Friday, November 29, 2013

Ellery Queen ( 1975-1976 )

The tinkling of piano keys and the brassy boozy sound of muted trumpets in an opening intro beckoned us into the world of New York City in the 1940s...a city abound with clever criminals and puzzling murder cases. It's no wonder the city police had such a great detective like Richard Queen as their chief inspector. They needed him. What they did not suspect however, was that he relied upon his son, mystery author Ellery Queen, to solve these puzzles for him! 

In the mid-1970s middle-aged viewers got to sit back, relax and enjoy a sprightly-paced hour watching Ellery Queen and his pop solve murder cases in an entertaining series brought to NBC by the creators of Columbo and Murder She Wrote.  

History of a Mystery Duo

Ellery Queen has long been considered one of America's greatest fictional detectives. In fact, he has been regarded by many as the successor to Sherlock Holmes. Queen first appeared in 1927 in the mystery novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. Two American cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, had always been fans of mystery fiction and decided to team up and write a story for a writing contest for McClures Magazine. Every author had to enter the contest using a pseudonym so that professional writers would not have an advantage over the other entrants. They decided to write collectively under the name "Ellery Queen" and dubbed their sleuth the same name. 

The characters and the cleverly written stories, which always featured a "gathering of suspects" at the end of the tale as well as a Challenge to the Reader, quickly became a sensation. "Ellery Queen" went on to become one of the most successful mystery novelists of the 20th century, having penned dozens of novels and short stories in a period of 42 years. The duo also created Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1941, considered to be one of the most influential English-language crime fiction magazines of the last sixty-five years. 

Dannay and Lee liked to remain anonymous and during the 1940s often made public appearances donning masks. Some critics thought that the great wit S. S Van Dine was one of the team. They did, however, make appearances on radio, where they could be heard but not seen. 

In 1939 The Adventures of Ellery Queen was brought to radio and aired on three different networks over the course of nine years. Hugh Marlowe provided the voice of Ellery Queen during the first three years and then, when the program moved to NBC radio, Carleton Young took over. 

In the early 1940s Ralph Bellamy starred as the absent-minded sleuth in a series of - ahem, lackluster - films for Columbia studios. Charley Grapewin portrayed Inspector Queen and Margaret Lindsay was second-billed as a tagged on love-interest, Nikki Porter ( actually, this character first appeared in the radio show...but not in the books until after 1943 ). William Gargan replaced Bellamy in two of these films when Bellamy walked out. These series were entertaining in themselves, but really had nothing to do with the Ellery Queen books and were capitalizing solely on the character's popularity. 

One of the first Ellery Queen series to be brought to the tiny tube was The Adventures of Ellery Queen by Dumont in 1950. This series ran for two years, with ABC taking the helm during the second season when it won the TV Guide Award for Best Television Mystery. Debonair actor Richard Hart, sporting a Flynn 'stash portrayed Ellery Queen with Florenz Ames co-starring as his grumpy papa, the Inspector. Four months into the series, Hart died of a heart attack and within two days was replaced by Lee Bowman...a bit older and slimmer but since television was scarce in homes and rather fuzzy at that, many viewers probably didn't notice the change. In a sprightly 25 minutes Ellery would find a case to be solved, organize the clues, and gather together the suspects for his unveiling of the culprit's identity. Some of these cases included a murder at an art gallery, an opera, a ballet and one at a Shakespeare festival..."We were just getting round to a murder at a rare book shop when they took the show off the air" recalled scriptwriter Helene Hanff. 

Two years later TPA, Television Programs of America, brought back the series, this time with Hugh Marlowe as our beloved sleuth. Both Marlowe and Florenz Ames were old hands at Ellery Queen and tried their best at giving the show some power juice, but the production values were poor and the scripts bad as the critic reviews for the series. 

NBC decided to give ol' Ellery another chance in 1959, this time in a series called The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen. George Nader was given the role of Ellery while the series was telecast live but then Lee Phillips took over once they switched to videotape. Actual Queen stories were used as basis' for the first six episodes but once again the stories were lost in translation. 

In 1971, the writing and producing team of William Link and Richard Levinson - both avid Ellery Queen fans - approached NBC with a proposal for ( oh no! ) yet another Ellery Queen series. They too had been disappointed with the previous television adaptions and wanted to see a show created that contained the same unique twists and intellilectual clues as the book series. Link and Levinson, having made a success of their popular Columbo series, decided to see Ellery Queen brought faithfully to the screen. 

Alas, by the time production began, their script, based on the novel "Cat of Many Tails", had been given a complete face-lift while they were sent away on a vacation to Europe and it was scarred beyond recognition. Levinson and Link were ashamed of the final result and requested to be credited as "Ted Leighton". This made-for-tv movie pilot, entitled Don't Look Behind You, featured an Ellery Queen that bore no resemblance to the book character. Instead, Queen - played by Peter Lawford - became an overaged swinging bachelor, who is helping his inspector uncle ( Harry Morgan ), solve a mystery in London. Coleen Gray and Stefanie Powers also starred. 

