The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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By Scott Ross

hell pbWhen at 16, I made the acquaintance of Stephen King, with ‘Salem’s Lot, I enjoyed it enormously for what it was. But the book paled next to Richard Matheon’s 1970 masterpiece Hell House. Encountered at 15, the novel took the top of my head off, what with its classic haunted manse, its bickering specialists in the occult, its periodic supernatural explosions and, especially (oh my god!) with that obscene crucifix in the chapel. I read ‘Salem’s Lot again a few years ago and found it more or less anemic. Very young work. Yet a similar revisit to Hell House a year or so ago proved to me that Matheson’s novel is one of true standard-bearers of the genre. While appreciating that one can never experience a cinematic or literary (or indeed any real) shock with anything approaching the power of the initial encounter, re-reading this quintessential spook story convinces me that Matheson’s are the real goods, which on a second helping may pale slightly, but will never pall.

The surprisingly cheesy, morbid poster for a notably subtle horror movie.

The surprisingly cheesy, morbid poster for a notably subtle horror movie.

The inevitable movie, scripted by Matheson, is — especially considering the American International pedigree conferred on it in the person of its producer, James H. Nicholson — remarkably understated, hewing to the novel in most particulars (minus, naturally, that priapic crucifix, which was no doubt the first element of the narrative to go by the wayside) and eschewing piled-on atrocity; what is only sensed is far more unsettling than what is exhibited on-screen. The only curious aspect of the film is its misleading title. The legend of the Belasco mansion, commonly called “Hell House,” occurs well before the events depicted in the story, during the satanically sybaritic reign of its owner… and in its aftermath, 25 years before Hell House, when the first group of researchers is torn to tatters by Emeric Belasco’s vengeful shade. I can only assume that title was an imposition by schlockmeister Nicholson.

Pamela Franklin in a trance-state. Note the ectoplasm.

Pamela Franklin in a trance-state. Note the ectoplasm.

Credit must be given to Nicholson, however, for uniformly perfect casting: Pamela Franklin, compassionate as she is tremulous as the mental medium; Roddy McDowall, in his histrionic prime as the tormented sole survivor of the otherwise decimated previous psychic detectives; the splendid (and criminally under-used) Clive Revill, tightly-coiled and chilly to the touch as the all too analytical parapsychologist; and Gayle Hunnicutt, lustrously beautiful and eminently shatterable as his somewhat neglected wife. (Sadly, the producer died before his movie’s premiere.)

Rational science, embodied by Clive Revill, confronts spiritualism in the reluctant person of Roddy McDowall. Note the slightly distorted composition and the oppositional spaces the actors occupy.

Rational science, embodied by Clive Revill, confronts spiritualism in the reluctant person of Roddy McDowall. Note the slightly distorted image and the oppositional spaces the actors occupy in the composition.

Transposing the action of the novel from New England to Great Britain and working with what is fairly obviously a limited budget the director, John Hough (a minor name, that) and his gifted cinematographer Alan Hume, pile on the atmosphere, surrounding the actors in a tenebrosity thick enough to cut and relieved only by restricted islands of murky light. The characters are isolated, not merely by their position in the house but by their lonely, secretive personas, emphasized by Hume’s photographing them through a variety of distorting lenses. The disconcerting electronic music of Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson also adds to the growing sense of unease. It’s not, strictly speaking, a musical score so much as an unnerving soundscape highlighted by an ethereal rhythmic beating effect, like the incessant throb of a giant, unseen heart. The heart of Hell House itself?

Gayle Hunnicutt in what is, for her character, an inconguously suggestive mood. For the house itself, outré sexuality is the norm.

Despite the economically limited scope, the movie contains strikingly few risible moments, like the patently phony cat attack on Franklin*; the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is done better, and on a smaller budget. We miss, too, Matheson’s extended sequence of Revill being dragged to his death, here reduced to a more standard shock image as Hunnicutt and McDowall discover his bloody corpse. (The Franklin character’s stunning death in the novel, courtesy of that profane rood, is also omitted.) But for the time, and considering the niggardly budget, the finale, and the dinner scene in which Revill is attacked by ordinarily inanimate objects in the dining room, are remarkably done, and genuinely frightening. Generally, however, and unlike today’s CGI-obsessed filmmakers, the scenarist and director emphasize the human aspects of the story: McDowall’s refusal to open his senses to the house; Revill’s preoccupied arrogance; Hunnicutt’s neglected state, which leaves her dangerously vulnerable to erotic possession; Franklin’s deep belief in her abilities, in its way as presumptuous and wrong-headed as Revill’s deluded rationality.

