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Who's Hijacking Who?
One of the other IMDb reviewers claims that the plot of "The Death and Life of Larry Benson" was ripped off for an episode of "The Andy Griffith Show". And while I'm not debating the point (I can't recall the show he has in mind, and he doesn't mention its title), but I AM writing to cite the fact that the main plot device of "Larry Benson" was SURELY inspired by William Saroyan's 1943 screenplay (later novelette) "The Human Comedy."
A BIG TIME "borrowing" which, in the case of Reginald Rose, is somewhat disappointing. I was hoping to see a "tip of the hat" to Saroyan in the final credits, but none appeared.
In Saroyan's work, the young Marcus McCauley goes off to war (WWII), where he befriends a young man named Tobey who was raised an orphan and has no family, home, sense of belonging, etc.... he's a drifter with no identity. Through their army friendship, Tobey becomes immersed in Marcus' own personal story-- his family, home, the girl next door, the town of Ithaca---to the point that he feels he has personally experienced everything about Marcus' life. He decides that traveling to Ithaca after the war and becoming a part of the McCauley family's world is his destiny.
Tragedy strikes when Marcus is killed in action, which leads to the final scene of the film where the recently discharged Tobey arrives in Ithaca and meets Marcus' younger brother Homer (Mickey Rooney) on the street. I'll stop here, but the central idea/concept of Rose's "Death and Life of Larry Benson" bears an unmistakable similarity to Saroyan's screenplay, which Rose then elaborates and develops into his teleplay.
But who knows? Maybe Saroyan lifted this basic premise from a previous source, as so often happens in the literary world.
That being said, "Death and Life of Larry B" is an outstanding example of the potential power of TV's "Golden Age"...when "message" dramas were the rage. Acting, directing, camera work, and design are all first-rate. There's barely a false note anywhere---except perhaps the too "tidy" final minute. Still, a very moving, compelling show, with Peg Hillias as the mother especially good.
Worth your time to find and view---particularly when you stop and realize that it was produced under the pressures of live TV performance.
Note on the "Studio One" DVD set: For a little comic relief mid-way through the show, you'll enjoy the Westinghouse commercial with Betty Furness who, though blind-folded, still manages to lay her hands on and correctly identify the meat, cheese, butter, and soda in her well-stocked refrigerator---a feat unequaled, I'm sure, in the annals of live TV or any other medium.
Brilliant and sophisticated Musical Score
I am very glad to have recently discovered this wacky, breezy musical from the waning days of MGM's glorious heyday. The other reviews here do a fine job of summing up ATHENA'S attributes; my only real disappointment is the fact that the film's final ten minutes is not as well-constructed as the rest; too many back-and-forth confrontations between the main characters, all wrapped up in an unexpected final reprise of the song "Harmonize" (or is it "Vocalize"?).
HOWEVER--- this is a relatively minor quibble when compared to the delights which seem to tumble forth from this silly, quirky, but immensely enjoyable romp. And Martin and Blane's score, while a bit meager in terms of the number of songs which it contains, is TOP-NOTCH.
The opening credits feature the lush title-song "Athena", in the quintessential "exotica/lounge" idiom (complete with MGM's expert chorus), so much a part of the 1950's pop-culture. This song functions solely as "presentation" music and is never actually sung in the film.
Then there's "VOCALIZE/HARMONIZE", a robust, life-affirming waltz that features Hugh Martin's distinctive and novel melody and harmonic progressions. It is very sophisticated, and several cuts above what one normally encounters in the average film musical.
"IMAGINE" is also very intriguing in its musical language; it's essentially a light-jazz "Swing" ballad but again, it's far from ordinary, since it's melody and blues-inspired harmonies continually shift when you least expect them to. Beautifully crafted stuff, especially when carried by Blane's clever lyrics.
"LOVE CAN CHANGE THE STARS" is the score's major romantic ballad, and it is superb. Again, it is anything but predictable in musical terms, but it is utterly, exquisitely logical and beautifully shaped, to boot. MGM's legendary, lush "house" orchestration *(see below)is delicate and shimmery, and demonstrates a phenomenal command of orchestral color.
