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 film...it 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 Penrose...no, 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!

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Joan Fontaine: An Elegant Scream Queen

I love when actresses past a certain age are able to transition from leading ladies into character roles—that is truly a test of talent, tenacity and charisma. Some of the films they do may not be classics, but that makes it even more fun. They usually work even harder to entertain us than in their film heydays.

Joan Fontaine’s last big screen role was in a picture that she produced with Hammer Films, and she and the film are eminently watchable, even if it goes totally off the rails near the end. (There are spoilers ahead, because the train wreck of an ending is my favorite part!)

The Witches (1966) marked Fontaine’s descent into the Grand Guignol, that entertaining 1960s phenomenon of mature leading ladies seeking renewed box office appeal in the horror film genre. Pioneered by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, the genre is populated by luminaries and legends including Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling), Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters (What’s The Matter With Helen), Ruth Gordon (Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice) and Elizabeth Taylor (Night Watch). Fontaine’s own sister Olivia deHavilland joined the mature scream queen coven as well with Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Lady in a Cage and later The Swarm.

Joan Fontaine as Gwen Mayfield

(Fontaine’s feud with sister deHavilland is as well known as her iconic performances in films like The Women, Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion, for which Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar five years before her sister finally copped the gold statuette. It’s rumored they didn’t speak for more than 20 years before Fontaine’s death at the age of 96 in 2013. DeHavilland passed away at the age of 104 in 2020.)

Joan with sister and arch rival Olivia in the 60s, when they were still speaking

In The Witches (released in the U.S. at the time as The Devil’s Own), Fontaine plays schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield, who has been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown following a traumatic event overseas, an indigenous uprising against the Christian missionaries, culminating in a terrifying voodoo ritual.  

To her relief and delight, upon her discharge from the sanitarium Miss Mayfield is offered a dream job, as headmistress in a country day school in the picturesque village of Hedaby, where she'll be installed in a cozy little cottage replete with English rose garden and her own young housekeeper. 

Hedaby is populated with uneducated, hardworking, down-to-earth plain country folk, but evil is lurking beneath the town’s bucolic charms, splendidly photographed in Hammer fashion and foreshadowing the company’s masterpiece The Wicker Man seven years later.

The movie offers a great opportunity to showcase the talents of trained British actors developing those quirky characters that make Hammer horror films such a treat. You can see the familiar tropes a mile away—the butcher who practices his knife skills with a little too much relish, for example—but this company of actors is totally committed and believable in their roles.

A standout in the cast is Hammer Film favorite Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (The Devil Rides Out) as the fey and deliciously vague Granny Rigg, who uses her cat as a familiar to stalk Miss Mayfield. Alec McCowen (Never Say Never Again) is just right as Alan Bax, the wealthy landowner who wears a priest’s collar though he’s not in the clergy. Kay Walsh (In Which We Serve) is veddy veddy proper as Alan’s older sister Stephanie Bax, a celebrated writer and intellectual who looks down her nose at the common folk she presides over as a member of the landed gentry.  

The wonderful Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Granny Rigg

Alec McCowen as Alan Bax

Martin Stephens as Ronnie Dowsett and Ingrid Boulton as Linda Rigg

There are new young faces to be found here, too, including Martin Stephens (The Innocents, Village of the Damned) and Ingrid Boulting (The Last Tycoon) as a young teen couple who may be about to lose their virginity, to the town’s great distress. 

Truth be told, the storytelling is quite compelling as the plot unfolds and Miss Mayfield begins to suspect that’s something’s amiss. (You guessed it—they’re all witches.) There is an elegant building of suspense and revelation that culminates in a climax that—well, at least breaks the tension. (And for many viewers, sort of ruins the whole film.) 

And here’s the spoiler section: The producers were obviously flummoxed about how to portray a scene of supreme evil and obscenity—a wild bacchanal followed by a human sacrifice – and get it past the 1966 censors while still receiving a code of approval from the Motion Picture boards and associations in the U.S. and U.K. 

