Monday, March 27, 2017
This January I reviewed Robert Matzen's excellent book on the tragic plane crash that took the life of Carole Lombard as she was returning from a War Bond Rally. Matzen's latest work also involves a Hollywood legend and World War II. MISSION--JIMMY STEWART AND THE FIGHT FOR EUROPE details the actor's WWII service as a Army Air Force bomber pilot over the skies of Europe.
James Stewart's father served in World War I, and he had ancestors who served in the American Civil War. This family history gave Stewart a strongly-held belief in service to one's country. Stewart had been fascinated by flying ever since he was a young boy, so it was only natural that when America entered the war the actor became determined to fly in combat. Matzen details that in order for Stewart to get his wish to serve overseas, he had to not only fight the MGM front office, but the U.S. Army as well. Early in 1941 Stewart had won the Best Actor Oscar for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, and MGM didn't want to lose its investment in him. The Army was afraid of the repercussions if Stewart would be killed, or shot down and captured by the Germans and used as a propaganda story. Stewart was also considered too old (33 at the time of Pearl Harbor) and too thin to become a crack military pilot.
Nevertheless, Stewart, like many of the characters he portrayed on screen, persevered against great odds and got what he wanted. Stewart went from stateside flight instructor to squadron commander, group operations officer and wing commander, flying B-24 Liberators for the legendary Eighth Air Force. Stewart spent 16 harrowing months flying bombing missions.
Matzen briefly covers Stewart's life before and after WWII, but the main thrust of this book is the actor's war service. Matzen gives the reader full insight in what it was like to be a crew member on a B-24 Liberator, and how deadly each single mission was (many crew members died in accidents that had nothing to do with combat). One thing the author makes very clear is the freezing temperatures the B-24 crews had to endure flying at such high altitudes--several WWII dramatizations and books overlook this fact.
As someone who has never served in the military, it's hard for me to fathom the physical and mental strain James Stewart must have suffered. Instead of worrying about flubbing a line on a movie set, Stewart was now a commanding officer in a situation where one mistake could mean the difference between dozens of men living or dying. After the war Stewart would refuse to talk publicly about his experiences, but there's no doubt that the anguished characters he often played in his post-WWII movie career are a reflection of what he went through.
Despite James Stewart's assumed "aw shucks" demeanor and his small-town background, Matzen reveals that the man was far more complicated. Matzen writes that Stewart was "....a quiet, high-strung loner who fought feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt." Matzen contends that Stewart was far more of a ladies man in 1930s Hollywood than most people realize. The author also mentions that Stewart was unsure whether he would be able to successfully act again on the screen after the war ended.
What comes across the most in Matzen's book is that James Stewart was not just a movie star or a war hero, but a real human being--which makes his accomplishments on the screen and in battle even more impressive. James Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, and I've read many books about him. I was somewhat familiar with his war record, but MISSION is now the ultimate word on the subject. After reading it my admiration for Stewart grew even more, if that's possible. The book will appeal to both film & military history buffs.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Yes, this is my 500th post. I can't believe I've written so many of these things--and to what end? I sometimes wonder. Nevertheless, I have gotten a great deal of enjoyment out of doing this, and I've made some worthy contacts through the blog. (Unfortunately, I haven't made any money off of this blog....)
I don't plan on ending this blog anytime soon. There's still hundreds of hundreds of movies I haven't even covered yet, and plenty of film topics I haven't discussed. There are times when writing this feels like schoolwork--especially when I agree to participate in a blogathon, and then spend way too much of a weekend fulfilling my promise. But I guess there are far worse things I could be doing.
I really love it when I get feedback on the blog, which is very seldom. A few of my friends have said to me, "Why do you write about so many obscure movies?? Why can't you talk more about movies everyone knows??" For me personally it is far more of a challenge to write about a film that has had very little coverage on it than dealing with famous classics. I have written about famous films such as CITIZEN KANE, but when I do that I feel like I'm wasting my time, because these movies have been discussed so much by so many people who are far more articulate about cinema than I am.
And as for those folks who say, "You don't like anything but old stuff!"--my response to that is, I am what I am. If you want me to get all trendy and start dishing about the latest movies and TV shows, that's not me. Quite frankly, what passes for popular entertainment in the 21st Century doesn't excite me all that much. I'm convinced that the main reason certain movies and TV shows are popular now is because people are talking about them on social media. It's as if actually watching the product is secondary. In a way we've all become bloggers. I certainly can't harp on everyone in the world now becoming a critic--I'm part of the group--but creativity will always be far more important than criticism.
If there are any certain films or movie topics you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments section. I'll even give you credit when I write the post!
