Rhonda Fleming, 97, Fades Away

Alias Jesse James, 1959 with Bob Hope

DATELINE: Smart and Lovely

To hear that Rhonda Fleming had passed away was an anticlimax. She had been out of public eye for twenty or thirty years. And her age was given as 97. She was not cheated out of time, but her film career cheated her out of nearly everything else.

In the 1960s when she was fairly done as a smart leading lady, she did not go into a TV series that might have cemented her legacy. Instead, she did stage shows in Vegas for a time and lived out her life in teaspoons of fame.

At her peak, Rhonda’s fiery red hair made her a good second choice to all the roles that went to Maureen O’Hara. Yet, she still managed to play opposite Ronald Reagan four times and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby separately.

If there was a last film recalled about her, it was Alias Jesse James, a cameo-studded Bob Hope western comedy that featured every TV and movie cowboy. She held her own.

Rhonda was never offered much beyond the sensible woman. She was stunning to look at, but played it as equal to any leading man. They must have liked that because so many wanted to appear with her co-star.

Now you may catch her on the cable movie channels. Perhaps one will feature a few of her movies, nothing earth-shattering, something with Charlton Heston or Vincent Price. You have to admire an actress who did her job and was the consummate professional.

We can’t say we’ll miss Rhonda Fleming because she was gone years ago. It’s just another empty spot in the pantheon of old Hollywood.

 

 

Altmanesque

DATELINE: Great Director Documentary

A biographical film on the life and work of Robert Altman uses a touchstone word, “Altmanesque,” as the word asked of all his most famous stars. Their inarticulate explanations may reveal more about the paucity of their vocabulary than about the notable filmmaker in the simply titled Altman.

He began TV work on schlock like the Whirlybirds,but learned the craft.

A man who never caved in on his principles, he was fired from movies and TV shows regularly for extending the bounds: he was thrown off Combat and Bus Stop.Those episodes look tame today, but were shockers of moral depravity back in the early 1960s.

When he confounded Jack Warner by having overlapping dialogue during an argument between two actors, he was banned from the studio. He did not play by silly rules, and today those rules look so silly that we laugh about it.

Altman had tremendous loyalty too, and often worked with the same actors. He was an actors’ director more than anything else: putting their ease of delivery at the top of movie success.

His most famous movies were twists on the usual genre, like Western film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or fantastic Brewster McCloud. MASH put him on the box-office straight and narrow. He went up and down, always interesting, but not until 1990 and The Player did he wake up the movie world.

His Oscar was honorary for a lifetime of achievements, but his films were variable, so different that each became the favorite of different people.

 

 

 

 

 

Jack the Tailor of Beverly Hills

 DATELINE: You Are What You Call Yourself!

 Clothes Make the Man!

Upon first coming across a one-hour documentary on a fashion store in Beverly Hills, we thought it was one of those vanity documentaries, produced by its subject. Jack Taylor was a 90-year old high fashion artist from old Hollywood days.

The film is a tad old, with Taylor gone in 2016 and his main supporter, Mike Douglas, a decade before that. Yet, we are always eager to catch up on our past misgivings.

Jack Taylor hardly needs publicity, and business is dying out as his A-list celebrity patrons pass away. He would soon follow and take an era with him. He was the man who tailored all those magnificent suits worn by Cary Grant from the 1930s till his death. Grant would order a dozen suits at time.

We wondered if there were any celebs who’d go on camera for a commercial appearance—and there were plenty of men: Mike Douglas, Hal Linden, swore by Jack Taylor. Monty Hall wore a different outfit every show on Let’s Make a Deal, all created by Taylor.

He made clothes for Elvis, Sinatra, Charles Bronson, and so many men. He was not easy either. He would tell them not to eat or put on weight. His suits were meant to show them off at their best shape. His most obstreperous client was Jackie Gleason who needed 3 sizes, because of his weight changes over weeks and months.

Taylor would tell them to eat only half the plate at the restaurant. He did not do alterations, or sew the suits. He has a 60-year tailor for that: he has worked for Taylor for sixty years. He’s in his 80s. But both lament there are no tailors any longer.

We are looking at the extinction of men’s fashion. There was no endangered species list: men’s suits and ties were dinosaurs when the political landscape changed its pants.