As a result, the climactic “orgy” scene is either an embarrassment or a rollickingly hilarious camp tableau, depending on your point of view, with participants gnashing their teeth, rolling in the mud and literally eating dirt under the hypnotic persuasion of the usually fastidious but now wild-eyed Kay Walsh.

The townspeople get grubbier and stupider as the evil plan is revealed

Outrageously adorned with deer antlers studded with candles (half headdress, half chandelier),  Walsh puts on quite a show and goes straight over the top, gravely intoning some Pig Latin mumbo jumbo and waving her arms in staccato fashion, as the grubby, now zombified congregation does a herky-jerky dance to her tune. It’s absurd and laughable, but if you’re like me, you can’t stop watching. 

The scene stealer: Kay Walsh as Stephanie Bax

Through it all, though, Miss Joan Fontaine never loses her dignity, displaying ladylike heroism that results in an abrupt happy ending. As well, she’s photographed superbly—there’s nothing remotely 'hagsplotation' about her beleaguered Miss Mayfield, usually appearing beautifully coiffed and dressed in timeless tweed and chic sweater sets despite all the satanic fuss. (It’s always a plus to be a producer!)

Though this was her final bow as a big screen actress, Fontaine did continue working intermittently in television, appearing memorably in the ABC miniseries The Users (based on Joyce Haber’s racy Hollywood roman a clef novel) and in an episode of The Love Boat in 1977. 

Miss Fontaine was still quite lovely at age 50 when she made this picture

Today, a bevy of former A-List actresses continue the Guignol tradition via producers such as Blumhouse, lending their names to shockers and thrillers of varying quality, usually for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. I just recently saw Barbara Hershey (The Entity) as a feisty nursing home resident battling ghosts and demons; and Paula Prentiss (The Stepford Wives) as a wheelchair-bound dementia patient haunting and taunting her at-home caregiver. (Sorry, I already can't remember the titles of those two epics...and won't be writing about them. But I’m thrilled that these talented ladies are still working!) 

Thanks so much to the wonderful Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry of Cinematic Catharsis for hosting this amazing blogathon and getting us all in the Halloween mood. Look forward to reading everyone’s posts.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Devil Is In The Details

Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Devil Rides Out), the film version of To The Devil A Daughter (1976) bears little resemblance to its source material. It’s little more than a hodgepodge of supernatural claptrap, further hampered by a jumbled storyline, but it is entertaining nonetheless to die-hard classic horror fans like me. 

Here’s a thumbnail of the plot: An occult novelist is called upon by a desperate man to rescue his daughter who has been brainwashed in a Bavarian monastery by a pseudo-Catholic cult as part of a Faustian pact he now regrets. (That’s complicated enough, but there are about a dozen other subplots to contend with here as well.)  

Directly influenced by that bankable genre starting with Rosemary’s Baby and continuing through The Exorcist and The Omen, this contemporary rather than gothic Hammer Film borrows heavily from them all. Its overstuffed storyline is crammed full of black magic, voodoo and various and sundry occult mumbo jumbo, replete with an obligatory Black Mass/Hieros Gamos ritual sex scene.

The cast is first-rate, proving the old adage that even the greatest collection of actors can’t save a movie from a bad (or nonexistent) script.

A properly clothed Lee and Kinski

Hammer veteran Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Wicker Man, The Man With the Golden Gun) headlines the proceedings with a solid and dignified performance despite all the messy twists and turns of the story, sailing through with his signature unruffled panache. Though he had high hopes for this follow-up to his marvelous performance in the classic Devil Rides Out, this film can’t hold a candle to the previous Wheatley adaptation.

As the novelist, the legendary Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death, Judgment at Nuremberg, Coma) has little to do except spout pages of exposition to attempt to explain the incomprehensible and convoluted plot points that never quite come together. (Widmark was found to be difficult and uncooperative on the set, loudly cursing the quality of the script, which changed every day. Viewers will find he was displeased for good reason.)

