Friday, March 29, 2024

Lemmon and Dennis: An Unlikely Screen Dream Team

When I think of iconic screen couples, so many come to mind. Gable and Harlow. Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Tracy and Hepburn. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (now that was chemistry!).

Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis are not among them. (Lemmon and Matthau, yes.) But maybe they should be. 

I tend to think of Lemmon chiefly as a light comedic actor in films like Bell, Book and Candle, Some Like It Hot and The Fortune Cookie. (Though, on the other hand, he did break my heart in Days of Wine and Roses.) Dennis brings to mind heavy drama, stürm and drang, with the anxious, neurotic and damaged characters she created for movies like The Fox, Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and of course, her Oscar-winning turn as that very high-strung young housewife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Jack Lemmon as George Kellerman

Sandy Dennis as Gwen Kellerman

In Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners (1970), both play against type to enact the misadventures of George and Gwen Kellerman, a pair of hapless and harried travelers from Twin Oaks, Ohio, on an unfortunate trip the New York City. Here, Lemmon is intense and complicated as the uptight, controlling (and occasionally explosively angry) husband, while Dennis ironically gives one of her most engaging performances as his dutiful, ‘go with the flow’ spouse who wants nothing more than to make her husband happy and support his choices. (Though she loses her cool once or twice as well!)

A New York story that depicts The Big Apple as sprawling, tough and hard-as-nails, The Out-of-Towners lampoons every negative stereotype about the city that never sleeps, and about the rigors of travel in general. (Writer Neil Simon was, of course, a lifelong New Yorker himself.)

The films other main character: “Is that a beautiful city?” “That is a beautiful city.”

Famous for his witty, lightning-fast dialogue that’s funny and human and honest and relatable all at the same time, Simon treads into more serious territory here than many of the comedic plays that made him famous. This is an edgier, darker story than the feather-light Come Blow Your Horn or Barefoot in the Park, or even his hilarious mismatched buddy comedy The Odd Couple.

Here, Simon crafts a hilarious and often terrifying comedy of errors, using Murphy’s law to plot an unbelievably bad trip for the Kellermans. Anything that can go wrong, does. First there’s a delay in landing the plane, then the flight is diverted to Boston due to bad weather. A crowded claustrophobic train from Boston to New York becomes a cattle car. When they arrive in the city there’s a garbage strike, a transit strike, a heavy rainstorm; the hotel did not hold their reservation. Gwen steps on a bottle and breaks the heel of her shoe; the couple is robbed at gunpoint. And so on.

Comedy is not the wheelhouse of Method actress Sandy Dennis, but as Gwen Kellerman she has impeccable instinctive timing, and many moments, mostly priceless reaction shots, that make you laugh out loud. Harvard-educated Lemmon, who won his first Oscar as the insecure but lovable Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts, depicts what is his darkest character to date in George Kellerman, a seemingly mild-mannered salesman who is triggered by circumstances into rage and utter despair. (Later, Lemmon will a second Academy Award playing an even darker character in Save the Tiger.) Interestingly, both Dennis and Jack Lemmon studied under Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen (Respect for Acting) at the HB Studio in New York and even appeared together in an Off-Broadway play years before teaming for this film.

Two wet, insignificant out-of-town travelers.”
Oh my God, I think I lost an eyelash.”

George?? Can you hear me?”

We could ask Traveler’s Aid...”

I think I broke a tooth. Yep, there goes my smile.”

At first, it seems that the couple are mismatched to their environment—a classic fish-out-of-water theme, two Midwesterners vs. the Big City. But the travails of George and Gwen point out their mismatched personalities in the way that they deal with the vicissitudes that await them around every corner. Here, Lemmon overplays and Dennis underplays; he rages like King Lear while she assumes inscrutable blank expressions that try to hide her feelings. Their interplay is a joy to watch, though; together, they create a real chemistry and are totally believable as a married couple from Ohio.

Bringing the Kellermans’ urban nightmare to vivid life are a bevy of consummate character actors to lend support and expertly spout Simon’s acerbic dialogue at a rapid-fire pace. Most portray service people trying in vain to calm irate customers; all give unforgettable cameo performances: Ann Prentiss (sister of Paula) as a deadpan stewardess; Billy Dee Williams (Lady Sings the Blues)  from the airline Lost & Found; Johnny Brown as the smiling dining car waiter with nothing but bad news for the hungry travelers; Anthony Holland at the Waldorf Astoria front desk;  Ron Carey (High Anxiety) as a Boston cab driver; Graham Jarvis as a Good Samaritan with an ulterior motive; Anne Meara (mom of Ben Stiller) as a nonplussed purse-snatching victim.

