Monday, 12 September 2016

Cry For the Strangers (1982)


Is it ghosts or madness?

It’s one of the core questions of paranormal plotlines. In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and in John Saul’s Cry For the Strangers. Is it ghosts or madness? And which one is scarier?

This post is for Realweegiemidget’s Darlin’ DallasersBlogathon, an event dedicated to checking out the non-Dallas work of Dallas regulars. I picked Patrick Duffy, who starred as Bobby Ewing – the initial main character of the lauded primetime soap, and originator of the “it was just a dream” shower reveal. Also, he sometimes hangs around with this crab:


In 1982, Duffy starred in a TV movie adaptation of Cry for the Strangers.

He played psychologist Brad Randall, a man tired of the Frasier Crane Seattle psych scene and in the mood to shake things up in his life. He and his wife, Elaine, decide to move down the Olympic peninsula to a creepy little town called Clark’s Harbor. Having lived my entire life in the PNW, I can tell you straight up that Clark’s Harbor is a weird place, and not just because of the looming threat of the supernatural.

It’s described in the original novel thusly:
“And it did look like a picture-postcard New England town. The buildings that clustered along the waterfront were all of a type: neat clapboards, brightly painted, with manicured gardens flowering gaily in the spring air.”
The film faithfully represents this, making Clark’s Harbor look and feel like Cabot Cove’s prettier, more bedevilled cousin. It’s bizarre. I have no idea why you’d go to all the trouble of setting something in Washington just so you could make it look like New England. Why wouldn’t you just set it in New England?

Anyway, the town is peopled with the usual New Englanders, including a reticent sheriff played by Brian Keith, fishwives and fishermen in northeast garb, gossipy café waitresses, and a whole bunch of multi-generational locals who give Brad and Elaine a frosty reception.

But that’s the town’s way. Newcomers aren’t welcome.

Newcomers aren’t safe.

Not when the storms are coming.

Clark’s Harbor, turns out, is beset by Gothic weather that would make the Brontë sisters go: “Hey, cool it with the atmospheric symbolism.” Lightning forks across moody purple skies, clouds roll in over swaying fishing boats, and storms break… and break… and break… against the strangely abandoned Victorian mansion that Brad has decided he has to live in. It’s on a hill called Devil’s Elbow. Across the bay from Devil’s Kneecap, I’m guessing. Just up the coastline from That Bruise the Devil Can’t Remember How He Got.

Everyone loves a massive coincidence, and in this story, the coincidence is the Palmer family. Their son, Robby, was diagnosed in Seattle as being severely autistic (this was in the early, early days of modern autism research, and it was kind of a hot topic in literature for a while. It was only three years after autism was officially separated from schizophrenia in medical literature, and horror writers in particular latched onto it).

You’ll never guess who Robby’s Seattle therapist was.

Dr. Brad Randall.


The Palmers, wanting a quiet and more easily structured life away from the city, moved down to Clark’s Harbor the year before. Since then, Robby’s made a miraculous transformation. He now behaves like any other boy his age, as though he’d never been anything different.

Brad right away finds this impossibly suspicious, but he can’t ignore that it seems to be happening.

Like any reasonable mental health expert, Brad begins to wonder if Robby’s recovery might be related to the high number of storms. It’s not totally out of left field, on the first night the Palmers rolled into town, they camped on the beach during a terrible storm – because if there’s one thing parents of autistic children know is a good idea it’s moving houses without a plan and sleeping in an unfamiliar setting during a thunderstorm. The Palmers are on the ball. Weirdly, though, that first night is when Robby started to change for the better.

In a casual session with Brad, Robby explains that he finds the storms soothing, but they put him in a kind of trance, and afterwards he doesn’t remember anything he did during the night before. (Storms only happen at night, you see.) At least once he’s snuck out with his younger sister Missy, and during a recent storm they lost track of the family dog…

The whole thing would just be a small peculiarity if it wasn’t for the murders. Every storm, a stranger dies. Someone from out of town, or not originally from Clark’s Harbor, turns up extremely dead in the morning. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, too. They’re usually found buried up to their necks in pits on the beach, then slowly drowned as the tide comes in. This is why the locals don’t like getting too close to newcomers, and also why Brad, Elaine, and the Palmers are all in more danger than they know.

