Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Monday, December 21, 2009


In the 1960’s and 70’s, director Don Siegel was known for his urban, gritty, often violent crime dramas, the best example being “Dirty Harry.” In the 1950’s, he was known as an up-and-coming director of tough and smart “B” pictures, like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But in the late 1930’s and 40’s, he was under contract to Warner Brothers, and his specialty was editing montages, those nifty, layered, transitional sequences with their spinning newspapers, peeling calendar pages, flying graphics, canted angles, stock footage and rapid fire images, for feature films. So good was he at this job that Jack Warner refused to let Siegel out of his contract so he could direct features himself. The consolation prize evidently thrown Siegel’s way was the opportunity to direct short subjects for the studio. Two he directed in 1945 both won Academy Awards in 1946 - “Hitler Lives” for Best Documentary, Short Subject and “A Star in the Night” for Best Short Subject, Two-Reel.

A Star In The Night” is an modern re-imagining of the Nativity Story, writ small, personal and accessible. It is a parable with J. Carrol Naish as a disenchanted Scrooge-like “inn-keeper” who, along with his rather misenthropic guests, learns the true meaning of Christmas when, on Christmas Eve, three gift-bearing cowboys, a philosophical hitchhiker, and a young pregnant couple named Maria and Jose, converge on his isolated desert motel after he erects a giant shining electric star to attract business.

A talented and ubiquitous character actor with over 200 film and television credits, Naish is best known to my generation as the villainous Daka in the 1943 “Batman” theatrical serial, and for roles in genre pictures such as “House of Frankenstein” and “The Beast with Five Fingers,” all seen in television re-runs and distributed on 8mm film for home viewing. He was perhaps best knows to my father’s generation in the title role of the top rated radio comedy, Life with Luigi.

The cast is rounded out with recognizable character actors the likes of Donald Woods, whose television and move career spanned six decades; Rosina Galli, at one time the prima ballerina (1914-29) and ballet mistress (1930-34) of the Metropolitan Opera; Richard Erdman, who is still making movies and television shows to this day; blustery Dick Elliot, who with 350 credits specialized in rotund and apoplexic characters, with memorable parts in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, ” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and as the original Mayor Pike on “The Andy Griffith Show;” silent film actress Claire Du Brey; Irving Bacon, with an astonishing 500 + screen credits, a dozen of which were for director Frank Capra; and Anthony Caruso, who, with almost 250 big and small screen credits, played the mob boss Bela Oxmyx in the original Star Trek series episode, "A Piece of the Action.”

Produced to play in theaters as part of a feature program during the holiday season, this is one of many interesting short subjects created by the Hollywood studio system at its heyday that might have been lost forever were it not for Turner Classic Movies.

It is a terrific film for the holiday season, moving, amusing and imaginative. Siegel keeps the plot and characters moving, and you can almost forget that nearly the entire film takes place in one set. Part of the fun is watching these talented actors make emotional u-turns as they decide to sacrifice their comforts to help the young couple in need. Also amusing is how Siegel and writer Saul Elkins cleverly avoid any direct mention of the couple's delicate condition, sidestepping any issues with Production Code restrictions and creating a running gag in the process.

I can’t say that “A Star in the Night,” was one of my Dad’s favorite movies. I can’t even say for sure if he ever saw it. But it’s one I think he would have liked very much, if for no other reason than the cleverness of the allegory and the filmmakers’ commitment to the metaphor. One of my Dad’s favorite movies was John Ford’s enjoyably overwrought “3 Godfathers,” which similarly retells the Nativity story with equal ingenuity.

You can see "A Star in the Night" here in its entirety.  Consider it a twenty minute Christimas card, and Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

SCROOGE (1970)

In the 1960’s, my Dad jury rigged a construction of cables and alligator clips and plugs that allowed us to record audio from our television and from our console radio/record player onto our portable (by 1960’s standards) reel-to-reel tape recorder. In the early 1970’s, I spent several days just before Christmas in the hospital. I took the reel-to-reel with me, and to keep in the holiday mood, listened to the soundtrack of the movie ‘"Scrooge.”

There have been more film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” than can be counted, beginning with short silent versions near the turn of the last century and continuing to today. But it was the musical version, “Scrooge,” starring Albert Finney in the title role, that was my Dad’s favorite, and is mine.

In 1970, turning the Dickens classic into a musical would not have been an obvious move without the monstrous success of another Dickens musical adaptation, “Oliver!,” just two years earlier.

Thirty-four year old Albert Finney may be the youngest actor to ever portray Ebenezer Scrooge in a feature film. Richard Harris, who was initially offered the role, and having some musical experience in “Camelot” three years before, would have been 40. Rex Harrison, briefly cast before conflicts with another commitment took him out of the running, would have been 62.

