Friday, May 05, 2006

Cinco de Mayo with Princess Asa

A couple of nights ago, I decided for no particular reason to treat myself to a spontaneous little "Barbara Steele on Television" film festival. Thanks to a couple of proverbial tapes from the attic, I was able to watch her early guest appearances in JAMES A. MICHENER'S ADVENTURES IN PARADISE ("Daughter of Illusion" -- Season 2, Episode 10, first aired December 10, 1960) and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS ("Beta Delta Gamma" -- Season 7, Episode 6, first aired November 14, 1961).
While the HITCHCOCK appearance actually followed Steele's role in BLACK SUNDAY and coincided with her return to Los Angeles to appear in Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM, the ADVENTURES IN PARADISE (a prophecy in that acronym: AIP) episode was the only thing ever released from her short-lived, "blonde" phase at 20th Century Fox. Here, she plays "the delectable Dolores," the daughter of a magician (Alan Napier) who is smuggling diamonds out of a South Pacific island sewn onto the costume of second assistant Sondi Sondsai in place of the customary rhinestones. I hadn't seen an episode of this show since childhood and had only vague recollections of it, but this one was charming, with fine work by all, and Steele -- speaking in her own voice, of course -- is quite natural, at ease, and good humored in it. I always found her blonde publicity poses ludicrous, the lighter hair color so ill-suited to her face, but onscreen, smiling and in motion, she's a fairly convincing blonde. But I still don't think I would have bought her in blue jeans opposite Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR.

Barbara shares a laugh with ADVENTURES IN PARADISE co-star Alan Napier.

My memory of the HITCHCOCK episode, which I hadn't seen since I originally recorded it off of Nick at Nite (where it was much ballyhooed as being shown "uncut," but shown without the famous Hitchcock profile intermission card), was that Steele scarcely appeared in it, but it's actually a prominent supporting role with quite a bit of dialogue. She seems miscast as one of a group of California college kids -- maybe she was cast from one of those blonde Fox publicity pics. There is no explanation for her age, her accent, or her obvious sophistication, but she plays one of an ensemble who pull the prank of convincing a fellow party attendant (bombed on beer) that he committed a murder while intoxicated, only to have the joke backfire on them. What's odd about the episode is that it's the fresher-faced kids who hatch the plan, quietly goaded on by a bearded but otherwise baby-faced Severn Darden (with an unrecognizable Barbara Harris, future star of FAMILY PLOT, as his girlfriend -- buried under a wig and behind dark glasses), while Steele, introduced doing a slinky cha-cha to the music on a record player, is mostly a dissenting voice of conscience. I suppose that director Alan Crosland Jr. was playing against type, but it is she who ultimately places the "murder" weapon in the hand of the passed-out, hapless hero, top-lined Burt Brinckerhoff.

As a slinky college prankster in ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS' "Beta Delta Gamma."

This little mini-festival of mine tweaked my curiosity, so I turned to the IMDb to see what other early TV Steele might have done. I knew about the SECRET AGENT and I SPY gigs, but I was very surprised to find a listing for a 1961 BONANZA episode called "The Tin Badge." This has got to be one of those IMDb mix-ups; not just because I can't imagine Barbara Steele and Dan Blocker inhabiting the same cinematic universe, but because the IMDb cast list shows two actresses in the role of "Sylvia Ann" -- Barbara Steele and Karen Steele. That's too much Steele for a "Tin Badge." I vote for Karen as the Steele most likely to have visited the Ponderosa.

Speaking of Barbara's TV appearances, does anyone out there have a copy of THE SPACE-WATCH MURDERS, a made-for-television film from the 1970s that features a brief appearance by Barbara as a green-faced alien? That's something I'd love to find.

Rounding out this Cinco de Mayo look back at "Barbara Steele on Television": You may remember that, many blogs ago, I mentioned my surprise discovery of Barbara in a 1960s music video by an Italian artist named Gianni Pieretti. I couldn't provide grabs from the video at that time, but now, here at long last, are a few frame grabs from "Julie Julie." It's just a silly little time capsule, but whoever was responsible for hiring her that morning or afternoon, I think they just might have lucked out and caught The Queen of Horror on the day, hour, and moment when her unusual beauty was at its zenith. This fellow Pieretti just enters frame and flops down beside her on the couch, lip-synching. No wonder Barbara spends the next few minutes looking either cross, bored, or bemused. But regardless of how she's looking, she looks absolutely enchanting.

