Thursday, February 25, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: 'SPANKY' McFARLAND at Harmon

By Steve Crum

HAS IT REALLY BEEN nearly 22 years since "SPANKY" McFARLAND spoke to a packed house of 1,000+ students and faculty members at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas? Sure enough. It was mid-morning on Monday, Sept. 12, 1988, when I introduced Spanky at a special assembly in the auditorium. (I was teaching journalism, mass media and English at Harmon then.) 

Earlier that morning, I had driven to the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park to pick up Spanky, along with his golf clubs and luggage. He was in town as one of the celebrity players at the Peter Marshall (The Hollywood Squares) Celebrity Golf Tournament in K.C. Spank was drinking a cup of coffee, and waiting on the hotel sidewalk when I drove up. 

On the drive to Harmon, Spanky complimented me on my safe driving in between talking about Alfalfa, his growing up in Texas, fellow "Rascal" Scotty Beckett, and show business in general. Regarding his memory of Scotty Becket, with whom he was paired in numerous Our Gang shorts, Spanky said, "Oh God, Scotty Beckett. Poor, poor Scotty. What a sad story. What a talent. So sad. He left us far too soon." (Beckett had a relatively brief but illustrious career in film, radio and TV, but died at age 38 in a nursing home. Drugs, alcohol, martial problems and depression factored into his tragic circumstances.)

It was all prearranged by my good pal Jim Peters, the leader and founder of our Hog Wild Tent, which is the local chapter of the Laurel and Hardy, Sons of the Desert organization. (All the fan club's branches are called tents, and each is named after one of Stan and Ollie's classic comedy films.) Spanky met Jim at a Laurel and Hardy convention, and agreed--for a price--to appear at both of our schools. Jim was teaching at Eisenhower Middle School, a few miles away. 

So Spanky introduced clips (on 16mm) of vintage Our Gang/Little Rascals to an appreciative audience. At that time, the students were very aware of Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla and the gang thanks to repeated showings on TV. Spanky talked and fielded questions about himself and other cast members for an hour. Then he was off to do likewise at Eisenhower. (Jim then drove him to the airport so Spanky could fly home.) He received $500 for each gig; students paid $1-$2 per admittance. Both Spanky and our schools profited. It was absolutely a very cool experience. Before the show, I introduced Spanky to the principal and his secretaries. All were thrilled.

I will add that Spanky was not an overly happy camper when I picked him up. He told me he had planned to play in the golf tournament, but hurt his leg just before playing, and had to cancel out. Still, he was in good humor.
BORN GEORGE ROBERT PHILLIPS McFARLAND on Oct. 2, 1928, SPANKY began his show biz career as a very young child, modeling clothes and appearing in print Wonder Bread ads. A reliable source says he was first nicknamed "Buddy." Another source claims he was called "Sonny." Nonetheless, it was "Spanky" that stuck when he auditioned for Hal Roach's Our Gang series at age 3. Spanky was immediately a sensation, and became the virtual on-screen leader of the Gang, later renamed The Little Rascals in TV syndication. 

After 95 film shorts, Spanky retired in 1942. Typecast forever, and always looking very much like he always did in movies--thanks in part to his shortness, Spanky could not get work in Hollywood. He worked at various businesses, finding success as National Sales Director of Philco-Ford in Texas. For a time, he hosted a local kids' TV show (featuring Little Rascals movies) in Texas, and participated in celebrity golf tournaments (as well as his own). On June 30, 1993, Spanky died of a heart attack at age 64 in Grapevine, Texas. The more recent photo of Spanky was taken at the Harmon assembly in 1988. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
For a Spanky tribute full of "hits," see this:

Friday, February 12, 2010

'The Wolfman' respects Chaney's original, features state-of-art effects

By Steve Crum

As a fan of classic Universal horror movies, I place Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man as my favorite among The Mummy, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein. That is why I anticipated seeing Benecio Del Toro’s werewolf take with trepidation. I could not wait to see it, while fearing it would disappoint. Not to worry, silver bullet fans, The Wolfman is a worthy romp through full moon nights.

The original 1941 version is still preferred, but The Wolfman’s director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) pays grand homage while playing to the 2010 crowd. However, why the title has to be spelled “Wolfman” instead of “Wolf Man” is a slight irritant. After all, Universal produced both movies.

Writers Scott Stuber, Benicio Del Toro (yep, the star), Rick Yorn, and Sean Daniel based their screenplay on Curt Siodmak’s original, and how. There are references regarding not only the ’41 movie, but to virtually all four, subsequent, Chaney Wolf Man guest appearances in horror films ever produced. For history’s sake, they are: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (’43), House of Frankenstein (’44), House of Dracula (’45), and even 1948’s comedy-horror gem, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Never think movie sequels and remakes are a product of just the last couple of decades.

About the only contrived element missing from the Siodmak original is wolfbane. Siodmak used it as a plant that had mystical, preservation powers affecting the creature. It was a featured element of the six Chaneys; it is sorely missed in this new version (except for brief mention) only because of the faithful inclusion of most other werewolf legend. To the vast numbers of younger viewers who have never seen any Chaney Wolf Man, it should matter not. As the ad promos say, The Wolfman is “inspired by the classic Universal film.” It is not a Xerox redo.

To prove that point, main character Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) is a Shakespearean actor in this story, which opens in 1891. He is also a British nobleman who returns to his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) at Talbot Hall in Blackwood, England, after his brother Ben is brutally killed. His brother’s fiance, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), is also at the estate for the funeral. Lawrence’s mother was also violently killed years ago. Lawrence is haunted by visions of his mother’s death, which he witnessed after the fact. Not long after he views what is left of his brother’s butchered remains, nearby villagers begin to suffer brutal attacks on the foggy moor by what appears to be a large, wolf-like animal. The inclusion of beset villagers is a staple of Universal horror films, yet another tip of the hat to horror movie history.

The big difference between then and now filmmaking is the special effects and violence level. It is no spoiler to say the killer is a werewolf (a “wolf man”), but realize the monster this time around is a full blown mass murderer, taking on a dozen villagers, police or whomever one sharp claw and long tooth rip at a time. And he is fast. Decapitations occur, pardon the term, at breakneck speed. Chaney’s wolf guy would pull off maybe one kill per full moon rising evening.

How can there be a werewolf loose before Lawrence even arrives home? Ah, the twist of the story surfaces, but will go without much explanation due to ruining it for viewers. When Lawrence is indeed bitten by the creature, and is transformed himself into a werewolf, then the story takes unique turns as there is double trouble in the woods.

In keeping with Universal tradition, there is Scotland Yard’s Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) hot on the bloody trail. There is also a band of gypsies camped across the swamps. While the original old gypsy woman Maleva, gloriously played by Maria Ouspenskaya in the original, is long gone, an unrecognizable Geraldine Chaplin does a credible job in the role. It is she who recites the famous werewolf credo: “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” It is all very campy, and mood appropriate.

As with previous Universal horror films, do not expect a complex script. The Wolfman is basically a mass hysteria, villagers versus monster opus. There is also a developing love story, but the real attraction is Rick Baker’s memorable wolf transformations and body count mayhem. Action dominates. Expect lethal silver bullets and cane handles.

Del Toro handles the anguish of being a werewolf about as well as Chaney did nearly 80 years ago, but in this respect, it is hard to top Lon Jr. I do want the brand name of the durable shirts and trousers both Lawrence Talbots wear. After each transformation, in which their bodies are stretched five ways and a killing spree follows, Talbot always wakes up shoeless, but with his shirt and pants intact.

Obviously, the clothing is more complex than the script.
On an A to F grade scale: B
The Wolfman trailer, in HD:

Monday, February 8, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: AL JOLSON ready for takeoff

By Steve Crum

SUPERSTAR AL JOLSON takes the “pause that refreshes.” More is now known (as of an hour ago) regarding this UNPUBLISHED photo of The World’s Greatest Entertainer, Al Jolson. Thanks to input from Jolson scholars as well as my own web research, it is thought the pic was taken during a flight to Sacramento, California in January, 1947, to attend the second inaugural of Earl Warren as Governor of California. 

Others, possibly Friars Club members, on the plane included Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The unidentified gentleman with Jolie is an executive with American Airlines, so says the accompanying caption. And Coca Cola bottles are product placement-like displayed hither and yon. As far as I know, Jolie never did any Coke ads. Is Jolson traveling coach? [from Steve Crum’s showbiz memorabilia collection]
Here's Jolie himself, singing Swanee from The Jolson widescreen, color, and HD:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: JEAN HARLOW in KANSAS CITY

By Steve Crum

JEAN HARLOW, MGM's "Blonde Bombshell," poses with an unidentified Kansas City, Kansas neighborhood child (one of her grandmother's neighbors) at Kansas City, Missouri's Union Station in 1933. Harlow was preparing to board a train for her return trip to Los Angeles. (A couple of porters are barely visible at left in the background.) Feast your eyes, since this is a heretofore unpublished photo of the famous Harlow, who died far too young four years later at age 26. For more on Harlow's visit, please scroll down a couple of stories or so. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
For a nice tribute to Jean Harlow:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Gibson returns in violent, vengeful ‘Edge of Darkness’

By Steve Crum

Much has been said and written about Mel Gibson’s return to film stardom after eight years. Since 2002’s Signs, Gibson forsook acting for writing and directing the controversial and critically praised Apocalypto (2006) and The Passion of the Christ (2004). Apart from his professional successes, there were his highly publicized antisemitic slur, drinking binges, and divorce. They are mentioned here only because of their potential box office drag.

Now, looking his age but still showing road warrior grit, Gibson headlines Edge of Darkness, playing a Boston cop revenging his murdered daughter. Although written and directed by others, Edge has its share of Gibson movie earmarks: violence, heroism to the point of martyrdom, and spirituality. The Thomas Craven character Gibson portrays flashes his crucifix necklace several times, and one of his lines (from the screenplay by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell) curiously channels The Passion of the Christ: “You had better decide whether you’re hangin’ on the cross...or bangin’ in the nails.”

Edge of Darkness is a solid action movie with a strong, believable performance by Gibson. Just as effective is Ray Winstone’s turn as philosophical hit man Jedburgh.

Labeling Edge as violent is an understatement. There are more bullets to the head and torso in this flick than an entire season of CSI shows. Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) has supplemented the homicides with a plot line of government corruption and conspiracy--and the aforementioned revenge.

Based on the 1980’s British mini-series of the same name, Edge of Darkness is aptly named. After his 24 year-old daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) is shot-gunned to death as they both walk out the front door, the veteran Detective Craven fixates on finding the murderer. In the process, Craven dodges and lobs bullets while encountering a cover-up. Among the guns, fisticuffs and kicks, Gibson plays Craven as both vulnerable and lethal. Mel Gibson + lethal. That is an original concept.

As the heartbroken and hateful Craven seeks his kid’s killer, he links with government operative Jedburgh, who is essentially a crisis clean-up guy. If eliminating someone is necessary, so be it. Jedburgh becomes conflicted when he sympathizes with Craven, and therein lies a plot element.

With a relentlessly driven take by Mel Gibson, including his credible Boston accent, Edge of Darkness car crashes and body slams to a surprisingly spiritual conclusion. The finale is also corny and touching enough to elicit tears.
On an A to F grade scale: C+
Check the body count in the Edge of Darkness trailer: