Monday, 29 August 2016

100 Years of Nails

This is the last week you can enter the "I Love Lucy Anniversary Giveaway" and win a $75 gift certificate of Lucy goodies. Make a dent in your Christmas shopping or get yourself a swag bag! Enter here!

Just for fun, below is a video from Allure magazine chronicling the manicure styles that have been popular for the last century: 

What decade do you like best? I tend to wear something that looks like the 70's French manicure and it usually accidentally gets sanded off during work, but if I could get it to last more than two seconds, I think I'd like to try the silver-tipped red.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Worst Idea in Radio: Fred Astaire Goes On The Air

Think fast! If you were producing a weekly radio show and wanted a big name star to headline it, what kinds of performers would be the worst possible choices? Mimes? Puppeteers? Dancers?

The year was 1936, and The Packard Hour, a sponsored variety program recently transplanted from New York to L.A, wanted to add some stardust. A little extra razzle dazzle. In those days, big name movie stars were signing on to radio shows to bolster their off-camera images and to help cross-promote both industries. People with vaudeville experience, like Bob Hope, often yielded the best results, because they came with built-in routines and a kind of showbiz professionalism that straight up Hollywood types often lacked.

For some reason – maybe it was madness – the people at Packard decided the best fit for their show would be Fred Astaire.

Fred Astaire.

On radio.

Where no one could see him.

So, okay, maybe you’re thinking that Fred had a lot of non-dancing charms. After all, he scored a couple of hit records, he could be very funny in his scenes with Ginger, he had range.

But the good people at Packard were not interested in his range.

In 1936, you could finish dinner, hurry with the dishes, turn on the big family radio set and all gather around to listen to Fred Astaire dance.

Naturally, that wasn’t the only thing that happened for the entire hour. Nobody does an hour of live dancing, even if you can see them, it’s exhausting. The rest of the show was filled in with songs from Fred’s movies, new songs arranged by bandleader Johnny Green (who would later go on to win an Academy Award for his work on Easter Parade), numbers with singers Trudy Wood and Francia White, some skits with the week’s guest star, and comedy routines by Charlie Butterworth.

If it helps you wrap your head around the whole idea, Fred’s dances were always tap numbers. He would perform on a four by four wooden floor rigged with microphones, and he would tap away in the studio. The sound and speed of those taps were meant to express to the people at home the wonder of his skill.

It... doesn’t work.

There’s kind of a slapping quality to the sound, like somebody spanking a coconut. It’s not as crisp as the footsteps on weekly radio dramas, and even though it actually is tap dancing, it doesn’t sound like tap dancing. It’s very strange.

Jess Oppenheimer, who would later go on to produce I Love Lucy, got his first staff writing gig on The Packard Hour. In his autobiography, he writes:

“Astaire was an utter perfectionist, sometimes spending as many as twelve hours at a time with the orchestra rehearsing dance routines that no one would ever see.”

The show’s director suggested to Fred that he take it easy and let a drummer tap out the sound-effects with his sticks, but no. That was unethical. People would be tuning in to hear Fred Astaire dance, so Fred Astaire was going to dance for them.

But despite Fred’s weird dedication to this ludicrous idea, there was other trouble brewing.

Charlie Butterworth had started his career as a Broadway regular. He was the upper class best friend in drawing room comedies, always drawling out quips like his most famous “Why don’t you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?” This was at a time when the hero in these types of stories was the stalwart young man trying to get his life together, while his sidekick was inclined to keep the party going. You can kind of see why they thought he’d be a good accompaniment to Fred.

(Also, after his death, his likeness would become the inspiration for cereal mascot Cap'n Crunch, which is so weird I had to mention it somewhere.)

By the 1930’s, Butterworth had carved out a modest film career and was doing well in radio with his same bumbling rich guy act. He had a few problems, alcohol being chief among them, but writers liked working with him, even if directors didn’t. The Packard Hour figured he was worth the risk.

