Thursday, July 28, 2011

Monster Mash Blogathon: This Island Earth (1955)

Today's post is an entry in the Monster Mash Blogathon. The Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear/Monster Mash icon will bring you to a world of movie mayhem. What follows is a chock-full-of-spoilers look at:


This Island Earth was brought to the screen by Universal in 1955. The director was Joseph M. Newman, who also gave us the noir drama 711 Ocean Drive, the adventure Red Skies of Montana, the somber western Fort Massacre and the matinee favourite of my youth, The Big Circus. The effects crew on This Island Earth is exemplary. The cinematographer was Clifford Stine whose work is seen in Written on the Wind, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Battle Hymn and Patton. The art direction team was led by 14 time Oscar nominee and 3 time winner, Alexander Golitzen. Those Oscar honoured pictures include Foreign Correspondent, Phantom of the Opera, Spartacus, To Kill a Mockingbird, Flower Drum Song and Airport. David S. Horsley worked on the special effects photography and the visual effects team was Roswell A. Hoffman and Frank Tipper. Their work is outstanding.


RAID!

What is that thing? Why, that’s a Mutant. That is "Mutant". They have been breeding them on ages on Metaluna to do menial work. They are similar to some insect life on Earth, but larger and with a higher degree of intelligence. Would you like one to help out with those pesky chores? Too late. Metaluna is no more. The Metalunians struggled valiantly through years of war and even looked to Earth as a possible key to their energy problems, but all to no avail. Perhaps the real monster was they thought too much. All this was told by prolific science fiction storyteller Raymond F. Jones in three stories entitled The Alien Machine, The Shroud of Secrecy and The Greater Conflict, eventually novelized as This Island Earth.


The first of the impressive effects.

Notice the green glow around the plane? In the movie it is also accompanied by an eerie whistling sound. Mere minutes before the glow appeared our pilot and he-man scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) lost total control of the plane. Some unseen force helped him to land safely. He-men scientists always fly themselves back from conferences to their home lab.


Rex Reason, Robert Nicholls

Strange equipment has been making its way to the lab and fueled with the curiosity that makes good scientists, our boys take the packages that have been arriving from the Acme Space Depot and their handy dandy Allen key and before you know it they have themselves an interocitor.

Regrettable remark #1: When assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) mentions his wife wishes they would come up with some housekeeping devices, Cal responds that she’d only pack on the pounds if she didn’t have to work. Golly!


Robert Nicholls, Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason

Building the interocitor was a test and the prize was communication with a fellow named Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and the chance to discover more incredible scientific advancement at an unspecified compound. Cal jumps at the chance. His assistant Joe is more cautious. Besides he has that wife to take care of.


Rex Reason, Russell Johnson, Faith Domergue

There are other scientists at the compound. Girly-girl scientist Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and professorly type Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson) among them. Wouldn’t you know that Cal and Ruth have a past? The present and future isn’t looking too bright. Their fellow scientists seem to be under some sort of mind control, and our intrepid trio is getting a little fed up with the whole deal. The audience is let in on things in a conversation between Exeter and the Monitor (Douglas Spencer) of Metaluna. The home planet’s defences have been depleted and no matter the stage of the research being done on Earth, it is time for Exeter's return.


Lasers and explosions highlight the race to freedom.

Our trio makes a break for the outside world. Carlson, the other scientists, and the entire compound, including a pet cat named Neutron are obliterated as Exeter has been ordered to leave no trace of Metaluna behind.


Eye-popping view of the captured plane.

Cal and Ruth attempt to fly away from the destructive scene, but instead are pulled up into the spacecraft and on their way to the doomed planet.


Open concept spaceship.

On board the ship we are treated to regrettable remark #2 when
Exeter asks Ruth if “as a woman” she isn’t curious about Metaluna. Geez!


Breathtaking rendering of Metaluna.

Once on Metaluna, it is all too apparent that the end is near although the Monitor still holds out hope for colonization on Earth. Exeter has gained a knowledge of and fondness for his human companions and all three escape before the planet explodes. Unfortunately, a single-minded "Mutant" also finds his away aboard ship, mortally wounding Exeter and, in the way of all 50s movie monsters, does his best to terrorize pretty Dr. Ruth until he is destroyed. Whew!


