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What I’ve Been Watching:  The Cavern (1964).

Who’s Responsible:  Edgar G. Ulmer (director); Jack Davies, Michael Pertwee (screenwriters); John Saxon, Rosanna Schiaffino, Larry Hagman (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Various reasons, chiefly Saxon.

Seen It Before?  No.

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):  6.

And?  This truly “international” rarity was, as star Saxon said in our Filmfax interview, “an American, Italian, German and to a small degree Yugoslav co-production….[that] was to be shot in caves in Postona, Yugoslavia, just across the border from Trieste, Italy, in November of 1963.”  In Italy, it was known as Sette contro la Morte (Seven Against Death), while in West Germany, it went by both Neunzig Nächte und ein Tag (Ninety Nights and a Day) and Helden—Himmel und Hölle (Heroes—Heaven and Hell).  The titular septet also encompasses two other nationalities, with Canadian RAF Lieutenant Peter Carter (Peter L. Marshall) and retired British General Braithwaite (Brian Aherne).

The story is, in a sense, simplicity itself:  on the Italian front in 1944, Private Joe Cramer (Saxon) and Captain Wilson (Hagman) are among those forced by a bombing raid to take refuge in a huge system of caves, where they are soon trapped by an explosion.  They are joined by locals Anna (Schiaffino) and Mario Scognamiglio (Nino Castelnuovo), as well as Oberleutnant Hans Beck (Hans von Borsody), but declare an “armistice” until they can extricate themselves from their mutual predicament, which stretches on into months.  The presence of Anna, whose attentions shift from Mario to Joe, naturally causes friction, as do debates over leadership, exploration of the caves and division of the dwindling rations.

It “was loosely based on an incident where American and German soldiers, and Italians also, became trapped in a cave that was used for munitions and supply storage.  The point being that everyone had to forget being enemies and learn how to cooperate to survive,” said Saxon.  “I’ve only seen the film once, screened at 20th Century-Fox.  I cannot tell you how successful it was in portraying this theme; I can only remember being somewhat disappointed.  Generally I used to feel a bit like this seeing any film I was in, but this production was very more clearly a disaster.”  It’s also disorienting in retrospect to see a drama featuring the soon-to-be stars of I Dream of Jeannie and The Hollywood Squares!

Anticipating Hagman’s sliminess as J.R. Ewing on Dallas, Wilson finds and conceals from the others a store of brandy, justified (when Braithwaite stumbles on and shares his secret) as a medical necessity due to his alcoholism.  Attrition begins when Wilson falls drunkenly into an underground river, and continues with two cruel twists:  Hans climbs his way to an exit, only to be shot down when his uniform is spotted, and Peter also gets out the hard way, drowning while exploring the river with improvised diving gear and emerging over a waterfall.  In a final irony, the general goes bonkers and kills himself with a grenade, setting off stored explosives and blasting a way out for the other three.

Saxon’s disappointment with the final result bookended one nine years earlier.  “My very first audition in Hollywood, a week or so after I arrived, was for a picture intended to be called The Bandit, directed by Edgar Ulmer.  My audition seemed to go well as I was considered to be the candidate for the part.  The movie’s title was changed [to The Naked Dawn] and another actor got the role I’d auditioned for.”  He also had a uniquely topical recollection from this film’s production:  “one afternoon…Shirley Ulmer, Edgar’s wife and script supervisor, was running down the boulevard toward us….screaming.  When she got closer, we understood she was saying that President Kennedy had been assassinated.”

Accounts vary as to the script’s patrimony; credited British scenarists Davies and Pertwee (the brother of Jon, the third Doctor Who) may have been fronting for a blacklisted Yank, possibly Dalton Trumbo.  The IMDb asserts that Alberto Bevilacqua, who like Saxon had worked with Mario Bava, had an uncredited hand in it, and that it draws, uncredited, from an unspecified novel by Leon Uris, although I can’t imagine which one.  Composer Carlo Rustichelli’s hundreds of credits also include several films for Bava, and indeed I sensed echoes—as it were—of some of his horror scores, while the somewhat jarring title tune, presumably never a #1 hit, was written by Carroll Coates and performed by Bobby Bare.

“Visiting the caves for the first time, I was startled by their depth and impressiveness,” said Saxon, “but also concerned about filming for ten or twelve hours a day in more or less a forty-degree temperature and constant humidity, which dripped from the walls and the stalactites.  Had we shot the whole film there we all would have likely wound up in a hospital, but the sets were not ready.  So, after waiting for three days for the sets, the company moved across the border for some shooting in the hills around Trieste.”  There, he encountered such irregularities as the close call when a special-effects explosion was prematurely detonated right under, rather than alongside, the car in which he was riding.

