Padre Patroni

In a career spanning an impressive 55 years, George Kennedy (who died on Sunday at 91) was an always-welcome character actor who lent a solid presence to hundreds of films and television episodes. Early in our mutual heyday, the 1960s and ’70s, his roles ranged from the psychotic Herman Scobie in Stanley Donen’s Hitchcock pastiche, Charade (1963), to the slow-witted Leo Krause in William Castle’s Robert Bloch-scripted Strait-Jacket (1964), who underwent a graphic, if not very realistic, decapitation.  After appearances in Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way and Henry Hathaway’s The Sons of Katie Elder (both 1965), Kennedy entered sacred ground, working with Aldrich in two BOF favorites: The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), based on the novel by my late friend Elleston Trevor, and The Dirty Dozen (1967).

In fact, although his role in the latter is far from flashy, it’s probably because I’ve seen that seminal (in every sense) classic so many times that when I think of Kennedy, I think of him first as the good-natured Major Max Armbruster, and remember his amused reaction to the Dozen’s shenanigans during the war games. He followed that up with his Oscar-winning supporting role the same year in Cool Hand Luke, a film for which my appreciation has always been dampened by its gloomy ending, and a substantial part in another personal favorite, Bandolero! (1968).  But it perhaps goes without saying that despite being omnipresent in Westerns, Kennedy was an odd choice to succeed the charismatic Yul Brynner as Chris in Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), the third in that increasingly desperate quartet.

He found a role of his own—opposite a cumulative cavalcade of stars—as Joe Patroni in Airport (1970) and its sequels, Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), and The Concorde…Airport 1979 (1979); he was also featured in another high-profile disaster film, Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974).  Sadly, his two big-screen collaborations with Clint Eastwood (after “The Peddler,” a 1962 episode of Rawhide that I’ve never seen) were decidedly lesser efforts, the dreaded Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and Eastwood’s own disappointing The Eiger Sanction (1975).  Other notable credits from that period include the all-star Agatha Christie extravaganza Death on the Nile, with Peter Ustinov unable to hold a candle to Albert Finney in his first of several impersonations of Hercule Poirot, and as General George S. Patton, the object of the exercise in Brass Target (both 1978), featuring Patrick McGoohan.

Drumroll, Please

So this morning I finished watching that critically praised early-’70s movie about the friendship between two professional athletic teammates, one of whom is dying and played by an actor well known for portraying a member of the Corleone family.

“I got it—Brian’s Song!”

No, the other one.

The above makes it clear why, without having seen either of them, I’d always confused that 1971 football TV-movie with the 1973 baseball feature film Bang the Drum Slowly. Partly to differentiate them, and partly because of their reps, I figured I should someday break down and watch at least one of them, despite the fact that I hate sports movies and don’t lean toward wrist-slitters.

Since Brian’s Song stars James Caan—who makes me want to slit my wrists just by appearing onscreen—as real-life Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo, and Bang the Drum Slowly stars Robert DeNiro as fictional, albeit pinstripe-clad, New York “Mammoth” Bruce Pearson, my choice was clear, even though I can take or leave Bobby’s co-star, Michael Moriarty. (Interestingly, his character, Henry Wiggen, is the hero of a tetralogy by Mark Harris, here adapting his own 1956 novel, also made into an episode of The United States Steel Hour that same year, with Paul Newman as Henry and Albert Salmi as Bruce.) Can’t say I liked it too much, not that I was really expecting to, and there ain’t much of a plot, not that I’d expend a lot of energy summarizing it if there were.

Star pitcher and sometime insurance salesman Wiggen is almost inexplicably devoted to so-so catcher Pearson, and after learning that Bruce is dying of Hodgkin’s disease, he goes through endless machinations to protect him. He insists on a clause in his contract that links their professional fates, and concocts harebrained stories to conceal Bruce’s visit to the Mayo Clinic, both to the chagrin of manager Dutch Schnell (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia); he also deliberately drags his feet on changing the beneficiary of Bruce’s life insurance to opportunistic floozy Katie (Ann Wedgeworth). The plot links the club’s generally low opinion of Bruce and its inability to pull together as a team, but once the cat is out of the bag and they know he’s dying, they treat him better and—hey presto—improved teamwork enables them to win the World Series, although Bruce gets too sick to finish the season, dying offstage.

