Saturday, September 23, 2006

Back To Medfield College

Made curious by this week's earlier encounter with Robert Stevenson's THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND (1936), I've decided to stage an impromptu return to Medfield College (the site of numerous Stevenson comedies for Disney, from THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR to the Dexter Riley trilogy starring Kurt Russell) and some of Stevenson's other work.

When they were new, live action Disney films of the 1960s were anathema to young people of my age. The trailers showed us that they were silly and unsophisticated and, somehow worst of all, wholesome; we didn't need to see them to know they would be bland and insufferable. But now that I'm older, I'm feeling a curiosity about some of these matinee pictures I missed. (I said "some" -- I still have no interest in seeing LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, U.S.N., for example, but I'm keen to see THE GNOME MOBILE and BLACKBEARD'S GHOST.) I decided to begin with a personal double-feature of THAT DARN CAT! (the Hayley Mills version, directed by Stevenson but not set at Medfield) and THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (the first of the Dexter Riley films, set at Medfield College but not directed by Stevenson).

THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969) is an amusing idea that falls victim to mishandling. In short, middling Medfield student Dexter Riley happens to be in physical contact with a computer recently donated to the school's science department during an electrical storm, which drains the computer of all data and transfers all its storage files and analytic ability to him. Dexter begins to excel in tests and science teacher William Schallert deduces what has happened (he proves this to Medfield dean Joe Flynn by aiming some sort of viewing device through Dexter's ear, which makes stock footage of the computer visible inside his head!); rather than do something to return the kid to normal, Medfield takes advantage of their advantage and includes Dexter in a national academics competition. Things get hairy when it's discovered that the computer was presented to Medfield by a local business leader (Cesar Romero) with big ties to organized gambling, and that Dexter's fund of knowledge includes a good deal of incriminating evidence. Richard Bakalyan is on hand as Romero's stooge, and the inimitable Alan Hewitt (memorable in other roles in earlier Medfield movies) is back as the dean of Medfield's rival college. As with the Flubber movies, COMPUTER builds to a madcap road chase and a climax involving a scoreboard, with the winning point scored by someone other than the scientifically-assisted.

What's odd about the film is that Kurt Russell, ostensibly the star here, is given very few close-ups by director Robert Butler and the Dexter Riley character is so flatly written that he has few opportunities to make an impression. It doesn't help that he's always surrounded by other teen actors (including LASSIE's Jon Provost) to the point of being overwhelmed onscreen. Speaking of Russell's co-stars, the film perversely casts a number of capable young people with impossible-to-ignore facial flaws; one actor has a badly bruised eye, and another not only has a serious complexion problem but a large boil on his neck! I'm all for giving the part to the right actor, but there's a reason why casting directors keep faces like these off the screen: they're distracting. Schallert is a welcome presence and he does his best, but to see him teach a science class is a crash course in appreciation for the snap, crackle and pop that Fred MacMurray could bring to such scenes. In retrospect, it's hard to see why this lackluster movie spawned a series, but it would continue with the invisibility comedy NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON'T (1972) and the super-strength fantasy THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975). THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES was also remade for television in 1995, with Kirk Cameron as Dexter Riley. It tanked.

THAT DARN CAT! (1965) casts Hayley Mills and Dorothy Provine as two grown sisters of curiously disparate ages, left alone by vacationing parents, whose pesky Siamese cat D.C. discovers a kidnappers' hide-out during his nightly wanderings. When D.C. brings home a wristwatch etched with the word "Help!," placed around his neck by the abductee (Grayson Hall, of all people), Hayley somehow deduces its correct origin and involves FBI agent Dean Jones, who assigns a group of other agents to shadow the cat's night walks in hopes of learning the whereabouts of criminals Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin.

