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Fantasy Island: Pilot
Episode 1, Season 1

Why was this series picked up after the pilot?
Those familiar with "Fantasy Island" from the regular series that showed on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) nights may be shocked at the first pilot.

This pilot movie has three intertwined plotlines. The first, with Bill Bixby, is sad but silly because at bottom it's inexplicable in a bad way. The second, with Eleanor Parker, Carol Lynley and Peter Lawford, is superior but predictable. Only the third, featuring Hugh O'Brian (Wyatt Earp) and Victoria Principal, has any life. Perhaps the third story is more satisfying because I always considered Bixby and Lawford better actors than O'Brian. Here, that's not the case. But while O'Brian is excellent, Principal is simply lovely and little more.

The biggest surprise were the characters of Roarke and Tattoo. As usual, Roarke is never less than smiling and amiable. But he has a hard line as well, and perhaps a malicious streak. Montalban's Roarke in the pilot seems more like a panderer than the gracious host. For fifty thousand dollars he lets cases that interest him live out their fantasies; but like the devil in "Bedazzled" he always finds a loophole that guarantees his clients a bad or deadly time. He's more a demolisher of illusions, and his smiling face seems to hide a darkness seen best in the O'Brian episode.

Then there's Tattoo. He's more impish in the pilot than the regular series, where he comes off as a bit childish. At one point he shoots Roarke a wink that implies a vicious complicity. He's less like the mascot-character he became than a warlock's familiar.

Overall, Roarke and Tattoo keep the show going, but the writers let the pilot down with limp stories. After my first viewing on DVD, having missed it forty years before, I fast-forwarded through to O'Brian's story, and to any bits with exchanges between Roarke and Tattoo. Herve Villechaize comes off as a much better actor here than the later series allowed him to be.

One quibble about Roarke: from the start he professes to be non-judgmental about his clients, but toward the end he pronounces the sort of moral often found as a tag in '70s shows.

One final note: while Carol Lynley made eleven visits to "Fantasy Island" and Hugh O'Brien made five, Victoria Principal moved to Dallas and never reappeared on Mr. Roake's playhouse.

The Lovable Cheat

Delightful, but Keep Your Expectations Low
Thoroughly stagebound, this little production never leaves one house. That makes it tedious and repetitive toward the half-way point.

The good: the cast! Charlie Ruggles, always worth watching, plays a man presumed to be rich, so his creditors let him run up a debts he has no intention of repaying. In fact (not a spoiler) his former business partner ran off with all his money, so he believes the world owes him a living. Very few actors could pull this off and still seem sweet and kindly--thus the rather stilted and off-putting title. It almost seems like practice for the likeable con man he later played on a few episodes of "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Backing Mister Ruggles are Iris Adrian as his wife, who later in her career became a nosy next-door-neighbor type ("That Darn Cat" etc.) and lovely Peggy Ann Garner (no relation to James, whose birth name wasn't Garner) as the daughter he hopes to marry off for money.

In support are familiar faces to old-movie goers including Alan Mowbray and Fritz Feld. Also on hand is silent-film great Buster Keaton, whose welcome presence is more than a cameo. Keaton even gets in some slick sight gags I'm sure Balzac never thought of.

Yet the prime scene-stealer is German-born actor Curt Bois. Bois turns in a performance that practically carries the second half, just when the story begins to get tiresome.

Unfortunately, since the movie never opens out, the atmosphere gets stuffy in that one house. And it would have been nice to see an ending like the curious Doris Day vehicle "It's a Great Feeling" (released the same year as "The Lovable Cheat"). That's as far as I'll go down that road, but watch the "It's a Great Feeling" (available on DVD) after "The Lovable Cheat" and you'll see what I mean.

Otherwise, if your tastes in comedy can run in delightful if sedate family grooves, and you have a rainy hour and a quarter to kill, you may enjoy it. I did.

The Virginian: Impasse
Episode 8, Season 1

The Family That Stays Together . . .
Rising stars Robert Colbert ("The Time Tunnel) and Tom Skerritt ("M.A.S.H."--the movie) are background items in this curiously uninvolving episode of "The Virginian."

Trampas and the eponymous Virginian round up wild horses from the hills to fulfill an army contract.

Eddie Albert plays the father of a clan who believes they own the hills and all the wildlife in it (though a good case could be made that wild horses travel about and aren't part of a land claim).

Albert is supposed to be a mean old cuss but apart from an episode with water carriers he doesn't seem particularly dangerous until the end. We all know from "Green Acres" how Albert can show a short fuse and lots of yelling, but here he seems subdued, dangerous as he's supposed to be.

He does show a certain amount of treachery. Though his children seem devoted to him, mean though he is.

Overall, despite the excitement the plot should engender, especially since we know Albert's character is planning to bushwhack them somewhere along the line despite making pals with them about half-way through, it never really generates any tension. Perhaps in the last sixty years we've seen it all too often.

The ending is almost funny, a case of . . . overkill. But I won't explain what that means. Find out for yourself.

The Virginian: The Big Deal
Episode 4, Season 1

Slow if Good Episode (spoilers)
This episode of "The Virginian" called "The Big Deal" displays the problems inherent in a ninety-minute western. It's slow to start. It does give the leisure to create the character played by guest star Ricardo Montalban ("Fantasy Island") but we get the feeling he's never going to reach the ranch!

Still, once this episode gets cranked up and running it's a pretty good confrontation between Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb) and Montalban's Enrique Cuellar over land Cuellar legally owns and for which Garth's rent has expired.

The problem is, the "Good Guys" (the men from the ranch, including Garth, Trampas and the eponymous Virginian) strike me as in the wrong while Cuellar seems to be in the right and doing everything a sensible person would do.

Hollywood traditionally hammers "big business" (while letting alone big government who is really Big Brother) and Garth's ranch is pretty big business for its day (presumably the 1890s). But here Cuellar, simply protecting what is his while trying to fix the biggest price he can get, is portrayed as in the wrong. But he does everything I would do.

Spoiler Alert If the beginning is slow the ending is too abrupt and comes about because a silly girl doesn't watch where she's going. End Spoiler

Still, Montalban's familiar presence as the pleasant Cuellar makes this an easy episode to watch and enjoy and the threat of a range war is always good for a western.

Flying Down to Rio

Beginning of a Legend
"Flying Down to Rio" was a silly little flick starring Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio (I pause while everyone says "Who?" like a flock of owls; that goes for me as well). But it had the unintended consequences of pairing rising star Ginger Rogers with Broadway star (but movie newcomer) Fred Astaire.

To this time, Ginger was seen to good effect in small roles. In "42nd Street" she was the noble chorus girl sporting a monocle. In an early "Gold-digger" movie she was featured singing "We're in the money" in pig-Latin. Her star was ascending.

Fred, bereft of his Broadway dancing partner (his sister Adele, who married a British lord), was looking for new fields to conquer. Unfortunately, Broadway stars often turn out like Draculas and don't show up on film, so ultra-talented Fred, admired by the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and P. G. Wodehouse for his stage work, was eased into movies by playing second banana to one of the most boring triangle of lovers in film history (Ginger is billed fourth in the credits and Fred, who would become one of the great movie icons, is fifth).

As usual, Ginger plumped out her character with notable little bits (such as the nail filing). And Fred is unchanged from this movie until he ceased his dancing roles. They were both good alone, but teamed in their all-too-brief dance sequence they ignited something in the public imagination.

Ginger did not want to be known just as a song-and-dance girl (her singing was only so-so and her dancing was nowhere near Fred's exacting standards). She wanted to be a legitimate actress and much later would earn an Oscar in her own right (which Fred, affable and likeable as his movie persona was, could never aspire to). Fred, having just lost one dance partner did not want another regular. But back then actors did what the studio (who paid their salary) demanded.

While both Fred and Ginger are good, they are not the leads and one misses some worth by fast-forwarding to their bits. "Flying Down to Rio" provides us with two standards for the rest of the twentieth century (usually, unfortunately, relegated to "easy listening"), "The Carioca" and "Orchids in Moonlight." You may think you never heard of these songs, but you'd be wrong. They'll both seem eerily familiar.

The big highlight, "Flying Down to Rio," is a swell little ditty but there's too little singing. The aerial display is, of course, ridiculous. For the girls to be seen the planes would have to be soaring dangerously close to the ground and probably weaving between buildings. But it's cute (almost cutesy) and, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, mostly harmless. Even though most of it was shot in a studio and we know it, the sequence still has a thrill or two.

A coda tells us which of the two guys wins the heart of Dolores (does anyone really care?). We feel we missed out: the aerial view of Fred doing a little twirl makes us feel, even with all the scantily clad females (some in very revealing clothes), we were cheated of more Fred. Seeing him do a little dance for a few seconds is worth all the wing-walkers.