Anne Meara: “You carry a pocketbook in this city, you’re a marked woman.”

Billy Dee Williams as Clifford: “I see no reason to assume it won’t show up.”

Graham Jarvis: “Just tell them that Murray sent you.”

Dolph Sweet, Johnny Brown, Anthony Holland and Ron Carey

Director Arthur Hiller paces the film as a frantic run that keeps you on the edge of your seat and as breathless as our protagonists. (Hiller’s masterful direction provided the engine that also made Silver Streak and The In-Laws such memorably fast-moving comedic sprints.) With his bold and original scoring, Quincy Jones skillfully underlines the urban tension and frantic urgency, and displays a sense of humor, too, adding comic musical counterpoint to the proceedings.

But it’s the Sandy Dennis and Jack Lemmon who hold the entire film together with their outstanding performances and palpable screen chemistry, a seemingly mismatched couple but actually a Classic Movie Dream Team. They are the reason I return to this movie again and again.

 (The less said about the execrable 1990s remake, the better, despite the presence of Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin, whom I love in other films.)

This is an entry in the Mismatched Couples Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Cinematic Catharsis. What fun we’ll all have this weekend!

Friday, April 28, 2023

It’s Not Easy Being Green

According to Soylent Green (1973), the future has already come and gone—the film is set in the year 2022, and it is already far too late to save the planet. 

Soylent Green tackles the issue of climate change long before the issue had become a universal concern—the very first climate summit in Stockholm occurred in 1972, the year this movie was filmed.

Its famous opening montage is a frantic kaleidoscope of images depicting the ravaging effects of rampant industrialization, punctuated by an ever-quickening musical cacophony, quickly reaching its peak and then decelerating in inevitable decline.  

Though unremittingly bleak, the story is well-told and excellently played by a cast of skilled actors, and its blatant warnings about society resonate more than ever today.

Charlton Heston as Thorn

This future is a nightmarish world of abject poverty. Unemployment and homelessness are universal. Only the 1% elite have any sort of comfort or normalcy—and even that is breaking down. Books are no longer being printed. Technology is in disrepair and unable to be replaced due to the collapse of all manufacturing. The police are totally corrupt, on the take—they have to be in order to survive.

A green, hazy pea soup smog permeates everything in the city of New York (population 40 million). Even the mod, shiny futuristic apartments of the super-wealthy aren’t all that extravagant and impressive since society itself is breaking down and all manufacturing has come to a halt. They’re merely middle-class dwellings.

It’s a world where hundreds of homeless huddle in stairwells to sleep every night and even a gainfully employed police detective must generate his own electricity by pedaling a bike. Even ice is a rarity, and air conditioning and running hot water are luxuries only for the super-rich. (Most of the characters wear a thin sheen of perspiration and sweat on their brows throughout the movie, just one of the many subtle details that make the story seem all too real.)

Edward G. Robinson as Sol Roth

Soylent Green was the great Edward G. Robinson’s final film; dying of cancer and stone deaf, he had been working only intermittently in recent years but decided to come out of retirement because the was interested in the film’s premise: “It’s about something,” he said.

‘Eddie G,’ as he was affectionately known, was one of the finest character actors ever to grace the silver screen. Whether playing a famous gangster (Little Caesar), a Norwegian farmer (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) or an intuitive insurance claims adjuster (Double Indemnity), his characters were always believable and human.  He could play comedy or drama with equal skill. Never blessed with good looks, audiences nevertheless found it hard to look at anyone else when Robinson was in the frame; he is so arrestingly watchable, a natural scene stealer. Here, he plays Sol Roth, a former professor now working as a police ‘book’ and rooming with Thorn, played by Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man).

Leigh Taylor-Young as Shirl

One of the great action stars in the tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, Charlton Heston was tall and lanky and laconic, a square-jawed beefcake with a masculine physique he never minded showing off on the screen. He’d achieved icon status with his larger-than-life roles in The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur but his performances were often (in my opinion, unfairly) criticized as wooden and two-dimensional. Here, as Detective Thorn, Heston gives a low-key performance that turns out to be one of his very best, especially in his memorable scenes with Robinson, with whom he’d remained close friends since they squared off as the saintly Moses and dastardly Dathan in Ten Commandments 17 years earlier.