McDowall in the final, apocalyptic face-off with the shade of Emeic Belasco.

McDowall in the final, apocalyptic face-off with the shade of Emeic Belasco.

It all leads to McDowall unmasking Belasco, in the movie’s effective,  thematically unified and — even if the corporeal demon’s prostheses are rather too modern in design — emotionally satisfying climax. (Belasco’s perfectly preserved corpse is “played” by Michael Gough.) A friend expressed some mild surprise that The Legend of Hell House has not (yet) been, to use an odious term for an odious practice, re-made. If (when?) this happens, it follows that story, logic, character and literacy will almost certainly be replaced by narrative indifference, implausibility, cardboard delineation and the usual sour jokes that pass for wit in these sub-literate times. Not to mention teasing, slickly Kubrickian glimpses of sexual pathology and the usual dispiriting over-reliance on wall-to-wall musical scoring and a numbing plethora of computer-driven effects. Heaven protect us from that Hell.

*The morinically literal-minded point to the movie’s bookend shots of the black cat outside the Belasco house as a continuity error, forgetting, in their knuckle-headed obsessiveness, that The Legend of Hell House is a ghost story: Earthly logic need not apply. And anyway, who says it’s the same cat?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Agony and the Impotence: 12 Monkeys (1995)

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By Scott Ross

twelve-monkeys-1996-movie-poster1 12 Monkeys locandinapg11Terry Gilliam is, to my mind, the most important fantasist in the movies, a magician whose finest work is the cinematic equivalent of a novel by William Kotzwinkle or E.L. Doctorow: Bracing, intelligent, exhilarating, lyrical. Dangerous. Although his most distinctive projects are, generally, those he initiated, and on whose screenplays he collaborated, he has occasionally been a most effective director-for-hire on other people’s movies. It is a perversity of the filmic gods that two of these, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, have been his biggest box-offices successes. Even odder, perhaps, the latter is one of his most artistically triumphant.

Bruce Willis with the splendid Madeline Stowe.

Bruce Willis with the splendid Madeline Stowe.

The presence of Bruce Willis no doubt had something to do with the movie’s box office appeal, although one cannot imagine the star’s average fans (12 year-old boys of all ages) being best-pleased with the result — nor, for that matter, with the later The Sixth Sense. But it is to the actor’s credit that he periodically takes on chancy work, and in which he tends to give his best performances even if, at times, the movies themselves (In Country, Pulp Fiction) are less interesting (in the case of the former) or fully satisfying (the latter) than he himself is in them. I can just hear his agent’s screams of anguish when he opted for 12 Monkeys… and at a salary considerably less than either were used to receiving.

Terry Gilliam on set.

Terry Gilliam on set.

Inspired, if not precisely based on, by Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée12 Monkeys posits a future bleaker and even less hopeful than that of Brazil, but with the possibility of, if not Eden or Utopia (much less Shangri-La) some form of human redemption. That concept, coupled with the question of relative madness, constitute essential Gilliam territory. Here, working from a profoundly logical script by David and Janet Peoples — and on what must, in the perennially bloated Hollywood of today, be considered an almost obscenely tiny budget — Gilliam fashioned a movie experience that is pretty much non pariel.

Cole begins to understand... but not, alas, everything.

Cole begins to understand… but not, alas, everything.