The King of Queens

In 1975 Levinson and Link persuaded NBC to do another Queen pilot episode, this time in keeping with their original vision for the series. Frank Price, head of Universal television at that time, suggested that Jim Hutton be cast as Ellery Queen. Link thought the suggestion good but had his doubts to whether Hutton could play a dramatic role as well as he handled comedy. Well, he needn't have doubted. Hutton's charm and good-natured manner played beautifully against David Wayne's crusty Old Man. This series became the best adaption of Ellery Queen to be brought to television ( or film ). Frederic Dannay himself considered Hutton to be excellent in the role of Queen and the entire series "right on target". 

On March 23, 1975, the pilot movie "Too Many Suspects" premiered. This film featured the Inspector and Ellery solving the murder of a famous fashion designer who left a baffling dying clue. The film garnered positive reviews and launched a fantastic series that sadly, was canceled after only one season.

What made Ellery Queen so entertaining was the audience participation involved. Every episode would begin with a teaser wherein we see the victim and the suspects, usually amounting to 6-7 people, while the following would be announced by veteran voice-over actor Bill Woodson:

" This famous composer stole his last song. Who killed him? Was it the bereaved widow? His loyal business partner? His shiftless son? The floozy nightclub singer? The enraged conductor? Or was it somebody else? Match wits with Ellery Queen and see it you can guess WHODUNNIT "

A stellar opening credit sequence of typewriters and chess men ( and an unforgettable theme song by Elmer Bernstein ) drew us into a nostalgic world of mystery. Before we, the audience, have time to figure out the character's names, Ellery has the mystery solved, and then - in the most unique technique found in any mystery program - he would break "the fourth wall" and face the television camera to ask us if we have solved the mystery too. Queen's methods of solving the crime were always by deductive reasoning, and he would continually astound this father by arriving at a correct solution with a minimum amount of clues to work with. The clues are all there for us - somewhat scattered sometimes - and getting the chance to help solve the crime was the key element that made this series the winner that it was. 

Unfortunately, critics didn't agree with this. Some thought the 1940s setting of the series distracting, while others put down Hutton's portrayal of Ellery as "lackluster", and ultimately viewers neglected to tune in every week. Levinson and Link believed the mysteries may have been too difficult to solve, hence in subsequent series, such as Murder She Wrote, they threw in a few simple mysteries to boost up viewers pride in their own deductive abilities. 

"Why does everything in this house end up in the fridge?"

Queen and His Pawns 

Ellery Queen - Jim Hutton

Hutton portrayed Ellery Queen as a gangling - and a bit bumbling - young man that was quite different from the book character. But, like Columbo, his clumsiness never distracted us from the case at hand and only added to Queen's charm. Sporting a tweed coat and his favorite eske hat, Ellery approached every suspect without suspicion but would not rest until he gathered all the pieces of the latest puzzle and could lock them into place. 

Jim Hutton made a name for himself in the early 1960s when he shot to stardom as the leading man in a series of romantic comedies ( The Horizontal Lieutenant, Where the Boys Are, Bachelor in Paradise, The Honeymoon Machine ) where he was often paired with Paula Prentiss. At 6'5 he was one of the tallest contract players in Hollywood and his lanky appearance reminded many of James Stewart. He was considered by some to be his successor, and right so...Hutton had a marvelous flair for comedy and like Stewart, often read his lines with a touch of absent-mindedness. A consummate professional, Hutton diligently applied himself to the role of Ellery Queen and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities the part provided. Today he is remembered most for this role. Hutton died in 1979, at the age of 45, from liver cancer. His son is actor Timothy Hutton. 

Inspector Richard Queen - David Wayne

The Ellery Queen mysteries just wouldn't be as beloved as they are today without the irascible Inspector Queen. Despite his frustration with his son's forgetfulness he clearly enjoyed having him along on his cases and would often take great strides to lure Ellery away from his writing assignments to do so.

David Wayne had a long career on stage and screen before taking on the assignment of Inspector Queen. He got his start in Cleveland when he joined a Shakespearian repertory company in 1937. After a brief stint as an ambulance driver in North Africa during WWII he went on to become a reliable supporting player in numerous Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s, films such as How to Marry a Millionaire, The Tender Trap and The Three Faces of Eve. It was on Broadway that he gained his fame however. Wayne won the very first Tony award for Best Actor in 1948 for his performance in "Finian's Rainbow" and earned another in 1954 for "The Teahouse of the August Moon". During the 1960s and 70s he appeared in many television shows, notably in Batman as The Mad Hatter. 

Sgt,Velie - Tom Reese

Velie was your typical loyal gumshoe sidekick, big burly and always ready to lend a helping hand to the Inspector and "maestro", his nickname for Ellery. 

Tom Reese was a familiar face on television, having guest-starred in numerous westerns throughout the 1960s. After a stint with the Marines during the 1950s, he entered the world of acting, studying under Lee Strasberg.  He got his start in television and then had some small supporting roles in films such as Flaming Star, 40 Pounds of Trouble and The Money Trap. One of his most memorable TV appearances was in The Twilight Zone episode "The Midnight Sun" where he played The Intruder. 

Simon Brimmer - John Hillerman

Simon Bremmer, host of a popular mystery radio program, was a character created solely for the Ellery Queen television series to act as a rival sleuth for Ellery. Brimmer would often be found lazily conversing with the suspects before the Inspector would arrive on the scene. But in spite of his high opinion of his own fame and deductive skills he often fingered the wrong criminal during his "unveiling". 

( Interestingly enough, in later years Willliam Link bore a remarkable resemblance to John Hillerman ). 