The Rhino Handmade CD of the ATHENA soundtrack contains the original demos of all of the songs, performed by Ralph Blane (vocal) and Hugh Martin (piano); they are a JOY to listen to (though sometimes Mr. Blane's upper vocal register gets a bit annoying). If you enjoy this score, you really must hear the songs as performed by their creators. I would go so far as to say that the final portion of their piano/vocal rendition of "Love Can Change the Stars" elevates it to the level of Kurt Weill's Broadway ballads-- seriously....it's that good.
"I NEVER FELT BETTER" is another musical marvel. Ralph Blane's lyrics must be heard to be believed; the amazing Johnny Mercer could not have produced anything wittier and more inventive than Blane's lyrics for this tune. It's dazzling, as is the on screen choreography (uncredited!?!), which must have taken three weeks to rehearse, since it was mostly filmed in L-O-N-G, extremely intricate takes.
Then there's VENEZIA, obviously written to showcase the incomparable singing of Vic Damone (since the song serves no dramatic function in the film). But it's SO lovely, especially since its dark, chromatic musical language creates an exotic, wistful quality that is both alluring and sentimental. Add to it the stunning arrangement and orchestration by Albert Sendrey (another of the unsung musical masters who labored uncredited on MGM's staff) which practically drips with luxuriant color (not to mention Jeff Alexander's choral background), and you have another superb example of the Hollywood musical artistry at its height.
Again, the true beauty of VENEZIA is only revealed on the Rhino CD release, which is in the original 1954 optical stereo, amazingly rich, full-bodied and detailed; it sounds as good as anything that's been recorded since. Happily, the audio quality of the DVD soundtrack is also excellent.
* (How deplorable and unjust that MGM arranger and orchestrator Albert Sendry, whose superb work is heard in the Main Title, "Vocalize", "Love Can Change the Stars" and "Venezia" received NO screen credit, while Robert van Eps, who produced mostly shorter, incidental numbers in the score, was listed in the opening credits as sole orchestrator. A raw deal if there ever was one).
Just one more comment about the film itself: most of the script is quite well written. The dialogue is snappy and clever, and I continually crack up at stuffy, stick-in-the-mud lawyer Edmund Purdom as he deals with a continual stream of vexing, annoying and confusing situations. His big dialogue scene with the irrepressible Louis Calhern in the Mulvain family gym is truly funny.
"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" is definitely the more classic musical when compared to "ATHENA"---what Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor accomplished on screen was in a class by itself----but I will be so bold as to say that "ATHENA'S score is the better of the two.
So sue me.
ATHENA is definitely worth getting to know. It's a unique piece of our Hollywood film-musical heritage, and cannot be allowed to remain in oblivion. Check it out-- I guarantee that, after listening to these delightful,enchanting tunes a few times, you will NOT be able to get them out of your head for days.
PS-- The charming and supremely talented Vic Damone is 88 years old today (JUNE 12, 2016).
Melody Time (1948)
Please Read This Review....
I am astounded at the level of vitriol and self-inflated arrogance displayed by many of the IMDb "reviews" of MELODY TIME.
MELODY TIME is a delightful compilation/potpourri of 7 episodes that showcase POPULAR MUSICAL ARTISTS of the day. And despite Disney's temporary post-war decline in quality, I challenge anyone to cite another example of animation that is so GLORIOUS and flawlessly rendered; it is a true feast for the eye, and contains some of Disney's absolutely best visual work. True, the film lacks the narrative cohesion of a single-storyline feature but---GUESS WHAT??--- that's the way the studio designed it!
A few specific reactions.
1.) "Once Upon a Winter" -- the overall design is as sumptuous and gorgeous as anything you will ever see; the studio designed this in a post-Deco visual style that was used in 1940's Christmas cards and graphics. It is stunning (the sky, the trees, the horses, the use of light and shadow, etc).
I find the story a bit too crude and slapstick-y, especially where the young lady is concerned, which works against this segment's overall elegance and beauty. Frances Langford and the expert singing of the chorus are also first-rate.
2.) "Johnny Appleseed"-- A continual marvel to look at and listen to. Gorgeous pastels, pinks, blues, apple-blossom clouds, landscapes, vistas, rivers, wind-rain-snow storms....the visual design of the pioneer's covered-wagon procession is another example of Disney's artists at their very best. And popular Irish tenor/comedian Dennis Day's virtuoso vocal performance (he portrays all of the characters) is a whimsical delight. And yes, Johnny's main song, with its graceful melody and charming whistling refrain, is happily titled "The LORD IS GOOD TO ME". How about THAT?!
