Trinity Finds Andy Hardy

Personally, the idea of a movie about Mickey Rooney exposed to lethal doses of radiation is mouth-watering manna from heaven for me. Bonus points being that it’s played for laughs. But seriously, folks, that’s the premise for the zany 1954 Republic comedy THE ATOMIC KID, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

In the post-war, post-nuclear, and, most importantly, post-Martin & Lewis wake known as the early 1950s, buddy comedies flourished. This was primarily the result of a chain reaction wherein virtually every studio from MGM to Monogram passed on Dean and Jerry – a mistake that Hal Wallis and Paramount cashed in on mightily, as the duo became the most financially successful movie twosome of all time.

In an effort to rectify this grievous error, Hollywood bent over backwards to scour the planet for M&L clones, occasionally literally doing so with lookalikes Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.

Mickey Rooney, long past his sell-by date, had soured as a major cinema attraction and was eking out a living cranking out B-product for Columbia, Universal-International and his old alma mater Metro. With scant results. In 1953, MGM had paired him with Eddie Bracken, announcing a grand new team in the blandly entertaining A Slight Case of Larceny.

But Rooney had plans of his own. While knocking out a minor musical at Columbia (All Ashore), the Mick approached director Richard Quine and his buddy, screenwriter Blake Edwards, about latching on to a possible Martin & Lewis clone franchise. Quine stealthily sneaked off, but Edwards took the bait and fashioned the story (which evolved into the final script from John Fenton Murray and Benedict Freedman).

A modern update of the “hero by no fault of his own” scenario, THE ATOMIC KID (although at 34, hardly a kid) tread ground previously honed by Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. But sufficiently dumbed down (okay, fair’s fair – it IS a tiny tot picture). In it, Rooney plays bummy “Blix” Waterberry, who along with his equally slovenly pal Stan (Robert Strauss) fantasizes scoring as a uranium prospector. Little do they know that they have stumbled upon an army test site, and when Rooney retires to convenient empty house for the night, the schmuck has no idea that he’s in the designated target area. And it’s blown to smithereens. Inconceivably, he somehow survives, and is immediately whisked away to a military hospital for observation.

It’s here that the kind of stuff that usually happened to Huntz Hall manifests itself upon the scruffy ill-mannered lawn gnome. These changes cause Stan to go all Bud Abbott on him, exploiting his pal for fame and fortune – a super-duper plus when a visit to Vegas reveals that Rooney’s mere presence around slot machines causes them “to give.” Why Edwards avoided the obvious, FX-ing the star’s much-joked upon size by having him grow to amazing colossal man proportions remains one for the books, but is likely due to the budget (or lack of).

How Strauss and Rooney manage to elude the entire U.S. military is never logically explained, but, then again, this isn’t exactly The Best Years of Our Lives (literally or figuratively). Besides, they do return to the hospital for further examination. It’s significant to mention that many of the visual puns in the movie are pure Edwards, and often pop up in his subsequent Pink Panther forays. One gag, Rooney’s sexual arousal causing him to actually glow, is a G-rated embryonic precursor to the only yuk in Skin Deep. And this needs additional mentioning, as it involves the female lead, Elaine Davis – who also requires additional mentioning. Davis is a drop-dead gorgeous starlet, playing the nurse assigned to Rooney. For no explicable reason whatsoever, she immediately falls in love with him. While this insane response can be easily explained away by reminding viewers that this movie is science-fiction, it certainly wasn’t so with the diminutive actor and Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and every other actress passing through MGM gates with possible exceptions of Margaret Rutherford and Lassie. That Gardner ended up marrying the squirt is another jaw-dropping Ripley fact that has stunned movie buffs for generations. Suffice to say that Davis had, prior to production, become the newest Mrs. Rooney (#4 out of an eventual 9452). Uncharacteristically, it was one of Rooney’s lengthiest betrothals (six years), after which Davis changed her name to Devry, enjoying a fairly lucrative career in movies and TV throughout the 1960s (and achieving quasi-iconic status among horny teenage boys as Walter Matthau’s adulterous client in 1967’s A Guide for the Married Man).

Leaving no McCarthy era stone unturned, an additional subplot in THE ATOMIC KID has evil Commie spies out to snatch Rooney and cart the cretin back to the Kremlin. And this brings to mind another of THE ATOMIC KID‘s gloriously unrealized moments, as the Rooskies discuss Rooney’s inevitable vivisection. Ah, what could have been!

It’s probable that Rooney, tiny megalomaniac that he was, intentionally shopped the picture to Republic, as it would give him more of a chance to flex his muscles. From the opening credits, it’s made painfully clear the THE ATOMIC KID is a Mickey Rooney production starring Mickey Rooney, dominated by Mickey Rooney and ultimately infected by Mickey Rooney. Davis, who appeared in ads and promotions in nurse attire (but more of the Halloween slutty-nurse variety than RN standard) is also billed as Mrs. Mickey Rooney, a smarmy graphic leer that smirks a demeaning “look what I go home to every night, suckers!” objectification of the woman.

It must be stated that kiddies in 1954 ate this title up faster than their popcorn, and, indeed, THE ATOMIC KID later became a surefire Boomer TV programmer during the 1960s. I somehow missed it, but friends would regale me throughout my childhood of its many pleasures. Looking at it sans the eyes of an 8-year-old, it’s hard to appreciate the urchin delights, but I’m nonetheless fascinated by the fact that a juvenile comedy would have been made in ANY era concerning radioactive contamination (and, yeah, I know, that’s part of the plot to Living it Up, made the same year).

My flirtation with Mickey Rooney was indeed a brief one, lasting a mere four years. I truly liked him in Baby Face Nelson and The Big Operator, and rejoiced seeing him (again as part of a new team) with Buddy Hackett in Everything’s Ducky, a dubious joy repeated when the two were reteamed in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (it was also during this period that he provided one of the genuinely great ad-lib puns in show biz, the beautifully timed response to his appearance with Jayne Mansfield). But that pretty much ended it for me. That and an incident at NYU during the 1970s.

I was a film student then, and one day a former alumnus turned up to visit. He had just finished working on a low-budget pic featuring Rooney and dubbed it the experience from hell. “The guy is undirectable! He goes on about how he knows better, how he directed all his movies. How everyone from Disney to Olivier asks him for his advice. He listens to you, then does it his way – ’cause his way is better. During one exceptionally fine long take, he stopped in the middle, turned to the camera, threw up his hands, and yelled ‘Cut!’ I wanted to kill him!”  But, sadly he didn’t.

Coincidentally, this happened nearly simultaneously with another former NYU film maestro, who had worked as an assistant on a miniscule art house epic entitled The Noah.  Filmed in 1968, but only then (1975) getting minor distribution as a Midnight attraction at the Waverly (located just a few blocks away), The Noah starred Robert Strauss. I eagerly asked what it was like to work with Strauss, as I admired his performances in the Billy Wilder pics Stalag 17 (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and The Seven-Year Itch. The dude looked at me glumly, rolled his eyes and shook his head. “A big pain in the ass” was all he said, as he then slowly exited presumably to look for a gun.

So I imagine that this couldn’t have been that much of a fun shoot. That said, there are some nifty turns in THE ATOMIC KID by such welcome pans as Peter Leeds, Hal March, Whit Bissell (as Dr. Pangborn, no doubt an Edwards contribution) and Stanley Adams. The crisp black-and-white photography is by the wonderful John L. Russell, known primarily for his TV work, but soon to reach movie immortality as the d.p. of Psycho, which considering this project, is rather apt (the Blu-Ray is an excellent 35MM transfer, jarred only by the insertion of rather gritty and unpleasant documentary bomb footage).

The director, too, is a character generally known for his television efforts, the ubiquitous Leslie H. Martinson. Perhaps it was an ideal solution to fighting fire with fire, as Martinson was a true eccentric, taking to hiding under sheets to block upcoming shots, prone to throwing scripts around the sets like boomerangs and infamous for shouting incorrect logistics to actors and then berating them for following his instructions. I asked Will Hutchins, who worked often with Martinson on Sugarfoot, if they ever discussed this movie. As Will never disappoints, he replied that he does recall one exchange where he asked about working with Rooney. “The guy’s nuts!” replied Martinson adamantly (but with affection). No doubt a case of the pot calling the kettle wack!

THE ATOMIC KID.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition].  Mono audio [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC: OF564. Cat #: 887090056403.  SRP:  $29.95 (DVD, $24.95).

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Jerry Noir

Many of the supreme delights of the ongoing Olive Films/Paramount Home Video series encompass the inclusion of the relatively erratic/oddball titles from the studio’s vault. While 1962’s IT’S ONLY MONEY isn’t the most unknown of the hen’s tooth batch, it certainly remains (up until now) the rarest of the 1960s Jerry Lewis output. It got a fairly discreet no-fanfare release in ’62 and was the least talked-about of the comedian’s post-Martin & Lewis works. For me, this was more than a slight because I love IT’S ONLY MONEY, and consider it not only one of Lewis’ best flicks – but one of the top four of the eight pictures he made with Frank Tashlin (for the record, this was the sixth – my other three faves being Artists and ModelsThe Geisha Boy and Who’s Minding the Store?).

The movie has been sloughed off by the masses due to both its scant screenings and the “so-what?” attitude that Lewis attached to the vehicle. It was a fairly cheap project – quickly thought out, and even quicker filmed in late 1961 – sandwiched between the showy extravagant Technicolored masterpieces The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor. IT’S ONLY MONEY was lensed in black and white – the last monochrome movie Lewis would ever make; however, it is the sparse look and B&W photography that ironically pushes it to the top of the great Hollywood genre spoofs.

In a nutshell (with the industry’s then-prime cashew at the head), IT’S ONLY MONEY is a film noir parody pinpointing the plethora of private-eye sagas that flooded the big and small screens and pulp paperback racks throughout the decade following World War II. It’s a movie that’s perhaps is a bit too smart for its own good – complex in its seemingly simple construction as to rise way above the craniums of the average popcorn-muncher.

In Tashlin’s able mitts, IT’S ONLY MONEY’s multi-leveled cinematic architecture targets a number of subjects, scoring a bulls-eye in each one: 1) Tashlin’s animation roots; 2) classic noir; 3) 1960s noir; 4) modern-day technology. All of these intertwine like the non-disclosed tentacles of Citizens United.

Jerry portrays Lester March, an orphan who ekes out his existence as a TV repairman. Television is the paradigmatic theme, as the movie’s noir trappings specifically zero in on the country’s obsession with the detective tele-series, primarily Peter Gunn. Lester’s idol is Pete Flint, a suave babe-magnet gumshoe, hilariously enacted by the couldn’t-be-more-opposite Jesse White. Donning a trench coat and fedora and living out of his office of booze-filled file cabinets, Flint is sleazeball, who eventually gloms on to the fact that Lewis is heir to a mega-million dollar fortune left by the murdered “founder of TV.” It’s absolutely the greatest of White’s many memorable roles.

Jerry’s character is the most-animated of any of his movie portrayals (and think about that); IT’S ONLY MONEY is, succinctly-put, Lewis at his most cartoonish. This beautifully connects to Tashlin’s origins as an illustrator and key director of the famed Warner Bros. Looney Tunes division. Indeed, there are many references to some of Tash’s and Termite Terrace roomie Chuck Jones’ prime WB efforts, prominently the forays into the gadget-laden House of Tomorrow entries which surfaced in such classics as Jones’ Dog Gone Modern (1939), Tex Avery’s 1949 MGM short, appropriately entitled The House of Tomorrow, and, later, in the live-action Tashlin-scripted prop-posterous finales of the Red Skelton and Lucille Ball comedies The Fuller Brush Man and The Fuller Brush Girl (1948 and 1950).

Additional cartoon connections come from the cast: as Lewis’ poor-little-rich girl niece Mae Questel, the screen’s immortal voice of Betty Boop, is outstanding, especially when attempting yoga exercises to slim down for her wedding to slimy lawyer-villain Zachary Scott. Scott, in his final performance, provides a casting tour de farce, magnificently satirizing his legendary sinister stints from 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios and 1945’s  Mildred Pierce (tossing this gig to a comic specialist like Harvey Korman probably would have worked, but nowhere near as effectively). Scott’s participation was a stroke of genius; it sadly also demonstrates how Hollywood did the actor dirt by not giving him more comedy to do. LST, he’s pretty damn funny! Scott’s moron henchman is Jack Weston, a self-proclaimed charter member of the Peter Lorre Fan Club, who revels in terrorizing a roast with an icepick. The violence and killings are particularly shocking for a supposedly kids-oriented movie, but, then again, this was a done-on-the-cheap knock-off – so Paramount haphazardly looked the other way; for them (as with its creators), IT’S ONLY MONEY was part of a Jerry Lewis quota needed (as with their Elvis Presley pics) to fill the studio’s annual schedule.

The va-va-vroom factor is ably filled by the sleek-bodied Joan O’Brien as the luscious mysterious nurse who soon suspects foul play and may (or may not) be falling in love with Lewis. Even her name, Wanda Paxton, is quintessential femme fatale noir. Tashlin directs her entrances via askew comic book panel angles, pulling back from her amazing legs running down steps and high heels clicking off wet pavement mean streets.

An early sequence wherein Lewis pretends to be White is hilariously sabotaged by the arrival of client/man-eater Pat Dahl, who concurrently terrifies/arouses Jerry into freak-out mode. Her maneuvering him into a corner is nothing less than a dry hump, rubbing the frightened impersonator up against a water cooler, which starts to steam boil to furious crescendo – visually far more sexually explicit than anything in Stanley Kubrick’Lolita, released the same year.

Similarly, Jerry’s near-death encounters are as funny as they are cruel, often involving some fantastic screen denizens like Barbara Pepper as a butch fisherwoman who inadvertently saves Lester’s life and whose livelihood Lewis all but ruins. Another noir nod is the appearance of famed heavy Ted de Corsia as an investigating cop.

Lewis’ clash with technological innovations culminates in the Merrie Melodie climax where, pursued by man-eating lawnmowers, he triumphs in a Tashlinesque victory that surely would have delighted Jacques Tati (or any other Frenchman). The comedian’s obsession with outlandish high-tech wizardry isn’t that far-out today, as IT’S ONLY MONEY hovers around such crazy gadgets as large widescreen interactive TVs and iPhone-like visual communication devices.

Of course, with the possible exception of Ross Perot, what affluent one-per-center would ever hire Jerry Lewis to fix their television? This riddle for the ages is brutally answered by the aforementioned White, who painfully is the pic’s receiving end of a barrage of sight gags – the zenith (no pun) being the astronaut helmet crowning with a portable TV unit.

