Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, January 20, 2022


Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan

THE RUNNER STUMBLES    (1979). Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. Based on the play by Milan Stitt.  

In a small town in the 1920's the brash, young, full-of-life Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan of Event Horizon) arrives and meets the somewhat dour Father Rivard (Dick Van Dyke of Bye Bye Birdie) -- who has been banished to the hinterlands because of some of his more controversial views --  the housekeeper Mrs. Shandig (Maureen Stapleton); two grumpy and dyspeptic older nuns; and the children Sister Rita will teach, including mischievous little James (Billy Jayne). Town tongues start to wag when an obvious friendship and closeness develops between the priest and the nun, and even the housekeeper seems a bit scandalized when Sister Rita moves into the rectory with the father after the other nuns develop consumption -- this is against the orders of the Monsignor (Ray Bolger). As romantic feelings between the pair begin to blossom, one knows things will not go well for these star-crossed lovers ... The Runner Stumbles begins with Rivard in jail, arrested for murdering Rita!

Maureen Stapleton and Van Dyke
I admit I had mixed emotions about watching this picture, as I thought it might be overly cute and Catholic in the worst sense of the word. I also questioned the casting of Dick Van Dyke, whose rubbery pickle-faced features hardly qualify him for a career in drama, as a romantic figure no less. But producer-director Kramer also was responsible for the great Judgment at Nuremberg, so I felt it was definitely worth a look. To my surprise I loved the picture, and thought Van Dyke really delivered during his most difficult sequences. Quinlan and Stapleton are also excellent, and Tammy Grimes is quite effective as a friend and parishioner who is devastated by her father's death. 

Kathleen Quinlan and Tammy Grimes
The Runner Stumbles may not be a masterpiece like Judgment at Nuremberg, but it is a lovely, poignant film with well-developed characters -- the incisive screenplay was written by playwright Milan Stitt, whose Broadway play this is based on -- and a sensitive score by Ernest Gold [Unknown World; Exodus), especially the theme that plays over the closing credits (itself derived from a tune, "My Rumble Seat Gal," also composed by Gold). Critics described the film as "old-fashioned" and didn't mean it as a compliment. I think it's old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. The courtroom denouement to the mystery, based on real-life events, packs a wallop, and the closing is remarkably touching. The film doesn't let the Catholic church and its often maddening, hypocritical edicts off the hook, and I imagine devout Catholics might have found this offensive. Too bad. This was the last film for Bolger, who is perfect as the monsignor, and for Kramer.

Verdict: This tragic love story is imperfect, perhaps, but it is also altogether admirable.***1/2.


The Martian Ambassador
MARS ATTACKS! (1996). Director: Tim Burton. 

"The blew up Congress, ha, ha, ha!" -- Grandma.

President Dale (Jack Nicholson of The Fortune) and his military advisers, including hawkish General Decker (Rod Steiger) and General Casey (Paul Winfield), prepare to welcome Martian visitors, not certain if they are friend or foe. When the Martians open fire, initially it is all blamed on a miscommunication, but when the Martian ambassador and his envoys disintegrate all of Congress, it is clear they are up to no good! 

Jack Nicholson as the president
Mars Attacks!
 is based on a bunch of trading cards that were packaged with sheets of bubble gum, so with source material that looney you know you're not going to get anything that serious, especially not from Tim Burton. My opinion on this film has gone from liking it to hating it and back again -- it would be all too easy to tear it apart, as it is monumentally silly, and I'm not certain that the black comedy approach is the best idea when you're dealing with an alien invasion that will leave thousands dead. But I have to say this is not an unmitigated disaster like Burton's Dark Shadows, and good taste was never the filmmaker's strong point. 

In the Kennedy Room: Martin Short and Lisa Marie
There is a lot of funny stuff in the picture, especially the sexy, buxom alien visitor (Lisa Marie of We Are Still Here) who winds up in the White House in the--get this! -- Kennedy Room for a supposed assignation with the press secretary (Martin Short). Most of the actors -- the cast includes everyone from Glenn Close to singer Tom Jones -- play this stuff just the way it was intended, with the cast stand-outs being Nicholson (who plays two roles) and Steiger. The cinematography and FX work are excellent -- including a homage to Ray Harryhausen's flying saucers in Earth vs the Flying Saucers -- and there's an especially exciting sequence when a giant, Martian-controlled robot chases pell mell after Richie (Lukas Haas). It's nice that his elderly grandma (Sylvia Sidney) survives and even becomes a hero of sorts. There are occasional flashes of humanism, but mostly this is just weird fun. 

Verdict: Unless you're in a peculiar mood, you might prefer to watch The War of the Worlds, either version. **3/4. 


. John Baxter. University Press of Kentucky; 2021. 

This is an absorbing study of the life and career of Charles Boyer, a balding and stocky man, married to one woman for many years, who nevertheless became a Great Lover on the screen. Boyer's career in Hollywood began with him doing foreign versions of American productions, and he maneuvered as much as he could to become tied to a Hollywood studio. Eventually Boyer starred and gave wonderful performances in such films as Algiers, A Woman's Vengeance, History is Made at NightGaslight, and many, many others. Boyer wasn't always at the top of his game, as shown in Arch of Triumph, but generally he graced every production he was in. Baxter writes that Boyer outwardly accepted but inwardly resented being given supporting parts as he grew older, but his career was kept alive thanks to these roles and to TV appearances, but no matter how small the role he was always a star (witness The Happy Time, for instance). His final years were troubled by the death of his son, his wife's terminal illness, and his own health problems. Also recommended: Charles Boyer: The Reluctant Lover by Larry Swindell. 

Verdict: Absorbing read on the great star and actor. ***. 


Margaret Rutherford and Robert Morley
(1963). Director: George Pollock.

Jane Marple (Margaret Rutherford) is up to her old tricks of sticking her nose in police business and exasperating Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell). This time the old lady sleuth is out to find out which of four heirs did away with a wealthy old man found dead in his enormous mansion. Suspects include Michael Shane (James Villiers of Some Girls Do), George Crossfield (Robert Urquhart), and Hector Enderby (Robert Morley of Theater of Blood). Much of the story takes place at Enderby's inn and riding academy. 

Rutherford with Flora Robson
Murder at the Gallop
 is the second of four Miss Marple films starring Rutherford. The original novel, entitled After the Funeral or Funerals are Fatal, actually featured Christie's Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot instead of Marple. The murder methods have also been changed to death by horse and engine. Much of the humor of the film is derived from the comical antics of those two old pros, Rutherford and Morley, but the film does not stint on the suspense, making this a near-perfect blend of laughs and mystery. Rutherford is marvelous as this alternate-Marple, and the other performances from those named -- as well as Stringer Davis as Marple's friend and Flora Robson as Miss Milchrest -- are uniformly excellent. 

Verdict: Good show! More well-done fun with Miss M. ***1/4. 


Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy
LAW AND ORDER. NBC TV series   1990 - 2010. 

 Jack McCoy: "I don't think he's going to   confess."

 Adam Schiff: "Why should he confess?  You'll probably arrest somebody else tomorrow."

Now that Law and Order is coming back after a ten year absence, it's time to look back at this highly-successful and entertaining series, all twenty years of it. The first executive D.A. was Ben Stone, well-played by Michael Moriarty, who resigned when a terrified witness was shot dead in front of an police escort. Stone was replaced by Jack McCoy, the character most associated with the show (after perhaps the late Jerry Orbach), also well-played by Sam Waterston (although Waterson's perpetual head-shaking got to be annoying after a while). The first D.A. depicted on the show was grumpy Adam Schiff (Steven Hill). His performance couldn't be called great acting perhaps, but he was amusingly effective. 

You had to take Law and Order with a grain of salt. To create suspense, far too many episodes had the police and prosecutors arresting more than one person -- sometimes as many as three members of the same family -- for the same murder, something that in real life would never happen (or the ADA wouldn't last very long). I think the writers even saw the silliness of this, prompting the exchange between McCoy and Schiff you can see above. When cops were dressed down by their higher-ups, the latter always came off like incredibly nasty and suspicious super-villains instead of real people.

Jesse L. Martin and Leslie Hendrix as the M.E.
Although I like Waterson, I can't say I liked the character he played. Too many times McCoy would prosecute people when some of these wrongful deaths should have been adjudicated in civil court -- but it made for a good, if implausible, storyline. McCoy would want to take down defendants for their arrogance, but he could be just as arrogant. And hypocritical. I literally laughed at loud during one episode (the notorious one in which McCoy tries to invalidate gay marriage so that he can successfully convict a gay defendant -- don't ask) when McCoy complains of one person involved in the case that "he was hitting on his subordinate!" What's hilarious about this is that if you listen carefully to the dialogue in many previous episodes, McCoy had affairs with many of his female "subordinates." Even if these women initiated the affairs, it was incredibly inappropriate behavior. Occasionally someone would refer to McCoy's indiscretions, but he was never really called on the carpet for it. He eventually married one of his subordinates, the marriage didn't work, and he had a daughter that he hadn't spoken to in ten years!

Then there's the case of ADA Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Rohm, who appeared on the show for several seasons). In "Ain't No Love" in which a rap star is murdered, Serena is fired for being too passionate about a case and supposedly acting on emotion instead of evidence. She asks D.A. Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson) if he's firing her because she's a lesbian (which comes out of nowhere). He says "of course not," but when you consider that she had every good reason to think the man on trial was innocent she probably was fired for being gay. McCoy, who sometimes gets so overly passionate about things you think he's demented or will have a stroke, doesn't go to bat for her. 

Over twenty years the show had a huge cast, most of whom gave notable performances. Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe; Jesse L. Martin as Ed Green; S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Van Buren; Linus Roache as ADA Mike Cutter (who told Jack off more than once); Chris Noth as Detective Mike Logan; Leslie Hendrix as the taciturn medical examiner; Angie Harmon as ADA Carmichael; Carey Lowell as ADA Ross. Paul Sorvino and George Dzunda also played detectives in the early seasons and were swell. Dianne Weist only lasted one season as the D.A.; she added nothing to the show.

Some of the best episodes of the series include: 

"Misconception." There are terrific twists in this story of a pregnant woman who is attacked on the street. Season 2.

"Manhood." Cops let a gay colleague down by not responding to his calls for help. Season 3.

"American Dream" features Zeljko Ivanek as a killer who gets a new trial and goes up against Ben as his own lawyer. Season 4.

"Snatched." A wealthy man's son is kidnapped -- or was he? Season 4.

"Censure." A man terrorizing a woman and her child turns out to be a respected judge (David Groh). Season 4.

"Sanctuary." A superb episode with multiple points of view about racism and anti-Semitism as a Jew runs over a black boy and a a black man beats a white man to death. Season 4.

"Corruption." Lennie's old colleague (Kevin Conway) is accused of being on the take, then turns around and accuses Lennie. Season 7. 

"Showtime." The trial of a director who murdered and dismembered his ex-wife. Season 7.

"Burden." A doctor murders a disabled boy, but he may be a serial killer and not a mercy killer." Season 8.

""DNR." A lady judge (Lindsay Crouse) is shot by a man who hired her husband; she wants to die but won't condemn him. Season 10.

"Marathon" A woman is shot in broad daylight, but Lennie Briscoe's allegedly hearing the confession of the killer is called into question. Good character development, especially concerning Briscoe. Season 10. 

"Sundown." A man (George Martin) with Alzheimer's is accused of murdering his wife. Season 10. 

"Identity." An elderly man's identity is stolen as well as his home; murder results. Season 14.

"Red Ball." Jack McCoy is forced to make a deal with a loathsome man in order to save a child's life. Season 16.

"Charity case." When a movie star adopts an African baby more than one murder results. Season 17.

"Captive." Sad (if somewhat contrived) episode in which McCoy actually prosecutes a boy for the murder of a child even though he had been kidnapped and molested. Season 17.

"Misbegotten." Interesting if imperfect, twisty episode about a bombing, the gay gene, and a brother-in-law accused of murder. Season 18.

"Quit Claim" Fascinating look at an illegal real estate scheme, who the real mastermind behind it is, and the manipulations of a mysterious female suspect. Season 18.

"Rumble." Jack charges a group of men who had a fight in a park -- with the resulting deaths of innocents -- as terrorists. Season 19.

"By Perjury." Mike (Linus Roache) matches wits with a lawyer (Dallas Roberts) who is representing relatives of victims of an airliner disaster.

"Anchors Away." A Bernie Madoff-inspired episode involving murders, a Ponzi scheme, and television reporters. Season 19.

"Shotgun." A storeowner (Elliot Gould) shoots men robbing his store but there are serious complications. Season 20.

"Innocence." Mike challenges the Innocence Project when they claim he wrongfully convicted a gay-basher. Season 20.

The last two episodes of the series beautifully illustrate the two main types of stories that appeared on the show. "Love Eternal" is an amusing, strange tale with a tacky woman arrested for murdering her masochistic, comics-collecting husband. The final episode, "Rubber Room," is a tense and suspenseful story of everyone trying to track down a boy planning to bomb a high school, while Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) waits for the results of her MRI regarding her cancer. 

Verdict: Whatever its flaws, this was a compelling and intriguing series "ripped from the headlines." ***1/2. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022


Charles Boyer and Bobby Driscoll
THE HAPPY TIME (1952). Director: Richard Fleischer. Produced by Stanley Kramer.

Three brothers -- (Jacques) Charles Boyer, (Desmond) Louis Jourdan, and (Louis) Kurt Kasznar -- interact in 1920's Ottawa, but the focus in this film is more on Jacques' son, Robert or "Bibi" (Bobby Driscoll). Bibi develops quite a crush on the maid, Mignonette (Linda Christian), although Desmond and Mignonette are attracted to each other. Louis is a wastrel and drunk who is married to a seeming shrew, Felice (Jeanette Nolan), who fears her daughter, Yvonne (Ann Faber), will become an old maid. The brothers' father, Grandpere (Marcel Dalio), just wants to have a good time in what time he has remaining. Then Bibi is accused of lying to the principal, Frye (Jack Raine), and the three brothers, united, decide to have a serious talk with the man.  

Louis Jourdan and Linda Christian
The Happy Time settles most of the characters' problems in predictable fashion, but there is a pleasant time in getting there. The performances are uniformly excellent. Based on a Broadway show, the film's two biggest problems are its trivialism of alcoholism and its treatment of some of the female characters. Louis is clearly a hopeless drunk, but no one ever spares any compassion for his wife, whose shrill personality didn't come out of nowhere; her daughter is never developed at all. Marsha Hunt is fine in her brief screen time as Jacques' wife and Bibi's mother, but she also seems under-developed. Mignonette fares a little better, as does the next-door neighbor girl, Peggy (Marlene Cameron), who has an unrequited crush on Bibi and lies to the principal to get even with him.  

Richard Erdman and Kurt Kasznar
Two scenes stand out in the movie. The first is a farcical and funny bit between Louis and Alfred (Richard Erdman), a tight-assed bank clerk who wants to marry Yvonne and accidentally gets drunk on wine that Louis keeps in a cooler. The second is a very well-played scene between Jacques and Bibi which temporarily becomes a little more sophisticated than the rest of the film. Jacques explains to his son that (sexual) desire has caused so many problems in the world that people -- such as the principal -- have come to see desire itself as being evil, but he assures his son that "nothing is wrong with desire." Linda Christian was married to Tyrone Power for a time. Richard Fleischer later directed Fantastic Voyage and many others. 

Verdict: Overly cute at times, but very well-acted, entertaining, and often charmingly sentimental. ***.