Here, Finney is straddling his intermittent and somewhat schizophrenic shift from leading man to character actor. Finney, the young studly hooligan of “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Tom Jones,” is utterly convincing and almost unrecognizable as the gnarled, grimacing elder Scrooge. And in a part often portrayed by a younger alternate actor, he is virile and attractive as the younger version of Scrooge seen in flashbacks instigated by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Finney’s ability to persuasively portray both ages lends the story a continuity of emotion and makes the transition from youthful optimistic lover to bitter cantankerous misanthrope all the more heartbreaking and believable.

Through the 1970’s and 80’s, Finney would continue to essay similar, make-up laden character roles in “Murder on the Orient Express” and “The Dresser,” while continuing to play leading love interests and even action heroes in films such as “Gumshoe,” “The Wolfen,” and “Looker.” But “Scrooge” was his only chance to play both in one film.

There is a lot of impressive talent in evidence here. The supporting cast is a once-in-a-lifetime collection of British luminaries, including Dame Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, and Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost.

Finney and the cast are put through his paces by veteran British director Ronald Neame, whose career of over 80 screen credits stretched back at least as far as Alfred Hitchcock’s and the British film industry’s first talking picture, “Blackmail.” Neame’s eclectic career as a director included “The Horse's Mouth,” “Tunes of Glory, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

He collaborates here with the man he considered to be “the greatest cameraman in the world,” renowned Director of Photography Oswald Morris, who had photographed “Oliver!,” and who worked with Neame in one capacity or another on 15 ventures.

The impressive visual effects, including flying sequences, are by British special effects legend Wally Veevers (“Things to Come,” “Night of the Demon,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” “Excalibur”), eight years before he helped the world believe that a man could fly in “Superman.”

Even the whimsical credit sequence by iconoclastic cartoonist and illustrator Ronald Searle is notable (see images here ). Searle was solicited no doubt in part due to his illustrated version of "A Christmas Carol" published in 1961 (see images here).

But the real creative force behind “Scrooge” is undoubtedly Leslie Bricusse, who adapted the Charles Dickens story, composed the score and wrote the lyrics.

The script is tight, funny and moving, using Scrooge’s back story to lend pathos and verisimilitude to a character too often charactured. The actors deliver uniformly first class performances. The visuals, design, and costumes are striking, taking full advantage of the period setting. But it is the joyous, emotive, catchy songs and the lively choreography that accompanies them that truly distinguishes this version and that stayed with my Dad, in particular the raucous “Thank You Very Much,” a jubilant celebration of Scrooge’s passing by those who owe him money …

… and the festive “December the 25th,” which deserved to become a Christmas standard.

Even cleverer is the way several of the songs are reprised during and after Scrooge’s conversion. Scrooge’s anthem “I Hate People” becomes “I Like Life.” “Father Christmas,” sung with sarcastic bite by the street urchins that pester Scrooge as he slogs through the dirty streets of London, becomes an upbeat appreciation of Scrooge as he dons a Father Christmas costume to deliver gifts on Christmas morning. And “Thank You Very Much” is repeated in sincere gratitude for the man Scrooge has become.

Ronald Neame related this story to the British Film Institute: We were going to have Richard Harris. He was going to play the lead. And he had to go and make a film in Israel, I think. Something went wrong with it and he had to take it over, and he had to direct it. So we couldn't get him. The company who were financing the film said, well, if you can't get him, there are only two or three other names that are acceptable to us. One of those names was Finney - who turned it down. He said, I don't want to make a film just now. So we thought, Rex, Rex Harrison. Rex could sort of play Scrooge. So we gave the script to Rex and he liked it very much and we cast him. But there was a problem. Because he was at the end of a play which he was working on in London. He had three weeks more to play. We had to start in two weeks, because of weather conditions, summer and winter scenes. So this three weeks was really a nuisance, but we had to face it. And then we decided we would pay the theatre off. We'd pay for the three weeks, and we'd get Rex earlier. And then one day, we had a phone call from Alby Finney, who said, on the phone, I have just read your screenplay, in my office, because my partner is playing a small part, and (he said) you know, I would love to play it. And we said, Oh, Alby, oh goodness me! We've cast Rex Harrison. And he said, Oh well, it's my fault, but I would have loved it. And we did a terrible thing. Slightly ashamed to tell you. We told Rex that we hadn't got the money to pay off the theatre, but we had to start shooting the following Monday. Rex didn't mind very much. And Alby played the part. I've always been slightly ashamed of that. I don't know why I should tell you tonight, but you're all very fair!