While much of the credit for IT’S ONLY MONEY’s success belongs to screenwriter John Fenton Murray (who would go on to pen the underrated Howard Hawks comedy Man’s Favorite Sport?), the lion’s share of the verbal laughs are the obvious contributions of the director and the star. Some of Jerry’s greatest malapropisms abound during the course of the picture. Lewis’ Mickey Spillane/TV detective slang is bitch-slapped out of him by an irritated White, who demands that he stop with “…the idiot television talk.” Jerry admittedly can’t help himself, proclaiming that “I’m a TV thing.” When threatened by Scott’s and Weston’s Smith and Wessons, Lewis pleads, “I’m too tall to hurt!” Lester’s referring to would-be paramour Wanda’s profession as “…a sick pill or medicine betters” is enough to bring tears to Shakespeare’s eyes (or any other semi-literate). Furthermore, his stunning declaration of “You made my living life no death” is pure gold (well,…maybe Goldwyn), delivered with the assuredness of Barrymore at his peak (John Drew, that is). Astoundingly, Lewis’ discussion of his love of cats with girlfriend O’Brien (resulting in being nicknamed Lester “Pussy” March) made it by the censors.

Scenes of Jerry immersed in a giant fish head or sticking a soldering iron up his nose constitute vintage Lewis, the stuff we’d love to have seen the likes of Warren Beatty or Robert Redford do on-camera and secretly suspect Mel Gibson does do off-camera. These outrageous Jerry-rigged moments are sledge hammer-subtly appended by brick-wall product placement exteriors featuring one-sheets of the comedian’s previous cinematic outings, such as The Geisha Boy and The Errand Boy.

The slick score by Walter Scharf is another plus, perfectly Henry Mancini-ing it to the gills with jazzy Peter Gunn consonance (although the frugal 83-minute running time may explain the Bobby Van-credited musical numbers – of which there are none).

The B&W W. Wallace Kelly photography is aces, admirably providing the necessary hard-boiled look (although the occasional faux close-ups of originally-shot blown-up two shots really show through on Blu-Ray). In general, the Olive Films Blu-Ray is excellent: a near pristine 35mm crystal-clear transfer, which the mono audio ideally compliments.

As earlier indicated, despite its obscurity, this movie is one of the consummate achievements in the Jerry Lewis-Frank Tashlin canon; it’s also one of the Lewis titles that the comic’s legions of non-fans begrudgingly admit to liking. So open up your wallets and take a chance…after all, it’s only… (no, I can’t bear to even say it)…

IT’S ONLY MONEY. Black and White. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]
UPC# 887090036009; CAT# OF360. SRP: $29.95.

Also available on DVD:
UPC# 887090035903; CAT# OF359. SRP: $24.95.

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Japanese Chaplinese

Tash would constantly be at us to check out these silent one and two-reelers playing at some rundown theater in L.A.”  This reminiscence was told to me by the brilliant animator Bob Clampett about his days and nights at Warner Bros. Termite Terrace back in the 1930s and ‘40s.  “After a long – and I mean LONG – day’s work, the last thing we wanted to do was to watch twenty-year-old movies into the early morning hours.  Back then, it was the only outlet for seeing these pictures.  Frank would remind us that it wasn’t just Chaplin and Keaton – but scores of other fantastic then-forgotten comedians…All that second-tier Mack Sennett and Hal Roach stuff…I guess he had the last laugh.”

To be sure, there are many laughs to be had with the Olive Films/Paramount Blu-Ray release of 1958’s THE GEISHA BOY, one of the director’s finest (of eight) collaborations with frequent star Jerry Lewis.

Frank Tashlin, whose Looney Tunes are among the funniest cartoons ever made, dreamt of breaking into live-action comedy – a goal realized by his contributing inventive visuals for the Marx Bros. and, more prominently, Bob Hope.  Tashlin’s work on A Night in Casablanca encompasses its most memorable gag.  A cop approaches Harpo, who is leaning against a brick structure.  “What are ya doin’, holding up that building?” he asks the mute funnyman, who ecstatically nods.  Need I divulge the punch line?

Ben Hecht wrote that one of his more pleasurable Hollywood writing sojourns occurred when shacked up with Harpo and Tashlin in Marx’s abode hammering out a 1949 silent feature to star the clown sans his siblings.  Once the sleazy producers sold the project to UA as a Marx Bros. comedy, both Hecht and Tashlin (with Harpo’s blessings) left the now-unhappy former labor-of-love project, which ironically became known as Love Happy.

Tashlin’s ideas for Hope translated into mucho critical and audience acclaim via his cartoonish bits for The Paleface.  When The Lemon Drop Kid started to drag in the rushes, Hope asked Tash to step in and pep it up without credit.  The picture was huge, and Hope rewarded the former animator with Son of Paleface; the rest be history (Clampett told me that at Tashlin’s 1972 funeral only three members of the show business community were present: himself, Hope and Ray Walston).

That Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis should collide like two locomotives hellbent for mischief was a near-given; how unsurprising is it that this former Merrie Melodies master would be best remembered for his big screen efforts starring either Lewis or Jayne Mansfield – the movies’ closest evocation to live-action cartoons.

Tashlin’s first Jerry adventure had been the 1955 Martin & Lewis Technicolor riot Artists and Models, arguably the team’s best movie (with a plotline concerning the effects of comic books on America’s deteriorating youth).  Now working as a single, Lewis chose Tashlin to helm 1958’s Rock-A-Baby, a strange re-working of Preston Sturges’ Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.  Lewis, who increasingly disliked his position in the Hollywoodland pecking order as what he termed “…a second-class citizen.” was due to the fact that his vehicles were often remakes of earlier movie triumphs – with the comedian’s roles having been previously enacted by African-Americans or women (Scared Stiff, Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young).

By 1958, Jerry had risen to the position of one of the top entertainers in the world – and here his desire to emulate the great Chaplin surfaced with a vengeance.  Tashlin thus concocted a story wherein Lewis – an inept magician, known only in the picture as The Great Wooley – finagles a USO tour of Japan.  His numerous faux pas, mostly regarding lewd sexual confrontations with a buxom Hollywood starlet, bring unprecedented joy to an orphaned Japanese boy – thereby setting up the narrative.

One might think this poignant twosome betwixt the big kid and small one would be lip-bitingly cloying, but they amazingly work.  The scenes involving Lewis and the child actor Robert Hirano make the fast and furious sight gags ring louder than the bells of Notre Dame.

And dames there are plenty.  The child’s aunt is the ridiculously beautiful Nobu Atsumi McCarthy, who instantly becomes devoted to Lewis.  Ditto the female sergeant assigned to the tour – Suzanne Pleshette in her screen debut (who looks like she’s all of 15 years old).  Finally, there’s the literal butt of all the pic’s jokes – the mercifully good sport Marie McDonald, who was saddled with the moniker “The Body” throughout her Tinsel Town tenure (comedy fans might best remember her as one of Abbott & Costello’s island objects of affection in 1942’s Pardon My Sarong).

As reel after reel unspools, McDonald, thanks to Jerry, is embarrassed in a bathhouse, has her clothes repeatedly torn off, gets Barton MacLane shoved into her business and is booty-bounced down an airplane gangplank – much to the giggling delight of the up-till-now solemn tiny tot Mitsuo Watanabe (Hirano), whom Lewis hilariously name-mangles as Mitzvah Wet-Nebble.

As with most Tashlin pics, the underlying sexual material is as eyebrow-raising as it is obvious.  This is immediately evidenced via the lush main titles, which are akin to the director’s attempt to do a color video promo for Naruse’s subsequent When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Tashlin’s credit is plastered over a gorgeous geisha’s bare breasts).

Pleshette, who already has mastered the disbelieving Oliver Hardy double take (which she would further hone on The Bob Newhart Show), gets some big yuks in an essentially thankless role.  Her seriously disturbed “ewww” looks at Lewis whilst he tosses a salad (in the most extreme clean slapstick sense of the word) skillfully underlines the joke.  Ditto her deadpan response to Lewis’ fears of being captured and brainwashed by the communists (“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.”).  Less so is her Fifties feminine politicizing once she realizes that Lewis and Kimi (McCarthy) are becoming an item.  Eschewing all that “women’s emancipation” jazz, Pleshette vows to be submissive to the next man she meets…like all the Japanese girls.  She really needs to see a Meiko Kaji/Lady Snowblood movie.

The hysterical head-on meets with Kimi’s behemoth boyfriend, the pituitary Great Ichiyama (Ryuzo Demura) represents Tashlin and Lewis in high gear.  It also punctuates the fact that THE GEISHA BOY is an incredibly smart movie for 1958.

The American obsession with the Japanese post-war culture that began specifically with two Brando pics Teahouse of the August Moon and Sayonara is continuously stated via the color scheme and set design.  Suburban homes were regularly hanging multi-hued paper lanterns over their patios, and becoming kimono-obsessed.  Furthermore, the influx of the Kurosawa imports on Yankee shores were reaping hefty profits.  That Ichiyama is a Japanese baseball player and, in the course of events, gets pitted against the recently-transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers (who guest star) is another shrewd marketing move.

The supreme coup is the casting of former silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa as Kimi’s stern father.  His efforts to cheer up his grandson result in the picture’s biggest single laugh:  his using slave labor to construct a mini bridge on the River Kwai in their backyard.  Hayakawa, dressed in the identical military uniform that he had worn a year earlier in the David Lean WWII epic, had them falling out of the aisles in 1958.  A friend of mine once told me that he and his mom were passing by a theater playing THE GEISHA BOY and you could hear the laughs out on the street.  The manager told his parent, “It’s the bridge scene.  This is a very funny movie.”

In contrast, Lewis’ devastating treatment of Mitsuo – even when prefaced by his “I hate to do this” twinge of conscience does grate on one’s nerves, bringing to mind the occasionally leaked episodes of the comedian’s dark side.  The adoring idolizing child is crushed as Lewis all-too-realistically delivers the ultimate snap:  “I don’t like you anymore.  I don’t want you anymore.  You’re not my son.  I don’t love you!”  Little Mitsuo’s pained reaction suggests he’s a tick away from committing hara-kiri – or, perhaps more appropriate in his case – hara-kiri, jr.

The last but not least facet of THE GEISHA BOY’s success is the connection between Tashlin and his Warner Bros. roots – the astounding non-human sidekick, Harry Hare (whose “introducing” card in the credits gets larger billing than Pleshette’s).

Per capita, Harry probably ratchets up more chuckles than Lewis and the cast combined.  In a series of impossible visuals, Harry Hare proves himself a master of comic timing.  Reportedly when an adolescent once asked Lewis about the rabbit, the comedian replied, “What do you mean ‘rabbit’?”  He then went on to terrify the youth by disclosing that there were multiple bunnies utilized for the picture – since the hot lights and hours had them dropping like flies.  Whether he was being sarcastic, bluntly honest or simply Jerry, he set the stage that undoubtedly culminated in years of therapy for the inquisitive sprout.  If indeed true (and we hope it isn’t), our hats are off to Harry and all the other Harrys who, unbeknownst, gave their lives for their art.

The final denouement comes when Lewis discovers that Mistuo has stowed away and is ensconced with Harry in the rabbit’s carry-on traveler.  Strapped on top of a fast-moving taxi, this simultaneously becomes both a harrowing Mitsuo and Mitt Romney moment.  Oh, yeah, and speaking of taxis, we can’t sign off without mentioning Sid Melton as a wise-cracking cabbie – a plus if ever there was one!

Like Rock-A-Baby, Olive Films’ 1080p anamorphic transfer of THE GEISHA BOY is A-1 from the get-go.  Haskell Boggs’ VistaVision cinematography is so sharp and detailed that it borders on the outrageous (and revealing, as in the one teeth-grinding occasion where viewers can clearly see wires stringing up Harry for a gag).  The Technicolor pops with rich comic strip swatches, especially in Lewis’ Great Wooley red carry-on, the deep blue skies and nighttime Japanese lanterns adorning the Hayakawa’s pond.  Walter Scharf’s mono score sounds terrific with its buoyant riffs and Asian motifs.

All said, THE GEISHA BOY is a Jerry Lewis vehicle that even his non-fans will find hard to resist – although I’m sure they’ll try.

THE GEISHA BOY.  Color.  Letterboxed [1080p High Definition].  UPC# 887090034906; CAT # OF349.  SRP:  $29.95.

ALSO AVAILABLE ON DVD:  UPC#887090034907; CAT# OF348; SRP: $24.95.

Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

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Wilde in the Country

It’s a testament to the DVD/Blu-Ray format to be able to rediscover an obscurity from those late-night TV daze of yore, and realize that you love it. Faint memories of strong scenes swirled around my so-called fertile mind for decades before I connected the dots that formed the rarely seen 1955 film noir STORM FEAR, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Classics/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

The movie is a claustrophobic, bold undertaking for triple threat star/producer/director Cornel Wilde (his first directorial effort, btw), bold as it contains no adult characters worth championing. It underlines von Stroheim’s belief that “life is a sewer,” which is also a grand name for a musical.

During a treacherous December winter, in the rural wilderness of Idaho, the bleak Blake family ekes out their existence as fairly unsuccessful farmers.  As handyman/childish gun nut Dennis Weaver goofs off with his employer’s son (aka, teaching him how to shoot to kill) in a rising snow bank, the sprout’s mom (Jean Wallace) spurs his hired-help ass toward town for supplies before an upcoming storm does its worst.

Wallace and the child (David Stollery) endure the most minimal definition of the human condition, due to husband Dan Duryea’s near-terminal tubercular condition (until effectively cured, he must reside in a high-altitude, clear-air environ). Duryea is also a struggling author, who, aside from t.b., is battling a fatal case of writer’s block. Duryea’s moodiness is concurrently repellent and justifiable – a remarkable achievement for an equally remarkable actor.  Despite his acrimony, he truly loves his family.  It’s the world he hates, and curses the fact that his young wife is becoming dowdy before her time (well, as dowdy as Hollywood allows beauties of the Jean Wallace caliber to depreciate, which is somewhere between 1970s Lois Nettleton and Lola Albright). Damn, things just couldn’t get any worse!

And then they do.

From out of the snowy Currier and Ives landscape bursts an ungainly trio of urban dwellers: Wilde, Lee Grant and Steven Hill (in his screen debut). Wilde is Duryea’s estranged kid brother, Charley; he’s also the leader of a band of killers who have just stolen eighty-five thousand dollars after murdering anyone who had the temerity to get in their way.

This is an indeed complex congregation of losers. Wilde is a charming, lying sociopath (so good that the stories/arguments he tells to win over the gullible and vulnerable Blakes are never quite proven to be true or not). Grant is a goofy, likeable (but obviously potentially lethal) ditz who apparently shops at Victoria’s Floozie. Hill is a dyed-in-the-wool psychotic, itching to kill anything that moves, yet terrified of Wilde, who has the additional impediment of having been wounded.

So far, STORM FEAR comes off as a strange combination of The Desperate Hours meets The Country Girl meets Key Largo.  Which isn’t a bad thing.  But as all intimate relationships tend to be:  it’s complicated.

