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I’m saddened to see that John Brosnan died way too young (57), of acute pancreatitis, in 2005, because this post is effectively the letter I’d have sent to him if I could. He wrote many books of both fiction and nonfiction in my chosen genre of horror, SF, and fantasy; I’ve never read any of his fiction, which was written under a variety of names, but there’s a delightful circularity to the fact that Carnosaur (1984), a pre-Jurassic Park novel under the Harry Adam Knight byline, became a Roger Corman-produced film in 1993. That’s because The Horror People (1976), in which Corman is widely quoted, is a foundational work in my genre reference library, along with Brosnan’s follow-up Future Tense (1978).

I’ve been revisiting The Horror People for a new project—more on that later—and while I have never thought about it this specifically before, it hit home this morning as I dipped into it on my commute that it has probably had the greatest impact on my life of any book I’ve ever read. I’m sure many an author has related a formative experience with the likes of Finnegans Wake or The Catcher in the Rye, and of course there’s that old standby, the Bible, with which (as that curiosity, the church-going agnostic) I am mostly familiar from college. But although I’m a compulsive writer, as this blog attests, I have no aspirations as a novelist, and like Brosnan have become a published author of nonfiction in the field.

I can’t recall how or when I first stumbled on The Horror People, but amusingly, it was published in hardcover by one of my former employers, St. Martin’s Press, and in trade paperback by what became an imprint of another, Viking Penguin. That well-thumbed Plume edition was published in 1977, yet its original copyright date of 1976, the year I turned 13, is too good to ignore (and my librarian Mom may well have brought home the hardcover). That’s when, like many people, I started laying the foundation for my future, e.g., becoming a rabid, rather than a desultory, purchaser of Marvel Comics, and starting to compile the 3” x 5” index cards with which I documented my viewing of genre films.

It’s important for those of us old enough to remember that serious scholarship on them was relatively rare at that time. Off the top of my head, I recall a few key early volumes in my library, most notably the indefatigable Denis Gifford’s Movie Monsters (1969), Karloff: The Man, the Monster, the Movies, and A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (both 1973), several of which I literally read until they fell apart. But aside from those and a few others like Carlos Clarens’s seminal An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (1967)—which I don’t think I obtained until a bit later—there really wasn’t too much out there on the genre when I first encountered Brosnan, and much of it was largely pictorial.

The timing of The Horror People is also important in other ways. Although he gave the silent and Golden Age stalwarts like Chaney, Universal, Browning, Whale, and Lewton their due, Brosnan devoted much of the book to such then-current purveyors as Hammer, AIP, and Amicus; what we didn’t know at the time was that each of those was within just a few years of ceasing production. Most important, though, he extensively interviewed a cross-section of current or recent genre practitioners, e.g., directors (Jack Arnold, Terence Fisher, William Castle, Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker), producers (Milton Subotsky), screenwriters (Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch), stars (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing).

It’s this aspect of Brosnan’s book, entering my life at a highly impressionable age, that had such a profound influence on me. Mind you, the wealth of information provided on those topics, on which I have cumulatively published hundreds of pages myself, would be well worth the purchase price alone, and even now, it serves as an invaluable overview to refresh my memory. Yet giving said subjects—all of whom have since died, and many of whom came to dominate my life in various ways—so much ink to recount their careers in their own words was quite revelatory, making me delighted to learn that he used the same approach in Future Tense, a companion volume devoted to the cinema of science fiction.

Among other things, this was probably part of the process that led me to start connecting the dots regarding Matheson, and to realize that, Forrest Gump-like, he seemed not only to be omnipresent at the nexus of genre films and literature, but also to have influenced both in seminal ways. Out of this borderline obsession grew a friendship that lasted until his death in 2013, and a virtual cottage industry in which I exhaustively documented his career. And that all came about because, without my even having a guaranteed market for it at the time, he was characteristically gracious enough to submit to a career-spanning interview, my maiden effort at getting such first-hand accounts on paper while we could.

This brings me back to that new project, which began life as The Group: An Oral History of the California Sorcerers on Screen, weaving my interviews with Matheson, Bloch, Ray Bradbury, George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, and Jerry Sohl into a Group portrait. But, like most of my projects, it has mutated into something bigger, because as comprehensive as those interviews were, they couldn’t cover everything, and I wanted to make sure that the book represents, at least in passing, the full measure of the cinematic renaissance they effected. So I’m adding a wealth of interstitial and background material while still tinkering with the subtitle to qualify the “Oral History” aspect of it; stay tuned.

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Full Nelson

For several months now, Madame BOF and I have been working our way through the complete Thriller on DVD, a fun ride enhanced immeasurably by reading up on each episode afterward via the exhaustive A Thriller a Day blog.  The series is a who’s-who of up-and-coming, veteran and/or recurring talent on both sides of the camera, and the girl seen briefly at the end of “Portrait without a Face” as (spoiler alert) the sheriff/murderer’s wife looked awfully familiar.  Said sheriff, BTW, was played by George Mitchell, whom I knew for decades only as the colorful drunk in The Andromeda Strain (1971)—although I’ve since learned he was also on Dark Shadows—and whose real-life spouse, Katherine Squire, played the insufferable cackling old biddy in the selfsame episode…but I digress.