Exeter knows his time is running out, but hangs on long enough to see his companions safely back to This Island Earth.


"Home"

This Island Earth drags at the beginning and is too rushed at the end. It has plot holes the size of bomb craters on Metaluna. Tragically, due to office politics, Edward Muhl fired effects wizard David S. Horsley when he fell behind schedule on the picture, leaving some effects worthy of applause and others lacking. On the plus side is the sensitive performance of Jeff Morrow as Exeter, the glorious Technicolor, the polished effects and stunning set design. While not good enough to be a classic, I think This Island Earth is a movie to cherish for its’ obvious design inspiration for future screen science fiction. It reached for the stars.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Favourite movies: The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935)

Erie Canal Song

(Chorus)

Low bridge ev'-ry bod-y down,
Low bridge for we're com-in to a town,
And you al-ways know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
If you've ev-er navigated on the Er-ie can-al




Walter Edmonds (1903-1988) was the award winning author of popular historical novels and children's books. Edmonds brought the 19th century, in particular the 19th century of his home state of New York, to life for generations. He received the Newbery Medical in 1942 for The Matchlock Gun. His first published novel, Rome Haul, was his first commercial success. It was such a success that Frank B. Elser and Marc Connelly adapted it for the stage as The Farmer Takes a Wife and it played on Broadway for 104 performances.

The sentiment expressed in Thomas Allen's 1905 Erie Canal Song echo those feelings of the heroine of Edmond's story set a half century earlier. Molly Larkin is a young woman who loves everything about her life on the canal. She works as a cook on a barge owned by the rough and tough Jotham Klore. She loves the excitement of travel, of meeting different people. She loves the river and the land, and can picture no life for herself other than the one she knows.



June Walker (1926-1943) brought Molly to life on stage. Miss Walker enjoyed a 40 year career on Broadway with roles ranging from Myra in the original production of Waterloo Bridge to a concerned mother in Blue Denim. She can be seen in a few movies and popular television programs including Robert Montgomery Presents and My Three Sons. Her own son is actor John Kerr known for South Pacific and Tea and Sympathy.



Creating the role of Dan Harrow was young Henry Fonda (1905-1982). The Farmer Takes a Wife wasn't his first Broadway outing, but it was his first success. Dan is a fellow who knows all about the canal as it was his father's business. However, Dan has mapped out a different course for his life. He wants a farm of his own, and he means to have it by working on the canal to raise his needed capital. One look at Molly, and Dan means to have her as well, working the farm by his side.

It may seem a slight thing, this story of a stubborn gal and a sensitive fellow overcoming obstacles of their own making on the road to romance, but it is in the telling that we find the pleasure.



Fox Studios bought the rights to film the story for their number one leading lady, Janet Gaynor. It was thought at the time that Joel McCrea or Gary Cooper would be a suitable Dan, seeing as no one knew this Henry Fonda chap. When first and second choices were unavailable, it was decided that Gaynor was enough of a draw that a chance could be taken with Fonda. Victor Fleming (A Guy Named Joe, Captains Courageous, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz) directed with a leisurely pace befitting the gentle, rustic setting and story.


Janet Gaynor was perfect as the appealing and spunky Molly Larkin. Her boss and Dan's rival Jotham Klore was played with all his blustery gusto by Charles Bickford. One of the "issues" Molly had with Dan was that he kept backing away from a fight with Jotham. To Molly's way of thinking this evinced a lack of character on Dan's part. Dan thinks himself a highly sensible fellow.

Packet Boat on the Erie Canal

Molly wanted Dan, but she wanted the life she loved on the canal. Dan wanted Molly, but he could foresee a time when rail travel would replace the mule drawn barges, and his love of the land and farming ran deep. Loving each other wasn't enough. That other had to love what she or he did. Compromise is a terrible thing to the young.


Cinematographer Ernest Palmer (Cavalcade, Charlie Chan in Paris, Broken Arrow) helps to create the sense of the past in this movie version of the story with the sumptuous feel of an old-fashioned print springing to life.

