Friday, October 24, 2014

WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR? 1965

I suppose there’s a kind of tinpot triumph in making a film about the dark underbelly of human sexuality that succeeds in being, in itself, a work of astounding sleaze and prurience. Such is Who Killed Teddy Bear?; a high-pedigreed 60s exploitationer whose interrogative title would suggest another entry in the Whatever Happed to Baby Jane? “hag horror” sweepstakes; but is, in fact, an example of what I call “cesspool cinema”: a 60s exploitation sub-genre of low-rent, reactionary, social-commentary films preoccupied with the alleged rise in sexual degeneracy and dedicated to exposing the threat drugs, pornography, and delinquency pose to a civilized society.

Tackling the kind of material David Lynch would later build an entire career upon, these movies sought to lift the sewer lid off life, offering a dark, bleakly nihilistic glimpse into the twilight world of depravity and violence seething below the surface of so-called normalcy. Posing ostensibly as tell-it-like-it-is cautionary tales warning against the dangers of unchecked morality and wanton sexual license, “cesspool cinema” films tend to tip their sincerity hand by actually being every bit as skeevy as the world their narratives purport to condemn. A good example of cesspool cinema that runs a close second to Who Killed Teddy Bear? on the sleaze-o-meter is the sensationalistic 1964 Olivia DeHavilland shocker, Lady in a Cage.
Sal Mineo as Lawrence Sherman
Juliet Prowse as Norah Dain
Elaine Stritch as Marian Freeman
Jan Murray as Lt. Dave Madden
Who Killed Teddy Bear? is first posed as a musical question crooned melodramatically (not to mention, over-eloquently, given the character whose thoughts its lyrics are meant to convey) over the film’s tantalizingly lurid title sequence. A sequence which, depending on the copy you see, features a woman in bra and half-slip and a man in incredibly tight, white underwear – something of a motif in this movie – locked together in an impassioned, touchy-feely embrace. Bearing witness to all this in the bedroom’s doorway is an understandably wide-eyed little girl clutching a teddy bear. A little girl who, upon fleeing the scene too swiftly, loses her balance and tumbles down a flight of stairs. Cue the psychosexual dysfunction and guilt.
The original, uncut version of Who Killed Teddy Bear? runs 94 minutes and can be distinguished from slightly truncated copies by the unblurred imagery shown in the title sequence
When Who Killed Teddy Bear? is posed as a question a second time, it’s by the inconsolable Edie (Margot Bennett): the hapless little girl on the stairs, now a brain-damaged19-year-old – inquiring of her older brother, Lawrence (Mineo), the fate of her beloved lost childhood toy. You see, the sordid events unfolding under the film’s opening credits turn out to be Lawrence’s guilt-ridden nightmare/flashback to the time when Edie was left in his charge (the pair are orphaned, there being a brief allusion made to their parents’ deaths, and Edie going so far as to call her brother, “mommy-daddy”) and his momentary neglect – a then-underage boy surrendering to the seduction of an unidentified “sexually-experienced older woman” – resulted in Edie suffering the accident which left her mentally and emotionally frozen at roughly age of her trauma.
Margot Bennett as Edie Sherman
Bennett (former wife of personal crushes Keir Dullea AND Malcolm McDowell) is very good in a role Taliah Shire must have used as the inspiration for the character she plays in Rocky

Jump ahead several years: Lawrence is an adult with a crippling attraction/repulsion attitude towards sex. The silent recrimination of his sister's unblaming, childlike dependency inflaming in him a neurotic prudishness that seeks to suppress her natural maturation; her lost teddy bear, a symbol of his guilt and shame, he has actually secreted away, telling her it was killed in an accident.
Obviously, Edie wasn't the only one damaged that night.

Also obvious is the fact that Who Killed Teddy Bear?, in being a film exhaustively preoccupied with presenting sex in only its most tawdry and squalid contexts, has a sizable attraction/repulsion problem of its own. Like a movie adapted from Travis Bickle fan fiction, Who Killed Teddy Bear? paints a picture of New York as a singularly seedy hotbed of latent and manifest degeneracy. There's scarcely a character in the film left unslimed by its sewer-eye-view of humanity.

