Tuesday, April 30, 2019

cinema obscura: Ted Brenner's "Run Home, Slow" (1965)

"Run Home, Slow." Yes, a grindhouse original, but where to start?

First, an admission: I saw this film only once. A lifetime ago.

"Run Home, Slow" had the distinction of having played on The Late, Late Show on a Philadelphia TV station at the exact same time as its opening in a Philly grindhouse on Market St. Which has to be something of a first.

And it is the first and only film directed by Ted Brenner, who for some reason, is billed here as Ted Sullivan.

I remember it - vaguely - as being either truly awful or truly visionary, in an Alejandro Jodorowsky sort of way. What I do recall clearly is the outlandish, quite insane lead performance of Mercedes McCambridge, doing her patented Mercedes McCambridge thing (read: a retread of her performances from Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" and George Stevens' "Giant") as a tough cow-woman bent on revenge.

She plays Nell Hagan, the scary matriarch in a family of dim-witted men who are on a mindless quest to avenge the hanging death of their ruthless father. McCambridge stumbles around here in a Method Actor daze, mouthing monologues of mysticism and in a way that's equal parts of deranged and entertaining - and that prompts one to want to re-evaluate her critically admired performances as Emma Small in the aforementioned "Johnny Guitar" and as the curiously named Luz Benedict in "Giant."

Linda Gaye Scott -  a promising young starlet at the time (and, reportedly, an heir to the Scott Paper fortune) - is on hand as a Hagan cousin who gets cozy with Nell's two brothers (never mind that they are all blood relatives) but is utilized here largely to take Nell's driving, sadistic abuse.

Shot in black and white in a truly creepy, shadowy style by Lewis Guinn and scored by Frank Zappa - yes, that Frank Zappa - "Run Home, Slow" may not be even remotely good but, once seen, it is not easily forgotten.

I offer myself as testament.

In fact, I'd really like to see "Run Home, Slow" again. Here is a genuine "midnight movie" that was ahead of is time, never finding its niche.

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.

(from top) 

~Poster art for "Run Home, Slow"
~Emerson Film Enterprises. 1965©

~A stock studio publicity shot of Mercedes McCambridge
~photography: Warner Bros. 1955©

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"Hollywood Musicals are BIG Again" Really?

For as long as I can remember, the movie musical has struggled to survive. Once the definitive (and most American) movie genre, which incorporated just about every craft and art, the musical started to wither as soon as movies became more realistic and action-driven.

"No one just bursts out and sings" has been the most common complaint, usually voiced by those movie freaks who have no problem suspending disbelief for science fiction, or more recently, CGI-dominated films.

Back in August of 1962, the cover story of LOOK magazine was about - yes - the big comeback of the movie musical. The movie year 1959 produced only Otto Preminger's "Porgy and Bess" and Melvin Frank's "Li'l Abner," neither of which seemed to excite moviegoers.

Matters didn't look good even back then.

A year later, in 1960, there was Walter Lang's embarrassing "Can-Can" and Vincente Minnelli's pleasing "Bells Are Ringing." The Minnelli film wasn't a huge success but you can see how the director sensed that the the movie musical was on its last leg and he experimented accordingly to make it more palatable for audiences. The next time it's on TCM, check out how Minnelli's staging invigorates the "I Met a Girl" number by having star Dean Martin sing it while fighting his way through sidewalk traffic, and how he turns "Mu-Cha-Cha" into a pseudo-musical number by eschewing the song's lyrics and staging the dance as an off-the-cuff improvisation.

Matters were so dire back then that when Joshua Logan brought "Fanny" to the screen in 1961, he reduced the Harold Rome score to background music. But, the same year, there was a turnaround for the musical, albeit a brief one, with the success of Henry Koster's "Flower Drum Song" and Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise's Oscar-winning "West Side Story."

These two hits prompted Hollywood to hanker down and produce José Ferrer's remake of "State Fair," Morton Da Costa's "The Music Man," Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" and Charles Walters' "Jumbo," all in 1962, and George Sidney's "Bye Bye Birdie" in '63 - a group that provided a hook for that LOOK magazine piece, titled "Hollywood Musicals Are BIG Again!"

