Monday, December 8, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #5

Well, Disneython got off to a raucous start yesterday on Turner Classic Movies, and I managed to catch three of the seven Disney features shown beginning at twelve noon. (So I’m choosy. I get it from my mother, who always made certain there was a jar of Jif in the house.)

I don’t know who this Ben Mankiewicz guy is (well, that’s not entirely true—he’s writer Herman’s grandson and great-nephew of director Joseph) but if I were him I’d raise holy H-E-double toothpick with his fact checkers. In his intro to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), he mentioned that Treasure Island (1950) was the first live-action film produced by the Walt Disney studios. I’m not a Disney expert, but even I knew that So Dear to My Heart (1948) preceded Island (though I may be on unsteady ground here; I suppose the naysayers will argue that Heart does contain a few animated sequences, like Song of the South [1946]). Mankiewicz reminds me a lot of John Burke, who used to host the late great American Movie Classics’ offerings in the mornings/afternoons—but I think the thing that really gets on my wick is that Ben looks like a contestant in a Sean Penn-look-a-like contest. I know, “Bobby Osbo” makes similar mistakes when he’s pontificating about a film in his intros—but I’ve learned to accept this as something that cannot be changed; Osborne’s like Frank Morgan in that you know much of what he goes on about should be taken cumo-graino-salto. I suppose there’ll come a day when I’ll ignore it in Mankiewicz, too.

Well, now that I’ve got that rant out of my system I sat down with 20,000 Leagues and watched one of the most truly entertaining features to emanate from Buena Vista; a film—as they used to say—“for all ages” based on the Jules Verne novel and starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi. (No, I’m kidding about that—it’s really Paul Lukas…but can anyone out there honestly tell me with a straight face that they don’t think of Lugosi when Lukas opens his mouth?) Many people (you’ll find them hanging about the IMDb, drinking chocolate malted falcons and giving away free high schools) say that time hasn’t been kind to this adventure classic, but I say they’re full of it—it’s no big surprise as to why Disney fans consider it one of the studio’s best films: top-notch performances, exciting adventure sequences (the giant squid, the escape from the cannibals) and Oscar-winning special effects. In keeping with the old tradition of finding something new every time I rewatch an old film, this is the first time I noticed that Ted de Corsia has a small part in this movie as Captain Farragut, the skipper of the vessel sunk by Nemo (Mason) whose passengers (Douglas, Lorre and Lukas) end up on the Nautilus. I guess the reason why I failed to recognize de Corsia is he’s actually playing a character part instead of his usual Brylcreemed thug (The Naked City, The Lady from Shanghai, etc.). (For those of you curious about de Corsia’s amazing range, I wrote a good many years back about his regular appearances on an old-time radio series called Pursuit.)

The Parent Trap (1961) – This was one of my favorite movies as a kid…but revisiting it yesterday, the bloom’s a bit off the rose. Hayley Mills plays twins in a story about how two sisters are reunited at a summer camp (their parents, Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara, separated when the girls were barely a year old) and scheme to get Mom and Dad back together…which may be a bit difficult, since Keith is planning on getting remarried to the loathsome Joanna Barnes (with the encouragement of her domineering mother, Linda Watkins). I’m not sure why I’m not entertained by this movie anymore—Hayley’s awful darn cute, and I’ll watch just about anything O’Hara is in—I think it might have something to do with the myriad of TV follow-ups (three of them featuring Mills reprising her role[s] and all of them lousy) and the 1998 remake, which gave us two Lindsay Lohans…a situation, I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s enough to make anyone wake up in a cold sweat. The main strength of Trap—and in fact, the reason why I continue to have such affection for the Disney feature films even though some of them have not dated well at all—is the peerless supporting cast: Charlie Ruggles (and that unmistakable voice), Una Merkel, Leo G. Carroll (who steals every scene he’s in), Cathleen Nesbitt, Ruth McDevitt, Nancy Kulp and the pride of Moundsville, WV—Frank DeVol, in a tiny but funny role as the head of a boys’ camp across the way.

The Barefoot Executive (1971) – So Bobby Osbo is introducing this one, remarking that it’s “lighter than air” and “perfect for the kids.” (I guess that’s why TCM showed this one at 12:30am, to catch that crucial insomniac kid demographic.) I can’t remember if I saw this one in the theater or on The Wonderful World of Disney—but I do remember not liking it at the time…and thirty-seven years later, things still haven’t changed. Kurt Russell, Disney’s BMOC at the time, is a mailroom boy at one of the broadcast networks who discovers that the chimp (“Raffles”) placed in his fiancée’s (Heather North) care has an uncanny knack for picking hit TV shows—so he uses the little simian to rise to the top of the network as a television wunderkind. This potentially funny premise (TV viewers have the good taste of chimpanzees) never reaches its full satirical potential, becoming bogged down in a lot of sloppy sentiment (well…it is Disney, after all) but it does feature funny performances from Joe Flynn (anytime Flynn’s in a Disney film it can’t be all bad) and Harry Morgan (ditto); others in the cast include John Ritter (in his feature film debut as a nerdy toady to Flynn), the late, great Wally Cox and memorable bits from Hayden Rorke, Alan Hewitt, Iris Adrian, Bill Daily and Dave Willock.


Sam said...

I don't like Ben all that much. He may be related to Hollywood, but so was Christian Brando.

By the way, thanks for putting up Jack. I feel more welcome now.

Anonymous said...

It was also nice to see two character veterans, Robert Shayne and Tris Coffin, as sponsor reps in this film. Granted, they had very little to do, but it's good to know that Inspector Henderson and the King of the Rocket Men were still making the rent in the 1970s. Oh, and Iris Adrian is always a delight to see as well.

However, I do agree with your assessment, Ivan -- the film itself is fairly dismal and, aside from a few good gags, it should have been far better.

Bill Crider said...

Lugosi could've handled that squid better than anyone.