Saturday, January 31, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for February 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


As we know, TCM is devoting the month of February, along with the first three days in March, to its annual “31 Days of Oscar” festival. As the programmers at TCM find new ways to repackage the same batch of films, so we here at Cinéma Inhabituel have to find new way to package our reporting of it. Hence, we will feature a different film each day, a film that is usually not discussed and sometimes overlooked. If this goes over well with our readership, we may make it an annual event.

In other news, Sally Field has been chosen as Robert Osbourne’s new co-host on The Essentials, replacing Drew Barrymore.

February 1: Our choice for the day is the 1931 Western epic, Cimarron, starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne as a husband and wife fighting to survive in the early days of the Oklahoma Territory. It airs at the wee hour of 3:00 am. Won: Best Picture, Best Writing, Adaptation (Howard Estabrook), & Best Art Direction (Max Ree). Nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Richard Dix), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Irene Dunne), Best Director (Wesley Ruggles), & Best Cinematography (Edward Cronjager), 1931.

February 2: Our pick here is The Great Lie, a 1941 soap opera from Warner Brothers starring Bette Davis and Mary Astor, airing at 1:45 pm. The legend surrounding the film is that Davis and Astor, having read the script, knew it was a dog. They re-worked the scenes to give it substance and bite, improving dialogue and changing situations to fit the new dialogue. The result was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Astor. Astor’s character was a pianist, and her piano training in real life came in handy for the role. On seeing the film, classical pianist and MGM star Jose Iturbi marveled at her fingerwork in playing Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor.” Won: Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mary Astor), 1942.

February 3: At 11:00 am, it’s John Garfield and Maureen O’Hara in the 1943 RKO thriller The Fallen Sparrow. Set in 1940 New York City, Garfield is a returning volunteer from the Spanish Civil War who finds that a war buddy of his has been murdered. Worse, he has brought back a keepsake from the war that the Nazis, led by the rotten Walter Slezak, want very badly. Frankly, it’s a muddled movie bordering on noir, but the performances of Garfield, O’Hara and Slezak help make up for the film’s deficiencies. Look for John Banner (Schultz!) as Anton. Nominated: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Roy Webb), 1944.

February 4: Any day when the 1937 classic La Grand Illusion is aired is a grand day, indeed, even if it airs at midnight. It was directed by Jean Renoir and boasts a cast that includes Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich Von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, and Jacques Becker in a story of French POWs and their German captors during World War I. The title is a mocking reference to the slogan that World War I was known as “the war to end all wars.” When this film was made, the next war was already in the planning and anticipated with a sense of dread in almost every European country. A bit of trivia: Gabin wears the uniform previously worn by Renoir, who served in the French air force. Nominated: Best Picture, 1939.

February 5: We’re in a bit of a quandary today, with so many wonderful films on the slate. But our recommendation is G’ Men with Jimmy Cagney from Warner Bros. in 1935. Cagney is in top form as “Brock” Davis, a lawyer put through law school by powerful gangster “Mac” McKay (William Harrigan). When Davis’ friend, an FBI agent, is shot dead by other of gangdom’s finest, Davis joins the FBI. After receiving his training, he travels to New York City and tells the mobsters, including McKay, that he will return to get each and every one of them. And get them he does, putting his knowledge of the gangland to good use with both guns blazing. Margaret Lindsay and the underrated Ann Dvorak are on hand to supply the eye candy, and Robert Armstrong and Lloyd Nolan (in his film debut) are part of the Good Guys at the Bureau. Barton MacLane is the main heel and acquits himself nicely. By the way, note the absence of submachine guns. The newly enforced Production Code outlawed the use of the weapon as it was thought it would corrupt the youth of America. The film airs at 12:30 pm. Nominated: Best Writing, Original Story (Darryl F. Zanuck), 1936.

February 6: At noon, it’s the 1959 directorial feature film debut of Francois Truffaut, The 400 Blows. This is a touching story of a young adolescent (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who descends into a life of petty crime through bad parenting, bad schooling, and bad friends. After he is nabbed by the police, his parents leave him to the mercies of the system, where he is placed in a prison from which he escapes at the end. It was the first of Truffaut’s autobiographical “Antoine Doinel” series. Look for future director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) as a policeman. Nominated: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (Francois Truffaut, Marcel Moussy), 1960.

February 7: For those looking for a nice change of pace, may we suggest a good Western? Yes? Then tune into The Professionals at 5:45 pm. It boasts a tight script and direction combined with lots of action in a story of a Texas millionaire who recruits a band of adventurers to rescue his wife, who was kidnapped by a Mexican revolutionary. And get a load of this cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Jack Palace, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy, and the smokin’ hot Claudia Cardinale. The beautiful Maria Gomez and the ubiquitous supporting actor Jorge Martinez De Hoyos join in the fun. While it’s not at the top tier of Westerns, it’s one or two short steps right below and always entertaining. Nominated: Best Director (Richard Brooks), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Richard Brooks), Best Cinematography, Color (Conrad L. Hall), 1967.

February 8: A lovely film the kids can watch is being shown at 8:30 am. It’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm from MGM in 1962, and stars Laurence Harvey and Karl Boehm as storytelling brothers Wilhelm and Jacob. Claire Bloom is also on hand as Wilhelm’s wife, Dorothea. The Cinerama release, featuring George Pal’s puppetoons and an animated dragon, combines a biography of the brothers with three fairy tales: “The Dancing Princess,” starring Yvette Mimieux; “The Cobbler and the Elves,” starring Harvey; and “The Singing Bone,” featuring Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett, and Otto Kruger. Won: Best Costume Design, Color (Mary Wills). Nominated: Best Cinematography, Color (Paul Vogel), Best Art Direction-set Decoration, Color (George W. Davis, Edward C. Carfagno, Henry Grace, Richard Pefferie), Best Music, 
Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment (Leigh Harline), 1963.