Hillerman is often confused to be a British actor, due to his clipped accent and his most memorable role, Higgins,  in Magnum P.I, but in fact he born a proud Texan. He gained fame in films such as Blazing Saddles and Chinatown ( 1974 ) and on television in the 1970s on the series The Betty White Show, The Love Boat and One Day at a Time. Today he spends his retirement in Texas. 

"Brimmer. Simon Brimmer. THE Simon Brimmer....perhaps you have heard of me?"

A Line-Up of Suspects

In the 1970s television shows geared towards the older generation were a dime a dozen. Columbo was one of the first series to feature Hollywood has-beens in leading guest roles every other week, but it was Ellery Queen that combined a cast of former film stars together all in one episode. Each mystery would have a cast list that read like a A picture of the 1950s, with guest stars such as Don Ameche, Roddy McDowall, Eva Gabor, Vincent Price, Donald O'Connor, Dana Andrews, Troy Donahue, Rhonda Fleming, Sal Mineo, Vera Miles, Cesar Romero, Anne Francis, Kim Hunter, Signe Hasso and Jimmy Lydon.

This appealing format of luring in audiences eager to see their favorite film stars - now aging - gained popularity in later shows of the 1970s and 80s such as The Love BoatFantasy Island and Murder She Wrote, but none compared to the amount of talent that gathered together as suspects on Ellery Queen. 

"Dad, you think you could take care of that for me?"
"Ellery! You want me to fix a parking ticket? Pay the two dollars"

Best Episodes

Now this is one show that is really hard to choose "bests" on....mainly because every episode is entertaining and can be watched again and again. After some deliberation however, we narrowed it down to these Top 5, not only because of their clever mystery, but for the cast choices and the wittiness of the script. 

1. The Adventure of Auld Lang Syne ( Ep. 1 )

Joan Collins, Ray Walston, Farley Granger, Barbara Rush, David Doyle, Barbara Rush. 

Everybody who is anybody is having a ball at the New Year's Eve party at the Astor Hotel. Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians are providing the peppy music while Inspector Queen is dodging Mrs.Velie's dancing shoes and millionaire Marcus Halliday is chewing out his relatives at his private table. He announces that he is going to cut them all out of his new will...but within an hour is found stabbed in the telephone booth. He died just before he was able to make a call to a man he doesn't know. The police commissioner wants the case solved before the midnight bells chime, and Ellery can't be found to help!

2. The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument ( Ep. 11 )

Eva Gabor, John Dehner, Dean Stockwell, Joanna Barnes. 

Mystery author Edgar Manning just won the coveted Blunt Instrument Award, a heavy statuette given to the author who has written the best mystery novel of the year. While talking on the phone to Ellery he is bashed on the head with this award. The guests who attended his cocktail celebration party are all under suspicion.....each one hated him enough to kill him....but all deny doing so. Ellery hunts down the killer..and a cure for his head cold. 

3. The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party ( Ep. 8 )

Rhonda Fleming, Jim Backus, Larry Hagman, Edward Andrews, Julie Sommars.

Ellery boards a train to Greenhaven Estate, the stately home of Spencer Lockridge, a theatrical producer, to spend the night as a guest and discuss the possibility of having one of his novels turned into a play. He arrives to find Lockridge, his family, and guests all donning costumes for his son's birthday celebration, each being a character from Alice in Wonderland. The next morning Lockridge is missing...still donning the costume of The White Rabbit..and one by one clues from articles within the house are arriving by an anonymous visitor. This episode is considered to be one of the most faithful adaptions of any Ellery Queen story and we consider it one of the best of the series. 

4. The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer ( Ep. 14 )

Dorothy Malone, Ed MacMahon, David Hedison, Bobby Sherman, Arthur Godfrey. 

Lamont Franklin, a famous inventor, was shot at point blank while playing with his model train set in his private workshop. For the last few months his family and friends thought he was going insane, but was his insanity a cover to give him an opportunity to work on a top-secret project in solitude? This was one of the easy episodes for viewers to solve but still managed to contain some surprise elements. It is the "atmosphere" of this episode that is most appealing.

5. The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger ( Ep. 22 )

Walter Pidgeon, Mel Ferrer, Dana Wynter, Ronny Cox.

Ellery Queen managed to wrap-up two murder cases in this episode. One, the death - by stabbing - of former private investigator ( Pidgeon ) and the other of a five-year old case of a similar stabbing on board a private flight. A stellar cast makes this episode highly entertaining. 

To read more about Ellery Queen and the film and television shows the stories inspired check out the Ellery Queen website. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game

This installment of The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game features a pretty English Tudor building. There is a gardener outside and a cute little old car....we thought we'd make it an easy scene this time around. Well, as easy as an "impossibly difficult" game can allow, of course....

As usual, if you are not familiar with the rules to the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game or the prize, click here!

Good luck guessing! 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Whatever Became of the Portrait of Captain Gregg?

In the 20th Century Fox classic The Ghost and Mrs. Muir ( 1947 ), the portrait of Captain Daniel Gregg ( Rex Harrison ) plays a prominent part in the movie. When Lucy Muir ( Gene Tierney ) first arrives at Gull Cottage as a prospective buyer she opens the door to the living room and finds two eyes glaring at turns out to be the light reflecting off of an oil portrait of the former owner, Captain Gregg. "I thought for a moment....." 

