Monday, March 28, 2016

Disney and Other Classic Films on the Big Screen

Classic films are making their way back to the cinema thanks to the new digital screens so many theater chains have been installing. There's no need for movie theater owners to hunt down original 35mm films and change reels, when all they have to do is sync a film or put a Blu-Ray in the projector. 

One chain in particular, Cinemark, has made the digital change to theaters across America and, to celebrate the new technology, in winter of 2014 they began a Cinemark Classic Series. Films that were shown in the past included All About Eve, The Wizard of Oz, How the West Was Won, Goldfinger, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, Charade, Rear Window, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, To Catch a Thief, Giant, Tootsie, Jaws, Roman Holiday, Gigi, Psycho, and It's a Wonderful Life. 

If you're like me and you're thinking "Shucks! I missed these!" then rev up your engine and join Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett on the ultimate treasure hunt in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ( 1963 ), in theaters April 10th and 13th, 2016. Also showing in the near future is a Kubrick double-feature : Clockwork Orange and 2001: a Space Odyssey ( April 3rd and 6th ).

If you have little tykes, then consider another "classic" series  - The Disney Screen. Most of Disney's animated films, a lot of their newer films, and a sprinkling of great live-action classics are shown every day...and at a great price! For only $5 you can watch all the movies that are playing that day. As their press release states : 

"Disney Screen is a new way to watch your favorite Disney films on the big screen. Each week, Disney Screen will host four classic Disney films. All four films play each day and are accompined by a short film. And here's the best part....admission is unlimited!"

For $5 you can watch all four films playing in one day....or you can purchase a monthly pass and gouge on popcorn and cartoons all day long. 

Here is a selection of just some of the titles shown in the past and coming soon : 

The Sword in the Stone, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Toy Story, Flubber, Aladdin, Hercules, Swiss Family Robinson, Robin Hood, A Bug's Life, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Fox and the Hound, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Pollyanna. 

Unfortunately, only six theaters across America are currently showing Disney Screen. Count yourself lucky ( and don't pass on the opportunity of seeing these films again ) if you are near one of these! 

For more information on Cinemark's Classic Film Series check out this link :

To see upcoming Disney films, take a peek here :

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game

Yippee Yi-Yo! Ride 'em soldier! .....wait, soldier?? Well, if you saw this film then this month's edition of The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game isn't very difficult...but if you haven't, we lassoed a head-scratcher here. But please don't give yourself dandruff trying to ponder it. 

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


Congratulations to Phyl for correctly guessing this screenshot from "Thunder Birds" ( 1942 ) starring Preston Foster and Gene Tierney. This scene shows one of the Air Force men trying his hand with some rodeo techniques. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Darby O'Gill and the Little People ( 1959 )

"Three wishes I'll grant ye, great wishes an' small! But you wish a fourth and you'll lose them all!" 

Darby O'Gill is a wily old codger, but even with all his experience he canno' match wits with the king of the leprechauns, King O'Brien himself. On a spooky moonlit night in Ireland, Darby falls down a well on Fairy Mountain and comes face to face with the king and his band of little people. Darby manages to capture O'Brien and then demands of him his rightful three naturally being the proverbial pot o'gold. But the King has learned more than a few tricks over the course of five thousand years and Darby finds that he has to keep a bridle on his tongue in order to hold onto his wishes. 

Darby O'Gill and the Little People is one of the best live-action films that the Walt Disney Studios released during the 1950s, featuring an amusing script full of Irish wit, engaging actors, a heap o'magical effects and legions of little people. 

Walt Disney had his hand in all of the films his studio released, but he felt a special attachment to this project. Disney read the Darby O'Gill stories in the mid-1940s and decided at that time to create a film based on them. He saw Albert Sharpe performing on stage in "Finian's Rainbow" and knew then and there that he was the man to portray Darby. 

Albert Sharpe, a true Irishman, was indeed marvelous as Darby, but it was Jimmy O'Dea, as King Brian of Knocknasheega, who stole every scene he was in. Faith, this wee little man had a sparkle about him and, if you happen to be quick enough to capture a leprechaun yourself, surely he would resemble O'Dea in more ways than one.