MIKE NICHOLS: A LIFE. Mark Harris. Penguin Press/Random House; 2021. 

In this first-class biography of the actor-director, who worked in the theater even more than he did in films, we learn how Igor Peschkowsky came from Berlin to America in 1939 as an eight-year-old. Nichols entered show business as a kind of intellectual comedian, eventually partnering with Elaine May, then began directing for the stage. He made the switch to films by helming the cinema adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- he followed this with The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and others -- but continued directing for the theater, occasionally "fixing" shows behind the scenes. Nichols could be distinctly neurotic and unpleasant, and never quite made it to the front rank of movie directors, although he became a significant figure in the arts. With many interviews to bolster Nichols' story, biographer Harris explores Nichols' marriages, relationships, and career in compelling fashion. Harris also had access to Nichols and others when Nichols directed the cable adaptation of Angels in America, which was written by Harris' husband. While Harris doesn't necessarily shy away from detailing Nichols faults both as director and human being, others have noted that he does on occasion come off like a "fan-boy." 

Verdict: Even if you're not a major Nichols admirer, this bio has a whole cast of interesting supporting characters as well as the background stories of important filmic and theatrical productions. ***1/2. 


On the set of I Love Lucy
BEING THE RICARDOS (2021 Amazon streaming video). Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. 

While preparing an episode of their show I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman of To Die For) and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem of Skyfall) learn that powerful columnist Walter Winchell is calling Lucy a communist. In addition to that upsetment, Lucille is convinced that Desi is having affairs with other women, even if a photo published in Confidential proves to be several months old. Lucy, a perfectionist, clashes with her director, writers, husband and fellow cast members as to how certain sequences should be handled, while Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) suffers angst over how Ethel is continually seen as unattractive when she is married to her "grandfather," Fred, played by William Frawley (J. K. Simmons of Whiplash). The sole female scriptwriter doesn't want Lucy to be depicted as being stupid, but Ball counters that "Lucy" is clever and almost always gets her way -- true! 

Essentially all of this material, none of which is new to the I Love Lucy fanatic (among which I count myself) has already been covered in the 1991 telefilm Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter. However, Being the Ricardos is still an entertaining, if unnecessary, picture, although if it has people pulling out or buying their complete sets of I love Lucy I'm all for it. Nicole Kidman is better as Lucy than I would have imagined, and while Bardem is not as handsome as Desi was, he is also effective in his portrayal. I wouldn't have necessarily chosen Simmons or Arianda to play Fred and Ethel, but they are also good, especially grumpy Simmons, and the people who play the writers and director are also well-chosen. (Linda Lavin and others play the older versions of these people in mock interviews.) Lucy's children, Lucie and Desi Jr., served as producers. 

Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball
Just as happened with Judy, the recent film about Judy Garland, some viewers won't be satisfied with any actor portrayal of a beloved figure unless the person themselves gets up out of the grave and, impossibly, plays the part. Nicole Kidman has gotten some serious hatred, and she certainly isn't a brilliant comedienne like Lucy, but she doesn't try to be -- she is rarely shown attempting the physical comedy Ball was famous for. But nevertheless she does a very good job approximating Ball. As for the film itself, there is some attempt to flesh out the characters, although the ultimate result is a tad superficial. Apparently Aaron Sorkin is not a fan of I Love Lucy -- while not every episode was a winner, quite a few were classics that are as funny today as when they first aired. 

Verdict: Whether you like this movie or not, get out your box of I Love Lucy and enjoy Ball and the others dealing with operettas, candy factories, William Holden in the Brown Derby, Lucy stomping grapes to soak up local color, selling salad dressing, attending a country club dance, going to charm school, and dozens of other episodes that will bring a great big smile to your face. And these days we sure need one! ***. 


Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson
(1975). Director: Mike Nichols. 

