Film Noir Review: “Undertow”

“Undertow” (1949)

Starring Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett and Roc Hudson. Directed by William Castle. From Universal-International.

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A typically fantastic poster, indicative of the era and the genre.

Tony Reagan (Brady) is a former gangster and ex-con who is vacationing in Reno. He runs into an old Chicago crony, Danny Morgan (Russell), who is still connected with the underworld. The two buddies share a drink and they find that they are both engaged to be married. On the flight home to old Chi, Tony sits next to pretty school teacher Ann McKnight (Dow). Tony and Ann had previously exchanged pleasantries at a Reno craps table. When Reagan arrives home, he is immediately rousted by the police in the form of old nemesis Det. Charles Reckling (Bennett). Tony is informed that he is suspected of causing potential trouble with his old boss, mob kingpin, Big Jim, his fiancee’s uncle. Tony goes to talk it over with Big Jim and is slugged, shot in the arm and left in his car. Upon waking, he hears a radio report of Big Jim’s murder and learns that he is the number one suspect. Tony looks up Ann and she, believing him innocent, harbours him. Tony tries to exonerate himself which leads him to his fiancée, Sally (Hart) and his old pal, Danny. Can Tony clear his name? Or will he be caught in the undertow?

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Ann believes Tony but he doesn’t want her to get hurt. They make a good looking couple.

In a way, “Undertow” is perfect. Is it a fantastic film on a level with “Citizen Kane”? No, that’s not what I mean. It’s perfect in that it is a prime example of “film noir”. Without getting into a long dissertation on this post-war genre, I’ll just quickly run it down for the uninitiated. Film noir can be considered a documentary look at the seamier side of life in America in the years immediately following World War 2. The men coming home from the war were faced with suddenly trying to go back to their former lives. This proved difficult for many considering the horrors they had lived through on the battlefield. Many men struggled to assimilate and this gave rise to a somewhat desperate condition. Unable to play the game, many men turned to the streets; if not to crime, exactly, then to a shadowy world that was in part born out of their inability to function after the terrors of war. “Happy endings” – or happiness, itself – were no longer a foregone conclusion. Reality in this time now included desperation, poor choices and living on the fringes of society in an ambiguous land.

Hollywood began to reflect this change in society with the production of these gritty crime dramas – the term “film noir” was coined in France many years later. A handful of actors began to make their name in this new style of film. Some were stars already like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum but a lot of the actors employed in these films were lesser lights and a lot of them began to forge new identities and new careers in film noir. Scott Brady was among them. Brady started life as Gerald Tierney in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a police officer. Notably, Brady’s brother was actor Lawrence Tierney, who himself made a name in hard-boiled films noir such as “Born to Kill” and “The Hoodlum”. Tierney was a raging alcoholic who found himself regularly in trouble with the law, often for assaults on civilians and lawmen alike. He made a memorable turn years later in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”.

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Tony, realizing it’s a frame-up, has to take it on the lam.

Brady served in the US Navy during World War 2 and after his discharge he followed his brother and headed for Hollywood. Once there, he was immediately cast in films noir such as “He Walked By Night” – his first film, co-starring Richard Basehart and Jack Webb, who took his experiences on this film and created “Dragnet” – “Canon City” and “The Counterfeiters”, co-starring Lon Chaney, Jr., Hugh Beaumont and Joi Lansing. “Undertow” was his fifth film. He was a good-looking, fine and earnest actor who would never exactly make the big time. He would go on to star in his own show on television, the western “Shotgun Slade” which ran for two seasons starting in 1959. He died a year after appearing in his final film, 1984’s “Gremlins”.

John Russell was a handsome, strapping actor whose 6 foot, 3 inch frame almost made him ineligible to serve in the United States Marine Corps. He was eventually made a second lieutenant and served on Guadalcanal before contracting malaria. Unfortunately, Russell never even achieved the level of success in films that Scott Brady did. He appeared in many westerns, including “Rio Bravo”, before following Brady to television. Russell starred in the series “Lawman” beginning in 1958, a show on which he was joined by noir actress Peggie Castle. “Lawman” ran for four seasons – 2 more than Brady’s series. Russell is perhaps most notable for his appearances in Clint Eastwood westerns “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and – memorably – 1985’s “Pale Rider”, a film in which he cut a striking, villainous figure. He died in 1991, aged 70.

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Big- shouldered John Russell in Reno for “Undertow” and in Alberta for Clint’s “Pale Rider”.

“Undertow” was Peggy Dow’s first film. Later, she appeared in “Harvey” and “Bright Victory” but left the business to get married after only two years in Hollywood. In 1951, aged 23, she married an oilman from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Walter Helmerich III – theirs is a story I suggest you look up. Helmerich & Payne is an oil drilling company that was co-founded by Walter’s father and is currently the second largest onshore driller in the world. Walter was made president in 1960 (he got this news when his father, founder Walter II, came into his office and said “you’re president. Good luck”) and served as such until handing the reins over to one of his five sons with Peggy, Hans, in 1989. With her marriage, Peggy became Liz Taylor in “Giant” – a beautiful wife of an oilman, she became a prominent lady in Tulsa society and a philanthropist of the first order. The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award has been given out since 1985 to authors who have made major contributions to the field of literature. Past winners include: John Le Carré, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow, John Grisham and Canadian Margaret Atwood. She developed a women’s health center that provides services including labour and delivery, childbirth education and neonatal intensive care. Perhaps most satisfyingly for us, Peggy V. Helmerich is still with us at 90 years of age.

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Peggy Dow. Quite a lady.

Bruce Bennett won the silver medal in shot put at the 1928 Olympic Games. In 1931, producers chose him to portray Tarzan in the vine-swinger’s first feature film but Bennett broke his shoulder making a football movie. Johnny Weissmuller – also an Olympian – got the call instead. Bennett would go on to a prolific albeit low-key career appearing in films such as “The More the Merrier”, “Mildred Pierce”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Love Me Tender”. He was still active late in life, skydiving at the age of 96. He made it to 100 and died in Santa Monica.

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Olympic medalist Bruce Bennett as Det. Reckling. Suspicious at first, he soon finds himself in Tony’s corner.

Pretty Dorothy Hart portrays Tony’s fiancée, Sally. Hart made only a handful of films including the noir classic “The Naked City” (1948) and “Tarzan’s Savage Fury” (1952) in which she became the tenth actress to portray Jane. She retired after only 12 films and seven years to work for the United Nations.

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Dorothy Hart as Sally. Soon to leave Hollywood for some real work at the UN.

“Undertow” marks the second film and first credited appearance of Rock (“Roc” here) Hudson. Rock had appeared the previous year in “Fighter Squadron” with Edmond O’Brien and Robert Stack. Delivering his one line in that film took 38 takes. Rock soon began to be groomed by Universal and would go on to make “Bright Victory” in 1951 with Peggy Dow before being used as a leading man starting with “Scarlet Angel” (1952) opposite Yvonne de Carlo and “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”, a comedy that featured a brief appearance by James Dean. Rock Hudson, of course, would go on to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

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“Roc” Hudson (with Bennett) in his one scene in “Undertow”.

The director of “Undertow” was William Castle. Castle was given his start in the entertainment business at 15 when he befriended Bela Lugosi and Bela got him a job with the touring company of the play “Dracula”. Castle’s interesting career is a story unto itself; I suggest that, while you’re looking up Peggy Dow, you also look him up. Castle began directing in the early ’40’s. He did uncredited script work on 1945’s “Dillinger”, starring Scott Brady’s brother, Lawrence Tierney. He also worked as an associate producer and uncredited script doctor on Orson Welles’ noir classic “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947). “Undertow” was his first notable film as director and he went on to direct low-budget action and western films. In 1958, he mortgaged his home to make “Macabre” which began his career in horror. Castle was also a master of publicity and promotion, coming up with endless gimmicks to promote his films. With “Macabre”, he took to the trades to offer life insurance policies to those brave enough to see the film. For the following year’s “House on Haunted Hill”, Castle worked in cahoots with theatre owners to rig up a pulley system in theatres to have a skeleton swing out over the audience. “The Tingler” (1959) was shown in theatres where Castle had secured buzzers to the underside of certain seats. At pivotal moments in the film, the buzzers would emit a screaming wail.

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William Castle. Aside from his horror gimmicks, he exhibited a deft director’s touch with this film noir.

Castle mortgaged his home again in the mid-Sixties to buy the rights to the unpublished novel, “Rosemary’s Baby”. His dream was to produce and direct an A-movie himself. In the end, Roman Polanski helmed the film with Castle producing and Castle enjoyed the success of a quality picture. Health issues made it impossible for him to capitalize on this success, however. He later had small acting roles in “Shampoo” (1975) and “The Day of Locust” (1975) and passed away in 1977.

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There are some great location shots in “Undertow”. In some, you can see the crowd watching the action.

Right from the opening credits, you can see that “Undertow” has partially been shot on location in Chicago and Reno. This characteristic of film noir is particularly pleasing as it adds to the realism and it allows us to see moving images of some great American cities as they looked post-war. So you see, there is a lot to recommend “Undertow”. It may not be “The Maltese Falcon” but, sometimes, that is exactly what you want from a film noir – simplicity. 70-80 minutes of regular guys and regular gals trying to make it through the shadows. Greatness is non-essential.

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Autumn Movie Review: “St. Elmo’s Fire”

I have what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome” – I gravitate to certain forms of media at certain times of year. This includes watching particular movies in the fall. Here’s another review of one of my favourite autumn movies.

“St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985)

Starring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham, Andie MacDowell, Martin Balsam, Jenny Wright and Matthew Laurence. Directed by Joel Schumacher. From Columbia Pictures.

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Interesting for me to note that this very autumnal movie was released at the beginning of summer.

The film depicts seven friends – all apparently the same age – who have just graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. The film plots their varied efforts to make their way in life. The two unofficial “leaders” of the group are Alec Newbury (Nelson) and Leslie Hunter (Sheedy). Rob Lowe is perfectly cast as Billy Hicks, the frat boy party animal who is estranged from his wife and baby and is in an on-again, off-again relationship with Wendy (Winningham), the virginal member of the group. Kevin Dolenz (McCarthy) is an aspiring writer and Kirby Keager (Estevez) is going to law school and the two share an apartment. Jules Van Patten is somewhat of a female Billy Hicks – beautiful, popular and wild. Jules works in international banking but soon loses her way.

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Georgetown grad exercises take place during the third week of May. Alec mentions at the start of the film that it’s four months since graduation.