Thus Willis’ James Cole, the hapless, angry but essentially decent prisoner/experimental monkey of good (if fascistically-implemented) intentions, may be read as mad or all too sane, and the ambiguity is intentional. Is the future which uses him — and all but uses him up — an inward manifestation of insanity to which all his outward acts are related, or is he in fact exactly what he claims? It may be putting too fine a point on things that his one-time psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) explains, in a lecture, “Cassandra in Greek legend, you recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” She, of course, believes Cole is violently, dangerously insane, and her faith, tenuous as it may be, in the new god of psychotherapy, ultimately infects even him. Thus he begins to question the evidence of his experience even as Kathryn doubts her own and just as she is slowly coming to accept that everything he has claimed just may be the truth. This is perhaps not what Aristotle had in mind when he defined the Classical tragic unities, but in thematic terms (at least those of Gilliam and the Peoples) the juxtaposition is a perfect, ironic narrative “rhyme,” one fully in keeping with the movie’s scrupulously maintained, if seemingly illogical, order.

Part of the unsettling  hybrid decor of the future, past wed, uncertainly, to present.

Part of the unsettling hybrid decor of the future: Past wed, uncertainly, to present.

To say more would be to spoil the experience for those who have not yet shared it, although like any work of complexity and vision, 12 Monkeys yields more layers, engenders more plangent emotion, with each new viewing. Aside from sheer image size, the thing that cannot, sadly, be replicated in the living room (or wherever it is people watch movies these days) is what, in the theater, was an elemental factor in appreciating the whole: The superb sound design which, when called for, located certain dialogue (real, imagined or ambivalent) above, behind, and around the spectator, a device whose uncertain eeriness placed us in Cole’s confused position as much as the unsettlingly grungy decor.

Brad Pitt: The most beautiful young actor in Hollywood as wall-eyed psycho.

Brad Pitt: The most beautiful young actor in Hollywood as wall-eyed psycho.

Cavils with the movie are few, and almost incidental. Over and above their startling appearance we may wonder, quite properly, why sub-Saharan animals would elect to remain in a climate as inhospitable as that of Philadelphia, especially in the winter. Just for the sake of an unexpected shock? The green-hued homage to Vertigo in the movie theater lobby feels misplaced and unsatisfying except to a Hitchcock aficionado, as neither we nor, presumably, Cole and Railly, have seen another Madeleine’s transformation in that film. As the biological scientist whose concerns over his schizophrenic son’s uncertain activities prompts him to make precisely the wrong decision at exactly the wrong moment — and, also ironically, to trust the one person he shouldn’t — the usually reliable (and here, otherwise splendid) Christopher Plummer exhibits one of the phoniest Southern accents ever heard in a major movie. Brad Pitt, cast as the son just prior to his ascendancy to stardom, seemed off-putting and over-broad in 1995. Curiously, his performance feels exactly right nearly 20 years later. Willis, as is his wont when he believes in a project enough for forego audience-pleasing action and his own starry salary, is superb as Cole, and Stowe is revelatory, making each step of Kathryn’s journey explicable and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

Topside: In the absence of humans, the animals reclaim the earth. (The lion will be explained later; just don't dwell too long on why he never migrated south.)

Topside: In the absence of humans, the animals reclaim the earth. (The lion will be explained later; just don’t dwell too long on why he never migrated south.)

One of the movie's many superbly surrealistic, yet utterly logical (and sublimely lyrical) images.

One of the movie’s many superbly surrealistic, yet utterly logical (and sublimely lyrical) images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aside from the performances, and the Peoples’ exhilaratingly literate dialogue and refreshingly adult approach to character, incident and structure, what binds 12 Monkeys and holds its place in the memory is Gilliam’s unique and hauntingly original imagery. All of it, moreover, rigorously applied to, and in service of, the overall effect of the narrative, like Paul Buckmaster’s cunning use of the “Introduccion” to the Suite Punta del Este of Astor Piazzola and his own strategically recurrent, and achingly beautiful, violin theme, the striking cinematography of Roger Pratt and the brilliantly realized editing of Mike Audlsey. Gilliam’s control over, and use of, these and others of his materials is astonishing, particularly given the movie’s almost ridiculously reduced budget which, in an action franchise picture, would have otherwise merely accounted for its star’s salary.

Carol Florence and David Morse in the beautifully ambiguous final scene. Let the endless, insipid Internet debates begin!

Carol Florence and David Morse in the beautifully ambiguous final scene. Let the endless, insipid Internet debates begin!