February 9: At 9:00 am, it’s the World War II flying drama, Bombardier, from RKO in 1943 and starring Pat O’Brien and Randolph Scott as two officers competing for the Anne Shirley while training pilots for battle. Given the well-worn story, it still comes off nicely, thanks to an excellent, fast-moving script from John Twist. Nominated: Best Effects, Special Effects, 1944.

February 10: A nice little mystery from MGM is airing at 12:30 pm entitled Mystery Street, from 1950, and stars Ricardo Montalban and Bruce Bennett as criminal pathologists who try to solve case where they have nothing to go on except the victim’s bones. It’s an ahead-of-its-time look at the science of forensic pathology and presages such procedural police dramas as the CSI and the NCIS series. Nominated: Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (Leonard Spigelgass), 1951.

February 11: We would be forever remiss if we didn’t recommend Vittorio DeSica’s 1948 classic from Italy, The Bicycle Thief, airing at 12:15 am. It’s the grim, realistic tale of a workingman in Postwar Italy who finally lands a job putting up movie posters around Rome. His job depends on his owning a bicycle, and when it is stolen, he desperately searches throughout the city with his young son looking for the means to feeding his family. It is an extremely moving story made even more powerful with a non-professional cast. Won: Voted the Most Outstanding Foreign Language Film by the Academy Board of Governors. Nominated: Best Writing, Screenplay (Cesare Zavattni), 1950.

February 12: A great Western is being shown at 8:00 pm. It’s titled The Gunfighter, from 20th Century Fox in 1950, and stars Gregory Peck as Jimmie Ringo, “the fastest gun in the West,” a title that brings with it constant challenges from gunslingers who want the title for themselves. Also starring Helen Westcott, Jean Parker, Karl Malden, and Skip Homeier. This is one of the most powerful psychological Westerns ever and one we consider an Essential. Nominated: Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (William Bowers, Andre de Toth), 1951.

February 13: A different kind of horror story is on tap this day at 11:00 am. It’s from Warner Brothers in 1956 and is titled The Bad Seed. Starring Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormick, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, and William Hopper, this is the story of a mother who suspects her seemingly perfect 8-year old daughter is a natural born killer. It’s a bit stagy, as it’s based on a Broadway play, but still retains its spellbinding power. Also with Paul Fix, and Jesse White. Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Nancy kelly), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eileen Heckart), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Patty McCormick), and Best Cinematography, Black and White (Harold Rosson), 1957.

February 14: After all these heavy pictures we’ve been recommending, it’s time for a lighter, sophisticated type of film. For today, we’ve chosen Skylark, from Paramount in 1941, which airs at 11:45 am. Starring Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, and Brian Aherne, it’s the story of a woman neglected by her business-minded husband (Milland). When he trades their cook to an advertising client in order to secure an account, it’s the last straw and occurs just at the moment when she is deciding what to do she meets handsome lawyer Aherne, but Milland isn’t about to let her go without a fight. Nominated: Best Sound Recording (Loren L. Ryder), 1942.

February 15: With a full slate of crime dramas, we’ve chosen one that would normally be overlooked when compared to the other heavyweights scheduled for the day. That film is T-Men, from tiny Eagle-Lion Films, in 1947, which airs at 9:00 am. Directed by the great Anthony Mann, it’s a taut story told in semi-documentary fashion about undercover Treasury agents infiltrating a counterfeiting ring. A great cast that includes Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Wallace Ford, Jane Randolph, Alfred Ryder, Charles McGraw, and Lassie’s mother, June Lockhart, helps keep the movie, and our attention, riveted. Nominated: Best Sound, Recording (Jack Whitney), 1948.

Friday, January 30, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for February 1-7

February 1–February 7


ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (February 1, 12:45 am): TCM shows this film regularly and we are very lucky that it does. This is the greatest anti-war war movie ever made, and that includes Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator, which is a brilliant piece of cinema. The message of All Quiet on the Western Front is as strong today as it was when it was released in 1930. Beautifully filmed and flawlessly directed by Lewis Milestone, it's about a group of German youths who sign up to fight in World War I after being whipped into a frenzy by a teacher. The boys learn firsthand the horrors of war. What's amazing about this film is it's about Germans fighting and killing Allied soldiers and we have sympathy for every one of them. And it pulls no punches showing the senseless deaths of young men in battle. The final scene is one of the most tragically beautiful you'll ever see in cinema. This timeless and important film comes with my highest recommendation.

CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (February 6, 6:00 am): This 1937 film had the potential to be a complete disaster. Spencer Tracy, with a Portuguese accent, saves Freddie Bartholomew, a spoiled rich boy who, after being rescued, is stuck on a fishing schooner. The potential obstacles are buying Tracy's accent and hoping Bartholomew gives the performance of his life. Amazingly, both occur in this fantastic film. Tracy won the Oscar for Best Actor, and would win it again the following year for Boys TownCaptains Courageous also features the always-excellent Lionel Barrymore as the ship's captain and solid performances from a cast that includes John Carradine, Melvyn Douglas and a young Mickey Rooney. It's a great coming-of-age film, adapted from English novelist Rudyard Kipling's 1897 book of the same name. The sappy ending doesn't take away from the overall enjoyment of the movie.


