From book to screen: The haunting beauty of ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

The sublime beauty of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” can fill your heart and break it at the same time.

It’s in the faces of the equally lovely Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, perfectly paired as the title characters. It’s in the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Charles Lang who paints the screen with hauntingly beautiful shades of shadow and light. And it’s in voices often so tender that a hushed utterance of a single word like “Lucia” can send goosebumps up your arms.

We’re drawn into this universally beloved film even before the opening credits roll. In an unusual move, the 20th Century Fox logo is not accompanied by the stately Fox fanfare, but by music from Bernard Herrmann that starts with a deep, swirling rumble and opens into an almost painfully sweet crescendo. It will repeat throughout the film, never losing its emotional power.

Everywhere you look or listen, this 1947 supernatural romance from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wraps itself around you in a comforting cocoon.

That’s why “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” always felt like it existed only in movie form to me – and one that was nearly as perfect as any could be. The film about a sheltered widow moving into a British seaside cottage inhabited by the ghost of its owner holds a magic all its own. Somehow, I kept skipping over the opening credit that read “From the Novel by R.A. Dick.” I’ll blame that on the fact that I was too wrapped up in the splendor of Herrmann’s music and the scenery to read the credits.

I was always too busy listening to Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score and watching the crashing waves to see that “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was based on a novel.

It wasn’t until a few years back that I stumbled on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” by R.A. Dick while looking for books adapted into classic movies to read on a cross-country trip to the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is one of the offerings in the very cool Vintage Movie Classics book series launched in 2014 by Random House under its Vintage Books imprint. (“The Night of the Hunter,” “Back Street” and “Cimarron” are among others.)

Because of this embarrassing gap in my film history knowledge, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” seemed a good choice for me to explore for the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. It’s not Great Classic Literature with capital letters in the sense of Bronte, Austen, Dickens or Twain, yet this slim novel deserves credit as the basis for one of the most universally beloved classic films.

Setting the film’s atmospheric mood was the Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography by Charles Lang.

Often with classic movies based on literature we have either read the original novel – “Frankenstein,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “Rebecca,” “A Tale of Two Cities” – or at least have a CliffsNotes familiarity with it. You may not have read “Wuthering Heights,” but you know Heathcliff and Catherine.

But, I knew nothing about the book form of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or its author so there was a lot to be excited about: Tierney and Harrison were perfect on screen, but did they fit the author’s original vision? How did the romance – so chaste in the movie – develop in the book? Would there be deep words of love between them or would it be hidden behind a softly uttered “Me, dear” as in the movie? Were R.A. Dick’s other stories equally mesmerizing?

The answers were surprising.

Author Josephine Leslie wrote “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” under the pen name of R.A. Dick.

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was published in 1945 under the pseudonym of R.A. Dick by Irish author Josephine Leslie. There’s not much out there about her other than she wrote two, possibly three other books over 20 years or so including “The Devil and Mrs. Devine.” She wrote barely any description of the lead characters other than their size (“Little Lucy Muir” and that the Captain was tall with broad shoulders) and there were no additional proclamations of love.

Think of the book this way: If it was published today, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” would be on a summer reading list or labeled a beach read  – those easy-to-read books that sweep you away for a relaxing few hours. It is a slim novel written with an economy of words that speak volumes. Leslie (as we’ll call the author from here) also has a way with descriptive, poetic dialogue. “The wallpaper had gone past fading into death,” is a wonderful visual of Gull Cottage. Lucy’s words in trying to make sense of unexplained happenings could be a poem: “There aren’t any ghosts really. They always turn out to be the wind in the chimney, or shadows on the wall, or branches tapping on the window.” The best of Leslie’s dialogue is used in the movie.

* * * *

As the novel opens, the author helps the reader understand in only a page that Lucy Muir has led an oppressed life, and that the young widow and mother is yearning for a life that is her own – not her late husband’s, nor his family’s.

She has finally found the courage to leave the house she lives in with her husband’s mother and sister for a fresh start by the sea. Arriving in Whitecliff, she fixates on the one property the house agent doesn’t want to show her: Gull Cottage. Very inexpensive, fully furnished and with a gorgeous sea view, Gull Cottage has been uninhabitable for the 10 years it has been on the market. Previous tenants haven’t lasted 24 hours, yet Lucy stubbornly insists on seeing it. The twinkling of the eyes in a portrait, the discarded lunch in the kitchen of someone was “called away in a hurry” and Lucy’s delight in seeing the clean telescope in the otherwise dusty house are the first signs that the house is haunted.

“Haunted! How perfectly fascinating,” she says with a big smile in the film and we know this haunted house story veers from traditional ghostly encounters. It is not interested in terrifying its audience, but rather wants to explore a woman’s fight for her independence as well as as the deepening relationship based on mutual respect of two characters that grows in the most unexpected way.

The ghostly inhabitant is Captain Daniel Gregg whose much talked about suicide was really an accident caused when he kicked over the gas heater as he slept.