Overall, not a great movie but has four good tunes and is enjoyable if you accept it on its own terms. And you have time to get snacks and go to the restroom during the scenes with the three actual leads. And thanks to DVD (unlike the old days when scratchy prints showed up after midnight on tv) we can play Fred and Ginger over and over again.

Never Say Die

Delightful Early Bob Hope Feature
In only his fifth feature film (at not quite 90 minutes) Hope is beginning to develop his fast-talking, skirt-chasing but ultimately cowardly character in "Never Say Die."

Through a medical mix-up, wealthy John Kidley (Hope) thinks he's dying, his stomach devouring him from the inside until nothing remains. Unfortunately, his diagnosis has been mixed up with a dog's.

To do good all around, and to avoid a scheming if beautiful woman (Gale Sondergaard) out to marry him (and possibly polish him off, as she has past husbands), Kidley marries Mickey Hawkins (Martha Raye). Mickey is in love with the hapless Henry Munch (Andy Devine) but her father is trying to force her to marry impecunious (and devious) Prince Smirnov (Alan Mowbray).

All clear?

In any case, Kidley's (presumably) month-long marriage to Mickey will leave her a rich widow who can marry her beloved Henry Munch without her father's interference.

Then Munch shows up unexpectedly and insists he go along on the honeymoon to make sure there's no hankey-pankey between his fiance and Kidley, At first, this is fine with all parties. But as Kidley and Mickey develop feelings for each other, legally united man-and-wife look for ways around the jealous fiance (by the way, the wedding ceremony is a hoot).

Meanwhile, the scorned woman (who is also an Olympic pistol medalist) and the angry Prince Smirnov pursue the fleeing couple for vengeance.

Despite a very funny start and set up once Hope, Divine and Raye are established in the hotel as three-way honeymooners, the movie slows up.

It gains momentum later when Kidley and Prince Smirnov duel--in one of the earliest, perhaps the foundational, bits of confusion in duels or shoot-outs, where Kidley arranges for one of the pistols to be packed with a blank cartridge--but is it the pistol with the cross on the muzzle or the nick on the handle? Hope and Mowbray play this superbly--a bit which famous fast-talker Danny Kaye will milk for even more in "The Court Jester" more than a decade later.

This film is vital in the development of Hope's famous film personality, and he is about to explode as a star in a sequence of movies beginning with "The Cat and the Canary" through "The Road to Singapore" and "The Ghost Breakers" and "The Road to Zanzibar" (teamed in the "Road" pictures, of course, with another rising Paramount star, Bing Crosby).

"Never Say Die" is one of those little films where you don't expect much and come out mightily pleased. With the excellent start and ending it's too bad it sags a bit in the middle, but who doesn't these days?

The Blue and the Gray

Warning: Massive Spoilers Ahead
"The Blue and the Gray" (1982) invites comparisons with "North and South" (1985/6) but we won't tackle those right away.

Though Stacy Keach gets top billing, the actual hero is John Hammond, playing John Geyser, who has brothers Matthew, Mark and Luke (get the theme?) John isn't like other Geysers. They work the farm of their father (Lloyd Bridges) and want nothing more out of life. John, on the other hand, is a nascent artist who wants to draw illustrations for newspapers. Geyser goes earnestly through every campaign of the war with compassion. You can tell he's earnest and compassionate because he rarely smiles or laughs and always wears a somewhat constipated expression that always looks like he'll cry at the drop of a hat.

So John goes to a little town up north called Gettysburg, which no one has ever heard of, to work for a cousin who conveniently lives up there and runs a local newspaper.

SPOILER ALERT: One would think this sets John up to witness and illustrate the battle of Gettysburg (1863) but in fact while that battle "rages" (more later on the raging), John is a thousand miles away in Vicksburg, Mississippi--where, in another massive coincidence, his sister was living.

Which leads us to the battle scenes. Most Civil War battles that are named come off as skirmishes between little pockets of people in blue and gray. Gettysburg, the greatest land battle in the western hemisphere, is depicted only at a fracas at a crossroads, and then Keach riding somberly through the dead. If you want to know more about that battle (complete with outdated strategy) see "Gettysburg" (1993).

"The Blue and the Gray" hardly provides the scope of the War. It makes it look like it mostly took place as a feud between branches of one family.

Stacy Keach is not the star, but he appears frequently (good Keach fans). Gregory Peck is masterful and has a surprisingly large role as Abraham Lincoln, though it's not really mentioned that in his day the Republican Lincoln was hated as much and more than President Trump is in more recent times. It was Lincoln's election, after all, that sparked secession, whereas here it seems to come out of the blue.

Keach seems to be everywhere in the eastern theaters of war (even guarding Lincoln for a while) and he has a difference that raises his part above the more standard Civil War fare: he's psychic. His visions are irritatingly vague and they don't seem to help anyone avoid their fates, but it's a promising idea. Too bad it goes nowhere.

Besides Keach being psychic, another subplot that might have been interesting is a murder mystery stuck in the middle of the war. Unfortunately, not a lot of time is spent on it and of the characters available only one seems to be nuts enough to be committing these senseless crimes. This might have been a fascinating thread running through the weave of this massive program if they spent more time developing it rather than showing so many literal brothers on both sides who are hard to tell apart.

SPOILER ALERT: To throw in everything they could think of, Malachy (Brian Kerwin), John's cousin on the Yankee side, has a spell of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE that turns into "Sergeant York."

Fighting against "The Blue and the Gray" is hindsight. Two regulars from the later "Newhart" show (Julia Duffy and John Voldstad--Darryl #2) have important roles. It's hard to see Voldstad without laughing and Duffy will occasionally give a look or a line that is pure "Stephanie." When Keach tells her how beautiful she is, one expects her to say, "I know."

But though the battle scenes (what there are of them) are threadbare and not very convincing as to locale, "The Blue and the Gray" does make a few points not often understood these days. Since one of the authors credited is Bruce Catton, who wrote several books on the War, one feels he ought to have inserted a few important insights not found elsewhere.

For instance: When Malachy is having his RED BADGE OF COURAGE moment he runs into a Confederate from Mississippi (a Reb almost risibly named "Johnny" played by Steve Nevil), to his surprise he learns "Johnny" has never owned slaves (and in fact has probably seen few, if any). Slaves, like it or not, were the prerogative of the rich; the non-rich worked their own fields with their families and, IF they could afford to pay a small salary, a hand or two. Slaves were expensive to buy, feed and house. And since they were an investment they were also kept doctored, though doctoring was pretty primitive in those days. It's too bad the broad root causes of the War are not understood these days. The fact that most Confederates were not slave-owners will come as a big shock to the ill-educated viewers in the twenty-first century. Even Robert E. Lee (who doesn't make an appearance until near the end of the last episode and is played rather fussily by Robert Symonds) was no slave owner and believed in gradual abolition. In fact, Lee was offered command of the Union army before the war and declined only because he feared (rightly) his home state of Virginia might soon be invaded. Even John Geyser's family, staunchly Confederate, work their own land rather than using slaves (Paul Winfield, working on their property in the first episode to establish a pottery business, is free).

Other little tidbits are dropped as well. For instance, while I knew the Confederates moved on Gettysburg because it had a shoe factory (a point not really made but implied to the keen-eyed) I didn't know the Army of the Potomac under Meade (Rory Calhoun) suffered from supply problems. Overall, though, "The Blue and the Gray" is short as short on such detail.

There's also a sense that you're more likely to be shot in the war if you're funny-looking or do something massively stupid.

Don't watch "The Blue and the Gray" for the guest stars. Keach has a large part and Peck is perfect as Lincoln. Sterling Hayden, playing a spin-off from his role in "Doctor Strangelove" is an effective John Brown. Lloyd Bridges is good as the proud Virginia farmer whose beloved farmland becomes a battlefield. Most of the others (John Vernon, Rip Torn, David Doyle, Paul Benedict--remember when Paul Benedict was considered a guest star?) barely appear. That's too bad, since Benedict, especially, does a great turn with his cameo.

"The Blue and the Gray" does have advantages over the later "North and South." In the first place, the actual conditions in the south are shown more accurately, if not perfectly. In "North and South" (set deeper in the south but hardly that many miles deep) the weather is always warm, the magnolia trees are always blossoming, and everyone lives in great mansions with columns out front, like Tara--well, everyone who matters. in "North and South" anyone who doesn't live in mansions or own slaves is white trash--utter nonsense.

Unfortunately, "The Blue and the Gray" suffers from, and I don't mean to be paradoxical, too much and too little. It has too many characters to keep track of (brothers here, brothers there, all vying for attention, but some of them hard to tell apart) and promising subplots that are thwarted, as if it wants to be something other than it is.