Just as important to the pastoral and small town setting are the faces who populate Molly and Dan's world. Margaret Hamilton, also from the Broadway production, recreates the role of widow Lucy Gurget, a woman of estimable pride and sense. This roll call of character names will give you an idea of the authenticity of look and feel achieved in The Farmer Takes a Wife: Andy Devine, Slim Summerville, Roger Imhof, Jane Withers, Kitty Kelley, John Qualen, Irving Bacon, William Benedict, Esther Howard, "Gabby" Hayes, J.M. Kerrigan, J. Farrell MacDonald, Eily Malyon, Zeffie Tilbury. These friends and neighbours support and chide our young couple, while going on about their own lives.

A very funny moment occurs when through a thick fog Andy Devine's character shouts a "good morning" to the barge and Janet Gaynor as Molly responds, "Who is it?" Now, Andy Devine, no matter who he is playing, sounds like Andy Devine. Somehow, I can imagine Victor Fleming looking at the script and saying "Janet, can you say that with a straight face?" The actress in her rose to the task.


Henry Fonda credits Victor Fleming for kindly and patiently introducing him to the concept of scaling back his stage mannerisms for the prying eye of the camera. With this first movie, Fonda established himself as an earnest screen presence - a young man of ideals and integrity. He would appear in two other films based on Edmonds' novels, Chad Hanna and Drums Along the Mohawk.

The Farmer Takes a Wife is a true time machine of a movie, transporting us to a unique time and place, with an undeniable charm for the viewer of today.


The Farmer Takes a Wife was made into a musical film in 1953 with songs by Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields. Betty Grable played Molly, Dale Robertson was Dan, Thelma Ritter played Lucy and John Carroll was Jotham Klore. If I have seen it, it didn't leave a major impression on my memory. I'm fond of Betty, and she certainly has lots of spunk, but I always see her as a city girl. Somehow I can't see her pining for life on the Erie Canal.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ginger Rogers Centenary

July 16, 1911 - April 25, 1995

According to her mother, Lela, Virginia Katherine McMath (Rogers was her stepfather) was dancing before she was born. At 14, Ginger was learning the ropes in Vaudeville and at 18 she was appearing on Broadway, first in Ruby and Kalmar's Top Speed followed by the Gershwins' Girl Crazy. Next stop Hollywood where she epitomized the show business baby.

Her many musicals, especially her fabled pairing in 10 films with Fred Astaire, had Ginger cast as an actress to accommodate the plots, but it is interesting to note that Ginger played entertainers in 35 of her 77 movies. She played models, showgirls, chorus girls, singers, dancers, radio stars, screen stars and stage stars at various points in their careers. Ginger was the hungry kid looking for a break (Stage Door), the working entertainer (Professional Sweetheart) , a success longing for more (The Barkleys of Broadway), a success trying to hold on (Forever Female). Hoofer Anytime Annie (42nd Street) may not be the type of gal a fella would take home to mother, but night club singer Francey (Vivacious Lady) won everyone over.

Ginger was Joan Blondell tough with a dollop of sweetness. She had Katharine Hepburn's versatility, but with the common touch. No matter how elegantly turned out, Ginger was always that pal who made it big.

These are just some of my favourite Ginger Rogers movie moments:

1952's Monkey Business, Howard Hawks

Ginger plays Edwina Fulton, the mature, warm and supportive spouse of an absent-minded professor (Cary Grant) who ingests a fountain of youth formula concocted by a lab chimp in this very funny comedy with a script by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond. When Edwina reverts to her younger self she is stripped of all pretense as she pursues her love and kicks up her heels in a joyfully wacky performance.

1943's Tender Comrade, Edward Dmytryk

Dalton Trumbo's script about defense plant workers during WW2 sharing a house while their husbands are in the Service is a mix of the heavy-handed with nuggets of real truth. In a very honest scene newlyweds Jo and Chris Jones have a fight. He is working a lot of overtime, brooding about the future and being stolidly male. She is sulky and feeling neglected. Ginger Rogers and Robert Ryan's work is so raw and real that I was torn between wanting to walk into the screen and knock their heads together and wanting to turn away because it felt I was intruding on their privacy.


1935's Roberta, William A. Seiter

Ginger is Lizzie Gant, an American entertainer in Paris marketing herself as the Comtesse Schwarwenke, who crosses paths with old partner, band leader Huckleberry Haines (Fred Astaire). The created-on-the-spot feeling of I'll Be Hard to Handle (Kern, Harbach & Fields) is thrilling. It is a prime example of Ginger's response when asked for the thousandth time if she and Fred got along - "How can anybody watch us and not know we were having fun?"