At first Duryea’s increasingly seething hatred of his brother seems like a Bizarro World version of sibling rivalry, but there’s reason for it. Son David’s (yeah, that’s his character’s name too) beloved pet dog, a gift from Wilde, was shot dead by Duryea. This extreme reaction becomes a bit clearer when the canine reminder of his bro’s influence is further sketched out to reveal that Wilde is actually the father of the child. No love, pure lust. And it looks as if tingly Wallace is about to once again cave to nature’s call of the Wilde. Unlike Grace Kelly in her Oscar-winning role, all Wallace has to do is swath her pan with a swatch of lipstick, shake her hair loose, and VOILA!: instant goddess. Her aching loins are quickly sated as Wilde’s initial rebuff turns to rape, both halted by interruptions from one or all of the other inhabitants. Wallace is genuinely quite effective in her “WTF was I thinking?”moment.  David, meanwhile, is confused by the origin of his late pet, due to Duryea’s cryptic and wicked “your father sent it” poisoned bon mots.

News of the killers’ bloody trail is revealed on the radio along with reports of a record-setting nor’easter about to descend upon the community. Sickly Duryea, who is repeatedly punched in the gut by the sadistic Hill (whenever Wilde isn’t around), doesn’t respond with as much anguish as when he gets his publisher’s latest rejection letter. This is truly one of the cruelest moments in the movie, as it’s likely the nastiest FU correspondence a writer has ever received (and I speak from experience).  That said, there’s a particularly harrowing scene where Wallace removes the bullet from Wilde’s injured leg (mercifully, not with her teeth) that underlines her fading concern with a perverse, vengeful bravado.

And, yet, there are some amazing lighter moments in STORM FEAR, most prominently when Stollery attempts to have Hill commune with nature (a forced lifestyle the boy has come to cherish). He hands the thug a sprig of pine, asking him to take a whiff and appreciate its total beauty. Hill complies, retorting with a perplexed “Smells like a tree!” Of course, this is pure Wilde, a hardcore environmentalist, who further expanded on his ecological bent with his subsequent pics, No Blade of Grass and his authentic classic The Naked Prey. Another hoot is Grant’s offer to help out in the cabin as long as it doesn’t ruin her nails.

And thus, we’re prepared for the final act of this suspenseful, violent adventure – a grueling foray through the remnants of the hazardous blizzard (Wilde has duped the boy into leading himself, Grant and Hill through a short-cut escape route over a mountain to the main highway). And, trust me, anytime you expose three New York Jews to the elements without any chance of a nearby noshery, you’re asking for trouble!

Cornel Wilde is truly to be commended for his backpack overload of work on STORM FEAR. While Tony Mann, Nick Ray or Joseph H. Lewis (who the same year helmed the brilliant noir The Big Combo, also with Wilde and Wallace) might have fleshed out the nuances of the characters a bit finer, the actor-turned-filmmaker delivers a most admirable debut. Personally, I found the unabashed grittiness and noirish hopelessness of the movie kin to the directorial efforts of Ida Lupino.  And that may not be an accident. Wilde and Lupino, both liberal progressives, bonded during the filming of Road House in 1948. It’s quite possible that Wilde may have discussed this project his with former costar before filming commenced (there are visual similarities to On Dangerous Ground, which Nick Ray confided to me was partially directed by Lupino when he fell ill). To Wilde’s credit, he has chosen some incredible talent on both sides of the camera to enact their craft. Both Grant and Hill are terrific (although top thesp kudos definitely go to Duryea), as is the thundering score by Elmer Bernstein (which includes a haunting harmonica suite). The stark but luxurious widescreen black-and-white location photography by the great Joseph La Shelle is aces. Ditto the tight take-no-prisoners screenplay by future To Kill a Mockingbird-scripter, Horton Foote (from Clinton Seeley’s novel). The insidious persona of Wilde’s character can never be thoroughly analyzed, as we never know if what he says can be trusted (a horrible tale of abuse by corrupt cops told to Stollery may be absolute bullshit). And you really do want to believe his sorrowful kidnapping adieu to Wallace regarding her son: “We don’t want to do this, but we can’t help it.” Likely, though, as Wallace surmises, the boy is just another example of Wilde’s panache for using people. It’s these spine-tingling traits that easily add the character to the big and little screen’s foreboding catalog of frightening Uncle Charleys, firmly sandwiched between Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and William Demarest in My 3 Sons.

One could not ask for a better edition of STORM FEAR than the one served up by Kino-Classics. The razor-clarity of the pristine 35mm transfer is one of the best I’ve ever seen from the company (and certainly the finest ever bestowed upon this title). The images are so precise that the depth is almost three-dimensional.

A quirky noir well-worth exploring, STORM FEAR lives up to its moniker.  And then some.

STORM FEAR.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics.  CAT # K1750.  SRP:  $29.95.

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In-C’est La Vie

Possibly the only New Wave movie made by a major Hollywood studio (and by one its greatest filmmakers), Otto Preminger‘s 1958 adaptation of Francoise Sagan‘s bestselling novel BONJOUR TRISTESSE (now on limited Blu-Ray release from Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) remains one of the decade’s seminal works, in addition to being the producer-director’s underrated masterpiece.

Perfectly cast, scripted, shot and scored, the movie – a cinematic bonbon with a poisonous center – was deceptively marketed as a romantic vacation movie, lensed in Technicolor and CinemaScope in the south of France. It is, in effect, a modern horror picture populated by characters more despicable than in the previous year’s Sweet Smell of Success. In the latter, the lower depths are the seedy after-hours gritty B&W streets of New York City, inhabited by sinister noirish ugly opportunists. In TRISTESSE, the monsters are beautiful, the locales joyous. It’s the biggest freak show since Tod Browning discovered the circus!

The story, briefly, revolves around single parent Raymond (David Niven) and his gorgeous child-woman teenage daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg). Niven devours young girls with an insatiable sexual fervor, much to the delight of willing accomplice Seberg. She adores her father – in fact, way too much; she chauffeurs her pater and latest twentysomething mistresses to various sumptuous assignation points, parties with them, sympathizes with the women when they are dumped and gleefully looks forward to daddy’s next conquest. During the between times, Niven and Seberg are more like lovers themselves. “You’re my girl,” Raymond emphasizes to Cecile, to which she dreamily replies, “Yes, I’m your girl!”

It is during one of these threesomes, encompassing Raymond, Cecile and scoop du jour Mylene Demongeot, that Niven encounters Anne (Deborah Kerr, who, with pinned-back hair, creepily resembles an older Seberg) – a beautiful mature grown-up he had known by way of Cecile’s mother. Raymond’s apparent decision to start acting his age explodes into a whirlwind courtship, culminating in an engagement. This sends Cecile into a demonic rage, as she considers the woman – the first serious contender for her father’s affections – deadly competition. Aligning herself with new lover Philippe (Geoffrey Horne) and Demongenot, Cecile, who sees this as a game, plots to destroy the relationship…with fatal results.  The spectacular orbit of Seberg’s nuanced performance can be measured by the disintegration of her relationship with Kerr’s character – running the body language gamut from “Wow, she’s so cool!” to “I wanna kill that bitch!”

This is in sharp contrast to Cecile/Seberg’s “sisterhood” bonding with Demongeot’s Elsa (whose penchant for ludicrous outfits and nonsensical “brilliant” observations) have a refreshing reel/real effect wherein the actress is simultaneously laughing both at and with her “competitor.”

BONJOUR TRISTESSE is Greek Tragedy 101, superbly served up by Preminger. The movie is dominated by Seberg, whose look and attitude are so incredibly contemporary that you want to throttle director and rabid anti-Semite Jean-Luc Godard for taking any “reinventing” credit when he cast the soon-to-be expat in Breathless the following year. Seberg, who essentially turned her Saint Joan do into a fashion statement, rules BONJOUR TRISTESSE in spite of the otherwise plethora of excellent acting from her formidable costars. The framing bump is especially sardonic, showing that both she and her father have degenerated ever further than before, Niven being particularly evil, displaying not an iota of remorse. But it’s Seberg, trapping two potential lovers in a nightclub, causing them to become violent, that unmasks her and her parent as sexual vampires – no more so evident as when, doomed conquest realized, she uncaringly excuses herself to examine herself in the looking glass of an underground grotto Ladies Room.  This is nothing short of supernatural extraordinary since, by this point, one is surprised that she’s even capable of casting a reflection.

Of course, there’s more here than simply a strange story of horrific obsessive love; it’s a relationship that mirrored the off-screen partnership between actress and director.

Otto Preminger’s legendary discovery of Seberg, an Iowan teen, to head his all-star version of Shaw’s Saint Joan, is the anti-Christ version of Selznick’s search for Scarlett O’Hara. Once he put the vulnerable girl under contract, he treated her like property – berating her in private, humiliating her in front of fellow cast members and practically holding her hostage in the lush Parisian hotel where the company was holed up. Here, after all, was an inexperienced teenager suddenly surrounded by the likes of John Gielgud, Anton Walbrook, Richard Widmark, Richard Todd, Harry Andrews, Felix Aylmer and Barry Jones. From morning till night, she was yelled at by the shrieking, beet-faced Preminger…how he made a mistake, how she’s an inadequate loser…Nicknamed Svengali, Preminger corrected his critics with a bellowing, “I try to teach her to think.  Surely that is the opposite of Svengali!  His trick was to insure that his victims didn’t think!  I can’t get out of Miss Seberg what isn’t there!” At least he had the honesty to use the word “victim.”  Widmark, who like so many before and after him, vowed to never work with Preminger again, citing his servitude on Saint Joan as the worst experience of his career recalled, “The way he treated Jean Seberg was indescribable.  He criticized her constantly.  He yelled at her, he insulted her, without ever letting up…We all asked him to leave her alone.  Nothing did any good.  Maybe it was a test of toughness.  But, to me, it was sadism.”

This was an acknowledged truism of Preminger and anyone put under personal contract. Subsequent contractee Tom Tryon was so bullied under the director that he virtually fled from the industry, luckily finding fame as an author (for which, some reported, Preminger took partial credit). It got so bad for Tryon on In Harm’s Way that Kirk Douglas threatened the director if he didn’t lay off the trembling young actor. Worse, after a test screening, lead John Wayne told critics that he was pretty satisfied with result, except maybe some of the battleship model work…to which he quickly corrected himself, “But don’t tell Otto I said so.” If John Wayne was shaking in his boots, what chance did Jean Seberg have?

On BONJOUR TRISTESSE, Preminger didn’t stop with Seberg. It was his first picture under his new contract with Columbia – a dream deal if ever there was one. Columbia would put up money and handle distribution, but would have NO SAY regarding any decision, budgetary or artistic. Before the company dropped anchor on the Riviera, Otto was screaming at the studio suits, sending them running off into the night. He didn’t stop there; he rejected the first script, done by S.N. Behrman; out he went. Arthur Laurents, his replacement, would too feel the tyrant’s wrath; ditto composer Georges Auric (who, upon completion of the production, snarled “Vous etes insupportable!” to Herr Director, a verbal “Oh, snap!” if ever there was one) and cinematographer Georges Perinal, all masters of their crafts – and all of whom did exemplary work on TRISTESSE. Even easy-going, never-lose-his-temper David Niven felt the brunt of crazy Otto. Niven, who had worked with Preminger on another equally censorious project, the notorious 1953 pic The Moon is Blue (which also had a heinous father-daughter relationship, except, in this case, Niven played pimp to progeny Dawn Addams), became the human target of a lengthy tirade after leaving the location to attend a party in Deauville. Niven, when he could get a word in edgewise, reminded Preminger that he returned way before his morning call – not costing the company a second of delay time. “THAT’S BESIDE THE POINT!” screamed Otto, who felt he had to control everything (including people) on and off his shoot. By the end of production, the amiable beloved star, according to Demongeot, wanted to strangle Preminger.

Laurents, who correctly pegged the Sagan sourcework “…as a very slight, ironic story…” was worried about bucking Preminger’s aversion to subtlety.  He was, chided the writer, “…a heavy-handed Austrian, and he tried to make it so melodramatic.”  Laurents was therefore pleasantly surprised when Otto basically left him alone and, ultimately turned Sagan’s ultra-serious approach to relationships into a biting sarcastic one, thus making the characters way more dangerous.

During viewing of the rushes, Otto would halt the scenes – taking time to vent on everyone in the screening room, including cast, crew, projectionist and, possibly, the janitorial staff…often storming out in a rage. Only on one occasion, involving Perinal, was this justified. The movie astutely blends black and white and color by presenting the grim current footage in monochrome and the flashbacks in Technicolor. Certain filters required for the B&W scenes to be processed properly on the final imbibition release prints had been mistakenly omitted by the d.p. One can only imagine what transpired between the two men, but it’s safe to assume that it wasn’t pretty (the stress being put upon the cameraman by his director being generally cited as the cause of Perinal’s faux pas). Perinal was no slouch at arguing himself – his prime victim being mother nature. The waters of the Riviera were such that they changed colors constantly. This wreaked havoc with lighting and setups, causing the virtuoso to shout at the sky – a contagious malady which soon afflicted Preminger; if nothing else, this entertained the crew watching the duo holler epithets in at least three languages toward the spectacular azure-pigmented heavens.

The lovely French actress/comedienne Mylene Demongeot was early-on pegged as prime Preminger meat, tenderly-ripe for his ravings. The young woman, however, was of a different temperament entirely; unlike, let’s say, Faye Dunaway, who unabashedly told Preminger (at the first sign of flare-up), to go fuck himself. Demongeout actually liked Otto; more so, she respected the director as an artist and felt privileged to be working for him. It was just a matter of waiting for the trigger to be pulled, and she did that herself on one magnificently sun-drenched morning. “Mr. Preminger, I think…” she begun before being instantly cut off.  “Demongeot!  Don’t think!  Act!” directly violating his Seberg instructions. Otto grunted, Otto seethed, Otto growled, each layer of anger adding a richer tone of crimson to his bald-pated cranium. By the time he reached cherry-red, Demongenot, who had been biting her lip to suppress the laughter, couldn’t hold it in anymore. She collapsed on the ground in hysterics, giggling so hard tears ran down her face. This, along with an occasional deadpan faux concern that he might get a heart attack, would become her response to any further Preminger confrontations.

Which brings us back to Seberg. Kerr vividly recalled consoling the young star; Saint Joan participant Gielgud had done likewise, ending with his lambasting Preminger for his treatment of the actress, whom he noted “…didn’t have an unkind bone in her body.”

But the Jean Seberg of Saint Joan was not the Jean Seberg of BONJOUR TRISTESSE. She was learning…and maturing. She wrote to a friend that, while she saw the artist in Otto Preminger, she also harbored a desire to kill him. She defiantly stated to editor Helga Cranston that “I wish he would fall in love with me.  I would give him such hell!”  It was during TRISTESSE that she embarked on an affair of her own, which bolstered her resistance to her boss’ puppet-master control. One memorable incident occurred when Preminger ripped into her delivery of a particular Laurents speech. “THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT!,” he shrieked after which Seberg responded in perfect imitation – right down to Otto’s thick Austrian accent, resulting in the entire company to burst into laughter and applause.