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Above:  John Banner (yes, Sergeant Schultz) in “Portrait”

Looking her up, I learned that her name was Alberta Nelson (1937-2006), that this was the first of a mere 20 credits, and that she was in neither any other Thriller episode (as Mitchell was) nor anything else from which I would immediately have recognized her.  However, I also learned that, interestingly enough, the first 9 of Nelson’s 10 feature-film roles were:

  • Beach Party (1963)
  • Muscle Beach Party (1964)
  • Bikini Beach (1964)
  • Pajama Party (1964)
  • Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
  • How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
  • Sergeant Deadhead (1965)
  • Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)
  • The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)

Seven of those comprise AIP’s “Beach Party” series, many of which featured Frankie Avalon and/or Annette Funicello.  In fact, Nelson was reportedly the only person to appear in all seven, usually playing a member of biker Eric Von Zipper’s “Rat Pack” known variously as Puss or (imaginatively) Alberta, but it gets even more incestuous.

Its title notwithstanding, Goldfoot (to which, improbably, the great Mario Bava directed the abysmal 1966 sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs) is not part of the series, yet does feature Frankie, which is also true of Deadhead—now that’s what I call specialization!  I knew I had to turn to Tom Lisanti, the guru of grooviness who profiled Alberta in his book Glamour Girls of Sixties Hollywood.  Tom told me, “After the beach movies washed out with the tide, Alberta was best known for playing the recurring role of Flora the waitress on The Andy Griffith Show and later [its spin-off] Mayberry R.F.D.  Flora was sweet on Goober.  Alberta then remarried and left show business to become a housewife in Pennsylvania.”

“She passed away a few years ago.  Unfortunately, I was never able to find her to ask for an interview, but she is mentioned by some I interviewed in Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969:

 

Harvey Lembeck who played Eric Von Zipper, the leader of the motorcycle gang, did not take to the golden-haired Aron Kincaid who became friendly with Myrna Ross and Alberta Nelson [below] who were part of Lembeck’s group.  “The three of us (or sometimes just two of us) would have nice long talks,” recalls Aron.  “Harvey got wind of this and became jealous in his own nasty little way.  I only had two brief scenes with him.  That was it.  But he began saying horrible things about me to everyone.  I’d be walking off after finishing a scene and he’d be sitting over with…his Rat Pack.  He really thought he was Eric Von Zipper.  The other people were very nice but they all stuck next to him because they probably knew their paycheck would depend upon it.”

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Special thanks to Tom for his input, and for his gracious permission to reproduce it here.

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Concluding our overview of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers canon.

 

Title:  Shall We Dance (1937).

Based on Stageplay?  Nope; screenplay by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano, adapted by P.J. Wolfson from a story by Lee Loeb and Harold Buchman.

Mistaken Identity?  Oy.  First, Fred takes a page from Ginger’s Roberta playbook as Philly hoofer Pete Peters, who styles himself as The Great Petrov, leader of a Paris ballet company.  He falls in love with—stop me if you’ve heard this one—a flip book (yes, you read that right) of musical comedy star Linda Keene (Ginger), wangling his way onto the same transatlantic passage aboard the S.S. Queen Anne, where she quickly sees through his faux-Russian persona.  He seems to be winning her over, using the old dog-walking ploy, when she is falsely rumored to be not only his clandestine wife but also—because she is seen knitting a replacement for her dog’s sweater (seriously; see below)—carrying his child.

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Edward Everett Horton?  Yes, in his series swan song as Jeffrey Baird (below), the owner of the ballet company and, as usual, the source of the problem.  In an effort to dissuade Lady Denise Tarrington (Ketti Gallian), a dreaded ex-member of the company, from chasing after Petrov, he concocts a story about a secret marriage, and when she spreads it all over, everybody draws the wrong conclusions.  Far from squelching the rumor once the error comes to light, Jeffrey compounds it, to Petrov’s chagrin, and Linda’s understandable ire becomes the standard romantic complication.  In desperation, she even agrees to marry rich dullard Jim Montgomery (William Brisbane).  Does that sound vaguely familiar…?

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Eric/k(s):  Blore, also making his series swan song, as Cecil Flintridge, the hotel floor manager who is continuously flummoxed by the are-they-or-aren’t-they-married routine, which dictates the access (or not) via the connecting door between their adjoining suites.

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Other Colorful Characters:  For me, certain actors will always be defined by a single role, and in the case of Jerome Cowan, that role is Miles Archer.  For those of you in need of remedial viewing, he’s the guy of whom Sam Spade said in The Maltese Falcon (1941, above), “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”  Here, his character—amusingly named Arthur Miller—is Linda’s own meddling manager.

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Usual Suspects:  Director Mark Sandrich is back after the one-off by George Stevens, who apparently put in a lot of overtime with Ginger if ya know what I mean, but seems unable to alter the downward trajectory.  Even more than in Swing Time, a handful of the musical numbers are increasingly rare bright spots amid an unusually exasperating plot, and F&G don’t even dance together all that much; fittingly, this was the most expensive but least profitable entry to date.  Returning screenwriter Scott is now credited alongside series newcomer Pagano, who later contributed to the Astaire/Stevens A Damsel in Distress and Rogers/Stevens Vivacious Lady (1938, above), as well as You Were Never Lovelier and Astaire’s other, lesser pairing with Rita Hayworth, You’ll Never Get Rich (1941).

Immortal Number(s):  Composer George and lyricist Ira Gershwin join Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin—who became their neighbors and poker buddies when they moved to Hollywood—in the pantheon of those contributing songs to the F&G canon.  (RKO even repeats the Top Hat gimmick of briefly quoting “Rhapsody in Blue” when the Gershwin name appears in the opening credits.)  The tear-eliciting “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” was already my favorite of the songs written for the movie before I learned a poignant fact from the making-of documentary on this disc.  George died of a brain tumor at 38 before learning that it had earned the film’s sole Academy Award nomination, and the song itself helped the grief-stricken Ira, who felt like his beloved brother and partner was talking to him.  The humorous standby “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” source of the venerable “you like potayto and I like potahto” lyric, is a close second in my opinion.