Clothes for men nowadays are off the rack at best, and China imports at worst. Jack Taylor knows his world of well-dressed men is fading away. He thinks the 1940s were the last gasp, but the war killed it at that point. And, the 1970s turned into a fashion death knell for men’s clothing with jeans and t-shirts as the extent of wardrobe.

We never expected to be fascinated at expensive clothes, being a recluse who never makes public appearances. However, celebrities still know a good suit is essential, but they are going to have a hard time finding anyone to replace jack Taylor.

Remembering Leonard Nimoy!

DATELINE:  Family-Based Eulogy!

  Nimoy with Quinto.

A few years after the original and amazing Mr. Spock passed away, his daughter Julie has come up with a biographical documentary about Leonard Nimoy.

Such loving family portraits are often good for the soul and avoid messy scandals and unpleasant issues. There is no mention here of Nimoy’s period of hating Mr. Spock and trying to avoid the character. Instead, we see how he comes to embrace the icon and play him even in the Zachary Quinto remakes! Nimoy steals the movie.

In such a tale of life, we were surprised at what we had forgotten: Leonard was a Bostonian who grew up near old Scollay Square, though he calls it the West End and says he was a street kid in a tough neighborhood. Well, yeah, it was the red light district of Boston for years! He never reveals that!

He went to Pasadena Playhouse at 18 and stayed in California forever after that. He did return to Boston to do a few plays in later years (Fiddler on the Roof, etc.).

The early years of struggle with dozens of guest roles on TV and working as a cab driver (where he met fellow Bostonian JFK once as a passenger), are quite fascinating.

His daughter has a criticism of her father: his two-pack a day cigarette smoking that gave him COPD. It ultimately was a death knell, though he lived until 83 years with the condition.

Fans will be delighted with how this creative and versatile artist lived and worked: he was poet, director, actor, and above all else at the end, a highly emotional family man. He joked how his ancestors were aliens to America and came to this country, but he was born in America and went to Hollywood and became an alien.

Nice little film.

 

 

 

 

 

Endeavour Winds Up and Down Season 7

 DATELINE: See Venice & Die.

 

Nearly everyone associated with the program Endeavour believes that season 8 will be the end of the series’ run. If so, it is not going to end well for most of the characters, apart from Morse who goes on to another life as Morse in late middle-age (already filmed in case you missed them with Thaw as old Morse).

The hostility and break between Thursday and Endeavour seemingly irrevocable and, in a future world, likely it is fatal.

We begin and end with the overwrought opera in Venice, and its ultimate plot is revealed to us as some kind of reconciliation to the future season. The end  tableaux  is exactly like the opera.

Playing at Mycroft, we were one step ahead of Morse’s Sherlock, but Endeavour’s red herrings were not stand-alone. We were irked by the endless mayhem. The clues were mix and match. We won’t spoil much by telling you that you have more serial killers in an Oxfordshire towpath than on the streets of Chicago.

The tale is overwrought like opera and stretches our credulity more than any previous season. It seems Morse’s fatal flaw is not a kiss of death, but a snobby arrogance. His Oxford background puts him above the flat-footed cops he works with, and he’s told as much several times. It is his hubris that causes a serial killer to use him as a “convenient idiot, or police pet,” by the equally brilliant A-train killer.

Ryan Gage as Ludo matches Shaun Evans as Endeavour, step by pulled out stop.

Reconciliations in some season eight may be hard to swallow if they even come. It seems that all the actors have played their parts on the stage, as Ludo tells us at the climax, and that may be enough.

Trapped in a Volcano

DATELINE: Horrible Ending

 Start of Eruption,White Island.

This one-hour news documentary from New Zealand is not a metaphor for anything social or political. It is a real examination of a horrid tragedy in December of 2019: on White Island, one of the rare active volcanoes in the New Zealand area, erupted suddenly with tourists on the rim of the crater.

It’s a once in a lifetime chance to see a volcano blow its top up close. It’s one-time because you will not survive the experience. The news film is called Trapped in a Volcano.

