Reviews: Gidget Goes to Rome (1963)

Gidget_Goes_to_Rome_1963_posterGidget Goes to Rome” isn’t the best of the three Gidget feature films, but it isn’t the worst.

While Sandra Dee is the best actress who plays Gidget, Cindy Carol is a distance second.

In this film, we join Gidget and her friends for a third summer. Gidget (Carol) is about to go off to college and is planning a trip to Rome, Italy with her friends—Lucy (Noreen Corcoran) and Libby (Trudi Ames). She’s trying to convince her boyfriend Moondoggie/Jeff (James Darren) and his buddies—Judge (Joby Baker) and Clay (Peter Brooks)—to come along. But before they can head abroad, Gidget’s parents need some convincing. They will only let Gidget go if she has a chaperon. Judge enlists his rich, eccentric Aunt Albertina (Jessie Royce Landis). Without her knowledge, Gidget’s father (Don Porter) writes to an old friend he met in Italy during World War II, Paolo Cellini (Cesare Danova).

When the group arrives in Italy, Gidget is ready to have a romantic trip with Jeff while they explore the Eternal City. But Jeff abandons her and falls for their pretty tour guide, Daniela (Danielle De Metz). While Gidget is hurt, Paolo enters the picture to stealthily watch after Gidget; saying he wants to write a magazine article about a young American exploring Italy. She develops a crush and leaves her friends to explore the people of Rome with Paolo.

Gidget and Jeff/Moondoggie while they are still in love in Rome.

Gidget and Jeff/Moondoggie while they are still in love in Rome.

If you are looking for a beach film, “Gidget Goes to Rome” isn’t for you. The film starts with an obligatory scene of Gidget on the beach carrying a surf board. That maybe lasts five minutes before launching into an Italian adventure. Shot on location in Rome, the Technicolor scenery is gorgeous, colorful and travelogue-esque.

James Darren is smitten with Daniela the travel guide.

James Darren is smitten with Daniela the travel guide.

Cindy Carol as Gidget is no Sandra Dee, but she is better than most of the actresses that tried their hand at the role. Carol is admittedly syrupy sweet and squealy, but she has more of a Gidget personality than Deborah Walley had in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian.” In the 1959 film, Gidget is painted as a straight-A, intelligent, Tom boy who finally finds her place on the beach. Walley’s Gidget was written as man crazy and impulsive, which wasn’t accurate. But Carol brings back the intelligence of Gidget, as she spouts off facts about Italy and quotes authors.

Gidget even says to her friends, “We are not here for the sole purpose of looking at men,” which seems more along the lines of the 1959 Gidget who wasn’t interested in man-hunts.

The only beach scene in the film.

The only beach scene in the film.

Cindy Carol was cast because Walley was pregnant. The film’s credits say “introducing Cindy Carol” but this was actually one of her last film roles; with her career ending in 1965. Prior to this film she had acted on the “New Loretta Young Show,” “Leave It To Beaver” and a bit part in “Cape Fear (1962).”

James Darren and Joby Baker are the only two actors who appeared in all three of the feature-film. Jessie Royce Landis is my favorite actor in the film whose role had the wittiest lines in the funniest scenes.

When Landis first meets Gidget, she immediately says, “Oh God, you’ll be the sweet one.”

While “Gidget Goes to Rome” ranks second for me in the three Gidget feature films, the plot still bugs me. I hate the kind of plot where a couple goes on a trip together, one of the partners immediately falls in love with new person and then the couple is together again by the end of the film. That irks me to no end.

Gidget and Paolo.

Gidget and Paolo.

Another silly aspect of this film is Gidget’s daydreams. If you remember in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” Gidget has odd daydreams about being a loose woman and then of being a stripper. In “Gidget Goes to Rome,” Gidget imagines that she’s Cleopatra and another daydream as a Christian martyr in the gladiator ring as Daniela, Judge and Jeff watched.

The Sept. 12, 1963, New York Times Bosely Crowther review was brief and neither praised nor criticized “Gidget Goes to Rome.” Crowther noted, Carol played Gidget with “proper pout and correct ingenuousness.”

“As one of Gidget’s friends explains, it’s part of her ‘growing up.’ Gidget falls out of love in time…and all ends happily. Jeff sums up the entire experience in two immortal sentences: ‘I guess everybody falls in love in Rome in the summer time. It’s that old devil Italian moon.’”

“Gidget Goes to Rome” sums the whole experience as “part of growing up.” While the feature film portion of the Gidget series ends with this movie, the television aspect began two year later and continued for 20 years.

To read our reviews of the other two films:

Gidget (1959)

Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961)

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Review: “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961)

gidget-goes-hawaiian-movie-poster-1961-1010681749I almost stopped this movie after watching for 20 minutes.

Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961) is the worst of the Gidget series. Even the 1969 made-for-TV film, “Gidget Grows Up” starring Karen Valentine, is better.

The success of the 1959 “Gidget” film was followed by two feature films, three made-for-TV movies and two television shows.

As previously mentioned, I adore the film “Gidget” (1959) that spawned a beach culture craze. However, the film that followed two years later is abysmal.

In the film, Moondoggie/Jeff Matthews (James Darren) returns from college. He and Gidget spend a carefree summer together, and Moondoggie gives Gidget his fraternity pin. All is bliss until Gidget’s parents (Jeff Donnell, Carl Reiner) surprise her with a trip to Hawaii. Rather than being overjoyed, Gidget is outraged, because she will have to leave Moondoggie, who only has two weeks of summer vacation left. In a tizzy, she runs to tell him the bad news. Rather than being angry with her, Moondoggie is happy that she has the opportunity to go on this trip. Naturally Gidget assumes that this means he doesn’t love her, so she flies off the handle, gives him back his fraternity pin and decides she wants to go to Hawaii.

On the flight to Hawaii, Gidget meets Abby Stewart (Vicki Trickett) who is spoiled and boy crazy. Also on their flight is popular TV dancer Eddie Horner (Michael Callan), who Abby immediately sets her sights on, but Eddie is more interested in Gidget. Once in Hawaii, Gidget mopes around and misses Moondoggie. To cheer her up, Dad invites Moondoggie to Hawaii so the two can patch up their relationship. But when Moondoggie arrives, he finds Gidget with Eddie. Filled with anger, Moondoggie sets out to have a good time with Abby and the two work to make the other jealous. Abby is also jealous of all the male attention Gidget is receiving and starts a rumor that she is a loose woman and sleeps around.

Moondoggie (Darren) catches Eddie (Callan) and Gidget (Walley) together.

Moondoggie (Darren) catches Eddie (Callan) and Gidget (Walley) together.

The whole purpose of the original story of “Gidget” is the fact that she is a petite girl who surfed. There are two surfing scenes in the movie, but surfing is not the focus here. While the 1959 film is a splash of Malibu color, the cinematographer and director did not take advantage of the lush Hawaiian scenery while shooting on location.