"You mean I'm just supposed to sit here? What if Federico calls?"

Adesso fingere lei è vampiro, Barbara! ! Molto brava!

Guardare la sua faccia... Lei mai ha visto che niente l'ami?

Ahhhh... semplicemente fantastico.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Add These to Your Datebook

TONIGHT: At 7:30 p.m. eastern time, Turner Classic Movies' Festival of Shorts offers a pair of rarely-seen two-reel shorts directed for MGM by Jacques Tourneur: "Killer-Dog" and "The Jonker Diamond." Both produced in 1936, these were among the first films Tourneur made in this country after leaving France; in fact, "The Jonker Diamond" was the first. Fans of Tourneur's work in the Val Lewton series and elsewhere won't want to miss these early demonstrations of his taste, skill and directorial economy. In case I am not giving you sufficient notice, TCM is running these again at 5:30 a.m. eastern, very early next Tuesday morning, May 9. (TCM's online schedule designates this as their last offering of the day on Monday, May 8, but everything after midnight is the next day, according to the way I was brought up.)

THIS WEEKEND: Those of you who live in the Los Angeles area and are looking for something to do this weekend should saunter over to Drkrm. Gallery (2121 North San Fernando Road, Suite 3, Los Angeles, 90065) for the opening of VW contributor David Del Valle's photographic exhibit, "Haunted Hacienda." No, David didn't go to Mexico with a camera... this exhibition -- in session from May 5 to June 3 -- celebrates the mise en scène of the Mexican horror cinema through rare stills from the Del Valle Archives. For more information, about the exhibit and about David himself, visit http://fanbase1.com/killgraphic/gallery/galleryindex.html

VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 should be reaching subscribers by now, and we look forward to hearing some feedback.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What We Have In Mind is Breakfast in Bed for 200,000

Earlier today, Video WatchBlog topped 200,000 hits. It's a good excuse for me to thank you all, once again, for your regular attendance and giving me audience and reason to write some things out of my system that might not otherwise get written.

I spent today writing my next SIGHT AND SOUND "No Zone" column, which is about Pola Rapoport's WRITER OF O, a documentary about STORY OF O's pseudonymous author Pauline Réage, who after several decades revealed herself to be Dominique Aury, an editor at Editions Gallimard. Without previewing my column too much, this is one of the most extraordinary and moving films about writing and love of literature that I've seen. It streets next week, and I recommend it to all of you, hand on heart. It's not just a documentary; it also includes dramatic stagings of scenes from STORY OF O (superior, I feel, to the 1975 Just Jaeckin film) and the essay "A Girl in Love," and dramatic recreations of events that actually happened -- and it all flows together beautifully, without seeming in the least indecisive about what kind of film it wants to be.

WRITER OF O's depiction of Madame Réage's writing habits left me feeling as though I have disgraced my craft by not writing more often in longhand. Before the computer age, I used to write in longhand a great deal -- in a personal journal, and also fiction that I wrote on index cards that I subsequently stacked in order and held together with rubber bands. I got my first PC in 1985, and it was paid for with money I received for agreeing to write four volumes and edit all twelve of VIDEO TIMES' "Your Movie Guide" paperback series, which Signet Books later published. Since that time, except for signing books and the monthly checks I send to my debtors, I've basically stopped writing in longhand and do all my writing the way I am writing these words now.

There was one exception: a lone piece of fiction that I wrote in my attic on a legal pad in a sudden burst of inspiration. After watching WRITER OF O, I was inspired to search for it. I found it copied into my computer and dated exactly ten years and one week ago. As I read through its eight pages, the material felt exciting to me and I am thinking of returning to it, extending it into either a novella or novel, and writing the whole thing by hand -- organically. The way artists paint. The way musicians play their instruments.

Oddly enough, my second novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD was written in a similar way, with the opening chapter written (if memory serves) eight years before the rest of the book. I've been thinking lately that the best way to write is to write fast, to give one's writing the benefit of absorbing one's subconscious, which naturally dissipates the more an author consciously thinks about what he/she is writing, over time. The screenplay I wrote with Charlie Largent, THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, was written this way and, while some layerings of the material were constructed deliberately, the script also contains a wealth of subtext that entered into the project because it wasn't belabored and thus made too "conscious," and also because we knew our subject well enough that we didn't have to think too much before we wrote each new page. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that LOLITA was his favorite novel, but that INVITATION TO A BEHEADING (one of my favorites) was the one for which he had the most respect because it came to him in an instant and was completed nearly as fast. Thanks to my collaboration with Charlie, I know how that feels.

