It’s impossible to imagine Wrath of Khan without the James Horner score. When Star Trek II came out in 1982, it was the third of the late seventies, early eighties sci-fi franchises. Star Wars and Superman were both looking forward to their third films in 1982, while Trek was recovering from its troubled 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In addition to age (as movies, anyway), Star Wars and Superman also shared the John Williams “sound” (though Superman II had Ken Thorne imitating Williams). The Motion Picture’s score was from Jerry Goldsmith, who came up with some great music, but it didn’t seem to compare—in the public mind—to Williams’s space-based scores.
Well, outside the Goldsmith’s new Star Trek theme. That piece announced a bold new beginning for the franchise (and later became the “Next Generation” theme). And Star Trek II announced a bold new direction too….
The literal first thing composer James Horner does in Khan is bring back the original “Star Trek” theme. Just enough to establish, along with the titles, it’s Star Trek. And then the music starts going in new directions, mostly focusing on the “adventure theme.”
The Khan score, or so some quick Internet searching says, has three recognized themes. Kirk’s theme, Khan’s theme, and Spock’s theme. Spock’s theme is the only one to get broken out on the soundtrack album—though it’s just called “Spock.” It’s the mystical one. Khan’s is the foreboding one. Kirk’s is the adventurous one. I’m not eager to name the themes, outside Spock’s, just because it doesn’t leave room for the Genesis theme, which is separate from the others. The music, like everything in Khan, is exquisitely layered, exquisitely complex.
Soundtrack score album affection is a sometimes difficult one to explain. Especially as I’ve noticed I feel different about it now than I did in the late eighties and early nineties. Basically, it’s a “you had to be there.” Listening to a soundtrack score is not like watching the movie, but from the right angle—for me anyway—it can tickle the same hairs and produce some of the same feels. The Star Trek II soundtrack is very good at tickling said hairs. Both because Horner does such a fantastic job with the score and because the film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, uses it so well. Horner’s score, with its reused themes and its various echoes, stays in the active imagination even when it isn’t heard.
Khan (the movie) has a surprise open—it’s the Enterprise, but it’s got a female Vulcan in command (Kirstie Alley). Spock’s there, but he’s at his science officer station. It’s Enterprise versus Klingons and there’s no music, which is very different from when the previous film had its Klingon scene—even Khan reuses that footage. Goldsmith had a whole Klingon theme in The Motion Picture. Horner and Meyer let them act without accompaniment. Horner’s themes are specific (which is why calling it the Khan theme doesn’t make sense to me—it’s the Reliant theme); they can’t be broadly applied. Horner’s score tells the story of the film. The title music has some hints of what’s to come, the end credit music literally recaps what’s come before. The end credit music is some of the most complex in the score—though the action sequences are also exceedingly complex, just in a different way. The action sequences don’t use recall in the same way; when Horner uses the established themes during an action scene, it’s still moving at a clip. End credits it’s about inviting recollection, taking time to think back. The score’s very active with its audience and separate from the movie action. Though tied so close the film’s cut to the music.
And all the story and all the emotion come through on the soundtrack album too. I don’t think I had the album on LP. I know I had the CD, from GNP Crescendo (came out in 1990). The early nineties were the peak of my soundtrack enthusiasm. It didn’t survive high school. Though I also started watching a lot more movies then (instead of the same ones over and over); maybe it was a combination of things. I didn’t really have a handle on what I liked about soundtrack albums back then… not to mention I had… collecting problems. Have collecting problems.
In 2009, Film Score Monthly put out a “Newly Expanded” edition of the Star Trek II soundtrack with more than twice as many tracks as the original soundtrack release. The expanded edition’s track order matches the film’s order of events, remastered from the film mixes. It’s all the music from the film, not just select arrangements.
But if I’m listening to Star Trek II and not watching Star Trek II… I don’t want to hear all the music. I don’t want short tracks, I want the long ones produced for the soundtrack album. Horner’s able to tell the story of Khan in nine tracks, forty-five minutes. Sure, it’s mostly the action and it leaves out Kirk’s (great) old mope arc, but it’s also grand adventure. The grandest adventure.
I had no idea how to write about James Horner’s Khan score so I watched the movie scenes cut to the original nine soundtrack album tracks (and the album’s jumbled order). I’ve seen film so many times I could still “hear” the now silent dialogue. The experience did not provide a profound new version of Khan. Instead, it was Khan; abbreviated but amplified.
The original, nine track Wrath of Khan soundtrack is available through music streaming services. The expanded version, which also came out on LP from Mondo, is out of print.
There’s not much like Horner’s Star Trek II score. It’s an integral part of the film’s success, it’s a success on its own, it’s superlative both on its own and as part of the film.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture might have begun “the human adventure” in 1979, but Khan—in no small part thanks to James Horner—guaranteed the Star Trek film adventure would keep going.
Tim Blake Nelson’s O adapts Shakespeare’s Othello as a modern, moody, lush, teenage Southern Gothic. Sixteenth century Venice becomes a South Carolina prep school, Palmetto Grove, in the late 1990s; Venice’s armies become the school’s basketball team, the Hawks. The Hawks are crushing it this season, all thanks to jersey number 4, senior Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). Other standout players include sophomore Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and another senior, Hugo Goudling (Josh Hartnett). When it comes time for coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) to award the MVP, Odin’s the obvious choice. The surprise comes when Odin decides to share the award with a teammate, selecting Michael. Not Hugo. That night, Hugo tells his roommate Roger (Elden Henson) he’s got a plan to break up Odin and his girlfriend, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles). When Roger asks Hugo why—“I thought you were his friend,” he says—Hugo explains the co-MVP should have gone to him, at least as far as Odin’s concerned. But there’s at least another layer to Hugo’s motivations—coach Duke Goulding is his dad and straight-A student Hugo has put four years into the basketball team. The MVP award his senior year would’ve been a perfect acknowledgement and a seemingly possible one.
“I’m considered a utility man. I rebound, I can shoot, I play guard, forward, power forward. You name the position, I fucking play it.”
Hugo to Roger
O doesn’t just update the setting and situations of Othello, it profoundly changes the characters. Phifer’s Othello/Odin—the only Black student at the South Carolina prep school—has some specific fears and insecurities about that status. He’s secretly dating Desi, after all, and Desi’s the white dean’s white daughter, which incurs a lot of outside aggression, albeit ones mostly passive and micro. Inside their relationship, despite any posturing, Odin’s devoted to Desi, devoted to what she represents, what they–together–represent.
Hugo intuits all those insecurities and encourages them into weaknesses and into what become fatal flaws for everyone involved. Hugo’s an unquestionable villain, but he’s just working with what he’s got. If Michael weren’t eager to please, if Roger weren’t resentful (the wealthiest blue blood on campus yet the girls still go for the jocks)—they’re both naive from various privileges. Hugo’s able to make it work. His first plan, which he starts concocting at the MVP ceremony, appears to simply be getting Odin in trouble for dating Desi. Or at least to stir things up. But it’s already a more layered one, with Michael as the target. Because Hugo understands Michael’s desire to impress Odin.
And Hugo (thanks to Roger’s willingness to be Michael and Odin’s frequent punching bag) is able to get Michael off the team. At least out of games, which doesn’t necessarily give Hugo any better opportunities on the court, but it does get him close to Odin. Close to Odin, he tries to cement further distrust of Michael. Because Hugo’s already got Michael trying to befriend Desi so she’ll tell Odin to fight for him to get back on the team. Duke will listen to Odin. Odin, Duke tells everyone at the MVP ceremony first thing, is like his son. Not “like a son,” but “like his son.” Except Odin and Hugo are very, very different. And Hugo’s an afterthought to Duke. A relied-upon afterthought, but an afterthought. He’s just not good enough. Duke’s been waiting his whole career for Odin.
“You know I don’t ever have to worry about you, thank God. You’ve always done well and you always will, but Odin’s different. He’s all alone here. There’s not even another Black student in this whole damn place. We’re his family.”
Duke to Hugo
Once Hugo has gotten his girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix) to steal a memento from Desi (they’re roommates), and used it to convince Odin of Desi and Michael’s affair, Hugo’s got the problem of three loose ends. Odin will never believe Michael or his protestations of innocence, especially not after—advantageously and presumably unexpectedly, but maybe not—Michael lets his racism out when talking about Odin.
Master eavesdropper Hugo has already got Odin listening in so it couldn’t go better.
Michael’s not guilty of pursuing or seducing Desi—he’s actually just some dopey sophomore who makes an effort to listen to his female friends, though it’s a Madonna-whore thing, not because he sees them as people or anything—but he’s still not not guilty. He’s not not racist. He’s not not a bully. He’s not not a bad guy when it comes to girls. He doesn’t deserve what he gets, but he gets it because the material is there for Hugo to work with.
So Michael’s not going to be a loose end for long. He’s the most disposable, in fact. Emily’s a loose end, though Hugo doesn’t anticipate her being a problem. He’s got a plan for Roger, which he doesn’t share with anyone else because Hugo does see Roger as a fellow victim. Hugo understands what’s going at Palmetto Grove—he understands how his father treats him, how it feels, why his father’s doing it, he understands Odin, he understands Michael, Roger, Emily—and, of the men, Roger’s the only one Hugo shows any compassion. Even when he doesn’t have to show it to keep Roger going with the scheme.
And Desi’s a loose end. Desi’s the biggest loose end. Getting Odin not to believe Michael only takes so much work, it’s an achievable goal. Michael’s going to dig himself in deeper, one way or the other. Roger won’t crack for anyone at school, not when Hugo’s already convinced him to take multiple beatings. But Odin will want to believe Desi, which will reveal Hugo’s manipulations. So Desi’s got to go.
O doesn’t have most of the traditional Othello trappings as far as Iago/Hugo’s motivations go. The MVP thing sets Hugo off, sure, but it’s already been established he’s envious of Othello/Odin’s position as an athlete, as Duke’s favored “son.” Hugo describes it all as jealousy but it’s closer to envy. A functional one, at least until he’s racing downhill trying to keep the lies from catching up. Hugo’s going off to college. He’s going to be fine. He’s just got to get to the finish, with at least Odin intact.
“Nobody doesn’t like [Hugo]. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have at least one enemy.”
Desi to Emily
Unlike Othello, O doesn’t suggest Odin and Emilia/Emily fooled around or anything like Hugo having a crush on Desdemona/Desi. Quite the opposite on the latter. The two seem to loathe one another, which makes sense. They’re both staff’s students. The school’s performative with its scholastic egalitarianism, putting the dean and coach’s kids in the dorms, the upper middle class among the real upper class. Desi and Hugo know each other. They have known each other a while. And they have zero empathy for one another. Desi’s the only one who thinks Hugo’s a creep. Everyone else just sees the good student, the good teammate. Even as Hugo tries to destroy Michael, the team’s games always come first. Winning is the important thing; even if Hugo’s not singled out for contributing (because Duke has clearly never singled him out with a positive comment). It reflects on Hugo. He doesn’t have to worry because no matter how much turmoil he creates, Hugo can always rely on Odin to come through on the court.
There’s no one in O who has higher expectations for Odin than Hugo. Hugo lionizes him. Hugo sees his father living the white savior sports movie dream with Odin and believes the dream to be valid, just not Duke’s execution of it. O isn’t about Hugo and Odin, it’s about Hugo and Duke. It’s about Duke and his son. Everyone else is collateral damage. For Hugo, Odin is a prized action figure. For Duke, he’s a trophy.
Hartnett’s performance is all about his expressions. It’s all about watching this emotional cut wound him, this emotional stab, this observed opportunity, this revealed insecurity. Hugo’s always thinking, watching, listening. The plans form across Hartnett’s face, in his blinks, his pauses, his patience. Everyone in the film has their implied interiority and all, but with Hartnett, the whole thing hinges on his understanding and essaying of Hugo’s interiority. When Hugo refuses to explain himself, leaving his motivations a mystery, his loose ends tied, the audience has already seen some of them. Or at least those Hugo let affect him.
“You won’t ask me nothing. I did what I did. That’s all you need to know. From here on, I’ll say nothing.”
Hugo to Odin
It’s also in the expression when O gets in its last surprise. Being an Othello adaptation, a lot is predictable. But Hugo’s got one last reveal, one unquestionably authentic reaction. And it changes the entire film, start to finish, untying the bow, folding it over, retying.
O came at the end of the late nineties-early aughts teen Shakespeare adaptation boom. Brad Kaaya’s script leverages the source material rather than relying upon it, letting Nelson turn it into that Southern Gothic, with Hartnett a metaphor for the culture he and his victims exist in. He’s not some pedestrian evil, he’s a prodigious and entirely natural one. The teenage sociopath who wants to be a real boy but just can’t make his brain wooden enough. Far from shocking, Hartnett’s Hugo is inevitable in a way Iago never could be.
E: What am I watching? It just started, and I don’t know what’s happening.
B: It’s symbolic.
E: Yeah? Who’s that guy?
B: That’s Death walking on the beach.
E: I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times, and I’ve never seen Death walk on the beach.
From Diner (1982); written by Barry Levinson; set in 1959.
Growing up, I always had a negative impression of the 1950s (as far as film was concerned–it wasn’t until later I got a negative impression of reality in the 1950s). Anyway, that negative impression of fifties films has changed over the years, starting when I realized Hitchcock was making movies in the fifties, then Kubrick, then Kurosawa. Then I started seeing Hollywood movies from the fifties in my late teens, when I discovered Eleanor Parker, and I revised my opinion. The fifties have a lot of good stuff, even Hollywood.
So the early sixties must be the weak era.
I still catch myself being vaguely down on the fifties. Even as some directors rose to prominence, lots of the elder statesmen started churning it out, which is true of any era. Now, when a film from the 1950s provokes a derisive thought, I mentally walk it back and remind myself… the fifties aren’t just all right, they’re rather great.
And not just because it’s when Bergman got going strong.
Preparing this post I went through the Stop Button responses of the best fifties movies. I came up with thirty-five (though the number is since thirty-six, I hadn’t written about Stalag 17 when I made that list); then I thought maybe I could write about my childhood fifties favorites. Because even though I had a negative impression of fifties cinema, many of my favorite monster movies were from that decade. So the list could’ve included Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mole People, the Raymond Burr version of Godzilla, and so on.
But then I decided to try to do the list straight. With the only asterisk being East of Eden. I haven’t seen it recently enough to include it with the others, but it might be on here instead of something else, it might not be.