On the other hand, Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce," also released in '63, went the "Fanny" route, sans Marguerite Monnot and Alexandré Breffort's fabulous songs (adapted as background/mood music by André Previn).

Flash Forward 57 years - to 2019 - and, suddenly, "Hollywood Musicals Are BIG Again!," with ten - count 'em - ten movie musicals either filmed or slated for filming. Here's a quick run-down of what's promised/threatened:

Completed and standing in the wings ready to perform are Tom Hooper's all-star version of "Cats" and Jon Favreau's live-action "The Lion King."

Those due for filming include Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's take on "West Side Story" (with Ansel Egort as Tony), Amy Sherman Palladino's remake of "Gypsy" (with Melissa McCarthy rumored to play Madame Rose),  Rob Ashford's "Sunset Boulevard" (with Glenn Close reprising her Broadway triumph), Jon Chu's "In the Heights" (an early Lin Manuel Miranda success) and Ryan Murphy's version of "The Prom."

Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey plan to collaborate on the film version of the Broadway musical version of "The Color Purple" and TriStar has announced a remake of "Guys and Dolls" which, about a decade or so ago, Vin Diesel mentioned that he wanted to do opposite Nicole Kidman. Neither film has a director, writer or anyone else attached. And something called Paramount Players, a sub-division of Paramount Pictures, has announced a prequel to "Grease," titled "Summer Loving," with John August on board to write the script but with no talent mentioned in terms of the film's music.

Meanwhile, there's been a film musical that's been aborning for more than a decade now - one that sounded promising but is probably a hopeless idea by now. A remake of "Damn Yankees" was "in development" back in  2010 when Harvey Weinstein first announced it with what seemed like a surefire cast - Jake Gyllenhaal as the young ballplayer Joe Hardy and Jim Carrey as Mr. Applegate, aka, The Devil. (No one was mentioned for the role of Lola, but Amanda Seyfried seemed the obvious choice at the time.)

As for that new breed of film musical - the "live" TV presentation - which has been driven mostly by NBC, matters don't look good. The network has canceled its planned version of "Hair" (an achingly bad idea, given that the 1979 Milos Forman film, which still feels vibrant, is the definitive version of the material) and its planned version of "Bye Bye Birdie," announced back in 2016 with Jennifer Lopez as the attached star, has been postponed multiple times (not surprising, given JaLo's heavy schedule and priorities.)

It seemed way premature to announce it when NBC did and, if and when it does materialize, Lopez may be too old to play heroine Rosie and may be better suited as the awful mother of the show's hero, Albert Peterson. (Besides, "Birdie" has already been made for TV - and very well - back in 1995, a version that is far superior to the aforementioned '63 Sidney treatment.)

So, are Hollywood musicals really BIG again?  Don't bet the rent money on it, given that the average filmgoer has exhibited zero interest in the genre.

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.


~Doris Day and Martha Raye in a scene from "Jumbo" as touted by LOOK  magazine
~photography: MGM 1962©

Friday, April 19, 2019

façade: zeme north

Now is the time to praise Zeme North. Who?

But first... The legend goes that Jack Warner was so impressed by the reception to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1960 spring-break frolic, "Where the Boys Are," that he decided to duplicate it, moving the action from the East Coast to the West - from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Springs.

And he would populate his version with Warner house players whom he had kept imprisoned largely on television in Warner series.

Hence, "Palm Springs Weekend" of 1963, which is much more appealing than "Where the Boys Are" and has become something of a Turner Classic Movies staple. TCM recently aired it on Friday, April 19 and, again, I stopped what I was doing and kicked back to watch. It's irresistible.

Director Norman Taurog's cast was headed by Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue, Robert Conrad and Ty Hardin, contract players to whom Warner infrequently tossed a feature-film crumb.  Much like the stars of "Where the Boys Are," they were way too old to play college-age students, but at least their film was a genuine frolic.  Unlike "Boys," there was no disconcerting gang rape at its center. These "kids" merely partied in bikinis and Speedos (a time when men didn't wear Bermuda shorts for swimming), swigging a lot of beer.