White Island supports a cottage industry of interested viewers. You can reach there by boat from nearby islands, or by helicopter service (several companies flew regularly a few people willing to pay a large fee), and the Royal Carribbean ocean liners went by and sent out dinghy-loads of passengers. Yes, thousands have gone there and lived to tell.

Not much warning or fear accompanied the visits by business tours even though the volcano is the entire island and erupted a mere three years ago. It has constant venting and ground is covered in yellow sulfur rocks, Steam is generally 200 or 300 degrees along the paths up the rocky terrain.

Famous news pictures showed a flow of dust and smoke billowing off the island and chasing a boat of tourists who departed ten minutes before the volcano blew. Another boatload was on the shore and was caught.

Going back, they saw a few struggling people covered in gray dust. Helicopters dispatched to do a rescue and found one copter smashed, all occupants who had landed were dead. Tour guides were dead. Nearly two dozen victims.

A lawyer representing families on the cruise ship were not told how bad it was by authorities on ship. Nor were they warned about the dangers of such a visit to White Island. Their lawyer said that was the cruise ship responsibility.

We would argue that before going there, we’d do our homework, and seeing live venting is not a good sign. Ballistic rocks fly out of the crater at 100 miles per SECOND. You cannot escape if the volcano decides to claim you.

Call it folly or vanity. Call it rich people’s privilege. We stand by the old-fashioned, unsympathetic term. It was plain stupid to go to White Island.

  Jack Arnold: Swiss Cheese at Last

DATELINE: Forgotten Co-Star?

John Saxon, d. 2020.

 One of the great 1950s sci-fi directors was Jack Arnold who gave us Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and a western No Name on the Bullet,that were astounding movies.

Alas, not every great director has the freedom to be an auteur. Arnold wound up in TV, directing some of the big TV shows from 1960 to 1990. It was all trash in the end.  Even directors have to eat.

One of his final theatrical movies was from 1976 in which he received a nice vacation to Zurich and Switzerland where he filmed The Swiss Conspiracy.  It has so many plot holes that even literate Jack Arnold could only give the stolen ice an ending on the ice of the Alps He was witty to the end.

The film is about blackmail over Swiss bank accounts. And, the cast is fairly stellar: Ray Milland as president of the bank, Anton Diffring as his vice president, John Ireland and John Saxon as assorted blackmail victims. It also happens to be a rare movie in which both Elke Sommer and Senta Berger appear.

If you have trouble telling them apart, this movie will help.

The star is benighted David Janssen, already looking worn out. He would die a few years later from his profligate living, but he was always busy in a role, mostly TV movies like SOS Titanic as John Jacob Astor.

Here he is some kind of retired federal agent who takes on a job to uncover a conspiracy of Swiss banking fraud. It’s a conspiracy because you will never figure out who was doing it and why everyone is murdered.

Perhaps the ultimate humor was to have as many plot holes as Swiss cheese. Jack Arnold does his best on this movie. He usually wrangles top drawer performances and makes the script literate, but even he had his limits. No wonder he turned to TV after this movie trifle.

As we watched this film, word came to us that John Saxon had passed away at his home at age 83. He was in seminal form for this movie, and gave many supporting performances of high quality. He was one of those patented movie/TV villlains of the 1960s. His death was forgotten, occurring between Olivia De Havilland and Regis Philbin in a 24-hour period.

Deadly Companions Before Parent Trap

DATELINE: Steve Cochran Died 55 Years Ago!

Steve Cochran with Brian Keith.

Before Walt Disney cast them as estranged parents of Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap,  Sam Peckinpah wanted them as the estranged couple in The Deadly Companions.

Even in 1961, it was rare for a woman to be the top-billed star in a Western. It happened rarely, usually with Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford.

This time Maureen O’Hara, the best leading lady for a half-dozen big stars like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, took on the role of hard and angry dance hall girl.

In the Deadly Companions, Brian Keith shoots O’Hara’s son by accident, killing him. When she wants to take the coffin to bury him in a dangerous town across Apache Territory, no one will help her –except Brian Keith. They are not boon companions.

Joining them somewhat unwillingly are Chill Wills and Steve Cochran as a couple of ex-Rebel bank robbers.

The reasons for the assorted bunch to stick together is hardly altruistic—or particularly believable. It does make for a singular Western in sea of oaters ending the decade. It predates the Clint-Leone spaghetti versions by a few years—and is the first film directed by Peckinpah who would turn to violence as a motif to keep up with the meatball brigade in the next ten years.

You have a chance to see that Keith was a solid leading man, not a TV star, and that Steve Cochran was cast perfectly as a  scoundrel. He was gone too soon after this film, and Chill Wills phones in his usual seedy kook bird version of his usually likable uncle.

We are reviewing the film on the 55thanniversary of Cochran’s death in 1965. He still looked youthful here and was always a classic bad guy. His death was peculiar in the movie and in real life too, as he was on a yacht floating for ten days because no one aboard could sail it to a port.

Gone, Forgotten, and Dismissed: Obit for a Colleague

DATELINE: Corona of Career

It’s minor and troubling to almost no one, except perhaps me.

A colleague of many years passed away not quite ten years after retiring. She was on the faculty of our small college for thirty years, same time and same length as I.

As Robert Frost once said, happiness reaches in height what it lacks in length. We were the disgruntled, unhappy “employees” of the College, even denied being called “faculty” by administration in our living and breathing careers.

The rank of professor meant nothing much, a professor emeritus was denied to us.

How much worse can it be when we die off?

The announcement of her death form the Human Resources Center came from a director who never knew her. It was a pithy two sentences saying she had “worked” at the college in Nursing Department for many years. Because of the pandemic, there would be no services. There was no additional information.

And apparently no other remembrances or comments. This was her final moment on the college register. No eulogy, no thanks, no appreciation, no nothing.

It shall be the same for me. In a tight-knit department like Nursing, she was anathema: disliked by her colleagues for being a stickler for the regulations, and not participating in the social life of fake camaraderie among those with whom you share no politics. So it was for me.

There once existed a half-dozen of us from differing departments who sat together, a huddled small group, at all faculty meetings. We recognized each other as pariahs of the school. If we didn’t sit together, no one would sit with us.

In the past decade we retired to no particular fanfare. Now we are dying to no particular notice.

I visited her at her office now and then, gave her copies of my books that were published, and she was appreciative. Two other faculty of that ilk have also died in recent years. We were a grim little group of despised faculty members: not by students, but by our fellow faculty.

If no department head colleague will do cheerleading of your credentials, hard work, accomplishments at the college at death, then there is nothing more to be said.

You are relegated to non-person, name stricken from the record, students never to breathe your name unless in curse for a low grade.

Thus, the end came for another kind associate. It made me hope the college will be one of those they say may close its doors in a few years: let all of them on faculty for those decades  share the same fate.

This memorial eulogy is anonymous for an unnamed, unknown faculty member from a breed of small liberal arts colleges that are fading away one by one.

 

 

Strange Deaths of Kim Jong Un & Adolph Hitler

 DATELINE: Duplicate Despots

We can hardly await the movie version of the epic comedy called the Strange Death of Kim Jong Un, the erstwhile fat slob North Korean dictator. The argument has been made that he is the only fat guy in North Korea—and no doubles are local.

It now appears that a body double may be used by some trying to keep his death a secret while they shore up their control of the government. Despots will be funny.

It seems Kim’s double has chipped teeth and overlong earlobes. And, the North Korean intelligence has not figured out that photoshopping can help them.

It is all reminiscent of the weird 1943 movie with Ludwig Donath called The Strange Death of Adolph Hitler. It was an amazing film in the middle of the war that contended that Hitler used doubles in dangerous situations of possible assassination. The story told the case of an impersonator who was drafted to do the dirty jobs Hitler could avoid.

Eventually he begins to think he is Hitler. There are a few hilarious meetings of the two, and the ending predates the war’s ending by two years and a strange assassination.

We suppose that all those overindulged meals caused a cardiac stent operation, performed and perhaps botched, requiring the double to do double-duty to buy time for the replacement squad.

We expect President Trump to use a body double eventually too. It is far easier when the main subject is a comedic hyperbole like Hitler, Kim, or Trump. It’s so easy to mimic these cartoonish autocrats. You can see it on SNL each week.

In the meantime, we recommend The Strange Death of Adolph Hitler as your primer for future developments.