After she decides to rent the cottage and meets Captain Gregg in person - spirit though he be - he agrees to let her stay in his house but makes one special request as part of the bargain, "I want me painting hung in the bedroom". Mrs. Muir is reluctant to do so and doesn't think the portrait does him justice..."Must I? It's a very poor painting"...but nevertheless she does as he bids and comes to love the painting as much as we, the audience, do. 

Later, when Captain Gregg steps out of her life, she tells Martha one day, "I think we might put that portrait of Captain Gregg up in the was a silly idea to hang it in here. I don't know what possessed me. Atmosphere, I suppose."

And so he got chucked in the attic. 

But now we ask....Whatever became of the portrait of Captain Gregg? I was pondering this a few days ago and this led me to wondering what happened to many of the other famous "oil portraits" seen on films...the enormous Mary Meredith portrait in The Uninvited, the Alice Alquist Empress Theodora portrait in Gaslight, the famous "blue velvet" Scarlett O'Hara full-figured portrait in Gone With the Wind and of course, the unforgettable portrait of Laura Hunt, in Laura.

Most of these oil portraits were painted from a photograph of the actor/actress posing in costume, while some - such as the Laura portrait - were in fact, acrylic brushings over an enlargement of the photo itself. We'll look into all of these portraits in another post, right now we want to focus on Captain Gregg. 

A newspaper from 1947 stated the following about the portrait : "Being a perfectionist, Rex Harrison, who made his American film debut in Anna and the King of Siam, felt that his role as the ghost in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir required a beard. The studio objected to hiding the face that all the ladies love. Nevertheless, together with Ben Nye, makeup director, and artist John George Vogel, Harrison had his portrait painted wearing a beard. When this was shown to Darryl F. Zanuck, he was immediately sold on Mr. Harrison's beard and rescinded his orders that the Harrison face remain clean-shaven."

Just who is John George Vogel? He was an English portrait painter. In 1946 he had a showing apart of the Francis Taylor gallery held at the Beverly Hills Hotel ( Elizabeth Taylor's father ran this popular gallery in Hollywood ) and the attention this event garnered may have contributed to his fame in the tinsel town at this time. Vogel was an instructor at an art school in Hollywood during the late 1940s and Linda Darnell, Van Johnson, Diana Lewis, Anita Colby and Paul Hesse were among his students at one point.

Whether it was Vogel who painted the portrait seen in the film we do not know, and even if it was he, that still doesn't answer our question....whatever became of the portrait? During the early 1960s the painting popped up in several classic comedies... All Hands on Deck ( 1961 ) where it is hanging in the office of the Navy admiral; and Mr.Hobbs Takes A Vacation, where it is hiding in the back hallway behind the stairs ( shame on them for not putting it in the living room! ). 

In 1968, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was brought to the small screen in a television series starring Hope Lange as Mrs. Muir and Edward Mulhare as Captain Gregg but lo! the familiar portrait was replaced by a new one bearing the great Mulhare's likeness. This beautiful portrait was painted by Eddie Martinez who shared with us the actual whereabouts of the original Captain Gregg portrait. 

Martinez had an amazing career in the Los Angeles area, working on portraits, murals, and production design in film, television, and in the theme park industry. He was a versatile imagineer like Marc Davis and Herbert Ryman and today spends his time in retirement doing his favorite work, researching and illustrating historical figures. In addition to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir he also created portrait paintings for Peyton Place, The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show and Batman. More info about his work can be found here

As Martinez explained, "I was asked to paint Edward Mulhare's face over the original Captain Gregg portrait of Rex Harrison. As you can see in the photographs, I also removed the ship's wheel on the bottom left of the painting". 

After the series ended, Martinez's wife attended an auction at 20th Century Fox in an attempt to bid on the portrait, but it was sold to a businessman...Leland Ayers, who later became the mayor of Burbank and was instrumental in acquiring the Bob Hope Airport from Lockheed Corp. Mr. Ayers passed away on Sept. 2, 2013 and it is presumed that the painting is still kept in his family.

A mystery we - and many other fans - have pondered over for years has now been solved...and we would like to give a special thanks to Eddie Martinez for sharing with us the real story behind the whereabouts of this beautiful portrait of Captain Gregg, a character larger than life. 

Update: A print of a newly painted oil portrait of Captain Gregg is now available on Etsy. Click here to check it out. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ( 1948 )

The Bob Hope classic, The Cat and the Canary ( 1939 ), was one of the first films to successfully combine comedy with mystery and horror. It was such a hit that Paramount quickly plopped the dynamic duo of Hope and Goddard into yet another comedy horror film, The Ghost Breakers ( 1940 ). These films launched an entire genre of pairing comedy stars in horror films, and of all the movies that emerged from this genre,  none was more popular than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein ( 1948 ).

Universal studios had made their mark in cinema history with their horror classics such as Dracula ( 1931 ), Frankenstein ( 1931 ), The Mummy ( 1932 ), The Invisible Man ( 1933 ), , and The Wolf Man ( 1941 ). These monster movies were so successful that a string of sequels were made for each film. Unfortunately, some of these were not up to par with the originals and by 1946 the producers at Universal sensed that the monster era was coming to a close. Sigh....parting with old ( and prosperous ) friends is such sweet sorrow. 

As early as 1943, Abbott and Costello was toying around with an idea of doing a Broadway show co-starring the famous monsters. Their busy filming schedule at Universal did not allow enough time for the team to mount a live production, but by the late 1940s the ideal opportunity presented itself. Universal embraced the idea of the comedy using the monsters and after several story outlines were developed and discarded ( one by Bertram Milhauser, the screenwriter on numerous Sherlock Holmes films ), an idea by Frederic I. Rinaldo and Robert Lees hit home. Everyone was pleased with the new story except for Lou Costello. As producer Robert Arthur recalled, "Lou hated the script. 'My [ five-year old ] daughter could write a better script than this. You're not serious about making it, are you?' he said" 

Yep, they were. Arthur promised Costello his favorite director, Charles Barton, a tidy sum ( Abbott and Costello were paid $105,000 ), and by the time shooting began in early February 1948, Costello had warmed up to the film. 

What was this sure-fire plot? Abbott and Costello play baggage clerks at a Florida railway station. Mr. McDougal ( Frank Ferguson ), who operates the local House of Horrors, is expecting a shipment of large crates from Europe which he wants delivered in person to his wax museum. Before leaving the warehouse, the duo receive a phone call from Laurence Talbot warning them not to deliver those crates. "They must be destroyed!". This is about the only dialogue poor Larry gets to utter throughout the film. Of course, Larry knows best. The crates contain the coffin - and body - of Dracula, as well as Dr. Frankenstein's Monster. 

When Chick and Wilbur unpack the crates at the wax museum that night, Wilbur sees both the Dracula and the Monster come alive. But before he can convince Chick of what is going on, the fiends escape to Dracula's castle ( yes, he had a castle in Florida too evidently! ) where Sandra Mornay ( Lenore Aubrey ) is waiting. Dracula and Miss Mornay, a surgeon, have teamed up to create the ultimate mind-controlled Monster, but...unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who used the brain of an intelligent man in his experimentations with the original Monster, Miss Mornay intends on using the brain of a man much more innocent and ignorant, someone "with no will of his own, no fiendish intellect". Hmm...who's brain could they have in mind for that? 

With the aid of Laurence Talbot, Chick and Wilbur attempt to destroy Dracula and the Monster before they can steal Wilbur's brain. Little do they know that Talbot transforms into a hairy lycanthrope when the moon is full and bright....and there's an awful lot of full moons in this film!

"Chick! Oh Chick, oooh Chick!!" 

Some of the plot gets a bit muddled up during the film but as most A&C fans know, the story always takes a backseat to the dynamic duo's gags. And this flick is chock full of 'em....memorable one-liners, the famous moving candle routine ( recycled from Hold that Ghost ), Bud's customary slaps, and Costello's inimitable fright-takes. Alas, the script left little room for the team to do any of their famous rapid-fire repartee.

Reprising the classic roles that made them famous in earlier Universal Studio outings were Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster.

No one could play the tormented Laurence Talbot as well as Lon Chaney Jr. and there was no doubt that he would accept the part, an opportunity to return to one of his favorite screen roles. Unlike the previous Wolf Man films, Chaney's makeup was applied by Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan. Make-up maestro Jack P. Pierce, who had done work on all the previous Universal classic monster films, was notoriously cantankerous and difficult to work with. His makeup applying techniques were extremely time-consuming, often taking several hours every morning to prepare just one monster. Since this film including several monsters in one scene, the production would have been held up for weeks. Bud Westmore, Pierce's protege, was a pioneer at the more comfortable ( and time-saving ) foam latex technique and Old Wolfie and Dracula never looked as good as they did in this classic comedy. 

As for the Monster....Boris Karloff, who had long since retired from playing the part, refused to reprise his role because he feared the film would be a parody of the empathetic beast he had helped to create. He agreed to cooperate and help promote the final picture but refused to watch it, "I'm too fond of the monster. I'm grateful to him for all he did for me, and I wouldn't like to watch anybody make sport of him". Instead, Glenn Strange took over as the Monster. Strange was the fourth actor to play the man-made human pastiche and had played the role in The House of Frankenstein ( 1944 ) and The House of Dracula ( 1945 ). 

Bela Lugosi, who was slated to revive his immortal portrayal of the sanguinary count after a 17 year absence, harbored the same doubts as Karloff but was relieved upon reading the script, "There is no burlesque for me. All I have to do is frighten the boys, a perfectly appropriate activity. My trademark will be unblemished."

Perhaps it was Lugosi who frightened the comedy duo on screen, but off screen it was quite another story. As director Charles Barton recalled, "There were time when I thought Bela was going to have a stroke on the set. You have to understand that working with two zanies like Abbott and Costello was not the normal Hollywood set. They never went by the script and at least once a day there would be a pie fight. Bela of course would have nothing to do with any of this. He would just glare at those involved with his famous deadly stare and the only emotion he would show physically was one of utter disgust."

Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. enjoyed circulating around the studio in full costume. At the time, Peabody and the Mermaid and One Touch of Venus were in production and it was not unusual for tourists on the Universal backlot tours to spy a few stray monsters meandering around outside the sound stages. 

Production wrapped in just under two months and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein was released on June 15, 1948 to packed theatre houses across America. The film received rave reviews, with The Hollywood Reporter setting the tone when they proclaimed it "a crazy, giddy show that combines chills and laughs in one zany sequence after another". 