The film focuses on Paradise Lost—all the things that sustain life on our home planet, things most people still take completely for granted. 

Food and sensual pleasures are a central theme in Soylent Green. For 99% of the population, there’s nothing to eat except manufactured nutrient squares from the Soylent Corporation (which controls the food supply for half the world), presumably plankton and other nutrients from the sea.

Paula Kelly as Martha

Fresh food is exceedingly rare—and the sight of a wilted celery stalk, barely red apples and a fist-size slab of beef commandeered by Thorn is enough to bring Sol Roth to tears. The scene where Thorn and Roth prepare their modest feast is a masterpiece of fine acting and reveals the real camaraderie between Heston and Robinson and the joy they had working together on this film. 

The unwashed masses wear kerchiefs and caps reminiscent of Soviet communists. When the allotted portions of Soylent Red and Green are cut due to shortages, the rioters rebel but then are picked up by tractors with ‘scoops’ sent in to disperse the crowds.

Beautiful women are commodities and come with apartments as ‘furniture,’ a package deal, possessions of the men, subject to violence by the vicious ‘apartment manager’ who really serves as a prison warden.

Chuck Connors as Tab Fielding

Beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young is Shirl, ‘furniture’ in the apartment of a powerful politician played by Joseph Cotten (Shadow of a Doubt, Niagara). It’s the murder of this man that sets the plot in motion. 

A graduate of Northwestern University (also Charlton Heston’s alma mater), Taylor-Young was briefly married to Ryan O’Neal, whom she met on the set of the TV series Peyton Place. Extremely moved by the premise of this film, she later became a UN environmental activist herself. (And she is still working as an actor, most recently in the reboot of American Gigolo on Showtime.)

Brock Peters as Chief Hatcher

Heston was remote and distant on the set according to costar Leigh Taylor-Young, but always a consummate professional. (She found Robinson much more approachable, warm and kind.) Despite never getting to know each other, Heston and Taylor have a definite on-screen chemistry, especially in their romantic scenes. “You can turn on the hot water and let it run as long as you like,” Shirl purrs as a come-on to Thorn, but the pair end up conserving water anyway by sharing a shower together!

As Martha, the beautiful and talented singer dancer Paula Kelly (Sweet Charity) has little to do, though she adeptly turns a spoonful of strawberry jam (value: $150 per jar) into an ecstatic religious experience in a key moment and displays her athletic prowess in a violent fight scene with Heston and Chuck Connors (star of TV’s The Rifleman). 

Joseph Cotten as William Simonson

Amid the cruelty and coldness of Soylent Green’s world is an undercurrent of profound sadness and melancholy. Those who knew the world before its breakdown are forced to adapt to its inhumanity in order to survive, tortured by dim memories of a better time. “The world was beautiful once,” Sol tries to explain to an uncomprehending Thorn.

When Sol learns the horrible secret behind the Soylent Corporation (and the impossibility of better days ahead), he is appalled and disillusioned. “I’m going home,” he sighs resignedly.

The right to die is the only benefit afforded the average citizen, the ability to vacate the hell on earth with dignity. 

Sol joins the downtrodden in the water line

Euthanasia is an immersive Disney World-esque experience, featuring massive projections of Technicolor nature scenes and soothing classical music—which can only be enjoyed after drinking the poison sleeping potion from a cup proffered by white-clad attendants.

Here, swathed in a white sheet, a surprisingly small Eddie G is vulnerable and touching as he watches the majestic nature tableaux in rapturous ecstasy, long-ago images of a world that was once vibrant and alive. (Robinson himself passed away just weeks after filming on Soylent Green wrapped.)

Exactly what is Soylent Green, exactly?

Bodies wrapped in white sheets are unceremoniously dumped into garbage trucks, where they’re then taken to the Soylent factory for…well, I won’t reveal the big spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film.

Directed by Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage, Mandingo) the story is told with surprisingly few special effects, pre-CGI, with just a few well-orchestrated crowd scenes to capture the film’s scope.  Though usually billed as a sci-fi action movie, it’s more of a thoughtful and provocative psychological thriller. Soylent was the last movie to be filmed entirely on the backlot of MGM—within weeks after filming, the lot was sold off to build condos. The Golden Era of movies was officially over. 

It’s 2023 now, and the world has not yet fallen to the depths depicted in this thought-provoking film, thank goodness. The question is, are we headed in the right direction yet?