Though it’s easy to assume Lucy fell under a ghostly spell, it worked both ways as our ornery sea captain was no match for the newly independent and determined Lucy Muir. Their bond formed almost immediately. Formalities are dropped – they become Lucy and Daniel to each other – and they make peace. She’ll take care of the cottage he built and he’ll stop his ghostly shenanigans (as long as no one messes with his “Lucia,” the swoon-worthy name he gives her). The story is sprinkled with light moments of humor such as when Lucy picks up the captain’s salty language such as “blasted.”

When she gets into financial difficulty and fears she’ll have to leave Gull Cottage, Daniel has her write out his life stories in a book on the “unvarnished life of a sea captain.” It’s a success.

Coming into their comfortable existence is the handsome and charming Miles Fairley Blane who sweeps her off her feet while hiding his own secrets. Though his portrayal in the book is different than the movie, the final effect is the same.

Actors Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison were perfectly matched on screen as Lucy and Daniel.

Adapting a book into film

Screenwiter Philip Dunne was brought in to turn Leslie’s efficient novel into a film. He had previously adapted such works as “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1934), “Magnificent Obsession” (1935), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1936) and “How Green Was My Valley” (1941).

In her forward to the Vintage Books edition of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani does a wonderful job in explaining Dunne’s talents. “Mr. Dunne was a master dramatist, keen and spare in his process. He would take apart a novel, pulling threads from it like a lacemaker. Mr. Dunne would hold on to some characters, discard others, restructure timelines, winnow down scenes, remove some altogether, and add new ones to create the most powerful screen narrative from the source material.”

That’s what Dunne did here. Let’s take Miles as an example.

Miles Blane (George Sanders) is a charming man with secrets who becomes a love interest for the naive Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney).

In the novel, Lucy meets Miles after he moves into a nearby cottage and saves her dog (with the “help” of the Daniel). He doesn’t have an occupation but he does a bit of “this and that.” For the film, Dunne turns Miles into a popular author of children’s books (he writes under the pen name of Uncle Neddy) who meets Lucy at the publisher’s office where she is trying to sell “Blood and Swash” by Captain X. Clearly attracted to her, Miles gets Lucy in to meet the publisher. Her gratitude and naivety combine to make her gullible and she falls for Miles, who is played with an unsettling mix of charm and scoundrel by George Sanders.

Another change by Dunne that works in the film’s favor is that Lucy has one child, not two as in the book. It was a good choice to focus on Anna (played by an adorable 8-year-old Natalie Wood), and thereby also focusing on Lucy instead of splitting attention with another child.

The big change, and one I am eternally grateful for, is that while Lucy never sees Daniel in the book – he comes to her only in her thoughts, like a voice in her head – he is a commanding presence in the film as played by Rex Harrison. Can you imagine the film without him? No, you can’t.

Through it all, there is a question of how a relationship caught between two worlds can be played out. We get a hint early watching Daniel’s reaction when Lucy asks “What is to become of us, you and me?” with a mix of yearning and pain in her voice. His subtle facial expressions help us understand he will do what he needs for her, whatever the sacrifice.

In this shattering scene, Daniel (Rex Harrison) softly tells the sleeping Lucia (Gene Tierney) that he was just a dream.

Dunne answers Lucy’s questions by adding one of the most romantically heartbreaking scenes on film as Daniel realizes he needs to allow his Lucia to live her human life. Visiting her as she sleeps with dawn pouring in the windows, he speaks to her with great tenderness of making her life among the living. “It’s been a dream, Lucia. In the morning and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream.”

He has kept his composure to this point but then his grief can’t be held back anymore. “What we missed, Lucia. What we’ve both missed,” he says with inescapable pain in his voice.

In another book or film, that could be the end, but not here. Instead, it starts another chapter. There is still more life for both Lucy Muir and Captain Daniel Gregg to live.

Other adaptations beyond the movie

Radio plays: About seven months after the film’s release in 1947, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” became an hour-long radio play for Lux Radio Theatre starring Charles Boyer (yes, with his heavy French accent) and Madeleine Carroll.

A 1951 production from Screen Directors Playhouse also starred Boyer, this time playing opposite Jane Wyatt. The opening statement credits Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the director.

Television: For the 1968 family comedy series, the story was moved to Maine and Lucy’s name was changed to Carolyn Muir. Carolyn was played by Hope Lang who won two Emmy Awards for Lead Actress in a Comedy. Edward Mulhare starred as Captain Daniel Gregg.

For an idea of how light a touch they were going for in the series, it also starred Reta Shaw as the housekeeper and comedian Charles Nelson Reilly as the captain’s great-nephew.

NBC ran the first season before canceling the series which was then picked up by ABC for its second and final season.

More about the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon

The second annual Classic Literature on Film Blogathon is hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. About 20 classic film writers from around the world are taking part and posting their stories from April 2-4. Please take the time to read these stories on a wonderfully diverse selection of books and movies. Here is the link.