As the film opens, Billy and Wendy have been in a car accident. A drunken Billy is at fault; it is the same old story with him. The rest of the gang shows up at the hospital to find the couple unscathed. Kirby spots Dr. Dale Biberman (MacDowell) and shares an exchange with her, rekindling an old flame. The group heads to their hang-out – St. Elmo’s Bar, where Kirby works as a waiter – to discuss the accident and decompress. Jules wonders aloud why Kevin is so moody lately. Kevin shrugs it off. Billy checks in with his wife, Felicia (Wright), and the call doesn’t go well; also the same old story. Wendy reveals to the girls that Billy lost the job that Alec got for him which angers Alec. He reprimands Billy, saying that his irresponsibility is hard on all of them. Later in their apartment, Alec again puts pressure on Leslie to marry him but his efforts are interrupted by Jules at the door. She is still stressing about her step-mother, who is dying in the hospital and worries about the expense of a funeral. In their apartment, Kevin and Kirby go back and forth about the pros and cons of love when Billy arrives saying he needs a place to crash.

The next day the gang is in Jules’ jeep when Alec announces he has got a plum job working for a senator. Jules has Kevin over and tries to get him to admit that he is gay and in love with Alec. He denies it and leaves in a huff. Kevin is at Alec and Leslie’s apartment for dinner and Alec takes Kevin aside and confesses to sleeping with another woman. Alec claims that Leslie committing to marry him will make him faithful. Wendy has Billy over for supper. Billy’s rebellious nature clashes hilariously with Wendy’s uptight family. Billy causes a stir by sitting on Wendy’s roof where he reveals that he has struggled since graduation. Poignantly, he tells her that school was fun but real life is not and he is having trouble dealing. During their conversation, Wendy reveals she is a virgin which seems to fascinate and shock Billy. Billy makes an advanced play for Wendy which she rebuffs. She says they shouldn’t see each other anymore, gives Billy his rent money and goes upstairs. Billy is remorseful. He leaves the money behind and walks out.

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Kevin at Jules’ apartment – with the all-world mural of Billy Idol. You can spot a picture of Idol on Jules’ desk at work, as well.

At St. Elmo’s, Jules tells Leslie that she is having an affair with her boss and Leslie and Wendy agree that Jules is spiraling. Billy sees his wife with another guy and attacks him. Out on the street, Billy and Felicia start to fight and are pulled apart; only to fall into each others arms. Kirby is now in full pursuit of Dale. He assumes that she respects money so he takes a job with a Korean gangster and invites Dale to a party. When she doesn’t show, Kirby loses it and travels up to the lodge where she has gone skiing. Kirby finds her there with another guy. The snow keeps him there overnight. In the morning, Kirby has a change of heart. He kisses Dale farewell and leaves her with thoughts that maybe she is missing out. Meantime, Billy makes a play for a drunken Jules who kicks him out of her jeep onto his front stoop. Felicia has seen the exchange and is not impressed. Billy goes back to his fraternity and is given a hero’s welcome. When he expresses a desire to perhaps get a job on campus, his friends are thrilled – only because if he does he will be able to provide them with drugs. This depresses Billy. When he meets Felicia and the baby there, she suggests an annulment. Billy says he is going to shape up.

At a party, Alec forces the issue by announcing to all that he and Leslie are engaged. She is angered and takes him aside. Playing a hunch, she questions him about his philandering. Alec blows it by assuming Kevin has spilled the beans. He knocks Kevin down and tells Leslie to move out of their apartment. Kevin takes Leslie home to his place where he reveals that the reason he doesn’t date and people think he’s gay is because he has a deep, hidden love for her. This is timely news for her and they have sex. Alec shows up to apologize and finds them together. Later, Kevin is talking love and moving in together but Leslie shuts him down saying she needs time to herself. This crushes Kevin.

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Significantly, it is Billy – who is as lost as Jules – that talks her off the ledge. He confirms that a lot of this is “self-created drama”.

Alarm bells go off when Leslie finds that collection agencies have repossessed all of Jules’ belongings and she has locked herself in her empty apartment with the windows open, hoping the cold November winds blowing in will kill her. The gang rallies and Billy breaks in and talks Jules off the ledge. Later, Billy realizes he has to move on. He has an intimate night with Wendy and then he is seen off at the bus station; he is bound for New York. Leslie tells Alec and Kevin that she loves them both but needs to be on her own. The gang plan to meet for drinks – but, they decide, not at St. Elmo’s. Somewhere else. Where there are less kids.

“St. Elmo’s’ Fire” takes place between the middle of September and early November and it contains some excellent autumn scenery. This makes it perfect for viewing in the fall. It was shot during the last three months of the year in and around Georgetown. The University itself read the script and decided it was not going to let the filmmakers shoot on the grounds so the University of Maryland stood in for the school scenes. St. Elmo’s Bar was based on a real life watering hole in Georgetown called The Tombs although the exterior shots of the bar were shot on the lot in Hollywood – just steps away from the clock tower in ‘Hill Valley’ as seen in “Back to the Future”. This “autumn movie” is also among my “Top 23” favourite films. I list it among the ten films I fell in love with while I was still a teenager. It is a coming-of-age story, a sub-genre for which I have a particular affection. My man, Brian Wilson, once said that growing up is a dramatic story. No matter what a person’s situation, simply going from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ is, in and of itself, a very serious pivot point in life. A coming-of-age story can have an appeal to those who are currently going through this phase of life and it can also inspire nostalgia in those who have long since past that point. The coming-of-age film makes for a great story that many age groups can relate to. It is rife with plot points and possibilities.

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The film features some great shots of Georgetown in autumn.

The film stars members of the “Brat Pack” – a group of young hip actors who frequently appeared in movies together during the 1980’s. Rob Lowe and Demi Moore have gone on to a certain degree of celebrity while the others remain most notable for the films they made together at this time. I have to single out Andrew McCarthy, though. One of my personal favourites, he possessed a quirky sort of casual charm and he’s always been a cherished “sleeper” sort of actor for me, showing up in great films like “Less Than Zero”, “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “Mulholland Falls”. “St. Elmo’s Fire” is noted as being the film that contained the highest number of “Brat Packers” and it is a great-looking and beloved cast. Lowe, McCarthy and Moore look particularly spectacular and the rest are outfitted and coiffed perfectly for their individual characterizations. Although Demi Moore was struggling with addiction at the time, she and Estevez – son of Martin and brother of Charlie Sheen – dated during the making of the film and Mare Winningham, playing Wendy, the virgin, was already a mother. Jenny Wright is a quirky actress in the Lori Petty mold. She appeared in a hidden favourite of mine, “Valentino Returns” (1989) but later dropped off the face. And Matthew Laurence appears as Jules’ gay neighbour, Ron. Laurence had been in another of my “Top 23” favourite films two years prior to this; “Eddie and the Cruisers”.

The girls in this film are dressed according to their characters. In Leslie and Wendy’s case, they are appropriately dressed as an upwardly-mobile modern woman and a safe, self-conscious virginal-type, respectively. Moore gets to wear fancier clothes as Jules and she looks great in glasses. In my opinion – and, yes, I’m a guy – it’s the boys that look cool in this film, particularly Billy and Kevin. Billy has taken to wearing a blazer over top of his fraternity coat and it’s a great look for him. It may even be representative of his struggles letting go of school and joining the real world. It’s a look I remember once trying to adopt. It did not go over. Later, Billy scores in his coveralls from his job at a gas station, earning extra points for his high-cut canvas Converse – one black and one green. Kevin is the moody writer who generally keeps himself under wraps and this is borne out by his great employing of an overcoat and fedora. A shout-out should go to costume designer Susan Becker who served in the same capacity for other films featuring hip, young people: “The Lost Boys”, “Flatliners” and “True Romance”.

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Rob Lowe, at 20, was the youngest cast member. He looks great in the film.

The film was co-written and directed by Joel Schumacher, who had previously been a costume designer before turning to directing; “St. Elmo’s Fire” was his third effort as director. He would go on to direct such films as “The Lost Boys”, “Batman Forever”, “A Time to Kill” and “Batman and Robin”.

Schumacher’s co-writer on this project was Carl Kurlander. “St. Elmo’s Fire” was the only feature film that Kurlander worked on and the story is autobiographical. This can serve as an inspiration of sorts for those of us who feel that we have but one story in us – the story of our lives – and would love to see that story come to life as a film or television show. It puts me in mind of another of my “Top 23”, “Dirty Dancing”, which was the autobiographical story of Eleanor Bergstein. Her screenplay for that beloved film is also an instance where a screenwriter has one solitary feature film credit. Kurlander went on to work on teen shows on television, notably creating the series “Malibu, CA” which ran for two seasons starting in 1998. This series stands out to me because, if you look it up, it features NOT ONE actor that you recognize. I defy anyone to look up that cast and spot someone you know or have seen in something. Fascinating. Kurlander later left Hollywood to return to Pittsburgh, where he grew up, to teach school and make documentaries, mostly about the possibilities of using “hometowns” like the Steel City as film making alternatives to Tinsel Town.

Canadian David Foster supplies the soundtrack for the film which features his excellent “Love Theme from ‘St. Elmo’s Fire'” which reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. John Parr performed “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” which he originally co-wrote with Foster for Rick Hansen, the Canadian athlete who was traveling around the world in his wheelchair raising awareness of spinal cord injuries. This song fared even better on the charts, peaking at #1 for two weeks in September of ’85.

For me, the appeal of the film lies in the way this group of friends is depicted. Here we see the type of alliances most of us wish that we had or had had growing up. The script does a great job of establishing the make-up of each character early on and how they relate to others in the group. I might go so far as to call the script “perfect” in this respect. In the opening ten minutes the characters are basically fully formed and explained to the viewer. Certainly by the end of the second scene – the first time we see the gang together at St. Elmo’s – you know everyone well. Think about it: the film begins; Alec is dressed like a yuppy and is striding purposefully into the hospital, “plain pretty” Leslie by his side. Billy is gorgeous, has been driving drunk and is flirting with a nurse. Kirby talks legalities with the police officer and establishes his infatuation with Dale Biberman. Frumpy Wendy is making excuses for Billy, whom she obviously loves. Jules shows up dressed like a runway model with her date who looks like an ad for Bronson’s Tuxedos. And in the second scene, Kevin is questioned about why he is down on love and is evasive. Bam. How long did that take? Seven minutes, ten seconds. Effective and engaging screenwriting.

At the time of release, critics savaged “St. Elmo’s Fire”. It seems they misunderstood Joel Schumacher’s realistic presentation of twentysomethings. These people are horrible and irredeemable, the critics said. This film went a long way to showing what was really going on with people of this age group. The film is almost like a documentary, the relationships are so authentic, the chemistry within the group so palpable. You can clearly see the history here. There is obviously a lot of intimacy between the group members and past experiences are referred to, directly or indirectly. There is a love and a concern for one another evidenced in Alec getting jobs for Billy, Wendy getting money from her father to give to Billy for his rent, Leslie and Wendy trying to intervene in Jules’ life, Jules trying to help Kevin with his love life. Their lives are still wrapped up in each other as they were in school, Felicia going so far as to say to Billy that he is “married to your friends and the bar”. It is significant to note that when Jules is in deep distress the gang comes together despite a lot of friction due to the Alec-Leslie-Kevin situation. Billy’s role here is particularly interesting. First, you’ll note he has left work – with a company vehicle – to come and help. Of course this new job at a garage would seem better suited to Billy, the people there more like him than the people at the jobs Alec was getting for him. Secondly, it’s significant that it is Billy that gets in to talk to Jules. You’ll remember the scene when Jules dropped Billy off at his house and he “broke her heart”; so Billy ‘owes’ her. Also, he is going through the exact same thing Jules is – “we’re all going through this”, he says. Jules is suffering from ‘self-created drama’; trying to project the image of a hip and together lady of the ’80’s. There was a lot of pressure on young people at this time to be Alec – successful, motivated and focused. Such was not always the case. Billy has summed it up earlier on the roof when he lamented the fact that “school was pretty out-of-hand. In everyday life there’s just no way to be out-of-hand”. He speaks for everybody that has ever gone from childhood to adulthood – all of us. It’s a poignant albeit simple observation.

Someone always leaves. I always say that when Billy gets on the bus at the end of the film. Here is a basic but heavy fact of life; sometimes you have to leave the comfort of friends and home if you’re going to make it in the world. I immediately think of one of the original coming-of-age stories, George Lucas’ 1973 classic “American Graffiti”. At the end of that film, Curt – played by Richard Dreyfuss – also has to leave home to find his way. This is a very concrete way to illustrate the fact that things change. One of the group near the end of “St. Elmo’s Fire” says sadly “I always thought we’d be friends forever”. It’s a sad reality of life that this is almost never the case. Even the group that’s left after Billy has gone – will they always hang out together? What if someone meets someone who is a stranger to the rest of the gang? What if Alec and Leslie  get married and start a family? It gets increasingly hard to hold these relationships together. “St. Elmo’s Fire” serves as a love letter of sorts to a magical time in a person’s life. That brief moment just before you realize that life is serious and you have to get down to business.

At the end of the film, the friends walk out of the frame and that most perfect of all closing credits songs comes up. With it’s wistful sadness, Foster’s theme perfectly reflects the emotional feelings of this momentous time of life.

“Top 23” Review: “The Raven” (1935)

The Raven (1935)

Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Samuel S. Hinds and Ian Wolfe. Directed by Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers). From Universal Pictures.

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Boris billed with only his last name – like Schwarzenegger – and poor Bela has a new middle name, I guess.

Socialite Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) has been in a car accident and lies unconscious in hospital. Her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), her fiancee, Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) and a team of doctors are at a loss. Something has impinged on the nerves at the base of Jean’s brain. The imminent Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is called. Judge Thatcher beseeches him to look into the case but Vollin initially refuses until his ego is appealed to. When Judge Thatcher says that all of the doctors in attendance say that Vollin is the only one who can do anything, Vollin agrees to operate. When he sees the beautiful Jean, he is smitten. The operation is a success and Vollin begins to make his designs on Jean known. Jean gently rebuffs the doctor, saying she is going to marry Jerry. This, combined with Judge Thatcher telling Vollin to forget about Jean, sends Vollin over the edge.

Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) arrives at Dr. Vollin’s home late one night. Bateman is on the lam and wants Vollin to change the way he looks so he can avoid the police. Vollin gets an idea. When Bateman suggests that having an ugly face makes one do ugly things, Vollin manipulates the nerve ends at the base of Bateman’s brain leaving him “hideously ugly”. Vollin says he will fix Bateman’s face if Bateman helps him exact his revenge on the Thatchers. Jean, Jerry and Judge Thatcher are part of a overnight party that Vollin hosts at his stately home. During the night, Vollin will set his evil plan in motion.

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“Do I look different?”, Bateman asks, hopefully. “Yes”, Dr. Vollin replies.

As always, I’m here to help you people. I get the feeling that no one has seen “The Raven”. Not the 1963 Roger Corman-directed film that starred Boris Karloff with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre and not the more recent film of the same name starring John Cusack. This version of “The Raven” is one of my “Top 23” favourite films of all-time. Made in the mid-’30’s at the height of Universal’s reign as the premiere monster movie studio, it was a rare chance for Lugosi to feature more heavily in a film than his frequent co-star, Karloff. It’s a well-known story that Lugosi was resentful of Karloff. Lugosi had become popular after his immortal portrayal of Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s legendary “Dracula” (1931) but this left him hopelessly typecast. For one thing, his thick, Hungarian accent made him hard to cast and for another thing the jury was out on the quality of his acting. In “The Raven”, Lugosi not only has the meatier role, more screen time and all the best lines but he actually acts and acts well while Karloff is by comparison poor. Karloff’s character, killer Edmond Bateman, is supposed to be your typical, half-literate, vicious American criminal. Karloff’s dulcet tones and British accent, however, make him a hard sell in this role. A bearded Karloff employs some colloquial dialogue in this film that he simply can’t pull off – he’s too erudite to make it work.

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As Bateman ponders his life, he suggests that a man’s appearance can influence his personality. “You are saying something profound…” says Vollin. He gets a sadistic idea.

I really struggled with how to present this review. The problem is Lugosi. He is very good as Dr. Vollin. I wanted to go into detail describing every scene because of Lugosi and his performance and dialogue. His dense accent seems to add to the luster of the wonderful lines he is provided with. The technique he employs here is perfect for the role of the egotistical fan of Poe who is obsessed with torture and death and he brings exactly what is required to the role. Everything from his accent to his eyebrows to his hair all work together for an excellent characterization. He is simply a joy to watch.

And the dialogue is great. Now, is it so bad that it’s good? I don’t know. It just all works. “The Raven” was written by David Boehm who did nothing, really, of any note besides this film and “A Guy Named Joe”, which Steven Spielberg remade as “Always”. Boehm really threw all of his good stuff into this film. The curator of a local museum visits Vollin wanting to view Vollin’s collection of torture devices. When Vollin says that the raven statue in his study is his talisman, the curator notes that it is a curious talisman, the symbol of death. “Death is my talisman”, declares Vollin. After Jean listens to Vollin play a piece on his pipe organ, she is awed with him. “You’re almost not a man. You’re almost…”. Vollin finishes her thought, revealing his delusions of grandeur: “…a god? A god with the taint of human emotions”. Vollin gives Bateman a tour of his cellar where his torture devices are kept. “They’re very old pieces but, I warn you…ready for use”. Perhaps the finest lines Lugosi is given to speak are delivered after Bateman realizes Vollin has deformed his face. Vollin – with sadistic glee – says “You’re monstrously ugly. Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use your hate”. At the height of his madness, when his plans are beginning to be realized, Vollin becomes charismatic and bites of a few great lines with relish: “Do you mind if I smoke?”. “A knife – flashing!”. “Yes, I like to torture”. “Fifteen minutes! There’s the clock. You can see it”. “A humble place. But your love will make it beautiful”. And finally, drunk with the joy his diabolical plans are bringing him, Bela achieves the sublime: “What a torture! What a delicious torture, Bateman! Greater than Poe! Poe only conceived it – I have done it, Bateman. Poe! You are — avenged!!”. These are just a few examples of the film’s stellar dialogue.

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Homicidal bliss. “Poe! You are — avenged!!”

A review from the New York Times, however, certainly did not share my love of “The Raven”. In a sarcastic piece that appeared on July 5, 1935, the reviewer lambastes the filmmakers mostly for the fact that they have tied this film to Edgar Allan Poe when, it argues, those ties are flimsy at best. The film, showing at the Roxy Theater, was eviscerated thusly: “the Roxy’s current tenant should have no difficulty in gaining the distinction of being the season’s worst horror film. Not even the presence of the screen’s Number One and Two Bogymen, Mr. Karloff and Bela (Dracula) Lugosi, can make the picture anything but a fatal mistake from beginning to end”. Ouch. In a nice, old school touch, the review ends with a few words about the live show that was also featured with the film, including the dance team of Tip, Tap and Toe and the Freddie Mack Orchestra.

The cast is B-movie bland with a couple of interesting participants. Irene Ware was a beauty queen that spent only a few years making movies, one of which was “Chandu The Magician” with Lugosi. She was also in “Six Hours to Live” (1932) with Warner Baxter in which she played “The Prostitute”. Her story is a common one for her era in that she acted for a time and then quit the business to raise a family. A picture on her Wikipedia page is identified as being from “The Raven” but it is from “Chandu”.

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Irene Ware was a dish; if a generic one

Samuel S. Hinds was always playing judges and doctors except when he was playing Peter Bailey, George’s dad, in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He had been a lawyer for 32 years before becoming an actor in 1933, a year in which he appeared in 22 films. In one year. He went on to have 217 acting credits in 15 years – or almost 14.5 movies a year! Nottingham born Lester Matthews has scores of credits to his name the most notable of which are “Werewolf of London” (1935), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Now, Voyager” (1942), “Niagara” (1953), “Mary Poppins” (1964) and “Assault on a Queen” (1966). He was the go-to guy when you needed a British-type on the cheap. Spencer Charters you’ve seen in many films among them “Libeled Lady” (1936), “Remember the Night” (1940) and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942). He committed suicide in January of 1943 by combining sleeping pills and carbon monoxide poisoning. He then appeared posthumously in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Inez Courtney was another generic B movie actress. As a young hoofer she had the nicknames St. Vitis, Mosquito and Lightning and then eventually married an Italian nobleman earning her the title Marchesa.

Ian Wolfe was a noted character actor with over 300 credits to his name. For me, Wolfe has the distinction of being in two of my “Top 23” favourite films; “The Raven” and “The Falcon’s Adventure”. But more than that the diversity of his credits is astounding. I grew up loving “WKRP in Cincinnati” and enjoyed Wolfe’s portrayal of Mother Carlson’s sarcastic butler. I couldn’t at first reconcile the fact that this was the same man in “The Raven” 40 years earlier. Wolfe always looked like and played an old man. The same year as “The Raven”, Wolfe appeared in “Mutiny on the Bounty”. He later showed up in “You Can’t Take it With You” with Hinds, 2 “Blondie” movies, 3 “Falcon” movies, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Now, Voyager” with Matthews, “Random Harvest”, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, “A Place in the Sun”, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. He appeared in everything from the film “Zombies on Broadway” in 1945 to two episodes of television’s “Star Trek” in 1968 and ’69. He was in George Lucas’ first film, “THX 1138” in 1971 and episodes of “Cheers”, “Remington Steele” and “The Fall Guy” before wrapping up his career in 1990 at age 93 in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”. Consider that he made films with Norma Shearer and Madonna. He died of natural causes in 1992, aged 95, leaving behind his wife of 68 years.

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Ian Wolfe has over 300 credits to his name; from 1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” to 1990’s “Dick Tracy” (top left) with countless TV appearances, as well.

Director Lew Landers was only in his second year of directing when he helmed “The Raven”, which he directed while still using his given name, Louis Friedlander. Why he changed his name I don’t know but he went on to direct over 100 films at every major studio but most of his work was done on B pictures at smaller studios. He directed two “Boston Blackie” movies before making his final film, “Hot Rod Gang” in 1958 for American International. He lived out his days directing on television and died in 1962.

One thing Universal always got bang on in their horror films was production design. Albert D’Agostino provided the great sets and look for “The Raven” and close to 350 other films, mostly for RKO. Vollin’s home is one of those great, old ‘movie homes’ with lots of wood, lots of curtains, lots of dark colours. A particularly nice touch is Vollin’s sinister organ (he plays Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” while Jean reclines by the fire) and the cool, little alcove it sits in next to the sitting room.

Those of you who love classic films will know what I’m talking about when I say that “The Raven” means something to me. I go way back with the film. When I was in junior high, I would often read books about the classic Universal horror films as I walked to school. It was a case of me knowing of a lot of those films before I had ever seen them. There was a local channel back then that would still present the old “late show”; a usually low quality print of an old film they would run at midnight and later. They presented a series of Universal horror films from the golden era and I taped “The Raven” on a VHS tape. So ever since I was 14 or 15 (a good 30 years ago now) I have revisited this film countless times. I always felt that it was more ‘mine’ than the other, more popular films of the era. “The Raven” is almost an asterisk or a trivia answer; it is a film that Lugosi and Karloff made together that is certainly lesser known. I eventually bought it on VHS and later on the “Bela Lugosi Collection” DVD set. I have, however, held on to that old Polaroid blank VHS tape I originally taped it on. Later in my early 20’s, I would play the film for my friends in my apartment and even these young, hip kids would enjoy watching Dr. Vollin snap his twig. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Man, they loved it. We would laugh and others would think we were laughing AT the film. But we were laughing because it was so deliciously perfect.

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“Do you mind if I smoke?”

Another aspect of my personal connection with this film involves my family. When my two sons were very young, my wife and I began introducing them to classic film. I would scan our shelves to see which films they could possibly handle or understand. We shared Abbott and Costello with them and Blondie. When Halloween would roll around, I would share the old horror films with them. The old films were creepy and atmospheric without being terrifying, satanic or just plain gross so I’d sit them down and we’d watch. “The Raven” was one of the early ones. Now my boys have a bit of a connection with this film as well.

I hope I’ve achieved what I set out to do; turn you on to a film you may have missed and also to an unsung performance of Bela Lugosi’s. He was never John Barrymore but Bela is forever the Count. And if you want to see him really shining in a role and, for once, outdoing Karloff, check out “The Raven”.

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Villains sometimes sleep.

“Top 23” Review: “Dirty Dancing”

I’ve got 23 favourite films: 10 from when I was a teenager and young adult, 10 from my adult years with a wife and kids and 3 ‘life-changers’ that hover over them all. I know these films inside and out and have lots to say about them. Journey with me as I try to explain why I love these 23 films and why I think they’re so appealing.

“Dirty Dancing” (1987) from Vestron Pictures — Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach and Jack Weston

We had a Jumbo Video where I lived. I had a membership. There was a time in my teenage years when I would rent movies from Jumbo; a lot of movies. For a time, I kept the receipts. I’ve always been a romantic. I think I can pinpoint part of the reason for this but its pretty heavy and pointless to get into. Suffice it to say that I have always been drawn to stories that depict a guy, a girl and love. I also love me a ‘shoot-em-up’, don’t get me wrong, but I have always been able to see the appeal in romantic films. Now, do I still seek them out? Absolutely not. As a happily married man, the goofy and heart-touching ups and downs of romance are far removed from where I’m at now so the ‘rom-coms’ and love stories of the last 20+ years appeal to me not one bit. But when I was young and single, I was fascinated by the stories about the many ways to fall in love.

I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw “Dirty Dancing”. If it came out in the theaters in 1987, then we can assume it was released on home video maybe 2-3 years later. Using this math, I must’ve rented it around, say, 1990, when I was 18. I immediately fell in love with it and, as soon as I was able, I added the VHS version to my growing movie collection. I’m sure you all know what it’s about 30+ years down the line but let’s run it down anyways.

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An iconic poster. Baby, Johnny and the “font”.

In the summer of 1963, sheltered Daddy’s Girl, “Baby” Houseman, vacations with her family in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. Her father, Dr. Jake Houseman, goes way back with resort owner Max Kellerman, who sets up his grandson, Neil, with Baby. While Baby is dancing with Neil on the first night, she spies ‘the dance people’; Penny and the handsome Johnny Castle. Baby befriends resort employee and Johnny’s cousin, Billy, who takes Baby to the off-limits-to-guests employees quarters where she observes the ‘dirty dancing’ of the title. Johnny expresses concern that a guest is among their number but playfully takes Baby in hand to teach her a few steps.

Meanwhile, Baby’s sister, Lisa, has caught the eye of Ivy League waiter and pre-med student, Robbie. Baby learns, however, that Penny – who is more like a sister to Johnny – is pregnant by Robbie. Penny wants to ‘deal with’ the situation but money is certainly an issue so Baby asks her dad for a loan, not telling him what it’s for. Billy explains that they can get a ‘doctor’ for Penny but the only appointment they can get conflicts with Johnny and Penny’s commitment to do their mambo number at neighbouring hotel, The Sheldrake. Baby, “Miss Fix-It”, suggests solutions, none that are acceptable. In the end, Baby is recruited to fill in and she and Johnny rigorously prepare to dance together and the number comes off OK.

Returning from The Sheldrake, Baby and Johnny begin to make eyes at each other but are interrupted by Billy, who says that the ‘doctor’ – more a butcher – has been and gone and Penny is in a bad way. Baby’s instinct kicks in and she runs to get her dad who attends to Penny but sees that Baby is somewhat involved with Johnny. Sizing up the situation, Dr. Houseman is disappointed in the apparent change in his girl and forbids her to associate with ‘those people’. Baby goes to see Johnny to apologize for the way Dr. Houseman treated him and she stays the night.

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Baby is cool. She is always in control. She takes the lead in Johnny’s cabin.

The next morning, a morose Jake tells his family he wants to leave but he is convinced to stay through the end of Labour Day to be involved in the end-of-season show. Jake engages with Lisa, much to her delight as she had been second to Baby in the past. Deceptively, Baby continues her relationship with Johnny, who reveals himself to be tenderhearted and tired of the divorcee guests using him for sex. Baby encourages him to change and to stand up for himself but Johnny gets upset when he and Baby have to hide from Dr. Houseman, who has been seen taking walks with Lisa and Robbie.

Baby overhears Johnny refusing one of his usual ‘customers’, Vivian Pressman, and is happy. Vivian, however, is not. She shacks up with Robbie and the two are discovered by Lisa. In the morning, Vivian sees Baby leaving Johnny’s cabin and frames Johnny for stealing her husband’s wallet. Baby defends Johnny to Max Kellerman in front of her family, saying Johnny could not have stolen the wallet at the assumed time because, at that time – the middle of the night – she was with Johnny in his cabin. Dr. Houseman is saddened by this news but Baby explains to him that she is sad, too, because her father has revealed his shortcomings in the form of a somewhat condescending attitude towards people who are not ‘like him’.

Johnny tells Baby that he has been cleared of the wallet theft but fired anyways for fraternizing with a guest. They share a tender goodbye and Baby is consoled by her sister. At the end-of-season show, Johnny returns. He interrupts the proceedings and tells the crowd that – as he has always done – he will end the season with a dance in a style favoured by him and his friends – his way. Jake realizes Robbie is a rat and Johnny is an OK guy and he fixes things with both young men. Baby and Johnny dance and the guests at Kellerman’s end the summer in thrilling fashion.

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In obvious symbolism, Baby succeeds at the end. She has navigated the waters and is now free to soar.

Some people have one movie in them, one story. Such is the case with Eleanor Bergstein. “Dirty Dancing” is mostly autobiographical. Bergstein grew up vacationing in the Catskills with her mother, her doctor father and her older sister. While her folks played golf, Bergstein was dancing, however in this respect she was more “Johnny” than “Baby”. She was a ‘mambo queen’ and entered ‘dirty dancing’ contests. Here’s where my eyebrows go up a bit. Being a mid-century guy, I have a familiarity with not only the films and music of the ’50’s and ’60’s but also cultural and societal things and, in my travels, I have never run across the mention of ‘dirty dancing’. I have no doubt that such dancing existed and was referred to as such it’s just that I haven’t heard of this from any other source.

During university, Bergstein was a dance instructor at Arthur Murray studios and then she married and turned to writing. A novel (“Advancing Paul Newman”) and a screenplay (“It’s My Turn”) were poorly received. During production of “It’s My Turn” – which starred Michael Douglas – producers cut a provocative dance number from her story which inspired her to document the dancing she remembered so fondly. She began to write her ‘personal story’, the story of her youth and she started with the music she loved as a teenager. Another of my “Top 23” films is George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”, which is also a personal story of youth. Bergstein wrote her screenplay the same way Lucas did – with a stack of 45’s at her side, the songs forming the skeleton of the scenes she was creating.

Like so many other legendary films, Bergstein’s script for “Dirty Dancing” was rejected by several studios until it landed at the tiny Vestron Pictures, who’s major interest was home video distribution. The project eventually got green-lighted and Bergstein and her producing partner, Linda Gottleib, began assembling their team. For a director they chose Emile Ardolino who had won an Academy Award for a documentary but had never directed a feature film. Another key piece was choreographer Kenny Ortega. Ortega got his start working with Gene Kelly on “Xanadu” (1980) and gained career momentum choreographing for films such as “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) and directing music videos. Ortega choreographed Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite” (1984), a video that has been cited as one of the worst in history and one that is considered to have ended Squier’s career. Kenny also directed the video for Styx’s polarizing “Mr. Roboto”, a video that some fans claim “killed Styx”. These two blemishes aside, Ortega is a choreographer of note in Hollywood and has worked on multiple Michael Jackson tours, Super Bowls and Academy Awards telecasts. He also directed and choreographed the “High School Musical” trilogy.

Filming took place in two locations – neither of which was the Catskills. The “Borscht Belt”, the colloquial name given to the string of hotels in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York catering to Jews from New York City, is no more so stand-ins had to be found. Lake Lure, North Carolina has one of the most beautiful man-made lakes in the world and was used for scenes depicting the staff’s cabins, the “log” scene and the famous “water lift” scene. To this day, Lake Lure hosts an annual “Dirty Dancing Festival” which features dance lessons, watermelon carrying and a lake lift competition. Other scenes were shot in Virginia at Mountain Lake. Here we see the beach, the Houseman family’s cabin and the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort that stood in for Kellerman’s. Mountain Lake turns itself into “Kellerman’s” four weekends a year for “Dirty Dancing-themed Weekends”.

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One of the highlights of the “Dirty Dancing Festival” in Lake Lure, NC is the Friday night outdoor screening of the film.
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Travel to the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort in Virginia where you can see the hotel that stood in for Kellerman’s and the cabin where Baby and her family stayed.

Cast as 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman was 26-year-old Jennifer Grey. Grey is the daughter of Academy Award-winner Joel Grey who was initially chosen for a role in “Dirty Dancing”. Jennifer had previously appeared in “Red Dawn”, “The Cotton Club” for Francis Ford Coppola and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Jennifer was a trained dancer who possessed a sweetness that was essential for portraying the innocent Baby. Grey was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her role and her career is defined by it. While Billy Zane had tested for the role of Johnny Castle, 34-year-old Patrick Swayze was ultimately chosen. In screen tests interacting with Grey, Bergstein was blown away by their amazing chemistry. Previously, Swayze had made notable turns in “The Outsiders” and “Red Dawn”, also featuring Grey. The role of Penny Johnson, Johnny’s dancing partner, went to Cynthia Rhodes. Rhodes was much more a dancer than actress who had previously danced in “Xanadu”, “Flashdance” and “Staying Alive”. After “Dirty Dancing”, Rhodes gave up acting to concentrate on her family, husband Richard Marx and their three boys.

Tony Award-winner Jerry Orbach portrayed Baby’s father, Dr. Jake Houseman. Orbach had been a Broadway actor and singer of some note. He was the first performer to sing the standard “Try to Remember” and had released an album in 1963. Orbach would go on to achieve international fame and admiration for portraying Det. Lennie Brisco for 12 years on television’s “Law & Order”. Jack Weston played hotelier Max Kellerman, an amalgam of the type of regal hotel owner prevalent in the Catskills at this time. Weston brought with him hundreds of credits and a Golden Globe nomination. He appeared in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, “Palm Springs Weekend”, “The Cincinnati Kid”, “Wait Until Dark” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” among many other credits including a notable “The Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. And watch for Wayne Knight who, in his first credited film appearance, has a few scenes as “Stan”. (Significantly for me, his only previous film appearance was playing an uncredited waiter in 1979’s “The Wanderers” – another film in my “Top 23”)

The coming together of the cast and crew to create this legendary film was truly serendipitous. The team that was assembled – behind the camera as well as in front of it – created magic this one time. Most of the principles were never able to recreate their success here. Patrick Swayze, as we all know, became a star of the highest magnitude. His star turns in “Road House”, “Ghost”, “Point Break” and other films endeared him to fans the world over. Perhaps more importantly, he was, by all accounts, a pretty good guy as well. Sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, aged 57. Jerry Orbach, as we’ve seen, went on to greater fame as Lennie Brisco. However, most of the principles involved with the film were not able to capitalize on the movie’s success.

Eleanor Bergstein had just the one story to tell; her own. The creator of “Dirty Dancing” has not worked again on an entity that isn’t related to this story based in part on her life. Director Emile Ardolino went on to direct only minor films like “Three Men and a Little Lady” and “Sister Act” and sadly died of complications from AIDS in 1993. Everybody loves Jennifer Grey. We always will. Truth be told, though, she was not able to turn her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Baby into a productive Hollywood career. A few weeks before the release of “Dirty Dancing”, she was in a car accident. Her boyfriend, Matthew Broderick, was at the wheel and the mother and daughter in the other car were killed instantly. Grey has said that her physical injuries coupled with her ‘survivors guilt’ made it difficult for her to enjoy her success. She famously underwent two rhinoplasty procedures that rendered her unrecognizable and all but ended her career. Max Cantor played skunk Robbie Gould. He made one more film before turning to journalism. While researching addicts in New York City, Cantor freebased cocaine and became a heroin addict. He died of an overdose in 1991, aged 32. Cynthia Rhodes, Jane Brucker (“Lisa Houseman”) and Lonny Price (“Neil Kellerman”) never really acted again but research shows that as basically a choice of theirs; they went on to other things. Neal Jones, who I thought was cool as “Billy”, guested on random television shows and was invisible in a dozen movies – albeit 4 with Al Pacino (?!) – before dropping off the face. Jack Weston and Charles “Honi” Coles (“Tito Suarez”) both passed away, although aged 71 and 81, respectively.

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“I’m not sure who you are anymore”, Baby’s father once said to her. Imagine if he’d seen her after her rhinoplasty.

Music can account for a great deal of a movie’s charm and appeal. An effective score, yes, can be an asset to a picture but a period piece like “Dirty Dancing” relies heavily on carefully selected songs from the past. I mentioned earlier that Eleanor Bergstein wrote this film from her personal experiences and used her old 45s as a starting point. I mentioned that George Lucas wrote “American Graffiti” the same way and it bears repeating. Lucas invented the idea of loading a film with old songs, something that became commonplace and with his “memoir film” it is fitting. We all have memories of significant times in our lives. Oftentimes, these memories can be triggered when we hear a particular song. Certainly, music has the ability to transport us directly back to a certain time and place and if you’re writing a story about the past then music is invariably going to play a huge part. This is definitely the case with “Dirty Dancing”; after all, the essential elements for dancing are at least one human body – and music.

Bergstein has made a point of separating the songs of her youth into two categories; ‘dirty dancing’ songs and ‘clean teen’ songs. For example, the film starts with the iconic Phil Spector “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Bergstein states that, in her youth, this was the type of song that the kids would save to listen to when they were alone with people their own age. To this type of song, they could dance the way they wanted to. Next up as the film begins is “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons. Here was ‘cleaner’ (‘whiter’?) music that you could listen to in the car with your parents. I suppose a third category would be the Latin mambo and merengue music that was danced to in the Catskills of the era and that is featured in the film.

The “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack – two volumes, actually – sold incredibly well. The initial album sold 32 million copies and spent an incredible 18 weeks at #1. It is one of the five best-selling soundtracks of all-time. Jimmy Ienner was placed in charge of selecting the music; he took on the role of “music supervisor”, the job that George Lucas had created – and did himself – with “American Graffiti”. The soundtrack helped spark a renewed interest in “oldies” but, in what was a brilliant part of it’s mass appeal, contained new music that became iconic. The main theme to come out of the film was “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, a song that went to #1 on many charts and in many countries. Upon initial release in the UK, the song went to #6. Four years later, when the film was played on television in that country, it re-entered the charts and went to #8! The song, sung by Bill Medley – one half of the Righteous Brothers – and Jennifer Warnes, won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy.

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The fifth biggest-selling soundtrack of all-time. Only outsold by heavy hitters like “Purple Rain” and “The Bodyguard”.

The song has it’s origins in an obscure ’80’s band called Franke and the Knockouts. Lead singer and songwriter, Franke Previte, was approached by Jimmy Ienner to write music for “Dirty Dancing”. Previte was hesitant as he was still trying to make it as a performer. He finally acquiesced and wrote “Time of My Life” with two other writers. Bill Medley was approached repeatedly to record the song but Medley was awaiting the birth of a child and didn’t want to commit. Warnes was approached and said she would only do it with Bill. Medley and Warnes were able to get together after the birth of Medley’s child. It has become one of the best-loved motion picture songs and is one of the songs most often played on the radio. The song is the perfect companion to the emotional ending of the film.

Patrick Swayze really could do it all. Act, dance, fight, rip your throat out and not only write songs but sing them, too. He contributed a three-year-old song he had co-written called “She’s Like the Wind” which was recorded with singer Wendy Fraser and included on the soundtrack. Startlingly when you think about it, the song reached #3 on the charts, #1 Adult Contemporary. Patrick Swayze has charted a song as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That is higher than any song charted by the likes of Van Morrison, Eddie Money, Alice Cooper or Chris De Burgh.

Eric Carmen was given “Hungry Eyes” to sing. Once again, here was a song that Franke Previte had written and recorded with his band in 1984. Ienner had worked with Carmen when Carmen was lead singer of the Raspberries and called on him to lend his vocal talents. Carmen was hesitant but eventually recorded the song. It became another popular song from the soundtrack and peaked at #4. Two other songs from the soundtrack are personal favourites of mine. “Overload” is a great late-’80’s pop/rock song from Alfie Zappacosta. How a song from an obscure Canadian singer ever ended up on this soundtrack I’ll never know. “Where Are You Tonight?” is a nice tune performed in the style of early ’60’s R&B. It took me awhile to confirm that it was actually Tom Johnston from the Doobie Brothers that sang it. It doesn’t sound like him to me and I was skeptical that it was the same Tom Johnston but it is.

The “oldies” on the soundtrack also add greatly to the charm of the film. And in turn a much deserved light was shone on this music and a lot of the songs re-entered the public consciousness. “Be My Baby” has long been heralded as one of the finest songs from the era and has become iconic. “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs is what I call one of the “pillars” of this era. A number one song in it’s time, it is the shortest song to ever reach the top of the charts. “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel is the perfect lighthearted back drop to Baby and Johnny dancing on that log. It was this song that inspired John Lennon to learn the harmonica. “Love is Strange”, “Love Man” and “Cry to Me” had prominent positions in the film. “Do You Love Me” is an early Motown classic written by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. It was a Top 10 hit when originally released in 1962. Amazingly, owing to it’s use in “Dirty Dancing”, it re-entered the charts 25 years later and reached #11! It is one the few songs from the classic era to perform well on the charts again years after it’s release.

