Beyond Festus: The career of Ken Curtis

For more than a decade, actor Ken Curtis played Festus Haggen, the loyal sidekick to Marshal Matt Dillion (star James Arness) on the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

Curtis fully inhabited the role of the perennially disheveled and unshaven Festus, a man with a unique hillbilly accent who could be curmudgeonly and comical at the same time.

Festus remains a memorable character in TV history today, nearly 50 years after the show ended, to the point that even people who aren’t fans of Westerns – like me – know Festus. The actor behind the character is a different story.

Like many character actors, Ken Curtis is one of those familiar faces whose names may not be well known, but whose presence is an integral part of the fabric of film and television.

That’s why he is my choice for the 10th annual “What a Character Blogathon” hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and @Irishjayhawk66, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and @Paula_Guthat, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and and @CitizenScreen.

Who was the man behind Festus?

Two years ago, I couldn’t have told you the name of the actor playing Festus. That changed after spending months of Sunday afternoons recently watching “Gunsmoke,” Westerns and John Wayne films in general with my dad.

A clean-shaven and quite handsome Ken Curtis is pictured alongside John Wayne in “The Wings of Eagles,” one of seven movies they appeared in together.

The thin face of Curtis, nearly masked under a heavy layer of whiskers as Festus, was becoming familiar enough to notice in films like “The Searchers,” “The Wings of Eagles” and “Conagher,” leading to the question: “Hey dad, is that Festus?” (That’s a real quote – I said “Festus.”)

“It kinda looks like him, but doesn’t sound like him,” I naively said, believing Ken Curtis really talked with that heavy Southern accent. (He was born in Colorado.)

Sure enough, it was Curtis. Now I’m seeing his familiar face more often, even in unexpected places like the 1959 B-horror movie “The Killer Shrews.”

Ken Curtis was hard to recognize at first in “The Killer Shrews,” a horror film he produced.

There was Curtis as Jerry, a cowardly researcher willing to sacrifice others to save himself from the giant man-eating killer shrews. As Jerry, Curtis was lean, good looking, clean shaven and spoke in a quiet, steady cadence, the opposite of Festus in almost every way.

Intrigued and wanting to know more, I discovered Ken Curtis had a full-bodied career that included appearances in more than 60 movies and television shows with a few surprises along the way. Not only did he act in “The Killer Shrews,” for example, it was one of two horror movies he produced. (The other is “The Giant Gila Monster.”) Add singer and songwriter to his talents as well.

From the beginning

Ken Curtis was born July 2, 1916 as Curtis Wain Gates in 1916 in Colorado. In an interesting twist of fate, he grew up living below a jail in Bent County, Colo. where his father served as sheriff from 1926 to 1931. His mom cooked for the prisoners, one of whom was a harmless guy named Cedar Jack who Curtis later credited for inspiring his vocal portrayal of Festus.

In high school he played football and clarinet. He served in the U.S. Army for two years during World War II and studied pre-med at Colorado College. By 1940, he moved to New York City to start his entertainment career – as a singer.

Ken Curtis, at left, leads a romantic ballad to John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in “Rio Grande.”

OK, get that nasally Festus voice out of your head – Curtis had a wonderful singing voice. It was smooth, easy on the ears and romantic. If you doubt that, watch “Rio Grande” and pay attention to the tall soldier singing lead on “I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen.” Yes, that is Curtis serenading John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

Curtis was with the Tommy Dorsey Band where he followed – are you sitting down? – Frank Sinatra for a short time until Dick Haymes officially took over for Old Blue Eyes. He became a singer and host of the country music program WWVA Jamboree and lead vocalist of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1949, a Western singing group who previously worked with Roy Rogers. With Curtis, the band had such hits as “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and “Room Full of Roses.”

His passions for music and acting quickly merged in the movies. He was signed to a contract with Columbia Pictures to perform in a series of musical Westerns, even playing the romantic cowboy lead in such films as “That Texas Jamboree” (1946) where he sang the ballad “Prairie Serenade,” and “Cowboy Blues” (1946) that featured a particularly sweet rendition of “Little Cowgirl” that will melt your heart. Curtis also co-wrote both songs.

In “Call of the Forest” (1949) Curtis is a loving single father and rancher who still finds time for a calming little song. With the Sons of Pioneers, Curtis sang in films like “Everybody’s Dancin’” (1950) and “Fighting Coast Guard” (1951).

And yes, he did sing in “Gunsmoke” on a few occasions. It must have been a shock to audiences at the time to hear the Festus twang transformed into such a tender singing voice. In the video clip above, Curtis sings a song he wrote called “Six Shiny Black Horses.” That’s Slim Pickens on harmonica. You’ll see in the video that his plaintive rendition of the song even touches Marshal Dillon.

Curtis was perfect for films that needed a musical moment such as “The Quiet Man” (1952) where, as Dermot Fahy, he played accordion and spoke with a brogue. (Now that is something to hear.)

Ken Curtis, left, with a brogue and accordion in “The Quiet Man.”

“The Quiet Man” was one of 11 films Curtis appeared in directed by the great John Ford including “Mr. Roberts” (1955), “The Searchers” (1956), “The Wings of Eagles” (1957), “The Horse Soldiers” (1959) and “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964). He was also Ford’s son-in-law, married to his daughter, Barbara from 1952 to 1964.

Among his film roles, Curtis played Captain Dickinson who quietly stands by the snobbish Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) in “The Alamo” (1960). Look for his comic timing during a “fight” scene with his on-screen brother (played by Harry Carey Jr.) for the affections of Shirley Jones in “Two Rode Together” (1961). It’s chilling to see his dark side as the murderous Joe in “Cheyenne Autumn” who likes to kill Indians for sport.

We’re not used to seeing Ken Curtis, left, playing bad guys as he did in “Cheyenne Autumn.”

During his “Gunsmoke” tenure, he spent his time off performing in fairs and rodeos. In 1981, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma.

His television appearances also included episodes of “Wagon Train,” “Perry Mason,” “Death Valley Days,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Yellow Rose” and the made-for-TV movie “Conagher” (1991), his final role completed only months before his death.

Curtis and his second wife, Torrie, had retired to Clovis, Calif. (near Fresno) in 1980 where they were active within the community and with the Clovis Rodeo Association. The couple took part in the rodeo’s parade the day before Curtis died in his sleep from natural causes in 1991.

Courtesy visitclovis.com

In 1992, his memory was honored with a life-sized statue of Curtis as Festus. With his cowboy hat, heavy beard and deputy badge, it stands today outside the Educational Employees Credit Union in Clovis. Though he was much more than Festus as an actor, it’s only fitting that this celebration of his life and career immortalizes his most famous and enduring character.

The blogathon

Please be sure to check out all of the wonderful posts about other characters actors during the 10th annual “What a Character Blogathon” via the websites Once Upon a Screen,  Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club.

The elegant humor of ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’

How do you like your comedy? You can have it with the broad strokes of slapstick, the fast-paced dialogue of screwball, a slash of darkness with a black comedy and a dash of romance with a rom-com.

Or you could enjoy the subtle laughter of a subdued, elegant comedy like “How to Marry a Millionaire.” While the plot doesn’t sound like a comedy – three ambitious gold diggers set their sights on bagging a rich hubby in New York City –  in the capable hands of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and a great ensemble cast, the movie will keep you smiling and laughing from start to finish.

That’s why this 1953 film is a favorite film of mine and my choice for “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” the theme of the 2021 fall blogathon from the Classic Movie Blog Association.

Setting the scene

Our female trio played by Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall aren’t shallow and underhanded as they appear on the surface, but insecure and hurt. They each have distinct personalities with endearing qualities that bring comedic elements to their roles whether it’s Bacall as the cool and collected Mrs. Page, Monroe as the daffy Pola or Grable as the unfiltered Loco.

After a more than 5-minute musical prelude, we meet the resourceful and sophisticated Mrs. Page (Lauren Bacall) as she’s renting a gorgeous Sutton Place penthouse fully furnished with a gilded grand piano and a patio with stunning Manhattan views.

Although it’s a deal at $1,000 a month (that’s about $10,000 today) because the owner is having income tax “problems,” it’s more than they can afford.  (The owner is Freddie Denmark, played by the wonderful David Wayne.)

But they need the penthouse. Mrs. Page – call her Schatze – is joined by Pola Debevoise (Marilyn Monroe) and “Loco” Dempsey (Betty Grable) in a plan to attract rich gentlemen by living the part in a swanky penthouse, gorgeous gowns and luxurious furs. (They are all upscale models which is the only explanation for their fantastic wardrobes.) The ladies even arrive in fancy cars by taking test drives in Chryslers (with gold trim) when they don’t have taxi fare.

They dream of marrying a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt. Is there a Mr. Cadillac or Mr. Texaco, they wonder? Schatze, burned by a quick marriage to a “gas-pump jockey,” still hopes to wed again but asks her friends what they would choose if they had their pick between marrying for love or money.

“It’s your head you’ve got to use, not your heart,” she tells them.

Schatze (Lauren Bacall, right) judges Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) by the patches on his elbow and lack of necktie despite him helping Loco (Betty Grable) buy groceries.

So when Loco (or Lo for short) arrives with four bags of groceries paid for by a stranger at the deli counter, the handsome Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), Schatze won’t have any of it. She marks him as one of those poor gas-pump jockeys and sends him away. (Viewers quickly learn the truth about Tom, so we can knowingly smirk each time Schatze declines his invitations.)

Skip ahead three months. They’re still single – not yet even engaged – and have hocked most of their furniture to pay bills. Only a tiny table, folding chairs and cots for sleeping remain, leaving Schatze to quip, “Where are we going to sit next week?” (The sight of the empty luxury penthouse is funny on its own.)

But their luck is about to change. When Schatze told her friends that you “don’t meet rich guys at the deli counter, but in the fur department at Bergdorf,” Loco listened. That’s where she met the kindly, older gentleman from Texas, J.D. Hanley (William Powell) who carries her packages back to the penthouse.

Do nice guy J.D. Hanley (William Powell) and Schatzy (Lauren Bacall) have a shot at happiness in “How to Marry a Millionaire?”

He invites the ladies to an Oil Institute reception that night and it’s payday. Pola meets mysterious oil tycoon J. Stewart Merrill (Alex D’Arcy) and Loco meets grumpy rich guy Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark). Meanwhile Schatze and J.D. hit it off.

The men are all loaded, but complications arise.

Waldo turns out to be married. While Loco doesn’t date married men (she’s not that type of girl), she naively goes to his lodge in Maine which she has mistaken for a convention of eligible single rich guys. Instead, she finds a shack, a handsome park ranger (Rory Calhoun) and a case of the measles.

Pola, who refuses to wear her glasses (“You know what they say about women who wears glasses.”), knows little about her smooth-talking guy. She can’t even see his phony eye patch which is a big clue. He talks big multi-million dollar deals and wants her to meet his mother – who lives in Jersey.