When ‘Murder, She Wrote’ brilliantly became a sequel to a 1949 film

Television sleuth Jessica Fletcher solved a remarkable number of mysteries throughout the 12-year run of “Murder, She Wrote.”

During the 264 episodes and four movies, the mystery writer – eternally personified by the legendary Angela Lansbury – dealt with greed, infidelity, theft, poisonings, curses, voodoo and ghosts during hundreds of investigations.

Yet I find the most impressive case was in the inventive “The Days Dwindle Down” (Season 3, Episode 21) in which Jessica is asked to solve a decades-old murder that comes with a unique twist. The episode is a “sequel” to the real 1949 detective film “Strange Bargain.”

That ingenious idea of basing an episode off a classic film makes “The Days Dwindle Down” worthy to be in the 7th annual “Favourite TV Episode” blogathon hosted by Terence Towles Canote from his blog, “A Shroud of Thoughts.”

Let’s break it down into three important parts: how the idea came to be, the film and how it all came together on “Murder, She Wrote.”

THE IDEA

Although “Murder, She Wrote” was only in its third season at the time, the producers were already looking for “a new way to tell a story,” according to a 1987 interview with Executive Producer Peter Fischer in the Los Angeles Times. The show had also gained a reputation for its notable collection of guest stars from the classic film era, thanks to their relationships with star Angela Lansbury.

Those two factors – new storytelling and classic Hollywood – combined to give Fischer an idea. “If only I could find an old movie where everyone was still around, then we could solve the case 30 years later,” he said in the article.

Fischer started by sifting through hundreds of films. He needed a mystery that Jessica Fletcher could solve plus living cast members from the film who would be willing to reprise their roles year later. It was a time-consuming task that would take nearly a year until Fischer found “Strange Bargain.”

The film had a tidy conclusion that would have to be ignored so Jessica would have a mystery to solve, but everything else was there including the three main stars – Martha Scott, Jeffrey Lynn and Harry Morgan.

Jeffrey Lynn, left, Martha Scott and Harry Morgan in the film “Strange Bargain.”

From there, a few characters were added or had their storylines extended to provide more details for Jessica. Original film clips and new black and white footage told the original story in flashbacks and did it so well that you don’t need to watch the movie to understand the episode. Still, I recommend seeing “Strange Bargain” simply because it’s an easy to watch film and you’ll be more invested in the Wilson family, the main protagonists.

THE MOVIE

“Strange Bargain” certainly lives up to its title. In fact, the plot borders on being so ludicrous – a despondent man will pay an employee to make his suicide look like a murder – that it almost overshadows the fact that the film is a solid mystery yarn.

Sam Wilson (played by Jeffrey Lynn) is a loving father and husband who is having trouble making ends meet in his job as an assistant bookkeeper. When he asks his boss, Malcolm Jarvis (Richard Gaines), for a raise, he’s shocked to learn he’s being fired after 12 years.

Not only is the firm in bad shape, the once wealthy Jarvis is broke. As an indication of Sam’s character, he addresses his boss as “sir “and tries to comfort him (“The firm will come back, Mr. Jarvis”), despite his own plight.

As it turns out, the job loss isn’t the worst of it.

Sam (Jeffrey Lynn), left, is asked by his boss Malcolm Jarvis (Richard Gaines) to join him in a “Strange Bargain” in the 1949 film.

The desperate Jarvis has concocted the strange bargain of the title. He has taken out extra life insurance and plans to kill himself to help his wife and son financially. Since a suicide nullifies the insurance payout, Jarvis asks Sam to make it look like a robbery; in return, Jarvis will pay him his last $10,000. Sam is horrified and steadfastly refuses while pleading with Jarvis not to kill himself.

But Jarvis moves forward with his plan. Sam tries to stop him but he’s too late. Jarvis is dead and a note addressed to Sam, plus the money and the gun are nearby. Rattled and confused, Sam takes the gun and leaves, then decides to shoot two bullets through the window as Jarvis had asked him to do.

Sam Wilson destroyed this note left by Malcolm Jarvis that would have cleared him of wrongdoing in “Strange Bargain.”

Back home, Sam finds blood on his hands, hat and the steering wheel and desperately tries to wash it off. He also burns the note from Jarvis – in retrospect, the only proof that he isn’t a murderer.

Once the dogged Lt. Richard Webb (Harry Morgan) starts his investigation and makes it known that something isn’t right, the film shifts into a taut thriller of whether the likable Sam will take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit.

The Wilsons (played by Martha Scott and Jeffrey Lynn) offer their condolences to young Sydney (Raymond Roe) over the death of his father in “Strange Bargain.” In the “Murder, She Wrote” episode, the adult Sydney is played by Richard Beymer.

The script by Lillie Hayward is cunning in how it unnerves Sam by forcing him to return to the scene of the death and having others – including his wife and son – talk incessantly about the investigation. They do it so often, it almost works as a comedy, except the viewer can see the toll it’s taking on Sam.

“They won’t leave a stone unturned until they find that murderer,” his wife, Georgia (Martha Scott), tells him. “Lt. Webb always gets his man,” says his idolizing son.