“Dirty Dancing” has something in common with other legendary films. When the film was finished shooting and was edited together, no one liked it. Because Vestron, the company that made the film, was primarily concerned with home video, it was initially thought that after a brief run in the theaters it would go straight to home video. One producer even suggested burning the negative and collecting the insurance (there were those who suggested burning the negative of “Citizen Kane”, as well). Promotion of the film floundered as well as a corporate sponsor that would put it’s money and it’s product to work promoting the film could not be found. The acne product Clearasil was on board for a time until they found out that abortion was a plot point and they pulled out. Bergstein’s partner, producer Gottleib, began to wonder if the film would be released as opposed to when. Of course, it was eventually released to theaters and gradually, through word-of-mouth and a few positive reviews, it gained momentum and became a huge success. It won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe but more than that it became a true fan favourite, adored by millions. Many ‘bit players’ were able to dine out on it for years as part of touring companies singing songs from the soundtrack and dancing to them. Stage shows, a ridiculous and pointless ‘prequel’ and a live television event followed. Catch phrases from the film entered the popular lexicon: “I carried a watermelon”, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. Poor Vestron, though. They thought they could recreate this success but released flop after flop and went bankrupt only two years later. The film itself, though, has grossed well over $214 million and has the distinction of being the first film to sell a million copies on home video. I know I had it on VHS.

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You know you’re iconic when…

I think I’ve made a good point that there is a lot of “story” to “Dirty Dancing” and it is no accident that this story takes place in August of 1963. The opening narration even makes the point that this is a time of innocence; not just in Baby’s life but in all of American society. I have always insisted that ‘the fall’ began in September of ’63 when “Leave It to Beaver” was cancelled. That show was the epitome of (the ideal of) family life of the era. Then, it’s yanked off the air and two months later, JFK is shot and then three months after that, the Beatles land in America and nothing would ever be the same.

When you consider what happened to Frances Houseman – and to Johnny Castle – that summer it takes on mythic proportions. The story of ‘coming-of-age’ – transitioning from childhood to adulthood – is a dramatic story, one that is ripe with plot points. Baby comes of age before our eyes and it is tender and beautiful. And she has been in control of her pivot and has navigated it with her moral compass. Her entree into adulthood has been successful and this will inform the rest of her life. Comparatively, we see that Johnny has already had his pivot point and it was corrupt and has lead him down a destructive path.

Baby has been courageous. She has stayed true to herself. She has suffered, yes. She has fallen in her father’s eyes but his failings have been revealed to her, as well. But she accepts these revelations about her father and deals swiftly with any illusions she had about him. She has also brought about great change in Johnny’s life. Through Baby, Johnny has encountered fortitude, optimism and integrity. Meeting Baby has set him on a new path. But let’s face reality; there is no way that Baby and Johnny stay together. They are two different people going in different directions. Each will remember the other always. Each will look back on this summer and remember that this was the time that everything changed – and each will recall the other as a true catalyst of that change in their lives. Knowing that they do not stay together does not diminish your appreciation for the film. In fact, your appreciation grows once you accept and understand that this is not the ‘origin story’ of their relationship. This is their relationship in it’s entirety.

Scholars have found in “Dirty Dancing” comparisons to some of the world’s greatest literature. This film, they suggest, contains the same idea of ‘the journey’ that lies at the heart of “The Odyssey”, for example. Baby – and she does start out as a baby – goes on a journey, a journey we all take, that from childhood to adulthood. Her story contains a lot of the tropes of the epic journey; she starts in innocence but acknowledges the need to progress, she journeys to a mountain where she encounters a ‘castle’, she crosses a bridge to a forbidden place and she suffers which is, of course, the only way to gain wisdom.

But all this heaviness aside, I think the film’s biggest appeal lies in it’s glorious intangibles; those wonderful things that are hard to define but simply make you feel good. I’ve always felt it was significant that the lyric is “I’ve had the time of my life”. Colloquially, it is saying ‘this has been fun’. But philosophically; this has been the moment that will define who I am for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

 

The Ping Girl: The Story of Carole Landis

“Moon Over Miami” is one of my favourite films. Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to collect as many classic films as I could. In Canada, our version of the television channel Bravo would often show old movies and I would tape them. Y’know? With my VCR? One of these movies I taped was “Moon Over Miami”. A Technicolor musical from 20th Century-Fox in 1941, it starred Robert Cummings, Betty Grable, Don Ameche and Carole Landis. I fell in love with the film although I realized, much to my surprise, that I could not, for the life of me, see what was so appealing about Betty Grable. I loved the movie for Robert Cummings, mostly, and his interesting interaction with the charismatic Don Ameche. Also, I adore these old ‘travelogue’ movies of the ’40’s. They celebrate the places they go in a wonderful way and you get a great ‘moving postcard’ look at these places in the classic era.

Carole Landis was the second female lead in “Moon Over Miami” and, because of my repeated viewings of the film, I got to ‘know’ her well. Then, this spring, I saw her in “Behind Green Lights”, a film noir from 20th Century-Fox in 1946. I have what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome”; I gravitate towards certain films/genres at certain times of year. Springtime always finds me watching film noir. I searched YouTube and found “Behind Green Lights” and noticed that Carole was in it although I really didn’t recognize any other of the performers. Carole is top billed and the male lead is played by William Gargan. Gargan was a movie, radio and television actor who eventually developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed. He died in 1979, aged 73, on a flight from New York to San Diego.

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Carole had stated that making “Behind Green Lights” for Fox in ’46 was her least favourite experience making a film.

“Behind Green Lights” is a fine film but what really struck me was how Carole looked. She didn’t look like she did in “Moon Over Miami”, 5 years earlier. So, I looked her up. What I found was fascinating.

Carole was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in 1919 in Wisconsin. The family moved to San Bernardino when Carole was 4. Coming from a broken home, Frances changed her name – an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard – and, at the age of 15, dropped out of school and set her sights on a career in Hollywood. By all accounts, she was a star-struck youngster.

She appeared as an extra in the original “A Star is Born” and made several B westerns. Her shapely figure opened doors in the modelling world and she appeared in numerous cheesecake photographs. Her appearance in “One Million BC” in 1940 made her a star. She appeared as cave girl Loana in the Hal Roach film that was remade in 1966 as “One Million Years BC”. In that version, Raquel Welch took her iconic turn as Loana. Carole’s scantily-clad performance prompted one press agent to dub her “The Ping Girl” because “she makes you purr”.

Her success in “One Million BC” lead to many other second lead roles in successful films – including “Moon Over Miami” – and also brought her to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck was a film mogul of the first order. He began writing scripts for silent films before going to work for Jack Warner at Warner Brothers. In 1933, he left Warner Brothers and started 20th Century-Fox. Carole was signed to Fox and during 1940 and ’41, began a sexual relationship with Zanuck, who was known in Hollywood for his conquests almost as much as his film making. Indeed, the married Zanuck had something of a system in place for his canoodling. Every day at 4:00PM, business was put aside and an aspiring starlet appeared in his office through a series of clandestine tunnels. This ‘secret’ arrangement was known to everyone in Hollywood. It has been said that, to Zanuck, the numerous young girls were simply a diversion in a hectic day; “(they were) like polo, lunch and practical jokes”. The term “casting couch” was coined by Variety in 1937 to describe the type of abuse of power that Zanuck and others were engaged in.

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You really should read up on Darryl F. Zanuck. There is SO much story to his life.

This was the man Carole fell for. As an up-and-coming star of 21, who felt that happiness was beautiful clothes, fine dining and the attentions of a powerful man, her relationship with Zanuck must have seemed to her like the attainment of all her dreams. Little did she know that Zanuck was never serious about any woman and, as he went off to serve in the Army Signal Corps at the end of 1941, he forgot Carole completely. Not surprisingly, at the same time the quality of the roles offered to her declined as did her career.

Carole, however, had been around the block a few times by the time she had her fling with Zanuck. By 1940, when her affair with the mogul commenced, she had been married 3 times, the first of which occurring when she was 15 years old. Carole was 14 and Irving Wheeler was 20 when they started dating. No doubt that this is an early example of Carole’s grasping for happiness and she welcomed the romantic nature of a relationship with an older man. The two eloped two weeks after Carole’s 15th birthday. Carole had lied about her age and did not have her parents consent so when her mother found out about the marriage it was quickly annulled. But it must’ve been the ‘real thing’ because as spring that year turned to summer, the two lovers married again, this time with Carole’s father’s consent. This second go-round actually lasted longer than the first; Carole walked out on her husband – they “had an argument” – after three weeks. Irving Wheeler changed his name to Jack Robbins and wound up in Hollywood. He ended up with only two infinitesimal acting roles – however, one was in “Citizen Kane” (“newsreel man”).

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In many ways, Carole Landis was the quintessential Hollywood “dish”. She enjoyed the “starlet” lifestyle.

In June of 1939, choreographer and director Busby Berkeley proposed to Carole but the two did not marry. Husband number two (or three) was yacht salesman Willis Hunt. Hunt proposed two weeks after they met and in the summer of 1940, the two eloped – three marriages, still no wedding. Hunt soon became abusive, however, and Carole walked out after two months of marriage. Carole said of their brief union that she had been “so happy, so ecstatic, so delirious” until Willis had revealed his true nature. Oddly, the two remained friends. Sadly, Willis Hunt was stabbed to death in 1969 by his wife who claimed self-defense as Willis was being abusive towards her. The last Mrs. Hunt was found not guilty.

The amazing Mr. Gene Markey appears in Carole’s story here in 1941 when Gene and Carole became engaged. Mr. Markey had been married to Hedy Lamarr, one of the most beautiful women to ever live. Carole and Gene were never wed and Mr. Markey would go on to marry Myrna Loy. Hedy, Carole and Myrna? Who was this Mr. Gene Markey and what power did he have over the most beautiful women in old Hollywood?

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Plain, ol’ Gene Markey. What was it that kept this man in the good graces of the most desirable women in Hollywood?

In September of 1942, Carole embarked on an extensive tour with the USO. Joining with Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair, Carole travelled to England, Bermuda, Africa and Ireland entertaining the troops. During their time spent together, bisexual Kay Francis developed a crush on Carole. Carole was approached by Random House and asked if she would care to turn her experiences with the USO into a book. Carole agreed and proceeded to add author to her resume. Months before her book was even published, “Four Jills in a Jeep” was turned into a film musical for Fox. The four girls played themselves and Dick Haymes made his film debut. Carole was ultimately upset that the film was a mostly fictionalized account of their USO tours.