Sister Nastassia and a peevish Richard Widmark

Widmark’s character does have one good line retained from the Wheatley novel when he explains the appeal of Satanism as an excuse for “dancing naked in churchyards and using the devil as an excuse to get sex.” 

Nastassia Kinski, daughter of German actor Klaus Kinski (who was originally cast in the Widmark role and got a better offer!), is the beleaguered heroine of the piece, the young virgin who must be consort to the demon her cult wishes to invoke. She spends most of her screen time either dressed in a nun’s habit or totally naked, surrounded by chanting devil-worshippers.  

(Incidentally, the film also distinguishes itself by giving us Sir Christopher Lee’s only cinematic nude scene, though reportedly some angles were filmed with a body double. He’s in great shape here, though, for a man of 54!)

Young Nastassia would soon become the protege of director Roman Polanski and star as Thomas Hardy’s ill-fated heroine in his film version of Tess, though she’s probably best remembered from that sex-charged, 1980s Cat People remake.

Denholm Elliott emotes as Honor Blackman models scarves

As Kinski’s tortured father, a wild-eyed Denholm Elliott (Maurice, Raiders of the Lost Ark) chews the scenery using the masterful RADA training that made him such a reliable and fine character actor in countless British films.

The talented Frances De La Tour has a small role as a toothsome Salvation Army worker who moves the plot forward an inch or two—presumably for comic relief, as she never appears again. Honor Blackman, forever known as Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, swans around in fashionable head scarves until she suffers a particularly gruesome death.

There are some effective horror set pieces— a ghost with a crescent shape amulet who is never explained, a terrifying tableau of of a man on fire—every horror trope but the metaphysical kitchen sink is thrown in for good or bad measure. If you don’t think and just watch, you might enjoy some of the spectacle!

The obligatory worship of golden idols

A demon named Astaroth is the idol of worship by the Bavarian cult, depicted as a spread-eagled figure on an upside down cross (the Hanged Man tarot symbol) in a vulgar parody of Christ's crucifixion.

The monstrous little demon baby evoked through a bloody birth ritual is reminiscent of both Lovecraft lore and a shocker made the previous year called It’s Alive. The scene with the bloody baby crawling between Kinski’s legs and salivating blood all over her unclad body is an image you can’t unsee.

This last Hammer horror film does pay homage to its colorful past with the liberal use of bright red blood so beloved to Hammer gore aficionados. In a few key scenes including the film’s climax, bowlsful of the signature fake blood are used, cartoonishly bright red “Kensington Gore” achieved with a mixture of corn syrup, paraben, food coloring and Kodak Photo-Flo fluid. 

If the film had built to a rousing climax and tied up some of its many loose ends, one may be able to forgive its transgressions, but apparently the production ran out of money and the producers were forced to fashion a hasty, tacked-on and underwhelming ending.

Sir Christopher going a little over the top

Ironically, Father Michael Raynor is one of Lee’s most subtle performances, though he does go over the top when called upon! He cuts a handsome figure in his long black cassock and white collar, his manner gentlemanly and enigmatic and understated. With his diabolically charming smile and famously smoldering eyes, Christopher Lee is here, as always, the personification of elegant evil. He emerges from this not-so-great picture completely unscathed.

To The Devil A Daughter is a little known horror curiosity, a campy exploitation film that has developed a cult following for many obvious reasons. Too much is thrown at the wall in the service of entertainment —though a few things stick. If you’re anything like me, you’ll buy the DVD so you’ll be able to fast-forward to “the good parts”—again and again! 

This is my entry in the Christopher Lee Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. I look forward to reading all about one of my all-time favorite and most prolific stars!

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Backstory to 'Broads'

These Old Broads
is a 2001 TV movie written by Carrie Fisher (with Elaine Pope) and starring Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor. In it, Fisher set out to pen a campy romp that gay audiences would love, a valentine to lovers of Old Hollywood and the legendary ladies who twinkled in its firmanent. 

The premise is simple: A trio of has-been actresses who can’t stand each other team up for a tribute to the 60s beach movie that made them stars (think Where The Boys Are). But the plot of the movie is really beside the point. The real fun of These Old Broads is knowing the backstories of its superstar cast and connecting the dots.