I guess it’s supposed to be a great performance, but I didn’t find DeNiro’s tobacco-chewing, slow-witted Southern country bumpkin at all endearing—and yes, I know that’s partly the point—nor was I enamored of the allegedly humorous scenes involving the fictional card game “tegwar” (The Exciting Game Without Any Rules), with which the players and Henry’s friend Joe (the great Phil Foster) fleece suckers. Obviously the extensive location shooting at various historic ballparks did nothing for me. I kept wondering what the significance of the title was until the locker-room scene where guitar-toting fellow pitcher Piney Woods (Tom Ligon) starts singing “The Streets of Laredo,” and suddenly my antennae went up. For you trivia fans, Danny Aiello has a small role as teammate Horse.

Largely obscure director John D. Hancock actually merited a mention in Richard Matheson on Screen, because he was fired as the original director of Jaws 2 (1978), and when his replacement, Jeannot Szwarc, called in a favor from Universal for salvaging that disaster, the result was Matheson’s Somewhere in Time (1980). He also directed the truly creepy Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), which is why I snapped to attention when I saw the name of that disconcerting little gem’s leading man, Barton Heyman, in the credits. He appears briefly as another teammate, Red…although in the unlikely event that he looked familiar to anyone else, it’s probably because he played Klein (“Chris—doctors!”) in The Exorcist (1973).

In one of the saddest Yuletide occurrences imaginable, “Mr. Death” (as he was dubbed in the Twilight Zone episode “Nothing in the Dark”) claimed George Clayton Johnson, who wrote that classic teleplay, on Christmas Day at the age of 86.  I don’t have a great deal to add to my original profile of George, but direct you posthaste to the excellent obituaries on Mike Glyer’s “news of science fiction fandom” site, File 770 (where he was kind enough to link to my profile), and the blog of Chris Conlon, a preeminent chronicler of Johnson’s impressive literary circle.

My three-part Filmfax interview with George, the merest fraction of which I was able to draw on for my profile, may have been the longest I ever published.  And the tales I heard from such other “Southern California Sorcerers” as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan, and Jerry Sohl of their friendships and collaborations with him only deepened my appreciation for both the work and spirit of this imaginative, if insufficiently prolific, man.

I only had the pleasure of meeting George in person once, years after our epic telephone interview, when I flew out to L.A. to meet Matheson for the second and final time in 2005.  They did a panel together entitled “Meet the Masters of The Twilight Zone” at the Horror Writers Association’s annual Bram Stoker Awards Weekend, and I had a too-brief chance to hang out with George afterward, finding him to be just as genial, friendly, and enthusiastic as ever.

George, you brightened a lot of lives in so many ways.  In “Mr. Death’s” memorable words, but also befitting the co-author (with Nolan) of Logan’s Run, “The running is over and it’s time to rest.”

A few readers seemed to enjoy my recent post on Diamonds Are Forever (1971), so I thought another in the same vein might not be unwelcome. Just to put these into context: now that some time has passed since I did my massive Blofeld/page-to-screen Bond analysis, I’ve been revisiting some of the films (yet again), considering them less on their own merits, or lack thereof, and more as they fit into the context of the series.  Because the Blofeld-specific films were at that time set aside to be covered in my Cinema Retro article, they never got their own BOF posts, and another such entry is You Only Live Twice (1967).


Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964) had upped the ante considerably from Terence Young’s excellent Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), becoming the first truly blockbuster Bond, so by the time Young returned for his series swan song, Thunderball (1965), he found the game had changed significantly in the interim.  Although it has much to recommend it, and was in fact my childhood favorite Bond film (underwater photography!), one constantly gets the feeling that Thunderball is desperate to be—or, better still, outdo—Goldfinger.  So it’s not too surprising, and perhaps fortunate, that as much as it continues some of the prevailing trends (e.g., the climactic battle scene, which in Thunderball had to be amped up by taking place underwater, and in YOLT changes it up by adding ninjas), YOLT is in many ways a departure.  Let’s take a look:


  • First film directed by Lewis Gilbert, who later helmed entries of wildly varying quality, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).
  • Although its immediate predecessors had augmented the Bond “writers’ room” with outsiders who specialized in crime/espionage scripts (the great Paul Dehn on Goldfinger and John Hopkins, later of Smiley’s People, on Thunderball), YOLT is the first film on which none of the regular writers is credited, with a screenplay by Roald Dahl (’nuff said) and “additional story material” by Harold Jack Bloom (who he?).
  • Coincidentally or not, it’s also the first film that almost completely dispensed with Ian Fleming’s source material.
  • On the first of two related notes, it’s the first entry to incorporate overtly SF elements, since SPECTRE’s space program is so conspicuously far ahead of anything even the U.S., with all of its resources, was capable of at that time.
  • Second, although every Bond film has its far-fetched elements, this seems to me the first time they really rubbed the viewer’s face in its implausibility, again mostly to do with elements of the “Space Race” plot points.
  • The first time cat-stroking SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s face is seen, courtesy (after hasty recasting) of the late, great Donald (Great Escape) Pleasence, although he actually gets very little screen time or much to do.  This, of course, ties in heavily with the fact that because YOLT and the next film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), adapted their sourceworks in reverse order, the novel’s raison d’etre—Bond avenging his wife’s murder by Blofeld, or at least at his behest—is completely lost in the film version.
  • Not a first, but an interesting tangent:  YOLT plays with the ideas of Bond both marrying (a sham here, and for real in OHMSS) and dying.  The latter, albeit naturally faked, seems to continue a theme found in the teasers of two previous entries, when “Bond” is killed by Grant in FRWL and when the French agent observes, in Thunderball, that the coffin of the SPECTRE agent (whose death is also faked) bears Bond’s initials.
  • First time the title tune, at least as heard over the credits, is overtly romantic.  (The Matt Monro vocal of Lionel Bart’s “From Russia with Love,” which is mercifully heard only in passing in the film, is as schmaltzy as they come, but the instrumental  main-title version is galvanizing, and segues into a zippy version of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme.”)  As he did with Bart’s tune, and later with his own title songs for Goldfinger and Thunderball, the legendary John Barry uses varied arrangements to make the melody sit up, beg, play dead, and roll over, but when it comes time for 007’s pulse-raising dogfight at the controls of mini-copter Little Nellie, he does something very interesting.  Perhaps mindful of the fact that the engine noise, machine-gun fire and explosions might drown out the music, he simply scores the scene with the Bond theme—not even rescoring it, but using what sounds like a patchwork of passages from the original Dr. No recording, to which his own arrangement and performance, with the John Barry Seven, made such a huge contribution.  Call it laziness if you will, but for an aging fanboy like me, or the little kid who saw this on the big screen with his father and brother when it was re-released on a double bill with Thunderball, there’s nothing to equal the excitement of that seminal recording as the backdrop for an action scene.
  • Although scenic global locales had figured in the series right from Jamaica in Dr. No, and almost every Bond film has some sort of “travelogue” aspect to it, this is the first time the setting and especially its culture—a particularly exotic one for Western viewers—takes the forefront so prominently, and seems almost like a character in the movie.  “Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond.”

Midday Cowboy

What I’ve Been Watching: Ride ’em Cowboy (1942).

Who’s Responsible: Arthur Lubin (director); Edmund L. Hartmann, Harold Shumate, True Boardman, John Grant (screenwriters); Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Dick Foran (stars).

Why I Watched It: Old times’ sake…plus I needed a good laugh.

Seen It Before? Mais oui.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 5

And? As with many of my generation, Abbott and Costello films (if not their TV show) were a staple of my misspent youth, airing Sundays from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM on what was then a humble independent station, WPIX, channel 11. I’ve occasionally re-viewed one here and there over the decades, and when they started popping up on several of my movie stations recently, I thought it might be time for a maintenance dose. I figured, “I’ll watch one, and if it’s unbearable, that’ll be it,” but since I think I probably laughed harder at it now than I did as a kid, and found it a welcome reminder of why the 1940s remains one of my favorite film decades—easily beating the ’50s—it probably won’t be the last.


Let’s start with the studio, Universal, for which A&C made the majority of their movies, but which for BOF-minded viewers is known first and foremost for one thing: the horror (and, to a lesser degree, science fiction) films with which the name became synonymous. A&C’s heyday coincided pretty closely with that of Universal Horror, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they shared many personnel on both sides of the camera…although I know of at least one reader heaving a heavy sigh over the fact that this and their 1943 Phantom of the Opera were both directed by Mister Ed creator Lubin. Romantic leads Foran and Anne Gwynne also appeared in the studio’s Frankenstein and Kharis the Mummy series.


The screenwriters, especially Grant, are mostly A&C regulars, while Shumate—credited with adapting Hartmann’s story—had solid cowboy credentials, as did fifth-billed Johnny Mack Brown. Their supporting cast is a dream team of character actors: Marx Brothers foil Douglass Dumbrille of A Day at the Races (1937) and The Big Store (1941); frequent authority figure Morris Ankrum; the briefly glimpsed Samuel S. Hinds and an uncredited Charles Lane, both of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). And who should pop up in her screen debut as Ruby but Ella Fitzgerald, singing her hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” although I’d be lying if I asserted that the musical stylings of The Merry Macs were equally memorable.