"Palm Springs Weekend" is a lot more fun than "Where the Boys Are," a more companionable throwaway movie, and as a bonus, it found room for a witty cameo appearance by Shirley Eder - the show-biz gossip columnist for the Detroit Dree Press for 40 years - as herself, of course.

Warner, meanwhile, complimented his players with a few outsiders - Stefanie Powers (on loan from Columbia), Jerry Van Dyke, child star Billy Mumy and, as the adults, Andrew Duggan, Carole Cook and the always invaluable Jack Weston, he of the inimitable lisp.

Plus one more - an adorable newcomer named Zeme North who handily walks away with the film as its so-called wallflower.  For all intents and purposes, North is the real star of "Palm Springs Weekend."  (Sorry, Connie and Stefanie.)  Warner and Taurog ("Room for One More") showcased North here (even though she had co-star billing), teaming her not just with Van Dyke, but with Mumy as well.  I've no idea who came up with the idea but both Zeme North and Billy Mumy have the same hair color and haircut in "Palm Springs Weekend."

Kindred spirits, see.

For reasons that remain bizarrely evasive, "Palm Springs Weekend" was Zeme North's second and final film.

I'd like to think that she left the biz voluntarily - that perhaps she went home to Corpus Christi, Texas and opened an acting school for kids.  Based on her chemistry with Mumy, she was great with kids.

Full disclosure:  I first encountered North when I was a kid myself and she came to Philadelphia in the tryout engagements of two big Broadway musicals.  In "Take Me Along," Bob Merrill's 1959 musical version of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," North played the daughter of Walter Pidgeon and Una Merkel, the younger sister of Robert Morse and ...

The niece of Jackie Gleason.  What a cast.

A year later, she came back to Philadelphia (and to the same theater, the Shubert) as Anthony Perkins' leading lady in Frank Loesser's eagerly anticipated "Greenwillow." It was 1960 and Perkins had just finished shooting Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."  He had not yet become an icon.

The show's director was George Roy Hill and its choreographer was the great Joe Layton. North came to "Greenwillow" rather late in the game, having replaced the original female lead, Ellen McGowen, during the musical's early rehearsals. Hill, Layton and Loesser all liked McGowen but thought that, at 28, she might be the wrong age for the part.  North, who reportedly auditioned with 100 other actresses and was 18 - ten years younger -  got the role, a plum one.

However, during the Philly tryout, where the reviews were less than enthusiastic, North herself was replaced ... by Ellen McGowen.

Two actresses demoralized by the process.

No one said show business was easy.

Or kind.

While this could be seen as a setback, North bounced back and moved on to another musical, "Fiorello!," by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, during its Broadway run (the show was a personal triumph for its star, Tom Bosley) and, a year later, made her first movie, "Zotz!," William Castle's 1962 comedy with Tom Poston.

Then came "Palm Springs Weekend."

Too bad that Jack Warner, a smart cookie, didn't snap her up and nurture her.  I would have loved to have seen her progress on screen. Zeme North had the potential to be a terrific screwball comedienne and movie musical star. But by this time, the studio system was dying and promising talent was no longer being personally groomed for stardom by moguls.

Notes in Passing: I hasten to note that "Greenwillow," a hugely underrated show and now a cult musical, featured one of Frank Loesser's grandest scores, including the huanting "Never Will I Marry" which, of course, was subsequently recorded by Barbra Streisand.

Turner Classic Movies will air "Palm Springs Weenend" again on Wednesday, July 10 at 1:45 p.m. (est), bookended by two other teen flicks from the same era, "For Those Who Think Young" and "A Summer Place."

My advice? Pop some corn, open some wine and sit back and veg out.
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.