The issue with “Gidget Goes Hawiian” boils down to this is the casting of Gidget.

Deborah Walley simply is no Gidget. She is whiney, shrill, squealy and honestly isn’t cute. Of the actresses that played Gidget (Sandra Dee, Cindy Carol, Sally Field, Karen Valentine, Monie Ellis, Kathy Gori, Caryn Richman), Walley is probably the worst.

Walley has a jazzy moment on the dance floor with Michael Callan—the original Riff in the Broadway version of “West Side Story—and later does a solo hula, which comes across as awkward. She later has a bizarre dream sequence where she imagines herself as a streetwalker and fan dancer.

Gidget (Walley) imagines herself as a street walker?

Gidget (Walley) imagines herself as a street walker?

“Frankly, we’ll take Miss Dee’s direct sweetness to Miss Walley’s squealing, calliope innocence any day,” Howard Thompson wrote in his Aug. 10, 1961, New York Times review.

Even the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner, agreed Sandra Dee was the best fit for the character. Gidget went from a cute, tomboy to being just like her boy crazy friends in this film.

Columbia wanted Sandra Dee to reprise her role, but she was under contract at Universal Pictures who would not release her for the film.

Moondoggie (Darren) tries to make Gidget jealous with Abby (Trickett)

Moondoggie (Darren) tries to make Gidget jealous with Abby (Trickett)

Walley apparently didn’t want to be cast in the film, because she considered herself a serious actor who was acting in New York. More than 150 other actresses were considered, according to “Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave” by Thomas Lisanti.

James Darren reprised his role as Moondoggie and is the best reason to watch the film. Jeff Donnell and Carl Reiner are fine as Gidget’s parents, though it is odd to see THE Carl Reiner in a “Gidget” film. The cast is rounded off by Peggy Cass and Eddie Foy, Jr.—another odd casting choice—as Abby’s parents.

This film does something which most sequels are guilty of, which is assuming the audience is stupid. “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” begins with Moondoggie giving Gidget his pin…but Gidget already agreed to wear his pin at the end of the 1959 film.

“James Darren is the steady lad who lands Gidget (as before, if we recall),” the New York Times also notes that we already knew they were going steady.

However, this film doesn’t ignore the fact that the 1959 film exists. As Gidget recounts her romance with Moondoggie to Abby, there are three painful reenactments of the 1959 version with Deborah Walley acting as Sandra Dee’s character, down to her wearing the same red, white and blue striped bathing suit.

L to R: 1959 Gidget in red bathing suit, 1961 Gidget reenactment of the original film, the scene Walley is reenacting.

L to R: 1959 Gidget in red bathing suit, 1961 Gidget reenactment of the original film, the scene Walley is reenacting.

The film also assumes the audience is stupid with Joby Baker’s role of Judge Hamilton, a college student Gidget meets on the plane to Hawaii and one of the many males flanking. In the 1959 film, Baker played one of the surf bums Stinky who sells Gidget her surf board.

Gidget’s moping about Moondoogie is pretty ridiculous as she says things such as, “I can’t swim in Hawaii, it’s the same ocean Jeff and I used to swim in.”

The film gets even more painful to watch once Moondoggie arrives in Hawaii and he and Gidget work to make each other jealous. Gidget hangs all over the guys and also does crazy stunts—such as a dangerous water ski jump—to give a thrill seeking vibe and show Moondogie she no longer cares for him, though this is false. These types of plots are frustrating to me anyways. I’m watching the film for their romance; not their petty arguement.

Though Sandra Dee is a spunkier fit for “Gidget,” I’m not even sure if she could have saved this film with its ridiculous script.

“Gidget Goes Hawaiian” is just one of many films proving that the original will generally be better than the sequel.

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Gidget: Bringing the Surf Culture to Mainstream

When I first started getting interested in classic films, my mom would get excited about movies she wanted to introduce to me. “Gidget” (1959) was one that she could hardly wait to show me.

Views of Sandra Dee in some of my favorite swimsuits and dresses from "Gidget."

Views of Sandra Dee in some of my favorite swimsuits and dresses from “Gidget.”

Sitting there on a Sunday night at age 14, I fell in love with this film. It’s an explosion of color on the gorgeous backdrop of Malibu beach. It features awesome surfing shots and has excellent cast filled with one-liners that are real gems. It’s the perfect fun-in-the-sun Southern California travelogue. To date, it also has one of my favorite film wardrobes.

The movie was pivotal in my film love and got me further entrenched in 1960s pop culture. I read up on famous surfers, researched surfer lingo, listened to the Beach Boys, plastered 1960s surf images around my room and hunted for bathing suits that gave off a 1960s vibe. Of course, I wanted to learn how to surf, which has still never happened since I live four hours away from the beach on the east coast.

“Gidget” is the story of a teenage tomboy, Francie Lawrence (Sandra Dee), who isn’t interested on going on “man-hunts” with her shapely female friends. Up until this summer, her extracurricular activities involved playing the cello and making straight A’s in school. Her dismay with her one-track-minded friends leads to joining a group of male surfers, much to their chagrin. Once they realize she’s interested in surfing and can hold her own in their group, Francie becomes their mascot and is nicknamed “Gidget”- the girl midget. Most of the boys live for surfing and some are “surf bums,” living on the beach all summer with the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) as their leader. Of course, Gidget’s summer doesn’t come without romance, as she is smitten with Moondoggie (James Darren).

"Gidget" film poster featuring Cliff Robertson, Sandra Dee, James Darren.

“Gidget” film poster featuring Cliff Robertson, Sandra Dee, James Darren.

On the surface, this is a teen beach romance. However, the film is also exploring if should Gidget follow the mainstream and chase boys with her friends or if she should do what she loves as one of the few females surfing in Malibu. Gidget’s loving but concerned parents (Arthur O’Connell, Mary LaRoche) support their daughter in her new outdoor activity but are still concerned about the type of people she is hanging around.

While “Gidget” may seem like a piece of fluff, this film was not only influential in the life of an impressionable 14 year old, but also in American culture. The first film started a popular franchise of “Gidget” sequels and television shows. But outside of the sequels, it also spawned a film subgenre of beach party films. These mainly low budget teenage beach films featured attractive teens in bathing suits, surfing, slapstick comedy and performances from popular 1960s musicians.

Every surfing film from “Beach Blanket Bingo” to “The Endless Summer” was a result of “Gidget,” though “Gidget” remains to be one of the better beach films. But it didn’t stop at movies; the popularity of beach music such as Dick Dale, The Ventures or the Beach Boys was also a direct correlation.

However, “Gidget” wasn’t just a story that started a popular franchise and culture. It was all based off a southern California teenager who wanted to write a story about her summer.