3.) "TREES" -- with the ever-popular Fred Waring Chorus (ever heard of them? Look 'em up. A little research might broaden my fellow reviewer's appreciation of "Melody Time's" appeal to audiences of its day).
TREES is the "nature/concept" segment of the film and simply stunning in its visual design and execution. Seriously, show me anything that surpasses it in terms of its beauty. It's like a fantasy on the best parts of "Fantasia's" Beethoven Pastoral Symphony...but expanded and amplified.
4.) I find "Little Toot" a bit tedious, since it's so predictable. But it's very well-done, great for the kids, and features the iconic Andrews Sisters of the '40's (ever heard of THEM?....)
5.) "BLAME IT ON THE SAMBA!!!" --Must be seen to be believed. Donald Duck and his parrot-pal Joe Carioca in a hallucinogenic tropical-fantasy that echoes Disney's bizarre "Pink Elephants on Parade" from "Dumbo"...but in a South-American jungle-cafe setting. Totally, joyously insane...and very sophisticated in its design.
The unhinged goofiness is highlighted by the combination of live-action footage of ETHEL SMITH, a popular and fabulously talented Organist of the day, who specialized in Latin Dance Music. Ethel floats in a big mojito glass, Ethel dances with our two bird-brain friends, Ethel plays the congas, Ethel gets a hot foot (with a stick of dynamite) from that crazy Aracuan bird, Ethel's organ EXPLODES, comes raining down and magically reassembles itself... Wildly imaginative and hilarious.
OH YES....in case any of our reviewer colleagues are interested, "Blame It" also includes the fantastic singing of The DINNING SISTERS--- another popular female trio of the era, whose technical accuracy and flawless vocal blend is ANOTHER bonus in this delightful musical journey. (Incidentally, the lyrics of the song mention three Brazilian folk percussion instruments, here used as part of the "recipe" for the Samba: CABASA (a gourd/shaker), PANDERO (tambourine), and PUITA (a little drum with a string device that produces a curious "groaning" sound).
6.) "PECOS BILL" -- with Roy Rodgers and the SONS OF THE PIONEERS, the greatest Western harmony group of all time. Check their history, should you be interested. It's good to see them together on screen and in color. And, in response to a couple of IMDb negative swipes at the two young child actors in the prologue, Luana Patten and Bobby Driscoll were among the most talented kids of the day (Bobby, especially). Read about his accomplishments and his tragic end here on IMDb; you may want to reconsider your snarky comments about his talents.
Most of the PECOS BILL animated segment is pretty over-the-top in tone; it's almost off-putting, since it's characters are SO grotesque and exaggerated. However, the present-day ninnies at Disney, obsessed as they are with political-correct "enlightenment", chose to CENSOR the first verse of the rollicking "Ballad of Pecos Bill" on this DVD release---WHY? Because the animators dared to show Pecos Bill lighting a cigarette as he tames a cyclone.
But all is not lost: the night-time imagery of the desert in this segment---the moon and stars, the echoing wail of coyote, etc etc, are simply STUNNING. It's hard to believe that a mere cartoon could evoke such a magical, otherworldly atmosphere. And the combination of the Sons' legendary performance of "Blue Shadows on the Trail" with Disney's artwork HAS to be one of the most enchanting, ravishingly beautiful things ever put on film.
There is SO MUCH to treasure in MELODY TIME...not only its visual perfection, but the way in which it preserves 7 great performances by popular musical artists of the day in their prime. If anyone ever makes it through all of the other pathetic, ill-tempered, short-sighted, dismissive "reviews" here on IMDb and reads my comments, I hope you will be convinced to decide on the merits of MELODY TIME for yourself.
Till the End of Time (1946)
I love old movies, but......
Based on the reviews here on IMDb, I was sure "Til the End of Time" would become a new favorite of mine.
I mean absolutely no disrespect to the servicemen who have commented on this film, but I can only assume they have never seen "Best Years of Our Lives", a film so superior to "Til the End.." that the suggestion that these two films are even close in quality is just plain silly.
