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The Bells of Cockaigne (1953, James Sheldon)

The Bells at Cockaigne plays it very safe. It’s an inspirational “play for television” about lovable old Irishman in the U.S. Gene Lockhart daydreaming about winning an apparently still legal in 1953 numbers racket the newspapers run. Lockhart’s going to use the money to go home to Ireland and his little village one last time.

Lockhart sounds like he’s doing an ad read for a leprechaun. He really goes crazy with the accent. It’s not good, but it’s also not offensively bad. It’s a tolerable bad accent.

Now, Lockhart’s top-billed but the Bells is actually all about young kid (kid meaning late teens, maybe early twenties) James Dean who’s got a sick baby daughter and no money. He and wife Donalee Marans need a miracle but they’re not getting any so Dean’s going to play poker with his coworkers after they get paid. Oh, right, it’s payday. Vaughn Taylor’s the paymaster. He talks to Lockhart a lot.

It’s all very predictable and very positive. There’s nothing to it. Except Dean. Dean’s performance has these transcendent moments, where for a minute it’s not obviously a nonsense bit of positivity to play to a Christian nation in 1953. Where it’s actually Dean playing this part. Young, naive, out of his depth. Bells finds some honesty, thanks to Dean, when it’s not even looking for it.

Lockhart’s fine. Taylor’s not as good as Lockhart but only bad a couple times. Marans isn’t good. You really don’t watch this one and think the director did very much to help his actors with their performances. For Marans, it matters. Probably for Taylor too. Not Lockhart. Definitely not Dean. Watching Dean at the poker game, where he’s got the nervous active style going opposite all the comparatively motionless stiffs… it’s something.

The Bells of Cockaigne succeeds, despite having no ambitions at such a thing, and it’s all thanks to Dean. And it not being particularly bad in any way.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by George Lowther; “Armstrong Circle Theatre” sponsored by Armstrong World Industries; music by Harold Levey; produced by Hudson Faucett; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Gene Lockhart (Pat), Vaughn Taylor (Jonesy), James Dean (Joey Frasier), Donalee Marans (Margie Frasier), John Dennis (Rivnock), and Karl Lukas (Kreuger).


The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988, Nicholas Corea)

The Incredible Hulk Returns is severely lacking. It’s severely lacking pretty much everything. Despite being set in and filmed in Los Angeles, the movie looks generic and constrained–director Corea has a truly exceptional aversion to establishing shots. The interior shots often have a different visual feel. More like video (Returns was shot on film, but edited on video). The video feel makes everything seem more immediate. But the last thing Returns has is immediacy. It lacks an immediacy, even though it’s incredibly dramatic.

No pun.

The movie’s set an indeterminate time since the TV series ended, but two years since Bill Bixby has turned into Lou Ferrigno. He’s in L.A. making a gamma ray to cure himself and romancing fellow scientist Lee Purcell. Despite a not too big thirteen year age difference, Bixby and Purcell lack chemistry. They’re not bad together, they just don’t seem into one another. The script tries too hard to make them cute and they’re not. The dialogue’s real bad on their romance too. There’s a lack of affection, even implied.

It doesn’t really matter because Purcell’s not important. She even gets kidnapped at one point and manages not to be important. The movie willfully ignores her. Because after the first act, it becomes a pilot for a “Thor” TV show and not really a Hulk TV movie.

Bixby’s about to cure himself when annoying rogue nerdy but late eighties nerdy cool doctor (medical doctor… sure, why not) Steve Levitt shows up. Seems Levitt’s gone and found himself an ancient Viking war hammer and become bound to giant, buff, blond Viking warrior god Eric Allan Kramer. Pretty soon Kramer is fighting Ferrigno and they break the lab, causing a big problem for Bixby.

Except not because they just fix up the lab, much to the chagrin of Bixby’s boss’s little brother, Jay Baker. Baker works his ass off in The Incredible Hulk Returns. He takes this movie really, really seriously. More seriously than anyone else, including Charles Napier playing a Cajun mercenary without a Cajun accent but TV Cajun speech patterns. It’s painful. Anyway. Baker. He tries. He’s also a corrupt little shit who hates his older brother John Gabriel. Baker doesn’t like Bixby much either. Or Levitt. They work too hard. Not really a subplot, but it comes up a couple times and it’s a lot of character development for Returns. Baker goes wild with it.

The movie utterly fails him, of course, but he does try. No one else really tries. Tim Thomerson doesn’t try as the villain. He’s also a Cajun but he’s ashamed of it. Or so Napier implies. Because Corea’s script for Returns puts more effort into the back story on the industrial mercenaries than on its lead female actor. Oh, wait. It’s only female actor. Purcell manages to weather Returns with dignity. Maybe having less to do helps.

Bixby’s completely flat throughout. He’s default likable, but never anything more. He’s not bored or condescending to the material or anything. He’s just completely flat. He’s supposed to have figured out some zen thing to control the Hulk but still. A lot of it is probably the script. Or Correa’s direction. Neither succeed at all.

