Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film: RADIOLAND MURDERS (1994) starring Mary Stuart Masterson, Brian Benben and a host of others...

At first I thought this was the Woody Allen film about early radio, but once I read up on it on Netflix, I realized my error. I also realized about five minutes into the movie that a little of Brian Benben (an actor I am not familiar with) goes a very long way. Originally, I understand that Steve Martin was attached to this picture and boy he would have been perfect in the role of Roger Henderson, schleppy head writer for a new radio station set to take the airwaves by storm.

It's 1939 and radio is king. On the day of WBN's on air debut, the station's owner General Whalen, is in over-preening attendance as is a major unhappy sponsor (he never laughs and he hates the writing) plus a host of potential investors, not to mention a live radio audience in the studio eagerly waiting to be entertained - all blissfully unaware that a crazed murderer lurks among them.

The film was executive produced by George Lucas (he wrote the original story) and directed by Mel Smith.

This ought to have been a smash hit. I mean, with a premise like that - right?

But it was not to be.

RADIOLAND MURDERS was a humongous flop the first time around and a lot of the reviews online still label it a big stinkeroo. 

But I'm a fan of the murders in a radio station atmosphere so I thought I'd take a peek. I'm kind of glad I did.

Marie Stuart Masterson and Brian Benben - confused husband and almost ex-wife

The good news first:

RADIOLAND MURDERS has a fabulous cast (even Benben sort of grows on you after a while, kind of like a crazed cousin who means well). It is the cast which makes it all worthwhile. The film  also has a wonderfully atmospheric beginning done at Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas' kingdom of special effects. (In fact, much use is made of computer wizardry though you'd hardly notice. It's all done very well to great effect.)

But back to the cast. Let me list the actors:

Mary Stuart Masterson is Penny Henderson, General Whalen's assistant, soon to be the ex-wife of head writer Roger Henderson (Brian Benben).

Ned Beatty is the radio station's owner, General Walt Whalen, a guy who runs the station as if his employees were enlistees.

Baby-faced Scott Michael Campbell is Billy the station page, a boy in ridiculous uniform who has Aspirations. His mom and pop are in the audience hoping for a glimpse of their son doing Something.

Jeffrey Tambor (wearing a most conspicuous hair piece) is the director, Walt Whelan, Jr.
Christopher Lloyd is Zoltan the backstage sound effects man who huffs and puffs his way through the whole movie never leaving his backstage lair.

Corbin Bensen is the smarmy radio announcer.

Stephen Tobolowsky is the sound chief. You'll remember him from the television classic, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. And if you don't, you should.

The ultra wonderful Broadway transfer Anita Morris is Claudette Katsenback, The Va-Va Voom Girl, femme fatale and sultry singer. This woman should have been a HUGE star.

Harvey Korman is a writer who spends the entire movie in a drunken stupor (not much of a part, but it's always nice to see Harvey anytime, anywhere).

And best of all, there's Michael McKean. He is Rick Rochester, the harried and much put-upon orchestra leader. Let me just say, I ADORE Michael McKean. He can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned and if you need any reason to watch this film, he's reason enough.

 I love this guy's face. The way he reacts on camera, just watching him doing nothing makes me smile. He throws himself into this part and you can see by his gleeful expressions that he's apparently having a lot of fun.

Added to the cast are special appearances by George Burns, Rosemary Clooney and Billy Barty as radio acts. On the revolving stage, bands (swing, western, blues, opera, you name it), singers and assorted 'acts' entertain in between various programs: a detective show, a thriller show, an adventure show, a cowboy show, a soap opera, a caveman show and other assorted radio favorites. All accompanied by raucous sound effects created by the indefatigable Zoltan.

All brought to you at the speed of sound.

Once the station goes on air, nothing, not even murder can stop its forward motion. It's a barely controlled behemoth kept in check by frenzied behind the scenes activity. The much-put-upon writers deliver new dialogue to the on-air actors who suffer through constant re-writes most of which make little sense. And in between, girl groups sing and dance the requisite commercials. (This is almost the best part.)

