Wednesday, December 31, 2014

not the usual suspects. unannotated. unalphabetized. unapologetic.

 Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss in McDowell's "The One I Love"
  • "Nightcrawler" (Dan Gilroy)
  • "Boyhood" (Richard Linklater)
  • "Inherent Vice" (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  • "Snowpiercer" (Bong-Joon Ho)
  • "The One I Love" (Charlie McDowell)
  • "Big Eyes" (Tim Burton)
  • "Men, Women & Children" (Jason Reitman)
  • "The Lunchbox"/"Dabba" (Ritesh Batra)
  • "Bad Words" (Jason Bateman)
  • "Gone Girl"(David Fincher)
  • "The Skeleton Twins" (Craig Johnson)
  • "The Babadook" (Jennifer Kent)
  • "Laggies"(Lynn Shelton)/"Begin Again" (John Carney)

the dubious future of movies


 Credit: Grantland

 "This would be an apt place for me to deviate into a gravelly 'Gran Torino' old-man rant about the permanently arrested, riskless nature of our culture — how everything in modern major moviedom is now derived from material meant for children or adolescents and aimed at adults desperate to remain in that state well into chronological maturity. But that’s not new."

So writes Mark Harris in his brilliant, lengthy essay for Grantland, "The Birdcage," a detailed dissection of "Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchise movies."  The eye-opening graphs above and below, published by Grantland to accompany Harris' fastidious piece, provide us with a disturbing preview of what's to come at our local cineplex.

Harris's essay itself is even more jaw-dropping.

Grantland printed "The Birdcage" on December 16.  Yesterday, only a mere two weeks later, Variety ran an article by Brent Lang, its senior film and media reporter, which pretty much validates Harris's salient point.

"‘Star Wars’ Beats ‘Avengers 2′ for Most Anticipated Film of 2015," published by Variety on December 30, reveals the results of a Fandango survey, announcing that the most eagerly awaited movie would not be the new James Bond opus, neither the "Jurrasic Park" or "Mission: Impossible" sequel, not “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” but - drum roll, please - "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."  Which is a surprise, given that the last couple "Star Wars" flicks have been depressingly mediocre and conventional.

But never underestimate the pull of those adolescent adults.  Fanboys rule.

Happy New Year!

 Credit: Grantland
 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

the contrarian

A pronouncement.

There are possibly more bad movie critics than there are bad movies.

An exaggeration?

I think not.  But I do know that I wish Pauline Kael was still around to prick the delusional balloons of opinions that current critics and would-be critics pass among one another as if those shared assessements were irrefutable, the final word on exactly what's good or not about movies.

I miss her decisive/devisive voice from Great Barrington.

The original contrarian, Pauline would approach films in two different ways.  If she favored a movie, she would make sure that her opinion got out there first, efficiently influencing lesser educated, unsure reviewers.

Who followed like sheep every time.

But if she disliked a particular movie, she'd wait and, when enough time had gone by and enough praise had been doled out by those aforementioned reviewers, Pauline would stage a surprise attack, deflating the foolish, premature enthusiasm and wising up those who dared to air it.

Based on her unpredictable track record, I've a hunch that possibly, just possibly, she would have preferred Ridley Scott's "The Counsellor" (2013) to Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014), that she would have reserved judgment, unlike her peers, on Benedict Cumberbatch, and that she might have chided Chris Rock for trying to be Woody Allen when he is so much better at being Chris Rock.  But what I'd really like to read is what she would have written about Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence."  Any guesses?  

Monday, December 01, 2014

neil and craig's excellent adventure

Allison Williams - More Diane Keaton than Peter Pan
Neil and Craig would be Neil Meron and Craig Zadan who, beyond other endeavors, are committed to keeping the film musical alive, whether it's in movie theaters or on television.  Bless them.

They've been obsessed with this project for at least two decades now and, arguably, their most commanding triumph was the live telecast of "The Sound of Music" on NBC in 2013.  Fooling all skeptics, that telecast, starring a game Carrie Underwood, was a ratings sensation.  It's something that NBC would like to repeat with the Meron/Zadan-produced "Peter Pan," which the network will air - again, live - Thursday night.

Of course, show business being show business, it will not be enough if the ratings for "Peter Pan" equals those for "The Sound of Music."  It has to top them.  That seems to be the expectation behind the relentless promotion for "Peter Pan" that's been laced through all of NBC's prime-time shows for the past two weeks or so.

My hunch is that "Pan" will come close to "Music," in terms of ratings, but won't overtake or even equal it.

For one thing, there's the source material.  "The Sound of Music" has become something of a religious experience for most Americans.  They can't get enough of it.  The original 1965 film opened to mixed reviews but it went on to win an Oscar (as best picture, among others) and it has grown in stature in the past 50 years.  Just ask the management of San Francisco's Castro Theater where the sing-along "Sound of Music" is screened regularly - and regularly brings in enthusiastic crowds.

"Peter Pan," on the other hand, is a Broadway antique which means little, if anything, to modern audiences.

Then, there's the stars.  Carrie Underwood, who toplined NBC's "Sound of Music," has a huge -and hugely loyal - following.  And it didn't hurt that Meron and Zadan were shrewd enough to cast "True Blood's" Stephen Moyer (for sex appeal) opposite Underwood.

"Peter Pan," on the other hand, has Allison Williams in the lead, an appealing actress known largely, and only, for her role on HBO's "Girls."  And her leading man is Christopher Walken, one of our top character actors but certainly not one to lure in a sizable audience.

Back in January of 2014, Robert Greenblatt, the director of entertainment for NBC, opined that his dream Peter Pan was Mylie Cyrus.  I agree.  She has the right bearing and the right voice (read: husky).  But, reportedly, Cyrus wasn't interested and it didn't help that a bunch of yahoos got on the internet to protest the idea.  All in all, a missed opportunity.

Allison Williams, for anyone who has seen her on "Girls," is ready to carry on the Diane Keaton tradition.  She's a charming, edgy light comedienne.  From the few clips I've seen of her as Peter, she comes across as a Valley Girl in drag.  And, unlike Cyrus, her singing voice is decidedly feminine.

Finally, there's the uncertain future of NBC's live musicals.  The network has painted itself into a corner, given that it's become rather painfully apparent that all primetime musicals must be "family friendly."

I say this based on the web's first two efforts and the reported third, which will be "The Music Man" (a property that Meron and Zadan have already brought to TV in 2003 with a miscast Matthew Broderick in the the lead role).  Who on earth will be tapped to play Professor Howard Hill this time around?  It has to be a pop-culture personality, that's for sure.  Maybe Seth MacFarlane, who can sing and who, perhaps not coincidentally, hosted one of the Meron/Zadan-produced Oscar shows.

But after "The Music Man," what's left? "Annie" will be back in movie theaters soon (and Meron/Zadan already did a TV version of that chestnut).  Disney certainly wouldn't permit anyone but ABC to produce any of its properties. So "The Lion King" and "Newsies" are out.  Maybe "The King and I."  That's family-friendly.  Or perhaps "Oliver!"

Beyond that, I can't think of too many musicals that are suitable for mom, dad and the kids.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

reversal of fortune - from stage to screen?


Robert Shaw was a singing Elmer Gantry

The on-going trend of Broadway depending on movies for source material has not gone unnoticed, at least not by The New York Times which regularly runs updates detailing which popular film, usually a relatively recent one, is being refurbished for the stage, and always as a musical.

However, no one has picked up on the fact that the movie industry no longer depends on Broadway for "product."   A curious crisscross, a surprising reversal, has taken place, but more about that a little later.

Perhaps the best of the Times' reports on the ubiquity of musical stage adaptations of successful movies was Patrick Healy's title-packed essay, "Like the Movie, Only Different," which ran a little more than a year ago, timed to coincide with the opening of a song-&-dance version of "Rocky."

In it, Healy noted that musical versions of movies are not exactly a new idea:  "Big," the Tom Hanks film, came to Broadway as a musical back in 1996.  It was a flop but it was predated by such successes as "Wonderful Town," "The Most Happy Fella," "Sweet Charity," "A Little Night Music" and "Promises, Promises," all based on films but with notable title changes.

More obscure were musical versions of "Georgy Girl," "Alfie," "Lilies of the Field," "Lolita" (with songs by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry!), "The Miracle on 34th Street" (by stalwart Meredith Willson, who titled his version "Here's Love"), "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (by Stephen Schwartz), "Exodus" (yes, "Exodus," retitled "Ari"), "East of Eden" (renamed "Here's Where I Belong"), "The World of Henry Orient" (reborn as "Henry, Sweet Henry") and "Gantry" (starring the late, great Robert Shaw, no less, as Elmer Gantry, and Rita Moreno as Sister Sharon), to name but a few.

And, of course, let's not forget the infamous - "Carrie" or "Holly Golightly" (aka, "Breakfast at Tiffany's," starring Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain and Sally Kellerman). I could go on.  But won't.

If some of these titles seem a bit odd for musical treatment, that's a curiosity that has continued - and become much weirder.  "Big Fish, "Far from Heaven," "Hands on the Hardbody," "Love Story," "Catch Me If You Can,"  and "The Bridges of Madison County" have all come and gone as musicals.  And there's been talk of doing "Misery," "Diner," "Chariots of Fire," "The Bodyguard" and "Tootsie." Well, "Tootsie" admittedly makes some sense, as did the musical versions of "Hairspray" and "Kinky Boots."

There was once talk a few years ago of doing "Marty" with John C. Reilly in the title role.  It has yet to happen but I wouldn't count it out too quickly.

In one way, all this is great for Broadway.  Let's face it: There's a bottomless pit of movies to be turned into stage musicals.

On the other hand, stage plays are rarely gobbled up anymore by the movie industry.  This tradition is all but dead.  That revenue is gone. The Times could easily run a companion piece – or at least a sidebar – on how dramatically the Hollywood/Broadway relationship has changed.

There was a time when stage productions were a major source for the movie industry.  But not anymore.  Quick!   Name the Broadway shows that have been made into movies recently.  Off the top of my head, I can think of only six major titles – “Les Miserables,” “Rock of Ages,” “Rabbit Hole,”  "August: Osage County" and two by Roman Polanski - “Carnage” (“God of Carnage” on stage), and "Venus in Fur."

And coming up are "Into the Woods" and a remake of "Annie."

But, after that, I come up empty.

Successful stage plays like “Mister Roberts,” once routinely filmed, rarely make it to the big screen these days.

The marketing tool, “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture,” has become obsolete, replaced by “Soon to be a Major Broadway Musical.”

A reversal indeed.  But why?  Any theories?  Share!

Thursday, November 06, 2014

que sera

There are hundreds - nay, thousands - of movie blogs on the web.  Too many.  It can be overwhelming to those film freaks compelled to sample them all.  Personally, I reduced my movie-blog perusing to one, Vienna’s Classic Hollywood, which is hands-down, inarguably, the best.

Vienna's goal is simple - to treat us to an array of movie stills, posters and especially rare production shots, such as the one above of Vera Miles in a costume check when she was getting ready to star for Hitchcock as Madeleine/Judy in "Vertigo."  Vera left the production, of course, and Kim Novak came on board, turning in an iconic breakthrough performance.

It's difficult to separate Novak from"Vertigo," and one can only imagine how Miles would have read the role(s) if her pregnancy hadn't intruded.

I hope Vienna doesn't mind that I "borrowed" this shot from her site, but what better way to introduce you to Vienna's most essential blog?

Saturday, November 01, 2014

indelible moment: "The Graduate" (1967)

It's 1967. The movie is Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham from Charles Webb's novel.

Dustin Hoffman, as recent graduate Benjamin Braddock, is talking with Elisabeth Frazer, as Joanne, a friend of his parents, when they are interrupted by Mr. McQuire, played by Walter Brooke.

Mr. McQuire's one-word recommendation to Benjamin brought gales of laughter in theaters - and still does, even though that word has proven to be eerily prophetic.

Joanne: "What are you going to do now?"
Ben: "I was going to go upstairs for a minute."
Joanne: "I mean with your future - your life."
Ben: "That's a little bit hard to say."
Mr. McGuire: (interrupting them) "Ben."
Benjamin: (to Joanne) "Excuse me."
Benjamin: (turning away from Joanne) "Mr. McGuire!"
Mr. McGuire: "Ben."
Benjamin: (voice trailing off) "Mr. McGuire."
Mr.McGuire: "Come with me for a minute. I want to talk to you. Excuse us, Joanne?"
Joanne: "Of course."

(pause)

Mr. McGuire: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word."
Benjamin: "Yes, sir."
Mr. McGuire: "Are you listening?"
Benjamin: "Yes, I am."
Mr. McGuire: "Plastics."
Benjamin: "Exactly how do you mean?"
Mr.McGuire: "There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?"
Ben: "Yes, I will."
Mr. McGuire: "Enough said. That's a deal."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

cinema obscura: Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong" (1967)

“The Girl,” the terrific HBO film about the tortured relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, makes it clear that while Hitch may not have succeeded in breaking the spirit of his star, he did leave her with a broken career.

The movie quotes Hitchcock (brilliantly incarnated by Toby Jones) telling Hedren (Sienna Miller)  that if she insists on breaking her personal contract with him, she will never work in film again. Not entirely true. While Hedren would never enjoy the A-level career she deserved (she’s magnificent in Hitchcock’s “Marnie”), she did land a role in an important – and prestigious – film three years after she and Hitch ditched each other.

Charles Chaplin’s “A Countess from Hong Kong,” released in 1967, had Hedren being handpicked by another legendary filmmaker (shades of her Hitchcock situation here) for a role in a highly anticipated film starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. This was Chaplin’s first film in 10 years, his first (and only) film in color and it would be his final film.

Based on a script that Chaplin wrote in the 1930s as a Paulette Goddard vehicle, it has the contours of a filmed play, with Brando, witty as a 'tic-afflicted American ambassador en route to the States on his boat and Loren as a glamorous Russian countess who stows away on it.

Hedren had the third lead as Brando’s estranged wife who enters the last act. It was originally a small role that Hedren hoped Chaplin would enlarge but, given that the piece is largely a two-hander, its narrative arc made that impossible. It remained a small, but crucial role.

Hedren thought of leaving the production but, according to Wikipedia, “in the end, she remained in the film and later said that it was a pleasure working for (Chaplin).”

The finished film is odd and oddly charming, full of eccentric touches – such as Brando’s character feeling uncomfortable with the close quarters that he’s sharing with Loren and being particularly embarrassed by the idea of using the bathroom (to relieve himself) when she is so nearby. I mean, rude bodily noises. Brando, who has a terrifically guarded chemistry with Loren, plays this moment for all its neurotic idiosyncrasy.

Chaplin cast himself as the ship's steward, a cameo role - once again shades of Hitchcock.

Misunderstood and dismissed, “A Countess from Hong Kong” was not a success, with either critics or its audience. It’s something of a flawed masterwork (Chaplin considered it his best movie) that joins the ranks of such criminally underrated films as Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” Robert Aldrich’s “The Legend of Lylah Clare,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love” and Hitchcock’s own “Vertigo” and “Marnie.” At least, the latter two have been rediscovered and reevaluated with a new appreciation.

"A Countess from Hong Kong," which has occasionally and uneventfully popped up on home entertainment without much enthusiasm from Universal, is ripe for the same attention and consideration.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

~images~
(from top) 

 ~Marlon Brando and Sophia Lren in "A Countess from Hong Kong"
~photography: Universal 1967© 

~Poster Art for "A Countess from Hong Kong"

~Doris Day and John Raitt in "The Pajama Game"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1957©

Friday, October 10, 2014

arguably

Credit: Warner Bros. 
Annabelle Wallis as Mia in John R. Leonetti's "Annabelle"

Given the unruly number of movies made available for review - The New York Times covers a whopping 25 titles today - and the ever-dwindling number of critics to review them, it's no surprise that some (well, actually a lot) are shunted or simply fall through the cracks.

Exacerbating matters are tight deadlines that often necessitate hastily-written critiques.  And, of course, there's the matter of prejudgement of which all critics are guilty but which speeds things along so that one can move on to the next movie and the next review.

Not surprisingly, Warner Bros.' "Annabelle," ostensibly an "evil doll" thriller, is a movie that first-string critics avoided and that second- and third-string reviewers handily dismissed.  And why not?  Much like animation these days, there's a new thriller or two coming off Hollywood's relentless assembly line seemingly every week.  Reduced to a brief synopsis, "Annabelle" is about a young pregnant woman whose husband buys her another antique doll for her collection and all hell breaks loose.

But, frankly, the wicked doll is the least necessary element in the film, as are the images of walking dead that the heroine seems to hallucinate.

Strip them away and, at its deepest core, "Annabelle" plays like a nifty 99-minute reference to "Repulsion."  Yes, "Repulsion" - Roman Polanski's "Repulsion."  And it's just as artfully done in its intense focus on a young woman who's easily spooked and possibly being driven mad.

And that's the real theme of "Annabelle."

John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer making his directing debut here, examines his heroine's descent in images and gliding camerawork that are eerily dreamy but never nightmarish or even unpleasant.

And his work is abetted and complemented every step of the way by the assured, nuanced and very serene performance of Annabelle Wallis (the British actress from "The Tudors") in the lead role. It's no accident, I suspect, that Wallis captures the placid cool of Catherine Deneuve here.

As if to reward her, Leonetti even named the film after Wallis, a conceit that has escaped everyone who has reviewed it.  No, Annabelle is not the name of  the grotesque doll.  Fact is, the darn doll has no name.

The director also pays homage to another Polanski film - Wallis's character is named Mia, after the star of "Rosemary's Baby" - and to the California Lumière/crazy lady thrillers of Robert Aldrich ("Baby Jane"/"Charlotte") by setting his film first in sun-struck Santa Monica and then Pasadena.

"Annabelle" opened on October 3 in tandem with David Fincher's bravura 149-minute ”Gone Girl” and nearly matched it at the box office, taking in $37,134,255 to "Gone Girl's" $37, 513, 109.  I'm not about to overrate "Annabelle."  It doesn't match the Fincher film in any other way and is, in fact, its polar opposite - tight and uncomplicated. Rather simple.

But it's so much more than its advertising and reviews have implied, largely because of Annabelle Wallis, whose work here is equally on par with Rosamund Pike's breakthrough performance in "Gone Girl."

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies will air "Repulsion" @ 6:15 p.m. (est) on Friday, October 31 - Halloween!

Catherine Deneuve as Carol in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion"

Friday, October 03, 2014

fincher's "persona"

Credit: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises

Crime films that detail how a murder or robbery is planned are nothing new, and in the past few years, David Fincher has come up with two of the best - "Zodiac" (2007) and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011), both of which brought exacting detail, and intelligence, to the formula.

But few modern police procedurals have veered away from the norm as daringly as Fincher's film version of Gillian Flynn's on-going best-seller, "Gone Girl," in which victim and victimizer continually swtich places until their personalities seem to meld together into a kind of rorschach-like blur.

One could say, and without exaggeration, that "Gone Girl" is the "Persona" of policiers.  To make matters even more Bergmanesque, there is a hint of "Scenes from a Marriage" in Fincher's depiction of the lengths to which both Amy and Nick Dunne (Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck) will go to deal with a marital arrangement that has become more rancid than stale.

And it is, indeed, every bit of an arrangement.

The layered,psychology-tinged performances of Affleck and Pike make it difficult not only to empathize with either, but also to fully dislike them.  Pike's Amy had disappeared even before she physically departed from their home, and Affleck's Nick was never really there to begin with.  The so-called "crime" that drives the film is much less commanding than the narcissistic motivations of a couple trying to,well, consciously uncouple.  

With "Gone Girl," the crime film becomes post-modern.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

janet

"Who are your favorite actresses?"

That's one of the stock questions that I was inevitably asked during my years as a working critic.  It's also a no-win question because the person asking it usually expects your choices to mirror his/hers or expects, at the very least, a litany of all the usual suspects - you know, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Meryl Streep, yada, yada.

But mine have always been Shirley MacLaine (a sentimental, childhood favorite), Ginger Rogers (for her amazing versatility in every genre imaginable) and ... Janet Leigh, admired because she was such a pleasing screen presence and a particularly unassuming actress.  I sensed that her success had something to do with being a damn good team player.

Which made her even more pleasing.  And affecting.

Her evolution from a scrubbed, sweet-faced starlet to a no-nonsense woman with an abrupt comic manner and tough resilience was one of genuine growth. Her sexual appeal was the real deal - she's what James Agee would have called "a dish" - and she never trivialized it, her credibility as an actress being more important to her.

She had grace. Style.

This came through when we shared a podium at a book fair sponsored by the Sacramento Public Library so many years ago.  Leigh was there to talk about her new career as an author (she had written two books - a novel and a reminiscence of the making of Hitchcock's "Psycho") but mostly about her former career as a studio-schooled actress  - the tough moguls who gave her orders and roles (some choice ones) and the actors and directors who taught her the craft of movie acting.

None of her comments was negative.  I brought up "Bye Bye Birdie" because I had read that she was not so much disappointed by the film but by its director, George Sidney, who betrayed her. Leigh had worked with Sidney immediately prior to "Birdie" on two films - the all-star extravaganza "Pepe" and the hilarious "Who Was That Lady?" - and, once he coaxed her to do "Birdie," he became smitten with its ingénue, Ann-Margaret, turning the film into a showcase for her, at the expense of the material and the other stars.

Her response was simple: "Of the movie musicals I made, I prefer 'My Sister Eileen.'"

That said, we moved on to discuss a filmography that included unexpected turns by Leigh under the direction of  a collection of mighty auteurs - Alfred Hitchcock ("Psycho"), Anthony Mann ("The Naked Spur"), John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") and Orson Welles ("Touch of Evil"), among others.  She made a Martin-and-Lewis comedy ("Living It Up") and pretty much came of age on film in a string of titles with her ex-husband, Tony Curtis.  Janet and Tony - they were very much an item.
Leigh certainly deserved more credit and acclaim during her lifetime than she received. "I don't know what it is I exude," Leigh once quipped. "But whatever it is, it's whatever I am." 

I wish she could have read what critic Carrie Rickey had to say about her in a 2010 essay on Carrie's Flickgrrl blog for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"One of her distinctive features was the chorus-girl bod that was such a startling contrast to her woman-of-the-world voice," Rickey wrote.

That pretty much encapsulates Leigh's singular appeal.

Note in Passing:  Although not generally known as a singer, Janet Leigh vocalized - and pleasingly - in a few film musicals, among them "Birdie," "Eileen" and "Two Tickets to Broadway."  She also sung in Jack Webb's "Pete Kelly's Blues" (1955).  And she proved herself a pretty good dancer, too, especially in "My Sister Eileen," where she held her own against the likes of Bob Fosse, Tommy Rall and Betty Garrett.

*   *   *

Janet Leigh is being celebrated throughout October by Turner Classic Movies as its Star of the Month with a list of 34 Leigh films including everything from her debut vehicle, Roy Rowland's"The Romance of Rosy Ridge" (1947) to a later work such as Mel Stuart's unfortunate Trish Van Devere vehicle, "One Is a Lonely Number" (1972) to Blake Edwards' lost ”The Perfect Furlough” (1958), one of her films with Curtis (below).

On tap are Stanley Donen's delightful "Fearless Fagan" (1952) and the aforementioned "My Sister Eileen," Richard Quine's original 1955 film musical, which boasts a solid score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin and clever choreography by Bob Fosse (then billed as Robert) - who also co-starred in the role that Quine played in the Roz Russell version of the material.

And, yes, "Bye Bye Birdie" is in the mix, too.

The ensemble cast of Richard Quine's fabulous "My Sister Eileen": (from left) Richard York (aka, Dick York), Lucy Marlowe, Robert Fosse (aka, Bob Fosse), Janet, Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett, Kurt Kasznar and Horace McMahon, all atop a marquee

Sunday, September 28, 2014

cinema obscura: Blake Edwards' "The Perfect Furlough" (1958)

"The Perfect Furlough," circa 1958, is that rare Blake Edwards movie that has unaccountably disappeared.

And it doesn't help that no one remembers it.  With reason.

Written by Stanley Shapiro, the films is a mash-up of service farce and sex comedy and, as the latter, anticipates the material that Shapiro would subsequently whip up for Rock Hudson and Doris Day, beginning a year later with "Pillow Talk."  Standing in for Rock and Doris here are Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who were very much happily married at the time.

Anyway, the plot is about an enlisted sex addict, Paul Hodges (Curtis), who wins an Army-sanctioned three-week "date" in Paris with Sandra Roca (played by Linda Crystal), a notorious sex symbol - a dubious idea dreamed up by Army psychologist Vicki Loren (Leigh) to help buoy the morale of enlisted men.  But the catch is,  Paul and Sandra can't sleep together and so Vicki is also dispatched to Paris to keep things platonic.

Shapiro would also collaborate again with Edwards and Curtis on 1959's "Operation Petticoat," a film that unaccountably has never disappeared.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

cinema obscura: Ken Hughes' "Wicked As They Come" (1956)

The joys of moviegoing/moviewatching can be neatly divided into two camps.  First and foremost, there's the guaranteed joy that comes from watching a favored film over and over and over and over again.

No less important, however, is the joy of discovering a new movie - not something current that just opened at your local cineplex but an older title that's been around for some time, without your even knowing about it.

Falling cozily into the latter camp is a little (and little-known) 1956 gem from Columbia Pictures, "Wicked As They Come," directed by British filmmaker Ken Hughes, whose diverse résumé includes Peter Finch's "The Trial of Oscar Wilde" (1960), The Sherman Bros. musical, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968) and the Alan Price remake, "Alfie, Darling" (1972).

"Wicked As They Come" aired on Turner Classic Movies during its annual Summer Under the Stars outing in August as part of a day devoted to its star, Arlene Dahl.  I caught it quite by accident.  My viewing was totally unplanned.  For the life of me, I can't remember how or why I started to watch it - the film was an unknown entity to me - but I'm glad I did.

It's a keeper.

Filmed by Mike Frankovich's production company largely in London with a British crew and a cast of  Anglos and Americans, "Wicked As They Come" casts Dahl as Kathy Allen, née Allenborg, a restless Boston woman from a deprived background with an indifference to all men.


Kathy sets out to rebuild her life, starting with her eye on Miss Stylewear, a local newspaper-sponsored beauty contest that's conveniently fixed in her favor.

She shrewdly exploits the affection that the newspaper's editor feels for her and, once the contest is over and won, she abandons him and, with her cash winnings, moves to London, where she flits from man to man, each progressively older, wealthier and more prominent, scamming them all.

Kathy's advance is witnessed by another American expat, advertising man Tim O'Bannion (Phil Carey), who is both fascinated and repelled by her transparency. O'Bannion at once wants to expose Kathy, punish her, rehabilitate her and ... ensnare her.

His fascination inevitably turns into obsession.

Sound remotely familiar? Well, the basic core of "Wicked As They Come" is nearly a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" from 1964.

"Wicked As They Come" isn't nearly as accomplished as "Marnie," and, true, there are major differences. Still, there are so many small narrative similarities here that it's difficult to believe that Hitch wasn't a fan of Hughes' modest little film from eight years earlier. ( It should be noted, however, that Jay Presson Allen's script for "Marnie" was based on a novel of the same title by Winston Green, while "Wicked As They Come" was adapted from another book, "Portrait in Smoke," by Bill S. Ballinger.)

Dahl and Carey could be playing prototypes for the characters ultimately essayed by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in "Marnie."  Like Connery in "Marnie," Carey's character keeps popping up in the heroine's life, and there's a sequence in which Carey shows up at the office where Dahl is working that could be a template for the same scene in "Marnie." "Wicked As They Come" even comes with a Hitchcock specialty - the final-curtain psychological explanation, a theory for Kathy's troubled behavior.

Not surprisingly, like Marnie, Kathy's damage was caused by a sexual trauma from earlier in her life.

It's gratifying to see the terrific Carey at last in a rare leading role, and Dahl, an actress who was made for Technicolor, is even more beautiful in black-&-white.

The cinematograher Basil Emmott (a name new to me) achieves a soft, smokey  image here that is gorgeous, and hugely flattering to Dahl, absolutely first-rate.

A little symmetry here:  While "Marnie" is one of those aforementioned favored films that I'd gladly watch over and over and over and over again, and have, its modest doppelganger, "Wicked As They Come," is a decidedly new favorite. Someday, these two will make a terrific double-bill.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

cinema obscura: Michael Hoffman's "Gambit"

I've said it before, but it bares repeating: Hollywood routinely makes and releases awful movies - on  a weekly basis, no less - and spares no expense marketing them.

I reiterate this in preamble to the fact that Michael Hoffman's 2012 remake of "Gambit" (material that hardly deserved revamping) is no better or worse than the junk currently littering your neighborhood cineplex.

Actually, it's my hunch that it's probably much better than the movie you paid $50 (including concession "food") to see last weekend.

But someone at CBS Films, its American distributor - someone apparently overpaid to make dubious decisions - decided that the new "Gambit" is an offensive embarrassment, despite its pedigree.  Two years after it toured the rest of the world,  CBS elected to release the movie last April in a handful of cities in America.  If you live in New York, for example, where the film temporarily played, you probably didn't know where to see it because there were no display ads.  (But a belated New York Times review thoughtfully guided potential moviegoers to the Village East Cinema.)

The original "Gambit," directed in 1966 by Ronald Neame, was a standard '60s caper flick which paired the then-hot Michael Caine with Shirley MacLaine, who was experiencing one of her rare down periods.  (Universal, the film's producer, would next cast her in one of her greatest roles, "Sweet Charity.")  Caine and MacLaine played a cat burglar and a dancer who team up for a heist of a sculpture that exploits both their talents.

It was all fairly tepid.

The remake teams Colin Firth (an apt stand-in for Caine) and Cameron Diaz (who doesn't play a dancer here, but a cowgirl - don't ask) in the heist of a painting.  They are backed by a trio of A-list supporting players - Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci and Tom Courtenay - and they get to read dialogue written by no less than Ethan and Joel Coen.  This version of the material is a step up from tepid, thanks largely to the way the Coens have fiddled with their script; the odd chemistry shared by Firth and Diaz, and especially Hoffman's off-kilter direction. Which is no surprise. At least, not to me.

Hoffman has always marched to a different drummer, amassing a refreshingly eclectic filmmography - "Some Girls," "Soapdish," "One Fine Day," "Restoration," "The Last Station," "Promised Land" and his Kevin Kline-Michelle Pfeiffer "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

He's an original.  His new film - no so much.

Both Firth and Diaz have experienced a few career bumps of late, so it's so surprise that they would bump into each other here.  Diaz made a good film that was dismissed - Ridley Scott's "The Counselor." And Firth has made two good films that were dismissed - Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" and Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man." And both have starred in disappointing comedies - Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight" and Diaz in two, "The Other Woman" and "Sex Tape." "Gambit" is another bump.

But it's really nothing more serious than that.  Honest.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

joan

I spent most of my decades as a working film critic single-mindedly resisting interviews with movie stars.  It's not that I didn't want to meet and talk with them - I didn't want to meet and talk with them and then critique the movie each one was hawking.  Too awkward.  Impure.

On the other hand, I wouldn't give up the memories of some of the wonderful people I met during this conflicting process and, when pressed, I always mention Joan Rivers as my favorite interview - and without missing a beat.  Hands-down, she was the nicest person I met during an interview situation (David Niven runs a close second), largely because our time together took the form of a conversation, rather than an interview.

Joan asked me as many questions as I asked her. Perhaps a few more.

OK, I'm going to seriously date myself here...

It was April of 1978 and Joan came to Philadelphia to promote "Rabbit Test," the first and last feature film that she would direct.  It was a comedy (natch) about a pregnant man (played by Billy Crystal) and Joan got the chance to be a one-time auteur on the basis of her teleplays for two popular TV movies, "Husbands and Wives" and particularly "The Girl Most Likely," which provided Stockard Channing with her breakthrough role.

I was Joan's last interview of the day.  She was speaking to a student assembly at the University of Pennsylvania (to talk comedy and also gently nudge them to see "Rabbit Test") and it was arranged by Sam Bushman, the outsized Philly publicist handling Joan that day, that I would meet her afterwards in the student lounge on the Penn campus.

It was very informal, noisy and quite unforgettable.

More than 35 years later, much of our conversation is now a blur.  But I do remember that "Rabbit Test" was hardly discussed and two other points of conversation have also stayed with me.

Joan discussed the plight of her good friend Roddy McDowall, who was allegedly being harassed by the FBI for film piracy.  McDowall's hobby was collecting 16mm prints of major Hollywood titles.  The authorities were threatening to out McDowall who was closeted at the time.

And she was absolutely animated about what she saw as her next movie project - a collaboration with Jim Henson.  Joan had this idea for a black comedy in which The Muppets are kidnapped and tortured. Obviously, that film was never made. But Henson delivered his first feature, "The Muppet Movie," directed by James Frawley, a year after "Rabbit Test's" release.

Our interview ended when Sam reminded Joan that it was time for her drive back to New York.  She offered me a ride to the newspaper office and, as her limo pulled away, Joan lowered the window and shouted in her trademark raspy voice, "Study hard!," hectically waving to the kids in the immediate area.  She had a great voice - something that's rarely mentioned whenever someone writes about Joan Rivers.

A week later, after "Rabbit Test" opened, I received in the mail a photocopy of my (negative) review of the film. It was from Joan.  There was a handwritten note from Joan scrawled across it in red ink.

Seemingly unfazed by the review, she wrote: 

Dear Joe, 

It was lovely meeting you and spending time with you – you were one of the few people I was able to talk to about something other than “Rabbit Test” (death & saving animals, in case you’ve forgotten).

Anyhow,  again,  many thanks.  RT hit #1 in box-office grosses this week – and part of it is due to your kindness.

xxxx.

Joan

Note in Passing: Beyond "Rabbit Test," in which she also appeared, Joan Rivers enjoyed only a scant movie career, usually playing herself.  However, she did have one notable role in 1968 - co-starring in Burt Lancaster's "The Swimmer" as one of the people he meets as he spends an afternoon swimming across suburbia. I'm not sure if her scene was directed by the original filmmaker, Frank Perry, or Sydney Pollack who replaced Perry on the troubled production.  Her character's name?  Joan.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

façade: hal ashby's third act


Hal Ashby, who would have turned 80 last September, enjoyed a brief but exhilarating directing career. The former editor (an Oscar winner for 1967's "In the Heat of the Night") helmed eleven narrative films, plus one documentary, in a span of about 15 years.

His debut, 1970's fabulous "The Landlord," was something of a happy accident. Norman Jewison had commissioned Kristen Hunter's novel to direct himself, but pre-production work on "Fiddler on the Roof" sidelined him and he generously handed the material to Ashby, his house editor.

A year later came the seminal "Harold and Maude" which, like "The Landlord," was not immediately embraced by critics or audiences.

This was Ashby's Act One as a budding auteur.

His Act Two was something of a jaw-dropper - rich, beautifully realized films starting with "The Last Detail" in 1973 and continuing with an almost breathlessness with "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home" and "Being There." Much of what is written these days about Ashby revovles around these titles.





Ashby with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon on
"Harold and Maude," perhaps his signature film
Ashby's Act Three, however, produced during a particularly troubling time in his private life, is no less interesting. His choice of material was as personal and idiosyncratic as ever and his eye for casting remained fresh and sure. Less sure was his directorial confidence but the shared erratic quality of his final four films only make them more fascinating.

Either by accident or perhaps on purpose, Ashby's work on "Second-Hand Hearts" (1981), "Lookin' to Get Out" (1982), "The Slugger's Wife" (1985) and "Eight Million Ways to Die" (1986) mirrored much of the expressionism that John Cassavetes was specializing in at the time.

"Second-Hand Hearts" (aka, "The Hamster of Happiness"), a shaggy-dog tale about losers, offers the singular team of Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, who are compulsively watchable here. "Second-Hand Hearts" may be a genuine lost title, but "Lookin' to Get Out" recently made it to DVD in a narratively enhanced version that restores footage excised by Paramount. Ashby managed to take a buddy gambling film here and somehow twist it into something vaguely existential.

More mainstream and middlebrow, "The Slugger's Wife," an original screenplay by Neil Simon, comes with an unexpected melancholy with Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay, fine performers who never hit the big time, as two people - a ballplayer and a singer not entirely made for each other. The film lingers almost in spite of itself.

Martin Ritt puts in a bit as the wittily named Burly DeVito, manager of the Atlanta Braves, the team for which O'Keefe slugs.

Much more memorable but no less erratic is "Eight Million Ways to Die," an atmospherically sordid character study with Jeff Bridges outstanding as detective who uses booze to self-destruct, seesawing between his planned rehabilitation and the vices that permate his personal/professional lives. Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul are the atypical female leads here.

Ashby's documentary was The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1983). Trailing off towards the end, he directed Neil Young in something called "Solo Trans" (1984); the pilot of Dennis Franz' TV series, ""Beverly Hills Buntz" (1987) and his last, "Jake's Journey," a 1988 British TV film with Graham Chapman and Peter Cook.

He died in in December of that year of liver and colon cancer.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

cinema obscura: Richard Quine's "So This Is Paris" (1955)

Richard Quine is largely noted for his work at Columbia, where he started out as a contract player (he was sodajerk Frank Lippincott in Roz Russell's "My Sister Eileen") and then segued into directing there (the musical version of "My Sister Eileen," among others).

He made his directorial debut at Columbia in 1954 with "Drive a Crooked Road" (co-written by colleague and friend, Blake Edwards, one of several of their collaborations) and became a reliable house director there the same year with the marvelous "Pushover" (starring his muse, Kim Novak).

But Quine also ventured out to other studios for such titles as "The World of Suzie Wong," "Sex and the Single Girl," "The Moonshine War," "Hotel" and the film of Arthur Kopit's quirky play, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad" (which starred Russell).

In 1955, the year he made the excellent "My Sister Eileen" for Columbia, Quine was loaned out to Universal for another musical, "So This Is Paris," a throwaway charmer starring a singing and dancing Tony Curtis as an avid, skirt-chasing sailor. With Gene Nelson (on Curtis' right above) and Paul Gilbert (on his left), the film can be mistaken for nothing less than a tracing-over of "On the Town," only set in Paris rather than New York.

The naturally engaging Gloria DeHaven (also above) has the Vera-Ellen role of a showgirl who isn't exactly what she seems to be. Corinne Calvet, the low-rent, G-rated Brigette Bardot of her day, and Mary Corday are the two other gals who team up with the ... gobs. (Quine's movie was alternately titled "So This is Paree" and, yes, "Three Gobs in Paris.")

If you know the drill, you know the rest.


"So This Is Paris" is one of those B-musicals (if there is such a genre) that were prominent during the early- to mid-1950s, when the studios still had expansive music departments and when musicals were still accepted, no questions asked, by audiences. In fact, Janet Leigh, Curtis' wife at the time, starred in two of her own - James V. Kern's "Two Tickets to Broadway" (1951), which happened to co-star DeHaven, and Quine's aforementioned "My Sister Eileen" (1955).

By the way, Curtis played another sex-sick soldier on the loose in Paris in Blake Edwards' difficult-to-see "The Perfect Furlough" (1958) and Leigh teamed up with him (one of their many films together) as a no-nonsense Army psychologist keeping tabs on him by acting as chaperone.

Friday, August 15, 2014

cinema obscura: Carl Foreman's "The Victors" (1963)

George Hamilton (from left), Vince Edwards, Jim Mitchum and George Peppard in "The Victors"

Note: Carl Foreman's anti-war epic from 1963, "The Victors," a lost film, was originally profiled here as a cinema obscura entry on December 6, 2007, in conjunction with a rare screening of the full-length roadshow version on The Military Channel, scheduled for January 19 of the following year. Since then, the film has surfaced in its full version, courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, on March 1, 2010 and is scheduled for a showing at 3 p.m. on tomorrow (Saturday, August 16) at The Billy Wilder Theater of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.  Is it just possible that, at long last, a DVD release will follow? (Apparently, a DVD has already been released in the UK.) Let's hope so. Below is the original cinema obscura essay and the initial comments posted at that time.

The sole directorial effort of Carl Foreman, the prolific writer and producer, "The Victors" remains one of the most powerful of anti-war films. 

It was one of Columbia's major productions of 1963 - a three-hour (plus intermission) roadshow production for which the studio harbored Oscar fantasies. The studio's other big Oscar bid that year was Otto Preminger's equally sprawling "The Cardinal." But while "The Cardinal" has surfaced on VHS, Laser and DVD, "The Victors" continues to sit on some shelf at Sony.

Neglected.

Shot in widescreen and black-&-white by Christopher Challis and boasting a huge international cast, "The Victors" works essentially as a series of short stories about the various members of an infantry squad as it treks from Sicily to Germany during the final weeks of World War II, crosscutting their interpersonal relationships with those they share with the enemy and with assorted women. Foreman, who wrote his own script, keeps his film big and hulking, while also managing to concentrate on the human interest in his vignettes.

Peter Fonda, for example, pops up as a soldier obsessed with saving a puppy from the ravages of war; Eli Wallach plays a harsh sergeant who has his face blown off in combat;  George Hamilton is a G.I. disillusioned when the woman he falls for becomes a prostitute; and, in the finale, Albert Finney appears as a drunken Russian soldier whose face-to-face encounter with the disgusted Hamilton neatly sums up the insanity of war. (A bit of trivia: Romy Schneider, pictured left, played Hamilton's love interest and, although her name remained in the credits, her role was completely deleted from the film when CBS aired the movie for the first time in the late '60s.)

The best moment in the film, for my money, is the stark sequence when a young American deserter is executed in the snow while Frank Sinatra's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" plays in the background.

There's more, but I haven't been able to see the film in years and it is quickly disappearing from my mind.

As a writer, Foreman worked largely with producer-director Stanley Kramer, penning both including "Home of the Brave" (1949) and "The Men" (1950). His last film in tandem with Kramer would be the Fred Zinnemann-directed "High Noon" (1952), whose release coincided with Foreman's "hostile" testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. His refusal to cooperate ultimately led to his blacklisting.

Foreman would continue to write movies, using assorted pseudonyms (including Derek Frye) and often without taking credit at all. It was pretty much known that he wrote the screenplay for David Lean's 1957 Oscar-winning "The Bridge on the River Kwai," although credit would go to Pierre Boule, the French author who wrote the novel upon which "Kawi" was based. Boule subsequently took home the Oscar for Best Screenplay, although the Academy would honor Foreman for his contribution in 1985, following his death from brain cancer the year before.

As a producer, Forman was responsible for such fine films as "Born Free," "Young Winston" and, best of all, John Dexter's 1970 "The Virgin Soldiers," another vivid (and lost) anti-war film starring Hywell Bennett (and whatever happened to him?), Lynn Redgrave and Nigel Davenport.

But, for me,"The Victors" remains his towering achievement.

Friday, August 08, 2014

bernstein, sondheim & spielberg


Steven Spielberg pretty much confirmed an on-going rumor - that he will remake "West Side Story" - on a recent edition of ABC's "Good Morning, America." Appearing in tandem with Oprah Winfrey to promote Friday's opening of "The Hundred-Foot Journey," which they produced, Spielberg was asked about the rumor and said that the project is in the works.

"West Side Story" would be Spielberg's first film musical, following the lead of his occasional collaborator, Tom Hanks, whose Playtone company was behind Phyllida Law's "Mamma Mia!" (2008).  That's if one doesn't count "1941" (1979), a criminally underrated film (especially in its 146-minute director's cut) that moved like a songless musical. (See the USO dance sequence.)  "1941" should have been a flat-out, full-fledged musical.

Anyway, as someone who isn't a fan of the original 1961 WSS (although, full disclosure, I loved it as a kid), this is awesome news.

The problem is Ernest Lehman's script by way of Arthur Laurents' book for the play.  Lehman was way to faithful to Laurents' contribution.  The dialogue, which Lehman kept intact, is particularly arch.

Tellingly, on GMA today, Spielberg sung praises of Bernstein's music and Sondheim's lyrics, but said nothing of Laurents' book.  Hopefully, that means that the script and dialogue will be overhauled for the remake.  I assume that the project's one other key contribution, Jerome Robbins' landmark choreography, will be retained/restaged for the new film.

But one never knows.

The original film was co-directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, until Robbins was unceremoniously dropped from the production.

Of the Oscar wins for the film, the most questionable went to supporting players Rita Moreno (who, at age 30, was too old for her role) and George Chakiris (at best, a competent actor).  Unbelievably, they won over "Judgment at Nuremberg's" Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift.

In a recent interview, Moreno claimed that everyone expected Garland to win for "sentimental" reasons.  No, everyone thought Garland would win because she deserved to win.  Ditto Clift.  And the fact is, Moreno and Chakiris won only because "Wests Side Story" swept the Oscars that year.

Everyone drank the WSS kool-aid prior to the 1962 Oscarcast.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

façade: James Shigeta, matinee idol


Note: The actor James Shigeta died on July 28 at age 81; this essay was originally published on June 18, 2008 and the initial ten comments were posted during that time period.

Turner's impressively ambitious and nakedly revealing investigation of how the film industry has seen and portrayed Asians in movies has run the gamut as one might expect of the fastidious TCM, capturing some wonderful, laudatory highs and far, far too many lows.

The series kicked off with Cecil B. DeMille's fascinating "The Cheat," a 1915 silent film that introduced the iconic Sessue Hayakawa to Western audiences, and included Yasujiro Ozu's recent Father's Day entry, his 1942 masterwork of self-sacrifice, "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki."

In between, there have been titles about the struggles of Asian actors and filmmakers to present their authentic vision, as well as the struggles, too often in vain, of Caucasian filmmakers to portray them.

Forget about the slant-eye make-up applied to the likes of Katharine Hepburn. For the most part, Hollywood's view has been routinely, almost casually, insensitive and decidedly unempathetic.

Joining TCM's Robert Osborne for some serious discussions about such matters has been Dr. Peter X Feng, editor of "Screening Asian Americans" and author of "Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video." And there have been added insight provided by filmmaker Wayne Wang, writer Amy Tan, film scholar Elaine Mae Woo, film producer Janet Yang, actresses Lauren Tom, Ming Wen, Rosalind Chao, France Nuyen, Nancy Kwan and Miiko Taka, among others, and ... James Shigeta.

For a brief, shining moment, the talented and very handsome James Shigeta was poised to be a major Hollywood leading man. In the space of two years, Shigeta was auspiciously showcased in no fewer than five films of impressive diversity - Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono" (1959), his debut film; James Clavell's "Walk Like a Dragon" (1960); George Marshall's "Cry for Happy" (1961); Etienne Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil" (1961), and Henry Koster's film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Flower Drum Song" (1961).

With a line-up like that, Shigeta should have had it made. He was the definition of a matinee idol. But it was to be only temporary.

For some bizarre reason, what seemed to be a flourishing film career came to a halt, with Shigeta spending most of his time playing guest roles on TV series ("Burke's Law," "Dr. Kildare," "Ben Casey," "Perry Mason" and the like). Apparently, Hollywood wasn't color-blind after all. Later on, he had roles in Charles Jarrott's "Lost Horizon" musical remake (1973), a disaster with a Burt Bacharach-Hal David score; Jack Smight's "Midway" (1976) and, still later, John McTiernan's "Die Hard" (1988). But his movie career, for all intents and purposes, never really got back on track.

What happened? For the life of me, I can't understand why Hollwood - so good at exploiting people - let Jim Shigeta be so criminally neglected. Is it naïve to think there was a whiff of racisim was at play here?

Four of those film films in which Shigeta excelled, demonstrating his versatility, are being aired as part of Turner's invaluable "Asian Images in Film" series, starting early June 19th, at 1:30 a.m. (est) with "Walk Like a Dragon," in which Shigeta plays a proud immigrant in 1870’s California caught in a love triangle with a Chinese woman (Nobu McCarthy) and a tough cowboy (Jack Lord). Mel Tormé co-stars for director Clavell, the writer who, of course, helmed TV's "Shogun."

At 8 p.m. (est) on June 19th, Turner will screen Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil," a true story about a Tennessee blonde (Carroll Baker) who married a Japanese diplomat (Shigeta) before World War II, then followed him to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This film contains, arguably, Shigeta's best screen performance.

Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono," Shigeta's first film, will be shown at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24th. In this Los Angeles-set noir, Shigeta plays a detective who finds himself in a love triangle with his partner (Glenn Corbett) and a woman (the late, wonderful Victoria Shaw) who is entangled in their current murder investigation. Not surprising for Fuller, "The Crimson Kimino" was ahead of its time, both for its exploration of racism and its romance between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman, something Shigeta would explore again in "A Bridge to the Sun."

At 11:30 p.m. (est) on June 24th, Koster's terrific, unfairly underrated "Flower Drum Song" unreels. Full disclosure: This is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, largely because it doesn't follow the usual R-&-H forumla. Lacking the team's penchant for pretention and preachiness, this look at Asian life in San Franciaco is modern, lively and quite jazzy. A tale of generational conflicts and hard-dying traditions, the material casts Shigeta, in his last major film role, as a conflicted guy caught between being Chinese and American.

"Flower Drum Song" features an all-Asian cast, save for one Caucasian role - that of a white derelict (Herman Rudin) who robs Master Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) on his doorstep. Nice touch. I love it.

Shigeta, whose deep, natural baritone always added a natural authority to his line readings, did his own singing in the film - an endearing, lilting work that has improved with age. It's terrific.

Note in Passing: The only major Shigeta film missing from Turner's line-up is Marshall's "Cry for Happy," a wartime comedy that starred Glenn Ford, Donald O'Connor and Miiko Taka and which paired Shigeta with his "Flower Drum Song" co-star, Miyoshi Umeki.

(Artwork: James Shigeta in his prime; with Carroll Baker in Périer's breakthrough "A Bridge to the Sun"; being interviewed by filmmaker Arthur Dong during the Spotlight tribute to him at the 24th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival in 2006, and Nancy Kawn, aglow in wide screen, in the Hermes Pan-choreographed "Grant Avenue" number from Koster's terrific "Flower Drum Song.")