Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mariangela Melato R.I.P.

Italian actress Mariangela Melato died on 11 January 2013 at the age of 71. The cause was cancer.

Mariangela Melato was born in Milan, Italy on 19 September 1941. She studied acting at the Milan Theatre Academy.  She made her film debut in 1970 in Thomas e gli indemoniati. Over the next few years she appeared in such films as Basta guardarla (1970), Per grazia ricevuta (1971), Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore (1972--The Seduction of Mimi in the United States), Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero 'stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza (1973--Love and Anarchy in the United States), and La poliziotta (1974). It was in 1974 that she appeared in what was up to that time her biggest international success, Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto or, as it was called in English, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. While the film would be the centre of some controversy, it also received a good deal of critical acclaim. Miss Melato was singled out for her performance as a spoiled aristocrat. The late Seventies would see her appear in a few Hollywood films, as well as those made in Europe, including such films as Di che segno sei? (1975), Faccia di spia (1975), Todo modo (1976), Il gatto (1976), Casotto (1977), Oggetti smarriti (1980), and Flash Gordon (1980). She also appeared in the American mini-series Moses the Lawgiver.

In the Eighties she appeared in such films as So Fine (1981), Bello mio, bellezza mia (1982), Il petomane (1983), Figlio mio, infinitamente caro (1985), Notte d'estate con profilo greco, occhi a mandorla e odore di basilico (1986), and Mortacci (1989). She also appeared in such TV series and mini-series as Al paradise, Lulu, and Piazza Navona.  From the Nineties into the Naughts she appeared in such films as La fine è nota (1993), Panni sporchi (1999), Un uomo perbene (1999), L'amore ritorna (2004), and Vieni via con me (2005). She also appeared on the TV programme L'avvocato delle donne.

Miss Melato was an extremely talented actress with an incredible range. Indeed, she played extremely different roles in some of her best known films. In Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore she played the wife who takes revenge on her cheating husband. In Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero: stamattina alle 10, in via dei Fiori, nella nota casa di tolleranza she played the prostitute Salome, who is involved in an assassination plot. In Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto she played a haughty aristocrat who is outspoken in her disdain of the political left. The three roles could not be more different, and yet they were all convincingly played by Mariangela Melato. She was definitely one of the most talented actresses of Europe in the late Twentieth Century.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Perry Mason: The Case of the Disappearing Defence Attorney

 It is quite possible that Perry Mason is the most famous, fictional lawyer of all time. Created by Erle Stanley Gardner, the character first appeared in the 1933 novel The Case of the Velvet Claws. He proved popular enough to appear in over 80 novels. Hollywood was unsuccessful in bringing the crime solving lawyer to the big screen, with only six movies made from 1934 to 1937, but a radio show based on the novels, Perry Mason, ran from 1943 to 1955 on CBS Radio.

 Despite the success of the novels and the radio show, however, the most famous incarnation of Perry Mason may have been on the television show that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966. On television Perry Mason proved to be a smash hit, ranking in the top thirty shows for six of its nine years. Reruns of the show proved very successful in syndication, and it is still rerun to this day. In 1985 the show was revived in a series of TV movies that continued until Raymond Burr died in 1993. To this day when many people think of the character of Perry Mason, they think of actor Raymond Burr.

Given how much Raymond Burr was identified with the role of Perry Mason and how much the character of Perry Mason is identified with Raymond Burr, it might surprise many to know that in the show's sixth season its producers did the unthinkable. They produced episodes of Perry Mason without Perry Mason. Quite simply, there are four episodes in the sixth season in which Raymond Burr appears as Perry Mason for only a few minutes. In Perry Mason's place the cases are tried by other lawyers, each played by a well known guest star: Bette Davis, Michael Rennie, Hugh O'Brian, and Walter Pidgeon.