Fisher found her movie title in an old Hollywood story that perfectly captured the attitude toward aging actresses in Hollywood.

In 1962, studio head Jack Warner told producer Robert Aldrich when he asked for financing on a picture starring aging divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: “No one’s going to give you a dime for these old broads.” (But Warner was wrong, of course, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane went on to become the surprise hit of that year.)

Carrie Fisher with her mom Debbie Reynolds, circa 1970

Carrie Fisher herself was one complicated character. Space Princess. Hollywood Princess. And also Princess of Pain - obsessive, intense and bipolar, with a passionate and encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood folklore. We are fortunate that she was such a prolific writer and chronicler of the many things going on inside that brilliant beautiful mind.

If you’re not familiar with Fisher’s history and Hollywood pedigree, I highly recommend watching her hilarious one-woman show Wishful Drinking (available on HBO) before seeing These Old Broads. In it, she gives an enlightening synopsis of her life in a lecture replete with a flow chart of her famous family tree—aptly titled Hollywood Inbreeding 101. 

Bottom line: it’s all connected—and many of the details must be understood to fully appreciate Broads

Back in 1957, singer Eddie Fisher and girl next door MGM star Debbie Reynolds (parents to Carrie and brother Todd) were America’s sweethearts, and best friends to impresario Mike Todd and his new wife Elizabeth Taylor. (Debbie had even served as Elizabeth’s matron of honor.) Tragically, Mike Todd suddenly died in a plane crash, leaving Elizabeth devastated. Debbie sent Eddie to help her friend in any way he possibly could. 

The Other Woman: Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Then, as Carrie tells it, “My father rushed to her side—and then made his way around to her front.” The despondent widowed Taylor needed comfort and consolation, and in Eddie’s daughter’s words, “She consoled herself with my father’s p****s.”

The scandal and feud that resulted played out in the tabloids for years to come. Elizabeth was branded an adulteress, and Eddie lost his lucrative TV show. Reynolds divorced Fisher. Fisher and Taylor would marry in 1959, but three years later Taylor would dump him as well for costar Richard Burton, igniting yet another Scandale.

In Broads, Debbie Reynolds plays a role very close to her real self, an unsinkable former movie star who owns a hotel and movie memorabilia museum.  

One key scene in These Old Broads capitalizes on the Debbie/Eddie/Liz scandal and is fascinating to watch, the square-off scene between Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds. It’s full of fun, affection and nostalgia as Debbie playfully chastises her former friend for being a nymphomaniac and Elizabeth defends herself by calling Debbie a boring born-again virgin. Debbie forgives Elizabeth and together they tear Eddie to shreds for coming between them. In real life, Debbie and Elizabeth had buried the hatchet years before, but for a classic movie lover it’s a real treat to see an onscreen version of their reconciliation. (It’s the raison d’etre for the whole film, in my opinion!)

Friends forever: Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds

With almost nothing to do or interesting to say, Shirley MacLaine fares less well than Debbie and Elizabeth in Broads. The character she plays would have benefited by a dash of the metaphysical/woowoo (some say kooky) spiritual persona that has helped make the name Shirley MacLaine iconic, but no one thought of that.

But of course, MacLaine has backstory that connects her directly to both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor in the Hollywood tapestry of myth. In Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher’s thinly veiled account of her recovery from a drug overdose, MacLaine famously played the role of the mother fashioned after Debbie, opposite Meryl Streep in the Carrie role. 

And Liz Taylor once “stole” the Oscar that MacLaine believed was hers, back in 1961! 

Liz "stole" Shirley's Oscar in 1961, but Shirley got one too in 1984

Nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role of Miss Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment,  MacLaine was the odds-on favorite to win. That is, until fellow nominee Elizabeth Taylor fell ill with pneumonia in London and was at death’s door. Only emergency surgery saved Elizabeth from drowning in her own lung fluids, along with the prayers of filmgoers worldwide who forgave her sinful past transgressions (specifically, stealing Debbie’s husband Eddie). “I prayed right along with them for Elizabeth’s recovery,” a saintly Debbie Reynolds was quoted as saying.