To create something new and add it your shelf -- to your self as a broadening achievement -- is one of the best feelings in the world, and I really, really, really want to get back there.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gidget Goes to Cinecittà

While taking advantage of a recent Deep Disc Discount "Buy So Many, Get One Free" sale, I decided to add Columbia's THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION to my shopping cart, even though none of the transfers were letterboxed or anamorphic. It was a matter of education for me; I know the BEACH PARTY movies very well, know the various knock-offs (BEACH BALL, THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH, OUT OF SIGHT, etc) pretty well, but I've always been a little weak on the GIDGET series -- GIDGET (1959), GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN (1961) and GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1963). They started out of the gate a little before my theater-going time, and I didn't warm to the sequels as a kid.

Now, with my memory of all three films duly refreshed, I can see that the GIDGET series was somewhat weak on itself. For some reason, the lead role was one that aspiring young actresses apparently couldn't wait to get away from. A different girl plays Frances "Gidget" Lawrence in all three films, and (I guess appropriately) different actors play her parents in all three, as well. (The mother in the second film, the curiously named Jeff Donnell, plays the same role in the third, opposite a different husband, swapping out bossy Carl Reiner for mellow Don Porter, who would play Gidget's widowed father on the later ABC-TV series starring Sally Field.) Only James Darren as Jeffrey "Moondoggie" Matthews remains constant... on the cast list, anyway; his character's heart is all over the place, and he's seldom written to be much more than handsome, superficial and dedicated to playing the field. We never really learn what makes Moondoggie tick, or what bonds Gidget to him so readily and tenaciously. Darren tries to give the character a depth that isn't really there by smoking and brooding. He also sings the theme songs for all three films. The entire trilogy, if we can use that word for movies like this, were directed by Paul Wendkos, a director who worked predominantly in series television and is probably best remembered today for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971).

GIDGET is by far the best of the three films. It's the ebullient story of a young girl's determination to become part of the beach/surf culture that attracts her -- but the movie also has interesting subtexts concerning the lingering aftermath of WWII on surviving soldiers and the burgeoning spirit of feminism. Sandra Dee gives an endearingly stubborn and spirited performance, but the movie is stolen by Cliff Robertson -- brown as a blue-eyed tobacco leaf -- giving a gritty portrayal as an enigmatic, self-described "beach bum" known as "The Big Kahuna." The nickname has become a cliché over the years, but Robertson's performance is not. Tom Laughlin and Doug McClure are recognizable among the surfers, and Yvonne Craig (not as formidably sexy as she would be in THE GENE KRUPA STORY, but always worth seeing in a bikini) and 13 GHOSTS' Jo Morrow are among Gidget's friends. Watching the movie actually stoked my interest in reading the book on which it's based, a memoir by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (the real "Gidget," whose nickname was a contraction of "girl midget") and her screenwriter father Frederick Kohner (who wrote 1944's THE LADY AND THE MONSTER).

GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN may have the most famous title of the three films, but it's the broadest, campiest, and (for me) least enjoyable of the series. Too bad, because I think Deborah Walley, of the three Gidget actresses showcased here, inhabits the role most comfortably; I always liked the shadings she brought to Les, her female drummer character in the Elvis vehicle SPINOUT, and it would have been nice to see what she could have done with Gidget story with more adult (or adult-ish) shadings, such as the first one had. When this sequel tries to get adult, it gets unpleasantly snarky or sappy; the primary "situation" of this "situation comedy" results when Gidget's overly romantic, overly dramatic nature gives another girl the impression that she's no longer a virgin, which leads to gossip and a spoiled reputation. As vacations go, this is a bad one, and it's made no more pleasant by Carl Reiner's loud and unlikeable Mr. Lawrence, a far cry from Arthur O'Connell in the original, who had his apoplectic moments but was kindly and a bit dithering even when he was laying down the law. It's easy to understand why the sequel's Mrs. Lawrence drinks a bit more than the first one did.