One feels there's a good an unique story trying to break out, of a psychic on the trail of a murder in the middle of a war. I wish they'd done that. But "The Blue and the Gray" can't help itself from trying to keep up the pretense of sprawling history.

On the other hand, the battle scenes, what there are of them, are tawdry and poorly populated; and, despite respected historian Bruce Catton being on listed on the payroll as a writer, the strategy and tactics of all armies are the real mystery--to the viewer.

Too, if your sensibilities are so thin a snatch of a ditty or a piece of cloth on a flagpole sends you into the screaming heebie-jeebies, stay away. Despite a psychotic or two, neither the Yankees nor the Confederates are presented as an enemy, except to each other.

The Pallisers

Superb Romp Through Trollope
"The Pallisers", what we Americans call a mini-series, is an easy way to swallow Trollope. For the U.S. especially, it's interesting for appearances by later-famous Actors like Derek Jacobi, Anthony Andrews, Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons, Kate Nichols (who went on to the RSC's semi-live "Nicholas Nickleby") and Lynne Frederick, a beautiful young actress who became the final Mrs. Peter Sellers.

A veritable whos-who of British acting circa 1974, it would be unfair to keep naming particular players. The most important role, of course, is Susan Hampshire's. She sees the series through from beginning to end. An excellent actress who comes across as likeable as well as attractive on television, Hampshire admirably carries the miniseries through twenty-six episodes. Her partner in this marathon is Phillip Latham, who unfortunately falls into the trap of how an actor plays a dull character without being dull himself. Latham starts out dull and stays there.

The people who cobbled this series together did one extraordinarily clever thing, bringing in Barrington Erle (who does not appear in all the Palliser books) and Dolly Longstaffe (who appears in the final Palliser novel but is more prominent elsewhere in Trollope) as a running "Greek Chorus." Apparently close friends in the televised "Pallisers" Longstaffe (played archly by Donald Pickering as a club gadfly and collector of gossip a la Sherlock Holmes' Langdale Pike) and Erle (a man closer to the politicos, played with his usual aplomb by Moray Watson) keep us informed, via their conversations, on the twists and turns of plot, to help keep the viewer abreast of events. For instance, in one episode they enter their club with a conversation tantamount to announcing, "Well, here it is, four years later . . .!"

The first few episodes, where Glencora (Hampshire) is tormented by her love for Burgo Fitzgerald despite her marriage to Plantagenet (Latham) is for me the least interesting part of the show and may be a turn-off to viewers without a Barabara-Cartlandesque streak in their character. The other main plotline in the early episodes, the triangle between Alice Vavasor, her debt-ridden cousin George who buys his way into Parliament and the aptly named Mr. Gray is enlivened only by Gordon Gostelow's seedy and disreputable political manager, Mr. Scruby.

"The Pallisers" finally comes to life when it introduces the characters comprising the "Eustace Diamonds" episodes. Sarah Badel is perfectly cast as the not-altogether-trustworthy Lizzy Eustace. The other characters brought in during this spell of the program (Martin Jarvis as Lizzie's mostly-upright cousin Frank; Terence Alexander as the shady Lord George; June Whitfield and Wallace and Grommit's Peter Sallis as the Bontines; Derek Jacobi as the timorous Lord Fawn and Penelope Keith as the sister who rules Fawn's life) all work to raise these episodes to the most enjoyable. I'd like to have seen more of these stained characters cut loose from the "Palliser" framework.

Sandwiching the "Eustace Diamonds" episodes are the exploits of Phineas Finn (Donal McCann) and his many loves (including Anna Massey and Mel Martin). Playing fast-and-loose with several women (including one waiting for him back home in Ireland) one feels Finn got what he deserved.

The second Phineas Finn series is enlivened by the subplot of the love between ne'er-do-well Gerald Maule (Jeremy Clyde of "Chad and Jeremy") and Adelaide Palliser (comedienne Jo Kendall from radio's "I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again" and "The Burkiss Way"). This is another sequence snipped altogether too short.

While my favorite episodes are the ones with Lizzie Eustace and her coterie, also good is the "Ferdinand Lopez" series, with Stuart Wilson as Lopez and Sheila Ruskin as the lady-love for whom he ruins himself.

The last several episodes will probably be most interesting to most Americans, featuring the more familiar faces of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, as well as Lynne Frederic, Kate Nichols and Michael Cochrane.

Trollope addicts may cavil at truncations and the elimination of characters like Lucy Morris or Lucinda Roanoke. Overall the series not so much "televised Trollope" as a clever--and monumental--re-imagining of the massive "Palliser" novels with something for everyone's taste. While I wish I could see more of the antics of Lizzie Eustace, her cousin Frank and Lord George or the chicanery of Ferdinand Lopez and could do with less of George Vavasor and Phineas Finn, these parts of the whole may delight other viewers.

Remember "The Pallisers" is twenty-six episodes long! Played one episode a week, that takes up half a year. Even at that length, they did a superb job of distilling the "Palliser" essence from Trollope, who when writing a novel had little stopping sense, and who was always happy to throw more characters into his over-crowded stews.

The most delightful part of "The Pallisers" is seeing so many well-honed British actors of all ages playing so well together for a program whose episodes, played back-to-back, will take up nearly an entire 24-hour day.

Testimony of Two Men

Important in its Time, Less So Now
"Testimony of Two Men" was an important production in its day. It (and "The Captains and the Kings"--from another work by maven of historical, inter-generational, soap operaish novels, Taylor Caldwell) was among the first works of "Operation Prime Time" which provided productions to be aired by local stations independently of their networks.

This early miniseries has an impressive cast comprised of shopworn but genuine movie stars (including Ray Milland, Ralph Bellamy, dancer Dan Daley and child star Margaret O'Brien) and familiar television faces (including Randolph Mantooth from "Emergency"; William Shatner from "Star Trek" and John de Lancie who went on to be Q in "Star Trek: the Next Generation"; and the father on "Happy Days" Tom Bosley, whose pleasant voice narrates).

Other familiar faces of the time belonged to Leonard Frey as a flamboyant art critic; Theodore Bikel as an immigrant who found the American Dream; J.D. Cannon as a senator (one of his best performances) and Cameron Mitchell as an old Civil Warrior (Federal) who knows the difference between true patriotism and sloganeering jingoism for political purposes.

Heading the cast is David Birney as the idealistic young doctor, who steps on toes as he is devoted to radical new medical procedures (such as washing his hands before and not smoking cigars during operations).

The bad guys are easily identifiable. They are businessmen, hypocritical politicians and clergy, people of the older generation who won't change their ways and young artistic types who put self-interest above the good of others or the community. The good guys include prostitutes with hearts of gold, members of the older generation who take against their peers and earnest youngsters--doctors, rare honest lawyers, or genuinely compassionate members of the clergy (Mantooth).

Heading the amazing cast is . . . David Birney. Birney was good at what he did, but he was hardly strong enough as an actor to carry a three-part, six-hour miniseries practically single-handedly. While a good match for Shatner and Steve Forrest, cagier actors like Ray Milland, as the delightfully wicked gunpowder maker, and J. D. Cannon's mealymouthed senator, act rings around him.

Furthermore, Birney's character, while medically forward-looking, is prickly, self-righteous and intolerant of disagreement. He's one of the "old school" in waiting: radical when young but so devoted to his methods when he gets old himself he'll probably be considered archly conservative. His character may be a great healer (we keep being told he is) but he brings unhappiness to everyone he meets on a personal level; he even forgets himself so far as to nearly commit a rape, which turned my stomach.

The turn of the twentieth century ambiance looks good but the history is on the level of "Apart from that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" Truly amazing innovations and inventions of the post-Civil War period that changed the world (telephones, electric lights, phonographs and "horseless carriages") are mentioned casually, as are great personages of the period--none of whom, fortunately, appear; we are in a hermetically-sealed fictional world and the miniseries is better for not parading before the viewer a lot of genuinely important historical persons.

The historical background also reminds us that, the upheaval after Oswald's assassination of Kennedy notwithstanding--if one was born precisely one hundred years before I was, in 1861, by the first year of the twentieth century one would have seen three assassinated presidents (all Republican, of course, so who's counting?).

An impressive achievement in 1977, especially in helping undermining of the three major networks who had a stranglehold on televised entertainment, today "Testimony of Two Men" comes off as . . . well, a bit pointless.

With a truly impressive cast (like its sister production, "The Captains and the Kings") and some impressive production values (though the Civil War looks more of a skirmish and relies on a knowledge of American history to fill in gaps--good luck in the twenty-first century!), it nevertheless boils down to a truncated soap opera. And it may be difficult for the casual viewer to keep up with who is whose illicit offspring. "Testimony of Two Men" suffers from a genuinely hard-to-like, self-righteous hero who spends less time in the OR than fighting tedious and repetitive conspiracies against him made up of more polished actors who were leading men in the movies when they were BIG.