Of course, like with all bullies, once Preminger was defied, he backed off. After TRISTESSE, he brutally made public his assessment of Seberg, announcing that she had been a mistake; he followed this by selling off her contract to Columbia with the option of having the right to use her for at least one more picture (which he never exercised). “He used me like a Kleenex…” recounted Seberg in deservedly bitter retrospect.  Years later, while on-location in Europe during the production of The Cardinal, Columbia and Preminger held a publicity junket after-hours party. There newbie persecution victim Tom Tryon found solace in the company of now-international star/free agent Seberg. Throughout the evening the pair chatted engagingly at the bar, laughing and having a good time…while in the background, out of the corner of his eye, Preminger watched cautiously. Finally, nearing the witching hour, the director approached the two, and in an accusatory voice, announced, “I KNOW YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME!” The old misery-loves-company/comparing battle scars tactics, utilized by shell-shocked warriors throughout the centuries, proved victorious. Tryon and Seberg glanced at each other, then at Preminger, and simultaneously erupted into more raucous laughter. While Seberg was now exempt from Otto’s terrorism, Tryon was another story, unquestionably to be dealt with when back before the cameras that morning. The actor would spend many years in therapy.

Music plays a crucial part in BONJOUR TRISTESSE, and Auric’s wonderful score celebrates false happiness. The jubilant cha-cha parade at night is like a merry conga line to hell. Singer-actress Juliette Greco appears as the house singer in a nightclub, expertly espousing the movie’s themes in the title tune’s lyrics (bonjour tristesse translates to hello sadness): “I’m faithful to my lover,” as Seberg coolly stares at Niven.

In one way or another all the characters in BONJOUR TRISTESSE end up as toast (and French toast at that!). It’s a shamefully perverse confection where the off-screen antics perfectly matched the on-screen histrionics…and it shows. Maybe that was part of Preminger’s genius? Who knows, who cares? All that matters is that it’s a freakin’ great movie, and one that couldn’t have gotten a better transfer than the one Twilight Time has provided. I waited for decades to see a proper CinemaScope print, and was thus delighted when, in 2003, Sony put out an anamorphic DVD, which, to be honest, was quite nice. That said, it should come as no surprise that this Blu-Ray blows the previous disc away. Crystal clear 1080p imagery provides a stunning showcase for the (literally) to-die-for the lush Technicolor Perinal visuals. The full-bodied DTS-HD MA mono audio (accessible as an IST, Isolated Score Track) adds a realistic natural element to the Orpheus carnivale atmosphere.

The B-D contains the special 1958 US theatrical trailer, which not only includes scenes from the movie, but a special mini-interview between Drew Pearson and author Sagan (it was also on the old DVD). It’s a hoot with dour Pearson, through the magic of “modern technology” (i.e. Edward R. Murrow Person-to-Person tele-interviewing) asking snarky Sagan (who was, at the time enjoying huge American acclaim; her other novel, A Certain Smile, was then in preparation by Fox) how she explains her success. “Ah dunt explain it!,” she impassively responds, failing only to add the “so fuck you!”

During the time I briefly knew Otto Preminger in 1977, I asked him about Jean Seberg, whom I adored (and still do). “What can you tell me about her?” I asked with my heart perilously dangling from my sleeve. His unexpected response was “I don’t know her,” spoken with the implied sadness of a parent who had lost all contact and understanding of a grown child who has long-left (or, in her case, escaped) the fold.

On August 30, 1979 Jean Seberg (like fellow Preminger alumnus Dorothy Dandridge before her) committed suicide. No doubt troubled for years (if not decades), her demise had many fingers pointed at Preminger for at least partial blame. Preminger was told the news while in post for would be his final movie, ironically entitled The Human Factor. It is said that all color momentarily left his face; he gasped, and muttered something about “…so full of life.” Then a small tear welled up out of the side of his right eye. This is also the final image of BONJOUR TRISTESSE.

BONJOUR TRISTESSE. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]. Limited Edition of 3000.  Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].

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Ritt’s Racy Race Riffs

I suggest setting your cynicism dial to “swoon” mode to fully appreciate the many pleasures of Martin Ritt’s 1961 bittersweet romantic drama PARIS BLUES, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Classics.

It’s got all the stuff we snarky softies adore: cool cast (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll), cool place (check da title), cool plot (artists and lovers going to dark places in the city of light), cool music (the jazz scene, a la Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong). The movie’s all shot on-location in shimmering black-and-white (by Christian Matras), with every exterior rendering a rain-streaked charcoal sketch right out of the Louvre (is the Paris d’amour ever not rain-streaked?).

PARIS BLUES is a very progressive mainstream movie for 1961…and now. You can tell it’s progressive from the main titles, riffing Ellington’s “Take the A-Train” over a tracking shot of an intimate all-night smoke-filled jazz club (are they ever not smoke-filled?). As the camera glides across the crowded room, we see white couples scrunched in with black couples (not so common 54 years ago), but also mixed couples and same-sex couples!  It could be one of the most progressive American movies ever made, enough, I suspect, to cause a 2015 Jim Jones reaction at CPAC.

The plot is merely a ways-and-means to show off the combustion betwixt the beautiful looking foursome – and for the outstanding music (scored by Ellington, with assist from Billy Strayhorn, and Oscar-nominated).

The movie proper opens with a gorgeous Frenchwoman (Barbara Laage) bringing her lover (Newman) breakfast baguettes. This is, coincidentally, how every romantic fantasy I’ve ever had opens, so I’m already hooked.

Newman is a brilliant scumbag musician (he uses women as Tony Bennett’s character described Frankie Fain in The Oscar, “like Kleenex”), whose desire for fame punctuates (avec accent sur la “punk”) his genius. Music is everything to him – and he must finish his sweat-drenched composition so the world can at last appreciate his magnificence. To this goal, he has enlisted best friend and fellow jazzman extraordinare Poitier, who also happens to be a master arranger.

Newman’s cool freezes to cold when it comes to human relationships; he’s kinda like a jazz run-through for later Ritt collaborations, a music-inclined user reminiscent of grotesques in Sweet Smell of Success. Long story short, Huddy Waters.

Much of Newman’s dagger-in-the-heart comments come courtesy of coscripter Walter Bernstein, who provided similar poison bon mots for Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. The tender stuff (much of it likely also from Bernstein; we sardonic types are always the most romantic) is shared with Jack Sher and Irene Kamp, from Lulla Adler’s adaptation. It’s all from a novel by Harold Flender.

What disrupts Newman and Poitier’s world is nothing less than an American invasion times two. The first is the long-awaited arrival of jazz giant Wild Man Moore (third-billed Louis Armstrong, basically playing himself) and the female contingent, comprised of middle-class tourists Connie and Lillian (Woodward and Carroll). Newman first makes a move on Carroll, but quickly switches over to Woodward, leaving Lillian’s love highway vulnerable for Poitier.

While the friendship between Newman and Poitier is admirable, the one between the two women is quietly spectacular. Truly, I can’t praise the subtle performances of Woodward and Carroll enough, as I have never seen BFFs portrayed so honestly, as in their introductory sequences, where they convey emotions entirely through body language.

With a negligible cocaine subplot in the background (involving fellow band member Sergei Reggiani and notable for a startling moment when his pusher is revealed as a kindly, elderly Miss Marple type), PARIS BLUES mostly divides its time between the constructive and destructive paths of the black and white duos. Poitier is a bitter ex-pat, who enjoys racial freedom in France. He essentially gives Carroll the same speech he gives his (screen) father (Roy Glenn) six years later in the treacly Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Carroll is a teacher and civil-rights activist, who insists that he give his country another chance “Things were better than they were five years ago – and they’ll be even better a year from now.” Poitier is skeptical, but so into Carroll that he’s terrified of caving. There’s a lot said about love that’s commendable in this picture, the majority exuded from the hearts of  Poitier and Carroll. Poitier’s shouting of his rarely-felt happiness is an absolutely spot-on depiction of the perils of passion. Their walking through the parks and narrow passageways of (what else, rain-streaked) Paris remains amongst the sweetest gooey hand-holding-friendly stickiness that one is apt to ever experience in a motion picture.  And, yes, they actually DO slurp onion soup at dawn!  Bastard that I am, even I have to admit that the moment where Poitier places a bouquet of flowers upon a park lawn, and tells Carroll, “Any…lover can take one,” is as lovely a cinematic definition of “Awwww…” that one could ever hope for.

In contrast, there’s the pushin’-cushion lust-devil Newman-Woodward debacle. Newman spits out his dialogue with venomous accuracy, while Woodward accepts her “what is, is” situation with realistic aspirations. Without having to utter a sound, it’s astounding to see her fall in love with the rake while watching and listening to him perform. Of course, she wants him to leave Paris, and return with her to the USA – a ridiculous idea that even she realizes is teenage-girl fan-mag fluff. Should such a thing ever come to pass, it could only end up on the I.D. Channel. Making matters worse is Woodward’s revealing that she’s a single mother with two small children. Forget the I.D. Channel, make it American Horror Story!

Their verbal dueling is surprisingly rewarding in its delivery, as it is hurtful in its intent. “I’m not on the market,” sneers Newman. “I’m not shopping,” snaps back a sexually satisfied Woodward with (no pun) pinprick, double-snap precision.

All of this takes a cheerful trip to the backseat once Louis invades Newman and Poitier’s club and blows the roof off with an awesome rendition of his character’s signature tune, “Wild Man Moore.” It’s easily the primo chunk of the movie.

PARIS BLUES has a crystal-clear, occasionally gritty look with beautiful contrast that allegorically parallels the scenario. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon or evening (preferably, rain-streaked). The PARIS Blu-ray is a honey, and sure to please even the most persnickety collectors, both in picture and mono audio.

The movie’s peaks and valleys were of a personal nature and actually add to its authenticity. Newman and Woodward were still newly-marrieds when the project got the greenlight. Their simmering bear-pawing is like someone left the laptop cam on in their bedroom. The undeniable attraction between Poitier and Carroll was another matter. They had first met two years earlier on the set of Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess, and started an affair that would be off and on for almost a decade (both were married at the time). The fact that Poitier’s wife and kids were on-location with the company for at least part of the shoot contributes an uncomfortable aura that the actor naturally channels into his attempt to avoid taking the plunge (from which he knows he’ll never return). Carroll eventually left her husband, hoping that Poitier would do the same (he didn’t). It really was a bumpy affair, and so much of that is right up there on the screen. In effect, the Newmans are acting their roles (and excellently) whilst Poiter and Carroll are living theirs (the latter pair were initially reluctant to commit to the project because of their “Danger, Will Robinson!” connection).

Then again, they were all in Paris – friends filming a love story. The joys of working with one another, being with one another, and under the auspices of a director they all admired (Ritt had directed the then soon-to-be inseparable couple in The Long, Hot Summer, Woodward in The Sound and the Fury and Poitier in Edge of the City) pays off mightily. It was indeed a romantic tour de force for the Newmans, as Woodward became pregnant during the early part of the production (she gave birth to their daughter the day the movie opened – possibly the finest stunt ever maneuvered by the UA publicity department).

So enthralled were the principals with each other and Paris that they briefly harbored the idea of remaining in France and forming their own production company (Newman and Poitier would indeed later become founding members of the U.S.-based First Artists (1969-1980), which also would include Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand).

Originally, PARIS BLUES didn’t do well stateside, either with critics or audiences. It wasn’t exactly pushed to the max by United Artists, who were far more interested in hyping the higher-profile likes of West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremburg. It has since gained an increasingly and deservedly big following, if, for nothing else, the soundtrack (the Ellington-Armstrong LP was understandably a huge hit in 1961 and has never really been out of print since). Newman and Poitier trained long and hard to fake their musical prowess, Newman working with Billy Byers (and dubbed by Murray McEachern), Poitier with Paul Gonsalves.  Clark Terry, Oliver Nelson and Max Roach are among the superb musicians who helped bring Ellington’s ideas to fruition.  If one can manage it, PARIS BLUES makes an excellent triple bill with Blues for Lovers and All Night Long.

In an interesting and bizarre sidebar, PARIS BLUES could have headed in an entirely different direction.  Co-produced by Marlon Brando’s company Pennebaker Productions, the picture originally was slated to team Brando with Marilyn Monroe, but fell apart when the actor’s professional life got gummed up by two troubled pics, Mutiny on the Bounty and One-Eyed Jacks.  While Monroe, well…  Still, one can only look on with Tod Browning train-wreck fascination at the hellish results that could have resulted (it’s likely that with those two, and CGI-postmortem-cloning, it would still be shooting) specifically with Brando giving what have undoubtedly been a “Stella!” performance.

PARIS BLUES.  Black and White.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics CAT # K1334.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Carter’s Livid Pills

When it comes to British comedies, I say the dodgier the better. To give you an example of what I’m talking about, leave us turn back the clock several decades when my UK laff meter refused to function on all stuff funny unless it had the words “Carry On” or “Doctor” in the title.

I’ve matured since then – but more along the lines of “past due” on a milk carton. Keep shocking me, and I’ll keep laughing – that’s my motto. Not stoopid poopie-fart Hangover crap, but forays into the lives of those perilously defying the rim of the lunatic fringe; in other words, something and/or someone I can identify with. Understand that when my wife calls me a crazy fool, I consider it a badge of honor. My only question is whether it’s crazy with a “c” or a “k.” My goal is achieve the latter status.

You can therefore well appreciate my eternal delight when I came across HONEST, a 2008 Britcom mini-series, now on DVD from Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment.  As soon as I saw the package disclaimer, “Contains coarse language, nudity, sexual situations, and drug use,” I was hands-on over it like Ken Cuccinelli and a vaginal probe. “Ah, finally,” I sighed, “a comedy with substance.”

HONEST is the demented concoction of writers Jack WilliamsJames Griffin, and Harry Williams (from a concept by Griffin and Rachel Lang, based upon their earlier New Zealand series Outrageous Fortune). It revolves around a mid-upscale area of suburban England and its notorious residents, The Carter Family. The Carters are petty career criminals, highly held in low esteem. As the six episodes (sandwiched on two platters) unfurl at a furious pace, we learn all about them and their neighbors. And it’s a sociology course well worth attending.

As they approach middle age, Mack and Lindsay (Danny Webb and Amanda Redman) reflect upon their infamous past, and attempt the unthinkable: to go straight. Not so easy a task when one doesn’t know where to begin. Almost within nanoseconds, Danny’s last caper lands him back in the clink on a four-year stretch (where the only relief from boredom encompasses the in-house Neo-Nazis vs. The Rapists football matches).  This leaves the inexperienced but nevertheless mighty matriarch Lindsay to rule their unruly brood (“Don’t get pregnant!” are Danny’s touching parting words to his spouse. “Don’t drop the soap” are hers). In regards to turning over a new leaf, Ms. Carter is adamant. She even goes so far as to look for a legit job. But first she has to lay the law down (so to speak) to her progeny.  Ain’t easy.  Take her two grown daughters, Lianna (Eleanor Wyld) and Kacey (Laura Haddock).  Kacey is a super-gorgeous white-bread blonde whose ambition is to look like her idol – rather difficult, since she’s Naomi Campbell.  Kacey’s ultimate goal is to become a celebrity and a skank, and, eventually, a celebrity-skank. Considering the alternative (“a big fat spotty chip-shop girl” at the In Cod We Trust fast-food eatery), it’s a vocation well worth pursuing. To this end, she busts up the marriage (leaking dangerous liaison pix to the tabloids of their coupling antics) of a local TV lounge lizard (with the helpful aid of the schmuck’s wife).  Kacey’s candle power is such that soon she’s up for a turn on her dream gig – a Dancing with the Whores reality show.