Cover of the 1956 by Frederick Kohner- featuring Kathy Kohner- about his daughter's surf adventures.

Cover of the 1956 by Frederick Kohner- featuring Kathy Kohner- about his daughter’s surf adventures.

The film is based off the 1956 book “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” by Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner. Kohner’s 15-year-old daughter, Kathy, started surfing one summer and would share her beach stories with her father. When Kathy wanted to write a story about her adventures as the mascot “Gidget,” Kohner offered to write it for her. It took Kohner six weeks to write the book which involved reading excerpts from her diary, listening in on phone calls (both with her permission) and conversations with his daughter. Kathy shared the nicknames of the surfers and the surfer slang, from “kuks” to “bitchin’” to “shootin’ the curl.” The book became a bestseller and spawned the film.

The real Gidget was fairly amused by the film, writing in her dairy, “Saw Gidget today, it was funny.” Kathy said in “Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave” by Thomas Lisant that she had never heard of Sandra Dee, but when they met she was very sweet. The sweet, innocent Sandra Dee character was a far cry from her experiences at the beach. In the book, Gidget talks about wearing a particular sweater to make her breasts look perky, smoked cigarettes or frequently uses the word “bitchin’” to describe the waves.

Sandra Dee as Gidget with the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner in 1959.

Sandra Dee as Gidget with the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner in 1959.

“It was quite funny seeing Sandra Dee and these other people acting in a movie that some of us lived,” Kathy said in Lisant’s book. “I think Miss Dee did an outstanding, memorable job and captured a moment in time…I am a real person. I’m shorter than Dee and have dark hair. I was a bit tenacious and bit fearless…Certainly I had a different personality but of all the actress that played Gidget, Sandra Dee came the closest in capturing my experiences from surfing to wishing my breasts would grow bigger to my relationship with my parents.”

As the surfing subculture reached mainstream, the once calm Malibu were overcrowded. The number of surfboards in the water seemed dangers to Kathy, according to Lisant. Once the film was released, Kathy was in college at Oregon State, but the real Gidget stopped surfing in 1960. The beaches were over populated with the craze that she unintentionally began.

Photos below from an Oct. 28, 1957, LIFE photo spread on Kathy Kohner and her father: 

Kathy2 Kathy and surfers Kathy and Fredrick Kathy 1957 life Kathy 1956 16 year old kathy

 

What is your favorite beach film? Which Gidget is your favorite? 

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Holy DVD Batman

I may not have been alive when the 1966 “Batman” television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward was originally aired, but it is my favorite adaptation of the caped crusader. Ward was even one of my first celebrity crushes.

Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin int he 1966 "Batman" TV show.

Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin int he 1966 “Batman” TV show.

 

This declaration frequently gets me in trouble. “It’s goofy. Batman isn’t supposed to be funny,” friends will retort. This is probably true. However, when life is too serious, hokey lines mixed with colorful word bubbles of “Bam!” and “Pow” popping up during fights can be balm for the soul.

I was first introduced to the television series when TVLand re-aired the show in 2001. I was 13 and starting to dig deeper into my classic film, television and music obsession that is still running strong today.

My mom remembered watching the show as a child and dressing up as Batman and Robin with her friends. She introduced me to the show, and like most nostalgic things my parents introduced me to, I was hooked.

The parody show ran originally from 1966 through 1968. Airing twice weekly for the first two seasons, each half hour show ended with a cliff hanger of Batman and Robin in peril with the announcer alluding that the “Worst was yet to come” and to be sure to tune in the “Same Bat time, Same Bat channel.”

The lines Batman said were delivered in the most serious manner but meant to be ridiculous and humorous. Robin’s character on the show is characterized by his exclamations of “Holy,” connected to what he and Batman were discussing.

Every night “Batman” aired, I would sit watching with what I called my “Holy List.” . And I tried to write down every single “holy” uttered during the show.

A sampling from my "Holy List'-- where I wrote down every "Holy" Robin said.

A sampling from my “Holy List’– where I wrote down every “Holy” Robin said.

I still have my “Holy List,” and it’s sitting beside me as I write this. Creased with fold marks and with faded pencil writing, my list ended up being nine pages, some front and back. Included on the list are some of the Riddler’s puzzles scrawled in the margins.

A few of my favorite Robin “Holy” quotations:

-Holy purple cannibal

-Holy here-we-go-again

-Holy reverse priority

-Holy missing relatives

-Holy Fourth Amendment

-Holy Rip Van Winkle

-Holy diversionary tactics

-Holy uncanny photographic mental process

-Holy squirrel cage

-Holy one-track-bat-computer-mind

The show was a favorite of some of Hollywood’s top celebrities including Natalie Wood, Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. All three wanted to guest star but were never able to be fit in.

The primary villains on the show were the Riddler, played by Frank Gorshwin; the Joker, played by Cesar Romero; the Penguin, played by Burgess Meredith; and Catwoman, played by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether (in the film).

Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, Frank Gorshwin as the Riddler, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Cesar Romero as The Joker in the 1966 "Batman" film. Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman on the TV show.

Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, Frank Gorshwin as the Riddler, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Cesar Romero as The Joker in the 1966 “Batman” film. Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman on the TV show.

The show included celebrity guest stars who would play villains on the show including Tallulah Bankhead as the Blackwidow, Van Johnson as the Minstrel, Roddy McDowell as Bookworm, or Vincent Price as Egghead. Other times, stars like Jerry Lewis would appear when they were looking out the window as Batman and Robin scaled a wall.

Two other classic Hollywood stars appear on the show as regular. Neil Hamilton plays Commissioner Gordon. Hamilton was in several 1930s films, usually playing a cad who jilted a woman. Alan Napier plays Alfred the butler. Napier was a character actor in the 1930s through the 1970s, appearing in films such as “Lassie” (1943) or “The Uninvited” (1944).

Roddy McDowall guest starred as "The Bookworm."

Roddy McDowall guest starred as “The Bookworm.”

On the show, Batman also had the most impressive gadgets including shark repellent (in the 1966 Batman film) or Bat sleeping gas used to knock out bad guys and take them back to the Bat Cave. However, while fighting crime, Batman always reminded Robin that safety and responsibility had to come first- often telling him to put on his seatbelt in the BatMobile or to do his algebra homework.

For years, I waited for the series to be released on DVD. I happily watched as seasons of my other favorite classic television shows such as “My Three Sons,” “Emergency” and “Adam-12” were released, and constantly wondered, “But what about Batman?”

When the announcement came earlier in 2014 that the television series would be released by Warner Brothers this November, I was overjoyed. I guess sometimes it’s the simple, material things that keep us going. Complications with rights prevented the release of the television show.

Now owning the first season of “Batman” on DVD, I found it just as delightful as I did when I was 13. The color and picture on the DVD is vibrant and looks great. My only qualm is that it looks like rather than releasing the full second season on DVD, the seasons are being split up in two parts- similar to how Warner released “My Three Sons.”

Whether you find Adam West cheesy as Batman or not, there is no denying that the television show is a pleasant and fun way to spend a spare hour.

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Halloweek: “The Watcher in the Woods” (1980)

This week, Comet Over Hollywood is celebrating Halloween with slightly more offbeat horror films.  

(This contains spoilers to explain alternate endings)

The_Watcher_in_the_Woods,_film_posterWhen I was growing up, there were two movies my sisters and I begged for our parents to rent from Blockbuster: “Troop Beverly Hills” (1989) and “Watcher in the Woods” (1980)
While I watch “Troop” fairly regularly, it had been at least 15 or 20 years since I had seen “Watcher in the Woods.”

I only remembered three things about the Disney horror film: a girl wearing a blindfold appearing in mirrors, elderly Bette Davis and being scared after watching it.

In the film, Americans Helen (Carroll Baker) and Paul (David McCallum) move their two daughters to England. Jan (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is an intuitive teenager and Ellie (Kyle Richards) is her younger sister.

The family finds a large mansion for rent at a price that they can’t refuse, leased by elderly Mrs. Alywood (Bette Davis), whose daughter disappeared under mysterious circumstances 40 years ago.

Much to the shock of several villagers, Jan looks very similar to Mrs. Alywood’s missing daughter Karen.

Within the first few days of the family moving into the large home, Jan begins to experience strange disturbances: a window breaks by itself and leaves the shape of a triangle, she sees a blue circle in a river, she can’t see her reflection in a mirror, and a mirror breaks by itself and she sees a blindfolded girl pleading for help.

Jan sees a vision of Karen pleading for help in the fun house in "Watcher in the Woods."

Jan sees a vision of Karen pleading for help in the fun house in “Watcher in the Woods.”

Ellie even names a new puppy Nerak (Karen spelled backward) after something “tells her to name it Nerak.”

Several other disturbances happen like something is protecting the Curtis daughters. At a motorcycle race, Ellie starts yelling for Jan and when Jan moves to her, a motorcycle lands and explodes where she was standing.

Jan tells Mrs. Alywood about the disturbances, who shares with her about the night Karen went missing in the 1940s. Karen was with three friends in an old church. The church caught on fire and the three other teenagers escaped, but Karen did not. However, the church was searched and her remains were never found.

The Curtis family, including Carroll Baker, moving to their England home.

The Curtis family, including Carroll Baker, moving to their England home.

When Jan tries to ask the other three people who were with Karen about what happened, they are all too afraid to discuss the events. Only one man, Tom Colley (Richard Pasco) will say what happened. Karen was being initiated into a secret society when the church caught on fire. When a bell in the church fell, she disappeared.

As Jan searches for answers, a spirit- or the watcher- is using Ellie to communicate with Jan to free Karen.

During an eclipse, Jan assembles the original three people at the church to free Karen.
Ellie enters, possessed by the “watcher,” and explains what happened on the night 40 years before. The watcher has been on Earth since Karen was sent to an “alternate dimension” by mistake.

Jan stands where Karen stood as everyone holds hands around her, and Karen reappears, still 17 years old, and is reunited with her mother.

Alternate ending

The ending in the theatrical release is not what was originally released in theaters in 1980.

“Even when they released it, Disney couldn’t decide how to end Watchers in the Woods,” Davis said in the biography, “The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis: A Personal Biography By Charlotte Chandler. “…Eventually they tried three different endings, but I haven’t the foggiest as to which they chose for posterity.”

The film was also rushed to theaters to correspond with Bette Davis’s 50th anniversary as a film star.

In the first theatrical ending, released for a week in New York City on April 17, 1980, the group still gathers in the chapel for a seance to bring back Karen. Rather than a beam of light coming over Jan and returning Karen like in the 1981 ending, an alien comes into the room, picks Jan up and takes her away.

Jan’s mom runs into the chapel asking whereher child is, and Jan reappears with Karen. Jan returns Karen to Mrs. Alywood, and Ellie asks Jan what happened. Jan gives vague answers, still leaving what happened unexplained.

Ellie: Where was she?
Jan: I’m not sure. A place where people are changed into negative images.
Ellie: How did she get there?
Jan: An accidental exchange between the watcher and her. He needed my image to set her free.
Ellie: So what happened to the watcher?
Jan: Now the watcher can go home too, where ever that is *smiles into the distance and the film ends*

“I challenge even the most indulgent fan to give a coherent translation of what passes for an explanation at the end,” New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote in 1980.

Due to the cryptic ending, the film was poorly received and was said to not have an ending. “Watcher in the Woods” was pulled from theaters, re-edited and released again in 1981.

“We felt we had seven-eighths of a good picture, but the ending confused people,” said the Disney co-producer Tom Leech in 1981.

The revisions took 18 months and cost $1 million, but the film earned $1.2 million after the second release in its first week. Many theater owners said if the alien science fiction ending was changed, they would be willing to take the picture, according to an Oct. 22, 1981 article, “New ending gives Disney movie second chance” by Aljean Harmetz.

“The ending is seamless, satisfying, resolving the mystery,” wrote The Richmond Times-Dispatch after the second release.

My review:

While I was revisiting “Watcher in the Woods,” I couldn’t remember how it ended. I was probably six or seven years old the last time I watched the film, and I’m not surprised that I didn’t remember Karen being in an “alternate dimension.” Even now, I found that explanation of the missing girl mildly confusing. However, the 1981 ending is admittedly more clear than the 1980 ending.

Bette Davis, 72, in "Watchers in the Woods"

Bette Davis, 72, in “Watchers in the Woods”

I think my favorite part was seeing Bette Davis, 72, and Carroll Baker, 49, late in their careers. Davis unsurprisingly gave the best performance in the whole film.

Though I’m not familiar with much of Lynn-Holly Johnson’s work, I believe Disney cast her because if you squint, she vaguely looks like former Disney star Hayley Mills.

I think my biggest complaint with “Watcher in the Woods” is, while I enjoyed it, the story seemed to move awfully slow for an 82 minute film.

Regardless, rewatching “Watcher in the Woods” was a pleasant trip down memory lane. I still found some parts genuinely frightening, such as when Jan is in the fun house, and Karen appears in every mirror pleading for help.

“Watcher in the Woods” is a fairly dark horror movie for Disney but it isn’t that scary. However if it is still semi-scaring me at 25, you can imagine why I don’t watch more frightening horror films.

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Halloweek: Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) – original title “Fanatic”

This week, Comet Over Hollywood is celebrating Halloween with slightly more offbeat horror films.  

die posterStarting in the 1960s with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), famous actresses of the 1930s and 1940s who were now “past their prime” were cast in semi-campy horror roles.