As it turned out, Charlie Butterworth and Fred Astaire hated each other.

Nobody knew this, least of all Charlie and Fred, until they started work on the first episode.

The most commonly cited reason for the tension was because Fred didn’t like ad-libbing once the script was nailed down, and Charlie’s whole shtick was ad-libbing. It was a clash of temperaments and approaches.

It got so bad, Fred Astaire didn’t even show up for the first broadcast. Ginger Rogers and Jack Benny had to fill in for him at the last minute.

By all accounts, after that first episode, Fred behaved himself perfectly – as long as he wasn’t in the same room as Charlie Butterworth. Their scenes together were always as brief as could be managed without the audience getting wise to the rift, or suspicious about why the show’s two biggest acts never spoke to one another.

After fulfilling his thirty-six episode contract, Fred Astaire and The Packard Hour went on summer hiatus never to return. Fred, of course, continued making movies where people could see his feet while they moved. A wise decision.

He and Charlie Butterworth, surprisingly, worked together again on 1940’s Second Chorus. It’s pretty far from being Fred Astaire’s best film.

As for radio, you might be inclined to think that Fred would’ve avoided it after this whole mess, but nope. As time went on, folks in radio decided that versatility was indeed one of his selling points, so he often appeared as a guest on other people’s shows.

In conclusion, they tried to make a Fred Astaire dancing show where you couldn’t see him dance, and you should remember that the next time you make a mistake and want to crawl into a hole and die. Because at least you're not the guy who came up with that one.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Dungeons and Dragons 01x04: Valley of the Unicorns

Time once again to hear from regular guest contributor Daisy and the D&D gang! Like always, if you'd like to do your own guest recap of something, you can contact me at for guidelines.

Episode four is called “Valley of the Unicorns.” It’s written by Paul Dini again, this time with Karl Geurs, whom IMDb tells me worked on Winnie the Pooh’s Most Grand Adventure and The Jungle Book 2. So I guess we can expect a lot of Uni for this one.

Oh joy.

We open to the scene of a spooky forest, where the trees literally have faces and a fully grown unicorn is drinking from a pond. Lightning cracks, and suddenly a pack of wargs descend upon the unicorn! As the enemies face off, we jarringly cut to Uni, freaking out and jumping into Bobby’s lap. Bobby asks her what’s wrong. Eric, who’s busy shaking rocks out of his boots, says that it’s probably nothing, because Uni freaks out at the slightest provocation. Which is true. But then Uni suddenly bolts.

The kids give chase, Eric awkwardly trying to yank his boot back on.

Eric: “We can’t go anywhere until I get rid of the rocks in my shoes!”

Diana: “Keep ‘em. Maybe the rocks in your head need company, Eric!”

This is going to be one of those episodes where everyone is a gigantic dick to Eric, isn’t it?

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Tale is in the Telling

It all starts with a crime.

A shoemaker named Pierre Picaud, living in France in 1807, was happily engaged to a beautiful, wealthy young woman. But the marriage was not to be.

Three men who Picaud considered his friends plotted against him and had him falsely accused of spying for England. Arrested and found guilty, Picaud was sentenced to Fenestrelle Fort, where he was assigned as servant to a rich Italian cleric. The cleric, over the years, grew to view Picaud as something of a son, and when he died he bequeathed him his fortune.

Upon his release from prison, Picaud decided to seek his revenge.

The first of his accusers was found dead with a knife in his throat. The words “Number One” were engraved on the handle.

The second accuser was found poisoned not long after.

The third was different. He had married Picaud’s fiancé, and so something more elaborate had to be planned. Loupian, as the third man was called, was father to a son and daughter. Picaud lured the son into a life of crime and arranged for the daughter to become a prostitute. It was all very elaborate, and everything went according to plan.

Until a fourth man entered the picture.

Unbeknownst to Picaud, his three friends had asked for the aid of a fourth in framing him. The fourth had declined, but had known of the plot, and so was worried his life was in danger. He deduced Picaud’s identity, and fatally stabbed him.

The police report was found, some years later, by a Parisian true crime archivist by the name of Jacques Peuchet. Peuchet published it in a collection of other intriguing murder tales in 1839.

Always on the lookout for inspiration, popular author Alexandre Dumas picked up a copy of Peuchet’s crime stories. Though Peuchet had a good idea of which stories would be interesting, he had an archivist’s skill for narrating (it’s cool, Peuchet, so do I). But Dumas saw the potential in the Picaud story.

He and his writing partner Auguste Maquet set about building a novel around the revenge tale. They changed numerous elements, drawing on an earlier novel they’d done called Georges, about a vengeance obsessed young man lashing out at the bigotry he’d suffered at the hands of his racist community.

For good measure, the Italian cleric was exchanged for actual historical figure Abbé Faria, and an enormous secret treasure was added, as well as some really good stuff about tunnelling out of an island fortress.

In 1844, the first instalment of The Count of Monte Cristo appeared and took France by storm. It was, and remains, a terrifically good story.

My BFF Richard Chamberlain as the Count in 1975

And it was popular! It was an international sensation the likes of which had never been seen before! Normally, a serialized novel would be published gradually in its originating language, then collected, then translated. But with Monte Cristo, each installment was translated right away, and published in magazines around the world. Everyone waited with bated breath to see what would happen to Edmond Dantés in his obsessive quest for revenge.

Time to move forward thirty years and across the Atlantic to the battlefields of the Civil War.

By this time, Monte Cristo was well rooted in the literary consciousness, but it was far from the mind of Major General Lew Wallace after the Battle of Shiloh. The number of Union casualties reported climbed higher and higher, and it was becoming apparent that the Confederates had won the meticulously planned battle. When Lincoln demanded an explanation from generals Grant and Halleck, Halleck blamed Wallace and his unit for the loss.

Wallace felt betrayed and slandered. He wrote to Grant several times asking for a formal enquiry, and tried to encourage William Tecumseh Sherman to help clear his name. Sherman urged patience.

The Shiloh controversy branded Wallace an ill-equipped leader who had failed his country and his fellow soldiers.

After the war, Wallace decided to try his hand at writing fiction. His first novel was about Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. Wallace, like many other officers of his generation, had fought in the Mexican-American War, and it was a subject that fascinated him. That first novel was called The Fair Hand, and it wasn’t much of a success, but the writing of it had so pleased Wallace that he decided to tackle a more ambitious project.

He would combine his own bitterness about the Shiloh affair with the plot and structure of one of his favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo; and since he had enjoyed the researching of his first novel, he would choose another historical setting. This time, it would be Ancient Rome during the life of Jesus. He was an agnostic and totally uninformed about the place and time he chose, but he diligently studied all resources available at the Library of Congress, and imbued the Roman military with his experiences in the Union Army.

Veterans of the Civil War would find much familiar; unlike Monte Cristo, there was no need to understand the social impact of French politics in the Napoleonic era. All you had to know was the basic story of Jesus, and in 19th century America, most people did.

Wallace called his second novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It was first published in 1880.

Author Lew Wallace
In the story of Judah Ben-Hur, three wrongful accusers became one man in the Roman tribune Messala. When the betrayed Ben-Hur finds himself working the oars aboard the slave ship, with every push forward he swears his revenge. Just as Edmond Dantés, he finds someone to educate him and help him make his fortune. Then he reappears in glitzy high society to begin his much, much simpler plan of running over his nemesis with a chariot. Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t like to waste time on panache.

Like Monte Cristo before it, it was a runaway smash hit. It was the first novel to be blessed by a Pope. It didn’t get a sandwich named after it, but it did have its own brand of flour. (Tie-in marketing wasn’t really cohesive back then.)