Arguments have raged over the scene that follows the movie’s climax, but if you’ve paid sufficient attention to the preceding sequence, it’s perfectly placed, and pays off magnificently, if not overtly, like the haunting eyes of little Joseph Melito, a child witnessing the culminating event of his own future. Aside from its questionable grammar, I have often been perplexed by Horace Walpole’s brief that, “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” I know no one I respect who does not possess both perspicacity and empathy. For us life is not one thing or another; at best, it is tragi-comic. Gilliam et al. respect, and understand, that. It’s rare enough to be treated, in these days of appalling over-simplification of everything, to a movie whose makers do not serve everything up like a set of instructions on how to think (although that’s also rare) or how, and what, to feel (far more common.) The seeming anti-climax of 12 Monkeys is a grace-note in a world grown increasingly graceless. 12 Monkeys James Cole eyes Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Unsound Design: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971/2001)

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Bedknobs poster MPW-49141
By Scott Ross

The 2001 restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks raises some interesting, and unsettling, questions, about the process. Even when exceptional care and devotion are lavished on a movie, as with David Lean’s 1989 “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia, some of the results may be less than felicitous. Lean had second thoughts, for some inscrutable reason, about a single line in the Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay spoken by Peter O’Toole, and his revision completely reversed its meaning.

General Allenby: You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met!
Lawrence: Leave me alone!
Allenby: What?
Lawrence: Leave me alone!
Allenby: Well, that’s a feeble thing to say.
Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
Lawrence: All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?

In 1962, O’Toole said, “I’m extra-ordinary!” In 1989, Lean re-jiggered that loaded adjective to a mere “extraordinary.” The difference? Only the world.

Like Bedknobs and BroomsticksLawrence was eviscerated, both at the time of its release and for later reissue. By linking the two I am certainly not suggesting that one is any way the equal of the other. Bedknobs is a pleasant, if somewhat derivative, fantasy musical with engaging performers and a charming Sherman Brothers score, while Lawrence is, despite its “bio-filmic” origins, sui generis — one of the supreme glories of the English-speaking cinema. Where the two intersect is in their shared histories of imbecilic, ruinous wholesale cuts for no reason other than commerce. Where their restorations differ is in the quality of the restoration process itself.

When Lean required lines to be dubbed onto found footage with no soundtrack, he not called upon as many of his original cast as were still alive and able; he also recorded the lines with an ear to matching the original sound as much as the timbres of the much younger actors on-screen. Lean is, puzzlingly, virtually alone in this. In nearly every other large-scale restoration of its kind (Spartacus in particular comes to mind, with its visually and aurally flawed restoration of infamous “snails and oysters” sequence) the ambient sound of the newly dubbed lines in no way matches what was originally recorded. How was Lean able to do that which no one else either cares to, knows how to, or is, seemingly, physically capable? How did Columbia Pictures re-create the sound quality of 1962?

I don’t know, and have never been able to track down, what specific sound recording system Walt Disney and his company employed from the 1950s to the ’70s, any more than I can identify the system employed by Warner Bros. from the 1940s on. But one has only to listen with half an ear to the soundtrack of any film from either studio from those years to appreciate the crystal clarity of the reproduction. (Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.) Were these sound designs deemed antiquated at some point, perhaps with the creation of newer microphones and tape systems, the original equipment junked? Or is there some other, even more technical reason for the discrepancy? Why, so often, in movies and on CD, does the much-vaunted digital process pale next to the allegedly “inferior” sound recording of old?

Whatever the reason, in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, all of the re-dubbed scenes are reproduced, not with the striking crispness of the original but with the infinitely more casual, and muffled, make-do of our current era. Of course I know that sound recorded on the set with its unique, ambient quality, can seldom be replicated in a studio; it’s why, whatever the time period, you can nearly always tell which lines have been over-dubbed later. Indeed, in the case of musicals, pre-recorded vocals seldom replicate live sound. But the absolutely dead sound the current Disney engineers retro-fitted onto this movie is matched in apathy only by the appalling voice work by the actors attempting to double for David Tomlinson and Tessie O’Shea, the latter of whose accent now fluctuates wildly over the British Isles, like a berserk vocalic Norman chasing after an elusive, mute Saxon zombie.