Four days after her 24th birthday, Carole married an American pilot in the Royal Air Force’s American Squadron, Capt. Thomas Wallace. True to form, this relationship fit in with Carole’s pursuit of storybook romance. Wallace proposed to her on their first date and they were married less than two months after meeting. With the Catholic ceremony held at a church in England, Carole finally got her proper wedding with Kay Francis among those in attendance. Also true to form, though, the marriage got off to a rough start. The newlyweds were denied a honeymoon as Capt. Wallace was stationed overseas. Poor Carole was quoted as saying that she wanted “a wonderful marriage and children” but the two were at odds over Carole’s career. Wallace “hated” her Hollywood lifestyle and wanted her to give it up and become a housewife. Their marriage began to fall apart and Carole attempted suicide. Although Carole always considered Tommy the love of her life, they divorced after roughly 22 months of marriage. Tommy remarried but would take his own life in 1968.

With the lack of success achieved by “Four Jills and a Jeep”, Carole’s film carer was on the wane. As is often the case in these situations, Carole turned to Broadway, appearing in a musical called “A Lady Says Yes” which featured two numbers from Carole singing songs from the score written by Gershwin sibling Arthur. Her co-star in this show was future novelist Jacqueline Susann, who would go on, in 1966, to write the scandalous novel “Valley of the Dolls”. Susann based the character of Jennifer North on Carole. When the novel was turned into the sensational film, Sharon Tate would portray Jennifer. While they appeared together in the short-lived “A Lady Says Yes”, Carole and Jacqueline had a romantic relationship.

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On paper, Carole’s marriage to Horace Schmidlapp may not have made sense. Think Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Carole and Capt. Wallace were divorced in 1945. Later that year, Carole went to the altar again; it was her fourth husband, fifth wedding in 11 years. This time it was William Horace Schmidlapp from a wealthy Cincinnati family. Jacqueline Susann introduced the two in the spring of ’45, perhaps before Carole’s divorce from Capt. Wallace was final. A mere 8 months later, the two were married. Again, Carole was romantically optimistic and hopeful, stating that in Schmidlapp she had found “the ideal husband”. The newlyweds built a nursery in their Pacific Palisades mansion but soon found that Carole could not conceive. As somewhat of an additional sadness in her pursuit of perfect family and marital bliss, Carole suffered from endometriosis. Carole was faced with her sister having four healthy children and was also stricken every time she saw a woman with a baby. The glamourous Hollywood actress wished often that she could trade lives with ordinary housewives.

It was around this time, 1946, that Carole made the film noir I mentioned at the outset, “Behind Green Lights”. I also mentioned that the whole genesis for this article was the fact that Carole looked so different in “Green Lights” compared to the way she looked in “Miami”. I wondered if she’d had cosmetic surgery or a car accident or something. Well, the mystery persists because I learned that, yes, Carole DID have a nose job – but she had it in 1940, six years before “Green Lights”. So – and this is poor reporting, I know – I still have no idea why Carole doesn’t look like Carole to me in “Behind Green Lights”.

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On the left is “Moon Over Miami” (1941). On the right, “Behind Green Lights” (1946). I dunno, is it her eyes? She just looks different to me.

At the outset of her marriage to Schmidlapp, Carole was quoted as saying that now, finally, she had everything she wanted, including “the feeling of deep security which will ensure a permanent future”. She said she was planning an additional home in the east from which she would commute for her film assignments. And still she mentioned children; three, she hoped. But it seems contentment was not to be for Carole Landis. Despite the grand pronouncements of her happiness, after a mere 18 months she became disillusioned with her marriage and began an affair with actor Rex Harrison. She finally filed for divorce in March of ’48.

By the summer of 1947, Rex Harrison had been seen in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and “Anna and the King of Siam”. He was a popular and successful 39-year-old actor from Lancashire, England who had been married to German actress Lilli Palmer for four years. It was during her separation from Horace Schmidlapp that Carole fell hard for Rex. He was erudite, urbane and a gentleman. As was Carole’s wont, she began to envision an idyllic life with Rex. She decided that he was her new ideal.

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Rex exemplified Carole’s ideal: older, classy and a part of the film industry scene Carole loved.

It is the summer of ’48 and for the past year, their affair is an open secret in Hollywood. They are together often and Carole has hosted many parties at her Pacific Palisades home at 1465 Capri Dr. that Rex has attended. Carole had a love for holidays and the 4th of July was no exception. Carole threw a pool party on that day for a dozen friends. She announces to her guests, however, that they will have to leave early as she is having dinner alone with Rex; it is the seventh consecutive evening they spend together. Carole and Rex enjoy cocktails and then a light dinner. It is surmised that the two engage in yet another discussion of when or, indeed, if, Harrison will leave his wife and marry Carole. Apparently, Harrison refuses to end his marriage, he and Carole argue and their relationship is ended.

Harrison says later that he leaves Carole’s home at 9PM, though others say he leaves much later. Rex Harrison is the last person to see Carole alive. He goes to his friend, Roland Culver’s house nearby while Carole continues drinking to ease her pain. One can easily assume that, by this point in her life, she is more than heartbroken; she is broken. From a young age, she had always been a dreamer, a romantic. She had always dreamed of the perfect man, the perfect marriage, the perfect love. She began early and had pursued that ideal with a much older man when she herself was just 14 years old. She eloped twice by the time she was 21. She had affairs with older, influential and powerful men who easily discarded her, further crushing her dreams. She longed for children, to be a mother but even that was not to be. Her brief career in Hollywood flamed brightly only to diminish in the glare of many other young starlets with similar attributes and appeal. Rex Harrison, another distinguished, older, married man that Carole fell in love with, denies her in the end.

Carole, alone now in her lavish home, calls her friend, Marguerite Haymes, the mother of singer, Dick Haymes. Haymes is not home and Carole leaves a message. Marguerite will get the message later that night but assumes it is too late to call. Between 1AM and 3AM on the morning of the 5th, Carole gathers up many photos and mementoes from her relationship with Harrison and packs them in a suitcase. Carole takes them over to Culver’s house and leaves the suitcase in the driveway. She also leaves a note saying that she is going to kill herself. The suitcase and note are not discovered until the following evening. When Roland Culver finds these things in his driveway, he burns everything – including the suicide note. Back in her home, Carole writes two final letters; one to Harrison, one to her mother. At approximately 3AM, Carole takes an envelope of Seconal from her medicine cabinet. She takes 40 Seconal tablets with water and lays down in her bed. At 3:30, no doubt feeling the effects of her overdose, Carole gets up out of bed and goes into her bathroom. She will die on the bathroom floor. Five times the amount of Seconal needed to cause death made this third suicide attempt successful.

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Carole Landis in death.

Throughout the next morning, Rex calls Carole’s house repeatedly. He is told by the maid that Carole must still be asleep. Rex goes to Carole’s house, walks in the door and curiously says to the maid “Well, I think she’s dead”. Together they go to the bathroom and discover Carole. “Oh, no, my darling. Why did you do it?”, Rex exclaims. He feels Carole’s wrist and detects a slight pulse. Like any proper philanderer in old Hollywood, instead of calling for an ambulance, he goes home and calls a studio head. The maid calls the police and Carole’s best friend. Rex returns to the house and, when questioned by the police, claims that he and Carole were just good friends. The police find the note Carole left for her mother but there is conflicting reports about what happened to a second note that Carole apparently left for Rex. Lilli Palmer will later admit that she and Rex paid the police officer who found the note $500 to destroy it.

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“Dearest Mommie – I’m sorry, really sorry, to put you through this but there is no way to avoid it – I love you darling you have been the most wonderful mom ever And that applies to all our family. I love each and every one of them dearly – Everything goes to you – Look in the files and there is a will which decrees everything – Good bye, my angel – Pray for me – Your Baby”

In the aftermath, Carole and Rex were linked in newspaper reports that hinted at scandal. This did not stop Rex and his wife, Lilli, from attending Carole’s funeral, also attended by friends Van Johnson, Pat O’Brien and Cesar Romero, who served as a pallbearer. Rex’s career was damaged but he carried on and later enjoyed successes in “Cleopatra”, “My Fair Lady” and “Doctor Doolittle”. He and Lilli Palmer were divorced in 1957. He left as a legacy two sons when he died in 1990, aged 82. Carole’s mother and sister were disconsolate. Carole died with $412 in the bank and extensive debt. Her family sold her house and auctioned off Carole’s belongings, weeping every time a personal item was sold to a stranger. The family contested – as they do to this day – that Rex Harrison was culpable in Carole’s death which they insist was not suicide. In the ensuing years, reports of new evidence would pop up but would quickly vanish resulting in no new investigations.

I have to make special mention of the website that Carole’s family maintains. Never have I seen a site so devoted to it’s subject and so loaded with detail and peppered with appropriate links. I highly suggest you visit the site at http://carolelandisofficial.blogspot.com/. Far be it for me, a stranger to the participants in this sad tale and 70+ years removed from the events, to disagree with the family’s assertions. However, looking at Carole’s life, albeit from this distance, things seem clear.

I think of a young girl 14 years old, a girl who had supposedly been sexually molested. I think of this young girl receiving (somewhat inappropriate) attentions from a 20-year-old man. It’s not difficult for me to think of this young girl as one who would grasp at the chance to accept such attentions. I can imagine this girl would have been romantically intoxicated with this situation. As soon as she reached 15, she eloped with this man. Her mother, of course, had it annulled but Carole was insistent and remarried him. After an argument – and argument – she caved and left him, her romantic dream shattered.

Modelling and Hollywood beckoned. This would feed her ideas of a glamourous life. She may not have reached the super stardom she dreamed of and she engaged in trysts with older, married men who treated her poorly. Marriages ensued. Each time Carole seemed to feel that she is finally attaining the perfect life she’d been seeking. After very short periods of time, perhaps when unglamourous effort or realistic thoughts are called for, she bailed, always in search of elusive perfection. Consider that Carole, in a 14-year span, got married 5 times to 4 different men. All 5 of her marriages only resulted in roughly 3 years and 8 months of wedded bliss. None of her marriages lasted two years. She couldn’t have children. Dreams of home life and motherhood were shattered. And then, one final straw. Another older married man denied her. At 29 years old, I can easily imagine that Carole thought she would never attain happiness, either through her work or her love life. There may indeed be some mystery surrounding her death but the circumstances leading to it also seem very familiar in the film industry of the era. The way starlets were treated by moguls like Darryl Zanuck. The way film careers were killed by “scandal” or simply by the failure of the most recent film. I have a saying that I sometimes apply to the victims of the studio system and the “golden age” of Hollywood. The phrase can certainly apply in this case: “I love old Hollywood. And then I think of what it did to Carole Landis”.