I may be perhaps biased against it because I personally never liked medical shows. I found "Testimony of Two Men" worth watching for its historical importance alone ("Operation Prime Time" breaking free of the big networks), and found it comfortable viewing from long-familiar faces. "Testimony of Two Men" is best watched in one, long go on a rainy afternoon, and it's a lot easier than trying to pick one's way through Taylor Caldwell's pretentious novel.

Matt Houston

Too Bad "Matt Houston" Lost Its Sense of Fun
When TV GUIDE first announced "Matt Houston" it referred to it as a "comedy." Really. And in its first season "Matt Houston" was a lighthearted romp through tired detective stories.

Possibly inspired by James Garner, who did "Maverick" (a spoof western with serious overtones) and a "The Rockford Files" (a serious detective show with comedic overtones), in the pilot and first season "Matt Houston" star Lee Horsley seems to be channeling James Garner.

Houston was a private eye with a difference. He was funny. He was also a rich Texan transplanted to California, commuting by helicopter from his ranch (populated with characters like Paul Brinegar, the cook from "Rawhide") to swank offices in Los Angeles filled with beautiful secretaries, a beautiful woman looking after his cars, and a beautiful legal advisor who was his equal in everything (Pamela Hensley, who also provided early episodes with enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek narration). Oh, and while Houston played detective on wild-goose-chases, his business affairs were handled by bald, comedic, constantly put-upon Murray (George Wyner, who had co-starred with Horsley previously in the short-lived "Nero Wolfe" series).

Most interestingly, Houston had a computer called "Baby" that, while predating the Internet by a decade, could call up almost anything at will. So much for Al Gore. Matt Houston invented the Internet.

The pilot episode enforced the show's comedic elements by having two theme songs for Matt: one, a typically loud, exciting QM piece; the other an amusing song that might have been written for the great silent comics (the funny theme was background music and is sometimes played over early closing credits).

"Matt Houston" also originally fell into the 1980's "all-star" theme, a la "The Love Boat" or "Murder She Wrote." The first season is packed with big names. Some, like James Coco and Misty Rowe (from "Hee Haw") in "Recipe for Murder" played up the comedy. Others, like one big name in "The Good Doctor", appeared just long enough to spout a few lines before getting killed off. In one early episode ("Stop the Presses") you didn't know, going in, who was the murderer or who the victim (Bradford Dillman? Stuart Whitman? Murray Hamilton? Heather Locklear? Herb Edelman? Malcolm Jamal-Warner?)

The funny music, Hensley's enjoyable narration, guest stars who ranged from familiar television faces to washed up movie queens and Horsley's lighter-than-Garner performance highlight's the show's original comedy emphasis.

But along the way something happened to "Matt Houston." The funny music and Hensley's fun narration gradually fell away. Even during the first season storylines became more serious and comedy was relegated to peripheral characters like George Wyner's Murray and the ranch's Brinegar.

By the second season changes were implemented. Houston's pal in the police force (John Aprea) and his mother, who ran an Italian restaurant, were replaced by Lincoln Kilpatrick, playing a policeman with a love/hate relationship with Houston. The folksy ranch hands were left at the ranch and never seen again. Horsley's and Hensley's performances grew more serious.

By the third season, where television stalwart Buddy Ebsen was hauled in as Houston's never-before-mentioned CIA connected Uncle Roy, the stories were growing bitter. "Vanished" has Houston chasing a creep who murders children. "Caged" has C.J. (Hensley) cooped up in a detention center by a redneck sheriff who uses his inmates for prostitution. The big-name guest stars disappear, replaced by up-and-coming actors who never upped or came (though the old spirit might have returned, but didn't, in an episode where Ebsen is reunited with former "Beverly Hillbillies" costar Max Baer, Jr.)

I'm not sure why the "Matt Houston", starting as a lighter-than-"Rockford" detective show packed with guest stars, gradually descended to grimmer-than-"Mannix" routine cop show; but the changes did not serve the show, nor Horsley and Hensley, well. Especially as they the kept the computer "Baby" which, in 1982, was the show's most unbelievable element. "Baby" belonged to the more freewheeling Matt who preferred detecting on the side.

The network that originally announced "Matt Houston" as a comedy let the show limp on through its third season's unsavory morass and then mercifully gave it the axe. Still, "Matt Houston", in playing Houston an C.J. as comrades in its original tongue-in-cheek style, paved the way for later 80's romantic-comedy/detective hits like "Moonlighting", "Remington Steele" and "Scarecrow and Mrs. King."

Evil Under the Sun

Last of a Great Series
Beginning with "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974) and continuing through "Death on the Nile" (1978), "Evil Under the Sun" could be considered the last of a superb trilogies of Agatha Christie adaptations for the screen.

"Evil Under the Sun" is breezier and more comic than the others, with play writer Anthony Schaffer adapting Christie's book. In the process, many characters were combined or eliminated, while other were added.

"Murder on the Orient Express", the first in the series, was notable for bringing together then-powerhouse stars (Sean Connery, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset) and big "old Hollywood" luminaries (Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark), adding other famous names (such as John Gielgud and Anthony Perkins). Unlike previous incarnations of Christie mysteries the film makers went all-out for style, nabbing no less than a heavily-disguised Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. When "Murder on the Orient Express" was a hit future adaptations were assured.

"Death on the Nile" followed in its predecessor's footsteps in a first-class production with famous old stars (David Niven, Bette Davis) rubbing shoulders with then-hot properties (Lois Chiles, Olivia Hussey, Mia Farrow) and other notable names (such as airplane-disaster maven George Kennedy). Two points made it very different from its illustrious predecessor. First, Albert Finney bowed out of the role of Poirot, which went to the ungainly Peter Ustinov. Second, between 1974's "Murder on the Orient Express" and 1978's "Death on the Nile" a little movie was released called "Star Wars" (1977). "Death on the Nile" came out before the full effects of "Star Wars" would be known on "Old Hollywood"-type productions.

By the coming of "Evil Under the Sun" (1982) it was clear theaters would be the province of kids, who didn't care who the likes of Ingrid Bergman or Lauren Bacall or David Niven were. Murder mysteries are by nature slow-moving intellectual exercises as clues are sifted and witnesses are interviewed. Then there's the long-winded Christie climax as the detective explains everything for half an hour.

"Evil Under the Sun" has all the style of its predecessors, and the Christie M. O.: a group of disparate characters, all of whom have a reason to do the victim in, are trapped in a confined area (here, a sumptuous island resort--shifted from the coast of England in the book to the sunny Aegean).

Perhaps because of age and attrition, "Old Hollywood" is nowhere to be seen. Had the producers roped in a Cary Grant, say, it might have been different. In fact, nearly all the cast is British, with the oldest and most illustrious career belonging to James Mason.

Diana Rigg, still beautiful as ever in her forties, is a comforting familiar face, and Roddy McDowell's presence is always welcome in a big feature. Rising star Nicholas Clay, following on the heels of his success as Lancelot in "Excalibur", looks better than anyone has a right to, and he's a good actor. But many cast members (Jane Birkin, Denis Qulley, Colin Blakely, Maggie Smith) appeared in the earlier Christie productions, giving "Evil Under the Sun" a repertory company feel, rather than that of a splashy extravaganza like the previous two movies in the series.

Then there's the problem of Peter Ustinov. Albert Finny has his detractors as Poirot, but Ustinov here plays the role mostly for laughs, while Hercule Poirot took himself very seriously indeed. Ustinov's accent may or may not be accurate (I haven't met many Belgians) but it sounds like it might have come from Peter Sellers instead. Ustinov is famous for adding a dose of comic inflection on his roles as far back as "Spartacus" where he stole the show and won an Oscar. Here, he's too much the figure of fun.

The end result: "Evil Under the Sun" barely made the top-100 in box office movies of 1982. At the top was "E.T.", a movie in the "Star Wars" mode. Another respectable movie that year, "Chariots of Fire", was a top-ten money-earner and won a deserved Oscar, but even it had nearly all young stars; and it was beaten in the box office by "Porkies" and "Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan." The splashy, star-heavy features popular in the 1970s were dinosaurs, as was intellectual entertainment for adults. Movies would increasingly be for children.

Of the three Christie movies in the series, "Evil Under the Sun" is the least impressive, but also the most fun. But that was always the threat to Christie. "Murder on the Orient Express" was a change for Christie, whose stories and characters had often been objects of ridicule in past movies. "Evil Under the Sun" was practically a comedy revolving around a murder at it vortex, with Ustinov the chief clown. If other entries had followed this pattern it's just as well the didn't make any more theatrical released on this scale (Ustinov would go on playing Poirot in a a few movies made for television).