Bonkers Number(s):  Borderline.  Stumbling into a jam session by the ship’s engine crew, Petrov joins them in a rendition of “Slap That Bass,” segueing into a tap number in which he is inspired by, and accompanied by massive shadows of, the engine machinery.  Runner-up:  F&G do their duet to “LCTWTO” on roller skates (below), displaying a virtuosity equal to that of Charlie Chaplin in The Rink (1916), which perchance I recently enjoyed.

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New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  Broadly speaking, representing as it does the popularization of classical dance pioneered in Rodgers and Hart’s Broadway hit On Your Toes (1936), a ballet/jazz fusion that was originally conceived as a screen vehicle for—and rejected by—Astaire, who clearly rethought his position in the interim.

White Tie and Tails?  Yes, when Miller maneuvers Petrov and Linda into a duet on “They All Laughed” (at a party he throws, ostensibly to celebrate her engagement—what chutzpah!) as a way to cement their presumed, and potentially lucrative, “partnership.”  And again at the end of the finale, a grotesque hybrid that combines a performance by ballerina/contortionist Harriet Hoctor, a chorus all wearing Ginger Rogers masks (don’t ask; see below), a perfunctory pas de deux following the so-so title song, and an idiotic resolution.

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Unique Aspect(s):  Only entry for Edmund H. North, whose credits range from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Patton (1970), for which he shared an Oscar with Francis Ford Coppola; per the IMDb, an uncredited “contributor to screenplay construction.”

 

Title:  Carefree (1938).

Based on Stageplay?  Nope; another Pagano/Scott screenplay, from a story and adaptation by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, based on an original idea by Marian Ainslee and Guy Endore (whew!).

Mistaken Identity?  I wish.  Radio star Amanda Cooper (Ginger) is dragging her feet en route to the altar, so rich fiancé Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy) asks his psychoanalyst pal Tony Flagg (Fred) to straighten her out.  He’s immediately smitten, albeit declining to admit it to himself, and after a mercifully brief kerfuffle, in which she accidentally hears a recording of his negative preconceived notions, it becomes clear that the problem is not marriage per se, but that she’s marrying the wrong guy.  As tempted as I am to call this one of the all-time great dancing-psychoanalyst films, that makes it sound more fun than it is.  The desire to do something different is understandable, yet this clunker—predating Hitchcock’s stab at psychoanalysis, Spellbound, by 7 years—ain’t it, proving the adage that the quality of a script is often inversely proportional to the number of writers.  When Amanda is given an anesthetic to release her inhibitions, and then accidentally taken from Tony’s office to the studio for a broadcast, her infantile behavior (breaking plate glass, kicking a cop in the pants) is clearly supposed to be hilarious, but I just found it painful.  Compounding the error, Tony later tries to “fix” her love for him, which he mistakes for transference, by hypnotizing her and planting suggestions that, for example, he should be “shot down like a dog,” whereupon she gets loose again and is pursued to…you guessed it, a skeet-shooting contest at the Midwick Country Club, one of the primary settings.

Edward Everett Horton?  Never again, I fear, so for simplicity’s sake, I’m deleting him from the remaining entries.

Eric/k(s):  Ditto.

Other Colorful Characters:  Bellamy is hardly colorful, although his diverse career encompassed silly-sod roles like this one, the nominal hero in Universal’s The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), his embodiment of FDR in Sunrise at Campobello (1960), the sinister Dr. Sapirstein in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and a latter-day resurgence opposite Don Ameche as the Duke Brothers in Trading Places (1983).  Jack Carson is another matter.  While watching him in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), recent SILVER viewing, I marveled that his turn there as beat cop and aspiring playwright O’Hara and indelible role of sleazy opportunist Wally Fay in another BOF fave, Mildred Pierce (1945), showed all the range an actor could want.  As Tony’s wisecracking orderly, Connors, he has little to do but catch the eye of Luella Gear as Amanda’s Aunt Cora, who at 14 years Ginger’s senior is less funny, but more age-appropriate for that, than Helen Broderick.  Franklin Pangborn, a legendary comic foil for W.C. Fields and others, was the hotel manager in Flying Down to Rio, and here plays a Midwick cuckoo, club functionary Roland Hunter.

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(L-R:  Carson, Bellamy, Astaire)

Usual Suspects:  Neither Sandrich (in his series swan song) nor the returning Irving Berlin can salvage this money-loser, the shortest and easily the worst in the F&G canon.

Immortal Number(s):  By default—the Oscar-nominated “Change Partners [and Dance with Me]” is the only good song, and prophetically titled, since F&G would do just that for a decade after one more RKO film.  As with “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” I prefer it as an instrumental; because Fred literally has Ginger in a trance, his Svengali-style moves as he “directs” her dance (below) are not only a cool effect but also thematically consistent.

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Bonkers Number(s):  Take your pick.  Demonstrating coordination skills to the still-hostile Amanda, Tony hits golf balls while tap-dancing to “Since They Turned ‘Loch Lomond’ into Swing” (my, that really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?); the best part of that one was watching my cat go after Fred’s feet and club.  Later, he induces a dream to give him something to analyze, so she naturally dreams about dancing with, and falling for, him in “I Used to Be Color Blind.”  You’d think the gimmick here would be that, like the song’s conceit, the film suddenly bursts into color, and apparently that was the idea, scuttled by poor-quality Technicolor tests.  Instead, much of the dance (below) is in slow-motion, which seems unsuited to effects-averse Fred and, perhaps rebutting the famous “feathers” incident, obscures Ginger’s face at length with a kind of streamer attached to her wrist.