Now, I'd like to share some stat tidbits from the blog.
Times I've mentioned Peter Cushing in my posts: 78
Times I've mentioned Star Wars in my posts: 70
Times I've mentioned John Ford in my posts: 48
Times I've mentioned Batman in my posts: 31
Times I've mentioned Meryl Streep in my posts: Twice
And now, here's a list of the five posts from The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog that have gotten the most views.
1. Evelyn Ankers & Lon Chaney Jr. (posted 7/13/13)
This was written for a blogathon concerning great movie duos. Why, exactly, would this get the most views? I give credit to Svengoolie. Over the last few years on Me TV, Sven has shown just about every Universal horror film Lon Jr. and Ankers appeared in together multiple times. I believe that after Sven shows these movies, people get on the internet and want to know more about the duo's contentious relationship--and my post comes up on the search engines.
2. Happy Birthday To Caroline Munro (posted 1/16/13)
Hey, Caroline Munro is a cult movie legend, so this doesn't surprise me. And I think all the fantastic photos of her I included in the post probably helped as well.
In honor of my 500th post, here's a photo of my favorite baseball player of all time, Frank Thomas, hitting his 500th home run. What does this has to do with movies? Absolutely nothing.
3. You're Braver Than I Thought (posted 3/6/13)
This post was my immediate response to the news that Disney was going to start making brand new Star Wars movies. A interesting thing to read now.
4. DVD Review: THE THREE STOOGES--RARE TREASURES FROM THE COLUMBIA VAULT (posted 1/11/13)
This was about a Three Stooges box set--and the Three Stooges are very, very popular.
5. LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #30 (posted 6/8/13)
In this post I reviewed issue #30 of Richard Klemensen's fantastic magazine on Hammer Films. Apparently that issue must have been popular--but I also suspect folks were searching on the internet for other things containing to the phrase "little shop of horrors", and this post came up.
Saturday, March 25, 2017
I participated in the "Favorite TV Show Blogathon" (hosted by the great A Shroud of Thoughts blog) a couple years ago. Back then I chose a WILD WILD WEST episode, the debut of Dr. Loveless. This time around, I'm covering an episode of the legendary cult British TV series THE AVENGERS--an episode which stars none other than my favorite actor, Peter Cushing.
"Return of the Cybernauts" is a direct sequel to an earlier AVENGERS episode called, naturally, "The Cybernauts". In that show, the avenging duo of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) stop a mad scientist named Clement Armstrong (Michael Gough) and his mini-army of destructive robots. In "Return of the Cybernauts". Peter Cushing plays Paul Beresford, who, unknown to Steed and Mrs. Peel, is Armstrong's brother. Beresford is determined to get revenge for his brother's death.
THE AVENGERS remains one of the great cult TV series of all time. Diana Rigg was on the show for only two full seasons, but it is the Emma Peel era that is most remembered, especially by Americans. Trying to describe the quirky, stylized, and adventurous 1960s hip attitude of the show to someone who's never seen it is almost impossible. THE AVENGERS is much better watched than discussed. THE AVENGERS often dipped into the realm of the fantastic, and it was fitting that an actor who played so many roles in the horror and science-fiction genres such as Peter Cushing would appear as a guest star. "Return of the Cybernauts" is a treat for Cushing fans. The actor gets to play a contemporary role (he's still dressed to the nines), and Paul Beresford is different from the usual villain. Beresford is no out-and-out madman--he's someone who can turn the charm on when he needs to, and while he wants to destroy Mrs. Peel, the man can still appreciate the woman's attractiveness.
Beresford is planning to kill Steed and Mrs. Peel--but he wants to do it in a way that makes the duo suffer as much as possible. Beresford has one of his late brother's remaining cybernauts kidnap three prominent scientists. The three men are secreted at Beresford's estate, and are coerced to devise a scheme to eliminate Steed and Peel. Meanwhile Beresford has befriended the duo, who are now charged with investigating the disappearances of the three scientists. Two of the captured men figure out a way to control a person's nervous system and turn that subject into a literal human cybernaut. Beresford gives Mrs. Peel the gift of a bracelet, which contains the control device inside. A similar device (hidden in a watch) is meant for Steed, but he winds up not wearing it...which enables him to save Mrs. Peel from being a zombie, and foil Beresford's plans.
Diana Rigg and Peter Cushing in "Return of the Cybernauts"
The real highlight of "Return of the Cybernauts" is seeing Peter Cushing interact with Diana Rigg. Cushing had very few chances in his screen acting career to use any romantic charm, and here he gets to use it on one of the loveliest women in television at the time. Not only does Beresford kiss Mrs. Peel's hand several times, he even calls her Emma--which almost never happened on any other AVENGERS episode. Patrick Macnee's unflappable John Steed even comments on Beresford's attentions--which causes Mrs. Peel to proclaim that Steed is jealous! Cushing gives the impression that even though Beresford wants to revenge himself on Mrs. Peel, there's other things he'd like to do with her as well. When Beresford is shown that the remote control device works on Mrs. Peel, and she is now under his command, he's almost giddy at the prospect. ("Is there anything more gratifying than the obedience of a beautiful woman?", he satisfyingly exclaims.) In a split second Cushing's Beresford goes from displaying a kindly smile to being coldly calculating and ruthless. Despite the character's villainy Cushing brings style and elegance to the role--Beresford appears to be enjoying his devious antics, and no doubt Cushing enjoyed being in this episode.
"Return of the Cybernauts" was written by AVENGERS veteran Phillip Levene, and it was directed by Robert Day (who recently passed away). Day had directed Cushing in Hammer's SHE in 1965. Day uses a number of unique camera angles and edits in the episode, and he shows the Cybernaut as an almost unstoppable force, and a more than worthy opponent for Steed and Mrs. Peel. The program was first broadcast in the U.K. on 9/30/67, and in the U.S. on 2/21/68.
All of the surviving episodes of THE AVENGERS are fast-paced and entertaining (even the ones without Diana Rigg), but "Return of the Cybernauts" is made even more special with Peter Cushing as guest star. Cushing gained his first major notice as an actor from television, through his work on the BBC in the early 1950s. Due to his being based in England, Cushing never got the chance to participate in the many 1960s American TV shows that now dominate the "Retro" cable channels of today. It would have been fascinating if Cushing had shown up on American networks--my guess is he would have loved to be on one of the many small-screen Westerns that frequented the period. Much of Cushing's work for the BBC is now unavailable, but "Return of the Cybernauts" exists, and it gives everyone the chance to see what this magnificent actor could do with the "Guest starring on a TV show" role.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
One of the most trending activities on the internet this week is making a list of favorite movies for every year of your life. Since this is a movie blog, I figured I might as well join in.
I must point out that this is a list of favorite movies from a particular year, not what may be considered the best. (There is a big difference.) A number of years featured several movies I could have chosen, while others were quite barren. There were a few years where my choice was mainly by default. I don't pretend that this list is the result of serious analytical criticism--it's just for fun. Don't take it too seriously, and please don't ask me to do a Favorite Films of the Year list for the rest of the 20th Century before 1969--that would be too much work.
1969-THE WILD BUNCH
1971-WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
1973-HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
1974-THE GODFATHER PART II
1975-MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL
1976-THE BAD NEWS BEARS
1978-EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE
1980-THE BLUES BROTHERS/THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
1981-RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
1983-RETURN OF THE JEDI
1984-ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
1989-INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
1991-TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY
1992-ARMY OF DARKNESS
1996-STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT
1997-AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY
1998-SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
2000-CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON
2001-THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
2002-THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
2003-THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
2004-HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
2007-THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
2011-X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
2015-MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
As many of you know, Claude Rains made a memorable appearance in one of the greatest films ever made--LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The last theatrical feature Rains starred in before LAWRENCE was....BATTLE OF THE WORLDS.
BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is a 1961 Italian science-fiction film. (The original Italian title was IL PLANETA DEGLI UOMINI SPENTI.) Claude Rains plays the irascible Professor Benson, who tries to save the Earth from being destroyed by a rogue planet. I viewed the movie (in a decent print and in widescreen, no less) on YouTube.
The movie begins with an attractive woman running around an exotic seaside location while a haunting melody plays in the background. At first I thought I was watching a perfume commercial, but the lady, named Eve (Maya Brent), is actually on an island where a scientific research center is located. Eve works on the island along with her fiancee Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini). Fred discovers a strange planet heading straight for Earth. He reveals this to the grumpy Professor Benson, who tells Fred he already knows what is happening through his own calculations. (Benson refers to the planet as "the Outsider".) The planet doesn't crash into Earth, but starts orbiting it instead. The planet has a fleet of deadly flying saucers as a defense system, and Benson and his scientific cohorts must find a way defeat this threat.
BATTLE OF THE WORLDS was directed by cult legend Antonio Margheriti, under his usual pseudonym of Anthony Dawson. Margheriti would go on to direct other Italian sci-fi adventures such as WAR OF THE PLANETS and WILD, WILD PLANET. Those films are far more outlandish than BATTLE OF THE WORLDS. I would even say that most American science-fiction films of the same period are more outlandish. BATTLE OF THE WORLDS has a very straightforward story line, and it doesn't have monsters carrying away damsels in nightgowns. The female characters in the film are dressed rather demurely for a low-budget sci-fi flick--no mini-skirts and high heels--and the women work as equals alongside the men on the island, at a Mars base, and in outer space. The FX sequences are more than adequate for the period. The various shots of the spaceships featured in the story are short and edited quickly, which stops the viewer from getting too good a look at them. Whenever spaceships do appear on the screen, they are backed musically with a strange tonal & choral combination that brings to mind the creepy sound effect used in the original INVADERS FROM MARS.
Claude Rains is without doubt the real star of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS. Instead of going through the motions in a movie that most would consider beneath him, Rains gives the role all he has. His Benson is one of those gruff misanthropes who wind up having more heart than those around him. Rains gets a showcase sequence where he tries to convince the "United Commission" (who he communicates with through video screens) to let him have full power to combat the "Outsider". It's the equivalent of a stage soliloquy. At the climax of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, Benson joins Fred & Eve on an expedition to the Outsider planet--which allows us to see the 72-year old actor fitted out in a full spacesuit and space helmet. Rains may look out of place in astronaut gear, but it shows how determined his character is to solve the mystery of the Outsider.
The other actors (all dubbed in English in the version I viewed) are okay, but there's no Franco Nero or Barbara Steele in the bunch. (Umberto Orsini does resemble Richard Chamberlain a bit.) There's no main bad guy role either. Take away Claude Rains from BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, and you would have a very different (and very lifeless) film.
What has been written about BATTLE OF THE WORLDS usually falls along the lines of "Poor Claude Rains must have been embarrassed..." Well, Rains had nothing to be embarrassed about. He got lead billing, and he got a juicy role that he could play to the hilt. BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is very cerebral compared to other science-fiction movies made around the same time, which may be one reason why it doesn't have a major geek following. The movie has some interesting concepts, the main one being that the Outsider was the product of a long-dead alien race, and the planet was stuck on a kind of auto-pilot. (The "Dead Aliens leaving the lights on" plot has been used in several famous TV shows and movies.) BATTLE OF THE WORLDS seems to have fallen into public domain purgatory, and one wishes that a company like Kino would release the movie on a restored Blu-ray. (One thing you have to say about Italian sci-fi movies from the 1960s--they certainly were colorful.) BATTLE OF THE WORLDS isn't on the same level as PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, but it is worth seeking out for science-fiction fans...and especially for anyone who admires the acting ability of Claude Rains.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
It's time for another obscure black & white Italian horror film featuring the undead. This one comes from 1962, and was originally titled LA STRAGE DEI VAMPIRI--the version of it I viewed had the title SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES. (The movie is also known as CURSE OF THE BLOOD GHOULS.)
One would assume that a movie called SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES would have all-out battles between blood-suckers and the living. But the actual story is less ostentatious than that, with very few characters. The plot revolves around 19th Century European newlywed couple Wolfgang (Walter Brandi) and Louise (Graziella Granata), who have taken residence in an old castle. Unfortunately for the pair, a vampire (Dieter Eppler) has decided to hide out in the wine cellar, and he's soon making moves on Louise. Wolfgang is at a loss in dealing with his wife's new sickness, and he goes to get help from the ironically named Dr. Nietzsche (Luigi Batzella), who just happens to be an expert in vampirism (the vampire hunter-vampire ratio in 19th Century Europe must have been enormous). By the time Wolfgang and the Doctor get back, Louise has become a full-fledged member of the undead, and now Wolfgang is next on the list to be converted.
SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES has an unusual opening scene--we see a male & female vampire on the run from torch wielding villagers, the type of sequence usually shown at the end of a horror film. The female vampire is dispatched by the mob, while the male gets away, to hide in the newlywed's castle after the main titles are shown. We get no backstory whatsoever on the male vampire--he doesn't even get a proper name in the story, so we don't even know if he's a count, a baron, or just a working-class guy. He does wear a red-lined cape and a frilly white dress shirt, so at least he's decked out properly. The bad news is that he also is wearing about 20 pounds of makeup, which makes him resemble either a silent movie actor or a 1970s glitter rock star. With his mediocre facial job, it's hard to take Dieter Eppler seriously as a supernatural menace.
Graziella Granata in SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES
The real star of SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is the raven-haired & voluptuous Graziella Granata as Louise. Because of her predicament, Louise spends a lot of time--do I even have to tell you this?--wandering around in the dark wearing a nightgown. But she looks fantastic doing it, and her vampire has far more flair and energy than Eppler's. In most vampire tales, the entire story revolves around saving a beautiful young woman from being vampirzed, whether it be Helen Chandler, Suzan Farmer, Veronica Carlson, etc. The interesting twist in SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is that the young female lead is already lost to the undead before the vampire hunter can get down to business. Right after her transformation, Louise is putting the moves on her grieving husband, and she shows no remorse in doing so.
There's no doubt that SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES was influenced by Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA--at one point Dr. Nietzsche emerges from off-screen and sticks a cross in a vampire's face, just like Peter Cushing's Van Helsing did. Dr. Nietzsche has a lot of other things in common with Cushing's Van Helsing, such as going on about how he has spent his life investigating and tracking down the undead. Luigi Batzella certainly can't match Peter Cushing in the acting department, but he does make a good vampire hunter, and he brings a strong mature presence to the film.
Walter Brandi was a very underwhelming vampire in THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. Here, he gets to play a role that suits him much better, a David Manners-type of character. You feel sorry for poor Wolfgang, but at the same time you can't help but think that the guy wouldn't be able to take out the trash, let alone destroy a supernatural creature.
SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES was written and directed by Roberto Mauri. Mauri lays on the atmosphere when he can, but the film does drag a bit. Having seen this film on YouTube and on a low-priced Retromedia DVD, I have to wonder how much more appreciation I would have for it if I had viewed it in a pristine condition. (The version I saw was dubbed, which didn't help matters much.) The movie forms a sort of loose trilogy along with THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, but I would rate those two movies higher because there are more interesting things going on in them (and they also have a lot more gorgeous women). SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is an okay vampire flick, nothing more.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
This post is inspired by my recent viewing of LOGAN. While preparing it, I realized that there are not as many great superhero movie portrayals as I thought there were. Despite the popularity of the comic book movie genre, most folks seem to complain about certain actors playing certain comic book characters than commend their performances. I chalk that up to the Culture of Geekdom.
I limited myself to choosing from people who played an actual comic book character in a theatrical feature. That means I couldn't, for example, pick Christopher Walken as Max Shreck in BATMAN RETURNS. (That also means no TV portrayals.) Whenever I write one of these lists, I always seem to forget someone, and I probably will here. If you think I have overlooked a certain performance, any type of feedback will be appreciated.
1. Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine in multiple films
I firmly believe that the entire 21st Century era of comic book films started with X-MEN. The breakout performance in that film was Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine. The quality of the X-Men film series has varied over the years--but Jackman's Wolverine has remained constantly popular. I'm sure someone else will play the character someday--but I sure don't envy the person who will have to do it.
2. Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman in BATMAN (1966)
Before you even cry foul, remember that West did appear as Batman in a theatrically released film...and also remember that West still has had more impact in the role than all the other Batman actors put together.
3. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America in multiple films
The steadfast, brave, and honest Captain, as portrayed by Evans, is a rarity among all the "troubled" superheroes we have seen on the big screen in the last few years. Evans has accomplished something rare these days in making a decent man believable without coming off as too goody-goody or stuck up. It sure would be nice if DC/Warners could show Superman the same way....
4. Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach in WATCHMEN
I'll state once again that WATCHMEN is one of the greatest comic book movies of all time. All of the Watchmen are intriguing in their own right, but for my money Rorschach is the most compelling character of all. Haley was perfect in showing the inner rage of a man who can't stand the society he lives in, yet still risks his life to protect it.
5. Jack Nicholson as the Joker in BATMAN (1989)
Yes, Heath Ledger was fantastic in THE DARK KNIGHT, but Nicholson was the real star of Tim Burton's BATMAN...so much so that the Bat villains have been overshadowing the Caped Crusader on the big screen ever since.
6. Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man in multiple films
If Hugh Jackman's performance as Wolverine was of vital importance to the comic book movie genre as a whole, then so was Robert Downey's performance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If the first IRON MAN movie had bombed, there may not even have been a MCU. When I first heard that Downey was going to be Iron Man, I thought the movie was going to be one big joke--but the actor got the last laugh, reviving his career and making Tony Stark his signature performance.
7. Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent in multiple films
Reeve was the ultimate Man of Steel--it's sad he didn't have the opportunity to be in the type of comic book movies they make today. The reason I don't rate Reeve's performance higher is that I've always thought his Clark Kent was far too nerdy.
Honorable Mention: Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier in multiple films; Ian McKellen as Eric Lensherr/Magneto in multiple films; Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in multiple films; Gary Oldman as James Gordon in multiple films; Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS