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Scrooge Month Day 4: Quincy Magoo in MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962)

Mr Magoos Christmas Carol 1962Director: Abe Levitow

Writer: Barbara Chain, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Joan Gardener, John Hart, Jane Kean, Marie Matthews, Laura Olsher, Les Tremayne

Plot: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is credited as being the first ever animated Christmas special, beating Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by two years. The special brought back Quincy Magoo, star of a series of theatrical shorts from the 40s and 50s, and led him into his own television series in 1964. In the framing device we learn that we’re actually watching a musical Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, one that evidently drops all references to Scrooge’s family, switches the order of Christmas Past and Christmas Present for some reason, and makes occasional references to Scrooge’s (Magoo’s) poor eyesight.

Thoughts: After three days of extremely traditional renditions of A Christmas Carol, I’m glad to be able to dip my toes into this less serious version. The opening scene, where Magoo – voiced, as always, by Jim Backus — sings about how happy he is to be returning to Broadway, sets the stage well. It’s silly, the music is catchy, and it lets you know that you’re watching a play-within-a-TV special (a conceit the Flintstones would borrow 30 years later).

Once that opening scene is done away with, though, we go into a version of the Dickens classic that is clearly adapted, but still very recognizable. There aren’t a bunch of side jokes about the theatrical production, just a few “act breaks” where we see the curtain closing. There’s no attempt to explain the translucent Marley (voiced by Royal Dano) or how such a thing would be accomplished on a live stage, to say nothing of the times when the time-travelling Scrooge appears on stage with his younger self, both of them clearly played by Magoo. The gags about Magoo’s lousy vision, a staple of most of his cartoons, are reduced to a minimum. And although much of the book is dismissed in the name of expediency, the stuff that remains is often verbatim Dickens, albeit performed by the cast of the cartoon. Backus isn’t really playing Scrooge here, he’s playing Mr. Magoo as Mr. Magoo, reading the lines of Ebenezer Scrooge, but not making a huge effort to portray a different character than he usually does in the animated series.

The decision to jump straight to Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) is baffling. Why in the world would you do the present before the past? It doesn’t particularly hurt the abbreviated version of the story, but it doesn’t help it either. The design of the character is slightly problematic as well – a red robe and long, white whiskers. No doubt most small children who watch this would confuse the character with Santa Claus. This may be deliberate, I suppose – with his compassion for Tiny Tim and the rest of the downtrodden impacted by Scrooge, Christmas Present is certainly the most Santa-like of the Spirits. Still, he’s not Santa Claus, and it doesn’t serve the special to pretend he is.

Christmas Past looks a bit better, more of the “living candle” depiction of the character that we’ve seen in some of the other renditions of the story. Of the three ghosts, Past is the one that has the most variance in his/her/its different incarnations in the media, with Dickens having a pretty vague description in the first place. That said, I find it interesting that a few versions have become common – the Candle and the Angel in particular.

This is going to sound strange, but the highlight of the special to me is actually the musical number that accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come segment. In many versions of the story, we see a gathering of people gloating over selling the deceased Scrooge’s possessions (the fact that the deceased in question is Scrooge is usually obvious to the audience, but Scrooge himself refuses to admit it yet). In this version, we get a snappy, creepy little song that feels like it should be in a Halloween special. And yes, I love that. Ghost stories, as you may know, used to be more traditionally associated with Christmas than Halloween; the reversal really only happened in the 20th century. I’m old school in this way. I love the juxtaposition of the frightening ghost story with the joy of Christmas as a way to really hammer home the lesson that Scrooge needs to learn. Dickens did it right, and the makers of this special did him right in this department.