CASE #1 Lawrence
A waiter at a NYC discothèque, Lawrence’s sexual molestation (that’s what it was, although they didn’t call it that back then) leaves him with a staggering catalog of sexual hang-ups  –  not the least being voyeurism, obscene phone calls, stalking, scopophilia, and sex attraction/repulsion. When not engaged in one of the above-stated pursuits, Lawrence spends his time dry-humping his pillow, thumbing through his extensive porn collection (French Frills, When She Was Bad), trolling Time Square, or homoerotically working out at the gym. 
Where should I be looking?
Sal Mineo's toned, always-on-display body does most of  his acting in Who Killed Teddy Bear? Right now I'd say it's acting like a compass needle pointing north, subtly(?) identifying the guilty party
CASE #2 Norah
Since we’re first introduced to Norah the moment she’s at the business end of a dirty phone call, there’s no way of telling how much of her frosty demeanor and almost paranoid level of apprehension is business as usual, or the result of suddenly finding herself one of New York’s premiere creep magnets. An aspiring actress and part-time DJ at the very same dance club where Lawrence lurks...I mean, works...Norah can barely get through a day without being hit on by randy patrons (“You hungry? Let me buy you a frankfurter.”) or having the status of her virginity come into question (“Every scrawny broad thinks she’s the only one entrusted with the crown jewels, and then she’ll die if she loses them!”).
"Who is this? Who IS this?"
For films like this to work, it's necessary for it never to occur to the recipient of an obscene phone call to merely hang up.
CASE #3 Marian
Tough-as-nails (aka lesbian) manager of a discothèque that seems to do a pretty decent business given they only have three records. Marian’s a brassy, calls-‘em-like-she-sees-‘em, survivor type whose weakness for fur, literal and figurative  (“I dig soft things…don’t you?”), plays a significant part in her propriety-mandated, horizontal early departure from the film.
Being a simple girl from Rochester, NY, Norah can't be blamed for mistaking Marian's offer of succor to be as dirty as it sounds
CASE #4 Lt. Madden
Striving for hard-boiled but landing at Borscht Belt, police Lt. Madden is every bit the sex-obsessed porn junkie as Lawrence, but fiery moral rectitude over the loss of his wife to violent assault has allowed this self-styled expert on deviant sex to place his own behavior above the pale. Behavior which includes working clinically gruesome details of sex crimes into the most casual of conversations, and turning the apartment he shares with his 10-year-old daughter, Pam (Diane Moore, comedian Jan Murray’s real-life daughter) into a virtual vice squad reading room. Who Killed Teddy Bear?’s themes of innocence corrupted are echoed in Madden’s daughter falling asleep each night to graphic audio tapes of her father interviewing sex assault victims.
"She's very pretty...is she a hooker?"
Decades before this became a common question posed by pre-teens of their favorite pop stars, little Pam Madden's (Diane Moore) presumptive appraisal of house-guest Norah Dain betrays signs of a troubling sexual precocity 
These are the players in Who Killed Teddy Bear?; less a cast of characters than a police blotter of victims and would-be assailants in service of a familiar, somewhat rote, woman-in-peril crime thriller. The plot is simple: someone has their eyes on Norah and embarks on an escalating campaign of harassment. It's a race with the clock on whether or not the police can find the caller before he makes good on his many threats.
The film takes a weak stab at trying to drum up a little suspense as to the identity of Norah's peeping tom/stalker by casting a wide net of suspicion over everyone in her skeevy circle (a lecherous maître d', a young Daniel J. Travanti as a deaf-mute mute bouncer with piercing eyes, the cop who takes a personal interest in her case), but the choice to shoot the caller from the neck down, calling attention to his impossibly taut backside and wasp waist, swiftly narrows the field of probable suspects to a comical degree. 
No, what truly distinguishes Who Killed Teddy Bear? is its lewd-yet-arty exploration of aberrant sexual development; its overheated, almost documentary look at New York's seamy side (it could pass for an anti-pornography propaganda film); and a tone of suffocating bleakness that feels positively surreal when one realizes this film was made the same year as The Sound of Music.
Honestly, Who Killed Teddy Bear? is a dark film that takes a head-first dive into the sewer and doesn't come up for air. Were it a better film, it would probably be unwatchable
Corruption of Innocence
In profiling the home lives of Lawrence and Lt. Madden, Who Killed Teddy Bear? parallels the similar damage that can arise from dissimilar obsessions

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Imagine John Waters making one of those overheated erotic thrillers from the 80s and 90s (films with sound-alike titles like: Body of Evidence, Guilty as Sin, Crimes of Passion, and Fatal Attraction) and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Who Killed Teddy Bear? is like: as twisted a work of mid-century pseudo-mainstream cinema as ever screened at a Times Square grindhouse theater. 
Hollywood’s hypocritical nature is rarely shown to such brilliant advantage as when it has worked itself into a sanctimonious lather over some social-ill it wishes to expose. The makers of Who Killed Teddy Bear? (director Joeseph Cates [Phoebe’s father] and writer Arnold Drake) obviously decided that the best way to comment on the pernicious threat of degeneracy is to make a film any self-respecting degenerate would love. 
Let's Go to the Movies!
Lawrence treats himself to a picture show. Who Killed Teddy Bear? is worth checking out for its scenes of 60s-era Times Square alone. Amusingly, this dive of a theater has a uniformed doorman! 
As a fan of 60s go-go movies, I love all the scenes set in the discothèque (seedy dance club, really), but it blows my mind that a hunk of sleaze this oily could have been made at a time when Hullabaloo, Shindig, and The Patty Duke Show were all over the airwaves.  Nostalgia fans love to think of the 60s as this kinder, gentler era, but a movie like Who Killed Teddy Bear? hints that decade was perhaps merely skillful in sweeping its social debris under the rug.
"You look like a whore!"
Incredibly, this line of dialog isn't delivered by Edie

PERFORMANCES
I haven't seen the-late Elaine Stritch in many films, and I'm not sure her range extended far beyond some variation of the tough-old-broad type; but within that range, she is untouchable. She gives the best performance in the film (arguably the only performance in the film), turning a "type" into a complex, fleshed-out character. She enlivens the proceedings and raises the film's quality bar each and every moment she appears.
A young Daniel J. Travanti (Hill St. Blues) appears as Carlo, the bouncer
And speaking of tough, personal fave Juliet Prowse is perhaps one of the least-helpless looking women I've ever seen, but her innate brassiness is a major asset in a film as focused on female victimization as this. I can't really vouch for her performance, which seems a little superficial, but I like that her character is depicted as independent-minded and often more pissed-off than scared by what's happening to her. Her's is a huge departure from the kind of cowering, passive women common to those aforementioned 80s thrillers (the whimpering Morgan Fairchild in 1982s The Seduction comes to mind).