On the plus side, "Evil Under the Sun" makes great use of the music of Cole Porter, with some phenomenal orchestrations of songs like "Night and Day" and "Begin the Beguine" that help the movie present its jaunty, holiday mood. Most enjoyable.

Nero Wolfe

Rex Stout's Wolfe and Goodwin Done 80s Style (Spoilers)
Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is a literary detective in the classic sense. Like Sherlock Holmes, he's unsociable; and, weighing an eighth of a ton he has an intermediary doing his leg work and also telling his stories: Archie Goodwin. It's of the school of mystery writing where all the suspects are gathered together at the end and sit quietly until Wolfe points to the murderer.

In this series, Archie Goodwin is played by Lee Horsley, before he tried to be the new James Garner. While Rex Stout makes Archie Goodwin a first-class wisenheimer and wisecracker, Horsley's Archie is written in that 1980s kinder, gentler way (compare Horley's Archie to Tim Hutton's brash and hilarious Archie in the later A&E Nero Wolfe series). Still, Horsley's a good enough actor to pull it off.

William Conrad ("Cannon") is shaped a lot like Stout's Wolfe. Compared to Archie he looks a trifle short, but he carries the proper amount of weight; and Conrad's beard makes his Wolfe even more intimidating. Conrad (believe it or not, once narrator of Bullwinkle and Rocky) has a commanding voice, which one would expect from Nero Wolfe.

All the Wolfe trappings are here: the orchid obsession (and this series, unlike the later A&E series, actually has Theodore Horstman, Wolfe's live-in botanist, played to perfection by Robert Coote). And Fritz, Wolfe's live-in chef, is pretty well captured by George Voskovec (who unfortunately did not survive the show by long).

Weakness seeps in with the lower end of the casting, with George Wyner's Saul Panzer and Allan Miller's Inspector Cramer. In the 70s and 80s Wyner was sort of an all-purpose schlub, a low-rent Austin Pendleton. Plugged in for comic relief, Wyner is hardly the tough, almost infallible human bloodhound of Rex Stout's stories. Allan Miller, another busy actor of that period, is hardly the image of hard-as-nails, cigar-chomping Cramer, who in the stories keeps threatening to run Wolfe and Goodwin in. Miller's a competent actor but this isn't his role.

Unlike the A&E series, which sets Nero Wolfe in a colorful, neverending 1950s, this series updates the tales to "modern" times (circa 1981). But though it has that run-down, pre-Giuliani New York feel, on the set in Wolfe's office it's like stepping into an earlier and more elegant time. They capture Wolfe's lodgings pretty well.

While mostly sticking to Stout's stories, it's difficult to do justice to a novel in an hour, including commercials. Updating the stories dumbed them down; and changes were made to some stories to suit early 1980s sensibilities (SPOILER: in one episode, "The Golden Spiders", a character killed in the book is just hospitalized in the series).

Some familiar faces: Richard Anderson, Darren McGavin, David Hedison, Barry Nelson, etc . . . but not enough to get excited about. This isn't "Murder She Wrote." A few rising stars (Mary Frann, Delta Burke, et al.) but not as many as one might hope to see. Lots of young actors appearing in this series never hit the big time.

Overall, fairly tepid updatings of Stout's very funny but often brutal stories. Conrad is a very good Wolfe (the Wolfe in the later A&E series is much too abrasive and unpleasant; I know, Wolfe was in the original stories, but Conrad makes him palatable for television). For all that, it's a pleasant and largely innocuous way to waste time. The only real regret is that Archie Goodwin is given too much heart, and his cracking wise is limited.

It's Only Money

Lewis at his best
"It's Only Money" is arguably Jerry Lewis' funniest solo (i.e., without Dean) effort. Some might plump for "The Big Mouth" but most of those laughs come from the late, great Charlie Callas; and from a shock appearance by a famous chicken magnate. Besides, Lewis himself directed "The Big Mouth." "It's Only Money" was directed by former cartoonist Frank Tashlin, whose work always bears watching at least once.

The PLOT (or, rather, the line on which to hang Lewis' antics) is the search for a missing heir to millions. Lewis, following in the footsteps of his hero, a private detective (played by Jesse White) tries to find the heir, not knowing he's it (that's not a spoiler--it's revealed early on).

The complications come when the family's fortune-hunting lawyer (suave and, in this case, funny Zachary Scott) and his henchman, the family butler (Jack Weston) try repeatedly to bump Lewis off. But despite various funny bits of nonsense concerning a manhole and some remote-control lawn mowers, Lewis proves as indestructible as Inspector Clouseau.

Even under Tashlin's expert comedy direction, Lewis has the problem, as usual, of a dual persona he was able to exploit later: most of the time he's an apparent idiot, unable to hold anything or to speak a complete English sentence; then he shows uncharacteristic moments of sensitive maturity. Usually these sides mitigate against each other in Lewis flicks, but Tashlin helps tamp down the more cloying aspects of his personality, sticking mainly to the comedy.

Not only is solid comedy support provided by Scott and Weston, Mae Questel, longtime voice artist (Betty Boop, Olive Oyl), is hilarious as the woman Scott intends to marry--and bump off--for her money.

But the show in this movie is Lewis. His maladroitness grows tiring, as usual; but when he bursts into nonsensical monologues about electronics, he's keen as a razor and side-splitting. Like another great comic actor, Peter Sellers, Lewis ruined himself by a touch of megalomania and an inability to see what was good for him in the long run. "It's Only Money" proves what Lewis could be if properly handled.

The Three Musketeers

Best of the Musketeers
Caveat: The Three Musketeers is best in tandem with The Four Musketeers. They were produced as one (very long) movie.

Richard Lester's "The Three Musketeers" is the best "Musketeers" movie, and not just because of its first rate cast. The script, by "Flashman" author George MacDonald Fraser, actually follows the Dumas book closely. Lots of humor was added, of course, such as the "alms for the blind" man. Perhaps as a fellow novelist Fraser had an instinctive sense for Dumas mere screenwriters lack. Furthermore, screenwriters try to "improve" the material and usually make a hash of it, while Fraser respected the source and saw Dumas wrote a good story that was filmable without much tweaking.

Richard Lester, best known today for his Beatle movies, was a risky choice to direct "The Three Musketeers." His early movies showed a tendency toward "modern" cinema styles circa the 1960s and that usually means stuff that looks incredibly dated. But his cutting enhances the story.

The cast: Oliver Reed is a brooding, menacing but ultimately likeable Athos, as it should be. Richard Chamberlain is believable as the musketeer who wants to be a priest (and who, in the novel TWENTY YEARS AFTER is a priest who wants to be a musketeer). Michael York, his star-career just blossoming, is an energetic, funny yet sympathetic D'Artagnan (if a little too skinny).

Frank Finlay is a bit out of place as Porthos. A fine actor who attended RADA with some of the greatest actors of his day, he's hardly the image of Dumas gave his character. Porthos should be a strong, hulking man. Perhaps they wanted all the Musketeers to be roughly the same height? But one can't fault his performance; and in the race for England, his character has a duel that gives us one of the film's funniest moments.

The rest of the cast: The breakout performer (no pun intended) is Rachel Welch. Famous long before this movie for her looks (and being cast in movies that accentuate her looks and attributes alone) she actually evinces talent here. She brings the movie more light relief (as if any more were necessary) perhaps because, according to her, Richard Lester told her not to do anything.

Faye Dunaway was a big star a the time and it was a coup to snag her for this flick. Getting her and Welch, two of the biggest (no pun intended) actresses of that era, was great for marketing . . . though Dunaway, who has a larger part in "The Four Musketeers," gives Milady a strange southern-American accent. But then, fortunately, no one in the movie attempts a "French" accent. That would be fatal.

Charlton Heston, a magnificent Richelieu, adds another significant historical figure to his canon; and Christopher Lee could be the model for Rochefort.

Of the lesser roles, both Roy Kinnear and Spike MIlligan are very funny.

"The Three Musketeers" moves splendidly. The fight scenes are well choreographed, using not only swords but everything the combatants can layt their hands on. The fights appear desperate, as they would be in real life; though it's nice to see Richard Chamberlain flash a smile during one fight scene to show why these guys became Musketeers: they may have to fight to the death for the king, but fighting gives them a rush.

Filmed in Spain under Franco, the filmmakers were able to get anything they wanted for the production through bribery. Everyplace looks magnificent. They didn't stint on the costumes or the decor. It's one of the most gorgeous movies of the 1970s. And it's full of wacky inventions that may (or may not) be legitimate. I haven't looked them up. But lots of these new inventions are hilarious, whether they're real or not (no spoilers, now).