This is a first in many ways – the first animated Christmas special, the first time we saw another fictional character “play” Scrooge, and as such it deserves a proud place in the annals of Christmas TV. And it’s a good special, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not even close to my favorite.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 2: Christopher Lee in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace 1962Director: Terence Fisher

Writer: Curt Siodmak, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Christopher Lee, Hans Söhnker, Hans Nielsen, Senta Berger, Ivan Desny, Wolfgang Lukschy, Leon Askin, Edith Schultze-Westrum, Thorley Walters

Plot: A new case has come to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Christopher Lee and Thorley Walters, respectively): the return of arch-nemesis Professor Moriarity (Hans Söhnker). The battle begins when a man turns up murdered on Holmes’s doorstep, causing a clash with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cooper (Hans Nielsen), who is unconvinced that Moriarity is in fact the criminal genius Holmes claims him to be. If that wasn’t bad enough, Moriarity is scheduled to be knighted. Holmes deduces the dying man was directing them to a local pub, where they overhear Moriarity plotting with a henchman. Watson accidentally alerts Moriarity to their presence, and the two leave quickly. Holmes has heard enough though – Moriarity has as good as confessed to a pair of murders related to his current scheme, but Holmes still doesn’t know what the Professor is plotting.

Going through the newspaper, Holmes believes Moriarity’s next target will involve a necklace of Cleopatra owned by one Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy). They arrive at Blackburn’s home to find him murdered, his face destroyed by a shotgun blast and his wedding ring now missing. As they investigate, trying to avoid Inspector Cooper, Holmes finds a patch of freshly turned earth. Cooper suspects Blackburn’s wife Ellen (Senta Berger) and her lover, Paul King (Ivan Desny), a theory he grows more certain of when he finds clothes buried in the fresh Earth. Ellen confesses that, earlier, Peter himself killed a prowler, then switched his clothes with the intruder to fake his own death. She leads him to the real Blackburn, hiding in the cellar, but instead find the man’s corpse, having scratched “M-O-R” into a crate before he died.

Holmes disguises himself to sneak into Moriarity’s home, finding the necklace amongst a series of deadly traps. Moriarity turns up to visit Cooper just moments after Holmes presents the necklace as evidence. Moriarity, of course, has an alibi, claiming the necklace was stolen years ago and he’s pleased to see it being returned to its rightful owner. Despite this, Holmes is convinced the Professor will make another attempt on the necklace. Moriarity, however, approaches Holmes alone and tries to offer him a partnership, which Holmes turns down flat. Moriarity instead plans to take action as the necklace is auctioned off – he is summoned as an “archeological expert” to verify the authenticity of the necklace. As he leaves, Holmes informs Moriarity that several of the thieves involved in the cast have been captured… and he expects the professor will join them soon.

Thoughts: Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace was a German film, but filmed in English. Why the filmmakers felt the need to come in and re-dub the English speaking actors with a separate English audio track is beyond me, but the sort of Godzilla quality it gives to the voices is only the first problem with this bizarre attempt at adapting one of Doyle’s later stories. The writing feels very off here. An early scene in which Holmes and Watson discuss the relative merits of the London Times newspaper feels half like an advertisement for the paper and half like a practice for the sort of bizarre logical leaps that would be a trademark of the Adam West Batman television series a few years later. Holmes, in fact, talks so much about how trustworthy the Times is that I wound up checking on Wikipedia to see if they helped subsidize the production of the film. (As far as I can tell, they didn’t.)

Christopher Lee is our star, which makes it even more perplexing why they would bother to re-dub the voices in this film. Lee’s voice is absolutely phenomenal, and he seems to be putting in a valiant effort as Holmes. The occasions where he disguises himself are great – even as we watch him putting on a fake mustache and makeup, it would be very easy to forget we’re looking at Holmes in disguise. If anything, the real tragedy of this film is that Lee could make a fine Holmes (he would play the great Detective two more times, both in the 90s, in films I haven’t seen but now dearly wish to), if only he were given something good to play with. As it is, even the scene where he’s searching Moriarity’s home, rummaging around a mummy and nearly being bitten by a (presumably) deadly snake is head-shakingly boring. And honestly, there are few worse things for a movie to be… even a bad film can be memorable and fun in certain ways, but if a movie is boring there’s really nothing that can be done for it.

While Lee seems to be trying to play Holmes straight (at least as far as I can tell with the poor voice dubbing), Thorley Walters’s Watson is a different story. The scene where he hangs around in the pub while Holmes investigates is positively disturbing. We see him approached by a barmaid (the film never outright says she’s a prostitute, but it may as well give her a sign) who starts feeding him a sob story about her sick mother. Watson, of course, being a doctor, starts to offer to perform an operation on the woman free of charge. At this point, it’s like watching one of your buddies talking to a girl who you can tell is only interested in him because he’s got an expensive-looking car and she clearly is hoping she’ll shower him with gifts – you’re stuck burying your head in your face and gritting your teeth because you know warning your buddy won’t do any good. What’s worse, this goes nowhere. It never comes back up, we never see the woman again, we just get a couple of minutes of Watson as an addlepated horndog presumably because the director couldn’t think of any other way to pass the time for the 100 seconds Christopher Lee was off-camera looking for a way to eavesdrop on Moriarity.

Hans Söhnker as Moriarity seems to be in a similar predicament as Lee. His performance seems perfectly adequate, and he’s certainly got the right look for an aging mastermind of evil. (If Mr. Söhnker or anyone from his estate happens to be reading this, I mean it as a compliment.) He is betrayed not by the actor, but by a script that has him posture and preen but never actually do much that seems particularly menacing. The end is particularly disappointing. After Holmes turns down Moriarity’s offer of partnership, it’s easy to get excited. “All right, the die has been cast, the gauntlet has been thrown, time for a face off!” But no, instead we get a civil conversation at the auction during which the two adversaries might as well be winking at each other, each saying, “Ah, I’ll get you next time, you old rascal, you.”

Hans Nielsen as Inspector Cooper, again like Lee’s Holmes, isn’t given much to work with here. While there’s nothing technically wrong with the performance, the character itself seems completely absurd in the context of this world. The story is (extremely) loosely based on the final full-length Holmes novel by Doyle, The Valley of Fear, and as such it is main very clear this is not Holmes’s first time working with Scotland Yard. The relationship seems to be solid and based on a lot of backstory and mutual respect. That said, it is patently ridiculous to imagine a police inspector who doesn’t listen to Sherlock Freaking Holmes when he shows up and points out an arch-criminal. Cooper’s skepticism seems completely irrational, like Scully constantly refusing to believe in the supernatural despite nine seasons of X-Files cases that prove it exists.

Adding to the bizarre choices that make up this movie is a weird jazz score. No doubt we’re listening to the very sort of music that was popular in 1962, but it feels grossly out of place in this period mystery. Instead of creating atmosphere, it wrenches you out of the film and you start looking around for a saxophone quartet. Admittedly, this may just be a pet peeve of mine – I never really like movies where they use anachronistic music in the soundtrack. To be frank, the only director I’ve ever seen pull off contemporary music in a period piece is Quentin Tarantino, and that’s mainly because his films go so far into the realm of the absurd that it doesn’t really seem that out of place after all.

I wish there were more to recommend this movie, but there simply isn’t. It’s a weak, weak attempt at telling a Holmes story. The story is weak, the villain is weak, the mystery is practically nonexistent. (Instead of being the deductive genius we know he is it basically boils down to “I know Moriarity is behind this because he’s Moriarity and currently alive, so who else could it be?”) The best thing about any of this is that there’s so much Holmes out there it will be easy to find something better and cleanse my mental palette.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 12: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

what-ever-happened-to-baby-janeDirector: Robert Aldrich
Writer: Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Henry Farrell
Cast: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Maidie Norman

Plot: Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was once the toast of vaudeville, a child star whose singing and dancing made her famous, while the sales of her lookalike doll made her father wealthy. As an adult, Jane’s star fell and her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses. Now as old women, the sisters share a house where Jane drinks heavily amidst the memories of her youth and Blanche – confined to a wheelchair following an accident for which Jane is blamed – is experiencing a minor renaissance as her old films find a new audience on television. The relationship between the two sisters is strained to begin with, but grows worse as the mentally unstable Jane begins to torment her sister, taking the telephone from her bedroom and scaring her to the point that Blanche refuses to eat anything Jane brings her, and begins to starve. Jane attempts to restart her career, hiring a piano player (Victor Buono) to accompany her.