While shooting was suspended after a minor player twisted his ankle, Hagman, Marshall, “and Joachim Hansen [who played a German sergeant killed in the cave-in] spent a week testing the local restaurants and having a good time….[And then], an English gentleman strolled into the bar area of the hotel…[and said], ‘Gentlemen, Lloyds of London has sent me regarding your insurance claim, to inform you that you have no insurance with Lloyds of London.’  It appears that besides not having built the sets, the Yugoslavs also didn’t pay the insurance premium they were responsible for….So, not only were there no sets in Yugoslavia, I was told the company would not even be allowed to re-enter the country.”

Aboard a train that night, Saxon was aroused by another outburst of Shirley’s after Edgar awoke unable to see, reportedly due to the amount of sedatives he’d taken.  The director of The Black Cat (1934), The Man from Planet X (1951), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man and Beyond the Time Barrier (both 1960) had apparently pushed his legendary luck with tight budgets too far.  “Ulmer’s contract was made with Marty Melcher, at the time the husband of Doris Day, and a producer at 20th Century-Fox.  Somehow I came to understand that he had entrusted Edgar with a modest sum for the completion of the film; any costs beyond that were to come from Ulmer’s pocket.”

“In Rome, things got slowly and progressively worse.  Ulmer was so harried that he once, at the end of a rehearsal, called ‘Action’ before the camera was even set up.  Another time, Nino…decided to test Ulmer’s attention by speaking gibberish during a rehearsal.  After Ulmer gave his clear approval, we all looked at each other with eyes wide open.”  Later, his “assertions of trust and collaboration with me…turned particularly nasty.  Each time a close-up of me appeared on the looping screen, Edgar would say, ‘This is very good.  But of course I will not use it in the film.’”  Saxon left after visiting friends from Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, but never saw Ulmer again; it was his last film.

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What I’ve Been Watching:  Breakheart Pass (1975).

Who’s Responsible:  Tom Gries (director); Alistair MacLean (screenwriter); Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna (stars).

Why I Watched It:  You might well ask, why wouldn’t I watch it?

Seen It Before?  Hell yeah.

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

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

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  8.

And?  During the 1960s, Charles Bronson appeared in some of the foundational films of my personal cinematic pantheon, not least as an indelible member of three of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled on the screen in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Dirty Dozen (1967), as well as working with Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  The ’70s were hit or miss, and even the success of Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) might be considered a mixed blessing, since he and J. Lee Thompson, who between them directed three of the four sequels, epitomized Chuck’s late-career plummet.  So I consider this one of Bronson’s last really good films.

It is no surprise, at least to me, that it’s the one linking him with another of my favorite authors, joining the elite company of Richard Matheson (Master of the World, 1961; Cold Sweat, 1970) and Elmore Leonard (Mr. Majestyk, 1974).  There are plenty of films based, with varying degrees of fidelity and/or success, on books by Alistair MacLean, a number of which I dearly love (The Guns of Navarone, 1961; Ice Station Zebra, 1968).  But there are only four on which he was a screenwriter, giving us an unfiltered hit of MacLean; this and the now-elusive When Eight Bells Toll (1971) reunited him with Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin, the producers of my all-time favorite movie, Where Eagles Dare (1969).

This was the penultimate feature of director Tom Gries (1922-1977), who had helmed Bronson’s Breakout that same year, but most of whose largely unremarkable career was relegated to television, ranging from the lauded miniseries Helter Skelter (1976) to the tiresome TV-movie Earth II (1971) and episodes of 40-odd series.  Gries did, however, display a knack for Westerns, most notably Will Penny (1967) and 100 Rifles (1969), the latter a staple of Raquel Welch Week on The 4:30 Movie and a prior collaboration with Jerry Goldsmith, for whom my admiration knows no bounds.  He also had an affinity for the genre, e.g., Welch’s Bandolero! (1968), and his Breakheart theme is very memorable.

Lucien Ballard, best known for photographing Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), contributes some gorgeously rugged Idaho exteriors, while second-unit director and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, a veteran of Where Eagles Dare whose last film it was, also earned his salary on this one.  The story is from one of my favorite subgenres, thrillers set aboard trains, in the grand tradition of Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), Horror Express (1972), and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).  As such, it’s more of a MacLean adaptation than a traditional Bronson vehicle—pardon the pun—and, despite the unusual setting, it follows his classic blueprint in several respects.