The entire movie takes place inside the radio station during its debut broadcast, though bits and pieces occur on various window ledges and then near the end, up on the roof and the tall radio tower. The excellent editing by Paul Trejo is super-quick and beautifully synchronized, cutting back and forth between backstage, front-stage, audience and studio control room. Not to mention, the underneath gears of the revolving stage.

I loved the sound editing, fully integrated as we move between singing, music, screeching, screaming, dancing, talking, murders, all the while Roger trying to get his wife back (she thinks he cheated on her) and facing a revolt of the writing staff who hasn't been paid in weeks.

Through a set of convenient circumstances, Roger becomes the main suspect - no surprise there. The bunch of keystone cops then begin chasing him around the studio while he tries to find the real killer as one after another, the victims topple.

It's all a throw-back to the frantic screwball comedies of the thirties complete with lots of physical comedy, pratfalls, fast talking and the like. Most of it works for me.

Now for the bad news:

As I said, I'm not crazy about the leading man played by Brian Benben. I'm not crazy either about the guy who plays the homicide detective in his usual very unfunny over-the-top fashion, Michael Lerner.

As for the movie's pace, near the end, it all begins to pall. The shticks slacken, the film becomes wearily insistent if you know what I mean. A movie like this needs spontaneity, or the appearance thereof. But RADIOLAND MURDERS begins to run out of gas in the last quarter of the film.

Even though the bad guy is bumped off in an inventive way (think KING KONG) and the murder motive is a rather amusing one - I can say no more - by the final denouement and the requisite chase for the murderer, I was getting a bit restive and wishing the movie would end already. I hate when that happens.

But on the whole, I'd rather have seen this than not. I'm thinking you'll feel the same way.

Scott Michael Campbell as Billy the Page.

Don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog to see what other Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films other bloggers are talking about today.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Bookplates To Love

Three beauties:

Design: Maxfield Parrish based on his 1887 Harper's Weekly cover. via

Two Literary Apes  seeking their humanity?

His and her books:

I find the wording on this bookplate rather odd. via

Note the extreme difference in tone between these two doctor's bookplates:

Design: Gaborjani Szabo for Dr. Sandor 1936

Three bookplates which would make me think twice about borrowing: 


Famous Readers - 8 Bookplates

I believe Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1853 - 1919) based this design on a painting of his wife.

Bookplate of British literary giant Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870) via

Bookplate of Hollywood kingpin, Cecil B. DeMille (1881 -1959) maker of movie spectaclesvia

Bookplate of Queen Victoria (1819 - 1901). via

Bookplate of mathematical wizard Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955). via

Bookplate of American illustrator Edward Penfield (1866 - 1925). via

Bookplate of famed author, journalist and social activist, Jack London (1876 - 1916). via

Bookplate of famed science fiction author and inventor of new worlds, H. G. Wells (1866 - 1946). via

For whatever reason, bookplates don't seem to be as popular now as they used to be. (Except as collectibles.) Maybe it's because the news leaked out that a glued in bookplate will lower the value on an otherwise collectible book unless the owner of said book is or was a famous person. (Or unless the book is SO rare, that an existing copy will be scooped up in any condition.) Oh no! But yes, it's true. 

Also it's hard to bookplate an e-book. Just sayin'.

Still, if you don't care about resale, then bookplates seem perfectly appropriate, especially if you have friends who are forever borrowing from your library. 

Of course bookplates make for wonderful ephemera collectibles on their own. 

If you want to see more and learn more there are a couple of websites online devoted to bookplates and their history: Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie is one of the best. I also love the Pratt Institute's Library on Flicker.

There's also my Pinterest Bookplates board, if you are so inclined. (And I hope you will be.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film: HIGHLY DANGEROUS (1950) starring Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark and Marius Goring

HIGHLY DANGEROUS (1950) is a film directed by Roy Ward Baker and written by spy thriller exemplar, Eric Ambler. The film stars Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark and Marius Goring.

This is a nifty little black and white Cold War thriller set mostly in a generic Balkan police state of the kind familiar to us from 1950's flicks. It features the Hitchcockian motif of well-meaning amateur thrust into danger which for what ever reason, always seems to work. Maybe because we're all Walter Mittys at heart? Author Eric Ambler made very good use of this trope in his books.