Actress Tallulah Bankhead’s last film happened to be one of these horror films. Made in the UK under the title “Fanatic” and called “Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) in the United States, actress Stefanie Powers co-stars with Bankhead.

Directed by Silvio Narizzano, Bankhead plays Mrs. Trefolie whose son Steven died tragically. At the time of his death, Steven was engaged to Patricia Carroll, played by Stefanie Powers, but Patricia intended on breaking off the engagement.

Patricia kept correspondence with Mrs. Trefolie and decides to pay her a visit at her secluded home while she is in England with her fiancé Alan, played by Maurice Kaufmann. Alan warns her not to go alone, but Patricia doesn’t listen.

What Patricia plans to be a four-hour visit turns into several days trapped in Mrs. Trefolie’s home.

Mrs. Trefolie is obsessed with her son and is fanatically religious. For example, Trefolie insists Patricia stays until the next morning for a private church service at home which lasts 12 hours.

Mrs. Trefoile holds Sunday service at her home with her servants. (Bankhead, Donald Sutherland, Yootha Joyce, Peter Vaughan)

Mrs. Trefoile holds Sunday service at her home with her servants. (Bankhead, Donald Sutherland, Yootha Joyce, Peter Vaughan)

Dinner is served after the church service, but the food is plain, unflavored, vegetarian and they use no condiments, because “God’s food should be eaten unadorned.”

When Mrs. Trefoile notices a lipstick stain on Patricia’s glass, she is told to wash her makeup off. There also aren’t any mirrors in the house because they encourage vanity and sensuality.

Patricia is told to change immediately when she is wearing a red sweater, because it is the “Devil’s color.” Mrs. Trefoile believes that Patricia is her daughter-in-law, because she qualifies the engagement to Steven as marriage. In her religious beliefs, Mrs. Trefoile says Patricia could never remarry, even with a dead husband, because it is against God’s will and she is eternally wedded to Steven….though they never were married. Mrs. Trefoile also refuses to go to a local church, because the pastor remarried after his wife died several years before, believing he is forever married to the first woman.

When Mrs. Trefoile finds out Patricia is newly engaged and was planning to breakup with Steven before his death, she blames Patricia for Steven’s death, saying she killed him, and locks her in the house. Helping the elderly woman through all of this are her two servants, who hope to inherent her money.

By depriving Patricia of food and locking her away in solitude, Mrs. Trefoile says she is trying to “cleanse Patricia’s soul.” This includes interrogating Patricia about her virginity and tearing up all of her beautiful clothing and jewelry. Mrs. Trefoile believes she hears her son tell her to murder Patricia, and she sets out to do so.

Stefanie Powers' clothes destroyed by Mrs. Trefoile and her maid, Kate.

Stefanie Powers’ clothes destroyed by Mrs. Trefoile and her maid, Kate.

Not only is “Die! Die! My Darling!” Bankhead’s last film, but also her first horror movie, according to the LIFE magazine article, “One Old Trouper Comes Back” by Conrad Knickerbocker.

The film is based off the novel “Nightmare” by Anne Blaisdell. The English horror movie is enjoyable. I thought the religious fanaticism added a level of intrigue, depth and craze to Bankhead’s character, rather than the usual overbearing mother role. Mrs. Trefoile’s obsession with her dead son is exhibited by believing that his soul is in the house and responding to her, his photos everywhere and cuddling his teddy bear as she sleeps.

Although Bankhead’s character says she doesn’t believe in vanity, in the film, we see scrapbooks of Mrs. Trefoile in her younger years and costumes hang in the basement, suggesting that at one point she was an actress. (One of the photos shown in the film is Bankhead in her stage role in “Little Foxes.”)

Admittedly, I was rather frustrated while watching “Die! Die! My Darling!” There are several moments where you think Stefanie Powers can overtake this rickety old woman who keeping her captive, but she flails around and fails.

Mrs. Trefoile threatens to cut Patricia's face so she will no longer be attractive to men. Maid Kate holds Patricia so she can't escape.

Mrs. Trefoile threatens to cut Patricia’s face so she will no longer be attractive to men. Maid Kate holds Patricia so she can’t escape.

Powers’ character had a sharp tongue but was too weak and uncoordinated to fight Bankhead’s character alone, and this frustrated me greatly. However, while I was frustrated with Powers in the film, I realized that was how her character was written in the script.

Another odd thing about “Die! Die! My Darling!” was the music. For the first half of the movie, the soundtrack was quirky and almost comedic harpsichord music. The music could be comparable to the 1960s English TV show “The Avengers,” starring Diana Rigg. However, as the cat-and-mouse torture between Powers and Bankhead escalated, the music became more serious and exciting.

Mrs. Trefoile talks to her dead son while holding his Teddy bear.

Mrs. Trefoile talks to her dead son while holding his Teddy bear.

I believe my favorite character in the film was 30-year-old actor Donald Sutherland in one of his first film roles. Sutherland played a worker at Mrs. Trefoile’s home who had special needs. I was a little disappointed he wasn’t in the film more, and his character wasn’t given much of a purpose.

“Die! Die! My Darling!” is a little more quirky and humorous than other horror movies starring actresses like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. However, while I wouldn’t rank the film higher than “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” (1964) or “Strait-Jacket” (1964), the cat and mouse interactions between Bankhead and Powers were intriguing and made for an enjoyable Friday evening film.

Sidenote: When I watched this movie with my parents, my Dad said all he could think about was the Metallica song “Die, Die, My Darling.” The song “Die, Die, My Darling” was originally written by The Misfits and later covered by Metallica.

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Review: Star Reporter (1939)

Often while discussing films we rank their importance with the alphabet.

An A film is a mainstream, high dollar movie. A B movie is a low-budget commercial film that may have a quality story line and actors, but is less publicized. These films would be the bottom half of the double feature — sort of like the song on the 45 record that wasn’t the hit single.

“Star Reporter” (1939) would most likely fall under the “B movie” category.

star

Distributed by “poverty row” studio Monogram Pictures, this hour long film revolves around newspapers and crime.

Reporter John Randolph, played by Warren Hull, works for the Star Tribune newspaper but is also a “star” on the job. Considered bright and brilliant, his father was the owner of the newspaper and was recently murdered. Randolph believes his father was killed because he had information that could bring down the “underworld” of the town.

Randolph is also a big supporter of District Attorney William Burnette, played by Wallis Clark, and throws his support for the DA in each of his stories at the newspaper. Randolph happens to be engaged to the DA’s daughter, Barbara, played by Marsha Hunt.

But when a murder happens, secrets about Randolph and his mother Julia, played by Virginia Howell, are threatened to be dragged out.

It turns out that the deceased newspaper owner was not Randolph’s biological father. Mrs. Randolph was once married to Charlie Bennett, who disappeared and was believed dead. Bennett has now reappeared as the murderer using the name Joe Draper, played by Morgan Wallice.

Lawyer Whitaker tries to bargain with the DA.

Lawyer Whitaker tries to bargain with the DA.

Dirty lawyer Whitaker, played by Clay Clement, is defending Draper.  Whitaker knows Mrs. Randolph’s secret and threatens to reveal it, if she and the DA do not cooperate and close the case.

Draper already signed a confession with the DA, but it is stolen by a thief named Clipper, played by actor Paul Fix in a very small role.

The DA decides not to prosecute to protect the Randolphs. John, not knowing the family secret, turns against  his father-in-law-to-be. Now rather than backing the DA, he works to get him thrown out of office, which was Whitaker’s goal.

For an hour long movie, this is an awfully complicated and mildly confusing plot.

Unlike most newspaper films of the 1930s and 1940s, the majority of the film does not involve a reporter playing detective or getting in fights with gangsters.

I was pleasantly surprised by this, until the end. At the end of the film Randolph is in the same house as the gangster/his biological father with a gun pointing at him. Though as a reporter, it’s not terribly accurate. I wasn’t surprised by this plot development. In my experience as a reporter, I have never gotten in fist fights with gangsters, but then maybe it was different in the 1930s.

Reporter Randolph is engaged to the DA's daughter, played by Marsha Hunt.

Reporter Randolph is engaged to the DA’s daughter, played by Marsha Hunt.

I did like how some of the lines showed just how busy reporters are and how they frequently are on call or away from home.

“After we’re married you can furnish the pressroom as living quarters. That way I can run in and see you between murders,” Randolph said to his new fiancée Barbara.

“Our wedding guests were kept waiting because of a special edition,” Mrs. Randolph told Barbara.

These lines made me chuckle because anyone in newspapers know the words day off, weekend or quiet evening are almost laughable.

I discovered “Star Reporter” shortly after I started working at The Shelby Star in October 2012.

Over the last two years of working at the newspaper, I felt a special connection to the title, because I was (Shelby) Star reporter Jessica Pickens.

Now as I wrap up my last week at the newspaper, I felt it appropriate to finally review the film I’ve been meaning to write about for two years.

Is “Star Reporter” a great movie? No. The biggest names in the film are Paul Fix, who later went on to be in several John Ford films, and Marsha Hunt. Both actors are in the film for less than 15 minutes.

But it is mildly entertaining, especially if you are looking for a very brief film to watch.

In a year that released “Gone with the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Wizard of Oz” –just to name a few of nearly 100 well received films- it is interesting to take a look at the B side of the year 1939.

In an age now where we only concentrate the blockbusters, these little hour long films are equally important to explore.

StarReporter1939

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Review: “Hot Rods to Hell” (1967)

hot rods to hellWe all have at least one guilty pleasure film that is so terrible, but we inexplicably love it.

I have several, and one of them is the 1967 drama/thriller “Hot Rods to Hell.” It is one of those films where you laugh at the ridiculous lines and moments but have a desire to rewatch it constantly.

Originally made for TV but released in theaters, the camp film stars veteran Hollywood stars Jeanne Crain, as Peg Phillips, and Dana Andrews, as Tom Phillips.

This is one of four films Andrews and Crain made together during their Hollywood careers that spanned the 1940s through the 1970s.

Their first film together was movie musical “State Fair” (1945) where Crain plays a farm girl named Margy who meets Andrews, a reporter named Pat, and falls in love with him at the state fair.

“State Fair” ends with the two happily running towards each other and kissing in the street.

I like to imagine that “Hot Rods to Hell” is Margy and Pat 22 years later with their children.

The movie follows the couple and their two children Tina, played by Laurie Mock, and Jamie, played by Jeffrey Byron, as they move from their New England home to run a motel in California after Tom is in a serious wreck.

The film begins with Tom driving home from a business trip to celebrate Christmas with his family. A reckless driver causes the accident and leaves Tom with a back problem and some mental issues. Due to the wreck, he no longer wants to drive and can’t listen to Christmas music.

Tom’s brother arranges for the family to move to California to run the motel, believing it will benefit Tom’s physical and mental health.

Drag racing teens running cars off the road: Ernie, Gloria and Duke played by Gene Kirkwood, Mimsy Farmer and Paul Bertoya.

Drag racing teens running cars off the road: Ernie, Gloria and Duke played by Gene Kirkwood, Mimsy Farmer and Paul Bertoya.

As the family is driving through the desert in their station wagon, they encounter teenagers drag racing a modified 1958 Chevrolet Corvette.

“Run them off the road, Duke. Run them off the road,” shouts the teenage girl Gloria, played by Mimsy Farmer, as she is perched on the back of the car as they race.

The teenagers are children of local, wealthy farmers who don’t care what the teens do. The teenagers have a constant thirst to get their “kicks” but nothing will satisfy them.

“What kind of animals are those,” Tom shouts as they are nearly run off the road. “They are insane.”

Peg covers her face with her hands and screams, “Tom I can’t stand it!”

Tina, who desperately wants to be a hip teenager, defends them by saying that all the kids drag race.

The majority of the 92 minute movie involves Duke, played by Paul Bertoya; Gloria and Ernie, played by Gene Kirkwood, harassing the Phillips family on the road. They tailgate the family through small towns, try to run them off the road and follow them to a picnic ground, where Duke attempts to seduce Tina.

Tina is frightened but fascinated with the bad kids.

When the Phillips finally arrives at the motel, rather than finding solace, there is more trouble.

The motel and the adjacent a bar and grill are inhabited by the drag racers and other teens like them. The previous owner allowed the teenagers to drink and have trysts in the motel. It makes you wonder if Tom’s brother did any research on the spot before encouraging the Phillips to move there.

When the drag racers discover the Phillips are the new owners, they do all they can to make them leave; knowing Tom will sanitize the spot.

The family is terrorized by the drag racers.

The family is terrorized by the drag racers.

Frightened and disgusted with what they find, the Phillips decide to stay the night at the hotel before figuring out what their next move should be.

Tina, still fascinated with Duke, goes to see him at the bar, almost like she is thinking, “Oh these people have been terrorizing my family all day. I think I’ll go hang with them.”

Jealous Gloria tells Tom and who tries to strangle Duke.

“Tina how far would you have gone,” Peg yells at her daughter. “Are you going to end up in a motel room with any man?!”

The family leaves the hotel to get the police, and the drag racers continue to follow the Phillips family.

“Oh they’re back again,” Jamie screams. “They want to crack us up!”

After even more harassment, Tom finally and successfully stands up to Duke and Ernie.

Tom places his car in the middle of the road in a game of “chicken” and the family hides. Duke and Ernie swerves to miss the car and crashes.

The crash causes an immediate attitude change and the boys tell Tom they won’t give him anymore trouble. The film ends with Tom deciding to go back and run the motel properly.

“Hot Rods to Hell” is truly a terrible movie, but I can’t get enough of it.

Duke tries to seduce Tina, played by Laurie Mock.

Duke tries to seduce Tina, played by Laurie Mock.

The hilarious lines and the over reacting to the situations make it a true guilty pleasure and cult classic.

But at the same time, it’s sort of sad. To see 1940s and 1950s stars Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain late in their career and performing in this type of film is disheartening.

Crain was a top star at 20th Century Fox in the 1940s and 1950s and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Pinky” (1949).

Dana Andrews previously starred in top notch films such as the noir “Laura” (1944) and the post-war drama “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).

However, Andrews had children in college so he had to work, said the Carl Rollyson biography “Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews.”

While the old glamorous and glittering Golden Era of film was fading, the top stars were retiring or resorting to cult films like this one to continue to make money.

To compare, Joan Crawford was killing people with an ax in “STRAIT-JACKET” (1964) and Lana Turner was drugged with LSD in “The Big Cube” (1969).

While I marvel at the beautiful films in the early careers of these stars, I also can’t get enough of their late careers. Classic Hollywood’s career downturns have turned into our guilty pleasures.

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Who are your neighbors?: 60 years of peeping through the “Rear Window”

Do you know your neighbors?
The family with the dog that barks all night, the child who rides through your yard on his bike or the woman who sends flowers when a relative dies?
Stuck in his wheelchair with a broken leg, James Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954) got acquainted with his neighbors through a telephoto lens.
In a New York flat, the injured photographer passes the hours watching other apartment dwellers who live around a courtyard.

courtyard
While spying through his zoom lens, L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies ( James Stewart) may have stumbled across a murder.  Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who lives across the courtyard, had an invalid wife who suddenly no longer exists and Jeff wants to know why.
While James Stewart in his wheelchair and Grace Kelly in her Edith Head gowns take center stage-flanked by Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr- those being peeped upon are equally important in this “Is this woman dead?” story.
But who were these people? As “Rear Window” celebrates its 60th birthday, premiering on the big screen Aug. 1, 1954, let’s take a look at who “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonelyheart” and the amorous newlyweds are.

The Neighbors:

Judith Evelyn plays Miss Lonelyheart. She prepares to go on a date.

Judith Evelyn plays Miss Lonelyheart. She prepares to go on a date.

-Miss Lonelyheart: Miss Lonelyheart is the middle aged woman in the courtyard who longs for love but has yet to find it. Jeff watches her pantomime that she is on a date and then cry that she doesn’t have a lover. When she finally has a date, the man aggressively tries to make love to her and she pushes him from the house and sobs.
Miss Lonelyheart is played by Judith Evelyn who also performed in the films “The Egyptian” (1954), “Giant” (1956) and “The Tingler” (1958). Evelyn had a career on Broadway in the plays “Craig’s Wife” as Mrs. Craig in the 1947 revival and “The Shrike” as Ann Downs in 1952. Evelyn won the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award in 1942.
Evelyn was married to Canadian radio performer Andrew Allan. Allan, Evelyn and her father were aboard the Athenia in 1939 and were traveling through the Irish Sea, the body of water that separates Ireland and Great Britain. The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on Sept. 3, 1939, three days after the Germans invaded Poland. This was the first British passenger liner sunk by Germans. Six out of 85 passengers survived, including Allan and Evelyn, but her father died.

Ross Bagdasarian plays the "Songwriter," pictured here with Alfred Hitchcock in his signature cameo.

Ross Bagdasarian plays the “Songwriter,” pictured here with Alfred Hitchcock in his signature cameo.

-The Songwriter: The Songwriter has the lavish apartment with large windows. His piano music serenades the apartment courtyard for much of the film as he composes. It’s in the Songwriter’s apartment where director Alfred Hitchcock makes his cameo. The Songwriter’s composing stops Miss Lonelyheart from committing suicide…and distracts Lisa (Grace Kelly) from doing some investigative work.
The songwriter is played by Ross Bagdasarian, who actually was a composer. Bagdasarian is also known as “David Seville,” father and creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks. He wrote the “Chipmunk Song” (Christmas Don’t Be Late) in 1958, which he won a Grammy Award. Bagdasarian was also the voice of David Seville in the 1960s “Alvin and the Chipmunk” cartoon.
Along with the Chipmunks, Bagdasarian wrote songs including “Come On-A to My House” made famous by Rosemary Clooney and “Alfi and Harry,” which was the theme of the Hitchcock film “The Trouble With Harry” (1955).

Georgine Darcy plays the dancer "Miss Torso"

Georgine Darcy plays the dancer “Miss Torso”

-Miss Torso: Miss Torso is the sexy ballet dancer who lives directly across the way from Jeff. She dances her way through her morning routine, entertains men and is happy to see her military boyfriend at the end of the film.
The pretty blond dancer is played by Georgine Darcy, who studied with the New York City Ballet. Her mother, however, encouraged her to be a stripper to make a “fast buck,” according to her 2004 obituary.
When cast as Miss Torso, she didn’t know who director Alfred Hitchcock was. She was paid $350 for the role, and Hitchcock encouraged her to get an agent and study acting, but she didn’t. She was only in a handful of films and television appearances from 1954 to 1971. She was married to actor and singer Byron Palmer from 1974 until her death in 2004.

Sara Berner lowers their dog down into the courtyard. Frank Handy sits inside the apartment.

Sara Berner lowers their dog down into the courtyard. Frank Handy sits inside the apartment.

-The Couple on the Fire Escape: On hot summer evenings, this couple sleeps on a mattress on their fire escape. Each night, the wife lowers their small dog down into the courtyard in a basket and then lifts the dog back up in the basket. The dog serves as a turning point in the film.
The husband is played by Frank Cady, best known for his role as Sam Drucker on the TV shows “Petticoat Junction,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.”
Though best known for his television roles, Cady was also in several films including “Ace in the Hole” (1951) and “The Bad Seed” (1956).
The wife is played by Sara Berner, who was a voice actor in several Warner Brothers animated shorts from 1933 to 1946. Berner was the voice of Jerry the Mouse in “The Worry Song” when Tom danced with Gene Kelly in “Anchors Away” (1945).

Rand Harper and Havis Davenport play the newlyweds.

Rand Harper and Havis Davenport play the newlyweds.

-The Newlyweds: One of the first neighbors in the courtyard we are introduced to are the newlyweds. They are moving into their new apartment as the film starts. The landlord shows the couple the apartment, and the two keep trying to steal kisses as the landlord shows them from room to room. When he finally leaves, the husband carries his new bride through their threshold. The shade is drawn to their apartment for a great deal of the film, implying that they are….getting acquainted.
The husband is played by Rand Harper who played several bit parts in “Sabrina” (1954), “The FBI Story” (1959) and the TV show “Sea Hunt.”
The wife is played by Havis Davenport who played bit roles in film and TV such as “A Star is Born” (1954). She retired from acting in 1957.

Jesslyn Fax plays the sculpting neighbor.

Jesslyn Fax plays the sculpting neighbor.

-Sculpting Woman: The sculpting neighbor uses a hearing aid, appears to maybe be a bit of a busy body and is sculpting odd shapes in the courtyard. At the beginning she tries to say good morning to mysterious Thorwald (Burr) and he practically sneers at her.
The sculpting woman is played by Jesslyn Fax. This was not her only Alfred Hitchock project. Fax appeared in a bit role in “North by Northwest,” three “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes and two “Alfred Hitchcock Hour” episodes.
Fax appeared in several films and television shows including “Music Man” (1962), “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), “An Affair to Remember” (1957), “The Best of Everything” (1959) and an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

 Added bonus: When James Stewart talks to his editor on the telephone, the voice is actor Gig Young.

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From song to screen: “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

On the third of June, Billie Joe McAllister committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billie JoeBobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit song “Ode to Billie Joe” chronicles a family sitting around the dinner table and casually discussing the death of a local boy-not considering the feelings of the narrator who was dating Billie Joe.

One line in Gentry’s song discusses the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge generated the most questions from fans: “What did she and Billie Joe throw off the bridge?”

Fans speculated LSD, a baby, a ring, flowers or a draft card were tossed into the muddy Mississippi waters.

“People are trying to read social comment into the song. I wrote it as a comment on human nature, not on society,” Gentry said in a 1967 Associated Press interview. “I don’t know what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The act itself was more symbolic than anything.”

But in 1976, a movie based on the song gave an answer to what was thrown off the bridge and why Billy Joe McAllister committed suicide: a homosexual experience.

“What the song didn’t tell you, the movie will” it advertised.

Set in 1953, the film version of “Ode to Billy Joe” (the spelling of Billy differs in the song and film) stars Glynnis O’Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley, the 15-year old narrator, and Robby Benson as Billy Joe McAllister.

Fifteen-year-old Bobbie Lee is an adolescent young woman eager for gentlemen affections. In her frustrated state, she reads torrid romance magazines and says ridiculous lines such as, “I’m a body too with desires,” “Nothing has passed my lips except Pepsi Cola” and “I’m 15, and going on 34 – B cup.”

ode to billy joeBilly Joe confesses his love for Bobbie Lee, but her father says she is too young to date.

The budding romance is mainly a game of cat and mouse of Bobbie Lee pretending she doesn’t like Billy Joe.

One night, the town holds a jamboree with a make shift whorehouse in the back. Billy Joe is drunk and confused about it all and is missing for two days after the jamboree.

The reason for Billy Joe’s disappearance is the same reason as his suicide: at the jamboree he has sexual relations with a man. The man turns out to be his boss at the sawmill Dewey Barksdale, played by James Best.

Billy Joe shows up in tears, ashamed of what he did saying it is sin against nature and a sin against God.

“I don’t know how I want to be with you and do that,” he tells Bobbie Lee.

During their discussion, Billy Joe throws something off the bridge- Bobbie Lee’s childhood doll, Benjamin.

After Billy Joe’s death, the town is filled with rumors that Bobbie Lee is pregnant with his baby, though the two never had sex.

Bobbie Lee melodramatically decides to leave town and pretend that she has the baby and will return when the rumors die down. She meets Barksdale on the bridge, who is on his way to confess what he has done. Bobbie Lee gives a speech, saying telling the truth won’t do Barksdale or Billy Joe, any good.

“Billy Joe’s already on his way to becoming a legend. He made a desirable girl pregnant and then jumped off the bridge. We ought to leave him with that,” Bobbie Lee said.

The film ends with Barksdale carrying Bobbie Lee’s bag to the bus stop.

Gentry received movie offers after the song came out in 1967, but she held out for 10 years, she said in a 1976 article in the Nashua Telegraph written by Vernon Scott.

“I waited because I was afraid it would become an exploitation picture to capitalize off the record,” Gentry was quoted. “I didn’t want it done cheaply.”

“Ode to Billie Joe” was originally a short story written by Gentry, and then condensed into a song, she said in the 1976 interview.

Gentry wrote a song for Max Baer, Jr.’s film “Macon County Line.” Baer produced “Macon County Line” and directed “Ode to Billy Joe.” He is known for his role as Jethro on the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  She liked Baer’s work and she brought “Ode to Billie Joe” to him as a film idea, the Nashua Telegraph article said.

In the contract, Gentry had approval of characters and plot development. She also re-recorded the hit song for the film.

Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor in "Ode to Billy Joe" (1976)

Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor in “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

“Now that I know why Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I almost wish I didn’t,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his July 7, 1976 film review. “Bobbie Gentry’s famous song, on which “Ode to Billy Joe” is based, found much of its haunting effect in its refusal to reveal why Billy Joe killed himself. His death was seen as sad, and long ago, and unnecessary, and the singer recalled it as a key event in an unhappy time. Gentry didn’t need to explain because she evoked.”

Ebert gave the movie 2.5 out of 3 stars in 1976, saying the dialogue is attractive, but that the movie goes astray after Billy Joe kills himself.

Personally, I found the dialogue hokey with several pointless scenes. “Did they really just say that?” was a reoccurring thought as I watched the hour and forty-five minute film.

The film doesn’t play scenes that are lyric-by-lyric of the song. This is probably a good thing. There isn’t a dinner table scene when Billy Joe’s death is discussed and Billy Joe doesn’t put a frog down Bobbie Lee’s back at the Carroll County picture show.

However, there is a preacher watching as the doll is thrown off the bridge, and Bobbie Lee’s father says, “Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.” This is said after an incident where some drunk Alabamians try to push his truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

While I may not have enjoyed this film, I do understand the message that was trying to be portrayed- Billy Joe’s senseless suicide because of societal beliefs. Billy Joe’s confusion, guilt and shame that leads him to kill himself is a relevant issue for 1953, 1976 and most likely today. Though as Gentry originally said, her song was not a social commentary.

Along with the ridiculous script and disliking Robby Benson, my main issue with the film is giving a reason to Billy Joe’s death.

The original purpose of the song is “unconscious cruelty”- the nonchalant way the narrator’s family discusses Billy Joe’s suicide, Gentry said in an interview when the song was released.

Even though Gentry agreed to the film, I feel giving a reason to the suicide takes away from the mournful tune of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

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