Sis Lianna is more complex. Smart ‘n’ savvy, Lianna has been making a lucrative living bootlegging DVDs out of the video store where she’s employed. Her big swag, however, comes from the decade-long blackmailing of her high-school principal (Georgia Mackenzie), whom she caught having sex with her then-teenaged brother Taylor (although it seems a moot point, as they’re still an item – and now legal). Taylor is actually a brilliant shady lawyer, who slimed his way into a prestigious firm, and is currently looking to extricate himself from his cougar GF.  Meanwhile Taylor’s identical twin Vin (Matthew McNulty, terrific in a dual role) – a total moron (he and his similarly dim compadre Reza refer to themselves as The 3 Musketeers) – is in debt to the local Asian millionaire mob-tied businessman, Hong (a hysterical Burt Kwouk, best-known as the much-maligned Kato in the Pink Panther flicks). Hong’s smokin’ hot daughter, Vicky (Maye Choo), a genuinely evil modern dragon lady, revels in taunting the idiot child with her inappropriate gyrating. Vicky’s final merging with the jackass is all for naught, as she’s actually doing Taylor, who fortuitously happened to get conned into taking his subnormal sib’s place. Ordinarily this might upset Taylor’s constantly horny frère were it not for the fact that he’s just scored Hong’s fabulously beauteous trophy wife (Jodie Mcmullen), managing the Vin/win double-whammy of getting the babe in the pudding club.

Things aren’t that much better at home either, as Lindsay must also contend with Norman, the Carter’s granddad ex-con (Michael Byrne), whose occasional (possibly faked) lapses into early Alzheimer’s provide Lianna and Kacey with the giggly op to paint his toenails pink. Granddad has a secret or two up his wrinkled sleeve – mainly a series of local robberies co-sponsored with his GILF girlfriend Margaret (Joan Blackham), who used to be Norm’s partner back when she was a he.

Are you getting the gist of this? Hey, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

Lindsay’s job-hunting proves another cropper. Saddled with psycho coworkers and/or bosses scamming their companies (Katy MurphyJames Benson) regularly makes Carter a scapegoat.  Her eventual acceptance in an upright community women’s league is revealed to have merely been a ploy to get Lindsay’s expertise on fencing these respectable dowagers’ stolen amassed stash (Mack and Lindsay’s closest relative manages the burg’s pawn outlet, stocked with items obtained in a non-kosher fashion). Even the hamlet’s police wives run their own white-collar thug cartel. On the brink of insanity, Lindsay soon realizes what we all knew from the outset: that the Carters are likely the most commendable humans within their entire town’s populace.

And the coppers don’t help. “I have to do a job catching criminals – and most of them happen to be members of your family,” soberly reminds DS Bain – the Carter’s relentless Javert (Sean Pertwee).  Bain’s young assistant (Thomas Nelstrop) is no angel himself – obsessed with Kacey to the point of taking suspension when caught masturbating to one of her tabloid pix. While the flattered younger Carter is curious as to “which one was it?,” mom, once more, is the voice of reason, arriving at a literal epiphany (“we always thought the police were wankers!”).

Throughout this merry melange of mirth are such additional aberrant wrappings as bungled arson frauds, a botched 200 grand robbery (from the coffers of one Dick Tiny), a pervy music teacher, the saving grace of toilet cam and a seemingly turnaround investment in a made-to-order naughty knickers corporation.

Insult to injury, when Lindsay finds the town shunning her (they think she’s turned snitch), it perfectly coincides with the increasingly lonely woman’s disturbing sex fantasies of her banging Bain.

The dialog is hilarious. When discussing Mack’s possible appeal with Taylor, Granddad nonchalantly replies, “In my day we just got down on our knees and felated the guards.” Later when Lianna approaches Kacey with an oh-pul-leeze “Tell me you didn’t make a video like Paris Hilton’s!,” Granddad interrupts with a reasonable “And if you did, tell me at least it was better quality.” The incidental tidbits are equally engaging. When someone throws a lawn gnome through the Carter’s window with the word “BITCH!” attached to it, no one in the household can figure out which female is the recipient.

Certainly, the cast is a major coup to HONEST’s success. Most praiseworthy is lead Redman, who was then concurrently starring in New Tricks. Her Lindsay Carter isn’t that much different from her Sandra Pullman – same attitude, just coming from an alternate wavelength. To be sure, the entire ensemble is aces (with special nods to McNulty, Haddock and Byrne), as is the direction, co-chaired by Brian Kelly and Julian Holmes.

HONEST looks pretty nice too (courtesy of d.p. Jim O’Donnell) – offering up a crisp, brightly hued 16 x 9 anamorphic transfer. The stereo-surround track features a Benny Hill-esque yakety sax theme song by composer Kevin Sargent and is in perfect tune with the cockeyed proceedings.

HONEST was the first ITV comedy assignment for Greenlit Rights Ltd., the company responsible for Foyle’s War. The show’s smirky nudge to other hit tele-series adds to the fun. The investigating detective and his hormone-crazed assistant present a lip-biting parody of Midsomer Murders Barnaby and Jones (or the latter’s predecessors). Producers Jill Green and Eve Gutierrez likewise admit that the Carters are, in part, their snickering hat-tip to The Sopranos.  While its debut scored an impressive 24% share (six million viewers), subsequent episodes saw a drop in interest, due to competing with BBC’s phenomenal Dr. Who spin-off Torchwood.  Thus, it’s likely that the first season is all we’ll see of this comedy (suffice to say, the wrap-up on episode six works fairly well, leaving just enough hanging to satiate its loyal fans’ delinquent imaginations).

Hey, all that matters is that I’m still chuckling as I’m committing these thoughts to my laptop. Look, bottom line, if you worship the edgy humor of Father Ted, Worst Week of My Life and others of this ilk (which I emphatically do), then you might want to take a shot at HONEST.  And that’s the truth.

HONEST.   Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  CAT # AMP-8967.  Acorn Media Group.  SRP:  $39.95.

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DCS SOB

The very definition of “woman power,” the 3-part mini-series mystery ABOVE SUSPICION: SILENT SCREAM (now on DVD from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment), written, produced and directed by some of the strongest female voices in British TV, is a breathless take-no-prisoners thriller.

The third series in a wildly popular gritty look at contemporary London police detection, ABOVE SUSPICION has never (to my knowledge) aired here in the U.S., so I was therefore unfamiliar with the main characters and their complicated inter-relationships. While it would be a helpful narrative sidebar to SERIES 3, it isn’t a necessary one. The tight, brutal, snarling scenario stands on its own. I WAS, however, quite familiar with the show’s creator/executive producer/writer – the remarkable Lynda La Plante (adapting SILENT SCREAM from her novel of the same name), whose classic sleuth Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series made Helen Mirren a household name in America.

What made Prime Suspect so great (besides its star) were the unrelenting “I’m not in the mood” attitudes of its protagonist and her overworked staff. This is apparently a La Plante prerequisite, as it permeates every frame of this 140-minute action and suspense drama.

The leads are terrific: Game of Thrones’ Ciaran Hinds portrays craggy DCS James Langton, an incorruptible veteran waiting for a deserved upgrade. A perfect male counterpart to DCI Tennison, Langton is surly with a borderline tinderbox persona that dangerously threatens to explode upon the next suspect’s lie or an interoffice red tape screw-up. This behavior isn’t helped by the fact that the aging detective has been passed over for his long-awaited promotion. Add to the mix that the officer chosen is much younger, less experienced (though capable) and black (the excellent Ray Fearon). Uh-oh. To Langton’s credit, he understands the choice, but refuses to accept it, and his natural hostility to his one-time friend (I’m assuming this, as I haven’t been privy to the first two series) is only further enraged when his new superior deals HIM the race card. It’s a wonderful scene (one of many) when Hinds and Fearon butt heads with an almost tearful response from the wronged DCS shaming the man for crying ethnic prejudice. “You know me better than that.” An embarrassed Fearon (with the dynamic name of Sam Power) relents, and apologizes. It’s tough stuff, real stuff – so way beyond the network BS pap we’re shoveled here every TV season.

Langton soon realizes that he has been the victim of an in-house smear campaign – and from someone under his command.  Overloading this dude’s already full psychological plate with a side of paranoia is really not the way to go.  And it gets worse and more tense for all concerned, save the lucky discriminating crime fan viewers, who I suspect will eat up each vitriolic morsel with snarky delight.

Langton’s second in charge is DI Anna Travis, whose presence concurrently exudes authority and sexuality. As superbly played by Kelly Reilly, Travis is a reasonably composed contradictory portrait of a woman in control intentionally suppressing her natural beauty with a vengeance. Reilly’s eyes alone are enough to stop traffic. They’re like two beautifully formed diamonds of ice (if it wasn’t for the fact that Reilly’s such a good actress, I probably wouldn’t have been…well, taking my eyes off them). They’re the kind of peepers that I imagine would have made Elizabeth Taylor likely gasp, “Holy crap!” It’s also obvious that she’s ferociously attracted to Langton (essentially an older male version of herself); and it’s reciprocal. But the case comes first – and it’s a doozy.

The show opens with a ravishing young woman in peril being stalked in Victorian England. Of course, before one can say “Jack the Ripper,” it’s revealed to be a movie set. The fatal femme is the country’s newest and most sensational flavor of the month, Amanda Delaney (Joanna Vanderham), an actress/starlet more renowned for her private sex life than her thespian endeavors. Or in Brit-TV terms, more downstairs than upstairs. That she is soon found murdered in a way horrifically surpassing her celluloid demise becomes the talk of the UK. And the mess is dumped into Langton’s and Travis’ respective laps.

Natch, this opens the floodgates for a plethora of amazing British actors and actresses who parade through the sanguine proceedings with great panache, to say nothing of varying sizes of bloody footprints.

Even by skank standards, Delaney’s past was enough to gag a boatload of reality stars (note how I’m refraining from mentioning the name “Kardashian” because…DAMN IT!). Suffice to say, she took spotted dick to the ultimate dessert level, and no penis (married or not) in the greater London area was safe. She had the hugest lovers, the hugest abortions, did the hugest amount of drugs and got off by extracting the hugest revenge; Amanda Delaney is Donald Trump sans his modesty. Not surprisingly, being this huge means one has the largest number of enemies, so Hinds’s and Travis’s suspect list is epic.

This is where the fun begins. Former costars, their wives, directors, writers, producers are all brought into the fray; ditto her Duggar-esque parents, staff, drug dealers, a rapacious ex-con chauffeur, Delaney’s thieving, embezzling agent and, obviously the star’s closest “friends,” the latter comprising a trio of whacked, slimy heroin-addicted millennial hippies. This trio, particularly the two women, comprise the most interesting human specimens in SILENT SCREAM‘s cast. Jeannie Bale (Kate O’Flynn) is a vicious, violent, roaring psychopath when “straight,” but pump a few grams of…well, anything…into her and Jeannie’s former state is vintage Dakota Fanning by comparison. Bale’s weakling stoner “sister” is a pathetic total sleaze, a performance made all the more jaw-dropping when one realizes that it’s enacted by Call the Midwife’s angelic Sister Mary Cynthia, Bryony Hannah.

But why kill the goose laying everyone’s golden eggs – and just about everything else? It’s the discovery of a now-vanished lust-fueled diary that Delaney was about to publish. Okay, time to add pissed-off publishers to the roster of possible killers.

The “tough stuff” in SILENT SCREAM is about as raw as it gets. If you think two women fighting is cute (raging from bitch-slap to cat fight), you ain’t seen nothing yet.  A nightmarish all-out attack by O’Flynn on Reilly would have Sam Peckinpah running for cover.

There’s a fantastic cross-examination in a precinct interview room scene that defines top-drawer acting. Langton is questioning an (what else?) angered Bale, who, among other things was furious at her late pal for stealing the career she delusionally assumed should have been hers. There’s no dialog, but via pure facial expressions, one sees Langton’s anguish and then “oh, crap!” realization that this maniac’s demeanor is virtually no different than his (regarding the promotion loss). It’s my favorite of many moments. Kudos to both author La Plante and director Catherine Morshead.

The DVD of ABOVE SUSPICION: SILENT SCREAM is up to the usual excellent Acorn standards: sharp widescreen visuals, saturated in cool colors and buttressed by a vibrant stereo soundtrack (for which composed Simon Lacey has fashioned an appropriate score). Further congrats in order for d.p. Damian Bromley.

If you’re like me and refuse to even submit yourself to bubblegum sleuthing of the phony Elementary, Scorpion, blah-blah-blah ilk, I heartily suggest you seek out this fine slice of grown-up fare. Like the Lou Reed song goes, “Come on, take a walk on the wild side.”

ABOVE SUSPICION: SILENT SCREAM.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic].  2.0 stereo-surround audio.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.  CAT #AMP-2132.  SRP:  $29.99.

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Talkin’ the Talk: Will Hutchins and ‘SUGARFOOT: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON,’ PART 2

I appreciate these shows a whole lot better now than when I worked on them.

And on with the show!

THE DEVIL TO PAY (12/23/58, d. Lee Sholem). Tom, working as a debt collector, becomes embroiled in the evil doings of corrupt Indian agents.  Taking sides with the Native Americans running the trading post (and its gorgeous proprietress), Brewster becomes the victim of an ancient Arapaho devil doll curse!  “What I remember most about this show was female costar Grace Raynor, one of my all-time favorites.  She had just done Dear Charles on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead.  And she had a great part in Devil to Pay. A very aggressive Native American, who had the hots for Sugarfoot.  I had to let her down easy – and I wanted to do it in that ‘he just isn’t into you’ way.  You know, the attraction, or lack of, having nothing to do with race.  I have to say that my character didn’t fall in love with every beauty that guest starred with me.  Again, look at a show like Wagon Train.  Robert Horton fell in love every week!  What a fickle guy he was (also very lucky)!  Or, as the Japanese would say, ‘He’s a butterfly.’  But Grace Raynor was easily one of the best leading ladies I ever had.  Of course, working with John Carradine was amazing.  He was awesome to watch.  He’d lay down complicated bits to do, and would perfectly repeat them to match the long shots, close-ups, medium shots, etc.  The consummate movie/TV actor.  You’d watch him perform, and gasp, ‘Wow, this really is an art.’  Compare that to Marlon Brando, who couldn’t care less, and jump all over the screen.  Made it hell for continuity, directors, editors.  But Carradine – what a craftsman.  Tol Avery was another great guy and a great character actor.  I used to say that the character actors drove their pickup trucks to the set, and the stars drove their limos to the unemployment office.  Character actors were always so much more together than the folks they supported.  And why not?  Most of them worked constantly, and, were a generally happy lot.  In fact, the meaner their characters, the nicer they were in real life.