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New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  A generation before Elvis enjoined kids to “Do the Clam” (co-written, amusingly, by Ed Wood’s ex-squeeze, Dolores Fuller) in Girl Happy (1965), F&G urged us to do “The Yam.”  At least Ginger did, although Fred refused to sing it, because he thought it was silly—imagine that!—and restricted himself to the production number (below).  Purveyors of ham, jam, lamb, and Spam, take note.

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White Tie and Tails?  Finally, at the club (natch), for “CPADWM.”

Unique Aspect(s):  Only series credit for Nichols, who won an Oscar for longtime collaborator John Ford’s The Informer (1935), or Endore, who worked with Tod Browning on Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936), and whose novel The Werewolf of Paris (below) was the basis for Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

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Title:  The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

Based on Stageplay?  Nope; screenplay by Richard Sherman (not to be confused with Richard M. of Sherman Brothers fame), adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II and Dorothy Yost from Irene Castle’s stories “My Husband” and “My Memories of Vernon Castle.”

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Mistaken Identity?  Hardly, since they’re playing historical figures in a film based on firsthand accounts.  Irene (née Foote) is also credited with designing Ginger’s costumes, although she (Irene) reportedly hated them, and serving as technical advisor, although she reportedly battled with director H.C. Potter over its historical accuracy (or lack thereof).  The two meet in 1911, when Vernon is a vaudeville “second comic” specializing in rich drunks (above) and Irene is an aspiring entertainer living with her parents in New Rochelle.  She urges him to play to his strengths as a dancer, leading to a partnership both professional and personal.  What would normally be the end of an F&G movie, as they declare their love and wed, is achieved pleasantly early, and their rise to fame is a rapid one.  When World War I breaks out, British-born Vernon is moved to join the Royal Flying Corps (below), yet in a bitter irony, after surviving combat (the film doesn’t mention it, but he won the Croix de Guerre), he sacrifices his life in 1918 to avoid a collision on a training flight.

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Other Colorful Characters:  Even—or perhaps especially­—in black and white, nobody is more colorful than Walter Brennan, who plays the Foote family retainer, conveniently named Walter…and, in real life, black, dumbfounding La Castle.  Brennan was one of only three male actors to win as many Oscars, all for Best Supporting Actor:  Come and Get It (1936), Kentucky (1938), and The Westerner (1940); for those who, per the great John Frankenheimer, “put a lot of stock in these…things,” he was nominated in the same capacity for a film I know better, Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941).  Brennan was also memorable as Old Man Clanton in Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), but in my mind he will always be indelibly etched as Eddie (“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”) in another of his Hawks films, To Have and Have Not (1944, below).  Even more so, I associate Edna May Oliver with a single role, that of the formidable Miss Pross in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), although she had a distinguished career, including another of David O. Selznick’s Dickens adaptations that same year, David Copperfield.  Nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Ford’s Drums along the Mohawk (1939), she originated the role of Stuart Palmer’s amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers, in The Penguin Pool Murder (1932) and two sequels, and here plays the Castles’ imperious agent, Maggie Sutton.

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Usual Suspects:  Largely unsung (ha ha) series vet Yost is finally credited for the first time since The Gay Divorcee.  With her reported focus on racial minorities, she may have shared Irene’s chagrin at the, uh, whitewashing of Walter Ashe.  Interestingly, per their Wikipedia entry, on which I have drawn heavily for background, the real-life Castles (below) “traveled with a black orchestra…and had an openly lesbian manager, Elisabeth Marbury.”

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Immortal Number(s):  None introduced here, for obvious reasons, but the score is laced with whole or partial renditions of such beloved standbys as “Moonlight Bay,” “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” “By the Beautiful Sea,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “Little Brown Jug.”  I believe the only new number, sung by Fred and danced by the translucent Castles (Vernon being dead and all) at the teary fadeout, was “Only When You’re in My Arms.”  It was written by Con Conrad, who’d contributed two fine tunes to TGD, and the famous team of composer Harry Ruby and lyricist Bert Kalmar, respectively played in the biopic Three Little Words (1950) by Red Skelton and…some dude named Astaire.

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Bonkers Number(s):  Believing Vernon to be an influential showbiz figure when they meet (the closest we get to mistaken identity), Irene tries to impress him by recreating, in the family’s parlor, Bessie McCoy’s rendition of “The Yama Yama Man,” her signature Broadway hit from Three Twins (1908).  The sight of Ginger (above) cavorting in her black satin Pierrot clown suit, with floppy-fingered gloves that make her look like a cross between Marvel’s Beetle and Nosferatu, can best be described as outré.  Of interest to my friend Fred, Wikipedia reports that the appearance of Max Fleischer’s Koko the Clown is based on this, and “a 1922 sheet music drawing makes the connection explicit, saying ‘Out of the Inkwell, the New Yama Yama Clown.’”  Incredibly, it is also the title track of a 1967 album by the dreaded George Segal, and I can’t resist another Wiki quote:  “In Warner’s Look for the Silver Lining (1949) [a biopic of Marilyn Miller], June Haver plays…Miller imitating Ginger Rogers imitating Irene Foote imitating Bessie McCoy’s performance.”

New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  Basically the object of the exercise.  The Castles, again per their Wikipedia page, “helped remove the stigma of vulgarity from close dancing”; in addition to introducing their “Castle Walk,” they popularized ragtime, jazz, and such steps as the foxtrot and the tango.  Irene, in particular, was a trendsetter in numerous ways, e.g., with her trademark bob hairdo and as a fashion icon and designer, although she was not that Irene, as in “Gowns by,” who got an early break designing for Ginger in SWD.  Irene outlived Vernon—with whom she is interred—by half a century, remarried three times, and was an animal-rights activist (cue cheers from Madame BOF).