"The Three Musketeers" could have been a stand alone movie because it comes to a lovely conclusion. But it only covers a certain amount of the Dumas story. Originally "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers" were intended as a "roadshow" version (i.e., very long--meaning more limited seating and dollars) but the whole was split into two parts. The reason for the split is hard to get at today. On the DVD extras several of the people responsible for the decision give different reasons--and there's no reason the decision should have only one reason. Unfortunately, Director Richard Lester does not appear in that DVD extra. One can suppose money is the key: two shorter movies rather than one long one and you have lots more seats. It may have inspired "Star Wars" to come out in three episodes.

"The Three Musketeers" is bright, sparkling, fun to watch, and no one can fault the acting. All the performers give their all, from Rachel Welch taking pratfalls to Oliver Reed, probably after a night of heavy carousing, fighting like he's on his last legs. This movie can stand alone.

"The Four Musketeers" is a bit bleaker but it was made simultaneously so it has the same production values, fine acting and mixture of humor and violence (especially in the fight on the ice). I'm not reviewing "The Four Musketeers" here so I could give spoilers, but I won't. I only say that while "The Three Musketeers" can stand alone (and in many cases probably should) "The Four Musketeers" was originally part of the "Three" and the two are best viewed together.

Overall: great cast, great production values, great direction, magnificent script by G. M. Fraser. Very funny and exciting with Dumas' inextricable admixture of history and fiction. Anyone who appreciates Musketeers has to see this.

Oh, and if you've ever wondered why "Musketeers" generally fight with swords, there's even a scene where Michael York's D'Artagnan is given a musket.

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu

Undervalued Gem?
"The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" was the last project made by the great Peter Sellers. Sellers had a curious career trajectory, starting on radio's "The Goon Show" (if you haven't heard it, look it up online). He was essentially a character actor who became an international star, a rarity in movies, where audiences like familiarity (even Olivier couldn't manage the star quality when submerging himself in his roles as he did on stage). From radio Sellers ventures into classic little British movies ("The Ladykillers"; "The Wrong Arm of the Law"; et al). Then he began costarring with the likes of Sophia Loren in international features. Finally, he hit the big time with "The Pink Panther" and "A Shot in the Dark" (both Clouseau movies). Big name directors and producers wanted him for major project. While working on a Billy Wilder movie with Dean Martin, Sellers had a heart attack. Surviving that, he found himself uninsurable for movies (people who back movies like to make sure their stars don't drop dead in the middle of filming). The heart attack and Sellers' incredible ego (combined with his fear of acting with anyone with the talent to upstage him) led to the fiasco that was the Bond spoof "Casino Royale." After that, his career hit its nadir, churning out low-budget bombs. His career looked to be over until he teamed with "Pink Panther" director Blake Edwards for more Clouseau movies. After that, his career began rising; and so did his vaunted ego combined with a fear of big stars and projects. Finally in a position to make his long-desired role of Chance in "Being There" he was nominated for an Oscar, made "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" and promptly died. So much for that.

The story is a typical McGuffin. Fu Manchu (Sellers) is celebrating his one-hundred-and-sixty-odd birthday when he loses his rejuvenating formula. Desperate to get more before he kicks the bucket, he sends his minions to find the ingredients, which consist mainly of precious jewels . . . although it also involves a mummy (which is never otherwise utilized). Fu's long-time adversary Nayland Smith (Sellers) is on the trail of the stolen artifacts, to recover them, or bring Fu's career to an end, or something. In a comedy the story is just a line to hang the laughs on. Unfortunately, the laughs come sparsely.

For the movie: It's actually a well-shot feature with a solid cast (including the always-wonderful Helen Mirren) and with sound production values. As an historical feature set vaguely in a stylized 1920s/30s (one reference seems to establish it as post-1936, but who cares?) it has a feel for early steampunk; and I'm surprised steampunkers don't embrace it. Its problem is that the film has a few good laughs, which is not good enough for a comedy.

The film's greatest problem is Sellers himself. Fu Manchu is right up his street (though the voice is irritating) but he also tackles the role of the detective, Nayland Smith. Smith is the sort of role a younger Sellers might have sunk his teeth into (reference the old men he played in "Battle of the Sexes" (1960) and "The Smallest Show on Earth" (1957). Whether Sellers is feeling ill personally or whether he tries to give Nayland Smith the sort of world-weariness Sellers hadn't shown in a role (well) since "Only Two Can Play", Smith comes across without a spark. According to the (extremely long) exposition Smith was seized by Fu Manchu and tortured until he was mad; that alone would have given Sellers in his prime a nail to hang a wacky character on. Instead, whatever Sellers meant to achieve with Smith, he only comes across as dull. It's only in the film's final few minutes that Sellers, and the movie, really come alive.

While a lot of Sellers fans (including me) often wished he'd died slightly earlier so the last shot he ever had in a movie was Chance walking on water in "Being There," the end of "The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu" is actually pretty good.

Another problem is the script. It simply doesn't have enough laughs. Apart from a handful of notable exceptions, comedy in movies was wilting on the vine until the advent of "Airplane!" (released the same year).

By the late seventies other movie writers, directors and/or producers, as in another Sellers feature, "Murder by Death", seemed to think plugging in comic actors was enough for a comedy. Put comic actors (in this case, Sid Caesar, Clive Dunn, Steve Franken) in selected roles and let them rip. Unfortunately, the best comic actors need funny material. In a great many of his movies, comedian Bob Hope proved a funny man can't be funny without funny material.

As for the rest, Mirren does a bang-up job as a policewoman in disguise (using so many voices she might have taken on a multi-role movie herself) who as a captive in Fu's lair begins reading him his rights (a classic moment). She seems desperate to make the movie work and much of what is good in "Fiendish Plot" is her doing. And though it appears churlish to say so in light of her talent, she's never been lovelier.

The rest of the cast tries as well, particularly David Tomlinson (best known in America as the father in "Mary Poppins"). Simon Williams, only five years after making a splash in "Upstairs, Downstairs", tries a little too hard in an idiot role for which he is ill-equipped. Legendary comic Sid Caesar is embarrassingly unfunny as an American FBI agent. And one slightly amusing moment has Burt Kwouk (Inspector Clouseau's Cato) in a small role as an inside joke that weakened that scene's verisimilitude.

Not many laughs, but the few that appear are laughs-out-loud. Some of the photography, especially exteriors in England and the French Alps, are exquisite. It's a beautiful movie that almost spares no expense, apart from a few tawdry not-so-special effects (and didn't they do any research on how a balloon operates?).

So is the movie a little gem? Perhaps. It's not in the top-ten Sellers films. For its pre-"Airplane" time it's not a bad movie. The laughs aren't frequent, which is the kiss of death for comedy. Still, it's not as bad as the critics like to make out.

One critical problem is that Sax Rohmer's original stories (like Earl Derr Biggers' "Charlie Chan" mystery novels) have fallen under the heavy hammer of political correctness. But Rohmer's original stories weren't social commentaries, they were ripping adventure stories about a (rather dull, unfortunately) detective named Nayland Smith trying to stop a criminal mastermind (who happened to be Chinese). They were early Bondian escapades which picked up an erotic element with the introduction of Fu Manchu's extremely lovely, if treacherous, daughter. "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" would have fallen under p.c. censorship if it were the funniest movie ever made. The fact that it isn't all that funny, despite some solid performances, a pretty good story and sometimes excellent production values, makes it an easy target for those who like to shut down anything that has a perspective they don't happen to like.

Mainly for Sellers fans, who can overcome their grief that Chance wasn't Sellers' last part.

The Avengers: Who's Who???
Episode 16, Season 5

Great Episode, but You Must Know the Characters
For what it's worth this is one of my top episodes of "The Avengers", probably because I'm a big fan of Freddie Jones, who looks thin and fit here (rather than portly as he does later, making movies for the likes of David Lynch).

In this episode Steed and Mrs. Peel undergo a Bugs-Bunny-type brain transplant with a couple of foreign agents who look like cheap hoods (Freddie Jones and Patricia Haines). The plan is to murder as many of Steed's fellow agents as possible then change back and have perfect alibis while Steed and Mrs Peel take the rap. But then, the hoods decide they like their new bodies better.

So how do the new Steed (Freddie Jones) and Mrs. Peel (Patricia Haines) get their lives back, with all the surviving secret agents in Britain chasing them?

Excellently plotted and full of good laughs, especially when they come back from commercial breaks to explain what's going on.

The Avengers: Murdersville
Episode 7, Season 6

A Change for The Avengers
"The Avengers" had a few rules it (mostly) followed. For instance, Steed never carried a gun, though he used one in several episodes. The city streets were always empty. And, most of all, in nearly every episode during its wonderful Mrs. Peel years, most deaths were casual and rarely brought more than an arched eyebrow and an even more arch comment from our heroes.