It seems that David Selznick loaned out two of his star properties--- Guy Madison (amazingly good-looking) and Dorothy McGuire-- to RKO for "Til the End"; I wonder if the deal required that they be paired as a romantic couple? They are possibly the WORST, mis-matched pair of lovers in film history; she looks old enough to be his mother, and that goofy hair-do makes her look even worse. McGuire was a classy, distinguished actress who would go on to roles much more suitable for her. But their relationship in this film was a real turn-off to me.
So was the slow-moving, meandering plot. I loved looking at all of the outdoor location shots, and the inside of Guy Madison's family home....but there was absolutely NOTHING compelling here. Dana Andrews and Harold Russell had REAL emotional/adjustment problems in "Best Years"; Guy Madison's most intense scene was his mother's unpleasant reaction when he mentioned the smelly foxholes he experienced during the war (as he chowed down on her super-duper, giant waffles). Big deal. (But I liked Ruth Nelson's dignified performance as Guy's mother).
True, the scene with the shell-shocked soldier was moving and even harrowing----but that's the ONLY thing in this film that matches the heartache and intensity of "Best Years". But the shell-shock episode occurs in the middle of the big ice-skating scene; what the heck was THAT supposed to be about?? A chance for the young tart-next-door to show off her skating skills? And what about the dance scene in "Scruffy's" tavern--- what the heck was THAT supposed to be about?? Just an excuse to display the tart-next-door's dancing talent? In fact, why was she in the film anyway? Just another element of the plot that goes absolutely nowhere.
And speaking of going nowhere, I waited for the longest time to see Bill Williams, one of the era's most underrated, attractive and capable young actors. Boy, was I disappointed! Here's the guy who's been crippled in the war (like the Harold Russell character in "Best Years"), and he's barely on screen for more than 5 minutes. His role had great dramatic and emotional potential-- a former boxer who lost his legs in the war.
But NO---Selznick probably demanded that the bulk of the film be spent following Guy Madison around, displaying his phenomenal good looks (but modest acting talents) while the really compelling story of Bill Williams was pushed into the distant background. A real shame.
The barroom brawl at the end seemed like an afterthought; great to see Bill Williams "catch the spirit" and start kicking some a_____, but it's too little, too late.
That leaves Mitchum, another fabulous screen-presence who also gets shortchanged in favor of Guy Madison and his old-maid love interest, along with the tart-next-door (who I understand ended up marrying director Dmytryk-- which explains her prominence in the film, I suppose). Mitchum's role and its importance in the plot should have been greatly expanded; it sure would have made this loser-of-a-film a whole lot more interesting.
Hope I haven't offended anyone's feelings. I had very high hopes for this film.
The Miracle of the Bells (1948)
Well-crafted and engrossing film.
I second the opinion of reviewer "Clanciai", who cites this film's becoming "constantly more interesting" as it progresses and develops (check the 2nd paragraph of his/her review below). Much of this quality is due to the expert construction of the script,as well as actor/director Irving Pichel's fine guidance.
Since we immediately learn that the film's leading lady (and Fred MacMurray's love interest) has died, the writers must find a way to "pull the viewer into" the events surrounding her death---both before and after. The script accomplishes this superbly.
Take, for example, Fred's relationship with Olga---they never even kiss! Yet we sense a very real, very powerful emotional bond between them. Fred's heart-rending sobs at her deathbed further reveal the depth of his love for her.
Many reviewers cite Fred MacMurray's performance as outstanding; it is. He was truly a fine actor, capable of playing just about any type of role which came his way. I have a new-found appreciation of his stature as a result of this film (where was the Academy, I wonder?)
But these reviews contain a number of negative comments about Frank Sinatra's acting; I was actually impressed by his restraint. By 1948, Frank had already demonstrated his acting prowess on screen; clearly, his gentle, low-key performance was his (and Pichel's) choice for the character, not a result of his inexperience.
Many lovely, memorable moments in this film, especially the recurring motif of the starlit sky (with Leigh Harline's barely audible, shimmery music in the background), and the wonderful Christmas Eve dinner scene with Philip Ahn---one of the highlights of the film (though I felt it could have used some musical underscoring in the latter half).
