Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #9

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) – After finally getting the opportunity to see the whole enchilada, I discovered that the reason why I had difficulty following the plot of this Disney film wasn’t due to what I missed (everything before Donald Pleasence’s character taking “custody” of Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards and handing them over to weaselly gazillionaire Ray Milland had been erased during to our late arrival in the theatre when this first came out)—it’s because in trying to include everything that was originally in Alexander Key’s book, screenwriter Robert M. Young (not to be confused with the acclaimed director of Short Eyes and Alambrista! [both 1977]) has shoehorned many of the novel’s elements into the film’s dialogue, which has an unfortunate effect of the characters “making it up as they go along.”

In brief, Escape tells the tale of two kids, Tony (Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Richards), who are trundled off to an orphanage (run by Reta Shaw, always a nice surprise) and end up alienating the rest of the children due to the fact that they can communicate telepathically, foretell the future and move items around with their mind. When the telekinetic duo save the life of boot-licking lackey Lucas Deranian (Pleasence), he informs his boss, Aristotle Bolt (Milland), of their incredible powers and the two men fudge a few official documents to gain control of the kids and use them for their own nefarious purposes. (Well, it’s Ray Milland, after all—what do you expect him to do? Try and hock a typewriter for booze?) The kids see through the whole life-of-luxury-free-ice-cream phoniness (they’re not psychic for nothing) and make a break for it—and end up Winnebago-hiking with crusty Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert), who takes them to “Witch Mountain,” a demarcation point for a race of alien invaders (led by Denver “Uncle Jesse” Pyle) who have been waiting for these two delinquents to get their butts in gear and find their way back to their people (they were survivors of a spaceship crash in the ocean ten years earlier). Escape remains good fun for the younger crowd; as for me it was a nice nostalgic visit but it’s time to move on.

Return from Witch Mountain (1978) – With Escape to Witch Mountain a modest hit, Disney went to the well three years later for this sequel that uses the characters from Alexander Key’s original novel (Eisenmann, Richards and Pyle all appear here) but relies on an original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein. Tony and Tia are on vacation from Mount Witchcraft and are checking out the sights in L.A. (Dick Bakalyan, “Cookie” from the Dexter Riley films is their cabbie) when Tony foolishly decides to save the life of a thug named Sickle (Anthony James)…nephew to Letha Wedge (Bette Davis!), a greedy, grasping old dame who’s hoping her alliance with evil scientist Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee) nets her a nice chunk of change. Gannon is able to plant a thingamabob near Tony’s ear that allows him to control the alien sibling and his special powers; Letha tries using Tony to rob a museum housing an exhibit of gold bars but after that turns to merde, Gannon threatens to have Tony destroy a plutonium plant (and you thought The China Syndrome [1979] was prescient!) unless the powers-that-be pay a hefty ransom.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tia frantically tries to locate her brother and in an indignity that would have made any child actor quit the movies, is forced to interact with four numbskulls in a “gang” that makes the Bowery Boys look like The Warriors. Thankfully, the kid actors (Christian Juttner, Jeffrey Jacquet, Brad Savage and Poindexter [Yothers]) all found other career paths to take (I remember Poindexter from a godawful “kid sitcom” in my youth called The Cliftwood Avenue Kids that at least had the good sense to introduce us to Melora Hardin) but putting up with their antics is a major chore in watching this film…and Jack Soo (the wonderful Nick Yemana on Barney Miller) doesn’t help matters by playing stooge to them as a truant officer. Of the two films, Return is the better of the bunch—only because Davis and Lee’s cartoon villainy is much more entertaining than that of Milland and Pleasence’s.

Freaky Friday (1976) – It’s always disappointing when you revisit a film that you got a big kick out of during your childhood…and then discover it doesn’t hold up as well as you remembered. Were it not for The Parent Trap (1961), Freaky Friday would be the biggest disappointment I’ve experienced so far during TCM’s December Disney Fest. The reason why Friday no longer works for me is that this film is about half-successful; Barbara Harris (who plays a mom who’s had her inner-self placed in her daughter’s body, and vice-versa) is clearly the highlight here—she’s enjoying her role as a woman who appears to be in the throes of arrested development, but I find when I watch this movie that I can’t take my eyes off of her because I’m wondering what she’s going to do next—a testament to her incredible improvisational talents. (This film may be the reason I wish Harris were in so many more movies; my favorites include Family Plot, Peggy Sue Got Married and Grosse Pointe Blank.) Jodie Foster’s turn as the daughter isn’t quite as successful; because Foster started out early in her career as a child actor whose roles often required her to be more adult (The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Taxi Driver) she doesn’t really bring anything new to Friday—it’s all a sense of déjà vu. Mary Rodgers, the author of the book on which the film is based, also contributed Friday’s screenplay (she receives kudos for trying to beef up Foster’s mother-as-daughter part; the book concentrates solely on the daughter-as-mother’s point of view) though I’m sure she wasn’t crazy about the slapstick finale. Again, it’s obvious I’ve gotten too old for this kind of entertainment anymore but any movie that features veterans like John Astin, Patsy Kelly, Sorrell Booke, Ruth Buzzi (I have a theory that D-lister Kathy Griffin is Buzzi’s illegitimate daughter that I may get into sometime…then again, maybe I won’t), Kaye Ballard and Marie Windsor can’t be all bad. (I haven’t seen the remake to this and until my allergy to Lindsay Lohan clears up, it’s likely I won’t any time soon.)

Candleshoe (1977) – Again, another Disney vehicle I hadn’t seen in ages…and I was genuinely surprised at how well this one holds up. This might very well be Jodie Foster’s best Disney film (it was certainly her last); she plays a snot-nose street punk who allows shady con man Harry Bundage (the always delightful Leo McKern) to talk her into posing as the long-lost granddaughter to Lady St. Edmund (Helen Hayes) in order to obtain a fortune hidden in the stately manor home known as Candleshoe. Alas, this manor home is stately in name only; the showplace is just barely keeping its head above water, thanks to the machinations of her Ladyship’s butler (David Niven, clearly having the time of his life) and a quartet of orphans (Veronica Quilligan, Ian Sharrock, Sarah Tamakuni and David Samuels) whom Hayes has “adopted.” Adapted from Michael Innes’ book Christmas at Candleshoe, this movie is a real fourteen-karat gem; in order to maintain the prosperous appearance of Candleshoe butler Niven is forced to don several disguises (the gardener, the chauffeur…and a friend of her Ladyship’s, a retired Colonel) which allow the actor to really cut loose—and Foster’s transformation from wiseass street kid to sympathetic heroine is particularly well done…though it can’t match the sentimentality of the scene where Hayes admits to Niven that she knew of his masquerades all along. A great supporting cast of British veterans—Vivian Pickles, John Alderson, Harry Andrews—and a top-notch race against time with a train make Candleshoe a keeper.


Edward Copeland said...

I always wonder why Barbara Harris nearly vanished. She was almost unrecognizable in Grosse Pointe Blank. My favorite of hers though will forever be in Altman's Nashville.

Scott C. said...

Christian Juttner (Return From Witch Mountain) is the younger brother of my old friend from high school drama class, Shelly Juttner. He was a decent young actor when cast in the right part (his best known appearance is probably as the kid who won't trim his Beatle 'do in I Want To Hold Your Hand), but I don't think his heart was really in the business. Shelly did a lot of commercial work; her best dramatic role was probably in The Young Pioneers with Linda Purl, although she was also in Freaky Friday as Jody Foster's pal, and had a couple of meaty scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor (we went to the premiere in Westwood, and she took the evisceration of her part with a precocious fatalism).

As I recall, they were more or less pushed into the industry by their parents, and both gamely did their time. They also, if I recall correctly, both split the business shortly after they turned 18. As an aside, I've heard a lot of people express pity over the years for child actors who never graduated to adult parts; from what little I know, I suspect a lot of them regarded the arrival of their less employable "awkward years" as a public excuse and a private relief.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks for the Juttner anecdotes, Scott. I knew I had seen Christian in something else but I couldn't remember where--so when you mentioned I Wanna Hold Your Hand it broke the logjam in the ol' memory banks...