Gosh I love those unnamed Balkan states, so useful for all sorts of deadly movie doings back in the day.

Our story begins in England where  beautiful, but lonely and unmarried (most men think her vocation is disgusting, I mean, BUGS!) entomologist Frances Gray (Margaret Lockwood) is asked to do a simple enough sounding good deed for her country. At first, hesitant (as well she should be), she then decides to give it a go. After all, the danger is minimal. Yeah, right.

In fact, the whole idea of this mission is absurd, but since when has that ever stopped any plucky heroine?

Frances is addicted to the thrilling radio adventures of Frank Conway and his pal Rusty as they take care of the bad-guys and leave their devoted audience with a weekly hair-raising cliffhanger. Frances claims she only listens to the Conway show in order to repeat the stories to her nephew. Explanation: The boy is prevented from listening to the radio until he finishes his homework.

Her British government contact, Mr. Hedgerley (Naunton Wayne of Chalmers and Caldicott fame) realizes her fondness for the show and has Frances traveling as Frances Conway. Well, you didn't think she'd travel under her own name did you? False papers are a must. She is supposed to be a scout for a tourist agency, heading to this Balkan police state to check out tourism possibilities - though she knows nothing about the country except for some last minute crib notes handed her by Hedgerley. Yeah, that'll work.

The mission: find out if scientists in this unnamed country (or if it is named, I didn't catch it) are breeding diseased bugs as potential biological war weapons. You'd think this sort of thing which seems rather important to my untrained eye, would be handled in a more professional seeming fashion by the Brits, but then we wouldn't have a story. And anyway, no offense meant, but don't the British excel at this sort of bumbling spy-work?

Frances Gray may be a good entomologist, but she makes for an amateurish spy not even bothering to really hide her microscope (she thinks putting it in her handbag and tucking the handbag under her train seat will work). Women have been known to carry a multitude of things in their handbags, but a laboratory microscope? At any rate, Frances is unfortunate enough to find herself sharing her train compartment with Commandant Razinski, Chief of Police of said unnamed Balkan state. He is played with total gusto by Marius Goring in a very sinister fashion. (He really appears to be having a great deal of fun being bad.)

Razinski finds the pocketbook under the seat (well, the straps are in full view) and from that moment on, Frances is under suspicion. She unwittingly gets her contact killed once she arrives in town and must turn to an American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark) for help to carry out her mission. He's in it for the story and she's in it to save mankind. You know how that goes.

Dane Clark is a strange movie presence. He starred in many two-bit B films of the fifties and always delivered, usually as a hood. He had an odd, almost homely, large featured face and he began to lose his hair early. He really should not have been a leading man and yet he was and got away with it. In this film he plays stooge to the lady entomologist, risking life and limb to carry out a hair-brained plan (inspired by the exploits of Frank Conway and his pal Rusty) which has little chance of working.

Clark and Lockwood taking direction.

Except that, with a few dangerous blips, it does. Frances and Bill get samples of the bugs and then must get them back to England with the police and Razinski hot on their tails.

Here Frances wears the ugliest cat's eye sunglasses I've ever seen. Though in truth I probably wore the same pair once upon a time. Ha!

The movie was mostly filmed indoors at Pinewood Studios in England and it shows. Lots of rear projection and outdoor shots shot indoors, that sort of thing.

It's not the tightest thriller I've ever seen, nor even the most thrilling, but it has its moments. (Some rolling of the eyes is called for but then, that's usually the case with these sorts of films.) What makes this film worth a look is the sparkling cast.

Who couldn't like a film which starred Margaret Lockwood, Dane Clark, Marius Goring (chomping on a cigar throughout), Naunton Wayne, Wilfred Hyde-White (LOVE this man) as the British consulate, Michael Horden as Frances' boss at the lab, and in a short part done very well, Eugene Deckers. A terrific cast.

Wilfred Hyde-White and Marius Goring

But still, while watching, I couldn't help wondering what Hitchcock might have done with the same material.