But there are also plenty of dramatic scenes that are beautifully written, acted and directed. I cite TWO of them here: 1.) Olga's entrance (in full Joan of Arc costume) into Lee J. Cobb's office as Fred campaigns for her screen test (Lee J. is superb, almost riveting here). 2.) Fred's spur-of-the-moment, uplifting speech to Frank in the church basement, which dissuades Frank from explaining the "miracle" to his congregation. I had to play each of these scenes back to appreciate their excellence.
However, I have one problem with the screenplay (which I suspect didn't exist in the original story), and here it is: We become increasingly aware that Olga has a very strong attachment to her hometown and the plight of its citizens; her beautiful deathbed speech makes it clear that she wants "Joan of Arc" to serve as a morale-booster for the people of Coal Town, something which will fill them with pride and give their lives new meaning. This is why the "miracle" in the church is so crucial to Fred MacMurray's mission, which in turn motivates Lee J. to release "Joan of Arc" and use the film's proceeds to invest in the future well-being of Coal Town, since both Olga and her father were victims of the health hazards of its industry.
All of this is laid out and developed very effectively in the film's latter scenes. My reservation is the fact that the script is entirely lacking in "setting up" and establishing Olga's connection with the townspeople of Coal Town prior to her leaving to become an actress, a motive which would clearly explain her commitment to them----a dedication so deep that she would literally give her life to finish her film "mission."
The excellent script would have achieved perfection, I believe, if we had understood Olga's emotional connection to her hometown and seen it demonstrated early on. On the contrary, we see evidence that the townspeople have a low regard for her and her late father, which is confusing.
But this is fairly minor; I only point it out because the rest of the script is so logical and, as "Clanciai" says, so engrossing as it develops.
And no, I disagree with several reviews that claim: 1.) The film is too long 2.) Fred MacMurrays's addressing Olga as "baby" is off-putting. Both of these were part of our culture and the art of film making back in 1948. Deal with it.
Glad to have made the acquaintance of this terrific film.
This is NOT a spoiler....
One assumes going into it that the plot of an episode like this will unfold as follows:
1.) For whatever reason, a dog shows up at the church 2.) The dog, though lovable, will cause lots of problems 3.) The housekeeper will say "either that dog goes, or I do!" 4.) The dilemma is solved when a family that owns a farm outside of the city offers to take and care for the dog. 5.) Everyone is sad to see the pooch go, but all understand that the dog will be happier.
This is exactly what happens in "A Dog for Father Fitz"...but it only takes up the first 20 minutes of the episode; so there's still another solid half hour to go. And believe me, it goes where you don't expect it to, especially considering this was a quickly scripted and produced episode of an hour-long, weekly TV series.
Anyone who values excellent, expertly written, sentimental but high- quality drama will love this episode; I was totally moved by it.
As I watch through "Going My Way" on DVD, the stature of this totally forgotten series becomes increasingly evident. Too bad that Timeless Media wasn't able to clean up and restore their old syndication prints-- - the video is decent, but the audio is muffled and somewhat indistinct; you have to listen very closely in order not to miss anything. Still, I salute them for releasing this very fine series from the tail-end of TV's true Golden Era.
The Big Operator (1959)
Obviously, Boy's Town Didn't Do Him Much Good....
QUICK! Name a late-50's film that stars Mr. Magoo, Uncle Fester, Dennis the Menace, Vampira, The "Velvet Fog", bandleader Ray Anthony, (his then-wife) Mamie van Doren ---plus the biggest little street-punk of them all: Whitey Marsh (from 1938's "Boy's Town")---AKA Mickey Rooney! One might imagine that Whitey's Boy's Town training has worn off, leading him back to his crime-ridden roots. In any case, Rooney's character in "The Big Operator" is a vicious, conniving, arrogant, loud- mouthed, Capone-like (but still pint-sized) Union boss.
Interestingly, the good guy/hero is (very effectively) played by Steve Cochran, who made a career out of playing vicious hoods and thugs; I kept waiting for him to stand up and kick the crap out of Leo Gordon and Rooney's other goons but, alas, that moment never really comes.
If it weren't for the grueling, L-O-N-G torture scene of Cochran , "The Big Operator" plays almost like a semi-comedic parody of the Noir style- -sensational and shocking to the max, but so clichéd and filled with cheezy dialogue and over-played scenes and stereotypes that I found myself laughing out loud frequently---in between the groans.