You can see more clips from “Scrooge” at the Turner Classic Movies web site.
And you can buy Scrooge at

Thursday, December 3, 2009


My Dad led what could be described as a conventional life, even thought I think he was far from a conventional man. He worked his way through college, found employment in the shipping and then the textile industries. He started his own business. He went to work and came home every day at the same times. He never worked weekends. He kept his work life and his home life separate. And like most men of his generation, he prioritized supporting a family over other more personal goals. It was not until late in his life that I learned he had secretly harbored a desire to be an architect. He was a talented amateur artist, leaning toward emulating his childhood heroes like comic book illustrators Jack Kirby and Bill Everett. He designed the addition to our house. But his real life was his home and his family, and he was happy to do what was necessary to support and protect them.

However, it is no surprise that my Dad and others might have found the life of Murray N. Burns diverting or even appealing. As portrayed by Jason Robards on the Broadway stage and then in the movie version of playwright Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns,” Murray is a charming, charismatic, witty, iconoclastic, irreverent, bohemian non-conformist, redeemed by his affection for the 12 year-old nephew Nick that he has raised since his mother abandoned him. Together they live an unconventional life in a one-room New York City apartment as cluttered, eclectic and in disarray as Murray himself. As the movie opens Burns has been unemployed for months, having quit his demeaning job as joke writer for a television show aptly titled "Chuckles the Chipmunk.” He has never officially adopted his nephew, and the two draw the attention of social workers who threaten to take the boy into foster care unless Murray can somehow prove his fitness as a guardian.

“A Thousand Clowns” might be described as a coming-of-age story about a thirty-something man. But in the end, “A Thousand Clowns” is about parenting. And once Murray is convinced that he has provided Nick with the foundation to think for himself and not become “a chair,” he happily enters the rat race he has so abhorred for the sake of the “son” he loves. Murray is among the ranks of other non-conformist but ultimately dedicated movie parents and parental figures from others of my Dad’s favorite movies, most aptly Frank Sinatra in “A Hole in the Head” and Cary Grant in “Father Goose.”

I only briefly knew my father’s father, but I have the impression he may as well have been a bit of an endearing small-town rouge. And I like to think that my own relationship with my father somewhat mirrors a small portion of the fun and friendship these movies relate, even though my father’s life evidences none of the irresponsibility these characters possess.

“A Thousand Clowns” is ably directed by live television veteran Fred Coe, a producer and director known for discovering and nurturing extraordinary writing talent (Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, JP Miller, Herb Gardner). He attempted to “open up” the one-set play with punctuating and exuberant location excursions, shot with New Wave inspired visuals and sounds. But derived as it is from a Tony-nominated stage play, the movie maintains a talky and hightened theatricality, particularly in performance, that is appropriate to the material. While some might consider this to be Robard’s movie, it is really the perfect balance of well-developed, three-dimensional characters and endearing performances that elevates “A Thousand Clowns.”

Barry Gordon delivers a career making performance as the precocious Nick. It is shocking that as he continues to work to this day he has never been given the chance at another role as meaty and substantial as the one in “A Thousand Clowns.” Martin Balsam won his only Oscar as Murray’s conventional and concerned brother Arnold. Barbara Harris’ film debut brings her signature quirkiness to the role of the neophyte social worker pulled in by the appeal of Murray’s world. And famed Broadway director Gene Saks gives one of his rare film performances, bringing memorable menace and smarminess to "Chuckles the Chipmunk.”

But perhaps the most moving, eloquent and understated performance comes from William Daniels in only his second film appearance, two years before he would appear as Dustin Hoffman’s father in “The Graduate.” As Albert Amundsen, the stiff, stuffy, cold, humorless, by-the-book social worker who eventually threatens to take Nick from his home with Murray, Daniels plays what is essentially the heavy of the film. But author Gardner and performer Daniels bring a pathos and humanity to the character that borders on heart-breaking. He also has one of the best lines in the movie: "You are not a person, Mr. Burns. You are an experience."

Daniels went on to memorable performances in movies, television, and on the stage. He originated the part of John Adams in the Broadway musical “1776” and repeated the role in the film version. He played John Quincy Adams in the PBS production of “The Adams Chronicles,” won two Emmy’s as the caustic but well-meaning Dr. Mark Craig on the hit TV series “St. Elsewhere," was beloved of a generationas teacher Mr. Feeny in ABC's "Boy Meets World" and its Disney Channel sequel "Girl Meets World," and, to my Dad’s delight, was the voice of KITT the car in the original “Knight Rider” series.

You can watch "A Thousand Clowns" with some regularity on TCM.

© 2009 Edward Bowen