Saturday, September 23, 2023

Local Hero (1983)

(This post is a part of the 10th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon Hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

This past February 17th marked 40 years since the release of a remarkable film, Local Hero (1983) directed by Bill Forsyth.  Bill Forsyth had already received attention for his movies That Sinking Feeling (1979) and Gregory's Girl (1981). While I would not see That Sinking Feeling until later, I had already seen Gregory's Girl when Local Hero came out. When I finally got to see Local Hero on VHS, I was not disappointed. It remains one of my all-time favourite movies to this day.

Local Hero centres on "Mac" MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), a young executive at Knox Oil and Gas in Houston, Texas. Because his name sounds "Scottish," Mac finds himself set to the Highlands of Scotland by the head of Knox Oil and Gas, the eccentric Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), to acquire the tiny village of Furness to open a refinery there. Once there, Mac learns that the plan is to entirely replace Furness with the refinery. While Mac grows to love Furness and have doubts about the clearing the village to make way for a refinery, the villagers are more than eager to sell out to Knox Oil and Gas. As it turns out, there is one holdout: elderly beachcomber Ben Knox (Fulton MacKay). Ben owns the entirety of the beach by way of  a grant from the Lord of the Isles to one of his ancestors. Without the beach, there can be no refinery, and Ben absolutely refuses to sell.

Local Hero emerged from producer David Puttnam and director Bill Forsyth. The two men had met in London in the late Seventies. At the time Bill Forsyth gave David Putnam the script to Gregory's Girl in hopes that he would produce it, but Mr. Puttnam turned it down, thinking it was too similar to That Sinking Feeling. After seeing Gregory's Girl, David Puttnam admitted to regretting not accepting the movie. The two would meet again, quite by chance, in a tobacconist shop in Soho. At the time Bill Forsyth was busy editing Gregory's Girl, while David Puttnam was finishing up Chariots of Fire (1981). It was only a matter of days before David Puttnam asked Bill Forsyth to attend a screening of the classic Whisky Galore! (1949). The Ealing Studios movie is set on the tiny, fictional Scottish island of Todday in the Outer Hebries where the supply of whisky runs out during World War II.

David Puttnam had good reason for wanting Bill Forsyth to see Whisky Galore!. The producer had been researching the Scottish oil industry, in particular the oil boom in Shetland in the early Seventies. What struck David Puttnam is that the Shetlanders actually welcomed the oil companies, in hopes that the large amount of money generated by oil would in turn help them. David Puttnam then talked Bill Forsyth into developing the idea for what would become Local Hero.

In the book Local Hero: The Making of the Film by Allan Hunter and Mark Astaire, Bill Forsyth said of Local Hero, "I saw it along the lines of a Scottish Beverly Hillbillies--what would happen to a small community when it suddenly became immensely rich--that was the germ of the idea and the story built itself from there. It seemed to contain a similar theme to Brigadoon (1954), which also involved some Americans coming over to Scotland, becoming part of a small community, being changed by the experience and affecting the place in their own way. I feel close in spirit to the Powell and Pressburger feeling the idea of trying to present a cosmic viewpoint to people, but through the most ordinary things. And because this film and I Know Where I Am Going (1945) are set in Scotland, I've felt from the beginning that we're walking the same...treading the same water."

Initially Local Hero centred on the character of the local hotel owner, who would tackle the American oil company and its representative (Mac in the movie). Over time the story began to focus more on Mac, the American oil company representative who initially finds himself out of place in Furness. Although today, it might seem difficult for fans of Local Hero to see anyone as Mac but Peter Reigert. Bill Forsyth had also considered Michael Douglas and Henry Winkler. From the beginning Burt Lancaster was considered for the role of eccentric billionaire Felix Happer, although casting him presented some problems. Burt Lancaster wanted a $2 million salary. That would have been a third of the movie's entire budget. Fortunately, Warner Bros. made producer David Puttnam an American distribution deal once they knew Burt Lancaster was to be in the movie and as a result provided the money to pay for the Hollywood legend.

As might be expected, aside from Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, the majority of the cast of Local Hero was comprised of British actors. Fulton MacKay, who played beachcomber Ben Knox, had a career on stage and on screen going back to the late Forties. Many might remember him best for his appearances on such classic television shows as The Saint and The Avengers. Denis Lawson, who played hotel owner and accountant Gordon Urquhart, played Wedge Antilles in both Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). On television he'd appeared in episodes of Dr. Finlay's Casebook and Bergerac. For Peter Capaldi, who played local Knox Oil and Gas representative Danny Oldsen (and hence Mac's guide to Furness), Local Hero was only his second film. Of course, he has since become known as Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It and the Twelfth Doctor on Doctor Who.

Of course, among the stars of Local Hero must be counted the Scottish landscape. The movie required a small Scottish village with an extensive beach. As a result, production designer Roger Murray-Leach scouted the Scottish coast for just such a village. Ultimately a small fishing village called Pennan, located in Aberdeenshire, was chosen. Unfortunately, while Pennan's only street did overlook the sea, it was not particularly close to the beach. For the beach in Local Hero, Camusdarach Beach, just south of the estuary of River Morar and between the village of Arisaig, in Lochaber, Inverness-shire and the village of Morar, Inverness-shire, was used.

Unfortunately, once completed Local Hero would run afoul of test screenings, as many a movie has. While the test screenings were positive, they were not overwhelmingly so. It as after the last test screening that Warner Bros. executives sat down with Bill Forsyth and even offered to pay the bill to shoot a new ending in which Mac doesn't leave Scotland. This did not sit well with Bill Forsyth, who hardly wanted to go back to Scotland simply to shoot a new scene. In the end, Warner Bros. would not get the ending they wanted, although it is hard to argue Local Hero does not have a happy ending.