White Tie and Tails?  Yes, starting with the impromptu audition Maggie arranges at the Café de Paris, debuting the “Castle Walk” to “Très Moutarde” (Too Much Mustard).

Unique Aspect(s):  Only fact-based entry, unhappy ending (perhaps explaining its undeserved box-office failure), and series credit for Potter—who directed Fred in Second Chorus (1940) and Cary Grant in Mr. Lucky (1943) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)—or Hammerstein (yes, as in “Rodgers and”).

 

Title:  The Barkleys of Broadway (1949).

Based on Stageplay?  Nope; original screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Mistaken Identity?  Again, hardly.  The Barkleys go the Castles one better, already successful spouses when the curtain goes up—literally.  The credits are superimposed over them dancing to “Swing Trot” from their latest hit show, written by composer Ezra Millar (Oscar Levant) and lyricist/director Josh (Fred), who co-stars with Dinah (Ginger).  The metacinematic plot mechanism is that she bridles over frequent comparisons of Josh to Svengali and yearns to be a serious actress, especially when pompous playwright Jacques Pierre Barredout (Jacques Francois) opines that she’d be perfect for his opus The Young Sarah…as in Bernhardt.  Things duly, albeit temporarily, head south from there.

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Other Colorful Characters:  Levant (above) certainly qualifies, with his basset-hound face and the mordant wit on display in the “Weekend in the Country” trio, not to be confused with Stephen Sondheim’s eponymous and similar song from his Bergman-based A Little Night Music (1973).  He was, among many things, an expert concert pianist, so we’re treated to renditions of Khachaturyan’s “Sabre Dance,” banged out at a dinner party in response to requests from nobody but himself, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played at the Mercy Hospital benefit to which he lures the on-the-outs Barkleys.  I can’t hear the former without thinking of the Simpsons episode where Itchy, performing it in one of their distressingly sadistic cartoons, throws a hockey player in full Buffalo Sabres regalia at Scratchy; the latter, popularized as the theme to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air, is heard on his notorious War of the Worlds Halloween broadcast.  I’m sure there are those who consider Billie Burke, best known as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz (1939), adorable, but I just find her insufferable as a ditzy socialite.

Usual Suspects:  Not many, which is unsurprising given the film’s genesis.  Replacing the injured Gene Kelly, Fred ended his first retirement to join Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948), during the production of which MGM’s Arthur Freed had the legendary writing duo of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) start this screenplay.  It was intended to re-team them with director Charles Walters, but when rehearsals proved that Judy was not up to it, Freed hit on the idea of reuniting F&G.  As jarring as it is to see them ten years older (presumably ruling out the usual love-at-first-sight scenario), and in Technicolor rather than the sophisticated elegance of black and white, my qualified affection for the film is probably due as much as anything else to my being more of an RKO guy than an MGM guy.  But Fred’s invaluable collaborator, Hermes Pan, is credited as dance director for “Wings on My Shoes” (see below), and Ira Gershwin returns as lyricist.  Now bereft of George, he’s teamed here with Harry Warren, whose countless hits include the Oscar-winning “Lullaby of Broadway” and the BOF favorite “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

Immortal Number(s):  Significantly, the only one is the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” repurposed from SWD in a rare example of Astaire recycling a song.  At least it’s given a new twist, since they grudgingly dance to it together at the benefit (Oh, you tricky Ezra!), whereas before it was merely Fred’s vocal.  Sadly, Harry and Ira really don’t strike gold with any of their new songs, which include a broadly comedic faux-Scottish duet, complete with kilts, “My One and Only Highland Fling” (below).

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Bonkers Number(s):  “WOMS” is another gimmick-number for Fred—e.g., dancing on the ceiling in MGM’s Royal Wedding (1951)—in which he plays a shoe-shop proprietor dancing, via special effects by Irving G. Ries, with disembodied footwear.  I must confess that I have two curmudgeonly kvetches.  First, while my suspension of disbelief might let me accept a fantasy sequence in such a film, it is specifically presented as part of Josh’s stage performance, so how are we supposed to think he achieved that?  Second, at the end, he trashes the shop and, presumably, his own livelihood.  Again, hard to swallow.

New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  No.

White Tie and Tails?  Yes, at the benefit (below), natch.

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Unique Aspect(s):  Plenty.  F&G’s only color or MGM collaboration; only series entry for Walters or the uncredited Sidney Sheldon, who scripted Easter Parade with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) alumni Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (they were married, unlike the purely professional partnership of Comden and Green).  An Oscar-winner for The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947), future bestselling novelist Sheldon also later created such hit series as The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart.  The film’s cinematography earned its sole Oscar nomination, one of a whopping fourteen over 26 years for Harry Stradling, Sr., who specialized in musicals but won for both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and My Fair Lady (1964).  Now that’s what I call range!

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Kwai Havoc

What I’ve Been Watching: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Who’s Responsible:  David Lean (director); Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson (screenwriters); William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness (stars).

Why I Watched It:  SILVER.

Seen It Before?  Many times.

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

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

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

And?  The first, and in my opinion best, of the epics that characterized the second phase of Lean’s directorial career—yes, even surpassing its immediate successor, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), followed by the quintessential doomed romance, Doctor Zhivago (1965), the anomalous and critically panned Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and A Passage to India (1984), made after a long hiatus and thus the only one I saw on its original release.  Of course, with Holden and Guinness being among my favorite actors, and WW II being a favorite milieu, this one had more than a slight edge.  Learning that author Pierre Boulle also wrote the novel upon which Planet of the Apes (1968) was based didn’t hurt, either.