True, the film accurately portrays the thuggish, violent world of big- labor union politics--no laughing matter. But with "the Mick" stomping around, chomping a cigar and barking orders and threats at everyone around him, it's hard to take seriously. Did you ever think you'd see Mel Torme dumped out of a car on his front lawn and set on fire with gasoline? (Looks like the stunt man who performed this scene was in REAL danger!) The fact that he shows up late in the film with a big bandage on his head (and hand), but otherwise seems perfectly OK, is just another aspect of "B.O." (Big Operator) that makes it seem like a SEND- UP of the genre. Or how about Charlie Chaplin, Jr. being fed into a cement mixer in the opening scene? WOW! The only thing I was expecting that DIDN'T happen was some sort of lurid kidnap/titillation scene with Mamie van Doren; I can't imagine how the writer, director, and schlock- meister producer Albert Zugsmith let this opportunity escape them. So Mamie, basically untouched, remains pure 50's-style, domestic housewife "Cheescake", whose main dramatic challenges consist of servin' up waffles, roast beef, and brown potatoes (no vacuuming or ironing, though).
Also interesting is the fact that the script is based on a short story by Paul Gallico, author of such children's classics as "The Snow Goose", "The Small Miracle", and the original story that ultimately became the magical MGM musical "Lili". Gallico certainly had his dark, "adult" side, but I doubt that his original story was anywhere near as over-the-top and grotesque as "B.O!"
Another L-O-N-G scene has Steve Cochran driving his wife and pals around at night trying to locate the mobster's hideout; it stretches credulity WAY beyond its breaking point. The miffed, frustrated reactions of the other 5 people in the car had me guffawing out loud, as did the big climatic fight scene in the hideout, which is staged in a manner reminiscent of the Three Stooges' best brawls and pie fights (weapons used during the fight include a mop, a picture frame, and a silver loving cup, which makes a very musical "bong" sound when it connects with Ray Anthony's noggin).
The cops FINALLY are called into action about 4 minutes from the end, basically sleep-walking through their parts. But the way Steve Cochran finally figures out where Mickey and his own bratty kidnapped kid (Jay "Dennis the Menace" North) are hiding is perhaps the single most hilarious moment in the film; I was almost giddy with delight as I replayed it several times.
Steve, spying a cigar butt on the mantle place, picks it up and says to the police detective: "It's the kind of cigar Joe Braun (Mickey Rooney) smokes; FEEL THAT....it's still warm(!)" He then goes to a closet and discovers cigar ashes on the floor, which miraculously leads to the discovery of a secret compartment in the closet. Steve flings it open...and there's Mickey, sort of crouching with his face sticking out, just itching to be slugged! (which FINALLY happens).
But...I do go on. Part violent indictment of union/mob violence, part sensationalistic noir, part cheap, vaudeville-style parody...especially considering its eclectic cast., "The Big Operator" is an experience you won't forget easily, try as you might. It's definitely too loony to be taken seriously. How the once-mighty, wholesome, family-oriented MGM Studio had fallen by 1959! But I'm glad the film is available. If you're the type who can't resist walking through the freak show at the carnival-- just for the shock and thrill---"The Big Operator" is probably your cup of tea.
PS-- Interesting also to note the high incidence of jazz musicians in the cast--Torme, Ray Anthony and singer Billy Daniels, who has a walk-on as a crooked gas station owner
Going My Way: Mr. Second Chance (1962)
I Had To Watch This A Second Time.....
...to make sure it was as good as I thought on first viewing.
It features a well constructed script, fine performances and direction. Dan Duryea is totally at home in this sort of role, and the very strained relationship between him and his estranged wife and daughter (who is about to be married) is the catalyst for this engrossing story.
Many fine scenes, including Gene Kelly's second visit to Dan in his penthouse, where he proposes that Dan assume the role of "Mr. Second Chance", and put his money to good use helping people who are down on their luck.
The penultimate scene in the church is remarkably handled; the shots of Dan Duryea in the choir loft-- which have a slightly grainy, documentary-style look to them, are beautiful---the combination of joy and sadness etched into his face. At last there is some degree of relief for the pain with which his character is dealing, as well as hope for the future. The fact that this wedding scene was actually shot in a big church and that the organ (playing Mendelssohn's familiar march) was recorded on-site (and not dubbed in later) significantly enhances the power of this (partial) resolution of Dan's crisis.