There might be ghosts. Maybe. It's probably a serial killer, or the spirits that killed the last couple to live in Devil's Elbow, it's all very vague.

Which brings us to the biggest trouble with Cry for the Strangers. In its efforts to leave things eerily unexplained, keeping the madness door and the ghost door open at the same time for as long as possible, it doesn’t explain much. Or anything, really. Events just happen. Tension builds, but never suspense. The plotting is muddled and unsatisfying. The ending literally has Elaine asking about the many plot holes while Brad stares into the distance and tells us we’ll never know the answers.

It’s worth checking out only if you’re extremely bored, or if you find Patrick Duffy with a cheesy academic-type beard hilarious, which I do. (It looks very Amityville Horror, but like the low-fat yogurt version. Brad is the diet soda of horror protagonists. I love him.)


What’s totally worth checking out, regardless of your boredom levels, are the other posts in this blogathon! Yay! The master list posts on Sept. 22 on Realweegiemidget’s blog, so be sure to stop by. And if you’re in the mood for more Dallas tie-ins while you wait, you can check out Larry Hagman in these I Dream of Jeannie recaps.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Bonanza 01x09: Mr. Henry Comstock



You know what we haven’t seen enough of on this show? Trespassers. Trespassers and inaccurately represented historical figures. Luckily, this episode will remedy that, and also provide me with even more opportunities to drone on about the history of silver mining in Nevada. Because that’s the part you really come to read about.

Also, for a fun change, we get to watch an episode that's frequently criticized by fans of Bonanza for being boring and terrible. Let’s find out why!

It’s an easy, soft-weathered day along the Ponderosa side of Lake Tahoe. The sun is shining, the birds are fluttering, we’re looking at an actual location shot next to a real lake instead of a painting, and everything is pleasant. The Cartwrights ride up to the scenic vista, in good spirits but tired. Adam lets us know that it’s hot work moving cattle into the high country, and Hoss lets us know he’s super mega thirsty.

They all hop down to the shore and start drinking the nice, clean water. Little Joe almost falls in, but Ben pulls him up in time.

“Careful, Little Joe!” Ben chuckles, “That’s the closest you’ve come to taking a bath in months!”

First of all, that is disgusting. Second of all, if that’s the case then Ben should push Joe in there and not let him come out until he’s clean. Send one of the others home for soap and spare clothes.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Giveaway Winner!

Congratulations to Florence for winning the "I Love Lucy" Giveaway! She'll be receiving a $75 gift certificate at The Lucy Store! (Florence, please email me at jvonhalsing@gmail.com for details on claiming your prize.) Thank you, thank you to everybody who entered!

Monday, 29 August 2016

100 Years of Nails

This is the last week you can enter the "I Love Lucy Anniversary Giveaway" and win a $75 gift certificate of Lucy goodies. Make a dent in your Christmas shopping or get yourself a swag bag! Enter here!

Just for fun, below is a video from Allure magazine chronicling the manicure styles that have been popular for the last century: 


What decade do you like best? I tend to wear something that looks like the 70's French manicure and it usually accidentally gets sanded off during work, but if I could get it to last more than two seconds, I think I'd like to try the silver-tipped red.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Worst Idea in Radio: Fred Astaire Goes On The Air


Think fast! If you were producing a weekly radio show and wanted a big name star to headline it, what kinds of performers would be the worst possible choices? Mimes? Puppeteers? Dancers?

The year was 1936, and The Packard Hour, a sponsored variety program recently transplanted from New York to L.A, wanted to add some stardust. A little extra razzle dazzle. In those days, big name movie stars were signing on to radio shows to bolster their off-camera images and to help cross-promote both industries. People with vaudeville experience, like Bob Hope, often yielded the best results, because they came with built-in routines and a kind of showbiz professionalism that straight up Hollywood types often lacked.

For some reason – maybe it was madness – the people at Packard decided the best fit for their show would be Fred Astaire.

Fred Astaire.

On radio.

Where no one could see him.