“One day, the great Jacques Tati visited our set – I should have stepped right up to him and said, ‘Bonjour Monsieur Hulot!’ and extended the delightful occasion to the max.  Instead, Hutch, the shrinking violet, satisfied himself just by gazing in wonderment at this genius of visual flick comedy.  On impulse, I pulled a Hulot-ish stunt, hoping Tati would groove with it.  On our set, a Native American trading post, was a barrelful of beans.  During lighting setups, I plucked a handful and tossed ‘em high.  They came raining down onto Roll’em Sholem.  He looked up at the guys on the catwalks and cursed mightily.  ‘Course, I hadda do it again.  Sholem couldn’t have turned redder or madder.  If not Tati, I hope at least M. Hulot was secretly pleased.

“The plot for Devil to Pay was lifted from Beach of Falesa by Robert Louis Stevenson, not for its lofty roots but because at Warners they knew what was public domain!  It was relatively easy adjusting the South Pacific locales to the West, natives becoming Native Americans, etc.  They did a real good job with it.  I have to say that this is one of my favorite shows.”

THE DESPERADOES (1/6/59, d. Josef Leytes).

A sleepy Mexican town becomes a ticking time bomb when fanatics plan to assassinate Juarez, whose caravan is scheduled to pass through the hamlet.   “As far as I’m concerned, this is one of our two worst shows.  That said, I enjoyed working on it immeasurably because of Abby Dalton.  She was so much fun!  We were joking and jiving around all the time.  And she made the lousy script a joy.  We kind of ripped off Suddenly, the Sinatra movie where he attempts to kill the president.  If I thought about it, I suppose every one of our shows stole the main concept from someplace.  Now Jack Kruschen was in that show.  I hold him in high regard, but I didn’t think he was all that good in this episode (Who would have been?  Can’t think of a soul).   At the time, I didn’t think much of him, but, later on, saw him in The Apartment and other movies, and thought he was just brilliant.

“We spent a lot of our free time posing for publicity shots.  Those great Warners photographers were just terrific.  One of my faves is Abby astride a stubborn mule with yours truly pulling the equine with all his might via a rope around the animal’s neck.  The mule doesn’t budge, and Abby smiles as wide as the Missouri river!

“Honestly, I was having such a ball working with Abby that I didn’t realize how miserable the show was until I saw it.”

THE EXTRA HAND (1/20/59, d. Lee Sholem).

A Russian immigrant seaman, traumatized by a horrific voyage wherein a shark bit off his left arm (!), engages Tom as a traveling companion en route to meet two unscrupulous partners in a silver mine.  “The movie The Boy from Oklahoma is the picture they based Sugarfoot on.  The bad guy of the town was Anthony Caruso, who’s in this episode and, years later was my boss for five years when I worked for the City of L.A.  I wonder if I ever mentioned that to him?  There’s a still of the two of us riding double – with me holding a gun on his back.  It’s one of the most popular stills folks ask me to autograph, mostly because Caruso’s chest is so inscription-friendly big, I could have written the entire scenario on it.  I remember we did a really good fight scene on that show, albeit brief.  But agile and athletic.  Of course, the master of that show was the great Karl Swenson.  I recall having trouble with my lines during a scene on a boardwalk.  Just couldn’t get the words out, and, in my opinion, the final result doesn’t work well – all because of me.  But Karl got me through it with a great trick.  He told me, ‘Now when you say your lines, say them to the tip of my nose.  That’s all you need to concentrate on.’  Sounded crazy, but, damn if it didn’t work.  As for Jack Lambert, let me say this:  that guy was as creepy in real life as he was on the screen.  Maybe creepier.  He scared the shit out of me!  Now I’m not saying he wasn’t a nice guy.  We once went out for dinner, and I couldn’t shake the fact that he might do something violent and horrible to me at the drop of a hat.  He didn’t, of course, but he just had that aura.  He’s the only actor that ever really scared me.  I’m shuddering now!

“The special effects department deserves kudos for this one.  The exteriors were shot on the Lawman street.  They did a good job, roughing it up.  Blowing tumbleweeds and clouds of dust past the camera, hanging cobwebs on the buildings howling wind sound effects, that kind of stuff.”

RETURN OF THE CANARY KID (2/3/59; d. Montgomery Pittman).  Chris Colt (Wayde Preston in a cross-over series appearance) convinces Tom to impersonate his nefarious imprisoned relative to snuff out his remaining gang.  Then the real Canary Kid breaks jail!  “This is the show that slipped between the cracks, and went public domain, due to Warners’ negligence.  I love all the Canary Kid shows, especially the ones Monty wrote and directed.  Saw Canary Kid, Incorporated recently (which he didn’t work on), and liked that one too.  And how great it was working with Raymond Hatton!  There’s a scene where I leave him out in the water.  What a dastardly thing to do!”

MYSTERIOUS STRANGER.  (2/17/59; d. Paul Henreid).  Working as an apprentice to a noted attorney, Tom is shocked to discover that his idol may have had a hand in exploiting workers in the local Polish community.  “Now this show was a thrill to work on if, for no other reason, being directed by Paul Henreid.  Here’s an interesting story.  Most of the music on Sugarfoot was canned, stock library themes, etc.  But on this show, we had an original score composed by Max Steiner!  The only time that ever happened.  And that was because Steiner was great friends with Paul Henreid.  So it was a very special experience.  Naturally, being the cinema fiend that I am, I was in heaven working for Mr. Henreid.  Such a nice guy, and he told me such wonderful stories about his early days as an actor, and then, later on, at Warner Bros., which, of course, entailed working with Bogart on Casablanca.  He told me that they were going over their lines, and that Bogart kept screwing up – either not remembering the dialog or saying them incorrectly.  And Paul Henreid told me, ‘I was so smug, kept saying to myself that I had this scene wrapped up, and, if it keeps going this way, I’ll steal the entire picture.’  Then, when it came time to do the take, Bogart was letter-perfect, which only threw Henreid for a loop.  This perfectly jibes with Bogart’s M.O., pulling someone’s leg – then letting them have it!  I think Sinatra picked that habit up from Bogart.  I remember Paul Henreid introduced me to his daughter Monika, and we went out on a date or two.  I was honored that he thought enough of me to do that.  There was one scene where Henreid wanted authentic violence.  He had me slap my hat hard into the face of the bad guy.  And because there was so much dust on the hat that it would get in his eyes and temporarily blind him.  I hope he got extra pay for that.  This was the first time I ever met Adam West; in fact, I think this was the first show he ever did.  We became great pals (I remember years later that we went down to a film festival in San Diego.  They were showing the Bunuel movie Viridiana.  Then Adam hooked up with that beautiful Israeli actress Ziva Rodann, so that was it for me.  I wanted to go to a bullfight, but didn’t want to go by myself.  I ran into Keir Dullea, and asked him.  I think he thought I was coming on to him, so he politely begged off.  Turned out pretty well though, ‘cause I ended up with Joi Lansing!  This was right before Hey, Landlord, so I went down there to spend a week getting into shape).  Karl Swenson was in this episode too, different character, different accent.  Bern Hoffman, who played Earthquake McGoon in Lil’ Abner, was also in it.  Another great presence.  This was a particularly difficult season for me, as they had fired Carroll Case, our original producer (we were in the Top Ten when Carroll was put out to pasture). Carroll always sought out great scripts.  Well that perk was gone, and they brought in this other guy (Harry Tatelman) and it was all melodramas!  The Canary Kids were my one hold on decent writing!

“I was so impressed by the way German émigré Paul Henreid envisioned the American West.  He, too, went through pains to make the standard Western street look unique.  Henreid and Josef Leytes, who I also loved to work with, kept the cameras moving, which was wonderful – none of that 1, 2, 3, KICK long-shot, medium-shot, close-up cookie-cutter mass-production yawn stuff!  Truly innovative.”

THE GIANT KILLER.  (3/3/59; d. Josef Leytes).  A woman threatens to blow up a hotel unless Tom agrees to help bring to justice the man who drove her husband to suicide. “I specifically remember Patricia Barry, as her husband was Philip Barry, Jr.  Senior wrote The Philadelphia Story, so I was like in ‘Oh, wow!’ mode.  Junior was a writer too, as I recall.  She was a very elegant lady.  Right now, I’m hooked on Perry Mason reruns, and I just saw Patricia in one – and she was terrific.  In Giant Killer, she was out to kill R.G. Armstrong.  You don’t wanna mess with her!  John Litel, I should mention, was also in that show.  Boy, what a wonderful actor and person he was!  Unlike his usual straight-laced screen persona, he was quite a jovial gent.  In a way, charting his career was a mini-history of Warner Bros.  As for Dorothy Provine, she was just fantastic.  I got to know her fairly well.  What I liked about her was that she had a particularly goofy quality.  I found that many actresses are possessed of this behavioral trait – but she refined it to a science.  And I loved that.  She ended up on a series called The Alaskans, just around the time Warners also came up with Hawaiian Eye.  They were so clever!  Dorothy used to paint a lot between takes – when she wasn’t fainting.  You know, all that heavy Arctic clothing doesn’t fare too well when working under hot lights in 90 degree California heat.  Jay North was such a sweet kid.  It was during the shooting of this episode that he found out that he had been picked to star as Dennis the Menace.  Between takes of The Giant Killer, Jay would be rehearsing Dennis dialogue for the pilot.  Very impressive for a little kid, and it just didn’t seem to faze him.  Most grown-up actors I know couldn’t manage that!  I have to tell you that we had a marvelous script girl, Marie Halvey, on the show.  Well, she wasn’t actually a girl – she was in her sixties and had been at Warners off-and-on since the silent days.  She had worked with Lubitsch when he first started out at Warners in the 1920s, and he personally asked for her when he did Heaven Can Wait [1943].  The extraordinary lady wasn’t simply a continuity expert – she essentially was my personal acting coach.  Seriously.  After I’d do a scene, I’d glance over to her.  If she was checking the script and looking down, all was good.  But every now and then, she’d look at me and quietly shake her head.  It was then that I’d plead with the director to go for a re-take.”

THE ROYAL RAIDERS.  (3/17/59; d. Leslie Martinson).  On a southbound train, Tom is approached by a beautiful French passenger who entrusts him with a cache of priceless jewels.  Things get tense when a raiding party from Maximilan’s Mexico violently attempt to appropriate the precious cargo. “This was an especially notorious episode, for me anyway.  I wasn’t too crazy about doing this one, and got into a ferocious argument with Les Martinson.  It escalated to the point where I was supposed to go up to San Francisco with him to do some publicity for the series, and I refused to go.  So when I pulled a no-show, the local press came down on me like the sword of vengeance.  Deserved it, totally my fault.  The cast was really fine on this show:  Helmut Dantine and Joe De Santis come immediately to mind.  I watched Royal Raiders the other day, and shook my head.  ‘What the hell was I thinking about?’  Cary Grant used to say, ‘If only I was Cary Grant.’  Well, if only I was Tom Brewster!  This was a pretty decent show!  Funny thing, especially in TV, once a job is done, you’re essentially dead meat – particularly to producers.  That said, all three Sugarfoot producers, Carroll Case, Harry Tatelman and Burt Dunne, penciled me in for projects long after the last Sugarfoot aired.  That’s a pretty big compliment.  Peter Brooke, who wrote Royal Raiders and other Sugarfeet would also keep me at the top of his list for his subsequent projects.  That meant so much to me.”

THE MOUNTAIN.  (3/31/59; d. Josef Leytes).  Tom tracks wanted felon and his Native American wife to a treacherous mountain lair.  The man, who has been granted a new trial, believes this to be a ruse and puts Brewster’s life in tumultuous danger.  “Don Devlin (who later became a producer) got a showy part in that episode because he knew me – the power of power.  That was fine by me – I thought we were buddies.  Well, a few years later, I ran into him at Madame Pupi’s on the Sunset Strip, a place that we actors used to hang out at when we weren’t working.  I had just auditioned for a part in a Peter Sellers movie.  And Don just ripped into me.  Told me all my shortcomings:  ‘You’re too tense, you can’t relax in front of a camera.’  And so on.  Don’t know where that came from, but you know that old Bing Crosby you’re-dead-to-me cast-off line, ‘Aloha on the steel guitar’?  So be it.  On to more pleasant memories of that show, namely Miranda Jones.  We should have done some more bits of business during that scene in the pit.  I regret that, would have made the narrative and relationship more natural.  I remember thinking she wasn’t an actress playing a part in a western – that she really was that character.  That’s how good she was.  And can’t count out that masterful camerawork by Harold Stine.  Wonderful D.P.  And such a nice guy, too.  He introduced me to Ida Lupino once.  Man, that was a thrill for me!  Don Dubbins and I had a fight in one scene on the mountain of the title – actually a papier-mâché set.  They had built a narrow trail for us to do battle, and the artificially-constructed scenery jutted out sharply.  Let me tell ya something:  papier-mâché hurts!  Well, Leytes wasn’t at all happy with what we were doing, and offered to personally demonstrate how it should be done.  We warned him to be careful, and he ignored us, much to his peril.  He got badly cut and was bleeding all over the place.  Should have been called Blood on the Mountain.”

THE TWISTER(4/14/59; d. Josef Leytes).  An outlaw holds a teacher, Tom and three children hostage while an approaching deadly tornado threatens to level the small community.  “Betty Lynn was such a sweetheart to work with, not merely as an actress – but just a lovely person to be around.  She made going to work every day a pure joy.  Tom Brown, like Frank Albertson, told me all these great stories about working with Will Rogers.  Years later, I ran into him at a supermarket, and he came over to say ‘Hi.’  It was great to see him again, and, I think back now, ‘Jeez, why didn’t [my wife] Babs and I invite him over to the house or something…’  He told me that he was surprised he got the gig on Sugarfoot, since he used to fake Bill Orr out of tons of parts when Orr was an actor.  I remember that during one scene I decided to play it natural, rather than ‘acting.’  Josef Leytes yelled ‘Cut!,’ and started shouting at me to give it more. I reminded him that I had won a Shakespearean plaque in high school for my performance as the Pickpocket in A Winter’s Tale.  On the award was inscribed, ‘To be, rather than to seem.’  He wasn’t impressed.”