Medico-turned-desperado John Deakin (Bronson) cheats at cards in the 1870s town of Myrtle, leading to an altercation and his arrest by U.S. Marshal Pearce (Johnson), thus securing them spots on a train transporting relief troops to Fort Humboldt.  That’s easier said than done, because Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) had refused to bend the strict no-civilians rule to let Pearce fetch notorious outlaw Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier, dubbed by Paul Frees), a prisoner at the fort.  Traveling with Nevada Governor Richard Fairchild (Crenna) are Marica (Jill Ireland), daughter of the fort’s commander and obviously his lover; the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney); and Dr. Molyneux (David Huddleston).

Before conductor O’Brien (Charles Durning) even gets the train moving, trouble is afoot as two soldiers disappear—ominously soon after being asked to decipher a message that might tell Claremont Just What the Hell Is Actually Going on Here.  Yet Fairchild waits for no man, so away they go, and as with David Shire’s brilliant score for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Goldsmith’s driving theme evokes the forward motion of the train.  While they’re building up steam, however, let’s take a moment to examine this cast, which while not exactly A-list is certainly interesting, e.g., McKinney, a part of the Clint Eastwood “stock company” but most indelibly remembered for Deliverance (1972).

Just as with Clint and the execrable Sondra Locke, at this point in his career, if you got Bronson, you likely also got Ireland, his wife and/or co-star from 1968 until her death in 1990.  No doubt her first husband, David (Man from U.N.C.L.E.) McCallum, was sorry he introduced them on the set of The Great Escape, since she subsequently dumped him for Chuck.  Her spoiled-brat looks and inept emoting haven’t improved since Ireland was shoehorned into Cold Sweat—with a role that has no analog in Matheson’s source novel, Ride the Nightmare—and while I commend Bronson for showing her more loyalty than she did to McCallum, her presence is a millstone that drags down any film she appears in.

With exceptions such as Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966), I’ve never been a big fan of Crenna’s, so he seems well suited to his officious-prick role; conversely, Johnson always comes across as so likable, even when playing a killer in The Wild Bunch, that his nastiness as Pearce is surprising.  I’d never call Durning one of my favorite actors, but he does have a key role in one of my favorite films, The Sting (1973), and while given little screen time, he lets his chubby-coward flag fly in a nice “Hey, I’m no gunman” scene.  A tireless, rock-solid supporting player for almost 50 years, Lauter worked with everybody from Aldrich and Frankenheimer to Hitchcock, and does well with a rare heroic role here.

Once they’re safely outta Dodge—er, Myrtle—it’s revealed that the troops are not relief but replacements for the victims of a diphtheria epidemic, and after leaving to check on the medical supplies, Molyneux is found dead in a murder that ex-doc Deakin discovers was made to look like natural causes.  In short order, the fireman plunges from a bridge, his body reeking of alcohol despite reportedly never touching it; Peabody vanishes; and the rear cars carrying the troops are cut loose, plunging sans brakes into a ravine.  Gries handles this brilliantly as we only hear the screams and see no gore, just the slow-motion pulverization of the derailed cars, leaving the horrific carnage inside to our imaginations.

Many a MacLean story centers on a journey or mission whose true nature, along with that of one or more participants, is only made clear near the climax, and in this case, even the epidemic is a red herring.  Revealing himself to Claremont as an incognito Secret Service agent, Deakin explains that far from being a prisoner, Calhoun is in control of the fort and has made an unholy alliance with Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky), to whom he has promised the guns and ammo that are their real cargo.  The doctor was silenced to protect that secret; the firemen was killed when he found—as did Deakin—the bodies of the two missing soldiers in the wood supply; and Peabody, also found dead, was his fellow agent.

Fairchild, Pearce, and O’Brien are all in on it, even Carlos the cook (Archie Moore), who battles Deakin to the death atop the train in a nail-biter recalling Canutt’s famed cable-car clash in Where Eagles Dare.  Also echoing that film, Deakin says that he knew he could trust Claremont because the major tried so hard to stop Pearce, their prime suspect, from boarding.  Highlights of the climax in the titular pass include Fairchild shooting Calhoun, who is holding Marica hostage, only to be cut down with a sword by the mounted major; Deakin dynamiting the tracks and tricking the Indians into attacking their own allies; and his final showdown with Pearce.  Cue reprise of the Jerry Goldsmith theme.  All aboard!

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.