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(L-R:  Guinness, Holden, Hawkins)

Guinness appeared in all but Ryan’s Daughter, and had also starred in Lean’s Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).  The editor of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941), and the Archers’ 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), Lean had ascended to the director’s chair in a fruitful collaboration with actor, playwright, and screenwriter Noël Coward on In Which We Serve (1942), which Coward co-directed, This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter (both 1945).  He’d earned Oscar nominations for Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Katharine Hepburn’s Summertime (1955).

Lean finally struck Oscar gold when Kwai won Best Picture, Actor (Guinness), Director, Adapted Screenplay (more on that in a moment), Cinematography (Jack Hildyard), Film Editing (Peter Taylor), and Scoring (Malcolm Arnold); Supporting Actor nominee Sessue Hayakawa was the only exception.  This being the era of the Blacklist, one of America’s greatest shames, producer Sam Spiegel gave script credit to Boulle, whose award raised some eyebrows because he did not speak English.  It was not until 1984 that Foreman and Wilson were awarded their retroactive and, sadly, posthumous Oscars (Foreman died the day after it was announced), and their credit was later rightfully restored to the film itself.

Previously a winner for A Place in the Sun (1951) with Harry Brown, and a nominee for 5 Fingers (1952), Wilson suffered the same indignity with his nominations for Friendly Persuasion (1956) and, with Robert Bolt, Lean’s Lawrence, also subsequently granted.  By the time he and Rod Serling adapted Boulle’s La Planète des Singes (both books had been translated by Xan Fielding), Wilson could be credited openly.  Foreman, a WW II vet whose work Lean had Wilson rewrite, earned additional screenwriting nominations—and a place in the BOF pantheon—for High Noon (1952), produced by Stanley Kramer, and The Guns of Navarone (1961), a Best Picture nominee that Foreman also produced.

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Himself a former POW, Boulle insisted that his novel (whose English-language title uses “over” rather than “on”) was not anti-British, and I agree, although Guinness was among those who did not, initially making him reluctant to accept the role of Colonel Nicholson. Like the bridge itself (above), the script was built on a solid foundation, with the scenarists wisely retaining most of Boulle’s narrative, which opens as Nicholson’s men are put into a POW camp and ordered to construct a railway bridge that will help link Bangkok and Rangoon.  While written in the third person, it often adopts the perspective of Major Clipton (James Donald), the medical officer alternately impressed and bemused by the C.O.’s behavior.

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Nicholson swiftly engages in a war of wills (above) with his Japanese counterpart, Colonel Saito (Hayakawa, below), who thinks the prisoners will be motivated by his “egalitarian” insistence that the British officers perform manual labor alongside them. Enduring various forms of abuse, Nicholson maintains that this contravenes the Geneva Convention, about which Saito doesn’t give a hoot, but also is counterproductive, since they will work better with their officers supervising them.  His life on the line if the work is not completed on time, Saito caves, clearing the way for Nicholson, Captain Reeves (Peter Williams), and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to supervise a proper bridge that will instill pride and raise morale.

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Suspense is generated by intercutting these scenes of the bridge’s construction with those of an approaching commando team dedicated to its destruction, sent in by Colonel Green (Andre Morell) of Force 316.  Assisted by Siamese partisans, the group consists of Shears (Holden), old hand Warden (Hawkins), and a young, untested Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne); so far, so faithful, and the foregoing applies equally to page or screen.  But where the scenarists turn a good novel into one of the greatest films of all time—yes, I said it—is by radically transforming Shears from the British leader, a founding member of Force 316, to a reluctant member, a U.S. Navy commander who escaped from the Kwai camp.

Set in 1943 and shot in Ceylon—now Sri Lanka—the film immediately adds elements to enhance this story when we first see Nicholson’s men, finishing a forced march to Camp 16 and defiantly whistling the traditional “Colonel Bogey March” in spite of their tattered appearance. That and Arnold’s orchestral counter-march are heard separately or together throughout; amusingly, I detect echoes of his work here in every movie I’ve subsequently seen that Arnold scored before or after this one.  The arrival of the British is observed by Shears, separated from his crewmates when the U.S.S. Houston sank, and an Australian, the uncredited Corporal Weaver, the only two survivors from those who built the camp.

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The roles of Nicholson and Shears were intended for, respectively, Charles Laughton and Cary Grant, but it’s tough to imagine anybody better suited than Guinness (billed, believe it or not, below Hawkins, above) and Holden. The latter, in fact, had already won an Oscar for a similar turn in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) as cynical POW Sergeant J.J. Sefton, who will do anything to survive in the camp.  The film also brilliantly visualizes Nicholson’s ordeal, having him confined in “The Oven,” a shack made of wood and corrugated metal that is too small even for him to stand up; Clipton tries in vain to get him to compromise while visiting the C.O. there (below), and Nicholson’s release is jubilantly celebrated by his men.

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Meanwhile, Weaver and a British lieutenant are killed attempting to escape, as Shears is presumed to be after he is shot and plunges from a cliff into the water, yet he painfully makes his way through the jungle to a sympathetic Siamese village and eventual rescue. With a pretty nurse (Ann Sears) aiding his recovery at Mount Lavinia Hospital in Ceylon, Shears is confident of a medical discharge, because “I’m a civilian at heart,” and aghast when Green asks if he would consider lending his unique knowledge to the team.  Shears reveals that he’s an enlisted man who stole the rank of a corpse to ensure better treatment, but the Navy, eager to unload its hot potato, has temporarily transferred him to Force 316.

His reaction recalls that of Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) to the similar request in The Great Escape (1963); also echoing my other favorite POW movie is the presence of Donald, who played its senior British officer.  It’s easy, dazzled by Guinness and Holden, to sell short this stellar supporting cast, and Donald completed my personal trifecta as Dr. Roney in Quatermass and the Pit (1967).  Morell, who coincidentally played Quatermass in the original BBC version and made an excellent Watson opposite Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), was a regular in Hammer films, also appearing in Ben-Hur (1959) with Hawkins, whom I recall best as Quintus Arrius in William Wyler’s epic.

An ex-professor of Oriental languages who speaks Siamese, Warden heads up the team, whose fourth member, as in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968), dies in the parachute jump. This is one of the incidents with which the scenarists beef up and dramatize their long jungle trek, accompanied by female Siamese bearers with their own “cute” theme, but the interruption of their idyllic interlude at a waterfall has far-reaching consequences. Through Joyce’s hesitation to use his knife in cold blood—a concern from the start—Warden suffers a foot wound that slows them as they race to reach the bridge before the first train, loaded with V.I.P.s and matériel, makes it a doubly tempting target.

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Refusing to leave Warden behind in the jungle, Shears delivers this impassioned speech (above): “You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills [i.e., suicide tablets]—they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules—when the only important thing is how to live like a human being!” For me, that sums up both the essence of his character and the power of Holden’s great performance.

During the night, while Shears and Joyce float the plastic explosives downstream by raft to place the charges on the piles, we see the celebration Boulle had only alluded to, with prisoners cavorting in drag. It allows Nicholson to state his side eloquently (“You have survived with honor. That, and more: here in the wilderness, you have turned defeat into victory”), while in another effective visualization, a sign (below) proclaims that “This bridge was designed and constructed by soldiers of the British Army.” Warden’s wound forces him to remain above as Joyce—the best swimmer among them—lies concealed on the far side of the Kwai with the plunger, and faces the unenviable task of swimming back under fire.

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As in the novel, things fall apart as the river goes down in the night, exposing the wire to Nicholson, whose men have marched off to another camp while he remained to transport the sick men there with Clipton. When the two colonels descend to investigate, Joyce at last uses his knife on Saito (“Good boy!” exults Warden) yet, perhaps understandably, is unable—having identified himself as a fellow British officer—to prevent Nicholson from sounding the alarm by killing him. Swimming across, Shears succumbs to enemy bullets just after being recognized by Nicholson (“You!”), who is struck by Warden’s mortar fire and, asking “What have I done?” (below), collapses onto the plunger, destroying bridge and train.

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Oh, yes, there is one other tiny change—in the book, the bridge don’t get blowed up, even if Warden’s secondary device does derail the train. It is, in fact, doubly anti-climactic, as Boulle fast-forwards from Nicholson’s “Help!” to sole survivor Warden, telling Green a month later how he’d shelled the group to ensure that Shears or Joyce could not be taken alive (“It was really the only proper action I could have taken”). I’m reminded of another Spiegel production, John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), which ends as the Königen Luise is sunk by the submerged wreck of the Queen, a similar crowd-pleaser not found in the source novel, in that case written by C.S. Forester, the creator of Horatio Hornblower.

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The literal last word is left to Clipton, who surveys the carnage below and can only repeat, “Madness,” also echoing recent SILVER viewing, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981). In a peculiarly German gesture, the silently stricken war correspondent Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a stand-in for author Lothar-Günther Buchheim, falls to his knees (above) as the U-96, having survived so many travails, is sunk by an air raid on the harbor at La Rochelle, and its unnamed captain (Jürgen Prochnow) aptly dies after it slips under the water. Yet one cannot—or at least I won’t—say that Nicholson was totally in the wrong, since even Clipton was forced to acknowledge the salutary effect of building the bridge on the men…

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From time to time, I’ve commented on the nifty posts presented by fellow Connecticutian Steve Lewis on Mystery*File, an eclectic, enlightening, and entertaining site with a roster of knowledgeable contributors and a multi-media mandate broader than its title suggests. On the most recent occasion, I had already forgotten that he ran the nice Bernie Gunther post by my pal Gilbert Colon, and in sharing a chuckle at my own expense, I learned that Peter Enfantino (of Marvel University fame) had also contributed.  After the requisite round of forehead-slapping and old-home-weeking, Steve graciously invited me to come full circle by contributing a post about Richard Matheson on Screen…but you should keep reading!

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Monster Mash-Up

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), my favorite novel, has the curious distinction of being adapted more often, but less faithfully, than most, as I was reminded by watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for SILVER.  When Coppola’s version came out, I was dazzled by its audacious virtuosity and comparative fidelity, yet on this umpteenth viewing, I found the former lapsing too often into annoying excess—especially those hideous and inexplicably Oscar-winning costumes—and the latter much more qualified.  Summing up the film’s intrinsic dichotomy, its title suggests that the book was finally filmed as written, while its tagline, “Love Never Dies,” epitomizes the way in which it most diverges from Stoker’s novel.

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Don’t let this happen to you.

Contrary to what you might have been told elsewhere, if you actually read Dracula, you will see that he is not sexy, that Mina (or Lucy, depending on which Mixmaster version you watch) is not the reincarnation of his lost inamorata, and that she does not call him “my love.”  The fact that Richard Matheson wrote the 1974 version from which Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart cribbed this plot device (which director Dan Curtis in turn freely admitted to borrowing from his own Dark Shadows) does not excuse it, nor is that Curtis’s only drastic divergence.  The novel is admittedly long and complex, so most versions combine, eliminate and/or transpose Stoker’s characters while removing entire locales or sequences from the story.