As public tastes changed, many 50s boy-next-door types sought to extend their careers by taking on roles which challenged their squeaky clean images (James Darren - Venus in Furs, Troy Donahue - My Blood Runs Cold). Who Killed Teddy Bear? is structured as an against-type breakout role for teen heartthrob and  two-time Oscar-nominee (Rebel Without a CauseExodus) Sal Mineo, the truth is that, while  fine in the part, the actor is consistently upstaged by his physique. You'd have to watch a Raquel Welch movie to see a film where the exposure of a physique is favored so deferentially over a performance.
For a film marketed to the heteronormative exploitation market, no physique in the film comes under quite the same degree of close-up camera scrutiny as Mineo's. Not that I'm complaining.
An actor’s body is their instrument, but when that instrument is puffed out with ornamental muscles, it runs the risk of actually inhibiting expression, not assisting (think Channing Tatum’s neck). Such is the case with Mineo in Who Killed Teddy Bear?; as appealing and eye-catching as his body is, it begins a performance a good 30 seconds before he does. And worse, it seems to encase Mineo emotionally...HE seems as distracted by it as we are.
A few of the shows running on Broadway at the time 
For many, a question far more pressing than Who Killed Teddy Bear? is how did the careers of Mineo (a talented actor) and Prowse (a talented dancer and singer) sink to this level of grindhouse sleaze?

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Who Killed Teddy Bear? would have a running time of 60-minutes if it excised all the scenes of discotheque dancers doing The Watusi and the The Frug. Happily, along with being a perfect time-capsule of New York at its grimiest, this film offers fans of 60s wiggling plentiful opportunities to feel less superior about how kids dance today.
The film's erotic set-piece, one precipitated by Lawrence's observation that the way people dance is "Very suggestive!" is a two-minute dance-off by the statuesque Prowse and slim-hipped Mineo that is both hilarious and terribly, terribly sexy. Suggestive, indeed!
The songs used in the film (all three of them) are composed by Bob Gaudino (of The Four Seasons) and Al Kasha (Best Song Oscar winner for The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure)


THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
I saw Who Killed Teddy Bear? for the first time when I was about nine or ten. Bad idea. It aired on TV in the wee small hours of the morning on something like the The Late, Late, Late Show, and I was excited at the prospect of staying up late and seeing a fun/scary B-movie like Die! Die! My Darling! or Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (the latter, playing in the theaters at the time). Of course, what I got was this weird, terribly dark movie about depravity, porn, rape, and murder. Needless to say, this heaptrip of a movie disturbed the hell out of me (Mineo with his magic pants and action torso played no small part), and for the longest time Who Killed Teddy Bear? occupied a place in my psyche reserved for kindertrauma.  The ending in particular gave me nightmares.
Unable to simulate masturbation onscreen back in 1965, Mineo is shown stroking his thighs while making an obscene phone call. According to Mineo, this was the first American film to feature a man in jockey shots
It’s a curious thing, kids and scary movies; monsters and ghouls engaged in simplistic struggles of good vs. evil played out against low-budget backdrops of drafty castles and decaying mansions, have a strangely comforting, distancing artificiality. The scares they supply are fun because the worlds depicted are so reassuringly false.
Less easy to shake off is a grim treatise on the corruptibility of innocence shot in grainy, news-bulletin black and white, set in a grimy, claustrophobic New York teeming not with easy-to-identify monsters, but the flesh and blood kind that look just like everybody else. For a young person, a movie like Who Killed Teddy Bear? – a film that offers few likable characters, little in the way of hope, and no happy ending – it's all so  disturbing because it’s just too real. I recall it was one of the earliest films to give me the feeling that the world wasn't a safe place.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? popped up frequently on TV when I was young, then just seemed to disappear. Sometime in the 90s it resurfaced a local revival theater here in LA, and I got to see it for the first time with an audience. By now what I once thought disturbing looked hopelessly camp, overwrought, and overemphatic, but it somehow retained all of its edge (it was banned in the UK until very recently). After all these years Who Killed Teddy Bear? holds up as one of the strangest films to come out of the so-called swinging 60s. And that’s saying something.
Teddy Bear's Picnic


BONUS MATERIAL
The version of Who Killed Teddy Bear? available on DVD overseas is a slightly edited version from the 94-minute original. Here is what can be found in the uncut version (spoilers):
1. The bodies in the title sequence are visible.
2. Scene with Stritch and Prowse in her apartment is lengthier, including Stritch relaying this information: “I never wore a bra until I was 28. And then for a fast ten minutes. Some quack convinced me it helped firm the muscles. I don’t like being fenced in. It’s a hang-up of mine.”
3. Flashback of Mineo's seduction by older woman is longer and slightly more explicit (his body, not hers).
4. Scenes of Mineo at Times Square porn shops and in front of porno theater are longer.
5. Mineo kisses and embraces Stritch after killing her in the alley.
6. There's a brief scene of Mineo humping his bed in his BVDs.
7. Final assault is slightly more explicit

The full (edited) version of Who Killed Teddy Bear? is available on YouTube.

Depending on the source the voice singing the title song over the film's opening credits has been attributed to either Rita Dyson or Claire Francis (Mikki Young). Until that mystery is cleared up, there are several cover versions floating around the net;

Hear Leslie Uggams sing the haunting theme to Who Killed Teddy Bear?

Hear 80s pop singer Josie Cotton sing the haunting theme to Who Killed Teddy Bear?

In 1965, the same year Who Killed Teddy Bear? was released, Juliet Prowse debuted in her own TV sitcom, the short-lived (and rather terrible, as I recall) Mona McCluskey. Sal Mineo appeared as a guest on an episode. See Mona McCluskey opening credits on YouTube.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, October 9, 2014

THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS 1966

I grew up in the 60s, the era of the “fun nun.” And while it’s true I attended Catholic schools almost exclusively during my youth, the real-life the nuns I encountered on a daily basis bore more a resemblance to Jessica Lange’s steely Sister Jude in American Horror Story:Asylum than all those spunky, irrepressible, exhaustingly adorable nuns that littered the pop-cultural landscape in the wake of the 60s reconfiguration of the Catholic Church and Vatican II.
Sister Luc-Gabrielle (The Singing Nun) and her ecumenical earworm of a pop-ditty, Dominique, topped the charts and actually outsold The Beatles in 1963. In 1965, Julie Andrews and those Nazi-thwarting nuns of The Sound of Music broke boxoffice records nationwide. Sister Luc’s life story was Hollywoodized in 1966’s The Singing Nun, which was little more than perky Debbie Reynolds playing perky Debbie Reynolds in a wimple. Moving on to groovier, more socially-relevant pastures, Mary Tyler Moore played a toothsome, inner-city nun wooed by Elvis Presley (of all people) in his last film, Change of Habit (1969). But perhaps the ultimate nadir and apogee of the entire 60s "nuns can be fun!" mania has to be the sitcom that launched a thousand Johnny Carson monologues: Sally Field as The Flying Nun (1967-1970): a credit it took the actress an entire career, three Emmys, and two Oscars to live down.
Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior (Madeline Rouche)
Hayley Mills as Mary Clancy
June Harding as Rachel Devery
When I was very small, nuns onscreen seemed like near-mythic figures of virtue, wisdom, and heroism on par with cowboys in white hats and combat soldiers at the front. The embodiment of Christian values in human form, they were untouchable (and, all-importantly, untouched), and representative of all the noble (aka, maternal) female virtues. But as I grew older, the long-suffering, queenly type of nuns portrayed in movies like The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945), Come to the Stable (1949), and The Nun’s Story (1959) struck me as just another variation of the “grand lady” stereotype.

Come the 60s, when overt displays of religious piety began to be viewed as corny by the moviegoing populace, nuns became overnight comic foils. Much in the way that viewers today never cease to find amusement in little old ladies engaging in comically inappropriate behavior like smoking joints, swearing, expressing sexual rapaciousness, or rapping (kill me now); nuns became the go-to images of charmingly comic inappropriateness. Anti-establishment humor, so popular at the time, relied on clearly defined standards of decency to offend, so in the mid-60s it was nuns – those walking anachronisms of starchy morality – who played Margaret Dumont to a world of counter-culture Grouchos.
Tolerance Tested 
Reverend Mother falls victim to the old bubble-bath-in-the-sugar-bowl trick 
To avoid the appearance of mocking Catholicism, these films took the position that their comedy contributed to “humanizing” nuns (not a bad idea, as nuns can be pretty terrifying, and solved the outsider bullying problem by placing the antagonist “in-house.” Meaning the standard set-up always finds a high-spirited, independent-minded novice (how does one solve a problem like Maria?) butting heads with a staunch defender of the old-order; in most every instance, the imposing figure of Mother Superior: your typical  imperious disciplinarian, wet-blanket authority-figure, and parental surrogate,

Thanks to over-saturation, it didn't take long for the whole wacky nuns sub-genre to fall into a series of overworked, sitcomy tropes (nuns on scooters, nuns in brawls, nuns in discothèques), but in 1966, director Ida Lupino made what I consider to be one of the absolute best movies to come out of the whole “fun nuns” genre, if not indeed one of the best, most egregiously overlooked comedies of the 60s: the delightful and surprisingly moving, The Trouble with Angels.
Fleur de Lis & Kim Novak meet The Dragon
Set in fictional St. Francis Academy, a conservative, Catholic boarding school for girls in Philadelphia, The Trouble with Angels chronicles (in seriocomic vignettes) the misadventures of rebellious, head-strong Mary Clancy (Mills) and her bumbling partner-in-crime, Rachel Devery (Harding), as their mischievous antics provoke the mounting consternation and ire of the school’s formidable Mother Superior (Russell).
Marge Redmond as Sister Ligouri, Russell as Mother Superior, and Binnie Barnes as Sister Celestine

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As I’ve expressed in previous posts, so-called “family films” held very little interest for me when I was a kid. It's not that I thought they were beneath me (I did), it just that I found most of the 1966 options inoffensive family entertainment (when I was all of 9-years-old) to be pretty offensive. On the one hand, there was the “wholesome smut” genre, typified by Bob Hope’s Boy Did I Get The Wrong Number, and Jerry Lewis in Way…Way Out; and on the other, live-action Disney films, which, when not engaged in music or magic, were so plastic and artificial (The Monkey’s Uncle, That Darn Cat!) they were like images beamed from another planet.
Given that my older sister attended an all-girls’ Catholic school and was a huge Rosalind Russell fan (she turned me into a Russell Rooter by having me watch Gypsy and Auntie Mame when they aired on TV, and by always calling my attention to how much Tony Curtis looked like her in Some Like It Hot), there was never any question about whether or not I was going to see The Trouble with Angels when it came out. No problem… like many 60s era little boys and girls, I harbored a mad (secret) crush on Hayley Mills.
Mary Clancy on the verge of a "Scathingly brilliant idea"
I’ll admit my expectations weren't very high, but from the minute I saw the pre-credits sequence which features an animated Haley Mills (complete with wings and halo) mischievously blowing out the torch of the Columbia Pictures lady, The Trouble with Angels had me in its pocket.
Part insubordinate teen comedy, part sensitive coming-of-age film; part female buddy picture, part generation-gap farce (crossed with a little Sunday School theology), The Trouble with Angels is something of a family movie miracle. Certainly divine intervention is at least one explanation for a film which doesn't exactly tread new comedy ground feeling so refreshingly original.
Of course, the most obvious miracle worker is trailblazing actress/writer/director Ida Lupino, here directing her first film since 1953s The Bigamist. She handles both the comedy and drama with real aplomb, and gets engaging performances out of her talented cast of seasoned performers and newcomers (June Harding, who gets an “introducing" credit, is especially good). 
Girl Power
A true Hollywood rarity, The Trouble with Angels is a major motion picture directed by a woman and written by a woman (Blanche Hanalis from Janet Trahey's 1962 memoir, Life with Mother Superior) that is also a depiction of teen life from a strictly female perspective. That's character actress Mary Wickes as Sister Clarissa. She reprised her role for the sequel, and, 26-years-later, dusted off her nun's habit again to appear in both Whoopi Goldberg Sister Act movies.

Lupino's deft touch is in evidence in the stylish manner in which the episodic sequences are tied together with clever connecting devices (the departure and triumphant return of the school band is a wonderful bit of visual shorthand), and in the largely silent scenes conveying the maturation of the Mary Clancy character. Best of all, Lupino manages all of this without resorting to cloying sentimentality, mean-spiritedness, vulgarity, or the kind of over-the-top slapstick that bogged down the 1968 sequel, Where Angels Go…Trouble Follows.
Madame Rose & Her Daughter, Gypsy
Rosalind Russell famously portrayed the mother of stripper/author/talk-show-hostess, Gypsy Rose Lee in the eponymous 1962 musical. The Trouble with Angels brings mother and daughter together again (for the first time) as Miss Gypsy herself  portrays Mrs. Mabel Dowling Phipps, interpretive dance instructor

PERFORMANCES
The Trouble with Angels' original title (changed sometime during production) was the far less whimsical-sounding, Mother Superior. Well, the name may have been changed, but there's no denying that the film’s comedic, dramatic, and emotional focus remains with the character embodied by the actress who is the film's chief asset and most valuable player: Rosalind Russell. Whether getting laughs for her pricelessly droll delivery of simple lines like "Where's the fire?" or adding unexpected layers of emotional poignancy to scenes providing us brief glimpses of the woman behind the nun's habit; Rosalind Russell gives a wonderful, subdued performance. No Sylvia Fowler (The Women), Auntie Mame, or Mama Rose flamboyance here. Russell downplays beautiful and conveys volumes with those expressive eyes and peerless vocal inflections.
After appearing to the students to be coolly unmoved by the loss of a friend, in private, Mother Superior gives vent to her full anguish. Russell's performance in this scene alone single-highhandedly raises The Trouble with Angels far above the usual family film fare

The Trouble with Angels is well-cast and well-acted throughout. Marge Redmond as Sister Ligouri, the mathematics teacher who sounds like a race track bookie, is very good in a role similar to that which she played for three years on The Flying Nun. Former Disney star, Hayley Mills (19-years-old) and co-star June Harding (25) display a winning and relaxed rapport and make for a likable contrasting duo of troublemakers. Both are real charmers from the word go, and every moment they are onscreen is a delight. Mills, soon to graduate on to adult roles (with nudity, yet!) is just excellent. Her performance gets better with each viewing. Before movies became a total boys' club in the 70s, for a brief time in the 60s, there seemed to be a small surge in movies which placed the friendship between teenage girls at their center: The World of Henry Orient (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) are two of my favorites.
June Harding never made another motion picture after The Trouble with Angels, and at age 25 it's not likely she could have ridden that teen train for much longer, but I always thought she would have made a wonderful Emmy Lou in a film adaptation of the Bobby Sox comic strip by Marty Links

Jim Hutton (makes an unbilled cameo as Mr. Petrie ("Sort of like Jack Lemmon, only younger."), the headmaster of the progressive New Trends High School 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
One of the more impressive things about The Trouble with Angels it how beautifully (and effortlessly) it balances scenes of broad comedy and gentle humor while still allowing for sequences that are surprisingly touching in their humanity and compassion. Here are a few of my favorite scenes...no matter how many times I see them, the comedic ones make me laugh, the dramatic ones get the ol' waterworks going:
COMEDY:  Where There's Smoke, There's Fire
DRAMA: "I Found Something Better"
COMEDY: Binders Sale
DRAMA: The Christmas Visitors (dam-bursting waterworks scene)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The Trouble with Angels was a boxoffice success when released and is well-liked and remembered with great affection by many, yet it remains one of those movies which seem to have somehow fallen through the cracks over the years. It’s not exactly forgotten (while available on DVD, the only time you can see it in widescreen is when it screens on TCM) but it rarely seems to come up in movie circles. Part of this is due to the film being a somewhat innocuous, at times glaringly old-fashioned comedy (in 1966, where there really teens who idolized Burt Lancaster and Jack Lemmon?) with no agenda beyond the modest desire to entertain while passing along a few life lessons and a simple message about growing up.
And while the above may serve as a fairly apt description of the movie on its most superficial level, I think it's a mistake to dismiss a film merely because its ambitions ‒ which The Trouble with Angels surpasses with ease  are humble, and chooses a light comedy touch over the bellylaugh sledgehammer. (Although I've never seen it, internet sources recommend the similar 1954 British comedy, The Belles of St. Trinian's for fans with broader tastes.)

For me, The Trouble with Angels remains one of my favorite "comfort food" movies; a thoroughly enchanting, fumy, sweet-natured movie capable of stirring up warm feelings of nostalgia. In this instance, the very distant memory I have of when I was so young that movies like this made me associate organized religion with kindness, compassion, and empathy. So sad that religion is so often used today as the banner behind which so many seek to cloak their fear, ignorance, and hatred.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt if those "fun nuns" made a comeback.

BONUS MATERIALS
Rosalind Russell reprised her role as Mother Superior in the 1968 sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, but Hayley Mills was conspicuously absent. Some say it is because Mills was back in Britain and overbooked with film projects. Others attribute it to the rumor that Russell and Mills didn't along. A rumor supported by Rosalind's Russell's 1977 autobiography, Life's a Banquet, in which Russell writes: "Haley Mills was a demon. She used to stick out her tongue whenever I passed (she couldn't stand me) and she was bursting at the seams with repressed sexuality."
Mills, for her part, has denied there was ever any bad blood between them.

Actress June Harding (Rachel Devery) has a website where she has posted many of the letters she wrote during the films production: June Harding Official Website 

Listen to the theme song to Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows by Boyce & Hart HERE

In 1974, Hayley Mills dropped her Disney princess image for good (as well as her knickers) in the bizarre but oh-so engrossing British thriller, Deadly Strangers co-starring Simon Ward and Sterling Hayden. A real departure and available on YouTube HERE


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, September 26, 2014

WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY 1971

Do kids really like watching other kids in movies and on TV? I certainly know I didn’t. At least not what passed for kids in the TV shows and movies of my youth. My inability to relate to that hyperactive genus of freckle-faced precocity known as the child actor contributed to my childhood aversion to Disney, so-called “family entertainment,” and basically any film or TV program which trained its spotlight on adorable, towheaded moppets. Hence, I was nearly in my 30s before I got around to seeing Mary Poppins, Pollyanna, The Sound of Music, and The Parent Trap; all movies I've come to adore as adult (ultimately the demographic most invested in the sentimentalized idealization of that trauma-filled age-span known as childhood), but which held little interest for me as a kid because I simply saw no connection between myself and those miniature, adult-impersonators onscreen. 

Take, for example, the TV sitcoms of my youth: Beaver Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver was a pathological liar whose wobbly moral compass and iffy common-sense could be effectively shut down by the feeble taunt of “chicken!”; those ginger twins, Buffy & Jody of Family Affair were like these too-good-to-be-true, animatronic wind-up dolls; Dennis the Menace was a well-intentioned but nevertheless misogynist, passive-aggressive sociopath; and don’t even get me started on that mayonnaise-on-white-bread-with-Velveeta-slices Brady Bunch clan.
Either absurdly goody-goody or possessed of an annoyingly thickheaded inability to ascribe consequence to action; these characters may have warmed the hearts of nostalgia-prone adults clinging to revisionist reveries of childhood as a time of mischievous scamps getting into adorable “scrapes,” or wide-eyed cherubs spreading sunshine and rainbows wherever they went; but I might as well have been watching The Twilight Zone for all their resemblance to the pint-sized Gila monsters I went to school with.

Of course, there were a few rare exceptions. Given my own dark disposition, I had no problem with the refreshingly odd Pugsly and Wednesday Addams on The Addams Family; I took considerable pleasure in Jane Withers as the hilariously bratty antithesis to the sugary Shirley Temple in 1934's Bright Eyes (“My psychoanalyst told me there ain’t any Santa Clause or fairies or giants or anything like that!”); and was perhaps most impressed by Patty McCormack’s Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, who was essentially James Cagney in a pinafore. And of course, one of my all-time favorites was the 1968 musical, Oliver! with its ragtag cast of underage pickpockets, thieves, and swindlers.
If anything is to be gleaned from this, it’s that, as a child, I longed for an alternative to these antiseptic images of childhood just as my parents yearned for something beyond the The Donna Reed Show/Father Knows Best model of family. Sure, kids could be sugar and spice and all that, but kids are also self-centered, very sharp, and crueler than most adults would like to admit. And childhood, while certainly a (perceived) joyous and carefree time when viewed from the perspective of adult responsibility and stress, is nonetheless scary as hell and fraught with one mini-trauma after another.

Redeemed by resilience, curiosity, and a limitless capacity for hope and dreaming, I've long held that children, in essence, aren't really that different from adults. Author Roald Dahl understood this, and that is why the ofttimes frightening, marvelously witty and acerbic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (adapted from his 1964 book, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory) stands out as one of the few children’s movies from my childhood I recall with a great deal of fondness. Here was a terribly sweet children's movie that didn't need the sugar-coating.
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket
Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a straightforward fairy tale - complete with moral and happy ending - that takes place in a world where the fantastic and magical exists side by side with the prosaic and practical; in other words, the world as kids see it until we adults start to stick our noses in.
One day Willy Wonka, an eccentric, reclusive, candy manufacturer around whose identity swarms mysterious Gatsby-like legends, decides to open the doors to his wondrous candy factory to five lucky winners of  Golden Tickets he’s hidden in Wonka Bars shipped all over the globe. The winners and one guest receive a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. The winners:
Germany
The gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) and his mother (Ursula Reit, who always reminds me of an off-diet Elke Sommer)
England
Spoiled Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) and her salted peanut magnate father, Henry (the wonderful Roy Kinnear)
America
Ill-mannered Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson) and her pushy, used-car salesman dad, Sam (Leonard Stone)
America
Rambunctious TV-addict, Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) and his schoolteacher mom (Nora Denney)
...and most deserving, poor-as-a-church-mouse Charlie Bucket, who takes his beloved Grandpa Joe with him (and not his hardworking mom, but more about that later)
The four initial winners of the Golden Ticket are all comfortably well-off children (save for Veruca, who's loaded) whose want for the prize stems largely from a kind of entitled greed indigenous to comfortably well-off children. Only poverty-stricken Charlie (who has to attend school AND help his mother support four bed-ridden grandparents) harbors the dream of winning the ticket to improve his lot and that of his family. Thus, with sweet-natured Charlie the parable's obvious hero, and rival candy manufacturer Arthur Slugworth (Gunter Meisner) the villain, the four “naughty, nasty little children” must serve as emissaries of the film’s moral (our behavior and our hearts are the architects of our fate) and as foils for their unpredictable and mischievous host, Mr. Willy Wonka.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I love the setup and structure of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The first half of the film being rooted in reality‒well, a charming kind of storybook reality, after all, we’re asked to accept that Charlie’s four grandparents have not set foot out of the bed they all share for twenty years‒the second half, a pure flight of fantasy wherein a common childhood dream comes to life: a visit to a magical candyland that’s part Disneyland, part amusement park funhouse, and part house of horrors (adults tend to forget how much kids enjoy being frightened and gleefully grossed-out).
From the start, the film does a great job of piquing interest in Wonka by having him discussed, Citizen Kane fashion, at length before he makes an appearance. It also gives us a likeable and sympathetic hero to root for in Charlie, who’s saved from being a totally pathetic character by being blessed with a loving, oddball family. Conflict rears its head in the form of the other four Golden Ticket winners, who may be amplified versions of archetypal bratty kids, but, with the possible exception of Veruca, are not malicious or mean-spirited (even the awful Mike Teevee precurses questions to his host with a polite, “Mr. Wonka…” ).
Touring the candy factory in the S.S. Wonkatania
The two halves of the film complement one another nicely, for the first half is appropriately dingy and sentimental (bordering on cloying), setting the stage for the second half which, in mirroring the unpredictable spirit of Wonka himself, explodes into a colorful, anarchic phantasmagoria that plays havoc with the genre expectations of the children’s movie.

In fact, one of my favorite things about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that it is such a sublimely nasty twist on the traditional tolerant celebration of childhood precocity that fuels so many films intended for children. Wonka’s factory‒ a place where anything is possible…an environment wherein the laws of reason, logic, or physics don’t apply‒ recall those marvelously anarchic Warner Bros. cartoons. The at-odds, adversarial byplay between Wonka and the kids evoking for me the comic clashes between Bugs Bunny (unflappable, always one step ahead, just a little screwy) and Daffy Duck (unchecked id combined with brazen self-interest).
While panic reigns, Wonka watches Augustus Gloop's probable drowning in the chocolate river with detached, intellectual curiosity. Mrs. Gloop's outburst ("You terrible man!") never fails to crack me up.

PERFORMANCES
People are fond of pointing out that Roald Dahl was not very fond of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, no doubt due to the extensive rewrites his adapted screenplay was subjected to by an unbilled David Seltzer (The Omen), and the shift of the story’s focus from Charlie to Wonka. This point would be persuasive save for two things: 1) Dahl’s heirs stated he would have liked the 2005 Tim Burton version (a film I found to be irredeemably wretched, so, so much for tatse), and, 2) With rare exceptions, an author’s ability to write a book doesn't mean a hill of jellybeans when it comes to understanding what makes a film work (see: Ayn Rand, Vladimir Nabokov, and Stephen King). As far as I'm concerned, to place the focus on anyone but Wonka would have been sheer folly, especially if you were lucky enough to land an actor as inspired as Gene Wilder to take on the role. 
Willy Wonka, as envisioned by Wilder, lives up to the alliterative suggestion of his name by being quite wonky indeed. Dressed in anachronistic high style, he sports a madman’s mane of wiry locks yet keeps his wits about him at all times; is enthusiastic and excitable as a child, yet remains unflappable and unflustered at even the most life-threatening (to the children, anyway) occurrences; and has bright, inquisitive eyes that can be warm and paternal one moment, wild and certifiably insane the next. A genial host, he’s witty, sharp, sarcastic, and not particularly child-friendly and seems singularly disinterested in being the surrogate parent and disciplinarian for the transgressions of his misbehaving guests.
"What is this, a freak out?"
The brilliance of Wilder's portrayal is that we expect the mystery surrounding Wonka to be cleared up when we meet him, but instead, it only increases. i don't care how many times or in how many ways Warner Bros. tries to wring income out of Dahl's book; Gene Wilder is the one and only Willy Wonka
Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974) would reveal to a broader audience what a comic genius Gene Wilder is, but at this early juncture in his career, he gives a timeless performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, and is the main reason the film works at all, and why it has endured beyond its initial flop release to become a generational classic. (Although Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe, the film received but one Oscar nomination: for Best Original Score.)
Any fan of The Bad Seed should find Julie Dawn Cole's vitriolic Veruca Salt a sheer delight

