Fitzwilly (1967)

The holidays may be almost over, but there’s still time to talk about one of my favorite Christmas movies, “Fitzwilly.” As usual, this post contains spoilers. This probably won’t be a problem for you, though, as “Fitzwilly” is a notoriously difficult movie to find. Released briefly in 1998 on VHS, never on DVD, and only rarely shown on TCM, it’s likely you’ll never even see this film. And that’s a shame, too, because “Fitzwilly” is a charming light-hearted romantic comedy that never pretends to be anything else. It’s simple and refreshing, and probably one of the few “family friendly” movies I’ll ever review here. Charles Fitzwilliam is “Fitzwilly” (Dick Van Dyke), indispensable butler to the slightly batty, wealthy, philanthropic and elderly Miss Vicky (Dame Edith Evans). At first Fitzwilly seems like the perfect butler, but soon we realize there’s a layer of deception surrounding him. While ordering expensive silverware from a local luxury store, Fitzwilly dons a fake name and feigns a British accent — Van Dyke sounds just like Michael Caine here, with his accent much improved over the iffy accent he used in 1964’s “Mary Poppins” — and has the silver sent to a false address. He repeats this with different items in different shops, and his contacts in the mail rooms of all the largest department stores in New York happily intercept these packages and relabel them to be sent to the St. Dismas Thrift Shoppe, a fake thrift store that’s really storage for all the stolen … Continue reading

In Memoriam

Monday was the premier of TCM’s annual memorial reel, “TCM Remembers.” The reel is now available on the TCM website here. As always, it’s a beautiful memorial. Sadly, I learned today of the passing of John Harkness, film critic, author, poker player, and music reviewer. John was someone I knew on Usenet for over a decade. His posts, online articles and blogs were extremely influential in my conversion from a casual movie viewer to an amateur critic. John studied under Andrew Sarris and was a founding member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He wrote for Now since 1981, and contributed to Sight and Sound, Cinematheque and Take One. His book, The Academy Awards Handbook, is an essential reference source on the Oscars and has been through many printings. Recently I discovered John Harkness was also a well-known member of BARGE, the “Big August Rec.Gambling Event” poker tournament. If you’re going to read just one article about John, read this one from NOW Magazine Online. It’s strange calling him “John”, because I usually called him “Harkness”, but that just doesn’t seem appropriate right now. His recommendations and opinions on film and film books were always valued, and while he could be brusque, his candor was usually appreciated. I hate having to write this. John will be missed. LINKS:Torontoist article on John HarknessandPOP headline articleJohn Harkness Remembered on Northern Stars NewsNicholas Kohler remembers John Harkness on photo from claudia1967 at flickr

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Like most of my film entries, this post contains spoilers. “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is a science fiction adaptation of the Daniel Defoe classic. Set sometime in the future, it’s a surprisingly modern and compelling imagining of space travel between the Earth and Mars. The Criterion Collection DVD of this film was released in September; the previous laserdisc and VHS versions are long out of print. If the title and the subject didn’t already seem campy enough, the opening scene features Adam West and a trained monkey. Despite initial appearances, though, the film and set are quite understated. West plays Colonel Dan “Mac” McReady, the captain of a two man ship also occupied by Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper, played by Paul Mantee. Mantee is probably best known for his recurring role on “Cagney and Lacey” or his dozens of guest starring roles between the 1960s and 1990s. Mona, the monkey in a monkey-sized space suit, is their test subject, but Draper has become fond enough of her that he’s decided to take her back to Earth with them instead of leaving her behind on Mars as planned. The effects in “Crusoe” are quite good for the time. The minimalist interiors of the spaceship are extremely well-done, and avoid the temptation to crowd buttons and flashing lights into the scene to make everything look more “sciencey”. The grey paint on the ship even has a few wear spots and chips, making the ship look used. The exteriors of the ship and … Continue reading

El Brendel

Much of my information came from online sources (listed below) and the book pictured here, Anthony Slide’s Eccentrics of Comedy. Originally, my plan had been to thrill you all with a quick one-two punch, er, I mean series, of El Brendel-related posts. That is, until my plans were waylaid by an uncooperative fact that involved a few days of research… but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s nowhere else to begin but at the beginning. Elmer Goodfellow Brendel was born March 25, 1891, in Philadelphia, PA. Louie of the fabulous El-focused blog Give Me The Good Old Days! has a terrific run down of El’s first years and of his family. Both that post and the entire blog are highly recommended. When I first heard of El Brendel many years ago on the Usenet group alt.movies.silent, I thought El Brendel was a Latin name which meant something like “The Silly Person.” Imagine my relief when I discovered “El” was short for “Elmer”. Contrary to his famous stage and screen persona, Brendel did not come from a Swedish family; his father was German and his mother was Irish, and Brendel spoke with with no descernable accent. In 1913 Brendel started in vaudeville as a German dialect comedian. However, because of anti-German sentiment during WWI, he changed his shtick to a faux Swedish accent. This characterization became known as “The Simple Swede” and, by all accounts, was a success. His trademark accent routinely swapped a “y” sound for “j”, which lead to … Continue reading