In the 1920's Nicky Wilson (Warren Beatty) wants to marry heiress Freddie Bigard (Stockard Channing) for her money, but his divorce from his wife hasn't come through. He importunes zany buddy Oscar Sullivan (Jack Nicholson) to marry the lady so he won't get in trouble over the Mann Act, which prohibits moving a woman across a state line for "immoral purposes." The three set up housekeeping in a cottage where Nicky pretends to be Oscar's brother. The two men both vie for the charms of Freddie, but then decide they will have a better chance of getting her money if the woman is dead. The two dim-bulbs then hatch a plot ... 

Our "heroes" with Stockard Channing
Old-time screwball comedies, of which The Fortune is an imitation, often featured "heroes," such as Groucho Marx, who were reprobates and scallawags, decided con artists, but Nicky and Oscar are essentially sociopaths who have no hesitation in deciding to off the woman who loves them. Admittedly, Freddie can be shrill and overbearing, and might be considered an unsympathetic victim. A bigger problem is that director Mike Nichols again uses the long take approach, when comedies like these need expert cutting and pacing. A manic three-way fight sequence doesn't work at all. In spite of that, The Fortune is frequently amusing -- thanks to the performances, with Nicholson taking top honors -- and has at least one hilarious scene set on an airplane. While the film is farcical enough not to be offensive, it perhaps needed to be even more farcical. 

I suppose there are those who will argue that underneath the comical tone The Fortune is about cynical human nature, women who can't accept reality when it comes to their men, how relationships are instantly disposable when things go awry, and so on. But I think The Fortune doesn't really have that much on its mind. I shouldn't like the film at all, but I confess I found it quite entertaining. But, yes, it could have been a lot better. Stockard Channing gives it the Old College Try, but for better or worse this is the boys' show. 

Verdict: For once Nicholson is the character he plays instead of himself. ***. 


LITTLE SISTER: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of NATALIE WOOD. Lana Wood (with Lindsay Harrison). HarperCollins; 2021. 

I admit I didn't expect much from this book, but it is so skillfully put together by co-author Lindsay Harrison, so well-paced and constructed, that it actually makes for a very compelling read. Of course the animosity between Natalie Wood's younger sister and her widower, Robert Wagner, is no secret, so one has to take some of this with a grain of salt.  Lana Wood also doesn't seem to realize how people's behavior can be affected by copious amounts of alcohol. Still there's never been any proof that Natalie, say, surprised her husband and shipmate Christopher Walken having sex and took off in a dinghy in distress -- one of the theories -- and indeed the evidence seems to clearly point in another direction. If we are to believe reports and comments made by the two detectives (as filtered through Lana) who were assigned to Natalie Wood's death after the case was finally reopened, the original investigation was severely botched, either by incompetence or a star-struck attitude toward Robert Wagner, still a TV fixture at the time; and pathologist-to-the-stars Thomas Noguchi made serious errors as well. Clearly something bad happened on that ship and Wagner knows a lot more than he's telling. His account of that evening [Pieces of My Heart] simply doesn't match the facts, but so many years have gone by that he can only be considered a "person of interest" and not a "suspect." Well, judge for yourself. 

Lana and Natalie Wood
Little Sister is interesting for other reasons, as it looks at a highly dysfunctional Hollywood family with a rather odious stage mother, one sister who hit the heights of stardom, while the other struggled, dealing with financial issues and her own daughter's addiction and tragic death. There are juicy if disheartening stories, such as how (according to Lana Wood) Kirk Douglas essentially raped Natalie when she was only fifteen. Lana repeats the story of Natalie divorcing Wagner (she later remarried him) because she found him in a "compromising position" with his butler! (One suspects that Lana was the source for this in other bios of Natalie and this may be why Wagner pretty much hates her.) Lana also claims that a powerful agent told her that Wagner had had her blackballed throughout Hollywood -- surely he didn't have such clout!? While nowhere near as successful as her older sister, Lana Wood amassed quite a few credits, including making an impression as Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds are Forever and appearing in other movies such as The Girls on the Beach

Verdict: Worthwhile, well-written, and absorbing memoir. ***.