Based on a children's book by The Gordons, this is an overlong (nearly two hours) but attractive movie with a cool Bobby Darin theme song, heard under a main title sequence of genuinely comic scenes and atmospheric suburban matte paintings. The opening scenes with Gorshin, Brand and Hall are surprisingly rough for Disney family fare, and the Bill Walsh script manages to insert some subversive social satire in a vein similar to his and Stevenson's earlier SON OF FLUBBER, this time poking fun at Disney's chief competitor for the youth market, American International, and their "Beach Party" pictures. (Hayley's boyfriend Canoe, engagingly played by Tom Lowell, takes her to so many surfing movies at the drive-in that she comes home sea-sick.) Provine tries to explain the British lilt of Mills' voice by doing an impression of her in some scenes, but in others, Mills seems to be imitating Provine's American accent. This confusion aside, everyone's in pretty good form, with Jones particularly appealing as the supple-voiced hero. There are also some supporting players whose shenanigans alone are worth the price of a rental: Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester and William Demerest. (The DVD includes a tinny-sounding French audio track, and you owe it to yourself to sample at least one of Lanchester and Demerest's scenes as Hayley's nosy neighbors in French. The dialogue is amazingly well synchronized to the actors' lip movements, and Demerest comes across like Jean Gabin!)

Hardly the "film classic" described by the box, THAT DARN CAT! is no embarrassment to Robert Stevenson's filmography; it's a slick and pleasing evening's entertainment with more than its share of laughs. Having finally seen it on DVD, I kind of wish that I also had it as a childhood memory, which probably would have sweetened the experience a bit more. THAT DARN CAT! was remade in 1997 as a theatrical feature starring Christina Ricci, which featured Dean Jones in a minor role.

These Walt Disney Video DVDs, which first streeted in 2003, feature no-frills, standard ratio presentations with excellent, full-bodied audio. Both features were shot in the 1.66:1 screen ratio, so they are not badly compromised by the cropping, but it is occasionally noticeable.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cream of Documentary

Over the past two nights, I sat happily absorbed, enlightened, and often mentally stimulated by Ric Burns' outstanding documentary ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILM on our local PBS affiliate. Unlike other documentaries on the subject, Burns had the courage to focus on the art Warhol left behind, rather than his cultural impact and cult cachet, and it paid off in one of the most powerful and articulate vindications of contemporary art by any artist I've seen or read.

It's rare to see something like Burns' film, which naturally makes you melancholy because Warhol was dead by the time he was 58 and because there's no one quite like him in our world today, but which provokes joy by virtue of the sheer bravado of its intelligent argument and defense. What is art? One valid answer of many: Art is something important enough to provoke mindful and heartfelt responses like this. I think we all agree that our world is becoming less encouraging and supportive of artists, which is surely our damnation, but as long as art can be discussed in public forums on this level, it's not dead and certainly not irrelevant. Burns' handling of this life and material I found personally inspiring; it gave me an idea for an article I'd like to write, offering a Warholian reading of a certain movie. (Along these same lines, check out Amy Taubin's article in the current FILM COMMENT about David Cronenberg's audio guide to a recent Toronto retrospective of Warhol's "Death and Disaster" paintings -- good stuff.)

All plaudits to PBS for presenting this two-part program, but on the other hand, all shame on PBS for the way they presented it. Each of the two segments ended with important documentary footage of Warhol himself being interviewed, which almost packed an element of surprise since such footage was deliberately used sparingly during the program itself. But shortly after the subject of the preceeding two hours began to talk, PBS shrank the screen to occupy the right side of the screen only and cut the sound off! -- the better to run advertisements on the left side of the screen, selling the DVD and soundtrack CD (not mentioning that neither will be available till the end of October), promoting the next night's programming, and acknowledging Rosalind P. Walter and all the other PBS members whose contributions helped to make this butchered programming possible.

Yes, "butchered." As became even more apparent in Part 2, Burns' film was also compromised in terms of content censorship -- censoring not only Burns, but Warhol's art itself. In a discussion of the short film "Blow Job" (1963, pictured), the title of the film was excised from the soundtrack though a brief section of the film itself (observing the ecstatic face of the recipient) was shown. One film clip featured digitally obscured nudity, and some profanity used by the onscreen commentators was also bleeped. To encounter these sheepish counter-maneuvers in the midst of such intelligent discussion made me feel increasingly ashamed to be an adult member of PBS's viewing audience.

When PBS was first formed in the early 1970s, it was an oasis where open-minded viewers could turn to see and hear what was happening within our culture, and within the counter-culture, without the usual network restraints. Something terrible happened along the way, and this principle evidently no longer exists as a hallmark of PBS, so don't believe those membership drive pitches ("Join now for $25... or if you join at our Elite rate of $150, we'll send you this DVD of the show you've just burned to your hard drive!") when they tell you that PBS is any different than any other network; it may be public-owned, but it's no longer public-serving. If PBS can no longer be trusted to speak without shame and self-consciousness where some of the greatest art of the 20th century is concerned, we should turn our back on it and say Hallelujah for cable. After all, this Warhol documentary isn't a place where kids are going to flock in search of porn; that place is called the Internet. And if kids happen to be watching and learning something from this documentary, for God's sake, let them do so -- better in an open arena of enlightened, non-exploitative discussion, than in some shame-fostering dot-com smegma pit.

As a DVD label, however, there may still some use for PBS. By going to their website, you can pre-order ANDY WARHOL: A DOCUMENTARY FILM on disc -- which I assume will be presented uncut, in a manner suitable for people old enough to at least have fake ID. For a taste of what to expect, be on the lookout for replays of the program on your own local PBS affiliate, but don't encourage their censorious ways by sending them money. Patrons of the Arts should send their Andy-loving money directly to Ric Burns, who I understand is still about $25,000 in the red with this admirable production.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Dr. Laurience (Boris Karloff) reacts as his theories are ridiculed by boorish peers in THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND.

1936, Shanachie/Carlton International, DD-2.0, $19.98, 62m 42s, DVD-1

Originally released in the States as THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN, this Gaumont-British production is easily misfiled among the "Mad Doctor" titles that Boris Karloff made for Columbia five years later. Here, Karloff stars as the chain-smoking, musty-looking Dr. Laurience (pronounced "Lorenz") , who has somehow developed a two-seated apparatus in his Genoa retreat capable of extracting "thought content" from the human mind and either storing it or transmitting it into the brain of a new host. Dr. Claire Wyatt (Anna Lee), one of the new 1930s breed of willful female scientist, breezily sidesteps the marriage proposal of Dick Haslewood (John Loder), the sole son and heir of millionaire publisher Lord Haslewood (Frank Cellier), in order to assist Laurience. Though her coachman disagrees ("I don't go to THAT door!" he says, dropping her bags at the curb), Claire rather likes Laurience, understanding his scientific dedication, but she is repelled by his wheelchair-bound associate Clayton (Donald Calthrop) who, of course, has been promised that his thoughts will someday reside in a more perfect body.

Dick's attempts to get Claire fired by planting an exploitative newspaper story about Laurience backfire, and Lord Haslewood, thrilled to recognize a genius, sponsors the scientist's relocation to London, where he spends a year upgrading his laboratory and finessing his work before announcing his discovery to an assemblage of peers. In an astonishingly abrupt reversal of fortune, the medical establishment (led by an actor who resembles Russ Meyer) ridicule him and Lord Haslewood curtly withdraws his support... but Laurience insures the continuation of his work by performing a quick switcheroo between Lord Haslewood and Clayton, whose crippled body dies moments after receiving Haslewood's fund of memories.

Dr. Laurience's experiment -- shades of Medfield College!

The most surprising aspect of this mind-boggling melodrama is its keen and immediately apparent sense of fun. Directed by Robert Stevenson from a script involving John L. Balderston (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), it actually plays like one of Stevenson's later "Medfield College" comedies for Disney -- THE MISADVENTURES OF MERLIN JONES and THE MONKEY'S UNCLE, particularly -- with some James Whale characters tossed into the salad. The early scenes between Lee and Loder are overly strident in their gaiety and seem over-rehearsed and hurried, making a bad initial impression; but by the time Karloff trots out the chimps to demonstrate his invention, and Clayton utters the memorable line, "I wonder which revolts you more -- my miserable body or my perverted mind?", we relax and let this amusing hour-killer take us where it will. (Incidentally, the most perverted thing to explicitly cross Clayton's mind is that the mise-en-scène could use a little piano-playing.) Even so, the movie only truly blooms when Frank Cellier and Donald Calthrop get to have fun by swapping performances, as Loder and Karloff also get to do later. Karloff's decision to smoke in literally every scene initially seems an inspired performance tic (it really brings out the Jeremy Irons in him), but the script makes the habit relevant to the final twists of narrative, making it too obvious a tic in hindsight. The photography by Jack Cox (DOCTOR SYN, THE LADY VANISHES) is crisp and inventive, using double exposed montages to reinforce the film's theme of ideas in conflict, and the employment of background music (uncredited) is occasionally innovative. Karloff and Anna Lee (here a luminous and spirited, if ultimately unimportant heroine) would memorably cross paths once again in the Val Lewton production BEDLAM (1946). The production's uncredited make-up artist was Roy Ashton, later much-revered for his contributions to 1960s' Hammer Films.

Anna Lee gives chain-smoker Karloff a piece of her mind.

This 2004 DVD release in Shanachie's "British Cinema Collection" series is absolutely no-frills, but it preserves a fairly immaculate copy of a film that was decidedly hard to find in watchable form prior to its release. The Carlton International credit tips off the fact that the source materials were recorded in PAL (25 frames per second), and the 24 f.p.s. NTSC conversion makes an already brisk film unreel at even more determined pace. (Had the source element run at the correct speed, its running time would translate to 65m 22s.) The audio restoration is also of particularly fine quality for a British film of this period, digitally enhancing dialogue while taking care not to eliminate too much of the background crackle of the soundtrack.

A droll aperitif for double-billing with Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND works best if approached not as a vintage horror film, but rather as a tongue-in-cheek entertainment with macabre overtones. It also makes one regretful that Karloff never decamped from AIP in the 1960s long enough for "Dr. Laurience" to rear his unkempt head again over at Disney, as one of the more venerable scrambled eggheads at Medfield College.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

That Touch of Metty

Russell Metty (1906-78), one of America's outstanding cinematographers, was born 100 years ago today. He's perhaps best known for executing the most celebrated sustained shot in movie history: the opening "bomb in the trunk" sequence of Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL, but he has much, much more to his credit.

Metty got his start at RKO Radio Pictures in the early 1930s and photographed his first acknowledged classic less than a decade into his career: Howard Hawks' BRINGING UP BABY. This slapstick screwball comedy, which continues to cast an avuncular shadow over its genre almost 70 years later, is remarkable in many ways, not least of all for Metty's contribution, which incorporated trick photographic techniques that have not grown embarrassing or overly apparent over time.

Metty's affiliation with Orson Welles went all the way back to CITIZEN KANE (on which he served as a special consultant) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (for which he shot some individual scenes); he was also the DP of credit on that important film from Welles' middle period, THE STRANGER. On all of these assignments, Metty proved himself one of the exemplars of film noir technique, a master of black-and-white who had no fear of plunging the screen into near-pitch.

Few cinematographers who distinguish themselves in black-and-white exert equal ability in the realm of color, but Metty was one of the exceptions to that rule. In the late 1940s, he became a contract cameraman at Universal Pictures (later Universal-International), where he shot MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID, a number of boldly colored B-Westerns (including TAZA, SON OF COCHISE), and eventually worked his way toward a series of collaborations that was arguably his most defining, at least in color: his work with director Douglas Sirk. Together, Sirk and Metty made MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, and WRITTEN ON THE WIND (now acknowledged classics of melodrama, the latter two available as Criterion DVDs), all of which broke new ground in terms of expressionistic and impressionistic uses of Technicolor photography and saturated gel lighting.