THE PUBLIC ENEMY (February 2, 11:45 pm): It’s the picture that catapulted Jimmy Cagney to stardom, a no holds barred look at the life of a criminal from youth to his premature demise, directed in a stark manner by William A. Wellman, King of the Pre-Code directors. Although Warner Bros., the studio that made the film, tries to coat it with a veneer of “social injustice and economic conditions” leading to crime, the picture is violent from start to finish. And it’s such gorgeous violence at that. Cagney is a virtual dervish of bad intentions, knocking off anyone in his way, and even ending a relationship by smacking his dame in the face with a grapefruit. The film was a huge influence on Martin Scorsese when he made Goodfellas, and we can see why, as it’s the first gangster film to use popular music in its soundtrack. This rave is not directed at cinephiles, who have all seen this one, but at those for whom the movie experience is relatively new. Watch it, you’ll love it.

THE 400 BLOWS (February 6, 12:00 pm): Again this is a rave directed at those for whom serious move viewing is a somewhat new experience. Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical film about a young man (Jean-Pierre Leaud), left entirely to his own devices at home by his neglectful parents, who turns to a life of petty crime. The film becomes a tribute to the resilience and spirit of the young man in spite of his clueless parents and equally clueless teachers, all of who are too eager to absolve themselves of him rather than deal with his problems. Much as been said and written about this remarkable film, which was Truffaut’s directorial debut. Don’t let its art house reputation deter you from this most interesting film.

WE DISAGREE ON . . . WINGS (February 1, 10:00 pm)

ED: A. Many cinephiles hate this movie, not so much because it won Best Picture, but for what film didn’t win: Sunrise. Yes, the Academy chose Wings as Best Picture over Sunrise, a film now seen as one the all-time classics of the cinema. But let’s take the historical content out of it and praise it for what it was.Wings is a great example of the blockbuster epic, with special effects that were unmatched in its day. It’s the ultimate Buddy War Film, with Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen as Our Heroes, rivals who bond in training and war, proceeding to sail through the skies of Europe without letting such things like plot get in the way – a fact we really don’t notice until we think it over well after the film ends. Clara Bow, who came on like a house afire thanks to It, is the love object of Rogers, and she’s not bad in this. Gary Cooper also shines, as the sardonic young cadet who comes on the scene and just as quickly disappears in an air battle. The real credit for this film, though, has to go to the director, William A. Wellman. Not only are the airborne fight sequences top notch – and which will still blow viewers away even in these CGI infested times – but he also brings a verve to the quieter scenes, such as the establishing shot of lovers Jack and Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who are introduced on a swing in a garden with the camera perched on the swing between them, giving the illusion of the world flying around them. Wellman displays his knack for craftsmanship throughout the film, knowing how to use the camera to capture a person’s face and body and tell us what he or she is thinking or feeling. Any director could simply film a dogfight, but Wellman does with cameras placed in such a way as to capture the human drama that takes place inside the formidable machines of war. That’s way I grade this film as high as I do. It’s not so much the story as it is in how it’s told.

DAVID: B-. I wholeheartedly agree with Ed's assessment of the aerial sequences, particularly the dogfights, of Wings. To this day, they are impressive, exciting and can leave a viewer on the edge of his/her seat. The problem with this film is nearly everything shot on the ground. That part of the film is largely directionless with a minimal plot. To be perfectly honest, the ground scenes are really boring. To make matters worse, the version shown is 144 minutes long so viewers are watching a lot of dull acting with a very dull storyline. The notable exception is the powerful trench cave-in scene that shows hundreds of dead soldiers. There is no doubt this 1927 epic is groundbreaking and the aerial scenes are breathtaking at times. I recommend anyone who hasn't seen the film to view it. But you also have to realize you're going to get some bad with the good. The main characters, played by Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen, spend far too much time vying for the affection of Jobyna Ralston, who loves Arlen. Clara Bow, "The It Girl," is somewhat wasted in this film as literally the girl next door to Rogers. Kudos to director William A. Wellman for working in a gratuitous scene of a scantily-clad Bow. I would rate this film higher if attention was paid to developing a compelling story, it was 30 minutes shorter and the awful attempts at comic relief from El Brendel were left on the cutting-room floor.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rod Taylor: In Memoriam

By Ed Garea

If there were one word that would describe the life and career of Rod Taylor, it would be Persistence.

Coming to Los Angeles with few precious credits, Taylor worked his way from the bottom up, taking anything that came his way and never letting down until his big break came.

The star of such favorite films as The Time Machine and The Birds, Taylor died at his home on January 7 at age 84. Daughter Felicia Taylor, a former correspondent and anchor for CNN and CNBC, announced his death to the press.

Taylor was only the second Australian actor, after Errol Flynn, to gain fame on the Silver Screen.

Taylor was born Rodney Sturt Taylor on January 11, 1930, in Sydney, Australia, the only child of steel-construction worker and draftsman William Taylor and his wife, the former Mona Stewart, a children’s book author.

Growing up in the suburb of Lidcombe, Taylor’s first aspiration was to become an artist. As a teenager, he studied at East Sydney Technical and Fine Arts College. But the friends he made while there interested him in acting, and when he saw Sir Laurence Olivier in a Royal Vic tour of Shakespeare’s Richard III, his decision was firmly cemented.

His first professional appearance was in a local 1947 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance. 1951 marked his screen debut with an appearance in an Australian short, Inland With Sturt, about the famed British explorer Captain Charles Sturt, who was Taylor’s great-great-uncle. He also had a role in the 1953 Australian production of King of the Coral Sea, written by and starring Chips Rafferty. He was fourth-billed as “Jack Janiero,” a character who, along with Rafferty, takes over a sea salvage firm owned by a dissolute playboy and turns it into a going concern.

Taylor also made dozens of radio appearances and won a radio-acting award that would finance a trip to London, where he hoped to advance his career.