The film’s ending is a solid surprise and works well, but since J.B. Fletcher needed a mystery to solve, you’ll have to put the movie’s last few minutes in the back of your mind before watching its sequel on “Murder, She Wrote.”

THE TV EPISODE

In “The Days Dwindle Down,” Jessica is being wooed by yet another Hollywood hotshot. He’s not there to discuss her latest novel “The Stain on the Stairs,” no, this guy sees dollar signs in the stack of newspaper clippings he’s collected about Jessica’s detective skills with headlines like “Writer rights wrong.”

“This real-life sleuth action will play like a Beatles’ reunion,” he tells “Jessie.” 

His big money-making idea is a new talk show starring Jessica and the victims of the murders she has solved. After explaining the difficulty in booking the victims to him (ahem), Jessica also says she doesn’t want to profit off the misfortunes of others.

The conversation is overheard by a sad-looking hotel employee who later visits Jessica. She is Georgia, Sam’s wife (again played by Martha Scott), who pleads with Jessica to her clear her husband’s name. Sam has just been released from jail after serving a 30-year sentence for a murder she swears he didn’t commit, but he’s a shell of himself. “He was broken, just broken. He sits there and broods and waits to die,” Georgia says. “I don’t want vengeance, or money or publicity. All I want is us, in whatever time we left, to have a life together.”

Her words echo the refrain of “September Song,” the often recorded American standard (think Frank Sinatra) where the episode gets its title: “Oh, the days dwindle down/To a precious few/September, November. And these few precious days/I’ll spend with you.”

Georgia (Martha Scott, center) brings Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) to meet her husband Sam (Jeffrey Lynn) who has been released after serving 30 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Note the vintage black and white photo of Lynn on the table in the background.

When Georgia pleads “Please, Mrs. Fletcher,” we know where this is going: Jessica never turns down a “Please, Mrs. Fletcher.”

(During this scene watch actress Angela Lansbury whose eyes water up during Martha Scott’s performance in what feels like a real reaction, not part of the script.)

Deeply touched by Georgia’s unwavering belief in Sam, Jessica agrees to speak to him. As he tells his story, she quickly finds holes in the case. Why would the police believe the killer shot bullets from outside the home after he killed Jarvis, thereby drawing unnecessary attention to himself? Why didn’t the police find the gun? And what about the missing police files?

Sam and Georgia’s son, Rod (Art Hindle), became a police officer in hopes of clearing his father and has collected an impressive amount of information that he gives to Jessica. There’s enough to convince her that things don’t add up.

Plus Jessica asks the question: What if it wasn’t a suicide, what if Jarvis was murdered?

Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury), left, tracks down Miss Vantay (played in the episode by June Havoc) who is ready to dish the gossip.

Jessica and Rod work together and find new suspects. There’s the son, Sydney Jarvis (Richard Beymer), who lies about his mother being dead. Jarvis’ secretary Miss Vantay (played here by June Havoc) who loves to gossip but is clearly hiding something. The new character of Dorothy Hearne Davis (Susan Strasberg), who runs the company now, isn’t telling the truth about her late grandfather, one of the original suspects.

Then there’s the person who takes a shot at Jessica, using the same gun that killed Jarvis. How is that possible if Sam threw the gun in the ocean? Jessica figures it out.

As secrets are spilled, it’s sadly revealed that people had information that could have kept Sam out of jail.

Even as an adult, Sydney (Richard Beymer) is still caught between his parents Edna and Malcolm Jarvis, as cleverly depicted in this scene from “Murder, She Wrote.”

There are many reasons why this episode works on its own and as a sequel to the film. Much of that credit goes to writer William Gerson whose clever work adds mystery by taking us deeper into minor characters and elaborates on moments in the film that were red herrings or never fully explained. As an example, Miss Vantay (played by Betty Underwood in the film) is only shown briefly, but she clearly had it out for Sam. “I don’t know what makes me more nervous, seeing the boss or getting by his secretary,” Sam tells Jessica, making the viewer wonder what was her true role.

The use of phrases that would have been popular in the 1940s is delightful and adds to the time capsule feel of the episode such as when Lt. Webb says he thought Miss Vantay was “playing bed sheet bingo with the boss.”

I appreciate the respect shown in the episode for the original film as it adds new elements but still effectively ties both works together. “The Years Dwindle Down” is not only one of the most entertaining episodes of “Murder, She Wrote,” it is one of the cleverest episodes of television you’ll ever see.

Debbie Zip, pictured with Art Hindle, appears in the 1987 “Murder, She Wrote” episode “The Days Dwindle Down.” The following year, Zipp would start her recurring role as Donna Mayberry.

TRIVIA

  • Eagle-eyed “Murder, She Wrote” fans will recognize Debbie Zipp as Rod’s pregnant wife. In Season 4, she started her recurring role on the series as Donna Mayberry, the girlfriend and future wife Grady Fletcher (Michael Horton), Jessica’s nephew. Zipp and Grady are married in real life.
  • That’s Gloria Stuart taking over the role of Edna Jarvis, the wife of the dead Mr. Jarvis, for the TV show. In the film, Edna was played by Katherine Emery.