THE VULTURES.  (4/28/59; d. Josef Leytes).  A delirious woman, found wandering in the desert, is brought by Tom to the nearest fort for medical attention.  Once inside, Brewster discovers all are dead, save one supposedly traitorous officer.  “I loved working with Richard Long.  Excellent actor.  Faith Domergue was, to me, fascinating.  What’s that line about looking into Putin’s eyes, and seeing his soul.  Well, in a positive way, that was Faith Domergue.  You could look at her forever, deep into those eyes – and, yeah, see her soul.  And a beautiful one it was, too.  I was stunned that Alan Marshall was in the show, as I at that time still thought of him as a big MGM star.  I was so honored that he was on our show.  I can’t reflect too much on Philip Ober.  I mean, he did a fine job, but I don’t remember talking to him that much during the shoot.  I should have.  I should have talked to all of these folks a lot more.  Ah, retrospect!  We filmed a lot of this at the same fort they used on F-Troop.  Have to tell you something, a recent poll of TV westerns, listed F-Troop as 41 on the top all-time greats.  Sugarfoot got 42.  That makes no sense to me.”

THE AVENGERS.  (5/12/59; d. Josef Leytes).  A frightening thunderstorm precipitates an unscheduled nighttime stop in what may literally be a ghost town, understandably unnerving Tom and his fellow stagecoach passengers.  “I think this one comes off great now, not the least due to the fact that it was written by Monty Pittman.  Luana Anders became a friend of mine.  You’re probably right about her part possibly being originally written for Sherry Jackson [Pittman’s step-daughter].  I often dream about doing Sugarfoot episodes with Sherry.  I wish I could have worked more with her.  Luana Anders was a Method actress, and told me (I guess because we became friends she disregarded the Method ‘rule’ and actually talked to me) that she would gauge her emotions by physically tightening her anal muscles. Well, she was an unruly tomboy in that show and one regret that I had was the scene where I teach her how to comb her hair.  I wished we would have been able to improvise on a bit more.  Of course, working with Edgar Stehli, who was in the original Arsenic and Old Lace, was a hoot for me.  I also thought that Vito Scotti was tremendous in this, another fantastic actor whom I would have wanted to work with again.  Always loved Chubby Johnson.  Out of all the movies he made, the one he couldn’t stop talking about was Rocky Mountain with Errol Flynn.  So whenever we’d work together, I’d always find a way to bring up Rocky Mountain – and he’d be off waxing rhapsodic.  You couldn’t stop him once he got started.  Broke me up.  How lucky I was to have been able to work with all these wonderful people!  The neat thing about this show – and, again – kudos to Monty Pittman was that it didn’t cop out in regards to the supernatural element.  It definitely indicated that ghosts do indeed exist.  I have to tell you that this episode has one of the worst unforgivable continuity flubs in the history of the series, if not in all of television! Just so obvious, something so easily corrected – and it made me realize that they ultimately didn’t give a shit.  We’re riding into town, and the guy who gets killed is on the left side of the stagecoach, and the driver is on the right side.  And my solving the mystery of the show in contingent upon me describing where the people were on the coach.  But the way they shot it was completely wrong and makes no sense.  According to my description, the murdered guy should have been on the right side.  Could have been fixed so simply, and they didn’t bother to do it.  Definitely the biggest gaffe we ever had on the show.”

SMALL HOSTAGE.  (5/26/59; d. Anton Leader). Tom agrees to accompany a colonel to a Mexican village to retrieve the body of the latter’s son, killed with his troops in battle.  A subterfuge over a possible heir and a revolutionary uprising involving Juarez transform the solemn journey into a volatile one.  “That was an interesting script, very different.  And, I got to work with the great Robert Warrick!  What a dirty old man!  He told me stories that I’m ashamed to even think about!  Now, when I see him in scores of classic movies, I’m always wondering what was going on off-camera.  Jay Novello was a fantastic guy.  Someone you just loved to talk to.  There was that terrific Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta!  What a great looking guy, huh?  He should have had a better American career.  Joan Lora had a real thing for me during that shoot – something that Novello and, especially, Warwick were eager to point out to me…and often.  Warwick’s suggestions were…okay, I can’t really get into details [laughs].  By the way, did you know that Joan Lora won a lawsuit against Audrey Hepburn?  Yeah, Hepburn crashed into her car – and Lora got a substantial settlement.  Small Hostage was directed by Anton Leader.  I only worked with him once.  I think it was because he was very slow.  Not a plus for TV, and, very notably, Warner Bros. I really liked working with him though, because it gave me time to digest things, think them out.  I remember pondering about a scene where my female costar and I dance together.  How great would it have been to have one of the Warners choreographers come down and work with us on that segment?  We would have come off as so much more personable. Ha, fat chance! In contrast, the fastest director I ever worked with was Edward Bernds”.

WOLF.  (6/6/59; d. Josef Leytes).  A homesteader, suspected of rustling cattle, is persecuted by a vigilante who wants him hanged.  The arrival of the accused’s gunslinger son blows the conflict sky high.  “I vividly recall having trouble with a scene on a boardwalk in this show.  Couldn’t properly get on a wagon ‘cause the horse kept moving.  And I’m generally a calm, soft-spoken kind of guy – but I couldn’t control myself and started cursing like mad.  And my one memory is that the madder I got, the louder Ted de Corsia laughed.  So I started getting mad at him!  But he wouldn’t let up on me.  A regret I have is that we didn’t steal that final scene from Stagecoach.  Where, after the gunfight, de Corsia’s character emerges triumphant, and the audience would gasp – only to have him drop dead on the floor (a la Tom Tyler in the original movie).  Oh, man, and Virginia Gregg!  I genuinely loved that woman!  I dreamed that she would feel likewise and that we would have dated!  I worked with her on two shows.  Frank Ferguson was sort of a shifty guy.  When we did our first show together in Season One, he kept reprimanding me about looking at him too much.  Jimmy Cagney used to say, ‘Know your lines, stay on your marks and look your fellow actor straight in the eye!’  That’s what I was doing.  Should have quoted that to him.  William Fawcett was another perfect example of the greatness of these character actors.  They really did make it look so easy.  In fact, they did all the work; they had such a presence that all you had to do was simply feed off them.  Watching them do their stuff was a learning experience!  Wright King, Judy Nugent and I had a swell time on that show.  There are some hilarious candids of us cutting up on the set.  I took Judy out once to see an Indian movie, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, and promptly fell asleep.  What a lousy date I was!”

SUGARFOOT: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1]; mono audio.  UPC # 883316884447.  CAT # 12933263.  SRP:  $47.99.

Available exclusively from The Warner Archive Collection:  warnerarchive.com

sugarfoot2PART2FINAL

Walkin’ the Walk: Will Hutchins and ‘SUGARFOOT – THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON, PART 1

I appreciate these shows a whole lot better now than when I worked on them.

 Last year, upon the release of the Warner Archive Collection’s Sugarfoot: The Complete First Season, I thought it apropos to contact my longtime pal Will Hutchins and do an overview reminiscence.  Will, I remarkably discovered many years earlier, has a phenomenal memory, and had a plethora of anecdotes for each episode.  He’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, so win/win.

The success of the piece was beyond my wildest dreams, cramming my email box with accolades and making me realize that we should continue this procedure as the subsequent seasons became available.

Well, THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is now out (in fact, the entire series is now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive folks, so expect a similar, rollicking treatment right down till the end of the line).  In discussing the actual discs, let me emphatically state that, like Season One, all the platters utilize near-mint 35MM elements.  The monochrome visuals are sharp with the audio displaying that classic Warners buoyancy and panache.  SEASON TWO proves what I had surmised after Season One – that Sugarfoot was one of the best westerns ever to grace the airways.  So let the games begin.

But wait, first there’s a flashback, timely to when these shows were filmed, that I must share.  As Will indicates below, Warners was always looking to make a buck/save a buck, and one of the best ways to do that was to push local contractual talent into their big-screen projects.  Here is a stellar example:

“I got the word that I was to appear in a WWI picture called Lafayette Escadrille.  This made me extremely happy, as it was to be directed by the great ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman, a guy I idolized because of Wings, Public Enemy, the original Star is Born, The Ox-Bow Incident, Story of GI Joe, Battleground and many more.  The picture didn’t turn out that great (in fact, it would be ‘Wild Bill’’s last released movie), but the experience was priceless.

“The one regret I have is that I didn’t actively seek out the wonderful actor Marcel Dalio, who had a featured role.  That said, ‘Wild Bill’ pretty much made up for that.  What a terrific guy he was!

“Most prominently, I recall one day when he pulled me aside and said, ‘Shelley, I have a favor to ask you.’  He always called me ‘Shelley.’  I couldn’t figure out why, except that maybe his memory was going, and, by giving folks his own personal nicknames he could remember them.

“So anyway, he says, ‘Shelley, there’s this kid in your next scene that you have a conversation with.  He’s got something, and I’d like to know if it was okay to keep the camera on him while you’re doing your dialogue?’  That was it?  Was he kidding?  Big deal!  ‘Sure,’ I said.  ‘You’re the director.’  Well, he almost teared up.  ‘This is a wonderful, magnanimous thing you’re doing.  A lot of these fresh punks with their own series wouldn’t think of relinquishing a closeup.’  I just laughed it off.  ‘Less work for me,’ I joked.  ‘I won’t forget this,’ he replied.

“Long story short, that ‘kid’ was Clint Eastwood, and Wellman must have told him about my magnificent sacrifice.  Years later, Clint gave me a nice bit in Magnum Force.  But, better than that, I moved up the Wellman ladder to ‘friendly acquaintance.’  I also became pals with Bill, Jr., who was also in the picture (and playing his dad).  This emboldened me to overcome my shyness and brazenly demand an answer to that all-important question, ‘Mr. Wellman, why do always call me ‘Shelley?’  Well, ‘Wild Bill’ looks at me pensively, smiles and then points to my head.  ‘It’s your hair.  You remind me of Shelley Winters.’  You can’t make this stuff up.  You really can’t!”

RING OF SAND (9/16/58, d. Les Martinson). A desperate band of killers force Tom and Job, an elderly reprobate, to lead them to a cache of desert gold, not knowing that wily Job has plans of his own.  “A great cast:  Will Wright, John Russell, Edd Byrnes, Rodolfo Hoyos. Sort of an Along the Great Divide plotline.  The thing that irks me about that episode is that we shot the whole thing on the Warners soundstage, against a backscreen projection, and it should have been entirely done outdoors, on-location.  Cheyenne got to go out once in a while, but Sugarfoot – never!  The sound effects – that howling wind was from that great Warners effects library – movie buffs will probably recognized it from Petrified Forest and THEM!  Of course, I loved Will Wright – we did quite a few shows together.  When he died, the American Legion handled his funeral.  My first wife’s grandmother had just died – so it was conflict of interest:  two funerals on the same day.  What to do, what to do!  Well, we split the difference, my wife went to her Nana’s, and I went to Will Wright’s.  Les Martinson – I thought he was a great director.  Temperamental, in a crazy, funny way.  For instance, he’d go ‘Umm, could you move two feet to your left?’  And the actor would oblige, and he’d scream, ‘NO!  I meant MY right!  Now you have to move four feet!  What’s the matter with you?!!!’  He’d toss scripts around like a discus thrower.  We all tried to figure out how to create a boomerang script.  Would have been the perfect gift!  I remember he’d get so excited that he used to bang his head on the arc lights.  So another, more practical present we decided would have been rubberized arc lights.  That way, we were sure he wouldn’t hurt himself.  Because of confined space on that episode, we only had about two feet of breathing room either way.

“The great Ed DuPar was the cameraman.  He’d keep his light meter in his back pocket.  Guess it must have looked like an ice-cream cone or some edible confection, ’cause my horse kept trying to eat it.  The female lead, Fintan Meyler, I remember really well for the simple reason that she would never talk to me.  I pegged her as a Method Actress because every time I met someone who was of the Method school – they’d never talk to me.  Later that season, we did a show called The Ghost and Martin Landau was in it.  He was Method, and wouldn’t talk to me either.  So it wasn’t a gender thing.  Convinced to this day that Lee Strasberg had a standing rule on Day One of each new class:  Never talk to Hutchins!  John Russell became a real good pal of mine.  You won’t believe this, but he was really a funny guy.  I mean, hilarious to be around!  A totally crazy Irishman, and they never let him play comedy.  Edd Byrnes, big surprise, was very cocky.  And I guess for good reason.  For a long time, he got the most fan mail of any Warners TV star.  Roger Smith used to come down to our set, ostensibly to visit Edd, but really to tell us how much better 77 Sunset Strip was than our show.  This was gauged by the amount of fan mail we all got.  Years later, my wife and I were at a film festival in Argentina.  Lot of great folks there with us:  Walter Pidgeon, Adam West, Ben Gazzara and his wife Janice Rule, Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall.  And, by sheer coincidence Roger and Ann-Margret arrived on vacation.  I suggested that we all get together for a drink; Roger was amenable, but Ann-Margret rolled her eyes and very audibly said to him, ‘Do we REALLY have to do that?’  Haven’t been to an Ann-Margret movie since!

“Thank God for all that Warners stock footage.  Because so many shots had to be matched, wardrobe worked overtime to supply the clothes from the original pictures we snatched scenes from.  One time I got to wear Errol Flynn’s threads, another time Walter Brennan’s.  My biggest thrill was wearing Humphrey Bogart’s pants in the Canary Kid shows.  Couldn’t fill his boots, but sure could fill his pants!  My dissatisfaction with the penny-pinching struck home on this show.  Standing in front of that phony desert rear-screen projection, I quipped to DuPar, ‘Ya know who should be playing the Canary Kid?  Bill Orr – cause he’s cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep.’  Well, one of those skeevy Warners ‘yes men’ spies reported back to Orr, who called me into his office at the end of the day.  I managed to get out of it by saying that it was just my way of wanting to inject more humor into the shows, which I did want, by the way.”

BRINK OF FEAR (9/30/58, d. Les Martinson).  Cully Abbott, an old acquaintance of Tom’s, asks his pal to help him get a foothold in society, after serving a jail term.  All goes well until his ex-cellmates ride into town, triggering Abbott’s dark, psychotic nature.  “Again, why couldn’t I see how good these shows were at the time?!  What’s wrong with me?  That’s a rhetorical question.  Man, the cast alone on that show was incredible (Venetia Stevenson, Walter Barnes, Don Gordon, Don Beddoe, Harry Antrim, Allan Case, Lane Chandler).  The one who stands out was that big dude, Walter Barnes.  We called him ‘Piggy’ Barnes, he was an ex-football player.  Jerry Paris was the real star of that episode.  I remember he was so nice to me, mostly immediately after that show.  I worked with him a lot during the shoot.  He was very uncomfortable with horses, so I helped him along a bit there.  I’ve heard that the reason I ended up with Hey, Landlord was because of Paris being so grateful for the way I treated him during Brink of Fear.  He claimed I really got him through that show.  Who knows?  It’s likely.  Gotta say, he wasn’t so nice during Hey, Landlord, although I reckon he was more frustrated than mean.  He was offered his choice of Hey, Landlord or That Girl, and he chose us.  As far as I’m concerned, nothing seemed to work on that show.  Michael Constantine got most of the laffs.  I was more or less the straight man, and, in my estimation, a pretty good one too.  I think what bothered me most about Sugarfoot was that I wasn’t given a chance to be funny.  I really wanted to add more humor to the proceedings.  But, again, when you look at the competition in retrospect – we were so much ahead of the curve.  For instance, check out Wagon Train or The Rifleman, both good shows – but every episode is essentially the same.  My problem with Wagon Train, in particular, was that I thought the writing was too soap operish, and not horse operish.  Sure, they’d bring in guest stars like Bette Davis or John Wayne, even Lou Costello, but their presence doesn’t make the scripts any less lousy.  Back to Brink of Fear, Don Gordon was really a hoot to work with.  Ended up doing two shows with him.  I also liked Venetia Stevenson a lot, worked with her a few times.  We actually dated briefly.  I think the best word to describe her is ‘humdinger.’  An okay-plus actress and a really terrific person.