Before leaving for England, however, he won a small part in Long John Silver (1954), a sequel to Treasure Island, filmed in Australia with Hollywood stars. This inspired him to make a stop in Los Angeles to check out job opportunities. Though he was rejected by a major talent agency, he decided to stay awhile and try his luck.

This marked the beginning of a long, hard climb to stardom. He started with a role in the television production of Studio 57, following that with a role in Lux Video Theatre. Films were harder to break into. There was an uncredited role in 1955’s The Virgin Queen, starring Bette Davis; a small role in the Sterling Hayden Western, Top Gun (1955); and a tiny role in the 1955 Alan Ladd-Edward G. Robinson crime drama, Hell on Frisco Bay.

His next role was meatier, playing astronaut Herb Ellis in World Without End (1956), an above-average sci-fi flick made by the below-average Allied Artists studio. He followed that with a decent role as Debbie Reynolds’ fiancé in The Catered Affair (1956), and as the debonair boyfriend Elizabeth Taylor jilts for visiting Texan Rock Hudson in Giant (1956). His performance in Giant began to win notice, but it was soon back to small supporting roles, including a turn in the acclaimed Separate Tables (1958). Apart from the movies, Taylor made ends meet by appearing in a number of television shows.

It was in 1960, when he was cast as the star of George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1960), that Taylor finally broke through to stardom. He also starred as an American newspaper correspondent in the short-lived television series Hong Kong (1960-61), and as the voice of Pongo, the puppies’ father in the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians (1961). But it was his starring role as the object of heiress Tippi Hedren and later fighting off flocks of enraged birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963 that solidified his stature as a major star.

1963 was a busy year for Taylor, as he followed The Birds with a co-starring role in the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton drama, The V.I.P.s, a co-starring role with Rock Hudson in the war drama A Gathering of Eagles, and a starring role with Jane Fonda in the romantic comedy Sunday in New York. He won acclaim for his portrayal of German Major Walter Gerber in the World War II thriller 36 Hours (1964) with James Garner and Eva Marie Saint, and as Irish playwright Sean O’Casey in Jack Cardiff’s 1965 biopic Young Cassidy.

Other notable roles in the ‘60s included starring with Doris Day in the comedies Do Not Disturb (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), and the lead role in the adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1967). The ‘70s saw him working mainly in television series and movies with the occasional foray into a film such as Zabriskie Point (1970), The Train Robbers (1973) with John Wayne and Ann-Margret, and the remake of the 1931 MGM classic Trader Horn (1973).

As the 1980s dawned, Taylor made only an occasional film, preferring to star instead in television movies and mini-series. His best-known role was as the title character’s father, Black Jack Bouvier in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981). He also had a recurring role from 1988 to 1990 in the nighttime soap Falcon Crest as Frank Agretti, the title vineyard’s long lost owner.

Perhaps his oddest role was as Doc, the town doctor/coroner in the 2007 Sci-Fi (now Syfy) original movie, Kaw, about a town besieged by thousands of flesh-eating ravens. He also came out of retirement at the behest of Quentin Tarantino to play Winston Churchill in his 2009 World War II film, Inglourious Basterds.

Taylor was married three times and divorced twice. His first marriage was to Australian model Peggy Williams, which lasted from 1951 to 1954. His second wife was American fashion model Mary Hilem (1963-69), with whom he had daughter Felicia. In 1980, he married American actress and dancer Carol Kikumura, who, along with daughter Felicia, survives him.

TCM will honor Taylor with an evening of his films on January 29. The evening is scheduled as follows:

8:00 pm – THE TIME MACHINE (MGM, 1960): Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux. George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s dystopia set in the year 802,701 with humans divided into peaceful Eloi and cannibalistic Morlocks.

10:00 pm – THE BIRDS (Universal, 1962): Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren. Alfred Hitchcock directed this ultimate tale of nature-gone-wild when birds suddenly begin attacking humans.

12:15 am – SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (MGM, 1964): Rod Taylor, Jane Fonda. A philandering pilot changes his ways fast when his sister contemplates a premarital fling.

2:15 am – YOUNG CASSIDY (MGM, 1965): Rod Taylor, Flora Robson, & Jack MacGowran. This is the story of playwright Sean O’Caseys’ involvement in the Irish rebellion of 1910.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Top 10 Movies of 2014

Dinner and a Movie

According to Steve Herte

This time of year most critics start to rank
The top ten movies of a year ago,
Before the nominees step up to thank
the world, and more. The pattern’s one you know.

But few of my Top Ten will likely win,
Cause entertainment is my bottom line;
Of fifty-two I’ve seen, (the field is thin).
Front runners – gone, the rest are mine.

If adaptation’s not your thing you’ll groan,
And when you hear “a musical,” what then?
You’ll realize that I might be alone
in placing Annie as my Number Ten.

Though ninth place, Chef is ev’ry bit as good
as any of the others in my ten.
It’s not just that the subject matter’s food
as Dustin Hoffman shows his best again.

In Eighth Place I’ve a sequel, it’s Planes 2,
which managed to eclipse the one before;
The tale of forest “Fire and Rescue”
was one of Pixar’s best. Need I say more?

The Book of Life deserves its Seventh Place;
Its animators made wood come alive
With culture and great music as its base
It will be shown when Halloweens arrive.

In Sixth I have a samba sequel grand,
It’s Rio 2, fantastic as the first,
A Busby Berkeley bird-filled forestland
In which the awe-struck viewers are immersed.

Bill Murray was quite serious this year
And in St. Vincent he poured out his heart;
And though he joked, behind his rakish sneer
His acting glowed. Fifth Place! He lived the part.

A sorceress got ranking number Four,
The re-told story of Maleficent;
Ms. Jolie proved her character was more
than just a pretty face. ‘Twas excellent!