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Eternal Question: Chester or Festus?

Parley Baer
1914 - 2002

Norman MacDonnell and John Meston's successful radio drama Gunsmoke ran from 1952 - 1961, overlapping the television phenomenon by six years. On radio the role of Chester Proudfoot was played by that consummate character actor, and former circus ringmaster for Barnum & Bailey, Parley Baer. Baer was also familiar to audiences from television roles such as those on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. His career spanned radio, television and movies from 1950 to 1996. Parley Baer's Chester was a good-natured counterpoint to William Conrad's tortured Marshal Dillon.


Dennis Weaver
1924 - 2006

The television version of Gunsmoke debuted in 1955 with a new cast of faces for the medium. Struggling 30 year old actor Dennis Weaver impressed the producers enough to obtain a call-back with a request to add some humour to his reading. Hoping to stand out from the crowd, Weaver also added a limp to his characterization. Would he have done so if he had known he'd have to keep it up for the next 9 years? Dennis won acclaim and an Emmy Award (1959) for his portrayal, and also stretched his creativity by directing a few episodes. The year of his Emmy win he also had an interesting role working with Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. By 1964 Dennis Weaver's need to move away from Chester led to a final break with the show and he moved on to movie roles, singing, and more series work including Kentucky Jones (1964), Gentle Ben (1967-1969) and the popular, Emmy-nominated McCloud (1970-1977). He remained a busy working actor all of his life. Dennis was also actively involved in environmental causes and was President of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1973-1975.

Chester's most endearing traits were his devotion to his friends and his unwavering faith in Marshal Dillon (James Arness). He was a keen observer of human nature and intractable when it came to his own opinion. Chester's needling of Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) was part of their strong friendship. Chester was quite gallant where all ladies were concerned and an unfortunate, yet optimistic romantic. Chester could always be counted on to help in a crisis, although whether his efforts would be of any actual help was another matter. Chester prided himself on his coffee making abilities, but few visitors to the marshal's office ever asked for seconds.


Ken Curtis
1916 - 1991

Ken Curtis was a singer (Shep Fields, Tommy Dorsey, The Sons of the Pioneers) who entered movies at the end of the singing cowboy era. A natural fit for the John Ford stock company, especially after marrying the director's daughter Barbara, Ken first used his trademark twangy accent in the 1956 classic The Searchers. Ken's acting credits included a few episodes of Gunsmoke prior to the role of Festus Haggen. Director Andrew McLaglen had worked with Ken playing the role of a bounty hunter on Have Gun, Will Travel and recommended him for the part of Festus in Us Haggens. In the episode Festus is seeking revenge for the death of his brother by a cousin played by Denver Pyle. Festus began to recur on the series during 1962, while Ken was also involved in the series Ripcord (1961-1963) co-starring Larry Pennell. In 1964 when Dennis Weaver struck out in new directions, Festus Haggen became a full-time resident of Dodge City. James Arness remarks on the anniversary DVD set that they were worried when Dennis left as to how they would fill the "sidekick" spot and how the audience would react, but once Kenny took hold they knew they had nothing to worry about.

Hailing from somewhere out of the hills, Festus had his own unique speech patten ( "A little's a little, and a lot's a lot, there ain't no little lot, or lot of little, don't you see?" ) and an inexhaustible supply of quirky relatives and tall tales related to same. Festus got under Doc's skin even more than Chester, and that took some doing! Like Chester, Festus was extremely loyal to his friends and as a deputy could be counted on to hold his own when trouble came calling. As time went by, the comic aspects of the character overtook his toughness, yet I think Ken Curtis' supreme Festus moment is the dramatic turn in the 1974 two part episode Island in the Desert guest starring Strother Martin. Memorable television from a memorable character.

Some Gunsmoke fans are quite adamant about their preference for half hour episodes vs. hour, or B&W vs. colour or Meston/MacDonnell years vs. Leacock/Mantley years or Chester vs. Festus. I unabashedly adore all the seasons of Gunsmoke, but if push comes to shove, as it often does, you would not be wrong in considering me the captain of Team Festus.


Buck Taylor
Newly O'Brien (1967-1975)

I've never indulged in any Quint/Thad/Newly scuffles. I hope we're all in agreement that Newly trumps all. I'd hate for things to get ugly.