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The Black Hole (1979)

I don’t know why in the world I never saw Disney’s The Black Hole in theaters as a kid, but I had about thirty of the bubblegum cards and convinced myself it was going to be one of the all-time greatest movies ever. The film eventually showed up on HBO and chunks of it kept me satisfied enough to watch it again and again.

To modern eyes, there’s a little less to recommend it. On the plus side, if you like music, there’s one of John Barry’s very best scores, and if you like set design, there’s a fair amount here to pop your eyes out of your head. Otherwise…

This is a movie where people talk way too freaking much. Worse, they are forced to deliver some really stilted and awkward dialogue. Early on, Ernest Borgnine is forced to say “How that must have galled Doctor Hans Reinhart!” Nothing else that comes out of anybody’s mouth is much better. It’s a hundred minute exercise in what Orson Welles once called “things that are only correct because they’re grammatical, but they’re tough on the ear.” I couldn’t even focus on the silly story because these terrific actors – Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Roddy McDowell, Slim Pickens, Robert Forster in what would have been the Joseph Cotton role in other hands – are forced to deliver such painful lines.

But watch this with a kid and you can ignore a lot of it. Our son was curious and fascinated at first, spent several agonizing minutes worried and concerned about the creepiness of the gigantic Cygnus, somehow locked in stationary orbit around a black hole, and then exploded with excitement once the gunfights began. And to be sure: they’re pretty darn good gunfights for kids.

The iconography is, of course, straight from Star Wars. This has cute robots, quasi-stormtroopers, and a great big, menacing brute of a Vader Villain in the form of the Satanic red Maximilian. The robot is silent; it communicates with its power saws. It really is a great design for a robot. As V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. are instantly identifiable as heroes – and why Disney hasn’t been selling V.I.N.CENT toys in its stores, I’ll never understand – then Maximilian just silently screams evil. It’s a real shame he’s not in a better movie than this.

As our son jumped up and down, thrilled by the faux-troopers losing their laser gun battles, I wished this could have been better. I dislike how the movie drops science-sounding words into the narrative, like “event horizon” and “Einstein-Rosen bridge,” without considering how a movie that actually paid attention to science could have been a much, much better experience. Instead, a character mentions Dante’s Inferno early on, and that’s where this film wants to go, leading to one of the downright stupidest endings in movie history.

Shortly before the meteor storm whizzes through the Cygnus’s anti-gravity field, I whispered to my wife “You’ve never seen this? Dr. Science will be very upset with the ending.” She grumbled “Dr. Science is already upset.”

No, this isn’t a good film, but the music is terrific, and V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. are instantly charming and wonderful. I love their design and their characters. They are among my favorite of all the many R2-D2 clones in film and TV. The special effects are an interesting mix of then-state of the art computer-controlled motion control, traditionally animated lasers and rocket exhaust, and the wire work that Disney’s team had mastered on the Witch Mountain features, meaning your heart breaks whenever you see a string onscreen. It’s good enough to thrill and frighten children, but it should have been good enough to do the same for grownups.

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

This was the first time that we sat down to watch a film together that didn’t have the safe introduction of a familiar TV series! Daniel did mostly well, but we had to take a short intermission break because this movie was a lot longer than I expected. It’s not fair to say that I was familiar with a shorter version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but the one time that I saw it, back around 1979-1980, it sure was shorter than this.

B & B was originally released in 1971 and was made by many of the crew and team who’d worked on Mary Poppins. This was, it turned out, a backup plan had Disney not been able to acquire the rights to Poppins. As dramatized with some considerable liberty in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, that was a real possibility.

B & B is a pretty fun movie about Miss Price, an “apprentice witch” who has been burdened with three orphans who’ve been evacuated from London during the Blitz. Simultaneously, her witchcraft correspondence course has been closed down. Searching for answers turns up her professor, who has actually been running a mail-order scam, having no idea that his spells actually work. Now that they realize that, in the right hands, the magic will work, they set off to find the missing half of the old book from which he’d been pilfering the incantations.

In its present form, the movie is badly bloated. I didn’t spot the problem until we realized that some of the film footage within the agonizing ten-minute (!!) “Portobello Road” musical number is of markedly inferior quality to the rest of the movie. Apparently the original cut of the film for the 1971 release is 117 minutes, the one that was reissued in 1979 was 96 minutes, and this is 139 minutes, which is way too long. They tried to restore everything, including cut scenes that no longer had an existing soundtrack and had to be redubbed entirely. (Another scene, which had a soundtrack but no film footage, is included as a reconstruction as a bonus feature.) To the Disney team’s, and the voice actors’, considerable credit, the only two times that I noticed that a scene was redubbed was when the fellow with David Tomlinson’s part read his lines. The imitation was good, but not quite right.

So the first half of the film is far too bloated and slow for a four year-old to embrace it, and so we took a break midway through the scene where Sam Jaffe and Bruce Forsyth, playing a shady book dealer and his criminal associate, briefly antagonize our heroes, but also give them a clue that the magic words that they need can be found on a fantasy island. The first half has some cute magical moments, but they were not paced well enough to hold his attention, and the long “Portobello Road” number destroyed what was left.

The animated section of the film livened things considerably after our break. It’s centered around a bad-tempered lion king engaging David Tomlinson as the referee for a soccer match. Nobody wants to referee his matches; they all get trampled underneath elephants and hippos and rhinos passing the ball around. Anybody who ever wondered why this movie, and Mary Poppins, have animated portions never watched them with four year-olds. He loved it, roared with laughter, and his interest was reignited at precisely the right time.

Anyway, Angela Lansbury is incredibly fun as Miss Price. I’m so used to her playing supremely confident and assured characters that it’s a complete delight to see her strung along by a con man and slowly – very, very slowly – falling in love. She and Tomlinson are really fun together and have a lot of genuine, believable chemistry. Other than the children, everybody else is really here in bit parts. Roddy McDowall has a small and insignificant role as the new village vicar. Jaffe and Forsyth had maybe a day on the set and that was that. Lennie Weinrib at least sounds like he got to have some fun with a couple of voiceovers for the cartoon animals.

Daniel enjoyed the movie, even if he did need an intermission, and while I think that the original, shorter theatrical cut must have been better, I enjoyed revisiting it. Now I want to read more about the restoration; it all seems really fascinating!

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Batman 1.30 – While Gotham City Burns

It’s absolutely one of the great images of the whole series: somehow, Bookworm and his men plopped a great big book on a Gotham City street. It’s a trap, of course. Inside, it’s a kitchen that fills with hot steam to kill our heroes.

I was thinking about how almost each and every criminal that we meet in this show is, even if they’re new to us, known to the police and Batman. It’s possible that a couple of the more forgettable bad guys toward the end of the run – maybe Nora Clavicle or Minerva? – might not qualify, but it would have been nice to see our heroes not sure who they were up against or how to combat them.

It wouldn’t have worked so well in this case, because Batman’s quick explanatory shorthand that Bookworm is a frustrated, failed novelist explains a lot in a jiffy, allowing things to move to that amazing scene in part one where he nearly clobbers Francine York with a huge book. Roddy McDowall gets a similar scene of insane rage in this episode, before calming down and moving to his next plot, but I also remember how entertaining “Zelda the Great” was, how our heroes were stumped as to who their foe was or how to catch them. It might have been fun, watching Batman put together a bunch of literary clues and deduce that their foe was working out complicated plots that he’d adapted from fiction.

There is one great scene along those lines. Bookworm has simultaneously robbed Wayne Manor of an old cookbook while also having his huge Bat-trap dropped on a city street. Batman sneers at how this is clearly the work of an amateur writer, working too many plot threads at once when just one would do. That’s a great line.

Also, we’re now at four thefts of the Batmobile in five stories. This time, it’s because Robin left the engine running, but come on, Caped Crusaders. The blasted thing’s nuclear-powered. You can’t just keep letting it get swiped like this.

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Batman 1.29 – The Bookworm Turns

Boy! Just when the episode one formula (something weird / call Batman / interrupt study / rush past Aunt Harriet) was getting stale, this story shakes it up and is really entertaining. The Bookworm arranges for Commissioner Gordon to be delayed on the way to a bridge opening, but sends a double to be “shot” on live television while Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are watching the event. It’s a great way to control exactly when our heroes will pull up at police headquarters. That way he can plan to put a bomb in the Batmobile.

The bomb doesn’t work – there’s a Bat-bomb detector in the car – but the Bookworm has a “plot B.” The bomb is secreted in a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls with a reinforced asbestos cover which survives the blast in the sky after Batman ejects it. I remember, as a child, being really struck by that ominous cut to commercial, with Batman growling “…it tolls for thee!” Mainly because I was a child and didn’t know what it meant.

Bookworm is a tremendously good villain. He’s played by the great Roddy McDowall, who has a very interesting little criminal resume. He and Anne Baxter (“Zelda the Great“) were the only two Bat-villains to also appear as criminals on Columbo, and he and Baxter are also in the ultra-exclusive group of actors who played two separate Bat-villains. Baxter would return as a different character in season three, and in 1992, McDowall played Mad Hatter in the celebrated Dini/Timm Batman cartoon. His portrayal of Bookworm is clearly inspired by Gorshin and Romero, but wow, what a character. I love the way he thinks and schemes and lays out intricate plots, but the kicker is that he’s a frustrated novelist who can’t come up with an original plot of his own, so he rips off the greats in weird ways.

His frustration is so acute that when this week’s criminal babe sidekick, played by Francine York, who does not know Bookworm’s pathetic inability to be original, says that he should write a book, he instantly loses his head, roars in fury and becomes downright scary. He grabs a gigantic hardback book and fully intends to smack her with it until he notes the title: The Secret of Success: Self-Control. I’ve noted before how awesome Frank Gorshin’s insanity as the Riddler is to watch, but what McDowall did as Bookworm in this scene really is incredibly surprising.

Marie had some fun shaking her head in exasperation over some of the show’s more, shall we say, self-aware moments. This is the first episode to establish there’s a van parked around for parachute pickup duty after the Batmobile makes a 180-degree turn, and the first episode to feature a celebrity guest cameo interrupting the Bat-climb. It’s Jerry Lewis, the first of many celebrities making a quick appearance to wow their son or niece showing up on the fabbest show on TV.

Scientist that she is, Marie raised an objection to Batman using a sonic beam of 12,000 decibels to send anybody hiding inside the criminal’s Bookmobile scurrying out. Not 120 decibels, which’d do it, 12,000. And since Francine York’s character is “helpless” inside, as Bookworm’s subplot requires her to fake that she’s a hostage, that’s an incredibly dangerous and stupid thing for Batman to do. Should any criminal happen to actually have a real hostage – or, you know, one of these criminal babe sidekicks who really aren’t all that bad, just misguided and needing a little help from the Wayne Foundation for Wayward Girls after they’ve fallen in love with Batman – a sonic attack’s probably a bad idea. But on the other hand, how amazing is the Batmobile, being able to generate 12,000 decibels? What a machine!

Daniel was briefly troubled by the cliffhanger and hid his eyes, but didn’t get upset. The whole scheme seems to have been designed to separate Robin from Batman, gas the Boy Wonder, and strap him upside-down to the clapper of the bell inside the Wayne Memorial Clock Tower, which I believe is not the last time this show will try to pass off stock footage of Big Ben as something it’s not.

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