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
By the way, did I mention Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a musical? No, I didn't, but that's because I was saving it for this section. At a time when movie musicals were becoming as bloated as Violet Beauregarde at maximum blueberry transformation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory successfully bucked the trend toward entertainment elephantitis (as successfully as a film deemed a boxoffice flop upon release can be deemed a success) and came up with an appealing, bite-size musical that for once didn't overwhelm its subject and characters.
The songwriting team of Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Scrooge!) reined in their usual tendency toward over-sophisticated melodies (although Cheer Up, Charlie, a real snoozer and always my cue to visit the snack bar, somehow snuck in) and came up with several engaging songs possessing the simple, sing-song lilt of nursery rhymes grade school. Best of all, each is staged in a clever, intimate scale that draws you deeper into film.
Director Mel Stuart wisely rejected the suggestion to expand the rousing "I've Got a Golden Ticket" into a large-scale production number that spilled out into the streets, a la 1968s Oliver!
Of course, those who were around in 1971 couldn't avoid Sammy Davis Jr.'s grooved-up version of "The Candy Man" being played 'round the clock on the radio. And though it reached No.1 on the charts and became the Davis' signature song, its omnipresence failed to garner the song an Oscar nomination (neither did the splendid "Pure Imagination") or boost public interest in the poorly-promoted film (Willy Wonka's visually unappealing poster and non-existent marketing campaign clearly show that Paramount didn't know how to sell it).
"The Candy Man" is sung by Aubrey Woods (here shown giving an inadvertent jaw realignment to a little girl who didn't know her cues) as Bill the candy shop owner. Both Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. angled for the part. Once again, can we give it up for the wise decisions of Mel Stuart?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 when it was released, largely at my older sister’s prodding. Then being unfamiliar with either Roald Dahl or the book (which I’ve since read it, and, as much as I love it, I find the film a vast improvement), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sounded far too much like Toby Tyler: or Ten Weeks with a Circus, a cornball 1960 film serialized on The Wonderful World of Disney that exemplified a great many of the things I hated about children’s movies. I was 13-years-old at the time, realism was all the rage, and the movies I most wanted to see in 1971 were Klute, Carnal Knowledge, Straw Dogs, The Devils, and Play Misty for Me; certainly not a treacly kiddie musical set in a candy factory.
Those catchy Oompa-Loompa songs are near impossible to dislodge from one's memory
Lucky for me my parents put their foot down; it was either Willy Wonka or stay home. As this post attests, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of the happiest surprises of my youth. It's a children's movie made by people who, like me, had perhaps grown tired of the conventions of the genre. It's funny in a lot of sharp, adult-centric ways (the Wonka-mania vignettes are real gems), its dialog is witty, and its characterizations frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. And while there's a great deal of sweetness and sentimentality to the story, it never feels forced or phony. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory never ever made me cry when I was a kid, but now as an adult, each and every time I watch it, I get an attack of waterworks when Wonka, Charlie, and Grandpa Joe are flying over the city in the Wonkavator.
Nowadays, when children indulging in bad behavior is rewarded with Reality TV contracts or encouraged by viral YouTube videos, I guess a movie like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory really pushes a few nostalgia buttons of my own.


Wonka: But Charlie...don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie: What happened?

BONUS MATERIAL
Fans of Joan Crawford's 1967 circus epic, Berserk will recognize (with some effort) George Claydon as one of Wonka's Oompa Loompas.

Fans of Lost Horizon (1973) will recognize the dubbed singing of voice of Liv Ullman in that film (Diana Lee) to belong to Charlie's mother (Diana Sowle) as well.

In 2013 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was turned into a West End musical. (Athough the title suggest little or no connection with the film, the show's score of all original music does include the Newley/Bricusse composition. "Pure Imagination.") Available on iTunes.

There are tons of sites devoted to trivia, production info, and hidden-joke theories surrounding Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. My favorite is the groundswell movement devoted to proving that Charlie's beloved Grandpa Joe is basically a selfish, lazy slob without a conscience. Precipitated by his first character-revealing response when Charlie is asked by his mother where he got the loaf of bread for dinner (suitable for a banquet, I'm sad to say): "What difference does it make where he got it? The point is, he got it!" and further exacerbated by his "magical" ability to get out of bed when there's something fun to do (aka, not work), a persuasive case is made against lovable Grandpa Joe throughout the web. Check out this link: Why Grandpa Joe is a Jerk , then, if convinced; join the "I Hate Grandpa Joe" Facebook page.

Copyright © Ken Anderson