Today the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has grown in popularity and transformed into a cult status. The film is sub par to some of Abbott and Costello's earlier hits, but the overall monster theme is such a delight that it has consistently risen to the top of fan's favorites. In 2001, The National Film Registry added the title to their list of films selected for future preservation, deeming it "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant". Even Dracula would have been pleased with this. 

This post is our contribution to the fabulous Chaney Blogathon, a celebration of the legendary Lon Chaney senior and junior who made their mark in horror films of the 1920s-1960s. Check out the complete schedule at The Last Drive-In or Movies Silently to read more great posts on the Chaneys. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Wolf Man ( 1941 )

" Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright "

Larry Talbot may not have been a man “pure in heart” but he was a man who certainly didn’t expect to be turned into a howling beast when the wolf bane bloomed. Who does for that matter? Poor guy….he was just a luckless lump who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

After 18 years spent abroad in America, Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales only to find that a dangerous date with Destiny awaits him. 

While escorting his sweetheart - the lovely Evelyn Ankers - through a gypsy encampment, he hears the scream of her friend Jenny in the woods, runs to rescue her from a wolf….and gets bitten in the process. Eek! 

With his newly purchased silver handled wolf-carved cane, he had bludgeoned the wolf to death. But lo! the next morning he finds his wound has disappeared and the police questioning him about the death of Bela ( played by the inimitable legend of horror, Bela Lugosi ) …..the GYPSY he had supposedly mistaken for a wolf. 

To make matters worse, Bela’s mother ( Maria Ospenskaya ) tells him that he too will become a wolf. But being our everyday all-American disbelieving film hero he promptly disregards the wise old gypsy’s warning and the protective charm she gives him. Oh dear, won’t these guys ever learn? 

Filming on The Wolf Man began just before Halloween 1941. It was completed and released in December and went on to become one of the top grossing pictures of the year. 

Dick Foran, a popular B film and cowboy star, was originally intended for the role of Larry Talbot but was replaced one week prior to filming. A good thing too, for Lon Chaney Jr. was very fond and proud of the Wolf man character and made a career of playing him. He welcomed the opportunity of starring in the many sequels such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and the really horrifying classic, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. 

Evelyn Ankers - who played Gwenn Conliffe in the film - was known as the “scream queen” of the 1940s and was very busy that decade making horror films such as The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge and starred in a few of the popular Universal Sherlock Holmes series : The Pearl of Death and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. 

When Lon Chaney Jr., the son of the famous "Man of a Thousands Faces" Chaney Sr, was offered the lead role in The Wolf Man, he was not yet known for being a horror film actor. He had enjoyed success on stage in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and had appeared in the film adaptation in 1939. Chaney was up for the lead in Universal's remake of The Phantom of the Opera in 1940, but was his Wolf Man father, Claude Rains who won that choice part. Instead, Chaney starred in Man Made Monster ( 1941 ) and director George Waggner was so pleased with his performance that he quickly plopped him into his next picture, The Wolf Man. A legendary horror icon was born! 

Although he played an innocent victim of circumstances on screen, off-screen Chaney was quite a hooligan. He had vandalized studio property one day, while drunk, and as punishment, Waggner assigned his star dressing room to Ankers. After spending grueling hours having Jack Pierce apply yak hair and a rubber schnozz to him every morning, and then another 45 minutes after shooting having it removed, Chaney was upset at having his dressing room taken. He had a fondness for playing practical jokes, and Ankers quickly became the prime recipient of them. He enjoyed sneaking up on her in full makeup and scaring her. One incident however, was not Chaney's fault....a 600 pound bear, which was used in an eliminated sequence, escaped one afternoon from its trainer and chased Ms.Ankers up a ladder. 

The Wolf Man was not the first film to feature hairy lycanthropes…. six years earlier Universal had made The Werewolf of London starring Warner Oland and Henry Hull as a botanist who receives that notorious wolf bite while hunting for a rare flower in Tibet. Warner Oland was better off sticking to playing that famous Hawaiian detective, Charlie Chan, because in this movie he came to a beastly demise. Ouch. 

This film didn’t gross much for Universal so they gave it another “go” and in 1941 the viewing public was much more gullible and embraced The Wolf Man. Especially since it was released just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was escapism at its finest. To this day it remains a classic and justly so; with its smothering foggy atmosphere, superb supporting cast ( including Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patric Knowles ), and excellent set design it leaves a lasting impression. And when the autumn moon is bright, our thoughts naturally turn to the Wolf Man of the night.

This post is our contribution to The Chaney Blogathon, a celebration of father-and-son and the memorable ( and forgettable ) films that they made. The Last Drive-In and Movies Silently have teamed up to host this event, so don't linger around here...head on over to either of their blogs to view a complete schedule of posts!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hollywood Home Tour - Warner Baxter

We're off on another bus tour again! This time the Silver Scenes bus is taking us past the beautiful Tudor estate of that delectably debonair actor Warner Baxter. With his rugged masculine face Ohio-born Baxter became a star in the early 1920s in silent pictures such as The Great Gatsby and...

"Hold on a minute gals! Who's conducting this tour?"

688 Nimes Road, Bel-Air

Oh gosh, that's right....sorry Al. Go right ahead, we'll just head back in the kitchen and make some more chicken sandwiches for the passengers. 