Descending by year, the final list of five favorite fifties films.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Paths of Glory (1957)
The Searchers (1956)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Detective Story (1951)
Call it a “desert island but with electricity to watch movies” list or a fifties beginner list, these five films hit most of the quadrants of the fifties cinema. Hollywood melodramas aren’t represented in whole, but definitely in part—all five films contain similar elements, while some of them also feature similarities to fifties Bergman. Not so much in content, subject, or tone, but feel. There’s a decided lack of humor; Mose Harper and his rocking chair are about it. Still, These five films “feel” like a fifties film should feel. At least to be an exemplar.
Touch of Evil. When I saw Touch of Evil in the theater (for the 1998 re-edit), I had already seen the film before. I might have even owned it on LaserDisc at that point. I didn’t exactly grow up with Touch of Evil, but I did spend my teens revering it. Even cutting it to shreds, the studio couldn’t excise the film of its greatness. I might have first seen it in 1992 or so, after The Player. I remember learning about complicated opening tracking shots around that time.
I’d definitely seen it by the time Get Shorty came out in 1995 because I’ve been laughing at that “Charlton Heston play Mexican” line since the first time I saw Shorty.
The only time I’ve watched the film since starting The Stop Button, I watched the original theatrical version, which came out in a DVD set with the 1998 cut and also the “preview cut.” I meant to watch all three of them, but still haven’t gotten around to it.
I watched it in one of my undergrad film classes—actually, there are two more coming up I watched in those classes—which would’ve been after the 1998 re-cut but before that version was on video. So it must have been the theatrical version. I really got to understand how the performances worked, how the script worked. I also got to see it with a better understanding of Welles.
Paths of Glory. I might have discovered Paths of Glory from my dad’s Criterion LaserDisc. One summer in high school, I went through most of his LaserDisc collection—the ones I knew nothing about—while staying up until four in the morning and then sleeping until noon. Or my dad might have just watched it with me when he got it.
I can’t remember.
I definitely was a big fan by the time I went to college, where I’d see it in one of those film classes, but also think about the film in the context of my World War I history classes. Paths of Glory is still, probably, my favorite Kubrick film. I like to say Barry Lyndon to be difficult, but for “bang for the (runtime) buck,” it’s definitely Paths of Glory. And, if Kirk Douglas is to be believed, he’s the reason Kubrick didn’t sell out with Glory. How different American cinema would’ve been had it not been for Douglas wanting to have an unhappy ending.
Glory was one of those films I watched to learn how to pick a film apart, how to understand structure. I had to write an essay on it, after all. I needed to understand how Kubrick used George Macready’s villain, for example, so I had to delineate his scenes. Or wanted to delineate his scenes in the essay and did.
The Searchers. If you grew up in the eighties and nineties and liked film and liked John Wayne, you did not like good films. I’m sure there are some childhood John Wayne fans who would argue, but if you were ever okay watching McQ and The Green Berets, you did not like good films.
I don’t think I started watching John Wayne movies until The Searchers in that college film class. I’d seen The Shootist but probably almost nothing else. After seeing The Searchers, I stuck to the John Ford ones, of course. When I did branch out—to McQ, to The Green Berets—they only confirmed my suspicions about his ability to give godawful performances.
Wayne didn’t really have a redeemable offscreen personality either. So I’ve always been really careful in considering his films, which just makes Searchers all the stronger. Ford knew how to use Wayne to best effect, particularly in this film. Wayne’s playing on type, struggling against the inevitable character development.
Searchers was another film where I learned a lot about how to consider present action. It’s the undergrad film essay the instructor made me stand up and read aloud. I remember he started reading it and I thought, that’s not mine. Only for him to call me up.
Forced public speaking versus ego boost. How grand.
The Searchers also made me think a lot about expectation. What the audience “deserves” to know, what they don’t, and ultimately why deserve hasn’t got anything to do with it.
Seven Samurai. It took me forever to see Seven Samurai. I checked it out from the college library my first year, didn’t watch it. I already had a copy of it on tape; I had dozens of EP tapes of movies to watch when I went to college. The quality was so bad I gave up on them almost immediately. But Samurai had come up in film class and the library had it, so I got it.
But didn’t end up seeing it for at least two more years, even as I would’ve probably watched more Kurosawa.
The first Kurosawa I saw was Dreams. Because Scorsese. Because color. I rented it once, didn’t end up watching it, rented it again, watched it. Have zero memory of it, soon enough saw Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran. I was a big Ran fan. But Samurai was always too daunting. Too long. Too big.
When I finally did see it, I thought it was great, but then sort of forgot about it. When I went back and watched it last year, I was blown away even more than I remember being the first time I watched it. Definitely one of those films where the more thoughtful you can be, the better your experience becomes. You’ve got to keep its 207 minutes constantly “in mind,” which isn’t necessarily easy but also is an imperative consumption skill.
Detective Story. I gave this one a lot of thought before putting it on the list. It’s earlier than any of the other films, it’s got far more in common with post-war Hollywood than mid-fifties Hollywood. It’s the only Eleanor Parker movie on the list (and only probably her best performance from the decade, not definitely). It’s nowhere near as epic as any of the others (Touch of Evil and Paths of Glory being epically produced). It’s quite the opposite. It’s got a single location and is the most exquisite filmed adaptation of a play… ever. There’s just something about the way director William Wyler does it.
I cannot remember how I first saw it, unfortunately. I think I traded for it because it didn’t air on Turner Classic Movies and had never had a home video released (I was real excited when it came out on DVD, back when Paramount seemed to just realize it had a deep back catalog). Then the DVD went out of print and it all of a sudden became rarer. But now it’s streaming and being able to watch Detective Story on demand is—compared to when I first wanted to see the film in the late nineties—incredible. When classic film accessibility works out, it works out.
And Detective Story is rather accessible. It can’t be as frank as it could be, but Wyler and the cast don’t need to be too frank. Euphemism works on stage and Wyler understands how to make Story play as though it’s… produced on stage. Sort of.
It’s an exceptional play adaptation, even without being great otherwise.
And all five films are great. Phenomenal. Exceptional. Singular. Exquisite. All the good adjectives. Lots of complexity, lots of layers, lots of lots.
They’re enough to make you forget you ever dismissed the fifties as racist Westerns, soapy Hollywood melodramas, and obnoxious musicals. The fifties has all those kinds of films, unfortunately, but they also have some of the finest films ever made. Like the ones enumerated above. Like the thirty-one others I didn’t mention. Like the two dozen I can’t remember seeing. Like the countless others I haven’t seen. Yet.
“From thy wedding with the creature who touches heaven, lady God preserve thee.”
Most film blogathons are actor, actress, director, sub-genre themed. If you’re trying to branch out, if you just haven’t had a chance to write about something you love yet, they’re efficient opportunities for some post subject variety. Even though I rarely write about films I’ve seen before and instead am often writing about films one can skip, it’s a great way to maintain some perspective. Film viewing has always had a hard shell to its bubble.
In the fifteen years since I started blogging, I’ve wanted to keep my film blogging bubble pliable. Even before I realized why it should be pliable, I knew it had to be; after college but before grad school—when I started The Stop Button in 2004—I was in a film snob limbo. In 2003, intellectually fueled by foreign films from Netflix, Buster Keaton, and being Pianist perplexed, I gave up on new movies. I ended up taking a two or three year break and never got back into the theatergoing experience as much. Except for fine arts theaters and movie series. Even though I don’t have any of the posts anymore, the first year of Stop Button posts were all about Sam Fuller and whatever else we saw at this film series. And I’d moved on from Netflix to Nicheflix, since I’d had to go region-free very, very early to get films like Larger Than Life (the Bill Murray one) widescreen or Gance’s Napoleon at all; Nicheflix is where I discovered Korean film. Nicheflix was great.
I also had this (probably annoying) thing where if someone recommended a movie to me, I’d watch something else from the same director. Same writer-director. It wasn’t like someone said to watch The Conversation so instead I watched Jack. But new indie auteurs, I’d go in real suspect.
But I never wanted The Stop Button to be too focused on a genre or sub-genre.
Things have veered Classic Hollywood over the last couple years, but it’s mostly because blogathons and lack of film blogging time.
Mutually exclusive but concurrent is my Film—capital letter—philosophy. What I think and why, which almost always figures into how I write about individual films. And this capital Film philosophy didn’t start with The Stop Button or in undergrad film snobbery, or playing Clerks after high school, or having themed overnight movie marathons with friends during high school, or going to movies with summer camps before high school, or going to movies at birthday parties before middle school. Not to mention just watching VHS tapes because it was so cool to watch a movie at home. And if that thrill ran out, letterbox and LaserDisc.
My Film philosophy is changing all the time, usually because of a film. And I’d never thought about what I’d consider my most influential film. The one with the most permanent ramification for my capital Film philosophy. So definitely not the latest big “changer” either; it’s an intellectual fad—a justified one, I hope—but still something to be developed upon. And also understood with that eventuality. There’s no end-all-be-all movie to see. The Day the Clown Cried is not going to make all other film narrative superfluous.
So what about something I’ve consciously considered for a long time. Last summer, through a blogathon, I discovered the movie I had spent years thinking was Vertigo but wasn’t; I had avoid Vertigo because this film memory had scared me so much I refused to do a “close your eyes” exercise in kindergarten because I thought it would make you into a monster. Young and Innocent; different Hitchcock; thirty-five year-old movie mystery solved.
So would Young and Innocent be the most influential movie in those thirty-five years? No. Not any more than how I was convinced Monster Squad had a candle blowing out for foreshadowing and no one—of middle school Monster Squad fans–believed me. It does, of course; they pan-and-scanned it out for video. So Monster Squad, even for those few years it stayed active in my mind?
Nope, no, heck no, hell no. Ew Monster Squad.
Also I’d forgotten about the candle blowing out mystery by the time I did see Monster Squad widescreen again.
I was a Star Wars kid. Big time. Was it Star Wars? No. Star Wars was more than brand loyalty. Brand franchise loyalty, actually. Superman? No, not back then as much. What else did I watch a lot as a kid?
I mean, I was a monster kid. What about Frankenstein? I did a paper on Boris Karloff in grade school.
And then… Kong.
Of course. King Kong.
Blamin' it all
The 1933 version of King Kong is responsible for my childhood fascination with New York City, which lead to various family trips over the years. Kong is why I had to have Empire State Building memorabilia. Kong is partially why a lot. Kong is why New York is why Empire State building is why Art Deco is why thirties history why history is why undergrad major.
I don’t remember the first time I saw it. If I’m guessing, three at the latest? Because I know I saw Empire in the theater and I would’ve been two and a few months. And Raiders. I saw Raiders a little too young for head-melting. Kong would’ve been TV or video. I’m pretty sure we copied it from the library’s VHS. Once in-home VHS copying was a thing.
I know I watched Kong with my friends. Made my friends watch Kong is probably more accurate, since it was middle school before one of them ever stood up for black and white movies. The eighties and nineties were wanting for a lot. But I don’t remember who or when or if we did Kong marathons. Maybe? I know a family friend was a Kong buddy but only because people reminded me about it later. I have no memory of the actual movie watching, just the reminders.
I also know I watched Kong '33 less as I got into high school. Because my high school capital Film philosophy involved how special effects ought to be integrated and while Kong ’33 has singular special effects, their integration didn’t have as many modern applications as Kong ’76. I got to be a practical effects absolutist in late middle school. But less Willis O’Brien and more Phil Tippett. Then Jurassic Park killed stop motion and I dug in on practical. It’s only the last six years or so I’ve evened out that hill.
But I watched some Kong ’33 in college. And after. It’s been a while, but I know when I wrote about it for Stop Button eleven years ago I gabbed about it to my podcast cohost in a pre-show. Kong’s gotten to the point whenever I do get to ruminate on it, it’s a memorable rumination.
I do remember getting the Nostalgia Merchant VHS. It was one of the first items in my VHS collection. Kong helped get me addicted to media. I never replaced that Nostalgia Merchant copy, which was the uncut version (for the first time on home video). I have this vague memory of getting both it and the uncut Frankenstein in some big box store in the late eighties. We might have been on a family vacation because not many stores around us had sell-through VHS sections yet. Or, if they did, they were limited and always list price.
A few years later, Turner did an official release, as well as a colorized. I still haven’t seen the colorized version. Both VHS boxes were terrible and not the kind of thing you wanted to be seen picking up in a video store in 1990. The 1993 sixtieth anniversary edition box was better but I didn’t upgrade my Nostalgia Merchant. Not until—sometime in the late 1990s—I got the Criterion CLV version. There was CAV, which allowed frame-by-frame pausing, and CLV, which did not. Either the CAV was out of print or I didn’t want to spend $100 on a Kong LaserDisc. So I got the CLV.
Before getting the DVD—I waited for the official DVD release, even though it was available overseas (and possibly through Nicheflix) because RKO movies weren’t Warner overseas—I got at least one other copy of Kong on LaserDisc, because it had a different audio commentary. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any Kong audio commentary. I sort of think I have, but I’m not sure. It’s likely. Ish. But I sure had a lot of them.
I actually don’t have the Blu-ray. I didn’t even realize it had been released. By the time I did, I was able to just it digital; 1080p. Frame-by-frame pausing. Finally.
I’ve had easy access to Kong for almost thirty years.
But I’m forty. Those ten years before having a TV in my room, I had a different kind of access to Kong. One with an authoritative but a complicated, somewhat specious footing in reality. And it did take a toll on me and Kong.
More than King Kong the movie, I grew up with King Kong the movie as related in a book. Ian Thorne’s King Kong book for Crestwood House, published in 1977. It was a whole “Monsters Series” by Thorne where he summarized the film, talked about how it was made, talked about its legacy. The Kong one talks about Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, King Kong vs. Godzilla, the 1976 Kong. And Queen Kong. I’d been wanting to see Queen Kong since I was four.
The book series was a reading life-changer for me. My mom frequently told the tale of how I had zero interest in reading until Crestwood Monsters, then becoming a voracious reader of all things. Including other monster books featuring Kong.
Except they rarely, if ever, really featured King Kong. Instead, they use the touched-up promotional photographs RKO did back in 1933. Kong appears more “realistic” in some of them. In others he appears to be from one hundred to five hundred feet tall and have a rather peculiar cone-shaped head. The conehead gave other monster kids an excuse not to like Kong, even though the images don’t accurately represent the Kong of the film at all. So even before I slowed down on watching Kong ’33 before I was focusing on my theories of practical special effects applications, I stopped talking about it because of social pressures.
