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Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Sword in the Stone ( 1963 )

Back in the days shortly after the death of Unther Pendragon, King of England, there appeared in London a magic sword protruding upright from the center of an anvil. It bears an inscription proclaiming that whosoever shall remove the sword from the stone would be crowned the new king of England. 

Young Arthur (aka Wart) is an orphan who was raised in Sir Ector's castle. Sir Ector's son, Sir Kay, desires to venture to London to joust in the countrywide competition shortly before Christmas Day. Arthur aspires to be this knight's squire, but while on a hunting trip in the woods with Sir Kay, he falls into the hut of the wizard, Merlin. This kindly old man can see the future as well as the past and, knowing the young lad is fated to draw the sword from the stone, decides to take Arthur under his wing and "give him an education" prior to his crowning as the illustrious King Arthur. With the help of Archimedes the Owl, Merlin teaches Arthur to believe in himself and to use wits over brawn.

The Sword in the Stone is a delightful animated feature from Walt Disney Studios. It features an 
amnesiac "whiz-bang whizard of whimsy", an engaging young hero and, in place of the usual villain, there is Madam Mim, a rival to Merlin.
The story is based on the Arthurian novels of T.H White's known as "The Once and Future King" series. Walt Disney enjoyed the first book - "The Sword in the Stone" - and purchased the film rights to it the same year it was published: 1938. Unfortunately, the project was not picked up until 1949 when some preliminary storyboards were created. Then there was another long hiatus before story artist Bill Peet re-worked it into this film. 

While this version of The Sword in the Stone is entertaining, it would have benefited greatly from having a stronger villain, some character in the vein of Maleficent ....preferably Morgan le Fay or Vivien, the enchantress who proved to be Merlin's downfall. Madam Mim is an unworthy opponent to both Merlin and Arthur while Sir Ector and his son Sir Kay are more comical than villainous. 
Like 101 Dalmations released two years earlier, The Sword in the Stone implemented Disney's time-saving process of xeroxing the animation cels instead of retracing each cel. Because the Xerox copy machines were only capable of black lines, all of the lines around the figures were inked in black. Some critics feel this technique made the films look inferior to Disney's animated pictures of previous years but, personally, I liked the look. 

Richard and Robert Sherman penned some linguistically clever - albeit forgetful - tunes to The Sword in the Stone, including the delightful "Higitus Figitus", sung by Merlin. 
The Sword in the Stone was released in theaters on Christmas Day in 1963 and proved to be a box-office smash, reaping in nearly $20 million dollars in profit. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Keys of the Kingdom ( 1944 )

Film studios always preferred a good novel adaptation over an original story idea. This was primarily because the producers knew they had an established audience who were waiting in anticipation for the release of the film. When a best-selling book became a box-office hit at the movie theatres, then the studios were anxious to secure the film rights to that author's next novel. Such was the case with A.J. Cronin, a Scottish physician and novelist. His 1937 best-selling novel about medical ethics "The Citadel" was adapted into an MGM film the following year starring Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell. It was a great success at the box-office and reaped four Oscar nominations at the Academy Awards. 

This success excited producers who knew that the name of A.J. Cronin would then draw in audiences to other film adaptations of his work. So they quickly went about snatching up the rights to his previous works and adapting them to film. His 1935 novel "The Stars Look Down" was brought to the screen by Carol Reed in 1939; "Hatter's Castle", Cronin's first novel, was made into a 1940 film starring Robert Newton and Deborah Kerr; "Vigil in the Night", a 1939 Good Housekeeping serial novella, was turned into a Carole Lombard weepie; and, in 1944 "The Keys of the Kingdom" was made into a rich drama by Twentieth-Century Fox studios. 

Cronin spent several years writing "The Keys of the Kingdom", an epic story about the trials and tribulations of a Catholic priest in China. He weaved elements of his own background ( Scottish upbringing, medical school, poor family, Catholic conversion ) into the novel which spans six decades in the life of one Father Francis Chisholm. The film, in spite of being 136-minutes long, condenses many aspects of the book and focuses instead on Father Francis' years in China and his work there as a missionary. 
Father Francis is a young Scotsman fresh out of seminary school who is sent by his local bishop to establish a missionary in the Chekhow province of China. The area was destroyed by flooding and all of the true Christians retreated to the mountain regions. Those who remained were "rice Christians", locals who were being paid in rice to attend church. Father Francis refuses to pay the citizens to visit the mission and so his congregation quickly dwindles to none.....until a young pilgrim named Joseph comes to help Father Francis rebuild his church. Over the years it grows into a thriving missionary and remains strong even in the midst of a battle between republican and imperial troops. 
The film rights to The Keys of the Kingdom were originally purchased by David O. Selznick but after a year of toying with the project, he sold it to Twentieth-Century Fox studios. Alfred Hitchcock had wanted to direct the production but chose instead to do Lifeboat that year. Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz ( who also produced the film ) took charge of re-working Cronin's novel into a compelling screenplay. It was an "A" production from the start and top-notch talent was used throughout the picture with John M. Stahl ( Leave Her to Heaven ) taking the reins as the director. 

Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Anne Revere, Edmund Gwenn, Roddy McDowall, Peggy Ann Garner, Cedric Hardwicke, James Gleason, Sara Allgood, Arthur Shields, Philip Ahn, Ethel Griffies, and Edith Barrett were all given supporting roles in the production and a young Gregory Peck was cast in the lead as Father Francis. 

Peck had made only one film prior to being cast in this production and that was the lead role in Jacques Tourneur's war romance Days of Glory. He had distinguished himself so well in that part that multiple studios wanted him to sign long-term contracts with them. Instead, he chose to freelance and picked a non-exclusive contract with Fox studios enabling him to accept this part ( Spencer Tracy, Franchot Tone, and Gene Kelly were other actors considered for the role ). 
Peck gives an excellent performance as the zealous missionary and he was, deservedly, nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. Starring opposite him was Rose Stradner as Mother Maria-Veronica, a nun who works side by side with Father Francis at the mission. Ingrid Bergman was initially considered for this role but Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted the part to go to his wife, Rose, instead. She was a beautiful and talented Austrian actress but Bergman probably could have given more depth to the role of the aristocratic nun. 

Benson Fong gives a marvelous performance as Joseph, Father Francis' dear companion. His scenes also add a bit of humor to the film, which it sorely needed. The Green Years, another film based on an A.J. Cronin novel, also spanned many years but was rich with characters that the audience could attach to throughout the drama. Unlike that picture, The Keys of the Kingdom focuses primarily on the character of Father Francis and it never feels as though the audience gets a chance to know the other characters as well as Francis himself does. Mother Maria-Veronica is initially cold towards Father Francis when she first arrives and, even though she later explains the reason behind her behavior, it would have been better to witness her character's past unfold visually rather than verbally. One of the few characters who is given depth is Mr. Chia, portrayed admirably by Leonard Strong. His character develops from a superior nobleman to that of a true friend to Francis. 
The Keys of the Kingdom was received favorably by film critics but just managed to recoup its cost at the box-office. However, the film had the prestige of being nominated for four Academy Awards ( Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Actor, Best Original Music Score ). 

Friday, November 8, 2019

From the Archives: The New Perry Mason

Monte Markham starred as Perry Mason in The New Perry Mason ( 1973-1974 ), a short-lived CBS television revival of Raymond Burr's popular legal drama series. Sharon Acker also starred as Della Street and Harry Guardino played Mason's formidable opponent Hamilton Burger. 

From the Archives is our latest series of posts where we share photos from the Silverbanks Pictures collection. Some of these may have been sold in the past, and others may still be available for purchase at our eBay store :