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Nichols: Becoming & Unbecoming

 DATELINE: Insider Biography

 Burtons with Nichols.

Filmed shortly before his death several years ago, director and comedian Mike Nichols reviewed his life and career before an audience and in a more private interview. HBO put together this short film about Nichols called Becoming Mike Nichols.

The result is an illuminating exposition about a self-made director.

In the early 1960s in the heyday of the monologue comic standups like Mort Sahl and Bob Newhart, you had Nichols and May among the cleverest of all. Their run ended when, Nichols admits, he became too obstreperous director for May.

It opened up a chance to direct in theater, not merely his partner. He started with Neil Simon, Walter Matthau, Robert Redford, and Odd Couple on stage. Not exactly chopped liver.

He knew many Broadway stars from his years in New York, and met Richard Burton when they were in next door theaters. Burton later invited him to Rome to visit where he met Elizabeth Taylor while filming Cleopatra—and he was instrumental in having both appear in his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Three days before filming, he had friend Tony Perkins give him a crash course of pointers on use of camera in movies. In fact, he learned on the job. His work began a string of brilliant movies: The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Catch-22, and other literate films like The Birdcage.

The documentary focuses on his first two movies in depth, giving marvelous insights into Taylor, Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Buck Henry, and Simon and Garfunkel. The anecdotes leave the audience begging for more. A few pearls drop about Jack Warner, Billy Wilder, Anthony Perkins, but there is not time or attention to those.

There is nothing really about his Emmy winners or Tony winners. You may want to know about The Birdcage or Angels in America,  or his work on Gilda Radner or Whoopi Goldberg, but you will need to look elsewhere for that.

 

 

Eero Saarinen: More than a Crossword Name

 DATELINE:  Gateway to Modern Architecture

   Eero-port Terminal.

 American Masters did a one-hour biography of the notable architect whose name dominates New York Timescrossword puzzles. Of course, he is one of the most modern of all kinds of American architects (by way of Finland as a boy).

Saarinen is best known as the man who designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch, iconic like the Pyramid of Giza. He wanted something to last 1000 years—and his arch may well reach that grandeur.

This documentary is mostly narrated by his son Eric who is a noted film cinematographer—not following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. He was alienated from his pater, but this film (he confesses) has changed him by seeing what marvels his father created: from a John Deere office building to Kresge Auditorium at MIT, or even a hockey rink at Yale.

His aides told him all hockey rinks were barns, so he designed one at Yale that is staggering in its Norse winter sports notions.

His father was hard to eclipse. Eero grew up with his father’s friends Gustav Mahler and Sibelius hanging around the house. He was bounced on Frank Lloyd Wright’s knee. Heavens, he was destined to create great buildings.

He made only one house—a glass marvel with stunning modern light. He is airier and brighter than Wright.

Yet, we must admit that these creative geniuses are not particularly good at being a family man. Eero was not an exception, but his second wife got him on the cover of Time—and the rest is history.

Shatner’s UnXplained recently claimed his great Arch is meant as a weather control system to deflect thunder and lightning. No such grandiose claims are made here—only breathtaking buildings and grounds, not to mention furniture.

He worked 60 years ago, but looks more modern than anything done today. This film also collects the withering criticism he took over his designs—by those who felt he pandered to 1950s American commerce. How wrong can they be?

We once heard an architectural critique as “nobody wants to live in someone else’s head.” Alas, most heads are devoid of creativity, individuality, or good taste. Thank heavens for Saarinen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Oak Island Season Baiting the Hook

 DATELINE: Y’all Come Back!

  Late Bobby Restall.

For Oak Island, winding up in its seventh season, we know the annual state we reach at this point:  it used to be called the “cliff-hanger,” but on Curse of Oak Island, it is baiting the hook for the next year.

They know how to grab us and make us come back again. You can start to count the little developments that are meant to give us hope.

Is the empty-hand something we can identify again? You cannot take much comfort from finding more bits of bookbinding leather. Whatever documents that were there, are now clearly shredded to nothing. How cynical we have become, left by years of dashed hopes.

We are now relying on the sonorous tones of Robert Clotworthy to keep our hopes high. A new geophysicist Jeremy Church has arrived with news. He has found a 13×13 foot shaft or teardrop in the Money Pit, deeper than expected.

A botanist comes to the swamp and finds that a tree stump there, Dr. Roger Evans takes samples but says it is cork oak, that is indigenous to Portugal, not Nova Scotia. Knights Templar versions from Portugal were likely in Canada.

Alex Lagina brings the two surviving Restall family members to the Island. Rick Restall recalls his older brother Bobby who lost his life at 18 in a shaft. It is poignant and perhaps the most evocative of the treasure hunt moments.

You can always count on Gary Drayton to make the biggest find and the greatest grab to our interest: another ancient pickaxe. They find enormous wooden dowels, highly powerful connective lumber which may have Roman numerals carved into them.

We learn again that Rick and Marty Lagina are always late to the show. They seem to drive up after everyone else is already there and working.

Yup, we are hooked for another year.

Cold Pursuit: Liam Neeson as Charles Bronson

DATELINE: Another Cold Dish?

You almost feel as if they genre of revenge flicks is reincarnated with a higher-level actor: Yes, that is Liam Neeson playing Charles Bronson in the cold-blooded killing movie called Cold Pursuit.

Actually, it is a hot-blooded crime spree: Neeson is Citizen of the Year in snowy Colorado where he plows the roads for skiing enthusiasts. When his son is murdered by drug dealers, he goes into Bronson mode.

Supporting cast includes Laura Dern as a thankless wife who leaves him, and Tom Bateman in a young Joachin Phoenix mode as the head mobster.

While he is being honored, his son does not attend the ceremony—and his later burial is in frozen tundra during a blizzard, highly unlikely scenarios.

In any case, Neeson as Coxman starts to hunt down the drug ring from the lowest rung, up to the top. His inventive and sadistic means of death may be pure vigilante that Bronson would approve of doing if he were still around. Who said the revenge genre was dead?

Liam Neeson has been pursuing these action films now for a few years, having given up on serious roles apparently. There are numerous jokes by victims that he is an “old man” out of breath from his endeavors. All the victims of revenge are sent cascading in a wire mesh over waterfall, hundreds of feet to a lost grave.

The mob thinks their native American partners are double-crossers, leaving Neeson more freedom to dispatch them singly. Ultimately there is a big shoot-out between gangs, leaving Neeson with little to do. The subplot of the gangster’s young son is left in limbo, and the entire film is punctuated with RIP notices for every character who dies in the picture. We did not count.

We had not seen the parallel previously—as Death Wish was remade a few years ago with Bruce Willis as an inspired vigilante. It’s hard to determine if Neeson wants to re-make most of the notorious Bronson oeuvre.

 

 

 

Coronavirus or COVID-19: Return of Black Death?

DATELINE: Past is Prologue

 Resurrected London Victims!

To try to gain a perspective on the historical viral earthquakes in society, we went back to a 2014 British documentary called Return of the Black Death.

It gave us a non-comforting and chilling perspective on what is happening today. The archaeologists and virologists involved in this little one-hour film made it clear that the Black Death was no fluke: we can have another plague at any time. Viral decimation is more than ever a possibility, owing to our worldly incompetence.

And, in case you were unaware, the exact DNA of the original plague of 1349 is doing quite well in Africa right now. It’s in the rats and their fleas.

When excavating in London for a new subway five years ago, they encountered an old cemetery from the days of the Black Death. It was uncovered and a dozen or more bodies were disinterred to give some answers about what happened. Believe it or not, they really don’t know because records and medical info was not exactly scientific in those days.

The news is that 60% of Londoners died within 9 months. The Black Death came swiftly from Europe in November and stayed until summer. Since people were already ravaged from bad famines and poor nutrition, they were sitting ducks for the plague.

Burials were key: through funerary rites and procedures, the survivors took comfort. Bodies were laid out, stacked like lasagna (their metaphor in the doc), but the care for the dead buoyed spirits of the living.

These viral horrors can do devastation for the unprepared: but isolation helped in 1349—and it may today, but this could be far worse, owing to jet travel, viral passengers on everything and everyone. It could end up being an annual horror story.

Will 60% of us die? With inept leaders and shoddy politics at the cutting edge, we may be looking at a Black Plague that is more genocidal than anything Hitler devised.