Ben-Hur changed everything for Wallace, even getting him a position as US ambassador to Turkey. Unfortunately, he could never quite escape was the black eye of Shiloh. It wasn’t until after Wallace’s death that Ulysses S. Grant officially explained that the loss had not been Wallace’s fault.

By 1907, the story of Ben-Hur was tightly woven into American popular culture. It was so ubiquitous that Canadian silent film director Sydney Olcott decided to make a quick and cheap fifteen minute silent film depicting the famous chariot race. Neither he nor the producing studio had obtained the rights to do so, and the book was still under copyright, at this time to Wallace’s widow.

In the early days of film, copyright infringement was par for the course. Nobody in Hollywood cared, and the copyright holders felt that there was little they could do about it.

Until Wallace’s widow and the publishers of Ben-Hur, Harper & Brothers, sued the pants off of Kalem Studios and The Motion Picture Patents Company, dragged them all the way to the Supreme Court and in 1911 had the law changed forever. From then on, if anybody wanted to make a film of any previously published work still under copyright, they had to obtain the production rights first.

And that brings us to our next batch of three men. These three weren’t planning on framing anybody for treason, or scapegoating their way out of a Civil War failure, they were trying to make a movie. It was 1925, their names were Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. They needed a good idea, a framework for their next major project.

Ben-Hur hadn’t been on anybody’s to-do list since the massive lawsuit, but as long as they could get the film rights, why not?

It was a little more expensive than they were hoping. After the copyright debacle in 1907, if you wanted to see a dramatization of Ben-Hur, you had to hit up a long-running play produced by Abraham Erlanger. The play had run, enormously successfully, for twenty-five years. The curtain had barely dropped on the final tour when the Goldwyn Company came a-knocking. Erlanger would not budge on his price for the production rights.

Expensive as it was, the three producers shilled out. There was this vision of the chariot race being shot to look like a painting by Alexander von Wagner, and nobody could shake it. It was a brilliant idea.

Wagner's painting. Click to embiggen.

1925’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was shot on location in Rome, at further expense. Everything was replaced at least once, including the director and the stars. The finished film was helmed by Fred Niblo, and featured Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur. The scenes featuring Jesus were shot in two-tone Technicolor, and the chariot race remains a spectacular feat of filming. The film clocks in at a comparatively lean two and a half hours, most of it concerning the race.

For a fun Easter egg, you can look at the gallery of stars watching in Roman garb as the chariots thunder by. There’s Louis B. Mayer himself, a very young Joan Crawford, the Gish sisters, the Barrymore brothers, Marion Davies, John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, all chilling at the circus maximus.

The production was expensive and nobody made back what they put into it, but the film itself was a critical darling and scored big time with audiences. The publicity was excellent, and helped establish the new MGM studios.

Thirty years of relentless innovation and cut-throat deals later, MGM was no longer the new kid on the block. But things weren’t going so well financially. Television had begun to cut considerably into the profits of every studio, and MGM was among those struggling to keep afloat. Discussions of a remake of Ben-Hur had started in 1952, but it wasn’t until Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments raked in major cash for Paramount that the discussion became serious.

In 1957, MGM studio head Joseph Vogel announced that a new, glorious adaptation of Ben-Hur would begin shooting in 1958 and reach theaters in 1959.

One problem: nobody wanted to play Judah Ben-Hur.

The original choice, back in 1952, had been Marlon Brando. By 1957, that seemed like a terrible idea, so MGM approached the ever-golden Burt Lancaster. Lancaster shot down the offer right away. He thought the script was boring, and the way it used Jesus as a side character was kind of offensively weird (I love you so much, Burt Lancaster). Paul Newman declined because his first major film had been 1954’s The Silver Chalice about Ancient Greece, and he hated the beefcake ethos of epic films so much he’d vowed never to do another. “I don’t have the legs to wear a tunic,” he quipped. Rock Hudson, Leslie Neilson, and Geoffrey Horne also all said no.