Regarding Baker and his valiant efforts in his role–he’s not auditioning for a series. Levitt and Kramer would be the leads on the “Thor” show and, although Kramer does try, he doesn’t try as hard. And Levitt is exceptionally bland. Again, some of it’s the script. Some isn’t.

Kramer at least has fun. But his character is supposed to enjoy having fun. No one else in the movie enjoys anything. Not even Ferringo enjoys breaking things. Then again Correa kind of gives Ferringo the worst stuff in the movie. Not just the script or how Correa directs him–though I guess Ferrigno does get a couple spotlight action sequences–but also the make-up. When Ferrigno needs to do “Hulk sad,” he can do it. Shame Correa only has him emote twice in the movie.

Jack Colvin (from the “Hulk” TV show) comes back too. He’s barely got a part and spends a lot of his screen time talking on phones. He’s not good but he’s not terrible.

The music from Lance Rubin needs to be heard to be believed. At least for the first thirty or so minutes. Then there’s less or different music, but Rubin’s action sequence music? It’s loud, fast, layed, and terrible. There’s one good bit of music–when not using the show theme–and it’s a shock, because it suggests Rubin can do different approaches. He actually can’t. The good bit was anomalous.

The Chuck Colwell photography is bad. But is it because Colwell’s work is bad or because Correa doesn’t really do the whole shot composition thing. Either way, the result is bad. The movie never looks right. Or good. Unlike some things, the bad photography is quite bad. It isn’t just not good. It’s bad.

I suppose at the very least, The Incredible Hulk Returns is never boring. It’s just never good. And it’s often bad. Correa does a rather poor job, both at the directing and the writing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Corea; teleplay by Corea, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Chuck Colwell; edited by Janet Ashikaga and Briana London; music by Lance Rubin; executive produced by Bill Bixby and Corea; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Bill Bixby (David Banner), Steve Levitt (Donald Blake), Eric Allan Kramer (Thor), Lee Purcell (Maggie Shaw), Jack Colvin (Jack McGee), Tim Thomerson (Jack LeBeau), Charles Napier (Mike Fouche), John Gabriel (Joshua Lambert), Jay Baker (Zack Lambert), and Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk).


Harvest (1953, James Sheldon)

Dorothy Gish isn’t just top-billed in Harvest, host (and narrator) Robert Montgomery introduces the episode hyping her presence. So it’s a tad disappointing when it turns out Gish gets less and less to do throughout the hour-long television play. When she does get things to do, they happen off-screen. Instead of giving her an arc, writer Sandra Michael actually takes away from Gish in the third act, giving time to a newly introduced character.

It might be okay if there were something more interesting going on, but there’s really not. Most of Harvest has to do with nonagenarian Vaughn Taylor preparing for his one hundredth birthday. Mentally preparing, not party-planning. Taylor’s in a bunch of makeup and sort of dodders around, talking too loud about how grandson James Dean isn’t going to take over the family farm.

Dean gets a lot to do. He’s in love with city girl Rebecca Welles, who just can’t understand why he’d want to stay on that smelly old farm anyway. Dad Ed Begley doesn’t know Dean doesn’t want to be a farmer–writer Michael knows Begley and Dean ought to have some scenes together because the characters have things to talk about, but Harvest skips every single one of those conversations. Instead, Begley either tells Gish or Taylor he’s talked to Dean.

The action takes place around the house, specifically the kitchen, occasionally the front porch. Harvest takes some side trips–into the city, out into the field, 1,000 miles away to check in on Gish and Begley’s other sons–but it’s mostly just the kitchen. Where Gish prepares coffee, Begley sits silently, Dean sits jittery, and Taylor dodders.

Harvest doesn’t take any of its characters seriously enough. If it’s going to be about homesteader turned farmer Taylor turning one hundred and watching his family farm collapse, the writing needs to be better and a better actor needs to be playing the part. Director Sheldon doesn’t do much with his actors, but no one’s anywhere near as problematic as Taylor. While Begley is mostly scenery (which is almost better than when he gets lines because Michael writes them so poorly), he’s better than Taylor’s “best” scenes.

Dean’s okay. Harvest cuts away from his character development just as it gets interesting. Gish is okay. She really doesn’t have anything to do but make coffee in a percolator but she does it with a level of engagement far beyond anyone else. Begley looks lost.

Welles is pretty bad.

Montgomery’s narration is obnoxious, but no worse than the frequent choir singing reminding the viewer how blessed are the starving farmers and aren’t they quaint. Keep hope alive for tomorrow is Harvest’s motto (or some such thing). Instead, it seems like the television play just wants to avoid responsibility for its content.

Sheldon’s direction–outside his lack of interest in the performances–is fine. Harvest never feels cramped, one primary set or not.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by Sandra Michael; produced by Robert Montgomery; aired by the National Broadcast Company.