The Academy voters took pity on her as well and Taylor won, for her performance as a trampy call girl in the sleazy yet slick soap opera Butterfield 8, prompting Shirley MacLaine to retort cynically, “I lost to a tracheotomy.” (MacLaine would finally win the coveted gold statuette for Best Actress in 1984, for Terms of Endearment.)

Connecting the dots to…Joan Collins. When Elizabeth had fallen ill, it had been none other than Joan Collins who was tapped to replace Taylor as the Queen of the Nile in the big screen Fox epic Cleopatra. (But Taylor, of course, recovered!)

Joan Collins almost took over the role of Cleopatra from an ailing Taylor - but she recovered!

Collins, considered to be the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor, had been a Hollywood glamour girl for half a decade but had never achieved the A-List status of a Taylor or a Monroe. The British beauty did some high profile parts (taking over the role Joan Crawford played in The Women for the color remake The Opposite Sex, for example) but her filmography also contained numerous lesser efforts such as the sword-and-sandal epic Land of the Pharoahs.

Married to flamboyant songwriter and performer Anthony “What Kind of Fool Am I” Newley in the 1960s, Collins became more well known as an international jetsetter than as an actress, though she did take time out to raise a family. A ubiquitous presence on International Best Dressed Lists and in the tabloids, Collins was seen frugging at posh nightclubs in seqinned minidresses, glittering with diamonds, sporting her trademark false lashes and kohl-black eyeliner, high bouffant wigs and falls. Fabulous!

Building an icon: From 1950s glamour girl to 1960s fashionista to TV's top femme fatale

In the 1970s, Collins worked steadily, often in horror films (like Tales That Witness Madness and The Empire of the Ants) and titillating semi-sexploitation ugh films like The Bitch (based on a book by her equally famous sister Jackie Collins, who exposed the seamier side of fame and fortune with her racy contemporary romance novels, most notably The Hollywood Wives.)

Then came the TV series Dynasty, in which her tour de force performance as the beautiful, villainous and flawlessly fashionable Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Dexter Rowan revitalized her career and propelled her to a richly deserved icon status of her own. 

In Broads, Joan looks spectacular - she was 67 at the time - but she seems miscast in her role of a gangster’s moll (shades of Lana Turner and Johnny Stompananato) and her American accent leaves something to be desired. 

Perhaps Elizabeth had been offered the Collins role first and turned it down (though it wouldn’t have been a good fit for her either) and then bade Fisher to create a role in which she could relax in bed most of the time. Taylor suffered from constant agonizing pain from back trouble and had difficulty walking, and indeed for the rest of her life conducted most of her business from her bedroom! 

Like Mae West, Elizabeth did some of her best work in bed

(For all her beauty, talent, fame and and money, Taylor’s life was indeed beset by crisis after crisis, tragedy after tragedy, dozens of health scares, operations and close calls. A long-running soap opera. But she still found the energy and time to create a billion-dollar perfume business and to establish, organize and promote the AIDS charity AMFAR.)

In her small role as a high-powered Hollywood agent, Elizabeth steals the film from her famous costars, a zoftig earth mother lounging in her caftan and barking orders in a thick New York accent.  (Taylor had converted to Judaism when she married Mike Todd and ever since, always referred to herself as a Jewish American Princess and a Jewish Mother, and she plays it to the hilt here.)

If only the movie itself were as interesting as the stories behind it and the stars in it!  It’s a mess in many respects (a mix of slapstick farce and bitchy comedy of manners) but its heart is in the right place. Any movie that gives work to mature, powerful, accomplished women is all right in my book. When it’s on again, you can be sure I’ll be watching it! 

Thanks for the opportunity to add this entry to the Joan Collins Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Taking Up Room! I look forward to exploring the glittering career of Dame Joan with my fellow bloggers!