Local Hero premiered on February 17 1983 in New York City. It opened in the Untied States on February 18 1983, which also happened to be Presidents Day weekend that year. That weekend it made $23,567 that weekend, which was actually quite respectable given it was competing against movies like Gandhi and Tootsie. For the most part Local Hero got good reviews. Janet Maslin in The New York Tiems wrote, "Genuine fairy tales are rare; so is film-making that is thoroughly original in an unobtrusive way. Bill Forsyth's quirky disarming Local Hero is both." Roger Ebert loved the film, writing, "Here is a small film to treasure, a loving, funny, understated portrait of a small Scottish town and its encounter with a giant oil company." In The Village Voice Andrew Sarris described the movie as "...a joyously grown-up, warm-hearted, and clear-head meditation on the vagaries of contemporary existence."

Local Hero did respectably well at the box office. It earned $5.895, 761 in the United States and £487,437 in the United Kingdom. While that might not sound like a lot, given its budget was only around $3 million, it did make a small profit. Of course, it would also be shown on premium cable channels and it would be released on VHS and still later on DVD. Like Gregory's Girl before it, it would become a cult film.

Indeed, Local Hero has left behind a legacy few movies do. There is a minor planet, 7345 Happer, named for Felix Happer from the film, who was absolutely  obsessed with astronomy. I have always suspected that the hit American television series Northern Exposure, in which a New York City doctor must adjust to life in a small Alaskan town, and possibly the cult series Everwood, in which a big city brain surgeon moves to the small town of Everwood, both drew inspiration from Local Hero. The movie also inspired a 2019 musical, Local Hero, which premiered at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.

As I said earlier, Local Hero remains one of my favourite movies of all time. Indeed, I think it says a lot about how many people do not realize how good they really have it. The villagers of Furness, tired of their hard lives, are anxious to simply sell the village to Knox Oil and Gas. It is an outsider. Mac, who realizes just how special and how magical Furness really is. What is more, Local Hero moves at a deliberate pace. We are given time to get to know the characters. And while it does move quite leisurely, Local Hero is never slow. It really doesn't have a plot, so much as things simply happen as they would in real life. Indeed, there are a number of coincidences in the movie that appear to have been created with intent. There are also some unanswered questions. Is Marina (Jenny Seagrove), the Knox Oil and Gas oceanographer who is so much at home in the sea, actually a selkie? Who is the child always wheeled around Furness by a group of men?

If I have only one criticism of Local Hero it is that the movie is largely dominated by men. Of the major characters, only two of them are women, and it seems likely that Marina is not even human (yes, I honestly think she is a selkie). Jennifer Black, as Stella Urquhart is the only woman in the village with an important role in the film.

Regardless, I do love Local Hero. In many respects, I think Janet Maslin in her New York Times review is very much correct--Local Hero is indeed a fairy tale. It does not surprise me that I am not alone in my love for Local Hero. It is very much a cult film that remains popular to this day.

Friday, September 22, 2023

The 10th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon is Here

The 10th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon is here! The Rule, Britannia Blogathon is meant to celebrate classic, British films. While many think of Hollywood when they think of movies, the fact is that many classic films originated in the United Kingdom. From the Gainsborough melodramas to the Ealing comedies to the Hammer Horrors, the United Kingdom has made many contributions to classic film. The Rule, Britannia Blogathon will run from Friday, September 22 2023 through Sunday, September 24 2023.

Without further ado, here are this year's entries:

By Rich Watson: "The Macabre Fairy Tale Behind the Movie The Red Shoes"

Realweedgiemidget Reviews "FILMS...Melody/SWALK (1971)"

Paula's Cinema Club: "Rule, Britannia: My Favorite Midsummer Murders' Film Actors"

Films From Beyond the Time Barrier: "Science Has Its Risks: Island of Terror" 

The Stop Button: A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Perssburger)

Liberal England: "Tunes of Glory (1960): What happens when a victorious regiment comes home?" 

Shadows and Satin: "Grab Your Umbrella: It Always Rains on Sunday (1947): The Rule, Britannia Blogathon"  

Make Mine Film Noir: "The Third Man" 

Moon in Gemini: "The Day of the Triffids" (1962) 

Whimsically Classic: "The Rule, Britannia Blogathon--Brief Encounter (1945)  

The Midnight Drive-In:
"League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" 

A Shroud of Thoughts: "Local Hero (1983)" 

Silver Screenings: "The Fine Art of Gaslighting" 

Taking Up Room: "Where's Miss Froy?" 

The Wonderful World of Cinema: "Groovy Michael Caine Travels to Turin: The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1968)"  

"Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies – Volume 145: 2001: A Space Odyssey"  

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Estelita Rodriguez: "The Cuban Fireball"

Today Estelita Rodriguez may be best remembered her for supporting roles in Republic Pictures B-Westerns with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as well as her appearance in the classic Western Rio Bravo (1959). Even so, there was a time that Estelita Rodriguez appeared to be poised for stardom. While at Republic Pictures she starred in short series of musical comedies in which Republic attempted to duplicate the success of Mexican superstar Lupe Vélez. Indeed, many of Estelita's film comedies, starting with  Cuban Fireball (1951), were co-written by Charles E. Roberts, the screenwriter behind the Mexican Spitfire films, starring Lupe Vélez, at RKO.