The colorized version probably didn’t help things.
But it isn’t just the studio retouch artists changed the shape of Kong’s head, they changed his whole body. They also changed scenes. While audiences in 1933 might have understood a lobby card wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the film’s onscreen content, I was checking out a non-fiction book fifty-some years later. Not just non-fiction. I got adult non-fiction books too. These books were the real thing.
Only not at all.
And not just the look of Kong, but the scenes in the film. There’s no triceratops in King Kong. The T. Rex fight doesn’t go down this way. There’s no long shot of Kong on the Empire State Building with a half dozen biplanes in frame. The pterodactyl doesn’t have teeth. The retouch artists changed the expectation of the action beats. It’s great marketing. Exceptional marketing. But also rather annoying because it means I don’t quite remember what’s in Kong.
It also means there’s surprise every time I do watch it.
Back before TCM, back before AMC, Kong didn’t lead me to a lot of other films. Son of Kong, sure. Mighty Joe Young, at least once. But Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, and Robert Armstrong didn’t go on to much an eight year-old would see. We didn’t watch Westerns when I was growing up, so no occasional Cabot or Armstrong appearances in a John Ford movie. I don’t even remember seeing Armstrong in anything else until The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, which our video store did carry, but I would’ve watched it after The Thin Man series and I didn’t get super into Thin Man until at least 1990.
Even when I was watching classics en masse (AMC, then TCM), it was usually only Armstrong who’d show up in some supporting role. Fay Wray I never saw on AMC or TCM. I’d gotten The Most Dangerous Game in 1995 on LaserDisc—same filmmakers as Kong, same jungle set—and she’s the female lead in it, but otherwise, nothing.
Bruce Cabot… I can’t even remember the first time I saw him in anything else.
Directors Schoedsack and Cooper? I mean, I did get to see Blind Adventure (reuniting some Kong and Son of Kong cast and crew) a few years ago and that’s good, but Last Days of Pompeii? I’ve been meaning to watch it for ten years and just never get around to it. I haven’t seen Mighty Joe Young since high school when it didn’t impress me and I loathe Most Dangerous Game these days. While Kong got me very interested in film—and filmmaking—it didn’t directly lead to much.
Neither did any of my favorite classic monster movies as a kid. Little did I understand studio contracts back then.
When I wrote about Kong for The Stop Button in 2008, I had come back to it after getting an MFA in writing. I had a completely different set of examination tools. It had already gone through the history BA toolkit and the anti-CGI toolkit and the pro-CGI toolkit (I was tentatively onboard with CGI until the 1998 Godzilla or so) and whatever else going back to age three. Kong, as always, excelled no matter how I understood Film. No matter what I thought the film was supposed to do, what it needed to do, what it couldn’t do, what it shouldn’t do.
And more than excelling, it further informs, further clarifies, further focuses the all-important capital Film philosophy.
Between 1932 and 1997, two-time Academy Award winner Luise Rainer—who was the first actor to win more than one Academy Award and the first to win two back-to-back— made a total of fifteen films. Approximately. Austrian Rainer made three German-language films in the early thirties before Hollywood—MGM, specifically—discovered her and brought her to the States under a three-year contract. Her first MGM film, Escapade, came out in 1935. The last, Dramatic School, came out in 1938. Despite that three year contract, Dramatic School was after Rainer had signed a subsequent seven-year contract renewal with the studio. But that film would be the last straw for Rainer, who’d spent the last year and previous four films battling with studio head Louis B. Mayer about roles.
Rainer would return to Hollywood in 1943 for Hostages, which was a Paramount picture, not MGM.
According to IMDb (but without any other mention in online databases), Rainer appeared in the 1954 West German teen comedy Der Erste Kuß (The First Kiss). It’s a teen romance comedy with a couple twin sisters getting into innocent mischief. Sadly not the source for the Parent Trap but whatever. Rainer’s recognized return came in 1997 (fifty-four years after Hostages) in the British film, The Gambler, about Dostoyevsky writing The Gambler. After another break (only six years this time), Rainer appeared in Poem: I Set My Foot Upon the Air and It Carried Me, where she (and eighteen other performers) read a variety of German poems.
Rainer died in 2014 at the age of 104.
I’d heard of Rainer, but never seen any of her films. So when I needed a subject for “The Marathon Stars Blogathon,” Rainer was near the top of my list. I’ve been sort of curious; wasn’t Good Earth some Oscar-winning, protracted sharecropping melodrama. Especially since I’ve seen plenty of movies from the thirties, plenty of MGM movies from the thirties, plenty of William Powell MGM movies from the thirties, it seemed a little odd I’d never seen one of Rainer’s. One of the blogathon requirements is watching five films (at least five films) with the subject. Five films is a time commitment and I didn’t want to be half-assed about it.
For example, watching Rainer’s three German films from the early thirties (regardless if they’re available), the 1997 cameo in The Gambler, then Poem… well, I wouldn’t have any idea what she did for the majority of her film career. So I wanted to schedule a nice mix. Rainer won her Oscars for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth. Ziegfeld runs three hours, Earth almost two-and-a-half. I decided early on I’d only be able to do one of them, viewing schedule-wise. I went with Good Earth because it’s shorter.
The other four films I chose partially on availability, partially on relevance. I watched The Emperor’s Candlesticks, but would have rather watched the apparently nearly lost Escapade, which started Rainer’s Hollywood career and was her first pairing with William Powell. She appeared with Powell in Ziegfeld, then in Candlesticks. Dramatic School I picked because it seemed like a no-brainer—Rainer and fellow MGM contract actresses in an acting school. Toy Wife has Melvyn Douglas and a female screenwriter, why not. Hostages I tracked down because it’s her comeback picture. Plus, William Bendix.
Rainer made Escapade, Great Ziegfeld, Good Earth, Emperor’s Candlesticks, Big City, Toy Wife, Great Waltz, and Dramatic School for MGM. I watched Good Earth, Emperor’s Candlesticks, Toy Wife, and Dramatic School; fifty percent of them. I assumed I’d put together a good representation of her filmography. Even after reading about the other films (Ziegfeld, Big City, and Great Waltz are all readily available, just Escapade missing), it sounds like I did.
But, wow, is it a troubled filmography. Rainer never got the chance to establish herself. She was generically European, but… rarely in parts requiring her to be generically European. It might have helped her with Good Earth, when she was playing a Chinese woman, but comes off as Francophobic in Toy Wife, when she’s a naive but slutty Louisiana Southern belle. It doesn’t matter in Candlesticks. Great, she’s Austrian and playing Russian, but distinctly not Polish guy William Powell’s perfectly fine as the Polish guy. The part doesn’t need that ingrained texture (though it says something Candlesticks has Rainer’s best performance of the five films and the only one with personality). Dramatic School she’s a naive but not slutty poor French girl. Other than Candlesticks, none of the parts are good. Good Earth has a lot of technical requirements—yellow-face for one, but also aging forty or so years as well—but the part’s not good.
I’ll go over each film briefly presently, but in case you were wondering if somehow Hostages was a great return to the screen? No. Not only is it bad, it’s a lousy part for Rainer (though probably better than some of the “A-list” ones at MGM).
Rainer had three films in 1937—she had Good Earth in January, Emperor’s Candlesticks in July, and Big City in September. Now, she won the Academy Award for 1936’s Great Ziegfeld in March, so between Good Earth and Candlesticks.
Good Earth. The Good Earth is the late 1930s Hollywood protracted sharecropping melodrama I was expecting, but I’d somehow forgotten about it being set in China. It’s a Classic Hollywood epic about a poor farmer in China getting rich at the beginning of the twentieth century. It stars a half dozen or more white actors in yellow-face, then some really supporting Asian actors later. Paul Muni is the lead. The movie starts with him marrying Rainer. They’ve never met before, he presumably buys her from the local great house, where she’s been a slave since childhood. Mark this point—slavery is bad in Good Earth and Rainer—even though she never gets to talk about it—hates even the mention of it. She never gets to talk about it because she rarely gets to talk. Muni talks all the time. Even after he stops talking all the time, Rainer barely gets any lines. It’s a bad part for so many reasons. Rainer’s best in the old age yellow-face, playing mom to grown sons, who are played by Asian men. Somehow, they make the scenes work, though maybe not succeed.
Good Earth is significant for showing how Classic Hollywood was willing to humanize non-whites, but only if whites could play them in complicated, “realistic” (i.e. not-blackface) make-up. Rainer gets a scene where she teaches her kids how to panhandle. You’re not going to see that sort of display if those kids were white. Ick but hmm sums up Good Earth.
So then, two months later, Rainer wins the Oscar for Ziegfeld, going into Candlesticks reuniting with that film’s lead, William Powell. It’s a comedic thriller, set in the late 1800s, with Powell as a debonair Polish gentleman spy and Rainer as a Russian countess who spies too. They’re enemies, even if they don’t know it, but thrown into an adventure together. It’s kind of a road picture, but not on the budget to be on the road or in the European cities it visits. Lots of interiors, lots of montages, lots of chemistry. Candlesticks is a bunch of fun.
Big City is a drama, which means maybe I should’ve watched it instead of either Dramatic School or Toy Wife because they’re both lousy dramas and Big City might be good. It’s got Spencer Tracy after all, and it’s from before Rainer went to war with Mayer.
It’s also before she won Best Actress for Good Earth; she got that Oscar in March 1938, which was before any of her films came out that year. Rainer was off-screen from Big City in September 1937 until Toy Wife in June 1938. Nine months. And she won another Oscar in between, set Oscar records in between. So it’d be interesting to see how Toy Wife played after Big City.
Because Toy Wife is a gross disaster. It’s all about Rainer—sixteen in the source play—seducing a dude away from her sister (Barbara O’Neil, who plays a character named Louise). They’re Southern belles. They have lots of slaves. Rainer loves having slaves. It’s one of those weird late thirties movies where all the white people love having slaves. It even becomes a plot point because Rainer is too nice to her slaves and they get lazy so her husband (Melvyn Douglas, the one she stole from O’Neil) has to bring O’Neil into the household to “run” the slaves. Meanwhile Rainer has a fling with Robert Young.
All the acting is bad. The writing is bad (screenwriter Zoë Akins added all the slavery stuff). Even 1938 audiences who were clamoring for that “slavery was awesome for white people” thing at the time didn’t like the movie.
Then November’s The Great Waltz, a Strauss biopic, did well (cost too much, but did well). So should I have watched Great Waltz to see how Rainer recovers from Toy Wife? Maybe I didn’t get a good look at her filmography, right?
In December there was Dramatic School, costarring Paulette Goddard as Rainer’s slutty, rich, mean classmate. I guess Dramatic is sort of impressive for Rainer because she plays the part well, even though she’s supposed to be much younger and infinitely naive. The film—which opens quite wonderfully with Margaret Dumont—has so much potential. It could be all about Rainer acting these different famous parts and so on and so on. Rainer even plays a character named “Louise” in the picture. It has to mean something, right?
Nope. It’s this tedious rags-to-riches story with Rainer, who lies too much (because it gives her the opportunity to act all the time), and how she gets caught. Dumont’s only in two short scenes. Most of the film has Gale Sondergaard as the evil teacher who’s jealous of Rainer because Sondergaard is old and Rainer is young. Dramatic School manages to be tediously tedious.
So no surprise Rainer quit after doing it.
But why she wanted to come back for Hostages….
Hostages, released in October 1943, is a war picture. Czech underground fighters versus Nazis. Rainer had missed the start of the war, film-wise, and had returned in time for the propaganda picture. Starring William Bendix as a Czech freedom fighter. He’s godawful. Maybe if he weren’t so bad in the movie, the movie wouldn’t be so bad. But even if he were better (or, even better still, Bendix weren’t in the movie at all), the part for Rainer would still be too slight. Apparently she didn’t want to do an Oscar-bait picture or role, but Hostages isn’t just not Oscar-bait, it’s not a good project.
Top-billed Rainer gets overshadowed by romantic interest Arturo de Córdova, a Mexican actor on his brief, unsuccessful Hollywood tour.
A strong comeback picture, Hostages ain’t.
It also isn’t anything like Rainer’s MGM work. Especially not the better work.
Despite having seen over fifty percent (I have the math but don’t want to show my work) of Rainer’s Classic Hollywood output… I can only tentatively say I like her. She’s probably all right, maybe good, certainly not terrible and probably never inept. I don’t even know if seeing Big City, Great Waltz, or Great Ziegfeld will change that opinion. It might. But it also might not, given the erratic nature of Rainer’s output. Maybe Escapade is the one to see. Hopefully someday.
But, until then, I’m going to try to get to the three available MGM pictures sooner than later.
I’m still curious about Rainer’s career. More now I’ve started watching her films, which is another positive sign. Albeit a tentative one.
Eleanor Parker did not win any Academy Awards, which is simultaneously obvious and inexplicable. The latter because she obviously deserved one (or six), the former because if she had won any, she’d have been better known in the eighties and nineties, when home video and basic cable drove classic film viewership. The first half of Parker’s filmography, up to the point when she was nominated for 1955’s Interrupted Melody, is full of great roles (once you get through some of the Warner contract stuff), while the second half has some sporadically potentially great roles. With the occasional role Parker made great (Home from the Hill, Seventh Sin). But in many ways, Interrupted Melody, which got Parker her third and final Best Actress nomination, was the pinnacle of her stardom. At least as an A-list actress who might get Best Actress nominations.
Melody also culminated Parker’s fifties rise. She’d started at Warner Bros. In 1942 and worked her way from supporting in B movies, to supporting in A movies, to leading B movies, to leading A movies. But never Oscar bait. Though Parker should’ve been nominated for Of Human Bondage and Woman in White, even if it were a supporting nod for White. It wasn’t until 1950’s Caged, where Parker got to be the whole show, did she get a nomination for a Warner part. Parker plays a naive young woman sent to prison as an accessory to robbery. Her husband died in attempting said robbery. It’s a phenomenal performance in an excellent film, one forgotten to history until it was resurrected thanks to DVD in the mid-2000s. The film’s legacy suffered not just due to lack of home video release, but also because somehow it was pop-culturally misremembered as a camp classic. But DVD, eventually, corrected that mistake (and introduced a whole new generation of viewers to Parker).
If there was any question Warner hadn’t been giving Parker the right roles—or supporting her in the right roles—it was resolved as Parker, fresh out of her contract, got nominated again the next year. No more Warner contract—her departure was in the cards before Caged—so she was free to star in Paramount’s Detective Story. She plays brutal and honest New York cop Kirk Douglas’s wife; the only one who can soothe the savage beast. Until one day things her past comes back to haunt her. It’s a fantastic part, performance, film. Parker’s not starting from naivety, which makes her character arc rather different than Caged (or, really, anything she’d had a chance to do before—even in Three Secrets, which has some similarities to the Story role).
Parker had two films the next year—Scaramouche and Above and Beyond, both for MGM. Both were big hits, though Scaramouche was bigger, and both were well-received. There were Oscar rumblings for Parker in Above and Beyond but when it came time for nominations, she didn’t get one. Above and Beyond was Parker’s last drama for a few years—the adventure and adventure comedies she made for the next couple years seemed unlikely to get an Oscar nomination. So when Parker returned to drama—on a large scale—with Interrupted Melody, playing a contemporary figure (opera star Marjorie Lawrence, who had a triumphant return after polio), it certainly seemed like a good time for her to get an Oscar.
Only she didn’t.
And she didn’t get a nomination for Man with the Golden Arm, which came out the same year as Melody (it would have been a supporting nod), even though the part and performance were perfect for such recognition.
Parker not getting an award for either role is pretty much the tipping point as far as Oscar is concerned. The Academy either needed to acknowledge Parker or ignore her. They went with the latter. Because reality disappoints.
Parker tried with a couple more Oscar-friendly roles in the late fifties. She did Lizzie, a multiple personality drama. Joanne Woodward won Best Actress the same year for Three Faces of Eve, which was a similar part but a much better production. Then Seventh Sin, with Parker as a Somerset Maugham “heroine.” A little bit more production value and a lot better leading man (only because the existing one, Bill Travers, sucks the life out of the film) and it should’ve gotten Parker some attention. Home from the Hill, Parker’s only potboiler—albeit a phenomenal one—seems both a natural and unlikely nomination.
After a brief stint at Fox in the early sixties, Parker wandered from studio to studio, part to part. Her most high profile sixties role—The Baroness in The Sound of Music—would also be her most indelible. Even though the part’s not great. Sound of Music was a mega-hit, leading to most people who knew Parker remembering her from that film, nothing else. Though as time went on, it was less and less likely they’d seen her in anything else.
Parker’s last Oscar possibility was probably 1966’s An American Dream, but done in thanks to the movie being godawful. But it was definitely the type of role the Academy would soon be recognizing (just the next year, actually, with Anne Bancroft in The Graduate). But, again, Dream was godawful so it didn’t work out.
Parker herself was somewhat infamously known for not caring about the Hollywood game. As she told a reporter in April 1955, “I’d like to win an Academy Award, of course—who wouldn’t? But it will never become an obsession with me.”
Still, history suffers for her never having won one, not just for how it might have changed the trajectory of her career—leading to even more great performances—but also gotten people interested in her work before the DVD boom indirectly helped Parker, her talent, and her skill get their due.
I didn’t talk about the performances who won against Parker in the three Academy Award ceremonies for a couple reasons. First, I’m not just not interested in arm-chairing those wins, I’m not even informed enough on the performances to do so. Second, given Parker wasn’t ever an Oscar-chaser, it seems inappropriate to get too worked up about her not winning. Especially since, frankly, it was bullshit when she didn’t get a nomination for Of Human Bondage back in 1947.
There are a lot of ways to talk about Eleanor Parker and the Oscars, even without getting into the contemporary newspaper and magazine articles. The trivia alone about Parker and her co-nominees could go on forever. But fixating on the subject seems a waste of time—just like Parker thought—one’s time is much better spent seeing some Eleanor Parker movies.
I didn’t have any big plans for The Stop Button in 2018 other than blogathons and whatever came up. Comics Fondle I was reading all of Love and Rockets, which took more than 2018. But Stop Button… well, marathon training. It was going to take up a lot of time.
Of the 157 feature films… the three best films I watched were Seven Samurai, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Best Years of Our Lives. I’d seen all those films before (though it’d been a long time on each of them); the best films I saw for the first time were Get Out, Frances Ha, Sunset Blvd., Only Angels Have Wings, and Jour de fête. No order on any of these lists.
However, when it comes to the worst films I watched this year? I’ll give it to Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which I truly loathed, Great Monster Varan, which broke the cardinal rule of kaiju–it was boring–and The Incredible Hulk Returns, which I remembered from childhood and felt great shame. Not for the “Incredible Hulk” TV show, but for that first TV movie. I haven’t been able bring myself to watch the other two yet.
Speaking of superheroes… most of the recent movies I watched were comic book movies. Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Thor 3, Ant-Man 2, Avengers 4, Venom, Aquaman, (ugh) Guardians 2, also Darkman, which I’d watched since starting the blog for the Alan Smithee Podcast but never written about. And the long-anticipated Superman: The Movie: The Extended Version, which is a mess but rather informative about how narrative editing works for a film. Also the second “Hulk” TV pilot movie. Oh, and two Superman serials, one Dick Tracy one, one Batman one.
Best comic book movies I watched were Black Panther and Avengers 4.
Sequels I watched a bunch. Five total Puppetmaster movies (one and the four sequels). Westworld and Futureworld. Star Wars: Episode 8. Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (the first Leone Western I’ve written about). Mission: Impossible 6 and 5. Magic Mike 2 (haven’t seen the first). Die Hard 3 (after meaning to watch it again for, you know, a decade). Creed II (it might be the only Stallone movie on the blog this year, which is something). And then some Halloween movies. I watched the Joe Chappelle travesty again, then the crappy Rob Zombie ones in their theatrical cuts for the Sum Up post I really didn’t want to do. After seeing H40, I decided to scrap that post. Not worth editing, even though I had it fully drafted. That one killed Sum Up enthusiasm even more than Godzilla Showa.
Then there were the sequel serials. The aforementioned Batman and Superman ones. Also Flash Gordon 2. I also watched Judex, which is actually good (the first actually good serial I’d seen in ages), The Clutching Hand, which was godawful and stopped me watching serials, The Phantom Creeps, which was godawful but no Clutching Hand, and Dick Tracy, which was godawful but no Phantom Creeps. When I tried to keep the interest with Flash Gordon 2 and it disappointed… well. I can’t do the serials for a while. I think I might have watched the first chapter of The Shadow and not even posted it because the serial was such a noodle.
As usual, there was more horror than one would think. The Puppetmaster series, House, DeepStar Six, Shadow of the Vampire, Stepford Wives, Babadook, Quiet Place, Let Me In, Sleepwalkers, The Descent, The Witch. Some major disappointments; I expected too much from House and Six though. Those two are on me. The biggest surprise was probably that one good Puppetmaster movie.
Foreign movies I didn’t watch anywhere near as many as I always mean to watch. Worse, the two Bergman’s disappointed (to various degrees)–AutumnSonata and Through a Glass Darkly. Aforementioned Jour de Fete was excellent. And Delicatessen held up. I’d been meaning to watch it again.
My highly anticipated first viewings not including the aforementioned “best of”) were Giant, Blade Runner 2, The Gay Falcon, The Other Side of the Wind, Lonelyhearts, The Cheap Detective, Sometimes a Great Notion, Quiet Place, The Witch, and–to some degree–All That Heaven Allows. Most disappointing is of course Other Side of the Wind, but worst is Gay Falcon.
Highly anticipated repeat viewings (also not including the aforementioned “best of”). Goodfellas, Delicatessen, Street Smart, Naked Alibi, Vivacious Lady, You Can’t Take It With You, Die Hard 3. Goodfellas was kind of a shock but also inevitable (whereas Naked Alibi and Street Smart were just inevitable). Vivacious Lady was a pleasant surprise.
Now, of those forty-four short films, the big focus was the “Peanuts” television specials. I managed to keep going on those ones even after it became clear it was going to be rough at times. I made the only video I made this year because of one. It’s Snoopy but Wicker Man, get it?
I also watched all of Cheryl Dunye’s early short films, which was awesome. Around twenty years after first reading about Dear Diary I finally saw it and, wow, no. The Edison Frankenstein is great though. I also finally finished up the forties Superman cartoons; most of them are bad. I’d been meaning to watch those cartoons since I started writing about shorts; they really weren’t worth the wait.
Best shorts are Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, Greetings from Africa, Meshes of the Afternoon, What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? Almost in order of publication, which I should’ve been doing from the start for the best of lists. Next year.
I think the decade with most films written about is the fifties, which seems weird because I didn’t think at all about focusing on it. Just happened.
A month into 2019, it certainly seems like I’m going to keep going with blogathons to “schedule” Stop Button. I’ve got a bunch of short films I’m interested in but the only thing really connecting them is that interest. No scheduling themes for the foreseeable future, other than long form posts. Next month I’m doing an Eleanor Parker post about the Oscars. Then I think I’m alternating monthly between Stop Button and Comics Fondle.
The 2019 blogathon schedule has some movies I’m really looking forward to writing about finally: Primrose Path and Incredible Shrinking Man being the standouts so far. I remember loving both those films. Long ago.
And scheduling a weekly group movie night has lead to some long dreaded repeats (Unbreakable) but also excellent ones (Sugarland). Films I’ve already got scheduled I’m really looking forward to watching (or watching again)–Sorry To Bother You, Mighty Quinn, Crooklyn, To Die For, Lizzie, Duel.
Given I’m not training for a marathon again, I hope this summer I do something more focused–there’s a lot more Bergman in the box set, there’s Aki Kaurismäki, there’s still Buster Keaton (if just the shorts), there’s those restored Hal Hartleys, there’s plenty. There’s too much.
So I’m keeping my 2019 Stop Button ambitions just as low as 2018’s, only without the marathon excuse. But am confident I’ll see some good things. Maybe even Sixth Sense again, because I have to know.
Since 1954, Japan’s Toho Company Limited has made over thirty Godzilla films. There are three distinct eras of Toho Godzilla movies–the Showa, the Hensei, and the Millennium. Most of the films, at least during Showa era, got dubbed theatrical releases in the United States. If they didn’t get theatrical releases, they aired on television. What started as an intense, metaphorical rumination on the atom bomb–a giant radioactive lizard monster attacks Japan, brought to life by American nuclear testing–would become rubber monsters wrestling on sets of miniaturized Japanese countrysides. The fifteen Showa Godzilla films frequently had the same directors, screenwriters, technical crew, and cast members (always as different characters, with one exception). They had a single producer–Tanaka Tomoyuki–who came up with the idea for Godzilla while on a plane ride over the Bikini Atoll, where the Americans had recently tested A-bombs (and irradiated nearby Japanese fishers), imagining what could be lurking beneath the ocean’s surface.
The result was Godzilla, released in November 1954. Directed by Honda Ishirō, the film recounts the discovery of a giant monster and its eventual attack on Tokyo, causing mass destruction and civilian casualties. Takarada Akira plays the lead, a salvage captain who just happens to know government scientist Shimura Takashi (through his romance with Shimura’s daughter, Kōchi Momoko). Hirata Akihiko is the young scientist who holds the secret to destroying the monster and saving Japan, but he’s also jealous of Takarada’s romance with lifelong crush Kōchi.
Honda is able to increase the scale for the giant monster sequences while never losing track of the characters’ emotional realities. Kōchi and Takarada ground Godzilla, which is important given Hirata’s a little too histrionic as the third leg of their love triangle. Honda and the crew keep a deliberate narrative distance as the film recounts terror and tragedy. Outstanding production values–especially Tamai Masao’s photography and Ifukube Akira’s score.
The film was a massive hit with audiences but not so much with critics, who found its imagery and content exploitative. It’d take thirty years or so, but eventually Japanese film critics did positively reevaluate Godzilla. About a year and a half months after the film’s Japanese release, Jewell Enterprises adapted it for American audiences, with dubbed dialogue and new footage featuring Raymond Burr as the lead, an American reporter. That version, Godzilla, King of Monsters!, released in April 1956, helped establish the Godzilla franchise worldwide. A subtitled version of the Japanese original would be shown on the American film festival circuit in the early eighties, but with no home video release. For fifty years, Godzilla, King of Monsters! was the only version of the film readily available to English-speaking audiences.
In May 1955, just five and a half months after Godzilla’s late fall 1954 release, Toho unleashed Godzilla Raids Again. The original film wasn’t made with a sequel in mind, but the film’s popularity rushed one into production. In the cast, only Shimura Takashi returns, playing the same character (the only time a character would repeat between films). This time his scientist has less to explain–the new creature is just another Godzilla animal. And this Godzilla brings along an adversary–Anguirus. Koizumi Hiroshi and Chiaki Minoru play the fish-sighting pilots who happen across the giant monsters and get involved in some of the government’s response. Oda Motoyoshi directs.
Despite an eager lead performance from Koizumi and a strong introduction to the “new” Godzilla and Anguirus, Raids Again is a constant disappointment. The rest of the cast is middling at best, with Oda having little interest in directing the actors (or much else). The script is utterly lacking, the editing falls apart, as does the cinematography.
At least the special effects are solid.
The film was nearly as popular as the original Godzilla; it was Japan’s tenth highest grossing film of 1955. Initially, the American producers who bought the film rights had hoped to just reuse the monster footage while shooting a new, English language film around it. It was going to be called The Volcano Monsters; they were even going to shoot new giant monster footage with the original kaiju suits. That plan didn’t work out.
Instead, the eventual dubbed version, Gigantis the Fire Monster (Godzilla’s new name so as not to confuse American viewers who thought the monster died) came out in 1959–distributed by Warner Bros.–and then disappeared for almost thirty years. The American version’s producers weren’t interested in selling TV rights. Gigantis didn’t get any home video release until eighties, when the rights reverted to Toho.
Following Godzilla Raids Again’s 1955 release, Toho took a break from Godzilla films. At least in original films (Raids Again had completed its Japanese theatrical release before the American Godzilla even came out). During that time, Toho made other kaiju movies like Rodan, Varan, and Mothra. The studio also produced a number of sci-fi films with giant monsters (or giant robots) playing a part. It wasn’t until after Godzilla returned, Toho began working to unify many of their monsters into a “kaiju universe.”