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So I hit on the latest in the list of things I would do if I had all the time and money in the world, meaning they will never happen. First, I would create—or commission someone as diligent as my friend Gilbert, assuming another such person exists, to create—a detailed summary and transcript for each of my personal Top Ten adaptations of Stoker’s novel (in chronological order):

  1. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)
  2. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931)
  3. Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958)
  4. Jesús Franco’s El Conde Drácula (Count Dracula, 1970)
  5. Dan Curtis’s Dracula (1974)
  6. Philip Saville’s Count Dracula (1977)
  7. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
  8. John Badham’s Dracula (1979)
  9. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  10. And—partly to make it an even ten, although it’s not an adaptation per se, but mostly because I believe it dramatized a key scene for the first time—Fisher’s sequel Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).

Then, I would put each one side by side with the novel, highlight every line or scene they have in common, choose from among them the most faithful rendition of each element, and edit them all together into a monster mash-up that would represent the book far more faithfully than any version filmed to date. Gee, you suppose I could crowd-source that…?

Make no mistake, I still like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I just like it less than I did.

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The Donald

No, not that clown.  The real one.  Sutherland.

First, thanks to the mighty Turafish for drawing the attention of our little circle to Sutherland’s Honorary Oscar acceptance speech.

Second, thanks to the Host with the Most for pointing out, before I’d even heard the speech, that Donald gave a shoutout to Brian G. Hutton, who directed Clint Eastwood in what is probably my favorite Sutherland film, Kelly’s Heroes (1970)—with Donald playing that rare thing, a World War II hippie, Oddball (below)—as well as my favorite film of all, Where Eagles Dare (1968).

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Third, thanks to the wonderful folks at Cinema Retro, who made the speech available.

Finally, and foremost, thanks to Donald Sutherland himself for more than a half-century of indelible performances.  And what a treat it is to look back over them on the occasion not of his death, but of this long-overdue and richly deserved honor, which he accepted in a speech that is commendably funny, gracious, and humble.  I don’t watch the Oscar telecast any more, for various reasons, but imagine I would probably have enjoyed these nine minutes more than that whole shebang anyway.

Given the impressive length and breadth of Sutherland’s filmography, I’ll restrict myself to a relative few that are personal favorites and/or significant to me in other ways.

  • The Castle of the Living Dead (1964):  An early genre credit for Sutherland, who plays multiple roles (one of them in drag, below), and named his eldest son after director Warren Kiefer; a career-advancing opportunity for uncredited second-unit director Michael Reeves; and a typical Euro-horror outing for Christopher Lee.
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  • Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965):  The first of the Amicus anthology films, with Sutherland as an ill-fated doctor in the “Vampire” segment.
  • Fanatic (aka Die! Die! My Darling!, 1965):  In one of his trademark, um, oddball roles as retarded handyman Joseph in one of Richard Matheson’s finest scripts.
  • The Dirty Dozen (1967):  A perfect example of Robert Aldrich’s brilliant casting in this seminal ensemble film.  “Never heard of it.”
  • M*A*S*H (1970):  As the original Hawkeye Pierce in what may be Robert Altman’s best film.
  • Klute (1971):  In the title role of detective John Klute, Sutherland is the perfect balance to Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance as prostitute/stalkee Bree Daniels; that and the conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974) are my favorites among Alan J. Pakula’s directorial credits.
  • Don’t Look Now (1973):  I did one of my biggest volte-faces on this film, which my Dad and I hated when we first saw it, and I now recognize as outstanding.  Co-starring Julie Christie, it’s an unsettling horror tale based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, whose work formed the basis for Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), and The Birds (1963).  Like the BOF fave Walkabout (1971), it was directed by Nicolas Roeg—formerly the cinematographer of films ranging from Roger Corman’s Poe-based The Masque of the Red Death (1964) to François Truffaut’s Bradbury-based Fahrenheit 451 (196), also featuring Christie—after whom Sutherland named another son.  But, as usual, I digress.
  • 1900 (1976):  It’s been decades since I saw and loved Bernardo Bertolucci’s generational epic, co-starring Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, and Sterling Hayden; I’m ripe for a re-viewing.
  • The Eagle Has Landed (1976):  John Sturges ended his BOF-hall-of-fame directorial career with this solid WW II espionage thriller, based on the bestseller by Jack Higgins and featuring Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, and Walkabout beauty Jenny Agutter (below, with David Gulpilil in Roeg’s film; hey, it’s my blog).
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  • The Great Train Robbery (1978):  This period caper film starring Sean Connery was adapted by writer-director Michael Crichton from his own novel.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978):  Insufficient space here to express my full admiration for this exemplary remake, directed by Philip Kaufman and written by W.D. Richter, whom I was blessed to interview at length for various editions of the IOTBS tribute book.  Below, Sutherland exclaims, “Abel Ferrara, you’re just gonna hear from our lawyers!”
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  • Bear Island (1979):  A lesser Alistair MacLean adaptation, directed by Hammer vet Don Sharp—whose second-unit work on the Amsterdam boat chase enlivened MacLean’s Puppet on a Chain (1971)—and featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Christopher Lee.
  • Ordinary People (1980):  Not sure how well Robert Redford’s directorial debut would hold up now, but it was a big deal back in the day.  Sutherland, a cast-against-type Mary Tyler Moore, and the young Timothy Hutton (with Donald below) play a family dealing with tragedy; also popularized Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.”
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  • Eye of the Needle (1981):  Another bestseller-based (Ken Follett this time) WW II espionage thriller, and another Nazi spy role for Sutherland (below, in a promo shot with the luminous Kate Nelligan); director Richard Marquand is, of course, best known for Return of the Jedi (1983).
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  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992):  Never got into the convoluted TV series, but quite liked Joss Whedon’s original film.
  • The Puppet Masters (1994):  A very underrated (as I recall) adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, previously filmed uncredited as The Brain Eaters (1958).

Well, that’s more than enough.  Way to go, Donald!

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