Friday, May 17, 2019

Recent TV Bingeings

MR. NOVAK - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Warner Archive): I can't recommend this collection of 30 one-hour episodes highly enough; it's quite simply the best classic television release I've seen since Shout! Factory's THE DEFENDERS of a couple of years ago. 

James Franciscus stars as the new, young English teacher at Jefferson High School - a fairly conservative, tightly run school with daily flag-raising bugle calls and frequent class assemblies. Each episode brings Novak into collision with an outdated school ruling, a troubled but promising student, a moral quandary, or questions about what the boundaries between teacher and pupil should be. The problems tackled include everything from teenage pregnancy and drug addiction to teenage crushes and the panic of producing a senior prom. Sometimes they get the problem licked, and sometimes they are brought to their knees by one and fade-out on the admission that you can't work miracles in an hour but you can certainly raise important questions.

I truly feel that our world is off the rails these days partly because our television programming is no longer interested in giving us this kind of socially responsible guidance, along with assumptions for our intelligence. Dean Jagger (WHITE CHRISTMAS, X THE UNKNOWN) is the school's principal, Albert Vane, and he's the most fascinating aspect of each episode. We may not always agree with him, but he's clearly a sensitive, intelligent man - we feel the pride and the burden of his authority - and he ultimately unfolds as a deeply humane man with a military core, but able to learn from his mistakes and evolve beyond them. I have more than a dozen favorite episodes, but I was most impressed by an episode featuring Brenda Scott as a withdrawn student whose talents for satire and cartooning are discovered, turning up the pressure for her to connect with the school paper.

A number of familiar young actors from this period turn up in class, including Frankie Avalon, Tommy Kirk, Shelley Fabares, Kim Darby, Brooke Bundy, Christopher Connelly, Tim McIntire, and "Terry Garr," and the outstanding adult guest stars include Lilian Gish (as a teacher of long standing whose job is threatened by parents wanting her blood for teaching sex education), Barbara Barrie and Kathryn Hays (absolute magic in an episode that finds Novak in a complex and troubling romantic situation). You owe it to yourself to see this. Co-created by Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN).

FOREVER (Amazon Prime): A somewhat obnoxious, quirky, married couple (Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen) end up in Heaven, whose eternal sameness begins to grate on their nerves. It's an interesting concept - that the idea of eternal peace may be aggravating to human nature, thus flying in the face of the accepted religious concept of eternal reward. This show takes its premise in some interesting directions - as matters of materialism, plan-making, and even gender begin to break down the characters' earthly personalities and commitments, but it never achieves the same level of exciting complexity as RUSSIAN DOLLS. This might get better with Season 2, but the story feels somewhat self-contained. Catherine Keener, Peter Weller, and Julia Ormond are also in the cast.

SNEAKY PETE, Season 3 (Amazon Prime): This ongoing story of an ingenious and somewhat soulless con man (Giovanni Ribisi), who always seems to have several cons unfolding simultaneously and in frequent conflict, continues to up its ante - ongoing since the first episode - and impress with its three-dimensional complexity. In this season, Marius/Pete continues to find his accidental ties to the Bowman family tightening, and threatening to humanize him, just as the cold-blooded love of his life (Efrat Dor) reappears to tempt him with a wine-based con that stands to make them millions. Naturally, everything goes wrong. This is extremely satisfying bingeing material, and Ribisi and co-stars Marin Ireland and Margo Martindale are fascinating to watch - Ribisi's smile is worth an essay in itself, a kind of pained grimace of pleasure that makes him look almost on the verge of being physically sick. Another point of interest in this latest run of episodes is the last acting role for Ricky Jay, to whom the penultimate episode is dedicated. He apparently didn't finish his role as a card-flashing trickster and is replaced in the final episode by a suitable stand-in viewed from behind, with - I assume - his dialogue looped in from a recorded table reading. I think he would have appreciated the Lugosi-like trickiness of it all. This isn't quite a great series yet, but it's quite an impressive feat of staging and calculation.

A MAN CALLED SHENANDOAH: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Archive): This is a black-and-white Western series that dates back to ABC, 1964; its broadcast coincided with the similarly themed contemporary series CORONET BLUE. It stars WAGON TRAIN's Robert Horton as a man, fast on the draw, who is recognized and attacked by a band of bad guys, led by Richard Devon. He survives the attack but awakens with amnesia - and then rides off into 30-odd episodes in which he follows one clue to the next toward the discovery of who he really is, and whether he is a good man or a bad man. 

This sort of thing can also be traced back to the 1940s radio and Columbia B-movie series THE CRIME DOCTOR, and considering its timing, it may have been partly inspired by the success of THE FUGITIVE, which premiered the previous year, and featured a central character in search of another who might prove his innocence. I haven't watched too many of these yet, but the few episodes I've seen have been let down by their brevity; this really needed to be an hour-long show, given its dramatic and psychological nature. Furthermore, this show - like CORONET BLUE - was not renewed after its initial season, so the big question it dangles before us in each episode is never answered. But it's not the arrival, it's the journey - right? At half an hour, it's reduced to opportunities to see a lot of great talent from this Golden Era of Television, including numerous OUTER LIMITS actors like Martin Landau and Warren Oates. Robert Horton - who was later bound for THE GREEN SLIME - is good, too.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Looking Back At, and Looking At, FRANKENSTEIN - 1970

Circa 1963, I was a six or seven year old, newly enamored of what everyone back then called "Monster Books" though they were actually magazines. They contained page after page of horrific yet fascinating images from films I'd never seen and, in most cases, had never heard of - and it was these photos, rather than moving pictures, that acquainted me with the likes of Frankenstein's Monster ("Frankenstein" for short), Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Peter Lorre - who, for some reason, seemed a part of the group. It was sometime during the early part of that year when I happened to hear that FRANKENSTEIN, with Boris Karloff, was going to be that weekend’s matinee at my neighborhood theater, the Plaza. I was living at the time in the care of a single mother with an moderately older son; he was at the age when he didn’t want to be seen hanging around with a younger kid, so my only chance to see this most important of films was to go myself. It took a little convincing because the theater was about a mile away from the house, and involved crossing the street at a dangerous intersection, but I was persistent, probably cried, and finally got permission to go to the movie unattended. It was a different world then.

The admission price was a hefty 75 cents, and I retain the sensation of those three quarters tightly held in my little dimpled fist. When I got to the theater, there was already a long line awaiting the afternoon matinee. I don’t recall seeing any posters displayed, probably because I was so intently focused on the unrehearsed ritual of exchanging my quarters for a ticket, and how quickly that ticket was torn once I was inside the lobby. I followed the others into the theater and grabbed a seat about midway toward the screen, on the left and on the aisle - because, as regular readers of this blog know, I had a history of running out of the theater screaming when I went to see a horror picture. 

When the houselights went down, there was a big cheer - the kids there, who were mostly young teenagers and other kids slightly older than me, were that eager to be entertained. If you think about it, their only frame of reference was amusement parks and birthday parties, where the whole idea of entertainment is that you provide half of it with your own enthusiasm. There were a few trailers I don't specifically remember and then the film began - the first film I ever saw by myself

And the crowd of paying customers went wild!

To my initial disappointment, the film proved not to be FRANKENSTEIN but Howard W. Koch's FRANKENSTEIN - 1970, a film I'd never heard of! Nevertheless, it was going to be my first Frankenstein film and my first exposure to Boris Karloff, so I wasn't about to demand a refund. And I'm glad I didn't because I was not in the least disappointed.

Mike Lane teasing the frame as the Monster in the opening sequence.
What I remember most indelibly from that fateful afternoon matinee is the fantastically eerie opening sequence from the film within the film; how the audience went ballistic as the monster pursuing the imperiled heroine through ghastly fog hunkered down with his undulating claws - teasing us with the possibility he might hunker low enough for his face to come into frame; the screams of the teenage girls whenever the bandaged monster-in-progress loomed in the darkness; the way the scar-faced and ogreish Karloff (as a descendant of the real-life Dr. Frankenstein) flamboyantly adorned himself with the scarf given by Jana Lund’s character to the newly-dispatched butler Schuter, openly revealing in this stolen bit of affection; and most distinctly, the penetrating quality of Karloff’s radio-schooled voice, tender yet cruel, which wheedled its way behind my hands as I tried in vain to hide my eyes.

Karloff as the disfigured ex-Nazi Baron Victor von Frankenstein.

Warner Archive recently issued FRANKENSTEIN - 1970 on Blu-ray and the presentation of its black-and-white scope image perfectly complements how I remember its gigantic image on the screen during that childhood matinee. Watching it, I can still hear the happy screams of that mostly teenage audience. I wonder how many of those youngsters are still with us, or if any of them will actually buy Warner Archive's new Blu-ray disc as a souvenir of the fun it once gave them in the dark. But I remember, and this cherished memory of mine seems a vital, vanished link to the film’s actual prowess, because its reputation has never been very hot among a younger group of people who grew up watching a badly-cropped and commercially-interrupted presentation on television. This was one of those films from the late Fifties made in scope to entice people to theaters for an experience they couldn’t get on television, yet it was quickly retired there with only half of its available image. This is the hobbled way in which the film survived for approximately 50 years, at which point the widescreen version suddenly popped up on cable broadcasts.

Vanity, thy name is Karloff - using a promotional still of the period to create his perfect Man.
Revisiting the film helped me to discover an aspect I hadn’t grasped as a child: namely, that Karloff’s character suggests to his confidant Wilhelm (SHE DEMONS' Rudolph Anders) that his body was defiled by wartime tortures, strongly implying that he was not only facially disfigured but also emasculated. With this adult detail in mind, his attempts to create life in the form of his remembered self (using a mixture of actual and synthetic flesh, of his own devise) can be seen as his attempt to reassert his masculinity, his virility, with worthiness of the sexy young women visiting his castle as members of the film crew. Throughout the film, we see that Karloff is deeply drawn to the blonde young actress played by Jana Lund, who can’t help recoiling at the sight of him; we feel his rejection, his offense, and his aforementioned sadistic flaunting of the scarf she gave to Schuter (Norbert Schiller) as a gift, which he wraps around his neck like a stolen caress. This monstrous surface, parading behind a mask of courtly courtesy, is too complex a creation to be passed off as ham - the word that critics of this film tend to use in reference to Karloff’s deliberately overbearing, over-compensating performance. The film's finale, often written-off as a fizzle, actually has some poignancy if we're attuned to this aspect of the doctor's mad dream.
The Baron bakes his creation to life in his 1970-savvy atomic reactor - mail-order, of course! 
The disc includes an audio commentary featuring affable film historians Tom Weaver and Bob Burns, along with surviving cast member Charlotte Austin, who plays the acerbic script girl Judy. The group lodge the familiar complaints against the film - that it's all downhill after the opening sequence, that Karloff’s performance is ham sliced thick - but it’s clear that Burns and Weaver have a nostalgic love for it anyway. It’s a fun listen, and Weaver comes to the session equipped with loads of production details and cast information. We find out when it was shot and on which leftover sets, and it's pointed out that the film shows the influence of Hammer's recent THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) is terms of Karloff handling, palpating, dropping, and divesting himself of various organs and body parts in a gristle-grinding disposal unit. Austin, still sounding youthful and sassy, clearly had no high regard for the film when she was making it (she recalls having a drink too many and crashing fellow cast member Tom Duggan's live LA talk show to bad-mouth it), but her recollections of being present during the filming and her fellow cast members are a dear addition. Particularly interesting are the notes on cast member Mike Lane, who plays the monster and hired help at the Frankenstein castle. He’d previously appeared as a boxer in THE HARDER THEY FALL with Humphrey Bogart (whose last picture it was) and got better critical notices than anyone else in the picture. For some reason, the kudos did him no good as he went immediately into this picture, some Italian sword and sandal fare, and still other Frankenstein roles.

While not on the level of the finest Frankenstein films, FRANKENSTEIN - 1970 is nevertheless a better than average horror film of the "I Was a Teenage..." period and the repository for what I consider one of Karloff's most underrated and admirably modulated performances. It is particularly worth seeing now with its super-crisp representation of Carl E. Guthrie's black-and-white scope cinematography. Guthrie's name is not as well known as some, but his credits include William Castle's MACABRE and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, John Cromwell's CAGED, and a stint as one of the cameramen on the black-and-white version of MGM's horror classic DOCTOR X (1932) - the first movie about "synthetic flesh"!

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.