Universal often just unleashed A&C in a specific milieu or service branch; this was shot before Pearl Harbor but—per Wikipedia—delayed to accommodate the production and/or 1941 release of In the Navy and Keep ’em Flying. Successful Western writer Bronco Bob Mitchell (Foran) doesn’t actually know one end of a horse from another yet, after costing Anne Shaw (Gwynne) her shot at a $10,000 New York rodeo prize, tries to make it up by visiting the Lazy S, an Arizona dude ranch run by her father, Sam (Hinds). Food vendors Duke (Bud) and Willoughby (Lou), on the lam due to a mishap at the rodeo, are in tow and, following the classic Marxian template, wind up helping the soon-to-be couple.


Upon arrival, the boys go straight from frying pan to fire when Lou unwittingly proposes to the, uh, aggressively plain daughter of Jake Rainwater (Dumbrille), whose insistence on a “bow and arrow wedding” is the other through line in what passes for the plot. For once, I can write “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” and mean it literally: Bob is hoping for some quiet tutelage—and maybe more—from Anne, but reporter Martin Manning (Lane), eager to expose him as fake, enters him in the state rodeo championship, leading to some needless folderol involving a crooked gambler, Ace Anderson (Ankrum). Not only is the Lazy S’s honor at stake, but it also benefits a local children’s hospital; no pressure, Bob!


This being one of their first vehicles, the boys are in fine form and the film starts strong, but by the end it feels more than a little disjointed, which along with the brevity of Sam’s role suggests possible post-production tampering. As if the story weren’t silly enough, it pauses about an hour in for a dream sequence utilizing the hoariest of humor, down to the “Would you like your palm re[a]d?” gag. At its best, however, this picture reaffirmed my preference for A&C’s more…well, “intellectual” might not be the best word, but let’s say “verbal-intensive” style over such slapstick-heavy acts as Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges; Costello’s double takes, subversive asides, and non sequiturs had me guffawing.

That late-summer heatwave you’ve been feeling is only partly due to the actual weather; the rest is caused by the steam that started emanating from my ears all too soon after I began reading Eliana Dockterman’s “Everyone’s a Superhero [sic]” in the current (Sept. 7/Sept. 14, 2015) double issue of TIME, about how “Marvel is winning new fans by bringing diversity to comic books.” Despite its decades-long devolution (e.g., unattractive redesigns, excerpts from books I don’t wish to read and—most damningly—failure to cover notable stories, seemingly under the assumption that I would already have read about them elsewhere, in which case why do I need them?), TIME remains one of my primary sources of news, especially since the IT guys where I work proved unequal to the task of restoring MSNBC.com as my homepage. Yet this time, they ran an article on a subject that I not only am passionate, but also know a little something, about…


Mind you, I’m quite sure that Marvel’s diversity du jour (not limited to, but focused primarily by Dockterman on, the gender variety) is indeed popular. And I am well aware, having volunteered to take the lead on covering several of them for the Marvel University blog, that most of their Bronze-Age efforts to launch distaff super-heroes were what my newlywed daughter would call “epic fails,” but I was wary of the implication that this was a brilliant new idea, and it only took until paragraph three. “The arrival of a female Thor—and a series of other diversity moves that include…the installation of a woman in the role of the crusader known as Captain Marvel—is the work of a team at Marvel Comics led by a former journalist named Axel Alonso,” we are told, conveniently sidestepping the fact that a female Captain Marvel was introduced in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982), presumably before 2013 Yale graduate Dockterman yet existed.


A popular t-shirt, noting the difference between “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma,” concludes that “Commas save lives!” They certainly might have salvaged the sentence that, as published, reads: “One of the most significant moves was transferring the mantle of Captain Marvel, a hero who first appeared in 1967 to the Carol Danvers character, who had been toiling in the understudy role of Ms. Marvel.” Without that vital comma after “1967,” it incorrectly means that Mar-Vell (the first Marvel super-hero to bear that august rank) initially manifested himself in her presence, and that she was already “toiling” at that time. As for her “understudy” status, I haven’t followed the machinations since finally rejecting new comics c. 1985, but when I last saw her, she had—in X-Men #164—been changed by nobly failed Ms. Marvel scribe Chris Claremont into Binary, who as I recall was one of the most powerful characters of either gender.


The highest concentration of problematic “facts” is in the “Then” and “Now” sidebars devoted to specific characters, like the one calling the Falcon “Marvel’s first African-American superhero.” That may be true if you take “African-American” literally, but since—for better or worse—it’s often used as a synonym for “black,” that honor would go to the purely African Black Panther. More troubling is the assertion that “Ms. Marvel first appeared in 1967 as an Air Force pilot,” for once again, if taken literally, that is incorrect, MM per se having debuted in the premiere of her eponymous mag a full decade later. Carol, however, was introduced in Mar-Vell’s second issue, Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (cover-dated March 1968, although I suppose it might have been on sale before New Year’s), as the head of security at a missile base, and without digging through my collection again, I believe the Air Force pilot stuff was retconned in later, maybe much later.