Starring Dorothy Gish (Ellen Zalinka), Ed Begley (Karl Zalinka), Vaughn Taylor (Gramps), James Dean (Paul Zalinka), Rebecca Welles (Arlene), John Connell (Chuck), John Dennis (Joe), Joseph Foley (Herb), Nancy Sheridan (Louise), Mary Lou Taylor (Fran), and Frank Tweddell (Mr. Franklin); narrated by Robert Montgomery.


V (1983, Kenneth Johnson)

About half of V is quite good. Unfortunately, V was a two-night mini-series and the first half is good part. The second half, not so much. The first half has human-like alien visitors arriving on Earth, in hopes of making a chemical compound to take back home to save their planet. Turns out they’re lying about pretty much everything and they’re actually bad aliens. It’s just they’ve taken over the planet by the time anyone notices. Traditional good guys like American presidents or the military are taken completely unawares and it’s up to the little people. Actually, specifically, it’s up to the scientists. Because the aliens hate scientists. Because they science things and find out the truth. It’s actually never explained.

Writer and director Johnson sets most of the action in Los Angeles. There are the doctors at a hospital and their supporting cast, then these families in one neighborhood. Everyone is interconnected. Richard Lawson is a doctor at the hospital, his dad (Jason Bernard) works at a chemical plant, that chemical plant is run by Hansford Rowe, who is married to Neva Patterson, whose son from a previous marriage is lead Marc Singer.

In the first half, Singer’s only the lead because he’s the cocky white guy. In the second half, he’s the lead because he’s the cocky white guy who does dangerous things and makes the hard decisions. Second lead technically is Faye Grant. She’s a med student who ends up running a resistance cell. She works with Lawson. Remember him? He started this particular interconnected character web.

Grant starts V kind of second-fiddle to Ron Hajak. They’re a couple, living together, she’s the med student, he’s the stockbroker. Yuppie love. Or, as my wife put it, Ken and Barbie in the Malibu Beach House. It’s only significant because eventually Hajak disappears. And it turns out without the Ken and Barbie bicker thing, there’s not much to Grant. Johnson gets her about halfway through the first episode without having anything just for her.

Second half, she’s the resistance leader.

Grant is not good. She’s sympathetic. But the performance isn’t good. The part isn’t well-written. Johnson has a problem with the female parts here. Though it’s cool how V passes Bechdel; Grant is unsure in her newfound command, sweet older woman Camila Ashland reassures her. Unfortunately, Ashland’s not good either. She’s sympathetic. And Blair Tefkin’s feckless teenage girl is a whole other problem.

Oh, and Joanna Kerns as Singer’s ex-wife. Her part’s crap.

Anyway. Those parts are problems. Penelope Windust’s part is better for half of V–she disappears in the second half because… well, because her husband–Michael Durrell–gets to have a huge character arc out of nowhere. Not a particularly good arc either, in terms of writing or plotting. It drags, actually; Johnson makes a movie with flying saucers and somehow makes more requests for disbelief suspension when the sci-fi visual part is done. Sure, it comes back for the grand finale, but it’s way too action-oriented. Johnson is not good at the action. He’s good at the gee whiz factor, which isn’t appropriate in V after twenty or thirty minutes and he knows it. So then there’s no more gee whiz.

The finale features a starfighter battle. But the starfighters are spacious minivan-type starfighters. Johnson tries for sci-fi action in the sequence and fails miserably. It’s also way too long a sequence. It’s okay compost shots of the starfighter minivans, but then there are these terrible one or two-shots of the starfighter pilots. It looks like they’re sitting at tables. There’s even a rear gun in the minivan. Because Johnson needs another Star Wars nod. Besides some production design stuff, there’s also a sequence where the aliens arrive and a high school band plays The Imperial March from Empire.

That arrival sequence? It’s at Patterson’s husband’s plant, which Singer is covering, and Tefkin is playing in the band. It’s so unfortunate the second half of V doesn’t bring the cast together better. Johnson spends a lot of time being pragmatic about how to transition between characters and how to build subplots. Even when the writing is thin (Tefkin) or the acting isn’t great, there’s always something going on.

And then the beginning of the second half brings in a bunch of stray threads. Only Johnson doesn’t want to do melodrama so he goes for surprise. Melodrama probably would’ve worked better.

The second half also throws in good guy alien Frank Ashmore and his sexy sidekick, Jenny Neumann.

Johnson has an intricate thoughtful script for the first half. He builds his subplots, he cultivates them. Second half, he either tears them up or ignores them. He doesn’t build anything new for half of V. He just stops. The second night is a premature victory lap.

And gives Durrell way too much to do.

The first half just has the better writing, both of events and characters. Leonardo Cimino lives in the same neighborhood as Durrell. Cimino’s grandson is a collaborator. There are a lot of collaborators. Johnson’s a realist. David Packer plays the grandson. He’s crushing on Tefkin, incidentally. Packer’s good, though he gets a lot better writing and direction than Tefkin.

So you watch the first half and it’s all these interesting characters and how they’re experiencing an alien invasion. The second-half is totally different. At least, except when–especially at the end–Johnson wants to do callbacks to the first half.

The biggest and most immediate callback is Michael Wright. He’s Lawson’s thieving baby brother. But then he gets a great monologue and Johnson directs the heck out of it. So is it a problematic callback?

Sure?

Wright’s fine. Singer’s fine. Jason Bernard, Cimino, Evan C. Kim, Rafael Campos. They’re all fine. Bonnie Bartlett gives the best performance, even with a small, thin role. Overall, adequate acting, lot of charm; the TV movie way.

With caveats–V is a successful TV miniseries. Johnson keeps it together for over three hours and over a hundred speaking roles.

He should’ve just done the first half. Written the women’s parts better too, but the second half is superfluous. The narrative ambition is gone. The special effects ambition is present, but distorted. Bad finish. Especially when people are reconnecting and the scenes are all weak.

Good special effects overall. Some great makeup effects. Johnson does do one great action sequence. It’s right at the beginning. Again, he had a lot more ambition at minute four versus minute 105.

V doesn’t have a good ending. Johnson doesn’t even try to find one. It’s infuriating.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson; director of photography, John McPherson; edited by Paul Dixon, Alan C. Marks, Robert K. Richard, and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; production designer, Charles R. Davis; produced by Chuck Bowman; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Marc Singer (Mike Donovan), Faye Grant (Juliet Parrish), Jane Badler (Diana), Michael Durrell (Robert Maxwell), Michael Wright (Elias Taylor), David Packer (Daniel Bernstein), Leonardo Cimino (Abraham Bernstein), Evan C. Kim (Tony Wah Chong Leonetti), Jenny Sullivan (Kristine Walsh), Blair Tefkin (Robin Maxwell), Penelope Windust (Kathleen Maxwell), Richard Lawson (Dr. Ben Taylor), Peter Nelson (Brian), George Morfogen (Stanley Bernstein), Bonnie Bartlett (Lynn Bernstein), Frank Ashmore (Martin), Jason Bernard (Caleb Taylor), Rafael Campos (Sancho Gomez), Diane Cary (Harmony Moore), Robert Englund (Willie), Ron Hajak (Dennis Lowell), Joanna Kerns (Marjorie Donovan), Camila Ashland (Ruby Engels), Viveka Davis (Polly Maxwell), William Russ (Brad), Neva Patterson (Eleanor Dupres), Andrew Prine (Steven), Tommy Petersen (Josh Brooks), Jenny Neumann (Barbara), and Richard Herd (John).


A Long Time Till Dawn (1953, Richard Dunlap)

A Long Time Till Dawn is usually able to keep disbelief completely suspended. It’s a television play and Rod Serling’s teleplay is more ambitious than the budget or the constraints of the medium. Most of the sets are interiors and fine–a diner, a living room, a bedroom. They can even get away with a front porch, though it is where Dawn stretches its visible credulity the most.

The porch scenes are also a stretch due to Ted Osborne’s performance. Osborne is just a small town man. His daughter-in-law (Naomi Riordan) has suddenly come to live with him, running away from New York City, back to small town New Jersey. It just happens she leaves New York the day before her husband (James Dean) gets out of a six-month stint in prison.

Riordan’s timing never gets discussed. It’s apparently just narrative efficency, not her trying to hide from Dean. Though when Rudolf Weiss, playing Dean and Riordan’s kindly New York neighbor (a delicatessan owner), tells Dean about Riordan leaving it’s like a) she doesn’t want Dean to know where she went and b) she’s been gone a while.

Weiss tells Dean about Riordan’s departure just after copper Robert F. Simon has stopped by the diner to warn Dean not to become a repeat offender.

So of course Dean has to beat up Weiss to find out where Riordan has gone. Then he heads home to Osborne and Riordan’s dread and hope. Simon follows soon after to investigate Weiss’s assault. Because even though everyone can just drop everything and go to small town New Jersey, Dean and Riordan never did it before Dean’s small time crook phase.

From the dialogue, it seems like that phase was about a sixth of the three years Dean and Riordan spent in New York. Serling’s teleplay has very, very little logic going for it. Ditto Dunlap’s direction (the finale has Osborne talking about some character who was just onscreen but Dawn forgot to take notice).

At its best, Dunlap’s direction is utterly mediocre. More often it’s a problem. Dean’s excellent, Simon’s excellent, Weiss is excellent. Riordan is okay. Osborne is not. He gets these lengthy monologues and he clutches the melodrama heartstrings so tightly their effectiveness withers.

Up until the third act, though, it really seems like Dawn is going to make it. But it doesn’t. The third act set pieces are poorly executed–thanks to Dunlap and the budget–and Serling’s denouement, largely thanks to Osborne, is a fail.

It’s a shame. Dean’s phenomenal, even when the writing is a little weak. When it’s more than a little weak, not even he can do anything with it (not with Dunlap’s direction “aiding” him), but his performance is mostly great. Simon also makes a lot out of his part. Serling gives the characters a lot of texture–except Osborne, which is bad–and Simon takes advantage.

A Long Time Till Dawn needs a better director, a better performance in the Osborne part, and a few rewrites.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Dunlap; written by Rod Serling; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe Harris), Ted Osborne (Fred Harris), Naomi Riordan (Barbie), Robert F. Simon (Lt. Case), and Rudolf Weiss (Poppa Golden).


Something for an Empty Briefcase (1953, Don Medford)

For a while, it seems like Something for an Empty Briefcase is going to have some grit. It’s set in a rough New York neighborhood, albeit constructed out of cardboard (Briefcase is a “TV play”). Lead James Dean is a recently released ex-con who’s looking for one big score to get him into a new life. So it’s strange when it turns out that big score is mugging Ohioan immigrant Susan Douglas Rubes. She’s willing to risk her well-being to pursue her ballet dreams. Dean’s just looking for a score. And a Briefcase. He really wants a briefcase.

It later turns out Dean’s a great pool hustler so there’s no reason he’d have to mug Rubes or anyone else. But S. Lee Pogostin’s teleplay is pretty weak. Dean’s got some great scenes in the first half and Rubes seems like she’s going to have some good material, but it all goes in the second half.

Instead of being about Dean and Rubes, it’s about Dean and local crime lord Robert Middleton. Dean wants out. Middleton won’t let him out. And previously mildly annoying didactic themes increase until they’re drowning out everything else. Dean’s performance suffers, though nowhere near as bad as Rubes’s.

Dean’s supposed to be a numbskull punk, Rubes is the one smart enough to make her dreams happen. But she gives him a dictionary (for his Briefcase) and it changes his life. Well, not as much as the next book he gets. No spoilers but it’s real obvious.

The writing for Dean and Rubes is uneven the first half, but not bad. Both actors do well with it, though Dean gets a little erratic at times. Director Medford follows Dean through his performance, not really directing him. Well, hopefully he’s not directing him because the histronics are way too loud. Also because Pogostin’s writing isn’t there.

Something for an Empty Briefcase is almost half good, which isn’t bad all things considered.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Don Medford; television play by S. Lee Pogostin; “Campbell Summer Soundstage” produced by Martin Horrell; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe), Susan Douglas Rubes (Noli), Don Hanmer (Mickey), Robert Middleton (Sloane), Frank Maxwell (Lou), and Peter Gumeny (The Policeman).


Madame X (1981, Robert Ellis Miller)

Madame X never has good pacing. The movie starts with Tuesday Weld on trial, in old age makeup. She refuses to identify herself, hence the title, and won’t even assist her lawyer, Martina Deignan, in her own defense. Weld’s completely passive in the scene. Robert Hooks’s prosecuting attorney closing arguments dominate the scene, setting a problematic tone for the next hundred or so minutes.

Weld is the “star” of Madame X, and while she’s the subject of the movie, writer Edward Anhalt and director Miller never let her be its protagonist. Not for long anyway; not in the second half, when it matters. Instead, the supporting cast runs the movie. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What’s worse is how good Weld is during most of the latter type. After a too long setup, Madame X turns into a series of vignettes with different guest stars. Weld doesn’t get much to do in these scenes, except be a little bit more of a fallen woman. Without material or even the movie’s attention, she’s great. While the script might not trying to build a character, Weld’s working on it.

And then in the narratively defective third act, when Anhalt’s script does give Weld some agency again, Madame X backtracks some of the work she’s done and gives her a shallow melodramatic finish. Madame X never wants to be anything but affecting melodrama; it’s one tragedy after another. And it’s not about them not adding up into anything, it’s about that anything not getting the time it needs.

The script has a real problem emphasizing the right character. Ellis’s direction doesn’t help. Some of the problems might just be the nature of TV movies, like defense attorney Deignan not getting enough time. When it seems like she might get some development, the third act surprise takes it away from her. That third act surprise disappoints too. There’s just no time for it–Madame X needed at least another ten minutes, maybe twenty.

So, while Weld’s the lead and she’s good at the beginning, problematic in the middle, great in the second half, persevering at the finish, Madame X is about the supporting cast. Weld might be in the foreground, but all the focus is on the background. Sometimes literally. Woody Omens’s photography is competent and effective; the content’s sometimes a mess but Omens shoots it fine. Madame X travels the world, but was probably all shot around L.A.; Omens hides it as well as he can.

Anyway. The supporting cast. Best is Jeremy Brett. He’s second-billed, which initially suggests he’s going to have a substantial presence. He doesn’t. But he’s great when he’s in the film. Then maybe Len Cariou. But the script fails him. So maybe Eleanor Parker. Script fails her too, but in different ways than Cariou. Parker’s one-note in her scenes with Weld. She’s a good mean matriarch but in her scenes with other people, she’s got a lot more texture. It’s the script. Anhalt’s script does no one any favors during dramatic sequences. Well, maybe Brett.

Then there’s Jerry Stiller. He’s not good, but he’s fine.