"As the girls were saying, Baxter became a Hollywood star during the silent era, but once the soundies came he catapulted into mega-stardom. He played the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona ( 1928 ) which became his most famous early, talking role. He earned an Oscar for this too, making him the first American to win a Best Actor award. Baxter then went on to make such hits as 42nd Street ( 1933 ), Broadway Bill ( 1934 ) and Kidnapped ( 1938 ). He reached his peak in popularity in the mid-1930s and was the highest paid actor in Hollywood at that time, earning $284,000 a year. 

"It was during this time that Warner Baxter and his wife, Winifred, moved from their lodgings at 138 S. Beachwood Drive into this beautiful Tudor estate in Bel-Air. You can see it coming up on your right folks, just over the hill. 

"Look at those lovely lush gardens...Warner Baxter was one of the first actors allowed to build in Bel-Air and in 1932, construction began on this magnificent home. Baxter, inspired by early spook films, added a network of secret panels so you could play hide-and-seek throughout the house. And what a place to hide! At 16,000 square feet, it was one of the largest homes built by any Hollywood star. The estate included 18 bathrooms, seven kitchens and well over forty bedrooms ( no one took the time - or effort - to count them all ). Some of the closets alone are bigger than most people's living rooms. 

At the time the house had a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean, but recent tree plantings are beginning to obscure it. Baxter was a quite a tinkler when he was not acting and surely he must have had a room set aside as a workshop where he could invent. One of his inventions is in constant use today...a radio device that permits emergency crews to change a traffic signal from over two blocks away. 

"During the 1940s, when Baxter began to drift into B-films and The Crime Doctor series, his family downsized to a comfortable estate at 911 North Roxbury Drive.

"Warner Baxter died on May 7, 1951 at the age of 62, after suffering from a bout of pneumonia."

Update: Today this lovely home no longer stands, having been replaced by a modern glass and concrete structure. Jack Ryan purchased the property in late 1962 and turned the house into, what the Daytona Beach News, dubbed "The greatest glittering pad in Bel-Air". Ryan had made his fortune in doll designs...anyone heard of Barbie doll? Just down the street is Kirkeby estate where The Beverly Hillbillies  were filmed and Elizabeth Montgomery, who later starred in the popular television series Bewitched, purchased Baxter's Roxbury Drive residence in the mid-1960s. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Interview with the Authors of "Also Starring : Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Characters Actors"

Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club have teamed up to once again bring us the annual What a Character! blogathon. With all the excitement generated over the celebration of these marvelous unsung talents we thought we would spotlight an excellent book on the subject : Also Starring: 40 Biographical Essays on the Greatest Characters of Hollywood's Golden Era. This is the definitive guide to character actors, featuring insightful peeks into the lives of forty of the greatest characters of the silver screen. Each actor is profiled in depth with illustrations and filmographies and are introduced with clever taglines, such as "Jolly Jowls" S.Z Sakall, "The Gentleman's Gentleman" Eric Blore, "Steam in her Kettle" Marjorie Main, and "The Eccentric Harridan" Elsa Lanchester. It's definitely a book the ultimate film fan would include in their movie library, covering the character actors we all love, from the famous to the obscure. The authors, Sara and Cynthia Brideson, graciously took the time to answer some of our questions about this book and character actors in general : 

This is the first book that you and your sister have collaborated on, could you tell us why you chose to spotlight Hollywood character actors?

Sara: I chose to write about character actors because I feel that they were often more talented than the leading actors. Sometimes the lead characters are not nearly as interesting as the side ones. For example, in You Can't Take it With You, Spring Byington, as the eccentric mother who writes nonsensical plays, was even more interesting than Jean Arthur, who played the main, more 'normal' character. Almost every classic movie has an example of this. I wanted our book to proved how interesting the supporting actors were even if their names are not well remembered. 

Cindy: I agree with everything Sara said, though I had an added impetus to write this book. As a child I was very interested in Glinda from The Wizard of Oz and it caused me to be near tears that no libraries had any substantial literature about Billie Burke, the actress who portrayed the good witch. Sara was really into Judy Garland, who has had much written about her. I wrote the book almost as if it were a gift to myself as a seven year old child; maybe there's some other oddball kid out there today who is as interested in learning abut Billie Burke or another character actors who will find joy in Sara's and my book. We certainly hope so. 

“Also Starring” features many rare and interesting trivia on the actors, was researching this information difficult?

Researching the information for the book was quite easy for some actors but incredibly difficult for others. Using Google news archives, we were able to find a lot about certain character actors, namely Eve Arden, Spring Byington, Agnes Moorehead, and Roland Young. We were very excited whenever we discovered that an actor had written an autobiography. We especially enjoyed S.Z. Sakall's memoir and Shelley Winters'. The actors who we could find virtually nothing about were Henry Travers and Virginia O'Brien. It took much digging to find enough to go on for an essay about them, but we managed to find some interviews and newspaper articles that illuminated their characters enough to give an idea of what they were like. We feel lucky to live in an age where newspaper archives are so accessible. It's certainly easier than poring over microfilm for hours!

You must have also unearthed a lot of great trivia and behind-the-scenes tidbits about these character actors, could you share one of your favorite anecdotes with us?

Billie Burke was an extreme animal lover, though sometimes her efforts to make animals feel comfortable did not end well. Once in the goldfish pond in her garden, she poured warm water into it to keep the fish warm. The next morning the fish had all died. Billie was understandably heartbroken. Elsa Lanchester was quite a bohemian in her youth. She actually posed nude for painters in London! It is rumored that Hattie McDaniel took marijuana. One of her co-stars claimed they smelt smoke coming from her car between breaks from filming. Claude Rains demanded he always be in the foreground of a scene when with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, so no one would be able to see she was taller than he was. Eddie Rochester Anderson was not included in his longtime co-star, Jack Benny's, will. Most people thought this was terrible, but Eddie never said a word against Benny. 

Character actors are often overshadowed by the big name Hollywood actors, despite their wide and varied career and their acting abilities. While you were conducting your research, which actor’s career stood out to you as being the most impressive and which talent do you believe to be the most forgotten today?

All of the actors had impressive careers. Many of them began as leading actors on Broadway before they went to Hollywood, like Lewis Stone, Fay Bainter, and Billie Burke. However, we feel Agnes Moorehead had the most impressive career. she began at the New York Academy of Performing Arts, then went with Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Group, and then became a huge success in radio, film, and TV. She mastered every medium. She also was nominated for more than one Oscar as well as Emmy awards. The most forgotten actors in our book are probably Virginia O'Brien and Jules Munshin. Both of them were specialty performers, but they were in some of the essential classic films, thus making it all the more vexing that they are forgotten. Jules Munshin is best known for his part as one of the three sailors in On the Town and Virginia O'Brien is best known for playing Judy Garland's friend in The Harvey Girls. We hope our book will make people want to discover the films of these forgotten actors. 

What distinguishes a character actor from a supporting player, such as Tony Randall or Gig Young?

A supporting player vs. a character actor has many different variations. We included both supporting players and character actors in our book. Supporting players, like Claude Rains, Shelley Winters, and Joan Blondell, are usually more well known and can even have a strong fan base. Their characters are usually "the third star" in the credits and they play a more integral part in the plot line. Character actors are often those actors who have 100 credits to their name but are still not well known. H.B. Warner, Eric Blore, and Beulah Bondi are among these. They make a huge impression on the audience, nevertheless. Character actors are usually more quirky than supporting players and their parts are much smaller. 

Like John Barrymore's agent told him in Dinner at Eight when convincing him to take a character part: "Audiences keep waiting for you to come back, and you never do!" That's how a character part is-- too short and it always leaves the audience wanting more. 

Many character actors found themselves typecast in certain roles, do you think they regretted this?

Some actors regretted being typecast while others did not mind at all. Hattie McDaniel, for example, did not mind playing a servant or a maid. Though many of her peers thought taking such roles was degrading she said: "I'd rather play a maid than be one." Agnes Moorehead often wished she could get more glamorous roles rather than ones in which she played women older and homelier than she really was. Billie Burke was regretful she did not get to tackle more dramatic roles, but in her autobiography she expressed that she did not wish to complain about her roles as "bird-witted women" because such parts kept a roof over her head. It was most difficult for actors who had started as leading men and women on Broadway to accept their typecast roles than it was for people who had started as character actors. For the most part,the actors accepted their typecast roles gracefully. 

Whom do you consider to be your favorite character actor?

Sara: My favorite character actor is probably Edward Everett Horton. He was always such a nervous wreck in his movies and made the most comical expressions. He really stole the show from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the films in which he co-starred with them. He was a really neat person off screen too, which is a bonus! My favorite character actress is Fay Bainter because she was so moving on scene but could take a comical turn a minute later. One of my best memories from junior high was having her nephew as my history teacher. He brought in the Oscar she won for Jezebel and let me hold it. It was heavier than it looks!

Cindy: Of course my favorite character actress is Billie Burke! She's so hilarious because half the time the ladies she portrays do not know they're being funny. Her most well-rounded performance is probably in Dinner at Eight; here, she has a chance to be both comedic and dramatic. For a character actor, I guess I'd have to say Ray Bolger. He was so much more than just the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He saved many a film from being mediocre through his wit, hilarious, rubber-faced expressions, and mind boggling dancing skills ( I'm thinking specifically of a lackluster biopic on ballerina Marilynn Miller, 'Look For the Silver Lining.' ). I'd suggest watching him The Harvey Girls and Rosalie to see his best comedic skills.

Recently you completed a book about impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, could you tell us about this and some of your other upcoming projects.

Our next book is called "Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Flamboyant History of the Life, Loves, Work, and Legacy of Broadway's Greatest Producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr." We've been working on this book in one form or the other since we were eight years old. Because Ziegfeld was married to Billie Burke, we immediately became interested in his life. The film The Great Ziegfeld is a good introduction to Ziegfeld's larger than life productions, but it does not capture the real Ziegfeld who was decidedly more private and serious than William Powell's portrayal made him out to be. Powell basically plays Nick Charles playing Florenz Ziegfeld in the film! We are also working on a book about classic stars and authors and their cats. It's amazing how many felinephiles there were (Billie Burke and Joan Blondell included!) The Ziegfeld book is currently under consideration of the University of Kentucky Press. We're keeping our fingers crossed that it will be accepted!

Also Starring: 40 Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood  by Sara and Cynthia Brideson is available to purchase in paperback, Kindle and Nook editions at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and through the publisher, BearManor Media.