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Good night, Carole.

Winter Movie Review: “Winter A-Go-Go”

This may be news to you but “winter” is a genre of film and I’ve made a good case to support this (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/your-guide-to-winter-movies/). Here’s a review of another favourite winter movie.

“Winter A-Go-Go”  (1965)

Starring William Wellman, Jr., James Stacy, Beverly Adams, John Anthony Hayes, Julie Parrish and Nancy Czar. Directed by Richard Benedict. From Columbia Pictures.

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“On the go-go in the snow-snow”. Nuff said.

Young, good-looking best friends Jeff Forrester (Wellman, Jr.) and Danny Frazer (Stacy) run a ski camp in Heavenly Valley, a winter resort town in Lake Tahoe. Jeff has inherited the place but the mortgage is held by a gangster-type who wants it for himself. The gangster-type sends a couple of clowns to make life rough for the boys and their guests so that they won’t be able to make their payments. Through the course of all this, Jo Ann (Adams) pines for Jeff and Danny makes dates with all the girls they hire to work at the place. Skiing, dancing, singing and laughs abound.

And that’s about it. There’s not much plot to talk about; which is just fine with a movie like this. As with American International’s “Beach Party” movies, “Winter A-Go-Go” does well depicting the effervescence of youth, the seemingly careless time of life. It shows surface concerns in a light-hearted way. Anybody watching knows life is never – and has never been – that simple but there is something comforting in seeing problems taken so lightly, treated with a song and a dance and handled so easily. It’s what we call an “escape” picture and it’s perfect for winter viewing. After all, these kids willingly go to where the snow is.

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Danny gets a ski lesson from real-life instructor Peter Brinkman.

The cast is filled with great looking people, some of which actually have character and do alright. Wellman is the handsome son of the legendary directer William Wellman (“Wings”, “The Public Enemy”, “A Star is Born”, “Nothing Sacred”). Wellman appeared in “Swingin’ Summer” – again with James Stacy – the same year as “Winter A-Go-Go” and went on to a minor career in television. James Stacy is another story altogether. He was born in Los Angeles to a Lebanese-American father who was a bookmaker. Handsome and charismatic, Stacy was married to actresses Connie Stevens and Kim Darby. An avid motorcycle rider – as seen in “Winter A-Go-Go” – he was riding with his girlfriend in 1973 when he was struck by a drunk driver. His girlfriend was killed and Stacy lost his left arm and leg. In an early judgement against establishments that serve patrons to intoxication, Stacy was awarded a $1.9 million settlement against the bar that served the drunk driver. Stacy returned to acting, playing roles that incorporated his disability and earned two Emmy nominations. Unfortunately, his final years were marred by sexual molestation – as perpetrator and victim – prison and a suicide attempt. He died in 2016 of anaphylactic shock. He was 79.

On a lighter note, pretty Canadian Beverly Adams was born in Edmonton. When she was a child, her family moved to Burbank – I always wonder how that happens; Edmonton to Burbank! She was uncredited in two Elvis Presley films, appeared as klutzy dream girl Cassandra in “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini”, played Matt Helm’s girl friday Lovey Kravezit (?!) in the “Matt Helm” films and then retired when she married hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. They had four children, one of whom, actress/model Catya, died of a drug-induced heart attack. Adams and Sassoon divorced in 1980 and Adams started her own line of pet care products.

John Anthony Hayes plays Burt, one of the guys that tries to sabotage the hotel. He plays a rat well as evidenced by his turn as Frank who was mean to Fabian in “Ride the Wild Surf”. Julie Parrish showed up a year later looking quite fetching in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” with Presley and “Fireball 500” with Frankie Avalon. A career appearing on random television episodes came to an end in 2003 when she died of ovarian cancer, aged 62. Keep an eye out for cutie Dori, played by Judy Parker. Judy was married for 45 years to Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons. She co-wrote with Bob the fantastic “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”. Judy just died last fall, aged 79. And keep an eye out for Paul Gleason among the gang of kids hanging out at the lodge. He would go on to play jerks in “The Breakfast Club” and “Die Hard”. Real-life ski instructor, Peter Brinkman, plays himself. According to both IMDb and Wikipedia, director Richard Benedict is the same Richard Benedict who portrayed “Curly” Steffans in “Ocean’s 11” (1960). But I can hardly believe it.

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The gang gets to work. L to R: Nancy Czar, Linda Rogers, Tom Nardini, Julie Parrish, James Stacy, Beverly Adams and William Wellman, Jr.

As with all films of this ilk, we need music. Nooney Rickett sports one of the better names I’ve ever heard. And just try to find some info on the guy! He did join Arthur Lee in a later configuration of the legendary band Love. His Nooney Rickett Four sings “Ski City” (“put away your surfing gear and grab some skis”), a blatant knock-off of “Surf City” written by the prolific team of Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller and “Do the Ski (With Me)” (“If there’s a bump, you better jump. If there’s a tree, turn your ski”) co-written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. What Nooney lacks in personality he makes up for in hair. The engaging title track (by Greenfield/Keller) is performed by the Hondells. Joni Lyman delivers “King of the Mountain”. Joni is attractive with a real contemporary look. The Reflections wear some great sweaters and sing “I’m Sweet on You”. They are better known for their great blue-eyed soul hit “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet”. James Stacy leads the gang through “Hip Square Dance”, a ridiculous idea that is saved only by some half-decent choreography. It’s a foolish segment that brings to mind Bob Denver’s creepy upside-down goatee number in “For Those Who Think Young”.

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The Nooney Rickett Four featuring Joni Lyman run through “Do the Ski (with Me)”. Nooney has a great guitar and a great sweater. And that’s about it.

Filming took place in the Eldorado National Forest in Eldorado County, California and at Heavenly Mountain resort in South Lake Tahoe near the California-Nevada border. There’s a great scene near the beginning of the film when the kids drive up to Jeff’s resort to begin work and you see some of the hotels in the area. One of which you can clearly see is the Lakeview Arms Motel of Bijou, California in Eldorado County. The place no longer exists but I saw on eBay that someone is selling an old hotel key from the place. The scenery is wonderful and the movie looks like it could have been made by the Heavenly Valley Chamber of Commerce.

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The Lakeview Arms Motel of Bijou, California sadly is no more.

An interesting note about this film is that it ends with a wedding between two of the principals. That kind of adult seriousness is almost never depicted in films like this. It’s notable in this case that these two go ahead and get married without parents or any of the usual pomp or prep. This must have appealed to the teens in the audience – it may even have given them ideas. The fact that there’s a wedding is actually huge.

In conclusion, it’s a fun little film to watch in the winter. The acting, of course, is not great but the two male leads seem to be harbouring some serious depth underneath the required goofiness and the girls are attractive and earnest. There is some great scenery and some really nice winter clothing; nice sweaters and women’s clothes. It’s an adventure you’d love to have yourself in a pretty cool place. Like one of the girls says when they first get to the lodge and see that it’s not in the best of shape: “It’s better than my room at home”.

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“Winter A-Go-Go”: Better Than Your Room at Home

 

Winter Movie Review: “North to Alaska”

This may be news to you but “winter” is a genre of film and I’ve made a good case to support this (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/your-guide-to-winter-movies/). Here’s a review of another favourite winter movie.

“North to Alaska” (1960) 

Starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian and Mickey Shaughnessey. Directed by Henry Hathaway. From 20th-Century Fox

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Alaska had recently become the 50th state and that figured prominently in the advertising.

In Nome at the turn of the last century, Sam McCord and George Pratt are partners who have just struck it rich. Now George can send for his beloved Jenny. George sends Sam to Seattle to get her and Sam finds her but she has forgotten about George and has married someone else. Before Sam heads back to Alaska to give George the bad news, he runs into “Angel”, a working girl at the Hen House. Angel is pretty and French – just like Jenny – so Sam decides to bring her back for George. However Cupid, as he often does, has other ideas. Throw in a scheming sharpie casino owner, some claim-jumping varmints and a few outrageous brawls and you’ve got an entertaining and colourful yarn.

Right off the top I have to admit that there is no snow to be seen in “North to Alaska” so it has become a winter movie somewhat by default – it takes place in Alaska. Like other winter movies that do feature snow, though, it’s the charm of the places these people spend their time that give it a winter feeling. The cabins and the shacks, the fires and just the comfortable places that people can make for themselves amongst the uncomfortable terrain. Scenic locations Point Mugu and Mammoth Mountain in California stand in for Alaska and make for some pretty scenery. The muddy main street of town adds a lot to the realism and the film in general has a great ‘look’.

“North to Alaska” is a comedy. I still think it’s a little hard to believe that Wayne did full-on comedies but he did and he did them well. The comedy in this film is quite broad; maybe too broad. This can mostly be seen in the brawls – they are outlandish, over-the-top and played for laughs. I call this the “”McLintock!” Factor”; that film of Wayne’s also features an elaborate fight. Thing is, “North to Alaska” came out 3 years before both “McLintock!” and “Donovan’s Reef”, films that both feature comedic fights. So, I guess it’s the “Alaska Factor”.

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Fabian, Wayne and Granger engage in the original “muddy brawl” while Capucine looks on. Wayne’s face here displays his natural charismatic personality.

There are some things that are charming about this broad comedy, though. The acting, for one. It is really quite good. I was particularly impressed with Capucine as Michelle/Angel. She had most of the heavy lifting where character evolution is concerned and she pulls it off nicely. As I’ve said, Wayne is very watchable in a comedic role – “Timberrr!!” – and Fabian may overact a bit but he is playing a wide-eyed 17-year-old. Stewart Granger has much charisma but his accent seems too refined for the role.

The other thing that stands out is the plot point of “Angel” being transformed from prostitute back to “Michelle”; she is a woman who wants to make herself a new life. Sam is taken with her immediately and he helps to legitimize Michelle. It is a really endearing part of this screenplay. You’ll notice when Sam takes Michelle to meet his Swedish friends, they are right away disgusted that Sam has brought a ‘hussy’ to their picnic. When he stands up to them and says he is leaving, they come around and welcome Michelle into the festivities. Sam vouches for her and they accept her. Only a few minutes after this, a boat captain remarks that Michelle has been a pleasure to have aboard as she is very “ladylike”. Michelle is legit now. This change is important to her and she wants to make it stick.

The movie is very charming and brimming with zest and character. It’s loads of fun and I can highly recommend it.