Estelita Rodriguez was born on July 2 1928 in Guanajay, Cuba. She began singing and dancing when she was still very young, around nine years old. By 1940 she was performing with Tito Puente and the Anselmo Sacasas orchestra at the Chicago Colony Club. She was only 14 years old when she performed at the Copacabana in New York City. The young singer and dancer proved successful enough to be signed to a contract with MGM when she was only 15. She attended school at MGM in anticipation of making movies, but ultimately she did not make even one film at the studio. MGM abruptly dropped her and Estelita Rodriguez returned to New York City.

At some point, Estelita Rodriguez married Mexican singer Chu-Chu Martinez. Their daughter Nina was born in 1946. Even while married to Chu-Chu Rodriguez, she returned to acting. She signed with Republic Pictures and made her film debut in the Roy Rogers movie Along the Navajo Trail in 1945. For the next few years Estelita appeared in B Westerns at Republic Pictures. She was a regular in Roy Rogers movies, and also appeared in the Wild Bill Elliott film Old Los Angeles. During this period she still performed at night clubs, performing at the Havana-Mardid in New York City in March 1949.

Estelita Rodriguez received her first starring role with the comedy Belle of Old Mexico in 1950. The plot involved a World War II veteran who had promised one of his dying comrades during the war to go to Mexico and adopt his daughter. Believing the daughter to be a little girl, he finds out that she is a grown woman and a beautiful one at that. Of course, no one believes their relationship is platonic. Only twenty when she made Belle of Old Mexico, Estelita complained, "Everyone treats me like a kid. I am a mother."

Belle of Old Mexico
proved to be a hit at the box office, convincing Republic executives that Estelita Rodriguez could be turned into a star. Gossip columnist Erskine John wrote in his column in 1950 that "Estelita Rodriguez will get the Lupe Vélez treatment at Republic." He also noted that she was balking at doing an outright imitation of Miss Vélez. Republic Pictures' follow-up to Belle of Old Mexico showed how much Republic wanted to replicate the success of Lupe Vélez's films. As mentioned above, it was co-written by Charles E. Roberts, who had written all of the Mexican Spitfire films. The first film he co-wrote, Cuban Fireball (1951), could have easily been written for Lupe Vélez years earlier. Estelita Rodriguez played an employee at a cigar factory (named simply "Estelita") in Havana who discovers a long lost relative has left her $200,000. She then travels to Los Angles to collect her inheritance.

Cuban Fireball was followed by Havana Rose (1951), in which Estelita played Estelita DeMarco, the troublesome daughter of the ambassador from Lower Salamia. The Fabulous Senorita (1952) saw Estelita Rodriguez playing a character named, well, Estelita Rodriguez. In the film she plays the daughter of a Cuban businessman who tries helping her sister Manuela marry the man she wants. The film is notable for being one of the earliest starring roles for Rita Moreno, who played Estelita's sister. The final of the Republic Pictures comedies in which Estelita starred was Tropical Heat Wave (1952). Once more Estelita Rodriguez plays a character named Estelita, this time a nightclub singer who falls in love with a college professor studying criminal psychology. Republic apparently had so much faith in Estelita Rodriguez that eventually they started billing her simply by her first name, Estelita.

All the while Estelita Rodriguez was starring in musical comedies at Republic Pictures, she continued to appear in B-Westerns at the studio. She appeared in Twilight of the Sierras (1950), Sunset in the West (1950), In Old Amarillo (1951), and Pals of the Golden West (1951) with Roy Rogers, Twilight in the Sierras (1950) with Gene Autry, California Passage (1950) with Forrest Tucker, and South Pacific Trail (1952) with Rex Allen. She also appeared in the crime drama Federal Agent at Large (1950).

Following Tropical Heat Wave, Estelita parted ways with Republic Pictures to become a freelancer. She appeared in the movie Tropic Zone (1953) for Paramount Pictures. She returned to Republic Pictures for Sweethearts on Parade (1953). Estelita would not appear in films for many years following Sweethearts on Parade. She returned to performing at clubs. In September 1953 she performed at the Wolhurst Country Club in Colorado in September 1953. Later that month she performed at the Coconut Grove in Miami, Florida. In December 1953 she performed at the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

According to the book West Side Story: The Jets, The Sharks, and the Making of a Classic, Estelita Rodriguez was considered for the part of Anita in the film version of West Side Story. She was ultimately judged as being "Fine, but too old." She would finally return to the big screen after six years in the classic Rio Bravo (1959). In the film she played Consuela Robante, the temperamental wife of hotel owner Carlos Robante (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez). The part was small, but one could not help but notice Estelita. Over the next few years Estelita would make guest appearances on television. The same year Rio Bravo was released, she guest starred in the One Step Beyond episode "The Inheritance." In 1960 she guest starred on the Father Knows Best episode "Cupid Knows Best," playing the object of the Anderson family gardener's affections. In the next few years she guest stared on Coronado 9, Laredo, and I Spy.

Estelita's final appearance in a feature film was in the B horror movie/Western Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966), in which she had a somewhat sizeable role. The film was released posthumously, in April 1966. According to the book Lupe Vélez: The Life and Career of Hollywood's "Mexican Spitfire" by Michelle Vogel, in early March 1966 Estelita Rodriguez was cast as Lupe Vélez in a biopic about the legendary star and Estelita was enthusiastically preparing for the role. Unfortunately, on March 12 1966, Estelita Rodriguez was found dead at the age of 37 on the kitchen floor of her home near Hollywood and Van Nuys, California.  An autopsy was not performed and the cause of death remains unknown to this day.

Even though Estelita Rodriguez starred in her own feature films, today she is not particularly well-known and very little has been written about her. With regards to her career, Estelita had two things going against her. First, her career largely unfolded in B-movies, from the Westerns she made with Roy Rogers to the musical comedies in which she starred. For that reason, Estelita's movies would not receive the sort of promotion and distribution that a bigger studio than Republic Pictures, such as MGM or Warner Brothers, could provide. Even today many of her films are unavailable. While many of the Westerns she made at Republic Pictures are available on streaming, many of her musical comedies are not even available on DVD.

Second, from the start of her career Estelita Rodriguez was typecast in the stereotypical role of the hot-tempered, highly sexualized Latina. Indeed, this can even be seen in the title of her film Cuban Fireball. In the B-Westerns she made, Estelita generally played fiery Mexican women. An example of this can be found in In Old Amarillo (1951), in which she played Pepita, a fiery cantina singer and the extremely jealous girlfriend of one of the characters. The characters she played in her musical comedies differed primarily from those she played in Westerns only insofar as they were Cuban rather than Mexican. In most of them she played a recent immigrant from Cuba who was a singer or some other sort of entertainer, and who was  always highly sexualized and hot tempered. Cuban Fireball is a prime example of this. The stereotypical roles often required of Estelita may have been made all the worse by the fact that they were already becoming anachronistic. The late Forties and early Fifties saw Hollywood gradually moving towards more realistic portrayals of Latinos, with such movies as Border Incident (1949) and The Ring (1952). The stereotype of the fiery, sexualized Latina persists to some degree to this day, but by the Fifties it was already becoming dated.

While Estelita Rodriguez was stuck playing stereotypes for most of her career, there can be no doubt that she had real talent and could have been a huge star had she been born in a later era. Estelita was pretty, petite, and blessed with a wonderful singing voice. On screen she was vivacious and charismatic, and she also had a gift for comedy. That Estelita could have played much more than the hot tempered Latinas she was forced to play at Republic can be seen in some of her guest appearances on television, where she was allowed to play other sorts of roles. It is impossible to say what might have become of Estelita and her career had she lived, but I can't help but wonder if over time she wouldn't have gotten better roles and achieved more fame than she already had.

Sadly, Estelita's story is similar to that of many other Latina actresses during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Most of them were forced to play stereotypical roles and often their careers tended to be short. Some, like Lupe Vélez and Maria Montez, died young much as Estelita Rodriguez had. Hollywood during the Golden Age tended to be hard on actresses, and tended to be even harder on actresses who were also Latinas. With her looks and talent, I have to suspect Estelita would have been a bigger star if only had she born in a later, more progressive era.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The 50th Anniversary of Jim Croce's Death

Tonight is will have been fifty years since singer/songwriter Jim Croce died in a plane crash. On the night of Thursday, September 20 1973, the plane on which Jim Croce was a passenger crashed into a tree upon take-off from  Natchitoches Regional Airport in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The crash also killed pilot Robert N. Elliott, Mr. Croce's manager and booking agent Kenneth D. Cortese, pianist, guitarist, and Mr. Croce's accompanist Maury Muehleisen, his road manager Dennis Rast, and comedian George Stevens. Jim Croce left behind a legacy of songs that remain popular to this day.

Jim Croce was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia. He wouldn't develop a serious interest in music until he was attending Villanova University, where he was a member of the college singing group, The Villanova Singers. The group performed at various venues around Philadelphia, and even toured Africa, the Middle East, and Yugoslavia.

Jim Croce's debut album, Facets, was released in 1966. The album was self-financed, using $500 Jim and Ingrid Croce had received as a wedding gift from Jim Croce's parents on the condition that the music be used to finance an album. Jim Croce's parents had hoped the album would fail, so that he would give up on music and pursue a more stable career. As it turned out, all 500 copies of Facets sold out.

It was from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies that Jim and Ingrid Croce performed as a duo. It was during this period that Jim Croce began writing his own songs. They proved successful enough to record an album for Capitol Records, Jim & Ingrid Croce. The album contained an early version of the song "Age," which Jim Croce would later re-record for his album I've Got a Name. It was not long afterwards that Jim and Ingrid Croce gave up on the music business. Jim Croce would work a number of jobs, from construction work to truck driving, as well as giving guitar lessons, to pay their bills.

Fortunately, after working various jobs, Jim Croce decided to return to music as a career. It was in 1970 that Jim Croce met  Maury Muehleisen. The two began performing together, with Jim Croce accompanying  Maury Muehleisen. Over time Maury Muehleisen began backing Jim Croce, as Mr. Croce took the lead. It was after they learned that Ingrid Croce was pregnant that Jim Croce sent a tape of their music to a producer he knew in New York City. It was then in 1972 that Jim Croce signed a contract for three albums with ABC Records.

Jim Croce's first album, You Don't Mess Around with Jim, was released in April 1972. It produced two hit singles in 1972, "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" and "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)." A song from the album, "Time in a Bottle," would later prove to be one of Jim Croce's biggest hits. You Don't Mess Around with Jim was followed by Jim Croce's second album with ABC Records, Life and Times. If anything, Life and Times proved even more successful than You Don't Mess Around with Jim. It went to no. 7 on the Billboard album chart. It produced the hit single, "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," which became Mr. Croce's first no. 1 single.

Sadly, Jim Croce's death while on tour occurred the day before the release of his single, "I Got a Name." The single proved to be a hit, reaching the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. The album I Got a Name was released in December 1973, and went to no. 2 on the Billboard album chart. In addition to the title song, it also produced the hits "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" and "Workin' at the Car Wash Blues."