Messala was easier to cast, since Messala is pretty much the best role. Director William Wyler had gotten his first choice, Charlton Heston. With nobody playing Judah Ben-Hur, though, there wouldn’t be a movie, so Wyler asked Heston if he’d be willing to switch roles.

About two seconds after this happened, Kirk Douglas offered to play Ben-Hur if they were really stuck and willing to pay him a ton of money. Heston was cheaper and had already agreed, so it was all settled.

The production is best described as “lavish” and “costly” – like every epic ever, it was too expensive and took too long to film.

But it did make its 1959 release date.

With a four hour runtime, of particular note is the chariot racing sequence. Again. It was an almost shot-for-shot copy of the 1925 version, with some extended tension and an extra stunt or two.

At the Oscars, Ben-Hur won an unheard of eleven Academy Awards; a record that would not be broken until 1997’s Titanic.

In 2001, the chariot race was once more diligently recreated, this time for the Boonta Eve Classic podracing sequence in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

And tomorrow, you’ll get a chance to see another adaptation of Ben-Hur or another adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, depending on how you want to look at it. This time it stars Jack Huston of The Huston Dynasty, who was originally cast as Messala but had to switch roles when they couldn’t find anyone to play Judah Ben-Hur.

Director Timur Bekmambetov is especially pleased with (surprise!) the chariot race. He hasn’t copied the 1925 version, he’s decided to take a cue from how Nascar is filmed on mobile devices by audience members. So, like a YouTube video from Ancient Rome.

No matter how you feel about this latest version, no matter whether it sucks or does just fine, no matter how nauseated those chariot sequences make you, it’s a good thing that they’re trying something new with an old favourite.

Everything from the Parisian archivist to the Wallace novel to the 1959 version of Ben-Hur happened because somebody was “out of ideas.” And from one accounting of a true story, there have grown abundant retooling and retellings of a fictional story, which has doubtless indirectly influenced and melded with others on the road to creating new stories.

There’s often a sense, when a new remake or reboot comes out, that you shouldn’t mess with the classics. But that’s malarkey. Every idea needs to come from somewhere. So what if the beloved film version of Ben-Hur comes from Monte Cristo which comes from an essay on Picaud, which comes from real life? It’s probably a safe bet that Picaud got the idea for his revenge scheme somewhere else, too.

Maybe even from fiction. 

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Charles Beaumont: Mind Full of Monsters

I’ve been meaning to write a proper thing about Charles Beaumont ever since we looked at “Queen of the Nile.” And since I’m tirelessly putting off the recap of Patterns, I figured this might be a good time to get it done.

Charles Beaumont in The Intruder

When Charles Beaumont died, he was thirty-eight years old. But, according to all sources, he could have passed for ninety.

Doctors at UCLA diagnosed him as having Pick’s Disease and early onset Alzheimer’s, accelerated by damage to his system done by a childhood battle with meningitis. It was a cocktail of ailments that rapidly aged him, and stole his wonderful mind for the last few years of his life.

“I guess he went through senescence in whirlwind time,” William Shatner wrote for a collection of Beaumont stories called Perchance to Dream. “It was like a science fiction story he would have written. Charlie Beaumont, wonderful, active, virile, creative writer, dies of old age in his thirties.”

Beaumont was born Charles Leroy Nutt in 1929, the name change inevitable. After all, who wants to read sci-fi stories written by a Nutt? (Other than Philip K. Dick fans. Rimshot!) Hailing from Chicago’s North Side, his mother dressed him in girl’s clothes and used to threaten to kill his dog if he misbehaved. Obviously, with an upbringing like that, he had three choices in life: become a comedian, become a fantasy writer, or become a serial killer. A teenage love affair with the early Golden Age of sci-fi pulp landed him on the second path.

His first major sale turned out to be Playboy’s first purchase of a short story. “Black Country” appeared in the September, 1954 issue and concerned the strange death of a jazz musician named Spoof Collins. It was the beginning of a long and very successful relationship with the magazine.
By this time, he had relocated to Los Angeles and legally changed his last name to Beaumont. He quickly fell in with a group of Southern California-based speculative fiction writers. They called themselves the Green Hand, and the roster included Beaumont’s good friends Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.

It was Matheson who got Beaumont into TV writing. Or rather, Beaumont and Matheson got each other into TV writing.

“We became friends right away and decided to collaborate on writing scripts for half-hour TV shows,” Matheson said in a 2010 interview, “Because we were both new at it and television was still very new. So we started writing scripts and learning from each other.”

A Scene from Beaumont's HGWT Episode

Early collaborative efforts yielded an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive called “The Healing Woman.” (It’s the one where the kid gets appendicitis, but his father won’t allow the doctors to help and he tries to cure him with frogs) and one of the finer instalments of Have Gun – Will Travel, “The Lady on the Wall.” Both writers quickly found their feet, and by the time The Twilight Zone was in the picture, they were working independently of one another.

Beaumont’s first episode for the legendary anthology series was called “Perchance to Dream,” like the short story it was based on. In it, a man goes to see a psychiatrist about a peculiar problem he’s been having. He’s been dreaming a nightmare in chapters. Every night, another piece of the story comes to him. From what our poor victim can tell, the ending’s coming up soon, and it isn’t going to be very pleasant.

Next was “Elegy,” a story about a cemetery on an asteroid that has a wonderful feeling of being an old myth, almost Arthurian in nature, despite its futuristic setting. It has definite echoes of Bradbury’s influence in there. Not all that surprising, both were considered the “writer’s writers” of the group, and they would get together once a week to read their work out loud to one another and offer improvements.

It’s Beaumont’s third contribution to TZ, of what would end of being a collection of twenty-two episodes, which stands out the most.

“Long Live Walter Jameson” has every chance of being crowned the very best episode of The Twilight Zone. Kevin McCarthy starred as a history professor whose lessons on the Civil War had a certain personal nostalgia to them that captivated his students. When one of his fellow professors hits on the idea that Walter Jameson’s knowledge of history is first-hand, we’re pulled into an intricate tale of the cost of immortality and the people who are left behind by every kind of vampire.

Immortals, vampires, and victims of unhealthy bargains were regular themes for Beaumont. Writing at a feverish pace, always thinking about the cost and processes of aging, one can’t help but wonder if Beaumont somehow knew his days were numbered, and that old age would claim him in a sudden blaze, just as it did Walter Jameson.

Kevin McCarthy in "Long Live Walter Jameson"

Another among his stand-out episodes was “The Howling Man,” a provocative story with the trappings of a fairy tale, including the quaint village and the intrepid young hero. But things quickly take a turn for the unnatural, when we discover an abbey of secretive monks housing a strange prisoner who screams in the night.

“The Howling Man” best foreshadows the tone of writing Beaumont would use in most of his work in film. In the early 1960’s, he began collaborating with Roger Corman on a film called Premature Burial. One of Corman’s most stylistically successful “Poe” films, and the only one to not star Vincent Price, Premature Burial is an excellent combination of Beaumont’s talent for building dread, and Corman’s early use of small sets and colour. (It’s probably going to get its own post the next time I decide to try to tackle Patterns again.)

Other cinematic endeavours included 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (Tony Randall in yellowface and Medusa drag, it’s weird, you can skip it), The Haunted Palace and Masque of the Red Death with Corman again and both starring Vincent Price, rewrites on The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and a tangled collaboration with Richard Matheson on Burn, Witch, Burn!

Of particular note was Beaumont and Corman’s 1962 film, The Intruder.

Starring William Shatner and based on one of Beaumont’s rare full-length novels, The Intruder is the story of a man who thinks of himself as a social reformer. In a crisp white suit, he travels to Missouri, smiling at old ladies and being kind to children. His aim is to stop integration at the local schools and position himself as the freshly appointed king of a town rotting from the inside with hatred.

It’s a story without supernatural elements, but a definite eeriness throughout. Released the same year as To Kill a Mockingbird, it takes a much more cynical look at the realities of American racism, and can be an uncomfortable watch in places.

The Intruder was shot on location in East Prairie, Charleston, and Sikeston in Missouri. It was an uncomfortable experience for all involved, especially when the townsfolk learned that it was a Civil Rights picture depicting segregation as backwards and immoral. The cast and crew genuinely feared for their safety.

Beaumont was on-hand both as writer and actor. He appears in the film as the high school principal, Mr. Paton. Surprisingly, unlike most writers who get small cameos, he does a fine job with his role and features in a crucial scene.

Beaumont as Mr. Paton

By 1964, the disease that would kill him had begun to take effect on his brain. Most of his writing assignments from this point on were ghosted by close friends and credited to Beaumont, in order to help cover medical costs and keep his family afloat.

His tragic early death cut short a career that was on the same trajectory as his famous peers, and in fact going a little better than most. Because of this, he never became an elder statesman of horror or weird fiction, he never evened out his themes with the time and experience. He isn’t much discussed these days.

But all of his work contained flashes of brilliance, and so much of what he did remains top tier. The Twilight Zone itself was referred to as the realm of shadow and substance. In many ways, Rod Serling’s politically charged and moralizing writing was the substance, while Beaumont’s dark modern fables and unanswered questions were the shadow. Both combined to create a singular television experience.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Science Fiction Theater 02x27: The Three Minute Mile

With the Olympics going on, I thought it might be kind of interesting to check out an episode of Science Fiction Theater about the pressures we place on young athletes, and the ominous then-future of performance enhancements.

Science Fiction Theater was an anthology series that brought to life new stories depicting future scientific developments, and sometimes adapting classic stories by authors like H.G. Wells.

Hosted by former war correspondent Truman Bradley, SFT was notable in that its first season was filmed in colour, but to cut costs its second and third seasons were shot in black and white. They’d predicted the rise of colour television a little prematurely, like most of the advancements they champion in their stories.

When it went into syndication, the series was sometimes broadcast under the name Beyond the Limits to associate it with SF critical darling The Outer Limits. You can find the show under both titles, and everything is currently available on DVD.

Today’s episode is from 1956. It begins with Truman Bradley casually relaxing in his study of scientific wonders. He’s got a fancy globe, a big ol’ telescope, a model of the atom, one of those things that looks like a bunch of interlocking gold rings – astrolabes, I think they’re called – and, of particular interest today, a bust of a Neanderthal.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The Thorn Birds in Ten Minutes

I really wish I'd found this sooner...

I haven't read the book, and I keep meaning to, but I'm pretty sure the human mind only has so much room for entangled fictional family sagas. Another one might disappear from my memory banks, and it could be somebody important like the Corleones or the Starks, or the entire plot of Captains and the Kings. 

And besides, my favourite Richard Chamberlain miniseries will always be Shogun.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Midnight Lace (1960)

Doris Day and the Midnight Lace Negligee

Despite her pivotal role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and starring in the underrated Julie, Doris Day isn’t commonly thought of as an actress who appeared in thrillers. Especially not during her seven year reign as queen of the rom-coms. But it was smack dab in the middle of her frolics with Rock Hudson and her tiffs with James Garner that Day starred in a Gaslight-style thriller called Midnight Lace.

She plays an American heiress named Kit Preston, recently married to financier Tony and living in a wealthy and glamorous London neighbourhood. Tony is a middle-aged Rex Harrison, in a role that harkens back to his early British films like Blithe Spirit. Both of them do a fine job, even with their notable lack of chemical reaction.

Part of the trouble, I think, is at this point, Day was primarily a sex comedienne and Harrison had been spending a good deal of his time on the Broadway stage. His distant theatricality and her newly acquired habit of playing bedroom moments for laughs kicks the “sizzling newlyweds” angle right in the stomach.

On a particularly foggy evening, Kit is on her way home when an unseen voice calls to her by name. It’s a bizarre, disguised voice that sounds like it belongs to a marionette. And this creepy marionette says it wants to kill her.

She rushes home in terror to find Tony waiting for her, and he quickly soothes her and suggests that it was just some prankster taking advantage of the fog. This manages to comfort her, and all seems well.

Until the puppet-voiced weirdo starts phoning her.

Doris Day in the Fog Scene

Scotland Yard insist that this is a simple case of a lonely housewife imagining sinister goings-on while she flirts with a nervous breakdown. No need for police involvement, just take her to a good head shrinker, guv.

Trying to ignore the constant harassment from the evil version of Topo Gigio, Kit manages to plan a much-anticipated honeymoon with Tony. She even buys an elegant negligee in a style called “midnight lace” giving us our title. (The film was adapted from a play called Matilda Shouted Fire, so a title change was well in order.) But Tony is terribly busy with work, and the honeymoon keeps being delayed while Kit wonders if she’s going slowly insane.

An early red-herring culprit is presented to us by way of Roddy McDowell, being his usual dependable self in a role that could’ve used some expansion. It isn’t much of a spoiler to announce his innocence, since anybody who’s seen even a handful of these types of stories will be able to guess the ending from go.

An ally arrives in the form of Kit’s Aunt Bea, played by Myrna Loy. (Chairs spin as all of my readers now run to find copies of this because Myrna Loy is in it.) Aunt Bea is a fabulous character with a fabulous life full of jet-setting to obscure places, collecting strange curios, and being delightfully open-minded about the possibility of telephone stalkers. So, a little different from the Aunt Bea of Mayberry.

Aunt Bea is a soothing presence. She believes Kit actually is getting upsetting calls, but thinks it’s more of a harmless weirdo than a homicidal one. Slowly, Tony manages to turn Bea to his view of things, and has her convinced that all of this might just be in Kit’s head.

Myrna Loy as Aunt Bea

The whole thing culminates in a gripping breakdown sequence that really took it out of Doris Day. In her autobiography, she wrote in order to prepare she recalled a specific moment from her marriage to Al Jordan. While she was pregnant and on bedrest, Jordan burst into the room, pulled her up from bed and threw her against the wall. This bit of method acting resulted in the best scene of the film, but also caused Doris Day to collapse in emotional exhaustion after filming it was complete. Production was shut down for two days, and the experience was so unpleasant she decided to never do another drama. It was comedies from then on out.

One of the best reasons to check out Midnight Lace is the wardrobe designed by Irene.

The former head of the costume department at MGM, Irene also designed the incredible costumes for 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. She had been operating her own fashion house, when her friend Doris Day asked her to design her looks for Midnight Lace. The outfits were so elegant and well-made that Harry Winston jewellery was rented for Day to wear, because the usual costume jewels looked extremely fake against the couture fabrics.

One dress in particular, a white evening gown, blew the star away. She was so enamoured with it, she asked if she could borrow it for the Academy Awards ceremony. Kind of fun for a normal red-carpet appearance, but this was the year she was nominated for Pillow Talk, so that dress was in all the magazines.

In contrast to the hyper-real regal wardrobe, the London of Midnight Lace looks about as convincing as a ride at Disneyland. Which is to say, it’s charming but clearly fake.

Budgetary constraints forced the production, originally slated to film on location in England, to shoot on the Universal fake-London soundstages. It’s a shame, because two years later, director David Miller showed how well he could do when given real landscapes to work with. He helmed one of my all-time faves, Lonely Are the Brave.

Midnight Lace isn’t as good as Julie, or any Hitchcock film, and it’s a little paint-by-numbers in terms of the plot, but it’s got its selling points. The creepy puppet voice is creepy, the clothes are magnificent, and Myrna Loy is in it. It’s worth a watch if you come across it on your travels, particularly if you’re a Doris Day completionist.