The reason for Raymond Burr's absence was related to his health. In an Associated Press article from 2 November 1962, television-radio writer Cynthia Lowry reported that Raymond Burr was going to hospital in December for "minor corrective surgery." She also reported that big name guest stars (including Bette Davis) would take his place. An Associated Press article from 11 February 1963 by Bob Thomas sheds a bit more light on the situation. In the article it is reported that Raymond Burr was returning to Perry Mason after recuperating from surgery to remove intestinal polyps. While the article reported that the polyps were cancerous, the books Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr by Michael Seth Starr and Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography by Ona L. Hill state that the polyps were benign.

As might be expected, the four episodes without Raymond Burr varied somewhat in quality. By far the best is "The Case of Constant Doyle." While the episode's plot could have been stronger, it is enlivened by the presence of Bette Davis (the "Constant Doyle" of the title), probably the biggest star to ever appear on the show. Constant Doyle is the sort of character that Miss Davis always played well, a wisecracking, whip smart, and somewhat cantankerous woman who still cares about her fellow human beings. The following episodes were not quite as good, even though the guest stars gave good performances. In "The Case of the Libelous Locket" Michael Rennie played Edward Lindley, a law school professor who finds himself defending one of his students. While Mr. Rennie did a great job as Professor Lindley, the case was not particularly interesting.  In "The Case of the Two-Faced Turn-a-bout" Hugh O'Brian gave a solid performance as playboy, entertainment lawyer Bruce Jason. The problem is that the episode could well be one of the most far fetched ever produced for Perry Mason. "The Case of the Surplus Suitor," featuring Walter Pidgeon as attorney Sherman Hatfield is perhaps the best of the four episodes besides "The Case of Constant Doyle." Mr. Pidgeon was very convincing as a defence attorney, and the episode had the best mystery of any of the four without Perry Mason.

Raymond Burr's surgery having taken place on 10 December 1962, he returned to work on Perry Mason in February 1963. Perry Mason was back at work on the episode "The Case of the Golden Oranges," which aired 7 March 1963. The four episodes produced while Raymond Burr recovered from his surgery would not be the last to be produced without him. "The Case of the Bullied Bowler" had Mike Connors (later of Mannix fame) filling in for Raymond Burr as attorney Joe Kelly.  According to Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography by Ona L. Hill, the reason that Mr. Burr did not appear in the episode was that he was out with infected teeth. Raymond Burr would also be absent in the episode "The Case of the Thermal Thief," where his place was taken by Barry Sullivan as lawyer Kenneth W. Kramer.  According to Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography by Ona L. Hill, Raymond Burr was absent from this episode due to illness.

Raymond Burr would miss no more episodes of Perry Mason, and the show ended its run with its ninth season. The final new episode aired on 22 May 1966. Curiously, when the series entered syndication in autumn 1966, the four episodes made while Raymond Burr was recovering from surgery during the sixth season were not made available for syndication. They would not be seen again until TBS bought the rights to air them in the mid-Eighties. They have been seen as part of the syndication run of Perry Mason ever since.

While it might seem odd for the producers of Perry Mason to make episodes that did not feature Raymond Burr as the famous attorney, there would be an attempt to make a series featuring Perry Mason, but without Raymond Burr in the role. The New Perry Mason starred Monte Markham as the crime solving lawyer, and debuted only seven years after the original series had left the air. It lasted only fifteen episodes, deubting on 16 September 1973 and last airing on 20 January 1974. There appear to have been several reasons for the failure of The New Perry Mason. The show was scheduled against two ratings powerhouses, The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC and The F.B.I. on ABC. The New Perry Mason also got poor reviews. In the end, however, one has to wonder if The New Perry Mason bombed simply because Raymond Burr wasn't there to play Perry Mason.

The original Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, would continue to air in syndication decades after The New Perry Mason was forgotten. Indeed, it is still in syndication. In 1985 Raymond Burr returned to his most famous role in a TV movie entitled Perry Mason Returns (although personally I think The Case of Perry Mason's Return would have been a better title). He would appear in 26 more television movies until his death in 1993. All 27 Perry Mason movies continue to air on TV stations and cable channels to this day. The character of Perry Mason may have been created by Erle Stanley Gardner, but it was a role that Raymond Burr made all his own. It then seems surprising that there were episodes of Perry Mason made in which Raymond Burr's presence was minimal at best.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Director David R. Ellis Passes On

Stunt coordinator and film director David R. Ellis died on 7 January 2013 at the age of 60. The cause of death is not yet known, but foul play was not suspected.

David R. Ellis was born in Hollywood, California on 8 September 1952. He made his film debut as an actor in 1975 in The Strongest Man in the World. As an actor he would appear in such films as Boardwalk (1979) , Rocky III (1982), Anna (1987), and The Bounty Hunter (1990). As an actor he guest starred on such shows as Wonder Woman, Flying High, and Paradise. His first stunt work was in Baby Blue Marine in 1976. In the late Seventies he performed stunts for such movies as Smokey and the Bandit (1977), The Game of Death (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Carny (1980).

In the Eighties Mr. Ellis performed stunts for such films as Taps (1981), Sharky's Machine (1981), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Beastmaster (1982), Scarface (1983), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), A Fine Mess (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987), Fatal Attraction (1987), Road House (1989), Warlock (1989), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Days of Thunder (1990), and Misery (1990). It was in the Eighties that he started work as a second unit or assistant director. He served in such capacity on such films in the Eighties as Fatal Attraction (1987) and Warlock (1989), as well as on the TV show Baywatch.

In the Nineties Mr. Ellis did stunts for such films as The Addams Family (1991), Patriot Games (1992), Body of Evidence (1993), Warlock: The Armageddon (1993), The Jungle Book (1994), and Harriet the Spy (1996).  He served as a second unit or assistant director on such films as Thunderheart (1992), Patriot Games (1992), Body of Evidence (1993), Beethoven's 2nd (1993), My Father the Hero (1994), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Jungle Book (1994), Waterworld (1995), The Negotiator (1998), Ride with the Devil (1999), and The Perfect Storm (2000). It was in the Nineties that he made his directorial debut, with the film Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco (1996)

From the Naughts into the Teens  Mr. Ellis directed such films as Cellular (2004), Snakes on a Plane (2006), Asylum (2008), The Final Destination (2009), and Shark Night 3D (2011). He served as an assistant director or second unit director on such films as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001),The Matrix Reloaded (2003), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) and Cop Out (2010).

There can be little doubt that David R. Ellis was one of the best stunt coordinators in the business. After all, his resume was filled with action films such as Scarface and Lethal Weapon. He was also a very good second unit director, responsible for directing action scenes in such films as The Matrix Reloaded, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. As a director it can be said that he showed promise. While Snakes on a Plane has received its share of abuse over the years, I personally thought it was a very good film. Indeed, it was one of the best parodies of Seventies disaster films in years, not to mention a very good example of intentional camp. As a stunt coordinator and a second unit director Mr. Ellis definitely possessed talent, and I suspect he could have become a very good director with a few more films under his belt.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

TV Director Don Medford R.I.P.

Television director Don Medford died on 12 December 2012 at the age of 95.

Don Medford was born on 26 November 1917 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. In 1946 he moved to New York to work in live television. In the Fifties he directed episodes of such shows as Tales of Tomorrow, Campbell Playhouse, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Studio 57, Climax, Kraft Theatre, Suspicion, General Electric Theatre, M Squad, Zane Grey Theatre, The Detectives, and The Rifleman.

In the Sixties he directed episodes of such shows as The Untouchables, Bus Stop, The U.S. Steel Hour, The Twilight Zone, The Dick Powell Theatre, The Lieutenant, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, The F.B.I., and The Invaders. The episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. he directed was the pilot, "The Vulcan Affair." Among the episodes of The Fugitive that he directed was the two part finale, "The Judgement," which was for a time held the record for the largest audience of a television programme. The record would stand until it was broken by the 21 November 1980 episode of Dallas (on which it was revealed who shot J. R. Ewing).