Very well done, and an episode I will return to often. Too bad that the company which has released "Going My Way" did not invest in any clean-up or restoration. The set was made directly from old TV prints, and the clarity of image and sound suffer. But at least the set allows us to experience a very fine hour-long teleplay such as this---honest, compelling and uplifting.
Face of Fire (1959)
One of Cinema's True Lost Gems
In 1958, director Albert Band and writer Louis Garfinkle, having produced two low-budget films (including the cult-ish "I Bury the Living"), launched their third project, an adaptation of Stephen Crane's 1899 short story "The Monster". A study of small-town mentality and social attitudes in the wake of a shocking personal tragedy---in which a much-admired handyman heroically saves the local doctor's son from a fire--- "Face of Fire" seemed a rather risky cinematic endeavor during a time when American distributors were clamoring for schlocky, Grade-Z drive-in fare. But Band and Garfinkle forged ahead.
They struck a deal with Sweden''s Svensk Film Studio, filming in a small Swedish town that could easily pass for New England c. 1900. Most cast and major crew were American, including a number of American actors currently working in Sweden, with a few Brits imported for good measure.
Direction and script created a uniquely "foreign" atmosphere to the film--- dreamy, lyrical, almost surreal in its episodic construction, with sensitive and compelling performances by Cameron Mitchell, James Whitmore, Betty Ackerman, and Royal Dano. The artistry of cinematographer Edward Vorkapich (son of the legendary Hollywood cinematographer Laszlo Vorkapich) renders consistently beautiful visuals, which seem to envelop the action in a slightly un-real, pastoral veneer (including an eerie forest hunt scene, when an actual thunderstorm approached in the distance during filming). The musical score is by none other than Erik Nordgren, who scored Ingmar Bergman's major films of the same period.
After handyman Monk Johnson's (Whitmore) face is horribly burned in a house fire (rendering him mentally incapacitated as well), the great moral dilemma begins for his loyal boss, Dr. Ned Trescott (Mitchell); should he keep and care for Monk out of gratitude but jeopardize his medical practice due to the fear and hysteria of the townspeople, or should he abandon Monk, send him away to an institution, and thus save his own livelihood?
Such is the decision that Trescott is forced to make in the penultimate scene, when the townsmen approach him with an offer to take Monk off his hands (a fascinatingly constructed scene which Garfinkle invented for the film--- and excellently played by Mitchell and Ackerman). At the same time, just outside the window, little Jimmy Trescott has "betrayed" Monk---his savior--- by joining his playmates in the yard as they mock and torment the hulking handyman. The scene is almost unbearable for Trescott, who very quietly says to his wife "They're right, Grace", indicating that he's decided Monk has to go. And just at that moment, the church bells begin to ring in the distance...the same bells that rang long ago the night of that traumatic fire, while little Jimmy slept....and Monk, his horribly scarred face now hidden beneath a black veil, seems to remember the agony of that night...seems to relive it, as the young boy watches, at first repelled....until Monk calls out to him by his familiar nickname, "Pollywog", just as he did when he rescued the boy from the fire.
An overwhelmingly moving scene (capped off by Erik Nordgren's grand chorale treatment of Monk's tender love theme), which dissolves into the brief final shot, itself a reverse image of the very opening of the film.
"Face of Fire" accomplishes what it does by the subtlest, most sensitive and imaginative means. The opening credit music, perfectly gauged, is an almost expressionistic rendering of the familiar tune "The Animal Fair" ("and what became of the Monk?...."), performed by a unison children's chorus accompanied by 3 muted trumpets. And speaking of trumpets--- watch (and listen) for the brilliant moment when the fire alarm/whistle is first heard in the distance during a slightly surreal, late-night waltz in the local park. Then there's the breathlessly tense but ultimately painful scene when Trescott returns from his daily duties and finds the incapacitated Monk, his face draped in the black veil, standing immobile but ready to perform his former handyman chores... another scene of Garfinkle's invention of which he was justifiably proud (Garfinkle himself even appears in a cameo as a townsman).