How blind is Pola (Marilyn Monroe) without her glasses? She doesn’t know she’s reading a book upside down as she sits next to Freddie Denmark (David Wayne) on a plane.

Poor J.D. is a sweet and charming widower who sees through the ladies. He grows to love Schatze but thinks their age difference isn’t fair to her. Meanwhile, Tom continues to call the seemingly uninterested Schatze.

As Schatze, Bacall is cool and collected, confident in her plan to marry for money after she was left with a broken heart. She stands tall and firm as she keeps her friends in check with the plan, but we can see the cracks in her armor.  There is humor each time she denies her feelings for time, telling him “After tonight, I never want to see you again.” Sure, Schatze, sure.

Marilyn Monroe’s natural comic abilities shine in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” Here, she sheepishly looks at her oil-tycoon date (Alex D’Arcy) after she walks into the back of the maitre’d because she’s not wearing her glasses.

Monroe, as we know, is a gifted comic actress. Pola’s refusal to wear her glasses sets up numerous comedic moments for Monroe as she walks into walls, bumps into people and doesn’t always know who she is talking to. The embarrassed smile she gives after her gaffes is endearingly funny. Her insecurities in wearing her glasses – which she looks beautiful in – also sets up my favorite sequence as she blindly boards an airplane to New Jersey.

As the extravert Loco, Grable portrays the energetic life of the party who wears her heart on her sleeve and can’t help but tell you how she feels. Her description of Waldo: “Mine is loaded, but he’s a real yawner.” She’s also the only who raises her voice, but it’s usually in frustration with herself as she knows what’s really in her heart.

In another funny scene, Walter Brewster (Fred Clark) makes Loco (Betty Grable) sit apart from him in an empty train car to protect “his” reputation in “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

Humor is even found in cranky Waldo. Played by familiar face Fred Clark who does charmingly grouchy as good as anyone, he makes it easy to laugh at his character. Waldo is a hapless chap in a miserable marriage who is afraid of getting caught and goes to extremes so he isn’t. An unhappy Loco and nervous Waldo sitting rows apart in an empty train car so one thinks they are together is one of those understated humorous moments the film does well.

“How to Marry a Millionaire” is a winning film in many ways. It is funny, irresistibly charming and an entertaining feel-good film that looks fantastic in vibrant Technicolor and Cinemascope.

It’s my movie prescription in the “Laughter is the Best Medicine” blogathon.

Trivia

The costume design is by Travilla who dressed Monroe in eight films including her iconic ivory pleated dress in “The Seven Year Itch” and the red sparkly gown in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Other versions:
Nunally Johnson adapted two stage plays for this movie, “The Greeks Had a Word for It” by Zoe Akins  (1930), which was made into the 1932 film of the same name,  and “Loco” by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert. (1946)

The film was adapted into a 1957 TV series starring Barbara Eden, Merry Anders and Lori Nelson. It ran for two seasons.

A made-for-TV remake 2000 “How to Marry a Billionaire: A Christmas Tale” turned the tables as a trio of guys – John Stamos, Joshua Malina and Shemar Moore – looked for rich women.

The blogathon

You can find links to other stories in the Classic Movie Blog Association‘s “Laughter is the Best Medicine” blogathon here.

A scary October: TCM’s schedule of classic horror films

The annual month-long Halloween horror film celebration hosted by Turner Classic Movies has returned with a packed schedule from Karloff to Kong, mad scientists to Satanists, and plenty of films starring guys named Lee, Cushing and Price. Multiple days have themes including the poetic horror of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton (Oct. 4), Hammer films (Oct. 21) and killer animals (Oct. 26).

Here is the schedule of horror films airing on TCM in October 2021 with descriptions.

Friday, Oct. 1

6 a.m.: “King Kong” (1933). The original beauty and beast story.

8 a.m. “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932). Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are targeted by a big-game hunter who preys on humans. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

9:15 a.m. “The Vampire Bat” (1933). A village is terrorized with thoughts of vampires when bodies show up drained of blood in this film with frequent co-stars Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill.

12:45 p.m. “White Zombie” (1932). Bela Lugosi is a witch doctor who menaces a newlywed in what is considered the first zombie film.

The two faces of Frederic March in his Oscar-winning role(s) as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

2 p.m. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1932). Fredric March won an Oscar for playing the dual roles in Rouben Mamoulian’s version of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale.

3:45 p.m. “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933). Michael Curtiz directs Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill in one of his three horror films.

Fay Wray and Lionell Atwill star in “Doctor X,” one of their multiple films being shown on Turner Classic Movies.

5:15 p.m. “Doctor X” (1932). Curtiz-Wray-Atwill team up again in this story of murders at a medical college. Curtiz made the film compellingly tense, yet it has a comic flair thanks to Lee Tracy as the journalist on the case.

6:45 p.m. “Freaks” (1932). Tod Browning’s landmark 1932 film starring real people with disabilities resonates today with its statement about the idea of physical perfection.

Sunday Oct. 3

2:45 p.m. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945). Hurd Hatfield makes a deal with the devil to stay young. Co-starring George Sanders, Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury.

8 p.m. “The Birds” (1963). Birds attack for no apparent reason in this taut Alfred Hitchcock horror thriller starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor.

10:15 p.m. “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986). Musical remake of the film about a carnivorous plant named Audrey II. With Rick Moranis, Steve Martin.

Monday Oct. 4

8 a.m. “Bedlam” (1946). Boris Karloff commits Anna Lee when she tries to reform the asylum he rules over in this film produced and co-written by Val Lewton.

9:30 a.m. “The Body Snatcher” (1945). Karloff and Lugosi star in this early Robert Wise film about a doctor who buys corpses from a grave robber. Based on a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson.

11 a.m. “Isle of the Dead” (1945). People are quarantined by a plague on a Greek Island where there also may be a vampiric demon.

12:30 p.m. “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944). This sequel finds the only child of Oliver and Alice from the original film in danger after befriending the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon), her father’s dead first wife.

2 p.m. “The Ghost Ship” (1943). Strange deaths follow a young sailor who joins a new ship. The fifth of Val Lewton’s films for RKO.

3:15 p.m. “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943). When zombie films were poetic – thanks to director Jacques Tourneur.

Kim Hunter, sitting on the floor, discovers a Satanic cult in “The Seventh Victim.”

4:30 p.m. “The Seventh Victim” (1943). A student (Kim Hunter in her film debut) looks for her missing sister and stumbles upon Satanists in this intriguing horror mystery noir.

6 p.m. “Cat People” (1942). Simone Simon as the innocent newlywed haunted by a family curse in this gorgeous film by Jacques Tourneur.

Wednesday, Oct. 6

12:45 p.m. “Forbidden Planet” (1956). More sci-fi than horror, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” stars Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen.

2:30 p.m. “The Invisible Boy” (1957). Robby the Robot makes his second film appearance as he helps a 10-year-old try to save the world from a super computer.

4:15 p.m. “The Terminal Man” (1974). George Segal undergoes surgery to stop violent seizures – but the implanted microchips have an unexpected side effect. Based on the Michael Critchton novel.

6:15 p.m. “Deadly Friend” (1986). Another film about implanted microchips gone wrong, this time a lovestruck teen tries to bring his pretty neighbor back to life. Wes Craven directs.

Saturday, Oct. 9

4:45 a.m. “Schizoid” (1980). A woman must figure out who is killing fellow members of her therapy group.

6:15 a.m. “Dementia 13” (1963). A scheming widow trying to get the inheritance from her husband’s death is stalked by a killer in this first feature directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

11:30 p.m. “A Look at the World of ‘Soylent Green’ ” (1973). Short 10-minute documentary goes behind the scenes of sci-fi film.

Sunday, Oct. 10

10:15 p.m. “It’s Alive” (1974). Larry Cohen’s cult classic about a murderous infant. Yes, you read that right.

Vincent Price and his beloved Marie Antoinette in “House of Wax.”

Thursday, Oct. 14

4:45 p.m. “Eyes Without a Face” (1959). Influential films about a brilliant doctor who sacrifices others to graft a new face onto his disfigured daughter.

6:30 p.m. “House of Wax” (1953). Vincent Price stars as a gifted sculptor whose hands were burned in a fire. Look for Charles Bronson as lab assistant Igor.

Friday, Oct. 15

6:15 p.m. “Carnival of Souls” (1962). A woman who survives a car crash is haunted by the dead.

Saturday, Oct. 16

6 a.m. “Ghosts Italian Style” (1969). For something lighter, watch Sophia Loren and Vittorio Gassman as  husband-and-wife caretakers of a haunted castle in this ghostly farce.

Sunday, Oct. 17

8 p.m. “Poltergeist” (1982). A family terrorized by malevolent spirits who kidnap their daughter calls in paranormal experts. One of the best ghost stories on film.

10 p.m. “Burnt Offerings” (1976). Supernatural forces target a family that moves into a countryside mansion. Directed by Dan Curtis with Karen Black, Oliver Reed and Bette Davis.

Christopher Lee makes multiple appearances as Dracula throughout October on TCM.

Thursday, Oct. 21

7:45 a.m. “Dracula – Prince of Darkness” (1966). The second of seven times Christopher Lee played Dracula. This time he doesn’t speak and he’s without Peter Cushing but it’s still very much worth watching. Directed by Terence Fisher for Hammer.

9:30 a.m. “Frankenstein Created Woman” (1967). Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) puts the soul of a murdered man into the body of his lover who then seeks vengeance for his death.

11:15 a.m. “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1969). Dracula may have died in “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” but he’s accidentally brought back to life here. Directed by Freddie Francis.

1 p.m. “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” (1970). Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) blackmails a young couple into a kidnapping to help him perform a brain transplant.

2:45 p.m. “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970). Once again Dracula is accidentally resurrected. This time it’s by three businessmen who kill one of his followers and he’s not happy. Christopher Lee returns for the fourth time in the title role.

4:30 p.m. “Crescendo” (1972). Stefanie Powers plays a young music student whose life is in danger when she travels to France to research a dead composer.

6:15 p.m. “Dracula A.D. 1972” (1972). Lee and Cushing together again. In 1972 London, Dracula feeds off a group of devil-worshiping swingers including the granddaughter (Stephanie Beacham) of Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

Vincent Price is caught up in murder in “The Bat.”

Friday, Oct. 22

4:45 p.m. “The Bat” (1959). Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead star in a horror mystery set in a big old house that was once the scene of murders.

6:15 p.m. “House on Haunted Hill” (1958). A millionaire tempts five strangers with a big payday if they stay overnight in a mansion in this William Castle film. Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart are entertaining as the bickering rich couple who set it up.

Saturday, Oct. 23

6 a.m. “The Mummy’s Shroud” (1967). Hammer Studio’s third “Mummy” film finds a team of archaeologists yet again ignoring warnings as they mess with the tomb of a boy pharaoh.

Noon, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). Victor Fleming directs Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Berman and Lana Turner in this remake of the 1931 film adaptation.

Sunday, Oct. 24

8 p.m. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962). The only film pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford works off their off-screen rivalry. An actress torments her wheelchair-bound sister in this acclaimed film that is part thriller, part black comedy from Robert Aldrich.

10:30 p.m. “Strait-Jacket” (1964). Joan Crawford is released from a mental hospital for committing a double murder, only to be the prime suspect in a series of axe murders. William Castle ramps us the suspense.

Monday, Oct. 25

12:15 a.m. “The Monster” (1925). Silent horror comedy about a meek amateur detective who investigates strange happenings in a mental asylum run by Lon Chaney.

Giant ants attack in the first of the big-bug movies “Them!”

Tuesday, Oct. 26

6:30 a.m. “Razorback” (1984). A giant wild boar is killing people, including a child, in the Australian Outback.

8:30 a.m. “The Swarm” (1978). Disaster king Irwin Allen turned his sights on nature for this killer bee film. Another great cast including Michael Caine, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Ross and Patty Duke.

11:15 a.m. “The Pack” (1977). Packs of dogs abandoned on a vacation island terrorize visitors.

1 p.m. “Rattlers” (1976). Rattlesnakes go on a killing spree in the Mojave Desert.

Giant killer bunnies go on the attack in “Night of the Lepus.”

2:45 p.m. “Night of the Lepus” (1972). The greatest film ever about killer rabbits must be seen to be believed.

4:30 p.m. “Killer Shrews” (1959). Giant rat-like creatures attack a group of people stranded on an island during a hurricane.

6:15 p.m. “Them!” (1954). The first – and still best – of the big-bug movies stars James Arness and James Whitmore who track giant killer ants.

Wednesday, Oct. 27

8 p.m. Carl Laemmle (2019). Documentary about the film pioneer who not only founded Universal Studios and brought us the Universal Monsters, but also helped save 300 families from Nazi Germany.

9:45 p.m. “Dracula” (1931). Bela Lugosi in his most famous role.

Thursday, Oct. 28

1:45 a.m. Carl Laemmle (2019). See Oct. 27.

3:30 a.m. “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Universal’s silent version with Lon Chaney features the greatest unmasking in film.

5 a.m. “Frankenstein” (1931). Colin Clive is the title character – Dr. Frankenstein – and Boris Karloff is his unholy creation.

Friday, Oct. 29

8 p.m. “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971). Vincent Price is wonderful in this glorious mashup of horror genres.

10 p.m. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). If you love zombie movies, thank George A. Romero for the original classic zombie thriller.

Saturday, Oct. 30

Midnight, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978). Director Philip Kaufman’s remake of the alien invaders taking over human bodies stars Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams.

2 a.m. “Hell Night” (1981). Slasher film about four college pledges who spend the night in a mansion where a family was massacred years earlier.

3:45 a.m. “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977). John Boorman directs this sequel to one of the most terrifying films ever made. Linda Blair reprises her role, Richard Burton co-stars.

5:45 a.m. “Creature from the Haunted Sea” (1961). A criminal bumps off his cohorts and blames it on a legendary sea creature – that may really exist. Roger Corman directs.

6:45 a.m. “The Hypnotic Eye” (1960). Authorities try to figure out why beautiful young women are disfiguring themselves. A chance to see Allison Hayes in something other than “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”

8:15 a.m. “Chamber of Horrors” (1966). A killer seek vengeance after he cuts off his hand to escape hanging.

Lon Chaney Jr., right, looks out for three siblings in “Spider Baby.”

10 a.m. “Spider Baby” (1964). Lon Chaney Jr. takes care of three siblings who suffer from a family curse.

11:30 a.m. “The Devil’s Own” (1966). Joan Fontaine stars in this Hammer film about teacher traumatized by a witch doctor who moves to a small English village.

1:15 p.m. “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957). Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star in the first of seven Frankenstein films from Hammer.

2:45 p.m. “The Haunting” (1963). My vote for the most terrifying “strangers spend the night in a haunted mansion” film.

4:45 p.m. “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1965). Vincent Price mourns his dead wife in Roger Corman’s take on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

6:15 p.m. “The Fly” (1958). Things go terribly wrong for a well-meaning scientist. With Al Hedison, Vincent Price.

8 p.m. “Frankenstein” (1931). See Oct. 28

9:30 p.m. “Young Frankenstein” (1974). Mel Brooks honors the spirit of the original Universal films with this genius comedic homage.

11:30 p.m. “Who’s Superstitious?” (1943). Short film on superstitions.

11:45 p.m. “Black Cats and Broomsticks” (1955). Short documentary (8 minutes) examines 20th century superstitions.

The lovely Simone Simon is haunted by a family secret in “Cat People.”

Sunday, Oct. 31

Midnight: “Cat People” (1942). See Oct. 4.

1:30 a.m. “The Leopard Man” (1943). Bodies are discovered around a town after a black leopard escapes. From Tourneur and Lewton.

2:45 a.m. “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” (1971). Strange occurrences happen when a former mental patient moves into a farmhouse that may be haunted.

4:30 a.m. “Carnival of Souls” (1962). See Oct. 15.

6 a.m. “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” (1954). Paris police are baffled in a search for a serial killer in adaptation of another Edgar Allan Poe short story.

7:30 a.m. “Macabre” (1958). A doctor has only hours to find his daughter who has been kidnapped and buried alive in this film produced by William Castle.

8:45 a.m. “White Zombie” (1932). See Oct. 1.

10 a.m. “Cat People” (1942). See Oct. 4.

11:30 a.m. “The Leopard Man” (1943).

12:45 p.m. “Mad Love” (1935). Peter Lorre plays a surgeon whose demented obsession with an actress leads to him to replace her husband’s mangled hands with those of a killer.

2 p.m. “Horror of Dracula (1958). The one that started it all for Hammer Film, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher.

One of the chilling scenes in “The Pit and the Pendulum” with Vincent Price.

3:30 p.m. “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961). Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for this film loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr.

5 p.m. “Curse of the Demon” (1958). An American professor (Dana Andrews) visiting London investigates a devil worshipping cult. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

6:30 p.m. “Horror Hotel” (1960). A college student studying witchcraft is lured to a New England town where witchcraft isn’t relegated to history books. With Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson.

8 p.m. “Psycho” (1960). A secretary on the run for embezzling money makes an ill-fated stop at a roadside motel in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films.

Capitolfest: the return of the friendliest classic film festival

In August, classic movie fans are fond of saying “all roads lead to Rome.”

That’s because Rome, N.Y., a small town of about 32,000 people about 45 miles from Syracuse, hosts the Capitolfest film festival at the historic Capitol Theatre.

It’s an intimate and friendly weekend-long event where classic movie fans from across the country – and even as far away as England – gather to watch movies from morning to night inside the single-screen Capitol Theatre. It’s a relaxed affair with time to talk between blocks of movies or to make a quick trip to the nearby Dealer’s Room.

The annual festival debuted in 2003 with a focus on movies from the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, only missing 2020 because of the pandemic. It returns from Aug. 13 to 15.

A spotlight star is chosen each year with Gary Cooper, Fay Wray and Ronald Colman among recent honorees. For 2021, the films of sisters Constance and Joan Bennett are highlighted. The festival’s nearly 40 features and shorts also star the likes of Una Merkel, Clara Bow, Victor McLaglen and Laurel & Hardy.

Many selections are silent and as an extra treat will be accompanied by well-known silent movie accompanists David Peckham (on Aug. 13), Dr. Philip C. Carli (Aug. 14) and Ben Model (Aug. 15) who will perform on the Capitol Theatre’s 1928 original installation Möller organ.

Capitolfest is a film festival in the truest sense of the phrase as it strives to screen movies from 35mm film prints so they are seen as they were on their original release. (A few selections are digital, only if necessary.)

Canisters of 35mm films from a previous Capitolfest.

The 35mm films come from such archives as the Library of Congress, the Eastman Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. The arrival of the film canisters is always a cause for photos and celebration.

Capitolfest also prides itself on showing movies that aren’t easy to see on television or elsewhere. Yes, there will be a few familiar titles – for example, this year includes the delightful comedy “Topper” – but the festival focuses on rarely shown movies. I can vouch for the fact that you’ll be watching many things for the first time at Capitolfest.

A special bonus at the 2021 Capitolfest: attendees will be among the first to see the restoration work recently finished at the Capitol Theatre thanks to $2.5 million from Rome’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. A grand reopening was held on July 17.

Here is a quick look at the movies starring the Bennett sisters. There are many other things to watch as well. The full schedule, plus other information and updates, is online at romecapitol.com and on its Facebook page.

Joan Bennett is the title character in “The Trial of Vivienne Ware.”

JOAN BENNETT

11:10 a.m.  Aug. 13, “The Trial of Vivienne Ware” (1932).  Joan plays the title character in this murder-mystery starring Donald Cook and ZaSu Pitts.

4:10 p.m. Aug. 13, “She Wanted A Millionaire” (1932). A beauty contest winner leaves her sweetheart to marry a millionaire judge who turns out to be mentally unbalanced. With Spencer Tracy and Una Merkel.

9:55 a.m. Aug. 14, “The Pursuit of Happiness” (1934). A restored 35mm print. A soldier who deserts the British Army during the Revolutionary War falls in love when he defects to America. Also starring Francis Lederer and Charles Ruggles.

9:15 a.m. Aug. 15, “Artists and Models Abroad.” (1938). Jack Benny plays an entertainer stuck in Paris who mistakes Joan Bennett, the daughter of a millionaire, for a pauper. 

1:50 p.m. Aug. 15, “Week Ends Only” (1931). A “good” girl who hostesses at a club and at private parties to make ends meet, falls for a poor artist. With Ben Lyon.

The silent version of “Rich People” starring Constance Bennett will be shown at Capitolfest.

CONSTANCE BENNETT

12:30 p.m. Aug. 13, “Madame Spy” (1942). Espionage thriller about a war correspondent who suspects his wife is a Nazi agent. With Don Porter.

7:35 p.m. Aug. 13, “Rich People” (1929). This film with Regis Toomey was made as a silent and talkie. The silent will be shown; the talkie is presumed lost.

9:20 p.m. Aug. 13, “Topper” (1937). Hal Roach comedy with Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as ghosts who help a henpecked banker played by Roland Young. Restored 35 mm print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

8:15 p.m. Aug. 14, “Wandering Fires” (1925). A woman’s past catches up to her after she confesses to her fiancée about an incident with another man before the war. Silent.

GENERAL INFORMATION

Capitolfest runs Aug. 13-15 in the Capitol Theatre, 220 W. Dominick St., Rome. Call (315) 337-6277.

Registration begins at 8:45 on Friday, Aug. 13 in the Capitol lobby and continues throughout the weekend. The box office opens one hour before the first scheduled movie each day. Here is a link for hotel information.

COVID-19 precautions

Since this is so important, I am quoting directly from the Capitol Theatre: “Persons who have not been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 must wear a mask whenever they are in any part of the Capitol Arts Complex; those who have been fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks. Social distancing seating areas comprise the entire right and left sections of the orchestra (downstairs) area and the entire balcony area (second section of the upstairs seating area). Parties sitting in these areas are asked to remain at least six feet apart from other parties.”

Singing praises for ‘Night Song’

How can a film starring Dana Andrews, Merle Oberon, Ethel Barrymore and Hoagy Carmichael be considered forgotten and hidden away?

Add in director John Cromwell and appearances by esteemed pianist Artur Rubinstein and conductor Eugene Ormandy and I ask the same question.

But it appears the 1948 romantic drama “Night Song” is not familiar to many classic movie fans. That’s understandable because it’s not usually shown on television or in repertory, although I was introduced to it on Turner Classic Movies.

On its original release, “Night Song” was panned by critics and lost $1 million, a huge sum in the late ‘40s. That’s most likely because of some eye-rolling moments in the plot. In brief: A rich young woman falls for a poor and bitter blind pianist, feigns her own blindness to get close to him, then sets up a composition contest with her own money to give him a chance for sight-restoring surgery.

Yes, it does sound contrived. But I have a soft spot for this melodrama and I love to recommend it which I’m doing as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Hidden Classics” blogathon.

 You’ll have to suspend your disbelief at some of the plot points, but the elegance of this classic Hollywood film, the tender love story at its heart and the wonderful piano concerto that is its own character make me fall for “Night Song” every time.

* * * *

First the plot in more detail, then I’ll share more of why this is a favorite.

Oberon plays Cathy Mallory, a socialite out with her stuffy rich friends after a night at the San Francisco Symphony. They go slumming in their furs and diamonds to a quaint jazz club called Chez Mamie where Chick and His Swing Six are playing. Cathy is clearly bored until she hears the soft strains of piano and approaches the broad-shouldered, dark-haired pianist.

Realizing he is blind, Cathy (Merle Oberon) lights a cigarette and puts it near the mouth of Dan (Dana Andrews) in “Night Song.”

“Light me a torch, will you chum?” he says to Cathy, not quite the greeting she was expecting.

He’s Dan Evans (Andrews), a man with a chip on his shoulders the size of a piano after being blinded in an accident by a drunk driver. He wants nothing to do with Cathy or anyone else. “I’m exhibit A here: I’m a blind piano player,” Dan says, with the bitterness he has used to build a protective wall around himself. The only person he lets in is Chick (Carmichael), his best friend, roommate, caregiver and boss in the band.

He’s a proud man but Cathy is stubborn. She returns to the elegant home she shares with her aunt, Miss Willey (Barrymore, who is my favorite part of this film). A voracious reader of detective novels, she doesn’t miss anything. Listening to Cathy play an unfamiliar tune on her concert grand piano with a far-off look on her face, Aunt Willey  knows what’s going on.

“You went somewhere after the symphony and someone played this nice music for you. Describe him.” (The relationship between these two feels very real, giving the film a rare sense of authenticity.)

Clearly smitten, Cathy returns to the club where Chick tells her Dan has quit – again. “He’s Mr. Blind Man and nobody with eyes can tell him anything,” he tells her.

“How about someone without eyes?,” she replies, clearly with an idea in mind and it’s a bit far-fetched.

Cathy (Merle Oberon) stages her first meeting as blind girl Mary with Dan (Dana Andrews, left) and Chick (Hoagy Carmichael).

She’ll pretend she is a blind woman named Mary Willey and goes so far as to rent a small, “rundown” apartment near the ocean where she’ll live with her caretaker and aunt (that’s true, at least). She softens her voice a bit and shrugs off her formal upper-class mannerisms when she “accidentally” runs into Dan and Chick on the beach.

But Dan is tough. As Chick says, “when he went blind, he went sour.” It takes a few meetings, some piano playing and the help of Chick and Aunt Willey to pull it off, but Mary starts to break through Dan’s wall. The more his heart opens, the more it releases his creativity. That lovely piano concerto starts to take form.

But that’s not enough for Mary when she learns there’s a chance Dan could regain his sight with surgery. It will take money he doesn’t have and that’s where she can help. She concocts a well-meaning ruse to sponsor a contest and puts up her own $5,000 as the grand prize. So much has to go right for Dan to win, but Cathy and Aunt Willey have the musical knowledge to understand that what Dan has written is great and deserves to win such a prize. Even Chick sees her deep understanding of classical music when he tells Dan after that first night in the club that “She went for the music, so she has brains as well as diamonds.”

After pretending to be a blind poor girl to get close to Dan (Dana Andrews),
circumstances lead Cathy (Merle Oberon) to meet him as the socialite she really is.

You can see where this is going, but it takes a detour when she runs into Dan again – this time as herself, the socialite Cathy Mallory. Dan doesn’t “recognize” Cathy is Mary for a few reasons. Like Clark Kent putting on his glasses so he’s not recognizable as Superman, Cathy raises the pitch in her voice and fools Dan though occasionally he does the old “I feel like I know you.”

That sets up the love triangle of Dan, blind Mary Willey in San Francisco, and the sophisticated Cathy Mallory in New York City. To say more about how they got to this point or where it goes would spoil the movie.

* * * *

I can remember the first time I saw “Night Song” and falling for it within seconds by the same music that wooed Cathy to Dan. Piano Concerto in C Minor by Leith Stevens was playing over the film’s opening credits and it’s magnificent – one of the best pieces of music written for a film. It’s featured in a nearly 9-minute sequence that I find spellbinding.

I originally watched “Night Song” for Dana Andrews, then for the love story. But it was Barrymore and Carmichael who hooked me. Though they were playing second fiddle to the lovebirds, they subtly stole the show.

Despite some of the illogical plot points, the dialogue flows so naturally and understated from Barrymore and Carmichael that the roles seem to have been written for them. They are well-defined to the point you don’t even need to see them to know they are in the room. In one scene, the camera is fixed on a radio with a dainty coffee cup on a saucer in front, and light smoke billowing across the screen. You know Aunt Willey is just off camera and she is.

Chick (Hoagy Carmichael) and Aunt Willey (Ethel Barrymore) become fast friends as they help Dan and Cathy/Mary.

The relationships between the characters are well done, too, whether it’s Dan and Chick, Mary and Aunt Willey or Chick and Aunt Willey. Chick is a steadfast friend who won’t let Dan wallow in self-pity and truly believes in him. “I think you’re a genius, he tells Dan. “So you’re blind, but Shubert’s dead.”

“Night Song” is elevated by little character moments. My favorite is Aunt Willey sitting in a comfy chair all happy to be reading a detective novel while smoking and drinking coffee. When she drops her book, she starts to bend over, then turns to the stack of paperbacks beside her and takes the one off the top.

“Night Song” has my favorite qualities of classic Hollywood movies like romance, star power, lovely music and a coziness you can sink in to. Besides any movie that stars just one of the four main actors – Andrews, Oberon, Barrymore, Carmichael – is worth a watch. A movie with all four? That’s a can’t-miss and a reason to give this hidden gem a chance.

* * * *

The blogathon

The Classic Movie Blog Association’s four-day “Hidden Classics” blogathon features stories on many other films that aren’t as well known as they could – and should – be. Here’s the link to read more stories on these hidden film gems.

How to get Turner Classic Movies in time to watch the film festival

It’s almost time for the TCM Classic Film Festival and you’re a bit out of sorts because you don’t have Turner Classic Movies to watch the festival at home. Maybe you just moved, switched services or cut the cord: the bottom line is that you need to watch TCM fast!

Relax – you’ve got options and they are quicker and easier than you think.

First off: you can’t get TCM for free. Sorry. Nor is there a standalone app you can buy. The Watch TCM app is linked to paid accounts with a cable provider or streaming service that provides TCM.

Basically here are your choices to watch TCM:

  • An account with either a cable or satellite provider.
  • A Live TV streaming service.

What’s the difference? A cable or satellite provider – think Spectrum, Comcast, X-Finity, DirecTV or Dish – is the traditional way to watch live television through a cable box or satellite dish. You can find TCM on most of these services, although it often comes on a higher tier at a higher price.

A Live TV streaming service is an app that lets you watch live television like you would with cable. It is not, however the same as an on-demand streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ where you pick what you want to watch from a library without the option for live TV. (This is where it should be noted that additional programming for the TCM Classic Film Festival will also be available to watch on the streaming service HBO Max, although you won’t be able to watch TCM live.)

The bonus: you don’t need to rent equipment. Instead, you most likely already have everything you need to get started: an internet connection plus a Smart TV or a device like Roku, Amazon Firestick or Apple TV. If you can use Netflix, you can use this.

Live TV streaming services that offer TCM include AT&T TV, Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV and Youtube TV. Full channel lineups, packages and prices are on all of their websites. As soon as you sign up online, you have service. Service is month-to-month so if you don’t like it, you can switch to another without penalty. If local channels are important to you, be sure to see what these services offer in your area.

GETTING STARTED

Cable/satellite

If you have cable or a dish but don’t get TCM, call to see if you can get it on another package. Most providers let you change tiers without an extra fee and they can do it on the phone for instant TCM. If you want to get cable or satellite, do an internet search to see what is available in your area. I won’t list prices because services and packages vary greatly depending on where you live and if you package TV with other services.

Streaming

This may be the easiest way to get TCM. Here are four available services.

Sling TV is the least expensive service that offers TCM. First you have to purchase one of Sling’s two basic packages: Orange Sling (recommended for sports/entertainment) or Blue (entertainment/news). Each is $35 regularly. This is important: To get TCM, you’ll need to add the “Hollywood Extra” package for $6 a month. (It has eight channels including SundanceTV, Reelz, StartTV, GRIT, Cinemoi.) The total cost, then, for Sling Blue and “Hollywood Extra” would be $41 with 50 hours of free DVR storage. Look for free trials and discounts. (If you’re lucky, you may still be able to get the $10 for the first month special.) Sling almost always offers free gifts by prepaying for two or more months such as getting a free TV antenna.

AT&T TV is the new live TV streaming service from AT&T (it replaces ATT U-Verse). TCM is available on all three packages starting with the “Entertainment” package that comes with more than 65 channels and 20 hours of free Cloud DVR service to record that late-night programming. Cost starts at $69.99 a month.

Hulu + Live TV. Packages start at $64.99 with TCM and 50 hours of free Cloud DVR storage. Current offer is a free one-week trial. Be sure to look at this live streaming option, not the regular Hulu streaming service.

YouTube TV. Packages start at $64.99 with TCM and come with unlimited DVR storage.

All of these options are constantly changing but this will give you a start. I’m not a tech expert, but I’ve done a lot of research looking for options for myself. I hope this is helpful.

TO WATCH TCMFF

The TCM Classic Film Festival starts at 8 p.m. May 6 on both TCM and HBO Max.

For the full schedule of live festival programming on TCM, visit filmfestival.tcm.com/schedule.

For the full list of on-demand festival programming on HBO Max, visit filmfestival.tcm.com/on-hbomax.

For the regular TCM website, visit tcm.com.

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