Granville Van Dusen is too slight. Even when he tries, he’s too slight. The script’s not good to him either. Robin Strand, billed like he’s going to have a real part, has a couple scenes. He’s not good. He’s likable, sort of, but he’s not good. The script even goes out of its way to make him sort of likable, which it rarely does for anyone.

Until the third act, Madame X seems like it’s going to be able to coast on Weld’s performance. It gets long once Weld gets demoted in agency–it’s long at the start because Van Dusen’s so boring and the script won’t get moving–but it gets real long once Weld stops leading it. Her performance develops to the point Madame X’s questionable attempts at soap opera melodrama don’t matter as much as what Weld’s going to do with them. Will it add up?

No. It won’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Ellis Miller; teleplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Alexandre Bisson and the screenplay by Jean Holloway; director of photography, Woody Omens; edited by Skip Lusk; music by Angela Morley; produced by Paula Levenback and Wendy Riche; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Holly Richardson), Granville Van Dusen (Clay Richardson), Eleanor Parker (Katherine Richardson), Len Cariou (John Abbott), Jeremy Brett (Dr. Terrence Keith), Robin Strand (Willy Dwyer), Jerry Stiller (Burt Orland), Martina Deignan (Elizabeth Reeves), and Robert Hooks (Dist. Atty. Roerich).


Hans Brinker (1969, Robert Scheerer)

Hans Brinker is clumsy and charmless. It plods through its runtime. Once it becomes clear Moose Charlap’s songs aren’t going to be getting any better and there’s not going to be much expert iceskating on display, it plods even more. A lot of things would help–better writing, better acting, better photography. Unfortunately, Hans doesn’t get any until it’s too late and then it’s only actors in the supporting cast.

The film starts with a flashback. Nineteenth century Dutch mason John Gregson has a fall. Then Hans fast forwards to Roberta Tovey entering an empty house and looking around wistfully. Then we finally get into the “present action” of Tovey’s memories, ten years after the first scene. Screenwriter Bill Manhoff never identifies when or why Tovey returns to look around, but he doesn’t do much as far as the teleplay goes so it’s no surprise.

Robin Askwith plays the title role. He’s a seventeen year-old Dutch boy with big dreams and no way to realize them; Gregson’s fall resulted in some sort of brain damage and he hasn’t been able to support the family. Oh, right: Gregson is Askwith’s father. And Tovey’s. She’s Askwith’s somewhat younger sister. The difference is never determined, but it’s not too far–Askwith can still romance her rich friend, Sheila Whitmill, and Hans can do a wrong side of the tracks romantic subplot.

But a chaste one. Hans is for kids, after all. Kids with great patience.

Maybe the only good scene in the whole thing is Whitmill reading a romance novel scene to Tovey and another friend. It’s strange and shows personality, something Hans never does when it’s chronicling Askwith’s romance with Whitmill or his problems with the better-off boys around the village.

The songs ought to be a little funnier, but Hans has no sense of humor about itself. Not even when Askwith and his chums go to Amsterdam (so Askwith can recruit doctor Richard Basehart to operate on dad Gregson) and their innkeeper, Cyril Ritchard, does a cockney accent to show they’re in Amsterdam, not the boonies.

Can Askwith convince Basehart to do the operation? Will the barely mentioned but apparently very important race for the silver skates ever arrive? Does Eleanor Parker–as Askwith and Tovey’s mother–actually sing her two songs?

Parker, Basehart, and Gregson all try at various times throughout the film. Gregson’s most successful, as Parker gets a lot worse scenes to do than he does. She also has to play opposite Askwith, who’s a petulant jackass (regardless of family tragedy), and he’s never good. Even when he’s being selfless, he’s somewhat unlikable. He’s a snot.

His nemesis, rich kid Michael Wennink, on the other hand, is drivel. Julian Barnes is okay as the nice rich kid.

There are some lovely locations, some almost good sets of exteriors, when Hans might show some kind of personality. But director Scheerer avoids it, like he avoids pretty much everything. After the first big group song, Scheerer stops doing it big and instead relies on Edelgard Gielisch’s bad editing to get the group numbers done. It doesn’t seem like Askwith or Tovey sing. At least not often.

There are a number of cringworthy songs, but “When He/She Speaks” is the clear cringe winner. It’s all about how Askwith and Whitmill only love each other because they don’t listen to each other. Instead they daydream about walks in the countryside and ignore the other’s thoughts.

The big finale has big plot contrivances and some ostensible surprises. It doesn’t go anywhere because director Scheerer and writer Manhoff don’t wrap anything up. Plus, Tovey can’t really be holding the knot because–even though Hans is her memories–she’s only present for like a quarter of the film. The narrative disconnect isn’t even annoying because at least it means there isn’t more stuff for Hans to do wrong.

Tovey’s fine. She’s got a lousy part. Parker’s solid, but Scheerer doesn’t give her much time on anything. Well, except the two songs, which either have Parker singing them or have them dubbed. They’re both awkward songs. Cringey awkward, not funny awkward. Funny awkward would have at least passed the time. But Hans has no sense of humor.

It’s joyless, which is a big problem for a kids musical, though it’s pretty clear Askwith’s Hans isn’t capable of experiencing joy. So why should anyone else.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Scheerer; teleplay by Bill Manhoff, based on the novel by Mary Mapes Dodge; director of photography, Günter Haase; edited by Edelgard Gielisch; songs and music by Moose Charlap; produced by Ted Kneeland; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Robin Askwith (Hans), Roberta Tovey (Gretel), Eleanor Parker (Dame Brinker), John Gregson (Mijnheer Brinker), Richard Basehart (Dr. Boekman), Sheila Whitmill (Annie), Julian Barnes (Peter), Michael Wennink (Carl), and Cyril Ritchard (Mijnheer Kleef).


Vanished (1971, Buzz Kulik)

Even for a TV miniseries, Vanished feels like it runs too long. There are always tedious subplots, like folksy, pervy old man senator Robert Young plotting against President Richard Widmark. Widmark is up for re-election and he’s vulnerable. Even his own press secretary’s secretary (Skye Aubrey) thinks Widmark is “an evil man,” possibly because he’s going to end the world in nuclear war, possibly because he’s a secretive boss. It’s never clear. Aubrey, both her character and her performance, are the most tedious thing about Vanished until she, well, vanishes. A lot of characters just vanish. After meticulous plotting, Dean Riesner’s teleplay throws it all out after the resolution to the first part “cliffhanger.”

The setup for Vanished is probably the best stuff it has going for it. At the beginning, it all seems like it’s going to be about that press secretary–James Farentino–who’s new to job and dating his secretary (Aubrey). He’s got an FBI agent roommate (Robert Hooks) and spends his time at happening parties with friends while avoiding reporter William Shatner’s intrusive questions. There’s also a significant subplot involving Widmark’s best friend, civilian Arthur Hill, who’s an active older American. He and Eleanor Parker as his wife are great together. For their one scene. Because then Hill goes missing–he’s Vanished, you see–it’s up to Farentino and Hooks, unofficially working the case, to track him down.

While avoiding Shatner’s intrusions and Aubrey’s annoying behavior.

And Riesner–and director Kulik–manage to make Farentino’s a believable amateur detective. The plotting helps out with it, as does Widmark’s mysteriousness. Shatner’s not very good in Vanished, mostly just broadly thin, but he’s a decent enough adversary for Farentino. Eventually, Widmark’s part grows and he too gets an adversary. CIA head E.G. Marshall thinks Widmark’s keeping too much from him and gets involved with Young’s scheming senator.

Marshall’s so good at playing slime bag, especially the quiet, unassuming one here, those scenes pass fairly well. Farentino’s decent, Hooks’s good, Widmark’s fine. Aubrey’s bad. And no one is anywhere near as compelling as Hill and Parker, or even Farentino before he just becomes an exposition tool. Maybe if Vanished kept him around in the last hour, except for awful bickering scenes with Aubrey, it’d have finished better. Instead, after dragging out the first couple hours–including a pointless excursion to Brazil for Hooks–Farentino vanishes too. Parker goes somewhere towards the end of the first hour, Hooks somewhere towards the end of the second, Farentino in the third. At least in Hooks’s case, it’s so Reisner can perturb the plot. But Farentino just stops being interesting.

And the interesting thing is supposed to be the reveal, which is way too obvious towards the end of the first half of Vanished. Reisner doesn’t have anything to do with it (presumably) as he’s just adapting a novel. Instead of spreading it all out, however, Vanished would do much better, much shorter. It still wouldn’t fix the stupid resolution, which comes during a lot of reused footage for the “action” sequences, but at least shorter there’d be less time investment.

Because Reisner and Kulik don’t answer the most interesting questions. The film skips any number of good scenes to “go big” with stock footage of aircraft carrier take-offs. There’s also a lot of grand, “real world” spy technology in the second half, which is a waste of time. Well, unless Kulik had made it visually interesting, but he doesn’t.

Vanished is a disappointment, but one with mostly solid (or better) acting. Nice small turns from Murray Hamilton, Larry Hagman, Don Pedro Colley; plus a really funny single scene one from Neil Hamilton.

Maybe if Farentino and Hooks weren’t such appealing leads–or if Hill and Parker didn’t imply they’d be able to do great scenes together–Vanished wouldn’t disappoint so much. But it even fails Widmark; after intentionally obfuscating him for over two and a half hours, Vanished wants the viewer to rest their emotional weight on him.

Vanished is reasonably tolerable throughout, just not adding up to anything, until the bungled reveal sinks it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Buzz Kulik; teleplay by Dean Riesner, based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel; director of photography, Lionel Lindon; edited by Robert Watts; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by David J. O’Connell; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Farentino (Gene Culligan), Richard Widmark (President Paul Roudebush), E.G. Marshall (Arthur Ingram), Robert Hooks (Larry Storm), Eleanor Parker (Sue Greer), Arthur Hill (Arnold Greer), Skye Aubrey (Jill Nichols), William Shatner (Dave Paulick), Murray Hamilton (Nick McCann), Tom Bosley (Johnny Cavanaugh), Larry Hagman (Jerry Freytag), Denny Miller (Big Bubba Toubo), Don Pedro Colley (Mercurio), and Robert Young (Senator Earl Gannon).