As a Eurocultist, I was especially interested to see GIDGET GOES TO ROME, which was made in the Eternal City at the very height of not only the Golden Age of Italian Fantasy, but of "la dolce vita" as well. Here, Cindy Carol (real name: Carol Sydes) -- the worst Gidget of all -- convinces her parents to grant her adult independence by allowing her to join a mixed group of friends on a trip to Rome. As would also occur in another Elvis vehicle, GIRL HAPPY, the following year, Gidget's father arranges for a "respectable" male acquaintence (Cesare Danova in this case) to look after his young daughter without her knowing she's under adult supervision, and the close attention results in an unintentional romantic bond. Meanwhile, Jeffrey falls for the party's Italian tour guide, Danielle De Metz -- who is actually French. The movie becomes a HERCULES UNCHAINED-style study in infidelities of the heart, and without a single scene that takes place at the beach, it seems to be a Gidget film in name only. The filmmakers are very aware of a certain side of Italian cinema, making self-conscious references to LA DOLCE VITA (a romp through the Trevi Fountain and a crazy party that verbally references the movie) and throwing in a Biblical peplum daydream sequence for good measure, and Cindy Carol's moony, swoony Gidget is a bit like the character played by Leticia Roman in Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH; her imagination is an ashtray that's collected the butts of all the foreign films she's read about in movie magazines but has never seen. Nevertheless, I was pleased and surprised to have the pain of an otherwise hard-to-endure movie eased by a veritable parade of beloved faces and locations from the annals of Italian genre fare. For instance (and feel free to CLICK on these images to enlarge them)...

Gidget's debonair hotel manager is played by Claudio Gori, later the police chief in DANGER: DIABOLIK.

Cesare Danova's wife (sorry, Gidge... he's married!) is played by the lovely Lisa Gastoni, who, under the name "Jane Fate," appeared in a couple of Antonio Margheriti space operas, including the legendary WILD, WILD PLANET.

The Maitre 'D at the restaurant where Cesare Danova introduces Gidget to the pleasures of Italian bitter aperitifs is played by Umberto Raho, who starred the same year in Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST. He would later be featured in Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.

Later in the film, while snooping around backstage at a fashion show, Gidget is mistaken for a model, stripped and redressed by a flurry of dressers. To my astonishment, one of the model dressers (on the right) was none other than my dear, late and much-missed friend Harriet White Medin, familiar from her performances in PAISAN, LA DOLCE VITA, BLACK SABBATH, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE WHIP AND THE BODY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. This appearance was completely unknown to me, and it's not included in her IMDb filmography!

As an added kick, James Darren is shown at the end of this sequence brooding and smoking on the lip of the runway, which was evidently the same interior location used for Christiane Haute Couture in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, filmed toward the end of the same year. (Albeit with red curtains, of course.)

Finally, when Gidget and Jeffrey (there's really no reason to call him "Moondoggie" in such a landlocked scenario) seek sanctuary at the American Embassy, there is an appearance by Jim Dolen -- an actor with close-cropped white hair whom you may remember as an undercover cop in THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG -- as an embassy spokesman. And the guard standing a couple of shoulders to his right is none other than Gustavo de Nardo, the actor with whom Mario Bava worked more than any other. He appears in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH (opposite Harriet Medin), THE WHIP AND THE BODY (ditto), BARON BLOOD and RABID DOGS, but almost never accepted screen credit. When Jim Dolen speaks in this movie, perhaps for the only time in his screen career with direct sound recording, I recognized a voice I've known all my life from dubbed movies filmed in Rome. (I've tried in vain to upload the frame grab I took from this sequence, but it refuses to cooperate, so please refer to your own disc or, failing that, your imagination.)

THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION turned out to be more worthwhile than I expected, transfer-wise, because, of the three films, only the first is really and truly "modified to fit your screen." It's a 2.35:1 film cropped and panned and scanned to give you only half of every single composition -- apart from the opening credits, of course. It deserves to be remastered in anamorphic widescreen. The other two films were shot open aperture and shown theatrically with a soft projection matte; both of these can be zoomed up on a widescreen monitor and look pretty nice.

So. When all is said and done, who was the best Gidget?

No contest, ladies and gentlemen: Sally Field. I don't know how well the series stands up as a whole, but the concept seemed to find its true footing once it became a half-hour situation comedy, and I remember Field's Gidget as likeable and endearing. She knew how to play all of the character's eccentricities in a way that made her seem interesting and upbeat and kooky rather than merely fanciful and meddling, and she was also a deft physical comedienne. I was on the point of asking "Where's the box set?" when I checked Amazon.com and found that one was actually released by Sony last month.

Surf's up, Watchdoggie!

Sunday, April 30, 2006

One Of My Favorite eBay Winnings

This treasure needs no annotation. Just enjoy.