The third Godzilla movie, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, arrived seven years after Godzilla’s last appearance. It is the first in the series to be in color (it’s also Kong’s first color appearance) and widescreen Tohoscope. Honda Ishirō is back directing, with Sekizawa Shin’ichi scripting. The plot involves opportunistic TV producers, Takashima Tadao and Fujiki Yū, who want to exploit the monsters for advertising potential. In addition to Godzilla and Kong’s clashes, there’s also a giant octopus Kong has to fight. Hama Mie is the eventual female object of Kong’s (brief) attention. Back from the first Godzilla is Hirata Akihiko, again playing a scientist (this time one without much plot consequence).
King Kong vs. Godzilla declaws its monsters. There’s destruction but no casualties. Sekizawa’s script tries for humor–giving Hirata some good moments, but director Honda misses all the comedy beats. He also can’t compose for the wide Tohoscope aspect ratio, (presumably unintentionally) framing his shots for the eventual pan-and-scan version. The acting’s very uneven; while Takashima’s not good in the lead, Sahara Kenji’s solid as Hama’s boyfriend. And Arishima Ichirō, doing a Groucho Marx impression as Takashima’s boss, is all right.
Overall, King Kong vs. Godzilla is a giant-sized disappointment.
Contemporary Japanese moviegoers, however, embraced King Kong vs. Godzilla; the film was the biggest hit of 1962 and remained one of the ten most attended films in Japanese film history until 2008. It’s still in the top fifteen. The American version of the film–released in April 1963 by Universal Pictures–added dubbing, of course, but also stock footage from another Toho film, library music from a variety of sources, and altogether new footage; it’s a very different picture.
Kong vs. Godzilla’s outstanding success convinced Toho to turn Godzilla into a franchise. After a couple failed starts–including a Kong sequel and one where Godzilla would fight a giant Frankenstein monster–the studio settled on Mothra vs. Godzilla. Mothra–a giant moth charged with protecting a Japanese island populated with doll-sized natives–was one of the kaiju Toho created during Godzilla’s post-Raids Again hibernation. Mothra has the distinction of being one of the few kaiju with a definite gender; she was a she. Godzilla, for instance, had none. Anyway. Her solo movie had a 1961 release in Japan (and a 1962 one in the United States).
Mothra vs. Godzilla came out in April 1964, almost two years after Kong. Director Honda and screenwriter Sekizawa return from Kong vs. Godzilla (they had also done Mothra). Mothra vs. Godzilla is a sequel to both films. A giant Mothra egg washes up on shore; Takarada Akira (the lead from the first Godzilla) and Hoshi Yuriko play reporters covering the story. Then it turns out Godzilla has also been washed ashore, which inevitably leads to a kaiju battle. Sahara Kenji’s back from Kong as the human villain and Koizumi Hiroshi (from Raids Again) is Takarada’s scientist sidekick.
Mothra vs. Godzilla has some good special effects, some fine narrative twists, and a great final battle. Unfortunately, Takarada and Hoshi have zero chemistry. Sahara and his fellow villain, Fujiki Yû (also back from Kong), do bring some energy, however. Once again, one of the big problems is Honda; he relies on bad composite shots when trying to give Godzilla scale. He also doesn’t do anything to help his cast’s performances. It’s too bad; the movie always seems like it’s just about to get better.
Mothra vs. Godzilla was just under half the hit King Kong vs. Godzilla had been, but still very successful for Toho (who successfully rushed a sequel into production for a December release that same year). American International Pictures distributed the American version–entitled Godzilla vs. The Thing–which featured new footage the studio shot for the international market. It also utilized the Toho produced English dub, which the studio had started doing with King Kong vs. Godzilla (although that dubbing wasn’t used).
The December 1964 Godzilla movie–the only calendar year with two releases in the entire franchise–is Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, released in December. Honda and Sekizawa are back from Mothra to direct and write, respectively; some of that film’s principal cast returns as well. Hoshi Yuriko is again the female lead, Koizumi Hiroshi is again a scientist. The lead is Natsuki Yōsuke, a cop assigned to protect princess Wakabayashi Akiko. In his final Godzilla, Shimura Takashi returns as a scientist–not the one he played in Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, however. Hirata Akihiko shows up again too.
Ghidorah, the Three-headed Monster is about a monster from outer space arriving to destroy Earth; Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan (returning from a 1956 solo outing) team up to save the day.
Ghidorah has similar problems to Mothra. Natsuki is a weak lead, but it’s not like he gets any help from Honda, who’s not good at the action scenes or the interior scenes or directing his cast. Hoshi’s good but underutilized. The best ideas in Sekizawa’s script–like Wakabayashi as doomsayer–don’t get developed. Almost half the movie is dedicated to the giant monsters wrestling each other, which doesn’t end up solving any of the narrative’s problems. Still, it’d probably have worked out better with more monster time.
Ghidorah was a hit, but six months after Mothra only seventy-five percent of that movie’s audience showed up for the sequel. The film had nine minutes lopped off for its dubbed, American release, which came out in the States almost a year later, courtesy Continental Distributing.
Almost a exactly a year later–one day short–Toho released 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster. It was a co-production with American producer Henry G. Saperstein, who wanted more aliens and an American actor for his investment, so Nick Adams has one of the lead roles. Otherwise, Astro-Monster brought back the standard sixties Godzilla creative team of director Honda and writer Sekizawa. Takarada Akira is again the hero, with Mizuno Kumi the villainous female lead. The film is set in the future, with Takarada and Adams astronauts exploring a newly discovered planet. Its inhabitants say they need Godzilla and Rodan to protect them from Ghidorah… but then it turns out the aliens aren’t friendly and have designs on Earth.
Despite good direction from Honda, who does well with the space stuff, the script’s a stinker. Plus the acting’s wanting. Takarada and Adams are both bad, Tsuchiya Yoshio’s awful as the villain. The monsters aren’t in it enough. Once again they don’t even show up until halfway through; this time Godzilla, pretty much completely transitioned into being a heroic monster at this point in the series, does a little boxing and some dancing. Sadly neither can save the film.
Astro-Monster was popular with Japanese audiences (though not as popular as the previous entry). Co-producer Saperstein had his own English dub done, eschewing the Toho-produced one. While the Godzilla franchise had been trendy enough in the U.S. for Ghidorah to get a big American marketing campaign, it took Saperstein four years (his version, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero was completed in 1966) to find a distributor–Maron Films finally released it theatrically in 1970.
For the next Godzilla, Toho would change up the creative formula a little, bringing in Fukuda Jun to direct December 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. Sekizawa Shin’ichi writes, with lead Takarada Akira back again. This time he’s a bank robber stowing away with some teenagers who stumble upon a terrorist organization (one of the leaders played by Hirata Akihiko no less) who’ve enslaved the people of Mothra’s home island… and then moved them to a different island. Also on the island is Godzilla. In the sea around the island is another monster–the titular Ebirah. Mizuno Kumi is also returns, making Ebirah the only Godzilla movie with consecutive male and female lead actors.
In terms of direction, Fukuda doesn’t bring much new to the giant monsters. Bad monster suits and cramped landscape sets don’t help. But Fukuda doesn’t do too bad with the James Bond-esque half of the film, with Takarada and his teen compatriots taking on Hirata’s flying terrorist squadron. It’d also help if the acting were better; Takarada (in his last Godzilla movie for twenty-six years) and Hirata both disappoint. The script’s also weak. Some great editing and music though.
Ebirah lost almost twenty percent of the previous film’s theatrical attendees; still a hit but it’d be the last Godzilla film before the series sunk to a lower attendance plateau. Continental Distributing bought the American distribution rights and released it straight to television in 1968 under the title, Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. They used the Toho created English dub.
Fukuda returned to direct the next Godzilla, December 1967’s Son of Godzilla, with screenwriter Sekizawa also back (and getting his first ever co-writer–Shiba Kazue). Kubo Akira plays the lead, a reporter who ends up a cook for a group of scientists studying the weather on “Monster Island” (where Godzilla and the other monsters live). Lots of familiar Godzilla faces for the scientists–including series mainstay Hirata Akihiko, Tsuchiya Yoshio (Astro-Monster’s villain), Takashima Tadao (King Kong vs. Godzilla’s lead), and perennial supporting player Sahara Kenji. Beverly Maeda plays the female lead, an island native who goes from saving Kubo at every turn to being second-fiddle.
The film introduces some new kaiju, the adorable Minilla (the Son of Godzilla) and the giant insects who terrorize him when big daddy (or mommy) Godzilla isn’t around.
Despite Fukuda’s directorial ineptness and a herky-jerky pace, Son of Godzilla is something of a success. Kubo’s a good lead, even though Maeda should’ve had that role in the narrative. Maeda’s more appealing than good. The monster stuff is a success–Godzilla and son prove constantly endearing and the giant mantises and spider are great villains. Plus an enthusiastic, wild score from Satô Masaru. Fukuda doesn’t (always) mess up the good stuff–he does mean well–and the end is downright fantastic.
Contemporary Japanese moviegoer attendance had another sharp drop on Son of Godzilla. Toho had hoped to appeal to couples–girls would like the baby Godzilla, wouldn’t they–but if the film did get some date night viewings, they weren’t enough to curb declining interest. Continental Distributing again released the English dubbed version straight to TV, airing first in 1969 (with a couple minutes cut).
Toho had noticed the decreasing theatrical attendance and planned the next Godzilla to be the last. While most of the sixties films had two or three monsters alongside Godzilla, the next film, August 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, would have ten monsters in addition to Godzilla. Destroy brought back all the recent monsters–Minilla, King Ghidorah, Mothra, Rodan–as well Anguirus (after thirteen years away) and some kaiju from not-Godzilla-related Toho productions. To direct the intended finale, Toho brought in Honda Ishirō.
Destroy All Monsters is set thirty years in the future, when all the monsters have been successfully rounded up and confined to the single, “Monster Island.” Unfortunately, a race of female aliens show up and mind control all the monsters, loosing them on the capital cities of Earth. The humans–led by spaceship commander Kubo Akira (back from Son of Godzilla)–have to contend with the rampaging monsters on Earth and the aliens’ base on the Moon.
The film proves a somewhat inglorious return to the series for Honda. He has some good filmmaking moments, but never any good content. The monsters play far less a part than Kubo and his crew trying to stop alien queen Ai Kyoko. The acting’s fine (not female lead Kobayashi Yukiko, but everyone else). And the Ifukube Akira music is great. Pluses aside, Destroy All Monsters is a tedious ninety minutes.
Despite all the monsters and a bigger budget, Destroy All Monsters attracted less than one percent more moviegoers than the previous year’s Son of Godzilla. The American version of the film did not utilize the Toho-produced international dub; American International Pictures, who released Destroy All Monsters in the United States in 1969, contracted Titan Productions for an English dub.
The less than one percent boost was enough to convince Toho to keep Godzilla going, albeit with some adjustment. For 1969’s Godzilla entry, Toho targeted their dedicated juvenile audience with All Monsters Attack. Most of the monster action in All Monsters Attack is stock footage from other Godzilla movies. The film is about bullied latchkey kid Yazaki Tomonori overcoming hardships thanks to his love of Godzilla and the imaginary friendship of Minilla (who appears alongside Yazaki, shrunk down to kid-size) and becoming more popular with the schoolkids, as well as foiling bank robbers. While the subject matter is nothing like any previous Godzilla movies, the script’s from regular writer Sekizawa Shin’ichi, directed by Honda Ishirō and series (supporting) regular Sahara Kenji plays Yazaki’s dad.
All Monsters Attack has some potential, thanks to director Honda, but Sekizawa’s script is way too flat. Yazaki is bad. And then when Minilla shows up, the movie veers into some weird territory about manliness as Minilla has a female voice (because of course the monster talks to Yazaki). Toho does a fine job at making a commercial for its own properties, but Monsters is aimed at kids who are already invested; it doesn’t encourage new interest.
Attendance for All Monsters Attack dropped forty percent from Destroy All Monsters, which Toho bean counters presumably realized said more about All Monsters Attack than Destroy All Monsters; it has the inglorious distinction of being the first Godzilla film to sell under two million tickets. In 1971, Maron Films distributed the dubbed version in the United States as Godzilla’s Revenge, a title just as unrelated to the content as All Monsters Attack.
It would be a year and a half before the next Godzilla film. Toho released Godzilla vs. Hedorah in July 1971. Hedorah brought a new director to the franchise–Banno Yoshimitsu. Hedorah is about a microscopic alien life-form melding with Earth’s pollution and becoming a giant monster. Seven year-old Kawase Hiroyuki plays a scientist’s son who has visions of Godzilla defending Earth from Hedorah. Yamauchi Akira and Kimura Toshie play his parents.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the first serious Godzilla movie since the first one, with Banno making an admonitory statement about the dangers of pollution. Just in a Godzilla movie. More, Banno is ambitious in Hedorah‘s narrative presentation; he wants the film interpreted very specifically. Even with the tough subject matter–and graphic, from Yamauchi’s opening disfiguring to Hedorah flinging toxic poop at Godzilla–Banno’s enthusiastic. The Hedorah suit is bad, but the special effects are otherwise quite good. It’s a fine film.
While not a huge hit on release, Hedorah did arrest the decline in franchise attendance. Hedorah even saw an eighteen percent increase in moviegoers. It also either enraged producer Tanaka (who either was or was not hospitalized during production) so much he fired Banno and banned him from Godzilla movies. Or it didn’t. Banno denied rumors of the conflict (as well as his rumored sequel plans for Hedorah). However, Banno never came back for another Godzilla and co-writer Kimura Takeshi did take a pseudonym on the script. The American version, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, came out in 1972, with American International Pictures once again hiring Titan Productions to do an English dub.
Given the troubled (or not troubled) Hedorah production, Toho returned to a more regular form with the next Godzilla movie, 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan. Fukuda Jun, the only series director besides Honda Ishirō to direct more than one entry, returned. Sekizawa Shin’ichi was back on script. The monster costars are a mix of old and new–Ghidorah and Anguirus regulars, Gigan new. The story once again involves evil aliens, who this time take over a theme park and plot the annihilation of the human race. Luckily, Godzilla and eclectic hodgepodge of humans (including a mangaka… and a hippie) save the day. None of Gigan‘s principals appear in any other Godzilla films; a franchise singularity.
Godzilla vs. Gigan is a silly, strange, wonderful bit of giant monster movie. The human story isn’t important, the monsters battling it out is important. The film’s achievements are in the choreography and execution of these kaiju battles on the sound stage, filming them, cutting them together. Gigan makes heavy use of old footage, which doesn’t help the film, but it mostly works out. The human stuff is fine too, just not the point.
Toho bringing back an experienced Godzilla crew resulted in a whopping two and a half percent increase in moviegoers. In the United States, Cinema Shares released Gigan as Godzilla on Monster Island in 1977, utilizing the Toho English dub–with some slight cuts to get a G rating.
Fukuda would return for the next film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, released just over a year later in March 1973. The underwater kingdom of Seatopia looses giant monster, Megalon, to wreck havoc on the surface world. It’s up to Godzilla and super-robot Jet Jaguar (who originally was going to solo a movie) to save the Earth. Sasaki Katsuhiko plays Jet Jaguar’s inventor, with Kawase Hiroyuki (back from Hedorah) as his little brother. Notably Megalon has no female characters (outside some dancers in Seatopia) and an American, Robert Dunham, playing the villain.
Once again, Fukuda delivers a successful giant monster movie. The three humans–there’s apparently no one else in Japan at this point except them–are appealing. Technically, Megalon is solid too. Fukuda and his crew do good work on both giant monster battles and the human stuff, which works out to be an espionage thriller. The film does well casting Godzilla as a tough guy. A good guy, but a tough good guy. It’s important since Jet Jaguar is a wimp. Megalon’s a lot of well-executed fun.
The film was a new series low as far as attendance, the first time a Godzilla movie dipped below a million moviegoers; attendance dropped fifty-five percent from Gigan. In 1976, Cinema Shares released the Toho-produced English dub version of the film in the United States, cutting out a few minutes to secure a G-rating. It would go on to get a prime time showing in the United States on NBC, cut down to a fit a one hour time slot. John Belushi, dressed in a Godzilla suit, hosted its 1977 broadcast.
The next Godzilla, March 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, would be Fukuda Jun’s last. The film opens with lead Daimon Masaaki–back from Megalon–discovering an Okinawan prophecy about two monsters stopping a third from destroying the world. Soon after, Godzilla emerges and starts wrecking havoc. Turns out bad Godzilla is actually a robot–Mechagodzilla–creation of the evil, apelike aliens from the Third Planet of the Black Hole. The real Godzilla arrives to save the day, aided by King Caesar, an Okinawan mythological creature. Mutsumi Goro plays the leader of the aliens. The film would also be the first seventies Godzilla to have some of the series’ most familiar faces back–Sahara Kenji, Koizumi Hiroshi, and Hirata Akihiko all have parts.
The film is nearly a success. Fukuda does well throughout, only for the finale to completely fall apart. Even with the well-executed giant monster stuff, Fukuda (as director and screenwriter) doesn’t have the human story to accompany it. Enthusiastic performances, inventive editing–Fukuda and editor Ikeda Michiko do wonders with expressions–Mechagodzilla just can’t overcome the disastrous third act. It’s a big disappointment after Fukuda’s two (successful) previous entries.
Contemporary audiences were ready to give Godzilla another chance. While attendance didn’t to back to the higher levels, or even meet Gigan’s numbers, it did significantly bounce back–thirty-five percent more theatergoers than showed up for Megalon. The American release came again from Cinema Shares, who again had to cut out a few minutes from the Toho-produced English dub to secure the G rating. Cinema Shares initially retitled the film Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster, but Universal Television threatened to sue (“bionic” was their word for the “The Bionic Woman” television show); so Bionic Monster became Cosmic Monster.
The following March, both Godzilla and Mechagodzilla returned in Terror of Mechagodzilla. Also back are Hirata Akihiko, Mutsumi Goro, and Sahara Kenji. Sahara has another bit part, while Mutsumi plays the exact same part–alien leader–but a different character. Hirata is also a different character; this time a mad scientist who keeps an evil pet dinosaur–Titanosaurus–and helps the aliens rebuild Mechagodzilla to destroy mankind. Sasaki Katsuhiko plays the lead; he’s investigating Titanosaurus and falling in love with Hirata’s daughter, Ai Tomoko. She’s a cyborg occasionally controlled by the evil aliens. Godzilla manages to figure into the story too. Honda Ishirō directs.
Terror of Mechagodzilla is mostly bad. Honda doesn’t direct the giant monster stuff well. The monster battles are unimpressive. So is the human story. Hirata is bad. Sasaki is bad. Ai is better than she ought to be, given the material. There’s a lot of absurdly silly content done straight-faced because Honda has no self-awareness and even less of a sense of humor. If Terror were camp, it might be glorious. Instead, it flops; albeit with some solid technical efforts (none of them Honda’s).
Not only did Terror of Mechagodzilla lose all the attendance gains of the first Mechagodzilla, it lost a little bit more to be the lowest attended Godzilla movie to that point (and, as of 2018, ever). Unlike the previous three films, Cinema Shares did not release Terror in the United States. Instead Henry G. Saperstein acquired the distribution rights for the Toho-produced English dub. Saperstein then sold the theatrical rights to Bob Conn Enterprises, which released the film as The Terror of Godzilla three years after its Japanese release, in March 1978. The film needed severe editing to get a G-rating. After that theatrical release, Saperstein prepared a television version, reversing most of the film’s cuts and inserting a prologue introducing Godzilla (made up with stock footage from the other Godzilla films). That television version kept the title Terror of Mechagodzilla.
While Toho never officially gave up on Godzilla, Terror of Mechagodzilla would be the last in the Showa series of Godzilla films. Twenty-one years after they started the series, director Honda and actor Hirata participated in its impromptu conclusion. Of the fifteen Showa films, Honda directed eight. Hirata appeared in seven. Both Takarada Akira and Koizumi Hiroshi starred in four. Always supporting player Sahara Kenji was in nine. Most of the crew did multiple films–Sekizawa Shin’ichi wrote eight films and contributed stories for two more. The series, which started with the one kaiju–Godzilla–introduced another fifteen monsters (as well as providing other Toho kaiju film appearances after their solo entries). The series sold over sixty-seven million movie tickets in those first twenty-one years, with some of the films still Japanese box office record holders.
In the years after the last Showa film, Godzilla stayed in the public consciousness on both sides of the Pacific. The last four Showa films didn’t start releasing in the United States until 1976, a year after the series’s de facto conclusion; it was 1978 before Terror of Mechagodzilla finally got a release.
But even before that release, Godzilla movies would start appearing on home video in Japan, the United States, and the rest of the world. First on Betamax, then on VHS; LaserDisc would soon follow, then DVD and Blu-ray a couple decades later. While Toho released the entire series on a variety of home video formats–Beta, VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray–none of their releases have ever had English subtitles. In fact, Toho went out of their way to block subtitled releases of the Godzilla films for the franchise’s first fifty years (which lead to a pervasive bootleg market throughout the 1990s at American comic book conventions).
Starting in 2005, Toho finally began allowing English subtitles to accompany original Japanese audio. Classic Media, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and Media Blasters (through their Tokyo Shock label) released DVDs featuring both versions of the films, the original Japanese and the dubbed Americanized ones. Some of the original DVDs have gone out of print, with rereleases coming from Kraken Releasing and the Criterion Collection. Criterion is even preparing for a major release of the Showa Godzilla films on DVD and Blu-ray; they currently offer a number of the films streaming.
The single film without an original Japanese language release? 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. Even with DVD and Blu-ray releases, the English dubbed version is the only one available to non-Japanese speaking audiences.
Over twenty-one years and fifteen movies, Godzilla went from being a force of malevolent destruction to the planet Earth’s guardian. The monster had a kid, had a clone, made friends, fought aliens; Godzilla created an entire genre–the Japanese giant monster movie–the kaiju movie. When Godzilla walked into the Sea of Japan at the end of Terror of Mechagodzilla (as the monster had at the end of many of the movies–if not most of them), it was the start of an unexpected–and temporary–retirement. And Godzilla would return from that retirement a very different monster.
When she starred in Eye of the Cat, Eleanor Parker had been in more than forty theatrical films. She was forty-seven years old. She had just been in the biggest movie of all time–1965’s The Sound of Music. When Eye of the Cat came out in June 1969, Sound of Music was still playing in theaters in its original, four and a half year theatrical run. Eye of the Cat would Parker’s last theatrical release for ten years. With the exception, of course, of The Sound of Music, which got a rerelease in 1973.
After Cat, Parker had committed to her first regular role on a television series, “Bracken’s World.” She’d quit halfway through the first season, but still got a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Drama Actress.
But she’d never play another lead. She was forty-seven. Hollywood had no use for a forty-seven year-old female lead; not even the TV side. Parker returned to the theater, where there were better parts, and she started regularly appearing in TV movies. At least at the beginning of the seventies.
Parker had two television movie appearances in 1971; first was ABC’s Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring, which stars Sally Field as a teenage runaway who returns home. Parker plays Mom, Jackie Cooper is Dad, Lane Bradbury is Field’s younger sister. Meanwhile, Field’s old man (David Carradine) is traveling cross-country to rescue her from her parents’ square, suburban–functionally alcoholic and dysfunctional–household. Turns out Bradbury is showing all the pre-runaway signs, something Field can’t convince her parents. Joseph Sargent directs.
Although a little short–seventy-four minutes–and it takes Sargent a while to get comfortable with the television framing on his establishing shots, Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring is a spectacularly acted “family in crisis” drama. Sargent and writer Bruce Feldman use flashback to reveal Field’s story, juxtaposed against Bradbury in the present. Great parts for Cooper and Parker. They start the film, with Field coming into it gradually; Field’s excellent, assuming the protagonist role through her performance alone; she gets little help from Feldman’s teleplay.
Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring first aired in February and ABC reran it before the end of the year. It aired every few years for at least a decade. The film was a budget VHS mainstay–the first EP edition arrived in 1991–and it’s been on DVD, from one label or another, since 2001. Spring is now available streaming as well.
A few weeks after Maybe aired, Parker was on television screens again, appearing in the first “two part TV movie” (they weren’t called miniseries yet). Vanished aired on NBC in March, with Richard Widmark top-lining as the President of the United States. It was his first TV venture. Scientist and presidential pal Arthur Hill disappears. Then other scientists worldwide start disappearing. Is it a Soviet plot? Parker plays Hill’s wife, who gets investigated by FBI agent Robert Hooks and his roommate, White House press secretary James Farentino. Vanished has twelve major starring credits; in addition to Parker, Widmark, Hooks, and Farentino, there are Tom Bosley, Murray Hamilton, E.G. Marshall, Larry Hagman, Skye Aubrey, Robert Young, and William Shatner. Then there are all the supporting players. Huge cast. Buzz Kulik–reuniting with Parker from 1967’s TV movie turned theatrical release, Warning Shot–directs from a teleplay by Dean Riesner.
Vanished is a tedious three hours and ten minutes. The cast enters and exits as needed–Hooks goes from playing a major part to a nothing one, Parker ends up disappearing as completely as Hill, Widmark is scenery for the first half and then takes over the last quarter. The movie’s got a lot of moving parts and Kulik keeps them functioning. It just never gels into anything. The reveals are never good enough to excuse the cheap, sensational teases.
Despite a snide, dismissive review from John J. O’Connor in The New York Times, Vanished went on to get Emmy nominations for Widmark and Young. The movie, in its two parts, got rerun occasionally over the years, sometimes in the middle of the night, more recently on cable television. It’s never had any home video releases. There’s seemingly no notoriety in being the first two-night television movie.
It would be a year and a half before Parker appeared in anything again. In early November 1972, she starred in an episode of NBC’s horror anthology “Circle of Fear,” Half a Death. She plays mom to Pamela Franklin, who plays twins. One twin is haunting the other. The series is out on DVD from Warner Archive; it’s Parker’s only TV series appearance until 1978. She’d stick with TV movies until then (with a sort of exception).
TV movies such as Home for the Holidays, which aired on ABC just a few weeks after her episode of “Circle of Fear.”
Home for the Holidays has a spectacular cast; in addition to Parker, there’s Jessica Walter, Sally Field (playing Parker’s younger sister this time), Julie Harris, and Walter Brennan. Brennan is the cranky, rich, sickly dad. Walter, Field, Parker, and Jill Howarth plays his daughters. Harris is his new wife (and the prime suspect in the sisters’ mother’s death). There’s a lot of unpleasant backstory to the sisters, who reunite on Christmas Eve at Brennan’s request. And then they have to deal with a mad killer. John Llewellyn Moxey directs from an original Joseph Stefano script. Stefano wrote Parker’s last horror movie (and, at this point, last theatrical film), Eye of the Cat.
The movie’s fairly successful. Most of the acting is excellent, particularly Harris, Walter, and Parker. Field holds her own. Haworth doesn’t. Brennan is barely in it. Moxey relies way too much on zooming his shots, but otherwise he directs the movie pretty well. There’s a great chase sequence. Stefano’s script is thin; the actors gets the movie to the finish line. The end–featuring the big reveal–is problematic. Zooming does play a part.
Holidays didn’t make any critical waves–Howard Thompson dismissed it in the New York Times, definitely not a fan of the “ABC Movie of the Week” thrillers. It had its first VHS release in the late eighties, then another, budget (i.e. EP) release in the early nineties. It’s also been released on DVD–by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment–but only in their horror movie compilation sets, which they don’t market or index well. The only way to spot a Home for the Holidays inclusion is to read the back cover; a time consuming process seeing as how Echo Bridge has dozens of horror compilations. It also appears to be out of print.
Parker’s next TV movie was again for ABC. The Great American Beauty Contest aired in March 1973, starring Parker as a former winner, now hostess. Robert Cummings plays her sidekick. Louis Jordan is one of the judges (a scummy, blackmailing one). JoAnna Cameron, Farrah Fawcett, Tracy Reed, Kathrine Baumann, and Susan Damante play the main contestants. At least the ones Stanford Whitmore’s teleplay showcases. It’s a behind-the-scenes story of the contest. Robert Day directs. Contest is an Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg production; they also produced Home for the Holidays.
While Parker’s all right–and even manages to get a decent character arc in Whitmore’s jerkily paced script–Great American Beauty Contest is pretty bad. Day’s direction is bad, Whitmore’s writing is bad. Cummings provides okay support for Parker and Jordan’s a great villain. None of the actors playing the contestants give notable performances. Reed and Baumann are better than the rest. Damante is worst. Fawcett’s little better than Damante. Still, somehow–probably thanks to Jordan’s odiousness–Contest stays engaging. Or maybe it’s just agitation from dreading a Fawcett or Damante win.
The Great American Beauty Contest got a not terrible write-up from Howard Thompson at The New York Times when it aired. He liked Whitmore’s writing. And Fawcett’s performance. The movie has rerun occasionally over the years but, Fawcett or not, it’s never had a VHS release or a DVD one.
Parker didn’t have any 1974 acting credits, at least not film or television, and when she returned in 1975, she was once again going to try series television. She starred in a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner sitcom pilot, taking over the Katharine Hepburn role from the film. Richard Dysart plays the Spencer Tracy part, Bill Overton the Sidney Poitier, and Leslie Charleson the Katharine Houghton part. Madge Sinclair and Madge Sinclair played Overton’s parents. The sitcom would have dealt with the turmoil related to Overton and Charleson’s interracial marriage, if ABC had picked it up. They did not, however; the pilot only aired once in July 1975. ABC apparently had cold feet over the interracial kissing, which should’ve been an obvious result of an interracial marriage. The pilot’s never had a home video release of any kind.
Following Guess Who, Parker took 1976 off from filmed work. In 1977, she resumed guest starring on regular television series. That year she appeared on “Hawaii Five-O” and the first episode of “Fantasy Island.” Parker would do two more appearances on “Fantasy Island,” one in 1979, another in 1983. She also did “Love Boat” in 1979, then an episode of “Vega$” in 1980.
Amid those guest spots, Parker did a couple more TV movies, a pilot, a miniseries, and her final theatrical appearance.
The Bastard is the miniseries, a big budget adaptation of John Jakes’s novel; it aired on NBC in May 1978. Parker is one of the twenty-one credited stars. Andrew Stevens plays the lead, a French bastard who comes to the Colonies and ends up an instrumental figure in the Revolutionary War. Lee H. Katzin directs. William Shatner plays Paul Revere. Parker plays Stevens’s father’s widow, a duchess. She doesn’t want to let him have his inheritance. Patricia Neal plays his mother. Neal and Parker, reunited thirty-eight years after Three Secrets, are in scenes together (but only share the screen in long shot). Keenan Wynn, who appeared with Parker in A Hole in the Head but never alongside her, is another of The Bastard’s twenty-one stars. They again don’t share any scenes. And Tom Bosley. He was in Vanished. He’s Ben Franklin.
Could The Bastard be worse? Sure. It’s a relentlessly simple period piece, with Southern California not just standing in for the American East Coast, but Britain and France as well. Parker’s cameo is good. Neal’s part isn’t. Stevens is annoying–though he gets better for a while during the second half. Katzin’s direction is bad. Guerdon Trueblood’s script is bad. The bit parts for seventies television actors amuses a little (I mean, Bob Newhart‘s Peter Bonerz in a costume drama is something else). But it’s bad.
While The Bastard didn’t get glowing reviews, it was well-regarded enough to get a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Movie and a couple art direction Emmy nominations. And sufficient viewers to warrant watched NBC going ahead and finishing the adaptations of Jakes’s the series–The Kent Chronicles–with two two-night sequels. Parker didn’t return for either of them. The Bastard had a VHS release in the nineties from Universal, along with its two sequels. Acorn Media has put all three out in a Kent Chronicles DVD set.
In August 1979, Parker would make her final theatrical appearance in Sunburn, a Farrah Fawcett vehicle. The film stars Charles Grodin as an insurance investigator who goes down to Acapulco to investigate a claim. Fawcett’s the model he hires to be his pretend girlfriend (so no one knows he’s an insurance investigator). Art Carney plays Grodin’s sidekick. There’s an assortment of suspects, including Joan Collins (who’d also been in Warning Shot, the aforementioned 1967 Buzz Kulik film Parker costarred in), John Hillerman, William Daniels, even Keenan Wynn. No, Parker still doesn’t get a scene with Wynn (after Hole in the Head and Bastard). Parker doesn’t even get a speaking close-up. She’s usually in some kind of long shot. Richard C. Sarafian directs for Paramount.
Sunburn has a lot of problems, like Sarafian’s direction. He can’t do any of the things Sunburn wants to do like being a noir spoof. Most of the cameos are too thin. Fawcett’s a reasonably affable star in her (second) star vehicle. Grodin goes all out with a caricature of himself. Joan Collins is awesome. If it were made better–it’s not just Sarafian, the film’s a technical turkey–and written a little better, there might be something to Sunburn. But it could also be a whole lot worse.
The film got a tepid endorsement from Janet Maslin in The New York Times. Maslin found it was an improvement over Fawcett’s previous post-“Charlie’s Angels” vehicle, but didn’t care for Collins in particular. Audiences didn’t care for the film in general and it quickly bombed. Parker apparently only did the cameo because Sunburn was filming near her Palm Springs home. It had a VHS release in 1980 from Paramount and has been absent home video since then, save a Japanese DVD release.
Parker was back to TV a few months later. Her next TV movie, She’s Dressed to Kill, aired on NBC in December. Parker plays a drunken fashion designer declining in affluence who mentally abuses her models. John Rubinstein is the lead, a photographer who gets caught up with a murder mystery after Parker invites a bunch of people out to her private mountain to show her new line. Jessica Walter (who appeared in Home for the Holidays with Parker) plays Rubinstein’s boss. Connie Sellecca is one of the models, Gretchen Corbett is the “plain girl” Rubinstein romances. Gus Trikonis directs from a George Lefferts teleplay.
She’s Dressed to Kill is a diverting ninety minute thriller, plus commercials. Parker’s great, chowing down on all available scenery, and Walter’s excellent. Shame Walter’s barely in the movie. Rubinstein’s an okay lead, Corbett’s good, Sellecca’s bad. The writing never helps the actors. And the movie ditches characters too often (i.e. Walter). Better direction from Trikonis wouldn’t hurt either. But it’s far from bad.
For repeat airings, the movie sometimes got retitled, Someone’s Killing the World’s Greatest Models, but it was always She’s Dressed to Kill for home video. USA Home Video first put it out on VHS in the eighties and it had at least two releases; one giving Parker top-billing. It came out on DVD in 2008–a “grey” market release.
It was almost a year before Parker’s next appearance. She tried another pilot, Once Upon a Spy, a two-hour movie; ABC aired it in September 1980. A resulting series would have featured the adventures of computer scientist turned spy Ted Danson, his beautiful handler, Mary Louise Weller, and their boss, an M-type character only called “The Lady.” Parker plays “The Lady.” Christopher Lee plays the villain, who kidnaps a scientist with a shrinking ray. Ivan Nagy directs from a Jimmy Sangster script.
If it weren’t for Nagy, Sangster, and Danson, Spy would be a lot better. Weller’s likable, Lee’s good, there’s a genial tone–and a nice Bond knock-off score from John Cacavas. Parker doesn’t get anything to do. She sits in a room by herself and frequently says “bloody,” possibly because Welsh Sangster didn’t know how Americans talk. Nagy’s direction is bad. Danson’s got the physicality for the role, but his performance is the pits. Still, it’s not terrible for a TV movie.
Once Upon a Spy’s ratings didn’t get it a series order from ABC. The movie got rerun over the years, but never had a home video release in the United States. Columbia put it out on VHS in the UK. In 2013, the Sony Pictures Choice Collection DVD label put it out on DVD.
Parker’s next TV movie–her last of the eighties–was Madame X. The seventh version of Madame X. NBC aired it in March 1981. Tuesday Weld plays the lead, a shamed woman exiled to Europe by her sinister mother-in-law (Parker). Granville Van Dusen plays the mama’s boy husband. Weld kicks around Europe (filmed on set in Hollywood Europe), meeting various men–including Jerry Stiller and Jeremy Brett–all while getting progressively drunker. She ends up on trial, with her defense attorney (Martina Deignan) the daughter Weld had to abandon. Très dramatique. Robert Ellis Miller directs, Edward Anhalt adapts from the original Alexandre Bisson play as well as the 1966 theatrical version’s screenplay.
Madame X is bad. But not because of Weld, who never gets to be protagonist and is mostly second-fiddle to the guest stars in her scenes. Second-billed Brett’s good, but barely in it. Anhalt’s script is a lot of the problem; Miller’s direction is so detached it can’t even be part of the problem. Van Dusen’s bad. Parker’s pretty good in the handful of scenes she has without Weld (not much of a Return to Peyton Place reunion for the pair). Len Cariou’s good for a while. The script fails him. The script fails everyone.
The movie’s never had a home video release, which is kind of surprising considering Tuesday Weld’s the lead and there’s some Madame X brand recognition. It has aired on television occasionally over the years, but infrequently. And certainly more in the eighties than since.
Over the next few years, Parker did some more guest spots. She appeared on “Love Boat” again in 1982, then her third and last “Fantasy Island” along with a “Hotel” in 1983. All of those episodes are available on DVD. In 1984, Parker guested on “Finder of Lost Loves,” an Anthony Franciosa series on ABC; it lasted half a season. Nothing in 1985, but in 1986 Parker made it to Cabot Cove for her requisite appearance on “Murder, She Wrote.” But for most of the eighties, Parker was retired.
Her final screen appearance came in 1991, with her only foray into cable television–TNT’s Dead on the Money. The movie’s a spoof of romantic thrillers, with lead Amanda Pays visiting slick, wealthy beau Corbin Bernsen’s family estate. Parker once again plays wealthy matriarch. John Glover plays her other son, the goofy one. Kevin McCarthy is the father. Nothing is as it seems with the family and Pays might be in real danger. Will she figure out what’s going on in time to save herself? Mark Cullingham directs, with Gavin Lambert adapting a Rachel Ingalls novel.
Dead on the Money is a fun time; the implied danger works well with the humor. Money is a spoof on itself–a TV movie romantic thriller joshing the idea of TV movie romantic thrillers. Real-life couple Pays and Bernsen aren’t as good as everyone else, but both are likable. Glover’s great, McCarthy’s outstanding and strange (he’s barely in the movie). Parker has her moments, including some particularly good ones with McCarthy when they don’t have to be concerned about moving the plot forward.
When Dead on the Money aired in 1991, TNT was only three years old. They heavily promoted the movie, one of their first “originals.” Critical response was mixed–Variety didn’t like it, The New York Times wasn’t thrilled but appreciated Parker, McCarthy, and Sheree North. Subsequent video guides gave it decent capsule reviews. Money came out on VHS in the fall 1991, from Turner Home Entertainment, and even got a LaserDisc release the next spring. It’s never had a DVD release and doesn’t seem to have aired in decades, making it a lot rarer than it should be.
A few stinkers aside, Parker’s television movie appearances have a lot of charm to them. She didn’t get a lot of great roles but she got a handful of good ones, not just in the TV movies but also as a series guest star. It was a quiet, graceful second half to Parker’s fifty year career as an actor.
Still, it’s too bad some of this work isn’t more accessible–particularly Dead on the Money.
Going into the nineteen sixties, Eleanor Parker’s acting career seemed to have regained some of its recently lost momentum. Home from the Hill, released in March 1960, brought Parker into a genre she’d long avoided–the all-star soap. And–in addition to Parker being outstanding in the film, Hill had been a big hit. At the same time, Parker was beginning to do television (the medium had become less embarrassing for movie stars). Her only other 1960 project was a Hemingway adaptation, The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio, for the “Buick-Electra Playhouse” on CBS. Sadly, the series (all Hemingway adaptations) has never had any home video releases; it might not have even had repeat airings, making it one of Parker’s rarest films.
The sixties would end up giving Parker her most recognized role, along with at least one more potentially great part. But those roles would come in the second half of the sixties; as the decade started, Parker would be doing less film and more television.
At least after she got done suffering through a pair of poorly produced–yet potentially successful (not to mention potentially good)–Fox melodramas.
Parker’s first Fox melodrama was 1961’s Return to Peyton Place, which reunited her with a forties Warner alum, producer Jerry Wald. He’d produced three of her films at Warner Bros., including her best picture there–1950’s Caged. It’d been Parker’s first Oscar nomination. Wald and Fox had been planning the sequel film to Peyton Place since novelist Grace Metalious released the ill-advised and poorly received sequel novel in 1959. Fox, smarting from Cleopatra’s budget overruns, decided to go cheap and not bring back the original cast (though some of the original crew came back, including composer Franz Waxman). Parker took over Lana Turner’s part. Return to Peyton Place centers around Carol Lynley (replacing Diane Varsi) and her Peyton Place-esque expose novel and its fallout back home. Lynley’s also having an affair with her married New York City book editor Jeff Chandler. José Ferrer directs. Mary Astor and Tuesday Weld (replacing Hope Lange) costar.
Return to Peyton Place is one of those soapy, CinemaScope melodramas Parker smartly avoided in the 1950s. Turner had been the lead in the original, but third-billed Parker gets nothing to do in the sequel (paired with an ineffective Robert Sterling–in for Lee Phillips). Lynley and Chandler are awful. Astor’s got her moments. Weld’s somewhat likable. Besides the bad acting–and there’s a lot more–Ronald Alexander’s script is terrible (though Metalious’s source sequel apparently isn’t any better). It’s an unfortunate, but predictable failure.
Shockingly, contemporary critical reception to Return to Peyton Place was mild. Astor’s performance got some appreciation. The film did well at the box office too (though only thirty-six percent of what the original made). It also did not get any Oscar nominations (versus the original’s nine). Fox released the film on VHS–pan and scanning the CinemaScope–in the early nineties and it no doubt played on Fox Movie Channel over the years. Stretching the credulity of the label, Fox put out a DVD in 2005 as part of their “Studio Classics” series. The film is now available streaming as well.
Parker’s next failed Fox melodrama arrived a year later–Madison Avenue (filmed in 1960, released overseas before Return to Peyton Place) came out in January 1962. Costarring Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, and Eddie Albert, Madison Avenue is all about advertising Young Turk Andrews (fifty-one playing thirty or so) disrupting the dairy industry and, just maybe, the White House. Parker’s the rival ad woman who Andrews seduces (personally and professionally). Crain’s the earnest reporter Andrews manipulates. Albert is the seeming stooge who Andrews props up. H. Bruce Humberstone directs.
Madison Avenue’s actors try–though Andrews and Parker are able to hide their contempt for the film better than Crain–and, even though the film misfires, it does so gracefully. To an extent. Humberstone’s direction is wanting, but Norman Corwin’s screenplay has some good points. The film’s CinemaScope, runs ninety minutes, with a present action of three years, yet is way too little. It doesn’t help the cast is all too old, in one way or another, for their parts. Parker has a bad arc, but does get some decent material at the start.
On release, The New York Times’s Howard Thompson enjoyed deriding the film utilizing its milk content as fodder (i.e. it’s a milksop). He does take the time to say Parker has “never looked more ravishing” (he similarly complemented her appearance and ignored her performance in his Escape from Fort Bravo review nine years before). The film never got a VHS release, though it did play–occasionally letterboxed–on the Fox Movie Channel. Fox released Madison Avenue on its Cinema Archives DVD label with a terrible pan and scan transfer in 2012. The film is third of the four Andrews and Crain made together; it’s unfortunate Parker never got to costar with either in a better picture.
Following Madison Avenue’s domestic release in January 1962, it would be over two years before Parker appeared in another film. She stayed busy during that time on television. Parker made five television appearances between 1962 and 1964. The first, an episode of CBS’s “Checkmate,” aired a few weeks after Madison Avenue came out. Then it’d be a year before her next appearance–an Emmy-nominated turn on “The Eleventh Hour” in February 1963. That October, she appeared on “The Chrysler Theatre” in Seven Miles of Bad Road, costarring Jeffrey Hunter and Neville Brand. “Eleventh Hour” and “Chrysler” both aired on NBC. In January 1964, Parker guest-starred on ABC’s “Breaking Point.” Then in March, she did an episode of the “Kraft Suspense Theatre,” opposite Roger Smith. “Checkmate” and “Eleventh Hour” have been released on DVD, but none of the others have official releases.
In April 1964, producer Ron Gorton–through his own Gorton Associates–released Panic Button, starring Parker, Maurice Chevalier, Jayne Mansfield, Mike Connors, and Akim Tamiroff. The film had been done since 1962–domestic distributor Warner Bros. decided against releasing it–when it premiered in Italy (where it was filmed). Connors plays a Hollywood producer who needs to make a bomb to get his dad’s company out of tax trouble. Chevalier is a washed-up actor, Parker’s his ex-wife and manager, Mansfield is the pretty face, Tamiroff is the incompetent movie-in-the-movie director. George Sherman is the real director.
Panic Button is far from a success, but nowhere near an abject failure. Parker is great–even though the script does her character no favors (mostly in the character arcs for her costars, Chevalier and Connors). The film wastes Tamiroff, which shouldn’t be possible. The big comedy sequences don’t work, the little moments don’t work. Somehow the cast’s professionalism keeps it somewhat afloat (even if Chevalier, in one of his final roles, isn’t good). And Venice is pretty.
The film was not a success on domestic release and soon faded into obscurity, “saved” only by cheap VHS releases–their covers emphasizing Mansfield’s cleavage–until Warner Archive (surprisingly) put out a nice widescreen DVD a few years ago. Just like Madison Avenue, the film foreshadows Parker’s sexy older woman parts, which she’d start getting stateside in a few years.
But first would be Parker’s most successful film, 1965’s The Sound of Music.
Based on a true story turned smash hit Broadway musical and filmed on location in the Austrian Alps, Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews as a young Austrian postulant (pre-nun) in 1938. She’s sent to be a governess for widower Christopher Plummer, who has seven children and a fiancee, Parker. Andrews (and her singing) helps the children mourn their mother’s passing; she also catches Plummer’s eye, making Parker rather displeased. But only for the first half of the three hour film. After intermission, Parker’s gone, the Nazis are on the way, and the family’s in trouble, happy singing or not.
Sound of Music is usually outstanding thanks to lead Andrews. Great songs, great music. Andrews’s charges are all adorable. Plummer’s good as the stern father with the heart of gold. Parker spends most of her time plotting with Richard Haydn; that plotting leads to some decent scenes with her and stars Andrews and Plummer. The second half of Sound of Music is lacking compared to the first, but it’s still an outstanding musical.
Contemporary critical response was mixed–New York critics greatly disliked it, West coast critics and the trades loved it. So did audiences. The Sound of Music, released in March 1965, had a theatrical run of four and a half years; it became the highest grossing film of all time a year and a half into its release. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. After a single 1976 airing on ABC, in 1979, NBC started broadcasting Sound of Music annually. They usually cut the film down to 140 minutes. NBC showed it for twenty years, including a special letterboxed airing in 1995.
The film was one of the first three VHS releases in 1979. It was out on LaserDisc and CED soon after; the first letterboxed release was the 1989 LaserDisc rerelease. The first DVD arrived in 2000, followed five years later by another edition, then Blu-ray in 2010. And now it’s available streaming as well, of course.
The Sound of Music has been a (pop) cultural phenomenon since its release over fifty years ago. And Parker, no matter what else she did before (or after), is forever “The Baroness” to generations of audiences. But instead of returning Parker to A-pictures, the latter half of the sixties relegated her to camp. The bad camp.
Parker’s next film opened a year later in March 1966. The Oscar, directed by Russell Rouse, based on Richard Sale’s novel. It’s another of the “all star” melodramas Parker never did in the fifties. Stephen Boyd is the lead, a snotty actor nominated for Best Actor–The Oscar’s refers to the Academy Award. The film recounts Boyd’s backstabbing his way to the top, mostly in flashback. Parker plays his first agent and his jealous, older lover–she’s fourth billed of nine. The film also stars Elke Sommer, Joseph Cotten, Milton Berle, Jill St. John, and Tony Bennett. Sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison cowrote the script.
The Oscar is indescribably godawful. Terrible direction, terrible writing, terrible lead acting from Boyd and Bennett. Tony Bennett never acted again. Thankfully. Some of the cast tries–St. John, Berle, and Parker all to varying degrees–but there’s nothing they can do. The Oscar’s a smorgasboard of terrible and really has to be seen to be understood. There are some great Edith Head gowns though. They even got nominated for an Oscar. A real one.
While Embassy Pictures released the film domestically, Paramount put out The Oscar everywhere else. One has to wonder if they dumped it for domestic release. Critics rightfully savaged The Oscar on release–with Parker getting the only good notices. Audiences stayed away. The film’s gone on to earn notoriety as a terrible film, but not one easy for people to see. It’s only had a single home video release–VHS in the eighties. TCM has aired the film as well, though still in an old pan and scan transfer. These airings are sparing.
No one wants to see The Oscar. Even if they think they do.
Parker’s other 1966 release, An American Dream, came out in October. Adapted from a Norman Mailer novel, the film stars Stuart Whitman as a war hero turned television blowhard who runs afoul of the mob after murdering his estranged wife (Parker). Along the way he reunites with ex-girlfriend Janet Leigh. Robert Gist directed the Warner Bros. release (Parker’s first time back since 1950) with Mann Rubin handling the screenplay.
An American Dream ranges from terrible to unbearable. Gist’s direction and the script are both bad, as is much of the acting–Whitman especially. Leigh’s not good either, but at least its the writing doing her in. Whitman’s just acting poorly. Parker’s got some amazing hysterics and maybe if she’d lasted the entire run time American Dream would at least be tolerable. She doesn’t though. And it goes from bad to worse. The first five minutes, however, are deceptively well-executed.
The film was such a disaster on release, Warner pulled it and put it back out with a new title, See You in Hell, Darling, desperate for any success. The new title didn’t help. Contemporary critics compared it, in its badness, to The Oscar. So both Parker’s 1966 films were fiascoes. But more An American Dream, which had a distinct advertising campaign–initially–based around Parker’s character (sometimes her hysterics, sometimes her sex appeal). If it’d been a good movie, if it’d been a good script, American Dream would’ve given Parker an easy Best Supporting Actress nomination. Except it was terrible.
An American Dream never had a VHS release. It aired on TCM occasionally. Warner Archive put out a DVD in 2010 and the film’s now available streaming too. In case anyone wants to suffer.
Parker’s next film also had a script from Mann Rubin–January 1967’s Warning Shot, directed by Buzz Kulik. The film, a Paramount release, was originally supposed to be a TV movie but it turned out too violent. David Janssen is a cop who kills an armed suspect only for the suspect’s gun to disappear. He works his way through an all star cast of bit players–including Ed Begley, Keenan Wynn, George Sanders, Stefanie Powers, and Lillian Gish–while trying to find out the truth. Parker plays the suspect’s flirtatious widow.
Warning Shot is a perfectly serviceable mystery. Kulik and Rubin make it engaging. Janssen’s a great lead. Many of the cameos are good, including Parker and Sanders. They both get a scene. The film’s a little uneven–Janssen’s investigation has to wait for his police inquiry to resolve, which Kulik directs quite differently from the rest of the film–and the finale is a disappointment, but Warning Shot is always involving.
The film didn’t make much impression on release. Critics concentrated on its television pedigree. Warning Shot doesn’t seem to have ever gotten a VHS release, though Paramount put it out a widescreen DVD in 2005. That release has since gone out of print.
Warning Shot would be Parker’s last vivacious “older” lady part in features (she was only forty-four). None of the three or four (Panic Button sort of counts) roles led to anything, as American Dream’s part was theoretically the most promising and the film is such an exceptional stinker.
In her next film, The Tiger and the Pussycat, Parker again plays the “older” woman but she’s no longer vivacious. At least not according to the film. Tiger’s another Italian production; Parker is married to Vittorio Gassman, who’s cheating on her with ingenue Ann-Margaret. The film is set in Rome, directed by Dino Risi. It had an April 1967 release in Italy, with Embassy putting it out domestically that September.
Tiger and the Pussycat is fairly awful, with Risi’s two directorial interests misogyny and male gaze. Ann-Marget’s bad. Gassman–who has to carry the film himself–might be good if the script weren’t so bad. And if Risi weren’t so lousy. Parker’s got a dreadful part. Alessandro D’Eva’s photography is good. Rome’s pretty? Tiger and the Pussycat is indistinctly lousy.
In Italy, The film won two David di Donatello awards–best producer and best actor–but its domestic release seems to have been lackluster. Risi, Gassman, and Ann-Marget would go on to make another film together (1968’s Mr. Kinky). Tiger and the Pussycat had quite a few VHS releases, from a variety of independent video labels, starting in the early nineties. It also had a (now out of print) DVD release in 2001.
The next year, 1968, Parker didn’t have any theatrical releases in the United States. She’d only done one television guest appearance in 1965 and none the two years following. The 1965 appearance was on NBC’s “Convoy,” which isn’t available on home video. Parker returned to NBC in early 1968 for the last two episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” She plays a vivacious older U.N.C.L.E. widow and spends the majority of the episodes in flagrante with villain Mark Richman. In September 1968, MGM released the episodes combined as one of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” theatrical movies overseas, entitled How to Steal the World. It’s been available on video and now DVD (the movie version from Warner Archive, the TV show episodes from Warner).
Parker only had one more theatrical release in the sixties–1969’s Eye of the Cat. It was Parker’s first straight horror film–she’s wealthy aunt to lead Michael Sarrazin, who decides he’s going to murder her. Gayle Hunnicutt is the girl who convinces Sarrazin, though given how long Parker’s been abusing Sarrazin and brother Tim Henry, it doesn’t take much. Parker’s relationship with Sarrazin is physical (in the gross way). The film’s an original script from Joseph Stefano (Psycho), with David Lowell Rich directing.
Eye of the Cat is uneven and unsuccessful. Stefano’s script needs some work, Rich’s direction is entirely lacking, but Sarrazin and Parker do keep the movie going. Hunnicutt and Henry don’t help things. Rich even manages to bungle the San Francisco location shooting. Stefano just wants to do a thriller, Rich can’t direct thrills. Still, it could be a lot worse. Parker and Sarrazin taking it seriously makes the difference.
The film made it onto television by the early seventies (with a less violent, simultaneously shot ending) before fading into obscurity. Like everything else Sarrazin ever did. Cat didn’t have a home video release on VHS, LaserDisc, or DVD. Out of nowhere, Shout! Factory put it out on Blu-ray in 2018, forty-nine years after its theatrical premiere.
While Eye of the Cat was Parker’s only theatrical release of the year (though Sound of Music would still be in theaters until November), 1969 is when she decided to give series television a go. Starting in September, Parker was top-billed on NBC’s “Bracken’s World,” airing Friday nights at nine. She’d only stick around for sixteen episodes, quitting by the end of January 1970. The show, set at a fictional movie studio, had Parker as the executive secretary to the unseen Bracken. Before Parker parted ways with NBC on “Bracken,” she would also top-line their Hans Brinker television movie.
Airing in December 1969, Hans Brinker is a musical adaptation, partially filmed on location in the Netherlands. Parker plays Hans’s mother and even has two songs, which she did not sing (uncredited Sandy Stewart did). Robin Askwith plays Hans. Roberta Tovey is his sister. The majority of the cast is the kids, with the billed stars doing extended cameos. Richard Basehart, for example. He’s second-billed but an extended cameo. Robert Scheerer directs, Bill Manhoff did the teleplay adaptation.
Hans Brinker is a fairly intolerable hundred minutes. The songs (by Moose Charlap) are terrible. Sheerer’s direction is bad. Askwith’s performance is equal parts obnoxious and terrible. Tovey’s a little better. Parker’s part is thin (at best). Hans has nothing going for it. It’s not clear if Manhoff’s teleplay is responsible for the plodding, bad story or if it’s just the source material (by Mary Mapes Dodge, an American author fancifully imagining Hans’s Netherlands setting).
The contemporary reaction to Hans Brinker appears lost to time. Though the Detroit Free Press’s Lawrence Laurent opined–in a piece about the pitfalls of musical adaptations (he hadn’t seen Hans yet)–NBC expected to have a hit on their hands. Based on the movie’s obscurity, it seems unlikely they did. Warner Home Video put out a VHS in the mid-eighties and there was at least one sell-through VHS release in the nineties (not from Warner). Kultur Video put out a DVD in 2003, which is since out of print. It was on the back of that release where Stewart finally got credited for her singing.
With the exception of The Sound of Music, which didn’t even give Parker a good part, there aren’t many bright spots in Parker’s sixties filmography. Her nine theatrical releases are easily some of her worst. Even when the parts were a little better (or implied they could be better), the directors and screenwriters weren’t up to the task. Parker’s flirtation with television–starting in the early sixties and giving her occasional good parts–had slowed down after Sound of Music.
But even as audiences flocked to that film, seeing The Baroness for four and a half years, there apparently just weren’t any good parts for Parker anymore. She fell victim to Hollywood’s hate relationship with its older female stars. She was offered four parts in the sixties–martyr, sexy wife, cuckquean, pervy aunt. And baroness. “Bracken’s World” could have offered some better material–Parker still got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Drama even if she skipped out on the series–but it’s no surprise she went into the seventies concentrating on theater.