In Third Place are four comic birds (not three),
The Penguins, Skipper, Rico, Kowalski,
And Private (newly hatched), a laughter spree,
Not Madagascar-born but fun and free.

The Theory of Everything out-shines!
The Stephen Hawking story (per his wife)
Wins Second Place – performances divine!
A quite impressive biopic, real life.

With all my eccentricities away,
Ms. Meryl Streep was star-like, as the sun!
The Hundred-Foot Journey, superb, I say!
It duly merits honor Number One.

So there you have it, you may not agree,
But choosing ten was not a simple chore,
Of many good films this year I did see
The tie for runner-up was Twenty-four.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Night of the Lepus

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

Night of the Lepus (MGM, 1972) - Director: William F. Claxton. Writers: Don Holliday & Gene R. Kearney (s/p); Russell Braddon (novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit). Cast: Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Chris Morrell, Chuck Hayward, Henry Wills, Francesca Jarvis, William Elliott, Jerry Dunphy, Frank Kennedy, & Bob Hardy. Color, 88 minutes.

Be vewwwy, vewwy quiet, we’re hunting wabbits. Actually, in Night of the Lepus, the wabbits are hunting us. And they’re not your usual garden-variety rabbits, either. No, these are giants, created supposedly through a scientist’s mistake, but in actuality, created through a combination of miniature sets, bad editing, and weird and confusing camerawork.

To get the audience in the right mood (we have to figure they’re already rolling their eyes before the movie even starts), the movie opens with a faux television news report. An anchorman (Dunphy), with a bright “special report” graphic on the screen behind him, begins with a rambling narrative about the environment and how man can upset its delicate balance. He then shows footage shot in Australia circa 1954 concerning the plague of rabbits there, which are still a threat. The footage shows farmers trying to round up herds of the fuzzy little bastards using fences and nets and hacking at their little carcasses with machetes. He tries to explain the rabbit plague as being introduced to the country as a new food source. We know that wasn’t the reason, but wait, there’s more. Dunphy then goes on to note that a new plague of rabbits has broken out in the American Southwest, “as shown in these color films just received from our news team in Arizona!” We then cut to some of the bunnies coming out of hole as the credits begin to roll; too bad, for the introduction is easily the scariest part of this movie.

Rancher Cole Hillman (Calhoun) has some serious wabbit twouble on his hands. The reason why he’s up to his navel in the little pests is because their natural enemies, the coyotes, were all killed off (or out hunting road runners). Cole turns to his friend, college president Elgin Clark (Kelley - Bones McCoy to you - in a bad orange turtleneck and some really tight pants) of Wattsamatta U., for help. Clark, in turn, passes the buck to his top scientists, the husband and wife team of Roy and Gerry Bennett (Whitman and Leigh), who suggest altering the rabbits’ breeding cycle, grabbing some rabbits off the ranch for experimentation.

We don’t know what’s scarier: Bones’ mustache, his tight pants, or the fact he’s the president of the college.

Now here’s where it gets silly. First off, the Bennetts are referred to several times in the film as “the young scientist couple.” Whitman was 44 when Lepus was filmed, and Leigh 45, and what’s more, they looked it. Of course they’re saddled with a young bratty daughter. This one is named Amanda (Fullerton) and she is from a long tradition of incredibly annoying children in sci-fi and horror movies. Not only does she whine and pout throughout the movie, but, like all other children of her ilk in sci-fi situations, she turns out to be the cause of the problem.

Roy and Gerry find this rabbit thing is not as easy as it looked. After considering and dismissing an idea to introduce a rabbit-specific disease to the area, they next try a hormonal approach, hoping to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. They work while Amanda runs around the laboratory playing with the rabbits, sort of a “bring your daughter to work” type of thing, we guess. However, be it as it may, the process is taking too long. The Bennetts are racing against time, as the other ranchers plan a mass poisoning if a solution is not found soon. So Roy turns to something completely experimental in the hopes that it will work. He comes up with a secret formula he obtained from a Professor Dirkson (Hardy) in the Public Health Department. The serum is supposed create genetic mutations that will disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. Only one problem - it hasn’t been tested. But that’s no worry to old Roy. As he injects the serum into a test rabbit, Amanda whines “Not that one, Daddy! That’s my favorite!” Daddy ignores this heartfelt plea and injects the rabbit anyway, adding, “Gee, I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would be.” Is this meant to make us feel better? Maybe he could give them rabbititus.

Okay, that’s a bad idea on his part. But wait, it gets worse. While Roy and Gerry are on a teleconference with Cole, bratty Amanda switches the rabbit with another in a group not yet injected. After the conference is over, Roy notes that Cole said the rabbits are getting meaner and hungrier. It never occurs to our scientists that this could be a sign that their food supply is dwindling, and if left alone, the overpopulation will correct itself. (Nah, too easy.) Roy and Gerry return to the injected rabbits only to discover that Professor Dirkson’s magical, mystery serum is causing the rabbits to become larger.

Amanda, for her part, is whining about letting them give her one from the safe group as a pet. They agree - anything to shut her up. So what rabbit does she choose? You guessed it - the one she just placed in the group. Now our only concern is how long it will take until that rabbit gets loose - and bigger. Would you believe it happens in the very next scene? While visiting the Hillman’s farm, Hillman’s son, Jackie (Morrell) knocks the pet out of her arms and it scampers into a nearby hole.

A short while later (it’s never made clear how much time has elapsed), Hillman and the Bennetts are inspecting the rabbit’s old burrowing areas, and find a giant footprint. While they're out, Amanda and Jackie go to visit a nutty old codger named Billy, who’s working an old gold mine. However, Billy doesn’t seem to be home. Jackie finds more giant prints in Billy’s shed while Amanda goes into the mine to look for him. Once in the mine, she comes face to face with a humongous rabbit that’s busy feasting on what’s left of Billy. What’s more, he has blood on his face (or red coloring)! Amanda freaks out, going mute (the best thing that’s happened yet in the film). Jackie runs into the mine, picks her up and carries her back to the ranch.