"Oh, she is my dear, my darlin' one, her eyes so sparklin', full of other, no other, can match the likes of her!"

Janet Munro, as Darby O'Gill's daughter Katie, was such a winsome delight that Disney signed her to a contract and she went on to make The Third Man on the Mountain and Swiss Family Robinson for the studio. And, your eyes be not deceiving you, there indeed be a young Sean Connery who portrays Michael McBride, the strapping lad who is replacing Darby as the new caretaker of Lord Fitzpatrick's manor. 

The beautiful scenery of Ireland was created through matte backdrops painted by Peter Ellenshaw, which made the film a visual delight. The Emerald Isle never looked so green as it did in Ellenshaw's paintings. Eustace Lycett, Disney's resident wizard of magic, wielded his wand as well to create some stunning effects, including the truly terrifying Coiste-bodhar and the glowing Banshee. 

"It's the Coiste-bodhar! The death coach!"

To help promote the film on television, Walt Disney filmed a short entitled "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns" in which Walt travels to Ireland to talk with Darby about the proper method of capturing a leprechaun and how he was able to film the little folk during their festive dancing. Forsooth, they were not seen on camera again for many many years. 

Alas, upon its release Darby O'Gill and the Little People was not the big box-office attraction that Disney hoped it would be and that disappointed him sorely. However, over the years it has been recognized for being the grand film that it is and has grown a large following of fans. Watching this beloved classic is now a St. Patrick's Day tradition in many a home. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe ( 1964 ) - TV Series

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Britain lagged behind in the production quality of their television series compared to American programs. Most of their series were filmed in kinescope and video and this made even their 1970s programs appear to be dated from the early 1950s. In terms of scripts however, British shows were often better than the routine sitcoms stations like CBS and NBC were churning out. One of the most entertaining of the British television series of the 1960s was The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a thirteen part "mini-series" starring Robert Hoffman. 

Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel "Robinson Crusoe" spawned numerous film adaptations but this is by far the best visual telling of the classic story, combining beautiful location scenery ( filmed on the Canary Islands ) with a compelling script, a marvelous music score, and a perfectly cast Robinson. Since Franco-London Films released this series, it is often considered a French program, and that may account for its better production values. 

Defoe's novel followed the adventures of a young Englishman who gets stranded on an island off the coast of South America, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Using only his wits and the few remnants he salvaged from the ship, Robinson learns the skills necessary to survive by himself. He never dreams that he will remain on the island for twenty-eight years and continues to live in hope of being rescued. 

Unlike the novel, Robinson Crusoe is rescued from the island after a much shorter duration in this series, but he nevertheless has his fair share of adventures including discovering an abandoned pirate ship filled with gold, and rescuing a native from cannibals. 

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe originally aired in Germany in October 1964, and it was syndicated in the U.S that same year. The U.K did not see its release until October 12, 1965, but it soon became one of the most beloved children's series since for fifteen years it was a staple of BBC's school summer holiday schedule. Each day at 5pm, children across Britain dropped their cricket bats and sand pails in time to dash into their homes and tune their teles to BBC1 to vicariously enjoy the thrill of being shipwrecked on a desert isle just like their friend, Robinson.

As the series progressed, Robinson learned new skills each day that would aid in making life on the island more comfortable. He also had plenty of time to ponder on his past mistakes and make resolutions for his future. Each evening, when Crusoe relaxed after a hard day's work on the island, he reflected back on his youth and the events leading up to the shipwreck. These reminisces are shared with the audience through numerous flashbacks which are signaled by a tinkling chime. This alternation of island sequences and Crusoe in merry old England are a clever touch and keep the series from becoming monotonous. 

Austrian actor Robert Hoffman ( Grand Slam ) is marvelous as Crusoe but it is French actor Lee Payant who deserves credit for truly bringing the series to life, even though he is never seen on camera. Robinson's thoughts are shared with the audience through Payant's narrative, which remains faithful to the Defoe's original style of writing and are spoken in an exciting manner. 

The music throughout the series, including its haunting main theme by Robert Mellin and P. Reverberi, is another aspect of the series which makes it compelling entertainment. 

The success of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe led Franco-London Films to create more classic adventure and children's novels adaptations including Treasure Island ( 1966 ), Tom Sawyer ( 1968 ) and The Last of the Mohicans ( 1969 ). 

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is currently available for viewing on Youtube but it may not be around for long, so check it out soon! 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Film Music of Laurie Johnson

Most people are familiar with one particular piece of music that Laurie Johnson wrote, even if they do not recognize his name - The Theme to The Avengers, the ultra-cool British spy show of the 1960s. It's unique bongo beating beginning leads us into the tinkling of champagne glasses before the real theme begins....a delectable mixture of big band and mod London swing which captures the spirit of the show to perfection.

Although this is his most internationally recognized work of theme music, he wrote many other scores for popular films such as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove ( 1965 ), First Men in the Moon ( 1964 ), Tiger Bay ( 1959 ) and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter ( 1974 ).

Laurie Johnson was born on February 7th, 1927, in Hampstead, England. After studying at the Royal College of Music he launched his music career at the young age of 19 by working as an arranger/composer for Ted Heath and his band, and later for bandleaders such as Jack Parnell and Ambrose.

Before venturing to the film industry he dabbled in creating dance arrangements of popular songs of the mid-50s at Pye Records ( later home to such artists as Tony Hatch, Petula Clark and the Kinks ).

In 1955 he began work as an arranger and orchestrator at some smaller film studios in London such as the Associated British Picture Corporation, until he worked his way up to getting assignments as a composer. His first full-fledged film production was a film called The Moonraker ( 1958 ) which starred English actors George Baker and Sylvia Sims. It wasn't until 1959 that he made his first big hit with the score for Tiger Bay, a suspense drama starring John Mills, Horst Bucholz and Hayley Mills. After a few more minor films such as I Aim at the Stars ( about the life of Werner Von Braun ), Operation Bullshine ( 1959 ), and Spare the Rod ( 1960 ), he hit his "prime" and began writing for film and television in such astounding succession.

One of his most beautiful songs is the "Romance" theme to Ray Harryhausen's First Men in the Moon ( 1964 ), a gentle "light classic" that captures the Victorian English country setting that the movie took place in and rather brings to mind the theme to another great H.G Wells film, The Time Machine ( 1960 ). Laurie Johnson had been working as an assistant to composer Bernard Herrmann on previous Charles Schneer fantasy productions such as Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts so, when Herrmann declined to accept the assignment for First Men in the Moon, Johnson took the helm and did quite a magnificent job.

He entered the UK Singles Chart with "Sucu Sucu" the theme music to the television series Top Secret in 1961, and it was in television scoring that he was to be most prolific. Between 1965-1980 he worked on such wonderful series as The Avengers, The Professionals, The New Avengers, Shirley's World, and Thriller.

In the 1960s and 1970s he continued to be busy with film work, composing his own symphonies, as well as creating music for the theatre ( in 1967 he composed the music for a stage version of The Four Musketeers ). Hot Millions ( 1968 ) and Hedda ( 1975 ) are two especially lovely pieces dating from this period. 

In the late 1980s to early 1990s he composed the music to several TV movie adaptions of historical romance writer Barbara Cartland's novels including A Hazard of Hearts ( a beautiful score ) and The Lady and the Highwayman. But alas, in the realm of film and television Laurie Johnson has since ceased to be active. Currently he is still very much involved in his band The London Big Band which specializes in performing big band swing and pop music.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver ( 1960 )

Producer Charles Schneer and special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen teamed up in the late 1950s and early 1960s to create a series of adventure films mixing live-action with stop-motion animation. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad ( 1958 ), Jason and the Argonauts ( 1964 ), and First Men in the Moon ( 1964 ) were some of their most popular titles. 

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a huge box-office success upon its initial theatrical release and so Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen wanted to select another story, as famous as the Sinbad tales, to ride on the heels of its success. They wanted a plot-line that would also have a fantasy element and offer possibilities in the story for stop-motion animation. They chose Jonathon Swift's 1726 novel "Gulliver's Travels".....a great idea. 

Kerwin Mathews, the star of Sinbad, was cast as Lemuel Gulliver, a doctor who is tired of collecting chickens and vegetables as his fee and decides to set off on an ocean voyage to find his fortune and make a name for himself. His fiancee Elizabeth ( June Thorburn ) is not pleased with this idea but nevertheless sneaks aboard ship to be near him. During a storm at sea, they wash overboard and become separated. Gulliver lands first on the island of Lilliput, inhabited by tiny people, and then on an island of giants where he reunites with Elizabeth. 

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver was geared towards a juvenile audience, much like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but unlike that film, it fails to entertain adults as well. The New York Times film critic Eugene Archer praised the stop-motion animation of The 3 World of Gulliver but noted that "adults will find it all too mechanical to really capture the imagination, and may resent the unclear ending that seems certain to provoke some youthful queries." We couldn't agree more. The opening sequence and the Lilliputian segment are very enjoyable, however, once Gulliver and his sweetheart find themselves among the giants of Brobdingnag, the story condensends to a child's level with especially over-the-top performances from the King ( Gregoire Aslan ) and Queen ( Mary Ellis ). 

"I stop wars, put out fires, feed people, give them hope and peace and prosperity - how can I be a traitor?"

Gulliver and Elizabeth manage to escape the Brobdingnag's by the end of the film and they once again find themselves washed upon a shore...but this time they are back in England. Their final dialogue seems to suggest that what happened to them was all a dream ( two people dreaming the same dream? ). And Gulliver's final explanation of the transformations that occurred to them made little sense. 

Jonathan Swift's novel originally had Gulliver travelling to four different lands, with each land providing an opportunity for Swift to make ironic commentary on human nature. The film version limits Gulliver's encounters to two worlds ( the third world being England ), and retains some of the satire of the novel but in a much more family-oriented manner. 

Kerwin Mathews is very entertaining as Dr. Gulliver, and the always lovely British actress June Thorborn is excellent as well. Also in the cast are Jo Morrow, Lee Patterson, Basil Sydney, Martin Benson, and Sherri Alberoni ( as the big little Glumdalclitch ). 

Today The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is not counted as one of the most beloved films among Harryhausen's filmography most likely due to its overly juvenile enactment and its lack of creatures. Aside from the squirrel and the giant lizard attack near the end of the film, Gulliver does not encounter any beasts during his multiple maroonings. However, the optical illusions that Harryhausen created for the film are extremely well done.

For their next project, Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen returned to entertaining adults and children alike with their adaptation of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island ( 1961 )....and that picture was a smashing success.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Irene : A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood - Book Review

Edith Head and Adrian have always been the super-stars among costume designers, and their names are recognizable even to non-classic film fans, but there were so many talented designers in Hollywood during the 1930s-1960s that are not nearly as famous. Frank Billecci and Lauranne B. Fisher teamed up to write a fabulous book, Irene - A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood, that pays tribute to Irene, one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's busiest, and most creative, designers. This beautiful 144-page book from Schiffer Publishing is fully illustrated with photographs of Irene at work and costume sketches of her most dazzling creations. The book also mixes a biography of Irene with remembrances of her personal artist, Virginia Fisher. 

The Jeer : It's hard to find fault with a Schiffer book and this one is an especially great read. The book briefly covers Irene's early years and then proceeds to focus on her days at MGM. For a more thorough look into Irene's personal life, Billecci also wrote an ebook : Irene - From a Big Sky Girl to a Hollywood Designer. 

The Cheer : Irene is beautifully laid out in an easy-to-navigate format and, since it is profusely illustrated, it also makes a delightful coffee table book to browse through. Included is a handy filmography covering all of Irene's projects as well as the sketch artists she worked with on each film. 

The Skinny : If you enjoy looking at fashions and want to learn more about the life of MGM's golden gal, Irene, then this is the best book you can buy on the market.