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the "A Step in the Right Direction" number. Any resemblance between it and "A Spoonful of Sugar" is purely intentional.

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the “A Step in the Right Direction” number. Any resemblance between it and “A Spoonful of Sugar” is purely intentional.

 

Any number of additional ironies attached themselves to this one. The original cut of the movie ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes and was intended as one of the last of the big “road-show” spectacles. Unbelievably, Walt Disney Productions planned its premier at Radio City Music Hall in, it seems, complete ignorance of that tatty but venerable establishment’s rule that films accompanying its live stage shows be of no more than 2 hours in length. Disney exceeded that demand, shearing 30 minutes not merely for Radio City but the movie’s general release, losing several musical numbers and so much dialogue that what was left was difficult to follow — surely a disastrous outcome for a fantasy aimed as much at children as their parents. The studio further compounded this minor obscenity by utterly eviscerating what remained for a late-’70s reissue: 139 minutes in 1971 became first 117 and, finally, a paltry 99 in 1979. Many of the dialogue sequences restored had lost their soundtrack, hence the (again, execrable) re-dubbing. And in a final (and, it seems, irreversible) irony, the very impetus for the 2001 restoration, bringing Angela Lansbury’s “A Step in the Right Direction” number, extant on the 1971 soundtrack album, back to the movie, was thwarted; it has disappeared and was, presumably, destroyed(!)

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

I was young enough in 1971 (10, if you’re morbidly interested) to love even the truncated original, although I loved it less a few months later, on reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, which bear very little resemblance to the movie on which they were, quite loosely, based. Best to think of the film, as with the more vaunted (and popular) Mary Poppins, as variation on a theme. My invoking Poppins is not coincidental. Not only was the same creative team responsible for Bedknobs, from the screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and the director Robert Stevenson to the song-writing Shermans, both narratives involved magical (and musical, if somewhat starchy) spinsters, contain animated/live action sequences, and feature Tomlinson, here promoted from secondary lead to co-star. (It’s tempting, if fruitless, to imagine the movie with Lansbury squired by Ron Moody, who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict.) But where Poppins is light on its feet, emotionally plangent and possessed of a seemingly effortless charm, Bedknobs is, despite its magical elements, more earth-bound, less felicitous, and in general has less sentimental resonance than an average re-run of Lassie.

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

And yet… Bedknobs and Broomsticks has much to recommend it, enough to overcome even the dreadfulness of the dubbing. First, the presence of Angela Lansbury. This almost criminally under-utilized performer was given her finest and most taxing roles not in film, in which she began (her acid-etched portrait of mother-love gone mad in The Manchurian Candidate excepted) or on television, where she reigned for some time in the 1980s, but on Broadway. Bedknobs represents her only real, extensive opportunity to shine, not merely as the star, but as a musical star, and is, perforce, treasurable.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars: Roy Snart, Cindy O'Callaghan and Ian Weighill.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars.

Roy Snart, Ian Weighill and Cindy O’Callaghan, the Cockney children Lansbury’s apprentice-witch is saddled with, are exceptionally well-cast, believable both as siblings and as War orphans, and never, as Disney tots tend, cloying. Tomlinson clearly had a high old time of it playing a rogue who would have given his own Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins the jim-jams, and Sam Jaffe makes a small repast of his appearance as the slightly sinister Bookman. Roddy McDowall, in his relatively brief but cunningly executed role as a nakedly avaricious country vicar, is especially welcome. (The restoration gives him greater prominence, which is useful, as the truncated version left one scratching one’s head, wondering who he was and why he was there at all.) If only the great Welsh music-hall performer Tessie O’Shea, seen only in dialogue sequences as a firm but kindly postmistress, had been given a dance or two!

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Sam Jaffe.

Sam Jaffe.

The true movie aficionado will also spot, in tiny roles, some mere glimpses, beloved character actors such as Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes, Jr. of Poppins), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom of same), Cyrl Delevanti (the beautiful old poet Nono of Night of the Iguana), and, somewhat shockingly, Hank Worden, barely noticeable, singing as part of the seaside town’s Old Home Guard. The twinned live action/animation sequences, directed by the often brilliant Disney veteran Ward Kimball, are variable. The first, in which Lansbury et al. find themselves in an island lagoon, is charm itself. Crashing an underwater tea-dance, Lansbury and Tomlinson perform a charmingly — there’s no other word for it — fluid duet, in a Sherman Brothers number that is quite obviously the precursor and begettor of “Under the Sea,” cleverly orchestrated by Irwin Kostel in patented 1940s ballroom fashion.

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in "Beautiful Briny Sea."

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in “Beautiful Briny Sea.”

The second is more problematic. The Shermans expected the follow-up sequence on the Island of Naboombu, wherein Tomlinson attempts to make off with the lion king’s enchanted medallion, to be musical, and penned a sleight-of-hand routine for the versatile actor.

Bedknobs - Tomlinson and King

 

What the filmmakers presented them instead was a non-musical, mildly diverting, football game. (Helpfully if inappropriately translated for American audiences as “soccer.”) If you stop to analyze the set-up, you’re lost: Why would these animals, whether immortal or merely the descendants of the enchanted originals, and who explicitly bar humans from their refuge, even know what football is, let alone be mad for it? Why, indeed, are they dressed contemporaneously? Logic takes as much an un-jolly holiday as music here.

bedknobs portobello

Far better, and nearly worth the restoration itself, is the preceding, and vastly extended, “Portobello Road” dance sequence, which even Pauline Kael, while deploring the cuts, enthused over. Here, the faded work-prints were beautifully enhanced, especially in the delightful Jamaican section. Now at last that Kostel-arranged Overture makes sense, as we finally understand why the master orchestrator spiced it throughout with brief, ethnically derived riffs and quotations. It is as if MGM, in order to squeeze in an extra screening or two, had cut the “Broadway Melody” ballet from the release print of Singin’ in the Rain.

The Sherman's credit on David Jonas' distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

The Sherman’s credit on David Jonas’ distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

 

Watching this extended edition of the movie, you understand just how badly the Shermans were represented by the 1971 truncation. Doubly sad, as it was in a sense the brothers’ last hurrah for Disney, and that the movie, even at just under 2 hours, was a financial disappointment: $17 million domestic rentals on a $20 million budget. Fortunately, and somewhat balancing the ultimate loss of “A Step in the Right Direction,” the restoration reinstates the wistful Lansbury ballad “Nobody’s Problems,” an all-too-brief reprise of a longer, and un-filmed, number for the children. It’s far too easy for cultural critics, especially today, to cynically dismiss the Shermans, but this snobbery does not admit of their innate and almost profligate musicality, their respect for narrative and characterization, and their sophisticated rhyming which is, somehow, both comprehensible to children and satisfying to adults simultaneously. You try that trick.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

By the Great Horn Spoon!: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)

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By Scott Ross

Revisiting a movie one loved as a child is always a risky undertaking, especially when the object is a Disney movie — and particularly a Disney movie comedy of the slapstick-happy 1960s. Will it be unbearably coy? Unutterably bland? Unendurably silly? Will the very elements that captured one’s youthful, unformed, imagination now reek of cheap, easy immaturity? Or will a return visit reveal new facets, more resonant with adulthood?

The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

What a pleasure, then, to revisit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin! From Ward Kimball’s minimalist, deliciously recherché opening titles to the hilarious climactic bout of fisticuffs, it proves that rare thing: A movie comedy whose tone and style never waver from beginning to end. And for those who, as I do, admire the great Roddy McDowall, the movie provides the additional unalloyed delight of enjoying him near the summit of his attractiveness and personal charm.

The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball's amusing visual effects.

The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball’s amusing visual effects.

I encountered this, and another unusually fine ’60s release, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, which also more than holds up, on the weekly Disney showcase around 1970. It was my introduction to McDowall, who almost certainly pinged something resonant in my nascent, pre-pubescent queer-boy radar.

 

The movie edition paperback of "By the Great Horn Spoon!", re-titled to reflect the movie.

The movie edition paperback of “By the Great Horn Spoon!”, re-titled to reflect the movie.

Two or three years later I greatly enjoyed Sid Fleischman’s 1965 source novel, By the Great Horn Spoon! with its picaresque Wild West narrative and its charmingingly sketchy illustrations by Eric von Schmidt. What I remember best about the novel (in which Griffin is called Praiseworthy, and Arabella is Master Jack’s aunt rather than his older sister) is the perilous sea trip around Cape Horn, jettisoned from a film already plot-heavy without that lengthy but informative diversion.

The adult viewer of Bullwhip Griffin catches, and savors, the story’s fulsome portrait of the raw San Francisco of 1849, the dime-novel excesses that excite young Jack to head West and inspire him to ascribe outlandish attributes for his butler/companion, the effectively melodramatic George Bruns score, the recurrent narrative ballad by Robert and Richard Sherman whose charmingly anachronistic melodic provenance seems to be Paul Dresser’s “Over the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” and spotting the many splendid character actors who provide comic assist. These include Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Mountain Ox, Harry Guardino as an amiable urban weasel, Liam Redmond’s blustering Captain Swain, Cecil Kellaway’s phlegmatic family retainer, Hermione Baddeley as a slyly house avaricious housekeeper, Joby Baker’s cheerful Mexican bandit, Arthur Malet as a nearly toothless recipient of frontier dentistry, John Qualen as a Frisco barber, Doodles Weaver as a bather in a fast sight-gag, Bert Mustin in an amusing bit as a lynching aficionado, and the peerless Richard Haydn as a florid stage actor, a character and a performer we wish had a larger role in the proceedings.

The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

Bryan Russell, playing young Master Jack, sounds more like a youth from Los Angeles than the scion of Boston nabobs, but he’s a likable presence. (For many years I misidentified him as Kurt’s brother, an understandable mistake given their similarity of facial characteristics, vocal timbre and boyhood appearances in Disney features.)

McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

Karl Malden, an actor for whom I have scant use, is cannily employed as the movie’s unstoppable villain, the exuberantly smarmy Judge Higgins. Far better at broad comedy than in his more “distinguished” forays into drama, Malden is most effective when chewing all available scenery, as in his riotously frustrated Archie Lee Meighan in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.

Karl Malden as the slippery Judge Higgins. The onlookers are appropriately dubious.

Although she’s peripheral to much of the movie’s action, Suzanne Pleshette is her usual delight as Jack’s sister. No shrinking Boston violet, this Arabella; she’s as amused as she is appalled by her profligate grandfather’s final joke of leaving her penniless, makes her confident way in San Francisco as a saloon chanteuse, and avidly spars with Griffin in preparation for his ultimate battle with Mazurki.

Adventures of Bullwhip - McDowall, Pleshette, Russell 04

The delectable Suzanne Pleshette greets her long-lost brother and her butler-cum-swain in San Francisco.

As Griffin, McDowall does everything he did well, plus. As imperturbable as Ruggles at his starchiest, tolerant of Jack’s boyish impulses, implacable in his sense of honor, unflappable in his determination yet game for whatever opportunities arise, McDowall’s Griffin is thoroughly engaging company. As an added fillip, the movie, smartly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and stylishly directed by James Neilson, utilizes slapstick devices like under-cranking for sped-up effects and a series of delicious animated assists from Kimball. The best of these is the period Cupid who floats languidly across the screen to the accompaniment of an hilariously under-powered horn solo, whenever Pleshette bestows a kiss on McDowall.

Griffin's terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

Griffin’s terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

The mis-matched boxing championship with which the narrative culminates hinges on these comedic effects, and could easily have been sunk by them. Instead, they, like the inventive choreography of Alex Plasschaert, prove positive assets, done with the complete assurance and the broad smile of the consummate prankster. Far too many Disney comedies of the period, and after, and which utilize similar devices, wedded to cutsey-poo plotting and cartoon characterization, are broad, vulgar, fiascoes of the type that give “family comedy” such a black eye and which so fervently resist revisiting. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, like The Love Bug and the originals of That Darn Cat and Freaky Friday, are the exceptions one wishes had more often proved the rule.

One of Peter Ellenshaw's superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.

One of Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross