Monday, December 5, 2022

JOHNNY YUMA

 






Euro Western time again. This one is JOHNNY YUMA, a 1966 German/Italian co-production that has nothing to do with the character of the same name that was played by Nick Adams in the TV series THE REBEL. 

This Johnny Yuma is played by Mark Damon (HOUSE OF USHER), who was already a spaghetti western veteran by this time. Johnny is on his way to his uncle Thomas Felton's sprawling ranch, where he's expected to take charge of the place. Before Johnny gets there his middle-aged uncle is murdered due to the machinations of the young, beautiful Mrs. Felton (Rosalba Neri) and her conniving brother. Johnny plans to avenge his uncle and take his rightful inheritance, while dealing with a mysterious gunslinger named Carradine (Lawrence Dobkin). 

JOHNNY YUMA has plenty of familiar elements, but it also has enough novel twists to make it an above average Euro Western. Mark Damon's Johnny isn't a scruffy loner--when not battling bad guys he's an amiable enough fellow, and he's also definitely a ladies man. A gigantic bar brawl gives Damon a chance to show off his fighting and shooting skills, and it appears the actor does most of his own stunts. 

Damon makes a decent hero, but the main highlight here is Rosalba Neri, Lady Frankenstein herself, as Samantha Felton. Neri's Samantha is a sexy, but cold-blooded femme fatale who is willing to do anything--and use anyone--to get what she wants. Samantha's treachery knows no bounds, and I'll even say that Neri makes her one of the most memorable female characters in spaghetti western history. 

American character actor Lawrence Dobkin's performance as the taciturn Carradine also deserves some mention. Dobkin brings a strong, silent presence, and the relationship between his Carradine and Johnny Yuma is somewhat reminiscent as that between Colonel Mortimer and The Man With No Name in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. Carradine also is a former flame of Samantha's, giving the story some added depth. 

JOHNNY YUMA isn't as over-the-top as most entries in this genre, but in the second half of the film there is a very unexpected, very shocking, and very brutal killing of one of Johnny's companions. I personally didn't think this event was necessary, other than giving Johnny even more of a reason to get revenge (as if he needed any). 

Director and co-writer Romolo Guerrieri injects a few inventive camera angles and scene set-ups, and the lively music score was by Nora Orlandi (it was very rare for a woman to score a Euro Western). 

My expectations were not very high for JOHNNY YUMA, and I have to say the movie more than exceeded them. It's well-paced and entertaining, and it's worth watching for Rosalba Neri alone. The movie is available on a number of streaming channels, but I found the sharpest-looking print of it on YouTube. 



Rosalba Neri in JOHNNY YUMA



Sunday, December 4, 2022

THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS

 






One of the things John Hamilton's magnificent book WITCHES, BITCHES AND BANSHEES makes clear is that not all of American International Pictures' British co-productions were horror films. AIP was involved in a 1967 film which was titled THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS in the U.S. The movie was called JULES VERNE'S ROCKET TO THE MOON in the U.K., despite the fact it had really nothing to do with the famed author's work. I watched THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS on the EPIX streaming channel, and it was a sharp-looking, uncut widescreen print. 

THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS isn't a science fiction tale--it's more in the vein of such lighthearted family epics as THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, and THE GREAT RACE. Those movies were on TV constantly when I was a kid in the 1970s--and they would all invariably bore me. They were never as fun as they were made out to be, and they all went on too long. THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS follows the same pattern. It literally and figuratively never gets off the ground--it has almost no actual flying in it. 

The story, set in the late 19th Century, revolves around P. T. Barnum (Burl Ives) and a number of eccentrics attempting to build a rocket and send it to the moon. A caddish bounder (Terry-Thomas) and his unwilling accomplice (Lionel Jeffries) conspire to stop the project. 

John Hamilton's book details that Bing Crosby, of all people, was originally announced to play P. T. Barnum. I think this may have been wishful thinking on AIP's part--Crosby wasn't able to do it, and he would have been miscast as the brash Barnum anyway. Burl Ives is much more fitting in the role, and he's surrounded by such capable supporting players as Terry-Thomas, Gert Frobe, Lionel Jeffries, and Dennis Price. The main problem is that these performers are not given anything interesting to do--not matter how funny they try to act, they only wind up being mildly amusing. 

The uncut version of the film is about two hours long, and it moves like a slow-moving river. Troy Donahue, as the stalwart American involved in the rocket project, doesn't help things much, and even the sultry Daliah Lavi as Donahue's love interest isn't able to spice the plot up. 

This movie was produced by the infamous Harry Alan Towers, which is surprising, since it doesn't have any of the notorious aspects of the man's usual work. THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS was filmed in Ireland, and director Don Sharp and cinematographer Reg Wyer take great advantage of the outdoor locations. This is one of the best looking-films produced by Harry Alan Towers, and the production design and the costumes are fine as well. One wishes that AIP and Towers had used the cast & crew of this movie on a feature more worthy of their overall talents. 

THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS didn't make much of an impact critically or financially in either America or England. Sometime later AIP would cut the film down to 95 minutes and re-release it as BLAST-OFF in order to try and take advantage of the publicity over NASA's Apollo program. (For all I know, that version might play even better.) 

While watching THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS, I couldn't help but wonder why so many filmmakers in the 1960s made silly, overlong stories set in the 19th Century filled with numerous British character actors and outlandish contraptions, and why they felt that these productions would be prime examples of "family entertainment". (DOCTOR DOOLITTLE is another title in this strange mini-genre.) I would assume that any family that chose to sit in a movie theater and spend over two hours watching one of these things would have been bored stiff. 




Saturday, December 3, 2022

Book Review: WITCHES, BITCHES AND BANSHEES

 






From LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine comes a magnificent 365-page book called WITCHES, BITCHES AND BANSHEES, written by John Hamilton. 

The subtitle of the book--"The British Films of American International Pictures"--makes things perfectly clear. American International--more fondly remembered as AIP--was the company behind many of the most famous low-budget exploitation movies made in 20th Century. AIP had a long history with producers and distributors across the pond, and John Hamilton fully documents it in an extensive and entertaining manner. 

Among the movies thoroughly examined here are the famous (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, the only time AIP and Hammer Films directly worked with each other), the infamous (KONGA), and the surprising (a version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS with a very young Timothy Dalton). 

Each film covered gets a deluxe treatment, with plenty of info, rare stills and images, and a review of how each title was marketed and received by audiences and critics. Despite the volume of material, this book isn't just a dry recitation of facts--the author keeps things lively, especially with his sardonic comments upon the plot elements of each feature. 

Hamilton also discusses the lives of the filmmakers behind these titles--a group of renegades and mavericks who seem almost to be like movie characters themselves. James Nicholson, Samuel Arkoff, Herman Cohen, Harry Alan Towers, Deke Heyward, Tony Tenser, Milton Subotsky....the quirks and peculiarities of these men are more intriguing than anything shown in the movies they made. 

Of course the stars of these films are given plenty of attention as well--consider the book's front cover art by Paul Watts, which depicts genre legends Karloff, Price, Cushing, Lee, Steele, and Pitt. They're all here, along with all sorts of on and off set gossip and squabbles. 

The book is lavishly illustrated, with many of the stills and images in color. If you are familiar with LSOH magazine, the book's clean and concise overall design is somewhat similar. 

From my viewpoint, WITCHES, BITCHES AND BANSHEES is an exemplary piece of work (it's almost as if it was written just for me). The effort and detail by John Hamilton is massive. The book also serves as a mini-history of not just American International Pictures, but of the entire English Gothic movie period of the late 1950s to the early 1970s. For me, WITCHES, BITCHES AND BANSHEES is the movie book of 2022. 

*The book can be ordered directly from the LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS website: www.littleshoppeofhorrors.com  

Friday, November 25, 2022

PAROLE GIRL

 




Mae Clarke is best known for two things: her role as Elizabeth in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN and having a grapefruit shoved in her face by James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. She deserves to be known for more than that, though. Clarke was an extremely versatile actress who always managed to make an impression in every film she was in, no matter how small the part. 

She was infinitely tragic in WATERLOO BRIDGE, yet she was also convincing as conniving women in FAST WORKERS and LADY KILLER. Clarke even stole a movie away from Jean Harlow in THREE WISE GIRLS. She could be fragile and demure, but when she had to she could present a Barbara Stanwyck-like spunky attitude--no surprise considering that Stanwyck and Clarke were pals and roommates when both of them were struggling chorus girls in 1920s New York City. 

Clarke shows plenty of that spunk in the 1933 Columbia film PAROLE GIRL. Mae plays Sylvia Day (no relation to me), who gets caught up in an extortion racket aimed at a department store. Sylvia's partner Tony (Hale Hamilton) leaves her to suffer the consequences, which involves spending a year in jail. Sylvia decides to get revenge on the store big-wig who ordered that she be prosecuted, Joe Smith (Ralph Bellamy). Sylvia uses an ingenious plan to get released after only a month, and she proceeds to stalk Joe, take advantage of him during a drunken night out on the town, and convince him that they were married. Complicating the situation even more are Tony and the woman who claims to have married Joe years before (Marie Prevost). 

PAROLE GIRL gives Mae Clarke plenty of chances to show off her versatility. She goes from tearfully pleading to not be prosecuted, to being hard-as-nails and determined to get her hooks into Joe, to acting as a dutiful, loving wife to impress Joe's boss. The script attempts to set up Sylvia as a victim of circumstances, but her ability to take advantage of whatever situation comes up makes a viewer wonder how innocent she really is. 

One expects PAROLE GIRL to be a hard-edged Pre-Code look at female criminality, but it's nowhere near as salacious as one would expect. It has plenty of comic moments, and Sylvia makes it very clear to both Tony and Joe that her relationships with them are strictly business. Ralph Bellamy's Joe has many of the slow-witted, naive elements one would see in the actor's later screwball roles, but Bellamy also gets to do a drunk scene, and he even gets to strike Sylvia at one point. A series of contrivances sets up a happy ending, but one feels there's no way Sylvia and Joe would last as a couple. 



A rather misleading lobby card for PAROLE GIRL

Mae Clarke by far is the main attraction of PAROLE GIRL. She sports a sleek, modern hairstyle, and she gets to wear plenty of fashionable outfits. Personal problems and health issues would stymie Clarke's career just as it was gaining momentum, but I have to say that every time I see one of her performances, my admiration for her acting talent grows. 


Thursday, November 24, 2022

TWO FOR TONIGHT

 




TWO FOR TONIGHT is a 1935 comedy-musical from Paramount Pictures, starring Bing Crosby. It is mainly notable for being the last feature film in which Thelma Todd had a significant role. (It was planned for Todd to have a major part in the Laurel & Hardy movie THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, but after her death her footage was cut down to little more than a cameo.) 

Bing Crosby plays Gilbert Gordon, an aspiring crooner who through unusual circumstances has to write an entire play in a week for a big-shot Broadway producer (Lynne Overman). The play must also be a showcase for the producer's demanding actress girlfriend Lily (Thelma Todd). Gilbert is more interested in the producer's secretary (Joan Bennett), while fending off the advances of Lily. 

TWO FOR TONIGHT tries to be a zany screwball comedy, but Frank Tuttle's direction is uninspired, and the supposed madcap antics don't fit very well with Bing Crosby's laid-back personality. The movie is only an hour long, and there's not much to it. Bing sings five songs--none of them all that memorable--and Joan Bennett (back when she was a blonde) spends most of her time watching Crosby sing. 

The attempts at wild humor include Bing sitting in a tree while a plane crashes into it (don't ask how that came about) and a seltzer bottle fight in a nightclub among dozens of patrons. These sequences are more lackluster than laughable. The main screwball antics are provided by Mary Boland as Bing's ditzy mother. 

This film does serve as a decent summation of Thelma Todd's feature film roles in general. Thelma has a supporting part, she causes complications for the leading man, and despite not having a lot of screen time she manages to overshadow the leading lady. It's the type of role Thelma did over and over again. 



Thelma Todd and Lynne Overman

I didn't think much of TWO FOR TONIGHT, but I expect that Bing Crosby fans will have more appreciation for it. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

SAY HEY, WILLIE MAYS!

 





Streaming now on HBO Max is the new documentary SAY HEY, WILLIE MAYS!, directed by Nelson George. 

It is universally acknowledged among sports fans that Willie Mays is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Yet it seems that writers and the mainstream media are not as obsessed with Mays as they are with the likes of Mantle, Di Maggio, Ted Williams, etc. This film gives Mays some much needed attention. Most of the running time consists of Mays on camera talking about his life and playing career. The Say Hey Kid may be 91 years old now, but he's still very sharp and gregarious, and he appears to enjoy reflecting upon his amazing story. 

The documentary proceeds in a straightforward manner, starting with Mays' upbringing in Alabama, his time in the Negro Leagues, and his immediate impact upon joining the New York Giants in 1951. The film details the Giants' move to San Francisco in 1958, and how it took Mays awhile to gain acceptance in Northern California. There's also plenty on Mays' return to New York in 1972 when he was traded to the Mets. 

SAY HEY, WILLIE MAYS! runs almost 100 minutes, but the subject's personal life is barely touched upon. What is discussed is Mays' choice to avoid making political & social statements, even in the volatile 1960s. It's obvious that Mays would much rather talk about baseball more than anything else. 

Several of Mays' former teammates and contemporaries are interviewed, and much is made of Willie's very close relationships with Bobby and Barry Bonds. (The latter gets plenty of screen time, and he comes off as surprisingly humble when discussing his mentor and godfather.) 

There's plenty of historical footage and audio included, and of course "The Catch" Mays made in the 1954 World Series is analyzed. There's not much here for stat geeks to get into--Mays' fantastic numbers are not really looked at--but this is a story about the man himself. 

Willie Mays doesn't appear to have had the controversies and personal problems surrounding him as did many other baseball legends. That might be why his public profile isn't as large as his playing career was. Or it may be, as this documentary shows, Mays let his play on the diamond do most of his talking. If you do watch SAY HEY, WILLIE MAYS!, I suggest afterwords going on the internet and delving into his baseball stats. You'll have a far greater respect for him. 



Saturday, November 19, 2022

WAR ON THE DIAMOND

 



WAR ON THE DIAMOND is a new documentary, based on (or more accurately, inspired by) one of my favorite baseball books, THE PITCH THAT KILLED, written by Mike Sowell. 

The story of both movie and book concerns the tragic fate of Ray Chapman, who was a star shortstop for the Cleveland Indians baseball team in the early 20th Century. On August 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds in New York City, Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by the Yankees' Carl Mays. Chapman died later that night, and he remains to this day the only MLB player to have perished due to an incident during a game. 

WAR ON DIAMOND presents the idea that Chapman's death was the impetus for a rivalry between the now Cleveland Guardians and New York Yankees that lasts to this day. I must say that, from my perspective, I've never felt that those two teams were major rivals....if there is a rivalry, it's pretty one sided, in favor of the Yankees. The film compares working-class Midwest Cleveland with high-class, big-budget New York, but honestly just about any other MLB city could make the same comparison. 

The documentary alternates sequences concerning the life and death of Ray Chapman with scenes detailing the contrasting histories of the Cleveland and Yankee franchises. The Indians vs. Yankees sequences have plenty of rare historic footage, and interviews with notable people who are connected with the teams. The Chapman sequences have footage and audio of Ray's sister and Carl Mays himself. 

While the Indians vs. Yankees subplot is well done, I wish the film had been solely about Ray Chapman. His story is far more compelling than any modern baseball tale--especially when one considers what happened to Chapman's wife and child, and the team he was a member of when he died. (The 1920 Indians overcame what happened to their beloved shortstop and went on to win the World Series.) The genial Chapman, the mercurial Carl Mays, the entire 1920 MLB season....all these subjects are more than enough to fill out a feature-length film. 

I understand why director Andrew Billman (who was also one of the many producers) spent time on the Indians vs. Yankees subplot. Most 21st viewers probably wouldn't be all that interested in something that happened 100 years ago, and anything involving the New York Yankees is going to get attention. I would recommend WAR ON THE DIAMOND, but the best parts of it deal directly with Ray Chapman. Mike Sowell's book THE PITCH THAT KILLED is still the source to go to when it comes to the Chapman tragedy. 



Ray Chapman