The Bastard (1978, Lee H. Katzin)

Somewhere in the second half of The Bastard, the mini-series starts to wear you down and you just give in. The first half is set in 1772 Europe, first in France, then in England. Andrew Stevens is a French boy with a secret. His mom might just be Patricia Neal, inn keeper, but Stevens is actually heir to a great British title. He’s just a bastard for now. Soon, he’ll be a duke.

In other words, the first half of The Bastard is a bunch of weak accents (for the most part) and Southern California standing in for the French countryside, British estates, French estates, the British countryside, and London itself. Oddly, The Bastard isn’t a grandly budget mini-series. It’s got nice sets and some creative location shooting, but it’s far from opulent. Director Katzin probably wouldn’t know what to do with the extra money anyway.

It feels, especially in the first half, very much like a TV show you don’t really want to watch. Until about an hour into the movie, Stevens is just around to whine, get seduced, seduce, patronize, and get henpecked by Neal. Neal doesn’t even try a French accent. Stevens goes for it and fails, but for a second he gets some credit for the enthusiasm. Then the accent starts to slip and the credit goes away.

When they get to England, they meet Eleanor Parker and Mark Neely. Parker does a British accent, Neely doesn’t, which is good because Neely’s bad enough without a weak accent. Parker’s a nice cameo; Bastard has some good small parts. But if you’re around too long, The Bastard gets you. The script eventually gets Neal, who’s got a weak character in the first place, but Katzin’s direction, Guerdon Trueblood’s teleplay… Neal never gets a good moment.

Anyway. They go to London, they meet Donald Pleasence (who’s cute) and Tom Bosley. Bosley’s all in as Benjamin Franklin, down to the air baths–his enthusiasm, no one else’s, can defeat The Bastard. Shame he’s only got four scenes in three hours. Then they go to the colonies for the second half.

Oh, right, Stevens sleeps with Olivia Hussey too. She’s his half-brother’s fiancée who likes French boys. Stevens is supposed to be seventeen or eighteen at the start of The Bastard. He was twenty-three. He looks about twenty-eight with the tan. His young lothario thing is a weird script addition given it looks like a soap opera whenever Katzin does a seduction scene. Except maybe the first one.

Second half has William Shatner as Paul Revere. And it features a William Shatner enthusiastic horse backing riding sequence. It’s kind of awesome. Shatner’s not bad either. He’s extremely likable, which gets him over some of the bumps in the script. And he’s also not in it too much.

Ditto Buddy Ebsen as Stevens’s American mentor. Or Noah Beery Jr. Even Peter Bonerz leaves a good impression.

Strangely, William Daniels is a complete flop and he’s got a lot fewer scenes than anyone else.

The second half also brings Kim Cattrall as an actual love interest for Stevens. She doesn’t get seduced until they’ve had something like five scenes together, while the previous conquests fell at one and two, respectively. Cattrall’s kind of likable. She’s not good so much as she’s trying harder than anyone else. There are so many historical figures, the script is entirely caricature, Katzin’s not interested in the performances, seeing someone occasionally try. It helps.

But then The Bastard gets Cattrall too.

Stevens gets okay for a while, when it’s all the American Revolution flashcards. He doesn’t get good, but he gets okay. And then the script throws him a real curveball and the development–in Stevens’s performance, him, the script, probably not Katzin, come on–drags him under. It also drags The Bastard under, which is appropriate, since Stevens is the Bastard.

You know, Johnny Carson’s right. Sometimes, you do just like being able to say bastard.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lee H. Katzin; teleplay by Guerdon Trueblood, based on the novel by John Jakes; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by Michael Murphy and Robert F. Shugrue; music by John Addison; produced by Joe Byrne; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Andrew Stevens (Phillipe Charboneau), Kim Cattrall (Anne Ware), Patricia Neal (Marie Charboneau), Olivia Hussey (Alicia), Buddy Ebsen (Benjamin Edes), Donald Pleasence (Solomon Sholto), William Shatner (Paul Revere), Harry Morgan (Capt. Caleb), Eleanor Parker (Lady Amberly), Mark Neely (Roger Amberly), John de Lancie (Lt. Stark), Ike Eisenmann (Gil, The Marquis de LaFayette), Peter Bonerz (Girard), James Gregory (Will Campbell), Carole Tru Foster (Daisy O’Brien), Charles Haid (George Lumden), Noah Beery Jr. (Dan O’Brien), Herbert Jefferson Jr. (Lucas), Barry Sullivan (Abraham Ware), Lorne Greene (Bishop Francis), Cameron Mitchell (Capt. Plummer), William Daniels (Samuel Adams), Keenan Wynn (Johnny Malcolm), Russell Johnson (Col. James Barrett), and Tom Bosley (Benjamin Franklin).


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