During this same period, Metty continued to make remarkable statements in black-and-white, including the widescreen Lon Chaney bio pic, THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, starring James Cagney and WRITTEN ON THE WIND'S Dorothy Malone. He also left his visual stamp on a run of Universal-International horror pictures, beginning with CULT OF THE COBRA (1955) and carrying on through THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS -- sleek, atmospheric, and exciting. The late 1950s also found him working as one of a core group of cameraman who shot John Newland's classic series of psychic phenomena stories, ONE STEP BEYOND.

Metty made a few more films for Sirk while at Universal-International, including A TIME TO LOVE A TIME TO DIE, BATTLE HYMN and IMITATION OF LIFE. A less happy collaboration came in 1960, when Metty butted horns with Stanley Kubrick over the cinematography of SPARTACUS -- which Metty had been hired to photograph (by fired director Anthony Mann), but which Kubrick (Mann's replacement, and a cameraman in his own right) saw differently. The film proved a major episode in Metty's career when, ironically, he ended up winning his only Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1961, for SPARTACUS; he received his only other nomination the following year, for Henry Koster's FLOWER DRUM SONG. These were also Metty's Doris Day years, as he was the cameraman for her underrated proto-giallo thriller MIDNIGHT LACE, THAT TOUCH OF MINK, and THE THRILL OF IT ALL.

It seems odd in retrospect that Russell Metty was not Oscar-nominated for one of the most visually groundbreaking films of his career, John Huston's THE MISFITS -- the last completed film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. The film's intentionally harsh and gritty B&W cinematography helped to usher in a new era of unvarnished realism in motion picture photography, manifest for years to come in such films as HUD, SECONDS and IN COLD BLOOD -- the respective work of James Wong Howe and Conrad Hall.

Metty's fianl decade was a mixed bag, encompassing Don Siegel's MADIGAN, EYE OF THE CAT, THE OMEGA MAN (now a cult film, for reasons that escape me), and the WILLARD sequel BEN. The most important achievement of his later years was the trademark look he innovated for such beloved television programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s as MARCUS WELBY M.D., COLUMBO (he shot the Steven Spielberg episode "Murder By the Book"), and THE WALTONS. His last major assignment was photographing the host wraparounds for THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT -- Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Donald O'Connor, Liza Minnelli -- a dream assignment by any yardstick, and not a bad way to end a career.

Only two Oscar nominations for such a man? It's possible that Russell Metty was undervalued during his lifetime because he brought his talents to bear on too many B-pictures and A-melodramas, but the passing of time has shown his work (and the projects he chose to work on) to be tremendously durable. His signature styles -- stalking the shadows of night with a panther-like grace, or candy-coating tragedy -- were responsible for bringing many an intended B-picture and trash novel adaptation to the brink of art.

Pick one of the many great pictures he left us and watch his work in action tonight.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Of Mickey, Gérard and The Ugly Tree

By now, I'm sure you've heard about the passing of the great Mickey Hargitay at age 80. He's earned his place in the cult film pantheon on the strength (and audacity) of his pre-Z Man performance as The Crimson Executioner in THE BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965), and also for his latter day roles in Mel Welles' LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1973) and various Renato Polselli hallucinations, including the unparallelled THE REINCARNATION OF ISABEL (1973).

But when I think of Mickey Hargitay, I now think of three other things first. I think of the way Jayne Mansfield turned dreamy and answered "yes" when she Mystery Guested on WHAT'S MY LINE? and was asked if she was married to someone in show business. I think of the great movie MR. UNIVERSE (1988), in which two Hungarians journey to America to meet the most famous actor in the world -- Mickey Hargitay -- and end up driving cross-country for the pleasure, only to first encounter Mickey as he's carrying out the trash; it's one of the best movies ever made on the subject of celebrity. And I think of the moving shot of Mickey wiping away proud tears as his daughter Mariska accepted her well-deserved Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series for her work on LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT in 2005. In the last year of his life, Mariska also made Mickey a grandfather. He suffered great tragedies in his life, but I feel certain that he died a fulfilled and grateful man.

Word has also reached me of the death, on September 9, of screenwriter Gérard Brach, which also demands acknowledgement. Brach was the principal collaborator of Roman Polanski on all his best work, having scripted REPULSION, CUL-DE-SAC, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, WHAT?, TESS, and even some of the later works, the best of which was 1992's BITTER MOON. He also wrote WONDERWALL, Marco Ferreri's BYE BYE MONKEY, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, and the recent RENEGADE (2004), based on the Lieutenant Blueberry comics of Jean "Moebius" Giraud. A marginal career indubitably, but one that embraced much greatness in its time.

One is torn, as ever, between wishing to pay proper homage to these names as they leave our company, and not wishing to turn one's blog into a serial necrology. In a gesture toward balancing the scales with some glad tidings, permit me to share some happy news: I'm now a published poet.

Earlier this year, as a visitor to the now-discontinued Anthony Burgess discussion boards, I made the acquaintence of a number of creative, literary-minded people and encouraged the penchant for poetry demonstrated by one of them. I strongly advised this fellow, a Mancunian named Simon Rennie, to send his work around to poetry magazines and he followed through, submitting a selection to the Manchester-based poetry magazine THE UGLY TREE... and they were accepted. Simon, in turn, encouraged me to follow suit, saying what fun it would be if the two of us were to appear in the same issue someday. And now that day has come, as both Simon and I appear in THE UGLY TREE #13, now on sale at their website. I have only one poem in this issue ("Crapulous Elektra"), but I am told by esteemed editor Paul Neads that three more will follow in #14, including one entitled "Mario Bava."

It makes me smile. In all the years I've spent online, this may be the only time where my attention to a discussion board has paid me back by extending my achievements as a writer. It's a joy and a surprise to have attempted something new like this and succeeded.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Peter Tevis and Charles L. Grant

John Bender informs me that singer Peter Tevis died last Wednesday, September 13, of Parkinson's disease at the age of 69. Though he never quite made a name for himself here in his native America, Tevis had a successful singing career in Rome, the most significant highlight of which turned out to be his 45 rpm recording of the Woody Guthrie song "Pastures of Plenty," which was arranged and conducted by the young Ennio Morricone. A year after that record was issued, it was played by Morricone for Sergio Leone, who was looking for a new kind of Western music to accompany his new film A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. A special bridge that Tevis wrote for the song provided the eureka Leone was looking for, and it was subsequently developed by Morricone into the theme of Leone's film -- the birth of Spaghetti Western music. Though uncredited for this initial effort, Tevis achieved a modest but growing celebrity within the genre, issuing his Woody Guthrie cover with new lyrics as the theme from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (pictured) and singing later themes for such Italian Westerns as PISTOLS DON'T ARGUE, A COFFIN FOR THE SHERIFF, and GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS. His classic "Gringo Song" (from GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS) can be heard in all its glory here. Tevis, who returned to America in the late 1960s, is also credited as the music producer of FLESH GORDON (1974). He will not only be missed but, as one of the chief architects of Italian Western music, never forgotten.

Another sad passing to report is that of Charles L. Grant -- the award-winning horror and fantasy novelist, short story writer and anthologist -- who died on September 15 after a long illness, at age 64. Grant had reportedly been hospitalized for the better part of the last year and recently returned home in accordance with his wishes. Grant is best-known for his "Oxrun Station", "Black Oak", "Parric Family" and "Millennium" novel series; he also wrote two novels in the X-FILES series, edited eleven volumes of the SHADOWS anthology of short horror fiction, and appeared in dozens of anthologies edited by others. He also found time to moonlight, publishing other novels (including the novelization of HUDSON HAWK) under such pseudonyms as Geoffrey Marsh, Steven Charles, and Simon Lake. VW's own Douglas E. Winter counted Charlie Grant not only as a personal friend but as a mentor, and we extend our condolences to him, and most particularly to Grant's widow Kathryn Ptacek (a novelist/anthologist in her own right), and his many friends and readers.