‘Pet Set’ is an irresistible mix of Betty White, animals and celebrities

Betty White is kneeling on the ground next to a 550-pound lion named Zamba. She’s brushing his mane, fluffing it up and teasing the top. When he rolls over, she continues brushing, then rubbing his belly with a big smile on her face.

It was mesmerizing to watch this 50-year-old footage from “Betty White’s Pet Set,” as the petite Betty and the enormous Zamba played together. It wasn’t the only time Betty would get close to a dangerous animal on the show – she also sat with a 250-pound leopard, let a Bengal tiger lick her face and was overrun by puppies.

Betty’s lifelong love of animals gives her a natural ease that’s evident on the show, now available in a new 50th anniversary DVD set from MPI Video, where she interacted with seemingly the entire animal kingdom.

Debuting in 1971, the 39-episode series had been unseen for decades leading it to be called the “lost Betty White series.” Consider this DVD set, then, a treasure found.

It’s not only a great series for those who love Betty and animals, but also for fans of classic television and movies since it has an impressive guest list of such stars as Doris Day, Mary Tyler Moore (Moore and her poodles are pictured at the top of this story), Rod Serling, Johnny Mathis, Donald O’Connor, Burt Reynolds, Vincent Price and Jimmy and Gloria Stewart. (The guest for each episode is clearly labeled in the packaging and in the DVD menu, allowing you to pick episodes with your favorite celebrities if you like.)

“If I haven’t told you already, I will now. ‘The Pet Set’ is one of my favorite shows. I’m thrilled it’s going to be seen again after all these years,” Betty said in a release about this new home video of the series she created and produced with her husband Allen Ludden.

Each 22-minute episode has a celebrity guest and their pet plus related segments with animals both on and off the set. While there are the expected adorable animal babies, you’ll also meet elephants, snakes, vultures, anteaters and more.

And this isn’t a show where the expert is the only one handling the animals, Betty is right there holding them, putting her arm out for a bird to sit on, rubbing them in their sweet spot. Guests can pet and hold the animals to their comfort level, which also provides moments of unintentional laughter.

Many of the animals come from regular guest Ralph Helfer (who gives off a Robert Foxworth vibe), the founder of Africa U.S.A. who worked with and trained many animals (Gentle Ben, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion) from television and movies (“Daktari,” “Bonanza”).

‘The Gold Rush’ among rare nitrate films donated to George Eastman Museum

It’s a good day for everyone interested in film preservation and nitrate film with the news that the The George Eastman Museum has received a donation of 20 reels of rare 35mm nitrate and diacetate film prints.

The donation is from historian John Goodman of Scottsbluff, Neb. and includes a tinted reel of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” (1925). That tint to the film (seen above in the main image) is considered a mystery by Peter Bagrov, curator in charge of the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman Museum.

“Chaplin himself was not fond of tinting, and all of the known release prints of this film are in black and white,” Bagrov explained in a statement. “Even though the print is incomplete, this beautifully tinted reel is a great discovery and adds a new dimension to our understanding of how films were presented during the silent era.”

In addition to “The Gold Rush,” the 12 identified titles among the donated material also include the 1929 silent Western “The Law of the Mounted” directed by J. P. McGowan, and “Si ve vulesse bene” (“I wish you well”), a 1922 Italian film directed by Emanuele Rotondo.

Recently donated to The George Eastman Museum, these are believed to be from the only tinted nitrate print of the 1922 Italian film “Si ve vulesse bene.”

While “Si ve vulesse bene” is preserved in black and white at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, Italy, it is believed that the print donated to George Eastman Museum is “likely to be the only tinted nitrate print of this title in the world,” Bagrov said.

Several other prints are yet to be identified, including a travelogue shot in eastern Wyoming in the mid-1920s.

“Each print tells its own story,” said Bagrov. “Found in Nebraska, these films traveled a long way to entertain audiences, and now they have found their permanent home. With any luck, one or two might be programmed in the museum’s Nitrate Picture Show film festival, but our highest priority is to guarantee long-term storage for them and eventually to get them preserved.”

The George Eastman Museum is at 900 East Ave., Rochester, N.Y. It is open at limited capacity and programming. For details, visit eastman.org

Review: ‘Giant from the Unknown’ gets a home video makeover

B-movie fans are an accepting bunch. By their very definition, these films aren’t generally well-made, but we watch because we love the idea of them.

Plus, as I was reminded recently while watching “Giant from the Unknown,” we never know when we’ll be surprised.

Showcased in a new home video release from The Film Detective, “Giant from the Unknown” is one of four films made in 1958 by director Richard E. Cunha (the others are “She Demons,” “Missile to the Moon” and “Frankenstein’s Daughter”) that get lumped together as bad B-movies. But that’s being harsh when it comes to “Giant.” It’s an easy to watch jaunt through B-movie horror territory and Cunha shows a nice touch with imagery to keep his low-budget film interesting. That this film looks great (it is “resurrected” from the original camera negative in a new 4K transfer) is a bonus.

The plot is straight from the B-movie handbook. Something is killing the livestock and people of a small mountainside town in California called Pine Ridge. There are mutilated cows, missing chickens, talk of curses, legends surrounding an ancient Indian burial ground and reanimation. Throw in a scientist, a handsome young guy, a beautiful woman, a mysterious creature and an officer of the law and there’s your film.

Note that the film’s first image is of lightning – that will come in handy later. The movie opens with news of another death – “a brutal beating” of a rancher who was “torn apart like the animals we found.” The panicked townsfolk have gathered, talking in the type of monster movie jargon we love.

“No human being could do that,” one guy says.

“It’s supernatural, that’s what we think,” adds another.

“If you lived here as long as all of us, you would have heard the legend of the curse.”

Universal monsters headed to YouTube – briefly

You can never have enough of the Universal Monsters so it’s a good day when you learn you have more ways to watch.

Starting Jan. 15, NBCUniversal’s YouTube channel “Fear: The Home of Horror” is hosting seven movies starring such iconic creatures as “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Mummy.” You can watch each film for free for one week from the premiere date and also purchase discounted digital copies of the films.

“The Bride of Frankenstein,” with Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff, is one of the Universal horror films that can be seen for free for one week at “Fear: The Home of Horror.”

Here’s the schedule, with films set to be released at 3 p.m. EST:

Jan. 15: “Dracula” (1931) and “The Mummy” (1932)

Jan. 16: “Frankenstein” (1931) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

Jan. 17: “The Invisible Man” (1933), “The Wolf Man” (1941) and the comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948).

[Also read: How Abbott and Costello brought the meet-cute to horror films]

For longtime fans, this is simply another place to catch these films again, even if it’s just for a week. But this move also helps introduce the films to new viewers who may stumble upon them while looking at Fear’s more modern content like “Jaws,” “Chucky,” “The Invisible Man” (2020) and TV shows like “The Purge” and “Bates Motel.”

Recently “Fear,” which has more than a million subscribers, has been stocking up on some interesting Universal classics material including trailers, explainers, scenes and character introductions making it a good resource to find content on the Universal monsters. There’s some fun stuff, too, like side-by-side comparisons of the 1933 and 2020 versions of “The Invisible Man.”

‘Enchanted Cottage’ casts an enduring spell for 100 years, 3 films

Many film fans wrestle with the topic of movie remakes. I fought the idea until I realized that some of my favorite films are remakes. (Another version of “Jane Eyre”? Yes, please.) Sometimes they work – and work very well. Other times, they aren’t successful. It seems to only be fair to give them a chance then – even if it takes you a while.

From the first time I watched the 1945 film “The Enchanted Cottage,” I fell so deeply under its spell that I remember thinking it could never be remade. It’s not for everyone – especially in today’s cynical world. It’s so unabashedly sentimental and fantastical that it’s understandable if it’s too much for some, but on an emotional level, it was perfect for me.

Why that one of all movies? Why not “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca” or another film so extraordinary or beloved that talk of a remake would be universally bashed? Why would I pick this lovely, but little film that isn’t well known except in classic movie circles?

It’s as simple as its sweet title. This enchanting story works through the lens of a fairy tale that is very much of a time gone by. It’s about a disfigured war veteran and “homely” young woman who heal together through the magic of a cottage. The black and white film is colored by shadows and candlelight, lending it a dreamy look that casts the viewer under a spell. It is the embodiment of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” not a phrase the modern world fully embraces judging by our preoccupation with youth serums, injections and anti-aging treatments.

About three years ago, a film called “The Enchanted Cottage” popped up on Amazon Prime. Hoping it was just a film with the same name, I watched the trailer and realized it was definitely a remake. I didn’t have the heart to watch.

Then I learned my beloved 1945 movie was a remake of a 1924 film that was based off a play. It was time, then, to watch two other versions of “The Enchanted Cottage” that were made more than 90 years apart.

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Katharine Cornell pictured in a scene from the 1923 stage production of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

The story of ‘The Enchanted Cottage’

“The Enchanted Cottage: A Fable in Three Acts” was written in 1921 by British playwright Arthur Wing Pinero. It was a timely post-World War I play that sublimely looked at the horrors of war through Oliver, an injured veteran, and Laura, a painfully shy and unattractive young woman who meet at the cottage of the title. Their lives intersect with Mrs. Minnett, the cottage owner/caretaker, and a blind veteran who are both eager to help them.

Their intense inner pain leads Oliver and Laura to find some solace in each other and enter into a marriage of convenience that only brings more suffering. As they fall under the cottage’s spell, their emotional healing manifests in physical changes, too. In the play, that magic is credited to the love of past honeymooners that permeates the cottage and Mrs. Minnett, who may be a descendant of a “beneficent witch.”

The movies drop the witchcraft reference for the more romantic idea of a love enchantment from past inhabitants. Otherwise, they carry the play’s basic outline and important plot points.

In 1922, the play opened in London; a year later it was on Broadway starring Herbert Bunston and Katharine Cornell; and the following year it was adapted for film for the first time.

May McAvoy and Richard Barthelmess learn beauty is in the eye of the beholder in the silent version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

A silent film speaks volumes

The 1924 silent film starred Richard Barthelmess as Oliver and May McAvoy as Laura. As the film opens, a wounded Oliver is home from the war. He walks hunched over with the help of a cane and has little use of one hand. Already bitter and filled with self-loathing, he learns the woman he was expected to marry is in love with someone else. Wanting to hide away, Oliver leaves his wealthy home and wanders for months before holing up at a cottage. After his overbearing sister arrives with promises of moving in to care for him, Oliver takes advantage of an offer of friendship from Laura and proposes a marriage of convenience and companionship.

The spirits of honeymooners who once stayed at the cottage look over Laura (May McAvoy) and Oliver (Richard Barthelmess) in the silent version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

From there, this film truly becomes enchanted with visions of joyous past honeymooners in the house. Their ethereal images are a stark contrast to the darkness surrounding Oliver and Laura who are trapped within themselves in profound sadness. “I’m so ugly, I mock the memories that linger here,” a despondent Laura says in an intertitle. Laura’s pain is so powerful it melts Oliver’s heart and he finally sees her unselfishness, love and beauty.

The film is in the public domain so it’s easy to find online. It does show its age as so many silents do, yet I was still deeply touched by the emotions clearly conveyed by Barthelmess and McAvoy.

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A handsome Oliver (Robert Young) talks with the painfully shy Laura (Dorothy McGuire) before he goes off to war in the 1945 film.

A magical 1945 remake

The 1945 film presents more of the back story of the characters. Dorothy McGuire is Laura, hired by the kind widow Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick who lends the role great gravitas) to help her in the cottage. A clock shows how time stopped in 1916 when Mrs. Minnett’s husband was killed in World War I.

[Also read: My appreciation of character actress Mildred Natwick]

Robert Young plays the handsome Oliver who plans to rent the cottage for his honeymoon, but instead goes to war and returns to the cottage disfigured, bitter and suicidal.

The cottage and a new friend, John (Herbert Marshall), a pianist who lost his sight in the war, work their magic. Laura comes out of her shell and Robert’s bitterness ebbs away. Their serenity is shattered by an impending visit from Oliver’s family that causes him to abruptly and awkwardly propose.

Oliver (Robert Young), now scarred from the war, and Laura (Dorothy McGuire) are
both overwhelmed by pain and loneliness.

It’s a horrible proposal filled with pain, loneliness and a powerful raw honesty that they can’t shake even after they marry. But love helps scars fade as beauty emerges and a deep happiness grows.

While the three films all deal with despair, this version is particularly powerful. A scene of Laura left alone, rebuffed by soldiers at a canteen dance once they see her face, is achingly sad. Oliver’s difficulty in facing his wounds is partly because of how his family reacts to him, and his anger at having his life changed by the war is palpable and heartbreaking.

Other films from director John Cromwell (father of actor James Cromwell) include such highly regarded romances as “Made for Each Other,” “Night Song” and “In Name Only.” “The Enchanted Cottage” was a favorite of Cromwell and actor Young, who named his home The Enchanted Cottage. The beautiful piano concerto by Roy Webb, which forms the tone poem used to frame the story, was Oscar-nominated.

A modern look in 2016

Laura (Sarah Navratil) is a nurse who helps care for Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) in the 2016 version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

This version of “The Enchanted Cottage” is poignant with its use of 9/11 and the ensuing war as the reason Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) puts his engagement on hold and goes to Iraq against his father’s wishes. When Oliver returns injured and with horrible facial scaring, he cuts off contact with his family and hides away at the cottage.

In this case, Laura is a neighbor and nurse who cares for Oliver’s wounds and his heart. She’s played by Sarah Navratil as an awkward and nervously chatty woman who hides behind stringy long hair, a hat and glasses. The late Richard Hatch is a welcomed sight as Oliver’s father.

Laura (Sarah Navratil) and Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) try to explain their physical transformation to the blind Major Hillgrove (John McCool Bowers).

Perhaps it’s the fact that the film is so new and is in color that makes it feel less magical than the previous versions. (Black and white film has a magic all its own.) Oliver and Laura talk to each other much more and you can sense that at least their internal changes are evolving naturally. Physically, Oliver’s wounds are fresh in this film (they appear healed in the other two) and we watch him grow stronger through medical help and physical therapy.

It’s been hard to find background information on this version. It is associated with the Arts Institute of California, which was part of a series of arts institutes across the country, but has since closed down; and the Theatrical Arts International Foundation, a supporter of the arts through the California Theatre of the Performing Arts in San Bernardino. Those groups and much of the cast and drew also worked on other movies like “The Invisible Man” (2017) and the “Picture of Dorian Gray” (2018), giving insight that this was an indie project and produced on a lower budget. Joseph Henson is credited as the lead director among seven directors.

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So now we have three film versions from an unlikely source – a 19th century English playwright without enduring name recognition at least in the film world. What has endured, however, is his story of “The Enchanted Cottage” which remains relevant a century later because it is grounded in the understanding of deep pain, loneliness and the sacrifices of war that all generations can sadly understand. It also holds the timeless message of the healing power of love – and that is its true enchantment.

Main photo: From “The Enchanted Cottage” 2016.

Giving overdue credit to character actor Richard Deacon

Uncredited. What a perfect word to succinctly sum up the career of character actor Richard Deacon.

Not only is his impressively extensive resume filled with “uncredited” roles, Deacon also never received the credit due from his long body of work that included roles on some of the best-loved classic TV series including the iconic “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Although he had a lengthy career, Richard Deacon is best known as part of the great cast in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” It starred, from left, Morey Amsterdam, Deacon, Dick Van Dyke, Rose Marie and Mary Tyler Moore.

Instead, he’s typecast in our memories as a striking visual: tall (6-1), bald, bespectacled. Yet even when he’s in the background in one of those uncredited roles, Richard Deacon stands out.

Deacon deserves our respect and attention and that’s why I chose to write about him for the 9th annual “What a Character” blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. You can read all of the other entries by going to those blo

Deacon’s first film role was as an MP in the sci-fi yarn “Invaders from Mars.” That was 1953 and over the next seven years he would be in at least 40 movies of various genres (and on as many TV shows). Most roles were “uncredited” so you won’t find him in the credits, and often his character is referred to generically like desk clerk, salesman, hotel manager, pawn broker, banker.

Let’s think about those just those seven years to get a full appreciation for Deacon and his remarkable perseverance. He must have had a strong lack of ego and, I would bet, a deep passion for his craft to work so hard, for so long without being labeled “a star.”

Book review: ‘Fright Favorites’ is a classic horror film treat

It took only one flip through “Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond” to see we were going to be good friends.

While I love deep-dive books about film history, they often sit on the shelf after the initial reading waiting to be pulled out again for special occasions and projects. The informative “Fright Favorites,” however, is a book you’ll want to keep within easy reach.

It is the latest in the Turner Classic Movies Library series that has reimagined the coffee-table book in a compact size (roughly 7.5 by 8 inches) that’s easy to hold and read, or just flip through to look at the gorgeous photography.

Noted film historian and author David J. Skal grew up during the monster movie craze of the 1950s, becoming part of the first generation of “monster kids.”

So he dedicates “Fright Favorites” to “monster kids of all ages everywhere” as he takes us through horror movies not as a comprehensive history, but rather as a “diverse sampler of chilling, thrilling, and often laugh-provoking classic movies especially well suited to mark the thirty-one days of October.”

Horror movie historian – and fan – David J. Skal is the author of “Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween.” (Photo by Jonathan Eaton)

Skal succinctly explains how our celebration of Halloween has changed over the past century-plus from Hollywood’s early affection for cute and whimsical pinups of starlets posing with broomsticks, cats, pumpkins and witch hats, to what has become a growing cinematic season and part of a multibillion-dollar annual industry.

He credits John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” with contributing to “the explosive growth of Halloween as the second-biggest retail holiday in America after Christmas,” and helping fuel the urban mythology of Halloween.

“The ‘Halloween’ phenomenon reconnected the holiday to its primary, if forgotten, cultural purpose: a ceremonial acknowledgment of mortality and the never-ending cycles of life, death, and the mysteries that follow. Before John Carpenter reinvigorated the holiday with ritual human sacrifice, did anyone still make a conscious connection between a jack-o’-lantern and a grinning skull?” Skal writes.

A handy guide to nearly 100 horror films airing on TCM in October

It’s our time, horror movie fans.

Once again, Turner Classic Movies has curated a made-to-order fright fest with a schedule of nearly 100 horror films throughout October.

Friday evenings are devoted exclusively to scary movies starting Oct. 2 when horror author David J. Skal, whose new book with TCM is “Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond,” introduces four films starting at 8 p.m.

Those four movies and many others in the book will be shown on TCM in October including “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” “Them!” and “The Wolf Man.”

TCM’s Star of the Month (#sotm) is horror great Peter Cushing, whose films will be featured in prime-time every Monday night in October. Though the first two weeks (Oct. 5 and 12) focus on Cushing’s early roles and non-horror work, Oct. 19 is devoted to his Hammer films  – including three Frankenstein movies – and Oct. 26 is all horror including two Dracula films.

Oct. 14 is Tod Browning Day with seven of his films programmed including three with Lon Chaney. The month culminates in around-the-clock horror films on Oct. 30 and 31.

Here is the list of films to help you plan your viewing and DVR schedule. Continue reading “A handy guide to nearly 100 horror films airing on TCM in October”