Don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom to see what other overlooked or forgotten films other bloggers are talking about today.

HIGHLY DANGEROUS is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Two By Ellery Queen

(Love this cover.)

Ellery Queen again?


But not to worry, these may be the last two for awhile. If you know this blog then you're familiar with my occasional book frenzies. So do not be alarmed, it is a minor compulsion. I think.

THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY (1934) is another Queen book that begins spectacularly (truth to tell all of the Queen mystery set-ups are pretty brilliant) and then, near the end sort of comes down to earth when all is revealed. The solution to this one is not as convincing as it should be and I did have to role my eyes a bit, but then that happens a lot with Ellery Queen. Still, I loved the book.

Here's my take: When an author (or authors) get you to love a book in spite of your misgivings, THAT, my friends, is audacious brilliance.

THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY (LOVE that title) is a bewildering locked room puzzle. Locked room murders are a kind of sub-genre in mystery writing and when I'm reading one, I always prepare myself for a preposterous denouement (it's part of the give and take with these particular sorts of books). This mystery is no different, its reveal is Preposterous with a capital P - had to read the ending several times before I could make heads or tails of it.

This is another Ellery Queen peppered throughout with clever chapter headings (a Queen specialty) but missing the printed cast of characters (as in a play), something I find very useful with this kind of mystery. I guess in later books they did away with this little affectation which I quite liked.

Douglas Kirk, a faltering book publisher and collector of jewels and rare stamps lives, along with family members in a large suite of rooms at the Hotel Chancellor. His business offices are advantageously on the same floor, next door to the suite, so assorted other characters come and go (very convenient to the plot). Also on hand is the girl of Kirk's dreams, Miss Temple, who knows a lot about Chinese lore, since she spent several years there.

Ellery Queen's women characters are often more interesting than his male creations and Miss Temple is one of his best. Miss Temple's book on China (in the vein of Pearl Buck) is being considered for publication by Kirk, though his hard-drinking partner sneers at the idea. Kirk, smitten with Miss Temple and trying to break free from a designing femme fatale, is caught on the horns of a dilemma.

The fictional Ellery Queen, bibliophile and well-known mystery solver, is invited to dinner by Kirk and asked, with no further explanation, 'to keep an eye on things'. Intrigued, Ellery is on the scene when on the day of the dinner, an inexplicable (and rather outrageous) murder takes place in a locked room whose main door was always under observation by a hotel employee.

In that room is found the body of a mystery man. A stout middle-aged stranger who'd arrived earlier (without appointment) to see Kirk and was ushered into the waiting room by Mr. Osborne, philately associate and Kirk's keeper of the business gates.

When later, the room (unexpectedly locked) is opened, everything in it is a confusing jumble -  the furniture and even the dead man's clothing are turned backwards. Not only that, but the body has no identification on it. By the way, this is a mystery in which the actual name of the dead man is unimportant.

In the end, when events are explained all because of Ellery's insistence that the backward theme is the most important clue (the cops suppose it's only the doings of a maniac) I couldn't help but think that stripping a dead body and then re-dressing it backwards is no easy task. I still say it's impossible, given the time. But maybe that's just me. The incredibly swift (and convoluted) solution the killer puts into play when he discovers that the dead man has no neck tie strains credulity to the breaking point.

But we do get to learn quite a few interesting bits and pieces about Chinese culture and stamp collecting.

At any rate, despite my misgivings, I loved this book even if one of the main characters embodies a pet peeve of mine: the hysterical man. It's probably not politically correct, but I can stomach a hysterical woman much better than I can a man.

You can see that I am quite willing to overlook all sorts of things when it comes to Ellery Queen. As I said before, that's brilliance. Far as I'm concerned anyway.

THERE WAS A OLD WOMAN (1943) has a kind of 'alice in wonderland' plot (though it owes a great deal to Mother Goose) with Ellery in the role of 'Alice'.