"Murdersville" takes a different tack. In the teaser opening it seems like it's taken this lack of interest in murder to extreme. But soon one of the victims in the Murdersville town is actually a lifelong friend of Mrs. Peel. When he's killed, it's a serious matter. And Mrs. Peel makes it her duty to find out what happened and why, uncovering secrets about this town that befit an episode of "The Avengers."

Unfortunately, the serious tone doesn't sit well with some fans, and it makes the rowdies chasing Mrs. Peel in a helicopter more depraved than the usual run of their villains.

A good episode, but watch with the caveat that this episode takes a serious tone, though it has enough humor to satisfy most.

The Avengers: Two's a Crowd
Episode 12, Season 4

Fine Episode Except for Some Acting
Patrick McNee gets to play a new role in "The Avengers" as a group of foreign espionage agents hire a man who looks remarkably like him to take his place at an important meeting to bug the joint. Fortunately McNee doesn't have to tax himself to strenuously as the new character is quickly groomed to become John Steed 2.

Julian Glover, whose career stretched right through one of the better Bond movies ("For Your Eyes Only") and the best of Indiana Jones ("and the Last Crusade") right up to "Game of Thrones", is one of the bad guys, a role for which he was equipped early.

Diana Rigg plays Mrs. Peel with perfect aplomb; and, as usual, delivers her lines with perfect inflection on every letter. She was a great find for the fourth season. Here she is able to go all the way to complete bewilderment and back again with only the slightest of differences. She sets her mouth and doesn't let it hang open slack-jawed like a lot of actors. Wonderful performance.

The weak spot is Warren Mitchell. Though not as badly as later in "The See-Through Man", Mitchell overacts shamefully, like he's trying to "ham" the paper off the wall. Shame.

There's a lot of nonsense about model airplanes delivering bombs and machine-gun fire but it's par for the course for "The Avengers" which, at least in the all-too-short Mrs. Peel years, never did anything or had lines quite like any other show.

The Lost World: London Calling
Episode 7, Season 2

A Bit of a Gyp But Intriguing. But What Happens to Veronica When the Others Go Home?
"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World" is a series based loosely on the adventure novel THE LOST WORLD by the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Five (four in the book) adventurers wind up trapped on a South American plateau that's a home where dinosaurs roam. They are helped by a gorgeous blonde in a stone-age bikini, Veronica (Jennifer O'Dell) who speaks perfect (even modern colloquial) English and who's skin was not ravaged by the elements despite her apparent lack of clothes. She helps them survive, and they live pretty well.

Just as in "Gilligan's Island" other people seem to come and go with ease, but our six stranded castaways can't seem to manage it, despite having a brilliant professor (Challenger) in their midst.

Or do they finally get off the plateau? After finding a map the reporter, Malone, leads them by secrets ways off the plateau to a ship bound for London. Once there, they revert to their old lives. Or do they? Or is it all a trick? I won't say.

The highlight of this episode is when Veronica, still clad in her prehistoric foundation garments and looking a dream of loveliness, enters a staid Edwardian club of men in evening wear and walks casually in their midst. It vies for being one of the sexiest moments of the series.

It's also nice to get a glimpse of another beautiful blonde, Gladys, whom Malone is set to marry (and if you know the relations of Gladys and Malone from the original novel, it's a moment fraught with irony).

Once again an episode (and Malone) is saved by Veronica's intervention. She's not Conan Doyle, but she made the series.

The Lost World: Stone Cold
Episode 4, Season 2

Great "Lost World" Episode, But One Needs to See Rest of Series to Appreciate It
"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World" is based loosely on Conan Doyle's adventure novel about an amazingly high plateau in the South American jungles that is inhabited by prehistoric beasts who avoided extinction. These also, for some reason, never evolved further, but that's beside the point.

The five plucky adventurers of this series (four in the original novel, though the four characters who are from the book are at least accurate as to names) are, in the first episode, joined by an ethereally lovely female Tarzan-type, Veronica, an Aryan Squanto who not only teaches the others how to survive in this alien habitat, she speaks perfect (even modern colloquial) English and her skin has escaped the ravages of the climate despite her wearing nothing except a prehistoric bikini, with no beach in sight.

Warning: this series must be accepted for what it is, an adventure geared for boys of all ages (for the best of us never grow up). If any logic is applied, it resembles a serious, hour-long "Gilligan's Island."

Though our six stranded castaways (who apparently arrived on the plateau with unlimited tons of ammunition, since every episode has its share of gunfire) can't get off the plateau, other people come and go as they please.

Through the series they meet up at least twice with time-travellers and once with a Gypsy-style fortuneteller. They stumble upon lizards who evolved into man-like beings (speaking perfect English). They find English-type villages and colleagues they knew from their old lives. And they have problems in places called Camelot and El Dorado and they even stumble over Ponce de Leon's fabled Fountain of Youth.

"Stone Cold" is a fascinating episode because it allows the actors to play other roles. Finding themselves in an old castle (and not the first, either, on their prehistoric, South American plateau), they are enticed to dress up in neat old clothes (18th century style, which they insist on referring to as medieval) and find themselves taking on the characteristics of the people who wore them centuries ago, when the castle was transferred by a magician called Prospero (right out of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST) to escape the plague in Europe.

The reporter, Malone, looks and acts like Chauvelin from THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. The big game hunter, Lord Roxton, sword-fights and dances in a powdered wig. The biggest surprise is Veronica. Out of her stone-age foundation garments, with her hair beautifully coiffed, she is still incredibly lovely and sexy. In fact, it's almost a shame to see her revert to "Veronica." In fact, one wishes they'd done a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with this cast. They're all wonderful.

No new actors appear in this episode, but all the actors we've come to know and (especially Veronica) love have a chance to horse around in a cockamamie play-within-a play. They seem to be having a high old time and with the right frame of mind so does the viewer. A real change of pace for a series that is beginning to be a bit stale by this time.

One caveat. I'm a medievalist and am irked by references to anything in this episode as medieval. Most of all, when Challenger, who should know better, refers to a saurian-type chimeral statue as a "gargoyle." A gargoyle is a waterspout and nothing else. But then . . . that's taking this show seriously, and that's a no-no.

The Avengers: Honey for the Prince
Episode 26, Season 4

We Work Together Apart
"Honey for the Prince" is an excellent episode to conclude the black and white episodes of "The Avengers."

It has all the elements we love, and more so. Two casual deaths of innocent bystanders. A hammy guest star (in this case, Ron Moody from "Oliver!") running a quaint organization we all wish actually existed. An Emma Peel sword fight (reminiscent of her first episode, "The Town of No Return"). Steed's easy manner in all situations, masking a willingness to show his fighting prowess only if he needs to. Steed being typically English (in this case, for an indoor cricket match, something we Americans will never comprehend). And lovely, indomitable Mrs. Peel slowly losing her dignity, yet maintaining her indestructible poise (in this case, as a harem girl of low I.Q.)

Diana Rigg was a perfect Mrs. Peel, always word-perfect in her inflections. She also handles comedy perfectly, as show by the hitch of her harem trousers, sure to bring a laugh to all but the primmest bluenoses.

The plot? Oh, something about the British, through Steed and Mrs. Peel, trying to gain concessions from a middle-eastern prince, while also trying to prevent his assassination by unknown assailants. But why does a murdered colleague of Steed's have a cabinet full of honey? And what is the mystery behind the QQF?

But the plot is only a clothesline, as usual, on which to hang the antics of the two stars. Once, when someone watching the show asked Patrick McNee how come he and Mrs. Peel spent so much time on their own when they were supposed to work together, McNee replied, "We work together apart." As usual, Steed and Mrs. Peel start off together with an exciting opening and follow their own threads of baffling clues until they meet together at the end in an attempt to foil the bad guys.

"The Avengers" was delightful fluff in the vein of America's "The Wild Wild West" only with the beautiful, classically-trained actress Diana Rigg and the likewise wonderful Patrick McNee never letting on for a minute that their storylines make no sense. And apart from the puzzling (for Americans) cricket terms, this makes a perfectly ridiculous episode in the top tier of Mrs. Peel's black and white days. Enjoy.

The Great Race

Edwards' Best After Clouseau
"The Great Race" is probably Blake Edwards' best movie outside Clouseau. Though he made other notable successes, his later career was plagued by flops. "The Great Race" nestles smoothly between his first two Clouseau films ("The Pink Panther"; "A Shot in the Dark") and the zany "What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?" in Edwards' best period.

Though I hate reading personal notes in reviews, this was my favorite movie growing up, when it was shown on television over two nights. Seeing it again on a big screen (TV) I felt like I was watching it for the first time, since television airings always had it full frame, pan-and-scan. A little of the sheen was stripped from it in my mind when I read that Charlton Heston and Lee Remick were slated to star at one point, since they are better actors than Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood; but Heston's "The Agony and the Ecstasy" ran over time and he had to cancel.

Still, Wood has never looked lovelier. The Edwardian-Era styles (clothes and hair) suit her. Curtis has little more to do than look good in white, which he achieves. As for the other actors, Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate makes up for being miscast by overacting. He's a good actor but shows little subtlety in this role.

The chief scene-stealers work beneath the leads. Peter Falk, as Professor Fate's henchman Max, is a delight and walks away with ever scene he's in. It's especially enjoyable when he switches sides temporarily and works with Curtis' "Great Leslie." Keenan Wynn, as Leslie's sidekick Hezekiah, also does his share of scene-stealing and when he disappears for a lengthy stretch he's sorely missed. Ross Martin, as Baron Rolfe, plays his part so smoothly he might be in either a serious movie or a comedy, and he's very good.

Edwards' stalwart Larry Storch dominates the western scenes, which have two notable "Andy Griffith" actors: Hal Smith is the town mayor, and Denver Pyle is the Sheriff.

"The Great Race" is easily divisible into several parts. The pre-race part introduces all the major characters and is (though I don't like the word) hilarious. Once the race begins, the movie moves into a western spoof that has fewer laughs but is quite good. After this the main characters are trapped on a melting ice floe, which allows them to interact and get to know each other better, though it's really a good time to go to the restroom and get popcorn. Following this is a lengthy spoof of "The Prisoner of Zenda" that may prove confusing to those not well-versed in that story. This sequence is capped by the biggest pie fight in movie history, and shows why "Doctor Strangelove" (made the previous year) cut its famous (and unseen) pie fight. Frankly, it the quality of humor the pie fight provides isn't worth the expense. The final stretch of the race closes the movie and a real suspense over who is going to cross the finish line.

The movie is livened, even at its dullest moments, by jaunty Henry Mancini tunes. The ditty he wrote for the pie fight really raises that sequence. Mancini (another Edwards stalwart who provided memorable music for "The Pink Panther" and "The Days of Wine and Roses" shows a remarkable sense for musical humor, as in Professor Fate's theme.

I don't know how "The Great Race" would play in the twenty-first century. It's very long for a comedy and if one isn't familiar with its sources (such as "The Prisoner of Zenda") it may be baffling. Furthermore, when it was made movies took their time. "The Great Race" rolls leisurely for half an hour to get to know the characters before the race begins. These days I can see it starting with the race and such characterization as modern movies allow coming through as it goes along. Still, it's a beautiful and beautifully shot movie, painfully funny in places.


Very Funny Twist on Faust
"Bedazzled" is a funny Faustian spoof written and performed by Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, directed by Stanley Donan ("Singing in the Rain").

Moore plays a hapless fry cook hopelessly in love with a waitress (a very funny Eleanor Bron, best known for the Beatles' "Help"). Cook is wonderful as the Lord of Darkness who buys Moore's soul in return for his lady-love. The catch is, Cook is always looking, and finding, loopholes that make Moore's love life a misery.

Obviously Cook and Moore, who went to good schools and universities (Moore at Oxford, Cook at Cambridge) did not always doze through chapel. Their take on Christian theology is substantially correct (especially in the description of Satan as not equal to God but working under God's sufferance). What they do is present it from Satan's POV as Prince of Liars (in one of the best scenes Cook's character makes it known that everything he says is a lie--including that).

BTW, watch Cook's eyes. He rarely blinks, giving him an otherworldly appearance. His calmness is like that of fellow comic Peter Sellers, with whom Cook worked in another hilariously but low-key movie, "The Wrong Box."

Though she got high billing, Raquel Welch has only a brief role as "Lilian Lust, the girl with the bust." Still, she's perfectly cast and makes the most of her screen time, proving why she was the reigning sex symbol of that day. She's never looked better, though her fake southern accent could have benefited from more rehearsal. But then again, who needs it?

The problem with the movie is that once you've seen it a time or two you know all the gag lines. Watching it again for the first time in decades (wishing I had seen it in the original wide-screen format instead of tv pan-and-scan and interrupted by commercials), I chuckled only once. Still, Cook and Moore were a great team who played well together.

The Andy Griffith Show: The Perfect Female
Episode 8, Season 2

A Plea for Honesty in Relationships, and Against Meddlesome Matchmaking
Major Spoilers Ahead:

The problem starts when Barney and Thelma Lou scheme to set Andy up on a blind date with Thelma Lou's cousin from Arkansas, Karen (Gail Davis).

Andy is going out "shooting crows" anyway and he asks her along. Then she starts the problem. She's a champion skeet shooter, but when Andy mentions shooting she never mentions it (she wants to be appreciated for being a woman rather than a champion). Had she mentioned her skill then or during the shooting everything would have been fine. Later, she and Andy have a good time at his place for dinner and singing good old country songs.

That was where she made her first mistake. Then, when Barney starts blabbing about how the date was an "audition" (which it wasn't, except in the eyes of Barney and Thelma Lou), rather than confronting Andy about it she accepts Barney's stupidity and exacerbates the problem, again, with her own frank dishonesty. She should have queried Andy, or at least said something to his face and let him give a chance to defend himself against these ridiculous charges.

Instead, she has to show Andy up on a skeet shooting match to "get her own back" and humiliate Andy publicly as she feels (wrongly) that she was humiliated privately. It's notable that she never visits Thelma Lou again in the series. I hope she found out who the instigators were of this major embarrassment and resented her cousin the rest of her life.

Actress Gail Davis, star of the show "Annie Oakley" (Andy obviously doesn't watch much television) was constructed along the lines of late-fifties movie goddesses (Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, etc.) It's also notable this is the last acting job for her listed on imdb.

The Great Race

Edwards' Best After Clouseau
"The Great Race" is probably Blake Edwards' best movie outside Clouseau. Though he made other notable successes, his later career was plagued by flops. "The Great Race" nestles smoothly between his first two Clouseau films ("The Pink Panther"; "A Shot in the Dark") and the zany "What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?" in Edwards' best period.

Though I hate reading personal notes in reviews, this was my favorite movie growing up, when it was shown on television over two nights. Seeing it again on a big screen (TV) I felt like I was watching it for the first time, since television airings always had it full frame, pan-and-scan. A little of the sheen was stripped from it in my mind when I read that Charlton Heston and Lee Remick were slated to star at one point, since they are better actors than Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood; but Heston's "The Agony and the Ecstasy" ran over time and he had to cancel.

Still, Wood has never looked lovelier. The Edwardian-Era styles (clothes and hair) suit her. Curtis has little more to do than look good in white, which he achieves. As for the other actors, Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate makes up for being miscast by overacting. He's a good actor but shows little subtlety in this role.

The chief scene-stealers work beneath the leads. Peter Falk, as Professor Fate's henchman Max, is a delight and walks away with ever scene he's in. It's especially enjoyable when he switches sides temporarily and works with Curtis' "Great Leslie." Keenan Wynn, as Leslie's sidekick Hezekiah, also does his share of scene-stealing and when he disappears for a lengthy stretch he's sorely missed. Ross Martin, as Baron Rolfe, plays his part so smoothly he might be in either a serious movie or a comedy, and he's very good.

Edwards' stalwart Larry Storch dominates the western scenes, which have two notable "Andy Griffith" actors: Hal Smith is the town mayor, and Denver Pyle is the Sheriff.

"The Great Race" is easily divisible into several parts. The pre-race part introduces all the major characters and is (though I don't like the word) hilarious. Once the race begins, the movie moves into a western spoof that has fewer laughs but is quite good. After this the main characters are trapped on a melting ice floe, which allows them to interact and get to know each other better, though it's really a good time to go to the restroom and get popcorn. Following this is a lengthy spoof of "The Prisoner of Zenda" that may prove confusing to those not well-versed in that story. This sequence is capped by the biggest pie fight in movie history, and shows why "Doctor Strangelove" (made the previous year) cut its famous (and unseen) pie fight. Frankly, it the quality of humor the pie fight provides isn't worth the expense. The final stretch of the race closes the movie and a real suspense over who is going to cross the finish line.

The movie is livened, even at its dullest moments, by jaunty Henry Mancini tunes. The ditty he wrote for the pie fight really raises that sequence. Mancini (another Edwards stalwart who provided memorable music for "The Pink Panther" and "The Days of Wine and Roses" shows a remarkable sense for musical humor, as in Professor Fate's theme.

I don't know how "The Great Race" would play in the twenty-first century. It's very long for a comedy and if one isn't familiar with its sources (such as "The Prisoner of Zenda") it may be baffling. Furthermore, when it was made movies took their time. "The Great Race" rolls leisurely for half an hour to get to know the characters before the race begins. These days I can see it starting with the race and such characterization as modern movies allow coming through as it goes along. Still, it's a beautiful and beautifully shot movie, painfully funny in places.

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