Those interested can read all about Ms. Marvel #1 in our Marvel University post for January 1977, Part 2, which I believe is currently scheduled for October 7.

Honor System

What I’ve Been Watching: They Came to Cordura (1959).

Who’s Responsible: Robert Rossen (director); Ivan Moffat, Rossen (screenwriters); Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin (stars).

Why I Watched It: Coop and Rita? Please.

Seen It Before? Yes.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? Col. Rogers (Robert Keith, the poor man’s Les Tremayne) leads a cavalry unit of the “punitive expedition” sent to Mexico in 1916, in retaliation for Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Maj. Thomas Thorn (Cooper)—whose father, killed in action, served with Rogers—is in charge of recommending men for the Congressional Medal of Honor and writing their citations. He has suggested that his first candidate, Pvt. Andrew Hetherington (Michael Callan), be sent back to the base at Cordura until the citation is approved; most Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously, and with the U.S. shortly expected to enter World War I, it is seen as desirable to have live heroes as role models.


For that reason, Thorn and Hetherington are ordered to hang back when Rogers leads an old-school cavalry charge on a hacienda filled with Villistas and owned by the proverbial fallen woman, Adelaide Geary (Hayworth). Although it does accomplish its objectives, Thorn considers the assault a fiasco and refuses to recommend Rogers for a medal; stung, he orders Thorn to escort Geary—charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy—to Cordura personally, with four additional nominees from the charge: Sgt. John Chawk (Heflin), Lt. William Fowler (Tab Hunter), Cpl. Milo Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York). Who among them will reach Cordura? Therein lies the tale.


I had only so-so memories of this film—based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, as were the likes of Where the Boys Are (1960) and The Shootist (1976)—but with two favorites toplining it, I gave it another spin, and quickly recalled that it had simply been a case of false expectations. Rita is probably my ultimate 1940s screen goddess (off-the-cuff nominees for her immediate successors being Grace Kelly and Raquel Welch, respectively, in the ’50s and ’60s) . So it was a little sad to see her so far from her luminescence opposite Fred Astaire in the aptly titled You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and yes, that number reduces me to tears faster than ever. Also, like The Shootist, this is much more than a straight-up oater, whose theme she herself states overtly: “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”


For we gradually learn two things, the first being that Rogers, in honor of Thorn’s father, covered up the fact that at Columbus, Thorn cowered in a ditch…and Rogers, it turns out, is not the only one who knows it. The second is that, however brave circumstances might have led them to be during the assault, each of the “hacienda quartet” is deeply flawed in one way or another, so much so that Thorn eventually has more to fear at their hands than at those of the Villistas they seek to avoid. So the story is a meditation on courage and cowardice, as he tries to understand how the others—worthy or not—found the courage he’d lacked and, perhaps (like Geary to a lesser degree), find some sort of redemption in the process.


There’s something fun about watching a film that, after a certain point, is restricted to seven characters—all of them played by actors I know, even if one of them, Heflin, is among my biggest bêtes noires; he and Conte, conversely an old favorite, both play pretty disreputable guys here. Yes, it’s that Dick York, the original Darrin on Bewitched (who reportedly suffered a back injury while making this film that had a detrimental effect on the rest of his life and career), and speaking of sitcoms, Edward Platt, the Chief on Get Smart, has a nice supporting role at the beginning. Hunter amply demonstrates why he never won an Oscar, although perhaps his performance was too subtle for me, because John Wayne was supposedly outraged by a gay subtext regarding him and Coop that went right over my head. The character least defined by the script is that played by Callan, recalled in BOF circles for Harryhausen‘s Mysterious Island (1961) and the Matheson-based Journey to the Unknown episode “Girl of My Dreams.”


Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it, this would appear to be the stylistic opposite of Rossen’s next, penultimate, and presumably best-known film as a writer-director, The Hustler (1961), although it’s interesting that in his pre-directorial days, he worked on no fewer than three Humphrey Bogart vehicles: Marked Woman (1937), Racket Busters (1938), and The Roaring Twenties (1939). Of the two late-career leads, Coop comes off better despite having just two years and two films—The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) and The Naked Edge (1961)—ahead of him, and apparently the film was widely criticized for the discrepancy between his age and Thorn’s. Like Cary Grant and Astaire, Rita always looks better in black and white, but in fairness, her character should appear as though she (like poor Rita herself) had seen some hard living.