A doctor is called in and diagnoses Amanda’s condition as mild shock. Billy is questioned as to what happened, but he says that it all happened so fast that he didn’t see anything. Later that night, a truck is driving on the highway near the ranch when it pulls over. The driver gets out and opens the back door. Why? So we can see that the truck is loaded with boxes labeled “carrots,” that’s why. And, as Elmer Fudd has told us, “Wabbits wove cawwots, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” Cut to a montage of rabbit faces. A low growling sound is heard. (Never mind the fact that rabbits have no vocal cords.) A rabbit (or the guy in the rabbit suit) leaps, the driver screams, we cut to the next morning, where the police find the truck, the empty boxes, and the dead driver. Enter Sheriff Cody (Fix). He has the trucker’s body removed for a postmortem to join the body of Billy, who was finally found in the mine.

The trucker’s body is sent to forensic scientist Dr. Leopold (Elliott), who finds that the damage was caused by something with a bite like a saber tooth tiger. Some help he is. Meanwhile, a radio call is received from a cop in a picnic ground. Seems a family of four has been killed and mutilated. Claxton pans slowly over the bodies, making sure we see the red paint on them.

Professor Dirkson reviews Leopold’s findings and concludes that one of the test rabbits must have escaped and spread himself among the general rabbit population. Clark (Kelley), worried about adverse publicity, suggests the rabbits be killed by any means necessary, so he, the Bennetts, and Cole, mosey on down to the mine, accompanied by Cole’s ranch hands, Jud and Frank. After checking for any other openings, they go into the mine to lay charges and to blow the mine’s entrance.

It’s then that Roy remembers something Dirkson said about getting one alive for study (another great idea), so he and Cole go down into the mine to see for themselves, and come upon the whole herd. We now see normal-sized rabbits jumping around on a miniature set. As Cole and Roy start to run, a guy in a bunny suit attacks Roy. Cole smacks the guy on the head with his rifle, and he and Roy just escape the mine before it blows.

But they’re not out of the woods, a short distance away, a giant rabbit burrows his way to the surface and looks around. (“I knew I should-a made that left turn at Albuquerque!”) He heads for the shack, where Jud is lunching on a sandwich. Gerry hears a scream and heads for the shack. It’s that guy in the bunny suit again, and he’s attacking Jud! Gerry starts shooting and the bunny-suited guy jumps out the window. Jud is bloodied, but alive.

A while later (we don’t know when as the filmmakers have a definite problem with time that occurs throughout the film), Roy, Gerry and Clark are examining the photos Roy took of the rabbits. (Why has no one asked how the infected rabbit got loose in the first place? Amanda isn’t talking.) They decide to tell the sheriff. (About time.) Roy has a brainstorm and tells Gerry to take the brat and get away to avoid the crowds, which will include hordes of the press. This leads to one of my favorite lines, as Gerry replies, “I suppose we’ll drive up to Wooddale and stay at the lodge.” I can almost hear her saying, “I know this little motel off the interstate run by some guy called Bates or something.”

Better move fast, because the rabbits have found their way out of the mine and are, as they say, hopping mad. Heading toward the Hillman ranch, they stop to attack a herd of horses on the way, smearing them with red food coloring. Jud takes a truck and makes tracks (can’t blame him), but drives right into the rabbits. He turns around and heads back with the rabbits in pursuit. Meanwhile, Hillman is getting everyone into the cellar, but as he tries to call out, Jud conveniently runs the truck into a telephone pole and knocks out the phone service. He runs out of the truck and the rabbits pounce on him - so much for Jud. Hillman fires his rifle at the rabbit mob, but it’s no good, as he’s firing at a process shot. He runs into the cellar as the bunnies break into his house and raid the fridge. As the kitchen is right above them, Hillman and Frank shoot through the ceiling at the rabbits, oblivious to the fact they may be weakening the ceiling enough so the rabbits will fall in on them. 

The rabbits hit the road and head towards town, stopping at the general store on the way so they can kill Mildred (Jarvis), the owner. The guy in the bunny suit jumps on her and slathers her with red food coloring.

The next morning, Clark arrives to tell them that the sheriff is on his way back from the crime lab, where they finally determined that rabbits are doing the killing. Smart, all the way to the top. They meet the sheriff at the airport, where they have a confab. As both Kelley and Fix worked with William Shatner in Star Trek, they know all about creatures that chew huge amounts of scenery. They and Roy go up in a helicopter and head for the mine. Why? The rabbits have all left. When they arrive at the mine, they find - the rabbits have all left. Duh. The sheriff calls his office and asks for the National Guard. Hillman calls to tell the sheriff that the rabbits have killed Jud and Mildred, and are heading toward the sheriff, but only move at night.

Now they know there’s only one option left to them: kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits.

But how? Fighter-bombers? Call in Elmer Fudd? There’s not enough time for evacuation and they determine that the rabbits are moving in too wide a front for the Guardsmen to shoot them all. But Roy’s got an idea (uh-oh): they’ll moves the rabbits toward a stretch of railroad tracks connected to an electrical source, and when they get right in the middle, juice them. Why can’t they just shoot the beasts? Because it’s easier for the process shots to electrocute them, that’s why. But how do we get them there? Hmmm. A-ha! A solution. There’s a nearby drive-in crammed to the gills with cars. A cop pulls in and delivers not only the best line in this film, but one of the best lines in the history of bad movies: “Attention, attention. Ladies and gentlemen, attention. There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help.”

That no one laughs and everyone cooperates is one of the great mysteries in this film. The cop tells everyone to turn their headlights on and follow him. That they willingly do so is another mystery. Meanwhile, as Roy and the boys are running a power line to the tracks, Roy learns that Gerry and the brat never arrived at their destination. Roy grabs the helicopter and is off to the rescue. The cars from the drive-in arrive and are instructed to park in a straight line and shine their headlights. We cut to the rabbits, hopping around the miniature set that passes for the town. This shot will be used over and over again to save money.

Roy flies over to see that Gerry and the brat are stuck in the dirt and the rabbits are swarming all over. Gerry’s holding them off with a flare. Roy rescues the girls just in the nick of time as the rabbits swarm their RV. Whew. Roy flies back to see his plan in action, as the Guard fires on the rabbits and drives them towards the tracks. As they cross, the juice is turned on, and . . . hasenpfeffer is served!

Sometime later, when I don’t know, Hillman drops by the college to find Roy, Clark and the rest playing football. He tells Roy that he heard some coyotes, but the rabbits - normal sized this time, are still there, and invites Roy and the family out. As we fade to black, the brat and Jackie are playing as some normal-sized rabbits sit by and watch.


The original title of this turkey was “Rabbits,” but MGM figured that would scare no one, so they used the Latin name for Rabbit to make audiences think it was about something scary. Unfortunately, the publicity kits issued to theaters feature rabbits, and MGM obviously didn’t count on word-of-mouth.

After seeing this atrocity, you’re probably wondering why it was made in the first place. Lepus was the brainchild of producer A.C. Lyles, who toiled for many years at the same position for Paramount. In the ‘60s, he formed his own company and began producing a series of what were referred to as “geezer Westerns,” cheaply-shot Westerns using well-known actors who were now long in the tooth as stars. Lyles followed the same casting strategy for Lepus, using such faded stars as Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForrest Kelley, and Paul Fix, all of whom had seen better days - and movies.

A large part of the problem with the film is that the cast plays it straight; evidently laboring under the delusion they’re in a real movie. Whitman is the least charismatic sci-fi hero since Richard Travis in Missile to the Moon back in 1958. Leigh, who gave one of her reasons for appearing in this turkey being that it was shot close to home, is also wasted, playing a character that harkens back to the ‘50s, when women were looked upon as an unwanted novelty in sci-fi. In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, she said, “How can you make a bunny rabbit menacing, what can you do? It just didn't work." She also admitted that, "No one twisted my arm and said I had to do it. It didn't dawn on anyone until - it took about four or five days before we realized we didn't have the ideal director. I've forgotten as much as I could about that picture." Kelley and Calhoun were also wasted in their roles, playing underwritten parts that allowed neither the opportunity to do or say something interesting. Last - and certainly least, Melanie Fullerton as Amanda is supposed to be 10-years old, but plays her part as if she were half that age and no one ever fixed it. What is interesting about the performances is that we can see the resentment of the stars as the picture goes on, as if they realize they’ve been played.

William Claxton, the director, besides working for Lyles, worked mainly in television, usually in Western television series, which is why Night of the Lepus plays like a made-for-television movie. Claxton is also a devotee of Replaying The Same Shot Over and Over Again technique, giving the film an eerie feeling of watching in slow motion, and doing absolutely nothing for the fright factor. However, the laugh factor is another story entirely.

In March 1972, AIP released Frogs, a nature-goes-wild-and-gets-revenge film. Made for a pittance, the film did quite well at the box office and inspired a series of “eco-horror” films, all made cheaply and none of which did as well at the box office. Looking for material for a similar vehicle, someone at Lyles’ office came across a novel titled The Year of the Angry Rabbit, written by Australian satirist Russell Braddon in 1964.

Like most good satires, Braddon based his work on historical fact. A British officer brought rabbits to Australia in the mid-19th century thinking they would make for good shooting. Because he didn’t get them all, the survivors bred, and within 10 years, the rabbit population numbered in the millions. As the rabbits didn’t have natural enemies in their new land, they ran amok, wiping out other mammalian species and devastating farmland.

To fight this natural apocalypse, the Australian government introduced a virus called myxomatosis, among other viral plagues, to combat the furry invaders. Though successful at first, those rabbits that didn’t succumb bred generations of rabbits immune to the virus. Braddon’s novel takes the government’s eradication process one step further. Scientists bio-engineer a new strain of myxomatosis, called Super-Myx, to combat the rabbit plague. However, the new virus fails to kill the pests, instead turning them into savage and carnivorous predators. What Super-Myx does kill is humans and the power-mad Australian prime minister uses this new weapon to conquer the world and establish a new totalitarian Australian empire. But as he builds his new state, the infected rabbits mutate into deadly monsters that not only bring down his empire, but wipes out human civilization as well. (The novel is great reading, but out-of-print and difficult to obtain. Try the local library; that’s where I obtained my copy years ago.)

Writers Holliday and Kearney took this inspired tale and converted it into one of the silliest films ever made because there was no way, given the time constraint and budget, Lyles could make the novel into a film. He took the easy way out, constructing it along the usual eco-horror route and hoping that a plague of killer bunnies would somehow make for a suspenseful thriller. And it might have had a small chance if he had been able to use wild rabbits and had more money in the kitty. But most of his estimated $900,000 budget went toward the stars, and his production staff brought in domesticated rabbits, the cute little buggers kids love to have for pets. Those couldn’t scare anyone. Another bad decision was to play it completely seriously. The rabbits destroyed any chance the film had to be taken seriously. 

As the gang from Rifftrax noted, “That Cadbury commercial where the rabbit clucks like a chicken is infinitely scarier. So is the mustache that DeForest Kelley sports in this movie.” I couldn’t agree more.

The good news about Night of the Lepus is that it’s only 88 minutes long. The bad news is that it’s 88 minutes you’ll never get back again.

- Edited by Steve Herte, rabbit lover (He says they’re delicious.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for January 23-31

January 23–January 31

INHERIT THE WIND (January 25, 4:00 pm): An all-star cast – featuring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Claude Akins, and Harry Morgan – do a splendid job in this well-written film adaption of this fictionalized version of the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in which a teacher in the South is brought up on criminal charges for teaching the theory of evolution to his high school class. Most of the film takes place in a courtroom. The film, expertly directed by Stanley Kramer, gives viewers the feeling of being in that hot, packed courtroom with hostility in the air. While the storyline is an attack on Creationism, the actual target of this 1960 film is McCarthyism. 

THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (January 26, 10:00 pm): Expertly directed by the great Luis Bunuel, this 1972 surrealist movie, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, mixes reality with dreams as a group of six bourgeoisie friends repeatedly try to have dinner together only to have it fail every time. The first effort is a scheduling mistake, but with each passing attempt, the excuses become more and more bizarre from going to an empty restaurant with lousy service and loud crying as the owner died a few hours prior and the staff is crying over his dead body to the interruption of French soldiers to learning they don't really exist and are part of a stage play. The movie has everything from exceptionally funny scenes to biting satire with a strong, and very strange, storyline and solid performances by the actors. It's a scathing indictment of the shallowness of the ruling class yet it also portrays them in a sympathetic light. It's a difficult balancing act but this film manages to pull it off in an approachable and entertaining way.


CARRY ON CABBY (January 24, 10:30 am): The Carry On films have always held a special place in my heart. When I was in the 8th grade, they were shown at 1:00 on Monday mornings by Channel 4 in New York, and I used to stay up to catch them, which made for some sleepy Mondays in school. But I loved them; their lowbrow humor never failed to make me laugh, and I count this one as my personal favorite. The great Sidney James is the owner of a successful taxicab company who is so involved in his business that he forgets his wedding anniversary. To get revenge, his wife, played by the hilarious Hattie Jacques, starts her own cab company, called “Glamcabs” and staffed by female drivers. Soon she’s dominating the business and poor Sid can’t figure out why his competition is always one step ahead of him. Also starring series regulars Kenneth Connor and Charles Hawtrey.

TOKYO STORY (January 25, 3:00 am): One of the true and enduring classics of the cinema. Director Yazujiro Ozu’s portrait of the elderly in a rapidly changing Postwar Japan is both touching and poignant. An elderly couple (Chishu Ryu and Chiyeko Higashiyama) travel to the city to visit their children, who have no time for them and treat them rather tactlessly. It is a powerful look at the problems of the elderly, the disappointments parents face with their children, the children’s fear of growing older, and how the traditional values as pertains to families are disappearing as Japan becomes more and more modernized. To put it succinctly, it’s a masterpiece that should not be missed.

WE DISAGREE ON ... THE CANDIDATE (January 27, 8:00 pm)

ED: B. The Candidate is a slickly produced, well-acted film that, unfortunately, comes up short on substance. The film expects us to believe that a politician running for the Senate can be a hardcore idealist, and, further, would be more concerned about having the campaign be based on "truth and values" rather than opinion polls and winning. Of course, our candidate has to be a Democrat, because the Republicans – as we know – are just evil and must be destroyed. But being as this is Hollywood and Redford, what can we expect? In the end, rather than being a study of the American electoral process, it's a motion picture advertisement for the Democratic Party. That is the only insight one will walk away with after this movie is over. 

DAVID: A. This film is among the finest political satires I've ever seen, and its message of having to sell your soul and give up your integrity to get elected is more relevant today than it was when The Candidate came out in 1972. Robert Redford is Bill McKay, a liberal attorney and son of a former California governor (played by the great Melvyn Douglas), recruited by Democratic political operative Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) for a longshot challenge to popular Republican Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). No known Democrat will challenge Jarmon so the party is just looking for anyone to get into the race. Lucas tells McKay he can say whatever he wants on the campaign trail if he runs. McKay agrees, but the plan isn't working. McKay appeals to other liberals, but he isn't making much headway with anyone else. The Democrats expect McKay to lose, but polls show he'll get destroyed, and that's not acceptable. At Lucas' recommendation, McKay softens his message a little bit, compromising his principles – and it works. So McKay continues further down the road, talking in platitudes while gaining popularity. I don't understand why Ed believes this film is a "motion picture advertisement for the Democratic Party" as they are the ones who come across as insincere and willing to do anything to get elected. Jarmon stays true to his good-old-boy Republican character. McKay and Jarmon essentially become one as both say the same thing, but the difference is McKay is young and good-looking, and Jarmon is older and doesn't look like Robert Redford. During a debate between the candidates, McKay stays true to what Lucas tells him to say and then says the debate is a farce as real issues aren't being addressed. He's about to get a wave of negative publicity. But the press is distracted by the appearance of McKay's father after the debate and his support of his son that the debate outburst is quickly forgotten. McKay wins, but loses his identity and integrity, leading to two memorable lines. The first is from McKay's father said sarcastically to his son, "You're a politician." The other is a panic-stricken McKay grabbing Lucas, bringing him into a room and asking, "What do we do now?" as the movie ends. The storyline is intelligent and compelling, giving viewers a fascinating inside look at the political process in a documentary-style of filming. The acting is top-notch, particularly Boyle and Redford, with Douglas memorable in his secondary role. Interestingly, this could be a biography of California Gov. Jerry Brown.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.