As well as "I Got a Name," "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song," and "Workin' at the Car Wash Blues" performed on the charts, it would be an older song that would prove to be his biggest hit following his death and possibly his best remembered song. As mentioned above, "Time in a Bottle" appeared on his 1972 album You Don't Mess Around with Jim. Even though it had not been released as a single, "Time in a Bottle" received airplay from the beginning. The song was used in the closing credits of the television movie She Lives!, which aired on ABC on September 12 1973. This only increased demand for the song even more. Jim Croce's death gave "Time in a Bottle" even more poignancy than it had before, and as a result it was played even more frequently after he had died. It was then in November 1973 that "Time in a Bottle" was released as a single. The song reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1973.

Since Jim Croce's death, several compilation albums have been released, including material that had not been released before. Three live albums have also been released posthumously. A collection of Jim Croce's live appearances was released on DVD in 2003, Have You Heard: Jim Croce Live.

If Jim Croce remains popular fifty years after his death, it is because of his sheer talent as a singer and a songwriter. Jim Croce was essentially a storyteller, who told his stories through song. This is certainly true of many of his biggest hits. "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" centred around a pool hustler, Big Jim Walker, who gets his comeuppance from a rival pool player, Willie "Slim" McCoy. "Operator (That's Not the Way It Feels)" was a conversation with a telephone operator, of which we only hear the side of the caller, who is a man seeking the phone number of a lost love. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" focuses on the character of the title, a tough guy from the East Side of Chicago who makes the mistake of messing with the wife of a jealous husband. Jim Croce was able to tell stories, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, in the format of a three to format song that would stick with people for a long time.

Of course, another thing that made Jim Croce's songs great, whether they told stories or not, is that he understood the human condition perfectly and could translate that into song. This can particularly be seen in his love songs, such as "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song" and "Time in a Bottle." Jim Croce's songs were made even more touching by the fact that he had a powerful voice, capable of emoting whatever feeling the song called for.

Like many, I have to say that Jim Croce has had an enormous impact on my life. I was not very old when he died, but I remember the day well. I had heard his songs on the radio, and I have to say that I was a fan even then. "Time in a Bottle" remains one of my all time favourite songs, even though since 2018 I cannot listen to it without breaking down crying. I am certainly not alone. Jim Croce still maintains a legion of fans, some of who weren't even born when he died. There can be no doubt that Jim Croce will still have a legion of fans fifty years from now.

Monday, September 18, 2023

The Patty Duke Show Turns 60

Patty Duke as Patty and Cathy Lane
If ever there was a Golden Age for sitcoms with strange premises, it was the 1960s. Among those sitcoms with strange premises was The Patty Duke Show. The Patty Duke Show starred Patty Duke as teenage, identical cousins (yes, you read that right). Patty Lane was a typical, American teenager, exuberant and talkative, who lived in Brooklyn Heights in New York City. Her identical cousin, Cathy Lane came from Scotland to live with the Lanes. As opposed to Patty, Cathy was intelligent, cultured, and reserved. Their identical appearance were explained by the fact that Patty's father Martin (William Schallert) and Cathy's father Kenneth (also played by William Schallert) were identical twins.

Patty Duke had begun her acting career when she was still very young. When she was only eight years old she was signed to talent managers John and Ethel Ross, who had managed her brother. While the Rosses would turn Patty Duke into a star, her time with them was not entirely pleasant. Ultimately, they were both exploitative and abusive. They dictated her whole career. Born Anna Marie Duke, John and Ethel Ross changed her name to "Patty Duke." They plied her with both alcohol and prescription drugs. They even pocketed $1 million of her earnings for themselves. Patty Duke would only see her mother when she came to do the Rosses' laundry.

While John and Ethel Ross's management left much to be desired, Patty Duke had real talent even when she was very young. After appearances in movies and on television, Patty Duke was cast as Helen Keller in the Broadway play The Miracle Worker. She won a Theatre World Award for her role in the play in 1960. The Miracle Worker would be adapted as the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker, for which Patty Duke won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. 

It was even before Patty Duke had won the Oscar that she was signed to Peter Lawford's production company Chrislaw Productions with the intent of starring her in her own series. A deal was made with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), who bought The Patty Duke Show on the basis of Patty Duke's name alone. ABC even scheduled the show on Wednesday night at 8:00 PM Eastern without having a premise for the show in place. To create the show, ABC turned to Sidney Sheldon, who had written or co-written the screenplays for such films as The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), Easter Parade (1948), and Annie Get Your Gun (1950).

When Sidney Sheldon's agent Sam Weisbord contacted him about The Patty Duke Show, his initial response was turn the show down because he did not work in television. Sam Weisbord then asked Sidney Sheldon to have lunch with Patty Duke simply out of courtesy, to which Mr. Sheldon consented. During their lunch Sidney Sheldon and Patty Duke hit it off, and he asked her if she would like to have dinner with him, his wife Jorja, and his daughter that night. That night Sidney Sheldon's wife Jorja was as taken with Patty Duke as he was, and the three of them had a pleasant evening. It was while Sidney Sheldon and his wife were having a conversation that they realized Patty Duke had left the table. They found her in their kitchen doing dishes. It was then that Sidney Sheldon decided he would develop The Patty Duke Show. In her autobiography Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke, Patty Duke (who would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder), theorized that Sidney Sheldon "...felt I was schizoid and that's how he came up with the concept. There was the perky me and the corporate executive me and rarely the twain shall meet." What Patty Duke might not have known at the time is that Sidney Sheldon had also struggled with bipolar disorder for years.