(from top) 

~Jerry Van Dyke and Zeme North in "Palm Springs Weekend"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1963©

~Poster art for "Palm Springs Weekend"
~Warner Bros. 1963©

~Shirley Eder
 ~photography: The Detroit Free Press 1963©

~Publicity portrait of Zeme North for "Zotz"
 ~ photography: Coumbia Pictures 1962©

~Anthony Perkins and North rehearsing "Greenwillow"
~Photo publicizing North as the show's new female lead
 ~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1960©

~Souvenir program cover for "Greenwillow"

~North and Connie Stevens in "Palm Springs Weenend"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1963©

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

cinema obscura: Tony Richardson's "A Death in Canaan" (1978)

Made-for-TV movies had a successful run during the 1970s - and also experienced something of a bum rap. The assumption was that they were inferior, simply because they were filmed for television. Never assume.

While it's true that most of these efforts were workmanlike, there were also some truly superior results, such as Buzz Kulik's "Brian's Song," with James Caan; John Badham's ”The Impatient Heart,” starring Carrie Snodgress (and written by Alvin Sargent, no less); John Korty's "Go Ask Alice," based on the popular book, and Daniel Petrie's "Silent Night, Lonely Night" and Lamont Johnson's "My Sweet Charlie," both based on plays.

There are many more. If I missed an important one, share!

This brings me to "A Death in Canaan," adapted from Joan Barthel's acclaimed piece of investigative journalism from 1976 and, arguably, the best of the lot. The film is noteworthy for three reasons - its intelligence, an astonishing lead performance by the ever-underrated Stefanie Powers and the TV directing debut of the great Tony Richardson.

The film's solid acting ensemble includes such reliables as Brian Dennehy, Kenneth McMillan, Conchata Ferrell, Jacqueline Brooks, Charles Haid, Charles Hallahan, Tom Atkins, Bonnie Bartlett and Paul Clemens in his first role as Peter Reilly, a New Canaan, Ct. teenager who found his mother, Barbara Gibbons (Sally Kemp), dead and mutilated and who, after being terrorized by police, was charged with her murder.

Based on a true story, "A Death in Canaan" follows Powers, playing Barthel, as she tries to document the investigation of the 1973 case and the hands-on involvement of the townspeople, friends and neighbors of the solitary, fatherless -Gibbons-Reillys. It was just Peter and his mother.

Powers plays Barthel with a perfect blend of nerve, insecurity, resolve and charm. Clemens, the son of Eleanor Parker, is astonishing. Around the same time, he also appeared in another fine lost film, Jerome Hellman's "Promises in the Dark" (1979), starring Marsha Mason, Kathleen Beller, Ned Beatty, Susan Clark and Michael Brandon.

Profoundly moving, "A Death in Canaan" is enhanced by Richardson's subtle direction of an exceptional cast.

The movie, now very difficult to see, aired on CBS on March 1, 1978 in a 150-minute time slot. (Without commercials, it runs 125 minutes.)  One of its last airings was on the Lifetime channel which ran a considerably shorter version in a two-hour time slot. I've no idea who made the decision to cut it, either Lifetime or Warner Bros., which produced it.

But the editing remains inexplicable.

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.

(from top) 

~The title card for "A Death in Cannan"
~photography: Warner Bros. Television 1978©

~Stefanie Powers as writer Joan Barthel in a scene from the film
 ~photography: Warner Bros. Television 1978©

~Director Tony Richardson, circa 1978

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

the. worst. production. number. ever.

The arrival of FX's (so far) underwhelming "Fosse/Verdon" limited series comes in tandem with a renewed attack on Bob Fosse's 1969 directorial debut, "Sweet Charity." And, for some bizarre reason, the series makes the failure of "Sweet Charity" seem much worse than it actually was.

To watch Sam Rockwell, as Fosse, carry on about the awfulness of the film is to witness an act of self-laceration. Perhaps that's the point, given Fosse's emotional issues. But it's never mentioned that the original stage production of "Sweet Charity" was hardly a classic. It was one of the last of the "tired businessman" musicals, shows top-heavy with leggy chorus girls to placate those husbands forced into the theater by their wives.

What was cheesy on stage became even more so under the relentless scrutiny of the camera's eye - and it didn't help that the film was made during the flower power/summer of love era, something which Fosse exploited to the hilt, instantly dating his psychedelic movie.

Fifty years later (50 years? Yikes!), the movie version is cheesier than ever and is one of those films that gets worse with each viewing, so much so that I finally gave in and gave up my DVD of it.  But not before watching it one more time to try to figure out exactly what went so wrong.

More than five decades later, one is aware of all the unfortunate decisions that Fosse made. One dubious decision after another. Like the psychedelia. Then there are the arty, sepia-toned still shots that occasionally dot the 149-minute film and that are utterly pointless and way too pretentious.

There's the "Rich Man's Frug" number - a triptych of gratuitous dances set in a glitzy disco, circa '69, and overburdened with Fosse's annoying choreographic mannerisms. Along with the cringe-worthy Sammy Davis, Jr. bit, "The Rhythm of Life," this number also dates the film. Badly.

The casting of Shirley MacLaine in the title role seemed perfect - on paper - and, while she has a few terrific moments in the film, the pervasive self-pity in her performance makes it unpleasant to watch. In retrospect, her reading of the lovelorn heroine, Charity Hope Valentine, is a little too much of a rehash of Ginny Moorehead, the equally lovelorn (more pathetic) character she weepily played ten years earlier in Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1958). Lots of narcissistic tears here. Too many.

Then there's the transparent ploy of Peter Stone's screenplay to tone down Charity's "floozie" qualities whenever the character has a scene with Oscar (John MacMartin), the nice guy who could rescue her from her nowhere life. Suddenly, Charity is sedate. (Sorry, Peter, that's cheating.)

Finally, there's that big production number, "I'm a Brass Band," composed by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field, that is not only jaw-droppingly bad but makes no sense whatsoever. Huh? Why would anyone, much less Charity Hope Valentine, equate being in love with marching with a brass band?

The number, staged in the courtyard of Lincoln Center, no less, stops the film cold - and it never recovers. With dozens of chorus boys crowding the screen, it goes on and on and on, with old pro Shirl huffing and puffing, screeching the lyrics and straining her ligaments to little avail.

No, not everything that Bob Fosse created was great.

Exacerbating matters is the sense that MacLaine is not exactly light on her feet. She galumphs actually. It's been noted that she does much less dancing in the film than Gwen Verdon did in the stage version, and that might have something to do with her limitations as a dancer.

Notes in Passing: Universal released "Sweet Charity" as a big roadshow production which failed to engage both the media (it received scant coverage) and audiences (poor box-office returns).  After its lackluster reserved-seat engagements, the studio punished the film, so to speak, by chopping out 30 minutes for its general release.  (Paramount did the same thing in 1967 to George Sidney's 143-minute "Half a Sixpence" after it unde-rperformed as a roadshow.) Gone, among other elements, were those sepia still shots and the second of those three deadly disco numbers. The Davis number, unfortunately, remained intact. Too bad that Universal didn't attempt to airbrush out most of Shirley MacLaine's tears.

On its way to the screen, "Charity" lost several songs, including at least one good one - "Baby, Dream Your Dream" - and gained a few new ones, most notably the terrific opener, "My Personal Property,"  which sounds like something Bobby Short would have sung at his piano at the Cafe Carlyle. Coleman also wrote a new - and improved - melody for the title song.

The DVD/Blu Ray of "Sweet Charity" contains an alternate - happy - ending in which Charity and Oscar reunite.  The theatrical release of the film ends sadly but, as a title card promises, also "hopefully."

Bob Fosse was a movie-musical staple during thr 1950s - dancing (and acting) on screen ("Kiss Me, Kate," which TCM  is airing at 4 p.m., est., on Saturday, April 13); choreographing films ("The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees"), and dancing and acting and choreographing all at the same time ("My Sister Eileen"). He directed only a handful of films and, oddly, for me at least, his best movie isn't a musical at all. It's "Lenny" (1974).

No dancing here.

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.


~Shirley MacLaine performing "I'm a Brass Band" in "Sweet Charity"
~photography: Universal Pictures 1969©