Royal Dano, Lois Maxwell, Richard Erdman, Robert F. Simon and Howard Smith...familiar American stalwarts....distinguish themselves in this compelling examination of the human condition (when I visited Royal Dano in September, 1988, he was absolutely certain that his big dramatic scene with Lois Maxwell had been cut from the final film...until I handed him a VHS copy of the movie and assured him that it was indeed still there). The lovely Jill Donohue, then living in Sweden, was cast as Monk's fiancée, while British character actor Harold Kaskett deftly portrays Reifsnyder, the town barber and dispenser of philosophical nuggets. The pivotal role of Jimmy Trescott is played by young Miko Oscard (who had shone the previous year in MGM's "Brothers Karamazov" and was the nephew of the famous N.Y. talent agent Fifi Oscard); his performance is remarkably restrained and honest; the emotional transformation conveyed by his face during the final bell-ringing scene shows an emotional depth rare in young actors.
A uniquely beautiful film, doomed by its own sensitivity and restraint. Allied Artists had NO idea how to promote it, passing it off as another cheap, horror-matinée filler, sometimes on a triple-bill with "Caltiki" and "Tormented". It was panned and quickly disappeared.
Is "Face of Fire" really as good as I think it is? Buy it and decide for yourself. Don't expect to be blown away---- it's not that sort of experience. But it speaks directly to me on a deeply emotional level. You might shrug it off or, depending on your state of mind, be reduced to a sobbing, blubbering mess as I was many years ago after a late-night local TV showing.
PICTURE QUALITY--- very good; clean and detailed. Good contrast. SOUND QUALITY-- OK; clean but pretty low volume level, as is common with many un-restored releases. Just crank the volume control.
Gunsmoke: Apprentice Doc (1961)
Milburn Stone-- a GREAT ACTOR
Some actors are deemed to be "great" due to their public stature and popularity. But some unsung actors can be considered truly great by the simple, honest, natural, consistent excellence of their craft-- and Mr. Stone was certainly in this latter group.
"Apprentice Doc" is Milburn Stone's finest hour and, arguably the highpoint in Gunsmoke's 20-year run. Kathleen Hite's script is absolutely flawless. No need to go into detail, but the pacing and progression of each scene are perfectly gauged to carry the viewer along in preparation for the emotional crush of the final scenes. And once again, Harry Harris responds to the superb script, as his direction reveals unexpected depth and insight into the characters and their relationships; within a few minutes, you feel totally engrossed in the drama.
The dialog scenes between Ben Cooper and Milburn Stone unfold in a totally natural, unaffected and compelling way. Stone positively radiates emotion, but in the simplest, most understated way imaginable. A brilliant, Emmy-quality performance.
PITT: "Doctor Adams, I don't know what to say." DOC: "Well, that's good--then you don't have to say it"
A wise but humorous reply from Doc, which will take on an entirely new meaning in the show's final minutes. And the operating scene in Doc's office, with Pitt observing his very first surgery, is marvelous to behold. With the camera positioned in front of and slightly below the two actors, Stone and Cooper pull off this intense scene in a SINGLE shot, with absolutely no musical underscore. It is a stunning--- but, once again, totally natural and understated--- textbook lesson in the art of acting for the camera. You'd SWEAR Milburn was actually cutting bullets out of the guy lying on the table.
One more observation: Milburn Stone seems to physically age 20 years in his final on-screen moments, beginning with his pulling himself up from the kneeling position alongside Ben Cooper. And he barely says a word.
"APPRENTICE DOC" has to be rated as one of the all-time most powerful 50 minutes in TV history. Brilliant in every respect, and near-miraculous considering the grind of turning out a weekly hour-long show every week.
A note about Van Cleave's original score for this episode, composed in the rather gray, dense, "modernist" mode that I usually associate with CBS's Rene Garriguenc. Listen for the one truly outstanding moment in the music; as Doc walks to his office at night and finds Pitt sleeping under the stairs, we hear an ominous, slow moving pattern in the cellos and basses, over which drifts the distant sound of a saloon piano, echoing in the darkness from afar, but subtly coordinated with the bass figure. It's almost surreal.
ALSO-- watch for Miss Kitty's "spit take"--almost. She and Chester are chatting, and as she starts to take a swig of beer, Chester says that he's "the LAST person to be meddling" in anybody else's affairs, at which point Amanda Blake chokes and coughs her beer back into her glass, then continues to sputter until the scene ends.
I tell ya, this episode's got something for everybody-- especially lovers of great, emotional drama.