The pilot for The Patty Duke Show was filmed on January 1 1963 at MGM Studios in Culver City. The pilot would differ somewhat from the television series. Rather than being set in Brooklyn Heights, it was set in San Francisco. Mark Miller played Martin Lane. Mark Miller objected to the plan to eventually move filming of The Patty Duke Show from New York City to California, so for the series he was replaced by William Schallert, who had earlier played Mr. Pomfritt on Dobie Gillis. Patty's younger brother Ross was played by Charles Herbert in the pilot. In the series he was replaced by Paul O'Keefe.

The rest of the cast from the pilot would remain on the television series. Jean Byron played Patty's mother Natalie Lane. Like William Schallert, she was a veteran of Dobie Gillis, having played Mrs. Adams and later Dr. Burkhart on that show. Eddie Applegate played Patty's boyfriend Richard Harrison. In addition to the regular cast, throughout its run The Patty Duke Show featured a number of recurring characters. In the first two seasons Kitty Sullivan played Patty's friend and occasional rival Sue Ellen Turner. In the first season John McGiver played Martin's boss at the newspaper. Donald Doyle appeared as Patty's boyfriend Richard's father, Jonathan Harrison, in the show's first two seasons.

Of course, as Patty Duke played both Patty and Cathy, it took visual effects to show the two cousins together. This was accomplished using a split-screen effect, and less often a travelling matte effect. Those times when one of the cousins was not facing the camera, a double for Miss Duke would be used. In the third season an uncredited young actress Rita McLaughlin served as Patty Duke's double. Rita McLaughlin had earlier appeared on Watch Mr. Wizard and was later a regular on the soap operas The Secret Storm and As the World Turns.

Throughout its run The Patty Duke Show featured some well-known guest stars. Some famous stars played themselves in episodes. Peter Lawford, whose company Chrislaw Productions was among those responsible for the  show, played himself in one episode. Both Frankie Avalon and Sammy Davis Jr. played themselves in episodes. Troy Donahue, Margaret Hamilton, and Frank Sinatra Jr. all guest starred on the show. Pop duo Chad & Jeremy guest starred as an undiscovered pop act, Nigel & Patrick.

The Patty Duke Show debuted on September 18 1963. For the most part reviews for the show were modest. Associated Press television and radio writer Cynthia Lowry wrote, "The new Patty Duke Show, also on ABC, may not win that able young actress any new performing awards, but as a comedy about a modern teenager, it may amuse teenagers--and maybe even teenagers' parents." Columnist Harriet Van Horne thought, "The Patty Duke Show is a charming half hour for teenagers (ABC)...," but added, "Trouble with the show is that little Miss Duke plays a dual role. And her alter ego, a visiting cousin from Graustark, should be put on the next boat home." Rick Du Brow, writing for United Press International, was even less impressed with the show. He wrote that Patty Duke " a beautiful young lady, but she will have to be a miracle worker to do anything with this stupid concept and overall inane offering."

While The Patty Duke Show may not have impressed many critics, it did prove to be a success with viewers. In its first season it ranked no. 18 for the year in the Nielsen ratings. This was particularly impressive given its competition on Wednesday night was the hit Western The Virginian on NBC, which ranked no. 17 for the year in the ratings. The Patty Duke Show continued to do well in its second season, ranking no.28 for the year.

The Patty Duke Show was filmed at Chelsea Studios in New York City for its first two seasons. For one thing, Patty Duke already lived in New York City. For another, Patty Duke was only 16 when the show began, which meant she would have fallen under California's Coogan Act which restricts how many hours child actors can work. Patty Duke turned 18 a little less than halfway through the show's second season. While Patty Duke initially opposed the idea, ABC wanted to move filming of the show to Los Angeles for its third season. This meant a change in the show's sets. And even though The Patty Duke Show was still set in Brooklyn Heights, it also meant new exterior shots. The Lane's house now looked as if it was in a Los Angeles suburb instead of a house in Brooklyn Heights.

It was also following her 18th birthday that Patty Duke fired John and Ethel Ross as her managers. John Ross would remain as an associate producer on the show until it ended its run in 1966. Patty Duke has said that none of the other cast and crew were ever aware that the Rosses had abused her.

Ratings for The Patty Duke Show dropped again in its third season, so that it no longer ranked in the top thirty of the Nielsen ratings for the year. The Patty Duke Show still did well enough that it could have been renewed. Unfortunately, a disagreement emerged between ABC and United Artists Television. For the 1966-1967 season ABC wanted every one of its television shows to be shot in colour. United Artists Television, perhaps because of the special effects it took to show Patty and Cathy together, insisted it would be too expensive to shoot the show in colour. The Patty Duke Show then ended its original run.

The Patty Duke Show would go onto success as a syndicated rerun, airing on local stations throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties. It later aired for several years on Nick at Nite. Still later it would air on such outlets as TV Land, This TV, Antenna TV, MeTV, and Circle. Shout! Factory released the entire run of the show on DVD.  It is currently available on streaming on both Pluto and YouTube.

Like many shows in the 1990s, there would be a reunion television movie for The Patty Duke Show. In The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin' In Brooklyn Heights, Patty and Richard married, had a son, and then divorced after 27 years of marriage. Patty currently worked as a drama teacher at Brooklyn Heights High School. Cathy had returned to Scotland, where she married and was later widowed. She had a son as well. Martin had retired, and he and Natalie had moved to Florida. The plot centred around a Lane family reunion and the Lanes trying to save the high school from being demolished to make way for a shopping centre. The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin' In Brooklyn Heights aired on April 27 1999 on CBS. Meant as a pilot for a new series, the new show never emerged.

In 2009 Patty Duke appeared as Patty and Cathy Lane in a public service announcement for the Social Security Administration. In the announcement, Patty sought help from Cathy about accessing her Social Security benefits and son. The oldest Baby Boomers were approaching retirement age at the time, and so it made sense for the Social Security Administration to appeal to them through a show from their youth. In 2010 another PSA for the Social Security Administration was produced. In that PSA, not only did Patty Duke reprise her role as Patty and Cathy, but William Schallert appeared as Martin, Paul O'Keefe appeared as Ross, and Eddie Applegate appeared as Richard. In the PSA, Patty and Richard appeared to be married.

For most of its run The Patty Duke Show was a somewhat predictable sitcom, even given its unusual premise. What made it remarkable was its cast. Patty Duke did very well playing both Patty and Cathy, and it was not difficult telling the identical cousins apart through their speech patterns and body language alone. William Schallert and Jean Byron were impressive as Patty's parents Martin and Natalie. Indeed, William Schallert not only played Martin, but Martins' twin brother Kenneth, and Martin and Kenneth's Uncle Jed as well. While the average episode of The Patty Duke Show may not have held any surprises for viewers, over all the show was quite funny. Today The Patty Duke Show still holds up very well, so that audiences will still be watching it for years to come.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The 60th Anniversary of The Fugitive

It was sixty years ago that the running began. On September 17 1963 the classic show The Fugitive debuted on ABC. The show starred David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, who had been wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder. While he was being shipped to death row, the train carrying him derailed and he managed to escape. Dr. Kimble then went on the run, all the while searching for the one-armed man who had really killed his wife. Pursuing him was Stafford Police Lt. Phillip Gerard, an officer dedicated to the enforcement of the law.

The Fugitive was created by Roy Huggins, who had earlier created such classic shows as Cheyenne, Maverick, and 77 Sunset Strip while at Warner Bros. In 1960 he left Warner Bros. to become vice president in charge of television production at 20th Century Fox. It was while he was still at Warner Bros. that he began thinking about how to adapt a Western such as Cheyenne and Maverick to modern times. Both of those show dealt with heroes (Cheyenne Bodie and various members of the Maverick family) who wandered the Old West. According to Roy Huggins in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to have a hero who behaved like a Western hero--who was totally free, had no permanent residence or commitments, no responsibilities." It was then that he came up with the idea of a hero who is wrongfully convicted of a crime and must then go on the run, wandering the United States much like Cheyenne and the Mavericks.

Much of the inspiration for The Fugitive came from Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, in which the novel's hero Jean Valjean must go on the run. Like Jean Valjean before him, Dr. David Kimble also assumed numerous aliases and help people he met along the way. Producer Quinn Martin would bring The Fugitive even closer to Les Misérables. Roy Huggins had merely wanted to create a show in which, in his words from the aforementioned interview with The Los Angeles Times, the hero "...was in trouble the moment he got up from bed every day." It was Quinn Martin who turned The Fugitive into a show on which a good part of it was centred on a chase, as Lt. Gerard pursued Dr. Kimble. Just as Lt. Gerard pursued Richard Kimble on The Fugitive, so too did police inspector Javert pursue Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.

Over the years it it has often been thought that The Fugitive was based in part on the real-life case of Dr. Sam Sheppard. Dr. Sheppard had been convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death in 1954. Dr. Sheppard not only denied the crime, but claimed that he had chased a "bushy haired man" from the house. Two witnesses also said that had seen a bushy haired man near the Sheppards' house that day. Initially found guilty of the crime, Dr. Sheppard was found not guilty by a jury in a retrial in 1966. A 1997 DNA test as part of a lawsuit brought by his son in an effort to absolve his father of the murder. The DNA test proved Dr. Sheppard had not murdered his wife. While the similarities between the Sam Sheppard case and The Fugitive seem considerable. Roy Huggins also denied that it played in any role in the inspiration for The Fugitive.

While Roy Huggins thought the had a great idea in The Fugitive, he initially had trouble interesting anyone in the concept. He showed it to fellow writer Howard Browne, with whom he had worked on such shows as Cheyenne and Maverick. Much to Roy Huggins's surprise, Howard Browne thought it was a terrible idea for a show. Undeterred, Roy Huggins showed it to his agent. He showed it to his agent, who had nearly the same reaction that Howard Browne had.  After he had taken the position at 20th Century Fox, Peter Levathes, then in charge of 20th CEntury Fox's television division, asked Roy Huggins for any ideas he had for television shows. He told him his idea for The Fugitive. In the biography Roy Huggins: Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and and The Rockford Files by Paul Green, Roy Huggins said, "When I finished he sat in stricken silence, staring at me as if I had just turned rancid before his very eyes."

It was while Roy Huggins was still at 20th Century Fox that he received a call from Burt Nodella, who was the executive in charge of development at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The two had become friends when Roy Huggins was still at Warner Bros., whose shows were aired by the network. Burt Nodella asked Roy Huggins to pitch some idea for TV shows for ABC. He then found himself in a Beverly Hills Hotel suite pitching the idea for The Fugitive to eight ABC executives. The ABC executive sat in silence after Roy Huggins finished his presentation, then let him know that they thought it was a bad idea. Fortunately, Leonard Goldensen, the head of ABC, was also present at the meeting. The various executives turned to him to see what he had to say. Mr. Goldensen loved the idea, stating "You know, Roy, that is the best f***ing idea I have hard for a television series in my life. When do you want to go to work."

At the time Roy Huggins could not produce The Fugitive as he was in graduate school, but he was willing to license the show to ABC and have someone else produce it. ABC had a contract with Quinn Martin, who had produced the network's hit series The Untouchables. As to Roy Huggins, he would receive credit as the show's creator and as a result royalties, and a percentage of the profits, and he would retain the book rights, stage rights, and film rights.

Cast in the role of Dr. Richard Kimble was David Janssen, who had earlier starred on the show Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Barry Morse was cast as Lt. Gerard. He had previously appeared in various film roles and made guest appearance on television, as well as starring on the CBC show Presenting Barry Morse. The One-Armed Man, later identified as Fred Johnson in the show's series finale, was played by Bill Raisch. The One-Armed Man was actually seen very rarely on the show and ultimately only appeared in ten episodes. William Conrad served as the show's narrator, explaining at the start of each episode how Richard Kimble was wrongfully convicted and how he escaped from a derailed train taking him to death row.

Beyond Dr. Kimble, Lt. Gerard and the One-Armed Man, there were only a few recurring characters. Jacqueline Scott appeared as Richard Kimble's sister, Donna Taft, in four episodes. Her husband, Leonard Taft, appeared in three episodes, played by a different actor each time. Lt. Gerard's superior at the Stafford, Indiana Police Department Captain Carpenter (Paul Birch), appeared in 13 episodes. Richard Kimble's late wife, Helen, appeared in flashbacks in three episodes, played by Diane Brewster in all but the episode "Ballad for a Ghost," where she was played by Janis Paige. Lt Gerard's wife, Marie, also appeared in three episodes, played by a different actress each time.

With Richard Kimble never staying put and travelling place to place, The Fugitive quite naturally featured several big name guest stars. In the episode ""Never Stop Running," Claude Akins played kidnapper Ralph Simmons. In "The One That Got Away," Charles Bronson played a police officer. In that same episode, Anne Francis appeared as Felice Greer, the wife of a man who had stolen $250,000 years ago. In "Death is the Door Prize,' Ossie Davis played Johnny Gaines, a retired police officer accused of murder. In "The Homecoming," Gloria Grahame and Shirley Knight played a stepmother and stepdaughter who are fighting. Several actors made multiple appearances on The Fugitive, playing different characters each time. Among them were Richard Anderson, Ed Asner, Ed Begley, Harold Gould, Dabbs Greer, Pat Hingle, Ted Knight, Suzanne Pleshette, Barbara Rush, and yet others.

Despite the many naysayers Roy Huggins encountered in trying to get The Fugitive on the air, it proved to be a hit. In its first season it ranked no. 28 in the Nielsen ratings for the year, extremely high for then struggling ABC. In its second season it did even better, ranking no. 5 for the year. It still ranked a respectable no. 34 for its third season. Ratings for The Fugitive dropped in its fourth season, although no. 50 for the year was still quite good for a show in the 1966-1967 season. The Fugitive also received positive reviews. It won the Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Series in 1966. It as also nominated for five other Emmy Awards.

By the fourth season of The Fugitive, David Jansen had grown weary of the show's demanding shooting schedule and also wanted a movie career. It was then that ABC announced in the winter of 1967 that the fourth season would the last season of The Fugitive. While The Fugitive remains famous for its series finale, the time as series finale was not a foregone conclusion. Many of the executives at ABC thought viewers had no interest in seeing Richard Kimble's story come to an end. Leonard Goldberg, then vice president of programming at ABC, argues that the show's fans were indeed emotionally invested in Richard Kimble's plight. They would want to know how his situation was resolved. Of major concern was how a definitive conclusion to the show might affect its chances in syndication.

Ultimately, producer Quinn Martin agreed with Leonard Goldberg that the show deserved a proper series finale. It was then that the two part episode, "The Judgement" was written by George Eckstein and Michael Zagor. To maximize it ratings, ABC aired "The Judgement" during the last two weeks of August. It was in "The Judgement" that the One-Armed Man is finally apprehended and Lt. Gerard at last realizes that Richard Kimble was innocent all along. While "The Judgement: Part I" did well in the rating, "The Judgement: Part II" did phenomenally well in the Neilsens. It was viewed by 72% of the television viewing audience, an estimated audience of 78 million people. It even broke the record previously held by the first appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Shows. Here it must stressed that The Fugitive was not the first American show to have a series finale. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp had a series finale that took place over the course of several episodes. Both Route 66 and Leave It to Beaver had series finales before The Fugitive.

Concerns that the series finale would have an adverse effect on the show in syndication proved to unwarranted. It had a successful run as a syndicated rerun on local television stations. Later it aired on A&E, TV Land, and Decades. The 1993 movie The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, drew inspiration from the show. In 2000 a remake of the show, also titled The Fugitive, had a short run on CBS. In 2020 there was another new show titled The Fugitive, although when an entirely new character on the run. It ran on the short-lived streaming platform Quibi.

Sixty years after its debut, The Fugitive remains one of the most famous and most successful shows of all time. Much of it had to has to be due to the basic premise of the show, one in which a wrongly convicted man must go on the run to prove his innocent. It is a premise that is automatically filled with suspense. In many ways The Fugitive  was also a very sophisticated show. On any other show Lt. Gerard may have been presented as a base villain. On The Fugitive he was presented as a good man whose duty was simply to enforce the laws. Throughout its various episodes The Fugitive featured complex characters among the many people Richard Kimble helped. The Fugitive was not simply an action-adventure show, nor was it simply a drama. It truly transcended genres. It is perhaps because of this that The Fugitive remains popular to this day.