of the best in all of sci-fi. George Pal’s  THE TIME MACHINE is a sci-fi/fantasy treat guaranteed to please even the most jaded viewer, packed with adventure, humor, and enchantment, and it’s a must-see for kids of all ages.

 

 

 

 

An Oddball Bit of Americana: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (1945)

fred     I’d never heard of this musical fantasy until running  across it while scrolling through channels looking for movies to review. The premise caught my attention and I decided to DVR it and take a look. WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? is definitely dated, with it’s World War 2 slang and constant references to Brooklyn, but is charming enough to merit at least a look.

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