Their maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) discovers Blanche in captivity, and Jane murders her. When the piano player stumbles upon the captive Blanche, he manages to flee, and Jane takes her sister to one of the few places she was happy – the beach. There, Blanche reveals to Jane that she was never responsible for the car accident. It was Blanche, trying to run over her cruel, drunken sister, who caused the accident that trapped her in a wheelchair. Jane, stunned at the knowledge that they “could have been friends,” fetches her sister an ice cream cone. When the police stop her on the way back to her sister, a crowd forms, and Jane does what she always did for the crowds… she begins to dance.

Thoughts: This is another entry into that whole “psychological terror” subgenre, the type of film that relies far more on the madness of your villain and the suspense developed by the director to scare you, instead of throwing blood at the screen. In fact, of the two or three genuinely violent acts in this film, I don’t think any of them include so much as a drop of blood. But the film is no less effective for that.

In many ways, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is almost prophetic. How many times have we heard tales of former child stars who were unable to cope with the real world when their fame vanished? How many of them have turned to lives of crime or drugs? How many died so much earlier than they should have as the result of an insane lifestyle they couldn’t maintain into adulthood? I have no idea if such a thing was prevalent in 1960, when the novel was written, but looking at this film today makes it feel almost as though it could be ripped from the headlines. As a rule, I’m against remaking movies that were this good in the first place (although ABC television attempted to do so in the early 90s), but if someone were to transplant this story into the modern day, I think it would hold up just as well.

Much of Jane’s cruelty is verbal. She shouts at her sister, mistreats her, and generally tries to impress upon her that Blanche couldn’t possibly live without her, which the audience knows isn’t true. Blanche has already made plans to sell their house, put Jane into an institution, and hire Elvira to care for her full time. The story carefully upgrades Jane’s madness, beginning with her angry words, then moving up to the memorable scene where she puts Blanche’s own pet parakeet on her dinner plate, then later moving on to a dead rat. That’s when the real violence begins, with Jane serving up a savage beating to her sister when she catches Blanche on the phone to her doctor, trying to summon help, and even further to Elvira’s death. There’s a steady escalation for Jane’s madness that makes it feel very authentic.

For a moment, I was a bit irritated at the end of the movie, which leaves the audience wondering whether or not Blanche survives. As I thought about it more, though, I realize the brilliance in it. Jane is already dangerously unhinged. The question is, what will be worse for her – if Blanche lives, or if Blanche dies? I’m honestly not really sure, and therefore, leaving the question hanging is a clever way to cap the tale.

Like usual, with psychological thrillers, it’s the performances of the actors that make or break the film. Bette Davis received an Oscar for her portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson, and it was well deserved. The way she ricochets from anger to insanity, from a bitter old woman to a scared little girl, is a really masterful work. Crawford, famously, was very bitter over the fact that Davis was nominated and she wasn’t.  And in truth, I think she was robbed. Blanche’s character doesn’t allow for the wild array of emotion and terror that Jane does, but Crawford was just as effective at portraying a kind woman who is living a life of eternal penance for her one moment of cruelty. Victor Buono, as the piano player, is a sort of charming cad. His British accent is terrible, frankly, but he really sells the part, as he cringes through Davis’s performance of her childhood signature number “Writing a Letter to Daddy,” then turns right around and pretends he thought it was wonderful.

Some of the influence of this film has been lost – there was a brief glut of films where the villain was an old woman, but that’s mostly dried up over time. (Let’s face it, in Hollywood of the21st century the villains have to be just as sexy – if not more – than the heroes.) This movie isn’t watched or talked about as much as the likes of Psycho these days, but I think it’s right up there as one of the greats in this particular subset of terror.

Tomorrow we’re getting back to the supernatural with perhaps the greatest haunted house movie ever made, the appropriately-named The Haunting.