The outrageous, contentious, highly eccentric and very wealthy Potts family live in a huge Riverside Drive mansion in upper Manhattan, ruled with an iron fist by the elderly Potts matriarch, Cornelia Potts. Their fortune results from trade: Potts Shoes are America's Shoes - $3.99 Everywhere. On the grounds of the elaborate mansion sits an incongruous sculpture of a shoe over which a neon sign declares 'The Potts Shoe.' Hence the old woman who lived in a shoe analogy.

The cantankerous (and sickly) elder Potts dominates the lives of her six grown children, three from a first marriage, three from a second. The first three, spawn of Bacchus Potts (declared dead), are the apples of Cornelia's eye, despite their colorful general unpleasantness. The second three are the spawn of a certain Steven Brent who, forced to change his last name to Potts, lives in the house as an ineffectual shadow father. His progeny are the sane (and therefore resented) half of the family.

Steve Potts, nee Brent, is a mildly interesting character relegated to the background because of his wife's indifference and contempt. He shares his life with an old (unmarried) male friend who also lives in the house. Very odd relationship viewed from today's point of view. Are these two men sharing more than endless games of checkers? The author does not elaborate.

"Marry Steve - yes, ma'am. But Steve, he'll die without me, ma'am. He's just a damn lonesome man, ma'am," Major Gotch had said to Cornelia. 'Seeing that you're so well-fixed, seems to me it won't ruffle your feathers none if I sort of come along with Steve.'

...and Major Gotch moved right along in and settled down to share his friend's incredible good fortune and make himself, as he liked to say, thoroughly useless."

In fact, most of the Potts, except for Cornelia herself and the twin sons of the second marriage (both of whom successfully run the shoe company), are entirely useless. With maybe a reservation or two for the plucky heroine, Sheila Potts, Thurlow's half-sister, who catches Ellery's eye though she is engaged to the family's lawyer Charlie Paxton.

It is Paxton, a friend of Ellery's, who draws the amateur sleuth into the Potts family doings.

Thurlow Potts (Built incredibly like a baby kangaroo.), the eldest of the 'original' Potts and Cornelia's favored son is a pompous loony who passes the time bringing lawsuits against anyone who dares insult the family name. He revels in his grotesque pursuits and precipitates tragedy by challenging his half-brother to a duel. The contretemps with real guns is held on the grounds of the mansion with Ellery acting as an unwitting 'second.'

The old woman who lived in a shoe analogy adds a kind of grim ridiculousness to the Potts' deadly doings which result in two murders, a natural (and very convenient) death, forgery, general unhappiness and hysteria and the attempted murder of Ellery himself.

The crimes' solutions (there are three or maybe four) are as improbable and convoluted as anything ever dreamed up by the authors, the last taking place in the middle of a wedding. But again, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and recommend it highly.

These two books are particularly well-written, they shine with excellence and a sense of joy in the writing (imagined or real) which, I believe, must stem from the inventive genius of the author tandem of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee.

Mysterious Press has re-issued a bunch of Ellery Queen (though not, as far as I know, There Was an Old Woman - I got my copy at the library) titles in nicely done trade paper-back editions.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Salon: Pastels and Watercolors by Felicity House

Preparing Broad Beans
Glasshouse Tomatoes

Apples for a Pie

Courtyard Udai Bilas Palace

At St. Malo

Two English Plums (this may be mis-titled)

Aubergine and Lilies

Lemon Curd

Early Broad Beans

Morning Garden

Almuna Terrace

Barbotine Antiquities

Marmelade Making

Table Set for Lunch

Woodland Fungi

The China Egg

British contemporary painter Felicity House is one of my favorite artists. I love the soft quality of her work even when she's using bright color. I also love her very free hand. Her paintings and drawings have an elegant spontaneity which I find beguiling.

I'm mad about pastels and/or watercolor work, deceptively 'easy' mediums which are, in reality, extremely difficult to master. (There is nothing quite so wrong as a bad watercolor.)

But House's talent coupled with her charming view of life just captivates me.

To learn more about Felicity House and her wonderful work, please use this link. An interesting interview with the artist here.

I apologize for the fact that some of these paintings don't enlarge much, but I've posted the largest copies I could find.

All works of art in this post are copyrighted by Felicity House.