I hope you enjoy all the entries in the fabulous Futurethon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. I look forward to reading them all.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Deconstructing Daisy Clover

Hollywood loves making films about Hollywood; but very rarely do they do it well.

What can I say about this film I have seen at least a dozen times (and own a copy of in my DVD collection) but really, really don’t like?  I guess I would file this one under ‘Bad Movies I Love,’ or more accurately, ‘Bad Movies Starring Actors I Love.’

Inside Daisy Clover (1965) features some of my all-time favorite stars at the height of their fame, beauty and talent: The radiant Natalie Wood, a dreamy Robert Redford, the brilliant Christopher Plummer, Ruth Gordon and Roddy McDowall. Too bad the film takes advantage of so few of its potential assets and delivers less than stellar entertainment.

It’s directed by Robert Mulligan  (To Kill A Mockingbird) who had directed Wood in her moving Oscar-nominated performance in Love With the Proper Stranger opposite Steve McQueen, so it’s only natural they’d want to work together again. But instead of another gritty slice of life, they picked this glossy, overblown melodrama for their next project.

America's Sweetheart: Natalie Wood in the title role

Set in the 1930s, the film has absolutely no sense of period. It has that slick, anachronistic mid-1960s Panavision feel, much like Harlow, made the same year. A few marcelled hairstyles on the extras and period roadsters in the background are about the only nods to any specific place and time. (Can’t compare to the authenticity of a Bonnie and Clyde or a Paper Moon.)

In the film, Daisy Clover, played by Natalie, is being built up as the latest Depression Era child star—presumably the next Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. Yet the over-the-top metallic pixie elf costume she wears in her debut film is pure ‘60s mod (shame on you, Edith Head); Miss Wood even tosses a bit of psychedelic frugging into Herb Ross’s choreography in the  “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” sequence—and that the scene is filmed in black and white does not lend a shred of authenticity.

At 27, Natalie Wood was a bit long in the tooth to be portraying the 15-year old tomboy who shoots to stardom but those who know something about her life can understand why she was attracted to the role.

The story of Daisy Clover, adapted by screenwriter and film historian Gavin Lambert from his 1963 novel, held personal significance for Wood. A former child star herself, Natalie had some heavy baggage of her own. Her embattled past had included a disfiguring injury on the set of an early film; reportedly being raped by a he-man superstar as a child; affairs with a director and a legendary male crooner (both old enough to be her father) while still underage; adultery, divorce, suicide attempts and all the tabloid soap opera that seems to go hand-in-hand with glamour and fame.

Natalie Wood shined as both child and adult actress; at the tender age of 9 she was remarkable in Miracle on 34th Street, and as a teenager earned her first Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actress) in Rebel Without a Cause. Perhaps her finest hour on screen is her heartbreaking performance as Deenie in Splendor in the Grass opposite her soon-to-be lover Warren Beatty.

By sheer force of personality, Wood is able to breathe believability into the troubled young woman she portrays in Daisy Clover, conveying the complexities of a character who is tough on the outside but fragile on the inside, despite the fact that her role is severely underwritten. That in the movie Daisy is finally able to exorcise her demons and exact revenge in the film’s fiery climax may have been satisfying for Wood, but less so for mystified audiences trying to follow the threadbare plot. 

Sorry, Natalie, Miss Show Business you're not

It’s a hackneyed rags-to-riches anti-Cinderella tale. Sporting the same boy haircut/wig as she did as Louise in Gypsy, tomboy/urchin/gamine Natalie smokes moodily and scrawls lame graffiti on the walls of the crumbling Angel Beach boardwalk before sending her demo record to Hollywood. A miracle occurs—she’s whisked away to La La Land, screen-tested and molded by the studio head into the biggest star in the business. Daisy’s demented mother is put away in a sanitorium so Daisy can be a workhorse and money machine. Daisy falls in love with bad boy Wade Lewis but he ditches her on their honeymoon. Daisy’s mother dies. Daisy has a breakdown. And so on...fill in the cliché.

But perhaps the biggest mistake of Inside Daisy Clover was to make it a quasi-musical instead of a straight drama.

Other than “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” which is actually quite lovely (when performed by a fine singer!), the songs by Andre Previn and his then-wife Dory Previn, who also provided the musical interludes of Valley of the Dolls, have an ersatz feel and lack of substance. But worse, the great, powerful talent as described in Lambert’s script– which makes you think of a little girl with a big voice like Judy Garland–is sadly not embodied in Natalie Wood’s Daisy Clover.

It’s supposed to be magic when dirty-faced urchin Daisy opens her mouth to sing. But it just isn’t. Dubbed by the brassy but otherwise unmemorable voice of Jackie Ward, Natalie mimes like a trouper and passably executes the energetic choreography of Herbert Ross (who also staged Funny Girl for stage and film), but no matter how much Hollywood wants us to believe it, Natalie Wood is simply not a singer or musical star.

(Why did they force this lovely young actress into so many musicals? Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story had been famously dubbed by Marni Nixon. Natalie did do her own singing in Gypsy, but the result was not pretty, her untrained voice a little too loud and slightly off-key. Here, she merely gives another competent lip-sync job. )

Stick to the drama, Daisy, you're much better at that!

To her credit, Wood does have a few great moments in this so-so film. The sequence when Daisy is plagued by interruptions as she attempts suicide (by putting her head in a gas oven) is darkly comedic and brilliantly played. And the unforgettable scene where Daisy has a nervous breakdown while looping the Previns’ bizarre Circus number is truly terrifying, raw and real. (No wonder that Hollywood princess Carrie Fisher would pay homage to this iconic scene in her own show business opus, Postcards from the Edge, nearly 30 years later.)

For Daisy Clover, Natalie Wood was surrounded with a cast of talented heavyweights, many of them dear friends in her real life, so I do hope they all had a better time making it than audiences had seeing it. (Not that many did; it was a critical and box office flop.)

Mystery Man: Robert Redford as Wade Lewis, aka Lewis Wade

Gay subtext: Roddy McDowall as Walter Baines (wait, did he also handle Wade?)

Poor Roddy McDowall is forced to essay another thankless role here, one of many in his long career. He has about six lines of dialogue total as the Swan Studio head’s supercilious (read gay) henchman and Daisy’s watchful handler Walter Baines. (Thank goodness Mr. McDowall was able to carve out a piece of immortality for himself with the wildly popular Planet of the Apes series a few years later.)

A lifelong friend of Wood’s (he too had been a child star, along with their mutual close friend Elizabeth Taylor), McDowall was also an obsessive documentarian. The year that Daisy Clover was made, McDowall shot hours and hours of footage of Wood and a galaxy of stars who visited his Malibu beach house– including Lauren Bacall, Tony Perkins, Judy Garland, Jane Fonda and Christopher Plummer. (These home movies are more fun to watch than this film.)

The Dealer: Ruth Gordon as Lucile Clover

Returning to the screen after a 20-year absence is Ruth Gordon as Daisy’s eccentric mother, aka The Dealer. One of the great character actors of all time (as well as the brilliant co-writer of classic films like Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike with her husband Garson Kanin), Gordon is given precious little to do here; she speaks not a word of dialogue for 3/4 of the picture, so we’re prevented from enjoying much of her famously sardonic delivery. But the Academy did award Gordon with a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, which opened the door to a new career and paved the way for her iconic Oscar-winning performance as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. Gordon’s wisecracking old lady persona became her stock in trade for a very successful third act—in films from Harold & Maude to Every Which Way But Loose and My Bodyguard, she was the 1970s version of Betty White.

 With a face made for the silver screen, Robert Redford proves himself the quintessential male movie star—he positively glows with gorgeous golden boy vitality as the insouciant maverick film star Wade Lewis. This is Redford’s first major film role, after hitting the big time on the Broadway stage with Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (he would star with Jane Fonda in the film version two years later).

Unfortunately, Redford and his publicity team insisted that Lambert downplay his character’s bisexuality (it’s barely even alluded to in the finished film), further diluting the film’s already thin plotline. Thus it’s a mystery why Wade keeps disappearing and abandoning Daisy to the Tinseltown wolves. Nevertheless, Redford and Wood display real onscreen chemistry in their scenes together here, better served the next year when they costarred again for This Property Is Condemned.

Daisy’s producer, Alan J. Pakula, would go on to become Redford’s producing partner, where their greatest film triumph would come a decade later with All the President’s Men.

The two actors who fare best in this basically unsatisfying film are Christopher Plummer as studio head Raymond Swan and Katharine Bard as his deceptively sweet wife Melora. Bard skillfully plays good cop to her hard-nosed husband’s bad cop, gaining Daisy’s trust, but shows her true colors and her own baser instincts in a wild drunk scene in which she reveals the dirty secret of Wade’s sexuality. (Other than an unimpressive resume of TV guest shots, including a couple of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, this is Bard’s most notable role, and she is memorable.)

Katharine Bard as Melora Swan, sporting some flamboyant Edith Head-gear

As the avaricious impresario who wants to exploit, cash in on and ultimately own Daisy Clover, even taking the teen to his bed to exert total control over her, Christopher Plummer goes to the dark side and practically steals the film. Nicknamed The Prince of Darkness by Wade Lewis, Plummer’s Raymond Swan is handsome enough to be a leading man himself. He is simultaneously sexy and sadistic, charming and revolting. The unsettling scene where he takes Daisy into his arms to comfort her and ends up kissing her passionately is quite startling, even by today’s standards.

Prince of Darkness: Christopher Plummer as Raymond Swan

It’s obvious Plummer relishes his role and he plays it to the hilt. (Frankly, I always preferred Plummer’s stern and scary Captain Von Trapp in the early sequences of Sound of Music, before he transforms into the moist-eyed, guitar-wielding, “Edelweiss”-singing Father of the Year. And so, apparently, did he: Plummer always jokingly referred to his most iconic film as The Sound of Mucus.)  Fifteen years later, Plummer would play a similar Svengali-like role as Jane Seymour’s producer/lover in Somewhere in Time.

After Daisy Clover, Natalie Wood would go on to enjoy less success than her colleagues on this seems her salad days as a film icon were already over. True, she would costar in the hip sex comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969, but her credits after that are far from memorable. But, she would be the first to say in her own defense, she found a far more rewarding career as a doting mother raising a houseful of kids, first with second husband Richard Gregson and then after remarrying ex-husband Robert Wagner.

Cute couple: Their chemistry is undeniable.

An unsatisfying mélange of hoary showbiz cliches, Inside Daisy Clover is for the most part lugubrious, gloomy and depressing, enlivened by the fleeting moments of camp provided by a couple of rather ludicrous musical numbers, and the strong performances of a seasoned company of actors. Is it melodrama or satire? I still don’t know. The mood in each scene swings between these polarities. But it’s also an opportunity to see some of my favorite actors working in what, regrettably, is not one of my favorite films.

 And yes, I’ll definitely be watching it again one of these days. I can’t resist.

This is an entry in the Charismatic Christopher Plummer Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Pale Writer. I look forward to reading all about this acclaimed actor's greatest roles in the days to come. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

All Hallows in Harvest Home

Make thee the corn. It’s Harvest Time.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home is one of my Halloween horror guilty pleasures. This 1978 NBC miniseries directed by Leo Penn is intriguingly themed, intricately plotted and suspenseful, and surprisingly well-acted by a cast of veteran TV actors and one legendary star, as it hurtles to a startling conclusion worthy of The Wicker Man and the more recent Midsommar

David Ackroyd, handsome leading man and veteran of 1970s soap operas including Secret Storm and Another World, plays Nick Constantine, a beleaguered NYC advertising executive and frustrated painter. His marriage to neurotic Beth (Joanna Miles of Dallas and Chicago Hope) is troubled, and their high-strung teenage daughter Kate suffers from asthma. As the story unfolds, these stressed-out city folk decide to seek out a simpler way of life in the quaint fictional village of Cornwall Coombe, Connecticut.

David Ackroyd as Nick Constantine

Joanna Miles as Beth Constantine

On a Sunday drive to the country, crossing the Lost Whistle Bridge, the Constantines find themselves in a Brigadoon-like village suspended in time, resembling an Amish or Mennonite sect with its picturesque charm.  

Cornwall Coombe is a farming community, and life there is all about the land—and the corn. It’s their lifeblood, their livelihood, their way of life. Their quaint and engaging seasonal festivals (Planting Day, Agnes Fair, Ploughing Day, Harvest Home et al) are steeped in tradition—with a sinister subtext. 

All these folksy festivities, of course, are actually pagan rites and rituals to a dark and mysterious fertility goddess. Every seven years, a lucky young man is elevated to the status of Harvest Lord and paired with a lovely Corn Maiden, and then sees his farming prosper. The prime directive is “Make thee the corn.” (Think hieros gamos.)

Though the Constantines are charmed by their new bucolic lifestyle, Nick has many unanswered questions. The engine that drives the story is his overweening curiosity to discover “the secret that no man can know and no woman will tell.” (Be careful what you wish for.)

Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune

At the center of Cornwall Coombe’s tight-knit community is the town matriarch, the feisty and commanding Widow Fortune, who serves in capacities ranging from mayor to midwife to landlord, and more. The Widow’s charms and potions are more efficacious than any doctor’s at curing their daughter’s asthma, and she promises to help Beth get pregnant.

During Sunday church services, we see who’s really in charge as the male pastor steps aside and the Widow ascends to the altar, her arms outstretched, to address the congregation.

The Widow Fortune is the last great role for Miss Bette Davis, whose flagging career had been revitalized by the gothic thriller genre with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and The Nanny decades before, and kept her working steadily in the horror genre through Burnt Offerings the previous year.

A famous New Englander herself, Davis has a field day in the pivotal role of the Widow Fortune displaying a perfect Nor’East dialect (remember those old Pepperidge Farm commercials?) and a clipped, no-nonsense delivery of old-world wisdom and aphorisms, herbal remedies and old wives’ tales. “Ai’yah.”

Though steeped in the occult, the only supernatural effects we experience in Harvest Home are the series of coincidences that bring the Constantines to Cornwall Coombe, events that seem to arrange themselves. The family has a flat tire right in front of the Lost Whistle Bridge, and it just happens to be Planting Day. And later when daughter Kate has what seems to be a fatal asthma attack and the doctor pronounces her dead, the Widow Fortune steps in to perform an emergency tracheotomy and restores the girl to life. 

Rosanna Arquette as Kate Constantine

Tracey Gold as Missy, she never calms down

The cast is first-rate and a who’s who of 1970s and 1980s TV and film actors. A young Rosanna Arquette (Desperately Seeking Susan) is arresting in one of her first roles, as Ned and Beth’s daughter Kate.

Michael O’Keefe (Caddyshack) is Worthy Pettinger, the Young Harvest Lord who turns his back on the old ways and is shunned by the community, and that’s just for starters. (“God curse the corn and God damn the Mother!” is something one should never say…there will be consequences.)

Young Tracey Gold (so cute on Growing Pains) is absolutely terrifying as a little girl on the autistic spectrum believed to have the power of augury, choosing the next Harvest Lord. 

Tinker Jack Stump, played by veteran character actor Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) suffers a brutal attack in which his tongue is cut out to keep him quiet about some of Cornwall Coombe’s dark secrets (and there are many.) 

Also effective in their roles are John Calvin and Laurie Prange as Justin and Sophie Hooke, the Harvest Lord and Corn Maiden who dutifully play their roles in the ominous Corn Play Pageant, on stage and in real life.  

Donald Pleasence—the voice of doom

Adding to the eerie, quietly sinister aura of Cornwall Coombe is the sonorous and hypnotic, unmistakable voice of the great Donald Pleasence (Eye of the Devil, Halloween) as he reads classic tales via the audio books of blind neighbor Robert Dodd, next door to the Constantines.  From the neighbor’s tape recorder we hear tantalizing snippets of The Three Musketeers, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and David Copperfield. As always, Pleasence’s impeccably articulate British tones have a menacing and ominous undercurrent.

The compelling story is the work of Tom Tryon, a former actor (The Cardinal) who turned to writing after his film career failed. Riding the occult wave of Ira Levin’s wildly successful Rosemary’s Baby (and its even more iconic 1968 film version)  Tryon’s novels Harvest Home and The Other became instant best-sellers. The Other was made into a 1971 theatrical film, and his short story Fedora (in his Hollywood-themed fiction anthology Crowned Heads) was filmed by the great Billy Wilder in 1978. The same year, Harvest Home was adapted into this NBC miniseries. Handsome Tryon, a closeted gay man and one-time partner of the porn star Casey Donovan, died in 1991.

Author Thomas Tryon

Unfortunately, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home is currently not yet available in a remastered complete print. Thank goodness the series was rebroadcast in its entirety (total of 3 hours and 48 minutes) on the TNT channel in the 1990s, where an enterprising film lover captured it, albeit in a very grainy home-made videotape transfer with some scenes still bearing the TNT logo. However, it’s such a compellingly told story that I find it watchable and absorbing even in this substandard form. It was a must-have horror title for my library.

Make thee the corn. Ai’yah. 

This is an entry in the Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasance Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Cinematic Catharsis. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Buzz About Fuzz

As director Edgar Wright’s follow-up to his dead-on horror satire Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz (2007) is an even better, funnier and more richly multilayered movie, weaving multiple genres and homages to previous classics into one complex, rollicking, fast-paced and always entertaining film.

Our hero is the uptight, by-the-book Police Sargent Nicholas Angel—perfectly portrayed by an adorably serious and dorky Simon Pegg— a perfectionistic and therefore wildly unpopular member of the London police force who makes everyone else look bad with his obsessive exceptionalism. In the guise of a “promotion,” Angel is transferred out of London and basically put out to pasture, relegated to the tiny English country village of Sandford in Gloucestershire.

Quaint and picturesque Sandford is a perennial Village of the Year with a zero-crime rate and a lackadaisical police service (don’t call it a police force). Sandford’s Most Wanted is a runaway swan loose from the zoo, and the Neighborhood Watch Committee frets about kids in hoodies, living statues and crusty jugglers in the town square that might sully the town’s sterling reputation.

Simon Pegg as Nicholas Angel, with the Sandford Police Service

But Nicholas Angel senses a darker reality. At first in overzealous hot pursuit of shoplifters, surly townies and the aforementioned runaway swan, he realizes that a rash of bloody accidents and gory mishaps (all fatal) are in fact deliberate hit jobs.

A police officer who has never fired his gun,  Angel must embrace his dark side to fight evil—and is encouraged to indulge his secret predilection for firearms. With the help of his partner, Danny Butterman, son of the police chief (unforgettably played by Nick Frost), Angel sets out on an investigation that culminates in a town-wide explosion of vigilante justice. 

Inspired by Danny’s favorite movies Point Break and Bad Boys II, the last quarter of the film shifts gears from buddy comedy to a kick-ass shoot ’em up, a fitting tribute to  “every action movie ever made,” with further nods to classic conspiracy thrillers like The Wicker Man.

Danny (Nick Frost) and Nicholas on duty

Juxtaposing zany physical comedy with often gory scenes of violence and rapier-sharp wit, and peopled with a marvelous cast at the top of their game, Hot Fuzz is a no-holds-barred, adrenalin-filled thrill ride, further fueled by a rousing soundtrack of ’80s and ’90s pop music.  

The chemistry of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is the glue that holds the film together as the pair warmly salutes and satirizes the buddy comedy genre. They’re a classic comic team in the style of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin & Lewis, with Pegg as straight man and Frost as clown. (The pair would go on to make more films together, but none have matched the critical or financial success of Shaun or Fuzz.)

Jim Broadbent as Chief Frank Butterman

Billie Whitelaw as Joyce Cooper

Edward Woodward as Tom Weaver

The film is packed with well-known actors, a virtual who’s who in English filmdom—and no one does dry humor better than the Brits! From cake-eating Police Chief Frank Butterman, who makes sure criminals get their just desserts, played to the hilt by Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge), to the legendary, always menacing Billie Whitelaw (The Omen, Night Watch) as Joyce Cooper, proprietress of the Swan Hotel, to Wicker Man antihero himself Edward Woodward, the cast is uniformly stellar. There are also small cameos by Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman as well as unbilled bits from Cate Blanchett and Steve Coogan.

Timothy Dalton as Simon Skinner

Timothy Dalton, who started his career as an 80-year-old Mae West’s handsome young bridegroom in Sextette, is a standout as urbane supermarché owner Simon Skinner, who plays a clever cat-and-mouse game with Angel. (Dalton’s short-lived tenure as James Bond in the late 1980s might have benefited from some of the Welsh actor’s comedic adeptness and droll delivery. But after the feather-light performances of the previous Bond, Roger Moore, the producers wanted the series to take a darker turn. Both Dalton's films underperformed, though, and Pierce Brosnan restored Bond's light comedic touch in his interpretation of 007.)

Olivia Colman as PC Doris Thatcher

Future Oscar winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) makes the most of her small role as a member of the Sandford Police Force amused by the “accidents” that plague the small town. (When a drunken townsman presumably sets his house on fire during a late-night “fry-up”, she quips: “Who doesn’t love a midnight gobble?”)

Attempting to apprehend Sandford's Most Wanted

With a script cowritten by actor Pegg and director Wright and skillfully creatively executed by film editor Chris Dickens and cinematographer Jess Hall, Hot Fuzz is rich, masterfully fast-paced storytelling for movie lovers, one of those films you have to see again and again to capture every nuance, reference and comic aside.

Thanks to Gabriela from Pale Writer and Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews for hosting this amazing Not Bond Blogathon which will undoubtedly leave us all a bit shaken but not stirred. Look forward to reading all the posts!