So, okay, maybe you’re thinking that Fred had a lot of non-dancing charms. After all, he scored a couple of hit records, he could be very funny in his scenes with Ginger, he had range.

But the good people at Packard were not interested in his range.

In 1936, you could finish dinner, hurry with the dishes, turn on the big family radio set and all gather around to listen to Fred Astaire dance.

Naturally, that wasn’t the only thing that happened for the entire hour. Nobody does an hour of live dancing, even if you can see them, it’s exhausting. The rest of the show was filled in with songs from Fred’s movies, new songs arranged by bandleader Johnny Green (who would later go on to win an Academy Award for his work on Easter Parade), numbers with singers Trudy Wood and Francia White, some skits with the week’s guest star, and comedy routines by Charlie Butterworth.

If it helps you wrap your head around the whole idea, Fred’s dances were always tap numbers. He would perform on a four by four wooden floor rigged with microphones, and he would tap away in the studio. The sound and speed of those taps were meant to express to the people at home the wonder of his skill.

It... doesn’t work.

There’s kind of a slapping quality to the sound, like somebody spanking a coconut. It’s not as crisp as the footsteps on weekly radio dramas, and even though it actually is tap dancing, it doesn’t sound like tap dancing. It’s very strange.

Jess Oppenheimer, who would later go on to produce I Love Lucy, got his first staff writing gig on The Packard Hour. In his autobiography, he writes:

“Astaire was an utter perfectionist, sometimes spending as many as twelve hours at a time with the orchestra rehearsing dance routines that no one would ever see.”

The show’s director suggested to Fred that he take it easy and let a drummer tap out the sound-effects with his sticks, but no. That was unethical. People would be tuning in to hear Fred Astaire dance, so Fred Astaire was going to dance for them.

But despite Fred’s weird dedication to this ludicrous idea, there was other trouble brewing.

Charlie Butterworth had started his career as a Broadway regular. He was the upper class best friend in drawing room comedies, always drawling out quips like his most famous “Why don’t you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?” This was at a time when the hero in these types of stories was the stalwart young man trying to get his life together, while his sidekick was inclined to keep the party going. You can kind of see why they thought he’d be a good accompaniment to Fred.

(Also, after his death, his likeness would become the inspiration for cereal mascot Cap'n Crunch, which is so weird I had to mention it somewhere.)

By the 1930’s, Butterworth had carved out a modest film career and was doing well in radio with his same bumbling rich guy act. He had a few problems, alcohol being chief among them, but writers liked working with him, even if directors didn’t. The Packard Hour figured he was worth the risk.

As it turned out, Charlie Butterworth and Fred Astaire hated each other.

Nobody knew this, least of all Charlie and Fred, until they started work on the first episode.

The most commonly cited reason for the tension was because Fred didn’t like ad-libbing once the script was nailed down, and Charlie’s whole shtick was ad-libbing. It was a clash of temperaments and approaches.

It got so bad, Fred Astaire didn’t even show up for the first broadcast. Ginger Rogers and Jack Benny had to fill in for him at the last minute.

By all accounts, after that first episode, Fred behaved himself perfectly – as long as he wasn’t in the same room as Charlie Butterworth. Their scenes together were always as brief as could be managed without the audience getting wise to the rift, or suspicious about why the show’s two biggest acts never spoke to one another.

After fulfilling his thirty-six episode contract, Fred Astaire and The Packard Hour went on summer hiatus never to return. Fred, of course, continued making movies where people could see his feet while they moved. A wise decision.

He and Charlie Butterworth, surprisingly, worked together again on 1940’s Second Chorus. It’s pretty far from being Fred Astaire’s best film.

As for radio, you might be inclined to think that Fred would’ve avoided it after this whole mess, but nope. As time went on, folks in radio decided that versatility was indeed one of his selling points, so he often appeared as a guest on other people’s shows.

In conclusion, they tried to make a Fred Astaire dancing show where you couldn’t see him dance, and you should remember that the next time you make a mistake and want to crawl into a hole and die. Because at least you're not the guy who came up with that one.





Saturday, 20 August 2016

Dungeons and Dragons 01x04: Valley of the Unicorns

Time once again to hear from regular guest contributor Daisy and the D&D gang! Like always, if you'd like to do your own guest recap of something, you can contact me at jvonhalsing@gmail.com for guidelines.


Episode four is called “Valley of the Unicorns.” It’s written by Paul Dini again, this time with Karl Geurs, whom IMDb tells me worked on Winnie the Pooh’s Most Grand Adventure and The Jungle Book 2. So I guess we can expect a lot of Uni for this one.

Oh joy.

We open to the scene of a spooky forest, where the trees literally have faces and a fully grown unicorn is drinking from a pond. Lightning cracks, and suddenly a pack of wargs descend upon the unicorn! As the enemies face off, we jarringly cut to Uni, freaking out and jumping into Bobby’s lap. Bobby asks her what’s wrong. Eric, who’s busy shaking rocks out of his boots, says that it’s probably nothing, because Uni freaks out at the slightest provocation. Which is true. But then Uni suddenly bolts.

The kids give chase, Eric awkwardly trying to yank his boot back on.

Eric: “We can’t go anywhere until I get rid of the rocks in my shoes!”

Diana: “Keep ‘em. Maybe the rocks in your head need company, Eric!”

This is going to be one of those episodes where everyone is a gigantic dick to Eric, isn’t it?


Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Tale is in the Telling




It all starts with a crime.

A shoemaker named Pierre Picaud, living in France in 1807, was happily engaged to a beautiful, wealthy young woman. But the marriage was not to be.

Three men who Picaud considered his friends plotted against him and had him falsely accused of spying for England. Arrested and found guilty, Picaud was sentenced to Fenestrelle Fort, where he was assigned as servant to a rich Italian cleric. The cleric, over the years, grew to view Picaud as something of a son, and when he died he bequeathed him his fortune.

Upon his release from prison, Picaud decided to seek his revenge.

The first of his accusers was found dead with a knife in his throat. The words “Number One” were engraved on the handle.

The second accuser was found poisoned not long after.

The third was different. He had married Picaud’s fiancé, and so something more elaborate had to be planned. Loupian, as the third man was called, was father to a son and daughter. Picaud lured the son into a life of crime and arranged for the daughter to become a prostitute. It was all very elaborate, and everything went according to plan.

Until a fourth man entered the picture.

Unbeknownst to Picaud, his three friends had asked for the aid of a fourth in framing him. The fourth had declined, but had known of the plot, and so was worried his life was in danger. He deduced Picaud’s identity, and fatally stabbed him.

The police report was found, some years later, by a Parisian true crime archivist by the name of Jacques Peuchet. Peuchet published it in a collection of other intriguing murder tales in 1839.

Always on the lookout for inspiration, popular author Alexandre Dumas picked up a copy of Peuchet’s crime stories. Though Peuchet had a good idea of which stories would be interesting, he had an archivist’s skill for narrating (it’s cool, Peuchet, so do I). But Dumas saw the potential in the Picaud story.

He and his writing partner Auguste Maquet set about building a novel around the revenge tale. They changed numerous elements, drawing on an earlier novel they’d done called Georges, about a vengeance obsessed young man lashing out at the bigotry he’d suffered at the hands of his racist community.

For good measure, the Italian cleric was exchanged for actual historical figure Abbé Faria, and an enormous secret treasure was added, as well as some really good stuff about tunnelling out of an island fortress.

In 1844, the first instalment of The Count of Monte Cristo appeared and took France by storm. It was, and remains, a terrifically good story.

My BFF Richard Chamberlain as the Count in 1975

And it was popular! It was an international sensation the likes of which had never been seen before! Normally, a serialized novel would be published gradually in its originating language, then collected, then translated. But with Monte Cristo, each installment was translated right away, and published in magazines around the world. Everyone waited with bated breath to see what would happen to Edmond Dantés in his obsessive quest for revenge.

Time to move forward thirty years and across the Atlantic to the battlefields of the Civil War.

By this time, Monte Cristo was well rooted in the literary consciousness, but it was far from the mind of Major General Lew Wallace after the Battle of Shiloh. The number of Union casualties reported climbed higher and higher, and it was becoming apparent that the Confederates had won the meticulously planned battle. When Lincoln demanded an explanation from generals Grant and Halleck, Halleck blamed Wallace and his unit for the loss.

Wallace felt betrayed and slandered. He wrote to Grant several times asking for a formal enquiry, and tried to encourage William Tecumseh Sherman to help clear his name. Sherman urged patience.

The Shiloh controversy branded Wallace an ill-equipped leader who had failed his country and his fellow soldiers.

After the war, Wallace decided to try his hand at writing fiction. His first novel was about Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. Wallace, like many other officers of his generation, had fought in the Mexican-American War, and it was a subject that fascinated him. That first novel was called The Fair Hand, and it wasn’t much of a success, but the writing of it had so pleased Wallace that he decided to tackle a more ambitious project.

He would combine his own bitterness about the Shiloh affair with the plot and structure of one of his favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo; and since he had enjoyed the researching of his first novel, he would choose another historical setting. This time, it would be Ancient Rome during the life of Jesus. He was an agnostic and totally uninformed about the place and time he chose, but he diligently studied all resources available at the Library of Congress, and imbued the Roman military with his experiences in the Union Army.

Veterans of the Civil War would find much familiar; unlike Monte Cristo, there was no need to understand the social impact of French politics in the Napoleonic era. All you had to know was the basic story of Jesus, and in 19th century America, most people did.

Wallace called his second novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It was first published in 1880.

Author Lew Wallace
In the story of Judah Ben-Hur, three wrongful accusers became one man in the Roman tribune Messala. When the betrayed Ben-Hur finds himself working the oars aboard the slave ship, with every push forward he swears his revenge. Just as Edmond Dantés, he finds someone to educate him and help him make his fortune. Then he reappears in glitzy high society to begin his much, much simpler plan of running over his nemesis with a chariot. Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t like to waste time on panache.

Like Monte Cristo before it, it was a runaway smash hit. It was the first novel to be blessed by a Pope. It didn’t get a sandwich named after it, but it did have its own brand of flour. (Tie-in marketing wasn’t really cohesive back then.)

Ben-Hur changed everything for Wallace, even getting him a position as US ambassador to Turkey. Unfortunately, he could never quite escape was the black eye of Shiloh. It wasn’t until after Wallace’s death that Ulysses S. Grant officially explained that the loss had not been Wallace’s fault.

By 1907, the story of Ben-Hur was tightly woven into American popular culture. It was so ubiquitous that Canadian silent film director Sydney Olcott decided to make a quick and cheap fifteen minute silent film depicting the famous chariot race. Neither he nor the producing studio had obtained the rights to do so, and the book was still under copyright, at this time to Wallace’s widow.

In the early days of film, copyright infringement was par for the course. Nobody in Hollywood cared, and the copyright holders felt that there was little they could do about it.

Until Wallace’s widow and the publishers of Ben-Hur, Harper & Brothers, sued the pants off of Kalem Studios and The Motion Picture Patents Company, dragged them all the way to the Supreme Court and in 1911 had the law changed forever. From then on, if anybody wanted to make a film of any previously published work still under copyright, they had to obtain the production rights first.

And that brings us to our next batch of three men. These three weren’t planning on framing anybody for treason, or scapegoating their way out of a Civil War failure, they were trying to make a movie. It was 1925, their names were Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. They needed a good idea, a framework for their next major project.

Ben-Hur hadn’t been on anybody’s to-do list since the massive lawsuit, but as long as they could get the film rights, why not?

It was a little more expensive than they were hoping. After the copyright debacle in 1907, if you wanted to see a dramatization of Ben-Hur, you had to hit up a long-running play produced by Abraham Erlanger. The play had run, enormously successfully, for twenty-five years. The curtain had barely dropped on the final tour when the Goldwyn Company came a-knocking. Erlanger would not budge on his price for the production rights.

Expensive as it was, the three producers shilled out. There was this vision of the chariot race being shot to look like a painting by Alexander von Wagner, and nobody could shake it. It was a brilliant idea.

Wagner's painting. Click to embiggen.

1925’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was shot on location in Rome, at further expense. Everything was replaced at least once, including the director and the stars. The finished film was helmed by Fred Niblo, and featured Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur. The scenes featuring Jesus were shot in two-tone Technicolor, and the chariot race remains a spectacular feat of filming. The film clocks in at a comparatively lean two and a half hours, most of it concerning the race.

For a fun Easter egg, you can look at the gallery of stars watching in Roman garb as the chariots thunder by. There’s Louis B. Mayer himself, a very young Joan Crawford, the Gish sisters, the Barrymore brothers, Marion Davies, John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, all chilling at the circus maximus.

The production was expensive and nobody made back what they put into it, but the film itself was a critical darling and scored big time with audiences. The publicity was excellent, and helped establish the new MGM studios.

Thirty years of relentless innovation and cut-throat deals later, MGM was no longer the new kid on the block. But things weren’t going so well financially. Television had begun to cut considerably into the profits of every studio, and MGM was among those struggling to keep afloat. Discussions of a remake of Ben-Hur had started in 1952, but it wasn’t until Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments raked in major cash for Paramount that the discussion became serious.

In 1957, MGM studio head Joseph Vogel announced that a new, glorious adaptation of Ben-Hur would begin shooting in 1958 and reach theaters in 1959.

One problem: nobody wanted to play Judah Ben-Hur.


The original choice, back in 1952, had been Marlon Brando. By 1957, that seemed like a terrible idea, so MGM approached the ever-golden Burt Lancaster. Lancaster shot down the offer right away. He thought the script was boring, and the way it used Jesus as a side character was kind of offensively weird (I love you so much, Burt Lancaster). Paul Newman declined because his first major film had been 1954’s The Silver Chalice about Ancient Greece, and he hated the beefcake ethos of epic films so much he’d vowed never to do another. “I don’t have the legs to wear a tunic,” he quipped. Rock Hudson, Leslie Neilson, and Geoffrey Horne also all said no.

Messala was easier to cast, since Messala is pretty much the best role. Director William Wyler had gotten his first choice, Charlton Heston. With nobody playing Judah Ben-Hur, though, there wouldn’t be a movie, so Wyler asked Heston if he’d be willing to switch roles.

About two seconds after this happened, Kirk Douglas offered to play Ben-Hur if they were really stuck and willing to pay him a ton of money. Heston was cheaper and had already agreed, so it was all settled.

The production is best described as “lavish” and “costly” – like every epic ever, it was too expensive and took too long to film.

But it did make its 1959 release date.

With a four hour runtime, of particular note is the chariot racing sequence. Again. It was an almost shot-for-shot copy of the 1925 version, with some extended tension and an extra stunt or two.

At the Oscars, Ben-Hur won an unheard of eleven Academy Awards; a record that would not be broken until 1997’s Titanic.

In 2001, the chariot race was once more diligently recreated, this time for the Boonta Eve Classic podracing sequence in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

And tomorrow, you’ll get a chance to see another adaptation of Ben-Hur or another adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, depending on how you want to look at it. This time it stars Jack Huston of The Huston Dynasty, who was originally cast as Messala but had to switch roles when they couldn’t find anyone to play Judah Ben-Hur.

Director Timur Bekmambetov is especially pleased with (surprise!) the chariot race. He hasn’t copied the 1925 version, he’s decided to take a cue from how Nascar is filmed on mobile devices by audience members. So, like a YouTube video from Ancient Rome.

No matter how you feel about this latest version, no matter whether it sucks or does just fine, no matter how nauseated those chariot sequences make you, it’s a good thing that they’re trying something new with an old favourite.

Everything from the Parisian archivist to the Wallace novel to the 1959 version of Ben-Hur happened because somebody was “out of ideas.” And from one accounting of a true story, there have grown abundant retooling and retellings of a fictional story, which has doubtless indirectly influenced and melded with others on the road to creating new stories.

There’s often a sense, when a new remake or reboot comes out, that you shouldn’t mess with the classics. But that’s malarkey. Every idea needs to come from somewhere. So what if the beloved film version of Ben-Hur comes from Monte Cristo which comes from an essay on Picaud, which comes from real life? It’s probably a safe bet that Picaud got the idea for his revenge scheme somewhere else, too.

Maybe even from fiction.