“One of the problems I had with this and all Westerns at the time was the fact that the Western main street looked the same in every show.  What I liked about this episode was that Les Martinson took pains to make this town look different.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but that was a big deal for me.  Back then, TV was glutted with Westerns (Bob Hope said that NBC stood for ‘Nothing But Cowboys’). Les achieved this transformation with a lot of interesting camera angles.”

THE WIZARD (10/14/58, d. Josef Leytes).  A mysterious magician and his beautiful assistant spell doom for two townsfolk during a séance, one of them Tom.  Was it supernatural or pre-arranged?  Another episode I appreciate so much more now than I did then.  I remember [producer] Hugh Benson was always on my case about something.  He was a Jack Warner wannabe, even had the little mustache.  I think his main function to follow me around and bawl me out, and, when he wasn’t doing that, to send me endless, nebulous memos. I did the Sheriff’s Rodeo at the Coliseum the last year they held it.  The turnout was huge – about 75,000 people in the audience.  Johnny Cash was there.  Barbara Stanwyck was the Marshal Lass and I was the Marshal.   I wore a checkered shirt, but refrained from wearing my Sugarfoot jacket ‘cause it was a hot day.  But I did wear my chaps from the show and I had a good hat.  So, as I’m riding in the parade, I see Hugh Benson in the front row.  First he smiles, then gives me a dirty stare.  So the inevitable memo arrives:  YOU SHOULD WEAR YOUR SUGARFOOT OUTFIT.  WE’RE NOT SENDING YOU OUT ON THESE THINGS (AT GREAT EXPENSE TO WARNER BROS.) FOR NOTHING!  IF YOU PERSIST IN NOT WEARING YOUR SUGARFOOT OUTFIT, WE WILL STOP SENDING YOU OUT TO THESE EVENTS.  YOU LOOKED LIKE HOWDY DOODY!  I’ve looked at stills taken from that day, and I look fine.  But, they did their work.  He had the Warners publicity department contact The La-La Times who cut me out of every photograph, and even gave me a bad review regarding my appearance.  I’m pretty sure I’m the only actor who ever got a bad review for a rodeo!

“Concerning the episode, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., was a good egg, just a wonderful guy to work with.  He had such a beautiful voice.  Norma Moore was, I thought, cool to work with.  I was fond of a movie she costarred in at the time, Fear Strikes Out, opposite Tony Perkins.  I was actually in awe of her.  We got along fine.  Warners even did a ‘Look Who’s Dating’ layout for the teen magazines.  But look at that episode.  It’s so far off the beaten track.  That’s what’s so amazing about this show.  No template.  We went off in so many different directions.  I worked with Ed Kemmer several times, including on the show where I got my start, Matinee Theater.  He later married Fran Sharon, with whom I worked on Broadway in Never Too Late.  She played my wife.  Ed was a good, solid actor, and, I believe, was also in the following episode, The Ghost.

“Hugh Benson was truly my nemesis at Warners – I mean he really tried to make life difficult for me.  I remember I took two dates to the Warners premiere of Sayonara, and I pull up to the theater in my 1952 Volkswagen, and had no idea where to park.  Well, Benson sees this and starts screaming like hell at me.  I’m sure the fans looked upon that as a valiant display of professional attitude.  It wasn’t long after that The Wizard had been shot, and Benson couldn’t stop with the superlatives about how ground-breaking it was, particularly the acting…by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.  Not a word about me, it’s like I wasn’t even on the show.  You see how folks in this business get complexes?  I look at myself now in that show, and proudly boast, ‘That’s my grandson up there, and he’s damn good!’” [laughs].

THE GHOST (10/28/58, d. Lee Sholem).  Tom is assigned to locate a boy due an inheritance.  The troubled youth is the victim of child abuse, and his violent behavior links him to murder in a supposed haunted house.  “Ah, yes, the episode we briefly spoke of earlier, the one where Martin Landau wouldn’t talk to me.  On the other hand, Tommy Rettig and I got to be real good pals.  Tommy also ended up doing the last Sugarfoot episode, Trouble at Sand Springs.  This show was directed by the ubiquitous Lee “Roll ‘em” Sholem.  Another guy I never appreciated, mostly because he did everything in one take.  He got that nickname because he would never shout ‘Action!,’ but a long, drawn out, ‘Rrrrrrollllemmmm!,’as if it was one, never-ending word.  More like an abdominal, gastric sound, than a word.  He’d do anything that was asked and fast, so you can see how valuable he was to the folks at Warners.  I once sarcastically said that when someone called ‘lunch,’ he automatically shot it.  We used to play golf once in a while, and we got to be buddies.  When he got set to putt, I’d say, ‘Roll‘emmm!’  It’s the camera people I had total respect for, then and now.  We had the greatest cameramen in Hollywood.  Pretty sure they would influence the directors a lot.

“A big regret was not hanging out more with Michael Pate, but, in all due respect, we didn’t have much screen time together, so there ya go.  Later on, we became great pen-pals.  Right up until the end of his life, he’d send me scripts that he was trying to launch (with parts for me in them).  Love those Aussies!”

THE CANARY KID (11/11/58, d. Montgomery Pittman)A visit to a judge turns hellish for Tom when he’s kidnapped by two outlaws whose vicious boss is Brewster’s cousin…and dead-ringer lookalike.  “The first Canary Kid – God, I loved doing that!  Said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Monty Pittman was the most talented guy I ever worked with!  I cherish the fact that we became great pals.  You could never possibly write enough about him, in my opinion.  Let me tell you a bit about [costar] Wayde Preston.  My favorite Maverick  was The Legend of Waco Williams, starring Wayde.  What made the show and him stand out was that he played it totally straight, as opposed to the rest of the cast, who played in tongue-and-cheek.  Ironically, he could always make me laugh and we would constantly break each other up.  Frank Albertson, was, of course, terrific.  It was a Hollywood history lesson just being around that guy.  And Don ‘Red’ Barry, also wonderful.  I used to call him the World’s Best Die-er.  When someone shot Don Barry in a movie or TV show, it was akin to a pageant.  He’d bite down on a cigarette and suck it into pure ash, then crumble and flick it out into the audience.  It was a thing of beauty to behold.  William Phipps, there’s another fine actor.  Ever see him in Julius Caesar?  Just great.  Used to run into him at the beach occasionally, he was quite an athlete.  That came in handy during The Trial of the Canary Kid, where he had to do a running mount.

“I need to do a sidebar here, and discuss someone I admired so much, Sheldon Leonard.  He directed the Hey, Landlord pilot, and it was obvious from Day One that he didn’t want me for the part. Well, I told him that in this one episode The Canary Kid, my evil twin character had to beat up one of the town locals.  Well, he goes down, and I kick him hard.  A female onlooker screams, and I’m about to kick him again, and I tell her, ‘Hey, what are you screaming about?  One more kick, and he won’t have to worry about waking up with a headache.’  Well, I told him that I stole that from Lucky Jordan, a movie I had seen during its initial run in 1942, and one that I absolutely loved.  I added, ‘And I remembered that when Alan Ladd kicked you, he said that line or a reasonable facsimile.  Unfortunately, the censor was visiting our set that day, and they ended up cutting it out.  So I didn’t stand a chance.’  Well, all of a sudden, Sheldon Leonard’s eyes lit up, he got all excited and gregarious and happily remarked, ‘You know what made that scene?  Not the actual violence.  Not Ladd kicking.’  And he defiantly pointed to himself, thumb into his chest, ‘It was the way I TOOK it.’ [laughs].  And, I must say, that we had a much nicer relationship after that.

“But I gotta talk about the women in that episode.  Sandra Edwards, I liked her a lot.  I think she had a kid out of wedlock, which was a big tragedy in those days.  She eventually got married to someone who turned out to be a maniac.  One night, he broke through their window from the outside, and threatened her and her child, and she shot him dead.  She was acquitted.  And then Yvonne Schubert, she was one of Howard Hughes’s girlfriends.  I remember she lived up in the Hollywood Hills near us, my mom and I.  She had essentially become a one-woman call-girl. She had to wait until Hughes called her, and was told to do nothing else.  So she was very lonely, and would sometimes come over to talk to my mother.  At one point in her life, she had gone out on a date with a boyfriend, they went skeet shooting, and she accidentally killed him.  So I had two lethal leading ladies in the same show!  I was living dangerously!

“I had read this book by Robert Lewis, who was big shot from The Actors Studio, and he stipulated that it was imperative for an actor to develop a unique stance when performing.  This will make you true to the core whenever you are called upon to impersonate a specific character.  Well, this was all new to me, but I’d thought I’d give it a try.  So, for the Canary Kid, I decided I’d be a bear.  So that was my secret stance!  Well, [Harry] Tatelman [the producer] came down to the set one day and asked what I was doing.  Rather  than get down to the ‘bear facts,’ I told him I was using Alan Ladd as a role model [from Lucky Jordan], which also was true.

“Another interesting thing about this episode was that Howard Hughes was desperate to see the show because of Schubert.  So a private print was air-dropped to his home in Vegas.  I used to think about this giant plane with only the Captain and cans of Sugarfoot on-board.  And I was amused.”

THE HUNTED (11/25/58, d. Josef Leytes).  When Tom nurses a near-dead wounded man back to health, he becomes enveloped in a maze of intrigue and murder.  The ex-soldier is wanted, and being hunted by The Outlaw Exterminators, a sadistic band of bounty hunters.  “Ah, that was our Of Mice and Men episode.  It was a treat working with Mike Lane – you know, that big dude from the last Bogie film, The Harder They Fall.  I was always a big boxing fan, so you can understand what a thrill it was to work with him.  Years later, when I was doing a Perry Mason, Mike turned up to wish me well.  Just a very personable guy.  The Warners penchant for economy (aka, cheapness) was the spur behind this show, as they used tons of footage from Valley of the Giants, that 1937 logging picture they had done with Wayne Morris.  Funny thing, I think THAT movie used stock footage from yet an earlier lumberjack picture.  So I was wearing Wayne Morris’s shirt to match the library footage.  I did get to do some stunt work – running along the top of the lumberjack train.  They actually had me jump from the top of the train into the caboose.  I was terrified that I was going to bash my head open, but I did it okay [laughs].  Obviously.  I worked with R.G. Armstrong a couple of times.  I liked him a lot.  He had just undergone a cancer operation, and they had removed part of his lower lip.  They used some kind of innovative plastic surgery or grafting to replace it.  I thought that was quite remarkable, especially for the way it didn’t seem to faze him.  A real trouper.  I have to say I got along with most of the costars I worked with.  And, again, I’m really proud of the roles Sugarfoot had for actresses.  I mean really good parts for women, often non-traditional characters, many fiercely independent who didn’t rely upon the likes of me to rescue them.  They could handle themselves!  Love that.

“Again, this was special show for me, as it was obviously stolen from Steinbeck’s novel, which, I should mention was made into one of my all-time favorite movies.  What a magical year 1939 was American movies!”

YAMPA CROSSING (12/9/58, d. Josef Leytes).   A law firm hires Tom to bring in Galt Kimberly, a grizzled tough guy needed to verify his abandoned son’s inheritance.  Kimberly’s refusal takes a back seat when three strangers show up, all waiting for a raging river to recede.  As the men bide their time, their greed increases to murderous proportions.  “Another Harder They Fall guy was in that – a wonderful New York actor, Harold J. Stone.  We had a really interesting director on this one, a Polish filmmaker, Josef Leytes.  He was very emotional, and had a hell of a time expressing himself in English.  One of the other costars in that show was Brian Hutton, who later became a very good director.  I felt like I was sort of a hovering ghost in that one.  Really didn’t have much to do, sort of overseeing the narrative.  Unusual, if you stop to think about it.  Of course, Roger Smith was in it, and he did his usual – telling me how great Sunset Strip was, so much better than my show.  But he also told me a terrific story about working with Jimmy Cagney; in fact, he was lucky enough to work with him twice, in Man of a Thousand Faces and Never Steal Anything Small.  I was so envious because he and Cagney had become pretty good pals.  Anyway, he was home on his day off watching Citizen Kane on TV, and Cagney just showed up at his house and got all irate at him:  ‘What are you doing watching television on such a beautiful afternoon?  Come on, let’s get out of here!’

‘But its Citizen Kane!’

‘I don’t care what it is!  It’s a gorgeous day.  Turn that off, and let’s enjoy the sunshine!  Nobody needs to watch television in the daytime!’  And so off they went!

“I was so vulnerable as to my abilities that whenever Roger chided me about the show, it cut deep.  ‘Sugarfoot’s too passive.’  That’s not exactly a terrible thing to say, but it bothered me.  (He obviously never watched the show, or listened to the theme song: ‘Never underestimate a Sugarfoot/Once you get his dander up, ain’t no one who’s quicker on the draw!’  So, there!)  I guess it’s because, like so many in this business, everyone’s ready to pounce on you, but no one ever gives out with the compliments.  And that was especially hurtful when these barbs came from my so-called Hollywood friends.  I remember being very down on myself during that period.  Jeez, if I had only known about the wonders of coffee – I wasn’t a caffeine drinker back then – I think it would have made my life a lot easier!

“I’d like to digress for a moment and mention Cagney again, as I almost got to work with him, during the run of the show.  Because of typical Warners cost-cutting, they used to push us contract folk into whatever features were being shot on the lot.  I was assigned to a Natalie Wood picture called Bombers B-52.  This was particularly exciting for me, as it was announced as a Cagney picture, and he was one of my idols.  By the time production started, Cagney was replaced by Karl Malden.  I remember coming out of the commissary one day.  I was in character and uniform – as one of the fighter pilot crew – as was Malden, who played my superior officer.  I knew he was a Method guy so I was appreciably respectful.  I stood at attention, and he came over, gave me the once-over and said,

‘Airman, what’s an ECM operator mean?’  I know that he was part of the crew, but I didn’t know what the hell an ECM was.  I flinched, and blubbered out, ‘I don’t know, sir.’  Malden nodded stoically, and replied ‘It stands for Easy Cock Master, son.’  So I replied the only way I could,

‘Sir, yes, sir!’  Feeble.”

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