In the Seventies he directed episodes of such shows as Cannon, The F.B.I., Police Story, and Baretta. He directed the feature films The Hunting Party (1971) and The Organisation (1971). In the Eighties he directed episodes of such shows as Trauma Centre, The Fall Guy, Hell Town, Dynasty, The Colbys, and True Blue.

Don Medford was one of the most skilled directors in television. Indeed, both the pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  and the two part finale of The Fugitive are two of the best directed episodes of any television programme. Indeed, he was particularly skilled at shooting day for night, a talent he used often in the early days of his career. In a medium where direction is often little more than "point and shoot," Mr. Medford was one of those directors whose talent truly stood out.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Loretta Young's 100th Birthday

Of the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, very few could boast as long a career as Loretta Young had. She first appeared on screen in 1917 at age three in an uncredited role in The Primrose Ring. Her last appearance was in the television movie Lady in the Corner in 1989. While she was not acting that entire time (she cam out of retirement for Lady in the Corner), Loretta Young spent many more years in front of cameras than some of her contemporaries, acting regularly from the Twenties into the Sixties. It was 100 years ago today, on 6 January 1913, that Loretta Young was born.

Loretta Young remains one of the best known stars of the Golden Age, largely because she not only had a highly successful career in film, but also a successful career in television. Indeed, it can be argued that Miss Young's career spanned three media, if one considers silent film a different medium from talkies. Loretta Young was born Gretchen Young in Salt Lake City, Utah on 6 January 1913. Her family moved to California when she was only three years old, and it was not long before she and her sisters Polly Ann Young and Elizabeth Jane Young (who used the stage name Sally Blane) became child actresses. Of the three young sisters, Gretchen (who would first be billed as "Loretta" in 1928) would prove to be by far the most successful. As a young child Miss Young appeared in bit parts in such films as Sirens of the Sea (1917) and The Sheik (1921). She would take a break from acting for her education, but when she returned to acting it was not long before her star was on the rise. Appearing in small parts in Naughty But Nice (1927) and The Whip Woman (1927), she found herself playing opposite Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) at the tender age of 15.  She was named one of WAMPAS Baby Stars (WAMPAS being short for the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) the following year.

It would be in talkies that Loretta Young would become one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. Not only beautiful, but also elegant, Miss Young would develop a screen image of the wholesome, ladylike, yet glamorous woman who more often than not played devoted wives and even nuns. This was not always the case, however, as early in her career Miss Young played roles that were very different from those she was play later in her career. A perfect example of this is Born to Be Bad (1934), one of the very last Pre-Code films (indeed, it was released only six weeks before the MPAA began a much stricter enforcement of the Production Code). In the film Loretta Young plays an unwed mother whose job was essentially pleasing male buyers for a department store, often receiving money and clothes in return. In fact, it was a role originally written for Jean Harlow. It could well have been the most lurid role Miss Young ever played.

Here it was must pointed out that Born to Be Bad was not an isolated case, as in her early career Loretta Young played several roles that may well have shocked fans familiar with her later career. In Midnight Mary (1933) she played an orphan who took up a life of crime (indeed, the movie begins with her on trial for murder). In Man's Castle (1933) Loretta Young played a character closer to those later in her career (Trina is sweet, innocent, and naive), although the character is not only homeless, but eventually winds up pregnant out of wedlock. In Devil to Pay (1930) Miss Young, perhaps better known for more serious characters, played a madcap heiress.

While later in her career Loretta Young would find herself cast in primarily wholesome, elegant, ladylike roles, even then she played parts that departed from that image to a degree. In The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Miss Young played the deaf love interest and later wife of Alexander Graham Bell, Mabel. In Ladies Courageous (1944) she played Roberta Harper, who is in charge of the WAFs (the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, who ferried planes across the United States). In The Stranger (1946) Loretta Young played a woman who did not realise that her husband was a Nazi war criminal.

While many might be tempted to underestimate Loretta Young's acting talent because later in her career she primarily played wholesome, ladylike characters, her early career and various parts later in her career proved she was capable of playing different sorts of characters and doing so very well. Even had she not played a wide variety of roles early in her career, it must be pointed out that Loretta Young played the elegant, wholesome roles for which she was best known very well, making each character different from the others. Indeed, this can be seen in her what today may be her two best known movies. In The Bishop's Wife Loretta Young played Julia, the intelligent, sophisticated, and fashionable wife of Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven). Although as as elegant and as ladylike as any of Miss Young's later characters, she endowed Julia with both a sense of fun and a sense of romance--indeed, Julia even exudes a certain amount of sex appeal, wholesome though it may be. In The Farmer's Daughter Loretta Young played a character who was in some ways quite different from Julia in The Bishop's Wife. She played Katie Holstrom, a Swedish American fresh from the farm who finds herself working as a maid for a United States Congressman. Although sweet and intelligent in the same way that Julia in The Bishop's Wife was, Katie was also not nearly as educated and a little bit naive. Although similar, then, Loretta Young's two best known roles were also quite different, and she gave great performances both times.

Loretta Young's film career reached its peak in the Forties, when she made such films as A Night to Remember (1942), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), and The Bishop's Wife (1947). In fact, the height of her career may well have been from 1947 to 1949, when what may well be her best known films were released (The Farmer's Daughter, The Bishop's Wife, and Come to the Stable). Unfortunately, the string of hit films Miss Young made in the late Forties would come to an end. Whereas the movies she had made for much of the Forties were particularly strong, the movies she made in the early Fifties would be somewhat weak. Films such as Half Angel (1951) and her last feature film, It Happens Every Thursday (1953), did not match the quality of her work in the Forties, something that was reflected in their box office takes as well.

With her film career in decline, Loretta Young made the move to television. Letter to Loretta debuted in 1953. The series was a dramatic anthology. In its original format Miss Young would read a letter from a fan in which the answer would be the teleplay. This format would be dropped early in the series' run and it would be renamed The Loretta Young Show. Although it did not possess the prestige of such anthology series as Studio One and Playhouse 90, it was very well respected. Over the years it was nominated for several Emmys and won Emmys for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series (Miss Young herself) and Best Cinematography for Television. Loretta Young not only hosted the show, but starred in many of the teleplays as well. The show would have a fairly good syndication run, although the introductions were omitted (Miss Young was concerned about the dated fashions and hairstyles she wore in them). More recently the show has appeared on such channels as ME-TV, with the introductions intact.

Following the end of The Loretta Young Show in 1961, Loretta Young returned to television in The New Loretta Young Show. The New Loretta Young Show was a comedy with dramatic touches centred around Christine Massey (played by Loretta Young), the widowed mother of seven children who was also a freelance writer. Despite following the hit Andy Griffith Show, The New Loretta Young Show did not prove successful and ran for only one season. After The New Loretta Young Show, Miss Young went into retirement. She came out of retirement for two television movies, Christmas Dove (later renamed Christmas Eve) in 1986 and Lady in the Corner in 1989. In 1994 she was one of the narrators of "Life Along the Mississippi," a segment of the American Traditions series. Loretta Young died 12 August 2000 from ovarian cancer.

One hundred years after her birth Loretta Young remains one of the best known stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I suspect this is not because she starred in a number of hit movies that remain popular today or even because she starred in a popular television show that ran for several years I don't even think it was because Loretta Young was an incredibly beautiful woman whose beauty apparently never faded. Instead I think it was because she was actually quite a good actress, although the fact is not often acknowledged these days. Early in her career she played a number of roles that would actually shock those familiar with her later career. Even during her later career she played roles that were often different from her typical, wholesome and ladylike roles, and there was even a bit of variety in the elegant wholesome roles for which she was known. Quite simply, Loretta Young was a good actress who could add depth to nearly any character she played and do so convincingly. I rather suspect, then, that it is because of her talent and not necessarily her great beauty or her many hit movies that she remains remembered today.